Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Baolai, in the mountains

On Saturday the fifth of July, a small band of intrepid adventurers set out on three motor scooters intending to travel from Tainan, the old capital of Taiwan, to Baolai in the lap of the mountains. Armed only with money, changes of clothes, some food provisions, maps, pre-booked tickets for the white-water rafting, pre-arranged accommodation, experience of having made the trip before, and a devil-may-care attitude towards the very real possibility of long-distance-travel-induced-sore-bottom-syndrome, these comrades in helmets mounted their 250cc steeds and headed out from their home base in search of that mythical land the Lonely Planet calls....

(photo shown above may not resemble Paolai)

Our posse, ready to rock outside Erin and Dave's apartment in Tainan. I was so pumped that immediately after this shot was taken I bit the head off a chicken. Note the tent attached to the back of the scooter that I shared with Andrea; it would not be used due to weather-related factors that I will discuss later.

Tea is the drink of choice in Taiwan and there are hundreds of variations, but probably fewer available from any one vendor. There's red (black) tea, green tea, barley tea, Oolong tea, other things I don't know the name of, and all of these are available with sugar or without, with milk or without, with tapioca balls or without, with gelatin chunks or without, with lemon juice or without, with grapefruit juice or without, and in combinations of all these and many more ingredients. Taiwan is truly home to a culture of tea and it grows on you. These days, a bit of travel soon induces in me an appentence for a large, cold, green tea of some sort. This photo looks too good to be natural but it was. It has only just occurred to me that we are wearing the four foundation colours blue, red, yellow, and green.


Baolai (sometimes Paolai). Population: 600. Location: southern central Taiwan. Claims to fame: western "gateway" to the south cross-island highway; hot springs; whitewater rafting.

We did go whitewater rafting but I couldn't take any photos as I had to leave my camera behind. I borrowed the photo above from Kaohsiung County website. We couldn't take our personal belongings on the rafts because you do get very wet and occasionally a raft will capsize. There were between twenty and thirty rafts each carrying between 6-10 people; that's a lot of rafters. After we were given the initial go-ahead, everyone took off in their raft and went crazy, splashing each other and racing down the river. However, it soon became apparent to me that there was real potential for danger in this activity. One of our crew-members fell overboard and was almost dragged under the raft. We saw others fall into the river. There were many stops along the way which became quite discomforting after a while. Being intermittently wet and dry and exposed to the wind caused a loss of body heat and after an hour or so I wasn't the only one feeling a bit cold and trying not to shiver. There were several other rafts fitted with outboard engines, each of these rafts being manned by two guys working for the rafting-tour company. These guys would basically do whatever they had to to prevent any serious injuries to their customers or to their rafts. This usually involved them ramming their raft into yours to knock you to where you should be and away from the more dangerous parts of the river. Nevertheless there were injuries and we saw the occasion customer being helped out of the river or being guided away from the river by rafting-tour employees. Overall the white-water rafting was an interesting and certainly exciting experience although I think the single best change that could be made to enhance the experience would be to remove all the other rafts and people and let us have the river to ourselves.

By the time we reached the end of the river-rafting ramble some of us were quite cold and hungry. The sky was quite overcast and the wind had picked up. We had 5 minutes to go to the bathroom before we needed to clamber on to buses which took us back to the rafting HQ in town. From there most of us headed down the road to the 7-11 where we got some hot, instant noodles and hot chocolate. By this time the heavens had opened and the sky was manumitting the lakes in the sky, most of which opted to fall straight to earth.

That night a barbecue ensued from which only a scant few vegetable kebabs, barbecued chicken wings, or barbecued bamboo (surprisingly good) escaped uneaten. From left: Jannie, Willy, John, me, and two of the people renting the room next door, returning to their den with bowls of instant noodles.

Scene 1: dogs belonging to friends at barbecue sleep in bed in room we rented.

Scene 2: I sleep in bed in room we rented. I have to admit that I was the first to go to bed and to sleep. Driving an unfamiliar scooter for hours on unfamiliar roads definitely contributed to my impuissance.

On Sunday we arose and found ourselves, not surprisingly, where we had been the night before. We proceeded to avail ourselves of one of the natural wonders of the Baolai area - the natural hot springs. Besides a couple of pools of different temperatures the "spa" is fitted out with some shower heads which deliver high-pressure jets of water. It's really good to be able to move your back (or head or other body part if you wish) around under the jet and use it to massage yourself. However, if you were to direct the high-powered jet of water to the wrong place you could possibly do some damage, for example, blowing your eardrum out. Not that anyone would be silly enough to do that. Surely.

After the invigorating hot spa DIY massage we went for a short walk into town. On the way we discovered where dragon fruit come from. We saw this plant and others like it bearing the odd fruit. I was surprised. The plant itself looks like a kind of cactus. Perhaps it is.

And then it rained some more. And more. And when the time to leave came, it was still raining. However, while rain-jackets were on our side, time was not and so we prepared ourselves as best we could and mounted our wet, motorised steeds and began the long journey home. This photo was taken as we stood in the rain-shadow of the arch in front of the main entrance of the resort and as we stood there we sought to master our collective resolve to start what was going to be a very wet and uncomfortable ride home.

Not only did it continue to rain: it stormed and thundered. In places along the road down from the mountain, small streams of water ran across the road. At one point the storm raged close by and the rain became torrential, forcing us to stop for a while at the local market in a small town on the highway. The amount of water pooling everywhere was impressive and John and I caved in the audience demand for some kind of rain dance, the rather unimpressive result of which you can see in this movie.

I was hugely relieved when we finally managed to get off the mountain and onto some more even countryside. And as the kilometres passed us by and the sun slowly ran its course across the grey and unhappy sky we drew slowly closer to Tainan where we would return to our always temporary lives and jobs, to our comfortably familiar, familiarly mundane day-to-day normality.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Energy everywhere

I've been thinking a lot lately about energy. In a way, everyone has been thinking about it lately and it's hard not to think about it given the price and cost of the stuff our that powers almost all of our transport (that's gas if you're from the Americas and petrol if you're from Britain or it's children). By price I mean the amount of money that it costs us to buy the stuff. By cost I am hinting at the environmental damage caused as a result of oil extraction, processing, and burning.

The climate crisis (or any other name for the warming of the global climate) and the rising price and cost of oil have inspired an awful lot of talk and thought about energy. What I have been realising lately is that our current, intense concern about energy has influenced the way that we think about the world and the way that we see the world and how it works. I have heard a lot of things being talked about in terms of energy lately, many of which I had not considered in that light before.

A lot of the energy on the Earth comes from the sun and it takes many diverse forms as it transfers from plants to animals to people or from radiation to electricity to movement or from radiation to heat to climate to destruction. I could have made up a million different chains of energy movement then. All of the interesting stuff on the earth plays a part in the energy story.
Plants are a form of stored energy. They are like batteries soaking up and storing the sun's energy. Animals run on these batteries and they power all of their behaviours, just like a robot animal would require some kind of artificial battery (unless it were solar powered). In the process they become batteries themselves. We humans derive our energy from these other batteries, the plants and animals which have already concentrated the sun's energy for us.

Plants are a form of stored energy and so are animals. That should be obvious as the equation becomes a lot simpler once you look at coal and oil. Coal and oil are fossil fuels and are a concentrated form of plants and animals and of their energy. In Australia most of our electricity comes from the combustion of coal and the electricity produced supports our society and all of the behaviors that it consists of. It is too far-fetched to look at human society as another form of energy? Human society is a battery itself isn't it? Energy is often defined as the ability to do work and human society does a lot of work. For example, human society has a lot of complicated behaviour to act out, people interacting and moving all over the planet, within their own communities, cities, countries, and without. And human society is also reshaping the planet and building a lot of stuff and those things require energy.

Energy is recycled all the time on the planet in the food chain. If you leave humans out of the food chain for a second, not a lot of energy is directed into dead ends where it is not recycled. Animals exist to survive, prosper, and reproduce and if they are successful then they will multiply as their environment (including sources of energy) allows. Adding humans back into the equation, I can't see how the energy put into constructing an apartment block is recycled. It seems like a dead end for energy. But that's okay because the energy on the Earth is not finite or limited: Energy is continually being transferred from the sun to the Earth in the form of solar radiation. All the life on the planet is part of a complicated, dynamic battery in which this energy is stored. You can extend the battery metaphor beyond the life on the planet to the environment of the planet: A lot of energy is absorbed by the physical environment of the planet and the environment moves in response. For example, 71% of the Earth's surface is ocean and this huge surface area is always absorbing energy in the form of solar radiation. The sun heats the ocean and then this watery battery affects the rest of the planet, especially obviously in the form of climate.

Just as plants are as batteries on land, algae are the batteries of the sea. Algae and plants are both primary producers (or autotrophs) in that they produce organic compounds from inorganic inputs, making them the basis of the food chain. The main way that primary producers do this is, of course, photosynthesis which is how solar energy enters the food chain. Algae also produce roughly 80% of the world's atmospheric oxygen. The ocean is a bit like a huge solar panel.

I think I have said just about as much as I am apt. So much of the world around us can be thought of in terms of energy: the transfer of energy from one place to another; the conversion of energy from one form into another; and something else which I cannot remember now because I spent so much time checking the proper usage of the colons and semi-colons that I have used in this sentence. Lest we forget the semi-colon.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


Okay, Kenting is a bit of a cliche for any foreigners living in this part of Taiwan. Everybody knows about it and everybody has been there.

For those of you who do not live in this part of the world, let alone this part of Taiwan, Kenting is a huge national park that occupies the coasts around the southern tip of the island. It was the first national park to be created in Taiwan (1984) and is famous for its beaches (I admit that they they are good beaches when held relative to other beaches in Taiwan), surfing and coral reefs. It also contains the only "armed" lighthouse in the world, complete with a deep trench around the outside and high walls with "loopholes" in them (loopholes are small holes in a fortification that allow defenders to fire out or observe enemy movements). Here's a map of the park, straight from the Kenting National Park website:

As you can see, most of the park is yellow and the remainder is green apart from a few red specks. The park is also replete with a range of large geoglyphs including one depicting a couple separated by a wall and another depicting a person in a wheelchair. Ha. So funny.

We actually made this trip a few months ago, in March perhaps. As with our trip to Rueli, we were lucky enough to be escorted down by our friends Craig and Helena and their baby daughter Susannah. They had made the trip before and knew of a hotel that was reasonably priced yet centrally located on the beach-side of the main highway through the actual township of Kenting.

Villa Kenting: Our Hotel, decked out in balmy yellow and orange. Makes me think of small seaside resorts, which is what this place is, so that's fine right? Andrea poses with a gesture communicating something along the lines of, "So I guess this is it. I like the balmy yellow and orange. It feels like the seaside."

I can't remember why I was so tired by the time we got to Kenting but all I wanted to do was lie down and sleep. After checking in to Villa Kenting we headed off to the beach to soak up some rays. Actually I didn't soak up too many rays. I fell asleep under the umbrella and had a nap. I do remember I managed to soak up a bit of sand: It seemed to find its way into my hair and down my pants. When I finally came to a great time was had by all. Rather, all had had a great time already yet there was still time for some swimming and some more swimming and some reading and some more swimming. Craig and Helena were joined unexpectedly by a large group of friends that they knew from Chiayi and there was much swimming and snacking and talking and walking. After being in Tainan for a few months with only our rather lame local beach to go to, the beaches of Kenting were like unto those of the Hawaiian islands although I have no idea what the beaches of the Hawaiian islands are like except what I have seen on TV. I guess I would have to say that they were similar.

Nothing special about this shot. Just thought it looked nice. You can see the big mountain range off in the distance. Real mountains with sheer inclines; The Taiwanese geoscape is a lot younger than Australia's.

Our secret love pudding baby! She looks like our baby but actually you'd be eminently mis-leadable if you believed that. This small, female creature is Susannah, the daughter of Craig and Helena. Craig and Helena come from Canada and South Africa respectively so they're in the process of applying for spouse visas. Andrea and I need to do the same thing. We've been in the process for a while but we haven't gotten our application together yet.

I really like this shot: Father and daughter synchronise. Something along the lines of "Out there across that water is that other country that you do not know, yet you will come to know it intimately and it will be your homeland. You will grow up with cousins and grandparents whom you have not yet met but will come to know and love. This land, this island Taiwan, you will come to know through our stories and our pictures but you cannot grow up here. We will be leaving to start our other life soon. It's just over there...on the other side..."

Friday, July 4, 2008

Taiwan and Korea: Comparing the experience of living there(s)

This seems a bit like cheating but I am going to paste in here a big paragraph I wrote to somebody a month or two ago:

Being here in Taiwan has helped to shape my understanding and impression of Korea. In Korea there is a strong drinking culture but here you see people going out for tea or dinner instead. Last night was the first time that we saw an obviously drunk person and he was being helped from a car to his apartment in a very low-key way. I think that people here are a bit more genuine which feels nice. People in Korea are almost always nice to you but it doesn't feel as genuine as it does here. Koreans seem to be living their own kind of 'pop' lives, caught up in some kind of lifestyle drive, but here people are a little bit more down-to-earth. Taiwan yearns for recognition from the rest of the world and its relationship with greater China is ever a tangible point of ongoing un-resolution. It seems that everyday you can read in the Taipei Times some story or stories which betray a facet of the national identity that is about the quest for real and recognised independence and the failure of that quest. It is a little sad perhaps but I think this is part of the reason for Taiwanese people's good-humour and realism, not to mention their friendliness. I have occasionally heard someone here talk about the experience of being made to feel the foreigner: reverse discrimination or undue attention paid because of the obvious difference in appearance, but the people making these complaints have probably not been to Korea. We feel almost like normal people here compared with the pseudo-celebrity cum annoying invasion of privacy we experienced in Korea (although this may be in part a function of city size; we are living in a city three times the size of Jinju). The cost of living is a bit cheaper than in Korea however you can't expect electronics to be much cheaper than they would be back home. There are plenty of cars and scooters around. We have a scooter ourselves now. In terms of earning money, you earn less here than you would in Korea, but not a whole lot less. The big trade off you have to look at when coming from Korea to Taiwan is lifestyle and money. Taiwan is a nicer place to live where you cannot save as much money.


I still think the same now after a couple of months have passed. Of course, the longer we are away from Korea the better it gets. While there is a force of selective memory at work, I am convinced that 3000 Won for an authentic Korean bibimbap with side dishes is one of the best meals ever (apart from Tim Tams (which are available in Taiwan if you look hard but they never taste the same and are not made in Australia)).