Rainy season

I was told when the rains started again back in May that they were coming late, and I could see El Salvador was parched and needed the relief by the time the rains were falling regularly. I am happy that it’s rainy season again because it makes our little garden happy, it makes the farms across the countryside happy, it makes the lakes and rivers happy, and it brings El Salvador back to the lushly green country we landed in a year ago. It’s a good thing.

It does also mean that our ceiling is leaking again, even though we have over a month of roofers up there after the last rainy season. It also, this time, means our little tomatoes aren’t reaching maturity because the daily pounding rains are too much for them to bear. And most annoying, it means the mosquitoes are out in force and have somehow breached our perimeter, such that I killed five inside the house yesterday and four so far today.

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Couldn’t hang.

Everything I touch

turns to dead.

My lovely strawberry plant is dying! Three days ago there was a promising bud; two days ago there was a tiny, perky flower; yesterday there was a droopy flower with only half its petals; today there are no more petals. Also, I think something like a bird is tormenting it, because some of its leaves seem to be snipped clean off and today I found a little plant that had been pulled out, roots included.

And if you’d asked me last week how my orchids are doing, I would have said, “Wonderful! Well, Satchel is still kind of dead, but Bucky’s doing great!” If you’d asked me two days ago though, you would have gotten a different answer. Bucky’s flowers started to wrinkle and shrivel. I don’t understand! I hadn’t done anything that I hadn’t been doing for the last five months. Maybe it’s just its time…

This is my life right now.

That, plus I bought myself a bike for my birthday. It’s a used granny bike with a basket on the front, and I added a bell and pegs so Colin could ride me around. I always feel like I should have the Roman slave sitting on my shoulder whispering “Memento mori.” (Remember [that you are] mortal.)

I especially like the bike since Colin did the math figuring we spend US$30 per week on public transportation and since I found that riding my bike across the bridge to school actually gets me there faster.

Off topic

I know I’m a bit behind, but I don’t feel like writing about the last few weeks just yet.

We have strawberry plants growing in what we thought was a barren planter. The strawberry seeds that we’d planted at the end of summer hadn’t been able to stand up to the 70-80 degree days we were still having and died. And then the cold barreled through like a train, stripping my Four O’Clocks to the bulb and ravaging our basil.  Sherman survived but underwent a few changes of his own, changing from a green to a light pink through fall and now decidedly a deep red.

But two little strawberry sprouts turned into two little plants and a third little sprout. Unfortunately for the strawberry plants, signs point to our long winter coming to a close. The squirrels are back in the park; baby birds are hatching in the trees; I’m carrying my rain coat more often than wearing it.

I read a few articles about gardening in your apartment and I’m all re-energized to plant some more seeds. Even with the view of the river park and our two strawberry plants, Sherman, Bucky 2.0, and Klettus (the bamboo), it often feels pretty gray in our neck of the woods. We’ve talked about moving to another area further away from the center of the city, specifically to an area at the edge of the MRT map and at the base of the Mao Kong hills. We’ll see.

Living in Yonghe can be pretty… exhausting. On my way to work in the mornings, I find myself trying to breathe out more than I breathe in. Scooters brush past me in the narrow alleys I walk to avoid the idling cars and buses on the roads.

I have grown quite fond of the stalls in Yonghe that I occasionally stop at for breakfast on the go—米漿 (warm peanut, rice, and soy drink) from the shop that appears to have three generations of women working, 蔥油餅加蛋 (basil and egg scrambled together and folded into a spring-onion pancake) from the cheerful man in the ball cap.

I’m trying to adjust my pace of life. I haven’t really succeeded so far; I’ve just shown up a little late to work too many days in a row. I’ve gotten really sick of rushing everywhere, and I know rushing through meals isn’t healthy, and I should probably even do my homework slower. I’m going to make an effort to go to sleep earlier, wake up earlier, and leave sooner. In my head, that means I’ll be able to slow down the rest of the day. And I think that would be nice.

Right now I’m reading Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s an already-old copy that flew to Thailand to sit in the sand and has grown more and more tattered shoved into my school bag for reading on the MRT.

2.0

Bucky and Satchel, my beloved orchids, were simply too beloved. In fact, they were beloved to death. May they rest in peace wherever it is that our well-sorted garbage gets taken.

(Can dead plants go with the food waste? I would think yes, but that would involve disassembling the orchids and it was just too soon, so they went in the general garbage.)

Replacing Bucky and Satchel meant a trip back to the lovely weekend flower market. As Colin was off trying to take a beginner’s-level Chinese proficiency test, I made the trip alone.

The amount of plant life in the three warehouses struck me with awe all over again. Violet and yellow and snow-white orchids and tiny cacti vied for the attention of passersby. Glass orbs of every size spun in colorfully lit water features. Everyone was, I assume, talking plants.

I found two new victims—er, orchids—with the same colorings of Bucky and Satchel and a good many more buds. I checked to make sure the roots looked healthy, though I’m not sure what healthy orchid roots look like. Bucky and Satchel 2.0.

On the way out, I spied a stall selling miniatures to go in bonsai scenes. I found a tiny heron that would go nicely in Colin’s bamboo, and the lady wrapped up two (I thought the price was for one, but I was wrong). I also stopped to buy a new pack of seeds to try where our rosemary had failed. Four O’Clocks were the only ones that wanted half sun and high heat, and that’s what our balcony gets, so that’s what I picked. They should germinate in about a week.

Oh the way home, a Taiwanese gal who I would guess to be about my age stopped me and asked if I would write Happy Birthday on the board she was carrying. I warned her about my hand writing, but she didn’t mind or didn’t understand. We took a few pictures and went our separate ways.

Ling and me

Ling and me

Our sunset that evening.

Our sunset that evening.

Circles of space

Bits about me

Upon first arriving, I was taking three cold showers a day. That’s simply too much time spent in the shower, so it quickly went down to two. Recently, I’ve been able to take just one shower a day, and sometimes it’s not cold, but lukewarm. I’m not sure whether I’m getting used to the heat or the sweat.

There are two elevators at school, and one goes only to the even-numbered floors and the other goes only to the odd, and they’re both slow, so they have been given up on in favor of the reliable stairs, which take you to any floor you wish. The elevator at home is nonexistent, so during the week I climb up and down at least ten flights of stairs. Minimum. That’s not taking into account trips to the bathroom at school (because the ladies’ rooms are on odd-numbered floors, and our class is unfortunately on the fourth floor) or trips downstairs to meet the garbage truck or trips up to the roof. Such trips nearly double my stair-count. Yes, you can call me the Stair Master.

Bits about the apartment

Our bathroom can double as a sauna.

I gave up fighting our ants, and now see them as a sort of truce with the bug gods: I won’t encourage Colin to spray the ants if you don’t let any more cockroaches into our apartment. Please?

There are little green things in the strawberry planter. I would call them strawberries with more certainty if it weren’t for the fact that the soil we bought seems to have come with some green things (grass? weeds?) already in it. But Colin thinks they’re strawberries.

We bargained for printed scrolls at the flea market yesterday during our seven-hour marathon of shopping, so now our walls won’t be so barren. (What else did we get in seven hours and four shopping venues? A lamp, two yoga mats, a tent—you know, the bare necessities.)

Bits about our neighborhood

Chewing betel nut, considered a backwards practice by many snootier Southeast Asian countries, is a popular alternative to chewing tobacco in our little neighborhood. Betel nut gives its chewer a mild high and a red-stained mouth, and the red splatters and frayed husks on the road betray our neighbors’ fondness for the habit.

Fireworks go off on random nights, and normally not as part of an organized show, but just because. We haven’t figured it out, and we miss most of them because by the time we pull away from the glow of the computer screen, the last blazing bits have faded away. Tonight we watched a bunch going off on the other side of the river—this one looked like an organized production.

It could have been related to Ghost Month, which I believe is now wrapping up. Ghost Month is when the gates of the afterworld open and the ghosts of your ancestors come to collect. All over the city there have been tables large and small burdened with food (from whole fishes to chocolate Frosted Flakes), burning incense, and “money.” Wary of unconsciously disrespecting someone by getting too close, I can say only that the money looks like smaller versions of the actual bills glued onto pulp paper. They burn this too, in bins about two-and-a-half-feet tall and a foot across, and from six flights up, I watched a neighbor doing this a few nights ago. He put in stacks so large they nearly smothered the flames. Stack after stack went in, and he stood back in between and lifted his face, watching the smoke curl up to his ancestors or looking away from the heat. As his final stack of bills quickly turned from flame to embers, he clasped his hands, sending a few prayers up with the money.

There is a preschool not three doors down, and we can hear the kids out playing mid-morning. The teachers lead them in song sometimes, and it’s adorable. We’re surrounded by a few elementary schools too, and there are two police stations very nearby. The scooter mechanics have to outnumber everything, though—there are dozens!

Bits about Taipei

Many of the women wear skirts—they’re not big on dress slacks—and they’ve got pantyhose on underneath. I suppose if they’re wearing a professional skirt they’re working in an air-conditioned office, but that strikes me as unbearable for walking around the city.

The streets are clean; there are very few public trashcans or street people. Walking on the sidewalk is little safer than crossing the streets, as scooters scoot through any spaces they can. It makes me really resentful of them; probably more so than I should be.

When I walk along the streets, I often get that stitch in my side that usually is a result of exercising too hard too soon. I’m going to go ahead and blame that on the scooters, tiny polluters that they are.

I’m making a banana split after this

Last night I slow-chased a garbage truck in the rain, catching up to it right as it was squishing down everyone else’s garbage, popping the bags they insist we sort our garbage into. Result? A spray of garbage juice all over my arms—and not even juice from my garbage. That was an issue too though, as I didn’t quite have the coordination to dump out our food waste without getting it all over my hand.

That could have happened anywhere.

What could not have happened anywhere was getting a 92 percent on my Pinyin sounds test on Thursday. Colin went ahead and got 100 percent, but I’m not jealous of his baozi (steamed buns with filling) eraser or anything.

Chinese class is hard. The first hour is normally spent working with what we’d learned the day before, and I usually do OK during that part. Hours two and three are often new material, and I swear it’s like the teacher’s speaking another language.

Oh wait.

This makes all of the classes I’ve taken K-16 (1, 2, 3, 4 years of college) a cakewalk. Wu laoshi says the first month we have to study three hours a day, which hopefully means that after the first month it gets a bit more manageable.

Three hours of class, (at least) three hours of studying, two hours to get there and back—who has time for a job?

We made time last night for not one, but two, movies, so I guess I have no grounds for making that last statement. We also finished a bottle of sake and half a bag of these “Fabulous” (that’s the brand name?) crackers. “BEST TASTY: Excellent dose of delicious food adds onions. Crispy crispy good flavour.” I’m sold!

It’s Friday night, at least, and our only homework for the weekend is to write about 30 characters 10 times each and to study the chart with every sound in the Chinese language—eight pages of small-font chart. No sweat.

In other news, Bucky and Satchel are not quite sure what to think of me as an orchid owner, and between the basil, rosemary, mint, and strawberries we planted, only the basil formerly known as rosemary (we were confused about who planted what where) seems to have taken, and it’s thriving.

Zhon mo kuái le. (Have a good weekend.)

Weekend Update

For Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, we rededicated ourselves to the task of getting the house together.

Our first baby rosemary plants popped up, which made us extra expectant for the basil and mint that just aren’t doing as well.

Wanting only to be consistent, we ran, yes ran, to our orientation for class Friday afternoon and were still 5 minutes late. Absorbing the information in the welcome video proved a bit difficult with sweat running down my face.

It was a small group in the room, and a young German with closely cropped hair suggested afterward that we all get a drink someplace. Over teas (green tea with plum) we learned he ended up already having a few years of Mandarin under his belt, so he would not be in our Elementary 1A class.

Pascal, a twentysomething high school teacher from Switzerland, and Jason, a thirtysomething New Yorker tired of the teaching-English-in-Asia circuit, were other beginners like us, and seemed like quality guys.

Saturday was lost to shopping: we walked a couple miles (we’re working on the bus system…) to a weekend morning market that was supposed to be like a flea market and would hopefully have inexpensive furniture for the apartment and roof. The problem was, after leaving late, taking slightly indirect routes to get there, finally asking for directions and misinterpreting them, we arrived at the morning market at 11:40.

It did look like the vendors were packing up the kind of market we needed though, minus any obvious furniture. We strolled through to look at the remaining wares, and I pulled Colin over to a ground-level display of teapots. A fish lid, how cute!

“Duo shăo qián? [How much?]”

He typed into his cell phone 400 and handed it to me, asking me “Duo shăo qián?”

I typed in 200.

He typed in 350.

I typed in 250, and he brushed his hands and nodded in defeat. I just won at bargaining?

Who’s to say what the pot is really worth, but I figure for US$7.50 it’s a pretty good deal.

We weren’t finished shopping though, oh no! We bussed across the river to Taipei City and MRTed (yeah, it’s a verb) to the all-day Flower and Jade (and, Colin insists, Other Stuff) Market. Aisles of dazzling jade and jade-like glass stretched on for the length of three warehouses, with vendors talking the trade and sizing up each others’ goods behind the folding banquet tables.

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Continuing for several more blocks was the flower market, where the most popular plants seemed to be orchids and small cacti. To add to our plant family, I bought two small orchids, and Colin bought a bamboo plant. This inspired us to get our strawberry seeds in the ground, too. So now we’ve got a planter of herbs, a planter of strawberries, a hanging something named Sherman, two orchids named Bucky and Satchel, and a bamboo plant named Klettus the Muffin.

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Bottom left to right: Bucky, Satchel, and Klettus the Muffin

Bottom left to right: Bucky, Satchel, and Klettus the Muffin

The day's purchases, minus the teacups.

The day's purchases, minus the teacups.

Coming back with our plants and teapot, we stopped at Frank’s pie shop for a drink. He was throwing a barbecue, but we’d arrived a bit early and finished our beers just as other people started showing up. Reeking from walking all over town, we excused ourselves, then bullied ourselves into returning that evening after a shower. We showed up just as a rugby game was starting on TV—South Africa vs. Australia—and we stayed until halftime. It wasn’t quite the gathering of contacts that we’d hope it would be, but at least people maybe saw us there.

Sunday was more mellow; I spent most of it catching up here. Great news folks, we’re almost to the point where these updates will be timely!

Green foam, green thumbs

Tuesday and Wednesday were originally supposed to be spent playing the tourists a little more, perhaps going down to southern Taiwan and seeing the beaches. But late Monday night, when no plans had made, and our apartment, sparsely furnished with the wonky furniture left behind, stared dopily at us, we decided to put it off a day. Make that double for Tuesday night.

At some point, perhaps Tuesday morning, we bought bleach and sponges to finish the cleaning that Melissa and Anders had started. Our bathroom and kitchen have drains conveniently located in the floor, so Colin splashed a little bleach around and a few minutes later I washed it down. Our second-hand Brita filter was cracked and leaking all over the floor, so Colin patched it up with some super glue. I took all of the shelves out of the fridge, which they had emptied but not cleaned, and scrubbed what looked like hardened soy sauce out of the crisper and tiny flies out of the freezer door. What were flies doing in the freezer? Unsolved mystery. But now that the fridge was clean, it was time to be filled.

Colin tries unsuccessfully to remove a glued-down Mickey from our entryway.

Colin tries unsuccessfully to remove a glued-down Mickey from our entryway.

Where would two culturally sensitive individuals with limited storage space go next? To Costco, of course.

Yep, Costco. Anders had told us about it the night before. We donned our backpacking backpacks and caught a bus that took us right there. Walking in was like being right back in the States, with even the layout of the store being familiar. All of the signs had English (and Chinese), and it was stocked with everything you’d expect to find in an American Costco—there were even samples.

The Taiwanese line up for these samples. Those seatbelt-like ropes keep people orderly at the really popular sample stations—not that that’s necessary. These people are professional queue-uppers.

Our reason for trekking across town with our empty backpacks was to pick up some of the things we knew we’d be going through a lot of, like oatmeal, in bulk. Also, Colin wanted a hotdog. Because it’s been so long since he’s been able to have one, you know?

A meal fit for an American

A meal fit for an American

Are you taking a picture of me eating my Peking Duck pizza?

Are you taking a picture of me eating my Peking Duck pizza?

We found a table for our roof—we’d shared our first dinner up there already on Sunday, leaning against the tile ledge—but passed on the chairs because they were a good deal more than we wanted to spend. Collecting a few samples along the way, we picked up a “bulk” loaf of bread (25 perfectly square slices of white bread) and a brick of mozzarella, then we found the oatmeal and cold cereal aisle. They, too, were more expensive than Colin had expected. We settled on getting the oatmeal but passed on the cereal, and we passed on any produce except a sack of American potatoes.

Even without getting too many items, we managed to spend over NT$3,000 and fill our giant bags, but we got back on the bus with no trouble until Colin noticed one foot was missing from the table. So much of the rest of our furniture was junky—I really didn’t want our one piece of new furniture to be junky too. Nearly home, we got off the bus to catch one in the Costco direction.

I’ve been stared at a lot since we got here; everyone knew that was going to happen. But in the fifteen minutes that Colin left me sitting outside with both bags while he went in to exchange the table, I got more prolonged stares and double-takes and “What the heck is she doing?” looks than ever before. I tried as hard as I could to look normal, sitting on the railing of a Costco with two full backpacks at my feet, with the night doing nothing to hide my freckled skin and red hair.

Back home four hours after we’d left, Colin started running circles around the room—putting things away, organizing the kitchen, figuring out where to put six months’ worth of oatmeal—while I sat, worn out from probably jetlag, on our newly sheeted bed. Feeling worthless, I finally joined him in the yellow room, where the stuffy smell of cat-mess couch was overwhelming.

No more! I can’t keep pretending this thing doesn’t smell or that it will go away on its own. Whatever’s in there needs to be faced!

Where the black leather had ripped, the foam beneath it was greenish and moist. They had shoved some baking soda mixture into the cracks of the cushions and covered the whole mess with an old yellow-orange blanket that in no way matches the walls. Oh yes, the gloves were on—rubber gloves, that is.

I spent the next hour manically shearing the couch with our $0.50 scissors. I was ready to push the damn thing off the balcony, but Colin humored me and told me it smelled better already and grabbed me for a dance, rubber gloves and all.

Wednesday was similar—more cleaning, more putting away, more shopping at our market-adjacent stores with their horrible music and now-memorized layouts. I would be happy to never return to those stores again, but they have been invaluable in furnishing our apartment with kitchen gear, cleaning supplies, and other everyday bits that you don’t realize you’ll need.

Other highlights from those two days include taking out the garbage—trash trucks drive by twice a day, six days per week, blaring a tinny “Fur Elise” to alert residents to come downstairs with their garbage sorted into general waste, recyclables, and food—and planting our herb garden—rosemary, basil, and mint.

You can't see, but his thumbs are green.

You can't see, but his thumbs are green.