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November 29, 2007

Taipei Update

After a great weekend with friends in San Diego and getting some last minute stuff taken care of (such as buying this Blackberry that I am typing on now -which we LOVE) the drive up to L.A.could not have been smoother.

The flight did not feel like 14 hours, 6 maybe. The plane was quite empty, only 90 people. Apparently a full house would be 400 - so almost everybody got a row of either 3 or 4 seats to themselves. Getting to lie down to sleep makes all the difference. The food on the flight was Asian style and we loved every bite of it.

We had chosen a hostel before landing, we hoped there was space got on a bus and made our way 40 minutes away to the center of Taipei.

The time change has played a little number on us, we get up each night between 2 and 3am, our tired bodies say go back to sleep,our minds say get up! It doesn't help that I have a head cold and so breathing while lying down is a challenge.

The city feels like a mixture between Las Vegas and New York with all the people in the streets and neon signs everywhere! The city is very alive, surprisingly clean, and safe. The big difference being, even though there are people everywhere it does not have the same hustle and bustle feel that NY has, it is much calmer here, no one honking their horns or trying to run you over. I have yet to see a beggar. It also feels like these 2 North American cities because it is a consumers dream. You can buy anything and everything here!

All the signs are in Chinese characters so we can't understand any of them. It's funny because there have been a few times that we have tried to ask a question and the person responded by pointing to the answer which is written, all we can do is smile, nod our heads to say thank you and shrug our shoulders.

We walk, take a bus, or the MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit-the metro) to where we want to go. It's incredibly efficient, clean, quiet and smooth to ride on. If we don't already know where to get off, it really helps to have the name of the place written in Chinese characters to be able to show it to the bus driver, and but again nod and smile.

In a few days we will make our way to the countryside, not sure where yet, but it will be interesting to experience the contrast.

It is winter, and in the Northern Taiwan that means it is chilly and rainy, our sweaters and rain jackets accompany us daily.

The streets are filled with food stands with all kinds of goodies. Sometimes we don't know what we are trying and if there is no one to translate we go on looks alone and simply bite in. Yesterday we tried snakes blood with rice, it was pretty good. Everyday as we walk the streets we try new things as they call to us or when a line up is long- we figure it's probably a local favorite that must be sampled.

The countless food stands in the streets and alleys are so good that we have only been to a restaurant once. Today we are getting together with one of Paul's old DivX co-workers, I'm guessing we will go to a restaurant.

Besides the jet lag, the one true re-adjustment is not being able to freely communicate with those around us, something we grew accustomed to and loved doing in South America.

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November 28, 2007

Glutenous Rice Balls

Photo: Glutenous Rice balls with sweet nut surprise
All over Taipei's streets and alleys, hand-made glutenous rice treats are sold. These range in texture from marshmellow-spongy to hard-boiled-egg-firm. Many are in the form of balls of various sizes and colors, and we're always surprised by their fillings.

This afternoon, it was green and mid-firm balls filled with julienned marinated ginger - spicy! On the street just now, we were surprised to find ground nuts and sugar inside a super spongy sticky ball, which Jo can be seen devouring above.

Yum. We're off to see what other goodies await.

November 27, 2007

Cultural Immersion

After almost a year of traveling Latin American countries, I can proudly say that we have achieved our goal of integrating a new culture into our daily thoughts and experiences.

Having had the opportunity to dive into Latin America we learned firsthand of the cultures likeness to ours and it's contrasting and colorful ways that differ from our North American upbringings. Often these differences challenged the foundation in which our thoughts and actions were born from and opened our eyes to a new reality. A new reality that will undoubtedly help shape us during the continuum of growth throughout our lives.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/11/26 at 18:03 [CIMG3725]
The greatest gift that I have been given from our extended travels so far, is that of a bigger picture in life. I can best describe it as a feeling of centeredness that offers a solid platform for which my perspective may shape and re-shape itself from moment to moment without the limitations set forth by expectations. I am more receptive to new experiences and appreciate them in the now for what they really are rather than what I think they should be.

This, which has forever changed us, was largely in part to learning Spanish. It was abundantly clear to us that over time, the shrinking language barrier gave way to a cultural exchange and in turn deeper self exploration.

It figures, just as we have wrapped our hands around the language with enough proficiency to share and learn about any topic that may present itself, we go ahead and decide to change continents!

Photo: Photo taken 2007/11/26 at 04:52 [CIMG3719]
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So we now find ourselves in Asia, eager to jump into another culture, we immediately place ourselves off the beaten path eating among the locals. I'm not sure if it was the blank look on our faces as we stared at the Mandarin characters on the menu or simply that we were the only non-Asian in the restaurant, but after a few minutes an English speaking Singaporean came to our rescue and helped us order a typical Taiwanese breakfast.

When no such help presents itself we begin an impromptu game of charades. We are also attempting to memorize some characters so that we can recognize a place or know if we are going into the right bathroom (now that would make a great story, wouldn't it?)

Photo: Photo taken 2007/11/26 at 20:00 [CIMG3744]
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Based on our previous experience in Latin America, in order to get the full cultural experience in Asia, it may hinge on our ability to communicate.

It's never easy starting over, but it's also never as exciting.

We found our way once and we shall do it again, even if it feels like the blind leading the blind at times, we are up for the challenge and welcome the unknowns that lay ahead.

Thanksgiving in San Diego

Photo: Photo taken 2007/11/21 at 20:31 [CIMG3596]
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We celebrated American Thanksgiving at our friends Bill and Nancy's in San Diego. Picture if you will - 5 kids, 2 dogs, and 12 adults all under the same roof. The kids running around in and out of the kitchen which was buzzing with people fixing themselves drinks, helping with the chopping, dicing, stirring or baking. The two dogs that were brought by friends moved underfoot, sniffing around their new environment (probably hoping for some food to fall). All the while everyone was catching up or getting to know each other.

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Dinner prep was absolutely chaotic in the most pleasant of ways, and somehow it worked! Hours and hours later, a huge feast was ready to be devoured by all.

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The festivities included us all dancing around in the living room, doing some limbo stick acrobatics, playing ping pong in the garage and eventually sitting outside around a fire. We felt thankful to enjoy the warmth of a great group during our three days in San Diego.

November 24, 2007

Reset Between the Caribbean and Southeast Asia

After a couple of months absorbing the Caribbean culture, we stopped in Mexico City for a few days and just enjoyed Thanksgiving with our friends in San Diego.

We took advantage of reliable Internet - which we didn't have since entering Cuba - to get some things done, like backing up photos to my pc in Montreal and booking some return tickets out of Bangkok, Thailand. They won't issue a visa without proof of onward bound transport. We also took advantage of access to stores selling everything we needed to restock particular consumables, replace worn gear and change some clothes for the climate.

I also bought a Blackberry Curve to replace the Windows Mobile HTC TyTN powerhouse of a phone/computer that was ultimately high in options but lacking in actually getting something done quickly. The Curve, with its qwerty thumb board, that I'm typing quite happily on now will be our new connection to the broader world beyond our location via email, RSS news subscriptions, surprisingly effective web access, Wikipedia, GPS positioned Google Maps, and other great tools that stroke our sense of connectedness to the pulse of the world as we move.

We're packing our small packs (freshly waterproofed) for the next leg of the travels that starts tomorrow morning in Taipei, Taiwan and follows with Bangkok, Thailand 10 days later.

November 19, 2007

Flowing in a River of Wind

Photo: Photo taken 2007/10/15 at 15:52 [CIMG2338]
Kitesurfing has intrigued me for years, ever since I stood in awe watching someone in San Diego drawn effortlessly across the water by the wind. I came to Cabarete, Dominican Republic, to strap on a kite and feel it for myself.

Cabarete is one of the world hot spots for kitesurfing - relatively consistent winds, warm waters, lots of facilities, and the world kitesurfing competitions are held here. On a windy day during the high season, the sky is littered with a hundred kites in the afternoon.

The beach is lined with schools, teachers and kites for rent. After interviewing three independent teachers, I chose Yohan, a nice Frenchman with which I developed an immediate rapport.

After a day of theory and work on kite setup, beach launches and control of a small training kite on the sand, I was hungry for more, but time was up.

My second day of lessons would have me fly the kite on land.

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To demonstrate, Yohan pulled one side of the control bar towards him. The kite swung quickly across the sky in an arc, and when it reached the apex above us, it yanked him right off the ground more than a meter. The enormous power of the kite was immediately evident. I would later see people launch 10 meters into the sky, travel 30 meters forward and land softly in the water. The wind's enormous raw power could seemingly be both harnessed and tamed, I thought.

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I strapped a harness onto my waist and hooked on the four lines leading to the 8 square meter kite. The two outer lines are attached to the control bar, which when pulled or let go in unison draws in the edges of the kite or relaxes them, serving to power and depower the kite. Favoring one side steers its position along an arc that stretches from low to either side of you to straight above head. A simple principle, this should be a snap.

Reality, of course, would take me another way. I found it very difficult to control the kite and to keep it aloft. I spent more time crashing and relaunching the kite than flying it. Each crash smashed my ego down another notch, until I was left with a deeply carved nest of ineptitude. I cut the planned 3 hour lesson short at half time and sat alone, humbled on the water's edge looking out over the ocean. Frustration grew into dejection and bloomed into an all-out sense of failure.

The feeling was overwhelmingly depressing. My desire to do has always been met with the necessary matching capability. But now, despite wholehearted effort, I couldn't. I contemplated whether I could still pick up new skills and excel at them. I usually take the bumps of the learning curve as an enjoyable challenge, but this day, I faced difficulty by running away from it. I abhorred the feeling of quitting with failure.

After some more overly dramatic self dialog, the lapping waves calmed me and I concluded that I would be establishing the first footholds of regret if I didn't keep at it until I "got it".

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The next day I approached the endeavor with a refreshed spirit and renewed vigor. This day, the kiteing was outstanding. The winds were twice as strong, between 15 and 20 knots and stable. I progressed quickly, keeping it aloft, gaining control of the kite, positioning it where I wanted.

Where on previous days, when I would misguide the kite for just an instant it would go hurling violently towards the ground, ending flight with a crash. On this day I was almost always able to recover control without an impact - which has really contributed to my feeling in control of the kite, instead of the other way around.

I was ready to move off the shore into the water to work on "body dragging". That's where I fly the kite in figure 8 patterns above and get dragged in an S pattern across (and sometimes hopping over!) the water. I now had a first-hand sense of the kite's power. It was a thrilling load of fun that had me perma-grinning ear to ear.

Where previous day's water crashes meant swimming back to shore, untangling the strings and relaunching - a 20 to 30 minute effort - I am now able to relaunch the kite while it sits in the water, a great feeling, and an even greater time saver.

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With kite control and water launches down pat, I grabbed a board, holding it in front of me, and let the kite drag me 30 meters from shore. There, I positioned the board under my feet with one hand, flew the kite with the other while treading water - a coordinated dance I would soon loose awkwardness with - I strapped my feet into the padded slots perpendicular to the 138cm wide board. Finally, scanning the area for kites whose lines I didn't care to become entangled with, I made the kite fly a quick figure 8 above my head, which lifted me up to the surface of the water. Placing my kite lower towards the horizon, I am led, skimming on the surface on the board - finally, at long last, I WAS KITESURFING! Well at least for a few seconds. :)

The following days brought more consistency, changes of direction, and "out & back" navigation. With that skill, I earned my IKO Certification. I can now rent equipment anywhere in the world and start going out on my own - woohoo!

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I secured a week long equipment rental and set out to practice during every sufficiently windy moment. Although the wind and weather was suitable only three days out of the week (Tropical Storm Noel came through - dumping sufficient rain to flood many parts of the country, killing many more than the government would admit to, for fear of hurting the tourism industry, but I digress), I enjoyed my new sport tremendously and organized my days around the anticipated arrival of the winds around 1 or 2pm each day.

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As the days went on, my muscles learned their new patterns and struggle slowly turned to flow.

The feeling is tremendous. Like surfing, but with a never ending wave and a choice of speed and direction. Or perhaps like sailing a boat the size of a skateboard and the commensurate agility to stop and change direction, even 180 degrees, at will.

This flow amplified in those moments when I caught the wind just so, when its potency was matched equally by the counter force exerted by the edge of my board digging into the water, cutting a path diagonally with and perpendicular to the wind. Leaning back, the weight of my body was supported almost entirely by the harness on my waist, which itself is an extension of the kite and the stream of wind it's anchored to.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/11/02 at 11:07 [CIMG2575]

At day's end on what would be the last time out, a deep sense of idyllic satisfaction set in: Over the call of muscles drawn on all day pleading for notice, past the tingling of salt water on my lips and with my mind as wildly fired up as the sky's burnt orange glow - I realize that I'm flowing in a river of wind on its side of the frontier between the worlds of water and air.