Monday, April 28, 2008

Camping in the mountains

A couple of weeks ago Andrea and I accompanied two friends of ours and their baby daughter (less than 12 months old) away from Tainan and up into the mountains in an area called Rueli, a place with a name for which no one, it seems, can agree on a fitting English transliteration. I will stick with the transliteration R-U-E-L-I and save the alternative 11 versions for those moments when I get bored waiting for trains or buses and discover that I have no reading material and am desperate for some cognitive gymnastics.

Here then is a photo-diarisation (not a real word) of our whimsical wanderings in the clouded somewhat-hinter-lands of inner Taiwan...

Step 1: Find a good camp site.
Craig knew of a great site to camp where the ground was flat and grassy (something to be treasured in Taiwan) and the site came with a shower/toilet block. Perfect. I have to say that my Chinese is almost non-existent so Craig did all the talking while we admired the scenery and baby Susie sat in her child safety seat. Once the negotiations were over and we had secured a prime piece of outdoor real-estate, Craig, Helena and Susie left to check in to their slightly more upscale villa while we erected our pathetically small and cramped hiking tent which we had brought with us from Australia. We set up and then left our tent and our belongings for a walk in the mountains. The walk was a fantastic affair, perhaps the first time since we had arrived in Taiwan that we felt we were in something like unspoiled nature. Actually I wrote that because it sounded good. Viewed from a distance the mountains look rugged and wild but walking along the sealed roads you see that the rugged, wild bits are just filling in the spaces between the extensive, terraced tea plantations, coffee plantations, groves of bananas and other food crops.

When we had first arrived at the site with our friends there were no other tents and so, not expecting to have to share our beautiful, green flatness, we surveyed the land for the nicest, flattest, greenest tent-sized area and pitched our tent there. Upon our return from the walk through the mountain sides we were horrified to discover that an army of campers had arrived and descended upon our small oasis of flat grass. Our tent, originally pitched in el primo location, was now surrounded on all sides by larger, much more impressive structures and we felt, perhaps, a little embarrassed to admit ownership to the diminutive tent that, to everyone else's eyes, was obviously much too small for the giant foreigners that we were.

I have to say that we were relieved in the late morning of the second day when most of the tents were gone and we thought we might have a more peaceful night. Wrong. That night we shared the camp ground with even more fellow campers. On the first night there had been 16 other tents and on the second there were 17. We didn't sleep any better on the second night, which was poorly.

Step 2: Locate a source of food.
The only places that sold food close to us were a formal restaurant (which always seemed to be closed) and a small convenience store. As it turned out they were apparently both run by the one old lady. There were so many things that the store did not have. From what it did supply we chose to have instant noodles for lunch. The old Taiwanese lady was quite nice and put the kettle on for us and bade us sit down and make ourselves at home, which we did as much as someone who harbours a lingering fear that they have misinterpreted the situation is able. Thus you see me as I appear in the photo above.

Just a nice shot of us on a walk up the mountain side.

Here was a beautiful place to be, a tea plantation sandwiched between a bamboo forest on the one side and a sheer mountainside on the other.

This pockmarked wall is called "Bat's Cave" although the interpretive signage points out that bat numbers aren't what they used to be before the area became more touristed. Funny that.

City of the dead.
What you see here is a Chinese graveyard full of tombs. The graves in the foreground are more like what I'm used to but the tombs in the background are another matter. It is a little difficult to get an idea of the scale of those tombs up there but basically they are small houses. They have a front door which would require most people to stoop a little to enter. We came across this graveyard when we finally managed to get to the top of one of the mountains in our area and we spent a while there resting, reflecting and admiring the tombs and the view.

Banana trees are prolific in the Rueli area, often seeming to grow wild. Here you can see Andrea, half starved and desperate for anything vaguely edible, reaching out towards the inflorescence and its consequent fruit.

This being Taiwan, the centre of the island is a mass of mountains. Being mountains in Taiwan, there is a lot runoff water from the rains. There being a lot of runoff water, there is a hydrologically efficient network of rills, rivulets, creeks, streams and rivers. There being a network of waterways, there is a need for a lot of bridges if you want to be able to get from A to B without taking the 60-minute long way around. Here you see one such bridge, a suspended-deck suspension bridge to be precise. Note the lovely green mountain sides.

Life takes root wherever conditions allow. These are Andrea's feet by the way. I'm not cool enough to wear sockettes (is that what you call them?).

At the end of a long, exhausting day it feels so good to lie down on a nice pillow. It doesn't matter what the bed itself is like but having the weight of your head absorbed by something big and very soft is bliss. And so I fell asleep to the sound of Taiwanese children playing games directly on the other side of our very thin, water-resistant-treatment-68-Denier-Ripstop-polyester walls, and the sounds of people barbecuing, preparing food, eating, talking, using the toilet block and moving their cars. Ahh bliss.

Friday, April 25, 2008

World energy generation

A few days ago I saw the film "An Inconvenient Truth" for a second time. It happened to be on one of the cable channels and it is pretty compelling so I ended up watching the whole thing again. A week or two before I had been investigating the state of renewable energy generation in Australia in the context of the rest of the world (Australia in the context of the rest of the world - who'd have thunked it) and I was a little surprised by how little of our electricity in Australia comes from PV (Photo-voltaic or solar) sources.

Let's start with the world (I like the sound of that).


So here's a pie chart (I don't think I have said that for at least a decade) that gives us a summary of the contributions of different forms of renewable energy generation to the world supply of renewable energy. However I have to say that renewable sources as a whole contribute only 18% of total energy generation, the rest coming from non-renewable sources.

So of the 18% of the world's energy that comes from renewable sources, about 63% is generated by hydro-electric schemes, about 17% is energy for heating produced by burning organic materials (biomass heat), for example, burning wood to heat homes, cook food and heat water. Biomass heat does not here include burning fossil fuels like coal because, of course, coal is considered a non-renewable resource, as are the other fossil fuels. Of the world's renewable energy generation, only about 7% comes from solar sources and of that only about half of one percent is electricity generated from solar. That really surprised me. And remember, the renewables constitute only about 18% of total energy generated. So about 1% of the 18% is solar technology being used for electricity generation.

So how does Australia compare with the rest of the world? You have no idea how hard it was to get a graphical breakdown of current energy generation in Australia. In the end I just gave up.

I can give you some statistics anyway. Currently 8% of Australian energy comes from renewable sources and this proportion is expected to remain relatively unchanged into the 2020s (source: ABARE report - "Australian Energy: National & State Projections to 2029-30"). The same statistic for the world average is 10% higher.

I found another nice graph which shows that Australians are responsible for more CO2 emissions per capita than any other country on earth:

I like this graph because it has so many colours in it.

That's enough ranting for today.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A day in the life... Andrea's birthday to be precise

Now, for a start don't start worrying that you didn't call her or write to her wishing her a happy birthday. It is fine. Really. I just thought that it was a nice sequence of photos that illustrated some of the aspects of our life in Taiwan but in this case all these photos (apart from the beach/cake/night shot) were taken on the same day. A day in the life then...

A Day in the Life of Adrian and Andrea
(day described may not be entirely representative of average days spent in Taiwan by persons featured)

Birthday eve. We had a nice time with a group of friends on one of the local beaches. I know you can't see anyone else in the picture besides us but there were other people there. Honest. We really do have some friends here in Taiwan okay. If there was no one else there then who took the picture? To prop it up and set the timer would have required quite a tall mount. Sure we could have asked a random passer-by to take the photo but we didn't. Look at all the footprints in the sand. There were many other people there. Really.

Take no notice of the date-stamp on these photos. I replaced the batteries and couldn't be bothered resetting the time and date. Here you see the birthday girl enjoying a hot cup of pre-breakfast tea while watching the baseball game. Note the potted plants that have changed the feel of our apartment so much.
Baseball is so popular here. There are several baseball fields in the few blocks around our apartment building and I know of two a couple of blocks away from where I work.

Here I am ready for bad deeds. Rebel of the roads, demon of the byways, scourge of the streets, devil of the highways! On our 125cc motor scooter I cause havoc and mayhem wherever I do wander, hither and thither, to and fro but mostly fro 'cos I'm OUT OF CONTROL! Actually, the last thing I want is any more havoc or mayhem on the streets. It's dangerous enough out there and regularly spending 50 minutes a day riding my bicycle to work and back I have had ample opportunity to witness the results of a less than austere respect for traffic legislation. These "results" I speak of usually consist of ambulances, police, damaged vehicles (cars and trucks but most commonly motor scooters) and sometimes blood-stained rags or blood on the ground. In Australia you can "switch off" because the movement of other traffic on the road is almost always predictable and drivers as a whole are a courteous bunch. In Taiwan you concentrate on the road ahead and the vehicles around you because anything could happen. You have to be so much more reactive here and people often do unpredictable and seemingly dangerous things. Sometimes people get creative and think laterally and discover new ways to get from A to B. If driving on the right side of the road means you have to go all the way to the traffic lights to turn around but you could drive a short distance on the wrong side of the road to get to the same place, then why not just wait until there is a break in the traffic on the other side of the median strip and drive on the other side of the road. It's pretty easy to get a foreigner here to start on a rant about traffic conditions on the road and most people seem to have heard of the couple who were killed in separate traffic accidents months apart (in a city to the north).

Breakfast. For the sum of NT$260 (AU$9) we were both able to eat a multi-course meal at this relatively trendy place.

Taiwan has a history of mainland Chinese, Japanese and Dutch colonisation. There are many reminders of the island's diverse history. Here Andrea is sitting outside the museum of Taiwanese literature, formerly some kind of Dutch colonial administration building. The museum is a beautiful building inside and out with a very recently renovated interior.
We did have a brief look at the collection but were disappointed that the Taiwanese literature on display is not in English. While disappointed that the only English in the building was to be found on the signage and maps, I have to say that we were not entirely surprised.

This photo illustrates several things of which I will mention two. The large numbers (119) on the building is the emergency services number in Taiwan. It's vaguely reminiscent of another famous emergency services number. There are many things in Taiwan that look like familiar cultural icons from abroad but, on closer inspection, turn out to be not quite the same. Take the fast food chain KLG which serves fried chicken for example. How about those Oleos in the store that you thought were Oreos until you got them to the counter. And those expensive Gucci sunglasses? They sure are selling at a loss - IF they are genuine.
The other thing I want to comment on in this photo is the parade that you can see winding it's way along the street. There are many parades in Taiwan and most of them seem to be held in honour of one or more of the plethora (or cornucopia, or abundance, or plenteousness, or profusion) of deities. And each deity should be honoured with his or her own temple which is why there are SO many temples around. Some are small and some are huge, multi-storied behemoths, gargantuan in scale and attracting an assortment of hawkers who make themselves available to anyone in need of a bowl of noodles, green tea or suchelse after a heavy morning of faithful devotion.

Andrea hides her dissatisfaction after an attempt to order two green teas goes awry. They were meant to be the same. Well we don't speak Chinese or Taiwanese (a different language) and you take your chances when you attempt to communicate anything.

I dropped Andrea off to get a haircut (and head massage) while I returned home.

Dinner by candlelight on our balcony. Lovely. A nice end to a nice day.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Not UFOs

I want to recount the experience of something mysterious and unexpected that happened on Sunday night. Andrea and I had gone for a picnic dinner (can you have a "picnic" after dark?) out on one of the arms of the main harbour here in Tainan. We literally ate our dinner sitting out in the middle of the waters looking back at the shore from afar, particularly nice at night with the city lights reflected in the water. A curious, probably hungry, rat joined us at the end of one of the small arms that deviates from the main seawall of the harbour. We ate our leftover vegetarian pizza which was very good, and some fresh salad bits that I had prepared and put together. We talked for quite a while before leaving. It was a warm humid night, not cold at all.

We walked back to our motor scooter, parked up from the beach in the car park. walking the hundred metres or so from where the beach began to the carpark, we remarked on the huge number of derelict bicycles that seemed to be strewn with abandon about the place, lying in bushes and upside down with rusting frames and wheels. We got to our scooter and took off down the road. After a minute we noticed what we took at first to be three planes flying close together in the sky. However, this impression began to break down as we watched them. There was something definitely un-plane-like about them. They actually seemed to be hovering in mid-air somewhere quite close together. Then we noticed a few more of these lights closer to the horizon and seemingly more distant. By this time I had already mentioned UFOs at least twice and if I had been a less skeptical sort I might have turned the bike towards home to collect our essentials together before hiding out in the remote mountains where we would be safe from the imminent alien invasion.

We continued to scoot, if that is a legitimate verb, roughly in the direction that the lights seemed to be coming from and we could by this time see a trail of them beginning somewhere near the beach in front of us and extending behind us up into the sky. We continued until we arrived at a point on the road which brought us as close as we could get to the source of the lights which we had now identified as lanterns with a flame of some sort burning inside. We left our scooter and clambered up on to the seawall where we hoped we could discover by observation the source of the lanterns. From our position on top of the seawall standing with a few other random onlookers we could make out a group of people down on the beach helping the lanterns, one by one, to get airborne. We could see now that the lanterns were surprisingly big, perhaps a metre tall with significant girth, seeming almost as big as the people coaxing them gently upwards. I reflected, perhaps cynically, on how the things that people send up into the air to float wherever the wind might take them end up as garbage somewhere (think of those huge celebrations where people release thousands of balloons simultaneously and it looks so inspiring as they fill the sky and float off until they drop down into the sea and choke a fish). However, that cynical note did not remove all the magic from the moment and we stood there watching the mysterious event and the long trail of lights floating into the distant night sky until the mosquitoes forced us away.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Just another Saturday (Now with Fungus Gnats!)

Andrea's out at a language exchange lesson where she is trying to learn some Chinese. I also need to organise that for myself.

I have my hot coffee, a partially obscured view of the harbour skyline, and almost a week's worth of facial hair.

Our potted plants have been struggling lately. Being from arid Australia, I thought that they needed more water. That turned out to be the wrong thing to do. We have been plagued by small black flies for a while now and I thought that they were fruit flies. They seemed to love playing in the soil in our potted plants. We only discovered this morning that they are the adult forms of Fungus Gnats. Here's a picture (not to scale):

[source: Texas Agricultural Extension Service; ]

Yuck! I hate Fungus Gnats. And they have been killing our plants! Bastards!

Yes, with a quick search via Google we found a description that matched our situation and when we investigated the top inch or so of soil we found a plethora of Fungus Gnats in the larval stage, wriggling around like they were part of some kind of perverse Disco Fever boogie woogie. Argh! There were many treatments suggested in the sites we visited but one recurrent piece of advice was to let the top layer of soil dry out. Oops! My arid origins had proved the undoing of my favourite ferns which I intermittently doted upon with the care and concern of grandfather who loves his kids when he has time for them (when he remembers to water them). Well, to be honest I only watered them a few times. Andrea watered them more regularly as part of the grander scheme of watering for which I respect and admire her. It takes a lot of memory to remember to water plants all the time. I would probably have to write it on a calendar or come up with some other kind of memory cuing system. Anyhow, while we are stuck with the Fungus Gnats for the time being, their days are numbered and don't extend into double digits! Try to tell me that I don't know how to talk tough!

Fungus Gnat kill sheet: Saturday 19th April - larvae 7, adults 12.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday Fruit

Ahh, finally Friday has arrived and mostly diffused into the space time continuum, leaving only the bit after I finish work and get home. And now that I am home I'm having a nice guava and a hot cup of tea - perfect. The guava is fresh too; None of that two-week-old, picked-too-early produce that fills the shelves of the supermarkets and markets back home. No, I can be pretty sure, despite not being able to ask them due to a non-existent mastery of the Chinese language, that a large proportion of the fruit and vegetables I buy are grown by the guy or lady I'm giving my money to. I can also be pretty sure that what I buy here is a lot fresher than the stuff back home. That's one of the great things about my existence here.

I was thinking today about how strange life would have been for our ancestors living in an age before time was being tracked and measured. In a time before clocks and calendars. In a time where... how did people conceive of the passage of time? They would have had the daily diurnal cycle, the passage of the sun through the sky and the transition from dark to light to dark again. The concept we know as the day would have been pretty obvious as the cycle takes place relatively quickly, fast enough to be noticeable. I'm sure that they would also have, over time, seen and predicted the seasonal rhythms, the transition through summer to winter and back to summer again. Thus they would have been familiar with the concept we know of as the year. But beyond that unit of time, what else is there? There is nothing else. Nothing external to human goings-on anyway. Beyond the yearly cycle there is only repetition of what has gone before. What kind of sense of the greater passage of time did our ancestors have?

I suppose that throughout the span of an individual's life he or she would experience and afterwards live with the evidence of the accumulated changes that took place as they lived their lives. You could look at it another way in that perhaps, lacking objective and properly quantitative measures of time, their sense of the passage of time was more qualitative. If I lived in those halcyon days where you could work a few hours a day and spend the rest at leisure (as Jared Diamond suggests) wouldn't I have a sense of how my own body had been changing over time? I would have been aware of how a living human body physically ages over time from birth to death and I would have some idea of where my own body belonged on that spectrum, giving me an idea of my age relative to other humans. I think this would also provide a sense of the passage of time that extended beyond the current generation to generations that had gone before (direct ancestors known to the current generation) and generations to come. I think that the length of a human life would have been a very important ingredient in whatever conceptualisation of a greater time scale people possessed. You could then measure the seasonal cycles that came and went and it would mean something when viewed in the context of human lifetimes. You could work out how long an average life was by keeping track of the seasons that passed and measure the greater passage of time in terms of generational lifespans. Thus you would have at least a rough measure of time greater than a year, the largest afforded by our environment.

My guava was very good.

The first post

I have huge expectations for my first post so I will keep it brief lest the enterprise be mangled by all sorts of preconceptions and politics.

Friday morning and I have a bit of time before I leave for school (work). I have been getting up at 6:30am for at least a month now and it feels good getting up out of bed and doing more than just getting to work. I usually read for a while and take my time getting ready for work. I might start spending some time on the internet as part of my morning routine.

Akk!, I can't handle the performance anxiety. This post is over!