Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Mumblings of a long vacation

What, you don't like dogs?

Well, that's one long blogging hiatus.

I had struggled to upload an audio clip which I considered integral to what would have been my last post, a couple of weeks into December, never got it done, and now here we are.

The plan is to intersperse tales of the now not-quite-distant past with reports of the present.

First, the trip. What can I say about the trip? Weird to just jet to a location I had in the past backpacked a full year to reach. Less anticlimactic, mind you. I already knew that Denpasar was a hole.

But first came Taipei. We didn't end up staying all that long for reasons I will touch on later, so I will treat this first and last stop together.

December 23, 2006 Taipei

This place sucks. I am a tightly wound ball of irritation. WHY ARE WE CUTTING BALI SHORT TO COME BACK HERE?!?

January 6, 2007 Taipei

Hey, this place is kinda cool.

The problem with Taipei was a bad first experience.

We survived the trip from Nagoya on Air China, which by some accounts is a discount airline, but we found fairly pleasant, and whose to say how nice we might have found Taipei were it not for what happened next.

We exited the arrival area with our bags accounted for, to find the "Free Go Airport Bus" that will take us to our hotel. Well, it will take us close to our hotel. Good enough. And it will cost us something like 165 Taiwanese dollars -- about $7 CDN. I don't even know if it's worth taking you blow by blow through what happened next. Maybe I just want to avoid re-living it. An excited little man told us to wait with some others when we tried to find out if we were in the right place. He was busy directing people, throwing bags onto the occasional bus, and yelling at people. It was busy, but there didn't seem to be any need for the aggression. We overheard a bit of Japanese from the two older women in front of us, and Julie said somewhat wryly that they were watching this man with a look that was "very Japanese". We knew enough to know that the bus preparing to leave was not the one we wanted, so we hunkered down for a bit of a wait. Not a long one, though, as our "Free Go Airport Bus" apparently left quite often. So we waited.

As time went by, our tickets were checked, we were rather aggressively moved to make room for a luggage cart collector, and moved again for no clear reason. Another bus arrived and was loaded, and the front of our line, headed by us and the aforementioned Japanese women, suddenly became the back. Boarding the bus, we found NO seats whatsoever. I recalled a Thai bus ride I had taken, sitting at people's feet -- who had paid the same ticket price as I had -- and was starting to get a bit ticked off. The angry man boarded, saw the situation, stomped around a little, and then demanded we get off. We were handed our bags once again. There was some protest but the angry man would hear none of it, making almost violent gestures. I saw the look that Jules had mentioned, on the faces of the two Japanese women who, with us, had also been left out. Patient disdain. We joined them in it.

More waiting, another line. Nothing could happen so fast this time that we couldn't and wouldn't be able to change, we resolved. We were shunted to one side, and another line formed, ostensibly for the other bus route again. A bus pulled up and the other line was shuffled on. Watching all of these people board, I had to hope that this wasn't our bus. We couldn't be sure. Attempts to get information from the little man gained us nothing but more shouts and gestures. The man's assistant seemed a bit more apologetic, and the two of them talked for a moment, and suddenly we were being waved on to this bus. Jules and I shared a look and then handed our bags over once again. Either this was our bus, and we were almost shoved aside once again, or they were prepared to take us where we needed to go. But of course the bus was nearly full once again. The man pointed us to two seats that were not even in the same vicinity, and then stomped off the bus again. We noted two empty seats side by side in the back of the bus, and Jules, furious, sent us hither. The man boarded again with a couple and may have looked a tad displeased to see us in the adjoining seats (it was hard to tell what passed for displeased on that perpetually dour mug) but he ended up putting the couple in the other two, separated seats, and after checking to make sure our bags were indeed in the bus -- as we were clearly back in the ROA (Rest Of Asia) and nothing was to be taken for granted -- suddenly off we went. Perhaps a scant two hours after arrival at the airport.

Oh, the two Japanese women did not make it onto that bus. One of them wished Jules "ganbatte kudasai" (do your best -- a kind of "good luck" in this case) as we boarded. :( I was beginning to feel quite protective of our Japanese co-travellers. Who knows how long they waited in whatever non-resident hell the bus tyrant had in mind. How many lines would we have waited at the front/end of before being permitted to actually set foot on a bus? Chiang Kai Shek knows.

Well, what more can I say about Taipei, the first time around. The event coloured everything that came after. China/Taiwan wasn't an easy place to get used to as it was, mind. The food in particular turned Julie and I off completely, and even in the relatively fun days that followed on the return portion of the trip, we would occasionally catch wind of a viciously strong odour that, to my best estimation, smelled like entrails, shit, and battery acid. We found our hotel's staff to be cold, Taipei to be pedestrian-unfriendly and uninteresting to walk at night, and generally regretted that we would be returning there (even cutting Bali short!) for the last part of our vacation. Fitful sleep gave way to an early morning "free" bus ride -- thankfully efficiently staffed and run from that end -- to the airport, and off we flew to places warmer in all respects.

Cut to our return trip some two weeks later, a day late, having missed our international flight (more on that another day) and we're back in Taipei... only NOT Taipei.

The bus area is well-run and not crowded with would-be passengers. Different people are there running it, in fact. The sign for the bus is different. (Still the Free Go Airport Bus, despite the price) We have a comfortable ride to our hotel, which given the rather large Taiwan earthquake over the holidays added to our inability to make contact by phone, we were repeatedly adding the tag line "if it's still standing/if it's not rubble" to any mention of. The bus people see us off handily and we arrive to smiling staff at the hotel. WTF is going on here? I remarked that, were we to find Taiwanese food delicious, it would confirm that we had truly crossed over into an unsettling parallel universe.

We did fast food that night -- Japanese chain Mosburger no less (mmm, Mosburger) and then settled in, exhausted. Out and about the next day, a little late as Julie was not feeling well, off to the Chiang Kai Shek monument/hall which was stupendous. Beautiful grounds, immense, impressive hall, chess-piece-like polished guards twirling weapons in lockstep. Fabulous. And that night, the biggest of several night markets. I was a little tired and not expecting much. Well, the place was so energizing that we didn't leave until late, pacing along rows of food booths (still mostly unappetizing), games of skill (a couple of which we played), ridiculously-expensive UFO Catchers, mind-numbingly-shocking pet sale display cases (ok, that was a downer), crafts, clothes, and general non-threatening weirdness. (we were still most definitely in the ROA, but now the difference was charming. We saw more pairs of jeans that night than I've seen since coming to Japan. It was... a little more down-to-earth than urban Japan) Still the venemous stench booths, which I never did learn to spot so I could identify their contents and then avoid altogether.

Oh yeah, we also visited a weird museum, the feature pieces of which were a carved jade cabbage, and a stone carved into the likeness of a piece of meat. The gift shop never tired of iterations of either of these items, particularly in tacky hologram form.

The next day, early to the airport, short flight to Nagoya, direct Meitetsu line train to Gifu, cab to Julie's, and the last bus back to my place in little Kitagata Cho. A long, long day. Stack of mail shoved in the slot. Huge mess. Laundry to do. Work the next morning. Ah, home.


And in the present...

Sad, sad news last week.
I understood that our third-years (grade 12) begin a special schedule soon due mostly to university entrance exams. It was unclear how many classes we'd have left together before that took effect. The Scheduling Gods are whimsical round these parts. But we (my 3rd year conversation Japanese Teacher of English and I) figured maybe a month left of classes. Late last week, Sekiya-sensei stopped by to tell me, no, sorry, just ONE WEEK. That's two classes. She stopped by again the next day. Sorry. Just one class.

So my thinking has gone from "now that their evaluations are over, what do I want to make sure these kids leave knowing?" to "uh... ok, let's have a party."

I'm sad. I tell my JTE this pretty much daily. I've never had a little class of my own before, and as a little class -- with pretty high english skill -- we do neat stuff. Games you can't do with bigger classes. Creative exercises. The kind of things I expected to be doing in the English Club if the person in charge wasn't such a giant stick in the mud. Our last class before Halloween, while the rest of the school was in examinations, I held a school-wide Halloween Mystery Treasure Hunt with these guys. Even the extreme paranoia of the Japanese school bureaucracy, putting as much of the school off-limits as possible (the clock tower in the courtyard! A mystery treasure hunt *without* the courtyard clock tower?!?) didn't manage to spoil the fun.

So tonight, low on sleep, I slogged around looking for a cake and supplies. Hit the neighbourhood caki-ya. A hundred -- or is it two? -- years old, which you would realize if not by the ancient sign then by the absence of anything remotely resembling cake. Further afield to supermarket Apita, then the nearby bakery, and finally a tiny pastry shop where I did manage to find what I could recognize as a cake. One of those all-white strawberry-topped numbers. Then off to the dollar-store to secure paper plates and plastic forks. (we'll eat western this time around) Then a long slog home. Then out again for toyu (kerosene). Ran out last night which, despite my tiredness, absolutely had to be remedied before nightfall. Slog home again with 14kg of kerosene dangling from one arm, my free box of kleenex in the other hand. These guys. Amazingly service oriented. I watched the gas station attendant block traffic so his customer could leave via the preferred road, then he wraps my kerosene and sends me off with a gift. Cheap stuff, too. Well, if the fumes don't asphyxiate you. A tad pricier.

So, tired tired tired, and I didn't bring home my 3rd years' journals to mark, so I'd better go in early to do it. Maybe two months without this class after this. I'll love having only 2 classes on Monday, and one less on Wednesday (usually 4 classes, now 3, plus the dreadful English Club), but I sure will miss these guys. I know I'll get another class but I don't WANT another class. :(

So there.

And now some pics.

The "Free Go Airport Bus". It's free, once you've got a ticket!


It's not kyudo, but it's fun. 6 balloons in 10. Not bad with a tenth, bent arrow.


Why, men with candles in their ears. What else?


Me and the Jules at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. We're facing the hall, here. Sorry.


Eeemmmmm, yeah.