My tattoo evolution

30+ years ago, I lost a bet and, while stationed in Denver, CO, I had a small tattoo inked on my back: a butterfly. (I think I paid 35.00 for it) Over the years, I almost forgot about it (except when I was swimming and someone would tell me that I had a bug on my back). In Tacoma, decades later, I had it re-colorized. (65.00) Then, I began to wonder: is one enough? How many tattoos are too much? In New Orleans, I had a small black rose tattoo’d on my thigh. (~120.00 and it hurt like a ….well it hurt). No, I wasn’t drinking and yes, I would recommend getting a large tattoo to begin with! In 2005, I was in NYC with a friend and my youngest daughter for my birthday. As a present, they chipped in to purchase a “tramp stamp” tattoo for me: my star sign (200.00). Then, about 2 years ago, I realized that my original tattoo had “melted” and no longer looked recognizable. So….I decided to have it covered up. Next came a larger aqua chrysathemum which I just love! (200.00) Then…in July, my kidney donor died (of a heart attack, with my kidney still working). In memory, I had a Taiwanese artist create a red rose memorial to add to the flower already on my back. And finally, last December, Mom died suddenly. In her memory I had a lovely little hummingbird and heart added to my growing body art collection. See what you think of it….


“The hummingbird symbolizes many different concepts. Because of its speed, the hummingbird is known as a messenger and stopper of time. It is also a symbol of love, joy, and beauty. The hummingbird is also able to fly backwards, teaching us that we can look back on our past.”

Year of the Snake

It’s nearly Chinese New Year, that time of year when Taiwanese from all over the world return to their island home to celebrate the most important traditional holiday with their families. The decoration vendors are springing up all over the roadsides and alleys, their booths displaying bright red and gold items of every size and shape. CNY is supposed to mark the end of Winter but this year we’ve really had a super mild season. The sun’s been out for a couple of weeks now, with temperatures ranging from 16 to 23 degrees celsius. Last winter I had no cold-weather clothing and boy, was it cold! This year, I was prepared (hats, scarves, gloves, coats) so yeah, of course we have warm weather!

For the foreigners (and most everyone) CNY means a vacation – 9 days this year (Feb. 8 – 17), by government decree! And, it means food – lots of it – and money and gifts. The atmosphere is festive: my building lobby is all decorated up with red lanterns, lights, and golden snake images, and each floor still has its Christmas decorations out. Our annual Spring party will be held the week after CNY and folks are excited to see what sort of prizes (and cash) they could win.

I’ll be heading to Sri Lanka for 2 weeks to tour the island and learn to cook some Sri Lankan foods. I have my own personal guide/chauffeur: The weather there is supposed to be HOT (34 degrees C); I’m hoping to come back with, at the very least, a tan and some amazing photos. I also want to shop for gems (spinel, sapphire, and zircon), batik cloth, and spices! My Asian adventure continues…Xin nian kuai le!

And the crazy signs continue…

Everywhere you look in Taiwan, there are signs. Some of them in Chinese only, some of them accurately (more or less) translated, and my favorite: those with a few language gaffes.

A new lounge, off of Dunhua S. Rd.

A new lounge, off of Dunhua S. Rd.

I wonder what a mam moth is? A new winged night creature? Or did they mean mammoth? As in big and extinct? If I owned a lounge, I’m not sure I’d want to advertise “dead” whiskey. Does it kill you? Does it contain inert matter?

At the unloading zone of the National Palace Museum

At the unloading zone of the National Palace Museum

Uh, so is this the bus for overweight foreigners?

At a food stand on Fuxing, near Xinyi

At a food stand on Fuxing, near Xinyi

Wow, this must be really old rice! Are the leaves from the paleolithic age as well?

It always amazes me that folks don’t verify their translated messages with a native English speaker…

Yingge redux

One of my favorite little towns near Taipei City is the pottery town, Yingge. This time, instead of meeting up with friends at Taipei Main Station (it’s always a bit nervewracking to figure out where to go – there are at least 4 different levels with crowds of people scurrying to and fro on each), we decided to meet at Songshan TRA (train) station and ride the express train to Yingge. Ahhhh, so much easier. I took a taxi to the station and when I told the driver “Wo qu Songshan huochizhan” (I go Songshan train station) he just looked at me. I repeated the phrase several times, adding in the name of the street. Apparently my “accent” was off but eventually, after getting out Google maps he understood. Songshan wasn’t crowded on a Sunday morning. I bought my ticket, asked an attendant which track goes to Yingge and soon we had a nice seat and a quick, pleasant journey. At Yingge station, there are two exits, each leading to a different street. This time we took the street we thought lead to the Pottery Museum and after a few turns down narrow lanes, found ourselves in the middle of a field of giant pottery pieces that looked as if it had been dropped from the sky and had become embedded in the ground.

Look out for falling plates!

Look out for falling plates!

What a cool concept!

What a cool concept!

World’s most expensive coffee

You might look at cat poo in a different light after tasting what is undeniably the most expensive cuppa joe in the world! You have probably heard of it and this weekend, I and some friends, got to try it at Taipei’s Tea, Coffee, and Wine Expo. While most coffee dealers were doling out their wares for free, the folks who create Kopi Luwak typically charge 680NT (nearly 20USD) for a thimble-sized taste. Luckily, for this event, it only cost us 100NT, or about half the cost of the tallest Starbucks offering.

This unusual java originates on the island of Java and Sumatra (Indonesia), home to a civit-like animal: the luwak, whose favorite meal is ripe red coffee “cherries”. Down the hatch they go, and of course you know where they end up. After being collected and sanitized, they are roasted and ground, to be enjoyed by coffee connoisseurs.

A caffeinated afternoon!

A caffeinated afternoon!

Was it worth the price? Yes – if only to say we’d tried it. Would I pay 100USD for 200grams of the stuff? Uh…no.


Murder at the Jianguo Jade Market

I headed down Xinyi on the 22 to the Jianguo markets (crafts, flowers, jade).  I was meeting my friend Najia and wanted to shop for gems – or at least see what was available. The jade market is so large (at least 3 city blocks long) that we decided to start on the east side and work our way up and back on each section, making our way to the other side. I could see vendor after vendor with jade, jade, and more jade. Finally one vendor pointed out one of his neighbors, saying that she sold gems. Then suddenly it seemed that many vendors were packing up their booths (and it was only 1pm). At the night markets this happens when the police show up to check vendor permits; those without permits cover up their booths and wheel them away to avoid a fine. We saw police officers and thought that was happening here too. The gem vendor tried to be polite while she was throwing items into boxes, asking us to come back next week and pointing to the middle section of the market, one aisle from hers.

We still didn’t get it. The police tape should have been our first clue. And then we saw it and I wish we hadn’t.

A large pool of blood spreading over the floor. A forensics officer taking photos. Thankfully there was no body but it was obvious that something dire had occurred. We moved away and asked several of the nearby vendors, what had happened. One made a slashing motion across his throat. Suicide? Apparently not. A vendor at one of the booths nearest the scene said “fight” and made the same slashing motion. There wasn’t a lot of emotion expressed. A person had just been killed, in broad daylight, in a crowded market and no one  screamed, no one was crying, no one seemed in shock. (Violent crime is definitely not the norm in Taipei but I could find nothing in the news about this incident.)

As we moved further away from the crime scene, it seemed that most of the vendors had heard about the killing but again, it was more of the British stiff upper lip reaction than outrage or horror. We did a little more window shopping but in truth, it was difficult to concentrate. I doubt I will ever look at the jade market in the same way again. RIP unknown victim.


Halloween 2012

Last year I didn’t do much for Halloween. This year, I was determined to find something to create a costume out of. As I wandered the neighborhood night market I spied a wonderful headdress, collar, and cuff from Bali. I tried them on and then asked the price. Yikes, they were asking more than 10,000NT (325 USD). Tai gui (too expensive)! Thinking they were quoting me the “rich foreigner” price I had a local friend go in to inquire about the price. The same. Maybe a trip to Indonesia was in order. Found one, including airfare, for around 9000NT but the kicker: the headdress and accessories are still expensive to purchase. What to do? I waited until the evening of the 30th and then went to talk with the shop owner. After some spirited negotiations, I walked out with all of the items + a stand for the headdress + extra cuff + gold earrings for 8000NT.

Next, I studied Balinese dancer make up and movements, painted some “witchy” nails gold, selected some sandals, and ironed one of my sarees. The result?

Bali Dancer


Needless to say the costume caused quite a stir both to and from work, and in the office.  Success!

Turtle Island

One of the joys of living in Taiwan is the myriad of options for taking day trips, depending on what sort of activities appeal to you. At work, a small amount is deducted from our pay each month as a contribution to our Welfare committee, which uses that money to subsidize these trips. Recently, I signed up for a trip to Turtle Island (named for its shape). Because the island was a former military installation, groups must “apply” for landing permits. It took us several tries before we obtained the permit.

We met in front of our work building, early on a Saturday morning, to board a tour bus. Less than an hour later, we were in Yilan harbor.

Turtle Island viewed from Lanyang Museum

We had an hour to wait for the cruise so a group of us decided to hike a short distance to the Lanyang  museum. It’s a modern-design building with angular walls and floor-to-ceiling windows that afford visitors a view of the harbor and the local landscape.

Lanyang Museum

The museum tells the story of Yilan’s history in a colorful and interesting way and is meant to instill pride in the local customs and traditions; I’m sure it’s a big hit with the area’s schoolteachers.

Yilan fisherman

All too soon, it was time to board the ship: we had to produce ID cards and health insurance information. On-board, we were all required to wear life vests and off we went, in search of whales and dolphins that are said to inhibit these waters. The water was choppy, so it was easy to get seasick. Keeping an eye out for the sealife helped with the rough motion of the ocean. We saw lots of dolphins but no whales. Unlike other oceans, the color of the water really is deep aqua blue, making it easy to see where the geo-thermal hot springs come up (look for bubbles and water that is light aqua).

Turtle Island from the ship – the head is on the left

Once at the Turtle Island wharf, we were told “no take picture” until after we were well off the dock and at the visitor’s center (read: ice cream and souvenir shop).

Oops, guess I wasn’t paying attention to the instructions

After a refreshment break, we started walking. I should point out that it was hot and humid so our pace was a little slower.

Sightseeing options on Turtle Island

We walked past the remnants of a temple – the island had once been home to a village before it was conscripted by the military -around a lovely lake to where a 20-foot tall female buddha statue had more recently been erected.

Beautiful Buddha, off in the distance

Then, we headed inside the island, through tunnels carved by the military.

One of many tunnels on the island

We came out on the edge of the island to view the guns and gun portals.

The gunner’s view

(Remember, mainland China is only 120 miles offshore.) We were told the island is no longer used by the military but one has to wonder….

Gun portals as seen from the ocean

Cutting for Stone

I joined a book club earlier this year, through the Community Services Center (they meet in the evenings – yeah!), and this month we read Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of a young man (a twin) growing up in Ethiopia, who later goes on to become a respected doctor (and professor at Stanford University!) in America. I won’t spoil it for you by giving away any details but it was definitely a fascinating look into another culture.

As a writer, I’m always interested in what inspires others to write. I decided to learn more about Dr. Verghese: and I sent the following note:

Dear Dr. Verghese, in preparation for a book club discussion of Cutting for Stone, I read with interest of your current research into bedside manner. Recently (20 months ago) I became a living kidney donor and, because you wrote so beautifully about the twins’ experience in your book, I thought you might be interested in hearing about my donor experience, as it relates to your current scientific focus. If this is the case, I’m happy to relate my story….

And, he wrote back!! How many bestselling authors would take the time to respond to a random note from a complete stranger? He truly must embody the best of humanity!

Crazy Taiwanese signs

Everywhere you look, there are Mandarin characters; you can’t escape them – and no, I don’t mean the people! Every so often, someone has attempted to translate these lovely symbols into English, sometimes with hilarious results! I’ve been collecting samples of these little faux pas for over a year now so allow me to start sharing them with you…

After a long day at work, who couldn’t use a little extra Prozac?

Mmmm, after the Prozac kicks in, I’ll bet this synthetic candy tastes pretty darn good!

I’m not really sure who these snacks are supposed to appeal to….maybe people who want to look good nude?

And if the “nude” pretzels don’t do it for you, you can always try this exotic-flavored popcorn as a treat.

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As for me, I will take the road less travelled…