Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Taipei Life!

The days here are busy. The girls work from 10 am till 10 pm sewing. We finished our last fittings today, finally seeing our gorgeous Carmen A (there is also a Carmen B) and our Toreador. We only have one or two checks to go and then its all down to the alterations, although today I have noticed that the alteration racks are looking considerably clearer so lets hope that we are on track to have it all done for Friday. Then the fun starts - fireproofing with limited ventilation. EWWWW!

I am really enjoying working with the girls: - Linda of course, but also Elaine (good English), Vivienne (quite good English), Pink (quite good English, crazy and sometimes rude taste in T-shirts), Pei-june (now nicknamed Austin - no English but amusing) and I-cheng who comes in to power on the machine after her day job ends every evening (no English and very shy). Every day a combination of these girls comes in to work, sometimes 2 sometimes 4. They have been hugely accepting of me, they make jokes with me and teach me chinese words. They are endlessly patient and pick out tasty vegetarian options for me at restaraunts. They bring me presents - sometimes small charms or a small morsel to taste. Yesterday I-cheng brought me a bag of fresh lychees. I am constantly in awe of their generosity and good nature. They never seem to be pissed off or fed up, even though they work such long hours. I have really enjoyed their company.

Linda is a total blessing. She is good humoured and hugely knowledgable both about wardrobe work and about the city of Taipei in which she grew up. She told me how when she was a child, she thought all roads ended in a mountain. Taipei city lies in a basin surrounded by mountains. They describe it as like a bowl. It was only when she was a bit bigger and finally went to another place, she discovered that not every road has a mountain at the end of it! She takes me shopping for the show on the back of her scooter, and we load it up with boxes of shoes and huge bags. This doesn’t faze her - she just straps it all on the back. I hang on for dear life and try to remember to wear a skirt. We wander in and out of alleys and laneways - button street, fabric market, ribbon shops, flower specialists, habadashers - Taipei is a dressmakers paradise. We climb the stairs to the dyers premises which has only three rooms and a huge fish tank. In the back there is a couple of large dye pots and shelves full of buttons. It is sparse and ramshackle but clean and the people are welcoming.

Friday was our last day off. Linda wanted to take me out on an adventure to the countryside. I was reluctant but only because I was exhausted and brain fried from trying to understand pseudo English/chinese for the last week. But I decided I would go because I was so appreciated that she had asked me and was prepared to give up her day off to spend even more time with me (like 10-12 hours a day isn’t enough!). We were going to go to Beitou which is a hot springs town on the back of Linda’s scooter but then she rang me at the hotel late on Thursday night to tell me plans had changed - I had to be in the lobby at 6am to go on a tour with her that her friend had organised. I had to tell her my passport number and bring some money.

I had a bit of a fitful night - I had no idea where she was taking me, why we had to get up so early, and then I also realised that no one in Taipei or Sydney would have the faintest idea where I would be. I also didn’t know if I was going to be riding on the scooter or not (great fun but a little harrowing and probably not the best option for long distance travel).

As I wake up at 5am the sun is rising over Taipei. It has not yet started to get hot and from my window I can see the streets are deserted. I decide to dress for the scooter and when Linda turns up to collect me from the lobby I am glad I have done so. She hands me a helmet and we criss-cross the city , wide open streets clear for a change. I am excited but apprehensive.

We park the scooter near Lindas house and she explains that we will be walking to the bus. We are going on a tour to the country region ofYilan which is about an hour and a half away. It used to be 4 hours but they built a tunnel through the mountains and now you don’t have to go all the way around. We grab some breakfast from 711 (always open and on every corner) - a banana and a juice. Linda has an unidentifiable sandwich in a packet. I decline.

She explains that her friend has organised for us to go on this tour. It is for Taiwanese people only and is very cheap - I realise it is the Taiwanese Governments version of the Stimulus Package. They give people a cheap tour to the country but when we get there we have to spend money to get into the attractions they take us to. It is still very inexpensive (I am a cashed up Aussie). I am to tell anyone who asks that I am Taiwanese. I wonder at the probability of anyone believing this - I have only seen one light haired person in two weeks and I was looking in the mirror at the time. I am also about a head taller then most of the women here. Apparently they have told the organisers that I can speak some of chinese. Hmmmm. Only if you count the words “thank you” “sorry” “breast” and “soup” as some.

We arrive at the bus terminal and I am introduced to Linda’s friend Nicky.
Nicky is as vivacious as Linda and speaks very clear English. Linda tells me that Nicky has lived in London. We are given a ticket, sign our names on an form, and climb onto the purple tour bus. Airconditioned. Orange drapery with pompom trimming. It reminds me of a cake. At least it’s a cool cake!

Our first stop in Keelong which is a smaller town just outside of Taipei. One of my girls Elaine is from Keelong and comes into Taipei to study and work. We get off the bus again and wait for about half an hour until more people join the tour. Then we have our photo taken with the tour sign. It turns out that we have to do this at every stop we make as proof to the Taiwanese Government that the tour company are actually taking the people to where they say they are going to. We can email for a copy of the photo if we would like a souvenir. I attempt to hide in the back.

From Keelong we drive for about an hour to the county of Yilan. Our first destination is a lake, called Swan Lake even though there is only one swan. Apparently it is shaped like a swan. After a side trip to a rather dubious toilet, we are life jacketed and herded onto a barge like boat. It is being driven by a rather surly teenager and we are given a commentary by a more charismatic and larger man with a microphone, of which I understand pretty much nothing. The tour is punctuated by Linda’s exclamations of delight - it turns out she is quite a nature lover - every bird and flower is a wonder. Her excitement is gorgeous to watch. I spend half the time gazing at the scenery and half the time enjoying my companions enthusiasm.

The lake is beautiful and is a protected area with lots of rare birds, fish and turtles. I am just enjoying seeing a different and more peaceful side of Taiwan. The forest is beautiful, lush and green. The area beneath them is flat and cultivated - everywhere you look something is being farmed. Fruit, vegetables, all grow here in abundance. The air is hot and humid, the sky overcast. My clothes are sticking to me under the life jacket.

When we climb off the boat we walk around the lake, following our jovial host. We see plants, butterflies in shades of brown and blue, fruit trees and finally we end up at a mountain spring. We are encouraged to take off our shoes and bath our feet. They give us cloth wipes to dip in the water and mop the sweat from our bodies. It is deliciously cool and enticing. I feel much better.

Back on the bus we head off to the Honey Farm. It is only a ten minute drive down a long straight road. The building is square and white. After the ubiquitous group photo, we follow the guide to the second story where they turn all the lights off and play us a film. It seems to be about the people who make the honey. Linda whispers a translation but I can’t really understand her and besides, it seems pretty self explanatory. I smile and nod to save her feelings (and the fact that she is probably disturbing everyone else’s enjoyment of the experience with a running English commentary!).

After the cinema experience we wander out to a balcony, across a little bridge and down a flight of stairs. There our purple suited and rather glamorous tour guides provide us with net covered straw hats and we go out to meet the bees (apparently of the stingless variety) . We taste pollen dust, and then the honey. They show us lots of bees. We remove the hat and return to the shopfront where we sample various kinds of honey, honey biscuits, honey cake, honey sweets….. Linda persuades me to buy some icecream and offers me a choice of peanut or milk. I am bemused - where is the honey? Turns out its milk and honey or peanut and honey. We buy one each. Both are delicious and taste more like honey the more you eat.

After all the honey guzzling its time for lunch and our next stop is the Whisky Distillery. Here we take a photo, and then are ushered into a huge dining hall for lunch. I eat vegetable stew with rice and soup on the side. It is surprisingly tasty, despite the Taiwanese’s penchant for fake meat products. Apparently that is all we get to do at the Distillery. Unfortunately there seems to be no free whisky on offer despite my expectations to the contrary. I toss up buying a small bottle but decide not to - I’m not that fond of whisky as it is and I’m not convinced that Taiwan is the place to buy it.

Stuffed full and in need of a nap, we are off for a walk in the forest. It starts to rain heavily and we seem to drive for miles. I start to hope that the rain has diverted us homeward. I am knackered and have been up since 5 am. Then we pull into a dirt road. It appears not. The forest is beautiful. We eat fruit (more food) and walk in the woods to a waterfall. About a 2k walk all up and surprisingly nice despite the rain. I start to feel better. On the way back we pass a man with a huge block of peanut brittle. I ask Linda and she explains it is for traditional Taiwanese ice cream. She insists on buying one for me to try - the little man shaves the peanut with a plane and we end up with a thin tortilla wrapped icecream with peanut and parsley. It is amazingly delicious. I wish I had bought one! The little man laughs and makes me pose for photos with his peanut brick.

Back on the bus, then the last stop on our exhausting tour - the hot springs. The spring is in the middle of town and this one is strictly for feet only. It is also damn hot! We have to wander a long way from the source of the spring to prevent feet scalding. Then we slip off our shoes and sit for a while dangling our toes in the warm bath. Its kind of pleasant in a “feet in a slow cooker” kind of way.

Finally its time to go home. I am exhausted and although I have had a wonderful adventure with my two new friends, I am kind of relieved. They certainly cram a lot into a day tour! We watch strange cartoons of ancient Taiwanese mythology all the way back to the city. I doze and have strange dreams of snakes and hunters and whales….


It is 8 pm when we get back to Taipei. Linda wants to go to the night markets for dinner but I decide to go back to the hotel - we’ll leave that experience for another day!

The only other news is that I had two stupid accidents yesterday - I fell off my chair when my foot slipped out from underneath me. Everyone went silent until they realised I was only mildly hurt. Then as I was running to catch up with Ben and Sue, I did a full on face first onto the ground banana peel stylie slip and really banged my knee. Now I am in pain and look like a kid in a schoolyard scrap. I am so tragic…..

PS Sorry for the tragic photo layout. I hate sticking photos into blogger - it takes ages!!! This is the cute little girl who we met on the tour. Linda said "She think I am toy!" She was as cheeky as she looks!

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