Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Temple

I don't mean "going to Temple."  Well, at least not in the sense that one might think.  Although I did have to go to THE Temple in order to get the red lanterns we've been searching for.

Hanging from the eaves of many a storefront throughout the city of Taichung are red lanterns.  As part of our office here at the airport facility, we wanted to create a lounge environment where we could have inter-department meetings or maybe just as a place to sit during break time.  The first order of business, though, was to acquire some red lanterns for some appropriate mood lighting during the evenings.

"Arnold, where can we get those lanterns I see hanging all over town?"  "Uuuuuh, I'm not sure."  I could give his responses numbers by now, because he usually uses either number 1, "Hm, let me think about that," or number 2, "Uuuuh, I'm not sure."

"Don't they have party stores around here?"  "A party store?" he replied, flummoxed.  I know they don't have Michael's here, but there must be some store where people go to get the red lanterns for their businesses or for parties.   We stopped in a lighting store.  No luck.  We went to a hardware store.  Not there, either.   "Hey, let's pull over at the next place we see, and ask them where they get their lanterns."  "Good idea," Arnold quipped.  I pulled over at the place with the duck heads displayed proudly in the window and asked if he'd mind going in to find out where one might acquire a few of those red lanterns.

After a very long-winded conversation that included much back and forth, he strolled back to the truck with great news.  "Well, those lanterns you see are actually given to the store owners by their temple.  If you make a donation, they will give you the lanterns to show their appreciation and to offer blessings from the temple in protecting your business from spirits that may harm you."  "Perfect.  So, we go to the temple gift shop, just like at home.  Where's the nearest temple?"

"I know the perfect place," Arnold replied.  "You're going to love this.  At the next, next cross-section, make a right turn."  I was thrilled to pieces.  I knew an adventure laid before us.  A ten minute drive through town, and there it was, the oldest temple in Taichung, dating back to the 1600's.

We walked through the courtyard to the inner sanctum.   Inside, the heavy aroma from burning incense wafted through the air.  Red columns highlighted in gilded gold paint housed hundreds of little illuminated windows behind which sat family memorial plaques for the deceased.  Bowls of root and fresh fruit lined a table in the corner, ready to be claimed and placed before the altar of the gods as offerings -- all of it pretty amazing.  "So, where's the gift shop? " I finally asked.  "I don't know.  I don't think they have one."  I wasn't giving up that easily.  "Ask that woman cutting up the fruit where the gift shop is."  

"She says that we must go across the street to the church office and ask them there."  Taking my humble place behind Arnold, I followed him into the room.  Envisioning a gathering of bald men in gowns sitting cross-legged in neat rows, deep in meditation,  I kept my distance before heading through the door.  Behind a desk sat an unassuming man in regular clothes, speaking into the phone.  What a relief.  After a brief conversation, The man stood up and walked back across the street.  "What's happening?"  "He says that the lanterns are not for sale but he will give them to us.  A donation is appreciated but not, um, how do you say, required."  I pulled out a thousand NTD -- $30.00.  "How's this for six lanterns?"  Arnold nodded his approval.  

The characters on one side mean "Heavenly mother."  The other side is the name of the temple, "Thousand Harmonies."

The exchange went smoothly.  About to head out the door, we were stopped by an older woman who sat listening at a nearby desk.  She handed us two golden tassels.

The face is a representation of the god of the ocean -- aptly chosen for our job.

Before leaving, we were instructed to walk back into the temple, stand before the urn of burning incense and wave the tassel clockwise three times.  That way we were sure the blessings of the temple would travel with us back to our job site, and we would be protected.  "Why not?"  

Arnold waved his icon like a seasoned veteran.   Stepping back, he offered me my place before the giant urn.  In fear of insulting anyone who may be watching,  I hesitated briefly, carefully planning my next move.   I didn't want to whack one of the burning embers of incense, so I leaned a little closer.  As I swung my arm over the top of the giant cauldron, Arnold snapped in a panic.  "No, no, no!"  The blood rushed from my face as I was certain I had just accidentally altered forever the sacred union of the sun and moon, conjuring up Yu-Huang, the Jade Emperor, who would teach me a thing or two about what I just did.   But no, I was merely facing the wrong way.  "Always face the altar."  "Oh."  

The lights are up and the lounge is ready to receive guests.

The two tables were hanging signs that directed people through the now defunct airport terminal.   We couldn't resist placing them in our lounge and illuminating them with 60 watt light bulbs.  I'm feeling a downtown after hours club.  I may have to take one home.  They're the coolest things, ever.   

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Time Flies...

I can hardly believe that only a week has passed since my last post, for it feels like months.  Work has ramped up to full speed, and I kick off my days like a horse lurching from the starting gate.  During the course of an afternoon, I and my trusty sidekick, Arnold, will negotiate our way around and over the many hurdles to doing business here in Taiwan.

On Wednesday, I paid a visit to a wire warehouse where they distribute all kinds of copper electrical conductor.   Now, this trip I made took place only as a last resort.  I imagine that I could have watched the centipede that frequents our office spin its own cocoon, transform into a butterfly and migrate to South America while waiting for the vendor to drop by with a sample of 12 gauge single-strand.  My patience ran dry, so I demanded for the vendor to take me directly to his supplier, in order for me to view the product, make my selection and wait as a quote was drawn up for the cost of what it is I need.  Easier said, than done.

I first took a look at all of the wire before being escorted to their company reception area to write up my request.  But before anyone would put pen to paper to prepare a tally, I was invited to my first vendor lunch in Taiwan.  Whisked away from the office, I landed at a restaurant that serves up a rich cuisine to the locals who entertain their clients in style.  A large round table accommodated the six of us with plenty of room.  Upon taking my seat with my new Taiwanese acquaintances, I looked up at the waitress as she placed firmly upon the table, two bottles of scotch whiskey.  What the heck was I getting myself into?

I sipped daintily as the gentleman across from me, identifying himself as "Roger," uttered something in Mandarin.  Arnold took over.  "He wants to know if this is your first time to Taiwan."  "Yes."  And taking the lead before his next question, I said that I have found the people to be pleasantly warm and receptive, even to those who can't even communicate with them.  Glasses were raised, in honor.  What followed was a lively time that included a meal of pork, large peel and eat shrimp, some amazing fish fillets, marinated chunks of beef, soup and octopus with pea pods...I think scotch is my new favorite drink.

Hours later, I found myself in our truck, negotiating my way through Taichung City during rush hour.  Like a three dimensional video game, the city comes alive -- scooters from all directions, lights, giant buses, narrow streets and everything else you can imagine.  I told Arnold I was about to lose my mind and he laughed heartily.  As I said, he leaves the driving to me.

The week included a little trip to the southern end of the island and a town called Kenting.  The bullet train shot us down there in a little under an hour.

That's what 180 miles an hour looks like.  Nope, I didn't speed up the movie. 

The beautiful beach at Kenting. 

Poking around in the sand, I noticed some oddly colored rocks, which turned out to be anything but rocks.  Here are worn slivers of broken bottles known as beach glass.  I wish I could stroll along the shore in Santa Monica and find stuff like this. 

I placed my treasures on a piece of paper, lit from below with the help of my hotel room lamp.  
Neat stuff.

Here's a hotel we stopped at, along the way.  

Apparently cycling, specifically mountain biking, is a huge industry in Taiwan.  Giant is a Taiwanese company, and many high-end component companies call Taiwan their home, as well.  Because of that, a large community of expats from Europe, South America and Australia has added a unique flair to the island by creating a demand for multicultural restaurants, bars and cuisine.  I just had no idea.  I met one guy from South Africa who has lived here for twelve years.  

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Blog

"So, are you going to blog about it?"  I must have heard that question a half dozen times while sharing with people my next job prospect, in Taiwan.  Having traveled out of the U.S. on only one other occasion, the thought of going to such a far away place that I knew nothing about was at once exciting and unnerving.  Nine months removed from everything within my comfort zone without the ability to hop on a plane for a quick dose of "known quantity," I knew I'd be testing my resiliency, for sure.

"Can you give me twenty-four hours?" I asked my new potential boss.  After figuring everything out with my girl, it was decided.  I would be heading out for eight months for an experience of a lifetime.  I ran to the store and picked up "Mandarin for Dummies" in order to create my flashcard list.

The welcome packet from the production company included a list of suggested inoculations, a brief synopsis of Taiwanese culture along with my travel itinerary.  A fifteen hour flight in Business Class seemed like the right idea for a proper send-off.

The LAX business class lounge -- all you can eat food and drink.

The flight included linen table cloths, china and metal stemware, bottomless glasses of water and wine, headphones, slippers and shaving kits.  And, standing at six feet, I appreciated the fact that I could extend my legs without ever coming close to the chair in front of me.  That worked.

23 floors up, one is treated to quite the view from my hotel room.  

First things first.  We got the car!

And off we went into town.  I began to assemble the office for our department, which includes desks, chairs, lights and all of the stuff you need to get things going from scratch -- times four people.  

Arnold, our assigned translator, eased my fear of getting lost in the vortex of a foreign country.

Arnold drives only a scooter, so he left all motor-vehicle operations to me.  I welcomed the challenge.

I wondered why anyone would even bother to take a car out to the store.  Everyone else seems to get by just fine on their scooters.  This is the first floor of the building where both Home Depot and A-Mart reside.

Venturing out on one's own takes a bit of fortitude, at first.  It's easy to default to an afternoon spent within the safe confines of the hotel, if for no other reason than the fact that everyone can understand me when I speak to them.  And, I am well aware that putting myself in the position of embarrassment for not knowing a language is part of the growing pains necessary to develop a functioning comfort level here.   

So, with a few phrases under my belt, off I went.  I was told that by heading southeast of the hotel, I would encounter a neat zone of European-friendly establishments.  

Water drizzled down - nothing too imposing - while the temperature hovered at comfortably warm.

I landed at Robot Coffee.  I just loved the vibe, so I had to go in.  

I felt like I was at home in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles.  I knew the folks here would "speak my language."

All of the quirky dolls with large faces and the crazy rabbit and cat figurines with exaggerated features I've seen for years in Chinatown gift shops, indeed, came from the culture I now witnessed first hand.  It definitely has its charm.

The robot heads on the tabletops are napkin boxes.  

  The girl behind the counter presented me with a set of flashcards drawn in Taiwanese cartoon cool that had English translations of everything on the menu.   

Engaging a silent flock of confused hipster Taiwanese kids, I struggled to communicate my desire for a cup of coffee and something sweet, while very quickly realizing that English subtitles on menus do not stand as any indication, whatsoever, of whether or not English is spoken in a business establishment.  I guess it's the same as the Americans I've seen who get Chinese characters tattooed on their bodies without having the faintest idea what they really mean.  It's just cool...I guess.