Thursday, September 24, 2009

Stop...Venue Time!




Finally. Sure took us long enough. It's a unique challenge: being from/getting married in the Hudson Valley (a gorgeous area that is sometimes a destination wedding region, and is correspondingly expensive compared to what people who live there actually make on average) but being on a budget, and having a huge family and wanting to throw a nice party, who can't possibly fit in your backyard or conceivably be OK with a 1:100 ratio of bathrooms to people - the other is under renovation - and yet at the heart of it being 'backyard wedding' sort of people.

But after looking, and my parents admitting they were willing to help pay to throw that nice party because they want it as badly or more badly than we do - we settled on Locust Grove.

We've been looking at it from the beginning, but discounted it due to the rather high cost and the fact that nothing can take place until 5pm. One of my grandparents goes to bed around that time. But - when you factor in how we won't have to rent anything or get any other vendors involved except for food, the price is actually pretty good...and we'll get Grandma a hotel room so she can rest before and after as she sees fit.

We're pretty stoked - it's the former home of Samuel F.B. Morse. Hopefully you've taken Middle School History class and know who he is, but just in case you didn't, he invented the telegraph. Which people no longer use, but that's beside the point. It was a turning point in long-distance communication. Brendan and I are history buffs of a sort (it was his major in college and I would have ended up with a minor in it if I hadn't studied abroad in India) so we're pretty stoked.

Without further ado, our venue, booked and signed:

The main house - an Italianate villa (which sounds so pretentious)

The reception hall from outside

The reception hall from inside



The outdoor area



I'm not really a Big White Dress kind of person. I probably won't even wear white. Or a white-like color (I like blue and copper). But aside from the fact that I definitely won't look like that girl *or* spend as much money as she probably spent on that dress, here's one angle of the ceremony location.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Xiao Wulai



We went to Xiao Wulai (小烏來) on Sunday for a fun, somewhat exhausting trip. Xiao Wulai is one of many waterfalls in Taiwan but is often said to be the most beautiful, as unlike the others it can be viewed from a distance.

A trip to Xiao Wulai starts in Daxi (大溪) in Taoyuan county. Daxi is famous for dried tofu and a few old streets where much of the original colonial architecture is preserved.


Daxi also has a dog who apparently loves getting hit on the butt. Seriously, the dog went up to her owner and begged - begged - to be punched in the bum before presenting herself thusly.

I dunno.

I wonder where Kodos lives. (Google Kang and Kodos if you don't get the joke).

Taoyuan Bus Company (桃園客運)runs buses from Daxi to Xiao Wulai several times a day - but the information they give on the phone is worse than bad. I called the morning of our trip and was assured that there were irregular buses until about 3pm, and if we were willing to walk back to the intersection with the main road, a bus would come by to return to Daxi at 7pm. At 1:30 as we waited for a bus from Daxi, we called again. The guy I talked to assured me that the first guy doesn't know anything and not to trust him and that there were no more buses.

(I think they were the same guy.)

So we charter 2 taxis, which cost a pretty penny, because dammit I wanted to go to Xiao Wulai and I was going to go to Xiao Wulai.

On our way back, just as a side note, we not only passed a bus returning to Xiao Wulai that we were assured did not exist, but as we were preparing to leave a bus going to the falls - not just the turnoff 2km away but the actual falls - went by. Seriously. What the. Pffft. Taoyuan Bus Company: FAIL.

Anyway, along the way we saw some gorgeous butterflies and dragonflies:


And the falls were down several hundred meters worth of uncomfortably spaced stairs.


Sasha, Lilian, Becca, Joseph, Brendan and me.

We then hiked up about another hour to Dragon Phoenix Falls (not worth it) and the Wind Balancing Rock (not really worth it, either). What was worth it - the views and mountain scenery as we made the stiff, steep hike up the side of the mountain.



Wind Balancing Rock. Apparently this rock is worshipped as a god by some locals and aboriginal tribes. It's OK.

There are signs all over the place warning of poisonous snakes, and I know Taiwan has snakes, but other than a baby snake we once saw near Jiufen I've never actually laid eyes on one. This is the closest I've gotten to seeing a real, live, adult snake in Taiwan:

As we returned to the gatehouse, just in time to see a bus that doesn't exist roll by, the light improved a lot for picture taking.


That's Xiao Wulai in the corner.

The advantage to taking a taxi was that we could stop in a few places for photos, and we also stopped to buy some local alcohol (made from grapes but not wine) and Lalashan Honey Peaches, which are expensive but wonderfully scrumptious. We would have bought bags full but 3 of them cost NT$400 (a little over US $10).

We stopped again to take more photos as the sun set before heading back to Daxi and catching transportation to Taipei, where we had dinner at Jolly (near Nanjing E. Road MRT). Very good food and awesome on-site brewed beer.



Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tainan, Take Four

So I taught a seminar in Tainan on Monday, and because I had to be there anyway, Brendan and I went down on the HSR the day before to hang out and explore some more. This was our 4th trip to Tainan and we always find something new to do.

But first, I present to you The Circle of Life:


Isn't it interesting to see a predator and his natural prey duking it out, tooth and claw and fin, dancing to the song of wild nature?

Some things we saw in Tainan:

The Old City Wall and South Gate

This isn't a very good photo, but the Temple of the Five Concubines - these 5 concubines of a historic king hanged themselves when he was overthrown and executed.

A cool dragon.

Two lovers growing old together, sitting under a gnarled tree.


Tainan has fabulous trees.


The 1960s KMT-redecorated Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong) shrine that was closed the last time we came down.

The Dizang Wang (Lord of Hell) temple where locals commune with the dead, with dusty old tall god statues that, for the dim light and dark atmosphere, were utterly terrifying, and their equally creepy headgear....


...as well as gory murals of Hell on the wall.

Then the city God Temple, with an exhibition room that they'll open for you showing the pieces of the old temple that have fallen off:



This temple is famous for being the place of the god who judges your good and evil deeds, counting them up on one of the two giant abacuses (one over the door, one in the side exhibition room). The sign over the entrance says "You Have Come At Last" in Chinese.

Then, some other temples:

...this is from the Confucius Temple.


...as is this.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Like Omar Khayyam...


Yep, Chen's in prizzin. Fer life. But he'll probably get pardoned eventually...by some KMT hack President (or a desperate Ma) who wants to curry favor with the greens or some newly-elected DPP President, I don't know, but it'll get done.

Other bloggers have said plenty about that, so I'll share something not-quite-Taiwan related that I saw on the Washington Post website. Except it is Taiwan-related, because Taiwanese people (and Japanese, and Chinese, and Korean, and American) people work too damn much. I don't know what the answer is, but it has to involve a massive cultural shift. One person saying "no more" is not one of the drops that fills an ocean, it's just another person who will probably lose their job in the next round of layoffs. The entire overworked world (hey, Europe, you don't count, and neither do you, Australia) needs to stand up at once and say "No! It's 6pm and I am going home to be with my loved ones." If we had a world where people could and did refuse to take on the work of others at the expense of their personal lives, we might have fewer layoffs as companies realized that laying off A and increasing the workloads of B, C and D was no longer a viable option.

Of course, I am not an economist and even I know that that would wreak havoc in a free-market system...and since non-free-market systems don't seem to work, I don't know what to say.

But it has to happen. As Hax says - we're fat, we're sedentary, we're linear-thinking. We drive angry, we think angry, we're touchier than ever. We have no communities and our kids are screwed up. People travel less (unless they're European, natch) and so horizons are narrow. It's a problem even in prosperous times. And it's got to stop.

Unless, of course, you love your job or the long hours have definite benefits (like 3-month vacations or something). If you love what you do, 60 hours a week is nothing. I happen to love most of what I do - I could live without the reports and paperwork - but I wouldn't want to do it for 60 hours a week...and let's face it, most people either dislike, barely tolerate or outright hate their jobs.

From the column:

Bay Area: How do people work so much? Seriously. Maybe I'm being a big baby, because I've only been working at a real job for 2.5 years and before that (in school) I did summer camp and restaurant jobs, but I am baffled by people who work two jobs, or 60-80 hours per week. I work hard and I'm good at my job, even though I hate it, because it's getting me somewhere I want to go. But even 50 hours per week means I don't work out or cook or see my boyfriend. I consider these things essential elements of a life worth living, and I guess I'm just wondering how people make it all fit (with KIDS!?!?! HOW?) or if really most of people's lives is work. I feel like such a wimp because I'm so overwhelmed working hours that seem like they should be reasonable. Is it an age thing? My friends seem similarly overwhelmed, we're 24-25ish.

Carolyn Hax: I don't think it's an age thing to find so much work unappealing. Maybe being new to it means you aren't in the habit the way others are, but you can be in the habit and still feel that it's wrong.

I, for one, find it appalling/discouraging/soul-sucking the amount of time people spend at work these days. It's bad for health, bad for relationships, bad for kids, bad for pets, bad for communities, bad for homes and gardens and arts and other expressions of our less linear selves. And it has only gotten worse as the people with jobs--the fortunate ones--have been asked to do the work of the people who've lost their jobs.

We're fat and sedentary, we drive angry, our kids watch too much tv, we don't read enough, or nurture our emotional connections enough? No kidding.

I'm sorry to sound so pessimistic and angry. There are plenty of people who have resisted these forces, who make conscious decisions to choose flexible careers, forgo income, live within their means, invest in their own priorities, like their kids and communities, to the benefit of all. But just anecdotally, it seems as if resisting the work-work-work trend isn't just a simple choice--it takes people who have more than the average amount of certain things: focus, options, willpower, independent wealth even.

I don't know what the answer is, except for each person to fight for quality-of-life priorities, and hope that, culturally, we come to our senses.

On another note, I wonder if my Grandma L. would pop a gasket if I didn't wear white for the wedding. I like this dress color scheme:



Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wedding Mania

You know sometimes I use this blog to write about personal 'life' stuff. Since I don't want to bore everyone around me with wedding talk, guess what - I get to bore you guys with it every few weeks! (Funny how stereotypical that is - I, the soon-to-be-bride, talks about the wedding. Brendan, the soon-to-be-groom, is excited about it but, you know...).

I don't mean linens and napkin colors (I only recently learned that napkins do, in fact, come in more than one color) and all that crap nobody REALLY cares about, I mean that 1.) I've discovered the "Inspiration Board" and 2.) we can't find a venue to save our lives.

First, the Inspiration Boards. Being a visual sort of person, these really appeal to me. Apparently there's a whole Internet subcommunity of women who make these things for fun as they're planning their weddings. I don't intend to become one of them, but couldn't resist doing up a few:


...fun!

And now we move to 2.) the venue.

We only have a few requirements of any given venue:

1.) The ceremony, at least, should be outdoors

2.) The ceremony and reception should take place at the same site - no moving around (partly for the convenience of the out-of-towners and older guests, partly because it's just annoying, and partly because we're not religious so there's no worry about having to marry in a church)

3.) The ceremony site should be affordable

4.) No "Packages". Wedding "packages" with in-house catering are how people end up with rubber chicken and a DJ who plays YMCA. Also, they're overpriced.

So how is it that we can't seem to do this? Venues we've looked at include Locust Grove, Mount Gulian, the Inn at Stone Ridge, Cole Hill Farm, West Park Winery, the Wilderstein, Clermont Estate, Boscobel Manor, Cat Rock and Norwegian Wood.

Locust Grove is our favorite, it's affordable and has indoor-outdoor space with bathrooms...but they don't do any private functions until after it closes to the public for the day - at 4 or 5pm. My grandmother regularly goes to sleep at 6. So...err...

Mount Gulian was the running favorite because time is more flexible, but mom just went down to visit it and says that there are steep hills everywhere and the bathrooms are down a steep flight of steps to the basement. With three elderly grandparents....um...no.

The Inn at Stone Ridge only does packages with in-house food for $75/pp (which is high for our budget), and their outdoor area isn't all that pretty.

Cole Hill Farm is by far *my* favorite - I am in love with the place. But it's $5,000 to rent for the day if you want use of the house (out of our budget as we'd also have to rent chairs, tent, extra bathrooms etc) and $7,000 for the weekend, which would be amazing - and we could offer free accommodation to some wedding party members - but we don't have $7,000 plus rentals - even though my parents are generously helping (well, it is generous, but they kind of have to: with a family my size, if they want a wedding for the oldest grandchild - me - to include The Whole Family, they have to help because we certainly can't afford it.)

West Park Winery only does packages - $110/plate Wedding Chicken. Ew. No. Also, out of our budget.

The Wilderstein requires that all weddings end by dusk (about 5pm) which means a ceremony at 11am - I am not a morning person so don't want to be up at 6 getting ready, then having this big fancy ceremony that we're only having to make my family happy (I'd just assume have a party and a quick vow-sayin') with baggy eyes because I don't like getting up early.

Clermont has the same restriction and is not near any hotels.

Boscobel is too expensive.

Cat Rock is too expensive ($12,500 for the venue alone! Wow. Just...wow.)


Norwegian Wood is lovely, but mom doesn't like that the floor of their pavilion is shredded tires and that we'd have to rent all bathrooms...which means very expensive Porta-Potties.

I also like Innisfree Garden but I don't think mom called them (no e-mail is given) and I don't know if they do weddings or, if they do, whether or not they can handle 100 people.

Oh well.

Sigh.

The search continues.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Xiaotzukeng Old Trail

As anyone who's studied Taipei County on a map knows, the Pingxi coal mining area (now a popular tourist spot with a small-gauge railroad) and the gorgeous Pacific views of Jiufen may seem worlds apart, but are actually surprisingly close. This is not a huge revelation, as they're both quickly and easily accessible from Ruifang, a small town in northern Taipei County. The only thing separating them is a mountain ridge. Specifically, this mountain ridge:

...which is accessible from the first stop on the Pingxi Rail Line - Houdong. Houdong also has a quaintly dilapidated atmosphere, friendly locals and a very small (VERY SMALL) town square with local eats. This is more or less the town square:

Feeling undercaffeinated, we headed towards a sign saying "Houdong Coffee" which was conveniently in the same direction as our destination, Xiaotzukeng Old Trail. We got there to find the place empty, but some guy came out of his house next door saying "you want coffee?" and proceeded to run up the road to a woman tending sweet potatoes to tell her that she had customers. While we waited some other locals sauntered by, and asked the wife of the guy who ran off what we were doing there. "Oh they want some coffee," she said, looking up from her own sweet potatoes. "Coffee? Is Old Chen's coffee machine fixed?" "Seems so."

The owner came back, took off her gloves, and led us inside. "Actually, I think the coffee machine is still broken," she said. "Cocoa?" It was caffeinated, so sure. It tasted pretty good iced. We sat in the "coffee shop" (a living room with an extra table and a broken coffee machine in the corner) and chatted with the family. Old Chen's son came in and chatted with us in English, giving us free hand-roasted coffee to apologize for not having a working machine. "We just have this machine so whenever some people come by who want coffee, we make them some. It's not a real coffeeshop," he said. (We figured).

"Where are you going," Chen Taitai asked us.
"Xiaotzukeng Old Trail to Jiufen."
"Jiufen? That's way too far! You can't do that!"
"Really, how far is it? We thought it was just 2-3 hours."
"Exactly! It's about 3 hours to Jiufen. That's too far!"

Some other guy wandered in. "You got coffee?" he asked Chen Taitai.
"Nope, machine's broken."
"Oh. Where are those foreigners going?"
"They're nuts. They're going to Jiufen. Walking."
"What? That's too far! That's like 2 hours! You can't do that!"

But, indeed, we did do that. Xiaotzukeng Trail starts at the far edge of town to the left of the train station, just past the elementary school, and is fairly well-marked as trails go. I wrote about it here when it appeared as a feature in the China Post. It's a reasonably well-maintained (well...) old trail that leads from Houdong to the abandoned (and really cool) mountain village of Xiaozukeng before climbing over a ridge and down to Jiufen.

Ignore what the article says about a gentle climb - it's fairly gentle and on a surfaced road for the first 20 minutes or so, but quickly turns into a stair-climbing extravaganza and then pitches quickly up the mountain - fortunately there are a few good break spots along the way.


Even on a sunny Sunday, we only ran into a few small pairs and groups of hikers, and one solo climber in a massive mosquito hat.

The animal life on the way up is fantastic, at least for all things bug:


...yes, that spider is every bit as ginormous as you think it is. Roughly my handspan. I feel bad for the little red guy.

We also saw black and white speckled lizards with bright blue tails (stunning), a horde of grasshoppers and lots of butterflies, which I couldn't seem to photograph fast enough to get a good shot. The Pingxi area is known for butterflies so this was not a surprise.


Partway up the trail you run into a beautifully ruined old village, which feels like something out of Middle Earth (Brendan's words):


...before climbing to a shrine (there are a few on the way with a gorgeous view of the way we came:

I usually don't take photos of idols, but I am consistently reassured by Taiwanese that it's actually OK - because I'm not so sure that's true. But this time I felt I may as well give it a shot.



After the abandoned village and the shrine, the trail stops being stairs and turns into a slippery, rock-strewn uphill heave-ho with lots of things in the way. As we climbed, some music all the way from Houdong town - someone playing a large bamboo flute - ricocheted off the walls of the mountain crag we were heading through and floated up to us until we crossed over to the other side of the ridge. If that had happened in China, it would have probably been due to the government placing speakers several yards from the trail and playing 'traditional music', but in Taiwan things like that are authentic - it made the whole experience that much more charming.

My friend and I were a bit behind Brendan as we clamored over the rocks and stumps. When I saw him go over a hill where the trail seemed to end, I knew that Jiufen was supposed to be on the other side but I was surprised by Brendan's whoop of excitement. Coming into view instantly, with no hint about what was ahead, just as you take your last step over the lip of the wooded ridge, was this:



(Yes, that's the Pacific behind Keelung Mountain there).

"We won this mountain!" he said as I made my way over, shouting down to our friend not to take a break, just rest when she got there. I hummed the song that plays when Super Mario rescues the princess and the characters all start dancing.

The way it just appeared like that, with a full-in-the-face ocean breeze, was mind-blowing - 110% worth the scramble up from Houdong.

...a few things we saw on the way down to Jiufen - 1250 meters of downward pain on very uncomfortable stairs:


Then we took a well-deserved crash at a teashop in Jiufen, drinking cold things and eating sugary things, before buying a bunch of random stuff we wanted (brown sugar cake, aboriginal millet wine, you know...stuff).