Friday, December 23, 2005

Home at last!

I have sooooo much to write about, but soooooo little time right now! I got in last night safe and sound and will start catching up on this blog thing when I get some time. Until then, please enjoy catching up on my old posts!

Be back soon!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

I'll be home for Christmas!

Well, this is it. I'm completely packed and ready to go. I'm leaving my room in about 30 minutes to an hour to go to a going-away party, then some of my fellow students are going to drive me to the bus station. I then have a four-hour bus ride to the airport, followed by twenty-some odd hours of flights, layovers, security checks, and customs. Fun!

Am I excited to be going home? Certainly, but I'm also sad to be leaving. It's been an amzing six-and-a-half month adventure and it feels like a major chapter in my life is closing. It may sound a little cliche, but I'm really trying to think of this more of a beginning than an end. I have no doubt that I will visit most, if not all of the places I've been again. I have met so many wonderful people in this past half-year that I plan on staying in touch with that it doesn't even seem right to say "goodbye"; "see you later" seems much more appropriate...

Anyway, the road home will be long, but my wonderful family will be waiting for me when I get there. (Right? You guys are going to be there, right???) I can't wait to see them again and, of course, eat some good-ol' fashion American home-cooking!

I've still got many stories to tell about Italy, Taiwan, and Japan that will keep me busy for another month or two on this blog, so be sure to keep checking for updates!

From MO next time! See ya!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


Sorry to anyone who is looking forward to seeing new posts, but I'm going to be really busy this week, so I doubt I'll have much time to post. I will be sure to load pics on flickr at least once or twice more before I go home, but I have a final exam in Chinese tomorrow and a paper and a presentation to have finished by this weekend so I can enjoy my last weekend here. Early next week I have to pack, which will probably take a day and a half, so I won't make any promises about finding time to post.

I still have to post about last weekend's Japan-Taiwan Research Forum, my interview with Dr. Lai at the Taiwan Think Tank this past weekend, and all the mini going-away celebrations we're having. For now, please try to content yourself with some new pictures I've loaded on flickr. Check them out and I'll get back to this later!

Friday, December 09, 2005


Just some advice for travelers to Taiwan...

Why start off with a Hawaiian greeting you ask? “Aloha” is the name of my new favorite transportation company. There are many ways of getting around in Taiwan. If you want to go from Kaohsiung to Taipei, you can fly for about $70 U.S. (about a 50 minute flight), take the train for $20-$30 (slow or fast train), or you can take a bus for $15-$20 (which takes 4 or 5 hours, depending on traffic). If you are trying to save money, the bus is absolutely the way to go. I have come to the conclusion that the trains are almost completely useless, since even the fast train only gets you to Taipei an hour faster than the bus and it isn't as comfortable. Intercity busses have large chairs that lean way back – almost like sitting in a moving La-Z-Boy.

There are many different bus companies, but my vote is definitely with Aloha. Most bus companies charge $500 NT (New Taiwan Dollars – about $15 U.S.), but for an extra $150 NT ($4.50 U.S.) you can ride with Aloha. Why is Aloha so much better? Well, most busses have TV screens that play movies or TV shows on the long bus trips, but you usually don’t get to choose what you watch. Aloha has LCD screens on the back of every seat, so you have your own personal mini-theater. There is a volume control switch on your arm rest and the speakers are built into the left and right sides of your massive headrest, so you have a surround sound system that's loud enough to hear clearly, but quite enough to not disturb other passengers! You can choose from several channels that play Western movies, Chinese movies, Taiwanese TV, children's programming, a GPS image of where you are on the road, a “road cam” showing the road ahead of the bus, and one channel of fully clothed female models dancing or walking to cheesy music. There are two channels of Western (usually cheesy Hollywood) movies with Chinese subtitles to choose from, so the native English speaker doesn't miss out on anything. Your seat reclines waaaaaay back, so you can get very comfortable. An attendant (a girl in a green Aloha uniform) brings you a blanket, something to drink (coffee, tea, or water), a snack, and some wet wipes. There is a bathroom on the bottom level of the deck and a half high bus, but I imagine it is tricky for female passengers to use, since you are using a traditional “squat” toilet on a moving vehicle, but it's still nice to have. Although the movies they show are pretty standard Hollywood crud, they show them on two channels, so you at least can choose the lesser of two evils.

I'll write about the conference I went to last weekend some other time. I have to go to a farewell party for us exchange students in a few minutes, so I don't have time right now. Sorry, but I'm not one to turn down free pizza!

Monday, December 05, 2005

One more question...

To Ross and anyone else who might have wondered...

If you look at old maps of East Asia, you may find that the name of the "Hermit Kingdom" used to be Corea (spelled with a "C"). Both spellings (with a "K" and with a "C") were used in the past, but some Koreans (Coreans) claim that the Japanese promoted the "K" spelling during the colonial period because "J" (for Japan) came before "K" in the alphabet. The spelling "Corea" is now popular mainly with nationalist Coreans (Koreans), though "Korea" remains the official spelling.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Some questions...

I had a busy weekend. I will write about it tomorrow, though, because I'm pretty wiped out from 5-hour bus rides, a conference, and a 3 hour Japanese test. For now, I thought I'd try something different and ATTEMPT to answer some questions...

First of all, Ichigo - read my older posts. I'm not posting about Italy until I get back to the U.S. Don't worry, all the details are coming, just not right now!

Now for Ross' series of questions:

"I've always meant to ask but kept forgetting. What dialect of Chinese is spoken in Taiwan? Also, what do they think of America and Japan? How is Chaing Kai Sek viewed in Taiwan? Hero Worship or is he ignored by the populace? Is it taboo to criticize him?"

Forunately you started off with an easy question. The others are much more difficult, but I can say with certainty that I know the answer to the first one.

The dialect of Chinese spoken in Taiwan is... (cue the drum roll):

Yes, Taiwanese is the name of the dialect spoken here. It is related to the dialect spoken in the nearby Chinese province of Fujian (which is called, strangely enough, Fujianese). It's not Mandarin and it's not Cantonese, but if you are looking for a better definition of what it is, then you should ask someone who knows more about Chinese than me.

Taiwanese is spoken by those descended from immigrants from Fujian province several centuries ago, but there are other indigenous languages here that should be mentioned. Hakka is spoken by the approximately 13% of Taiwanese who are descended from immigrants from southern Guangdong province. There are also many aboriginal languages that are still spoken in small villages along the East coast and in some of the smaller islands, but there are relatively few people still using these languages today.

Mandarin is still the language of education and most people here understand it, though older people often don't speak it. Citizens of the Republic of China (Taiwan) who came from the Chinese mainland at the end of the Chinese civil war and their descendents often speak Mandarin only.

As for Taiwanese opinions of America and Japan, overall they are very positive. The Taiwanese are unique among the East Asians in their refusal to continue to hold Japan accountable for it's wartime aggression six decades ago. The Japanese did oppress the Taiwanese during their occupation, but they also built schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure that never existed in Taiwan before they came. China, on the other hand, pretty much ignored Taiwan throughout most of history, considering it a rural backwater filled with barbarians - a fact that you are unlikely to hear coming from the mouths of contemporary Chinese historians.

Tens of thousands of Taiwanese died in the service of the Japanese Imperial Army during the war. The Japanese introduced public education and made Japanese the official language. Many older Taiwanese who were educated in this period still speak Japanese more or less fluently. Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's former president, once claimed in an interview with a Japanese reporter that he considered himself more Japanese than Chinese. (He answered all questions in this interview in eloquent Japanese.)

The brutal, disorganized, corrupt, and incompetent rule of the KMT (Kuomintang - Chiang Kai-shek's "Nationalists") that followed their evacuation to and occupation of Taiwan reinforced the positive image of the Japanese. Many Taiwanese began to look back at the Japanese occupation with nostalgia - especially after the 228 incident, in which tens of thousands of Taiwanese citizens were brutally massacred by the KMT government.

Not all residents of this island hold such positive views of the Japanese, but there is little hostility toward Japan like you will find in China or Corea. Some of the "mainlanders" (KMT members and their families who came here at the end of the civil war), however, fought against the Japanese during the war and still hold a grudge. Recent opinion polls, however, show that the younger generation of this "ethnic group" do not differ in their attitudes toward Japan from their Taiwanese counterparts. Most younger Taiwanese also have a fascination with modern Japan - they love Japanese pop culture, fashion, and food and admire Japan's economic power.

Another reason the Taiwanese like Japan is because it is allied with the U.S. Taiwan relies on the U.S. to deter the PRC from invading. Convincing Japan that Taiwan is worth defending has been a policy priority for Taiwanese leaders for decades. Should a war ever break out over the Taiwan Strait and the U.S. got involved, Japan would have to face the difficult decision of going to war with it's big, bad, scary neighbor or losing it's close and fruitful alliance with the world's only superpower. It's a tough choice and the Taiwanese are unlikely to allow much anti-Japan sentiment to fester here for long.

I think it goes without saying that MOST Taiwanese are very pro-American. Nobody else in the world sells them weapons or hints at coming to their defense if Beijing threatens to attack, so most feel that not liking the U.S. is not an option. This has probably caused some degree of underlying resentment among Taiwanese who dream of a day when they can be independent of foreign influence, but for the most part, it seems unlikely that many Taiwanese would be willing of throwing away close relations with the U.S. if it meant the chances of forced unification with the PRC would increase.

As for your question about Chiang Kai-Shek, I have talked to a few Taiwanese about this, including a fairly long conversation with my roommates just now, and they seem rather ambivalent toward him. He did some bad things and was very strict, but some of his policies helped benefit Taiwan. His insistance on keeping American support strong helped keep Taiwan from being swallowed up by the PRC. Some Taiwanese don't really think of him as being that important of an historical figure. For most of his reign, he focussed almost exclusively on planning and preparing for his ultimate objective - taking China back. He didn't really care too much about Taiwan since he didn't plan on spending too much time here. He left most administrative decisions to bureaucrats and kept a more or less hands off approach. According to my roommates, his wife, Madame Chiang, was more important - she was more personable, more intelligent, and better liked by the Taiwanese. I don't think it would be too taboo to criticize him, but I doubt anyone really cares that much to spend their breath talking bad about him now. There are plenty of corruption scandals in modern Taiwanese politics to focus on!

I hope these at least halfway answered your questions. It was certainly much more than I planned to write. Be back tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Taipei weekend

I spent this past weekend (November 26 and 27th) in Taipei. It seems a bit strange to me that I have been in Taiwan for almost three months now and this was my first trip to the capitol, but since I have to spend the next two weekends there as well, I guess it's good that I've already seen most of the rest of the island already.

Originally I had a meeting scheduled with an expert on Taiwan-Japan relations at the Taiwan Think Tank in Taipei on Monday, but he had to reschedule because of a previous engagement. I did have the chance to meet with my professor from Missouri State University (Dr. Hickey), however, so it was still a fruitful trip. Since my next two trips to Taipei are more or less “business trips” (I'm attending a conference on Japan-Taiwan relations next weekend and have my meeting the week after) I wanted to get most of my sight-seeing and tourist side-trips out of the way this weekend, a goal that I think I accomplished.

I boarded the overnight bus from Kaohsiung to Taipei at about 3:00 a.m. Saturday morning after only about an hour and a half of sleep. I thought this would be a great way for me to save time. The bus ride is about five hours, so I thought I could just get five hours of sleep in transit and wake up in Taipei in the morning so I could have the whole day to tour the city. This turned out to be mere wishful thinking. The bus was freezing cold and the driver didn't turn off the TVs that played Taiwanese news all night. I don't know why, but even though it's not hot anymore, the intercity busses still all have the AC pumping on their overnight routes. Bizarre…

I arrived exhausted in Taipei at about 8:30 in the morning. I threw my suitcase into a coin locker and headed off for a greasy breakfast at McDonald's. I was set on seeing Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world, so I consulted my Lonely Planet guidebook to see what other sights were in that neighborhood. I decided to go to the “Discovery Center” at Taipei City Hall, across the street from the 101 building. They have some interesting displays about the city's history and have a free English audio tour recording you can borrow to lead you through the exhibits. I thought the displays on Taipei's early history were interesting, but the “city today” section was way too touristy.

I then crossed the street and headed for the elevator to the observation floors at Taipei 101. You pay about six dollars to ride the world's fastest elevator to the 89th floor observatory of the world's tallest building (a fact which they make sure is not lost on visitors) to get a bird's eye view of a smoggy urban view. I'm sure there are days when the smog isn't too bad, but it was very thick on Saturday. I also shelled out the extra few dollars to climb the two flights of stairs to the outdoor observation area on the 91st floor, which gives you basically the same view, but with a little fresher air than you might get at street level. Unfortunately, the smog was so bad that many of the sights the audio tour pointed out where shrouded in a gray haze.

For lunch, I stopped by Ruby Tuesday's for a salad bar and buffalo wings. How exotic! Yes, it's a cop-out, but I think I deserve to eat crappy American food every now and then! All I'm going to say about that overpriced meal is that they had bleu cheese dressing, so I was very pleased.

After lunch I walked to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. This memorial hall and park are easily seen from the top of Taipei 101, as they occupy one large city block. The hall itself is a large traditional Chinese building that enshrines a big statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party that eventually fled to Taiwan to establish the Republic of China (the official name of the government of Taiwan). There are some exhibition rooms in the back with interesting historical tidbits, but English translations are few and far between. One hallway that did have English translations housed an exhibit of photographs of the Sino-Japanese conflict throughout Sun Yat-sen's leadership. As I was looking at some of the exhibits, one of the employees asked me if I wanted to watch the changing of the guards ceremony (the last one of the day). I said yes and stood for what seemed like a very long and unnecessarily long, but very well-executed, ceremony. I took a lot of pictures, but only a few turned out well. If you're ever make it to this memorial, be sure to check out this hourly show.

The park outside seems to be very popular as a weekend getaway spot among the locals. There were groups of old men playing Chinese checkers, groups of young people practicing their dance moves, kids and old people flying kites, families playing ball, and at least one kung-fu class. It was really nice to see all these people having a good time together on a beautiful November day in Taipei (which feels like a June day in Missouri!).

After wandering the city just a wee bit longer and stopping by the Internet café, I went to my friend's house to get some sleep. Katannya, a Canadian English teacher, lives in a really nice apartment on the outskirts of the city with three or four other roommates. They are all foreign English teachers and they seem to have a pretty good set-up here. Thanks to all of them for putting me up this weekend!

I got a much-needed full night's sleep and went to meet Dr. Hickey for lunch on Sunday. We ate at a restaurant called “Skylark”, which at first I thought was a Japanese chain restaurant of the same name. Thankfully, it wasn't. The Taiwanese Skylark is a Taiwanese version of western food. The Japanese Skylark is a Japanese version of an American diner with Japanese and Western food, but the Taiwanese chain is much better. You order from a set menu that includes a salad, an appetizer, a main course, a dessert, and coffee or tea at the end. It was a very satisfying meal.

It was really good to see Dr. Hickey here in Taiwan. He has been instrumental in helping me pursue my study of East Asian politics while at Missouri State University. He is an expert in Taiwan-U.S. relations and is responsible for setting up the exchange program that I am currently participating in. He is on sabbatical this semester and has been in Taiwan for about three weeks researching a book he is writing on Taiwan's foreign policy. I got to hear his thoughts on many issues in Taiwanese politics and I particularly enjoyed his stories about his recent interview with Lee Teng-hui, the former president of Taiwan. We chatted for over an hour, then decided to head over to the former residence of Chiang Kai Shek, the former dictator of Taiwan.

Chiang's house is closed to the public, but his massive garden is open and is apparently a popular spot for a Sunday stroll. We chatted some more about politics, international relations, and the joys and travails of travel as we soaked in the warm weather and beautiful scenery.

We parted ways at about 3:00 and I decided to go see the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. It is larger and more impressive than the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, but the quirky smile Chiang bears seems very out-of-place. I guess if you're going to build a memorial to a dictator, you should at least make him a happy dictator!

The museum here is much more interesting and has many more English translations than at the other memorial. Two of the generalissimo's bullet-proof Cadillacs are on display, as are many of his personal items, medals, awards, clothes, calligraphy, and furniture. Lighted signs explain in Chinese and English various episode's in his life. All of these are written with a (brace yourself!) slight pro-Chiang slant. I don't know if any of you are aware of this, but sometimes people who build memorials to dictators aren't exactly the most unbiased people in the world. Apparently, even though Taiwan didn't become a democratic country until the early to mid 1990s, Chiang was responsible for Taiwan's democratization (he died in 1975). Yes, those Chinese ghosts are very powerful.

After another dinner of American food, I went to the infamous Snake Alley. This is actually just one street of a massive night market in Taipei. The economy of this area was once based on the world's oldest profession, but the police have apparently pushed prostitution out of the area so they could turn it into a tourist and family friendly night market. Odd remnants of the old raunchy atmosphere remain in the form of booths and stores that specialize in adult toys, which seem oddly out of place in the midst of noodle stands, tea shops, and knock-off brand name clothing merchants.

The big draw in Snake Alley is, of course, the snakes. I only saw about three or four shops that still kept live snakes, which they will kill, cut, clean, and cook right there for you if you are so inclined. Snake handlers wear microphone headsets and yell out the crowd as any good side-show worker would to entice the curious to join the dark side. You aren't allowed to take pictures, but I managed to snap a few before they yelled at me.

I have a pet snake at home and I am probably a little biased, but the shows were a little frustrating to watch. I have no objection to people eating whatever animal they want, as long as it isn't endangered and it isn't going to start another SARS scare. It was the “entertainment” part of the show that was really disheartening. One guy tried to feed a mouse to some small non-poisonous snakes in front of a huge crowd, but they didn't take any interest in the food. Another guy kept smacking his cobras on the head after they tried to bite him. If I had that guy yelling in my face and waking me up all day long, I think I would try to bite him, too.

Well, this was a long post and I don't think I had much of a chance to reflect on these experiences, but I'm going to end it here. It's been a long time since I last posted, so I really wanted to get this up while it's still fresh in my mind. I'll try to post again before I get through a whole weekend next time!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Seven-hour layover...

My Italian vacation is at an end and it's time for me to get back to the grind of life as an international student. It's a LONG trip from my hotel in Milan to my dorm room in Kaohsiung - probably about 36 hours. I've already finished one taxi ride, one subway trip (carrying my luggage and transfering once), one bus ride, and one plane ride. I'm almost done with my seven hour layover in Amsterdam, but I still have a 10 and a half hour flight (Amsterdam to Bangkok), a one-hour layover, a 3 and a half hour flight (Bangkok to Taipei), a five-hour bus ride (Taipei to Kaohsiung), and a twenty minute cab ride to go. Wee!!!

My mom really made my day about a week and a half ago when she told me that I can only make these long trips while I'm "still young" - but after a little more than a week of touring northern Italy, I don't feel all that young anymore.

Italy was amazing and Maiko and I took a ton of pictures! I will try to post some of the good ones on flickr this week, but (as I mentioned before) I probably won't write about my travels until sometime between Christmas and New Years. I only have one month left in Taiwan and it's STUDY TIME!!! I have an interview to do in Taipei on Monday with a former DPP (Democratic People's Party - the current ruling party in Taiwan) official who works at a foreign policy think tank and is an expert in Japan-Taiwan relations, so I will probably use that as an excuse to spend a few days in Taipei this weekend. Other than that, I don't plan on making too many more trips around the "renegade province" because I have too much work to do. We have a nice monkey-infested mountain on campus that I have yet to climb, so the mountain and the beach will be my avenues of escape when I need a study break.

Nothing else really to report right now. I have some Chinese homework to do on the plane, but I think we're going to have some mildly entertaining movies to watch, so I might not get much done until I get on the intercity bus in Taiwan.

Sorry for rambling so much, but I'm a little sleep-deprived and tired from hanging out in the airport for so long. I will try to post something insightful this week, but no promises!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Viva Italia!!!

I don't think I'm not going to get into any details yet, but just to let you know, I am in Italy safe and having a great time! I have only been here four days but already have a ton of pictures, so I will try to load everything and update when I get back to Taiwan...

Until then, ciao!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Italy, here I come!!!

Well, I didn't post anything about the last day of our East Coast trip, but we basically just had a long drive back along another twisting road of doom, blah, blah, blah...

The big news is: I'M GOING TO ITALY!!!

Yep, someone is coming to my dorm room in about 30 minutes to take me to the Kaohsiung Airport. Then I fly to Taipei, take a bus from one airport to another in Taipei, fly from Taipei to Bangkok, then from Bangkok to Amsterdam, then Amsterdam to Rome. Then, I have to take a train from the Rome airport to the main train station, change trains, and take another train to the main train station in Florence, where I will meet Maiko and we will go to our hotel. All told, it should take just over 36 hours to get from here to there, but it's my first time to Europe, so I think the excitement will make the traveling part a little easier. Maybe... It's the coming back part that will be really hard...

Well, what can I say?!? WOO-HOO just doesn't seem to capture it. I'm really excited to be going to Italy, seeing famous sites, eating delicious Italian food, and of course, seeing my wonderful girlfriend whom I haven't seen in more than two months! I'll try to post and put up some pictures on flickr from Italy, but I doubt I'll have time to write too much. Keep watching anyway, though. Ciao!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

East Coast Road Trip - Day Three (The Scenic Route, Take Two)

My theory that every good day starts off with a greasy breakfast was further proved on Sunday. We felt like taking it a little slower after having such a long day on Saturday, so we slept until almost 9:00 and went to McDonald's for breakfast. Unfortunately, we arrived as they were changing from the breakfast menu to the burger menu, so some of our group couldn't get breakfast. Being the first one in (I practically sprinted in the door), though, I was safe.

After breakfast we noticed a community group giving massages across the street. They had many massage chairs set up under a tent and urged us to come over. This group turned out to be a local community group of blind people who were giving out free massages to all that came by. I wound up getting two massages that felt good at first, but I think our visually impaired friends didn't know their own strength. They REALLY dug in! Ouch! It was painful at the time, but I think it did help loosen me up because my stiff neck felt better afterwards.

After our greasy breakfast, free massages, and a few cups of coffee, we hit the road. It was a little chilly and raining lightly, but we weren't planning on doing any long hikes today, so we were fine with the weather. We decided to go down the East Coast highway and stop at a few sights listed in the guidebooks to see if any of them were any good. Our first stop was a scenic overlook where we managed to get this group photo.

We stopped at some little fishing town where you are supposed to be able to take whale-watching tours. Adi really had his heart set on waking up the next morning to see some whales, but they informed us the season was over. Too bad!

Our next stop was the Tropic of Cancer monument. I loaded a picture of this on flickr, but it's hardly worth mentioning. Needless to say, we were extremely disappointed when we crossed to the tropics and the weather didn't warm up.

Next, we stopped at the Basian caves. There are eight or nine of these "caves", which are very shallow. Some of them could probably just be called "overhangs", but the scenery from the top of the walkway to the higher caves was quite impressive. There are temples in each of the caves, but the caves themselves are not that big, so it was a bit of a let-down.

We stopped for a bite to eat in the town of Chenggong. We then backtracked a mile or two to visit the Sansiantai Bridge. This wave-shaped bridge was built in 1987, but has already become a popular tourist attraction. The small island it connects with the mainland hosts three large rock formations that are said to resemble three Taoist immortals who visited the are long ago (although I didn't see any resemblance).

I had seen some beautiful pictures of the bridge and the island in sunlight, but it was much more challenging to take photos in near hurricane conditions. Although it wasn't raining hard, the wind was blowing so strongly that the raindrops pelted you in the face like little bb's. It was especially bad on the bridge, which was a shame because the views of waves crashing into rocks and the different colors of the ocean at different depths were really dramatic. I managed to snap a few pictures that weren't blurry and kept my camera sheltered enough from the weather that it didn't malfunction, which I thought was a stroke of luck.

It was getting dark as we left the bridge area. Once again, I had the brilliant idea of taking “the scenic route”, which AGAIN turned out to be less than a highway, as the map indicated. ONCE AGAIN, we found ourselves on a “winding narrow path of doom”. Yes, I take full responsibility for the poor navigation, but hey, if you looked at a road map of Taiwan, I think you would agree that highway 23 looked like a shortcut. Anyway, Adi was brave enough to take us on an even more winding “road” at night and managed to keep us all in one piece. I put “road” in quotation marks because at least half of 23 is still under construction.

When we made it to the inland highway (a proper highway, by the way) the going was much smoother. We called the lady at a travel agency and asked her to contact our innkeeper in Ruishuei to come meet us at the train station and guide us to our lodgings. The Ruishuei Hot Springs hotel was a very pleasant spot. This inn was built by the Japanese about one hundred years ago. The rooms are Japanese style, with tatami mats and futons you lay on the floor. There are hot and cold spring water pools near the front desk for free use by the guests. Not too shabby at about $10 U.S. a night per person!

We went to town for dinner and soaked in the hot water for a while before dinner. The Europeans seemed pretty happy spending about half their time in the cold water, but I could only enter for about 10 or 20 seconds at a time before I had to jump in the warm water. I think it felt even better because it was a little chilly and drizzling outside as we sat and soaked.

We all slept well and the girls had a hard time waking us up in the morning. They probably slept more soundly than we did, though, because there were only the two of them in one room, while us guys were five in the other room. There was also some REALLY crazy animal fight right outside our window at 4 or 5 in the morning, but we were all too tired to go see what was going on. Whatever it was, it was all cleaned up by morning, and the big golden lab who sits chained out front wasn't hurt.

Well, I have procrastinated on my schoolwork today long enough. It's 11:00 at night and I need to try to finish one of my presentations tonight. I only have one more day of our road trip to post on, but I'll wait until at least tomorrow to write it. It wasn't too eventful, so it shouldn't take too long.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

East Coast Road Trip - Day Two (Back to Nature)

On Saturday, we were up early and on the road by about 9:00. Although I had a serious craving for McDonald's breakfast, we decided to put that off a day and save time by eating at the corner outdoor diner near our hotel. The lively little lady (nice alliteration, huh?) who worked there served us a Taiwanese breakfast, which for me consisted of sweet sausages with a hint of soy sauce and some crepe/egg wrap, which wasn't bad. I am a firm believer that all good days start off with a greasy breakfast and lots of coffee, and this day turned out to be no exception. The food wasn't great, but the lady who worked there was very entertaining. She spoke a few words of English that she mixed with Chinese into her own pidgin. The cook's cheerful disposition and the perfect weather really put me in a good mood. It was a great start!

We decided to stop by the visitor center at the entrance to Taroko National Park. This is the beginning of the gorge if you are entering from the East, so you can still see the Pacific Ocean, but you are surrounded on all sides by steep mountains. There is an outdoor theater set up on the lawn adjacent to the visitor center. We all felt for a moment that we had just entered the Alps because they were having a concert there that morning. They had an orchestra and an opera singer playing classical music. I am no aficionado, but this really helped set the mood. I wish we could have stayed for a while, but with no daylight savings time in Taiwan, we needed to get on the trails ASAP.

I think we were all impressed from the beginning. It was an eerie feeling to know that we had just been on this road the night before, but had no idea what was around us. Some of us began snapping pictures from the car window. We pulled over a couple of times on our way to the first trail to snap more pictures. I think between the seven of us we must have taken nearly 1,000 pictures that day.

The first trail – the Tunnel of Nine Turns Trail – was impressive. This trail used to be part of the highway. The government carved a tunnel and moved the highway so tourists can come enjoy the scenery. It was carved along the side of the bluff overlooking the Liwu River and gorgeous marble cliffs. It's a short trail (about 1.9 km or 1.2 miles), so it didn't take us too long to finish and head for the next spot.

We stopped by the Hsiangte Temple in Tiansiang next. There is a hotel and some small tourist shops and restaurants here, so we thought it would be an ideal place for a break. Adi bought a sausage on a stick from the vendor next to the hotel, but decided he didn't like it about halfway through so he gave it to a stray dog that was hanging out next to the stand (hmm… how convenient!). This dog didn't look nearly as malnourished or neglected as the one at the 7-11 the night before. This one also seemed to have a more sociable attitude. After receiving payment, the dog decided to be our guide to the temple, following us over two bridges and up numerous stairs. She even waited for Steve, Ronny, and me as we climbed to the top of the pagoda!

The Hsiangte Temple holds the world record for having the highest statue of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, whatever that means. The were proud enough of the fact to display it prominently on a sign, so we thought it might mean something to someone. Anyway, after climbing to the top of the pagoda, Ronny, Steve, and I joined the others on the main grounds of the temple. The temple and Buddha statue were nice, but the surroundings were what really made this a memorable spot. We took lots of pictures and had a short rest before heading back down the way we came.

On the way down, a female monk shouted out to us and waved us over to her. Although we couldn't understand what she was saying, we figured out from her gestures that she wanted us to grab some bags of dry cement and haul them downhill to a spot where they were doing some kind of construction. A strange request, we thought, but how can you pass up a chance for some good karma? We each grabbed two bags and proceeded to march down the hill singing workers’ chants. I sang a poor rendition of “Sixteen Tons” followed by our whole group singing “Day Oh”. I think Stephanie got some video of this, which I am curious to see.

We then drove to our next trail – the Baiyang Waterfalls Trail. This trail has also been well-developed and is easily conquered, but unfortunately the last 400 meters or so is still closed from last month's typhoon. This trail offers more spectacular scenery and, at the end of the section that is still open, a good view of several tall waterfalls. Once again, many pictures were taken.

We were all pretty famished by this point, so we stopped again in Tiansiang for a bite to eat. The food here is very bland, overpriced Chinese food – but at least overpriced Chinese food translates to just over $2 U.S. for a meal. We then piled into the car again for our final hike – the Lyushui-Heliu Trail. This trail is very narrow in places and is pretty popular, so it can be a bit aggravating to have to pass people coming the other way when you barely have enough room to get by yourself. Fortunately, there are guard rails in the narrow spots and it isn't too long. Of course there was more great scenery from this trail and a small suspension bridge that some of our group really seemed to enjoy jumping up and down on. Ahh… The maturity of college students studying abroad…

The trail ends on the Cross Island Highway. Steve, Ronny, and I walked along the highway downhill while Stephanie, Marjorie, Neils, and Adi went up to get the car. We met up at the Yuehwang Pavilion a little ways down the road. This pavilion sits near the entrance to a very long suspension bridge that spans a deep canyon over the river. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones crossing this one, though there were no poison-tip arrows flying towards me. Another trail starts on the other side of this bridge, which we decided to try at least part of the way. This trail was very different from any we had been on so far. It was steep, narrow, very rugged, and didn’t look like it had much traffic on it. After a few minutes most of our group decided to go back to the car, but Neils, Ronny, and I decided to push on a little farther. It was very narrow and steep – this is not a place you would want to slip. I thought about giving in, but a group of older people had passed us on their way down, so I knew it couldn't be completely impossible. We probably got about two-thirds up the mountain before we decided to stop. I think all of would have loved to go farther, but it was getting close to sunset and this is definitely not a trail you should try at night. I had been hiking all day, but this was the first time I had broken into a sweat, so it was kind of refreshing.

Marjorie took the wheel on the way back with Stephanie sitting in the front passenger seat. All of us guys in the back dozed off for a few minutes, something the girls seemed to find really amusing. Stephanie took pictures of each one of us sleeping. Yes, they were kind of funny, but I don't know how I feel about having a picture of me napping in a sweat-stained shirt. Slightly embarrassed, I guess…

We showered and relaxed at the hotel for an hour or two before heading off to Pizza Hut for dinner. I know this doesn't sound very interesting, but trust me – after as much Chinese food as we've had, some greasy pizza really hits the spot!

We went to a pub after dinner. We stopped in one that was playing the blues on CD quite loud, but nobody (except me) seemed to like the music, so we went across the street to a place with a live band. There were a decent number of young Taiwanese there, so we figured it would be an interesting place to hang out. We met some travelers from Spain, but they left very early. We were sitting behind the stage, so all of our ears were ringing after about 20 minutes, but we stayed for a while anyway.

About the time we decided we should go back to the hotel, some Taiwanese who were celebrating one of their friend's birthday came over to our table and drag us (literally!) out on the floor to dance with them. We played along for a while, but the covered music the band was playing was pretty lame (I mean, who plays a cover of Ricky Martin's “Living La Vida Loca” at a pub???), so we danced for a while, then returned to our seats.

The band seemed amused by the participation of the foreigners, so they joined the crowd in insisting we participate. This started to get annoying until everyone got in a circle and one of the Taiwanese guys told me we had to join in the next dance because it was “special”.

I only understood the word “friend” from the lead singer's introduction, but the music definitely caught my attention. It didn't sound too much like pop and it reminded me of Hawaiian music. Everyone lined up in a circle and held hands with the person two people away from them and started to dance in a circle. We had a hard time following, so we just watched the three or four guys who really looked like they knew what they were doing. As we were doing this, it hit us – we were right in the middle of a traditional Taiwanese aboriginal dance!

Taiwan has many aboriginal Polynesian tribes, but today they are few in number. Most of them live on the East Coast. We all really wanted to visit an aboriginal village to learn a little about them, but all we could find on the map and in our guidebooks seemed like extremely cheesy craft shows put on for tourists. We started to smile big because how better can you experience a culture than to be thrown directly into it on the spot? It was quite an experience. I don't remember how to do it and don't know much about what this dance is supposed to symbolize, but it was really fun. The lead singer later told me it was a dance of the Ami tribe and he said something about the ocean, but that's about all the information I could gather.

Well, I think this sets the record for my longest post ever. Thanks to all of you who made it this far (if anybody did). It was a long eventful day and I wanted to recall it in as much detail as possible while it's still reasonably fresh in my memory. I still have another day and a half of traveling to recount, but I might take a day or two off before I write those posts. I have been in the computer lab working on this for almost two hours now and I have a quiz in Chinese tomorrow that I need to study for. I hoped you enjoyed reading this and looking at the pictures more than I enjoyed sitting here for so long!

Until next time, take care!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

East Coast Road Trip - Day One (The Scenic Route)

I had a wonderful long weekend, but unfortunately my busy study schedule over the next week and a half won’t allow me to sit down and write about it all in one shot. I will try to recall the events of the past four or five days in as much detail as I can, but it might be another four or five days before I can fill you in on all of it.

We went to the East Coast of Taiwan this weekend. This is the most rural area of Taiwan. It is full of beautiful mountains, valleys, rivers, and rugged coastline that are definite must-sees for any visitor to the “renegade province”.

On Friday, the car rental agency we used for our trip to Kenting came to the university to pick us up. Instead of taking us back to their office on the other side of Kaohsiung, they brought the forms with them and let us take the car straight from school. This saved us at least an hour, so I felt it would be better for us to take the central “Cross Island Highway” that the Lonely Planet guidebook for Taiwan has listed as an extremely scenic route.

The “scenic route” turned out to be quite interesting, but it's not very scenic at night. Unfortunately for my reputation as a travel planner, it turned out to be a much longer drive than the map indicated. Taiwan is a relatively small place, and the distance between Kaohsiung and our destination city of Hualien seemed to be about the same as the distance between Kaohsiung and Taipei. The Kaohsiung to Taipei trip only takes about five hours by bus, so it seemed logical (to me anyway) that it would take only a little longer to go via this highway. It took us approximately 12 hours in the car to get from school to our hotel… As much as I like road trips, this was a bit too much.

I thought we could make it to Sun Moon Lake in time to enjoy some of the sights before getting to the Cross Island "Highway". It started to get dark about the time we arrived, however, so we just passed by the lake and headed for the highway. We drove for probably an hour straight uphill when we saw some locals stopped on the road. We decided to take a break and Ronny, our German friend with the best Chinese ability among us, asked them how much farther Hualien was from where we were. Their answer – “If you want to go to Hualien from here, you have to walk!”

This was not the most encouraging news. These locals turned out to be very friendly and offered to help us get turned in the right direction. During our descent they stopped and one of the guys asked if he could ride with us part of the way so he could explain how to get there. From what little Chinese I can understand, however, I think his real motivation was curiosity. He asked Ronny a lot of questions about where we were from, what we were doing in Taiwan, and whether we liked it or not. He advised us to get gas before getting on the “highway”. We told him we still had just filled up two hours earlier and were still fine, but we took his advice anyway and got ready for what turned out to be a VERY long journey.

You may be asking yourself why I keep putting the word “highway” in quotation marks. Perhaps I am a little biased in my opinion as to what a highway ought to be, but I don't think this stretch of road deserves the title. “Winding narrow path of doom” might be a better name. Two-way traffic is allowed on this road, but in most places you have to pull over (if there is a place to do so) or pull to the edge of the road to let the other car squeeze by. There was not much traffic at all, but the traffic we did run into consisted almost entirely large trucks hauling construction equipment to stretches of road that were being worked on. We had to stop and get out of the way of some of the vehicles as their crews worked at night a few times as we made our way to Hualien. There is no lighting on the road, so you have to go slow because the turns are sharp and the drop off VERY steep. Many of the tunnels look like they had just been blasted recently, so it looked like you were driving through a natural cave. I suppose this was appropriate, considering it was Halloween weekend…

We learned later that some of the stretches of road we had been on were over 3,000 meters above sea level. That's almost two miles! We passed very few buildings and saw no towns for more than an hour! All of us were starving, but there really were no gas stations, restaurants, or convenience stores on the way. It seemed like we were on a very scenic road, but with no light, it was impossible to tell. The best we got was one scenic outlook on the top of one of the mountains where we stopped before we were too far from civilization. It could see the faint glow of light from a small town in the valley below. It was especially faint because we were higher than the thin clouds that blew in over the town! It was amazing to see so many stars, especially after living in Kaohsiung, where the humidity and pollution block out most sunsets, even on otherwise clear days. We saw a few shooting stars and breathed our first breaths of really cold air since coming to Taiwan. It was about 7 or 8 degrees outside (in the mid 40s for those using Fahrenheit) and we were wearing our normal attire for Taiwan – shorts or jeans, sneakers or flip-flops, and t-shirts! Brrr!!!

We finally made it to Hualien sometime after midnight. Famished, we stopped at the 7-11 to grab something to eat. We sat outside and gorged ourselves on reheated prepackaged Chinese food and enjoyed the warmer air of the lower elevation and the relief from being out of the car. A mangy stray dog watched us eat with pathetic eyes, so I couldn't help but toss her some of my friend rice. Adi seemed really touch by the poor condition of the mutt, so he went in and bought it a can of dog food. Hopefully it found more empathetic foreigners to beg from after we left.

Our hotel was pretty roomy and we were ready to sleep by the time we got there. All of us were exhausted and we had a big day of hiking planed for Saturday. When I get time tomorrow or the next day, I will tell you of our adventures in the Taroko Gorge – probably the most beautiful natural spot in Taiwan. If you can't wait, go ahead and check out the many, many pictures I have already loaded on my photo gallery. Until then!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Just a small burglary

Sorry it's been so long since I've posted, but not much has been happening recently. The biggest news I have is that my wallet was stolen last weekend. Originally I thought I had misplaced it, but the day after I noticed it was gone one of the other international students told me he and several other students had their wallets taken from their room while they slept the same night that mine disappeared. I normally lock the door before I go to bed, but I guess I forgot that night (last Saturday). The scary thing is that the thief was in my room while I and both of my roommates were there. I didn't lose that much cash and they didn't charge anything on my credit cards, but it was a real annoyance. My credit and bank cards are easily replaceable, but my driver's license cannot be replaced until I go back to the U.S. in December.

I spent part of the week dealing with the administration and trying to find out what they are doing to improve our security and catch the culprits. They responded by fixing some of the broken locks on some of the doors in our building and putting up signs encouraging students to keep the emergency exits closed. These doors have no security cameras and some students had been leaving them propped open 24 hours a day until now. Since there still aren't security cameras on all the doors and the windows on the first floor are always open, I don't really feel much safer. My roommates and I have decided to keep our door locked at all times, even when we are home, just in case. I am also taking more precautions to make sure my valuables (not that I have too many) aren't in plain sight.

I talked to one of my professors in the U.S. about this problem and he helped put things in perspective. This kind of thing can happen anywhere in the world and if I was going to have things stolen from me, it's better it happened this way than through some violent mugging a la the American streets. It was really more of an annoyance than a serious loss and I didn't get hurt. Two of the Taiwanese students had all of their money withdrawn from their bank accounts by the thieves, so I am also lucky that they didn't even try mine. My guess is the thieves don't speak English very well and probably just threw away my wallet after taking the small cash in it.

Other than this incident, things have been going pretty well. My trip to Yushan (the highest mountain in Taiwan) was put off until late November and I'm going to the East Coast of Taiwan this weekend. I have been trying to keep up on all my studying, which has been pretty challenging. I aced my first Chinese quiz, but we have our second tomorrow, which will probably be much more difficult. I have two big presentations to prepare for, and I am trying to get all my work done on those in the next two and a half weeks - before I go to Italy! I can't believe it's coming up so soon!

I'm very excited for this trip - my first trip to Europe and my first chance to see Maiko since August! I bought guidebooks to Florence and Rome (the two cities we are spending most of our time in) about a month ago. I try to read from them for at least 30 minutes a night, but that hasn't always been possible with my schedule. It's a long trip from Kaohsiung to Florence, so hopefully I can catch up on my Italian background reading on the 30+ hours it will take me to get from Kaohsiung to Florence. I'm flying from Kaohsiung to Taipei, then Taipei to Bangkok, then Bangkok to Amsterdam, then Amsterdam to Rome, then I have to take a train from Rome to Florence. It's one of the longest trips I have ever taken, but I'm sure it will be worth it! I have decided to try not to put on any weight before I go because I want to gain all my winter weight ("insulation") while I'm in Italy.

That's all for now. I'll be sure to post about my East Coast trip next week.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Holy Rosary Cathedral Minor Basilica

I had seen this church from the bus window many times and it always stands out. The basic scenery of urban Kaohsiung consists of old-run down buildings that sometimes look like they have been bombed out and brand-new, clean, modern retail stores, restaurants, and other places of commerce. The church lies between some of the tightly-packed, dirty, run-down buildings on Wufu Road. It is set back a little from the street and has some open space between it and the surrounding small buildings (also administered by the church). It may not be the biggest church I have ever seen, but it isn't tiny, either. The neon lining the crucifix at the top really stands out at night, and the architecture is very western.

The sign on the fence out front lists the mass times. This church has mass in Taiwanese, Mandarin Chinese, and English. English mass is only held once on Sundays, but thankfully it isn't too early (11:00 am). As I was writing a note to myself to come back on Sunday (this was during my Friday night walk), I noticed a light on in the guard booth by the front gate. I asked the older gentleman sitting in there if he spoke English and if he could give me some information about the church. He spoke English with a little difficulty, so I tried Japanese. To my amazement, (he didn't look quite old enough to have had much of a Japanese education) he spoke excellent Japanese. He insisted on taking me inside to show me the church even though it was dark and I told him I would be back on Sunday.

My first impression of the inside of the church was – “Wow, am I in Mexico?” It turns out that the church was built in 1859 by the Spanish and has the image of Santa Maria displayed prominently in the altar. I am not good at describing art or religious iconography, but I took many pictures, so when flickr is working again, check them out. It is very colorful and with the exception of a few characters written inside the church, it doesn't give you any sense that you are in Asia.

I went back today for mass. The church was packed with a very international group, mostly laborers from the Philippines. Father Renaldo is also from the Philippines, but unlike Catholic services in Japan, there were some other nationalities represented as well. One of the members who did some of the readings is even from St. Louis! I also met a couple from India and I believe there are many Thai laborers that attend, as well.

During the service, Father Renaldo asked us to say a prayer for migrant workers everywhere. This statement is especially poignant in Kaohsiung. The subway system currently under construction is being built by foreign laborers, primarily from Thailand. Shortly before I arrived, they apparently rioted and went on strike because they have not been treated altogether fairly. At first I had heard that they rioted because their bosses would not let them drink, smoke, or gamble in their dormitories, but according to a few other locals, they have been taken advantage of in several other ways. A law enforcement officer I met this weekend told me that the company who contracts these workers does not pay them with real money! They are give “credit” that they have to use at company-owned store (who hears that old song “Sixteen Tons”?) and is not valid elsewhere. Someone here on campus (whose knowledge on this subject I trust very much) told me that the contracting company was supposed to be paying them about $1,000 U.S. a month in salary, but they were only receiving about a third to half of that. Even $1,000 might not seem like much to most Americans, you could easily live off of that here and still be able to save some or send some home to your family if you lived “on the cheap”.

Keeping these issues in mind, I readily offered my prayers for these hard-working people and their families.

After the service, I hung around to speak with Father Renaldo and some of the churchgoers. They let me snap some pictures (again, once flickr is working I will load them) and even fed me! I hung around and chatted with some of the Philippinos for a while as they gave me some noodles, bread, and cake. My stomach was still a little unsettled from the Pizza Hut buffet, but I managed to get enough down for a small lunch.

I really like this church and the congregation. I am sure I will be back on the few Sundays when I will actually be here in Kaohsiung, but I have a lot of travel plans coming up, so that will probably only be about half of the Sundays between now and Christmas. Hopefully I can make it to the Christmas party they invited me to, because I am sure there will be some free food there!

The weekend

This has been a very good weekend for me. In spite of the stress that has recently hit me as I realized that I actually have to study while I'm here, things went very well for me this weekend. I think one of the most important things I should note right away is that it has finally begun to cool down a little. It's not much of a cool down – high temperatures are still at or above 30 degrees C (in the mid to upper 80s F) – but this is just a couple ticks down from what it was a few weeks ago. The humidity also feels a little lower, which helps a lot. You still sweat walking around during the day, but you’re not dripping with sweat as bad as you were not too long ago. It's very pleasant, comparatively speaking.

On Friday I had an early class. Thursdays and Fridays are hard for me because I have class from 9:00 am to noon. I was really tired on Friday morning and I think I dozed off in class for a few minutes. I was completely awake after our first break because the German student in our class snapped a picture of me with my eyes closed with his cell phone camera. Smelling a brewing blackmail scheme, I decided to keep my eyes open for the remainder of the class.

After class I called Jumpei, one of my Japanese friends here, and asked him if he wanted to go grab a bite to eat. I went to meet him outside of the tunnel that lets us student-pedestrians to escape from the relative calm of campus to the bustling madness that is Kaohsiung. As I was waiting for him I saw most of the Taiwanese students from my class sitting around on their scooters getting ready to go somewhere. I asked them where they were going and they told me they were going to Chichin Island for lunch. They invited me to go with them, so when Jumpei showed up, I hopped on the back of his scooter and we zoomed over to the ferry. The ferry only takes about five minutes and you can bring your scooter on board.

We needed scooters to go to this restaurant. It was very large, and though it was under a roof, it was pretty much and open-air establishment. We grabbed about 12 or 15 dishes, spread them out on two tables, and dug in. We had a big group of people (about 12 or 15) and we ate Chinese-style. This means everybody eats out of the same dishes. You just walk around the table with a bowl of rice and grab whatever you feel like eating and throwing it on your rice to eat at your leisure. The food was even better than the restaurant I ate at the first time I went to this island! The spicy pork and the fried oysters were especially good!

After lunch, Jumpei took me to the post office to mail a few things. I then went to the library to start checking out books for my research projects. I was pretty worn out and didn't feel like going anywhere, so I plopped myself down on an open couch and started to read one of my books. I probably got through about two pages before I started dozing off. Since this was such a good location, I decided to go ahead and take a short nap, which turned into a good 45 minute snooze.

When I woke up it was almost time to go to Tai-chi class. I really didn't feel like going, but I had already paid for lessons and the class is only twice a week, so I convinced myself to go. Boy was I glad I did! None of the other students showed up, so I got a private lesson! I am the only one in the class who has taken Tai-chi before, so it is easier for me to remember the moves than the others. With a private lesson, the teacher was able to teach me more moves in a day than would have been possible had anyone else been there. I really like our teacher. He is a peaceful looking white haired gentleman who is always sporting a smile. He's not quite old enough to speak good Japanese, but he knows a few words, so we communicate in bits and pieces of three languages (Chinese, Japanese, and English). Gestures and demonstrations fill in the gaps that our pidgin language doesn’t cover.

After Tai-chi I decided to take a hike into town by myself. I crossed the bridge to the other side of the Love River and found what I had been looking for – the Holy Rosary Cathedral Minor Basilica. It is a really interesting church, so it deserves a post all its own. I won't describe it here, because you can read all about it above this post.

Yesterday was a relaxing taste of home day. I slept in and went with Steve and Adi to the Pizza Hut across town for the all-you-can-eat buffet. After saturating ourselves with cheese, pepperonis, and grease, Steve and I decided to go see if there were any good movies playing at the Warner Cinema across the street. We decided to watch “Four Brothers” – a violent John Singleton film about four adopted brothers seeking revenge for the murder of their adopted mother in Detroit. Steve, who is from Detroit, must have really enjoyed reminiscing about American life after watching this one! It's not a great movie, but it's full of good music and lots of gun violence – two of America's best entertainment exports.

I walked home from the movie theater (a good 45 minute walk) and did some exercises before showering and going to bed. I haven't been working out too regularly here, but I am trying to do a little working out now and then to counter the large quantities of oily food I am eating. I really needed the movement after eating about three pounds of pizza!

Weekend in Taichung

Last weekend I went to Taichung, the third largest city in Taiwan. Taichung lies about halfway between Kaohsiung and Taipei between the west coast and the central mountains. I didn’t go to Taichung for much sightseeing – for me this was more of a getaway. I have spent most of my time here hanging out with other people – going on trips and through town with my foreign friends and spending much of my time at home with my Taiwanese roommates present.

I got a room in a cheap business/student hotel across the street from the train station. It was surprisingly clean and comfortable, considering I paid less than $20 U.S. a night for a room. I spent Sunday night relaxing, reading, and watching terrible American movies on cable TV. It was fantastic! I also spent some time in the Internet cafés near the hotel. They are much cheaper than Japanese net cafés. One cost about $0.65 an hour and the nicer one was only $0.35 an hour! Compare that with the $4.00 an hour price in Japan! The only problem is that the Japanese net cafés give you your own private cubicle with comfortable seating and a free soft drink bar. Here there is no such thing as privacy – all the computers are lined out on one long table. They also do not require people to use headphones here. This is really annoying when you are there to read the news and send some e-mails. Just try to concentrate with the blaring of gunfire, wizard spells, and alien heads cracking open in your ears

Monday was Taiwan’s national day. Since Taiwan isn’t really an independent state, you can’t really say this is Taiwan’s Independence Day, but you get the picture. School was canceled and most office workers had the day off. I didn’t have any big holiday plans, so I just decided to see one of Taichung’s famous temples and bus it back to Kaohsiung. I went to the Baujiu Temple, home of the biggest and fattest laughing Buddha statue in all of Taiwan. It’s almost 30 meters tall (about 90 feet), and it has been painted a bright yellow color. It was, just as Lonely Planet said, quite photogenic. I took a few pictures around the temple grounds and decided to head back. It was too hot to be walking all over the city.

I went back to the hotel to pick up the suitcase they were watching for me. Before I got on the bus, I decided to chat with the old woman who sat in the hotel lobby almost every time I passed by. She was 86 and still spoke Japanese very well. It was nice to be able to talk to a Taiwanese person without an interpreter and without having difficulty in finding words to express yourself. She was really nice and made sure the hotel gave me a bottle of water to drink on the bus ride home.

Sorry for the dull post, but it was a dull, but relaxing weekend. I actually enjoyed the time alone and felt a bit recharged upon my return to Kaohsiung. I had a good week here, though, so I will write a post on that now…

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Shopping (II)

On Thursday, I went to get a haircut. I haven't had a haircut since I've been here. I was getting a little shaggy and needed to cool my head off a little since it's still really hot here.

Ken took me to his friend's cousin's salon. She studied the ancient art of hair-cutting in Japan for about seven years, so I felt this was probably a safe bet. I never had a bad hair cut in Japan and the Japanese are well known for their fastidiousness. My only worry is that she would cut my hair with “Japanese style”. Japanese girls often have very nice haircuts, but the guys are fond of sporting EXTREMELY effeminate hairstyles these days – not something I was keen on trying out.

What I thought would be a normal haircut of about 20 minutes stretched into an hour and a half long ordeal. We started with an assistant washing my hair. She was the most thorough hair-washer I have ever seen. She was forcefully massaging my scalp as she cleaned my hair. At times I thought I was going to walk out of there bald.

The haircut portion of my time there was pretty normal, but extremely slow. I think she did a pretty good job, but I don't think there was any kind of special treatment that warranted an hour of sitting in a barber's chair. We finished at 4:30, which really stressed me out because I hadn't had much to eat that day. I had breakfast, but I had planned to eat lunch after Chinese class finished at 2:00. No such time…

I grabbed something at the 7-11 and we zipped back to school. I had to meet with one of my professor's at 5:00 p.m., so I didn't have time to stop at T.G..I.Friday's like I had planned. We had learned how to say “hamburger” in Chinese this week, which really sparked some major beef and cheese cravings in me. Don't get me wrong, I like Chinese food and I am trying to eat as much of the local stuff while I’m here as I can, but sometimes you just really need to get a taste of home.

I managed to satisfy that craving on Friday. I went to Friday's on Friday with Steve, Jumpei, and Yuji. Afterwards we went to Isetan to pick up the present I had planned on buying. Ken met us there to help translate for me, but his English vocabulary wasn't quite up to par for some of our discussions. After a while I asked Jumpei to help because he has been here a long time and speaks excellent Chinese. When the store clerks heard Jumpei translate from Chinese into Japanese for me, they were a little taken aback. It turned out that one of them had studied in Japan for a little more than a year, so she was able to answer most of my questions directly in Japanese.

I'm not sure if it was because they were impressed with my Japanese or if I just managed to charm their socks off, but they poured us some good oolong tea, insisted on chatting with us for a few minutes, and gave me a nice discount. I have had several instances where Taiwanese people have complemented me on my Japanese, but I feel bad because I can't understand anything they say without a translator (except for the few who speak Japanese). It's alright, though, because I intend to keep studying this language until I can at least manage a simple conversation.

That's all I feel like posting for now. I'm staying here this weekend, so I will get caught up on postings in the next couple of days. See ya!

Friday, October 07, 2005

Shopping (I)

Here’s my belated account of last week’s adventures. Sorry to keep you waiting.

On Tuesday, Ken (my Taiwanese exchange buddy) took me shopping. I have been at a loss as to what I should buy for my friends and family back home as presents. I had this problem in Japan as well, but I had a feeling that Taiwan might be different. Unfortunately, it seems that no matter where in the world you go these days, it is hard to find that unique “special something” since globalization has led to a world where the same cheesy, cheaply-made consumer goods are sold everywhere. Unique locally made or traditional products still exist, but they are hard to find. Many of the items that are sold for this purpose are really manufactured in large production lines for tourists, making the task at hand even more difficult.

Ken, like many other Taiwanese I have asked, didn’t seem to know of any good little “mom and pop” type shops to go to. There is a “bamboo street” here in town with many old cooking tools and hats made out of bamboo, but I could never honestly picture anyone I know in the U.S. wearing a traditional Chinese bamboo farmer’s hat. They would be light enough to ship, but it sounds pretty fragile, so I decided against going there.

So where did we go to look for traditional handmade Taiwanese goods? The department stores of course! We visited about five large department stores here in Kaohsiung. Most of them (Hanshin, Isetan, and Mitsukoshi) are Japanese companies that have been very successful in Taiwan.

Surprisingly, some of them did have a pretty good selection of handmade traditional crafts. Unfortunately, most of this stuff was stone or glass carvings. Some of it was beautiful, but expensive, heavy, and fragile. These would be nice gifts if you had the money and really trusted your shipping company, but since I don’t fulfill either of these requirements, I decided against it. Isetan, in particular, had a really nice display of glass work by a Japanese artist. Some of his pieces were priced at around $10,000 U.S., so it was way out of my league. Still, it was nice to look…

The security guards and other store employees were watching us like a hawk, but I don’t blame them. Not only was this stuff really expensive and fragile, but a crazy guy had gone into another department store a few nights ago and smashed over $200,000 U.S. worth of art with a hammer. I doubt we looked quite that crazy, but I'm sure they were just as nervous with a couple of young guys laughing and talking who might accidentally bump into an expensive vase. But I digress…

I didn’t buy anything that night, but I found what I wanted to get. I can’t divulge what it was or who it was for right now, but I think it was a pretty good gift. By the time we finished looking at all the stores, it was almost 11:00 p.m. We stopped by the night market for some dessert and headed home. I didn’t get to start on my Chinese homework until about midnight, so I was up writing characters until about 2:00 a.m. This is probably because I took so many short breaks, but come on! Your hand can get a little cramped after all that writing!

On Wednesday, Ken took me to his roommate’s parents’ house. The first floor of their house is the family business – a tea shop. I had a great time once I finally got there, but it took us an hour and a half to find it. Ken got lost because he misunderstood one syllable in the name of the street we had to turn on. This has reinforced my impression of Chinese as an impossible language, but I will keep studying anyway.

Now riding around on a scooter hasn’t scared me as much as I thought it would, but after more than an hour on the back of a scooter, your butt gets really sore. Every time we stopped to ask directions, I had to get off and stretch or jump up and down to shake some blood into my rear. I didn’t really get too upset, but it was a little annoying because I had to miss meeting with my group for my Taiwan Government and Politics class to work on a presentation.

When we finally got there, Ken’s roommate’s family were really nice. Ken and his roommate translated for me as the roommate’s father poured some nice oolong tea for us. We had a mini-Taiwanese tea ceremony, which is nice because it is much less formal than the Japanese tea ceremony. Basically, we sat in chairs and chatted about tea as his dad kept our cups full of hot oolong. We tried the bestseller there (what I wound up buying), which was really good, but he also poured us a few cups of the $100 U.S. for a half-pound type tea, which was a real treat. It was definitely some of the best tea I’ve ever had, but I don’t think there is any way I would ever spend that much money on dried tea. Both teas are grown high in the central Taiwanese mountains and are burned before packaging. Since they are burned, you pour out the first batch – that hot water is just to clean the tea leaves. You can make up to seven batches of tea with one large pinch and it’s the best on the third or fourth batch. They add no sugar to this tea, but after you drink a few glasses, you can taste a sweet trail going down your throat. They told me this is how you know if you have good tea or not.

After chatting and sipping tea for an hour or so, I paid and took my leave. They invited me to come back some time to have dinner with them, an invitation I doubt I will pass up.

This post is already longer than I thought it would be. I have a lot of work to do today, so I think I will stop here and pick up tomorrow. In my next post I will wrap up last week and in the one after that I can get to my weekend trip to Taichung. It wasn’t too eventful, but it was a nice, relaxing trip away from school. I have already posted pictures to flickr from Taichung, though, so if you want to check them out, be my guest.
Until then…

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Kenting Baby! (Day 1)

Ha, ha, ha! Bow before my powerful Chinese magic!

This weekend I went to Kenting with eleven other people. Kenting is a resort area at the southern tip of Taiwan. Our group consisted of Ken (my exchange buddy), his girlfriend, his friend Tomi (a Taiwanese guy born in Canada who has lived in Taiwan for the past ten years), Bao, Sophie, Marjorie, Stephanie (all from France), Steve (the only other American exchange student here), Jumpei (from Japan), Neils (from Holland), Adi (from Israel), and me. It was a great trip and I will try to fill in most of the details without rambling too much, but no promises.

We left on Friday afternoon. We decided to save a little money by renting cars as we heard there was almost no public transportation within Kenting. They gave us a student discount, so it was cheaper for us to rent two cars than to take the bus and rent scooters in Kenting. I got to drive the large car all weekend! It was my first experience driving in a foreign country, and it was a blast! I have to admit I was a bit nervous at first, but I quickly got the hang of it. A word of warning to all those who plan on driving in Taiwan: watch out for busses, trucks, and scooters! The scooters seem to come out of nowhere and their drivers have no fear. Trucks drivers, and especially bus drivers, are really aggressive. They drive fast and will cut you off in a second. It’s best to give them plenty of room. Aside from these concerns, however, it’s not too bad. The roads are fairly wide and the speed limits are pretty low (at least compared to the U.S.). There seems to be a lot of road construction going on all over the country, though, so keep your eyes open.

We took a wrong turn at some point, so it took us about three hours to get there. We went straight to our hotel. It was an interesting little place called the “Cactus Café”, which Lonely Planet had recommended as one of the best places to stay at a reasonable price. The first floor held a bar/café with a small outdoor deck. They played a good mix of blues, classic rock, and reggae. The bartender was a Canadian ex-pat who could have easily been an extra in a Cheech and Chong movie. The owner was a laid-back Taiwanese surfer with tattoos and a solid command of English. They also gave us a discount because we were taking two rooms for two nights. The Cactus Café is in an excellent location – just a three minute walk to the main street and a 10 minute walk to the nearest beach. The rooms were really clean and the place definitely had some character. We had a girls’ room and a guys’ room, but Ken stayed in the girls’ room with his girlfriend. Our room had two bunk-beds with queen-sized mattresses, so two of us got our own beds and the other four had to share. I managed to get my own mattress for the whole weekend, which only sweetened the whole stay. Unfortunately, if you are planning on going to Kenting, this place will be closed after October 20, so go soon if you can!

We arrived just in time to check in, change, and go to the nearest beach for a quick swim before the lifeguards told us to come in because it was getting dark. After a shower and another change of clothes, we went to Smokey Joe’s for dinner. This western restaurant easily could be mistaken for a cheesy American chain (and maybe it is), but most of us were ready and willing to pay a little extra for a taste of home. Chinese food is good, but you can get tired of it pretty quickly. My fajitas were excellent and more than even I could eat (after a ton of appetizers, I must admit).

We walked around the main street night market after dinner. It was okay, but not as good as the main night market here in Kaohsiung. Our night market has more food stalls, while Kenting’s consists mostly of cheesy tourist souvenirs that are sold at beach resorts all over the world. I tried to find gifts here, but it was slim pickings.

After this, we hit up the Chuhuo natural fires. This is a place where natural gas seeps out of the ground and ignites when it mixes with the oxygen in the atmosphere. It’s not a breathtaking natural wonder, but it’s still pretty neat. Some of the locals and tourists like to cook potatoes and popcorn in the fire, which we didn’t really have the patience to try. We took a lot of pictures and said “ooo… ah…” a few times, set off some fireworks we bought nearby, and headed back. We thought about going out after this, but we wanted to enjoy the day on Saturday, so we called it a night pretty early.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Kenting Baby! (Day 2)

Ah... It doesn't get much better than this. Relaxing in a spring-fed waterfall pool up in the mountains on a hot day...

The next day (Saturday, October 1) we were out of the hotel before 11:00, a miraculous feat when you are trying to get 12 people to leave by 10:30. We went to a pretty nice beach about 10 minutes down the road and spent the next three hours there. It was really nice to get to a beach where we were allowed to swim out farther than waste-deep water for once. The lifeguards at the beach near our school always wave us in before we get out too far, which I suppose isn’t a bad idea, considering most lifeguards in Taiwan don’t know CPR.

We thought about renting jet skis for an hour or so while we were there, but the fee (about $45 U.S.) was a little too steep for us. Neils and I found a much cheaper thrill – jumping off a big rock into the ocean.

The giant rock near this beach apparently rolled down into the ocean from the nearby mountains long ago. One of the ledges on this rock is easy to climb and sits about 10 meters (about 30 feet) above a deep spot in the ocean. It has recently been a very popular spot to take a jump, which I really wanted to try. Some of the other guys didn’t want to try it because they thought it looked very low from far away. Neils and I, however, decided to check it out and discovered it was much higher from up close. We had to rent scuba boots because the sharp coral rock is not something you can negotiate in sandals, but it was definitely worth the $1.70 (U.S.) rental fee. We asked Marjorie to take some pictures, but she used her camera, so I haven’t loaded those on flickr yet. She took some video of me jumping, so if I can find a way to load this on blogger, I will let you know.

There were a few kids playing on the rocks on the way to the jumping rock (I think it’s called sailboat rock) who were very outgoing. One of the little girls and a couple of the boys kept saying “hello!” and asking for our names in English. It’s amazing how intent the adults here seem to be on getting their kids to learn English. They were only about seven years old, but could handle self-introductions in English pretty well. As cute as they were, however, it got a little annoying when they kept saying “bye bye” over and over for about 20 minutes.

After we had enough of playing in the salt water, we drove back to the hotel where we met up with five of our group who had returned earlier. We went to a cheap mom-and-pop Chinese place down the street for a late lunch of dumplings and fried rice. We needed a fast meal because we had planned to spend the afternoon hiking out in the national park.

We decided to take the scenic route to the Cikong Waterfalls – a nice secluded spot in the forest where a spring-fed river on a mountain forms seven waterfall pools as it cascades down toward the ocean. We made it there by about 4:00 in the afternoon, so we didn’t have much time to hike all the way to the top. We didn’t have flashlights and the trail here is not very developed, so it would be a nightmare to try to climb down at night. The “trail” is really more of a suggested place to walk – there is no beaten down path to walk on. You have to cross the river about three times, walk over slippery rocks and logs, and dodge any falling rocks one of your partners might accidentally kick down on the ascent. There are ropes tied to trees and strong roots protruding from the ground, but you have to be careful not to rely on them too much. You never know if one is old and frayed to the point of breaking or how solidly the tree or root it is tied to is stuck in the ground. Sometimes the rope is tied to a tree fairly far up hill, which means there is a lot of slack on it when you grab it. I would imagine if one relied too much on one of these ropes they could slip and the rope wouldn’t catch until they had already fallen pretty far. Fortunately, my years of trekking through the Missouri Outback prepared me for the climb in this terrain, so I was fine.

The first of the waterfalls was really beautiful. It’s not a very high waterfall, but it pours over the ledge in several locations. Some of our group didn’t really have good shoes, so they decided to wait for us there. The path up from the first fall was very steep and slippery. Unfortunately, my Pumas don’t have the best traction in the world, so I had to rely on the rope a lot here. When we made it past the top of the first fall, we found the first pool at the base of the second fall. It was pretty small, but looked deep enough to swim in. Since we only had about an hour before we had to head back, we had to decide whether to swim here or to try our luck farther up. With seven people, this pool looked like a tight fit, so we climbed on.

The next pool was beautiful! We decided to spend the rest of our sunlight time here. It was a steep climb down, but there were ropes, roots, and small rock ledges to use on the climb down. The water was cold, but clean and clear. It was probably about nine feet deep and really felt refreshing after being in warm saltwater all day. The current wasn’t too strong and you could get directly under the waterfall if you swam hard. The water has carved this pool so that the ledge where it falls to the next pool is like a wall that you can rest on. We had fun climbing up about five feet and doing cannonballs into the pool when we got cold. The rest of the time we just enjoyed the scenery. It was one of the prettiest spots I have ever seen. We all agreed if we made it back to Kenting, we would have to come back here and spend a whole day hiking to the top and working our way down, having a swim in each pool along the way.

At the end of the trail on the way back there is a little shack where some old Taiwanese men were hanging out. They had a few dogs tied up in the yard and a karaoke machine in the hut. It was an interesting sight because these guys were singing JAPANESE songs! They gave a big smile when I started talking to them in Japanese and told us to come again. I wish we had had more time to stay and chat, but by this point everybody was ready for a shower and dinner.

We drove back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. We tried to make reservations at “Din-din”, a famous Thai restaurant down the street, but it was booked until 11:00. We managed to get reservations at another Thai restaurant on the main street, which was really good. Ordering with a big group of people over here is fun because we each ordered one or two dishes and everybody just shared everything. The shrimp, chicken, pork, frog, beef, and veggies were all scrumptious! I have decided that no cuisine in the world tops Thailand’s, but that it just my opinion.

We went to a nightclub later that night to hang out for a bit. All of us were pretty lethargic when we first got there, but we all got out on the dance floor when the DJ put on some decent (i.e. non-top 40) dance tunes. Two effeminate Taiwanese guys kept getting into the dance circle and trying to pull in Adi and Steve, but they weren’t having any of it. It was a very amusing sight.

I was pretty tired, so I left at about 1:00. Most of the others stayed for another couple of hours, but I had been swimming, jumping, climbing, and driving all day, so I wasn’t up for it. We were supposed to have a typhoon move through the area late that night and into the morning on Sunday, so I was a bit worried we wouldn’t be able to drive home, but it went north. Apparently it was really strong and did some damage in Taiwan, but we hardly had any rain or wind in Kenting at all. Those who stayed in Kaohsiung said it rained pretty hard, but we only saw a few drops the whole drive home. Lucky us!

All in all it was a great weekend. I am back at school now and trying to get back into a studious mindset. Chinese classes are driving me crazy because this language seems next to impossible to pronounce if you are not Chinese. We have started using characters in class, however, which makes things a little easier for me. Now if I just wasn’t tone-deaf…

I am thinking of going to Taichung or Taipei for a day or two this weekend. If anything interesting happens between now and then, I will be sure to fill you in.

Zai jian!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Lost in translation in Taiwan

Once again it is time for a long-winded and overdue update. I hope you have the patience to read through it…

We just had a very strong, albeit brief, thunderstorm. I stayed dry in the computer lab, but it really poured for about 30 minutes. It really reminded me of the summer storms we have in Missouri, so it was nice to have a bit of home right here in Taiwan.

Last Thursday my “Cross-Straits Relations and Asia-Pacific Security” class officially began. The room was packed with international students, many more than they were apparently expecting. We gave brief introductions, and though this is a pretty diverse group, about half of the students are French students majoring in management. Many of them seem to be taking the class because it sounds interesting, but I don’t think they will be returning this week. We still have another week before we have to finalize our schedules for the semester, so a lot of these students still have time to choose another class. I think many of them had a hard time understanding the professor because it was a large classroom and he has a bit of an accent. I feel very lucky to be a native English speaker with a lot of experience dealing with accented English, because I understood pretty much everything we talked about.

Our professor, Dr. Lin, is the Vice President of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, a think tank based in Taipei. He got his Ph.D. in the U.S. and seems to be really well-connected. I got to talk with him one-on-one outside of class later that day. He filled me in on some interesting aspects of Taiwan’s foreign policy decision-making process, something I found quite interesting. I am thinking of writing my research paper in his class about Taiwan-Japan relations. Dr. Lin offered to help me set up interviews with current and former Taiwanese government officials to interview as part of my research. This is another great opportunity to build my network of contacts that really got off to a good start this summer in Japan.

On Friday I had to get up early to ride the bus to a “resort” out by Cheng-ching Lake on the outskirts of Kaohsiung. We had a two-day event sponsored by the Political Science Department to welcome new graduate students. We spent most of our time in an over-air conditioned room (yes, too cold even for me) playing children’s games. It was pretty bizarre, and being the only foreigner there, I didn’t have much of a grasp of what was going on most of the time. Some of the students translated for me every once in a while, but I kind of lost interest during many of the games. The most frustrating times were the ones when everyone laughed. Of course I wanted to know what was so funny, but the punch line was always lost on me. Humor is probably the most difficult thing to translate, and the Chinese (like the Japanese) seem to use a lot of puns and other word-play type jokes that cannot be accurately translated. It doesn’t matter how funny a joke is, if someone has to explain it to you, you will not think it is very funny.

On the upside, we had a barbeque on Friday night and I got to play paintball on Saturday. I also met some really cool students, including a few police officers who are apparently taking classes here. Two of them are Taiwanese SWAT team officers who work as mounted police on the weekends. They were really friendly and one of them gave me his card, telling me if I ever had any trouble in Taiwan I should call him and he will help me out. Now I am not planning on doing anything that would get me in trouble with the law while I am here, but you never know when the Taiwanese might get the idea in their head that I look like a terrorist. Hey, it happened in Japan, why not here?

The barbecue was really good. We had all kinds of pork, chicken, beef, and fish on the grill. I ate a little too much (big surprise, right?), but slept like a log. We stayed in a big room with about 20 mats to sleep on. It was really nice, and I was going to get a picture of the room in the morning, but I was rushed out the door to breakfast, so in my haste I forgot. I managed to find the one English station on the TV (CNN) and watched reports on Hurricane Rita as it approached the Texas/Louisiana coast. Thank God it wound up losing strength so quickly; it really seemed ominous on the approach.

Paintball was fun, but I think I was a little too gung-ho. We only had 30 bullets and I ran out about halfway through the second game. I didn’t get shot, but since I was hiding behind and oil drum and peeping out to shoot at about 10 different people, I am not sure if I got anyone or not. I think I got at least one guy, but it was kind of hard to tell.

It was nice to get back home and shower and sit in the AC for a while. We had pretty mild weather on Friday, but Saturday was as hot as any day we have had so far. I went to the beach for a little while in the afternoon, but we couldn’t swim, so I went home shortly afterwards. We went out for pizza on Saturday night, which was really good. It’s been so long since I had a good pizza, and I was starting to get a little tired of Chinese food all the time. Some of the food here is amazing, but some of it is not very good at all. Trying something new is always a crap shoot, and after a few days of having some really good and some not-so-good dinners, I was ready for a safe bet. It’s hard to go wrong with a really good pizza…

In other news, about 10 of us (8 international students and 2 Taiwanese) are taking a road trip to Kenting National Park this weekend. It should be a blast!!! Check out their website with this link and see for yourself. We are going to rent a couple of cars and drive there because there is no public transportation once you enter the park and it is supposed to be pretty large. There are beaches, waterfalls, mountains, hot and cold springs, and many other features that we are all dying to see. Hopefully the weather will agree with our travel plans. I will be sure to load plenty of pictures on flickr!

I also got a package from Maiko today. She got me a 240-page guide to the Simpsons. What can I say? Does this girl know me or what? Thanks babe!

My mom has also managed to swing us three free nights at a four and a half/five star hotel in Rome on her hotel points! Wow!!! I can’t use enough exclamation points for this one!!! Thanks mom!!!

That’s all for now. Since I’ll be gone this weekend, it’s just going to be study, study, study until Friday. Well, mostly studying…