30 November, 2007

thesalt

having seen a fair bit of the world as tourists, Jill and i thought it might be high time to see a little of our own back yard in a similar way. so one rainy Saturday in late September we headed out west along I-80 to see one of Utah's most unusual sights: a concrete tree. properly known as Metaphor: The Tree of Utah, it was erected for no apparent reason many miles from anywhere on the side of the freeway. Karl Momen, the Swedish artist who designed the tree claimed he was moved to do so by the "vastness and relative emptiness" of the area, and also that the sculpture "brings space, nature, myth and technology together". these thoughts, along with those inscribed on the tree's base--"A hymn to our universe whose glory and dimension is beyond all myth and imagination"--hopefully help to make the tree more meaningful.


sometimes known as the Tree of Life, Metaphor's six orb-like boughs are encrusted with rock and minerals native to Utah.

not much farther down the road, just a few miles this side of the Nevada border, begins the huge expanse of the Bonneville Salt Flats. pretty much just what they sound like, they are enormous salt-encrusted plains which have been used pretty much since their modern discovery for about one thing and one thing only: the pursuit of speed. from bicycle racers in the early days to jet-powered cars in the late summer of each modern year, the Flats are somehow a speedster's dream. the salt is thick and will cake up on the soles of your shoes as you trek around, but altogether it provides a hard, and perhaps more importantly empty, surface.



the salt of the flats looks more like snow, and starts from nowhere, just emerging from the surrounding desert. below, the highway rest-stop marker at the Bonneville Salt Flats...


...and what that marker says:
WELCOME TO THE BONNEVILLE SALT FLATS

AND UTAH'S FAMED MEASURED MILE—SITE OF WORLD LAND-SPEED RECORD RUNS

Utah's famed measured mile is located approximately seven miles beyond this marker, well in front of the mountains you see on the horizon. The elevation along the course is approximately 4,218 feet above sea level. The total length of the course that includes the measured mile varies from year to year, but for recent runs it has been laid out in a path 80 feet wide and approximately ten miles long, with a black reference stripe down the middle. Due to the curvature of the earth, it is impossible to see from one end of the course to the other. Timing of world land-speed record runs is under the jurisdiction of the United States Automobile Club. World land-speed record times represent an electronically-timed average of two runs over the measured mile, within a one hour time period—one run in each direction. The first world land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats was set on September 3, 1935, by Sir Malcolm Campbell. His speed was 301.13 miles per hour. Craig Breedlove holds the honor of being the first man to go faster than 400, 500, and 600 miles per hour. His record of 600.601 miles per hour, set on November 15, 1965, was finally broken on October 23, 1970, by Gary Gabelich. Gabelich's new record is 622.407 miles per hour.
Both Gabelich's rocket engine 'Blue Flame' and Breedlove's jet-powered 'Spirit of America' were equipped with specially designed inflatable tires, pre-tested to speeds in excess of 800 miles per hour.

Erected by THE GOODYEAR TIRE & RUBBER COMPANY June 1972
we went on to that measured mile, but didn't really think a run on it would be good for the undercarriage of the car, so we settled for a bit of a run on the deserted but paved road out to the salt. sshhh, don't tell...



Jill and i on the thick crust of salt at the Bonneville Flats. below, the thriving metropolis of Wendover, Nevada, the place where Utah gambles.



finally that day we decided to go the remaining few miles to Wendover, mostly just because it was there. frankly the nothingness of the salt flats was more intriguing than this place, which is like a tiny Las Vegas with all the entertaining parts taken out. a handful of trashy casinos and more Utah-registered cars than you could shake a very big stick at, it's pretty much where Salt Lake people who think that Utah constrains them too much go to feel cosmopolitan. and the good folks of Wendover gladly take their money, hand over fist, and who could blame them? they did get to build that huge neon cowboy, after all. on our very brief stop to use the facilities in a casino, we were quickly reminded why certain of Utah's constraints can be a very nice thing. the state clean air lawsallow for no smoking in public buildings, so you not only get to breathe free, but you don't end up stinking after going out to eat (or indeed to the restroom). so despite the opinions of the folks who flock to Wendover, Utah isn't such a bad place, and i think we'll be doing a little more sightseeing here before we move on to our next world stop.

27 October, 2007

thepeninsula

not the hotel, the Malay (or Thai-Malay) Peninsula. though it's been a while you may remember that we left the story of the Southeast Asia trip when we left Thailand, in a train carriage. we thought going by rail would be a great way to see the countryside of old Siam, the region's only never-colonized country, as we rolled towards one of its most recently de-colonized: Malaysia. what we didn't count on however, was that shortly after chugging out of Bangkok's main station, the lights in the firmament would fade out and we would be left to appreciate the many miles of Thai wilderness in almost complete darkness.


a night on the tracks

you may also remember that we were fortunate to have secured sleeping berths in our train carriage, so all the nighttime hours weren't completely wasted. though i will say that it's awfully hard to sleep on a moving train--even with ear plugs--unless you're extremely tired. that being said, trying to sleep on a moving train will get you awfully tired for the next night of sleeping on a moving train, so with a two-day trip it all kind of works itself out. it was the time in the middle that was kind of difficult, starting with being woken, or at least roused, early on the morning after leaving Bangkok, just as we were approaching the Thai-Malay border. the train ground to a halt and we were directed to take our bags and make our way through the long platform-side building that served as a joint ingress/egress point for both the Thai and Malay customs and immigration services. shortly after getting through that mess and setting off again we began making stops at all kinds of little Malaysian towns whereon hordes of folks joined themselves to our happy rolling throng. only we were getting less happy the more they piled themselves into our car, encroaching ever so slowly but very surely into our personal--and paid for--space, eventually practically sitting on top of me. for some reason i had assumed Malaysia would be more civilized than Thailand, but i felt quickly disabused of that notion by my very uncouth seat mates.


the Georgetown Mosque on Pulau Pinang, Malaysia

soon enough we ground to final halt in the rather unsightly town of Butterworth in northern Malaysia. here we were unceremoniously booted from the train so it could head back up to Thailand, and we wait for our ride to Kuala Lumpur. only thing was, it was still morning and our ride wasn't coming until late that evening. in the blistering heat we did the only thing anyone could do: we took the ferry over to Pulau Pinang--Pinang Island. the breeze on the boat was nice but as we stepped off the ferry with laden backpacks and no good map of Georgetown, we quickly felt the misery of our situation. it's pretty hard to adequately describe how hot it felt just walking around the outskirts of a semi-urban area completely exposed to the sun and the 100+% humidity. heat doesn't really bother me that much, but Jill was probably the most unhappy i've ever seen her. at this time we weren't married and i remember thinking that this was likely to be her at her worst and that if i could get through that day with her then we'd probably have no major problems in life. strangely enough, that may have been the day i decided we should get married.

in any case, after interminable minutes of wandering, we finally stumbled upon a mall of sorts, where we availed ourselves of their Pizza Hut. or Pizza Hut's air conditioning, more exactly. by the time we finally left there, the worst of the heat had thankfully passed and we began a more considered exploration of the place. on our way to see Fort Cornwallis and the famous mid-roundabout clock tower, we came upon a large mosque and decided to see what we could. the thing with that was, we arrived at this mosque just a day or two after the July 7th bombings of the London Underground and buses (about which we had heard very little), so the folks in the visitor's center were a little on edge when a Brit and an American showed up. we had a nice conversation with a well-spoken and thoughtful fellow there, who repeatedly apologized for those and the September 11th bombings, despite my telling him i strongly doubted his involvement. in our theological discussions, we didn't really agree on many points of doctrine, though he was very respectful and quite well informed of our LDS beliefs, and we learned quite a lot about Islam from him. he had us don long robes so that we could be taken for a tour of the large and airy mosque itself, which we did with great interest. it's still the only mosque we've ever been in.


enjoying a cool Kickapoo Joy Juice in the fierce heat of a KL Sunday brings obvious joy to my face. note the sweet haircut, specially designed back in Taiwan for the sultry Southeast Asia weather.

but soon the time came to leave, both the mosque and the island of Pinang. late that evening we boarded another sleeper train, much more tired this time than we had been the previous night, to begin the journey to Kuala Lumpur. KL, as it's often known, was just about as hot as Pinang had been, but there was more shade to be found in the shadows of the tall buildings. tall buildings like the famous Petronas Towers, owned by the national oil company and still the tallest twin towers in the world. until Taiwan built its incredible 101 building in Taipei, they were the tallest buildings period, and they do look awfully cool. there's a skybridge that runs between the two towers at about the 42nd floor, but they only let a certain number of people up there per day, and we didn't get there early enough to get tickets for the one day we were in town. just like the Taipei 101, however, the Petronas Towers have a sprawling mall at their base, and we spent some time enjoying the air conditioning there while we ate yet more pizza at the California Pizza Kitchen.



the spectacular Petronas twin towers in the heart of KL, and below, another shot of the same taken from the observation deck of the Menara Kuala Lumpur, a telecommunications tower a couple of miles away.



though we had found the folks in the north to be pretty much uncivilized, it was nice to be in a country where pretty much everyone speaks English, and quite well for the most part. standards of living seem pretty high, at least in the city, and i understand this is largely attributable to the vast wealth that Petronas generates and throws around. one wonders what will happen to Malaysia's economy when their oil reserves run out and there is no longer such a sector to prop the whole thing up. not to say that they haven't tried diversifying; folks in Britain will remember the the flashy introduction of Malaysian-made Proton vehicles somewhere in the late 80s. trouble is, you no longer see many of them in the UK and even though more than half the cars in KL are Protons, we understand they're heavily subsidized domestically. add to this the continued pandering and wealth-shifting to ethnic Malays by governments since the well-liked Mahathir Mohammed's, and you get a place that probably won't be somewhere you want to be when it all comes crashing down amidst enormous civil unrest. i'm no Malaysia scholar, but these were the general thoughts i remember having as we were there.

in any case, the so-called Garden City of Lights is actually a fairly pretty town, and one of the best places to get a panoramic view of it is from the top of the Menara Kuala Lumpur. i don't really know what Menara means, but the tower is owned by the Telekom Malaysia group and is apparently the fifth-tallest telecoms tower in the world. its top is even a little higher in elevation than those of the Petronas towers, but only because the base is set on a pretty high hill; the structure itself is a good deal shorter. either way, it's a fun ride to the top and the views are spectacular. and after coming back down we got some souvenirs at the--you guessed it--mall at the bottom and had Indian food at a restaurant that overlooked a tree-filled garden with monkeys clambering about.



the terrifying heights of the Menara Kuala Lumpur, and below, the awesome lodge we shared with some new Korean friends at the Firefly Park in Kuala Selangor.




but possibly the best thing we did in all of Malaysia was to take a very crowded city bus on a two-plus hour drive out to the coastal "town" of Kuala Selangor to see the highly recommended fireflies on the river. just when we thought the bus couldn't go any further, it kept on and on until we were finally booted off in a small parking lot in the middle of nowhere. at least there were a couple of Korean girls standing there looking as confused as we felt, so we agreed to share a taxi with them the remaining few miles out to what may be the most remote tourist attraction i've ever been to. but it was well worth it, and was actually packed with Chinese tourists, so good thing we had a reservation. the same could not be said for our random new friends however, so we opportunistically halved our bill by agreeing to share our little watertop chalet with them. the Firefly Park sells you tickets not only to their accommodations, but to their electrically powered--and thus virtually silent--boats that make late-night trips along an inlet from the Strait of Malacca in the Indian Ocean, along which many millions of fireflies light up the night like a fantastically starry sky. it's a lot cooler than it probably sounds, and we were even able to catch a couple of the flies by hand despite not being able to capture them on film. partly because it was so good, partly because we had come so far, and partly because our first ride was punctuated throughout by the loud belching of an old Chinese woman, we decided to ride again, which worked out nicely as we got a boat all to ourselves and the pilot was happy to extend the ride. i seem to remember that guy getting a good tip.


the $1,000,000 chair, carved from a single piece of jade, that Dr Nick the travel guide took us to see (and sit in, obviously). it's a lot more comfortable than it seems like it would be.

one poor fellow who did not, however, was Dr Nick. not really a doctor, but a nice guy nonetheless, he was our tour guide on our last day in KL, and he took us to see the amazing chair pictured above, among other things. though i can't find his card i know we have, i think he was working for the Tourism Malaysia folks running tours that people like us called up to book at the very last minute. it turned out that we were the only people on this particular one, and we were cramming it in just before we got on another train for Singapore, but he was very gracious and showed us pretty much everything we wanted to see and more.



the Batu Caves, clockwise from top left: the 272 steps leading up to the caves, which if climbed, it is said, will net the faithful Hindu forgiveness of half his sins. beware indeed, for monkeys come in all shapes and sizes... as apparently, do Hindu deities. even the many macaques were a little confused by it all. below, the views from inside the cavernous vaults were pretty enlightening:




one of the big places we wanted to see was the Batu Caves just north of KL, which are a series of vast caves set high in a limestone cliff that house one of the largest Hindu shrines outside of India--i mentioned that there were a lot of different racial and ethnic groups in Malaysia, didn't i? every year there is a festival here known as Thaipusam, which sees somewhere around a million and a half Hindus gather at the complex, some of them marching all the way from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in KL to do fun things like put meat hooks through their backs and use them to pull carts up all 272 stairs to the top as an act of devotion. these are the same folks who get themselves all worked up into "spiritual" frenzies and push swords through their cheeks and other such fun things--quite a spectacle to witness i imagine, if you're there on that day. here's a little taste of what we did witness up in the caves, for the curious:

video

and then we come back to Dr Nick. he didn't climb the steps with us, but kindly waited around for us to get back, after which he took us to a couple of duty free shops, but with the express understanding that we were seeing only native handicrafts and had no obligation to buy. there was one pretty cool place with a whole demonstration of the batik making process and then several pretty amazing examples all over the walls and for sale. Dr Nick had picked us up from our hotel and had kindly agreed to drop us off at KL Sentral, the largest train station in Southeast Asia. by that time we were hungry from our excellent tour, and we wanted to thank our guide for the extra mile he had seemed to put in. the problem was we were all out of Malaysian Ringgit for a tip, and had only large denominations of American bills. to our shame we slipped from Nick's van into the station and used a credit card to buy Halal (meaning "permissible" in Arabic, and used kind of like a Kosher designation for Muslims) burgers at McDonald's, vowing that we'd mail him his tip when we got home. i still feel bad about stiffing the doctor; now if i could only find his card...


Dr Nick; not a doctor, but a pretty good travel guide and rubber tree-tapper.

20 September, 2007

thebragbook

somewhere not too long ago thejayfather heard that blogs are often considered nothing but "brag books", places where people get to thumb their noses at the world and say "look at all the cool things that i've done and you haven't." despite the reports of our fun travels on these pages, the idea has never been to show off, only keep a record of a few of my doings. effectively, this blog is my personal journal, and only remains out here in the ether because i don't seem to be able to keep one any other way. for long, that is. i start them on January 1st every couple of years or so, but by the 4th or 5th the entries are already getting patchy. there have only been a couple of times that i've been able to keep up the momentum, times when the reason for keeping the record has stayed fresh in my mind.

for this blog the reason of course is you, Dear Reader, and you may well imagine that i kept a reasonably up-to-date diary at least for much of my time in Taiwan. but the first journal that stuck, the one that sparked all the others, was a record of the trip that pretty much ignited the international wanderlust you've been reading about here for the last two-and-a-half years. at that time Blogger was a mere twinkle in Google's eye--i hadn't heard of it anyway--and where i went there wasn't much in the way of broadband anyway. but i did take a small notebook and a trusty Parker pen, and the results of their mating are now available for the perusal of a select few in my recently published, fully online, thoroughly modern Samoan Jornal: My experiences in the tropical South Pacific paradise of Samoa.


thejayfather before he was even thejayfather, standing outside his beach fale on a remote corner of Savai'i island, Samoa. this picture was taken between Christmas and New Year's, 2003-2004.

where here i can ensure my thoughts are expressed appropriately, when writing my Samoan journal i never considered anyone but me would ever read it. for this reason, there is no link to to the hallowed pages containing a transcription of my uncensored thoughts; only those who are invited will be able to read. if you'd like to be one of those lucky souls, let me know who you are and what you're hoping to gain from the experience. and of course, come back and let me know what you thought.

please tell me who you are and why you'd like to be invited to view the Samoan Journal:






01 September, 2007

thewat


i knew i was famous somewhere... it was rewarding to arrive in Thailand and find i was already practically a household name.

after biding our time earning a hefty tax break in Taiwan, we were finally able to head on our long awaited tour through Southeast Asia, beginning on that most Asian of holidays: the Fourth of July. when Americans plan a trip, the first impulse is to stay as far away from travel agents as possible, but as with all else this impulse is just the wrong one to take to Asia. our plans were not straightforward and we never got as good a price going through airline and hotel websites as we did just handing over the dates to our agent and letting her go to town. actually, i handed several sets of dates to several agents all over Taiwan and let them duke it out for the best deal. they each have these networks all across the region that give them sweet deals on certain airlines and hotels, and we finally chose what turned out to be a really good set of flights and lodgings from an agent named Jeannie Leng in Taipei. she was so good we even tried to get her to do all of our trips from Japan, but she couldn't arrange anything that didn't originate in Taiwan. so we took off on a China Airlines 747 for Bangkok and three and a half hours later we were safely on the ground and through customs at Don Muang airport.

following all of our adventures in Taiwan we thought ourselves pretty savvy travelers, and though we didn't feel like we had left our comfort zone, there was this awareness that we didn't know quite how things worked anymore, and we definitely didn't know our way around. we hadn't wanted to get guidebooks for each of the countries we'd be visiting, so we got one that covered the whole region, and so it wasn't very detailed regarding any single place. for that reason we decided to bite the bullet and take a taxi to our lodgings, rather than try to figure out a bus or something, as we usually would have done. good thing Thailand is cheap, because that airport (which is no longer in use for commercial flights) is way out of town, the taxi ride taking almost half an hour, most of it at freeway speeds (even on surface roads). fortunately, we had heard from several friends that taxi drivers at Don Muang pass along to passengers the hefty fee the airport charges them for getting in, so we hiked out of the transit loop (to the dismay of many drivers) and flagged down the first car we saw outside the gate.

our self-congratulation for being so travel smart was pretty short lived however, as the next day we got one of our best ever lessons through our own painful experience. our first intended stop in Bangkok was the impressive Grand Palace complex, formerly the residence of the Thai royal family. the huge area is walled and surrounded by water, either river or moats, and is not only heavily guarded but heavily visited. our taxi dropped us some distance from the main gate, but we espied another gate close by and made for it. before we could get to the guard however, a helpful English-speaking guy came over and asked if we were going in. "you'll have to wait," he said, "the palace is closed right now for morning prayers. is there anywhere else you'd like to see in Bangkok?" indeed, we told him, there were several other places, some of which we pointed to on our map. "no problem, just take a tuk-tuk (one of the small three-wheeled taxis for which Thailand is so famous) around to some of those places, and come back later in the day."


Jill in our first tuk-tuk. it's just as cramped as it looks, and much noisier besides, but has excellent air conditioning--at least when the cab is moving.

at that moment, a tuk-tuk just happened to pull up right next to us, and our helpful friend offered to tell the driver where we wanted to go. how nice, we thought, as we boarded our cramped and noisy ride, and the palace guard looked on. soon we were on our way to our next-best spot, the Golden Mount, or Wat Saket (Saket Temple). or so we thought, anyway. he first took us to a local temple he said was quiet and overlooked, which was enjoyable though in some disrepair. there we found people selling small birds for tourists to set free and by so doing gain answers to their prayers; we later learned that those birds were all trained to return to their cages. then, supposedly on our way to the Golden Mount, our driver began to tell us of a special deal whereby he would get some free gas for taking us to a duty-free shop, which would enable him to honor the low fare he had promised us (the other guy had negotiated with him to take us to about five places for 50 Baht, the equivalent of $1.25). fair enough, we agreed, as he assured us that all we had to do was look and pretend to be interested for a few minutes, and then he would get his free gas and we could go to the Golden Mount.

having done our duty we returned to our carriage, whereupon we were told we hadn't looked long enough, so we would have to go to another store. this process repeated itself a few more times, with each one making both the driver and me more angry. at the last stop we even bought a few of the cheap trinkets, but when he told me we hadn't spent enough i laid it out: he had better take us to the mount, or things were going to get nasty. he finally drove us there and let us out across the street, saying he'd find parking, but surprise surprise, when we came out he was nowhere to be found. at least we didn't have to part with our buck-25. it started to dawn on us how intricate and well orchestrated the scam had been, and how we hadn't seen it coming at all. the taxi driver drops us far from the palace entrance, right by a guy who just happens to be walking by and wants to help the foreigners. it also just happens to be prayer time and we can't go inside, but you can go see some other things and "oh look", there's a tuk-tuk right now, let me help you get a good deal. very smooth, and i'm sure every driver in town is part of that or a similar scam.



the overwhelming gold of the Wat Phra Kaew, Thailand's most sacred Buddhist temple, at the Grand Palace, which we finally saw later in the day. clockwise from top left: the Phra Sri Rattana chedi, a stupa that looks a lot like the Golden Mount; the guardians of Phra Mondop, the library; Jill doing her best gracious Thai pose in the clothes she was loaned and had to wear to be considered modest enough to enter the complex--shorts are not allowed; and some of the Yaksha demons that adorn the chedi. below, the Wat Arun, or Temple of the Dawn, lies directly across the Chao Phrya River from the Grand Palace and is one of the most visited temples in Bangkok.



it was frustrating that the guard hadn't done anything, but i guess that's not his job, and you've got to let your fellow countrymen hustle to earn their money. Thailand is very permissive with that kind of thing, but we're lucky this tame experience has taught us to be very cautious in all our travels, including helping us to avoid the very costly art scam in Beijing. i did wonder what King Bhumibol thinks about all the scamming. Thailand's long-serving monarch is widely revered in his country, possibly due to his having spent some of his vast personal fortune on development projects in rural areas (also perhaps because to insult him is a jailable crime). we went to see a movie at what was rumored to be the world's largest movie theater, in the MBK shopping center, and following the previews there came on a song for which everyone in the theater stood up. as we rose we saw pictures of the king flash up on the screen in slideshow fashion, a demonstration which continued for the full five minutes of what we determined must be the national anthem. it was kind of surreal but people seemed to genuinely reverence their very own Rama (IX).



one of the many large monuments to current King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his wife Queen Sirikit, this one just off a large intersection. below, a longboat like the one on which we cruised the mighty Chao Phrya River, which runs right through Bangkok. if you follow this far enough out, you come to huge floating markets, wherein people sell their produce from tiny punts. where we went there were only a couple of ladies floating around and selling Singha beer, and who urged us to buy one to thank our driver. not very smart, perhaps, but certainly politic.



at some point during our stay in Thailand, we knew we would have to satisfy one of Jill's greatest ever dreams: riding on an elephant. to her this was synonymous with a trip to Siam, and since there isn't much room for the giant creatures in town anymore, we signed up for an all day excursion out to one of the national parks. before going to Khao Yai, which lies (i think) to the northeast of Bangkok, our awesome guide Sumpit took us to some village markets and for what she called an ock-cart ride. it took us a while to figure out that x is a hard letter for Thai people to say.


the authentic Thailand trip, clockwise from top left: our great guide Sumpit, whose English wasn't quite excellent, but may have been eckellent; some of the tasty morsels available in a typical Thai marketplace; Jill and me in front of the Haew Narok waterfalls in Khao Yai National Park; and us on our ock-cart, which was much more fun than we thought it would be.

the actual elephants were really cool, and it was amazing to be riding through a jungle on them. there were signs all along the road through the park that warned of elephants crossing, though we didn't see any that way. our mounts were brought to a tall platform by young fellows who used hooks to steer the beasts by their ears. there were seats strapped onto their backs for us, but we were also allowed to shuffle off and sit right on their necks, which meant you had their haunches pressing into you with each lumbering step. no fear of lawsuits here; in fact, there was a Dutch family on the tour with us, a couple and their two sons. the father, René, was riding with one of the boys when the seat mount slipped and he almost feel clean off the elephant. somehow he managed to stay on but he looked a bit shaken up--it feels higher than it looks up there.



Jill and me on our sturdy beast, spurred on by the handler's constant shouting of "ma maa, ma ma maaa!". in the picture above, try to spot the deliberate mistake, an act of which we were mercifully unaware at the time. below, we had been wisely advised to buy some bananas at the country market, each of which our hungry elephant took down whole. this was way better than the zoo.



but we had to come down at some point and return to the zoo of Bangkok. it's a busy city that is actually a lot less dirty than it very easily could be, but is kind of packed with dirty old white guys, all walking around with 12-year-old Thai girls. but once again, this is something that everybody in the City of Angels (that's really Bangkok's nickname) seems to turn a blind eye to, and we tried to ignore it also as we avoided the clubs and headed off the see more Buddhas. i think i've already mentioned that despite there being literally millions of Buddha statues in the world, each one of them has a very specific claim to fame, usually relating to size. we visited the (supposedly) tallest seated Buddha in Taiwan and saw the (again supposedly, there's no way to really tell) tallest seated Buddha in the world in Hong Kong, along with Japan's largest in Nara. we've seen some of the largest standing Buddhas in the world, and probably the largest Buddha that sits right on the Tropic of Cancer. i'm sure there's also a category for largest Buddha built by blind monks, as well as one for largest Buddha standing on a hill or resting in a valley or even on a park bench; the categories are literally endless. but here in Thailand we entered a whole new league: the reclining Buddha.



the "Reclining Buddha" at Wat Pho, or aptly enough, The Temple of the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok. his mother-of-pearl-inlaid feet are very famous and come with a sign warning: "DON'T TOUCH MOTHER OF PEARL". Jill's cape is to piously cover her arms rather than a sartorial choice, although it does make her look quite English departmenty. below, the Phra Buddhajinaraja, an impressive Thai-style Buddha inside the Wat Benchamabophit, or Marble Temple, a heavy tourist draw in its own right.



not so much reclining as just lying down, the Buddha is still pretty impressive at 46 meters (151 feet) long, and is probably claimed to be the widest Buddha in the world. well, whatever, we've pretty much seen them all, the skinny Thai ones, the moderate Japanese ones, and the jolly fat Chinese ones, and i can tell you that once you've seen a couple of each kind you've more than seen them all. so after a long day of Buddha watching and shopping at the endless street markets, you... take a tuk-tuk to one of the night markets, of course. the one we went to is called the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, and is huge and more organized than its name makes it sound. rows and rows of very interesting shops, along with several restaurants and the strange but famous Joe Louis Puppet Theater, made for some good souvenir shopping, dinner and sightseeing. Suan Lum is definitely a place you have to go in Bangkok. but even night shopping has to come to an end at some point, so we headed back to another recommended spot in town, our hostel the Suk 11:



views of the very friendly Suk 11 hostel, named after the road on which it stands. the main road across town is called Sukhumvit, and all the side roads are sois, each with a number. this cabinesque lodge is, oddly enough, on Sukhumvit Soi 11. clockwise from top left: the Swiss Family Robinson look of the outside; the acceptable graffiti on the inside; the communal-feeling lobby; and us leaving our mark, in English and Chinese. below, much less comfortable accommodations on the train to Malaysia.



mercifully far from the hippie mecca of Khao San Road, the Suk 11 is nevertheless pretty bare bones and communal, but is clean and convenient, not to mention really atmospheric. and it sure beat our lodgings for the next couple of nights: a train sleeper carriage on the way to Kuala Lumpur. check out the preview of that little adventure above, and thejayfather will bring you the full story soon.

25 August, 2007

thetaxbreak

i'd had a couple of motorcycle accidents before, but as yet hadn't actually come off the bike, so the physical evidence of my misfortune was that much more powerful as i sat staring at it in a dimly-lit hotel room in Hualien on Taiwan's east coast. it turned out that i'd been very lucky, sustaining just a pair of scraped knees and an awfully large blister on the palm of my hand. along with some bruising to the ego, of course. the thing that hurt most was actually my rear, owing to the time it spent in the saddle getting to Hualien, but i couldn't complain because i was lucky the bike was still ridable after going down.

some good start to our last week in Taiwan, but at the end of this June day we were feeling lucky just to be in one piece. we had already made one trip around the Ilha Formosa, as related in thecircumnavigation post, and were doing it again, in reverse, to bide our time before touring Southeast Asia so that we could take advantage of the favorable tax conditions our staying in the country would provide. Taiwan derives most of its revenues from the heavy taxation of imports, and so income taxes are kept at a very friendly (and easy to calculate) six percent for residents. to be a resident, however, a non-native must be in the country for at least 184 consecutive days. since non-residents pay a relatively hefty 20 percent, we decided to hang around until July 4th so we could save some of the money we'd soon want to be spending touring other exotic locales. we also got a chance to see a couple of the things we had so far missed, allowing us to truthfully say there are only about two things in the Taiwan guidebook that we haven't seen.


a map of Taiwan, the beautiful island. we started this trip from our home in Fengyuan, just north of Changhua on the west side of the island, and rode over the Central Cross-island Highway (sort of) to the popular east coast resort town of Hualien. on subsequent days we rode further south to Taitung, then through Fengkang and back up to Kaohsiung and Tainan in the west, and back to Fengyuan.

our goal for the first of our five days was fairly modest we thought, involving at most 150 miles of riding across the famed Central Cross-island Highway, one of only two roads to do such a thing. we figured it would take no more than five hours to make the trip and looked forward to being in Hualien in time for a good dinner and a nice trip to the beach. when we finally arrived there 11 hours after setting off, i was left sitting in that little hotel room, my beaten body aching from the journey, wondering just what had happened to all that time and how we could have been so wrong in our estimates. as i looked back i couldn't see any one thing that could account for the discrepancy, so i took each item in its turn. first, when we were just a half hour out of Fengyuan, we were riding along happily when my right arm, the throttle arm, suddenly shrieked with pain and had to let off the gas. i couldn't tell what was wrong but thought i'd been hit by road debris as i could see a mark of some sort on my bare forearm. i tried to soldier on but the pain was so exquisite that i had to motion to Jill to stop her rented scooter and come see what was wrong. what we saw appeared to be the last remaining half of some kind of creature, instead of a large bit of gravel, as i had supposed. i imagined that whatever it was had been hovering in mid-air just waiting for an improperly clad motorbike rider to come by. he had thrust out his tail stinger just like an angry cartoon bee might have done, determined to do the most damage possible if hovering on the highway was going to mean his own demise. which it did: after impact, only half of him was left, but he'd done such an incredible job of embedding that barbed spike in my arm that it took us several minutes to bring it out again without totally tearing up my flesh. and then the swelling started and didn't let up for several days, getting bad enough that i almost took my first trip to a Taiwanese doctor.


the best shot we could get of my most obvious injury from wrecking my bike. a very large and surprisingly not too painful blister from coming off and sliding across the ground.

if we were people looking for a sign, this would have been it, a clear message from the gods that this trip was ill-advised. but we weren't, and merely counted ourselves lucky to be able to carry on. at length we began to climb into the foothills of the enormous mountains that run the length of Taiwan, leaving only a narrow plain to their west for man to till and harvest. at their height the mountains rise over 11,000 feet and can be pretty inhospitable (as we were soon to find), but we came across one group of nuns who appreciated the solitude. much of our time in Taiwan was spent exploring the backcountry to find those buildings that were designed to be hidden or just to blend with nature. as our road wound its way we saw a gleaming white pavilion tucked away on a nearby hillside and felt our way towards it so that we could get some pictures. as we wandered around the grounds we were practically taken into custody (albeit a very hospitable one) by a bald woman in long black robes, who offered us a welcome drink on this incredibly hot day. we were ushered into a small room where we were met at length by another robed woman sporting a crew cut, who spoke some English and asked what we were doing. when she had satisfied herself that we were only tourists she began to show us around the Cheng Yuan Temple, which she told us was a convent for Buddhist nuns like herself. that week, however, the convent was hosting other women from all over Taiwan who had come to stay and live the ascetic life by, among other things, silent meditation and chanting, which they were doing now in a large hall that appeared before our eyes as we rounded a corner of the deceptively large complex. the nun, who was Filipino, told us that she had been there several years but was still struggling with the Chinese language, and was glad to have someone to speak English with, if only for a few moments. she spent some time trying to explain, at my request, the point of being a Buddhist nun, which apparently amounts to being able to free yourself from worldly concerns. i was pretty unconvinced and we parted ways agreeing to disagree, and apparently agreeing to resist the urge to take pictures of their pristine temple, because i can't seem to find any anywhere.

for the moment it seemed our luck was changing and the signs were good, but not too much later i met with my unfortunate accident on a series of switchback turns going higher up the mountain. though a couple of hours into our journey without having made much actual eastward progress, i was encouraged by the weather and the virtual emptiness of the roads and was happily singing to myself over the roar of my 150cc Yamaha engine. i came up for a hairpin to the right which i was planning to take nice and wide, but all of a sudden a large truck came lumbering around the other way. realizing that i would have to correct to a new, tighter path or go straight into the side of this juggernaut, i tried to slow down quickly and reorient myself to the inside line. on the gravelly surface however, my front tire couldn't take the combined braking and turning and slid out from under me, sending the whole bike and i sliding across the road towards the truck that was now stopping. it turned out it was only stopping so that the two guys inside could laugh at the spectacle they had just seen, and soon they sped off again while i was left to pick up my possibly broken bike from an all but abandoned road in the middle of nowhere. Jill was unhurt, riding a good distance back from me, but had been pretty traumatized by seeing me go down. it wasn't really that bad of a wreck, and the bike was ridable but somehow never again felt the same to me. i was very glad of the helmet that took some pretty good scratches while protecting my face from what could have been a nasty road rash, and other than grazed knees and the strange blister i was physically fine.

though we'd just scored one more sign for turning back, the hurt ego went into overdrive and insisted we'd come too far and endured too much to go home at this point, so we rode on to the next town and got cleaned up in a McDonald's before continuing our journey. we were still headed up the Central Cross-island Highway and hadn't gone too much farther when we started to come upon construction work. this mighty sounding road is actually only one lane in each direction, and is built on some pretty hairy terrain, so we could see how there might be some repairs going on. little did we know they were the same ones that had been going on for almost six years! back in 1999, on September 21st, Taiwan experienced one of its worst ever earthquakes, which killed almost 2,500 people and demolished hundreds of structures, including a good chunk of the Central Cross-island Highway. to be fair, we had been warned that it might not have opened yet, but all the good folks that we had asked to check it out for us had politely declined, saying we probably shouldn't be riding all that far anyway. i may digress here and say this was one of the things i found most frustrating about Taiwan, or about Chinese people. we would ask for help to plan our travels, wanting information or maps from websites that were only in Chinese for instance, and our conscript would only help us if what we were planning to do was something she thought we should be doing. this was not something we were used to, and not something i ever got to enjoy, or even see in its probable proper light, of friends looking out for us.

anyway, after this, our third major setback, we had to backtrack and get a map to figure out how to get across the island on even smaller roads. we did so but as we ascended the drizzle began and the temperature dropped, and our bikes started to wheeze as the air got rapidly thinner. the roads got narrower and narrower with steeper drop-offs and more maniacal drivers just dying to pass up the vulnerable bikers. frankly, it was terrifying, and shortly before we reached our first summit i was sure that i was going to have to explain to Jill's parents how i had been the reason she was killed on a treacherous mountain road whose crumbling edges had tumbled into abyss without ever even being marked.


the view from the top: the fading light and thick clouds we were soon to pass through while making our way down the magnificent (and this time very scary) Taroko Gorge.

finally we made it to the top, and feeling like we had passed the worst we enjoyed the magnificent scenery. it had taken us about six hours to come this far, and the sun was thinking about setting beyond the horizon, but we were sure by this point we had made it. we were about halfway there geographically, and the rest was all downhill--surely it could only be a couple more hours. but we met some prescient college students on that summit who told us they were going to where we had come from, Fengyuan. we wished them luck and expected the same of them when we told them we were going the other way, but instead that jarring Taiwanese paternalism came out and they told us to turn around, we'd never make it. naturally, we scoffed at their suggestion, for how could they know of the trials we had already conquered? we parted company slightly annoyed but hopeful still of our good Hualien dinner.

below us lay Taroko Gorge, Taiwan's incredible granite-walled canyon, which we had been looking forward to seeing along all its great length. but the signs once again were against us, as darkness and bitter cold began to set in, and even what sights of the gorge walls we could see weren't enough to keep up our spirits. the light faded quickly and we descended into cloud, rendering our visibility almost nil, which forced us to reduce speed to appropriate levels. thinking of our now-unlikely dinner made hunger rear its disquieting head, which compounded our misery to almost unbearable levels. the roadway through Taroko Gorge suddenly seemed unbearably long, its many twists and turns cruelly keeping us from our destination. we had only a few places to stop and stretch and relieve our straining eyes, as the road was narrow and being plied by large work trucks apparently driven by suicidal maniacs who were oblivious to our presence and plight. at one such stop we used what one could only call a restroom if he were inclined to be particularly generous, as it was little more than a trench in the ground with some plywood separators to form stalls. it was attached to a small store whose existence all the way up there i can't begin to explain, but i'm sure our appearance made the hard lives of those folks pretty entertaining for just a moment.

the next stop was some time later, about 10 hours since departure, after we had finally emerged from the cloud and descended almost to the mouth of the canyon. we pulled off the road and went hunting in our backpacks for the few snacks we had brought, only to find that the bags they were in had burst at high altitude and spread their contents all over our clothes. this finally broke some of the tension that had been steadily building and we laughed as we ate what we could salvage, feeling now that we had all but made it. then we descended into hilarium as Jill related that she was so tired from single-minded focus on the dim road and my brake light that her eyes had begun to play tricks on her. at one point she had thought that a lizard crossing the road in front of her bike had actually been a dinosaur. that one still keeps me laughing.

so, we missed our great dinner and had to settle for yet another McDonald's (it was the only thing still open when we rolled into town after 11pm), which we ate while resting up in that dim hotel. it was a good thing we had already been to Hualien, because the next day we took off again pretty early for the coastal ride down to Taitung (say Taidong). this stretch of single-lane highway is about another hundred or so miles, but with several things to see along the way, among which was this little gem:


i just wish i'd been around to see some of the activities that made them put up this sign.

as i recall, it took about five or six hours to ride this leg of the journey, so we made frequent stops to check out the scenery or just take a rest from the weight of our backpacks. we found this sign, which is unusual mainly for having good English translations, by a creek just off to the side of the highway. i wouldn't think there'd be much left to eat after bombing a fish, but i'd love to meet the guy that got caught trying it. later, about halfway from Hualien to Taitung we took a few minutes to celebrate our crossing of the Tropic of Cancer, which is marked by this very memorable structure:



Jill showing off the unmissable marker for the Tropic of Cancer, which we did actually miss and had to turn around for. clearly it was worth it though. the Tropic itself runs east to west right through that gap in the tower. below, i stand outside one of the many Caves of the Eight Immortals, which are right on the highway just a few kilometers south of the Tropic.



there are several Caves of the Eight Immortals, which have been turned into a large complex for passing tour buses. artifacts found there have revealed that the caves were inhabited in prehistoric times, but more recently they have been used as temples, several of them now housing gaudy religious icons. as you can see from my clothing, even though we were riding at sea level right along the coast on this day, the weather wasn't so great, and the mist that hung over the caves gave them a kind of mystical feel. when we started hiking around the site however, the Taiwanese summer humidity quickly cured us of our windswept riding chills and i started to boil in all that raingear.

though it did give some helpful protection as we started riding again, this time as far down as the Platform of the Three Immortals (anyone sensing a theme here?) halfway between the caves and Taitung. the Platform is really just a small outcropping of rock separated from the mainland by a narrow channel. for some reason the tiny island thus formed is important enough to have one of the coolest bridges in the country (or in any country actually) spanning the strait that leads to it.



the eight-arched footbridge that leads to the Platform of the Three Immortals in Taitung County. the top of each arch is smoothly humped, but the steeper sides have long, sloping steps. it's cool at first but by the sixth arch it's getting pretty annoying to walk over. this spot is popular enough with the many tour buses that ply this coast to warrant a parking lot and several trinket shops, not to mention food stalls, as below:



those delectable treats above are squid on a stick, very popular delicacies in this part of the world, but not something we were ever particularly tempted to try. there are various Pacific fish to either side of the squid, and some kind of roasted shell bug creatures in the near container. needless to say, we didn't try those either. most of the food in Taiwan was not bad, just kind of scary. on the few occasions when i did manage to eat something that my eyes said i shouldn't, i found that the things didn't necessarily taste bad, more like they just didn't belong in my mouth. nevertheless, i do admire the Taiwanese for making use of things i would never dream of eating and that would probably serve no other purpose, and we were able to find several things that we did like. among these was a breakfast dish called dam-bing that is made of egg crepes and bacon and was served at a little place right across the street from of our hotel in Taitung. both times we came to town we ate at this little breakfast shack, and both times we stayed at this hotel. on this trip we stayed for a couple of nights, so we could spend a day visiting Green Island, an hour's ferry journey from Taitung.



the ferry that took us from Taitung to Ludao (Green Island), and Jill and me on that journey, with mainland Taiwan in the background.



originally we had wanted to take a helicopter over to Green Island, but after spending half the morning at Taitung's tiny airport being told that all the guidebooks were wrong and only planes made the trip, we settled for the much cheaper ferry. which worked out well, because the scooter rental places are right next to the harbor, so five minutes after landing we were zipping off to explore the busy tourist island.



Jill and the aptly named Green Island Lighthouse, which is still operational, and below, the more deceptively named Green Island Lodge, once a prison for political dissidents.



the lighthouse was built during the Japanese occupation of the island in the 30s, in response to the wreckage of the American ship President Hoover on a coastal reef. the Green Island Lodge was one of three prisons on the island, which were filled with those who dared speak out against the government of Chiang Kai-shek during his period of "White Terror" in the 1950s. acroos the road from the Lodge is a large and quite pleasant park containing the Human Rights Memorial Monument that commemorates those incarcerated in the prisons. we took a while to relax in the park but skipped the very popular snorkeling and the busy Kuanyin Cave (one of religious significance wherein there is a stalagmite wearing a red cape, to represent the goddess Kuanyin) in favor of the real attraction of Green Island: the Chaojih Hot Springs.


Jill and me in the coolest of the three pools at Chaojih Hot Springs in the south of Green Island. it was still a little too hot for me.

with the East Asian penchant for hot springs, it would be easy to think there's nothing special about Chaojih, but that thinking would be wrong. you see, these three pools on the beachfront are among only three saltwater hot springs in the world. the others are on Mt Vesuvius in Italy and somewhere in Hokkaido, Japan (we tried to figure out where so we could go there when we were in Japan, but nobody down in Nagoya could figure it out). the saltwater is supposed to have even more remarkable healing powers than regular freshwater hot springs, so we gave it a try notwithstanding what i remember to be a rather high entry price.

taking Wednesday off to relax on Green Island was definitely a good idea on this trip, but soon enough we had to be on our way, this time back across the island and up to Tainan. we had to ride about 60 Km (35-40 miles) farther south to get to a road that would cross the island again, but that coastal stretch was one of the most beautiful i've ever seen. there's not much life along there but mountain forests slope down steeply into clear blue ocean, with only space for the road carved out. there are a couple of towns and some beaches but generally it's remarkably unspoiled and the vistas are amazing, and were especially so given the great weather we had that day and the fresh air we could feel as riders.

when we turned to the west to cross the island, we began to climb up into the mountains and were glad for the cool air that accompanied our rise. we weren't so glad to be met by a full scale police roadblock that had been set up by a county force that was obviously bored with little else to do. they could have tried going out and patrolling the road, but chose instead to just divert all traffic on that road through the parking lot of their station for inspection. they didn't seem to want to be bothered trying to understand our "Engrish", so they let us go without even seeing any documents, and we kept on all the way to Kaohsiung (say Gaoshung). the west coast in this area was much less attractive than the east had been, and Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second largest city, gets very industrial on its outer reaches and was distinctly unpleasant to ride into. we ate in town but didn't stay, pressing on to spend the last night of our little tour in Tainan, probably my favorite city in Taiwan.

though not that we had much time to enjoy it this time through, as we took off pretty early for the grueling ride back to Taichung and Fengyuan, all of which was very hot, very dirty and marred by all kinds of roadworks. we even rode through the vast Taichung harbor complex, where we dodged huge dump trucks and got caked by the clouds of industrial dust that stuck easily to our sweaty skin and damp clothes. this last hundred miles or so took another six or more fairly uncomfortable hours, but we were able to look back on one of the most satisfying, if turbulent, trips we had taken to that point. plus, we were so happy to have reaped such huge tax savings that we treated our grimy selves to a good old American hamburger at Chili's in Taichung. then, finally reaching Fengyuan after dark, we turned our minds to the pending trip we were going to take in Southeast Asia. and with that, i'll turn my mind to how to report it here.

29 July, 2007

thetemple


the green green grass of home: the view from our Air France plane as we crossed over the channel back into England.

we had been wanting to visit the London England LDS Temple during our stay in the UK, but as the name doesn't imply, this building is a good 30 miles or so outside the city center, which is a long way in that part of the world. so we planned our return to the States for a couple of days after we got back from France, giving ourselves time to get a car and drive down to the little village of Lingfield and spend some time in the serenity that it and the temple would provide. before that, however, we had to pick up our things from Kim and Todd's place, which was right in the heart of London. we did this with the aid of our little rental car, a Peugeot 207, but going from Heathrow to Holborn, even after the congestion charge hours, is a lot like driving into the heart of darkness. suffice it to say that i don't recommend driving in Central London to anyone who isn't a serious thrill seeker.



Jill's day- and nighttime views of the London England Temple and its reflection in a pond on its large grounds.



we did make it unscathed though, and from there on to the temple, which is in beautiful Surrey countryside close to Gatwick airport. the temple itself sits on a 32 acre estate known as Newchapel Farm, which boasts gardens, a large reflecting pond and an Elizabethan mansion called the Manor House. the church has also built some dormitory-type buildings for visiting patrons of the temple, which is where we stayed our two nights there.



the Elizabethan "Manor House" that stands on the 32 acres of temple grounds at Newchapel Farm. below, the church really is going into every nation; a selection of the signs we've seen on church buildings in the course of our travels, clockwise from top left: outside the London Temple; on our newly built stake center in Taichung, Taiwan; in front of the Hong Kong Temple in Kowloon; on the chapel we went to for services in the Beauborg area of Paris; on the steeple of the Seoul Korea Temple; in Welsh at the new Chester chapel; and the sign on our Meito Ward chapel in eastern Nagoya, Japan. the sign in the background is also from the London Temple.



i had been to the temple once before in 1992, for its open house and re-dedication after being refurbished, but i hadn't remembered how incredible the grounds and surroundings were. it can be a bit of a hassle to get all the way out there in the countryside, but it's well worth the effort. one place that probably wasn't was one i hadn't ever been before, the famed seaside town of Brighton, another 30 miles south of the temple on the Channel coast. since we had a car, we decided to give it a look, but weren't too impressed by the "beach" made all of pebbles and rocks. still, they made for some good entertainment on an otherwise dull and dreary day:


Jill launches pebbles toward the surf on the "beach" at Brighton. this strip is lined with hotels and a large pier is just visible off in the distance.

so we didn't stay long in Brighton despite the serious entertainment provided by trying to hit other airborne rocks with pebbles (which never worked). i'm sure it's a very nice place to be during the season (notwithstanding all the others who flock there, thinking the same thing), but it was pretty chilly and couldn't hold a candle to the temple environs. what a nice way to spend the last few days of our European vacation.

28 July, 2007

thesigns

one of the great things about all our travels has been the chance to be immersed in another language. although we learned precious little of any of them, it is really cool to hear so many unfamiliar sounds and see foreign writing, much of it in our case in totally different scripts. Since it's difficult to give you the sounds of all those languages, i thought i'd at least give you the sights. so far, we've been to Taiwan, where they speak what we usually call "Mandarin" Chinese and Taiwanese; Thailand, where Thai is spoken; Malaysia, where they speak Bahasa Malay and English; Singapore, where English is the administrative language, Malay the national language, and Tamil and Chinese also considered official; Indonesia, where Bahasa Indonesia is spoken; Hong Kong, where it's Cantonese and a lot of English; Macau, where Portuguese and Cantonese are spoken; Mexico, where they speak Spanish; Japan, where Japanese is the order of the day; Mainland China, where they also speak Mandarin, but have changed some of the written characters; Korea, where Korean is spoken; Britain, where real English still generally prevails, along with a bit of various Gaelic tongues, like Cornish, Welsh or Scottish; and France, where the people speak French.



signs of our times, clockwise from top left: French in Paris, English and Chinese in Hong Kong, Welsh and English in Conwy, Wales, Korean in Seoul, Chinese in Beijing, Japanese in Nagoya, Portuguese and Chinese in Macau and Spanish in Puerto Vallarta. in the background is a sign from Georgetown, Malaysia, written in Malay. click the picture to enlarge it. below, some Thai script seen outside a government building in Bangkok.



the longer we spent in a place, the more familiar its language became; we got to the point in Taiwan and Japan where we could read and understand a few things, though generally Chinese and Japanese are still alien to us. good thing you can almost always find someone who speaks some English and wants to practice, even in the most remote corners of the world.