There is Always too Much Space Around Me

We arrived in Seattle in the late afternoon September 1st after being in transit for what seemed like forever, despite my constant referring to the flight as "only 10.5 hours". The dogs had been picked up and taken to the airport many hours before us and we left our apartment earlier than was strictly necessary to head to the airport ourselves. I was angry and done. Our last interaction in Korea was being told a significant part of our deposit was going to be kept because the oven was too dirty and would be impossible to clean and that a screen door with a hole in it would need to be replaced despite there being a hole when we moved in. We had been living with our ceiling leaking copious amounts of water for 2.5 weeks and our super telling us to just put a bucket under it because he didn't want to fix it before we left. I had had argument after argument about whether or not it was just the central air leaking buckets of brown water and simply been told not to use the air conditioning. By the time the dogs were gone and we sat on our floor surrounded by our four suitcases to get us through our first few months back in the US while the rest of our possessions made their way slowly across the ocean, I was so done with Korea, I would rather spend my last few hours at the airport than spend a minute longer in the place I had worked hard to make our home for the previous two years.

We got lunch in a haze and then drove to the airbnb where we'd be living for a month while we settled in. Due to a miscommunication we were spending our first night upstairs with the homeowners instead of in our own basement apartment. Seattle felt frigid after the heat of Seoul's Summer but we lay on the bed upstairs with the window cracked open over the garden and I relaxed into myself thinking "oh, home". I'd never even been to Seattle before that day but the breeze coming through the window was the familiar scent of the pacific ocean mingled with evergreens and bay laurel.

The next few days we walked our dogs through the neighborhood and my body became reacquainted with how it could be normal to be too cold in the shade but too hot in the sun. I remembered layers for when the temperature dropped from 70 during the day to 50 as soon as the sun went down. My bones remembered the damp chill of my childhood, the way it settles into you and can only be gotten out with a cat nap in direct sunlight or soak in a hot tub. I marveled at the way the houses in Ballard could've just as easily been in North Berkeley. Set back from the sidewalk, raised yards "rewilded" with rosemary growing over my head and lavender spilling over onto the sidewalk. Wild thyme pushed its way through cracks and patches of mint grew in the untended strips of grass by the curb. Momentarily I understand why people not from these places are so charmed by them. Clean sea air and the smell of fresh herbs while walking through a city.

Excited to speak English without slowing down my speech or thinking carefully about what words to best use so I'd be understood, I ordered coffee in a rush " CanIGetTwoColdBrews?" and was met with a blank stare. I had forgotten that ordering quickly was the courtesy of a New Yorker, that "canIgeta..." or "gimme a..." are not how we start sentences on this coast, that first I must make eye contact and small talk and pretend I want to talk about my dog instead of get this over with as quickly as possible while he howls and cries outside, not yet over the separation anxiety that came with the long flight. I walk out with two coffees, more overwhelmed than I would've been stumbling through my order in Korean or pointing and miming in China or Japan.

The grocery store is also surprisingly confusing. Despite having gone back and forth between the two coasts my whole life, my brain decided to make a permanent switch when I moved to New York. Best Foods was Hellman's, non-fat milk became skim, sugar was Domino not C&H, but here I was back in a Safeway trying to buy mayonnaise and feeling like I had returned not from two and a half years abroad but that maybe I had just been living in a very slightly different parallel universe.

Objectively I know Seattle is a growing city and I guess I can understand why natives now find it crowded but after 3 years in New York and 2 years in Asia, it feels like a ghost town. There are so many homes and so much new construction but where are the people. How can I get on a bus at mid day and be the only passenger? Why can I walk blocks and blocks through the city and often not pass more the 2 or 3 other walkers?

There is always too much space around me.

Dan says our time in Korea doesn't feel real but I've been here in Seattle 4 months now and it has passed in a dreamlike haze. I try to pay attention and focus, to find the small things that will make me fall in love with the city but instead I'm usually lost in my own thoughts, thinking of the places I've been or could be, unable to ground myself in the place where I am.

Taipei Takeover: Banking with Dinosaurs (Thoughts on a City)

It's hard to put my finger on what I liked so much about Taipei. I can tell you why I love Tokyo or why Beijing really didn't do it for me or why my feelings about Seoul ping pong all over the place. The city itself isn't attractive, it doesn't have the cared for look of Tokyo or the futuristic gilt of Seoul. Like Beijing, mopeds are so numerous it seems like you're always in the middle of a scooter gang. But there's something quite literally in the air in Taipei that makes me immediately more relaxed. As a lifetime coastal dweller, I can appreciate the beauty of the ring of mountains around Seoul but they make me feel as trapped as the stagnant air that often layers on top of the city. I know I'm on a peninsula but why can't I feel the ocean?

Taipei though... Taipei the air moves. The damp chill is familiar and even the buckets of sixty degree rain feel right. While we rode in a taxi from the airport to downtown Taipei, I could let the trees blur and the wide freeway alternating between green hills and city buildings could have easily been in the Bay Area instead. People walk slow, like they do on the West Coast too, I never have been a slow walker so maybe this is my one complaint about Taipei.

The first evening we were in Taipei, a warmish Saturday night, we rounded a corner and almost ran into a group of teenagers screaming and laughing and I was so startled realizing the only time I see kids the same age in Seoul is if I ride the bus immediately after class gets out. Sure, I see toddlers in the park and let them pet our dogs all the time but I don't know the last time I saw teenagers having fun.

In Seoul the buildings are shiny on the outside but built quickly and on the inside there are cracks. In our own apartment, behind its giant gold door, we never know which bathroom lights are going to work and one time our door knob spontaneously combusted. We have a huge jacuzzi tub but the two times I've used it I've listened to the pipes burbling for days wondering if at any moment sewage would be coming back up (a real thing our dogsitter had to deal with once while we were out of town). In the news you read about new towers with cracks in the foundation or aquariums that leak. Rome may not have been built in a day but there's a good chance the current version of your neighborhood in Seoul was.

Taipei might be uglier but at least it seems honest.

Land Bank Evolution Museum, Taipei Taiwan

One morning we walked in the rain to the Taipei Miniature Museum (there is also a Miniature Museum of Taipei) only to find a note taped on the door saying it was closed for two days. We shifted our plans and found ourselves at the 100+ year old National Taiwan Museum wandering through a self described maze analyzing the effect of capitalism on the landscape of Taipei. It ended in a room with a cloud symbolizing The Cloud from which we all access information. Then we walked through another floor with extremely dated dioramas of Taiwan's flora and fauna. Taiwan has had its own problems with maybe bulldozing too much of the old in the name of the new but now instead of a constant battle, the two seem to exist in a comfortable truce.

Across from (but part of) the National Museum is the Land Bank Exhibition Hall. One side of this building is filled with information dense displays about evolution followed by a huge hall of dinosaurs and other creatures (but mostly dinosaurs). The other side of the building is actually in a two story bank vault and discusses the evolution of the banking system in Taiwan. Even to my much more business minded husband, the information on the banking side was boring and repetitive but we both agreed walking through the aisles of a bank vault was cool. I suspect Dan could've spent hours looking a the exposed mechanisms of the bank vault door.


One morning we went to the National Palace Museum but elbowing through endless tour groups to look at 100 different bronze mirrors didn't do it for us. It's not that I can't appreciate a few cool bronze mirrors or calligraphy sets or celadon plates but that I don't have the patience to be trapped between waves of people in a room full of only that. I'll take the less visited dinosaur bones and a bank vault full of adding machines.

After the Evolution Museum we walked through the 2/28 Peace Park on a hunt for bubble tea. The well tended parks in Seoul are one of the things I like most about the city. In Taipei the parks have more pavement but the trees seem to grow wild.

We continued in search of the nearest Chun Shui Tang (the original maker of bubble tea), not realizing the location I had marked was beneath the National Theater in Liberty Square. We walked a few circles around the slippery bricks before heading under the stairs and being guided to a table where we received a menu slip to fill out. Foolishly, still full from our Sichuan lunch, we each chose to get a medium bubble tea. Dan got classic black milk tea and I got jasmine. We had spent a lot of the day walking in the rain so we also ordered a plate of green tea cookies, content to stay inside and take a break for a while.

Our trudge through the rain was rewarded with glasses of bubble tea bigger than our face and a plate piled with rich, buttery green tea cookies. The milk tea at Chun Shui Tang is unsweetened and the pearls are small and chewy. I prefer my bubble tea on the less sweet side but the pearls here also taste completely unsweetened and I had enjoyed my cup of Happy Lemon bubble tea, purchased at the Taipei 101 food court the night before, more. Maybe sacrilege. But maybe the original just isn't always the best. The teahouse was relaxing and dry though and by the time we drained our huge glasses and conquered the mountain of cookies, we were ready to go back out into the world.

Or at least to the subway that would take us to hot showers and dry socks.

The National Taiwan Museum and Land Bank Exhibition Hall are open Tues-Sun 9:30-5:00pm and admission is a whopping TWD $30 (USD $1.00) for a joint ticket. The National Taiwan Museum is located at No. 2 Xianyang Rd and The Land Bank Exhibition Hall is No. 25 Xianyang Rd. For more information about special exhibits, check their website.

Getting Lost in Jiufen (Epilogue): The Tea House

Red lanterns beckoned us down the hill, away from Old Street and into neighborhood lanes. A few twists and turns and stops at large decks built off the hill for better viewing of the ocean, now misty and spotted with boat's bright lights and we arrived at the odd, haphazard wooden building. Warm red against the cool purple sky, we didn't know what to expect but it seemed like good a spot as any to reheat our aching hands before catching a bus back to Taipei.

We enter into a small reception area, where an ottoman shaped mutt in a quilted jacket is quietly limping around. I wonder if we've accidentally ended up in some sort of guesthouse.

"It's ok, my dog he is old," a woman appears from an adjoining room behind the counter, "upstairs" she points.

The wooden staircase is narrow and turning, with even less space allowed for movement by a cluster of potted plants along the wall but opens into a wide hallway. To the left is a low opening into a room made of weathered, mismatched wood, roof slanting so at the far end the tables look made for a giant. Continuing down the upward slanted hallway, there's a large window looking into the room and table covered in Taiwanese LPs. There's a room in the back with a large group dining and laughing loudly. We decide to go up one more set of stairs.

These stairs open into one large room, home to more mismatched furniture covered in plants and vintage fans. Here two people are working in a small kitchen area and they gesture for us to find somewhere to sit. A sort of balcony runs around the high ceilinged room. We go up the stairs and find they lead to an outside balcony. Even though we had traveled downhill to the tea house, our view was now over the town and the ocean.

We order in a confusion. I choose one tea but then the server points out three teas (including my choice) and I'm not sure if he's suggesting I ordered wrong or explaining my options. I end up changing to the one he specifically mentioned was Taiwanese. Dan and I are both tired and sore from walking. The night has a damp chill that seeps into my bones. But even at that I find myself settling into the biting wind and thinking "home".

Out comes a wooden box with slots in the top, topped with a small red tea pot, a white and blue pitcher and two delicate cups. After this another wooden box with a burner. Followed by a large teapot of boiling water. We're not sure what we've gotten ourselves into.

"I will show you"

The young woman hands us a placard, partially in English explaining the process but also narrates what she's doing.

First she carefully measures tea into the clay pot. Next she picks up the large tea pot, wrapping its handle in cloth.

"The first time we are just warming the pot"

She pours the water into the pot, places the lid back on and then pours water all over the outside as well. She quickly drains the water out of the tea pot through the slots.

"Now we pour again"

She fills the pot until it is overflowing and once again replaces the lid.

"Now we wait until the water starts to go back" she gestures towards the nozzle and we all stare at the small opening intently. Eventually the water recedes a little. With quick practiced movements, she lifts the pot and hangs it almost vertically draining it into the small sieve on top of the blue and white pitcher.

"You can use these tea leaves 4 or 5 times, ok. And the rest in the container is for you."

"Ok, thank you"

She leaves and we quietly sip our tiny cups of tea.

Dan makes the next two pots of tea.

The young man comes out to check on us. If we're cold we can move inside he says as he lifts the pot to see how much water we have left.

I am cold but I don't want to go inside.

"Does the tea taste a little like fish to you?"

"I think some green teas, like this one, can have a bit of a seaweed-y taste"

"So, it's ok?"

My husband is not a tea drinker.

"Yeah, I think it's fine"

"Ok, it's your turn to make a pot"

I look at the giant pot warily. I take the lid off the small pot and carefully go through the steps. Pour to overflowing. Replace the lid. Wait for the water to retreat. Strain. Pour into cups.

We discuss our dinner options. Between buns in the morning and market food we're lunch, we feel street fooded-out for the day, plus between the wind and the walking, we're craving something more substantial.

Two more rounds of tea.

We settle on the Ippudo we had spotted two blocks from our hotel, not adventurous but we had had plenty of adventure that day.

We go inside to settle up the bill and then make our way back to the bus stop.

Parts One, Two, Three and Four

Getting Lost in Jiufen (Part Four): The Golden Waterfall

"This looks pretty straightforward, we mostly follow the main highway North towards the ocean"

I'm not sure what possessed me to say that after our walk from Jiufen to Jinguashi. We started off on the highway but soon found the directions putting us pack on a narrow path, making our way through overgrown residential walkways.

There aren't even construction workers or barking dogs in this neighborhood, though the houses that are still standing are much larger and more Western, decidedly not abandoned. We're nearing late afternoon and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn't get dark as early in Taiwan as it does in Korea and also that we don't get turned around.

"As long as we keep walking towards the ocean, we're going the right way" I tell myself. But we're back in the trees now and I have no idea where the ocean went.

The narrow path turns into a clearer brick pathway and that joins back up with the highway. There is definitely nobody else making this walk and very few people driving. At one point a cab even slows and tried to convince us to get in but we're captivated by the river, the strange retaining walls and the view of the ocean. Besides, the winding, pompous grass lined highway reminds me of home and I'm unwilling to give up my momentary peace for a potentially harrowing cab ride.

Retaining wall by the highway, Jinguashi/Jiufen, Taiwan

"Oh, here's a sign"

This walk has been far more straightforward and before we know it we've almost reached our destination. We turn right, thinking we have a bit of a hike to go but then suddenly, there we are at the waterfall, by a turn out in the road.

"Well this is... less golden than I expected"

The mineral deposits supposedly discolor the water so it looks gold but the water is looking pretty water colored to me. I'd read that it also discolors the river and then mixes into the ocean, but I don't think we have time to quite walk all the way to the coast before we'd be walking in the dark.

We sit to eat the rest of our cakes but seemed to have timed our arrival perfectly with that of many cabs and a bus. Soon there are people crowded around our bench taking pictures as we stuff the last of our not quite what we were expecting pastries into our mouth.

"What's that up on the hill?"

"I think it's an abandoned copper smelt. Should we go see if we can walk around?"

"Do you know when the last bus is?"

I look up bus directions and we try to find a sign on the stop telling us when the last bus leaves. Dan thinks it's in the next half hour but we decide to risk it anyways.

The Golden Waterfall, Ruifang District, Taiwan

We walk under an arch that has seen better days towards the dilapidated buildings but our plans for exploration are stopped short by a sign and a fence. We briefly debate walking up the road next to the fenced off driveway towards the building further up the hill, but we're both anxious about the bus so we settling for trying to get some good pictures before heading back to the waterfall.

"Look! The water in the river is way more golden!"

Now I really want to see how it mixes with the blue of the ocean but we'll have to save that for another trip. A trip where I agree to take the bus or hop in a taxi. I find another larger sign for the bus and it looks like the last one isn't for another two hours but the smaller sign says it only stops once an hour and we don't want to risk missing it, so we sit down and have a wait, hands beginning to stiffen as the sun goes down and the wind picks up. We probably only wait about twenty minutes but our anxiety increases as it gets darker and all the groups of people hop back in their cabs, leaving just us and a roadside vendor in the process of packing up.

We hop on the bus with one other couple and I realize it's just a tourist bus that goes in a loop around all the area attractions. You could probably get to to far more sites in a day than we did but hurrying from site to site isn't really our style and even much later when we get back to our hotel room and I realize my face is hot and windburned, I wouldn't trade our day slipping down hills and stumbling over broken paths for one spent in the relative comfort of a bus.

The Golden Waterfall, Jiufen, Taiwan

Parts One, Two and Three

Getting Lost in Jiufen (Part Three): Jinguashi Gold Museum

We took our map and immediately found a short queue of people being ushered into a room, so we joined, finding space in the back of one room of the "Japanese Four Family House" and a woman came in and began speaking in rapid fire Mandarin. We gave each other a look, had we accidentally just joined a lecture? I began looking for subtle escape routes but being the only westerners and furthest seats from the door, things weren't looking good. Just as I had resigned myself to sitting through a lecture in a language I don't even understand a little bit, she put on a video with English subtitles explaining the process of restoration for the house and bit of the history behind the Gold Ecological Park.

The video ended and we were shuffled through the house, descriptions of the rooms were once again given entirely in Mandarin but there was some English signage, if I could get myself in a position in the crowd to read it. The hallways were narrow and the older man behind us kept pushing even though there was nowhere to go. It would be nice to explore the house on your own, but as it was, we were relieved when we finally found ourselves back in the bracing sea air.

After a quick bathroom and snack break, and some encounters with very friendly attendants that made us afraid we were going to be stuck in another claustrophobic tour experience, we started our exploration of the grounds in earnest, struck by the juxtaposition of the well maintained and restored buildings surrounded by barely contained, or sometimes not contained at all forest.

There are occasionally groups of people but it's one of the few places we've traveled in Asia with nary a tour guide flag in site. This combined with the muffling fog and our recent walk through shrines and abandoned homes, gave everything a bit of surreal dreamlike tone.

"This place is pretty weird"

"That's why I chose it, are you happy with our tour of Taiwan's quirkiest museums so far?" 

The day before I had taken him to the Landbank Museum of Evolution featuring both animal evolution and the evolution of Taiwan's banking system. "Dinosaurs and business business business, husband will love this," he quipped but while the banking related placards were a bit boring and repetitive, exploring the old bank vault they were hung in wasn't.

"YES! What are those? Why are we allowed to walk on this track? Look, here's a warning sign for snakes and wasps on this end? I don't want to go to the wasps."

We'd been vaguely following the signs for the "Benshan Fifth Tunnel" which thankfully pointed us along the cart tracks and away from the snakes and wasps. We slowly walked along, capturing occasional glimpses of the ocean and the huge bronze statue of Guan Gong in the town below until we find ourselves it what seems to be the museum proper. There are more people but it's still not really a crowd. We walk by a few huts selling more fish ball soup towards a huge air compressor that I can only describe as being what steampunk dreams are made of. Nobody else seems to be as fascinated by the air compressors as we are, perhaps distracted by the proximity of the world's largest gold bar.

Giant Air Compressor at the Jinguashi Gold Museum, Taiwan

"Here's the tunnel! Let's get our tickets!"

We get our tickets and a disposable cap. Next a man gives us a hard hat and rapidly ushers us to join the group ahead. Once again the tour is in Mandarin but there's plenty of English writing around me if I could just see it clearly. We exit the hall into a courtyard and cross to the tunnel. While I'm reading the "Past Taboos in the Tunnel," our group quickly continues ahead. We enter the cave and while I'm attempting to adjust the settings on the camera, we soon lose sight of the bulk of our group. Unlike the "four family house," there don't seem to be any rules or effort to keep the group together despite the dark cavern and slippery footing.

There are few cheesy tableaux but otherwise we're really just walking unsupervised through a mine shaft. There seems to be water everywhere, dripping from above, in rivulets next to the path and down the wall, beading up on the metal foot path.

"This is so cool! It's like the hospital under the rock in Budapest but better because we get to just go at our own pace. This doesn't seem entirely safe but whatever"

We have no idea where the rest of our group has gone, we don't even hear voices. Luckily there are no turns and eventually we see a light in the distance. A bit reluctantly we throw our hard hats in the bucket and rejoin the outside world.

Still excited from exploring the tunnel, we forget about the world's largest gold bar and move on to try to find somewhere to snack on our pastries. All the benches in the area are crowded so we move onto the Crown Prince Chalet hoping to find somewhere to sit in between.

There's a small loop to walk around in front the the building built to house the former Crown Prince of Japan had he ever visited, but the house is closed up and even the garden I thought we could walk through was closed for the winter. We find a bench with a view and unearth our cakes, each of us taking one of the sesame covered ones that had been labeled "pork and mushroom".

"This is really not pork and mushrooms"

"Why is it sweet? Is this figs?"

"It kind of tastes like walnut and raisin rugelach. This isn't what I was expecting but I guess it's ok?"

After one pastry each we look at our map to decide if we need to see anything else. Outside the museum ground proper is the Gold Ecological Park but it's mid afternoon now and we want to get to our next stop, the Golden Waterfall before dark.

"How long will it take to get there?"

"Well... it's forty minutes by bus OR 42 minutes walking"

My husband gives me a look before adjusting his backpack straps, full well knowing which one I'll think is better.

"We can take the bus back to Juifen from there, I promise"

"Ok, let's go"

And we begin to make our way out of the park...

The Gold Museum and Ecological Park is open 7 days a week (closed the first Monday of the month) and is located at No. 8號, Jinguang Rd, Ruifang District, New Taipei City, Taiwan 224. You can get there via the 788 "gold route" bus from Jiufen if you're not feeling as trusting in GoogleMaps as I am.

Parts One & Two