Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Sometimes it's the simplest explanation

Woo-hoo!  Not freon!

Called upstairs neighbor.  "Do you have any reason why it might be leaking in my bathroom?" 

They do!  Something about "working on the toilet" and "carpet is all soggy."  (Also "real sorry about that" and "if there's any damage, we'll take care of it."  I have nice upstairs neighbors.)

Cancelled plumber.  Ironic that there have been leaks into both my bathrooms from the unit upstairs within the past few months, but pleased to know that this one, at least, is not a chronic problem.

Things I So Do Not Want To Deal With At 4:00 A.M.

I was still up around 3:00 last night.  I knew this was wrong, but it's generally my way.

I pet the cat and go into my bedroom.

I go into my bathroom to brush my teeth.  (The good one; not the one with the hole in the ceiling and the mold from the neighbor's leak.)

I hear dripping. 

I trace it to a fan near the ceiling.

By 3:30, I'm standing on a step-stool, screwdriver in hand, removing the fan cover.

It's wet in there.  I put on some gloves and unplug the little cord, thinking that water and electricity are a bad combination.  I've also gotten dust all over my freshly-vacuumed floor, so I dust-buster it up.

I can't see where the leak is coming from.  But the wall is cold.

The fan appears to back onto the same wall that's behind my air conditioning unit.  I go into the living room and peek at the a/c.  I see nothing wrong with it, but I definitely hear a dripping.  I can't see where the dripping is coming from.

I think freon.

(I decide to post this cheerful news and my internet connection goes down.  Since I'm really not thinking straight at quarter to four, I decide that posting about it is a high priority, so I try to IM my journal from my cell phone.  I type in a couple hundred characters, then my phone loses the connection.)

I turn off my a/c.  Eventually, the dripping sound stops.  I go to sleep for four whole hours. 

I wake up at quarter after 8.  I go into the bathroom.  The floor is wet.  So is the carpet next to it.  There's something dripping out of the a/c register in the ceiling.  Quite regularly.  The wall beneath the fan has bubbled out, like there's water (or something else) in there too. 

Realizing that I need professional help (shut up), I call the plumber.  "Do you want me there in the morning or afternoon?"  "Um, seeing as it's flooding my floor, as soon as possible might be nice."  He'll be here "within the hour."  I can't even shower now, as I'm afraid I'll miss his arrival.  (And the bathroom is pretty wet anyway.)


Monday, November 28, 2005

First Photo Essay -- Motor Bikes

Do I unpack?  No.  Do I go to sleep early?  No.  Do I upload photos?  Now you're talking.

After a quick culling of the 257 pictures I took on the trip, I present the very first photo essay.  (I've chosen to do this one first not because of any issues of chronology, but because it is an easy one.  And I should really go eat some dinner.)

Taipei is pretty crowded.  Lots and lots of people.  One of the ways they deal with all the traffic congestion is:  motorcycles.

Jackie (the tour guide) explained that lots of people have them.  He has two.  Because there isn't a whole lot of parking available, people are allowed to park (and drive!) them on the sidewalk.

And they do.

They really really do.

Jackie also told me a bit about numbers.  The number 6 is believed to mean good luck.  The number 8 is believed to mean good fortune.  License plate numbers with lots of 6's and 8's in them are auctioned off.  Depending on the plate, people might pay thousands of dollars for it.

You will never, says Jackie, find a license plate ending with a 4.  4 is unlucky -- it is believed to signify death.  Jackie says they don't even make plates ending in 4.  After he told me this, I checked all the motorcycles I could, and saw no plate ending in 4.  I did, however, find a plate which I thought might not be permitted in America...

Quick Updates

- Got home last night.  Man, the flight back is, like, two hours shorter than the flight out.  Jet stream or tailwind or whatever -- I'm grateful.  Those extra two hours on the flight out are a real killer.

- Read all your comments on my cell phone while on the shuttle to my car.  So nice to get a signal back on my phone.  (For the last ten days, it has just been a way to carry around a picture of my cat.)

- Good thing "Daily Show" was in reruns last week -- gave me much less TV to get caught up on.

- Speaking of which, I didn't have to watch "Amazing Race" when I got back -- I caught Tuesday's episode on Saturday night in Hong Kong.  Nice to know reality TV doesn't have a huge time delay around the planet.

- Oh, and I saw Tuesday's episode of "House" last night.  Loved his street address (obvious enough in the opening sequence for my own jet-lagged self to notice it).  I feel as thought I now have official approval to keep calling Robert Sean Leonard's character "Watson," as I've pretty much been doing all along.

- It's just a cold, honest; I did not handle bird poop.

- Pictures?  Oh hell yes.  I emptied my digital camera before I went, and yesterday had a total of 250 pics on it.  It will take a little time to find the dozen or so that actually came out.

- Tailor convinced me to order a couple more pairs of slacks and a skirt -- which I'm really glad I did, as the slacks and skirt came out terrific.  The dress -- not so much.  They didn't make it nearly as form-fitting and low-cut as I'd requested.  I guess Hong Kong tailors err on the side of propriety.  Still, it's pretty and will serve its purpose (something nice to wear to theatre openings).  Black silk, with a flower pattern (black on black) in the fabric.

- Oh look, I'm late for work.  Looks like everything is back to normal.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The sights of Hong Kong

Amazing place, Hong Kong.  It's billed as all "East Meets West"-y, and while that's true, it is wholly inaccurate to convey the scope of what we're dealing with here.

If there was a video game about cities, and you just finished playing "New York," "Hong Kong" would be the next level.  Like New York, it has a skyline of tall, closely-packed buildings, but the skyline is longer -- it goes on forever.  And, at night, while other cities' buildings merely light up, Hong Kong's buildings decorate themselves.  (They have exterior lights that make shapes and patterns -- each one looks like someone built a perfectly good skyscraper, and then hired someone else to build some colorful evening wear for it.)  And, as mentioned in the last entry, while other cities have pedestrian tunnels to deal with foot traffic congestion, Hong Kong has actually put high-end shopping down there.

In places, it is immaculate.  I went for a walk along "Avenue of the Stars," a pathway all along the harbor across which you can see the Hong Kong skyline.  Avenue of the Stars is a Hong Kong version of Hollywood's walk of fame, with stars (and handprints) on little plaques in the ground celebrating Hong Kong's cinema stars.  But it's also a lovely place just to hang out.  There's silly-shaped carts (they look like they came out of Toontown at Disneyland) selling popcorn and cotton candy.  There are stages set up at fixed intervals along the way for musical performances.  The place is beautiful -- signs informing you of a fine (over $200 US) for littering (or spitting, or not cleaning up your dog poo) have the desired effect.  I passed three different wedding parties along the way, who were stopping to take pictures with the harbor behind.  (Also what appeared to be some graduating students -- in academic gowns.)  But there were also some old men fishing, some tourists taking pictures of the stars in the ground, and ... my personal favorite ... a few schoolkids who asked to briefly interview me for a school project on English speaking.  ("Have you seen any sights here?" "Do you enjoy Hong Kong?" "Have you been to Hong Kong Disneyland?")  It was just this lovely, open, free, beautiful, clean, safe place -- and there must have been thousands of people enjoying it.  I adored it.

At night, if you go there, you can see what just this week was certified by the people at Guinness as the Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show -- as the lights on the buildings on the other side of the harbor dance in synchronization.  They've even got big laser-ish beacons on the tops of the buildings, that wave about simultaneously.  (We were viewing from what we'd thought was a fairly decent vantage point, until some cruise party boat decided to dock right in front of us and completely block the view of the hundred or so people watching there -- just as the grand finale was getting going.  In the spirit of international cooperation, the entire crowd booed the boat, but itdidn't move.)

We also took the tram up to Victoria Peak.  (I have some vague recollection that the Guinness people said something about that one, too, but I can't seem to find it online).  It is one steep funicular, hauling two cars up to the top of a mountain where gorgeous view of the city are to be had.  Although not necessarily by me.  The building at the top of the peak was closed for massive renovations (much like the National Palace museum in Taipei -- I apparently have renovation karma this trip).  And it was pretty foggy, so we didn't get the bestest possible view (much like at Taipei 101 -- I also apparently have foggy view karma).  Still, I took loads and loads of photos.

The students questioning me at Avenue of the Stars asked if I will come back to Hong Kong.  Absolutely.

Holy crap--you can spend a lot of money in Hong Kong

Do you know how much money I spent today?  I went to the ATM three times, that's how much.

As you know, the guiding principle of Las Vegas design is: to get to anything, you have to go through the casino.  The guiding principle of Hong Kong design is: to get to anything, you have to go through the mall. 

I am so not kidding.

Like ... ok, Hong Kong was -- up until quite recently -- owned by the British, and a lot of it feels British.  Like the street signs, for instance.  Same colors and font and arrows and stuff that you see in London.  (Well, ok, they're in Chinese as well as English, but still.)  And, like in London, there are many places where you can't cross the street above ground, and are instead required to take the "subway" -- a system of pedestrian tunnels under the streets.  (Remember, they use "underground" to refer to that thing we call a "subway.")  In London, the subways are tiled, dirty, sometimes inhabited by homeless people, and frequently smelling of urine.  In Hong Kong, the subway floors are marble and there's Coach and Gucci shops.  So when I say you can't cross the street in Hong Kong without going through a mall, this is not an exaggeration.

Yesterday, we did some sightseeing.  (I'll post about that later; I'm sorta on a shopping roll right now.)  Today, Peggy and Sabing (and Sabing's mom and aunt, who came with) went to Macau.  I felt like I wanted to spend a bit more time in Hong Kong since this was my only full day here (and, quite annoyingly, I was feeling some cold symptoms coming on, so wanted to sleep in).  I also knew you could get clothes custom tailored here for a reasonable price, and I found the idea somewhat appealing.  (See earlier entries regarding my big fat butt and custom ordering pants from Land's End.)  I've got nothing against Land's End (in fact, I rather like the pants I've ordered from them), but if I'm paying $59 plus tax and shipping for a pair of cotton chinos that have been made based on my multiple-choice selections on the internet -- the idea of paying a similar amount for high-grade lined-wool trousers made by some dude who takes my measurements with a measuring tape is somewhat appealing.

Last night, I did some preliminary research -- I found the addresses of some nearby tailor shops.  Peggy also checked out a guide book which said to know what you want, shop around, and look for the seal of approval from the Hong Kong Tourism Board (so's you don't get all ripped off). 

I started off this morning at one of them shops that advertised on the map provided by my hotel.  Thought I'd be interested in a dress and two pairs of pants.  Dude gives me a price ... well, an opening bid really ... of about $450 for the set.  I try to talk him down to $300, but he won't go there.  He stops at $350.  I take his card and walk -- saying I may return.

I walk further down the street and am accosted by another tailor.  "Psst -- hey lady, wanna buy a suit?"  OK, not like that, but very nearly.  Dude takes me in his shop and we run through the whole routine again.  Silk dress and two pair of pants.  He starts in the same $450 neighborhood, and drops to $350 pretty quick.  I try to get him to $300, but he won't go there either.  He will, however, meet me at $310.  There are three problems I have with him -- he is not Hong Kong Tourism Board approved; he seemed way too eager for my business; and he was trying to pass off a fabric labelled "silky nylon" as silk.  I walked out.

I am again accosted by a tailor -- this time, it's a Tourism Board certified dude.  He too starts at $450 ....  I am reminded of this time that I was in a street market in the Bahamas -- I looked at some placemats that ran about $6.  We had been told to negotiate and the saleslady dropped to $4.  I then went to every other placemat seller in the market to see if I could get a better price -- but it was $4 everywhere.  One lady, exasperated, said to me, "$4 is the bargain price."  Like they'd all gotten together and agreed that nobody would negotiate below that.  Had the same feeling here.  $450 is the opening bid for a silk dress and two pair of high-quality wool pants, but $350 is the "bargain price."

By this time, I didn't think I was going to get any legitimate businessman down below $350, so I went with the last dude.  He seemed competent and professional and will have the stuff ready tomorrow.

When I left, I walked past Mr. Trying To Pass OffNylon As Silk.  I told him -- lying -- that I'd found someone to match the $300 price that I was looking for, so I was no longer interested in his deal.  Then, he says, "come back into the shop; let me make some pants for you."

Um... no.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

My evening stroll

I had about an hour to kill before meeting Peggy & Sabing (and relatives) for dinner so thought I'd go for a walk.

This is significant.  Since I've arrived here, I have never gone anywhere unaccompanied.  As I'm leaving tomorrow for Hong Kong (reports may be sporadic as I don't think I have the right adapter for my computer, so will be on battery), this was my last chance to wander Taipei aimlessly.

OK, not aimlessly.  With aim, or at least, direction.  I did not take with me a business card (or anything else) with the hotel's address on it.  Which meant that I could not hail a cab or ask someone directions if I got lost.  So I kept my route extremely simple -- down the street, cross the street, back to the hotel.  Repeat in another direction.

I was snapping random pictures for one of my planned photo essays when some dude in an official-looking hat looked at me funny.  Didn't say anything, just looked at me funny.  When I crossed the street and came back, I realized what was going on.  Don't snap unusual pictures when you're standing across the street from the country's main Air Force building.  (Complete with intimidating barbed wire fence.  No, you will get no picture of that one.  I didn't want to get hauled off and interrogated for espionage.)

Wandering down another street, I saw lots of folks selling goods on the sidewalk -- sort of a night market (although not as official as the one I'd been to on Monday -- with the snakes).  One woman was selling hair thingies.  I saw a cute scrunchy, picked it up, and looked at her questioningly.  She correctly interpreted my glance and responded, very clearly, with the price.

It was then I thought, "Man, I gotta learn numbers in Chinese if I expect to shop." 

About a block later, I remembered that many Taiwanese speak English, and I could've asked.  Alternatively, I could've asked her to write it down -- as they use the same Arabic numerals as we do.  Of course, I didn't think of any of these things in her presence -- and I was too proud to open my wallet in her general direction and have her point to the currency she wanted.  The scrunchy remained unpurchased.

(I'm certain I can get the same thing at Duty Free.  For three times as much.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Bestest Tour Ever

(Aside to my family:  Happy Thanksgiving!  Sorry I couldn't be there with you.  And could somebody tell mom to check her email?)

Wow.  What a difference a day makes!

(And again, we start with a detail from yesterday which I hadn't thought was important at the time.)  The dude who had picked us up and taken us to the airport was a nice, reliable guy who spoke English really well.  He got us aimed in the direction of the right plane, and told us Mr. Su would meet us.  When Mr. Su eventually did meet us, his English was crappy and he arrived with a nearly-full tour bus.  In other words, Mr. Su hauled 40 or so of us through Taroko Gorge, in three different languages.  So, not only did you have to try real hard to understand Mr. Su's English, you also had to elbow your way to the front of the crowd when he was speaking your language, or he'd be completely drowned out by the noise around him (passing cars, waterfalls, the sounds of a marble factory...)

OK, today.  Before I went off on the Taroko Gorge tour, I had a chance to book a tour for this morning.  There was a Northern Coast Tour, where I'd be taken to a city and harbour up north, or the Chiufen Village Tour where I'd be taken to a city in the mountains about an hour away.  And I thought... well, to tell you the truth, I'm not real sure I was bright enough to anticipate that I would be sick to death of tour buses by today... but I decided that what I really wanted was the "Health & Culture" tour of Taipei.

I was to meet my tour guide at 8:50 a.m. in the hotel lobby.  At 8:50 on the dot, who shows up but the nice dude from yesterday.  And he's driving a small seven-person van.  Score.

Turns out I'm the only one in it.  Score again, big time.  I ended up with a 4-hour private tour of Taipei.

First, Jackie--  not his real name, I venture.  He told me his name was Jackie Chan and that I was to call him Jackie.  (I expect this goes over a lot better on the big tour buses, but what the hell.  I figured he probably had a difficult name to pronounce and was sick of foreigners getting it wrong.)

Anyway, Jackie takes me to DiHua street, which is where the vendors sell all sorts of medicinal herbs and other folk-remedy like items.  Jackie led me through there with several games of "Guess what this is."  I have to say, I did quite poorly -- being unable to identify the caviar, the jellyfish, the dried lemon, and the dried deer penis.  (The latter, he explained, was sold for ... well, you can just guess.  He said it used to be expensive but has become a lot cheaper now that Viagra is on the market.)  I didn't buy anything (can't imagine what it would be like getting a dried deer penis through customs) but it was extremely educational.

Jackie then dropped me off at Confucius Temple and circled the block for 20 minutes while I checked it out.  This was a total bonus of the solo tour -- we were actually supposed to just drive by the Confucius Temple, but since there was just one of me, Jackie let me check it out on my own.  It was lovely -- very serene, peaceful.  But more ornate that I would've imagined.  (I guess I figured Confucians to go in for simplicity, but apparently not.)  I snapped many pictures.

I met up with Jackie across the street, and we went to Pao An Temple, a Taoist temple.  (Jackie tells me how to spot the difference between a Buddhist temple and a Taoist one.  The Buddhist ones lack the ornate decorations on the roofs.  Also, Jackie said Taoist monks need not be vegetarians, and needn't shave their heads like Buddhist monks.  They may also marry.)  The Temple I'd been to before (that first night here), Longshan Temple, was also Taoist.  I had seen many people there praying, and throwing little wooden half-moon shaped objects, but had no clue what they were actually doing.  Jackie explained all this to me -- it is the way you get guidance from the gods.  First, you light your incense -- the gods can hear what you say when you're holding the incense.  You identify yourself and make your prayer.  Then you select a long stick from a nearby barrel of such sticks.  Each one has a number on it.  Then you toss these two little half-moon shaped wooden things.  Depending on how they land, you either repeat the prayer (perhaps clarifying it), choose a different wooden stick, or receive confirmation that you have the right stick.  THEN, go over to the wall where there is a box with about sixty slots on it, each slot containing a little stack of papers.  Take a paper from the slot corresponding to the number on your stick, and you have the god's answer (which is, as gods' answers often are, subject to interpretation).  The main god at the Pao An temple is a god of medicine.  We saw an old man in front of the altar.  He had an injured foot (a crutch was propped up against the wall beside him), and we watched him cast the wooden pieces and swap sticks from the barrel.  It was really quite moving, to see someone actually participating in this means of prayer, for something that was obviously very important to him.  I hope he received a favorable answer.

Then we drove over to the Lin An Tai Historical house -- it's a 200 year old house formerly owned by a wealthy family in Taipei, and it now serves as a museum.  Very interesting to see how people used to live here, back then.  (Jackie and I again played, "Guess what this is," and I again failed -- missing both the fish-shaped chopstick holder and the extremely ornate ceremonial drum stand.)  We saw a bunch of school kids there on a field trip -- and when we left the house, we saw them all mount up on matching bicycles (and put on matching helmets) to head off.  Very nifty.  (Could you imagine a field trip by bike in the States?  The waiver forms alone would be pages long.)

THEN -- by the way, I should note that this entire four-hour private tour set me back about $36 -- Jackie took me a tea shop where the proprietor taught me about the three different grades of Taiwanese oolong tea.  (Go for the mid- or high-mountain stuff; the low mountain is bitter.)  Complete with taste testing and a lesson on how to properly accept and drink Taiwanese tea.  I got a sales pitch here -- after Mr. Su, yesterday, I'd come to expect them -- but I am a tea drinker and it was tasty tea (supposed to be good for lowering your cholesterol, too) -- so I gave in and bought a small bag.

Afterwards (but wait! there's more!) Jackie hauled me over to an Asian medical-type place for a reflexology foot massage.  I'd been a little nervous going in the unimpressive storefront, but the establish itself was pristine, huge, and completely professional.  After washing my feet at a cute little ... footwashing stand (you had to be there), I was escorted to a big comfy chair with a big comfy ottoman, wherea woman (wearing plastic gloves) just worked away at my feet.  She handed me a card with all the reflexology bits pointed out on a map of the foot, and every so often when she'd find a knot or some tenderness, she'd say something like "23 no good," and I'd look at 23 on the map and see that she thought there was some problem with my spleen.  About 60% of her calls were accurate -- some others way off.  (Either that, or they need to renumber their foot map -- I'm pretty sure I don't have prostate problems.)

(Since all tours involve an opportunity to sell you something, it was explained that my 20 minute foot massage was free, but if I gave her another 200 Taiwanese dollars, she'd give me a 10 minute neck and shoulder massage.  That's about $6.  I went for it.  Neither the foot massage nor the neck and shoulder massage felt particularly good while she was doing them -- but I felt surprisingly good afterward.

With the new spring in my step, Jackie took me upstairs (yes, upstairs) for the, er, last bit of my tour, a short Kong Fu demonstration.  To tell you the truth, I wasn't that enthusiastic about this when I signed up for it, so I was actually grateful when Jackie said that, since I was alone, it would be rather shorter than the 20 minute show promised in the tour book.  In the limited show, I saw a dude hammer a nail through a board with his hand, and also jam a piece of soft candy (like chewy caramel) clear through a hard piece of sugar cane.  This was impressive.  (I wondered whether to applaud, as one person clapping sounds pretty ridiculous, so I just said "thank you" a lot.) 

(You may wonder -- I did -- what they try to sell you at a Kong Fu demonstration.  The answer is ... a "magic hand cream."  (Softens skin!  Eliminates acne!  Reduces wrinkles!  Juliennes fries!)  Unfortunately, it's also a miraculous burn cream, so they had Kong Fu Demonstration Guy run his hands along a burning hot chain (which they had been heating on a frying pan in the corner) in order to burn his hands and then demonstrate the healing powers of the cream.  I'm not a skin cream user and there was no chance I was going to buy the stuff.  I felt pretty bad that they'd burned the guy on my account, and did hope that the "magic hand cream" really did make the burn go away -- or, in the alternative -- that there was some trick involved here and he wasn't really hurting himself.)

After that uncomfortable moment, Jackie packed me up and we headed back to my hotel.  I asked if he had a tour this afternoon, and he said he was doing a tour of a pottery factory and museum.  He laughed and said he had only one person signed up for it, and asked if I wanted to go for free, to keep him company.  Having dinner plans (and no interest in purchasing pottery), I declined -- but I gotta admit, I was tempted.  These individually guided things are the way to go.

Mr. Su's Wild Ride

We continued through the gorge, mostly on the bus and sometimes by walking.  (At one point, we walked about 2 km with a soft uphill grade.  I think I got me some good exercise here.)  At another point, we were standing in a cave and he pointed out all the swallow nests in the holes above us.  And, at first, I thought, "Aw, cute little swallows," and then I thought, "Oh no!  Bird poop!  Run for the hills!"

We got out of the gorge around noon -- I thought the trip was scheduled to be 11 hours long, and -- given the 25 minute flight -- I really couldn't imagine how we were going to kill five or so hours. 

Lunch was included in the trip.  I had thought perhaps we would stop at, oh, a restaurant.  No.  We stop at a marble and jade shop.  We are taken to a room in the back where four round tables have been set up.  We're eating in the store.  The woman who runs the place brings out big plates of vegetables (and a fish) and we eat family-style.  (There was also a plate of what looked -- and tasted -- like Chicken nuggets.  Wow.  I ate a McNugget with chopsticks.) 

Afterward, we are brought back into the shop.  Mr. Su has us gather around.  He wants to show us how to tell real marble from fake marble.  He does this.  (Real is cold to the touch, and has no air bubbles in it.)  This takes some time.  (Remember, he's still doing everything in three languages.)  I get bored and start wandering around the shop.

I am not allowed to wander around the shop.  We are then taken into the back room and seated around a table where we are given a demonstration of how to tell fake jade from real.  (It involves fire.  Like we're going to carry around lighters whenever we go shopping.)  Also cat's-eye, which is a very attractive type of jade (kinda like Tiger's Eye, but green) and coral.  When the demonstration is done, we're told that, as we're good friends of Mr. Su, we will all receive a 50% discount on anything in the store.  Mr. Su then says we will reboard the bus in 15 minutes.

Try 50.  At one point, I joked that they wouldn't take us back to the airport until we'd all purchased something -- but it started to feel like there was some truth to it.  Mrs. Su had reappeared and was telling us all how lovely we'd look wearing this or that piece of jade.  "Sale" prices bore no relation to the numbers on the tags.  (They certainly weren't half the price.)   Much of the jewelry in the store was tagged at about $300, but if you expressed interest, they'd give you a "sale price" of anywhere from $75 to $175.

I actually bought a small cat's-eye necklace for about $60.  I was irked no end when another lady -- not realizing I'd already bought it -- tried to sell me the same necklace for about $9 less.  All things considered, I probably could've gotten it for $45, but I guess I just wasn't in the haggling mood.  (All I kept thinking of was how nice it would be to get back to those pretty marble bathrooms at the airport -- and then laughing to myself that I was at a place in my life where I'd actually look forward to an airport lavatory.)  Eh, whatever.  In the long run, it's pretty; it wasn't a whole ton of money; and now I have a souvenir with which to remember not only Taiwan, but also Mr. Su himself and the rest of the Taroko Gorge experience.

I Peed in a Urinal

See, the problem with journalling a trip one day at a time is that you never know what's going to become relevant later.  Like yesterday, I left out the bit about how when we stopped to use the bathroom in the Department store, we had our choice between "sit" toilets and "squat" toilets.  I found this amusing.  As I was entering the stall (of a "sit," thanks very much) I commented aloud to Peggy that I needed to get a picture of the labelled stall doors.  As soon as I shut the stall door to do my business, I saw a sign with a camera and a big red line through it -- apparently, photography in the bathroom was strictly outlawed.

I just want you people to know the lengths I'll go to for you.  After Peg and I washed our hands and were about to leave, I asked her if she thought I could take a picture anyway.  (Another woman had just entered a "squat" toiler, so we were whispering.)  Peg said I could, as long as I was quick about it.  I aimed my camera at the sign on the door saying "squat" and took a picture.

The flash went off!  Holy crap -- it seemed like the entire bathroom was bathed in a lightning strike.  Peg and I ran out of there, giggling all the way.

Now, of course, I didn't tell you about this because I thought I'd just surprise you with the photo (if it came out) when I got back home.  Little did I know that squat toilets would play a part in today's adventure.

I had signed up for a tour of Taroko Gorge.  It's a, er, gorge.  A marble gorge.  Some distance to the south.  The tour of the gorge included a plane flight down there.  I had to meet my little shuttle to the airport at 6:20 in the morning.  (And the hotel buffet breakfast opened at 6:00.  I was standing out there at 5:55, pretty much with my fork poised.)

So.  Dude picks us up in a van and takes us to the airport.  He gives us boarding passes for our flight, and tickets for the trip back -- and tells us that we'll be met by Mr. Su at the other end, who will be our tour guide.  (While we wait for the flight, we sit around talking and discover that an extraordinarily high percentage of us were all from Los Angeles.) 

Anyway (.... you're still waiting for the urinal part, aren't you?) we take our 25 minute flight down to Hualien airport.  We deplane.  We look around the airport.  (Which is freakin' gorgoeus.  It's all marble.  I took pictures.  I even took a picture of the marble bathroom, figuring I was working on a photo essay of johns in Taiwan.)  Eventually, some woman, with a baby strapped on her back, approaches our group.  She speaks no English.  She conveys (via the Chinese speakers among us) that she wants all our return tickets.  I'm skeptical -- why should I hand over my ticket to this stranger?  I have visions of some newspaper report about seven idiots from California who gave some dude in Taipei $150 each and ended up stranded in Hualien with no return tickets. 

Eventually, Mr. Su appears!  We'd been dealing with the Mrs., who would obtain our boarding passes for us while we were on the tour.  OK!  We pile onto the bus and go to...

... a marble factory.  We see these 2-ton (or was it 10-ton?) blocks of marble that they take out of the gorge; then the sheets they cut it in; then the machines they polish it with; and so forth.  (All I can think of is how cool one of those slabs would look as my new shower wall.)  Mr. Su is telling us everything in English, Mandarin, and Japanese.  English is clearly his worst language.  We pick up less than half of what he is saying.  (Later, one woman from California would confide in us that she was doing better understanding his Mandarin -- and she ain't fluent in Mandarin.)

Mr. Su then loads us back on the bus.  We go to ....

... a little roadside stop at the start of the gorge.  They are selling cheap jade bracelets and other trinkets.  Mr. Su tells us not to buy anything here; he'll take us to a place where we can get "good price" later.  Mr. Su will tell us this repeatedly during the trip -- even telling us not to buy anything from the Buddhist monks at the monastary.  (Like monks are gonna rip you off.)

FINALLY, we get back on the bus and on into the gorge.  I can't really tell you much about the gorge, as my comprehension of Mr. Su was pretty sketchy.  But it was beautiful and you'll see the pictures.  The one interesting thing I got from Mr. Su was that the gorge was very narrow -- don't think a V-shape, think two parallel vertical walls.  Because it was so narrow and we were so close to the walls, our perspective was totally out of whack.  At one point, he asked us how tall we thought a nearby cliff wall was.  We guessed something like 200 meters.  The answer was over 1400 meters.  That's like 4/5 of a mile.  Straight up.  Impressive.

There were also some pretty waterfalls cutting through the cliff walls -- and I noted at some point that the whooshing of the water was doing absolutely nothing for those of us who might need a bathroom soon.  Finally, after we'd gotten off the bus and walked for quite a bit, we saw a "Toilets this way" sign, and followed it.

To 5 porta-potties.  We stood around in what wasn't so much a line as a half-circle of people who needed to pee -- but didn't want to get all that close to the smell.  There were two different kinds of porta-potty there -- three were blue and two were yellow.  The door of one of the blue ones opened and I saw, to my horror, a "squat" toilet -- pretty much a ceramic trough sitting in the floor of the unit.  A small girl -- aged about 3 or 4 -- was next in line.  Two adults with her just took down her pants and panties right there in front of us, held the girl from either end, and carried her in there.  I could only imagine what happened next.

In the meantime, one of the yellow ones opened, and a guy walked out.  I saw a urinal in there.  I was next in line.  I looked at it, and looked questioningly at a Chinese girl behind me, who motioned encouragingly in the direction of said facilitiy.

I really, really, really had to pee.  The physics of the situation were a bit of a challenge though.  (What with me wearing pants and all.)  It seemed the only way to properly address the situation involved a particularly uncomfortable balancing act, with my fingers wedged in around both sides of the door (ewww) to keep me from toppling over.  Even then, I have to say that the gods of public toilets were smiling upon me, in that I managed to do the deed and get out of there without peeing on my clothes (or letting them touch the ooky porta-potty floor).

Afterward, people were washing their hands from a rusty water spout emptying into a big plastic basin.  I used anti-bacterial hand wash.  And a lot of it.


Blogging from Taiwan, I apparently hit the middle-of-the-night update.  Where my journal should have a disclaimer under the ad, it instead reads:  "XXX MISSING STRING XXX "  I find this amusing. 

Anyway, just carry on to the next entry... which should be pretty fun.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

My Chinese is Improving!

Not my spoken Chinese -- which is still stuck at "bao" -- my comprehension of written Chinese.  Before I came, I only knew one character ("man").  Now, I know seven more!  700 percent improvement!  I expect this level of improvement in a day is really just possible on Day One, but still.

Started off the morning with another buffet brunch at the hotel.  This was the second day in a row they tried to pawn off coffee on me.  (I'm a tea drinker; csn't stand coffee.)  Yesterdsy, when the nice lady sat me, she asked if I wanted coffee or tea.  I'd said, "No, thank you."  When I returned from the buffet a put of steaming coffee had magically appeared on my table.  When I recounted this to Peggy later, she said the woman probably heard me say "thank you" and figured I'd said yes to the coffee.  OK, fine.  Today, when the woman seats me, she says, "can I get you coffee or tea?" and I think, "OK, if I clearly choose tea, I won't have that 'thank you' problem."  So I said, "Tea, please.:  And then she waves over to the guy and says something that sounds like "Kafe," and I think, "That doesn't sound like 'tea' to me."  Sure enough, coffee again.  (This time just a cup, not a pot.  Perhaps she thought she shouldn't waste a whole pot on me.  By now, she might even be curious as to why I keep 'ordering' coffee but don't drink it.)  ANYWAY, when I told Peg about this morning, she figured desperate times called for desperate measures, so she told me the Chinese word for "tea."  It sounds kinda like "Tcha."  I practiced for several minutes but still couldn't get it, so I have resigned myself to another untouched cup of java tomorrow morning.

We went to the National Palace Museum.  OK, when Chaing Kai-Shek and his troops fled mainland China (after being defeated by the communists), they came to Taiwan.  And they brought with them a whole bunch of artifacts from the imperial palace.  Huge honkin' collection.  It's on display in Taipei, at the National Palace Museum.

I lie. A fraction is on display at the National Palace Museum -- they don't have enough room to display it all.  Worse than that,k the museum is undergoing a massive renovation, so only about a quarter of it is open right now.  Still, I saw some amazing stuff.  Lots of examples of Chinese calligraphy; beautiful scrolls; carvings in wood, ivory, and jade; imperial signets; and a religious sculpture collection.  Much of it was beautiful, but some of the detail work on the small pieces was amazing.  There was this one thing that had seventeen concentric ivory spheres -- each sphere was carved with a sort of lattice pattern so you could see the next sphere inside.  Amazing.  And such wonderful delicate work -- there were a couple carved armrests I fell in love with.  (I know.  Armrests.)

It was raining, so we decided to stay indoors.  The three of us went to see the Harry Potter movie.  (Thank goodness for worldwide simultaneous release.)  English with Chinese subtitles.  It was here that I picked up several more Chinese characters.  I confirmed that the one I thought was "no," was indeed "no."  (I am most proud of this one as I'd picked it up just watching the Hillary Duff movie on the plane.)  I also learned "one," "two" and "three."  (Especially "three," with all that "Tri-wizard" stuff.)  And when I questioned Peggy as to why the same character appeared in the two-character expressions for "entrance" and "exit," she explained that it was "opening" (so they're like, "in-opening" and "out-opening") so I added that one to my list.  (You may wonder why I didn't bother with "in" and "out."  I'm sticking with the easily-identifiable ones -- that are made with just a few pen-strokes.)

After the movie, Sabing's mom took us to dinner.  It was a buffet, so I was able to be mildly adventurous without, y'know, wasting anyone's money if the food turned out to be not to my liking (bonus points again to Sabing's mom for being so thoughtful).  I tried some innocent-looking sushi (which wasn't as innocent as it looked at all, as there was wasabi hidden in it).  I also ate some weird-looking fruit -- the outside is red and ... not smooth ... and the inside is white with itty bitty black seeds in it.  Sabing's mom and Peggy couldn't remember what it was called, but it was fairly tasty.  (Kind of kiwi-esque, but milder.)  The buffet also had wine, and I had a small glass.  It was very sweet and tasted oddly like the Manischewitz I grew up with -- odd, I'd thought only Jewish people were saddled with that stuff.

 After dinner, we went to Sabing's aunt's house.  My first visit to a Taiwanese home.  Very exciting.  They were very friendly and welcoming.  (They put out a big bowl of fruit and kept offering for us to take some.  Peggy explained, "We just came from an all-you-can-eat buffet.  We at all we could eat.")  A three-year-old cousin kept showing us his toys and offering them to me.  Eventually, he handed me a child's picture book, and I actually liked it, as it helped with identifying more Chinese characters.  I got "five" -- sadly, "four" is still a mystery -- and "little."  Unless you're talking about little men not opening something, I don't think I'll understand -- but it's a start.

Just got a cab back to the hotel, and I better to sleep soon, as I have a very early morning tomorrow.  I've got a tour that picks me up at 6:20 in the morning.  Eep.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Taipei in a Day

First, the players.  I came here with my friends Peggy and Sabing, who each have family here.  Right now, in Taipei, Peg and Sabing are staying with Sabing's folks, and I'm in the (quite lovely) hotel down the street.

It was never entirely known (before we got here) how much time I'd be spending with Peg and Sabing.  One possible option was that they'd be with family all week, and I'd take day tours of the city.  It then turned out that one of Peggy's cousins offered to show us around the city.  (He actually picked us up at the airport when we got in last night, after 11:00 p.m.  Very generous, friendly people my friends are related to.)

Well.  Today the cousin was otherwise occupied, and to my delight, Peg and Sabing and Sabing's mom came by my hotel this morning and took me all around the city. 

We started at 11:00 or so -- Sabing's mom had to run an errand at the phone company.  After that, we were off, heading to the Chaing Kai-Shek Memorial.  Big huge bronze statue in an impressive looking structure at the top of some stairs.  (There will be photographs.)  Turns out, we hit the statue right at noon, when they were Changing The Guard.  Much pomp and circumstance.  A crowd of about 50 watching quietly, cameras aimed.

We left, after first walking through the museum.  From there, we walked a block or so, over to the Presidential Palace.  Didn't actually go in the palace, but snapped some pictures from a block away. 

We then grabbed a taxi to another part of town, and had dumplings for lunch.  I love dumplings.  We actually have a branch of this particular dumpling house about 15 minutes from my house, and I go there any chance I get.  Yummy juicy pork dumplings.  Sabing's mom also ordered us some Taiwanese beef soup.  There was some, er, tendon in it.  Sabing's mom said this was something of a delicacy -- being more expensive than actual meat.  I didn't eat mine.  I sorta figured that any offense that might be taken by my refusal to taste tendon was outweighed by the rather high risk that I'd retch while thinking, "Dude, I'm eating tendon."  Made mental note to find safer food to experiment with.

(Sabing's mom paid, and flat-out refused to let us pay.  The small box of chocolates I'd purchased for her was starting to look more and more inadequate.)

From there, we went over to the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial.  On our way walking, I noticed TONS of motor-scooters all parked up and down the sides of the street.  Looks like everyone has these scooters in Taipei.  And there's no prohibition against riding them on the sidewalk -- so motor scooters come up behind you while you're on the sidewalk -- just like bikes do in the US.

After the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial, we talked through a little park area (staying far away from the pigeons) and eventually walked to Taipei 101.

The 101 building is the world's tallest office building, and has various other world records -- including the fastest elevator -- as they pretty much rocket you up from the 5th floor to the 89th in about 37 seconds.  The views were pretty impressive, but it was an overcast day, so I didn't get a lot of photos of the whole of Taipei -- a hazy sort of fog limited visibility.  Taipei 101 also includes a shopping mall.  A hoity-toity shopping mall, in which all of the shops are labelled in English (and many are high-end designer names that you'd recognize).  It felt completely like a mall in America -- you could hardly tell you were in Taiwan.

THEN (man, I'm getting tired just talking about it) we can back for an hour or so of rest.  Then Peg and Sabing and Sabing's mom came back to the hotel for our evening activities.

One thing I'd really wanted to see here was one of the temples.  We took the subway (very clean, very inexpensive, easy-to-navigate) out to Lungshan Temple.  It is a beautifully ornate pagoda-style building.  I tried to take some pictures but people were praying there and I didn't want to be disrespectful.  There were several altars to different gods -- each in its own little room ... almost like storefronts in an open market.  Sabing's mom told us what each god was known for, and we saw people standing before each statue (often waving incense) and giving prayer.  One of the gods was for finding a good mate -- I saw lots of hopeful single people standing there praying.  I thought that this area of the temple itself might be a good place to meet eligible singles -- in which case, praying to this god probably does help people find the match they're looking for.  Sabing's mom sent me off in the general direction of this altar, while she marched Peg and Sabing over to the one to whom you pray if you want children.  :)

We then went to one of Taipei's many Night Markets, in which people set up small shops or stalls selling stuff to people.  This particular market is known for "snake alley," a place where you can see snakes on display and ... y'know, the less said about this the better.  Let's just say, I hope the cute little mouse beat the odds on this one.

From there, we tried to find a restaurant in a department store for dinner.  But the Department store was having an Anniversary Sale and the place was swarming with people.  I mean, the line for the elevator was 20 minutes long.  ("I think I've discovered Taiwan's national pastime," I said.)  We ultimately gave up and found a much quieter restaurant.  I had some fairly innocuous (and tendon-free!) food -- beef and mushrooms over rice.  It came with sesame-flavored ice cream, so I did get to fulfill my goal of being more adventurous with food.  And it tastes... oddly, it tastes exactly like sesame-flavored ice cream ought to.  It's weird taking a spoonful of ice cream and then tasting ... a bagel ... but it wasn't bad.

....11:30 now and I am ZONKED.  We're going to the National Palace Museum tomorrow, and I am gonna get me some serious sleep now.



OK.  First off, let me say right here and now that, based on my massive command of Chinese ("bao"), I am in no position to mock the English-language attempts of any of the nice folks in Taipei.  (I mean, really.  Quite amusing when I paid the cab driver -- I said "thank you" and he said what I assume was its Chinese equivalent, and we sorta nodded our heads at each other and went along our merry ways.)  Which is to say that if anyone in Taiwan goes to the trouble of trying to speak English in my direction, I should at the very least, meet them halfway in terms of understanding -- because I certainly cannot reciprocate with a little Chinese.

That said, before coming to Taipei I came across the English-language website of the Taipei Department of Information.  It was there that I read this little gem:

"Providing correct English information makes foreigners feel Taipei is friendly. "

Peggy thought this was hilarious.  Because, of course, it can be read to mean that Taipei isn't friendly -- but, y'now, that they think they can maybe fool people into thinking they're friendly if they "provide correct English information."  That's sorta been our little catchphrase for the trip -- about how Taipei is trying to appear friendly.

I say all of this by way of introduction to the sign I saw in the hotel elevator.  Now, this was a professionally printed sign -- not something someone had just scrawled up.  It was an ad for the hotel's bar, and it said:

"Have a little drink to enjoy a moment of a trifle tipsy."

Frankly, I don't think proper grammar could have possibly made this any friendlier.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Greetings from Taipei!

Eeee!  I'm on another continent!

As it's just this side of 1:00 a.m. here, I don't really have a solid impression of the place.  The airport seemed a lot like international airports everywhere; the freeway seemed much like American freeways (they drive on the right over here; signs are in English as well as Chinese) and the city itself -- at night anyway -- looks pretty much like any sprawling metropolis.  Well, any sprawling metropolis dotted with the occasional example of obviously Asian architecture.  I mean, we're driving along the freeway, and it's high-rise after high-rise ... and then there's some pagoda-like building that reminds you, "Hey, this is Asia."  In case you forgot.

The journey over the Pacific was, as expected, a pain in the butt.  (And the lower back... and the knees...)  We flew over on EVA Air, an airline which I am still uncertain as to whether to pronounce it as "Eva" or "E.V.A." -- as both versions showed up in the flight attendants' announcements.  But we chose EVA -- well, we chose EVA because my friends have frequent flier accounts with them -- but, as far as I'm concerned, the reason we chose them is because they have a fourth class of service, between Economy and Business, called "Economy Deluxe."  Basically, it gives you wider seats, more legroom, and individual video screens.  All of which make 14 hours wedged between two total strangers (my friends and I ended up two rows apart) somewhat more bearable.

The individual video screens, I should note, helped to pass the time.  And that's about all I can say for them.  On the way here, I saw:  "Red Eye," some Hillary Duff movie, "Fantastic Four," and some Brooke Shields thing I'd never heard of called "Bob The Butler."  They all kinda blew, but the only time I ever actually slept was during "Fantastic Four."  (I couldn't sleep when I'd affirmatively tried to, but "Fantastic Four" put me out faster than those late-night beauty product infomercials.)  The duller the video entertainment got, the more I tried to kill time by trying to figure out (from watching the subtitles) one Chinese character.  (ANY Chinese character.  I just thought it'd be cool.)  I thought I had a lead on one, but by the time I was watching some world sports show, it didn't pan out.  Peggylater told me that SOME of the subtitles had been in Japanese, not Chinese -- so I clearly had no chance AT ALL of figuring this stuff out.

There's no easy way to say this:  EVA Air has a "Hello Kitty" plane.  I read about it on their website -- looks like a normal plane but with pictures of "Hello Kitty" on the fuselage.  Kinda like how Air New Zealand did up some planes with "Lord of the Rings" characters. 

That's what I thought.  Now, don't get me wrong -- I was not ON the "Hello Kitty" plane; I just read about it.  And it scared me.  The exterior images are just a clue to the fun waiting inside.  The flight attendants wear special themed uniforms.  You get your beverages served in "Hello Kitty" cups; there's "Hello Kitty" art on the plane (there's "Hello Kitty" art??) and, of course, an opportunity to purchase limited edition "Hello Kitty" stuff.  The mind boggles.  I mean, why's a grown woman want to dish out $70 for a "Hello Kitty" wallet?

I need to further investigate this -- not the "Hello Kitty" plane thing -- but there appears to be some sort of attraction to cute in Asia that we don't really have in the States.  I mean, I was greeted at the airport by a standing cardboard character that had a teapot for a head.  (It was a little disturbing.)  And, before we landed, we saw a short 20-second cartoon on preventing the spread of Avian Flu, and it actually showed a cartoon bird flying across the sky and dropping a big pile of cartoon bird poop on the ground.  (I am so not making this up.  How could I make up cartoon bird poop?)  Or my hotel room -- I have a beautiful room in a really nice hotel.  I ended up with a room on the Executive Floor (it seemed worth the extra fee for the free breakfast and free internet access).  So, picture this -- I'm in this totally elegant room which is designed for business travellers.  (Hell, my package includes a free suit pressing.  Quick, find me a suit to press.)  And I walk in the bathroom and see... two rubber duckies on the edge of the tub. 

I'm telling you.  I've always had this impression that Asian culture was all steeped in ritual, and very formal and traditional.  (And I've been reading all these websites about how Asians seldom show expressions in public and stuff like that.)  And then I get here, and it's all cartoon bird poop, teapot-head-man, Hello Kitty planes, and rubber duckies in the bathroom. 

Like I said, this requires further investigation.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Oh, before I forget -- that thing on House about the sugarless gum? I've only got a half pack a day habit, and, um, I'm pretty sure it's true.

Words and Phrases

It dawns on me that I only know one Chinese word, and even there I'm not sure of its dialect: bao.  I think of them as tasty barbecue-pork-filled buns, but I'm told it actually means "purse" or "pouch."  Makes sense.  Still, I can't see myself getting real far in Taipei with a single-word vocabulary ("My!  What tasty bao!" and "Hey!  Get your hands off my bao!" are the outside limits) so I intend to never be real far from someone who speaks English.

Still.  Going to a whole other continent and all, there are a few words and phrases I'd like to know in the local language.  (Or have written down, so I can point cheerfully to the phrase I want, and avoid horrible mispronounciation errors.  'Cause you just know that I'm going to aim for "Where's the restroom?" and end up saying something like, "What a lovely octopus.")

In an ideal world, I'd be on top of the following words and phrases:

Thank you
Pardon me, how do I find...my hotel? the museum? the bathroom? my tour group? some really kick-ass bao?
How much?  Perhaps a small discount?
Thank you for welcoming me into your home; here have some chocolate.
The United States.  No, I didn't vote for him.
California.  Not him either.
Thank you, but I would prefer not to visit the poultry farm.
I am horribly sorry that I unintentionally violated your custom; please accept more chocolate.

Shock! A customer service story not about AOL.

(Heh.  I just got the banner ad for Verizon.  They are the only other company I've left due to incompetence.  Too funny.)

Today's story is about a dress and skirt I ordered from Eddie Bauer online.  I've ordered from them a lot in the past.  They have a greater selection online, they ship really fast, and if the stuff doesn't fit, you can return it to their stores (which avoids the hassle of mailing something back).

I placed this order way back on the 8th.  I had just received another order from them, and I liked the skirt I'd bought so darned much, I thought I'd order it in another color.  And I threw in a dress.  I wasn't real sure about the dress, but the order I'd just received included a discount code for free shipping on my next order ... so I figured, hey, what have I got to lose?  If I don't like the dress, I'll return it to the store, and I won't even be out shipping costs.

So, to sum up:  I ordered a skirt and a dress from Eddie Bauer on 11/8, with free shipping.

On 11/15, I received an email from Eddie Bauer.  They said there was a "system problem" that had caused a delay in the processing of my order.  But it was all fixed now.  They said that, as an apology for the delay, they'd waive the shipping charge.  (This would've been rather more impressive had I actually paid shipping charges in the first place.)  They also said they'd send me a gift certificate as an expression of their appreciation. 

I gotta say, Eddie Bauer is class all the way.  They messed up; they 'fessed up; they shipped the order out ASAP; and promised a small token of their appreciation (good for a future purchase).  Man, that's the way to keep customers.

I log on this morning and find a tracking number for my package.  I duly plug it in and am told by UPS that, not only did Eddie Bauer send that sucker out yesterday, it had already made it to my local UPS place as of 8:08 this morning, and at 8:15 got placed on a truck to be delivered to my home.  I credit Eddie Bauer for this, too -- upgrading me to a faster form of shipping to make up for the delay.  They totally rock.  (Stick a banner ad for Eddie Bauer on my journal and I won't mind... heh, they're probably too cool to use annoying banner ads.)

The problem is ... no package.

I checked outside tonight.  No tag either.

I logged back on.  The UPS website now says that (as of an entry at 9:07 p.m. tonight), my package missed the truck.  Honest.  The 8:15 a.m. entry says "out for delivery."  The 9:07 p.m. entry says "the package was missed at the UPS facility."  They'll redeliver tomorrow.  No apology.  Not even an entry in the middle of the day when they noticed my package was still sitting on the shelf somewhere.  Just "the package was missed."

So.  While I was working at home all day today and ready to meet a UPS package, I will actually be at the office tomorrow, and therefore won't be here to let them in.

Who wants to wager whether I'll actually get my skirt and dress before I leave for Taiwan on Saturday?  I'm thinking it's even odds.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


(Just one more post on the reactions to the banner ads placed on AOL journals.  Tomorrow, we shall return to irregularly scheduled journalling.)

Item:  Please, don't call it "rape."  That's an insult to rape victims.  Can we have a teensy bit of perspective here?  It's a banner ad, for cryin' out loud. 

Item:  Don't confuse malice with incompetence.  Which is to say, yes, the banner ads were most definitely intentional and we can and should get riled up about them.  But all of the other errors that came along with this install -- like the inability to add or save entries -- that's just incompetence.  I totally accept the Joe's explanations for those things.  Why?  Because I've been with AOL for over ten years and they've never rolled out a new version of anything that wasn't crawling with errors.  I got AOL disks dating back to 3 1/2-inch floppies of version 3.something.  I'm running 9.0 now.  That's years of new installs.  And by around 6.0, I started realizing you should never download the new version from AOL when they first offer it.  Why?  'Cause it has errors so plentiful and obvious, you wonder if they had monkeys beta-testing it.  (And I'm talkin' stupid monkeys.  Not the kind that understand sign language; the ones that fling their poo at you.)  ANYWAY, I've learned to wait a few months until they've gotten most of the bugs out.  Because AOL always seems to release stuff that doesn't work all that well on an unsuspecting public.  It's just their way.

This sounds rather more like an indictment of AOL than a defense of it -- but my point is this:  Yes, the banner ads on journals are a new low in AOL's attempt to make advertising bucks off the same people it gets subscription bucks from.  But bugs in a "new and improved" version of anything from AOL?  That's just the standard incompetence you should come to expect from being a longtime AOL user.  Take a deep breath, know that that will be fixed in time, and focus on the real battlefront.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


(I tried posting something like this earlier, but I had drafted it in Word so it posted with all them "bonus characters."  Besides which, it probably came out a little pissier than I'd intended.  So, if you happened to see the earlier version via Alerts, you can probably pass this one by.)

Warning:  This post is about AOL only.  If you're reading this and you're not an AOL user, just pass this by.

Item:  I've read a lot about people "boycotting" journals because they don't like the banner ads.  To you I say, if you want to leave in protest, leave.  If you want to stay, suck it up and stay.  These are your only two alternatives.  Personally, I'm still waffling between the two (and probably won't make any final decisions until January).  But here's the thing:  saying that you're going to "boycott" Journals in response to the banner ads is ridiculous.  Think for a minute -- what message are you sending AOL when you're not journalling but you're still making your monthly payment, like always?  You're not hurting them one bit by just not updating your journal.  AOL doesn't care whether you journal or not -- and the amount of potential revenue that they might lose because your journal isn't being updated and therefore isn't being seen by more people who might conceivably click on the banner ad is so astonishingly insignificant it defies words.  If you're so upset about what AOL is doing to journals that you can't take it any more, pack up your toys and go someplace else.  Leave in droves.  Perhaps losing a whole lot of members will make AOL reconsider.  But the fact that you all are (temporarily or permanently) not using the Journals service -- yet still using AOL -- means nothing

Item:  Stop emailing me.  And by "me," I mean "anyone on AOL who won't recognize your screen name."  Including me.  Especially me.  Look, I can understand when someone I know is leaving AOL (or planning a boycott, or just wanting to share some thoughts) and they think that, rather than sending separate emails to everyone they know, they'll just send one big email and cc: everyone they know.  I understand.  And I certainly don't mind receiving a bulk email from somone I know.  This does not mean, however, that if you are one of the many people who received that email, that you can just "reply to all" to get your particular take on the incident out.  Because, to tell you the truth, just because we both have a friend or acquaintance in common, doesn't mean I know who you are or particularly care about your opinion.  I don't mean to be harsh here, but it's the truth.  Take the trouble to send your own mass email to your own friends, if that's what you want to do.  Don't take the lazy way out and just email everyone who was copied on the last thing that happens to be in your inbox.

And I really am saying this on behalf of other people -- because right now, about half of the emails I'm receiving are of the "I'm boycotting AOL-J so here's the URL of my new journal" type (from someone whose journal I have never read) and the other half are of the "Stop spamming me with your boycotts and new URLs" type (from someone who I have never spammed -- but who was, apparently, spammed by the same email I was).  And no, it does not make it ok if you preface your message with, "I know some people are sick of all the spam, but..."  If you know it, don't send the message.  You know what?  There's a place where you can put messages that you want to send to everyone who cares -- it's called YOUR JOURNAL.  And if you're "boycotting" your journal, make a post to that effect in your AOL-J, post a pointer to your Journal's new home, and leave my email address the heck out of it.

(Honestly, this is the less pissy version of this post.)

You have no idea how much it disappoints me that -- during this time when I should be full of frustration at AOL, I am instead forced to redirect my anger to my fellow journallers -- because they don't have the common courtesy to not fill my mailbox with all their crap.  We are all disappointed in the banner ads and we should all be doing something productive toward a solution.  The first step in that direction, I submit, is not to spam each other.

Hey, see anything different?

Well, the AOL-J community is in a frenzy over those banner ads.  Not to mention that, along with the rollout of the banner ads, came an unfortunate inability to add entries to one's journal.  (In case you're curious, I'm adding this via accessing from the web -- accessing from AOL didn't give me an "Add Entry" button.)

So, I add my voice to the general peevedness.  While I've got nothing against Quizno's -- actually, there are so few decent eating establishments near my office, we actually sent around excited e-mails when a Quizno's opened nearby -- I do have quite a bit against Bank of America (my former bank).  Actually B of A is one of the few companies I've been SO peeved with I actually took my business elsewhere.  And I'm pretty lazy as a rule, so you have to be pretty dang bad for me to overcome my natural inertia and drop your service.

And, of course, now I wonder if AOL has crossed that line.  To be honest, there's very little AOL-specific content that I use.  I never go to chat rooms; I rarely play the free online games; and while I read the news stories, I could get that elsewhere.  Also, the spam-blocker is not particularly effective, the free anti-virus is nice but McAfee has managed to keep charging me anyway -- (that's for another rant), and -- on those rare occasions when I actually WANT to click a link on the welcome page -- the link is frequently broken.  Honestly, I was ready to leave years ago, but I was too lazy to send out all those "change of address" emails.

But then, in came journals.  I adore journalling, and a great deal of my life is chronicled here.  And, if I gave up AOL, I would lose this.  (Perhaps, she wonders idly, this is why AOL has not put a lot of effort into coming up with an easy way of archiving one's entire journal to hard disk -- because, if we could do that, it would be that much easier to pack up our toys and leave.)  But the fact that our journals -- the main reason why I keep with AOL as a paying customer -- have now become home to ads for companies we may not support -- that's downright irritating.  And another mark in the "leave AOL" column.


Game Over!

My cat's latest game is "Chase me around the house."

It begins whenever I'm doing something else (usually working on the computer) and therefore, as far as Jasmine is concerned, free to play.  She sits just outside the door and meows her face off.  Like something is really wrong.  A sad, plaintive cry.

Eventually, no matter how much I know she's just trying to get me to play, I'll get up and make sure she's okay.  Because, y'know, there's always that itty bitty chance that she's caught in the lamp again and is actually crying for my help.

When she sees me, she darts down the hall into the living room.  Of course, now that I'm already up, I might as well chase her.  She has four or five places she usually runs to -- beside the couch, under the desk, back down the hall to my bedroom, under the bed, on the bed -- each time, she runs to a spot and stays there.  I approach, and when I'm an inch away from petting her, she gleefully darts off to the next hiding space.  I chase after her.  (Usually putting on a mock grouchy voice I didn't know I had, saying things like, "I'm gonna get that kitty.  And I'm gonna pet her silly.")  But since she goes to the same places all the time, I usually don't bother turning the lights on all over the house.  I know where she'll be, and I just have to look a little harder to see the little green eyes staring back at me.

So, tonight, she meows and meows and meows.  And finally I fall for it, and she runs off to the living room, and I follow her.  And then she goes under the desk.  And I follow her.  And then she runs under my bed.  And I follow ... "Hey, is that cat barf?"  (Turn on light.)  "That's cat barf."  Jasmine is still under the bed, waiting for me to almost catch her, so she can run off again.  She hasn't realized that the one thing that grabs my attention faster than meowing cat is barfing cat.

Oh Lord, please don't let her figure that out.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

What's Wrong With This Picture?

I forgot to tell you about the cashier at the hotel buffet. 

When I got to the counter, I handed her my little "Free Buffet" ticket.  She looks at it, confused.  There's a place where my name should be written in, and that space is blank.

She has to ask a manager whether she can accept the ticket.  The manager tells her to just get me to write my name in.

She hands me a pen and tells me to write my name on the ticket.  I oblige.

Then she says, "Can I see your ID?"

This week's homework: Magazines!

(Yeah, I don't why I journalled that last entry either.  Sometimes you just had to be there.)

OK, so, for this week's homework, Scalzi asks:

Weekend Assignment #85: What magazines do you subscribe to and why? This assumes you currently subscribe to a magazine or two, of course, but I'm reasonably confident most of us do. If you don't have any current subscriptions, however, you can list some of your most recent subscriptions or magazines you want to subscribe to.

Extra Credit: What was your first magazine subscription?

I subscribe to Games.  The only real reason for this is that my mother and I like to work on some of the puzzles together, and that's getting harder for us to do when we don't live in the same state.  So she got me a subscription recently so she could stop trying to describe cartoon rebuses over the phone.

My first magazine subscription, I think, was Highlights.  Didn't everyone read that when they were five?

.... Favorite story re: magazine subscriptions.  When selecting juries, attorneys will often ask prospective jurors which magazines they subscribe to, hoping to get some insight into the jurors' personalities.  I always wondered why they ask this -- usually they'd get answers like "People" or "Time" -- things that don't really tell you much about the prospective juror.  Once -- after years of seeing this question asked without success, I saw it finally score a useful answer -- the prospective juror answered "'Guns & Ammo' and 'Playboy.'"  Now that's an answer that tells you who you're dealing with.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Shop Till You Drop

Have you ever shopped till you drop?  It isn't pretty.  The key is to stop shopping just before you drop.

I had this really great plan.  There's a huge outlet mall about an hour and a half from here.  Conveniently located right next to a hotel/casino (on tribal land).  A coupla months ago, I won free passes to the hotel buffet in a raffle.

So, I had yesterday off.  The plan was to drive out to the hotel on Thursday night after work, stay over at the hotel, and do ALL my holiday shopping the next day -- being able to return to the hotel for free meals when I needed a break.


Didn't get out to the hotel until around 11:30 on Thursday.  The parking lot was pretty full so I had to park a serious hike away.  Hauled my bag up to the hotel/casino.  (The registration desk is actually IN the casino.  Actually -- following the guiding principle of hotel/casino design, EVERYTHING was in the casino.)  When I checked in, they charged me an extra $9 "resort fee."  This included valet parking.  How nice to know this after I'd trudged in three quarters of a mile from the self-parking lot. 

Went up to my room.  Went down to the casino for a little while.  I'm not much a gambler -- which was good because this wasn't what I'd call a high end casino.  I mean, not only did they have nickel slot machines, they had penny machines.  And they were pretty busy.  I played a little on a quarter machine and felt like I was in the "High-Limit Slots" section.  (They had a "non-smoking slots" room, which was thoughtful -- but the machines therein kinda blew.  In fact, I tried to "cash out" of one when it owed me a dime and it didn't give me anything.  Oh well.  The casino would've had that 10 cents one way or the other.)  I lost about $10, by which time I was sick of playing slots anyway, so I went back to my room and got some sleep.

I'd hoped to shop some in the morning, but that plan was shot when I slept in till 10:30  Hotel check-out was 11, so I barely had time to shower, dress, and get the heck out of there.  The buffet opened at 11, so I had a nice (free) omelette before heading off to Round One of shopping.

I hit the outlet mall around noon, and could not find parking.  Seriously.  I circled the damn lot for twenty minutes, before I switched to the satellite lot and finally found a spot.

And then I shopped.  And shopped.

The first store I went into, I saw a pair of shoes I wanted.  Normally, this isn't a problem, but I was supposed to be shopping for gifts, not for me.  Still... they were in my size, and on sale, and I really wanted them, and ... ok.  One purchase for me.  Now I'll shop for everyone else.

Next door -- lots of clothes.  For me.  Y'know, it's one thing to just grab a pair of shoes, but quite another to take all those clothes into the fitting room and try them on.  When I'm supposed to be shopping for friends and family.  Still, that skirt is awful pretty.  OK, I'll have to come by this store to go back to my car -- so I'll buy some gifts and then stop off here on the way back.  If I've been good.  And put check-marks next to a bunch of people off my holiday list.

... you can see where this is going.  When I innocently walked into The Gap, I found a massive amount of stuff on massive sale.  I got a $35 skirt for $18.  I decided to grab a second in another color and it rang up for $7.  The exact same skirt.  (I asked the cashier if she was sure, and she said she was.  Sometimes they price different based on color.)  OK, a $35 skirt for $7.  I'll take it!  I spent so much time in The Gap, it was dark when I came out of there.  And there were still about 10 people left on my list.

I thought maybe it would be a good idea to go back to the hotel to have dinner and rest up for the second round -- but then I realized it was about 6:30 and the mall closed at 9:00 and I wasn't even halfway through.  I figured I'd stick it out. 

By 8:30, I was moving slow.  There were a few stores where I walked in, saw some clothes I liked, decided I was too tired to try them on, and walked right out.  By about ten to 9:00, Ihad five stores left and I just waved 'em off.  I shuffled back to my car, dragging 8 or 9 packages behind me.

When all was said and done, I'd spent over eight hours shopping.  For my effort, I ended up with four skirts, two shirts, a scarf, a jacket, five pairs of socks, four pieces of intimate apparel, and a pair of shoes.  Oh yeah, also three gifts for people on my list, two "backup" gifts, and a wedding present for my cousin.

After scarfing down my (free) dinner, I got home last night around midnight.  Was so wiped, I slept in till 2:00

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Is This a Travel Journal?

About a month ago, Andrea over at Unhinged nominated me for "Best Travel Journal."  (Isn't she just a sweetie?)  It sorta threw me for a loop, though, because I didn't really think of this as a Travel Journal.

OK, yeah, it started off that way -- when I was getting in shape for a trip to New Zealand a couple years ago.  (Shortly thereafter, I was surprised to find out that AOL had "filed" my journal as a "fitness journal," which this most certainly is not.  They were probably thrown by the use of the word "treadmill" in the title.)  But, basically, I journal everything.  I'm certainly not restricting it to trips or anything.

On the other hand, I do love journalling trips.  I'd thought I just liked journalling when I travelled solo -- 'cause it fills some of the time when other people would be all couple-y -- but I found out with the Grand Canyon trip that I also like journalling a trip when I'm with someone.  So it isn't just that it gives me an activity to fill the down time or anything.  It's that there's a whole different mindset associated with journalling a trip.  It's like, I'm not just enjoying the trip -- I'm also watching myself enjoy it.  Sorta thinking about how it would all read.  And I really dig that.

This is, I guess, my roundabout way of saying I've got another trip planned.  I always get a little nervous about telling y'all about a planned trip, in case something goes wrong between now and then.  But, just now, I was sitting at my computer working out my schedule for the rest of the month and what with me having Friday off (it's good to work for the government), it's very nearly the weekend already and that basically means...

Holy crap, I'm going to Taiwan in a week.

OK, ten days, but still.  I'm still crossing my fingers that Avian Flu doesn't figure out how to jump from person to person for the rest of the month.  (Well, obviously I'm hoping it never figures that one out, as I think we've got enough problems to deal with on the planet right now thatwe really don't need a Pandemic, thanks very much.)  But in terms of how this affects me, the CDC still says travel to Taiwan is a go.  Although they do tell me to "Avoid all direct contact with poultry, including touching well-appearing, sick, or dead chickens and ducks. Avoid places such as poultry farms and bird markets where live poultry are raised or kept, and avoid handling surfaces contaminated with poultry feces or secretions."  Which doesn't look to put a major crimp in my travel plans, as touching surfaces covered with bird poop wasn't really high on my sightseeing list anyway.

The trip itself sorta came up at the last minute.  Some friends of mine have family back in Taiwan, whom they visit regularly.  And, some time ago, I'd casually said something like, "Hey, next time you go, can I go too?"  Well, sure enough, they're going home for a week and ... I guess the honest way of putting it is that they "allowed me to invite myself along."  (Thanks guys!)  Of course, to them, it's a fairly routine visit home, where they'll spend some time with relatives they don't get to see all that often.  For me, it's a tremendously nifty opportunity to visit a whole different continent, and take in another country's culture and food and art and architecture... (but perhaps not the zoo).  AND I'll have friends there so I won't be all totally alone in a place where I don't even know how to say, "Where's the bathroom?" in the local language.

I gotta say, though, I was most excited when I found out that Taiwan operates on the same electrical voltage as we do.  I can take my laptop!  No wandering the streets of Taipei late at night looking for internet cafes -- I can journal from the comfort of my own hotel room!

Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy!

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

I Have Seen Hell...

... and it's right next to JCPenney.

Went back to the mall today.  (That store that's going out of business dropped to 50% off.  Lower prices, less selection.  It's an art, really.)

Anyway, when I walked in the mall, I saw a new store, and just froze.

White walls, with cheap white shelving on them.

Fluorescent pink and green posters everywhere saying things like "WIN PRIZES!!!" and "EVERYTHING'S ON SALE!!!"

Products on the shelves and piled on the floor, each with a bright green tag advertising "20% off!"

And if you don't know what the product does, that's ok, because there are TV monitors all over the store showing the products' informercials.  And it isn't even like all the screens are showing the same set of informercials -- no, the "As Seen on TV" store (I am not making this up) runs about 20 different informercials simultaneously.

So, here's you -- surrounded by cheerful employees demonstrating rowing machines and ab crunchers, signs telling you all about the great prices you can get on home fruit dehydrators, and boxes tantalizing you with the offers of a easy fixes in case you happen to spill battery acid on your carpet.

And I bet it's coming to a mall near you ... just in time for the holidays. 

Sunday, November 6, 2005

Who is to blame for this?

Strolling around the mall this afternoon, I came across a particularly annoying (and hopefully short-lived) fashion trend.  Velvet jackets for women in all sorts of bright bold colors.  Like this one:

Or this one

And I wondered, "Who do I blame for this fashion travesty?"

And then I thought... 

and thought...

Oh no.