Traversing Taipei

07 Nov 2010
Posted by Jordan
Jordan's picture

(Note: this post is from 11/4... publication was delayed due to internet troubles).

Marisa and I arrived in Taipei eight days ago, and are leaving two days later than planned. I'll admit that one of those extra days was due to wisdom tooth complications and a resulting trip to the dentist... but as for the other day, well, we just didn't want to leave. Taipei is colorful and vibrant, and every day here has been a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and smells and tastes and feelings.

Spending anything less than a month in a city like Taipei--with its combination of dense population, fascinating history, and unique political situation--could be seen as futile.What can anyone possibly learn or pick up or take away in such a short amount of time? Of course, that's the question that hounds this whole trip, and every trip for every traveler... so I'm glad to have launched into this endeavor with a large city: biting off what is obviously so much more than can be chewed forces me to step back, and let go; to regain perspective, and try and come to grips with what journeying is about, for me. Which is not to know everything, or see everything, or understand everything; but to see some things, to try to understand some things.

It's about finding myself in the National Palace Museum surrounded by the largest collection of mainland Chinese artifacts in the world (far more than can be displayed at any one time; the displays are on constant rotation), and reading a sign that says they were "transported here by the government"... and trying to comprehend what that means. The sign does not say the Chinese government, because Taiwan is creating, is searching for--has created, has found--its own identity apart from China; but neither does the sign say the Taiwanese government, because the artifacts were in fact brought to Taiwan by the very Chinese KMT, even if that group has since been absorbed into the Taiwanese nation. Neither does the sign explain why the artifacts were transported, or hint that they might be seen as stolen, or repatriated--though Beijing constantly hollers accusations from across the straight (despite Mao's Cultural Revolution, which likely would have seen most of NPM's treasures destroyed). We are left with, simply, "transported" by "the government."


It's about turning from that sign, with all of its underlying political nuance, to examine a jadeite cabbage, crafted during the Qing dynasty, that's stunning in its beauty and its creativity--the way the artist used imperfections in a piece of jade that might have been tossed out as useless, to complement and even enhance his vision: craft meets form and function in a brilliant display that I can appreciate a century later.

The jadeite cabbage

It's about leaving that museum, and walking for hours through night markets that overwhelm my senses with distilled life energy. Feeling people at the ends of all my limbs; smelling dripping fats and dripping sugars at the ends of all my nostrils; tasting things and separating the flavors out a little--green onions wrapped in barbecued pork strips, sugar donuts hot out of oil, corn roasted in a spicy sauce--before everything merges back into a primordial sea of smells and desires. A puppy looks out at me from under the arm of someone who's just purchased it.


It's about noticing Kimchi in the market, and seeing Korean flags advertise Korean restaurants, and wondering if I ever would have noticed those things two years ago, before living in Korea. Wondering how many times I walked by Kimchi in my life without recognizing what it was; realizing that that will never happen again.

It's about getting lost on a street, pulling out a map of Taipei, and instantly having a passerby stop and ask with a smile, "Can I help you? Are you lost?" How to explain that I am, but I'm not?

It's about riding a gondola out of the city, to the hills of Maokong, where I sit and drink locally grown mountain tea in the shop of a woman with kinds eyes who offers a discount and tries to communicate with me in broken English and sign language. All I can give in return is "che che", and a bow, and a smile; somehow it feels like enough.


It's about going back to the city again, riding the metro, and playing an elaborate game of sign language with a boy across the way who's hat reads "YoYo King"; his mother smiles from where she's standing by the door. What game are we playing? Only the other one knows.


It's about exiting the metro and finding a temple that was built three hundred years before the metro was dreamed of, and is just as alive and active as ever, with people from all walks of life worshipping Buddhist, Taoist, and folk deities all together. Incense burns, wax melts, sweat drops on stones that once served as ballast on immigrant ships coming from Fujian Province in China. I touch the stones; they feel old. I watch a woman in a corner bowed over prayer beads, whose hands never stop moving; she's there when I come in, and there when I leave, two hours later. She was probably there before I was born.


It's about leaving that temple and seeing a man with three Great Danes, just walking down the street as if he were normal. Three Great Danes.


It's about finding the river, and walking for hours as the sun drops low over a city that feels far away across marshland... but really the city surrounds me. Watching bikers come and go; boys playing baseball under a bridge.


It's about joining Beitou locals in their daily or weekly visit to one of Taiwan's many hot springs (supposedly one of the primary reasons Japan lusted after the island)... letting the sweat evaporate and the miles of walking fade, as I descend into the water, lean my head back to watch Taiwanese clouds turn into Taiwanese sunset... then look down to notice a young girl smiling at me from across the pool. Isn't this great? her eyes say. Yes it is, I return, with my smile.

Yes, Taipei has been great, and I would like to stay longer. But I also want to get out. Because large cities, as interesting and exciting as they can be, tend to take on a life of their own, tied to but separate from the countries that contain them. I want to see more of Taiwan, as it was before Taipei, and is outside of Taipei. So tomorrow we leave the city behind for a trek down the country's east coast, the last region to be subdued by Taiwan's former colonizers, and the least developed region to this day.

Vagabonds at Last

27 Oct 2010
Posted by Jordan
Jordan's picture

Yesterday I walked around Sweet Home for the last time, as Gunsan Education Office employees removed the last of the government-supplied furniture. The place was much as we had found it two years ago, but somehow looked a little less pregnant, and a little more abandoned.  The wallpaper was new back then (though just as floral), some of the furniture was already in place, and of course we were arriving, instead of leaving: bringing through the door some hopes and expectations (would we have a tub to shower in, fingers crossed?), but mostly just energy and excitement, and a little bit of luggage.

A little bit of luggage that had expanded greatly with hardly any effort, as we discovered in the last few weeks of emptying our lives out. We wanted our house to feel like a home, so we invested in furniture and fish tanks, TVs and candle holders, bunny rabbits and picture frames. Neither Marisa nor I have lived anywhere for much longer than two years, so as far as we’re concerned it’s “get comfortable” in that amount of time, or don’t get comfortable at all.  So we made the place home, with a name coined by my first co-teacher, Mr. Song, who used to come and collect me at the end of the day and say with a clink of the keys that it was time to return to my “sweet home.” Then a drive through the rice fields, green or golden or gray, depending on the time of year.
Now our sweet home is empty and gone, and I am sitting on a bus on the way to the airport, watching the Korean countryside float by, as I have done many times before. But the difference this time around is that I have no place to return to—not in the immediate sense, and not in the long-term sense. Most people, when they travel, have some kind of base to go back to: a home, a family, a job, a city, a neighborhood, a country—a base that, however distance and loosely held, serves as a normal line on the horizon.  Sometimes people uproot themselves and sojourn to a foreign land to make a new base: their normal line lies not behind them, but in front of them in that new place, the home to be.
Marisa and I have neither of these things. Growing up with nomadic parents who left their homeland before I was born, my home was always wherever my family was living. Likewise, since being married to Marisa, our home has been wherever we’ve set it up: Carrboro, Minneapolis, Gunsan… the next place. But now, as we set out for a period of extended travel, that “next place” is gone as much as our current place is slipping away beneath bus tires. As I look out these large windows, past the emergency hammer that I think about using, there is no Sweet Home waiting in my future, no family or friends to go “back” to, no employment that I’m preparing for, not even a country that I can land in at some future point and feel that I’ve returned home, or at least found my destination. What do I have? A tent, a backpack, and some vague plan to make games about the things I see.
I’ve often felt like a vagabond, but never more than now. 

Sweet Home without us.

A glance of Istanbul

14 Feb 2009
Posted by Jordan
Jordan's picture

"If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul."

So said Alphonse de Lamartine, French poet and politician, of the city which was then the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Napolean Bonaparte, who had similarly strong feelings about the city, supposedly said that "if the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capitol." This from the man who tried to conquer the world for France? (who was, by the way, average height for his day.)

Istanbul is one of those cities that makes you catch your breath before you even arrive there--at least if you're a student of history. The depth and breadth of this city's experience is second to none: at the intersection of two continents and two seas, two hemispheres, and two of the world's great religions, Istanbul is a microcosm of the world itself.

Today was but a glance of the city, but it was a glance that left an impression. In general, most cities that I have ever visited fall into one of three categories: those that one can grow to love, those that will mostly be forgotten, and thost that impress me instantly as being, for lack of a more comprehensive and ellegant word, "cool" Cool. Cairo fits into the first category, most cities into the second, and a handfull of cities--Vienna, Quebec, perhaps Istanbul--fall into the third.

We visited Sultanahmet (the Blue Mosque) and Ayasofya today, and took some really cool pictures (to overuse the word). They're still uploading, so you'll have to wait 'till tomorrow to see what we saw.