07. Kaboom with a View

  1. 01. A Breath of Fresh Air
  2. 02. Traincatching
  3. 03. Dutch Retreat
  4. 04. The Deep South
  5. 05. Dust in Time
  6. 06. Fire in the Sky
  7. 07. Kaboom with a View
  8. 08. A Free Country
  9. 09. Recycled

Three days earlier, the old man in Taitung who had helped me try to get a refund for my unused train ticket made me promise to try again when we reached Taipei.  Actually, it was his English-speaking son who had me promise. “He wants you to promise…” the son had relayed.

“Okay, okay, I promise, really.”

To tell the truth, I had completely forgotten about it. As we headed for the exit from Taipei’s Central Train Station, Frank reminded me. I shrugged it off. Frank stopped in his tracks.

“But you promised!”

I rolled my eyes, murmuring the lord’s name in vein. “Fine. Where is this ‘foundation’ or whatever it was that is supposed to be so helpful?” Continue reading 07. Kaboom with a View

06. Fire in the Sky

  1. 01. A Breath of Fresh Air
  2. 02. Traincatching
  3. 03. Dutch Retreat
  4. 04. The Deep South
  5. 05. Dust in Time
  6. 06. Fire in the Sky
  7. 07. Kaboom with a View
  8. 08. A Free Country
  9. 09. Recycled

If you consider me an incessantly cheerful gunzel, you may be shocked to read I had reached the end of my rope with Taiwan Railways. This was to be expected, I suppose, after a week riding their rumbling leviathans.

Today, the train arrived on time, the interior was spotless and comfortable, the passengers polite, the scenery splendid.  Nothing had changed, and perhaps that was the problem: the magic was gone. Today I saw only the disgusting black soot spewed from a roaring diesel engine, passing villages of villagers whose way of life was being trampled by “progress”. I called my lawyer to file for divorce.

Not really. The end of our rail travels was approaching, so I could look past this three-hour journey.  Furthermore, I was looking forward to four days in the Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, after a night in Ruifang, only an hour outside the big smoke. Continue reading 06. Fire in the Sky

05. Dust in Time

  1. 01. A Breath of Fresh Air
  2. 02. Traincatching
  3. 03. Dutch Retreat
  4. 04. The Deep South
  5. 05. Dust in Time
  6. 06. Fire in the Sky
  7. 07. Kaboom with a View
  8. 08. A Free Country
  9. 09. Recycled

Arrival at the Hotel Likko in Xincheng was after dark, so in the morning I was surprised to find the Asia Cement Corporation factory looming behind us. It was nestled in the town’s backside, quaintly dwarfed by the pristine mountains behind it. Clouds of smoke spewed from smokestacks, with endless trains carrying raw materials in and processed materials out, adding to a haze of grey dust engulfing the manufactory.img_4808

Our brief exploration of the previous evening had already hinted that the town was either very new to, or very bad at, tourism.  Here was evidence the town did not intend to depend on tourism for its livelihood. People needed cement, and they clearly had all the ingredients swirling around them. Diversification is a good thing, particularly when it gives folks ill-suited to sucking-up to passing gawkers something else to do.

Even so, it was a bit of a puzzle. The Taiwanese had shown themselves to be highly efficient in providing quality tourism infrastructure, and more than adequate in sucking-up, as the industry demands. Here we were, within sight of Taroko National Park, whose spectacular geology seemed to be on every Taiwan tourist’s must-do list. Yet hotels and restaurants were few and far between – and these folks, although friendly, didn’t seem too interested in sucking up.

At the Taroko National Park Visitor Center, the woman in front of us in line innocently asked the dowdily uniformed middle-aged park ranger “Will it rain today?”

“How do I know? I’m not god!” she shot back. I have to admit, the response made my day – but the woman on the receiving end was rather offended. Continue reading 05. Dust in Time

04. The Deep South

  1. 01. A Breath of Fresh Air
  2. 02. Traincatching
  3. 03. Dutch Retreat
  4. 04. The Deep South
  5. 05. Dust in Time
  6. 06. Fire in the Sky
  7. 07. Kaboom with a View
  8. 08. A Free Country
  9. 09. Recycled

It is a pleasure to wake up on Boxing Day in a place where nobody has ever heard of Boxing Day, as one need not fear a conversation might turn to the dreary subject of cricket. We enjoyed a rare morning of relative silence, so our conversations didn’t turn to anything, dreary or otherwise, as we didn’t have any.

There was a bit of an altercation with the wait staff at breakfast. After handing over our breakfast vouchers to the woman at a reception podium, a host escorted us to a table at the very rear of the restaurant. It was adjacent to the toilets and next to a table piled high with dirty dishes, not just the previous dinners’ dishes, mind you, but three or four teetering piles of ten or twelve plates and bowls, a trough of half-eaten food at one side, soiled flatware scattered about.

I looked across at a restaurant full of empty tables, all set tidily and offering views of the sea. The table she was seating us at was so plainly the most horrible in the place, and it was so plainly unnecessary to seat us there, I had to stifle I laugh.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked. Continue reading 04. The Deep South

03. Dutch Retreat

  1. 01. A Breath of Fresh Air
  2. 02. Traincatching
  3. 03. Dutch Retreat
  4. 04. The Deep South
  5. 05. Dust in Time
  6. 06. Fire in the Sky
  7. 07. Kaboom with a View
  8. 08. A Free Country
  9. 09. Recycled

Another perfect morning. For the first time in daylight I scanned the view from our Tainan hotel room window, congratulating myself on having asked for the better room. 20161224_092300Where the fireworks had been launched the previous evening, a family now picnicked along the canal. Who picnics at seven o’clock in the morning?  Other hotel guests, if the oversized hotel robes worn by the children were any indication. They probably hadn’t asked for a better room, I thought, smugly.

One or two bicyclists rolled by now and again, enjoying the safe, wide, flat cycling paths. I craned my neck out the window to see how the paths went, but couldn’t see past the first bridge. Frank suggested we use the hotel bicycles – another freebie – but I demurred. While I had come up just fine from the previous day’s ride – a major victory, both physically and psychologically – riding in a big city is a very different thing to riding in a rural setting, bike paths or not. “My next cycling accident is likely to be my last cycling accident” I told him, “and it isn’t going to be today.” Continue reading 03. Dutch Retreat

02. Traincatching

  1. 01. A Breath of Fresh Air
  2. 02. Traincatching
  3. 03. Dutch Retreat
  4. 04. The Deep South
  5. 05. Dust in Time
  6. 06. Fire in the Sky
  7. 07. Kaboom with a View
  8. 08. A Free Country
  9. 09. Recycled

This is my sixth visit to China, if you include Taiwan as part of China. Oh, also, you’ll have to include Hong Kong as part of China. I am assuming you concede Shanghai as part of China. And Beijing?  Surely, Beijing is part of China.

Wherever you draw the political borders, ten minutes in Taiwan leaves one sure the place is Chinese. Mandarin is the language, and a traditional form of it at that, like a Bostonian’s version of English or a Montrealer’s version of French. The food is undoubtedly Chinese, albeit on the noodley side, rather than the ricey or dumplingey side. The commerce is aggressively capitalist with an overlay of familial dysfunction: more American than the Americans, a trait I have often attributed to the Chinese.

The Taiwanese are most Chinese, though, when speaking to each other in exchanges that sound like a New York taxi driver discussing politics with the French Ambassador to the United Nations. Or a Parisian taxi driver discussing economics with the President of the World Bank. That is to say their conversational tone of voice is harsh, almost violent. If you don’t speak the language, what sounds like an accusation of murder may be a compliment on the quality of the fish intestines served. Continue reading 02. Traincatching

01. A Breath of Fresh Air

  1. 01. A Breath of Fresh Air
  2. 02. Traincatching
  3. 03. Dutch Retreat
  4. 04. The Deep South
  5. 05. Dust in Time
  6. 06. Fire in the Sky
  7. 07. Kaboom with a View
  8. 08. A Free Country
  9. 09. Recycled

“Taiwan? Why would you go to Taiwan for Christmas? There aren’t many Christians there, you know. I don’t think they even celebrate Christmas as a holiday!”

“Exactly.”

With our flight to Taiwan departing at 7:30 am, Frank and I somnambulated into a taxi to Manila’s Ninoy Acquino International Airport at four o’clock in the morning. We had twelve days of fun and relaxation ahead, yet I had spent the previous three days dreading this taxi ride. Even at this early hour it was a real possibility that we’d get stuck in Manila’s infamous traffic and miss the flight. Normally, I hate early flights requiring middle-of-the-night mobilization, but in this case it offered some degree of solace: any other time of day we would have been guaranteed to be stuck in traffic for hours. This morning, though, I was stunned to find we could make it from our Quezon City apartment to the airport in thirty minutes – a full four hours less than it took when we arrived in Manila last June.

All day, things went like clockwork, albeit overly complicated clockwork. We arrived at Taipei’s major airport, Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, two hours later, right on time. Taoyuan airport is about an hour to the west of central Taipei, but our plan was to put off visiting Taipei for last. Instead, we headed south to start a week-long lap of the entire island. Continue reading 01. A Breath of Fresh Air

17. Decisions, Decisions

  1. 01. Giving It Away
  2. 02. Mind Games
  3. 03. Customer Service
  4. 04. Getting Down to Business
  5. 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
  6. 06. The Commission
  7. 07. Service!
  8. 08. Instant Celebrity
  9. 09. The Pinoy Diet
  10. 10. Life As We Know It
  11. 11. Doctors’ Borders
  12. 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
  13. 13. Half Empty
  14. 14. Me and My Leg
  15. 15. Always Be With You
  16. 16. Going Underground
  17. 17. Decisions, Decisions
  18. 18. I Shall Depart
  19. 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
  20. 20. A Nod and a Smile
  21. 21. Not Fighting City Hall
  22. 22. Stasis in Places
  23. 23. Fond Farewells
  24. 24. Parting Shots

Christmas Eve marked the six-month point of our nine-month volunteer assignments; three months to go. New to the country, the language, the culture, the laws, the economy and the people we work with, we knew nine months was not a lot of time to get much of anything accomplished. As such, Frank and I have been proceeding on the expectation that we would apply for an assignment extension, maybe to a full year, or maybe as long as a year-and-a-half. I am advised the assignment extension approval process takes around two months, so decision time is nigh.

One factor in our decision-making process is that our St Kilda home is leased for a year, and our tenants have an option for another six months, so if we go home earlier than that, we may have nowhere to go home to. Recently it occurred to me that is less a problem than an opportunity. With our home rented and paying for itself (and then some), it is a chance for some very leisurely travel to places cheaper than Australia. That covers pretty much everywhere, save San Francisco (and I am dubious anyone can save San Francisco in the cost-of-living sweeps). A month – maybe two? – in Cape Town, Split, San Juan, Marrakesh, Santiago, Mykonos?

But first, we’d really like to feel our work has made a meaningful contribution here. We aren’t expecting much – but it would be nice to be able to point to some accomplishment before we leave. “We helped set up that business” would do.  Right now, all I can say is “For a sideshow freak, I got a lot of applause.”

It seems every time our projects build a little momentum, something happens to bring things to a grinding halt, with the effect of having to start all over again, or nearly so. Certainly my little knee operation wiped out two or three months of our work. Taking a week to travel around the Philippines with visiting friends was a much-needed breath of fresh air, but on return we are re-visiting issues we had resolved a month earlier.

Such setbacks are troubling not only because of the need for a re-do, but also because the setbacks raise concern as to whether our contributions are sustainable. There are strategies to deal with that – get others in to fill the gaps, probably more volunteers – but the solutions seem more theoretical and academic than practical and effective.

Regardless, it seems like a sure thing that if we leave three months from now, we might as well have not come, at least from a benefits perspective. That is a mighty strong argument for extending. Yet, I have to ask whether anything will be different if we stick around another six months, or another year for that matter. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that.

What is clear is that if our presence here is not going to make any difference, there are far more pleasant places to await death than Metro Manila.  Indeed, I get the real sense this place is sucking the life out of me. Obviously, hobbling around slowly recovering from a knee injury isn’t helping, but I am gaining weight, ache constantly, and almost always have a headache, a cold, an upset stomach, or worse. Every day I stay, the smog, noise, food, traffic, and lack of exercise is taking three days off my life expectancy.  Then again, life expectancy is overrated.

I have expressed these concerns to my host organization supervisor and co-workers, all of whom have urged us to extend as long as possible. That is gratifying; it is nice to be wanted. Nevertheless, given the “herding cats” nature of the work we do, they cannot promise much insofar as results within any timeframe.

Where does this leave us? In the next thirty days, Frank and I will take a guess at what can get done in the next three, six, nine and twelve months. Then we will decide whether it is worth that much more of our lives. We didn’t come here to save the Philippines, just make a contribution. If there is a reasonable chance of any meaningful benefit, we’ll stick it out. If not, we’ll pack our bags.

At the moment, we are pondering these things a thousand kilometers from the Philippines, in Taiwan for the Christmas break. I’ll be writing about that over the next weeks or so. Then, in January, it is decision time.

SK

16. Going Underground

  1. 01. Giving It Away
  2. 02. Mind Games
  3. 03. Customer Service
  4. 04. Getting Down to Business
  5. 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
  6. 06. The Commission
  7. 07. Service!
  8. 08. Instant Celebrity
  9. 09. The Pinoy Diet
  10. 10. Life As We Know It
  11. 11. Doctors’ Borders
  12. 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
  13. 13. Half Empty
  14. 14. Me and My Leg
  15. 15. Always Be With You
  16. 16. Going Underground
  17. 17. Decisions, Decisions
  18. 18. I Shall Depart
  19. 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
  20. 20. A Nod and a Smile
  21. 21. Not Fighting City Hall
  22. 22. Stasis in Places
  23. 23. Fond Farewells
  24. 24. Parting Shots

The Philippines boasts the longest Christmas season in the world, so the holiday season has been upon us for some time now. I thought it an exaggeration when told — repeatedly — that it starts in September. But sure enough, every supermarket, mall, department store, sari-sari, turo-turo, open house, restaurant, bar, jeepney, bus and police station starts blaring Christmas carols the moment August ends. Leroy Andersen’s Sleigh Ride (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDRFmn_KqfA) is peculiarly popular given the environs’ complete lack of sleighs or snow or giddy-ups or a-jing-jing-a-lings.  There’s barely a person around who has ever seen snow, yet everyone dreams of a white Christmas. Even after twenty years in Australia, this cynic is moved by such absurdities.

img_4259The decorative crescendo is more gradual. This close to the equator, the sun never sets very late, helping justify huge investments in extravagant Christmas displays. Tree lighting ceremonies at shopping malls and public spaces attract thousands to celebrate peace on Earth by detonating fireworks to throbbing Christmas tunes.

I will say this for the Filipinos: they can sing. I see this as a by-product of a karaoke culture that encourages participation while effectively prohibiting criticism or mockery. I have struggled to hold my tongue through some painful renditions, but it has proven worthwhile, as the awful performances are relatively few, and the good ones plentiful. Rogue gangs of carolers roam residential streets demanding what you care to give in exchange for impressive intonation. Continue reading 16. Going Underground

15. Always Be With You

  1. 01. Giving It Away
  2. 02. Mind Games
  3. 03. Customer Service
  4. 04. Getting Down to Business
  5. 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
  6. 06. The Commission
  7. 07. Service!
  8. 08. Instant Celebrity
  9. 09. The Pinoy Diet
  10. 10. Life As We Know It
  11. 11. Doctors’ Borders
  12. 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
  13. 13. Half Empty
  14. 14. Me and My Leg
  15. 15. Always Be With You
  16. 16. Going Underground
  17. 17. Decisions, Decisions
  18. 18. I Shall Depart
  19. 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
  20. 20. A Nod and a Smile
  21. 21. Not Fighting City Hall
  22. 22. Stasis in Places
  23. 23. Fond Farewells
  24. 24. Parting Shots

I was having a nightmare. My dreams often include personal conversations with world leaders and other serial killers, perhaps because I usually sleep with news radio streaming in my ear. In this particular dream I was just watching TV on election night, with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Andersen Cooper insisting that Donald Trump was heading for an electoral college majority. One pundit after another paraded on camera, forced to provide explanations of results they clearly did not understand. They made further predictions even though each had accumulated a remarkable string of misguided prognostications. It made me squirm to watch them blather away without the slightest appreciation of their own irrelevance. It was awful. I was sure I would wake up at any moment.

I am now a few weeks into this nightmare. I am beginning to think I must be in a coma. Traffic accident, perhaps, or another fall down the stairs, as I am wont to do. (I’ve never owned a flight of stairs I didn’t fall down.) I am certain, though, this electoral calamity cannot be happening. At least now I know for sure that it is possible for a comatose person to hear. Hey, somebody out there turn off the radio please! Enough is enough. Continue reading 15. Always Be With You