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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Urban Backpacking in Taipei

View of Taipei from our hammocks

I don't know if there even is such a thing as "urban backpacking" but that's what I'm going to call our latest getaway. A day off means a day to rest, relax and enjoy the country we live in. A few weeks ago  we were hiking when we stumbled across this spot overlooking the city. We commented how perfect it would be to hang some hammocks and spend the night. Now that I'm working full time, a day off means a day to get all those little nagging things done so we didn't want to take a full weekend to get away. We packed the bare necessities and walked out of our apartment, across some busy streets where we connected to a road that wound up the mountain. We passed a temple then came to a trail that took us to an awesome look-out. 30 minutes after leaving  our apartment we were hanging the hammocks between some trees. We spent the evening staring at the city. No computers, no cell phones, just simple quiet. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Mid Autumn Festival

Mid Autumn Festival, also known as Moon Festival, is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. The full moon fell on October 4 this year. The festival began long ago as a celebration of harvest and rejuvenation at the time of the full moon. 

A popular fairy tale helps explain the story of the Moon Festival: 

"A hero names Hou Yi saved his people by shooting down the other nine suns that burned his people to death. He was then bestowed with the elixir of immortality by the Queen Mother of the West. 
He did not want to consume the elixir and leave his beautiful but very mortal wife, Chang Er, so he gave the elixir to his wife for safekeeping. Unfortunately, Hou Yi's disloyal apprentice forced Chang Er to swallow the elixir. She then became a supernatural being. She flew to the moon, and from there watched her husband. 
Knowing that his wife had now been separated from him, Hou Yi was crazed with grief. Looking up at the moon one night, he saw a figure like his wife. He hurriedly took cakes and succade (preserves in sugar, whether fruits, vegetables, or confections) as offerings to his wife. 
Upon hearing this, people developed the custom of watching the moon and eating moon cakes annually on this day."

Today the Moon Festival is celebrated with eating moon cakes, family gatherings, moon gazing and lanterns. Lanterns were not part of the original celebration, but have come to be a festive activity that I had a chance to experience this year. 

I'll be honest, our group was run with such Taiwanese efficiency that much of the fun was sucked out of it. Our group of 80 arrived on two buses to Pingxi, an old mining town near Taipei that is known for its lantern festivals. We were ushered from the buses to a school classroom where we waited for about 30 minutes. We could see and hear the festival beginning in the courtyard below, but they kept us in the room, afraid that we might loose the group. From the room we were taken to a gymnasium where they divided us into lines and gave instructions on how to "do" the lantern process. While waiting in the gym, we saw the first batch of 100 lanterns be released. There was a collective "ohhh" as we watched them float past the windows. Right after the lanterns disappeared, we were taken single file out to a large courtyard where 100 squares were taped onto the cement. 3-4 people stood in each square with a helper to give us our lantern and instruct us. 

Once in our square, we were given our lantern and a marker to write wishes for the year to come on it. We then held the four corners of the lantern while the helper lit the flame in the base. We lowered the lantern to the ground and stepped on the rim to keep it from floating away while the air began to heat and pull the lantern upwards. A group next to us somehow tipped their lantern and it burst into flames. Soon the group was given the signal to release our lanterns. It was beautiful to see the lights in the night sky. They grew smaller and smaller until they mingled with the stars in the distance. Just as they were disappearing from sight, we were ushered back to our bus. We didn't get to see the next group go before we were safely driving away. All in all, I'm glad I went and enjoyed the evening with my friends. It was fun being part of the festival and sending up a lantern, but I really would have enjoyed the opportunity to watch a few other groups release theirs. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Second Graduation of the Year

I'm feeling nostalgic, four months after graduation. Summer has passed, visitors have come and gone, she's been taken to college and is off to a good start. So I sit here in a quiet house, looking at these pictures, graduation seems so long past but really it was only a few short months ago. 

Elena graduated from the IB program at the Taipei American School. It was a great day filled with family, friends and pure joy. Grandma and Grandpa came to Taiwan to celebrate with us. I'm so proud of her. The International Baccalaureate program is a rigorous two year curriculum culminating with intense exams at the end. I've watched all my kids go through it and I'm glad I never had to myself! So we had reason to celebrate and dance and sing. We closed this chapter in her book of life with a few tears on mom's cheeks. There's another empty spot in our home, but we are excited for the next chapter to be written as she heads off to MSU.

Michigan State University!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Kimonos in Kyoto

Last weekend, Elena and I went to Japan. It was a quick 2-day trip to get me out of Taiwan because I don’t have a visa. We did Osaka the first day, and a quick day trip to Kyoto the second day. Elena had told me all about her first trip to Japan in the spring, and as soon as she mentioned that many people rented kimonos and wore them around the city, I knew that was something that I would love to do. When I was little, I adored playing dress-up, and even now I still do.

Kyoto is the main city in which to dress up in kimonos, and I did substantial research into a shop that was in the right location. I managed to find one store ( that was near a metro stop and Gion street, our final destination in Kyoto, making it easy to return them.

We walked into Kyoetsu kimono shop at 9am, fresh off the train, ready to start. After taking off our shoes, we had to choose between wearing a kimono and a yukata. They explained that a kimono is worn all year round, though mostly during the winter since it is made of a heavier material and more layers are worn underneath. Yukatas, on the other hand, are worn during the summer as they are made of a lighter material and require fewer layers of clothing underneath. After remembering how hot the previous day in Osaka had been, Elena and I both opted for the yukatas. We had fun going through the dozens of colorful yukatas hanging on racks, and choosing ones that coordinated.

After choosing yukatas, we picked out matching belts from the stacks sitting against another wall. Then we took all of our things upstairs to a big room for getting ready. They gave us skirts and a thin garment that looked like a cross between a dress and a bathrobe to put on before we slipped into our yukatas. From there, they wrapped all kinds of things around our waists—a towel, a rope (to keep the towel in place), some kind of stretchy string that reminded me of a bungy cord (to hold the yukata in place), a plate of thin plastic (to keep the belt flat), and finally, the belt or obi. When all was said and done, the obi was quite tight around my waist and a little uncomfortable.

They also did our hair for us and took our picture before we picked out pairs of clunky wooden flip flops and sending us out into the city. The whole process took about an hour. We shuffled our way to the metro, off to Arashiyama bamboo grove and Fushimi Inari Taisha temple to take lots of pictures. Funnily enough, we saw many Asian girls in kimonos, as well as a few men, but only two or three other white people, whom we shared a knowing smile with.

After all day of taking small steps in our skirts and teetering on the little blocks of wood, we finally decided around 3pm, after Arashiyama, to head straight back to the kimono place before going to Gion street because we were so hot and uncomfortable. We had a lot of fun parading around the city in kimonos, but it was a relief to be back in normal clothes—they felt so light and free! I would definitely recommend this experience to anyone visiting Kyoto, though.

A little practical information about our kimono experience:
Location: Kawaramachiten
Cost: about $30/person for the basic yukata, town walk plan, and free hairstyle (with reservations)


Monday, May 22, 2017

First Graduation of the Season

I've not done a good job of keeping up with blogging lately, but moments are speeding past that I want to document for the years to come. One of those is a big monument in our lives. Our eldest child, Damon, graduated from college.

Chad and I left Elena behind to take her Sr. IB exams and flew the 24 hours across the ocean to celebrate with Damon this great moment.  Jet lagged and bleary eyed, we circled him in hugs. I couldn't believe I was able to be there for those moments, my mom's heart was bursting with pride at how my little boy was a grown man with the the world full of possibly before him.

Music has a way of sweeping my heart away and filling me with emotion. We hunted for Damon in the lines of green caps and gowns filing into the arena to Pomp and Circumstance. Our keen eyes found him standing taller than the masses, wearing black shoes. It's funny how the shoes were the give away identifier. Being a graduate of Michigan State University, I choked on tears when  the MSU Fight Song was played several times through out the commencement. Towards the end, the arena thundered with students and parents singing with pride. Then, after speeches and diplomas were handed out, the Michigan State Alma Mater song, MSU Shadows began. I sang with pride. We now have five members of our family with green flowing through our veins–my mom, Chad's mom, Chad, myself and Damon.

Three days passed too quickly. Soon I was back on the plane with Maddie next me to join us for the summer. This will be our first summer without five keeping the house full of warmth. I know, it's part of life–the kids growing up and all–it now just seems a bit quieter around here these days.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

End of Chinese New Year god Parade

Xuan-Xiao Jie is the lantern festival in Taiwan marking the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations.  Lanterns are lit and sent off in various villages around the island.  This year we were invited to visit a god parade in a small town just outside of Taipei.  Our small group were the only white faces present.  The parade followed a circular road on the edge of the mountains.  The beating of drums, whine of the traditional horns and banging cymbals helped us find our way off the mountain trail and into the village.  The celebration was just beginning.

We've stumbled across god parades in the city before.  Sometimes it's a group of 4 people carrying their god around with some loud music playing and other times the parade is large and long, full of music, people dressed as gods, firecrackers and drums.  This parade was the most intense gathering I've yet seen.  Single file, the vehicles snaked along the road while spectators walked alongside.


The mix of elements in this parade was wide.  There are four large plastic headed gods that often make appearances at god parades, they walked between the cars.  At the beginning of the parade, jeeps with speakers were blasting very, very loud music.  The dragon in important in Chinese symbolism for strength and power.  The dragon is typically a colorful ornamentation made of ceramic tiles on temples.  A group of boys wove the long fabric dragon back and forth.  It's fun to watch the boys holding the poles to the snaking body because they move in unison, yet each have their own movement to make the dragon flow.  Tables in front of homes were laden with fruit and other gifts as sacrifice to the god that would be coming.  People walked up to the offering tables, lit a handful of incense then passed it out to the crowd.

We were quite surprised when two jeeps came around the bend with a pole and dancer on top.  I'm not kidding.  It was shocking and baffling.  I'm still trying to wrap my mind around this, so I've done a lot of asking to try to understand.  The secretary in Chad's office was rather embarrassed.  She said the practice began in southern Taiwan.  She got quiet then sort of whispered in my ear that men like this sort of thing, therefore they have the girls in the parade.  Pole dancers are not uncommon in funeral processions here.  In January a politician died and the news reported 50 pole dancers as part of the funeral procession.  When I asked a co-worker of mine, she said men find pleasure in the dancers and want to share what pleases them with their god so the god can find pleasure too.  Apparently the jeeps stop at the homes of large financial donors to the local temple and the dancers go in and give the donor a private show.  

Taoism is an eastern religion with many gods.  Each temple has their own god.  This is what I've seen paraded around the city at various times.  Little parades to celebrate the god's birthday.  The god sits on this portable alter with 4 poles for transport.  The carriers rock the alter back and forth while they walk causing the flags on the back to flutter.  Each time the parade stopped, the god and alter were set in a central spot.  Firecrackers were lit (in this photo you see the paper from the firecrackers), people brought innocence and offerings to the god, dipping their head several times while praying.


Fireworks and firecrackers are a main part of the celebration.  I've never seen a fireworks display as large and crazy as this.  At home we arrive for the 4th of July fireworks an hour early, stake out our spot, put out a blanket and lay on our backs gazing at the stars while we wait for fireworks to begin.  After 10 minutes, 15 if we're lucky, the 5 minute grand finale begins.  We ohh and ahh, pleased with how beautiful and grand the display was this year, then fight traffic to get home.  

The only way I know how to describe these fireworks are 3 hours (yes, hours) of straight grand finale.  There were large traditional fireworks lighting up the sky.  There were ground rockets that sent streams of fire high into the sky, and there were reels and reels of firecrackers.  Boxes of unused fireworks were haphazardly stacked on the side.  Needless to say, safety was not a major concern.  Men picked up ropes of firecrackers, threw them on the ground in front of the god, lit them and walked away.  About 10 canisters of the large fireworks were placed on a cement ledge then two guys with blow torches lit them and backed up.  After they went off, they knocked the empty canisters over the edge and ran to replace them with 10 more canisters which they immediately lit.  On and on the chaos continued.  We left after three hours, long before the boxes were empty.