Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Good news.

Rosey has her visa. I will be starting a CELTA (teaching English qualification) course next Monday, and in preparation I'm going to bed before 12, getting up before 8 and going for a 45 bike ride every morning. The last time I went to bed before 12 must have been many years ago. All very positive!

Rosey will still have to do another couple of weeks at work and then, she will be going to India for a further two weeks to do a yoga retreat in the first or second week of March. After 8 months, another 2 weeks won't hurt, particularly when she's coming halfway round the world to start a new life. A couple of weeks contemplation with as much time and space as she needs to herself will be no bad thing. And after all the trepidation regarding the long dark nights of the English winter, there'll barely be any difference in daylight between here and Taipei when she arrives, close to the equinox. It'll still be a little colder though.


Having just received the good news, there's not a lot more to say. It will take a little time to sink in but what I can say is that already it feels as if the future is open again.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A walk, two windmills and three pints of ale.


I'm sitting on the close cropped turf of the South Downs, halfway down the escarpment with Jack and Jill Windmills above me and the village of Clayton just below. The windmills are grade 2 listed buildings dating from the mid 19th century, though Jill had a prior life in Brighton before she was towed by teams of oxen the 7 miles or so from there to the top of the Downs. They fell out of use in the first decade of the 20th century but were kept in good repair and appeared in the 1973 film, The Black Windmill featuring Michael Caine and Donald Pleasance. Jill, a wooden post mill, is now restored to working order and is open to the public in the summer, while Jack, a brick built tower mill, is a private home.

Clayton is a typical downland village of no more than around 200 people, built at the foot of the scarp slope where the clay of the Weald of Sussex meets the chalk of the Downs, providing a springline to irrigate the settlements. At the very base of the Downs is a Saxon church of simple design with a squat wooden belfry and steep roof. The Church of St John the Baptist at Clayton is mentioned in the Domesday Book and is a Grade 1 listed building partly due to its great age, but also because of the 12th century frescoes of the Last Judgement which adorn the interior walls and are unique in England.


I've been cooped up in the house for the past few days. It's good to finally get out, relieving my cabin fever and avoiding the otherwise inevitable irritability that would confront my family. As I sit cross legged on the hill with my laptop on my knees and sheep grazing around me, I wonder how this might appear to the passing hiker. Although the computer is now the universal tool of the writer, I can't quite imagine that I look like a modern day romantic poet, composing an ode to the landscape that lies before me. What then? Do I look like a workaholic unable to leave his work at home, let alone the office? Or just completely incongruous? Worse still, maybe no one's noticed me!

Rosey will be with me in about six weeks, assuming the visa goes through without a hitch. Her arrival can't come soon enough. My life has been characterised by distinct phases since coming of age and these have been mediated by periods of stagnation or consolidation as I try to work out the next move. So I have been living in limbo for the past six months. I've made some progress, but it has mostly been of a somewhat intangible nature, buried in my head and difficult to quantify. I have learnt about the areas I may go into without making solid progress into them. That is about to change, but that's another story.

I'd been surprised earlier to find a thick layer of ice in a water trough that lay in a shaded hollow. It hadn't seemed that cold to me as I walked up the hill in the mid afternoon but all that has changed now. The sun is setting beneath the brow of the hill behind me. I have maybe 20 minutes of daylight to play with, and two hours of battery life. The only place I can think of to spend it is at the 19th century coaching inn at the foot of the hill, with its selection of ales and roaring log fire (a cliché maybe, but a fine one). As the breeze begins to bite on my thighs and my necessarily unprotected fingers lose their accuracy upon the keyboard, it is becoming an increasingly attractive option. Time for the pub.

I reach Underhill Lane and must walk past the church to reach the pub. Isn't it traditional to visit both of these places on a Sunday? I like old places, so after pausing under the lychgate, I decide to go in. The path is paved with a rippled stone that was once the floor of a shallow sea. It always amazes me how transient features such as a muddy seabed are petrified, frozen in time. An earthquake suddenly raising the seabed before it is sun-baked before being covered by the sands of time, perhaps?

I have a little difficulty opening the heavy oak door but the cast iron latch eventually slots into place and I make my way into the now darkening church. Using my phone as a flashlight, I look around, imagining myself to look like a burglar until I find the light switches hidden in a wooden box on the wall. I turn them on, lighting up the chancel, nave and vestry in turn and bringing the ancient paintings, only rediscovered in the 20th century, into view. As I look around, I imagine seeing the ghost of a long dead clergyman crossing the chancel or passing through the wall into where a medieval chapel once stood. Nothing so dramatic for me so I mooch around, wondering if there are any rules about where it is appropriate for the hoi poloi to go. I decide the chancel with its benches for the choir is probably ok, but beyond the altar rail is probably best avoided. After reading the tourist information and history of the church, it is time to head to the pub.



A little later, I find myself (as if by accident?) warming up in the Jack and Jill Inn. A couple around my own age are having a Sunday evening meal and another, perhaps twice my age, have booked a room for the night. This is somewhere a stone's throw from home and it is initially difficult to imagine it as a holiday destination, but it is a welcoming place in the shadow of beautiful rolling hills. It is worth making the effort to appreciate the familiar. I would gladly now make my way up to a hotel room after a good meal and a few drinks. After two and a half pints of ale, my creative juices are beginning to flow, however the energy has almost entirely flowed out of my computer. It is time to finish my drink and make the trek home across the fields in the dark.
The sky is clear, and the air is cold. The stars are bright against the dark blue sky and I can see every breath clearly. The route home takes me down The Cinder Path, with the railway line to my left and dark woods to my right. For much of the way, I can see nothing, except by light of my phone. I am aware that when I was younger my imagination would have run riot in these circumstances, but I have an assuredness lacking in my early 20s. I am grateful for the cold. When I turn off the Cinder Path and cross the fields towards home, the ground that was muddy before is now frozen solid. A worthwhile trade.

When I set out from home six hours ago, I was frustrated, grumpy, unable to say much that was positive. This was not good, particularly since my sister had been visiting. I'd rather she didn't take away the impression that that was how I was at the moment (hi Sophie, hope you're reading). In short, I needed to get out, to do something and I felt much better for it. Exercise, countryside, history, culture and ale, washed down with the brightest stars I've seen in some time. Can't beat it. 

And as a postscript, Stephen Moffat's contemporary interpretation of Sherlock, enjoyed with my parents in the warmth of our living room with a cup of tea (I phoned my dad as I walked across the fields and said it was really cold and a cuppa cha would be very much appreciated). A good day (and three late nights to write it up!)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Presidential Election

As I write, the polls are opening in Taiwan's 5th popular elections for President.

I've belatedly been watching a few videos about the election including this one of the election eve rallies for CNN iReport and this one, a rap in Chinese subtitled "Keep Taiwan Free", which can only really be interpreted in one way regarding Taiwan-China relations and the respective positions of the political parties. Having said that, the lyrics in Chinese could be mean anything for all I know. I think I caught something about haircuts in amongst pictures of Tienanmen Square and crowds of activists turning out in all weathers dressed in disposable plastic raincoats and traditional rice farmers' hats.

The final rallies for the pro independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the pro China Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) transform their respective areas of Taipei into a street party populated by people of all ages and walks of life. The energy and enthusiasm is palpable with a 75-80% turnout expected, and this in a country where most people retain their household registration (and thus vote) in their hometowns until they get married, leading to a mass migration on the night before the election. Some expats even fly back from the United States just to cast their ballots or take part in the campaign. Given the voter registration system mentioned above, the tribal nature of Taiwanese politics and the authority held by the senior family member, it is also a good opportunity for overseas Taiwanese to catch up with their extended families.

Seeing Taiwanese people demonstrating such passion for their respective causes, albeit in a political environment with tribal undercurrents and dominated by a single political issue, makes me want to be there among them more than ever. Elections in Taiwan, at least some of the time, have an innocence missing in the west. With 1500 Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan, an economy increasingly intertwined with China's and few diplomatic allies, the issues at stake could not be more serious. However, there is an endearing quality to Taiwanese election campaigning, in part due to the Japanese influenced ke-ai (cute) culture as demonstrated in fluffy dolls or cartoon representations of contemporary and past leaders (Mao, Chiang Kai-Shek, Sun Yat-Sen). What could be more adorable than a figurine of a psychopath responsible for the death of 70 million people?

That's not to say there are not fist fights in the legislature or outbreaks of hysteria in the street. But this is because politics matters in Taiwan. Taiwanese people do believe in their causes, even if making money takes precedence over lofty ideals in their day to day lives. The way that politicians demonstrate their dedication to their cause is to fight for it, just as the way a doctor demonstrates his competence is by prescribing multiple drugs.

During what was the longest period of martial law in modern history (1949 to 1987), opposition and independence activists were imprisoned by the KMT government, including some members of the previous generation of leaders of the DPP. The former President Chen Shui-Bian was among those imprisoned in the 1980s and he is in jail again now, convicted of corruption.While it is likely there is an element of truth in the charge of embezzlement  (as much as for any Taiwanese politician and perhaps no more than he could reasonably expect to be considered normal in that culture), his conviction and the length of his sentence are widely believed to be politically motivated under pressure from Beijing.

So, politics matters in Taiwan. Despite the apparently superficial lives of many young Taiwanese who are blissfully unaware of how hard won their freedoms were, despite the preoccupation with making money, despite the absence of any great differences in socio-economic ideology between the technically liberal/social democratic DPP and slightly more conservative (though in its early days in China, socialist) KMT, and despite the sometimes juvenile appearance of its discourse, there is optimism to be found in the politics of Taiwan, one of the freest countries in Asia and the only example of a culturally Chinese democracy. So long as the election is clean, I wish its winner well, on the one proviso that they do not sell out the people who elected them either by directly negotiating unification with China without consulting the people, or by engineering the economy such that in the long term there is no realistic choice.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How I arrived in Taiwan

With 20 minutes to go, I was getting a little nervous. Having recently cycled from the UK to Singapore, I was full of confidence and had jumped onto a plane at Bangkok without so much as thinking about getting a visa for my destination, Taiwan. The worst they could do was turn me round and send me back and with no money, I reasoned it couldn't be at my expense. Being unprepared couldn't possibly be advantageous, but I didn't care.

As the plane docked, the adrenalin was flowing through my veins. I was enjoying it, not exactly daredevil stuff, but not knowing what would happen made things more interesting. I took my time getting my things together. I never saw the point in standing up for five minutes waiting for the doors to be opened and then for the people in front of you to disembark. Far better to relax and then walk to the front of the aircraft at a comfortable pace. When the crowd thinned, I got my bags together and found a stray package under the seat in front of me. This was less than a year after 9-11 and we all know what we're supposed to do with unattended luggage. The occupant, along with almost everyone else, was long gone. It was a carrier bag with what appeared to be a box of 200 duty free Marlboro cigarettes. Nothing personal or really valuable that I would feel compelled to find the owner of. Theoretically, it could be a bomb, or even elaborately packaged contraband, I supposed. The rule book says play it safe. Sod it, I thought. If they are cigarettes, they're well within the duty free limit and I can sell them in Taipei, although I had no idea what they were worth before or after duty. If I get blown up, I probably won't know much about it. And if it's something else, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

I made my way to passport control, hoping that a. they let me in, b. I didn't get blown up and c. I wasn't an unsuspecting drugs mule. "May I see your passport please, sir?"

"Here you are," I replied, unaware if I even needed a visa.

"Do you have a visa for The Republic of China, sir?" I was just about well informed enough to know that The Republic of China referred to Taiwan, not China.


"No. Do I need one?"

"How long are you planning to stay?"

"...er, I'm not sure. Maybe two or three months."

"And what do you intend to do in The Republic of China?"

"I thought I might teach English," I replied casually.

"I can give you a one week landing visa. If you want to stay longer than that, you will have to leave the country and apply for a visa at one of our overseas missions."

That was better than being turned round and put on a plane immediately, so I was happy. I could find a place to stay, work out what I was doing in Taiwan and then spend more money that I didn't have on a weekend trip to Bangkok. It could be worse. Thus began my totally unplanned 9 years in Taiwan.

Convenience is a watchword in Taiwan. I collected my bags and my bike, walked through arrivals hoping my duty free didn't set off any alarms, glanced around and then walked the few metres to the ticket office for the buses that waited just outside.

"Where would you like to go, sir?" the attractive young lady asked.

"Taipei?" I said tentatively.

"And where would you like to get off?" she continued.

"I'm not sure, I replied. "I need a cheap hotel."

"Taipei Main Station is the best. The driver will tell you when to get off."

I paid the money, thanked her - as yet unable to do it in anything other than English, picked up a few tourist leaflets and stepped through the automatic doors. The tropical heat hit me hard in the face. I breathed deeply and felt the warm, moist air filling my lungs, a stark contrast to the cold, dry air inside the terminal building.

It was immediately clear which bus to get on. The driver checked my ticket, helped me place my still boxed bike in the luggage compartment and I boarded the bus.

I sat on my own, about three quarters of the way down the bus and began to glean what I could from the tourist literature I had picked up. As I was reading, I noticed a girl in her late twenties or early thirties sitting on the opposite side of the bus.  With everything to learn, I tried to appear approachable, while not making any particular effort to strike up a conversation.

It wasn't long before she took the lead. "You're new here, aren't you?" Clearly she was not.

"Yes," I replied. "I've just arrived from Thailand." Then, as now, I didn't want the story of my cycling expedition to immediately dominate the conversation. She gave me her card and recommended that I get one made as soon as possible after getting a phone. She told me that I should be able to find work quite easily and that the website tealit.com was a good place to start for most expat things in Taiwan. When the time came to disembark, she said to stay in touch, and wished me luck with my adventures.

It was a few days later when she emailed me to let me know that a room had come up in her rooftop apartment for one month, while its English occupant went for a boozy month watching the world cup in Bangkok. I accepted the offer and moved in within days, making friends that I'd know for all of my time in Taiwan and the Englishman, back in the UK too. It was only later that I discovered that she'd described me to them as "kinda green, fresh off the boat". Having passed through approximately 20 countries en route, I wasn't too bothered!

Monday, January 9, 2012

A good day.

Today was a good day.

I woke up at around 10 and listened to Excess Baggage, a travel programme on Radio 4. One of the guests was a veteran woman adventurer who'd travelled south and east Asia solo in the 1950s. I imagined her to be a spirited woman who'd be great fun to have as a grandmother. Following this, as I lazed in bed, was Reasons to be Cheerful, a light hearted exploration of grumpiness and happiness which included a brief foray into karaoke, invented by the Japanese but very popular across Asia , including Taiwan where it is known as KTV.

Having had fond memories of drunken exploits in the 10 storey KTV palaces common in Taiwan awoken, I ventured downstairs to eat breakfast. My dad was opening the mail at the kitchen table as I made the essential morning litre of tea. I made myself comfortable with a good mug of strong tea, a bowl of cereal and a section of The Guardian. My dad opened an envelope which contained a card and three sub envelopes addressed to my brother, sister and myself. The package was from the my late 'Aunty' Iris' niece, who'd been responsible for her estate. It contained a sum of money part of which was a  legacy specified in the will and part of which was at the discretion of Iris' niece in generous recognition of the fact the original sum had been determined some time ago. The precise amount is irrelevant, though it is enough to be both useful and memorable. The entirely discretionary excess from the executor was very kind. I look forward to setting up home with Rosey and choosing something useful and lasting to remember Iris by.

I wanted to get the money into my savings account as soon as possible, not out of any desire to spend it but because it made it somehow more tangible. A bank balance on a computer screen is no more real than a cheque, both represent potential, but I wanted to get on with it rather than reading the card, acknowledging it and going back to my breakfast. Getting on my bike immediately, racing to catch the next train to Brighton and paying it into The Cooperative Bank (ethical investments n.b.) before they closed at 1pm felt like due recognition of the gift.

I dashed to the station, lined up at the ticket machine behind a gaggle of school children and bought my ticket with just enough time to board the train. On reaching Brighton at 12.47, I raced the half a mile to the bank and made with a five minutes to spare, paying the cheque in immediately before the bank closed.

I had another task in Brighton too. My parents had offered to get my bike serviced for Christmas so I needed to get a quote. Strangely, it had originally been my Taiwanese bike that we thought needed the serious work but on closer examination all it needed was a once over that was well within my capabilities. My Scott racer however, had been sitting unloved (or loved from afar) in the garage for 10 years and needed all of the regular replacement parts and adjustments such as brake blocks and cables, and some more infrequent ones too, such as a whole new drivetrain - chain, cassette (cogs) and chainwheels. This was turning into a significant job, likely to be beyond the budget of a Christmas present.

My first port of call was Evans cycles. I spoke to a young man who gave me his opinion. The basic service would include the usuals - blocks, cables, housings etc and the wear on the drivechain was very obvious. He looked at the wheels, said the rims were dangerously worn and that all in, I could spend £300 to get the bike into perfect working order but I'd make better use of my money replacing the bike. He went on to say that to get a similar spec on a new bike would cost £700! How spending twice the money and scrapping a bike worked out as better value, I'm not sure.

There's a variety of bike shops in Brighton and I decided it would be as well to get a variety of opinions. The next shop gave a slightly better quote but also recommended replacement because the parts for my 12 year old machine were increasingly difficult to come by.

I moved on to three more bike shops, and each of them were scathing about the first two saying my bike was basically a good bike, even with a reasonable resale value, and that the parts were still available. They didn't reckon the wheels needed replacing but we were still looking at £150-£200 including parts and labour. Not cheap, but all machines require maintenance, even to the extent that you'll eventually spend more on that than the original price.

As I left Sydney Street Bikes, I heard a distinctive voice talking to his girlfriend about the bikes on display in the street. Not only was his voice vaguely familiar but when I took a second glance, his appearance seemed familiar too. Combined with the fact that he was talking about bikes, I thought to myself, "Is that Samer?"  Samer is a friend of a friend from London, a keen cyclist who managed to inspire the most unlikely of my social group to take up cycling. I've met Samer two or three times and this guy seemed unnervingly close but at the same time, not quite as I remembered. Just as he was walking away, I thought, "No harm in asking..."

"Samer...?" I called out. He turned around and said yes, clearly unaware who I was. "I'm Mark's mate, Toby," I said, confident that a fellow cyclist would remember me and my adventures traversing the globe in the saddle.

"Which Mark?" he asked.

"Mark Russell, didn't you live with him?" I said, a little perplexed.

"That's my brother," he replied, "I'm called Saamah too!"

"I thought you looked a little different," I said. He was pleased, explaining that there was seven years between them. We chatted for a minute or so and then, with little more to say, went our own ways, uplifted by an agreeable coincidence and congenial human interaction.

I had another reason to visit the bike shops as well. Hassocks Community Cycle Hire is looking to form a business partnership for the coming season, giving it access to highly skilled mechanics to carry out the full range of services. It was delegated to me to test the waters with shops that could be interested. There was enough interest in the shops I visited to merit putting together a more formal proposal, which we will be doing shortly. In one of the shops, I met an employee who was very enthusiastic about the project on a personal level and seemed like a good person to stay in contact with, regardless of whether he would be an actual business partner.

With the wind in my sails, I rode up to the station and caught a train that was leaving within a couple of minutes. With no time to spare, I got on at the first vestibule, where I found another bike propped up against the opposite door. I had no option but to stay with my bike at least until the train set off and with few free seats and only a ten minute journey there was little point in sitting down. I looked the other bike up and down, as cyclists are wont to do and glancing down the carriage saw my action had flushed out its owner, who was sitting further down the carriage clearly aware his bike was being given the eye. It was a nice bike with traditional road touring geometry. Aware of each other but with no reason to break the ice we carried on as before.

It was only when his bike fell over that he had reason to come and talk to me. "Nice bike," I said and he returned the complement. We got chatting and I explained that mine was a nice bike, but it needed a lot of work and that I'd got some quite different opinions and quotes from different shops. He was unsurprised, particularly about the chain store (sorry, no pun intended). We made the usual small talk and over the course of the journey I discovered that he did a bit of touring himself, appeared to be a similar age to myself and knew what he was talking about. I was just beginning to regret that I had to get off at the next stop, before I'd had time to establish how far away he lived and whether it might be worth staying in touch. Perhaps he was thinking the same and as the train decelerated into Hassocks, he gathered his things together and made ready to get off. "Oh, er, are you getting off at Hassocks, too?" I asked. It turned out that he, like me, having been far and wide was now living with parents in Hassocks in his mid 30s and I got the impression that he was probably as glad to bump into me as I was him. He lived in the centre of the village and we rode down, chatted for a short while and arranged to ride to Lewes and have a few pints mid week.

I arrived home invigorated, having established that my racing bike would soon be in top condition, paintwork notwithstanding, made progress with a worthwhile community project, and through fortuitous timing having been in just the right place at the right time to have several heartening human interactions.

To top it all, I went for a quick spin on my other bike, establishing that it was indeed in good working order and then returned home made up with a friend who I'd carelessly managed to offend online the day before. The lesson, doing things, being physically active and interacting with people makes you feel good.

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