Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Visit to Kuan Yin Mountain (高雄縣 觀音山)

View of the pagoda. There were many smaller statues which I did not photograph. This one being a lot bigger was a little difficult not to photograph.

Over the years, we have occasionally visited Kuan Yin Mountain in Kaohsiung County. My first visit was a little over ten years ago after the passing of my mother-in-law. The Chinese New Year break is a time for family members to be together and, in the case of our extended family, it includes a trip to Kuan Yin Mountain, which is about a 20-minute-plus drive from our house.

Jocelyn (left), brother-in-law, brother and elder sister deal with the offerings and the paper money.

This year's trip included Jocelyn's older sister and only (older) brother, and a few others, several being the next generation of children who have all grown up. Morrison, our second son, is the youngest of eleven grandchildren of the grandparents whose remains are both located here.

James, Morrison and one of their first cousins, who is about six feet tall. They are now all grown up.

While Jocelyn and I did not spend a lot of time with our Taiwanese relatives since we lived far away from them until the move down south last year, the saying that you marry not just a person, but into a family, is very true for the Chinese. When Jocelyn and I got engaged and subsequently married many years ago, I met quite of lot of relatives who mostly lived around Kaohsiung, and we would briefly see them on our mostly annual trips down south. Most of our boys' cousins at that time were in elementary school and I tended to just know them as lively kids who liked playing games all the time.

View from the 7th floor of the pagoda. Since it is the Chinese New Year holidays, the place was packed.

The marble ball was constantly turning due to the force of the water. The goldfish were on average about 6 inches long.

Then about a couple of years before we went to Hawaii, Jocelyn's parents unfortunately one by one passed away as a result of illness and as a spouse I accompanied Jocelyn to the family gatherings and the various ceremonies that took place. In Buddhism, at least here, many people are cremated and their ashes are placed in urns that are kept in pagodas in what look a little like safety deposit boxes that you would find in banks. Often a passport-sized photo of the deceased will be placed in front of the urn, probably to aid recognition as the boxes, apart from an elaborate numbering system, all look the same.

In the middle of the picture is a huge bonfire where the paper money is collectively burned. This is why Jocelyn covered her mouth when walking outside. In the foreground are various graves for those buried in that way.
Peace and tranquility in the distance greet us

The photos taken here were not taken openly, as this is not the kind of place where people take pictures. However, these are the sobering realities of life that we all face, and increasingly as we get older. The pictures I took were mainly to serve as a reminder of today's visit and previous trips, and also so that I can reflect on my gratefulness for being part of a great family.

When we returned to Kaohsiung, we all stopped to eat lunch within walking distance of our home. Afterwards, Jocelyn's elder sister, her husband and two of their children (pictured) came over to our house for a visit.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Happy Chinese New Year! 新年快樂!

The gates of this large kindergarten in Kaohsiung have been nicely decorated to usher in the new year of the ox.

Chinese New Year is more or less upon us, and this coming Sunday (January 25th) will be the Chinese New Year's eve. We are not planning to do anything too special this coming week, when many people will be on vacation. It does not make a lot of sense to go places or to try and stay in a hotel when everything is likely to be crowded and fully booked. Since I don't have to report at an office each day, it will make more sense to go somewhere after the Chinese new year and the vacations that surround it (especially for students and university faculty) are over.
The market where I get my fruit and vegetables with my bike in the foreground. You can see the weather has been quite cold recently. This is unusual and fortunately does not last long for Kaohsiung.

I have been in semi-hibernation as far as training is concerned. With the water temperature at the outdoor pool having started at 18C (64F) at the beginning of January, and having steadily declined to 15.5C (60F) on January 14 and having come back up to 19C (66F) today, while swimming is bearable, it has not been such a lot of fun. I have swum between 1,000m and 1,600m each time (less when it was colder), and I have obviously not thought of doing sets or flip turns or anything apart from just going for it and getting the distance over with. Hopefully, that should change within a few weeks once the water gets above 20C (68F), which in my opinion is a reasonably temperature, even if not particularly exciting.
In early January this year, tougher anti-smoking laws came into force and many no-smoking signs have been posted in public facilities. Whether the restrictions have any effect remains to be seen.

Other news is that I might be getting a mountain bike soon. Of course, I ride one to the pool and back each morning and use it for shopping, but it is designed for someone almost a foot shorter than me. On trips around town, it is not a problem, but I cannot expect to ride to the southern tip of Taiwan (about 80 miles away) on that, not unless I want to have a lot of knee and back problems.
I saw a bike that might fit me last week, but the shop was about to close early for the New Year break and so I will have to wait another week before taking a further look, assuming it has not been bought already. However, in my opinion, if it really is my size, there aren't many people here who are likely to buy it. What I need to do is to really make sure it is my size, and if it is even only slightly small for me, it will still be a lot bigger than anything I rode in Kona.
For all my "official" races (including Honu Half-ironmans and two Ironman attempts) I rode a Kestrel that would have been ideal for someone about 5 ft 9 in. It was great in short races, but on the longer rides my forearms went numb due to the arm rests being too close to the saddle and my knees were hyperextended so that when tired they gave me trouble, so much so that on one Ironman attempt I was unable to run at all at the end of the bike and eventually had to drop out.
Taiwan makes lots of bikes and I have seen some really nice ones in the stores, and at good prices, too. However, mountain bikes larger than 19" are hard to come by (they are mostly just exported), and there are few bikes with longer top tubes (which suit people who don't just have long legs). People are just not that tall here. The bike I saw may turn out to be a fairly good choice if I can convince myself it is large enough. It is in the "middle" price range for aluminum-framed bikes, and so, while it should provide fairly good service, it also won't cost me such a huge amount of money, thereby leaving open the possibility of something else later on when I am more certain as to exactly what is the right bike for me.
These flowers, which Jocelyn planted at outside our front door have been blooming and it is the coldest time of the year. At least it does not feel cold seeing these.

I am not considering a road bike or tri bike at present. The MTB will not be for racing, but more for exploring, and will hopefully enable me to carry sufficient "baggage" to travel, eventually overseas. If I can get it to Hawaii, I could try riding down from the radio tower at the top of Kaloko Drive (lol), in the same way that I watched one girl, who knew the route, do it on an MTB that she had just ridden up to the top in Gecko's "Journey to Lalaland". It's not about how fast you go, but rather how much fun you have. I did that ride (on the asphalt) three years running and it was probably the funnest biking experience I ever had, even though I did not have the right gears on my Kestrel.
Hapuna is only 170 days or so away. Will I make it there? That depends on a lot of things. Whether I am swimming faster or not does not really matter as I can only train so much. One of our sons has applied to three colleges in the U.S. to start this fall and all three have accepted him, but at a high price, which is normal given our circumstances. So the big priority for this year is to ensure that he has enough to pay his way at whichever college he in the end decides to go to. If my training suffers, that does not matter too much. All that really matters is that I don't get too busy.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Crazy Cold Swimming

Me standing with Kosuke Kitajima, the world champion breaststroker, before our swim Monday (well, not quite, but this guy A-Long is a tremendous breaststroker and I have to swim really hard at freestyle just to stay with him and often cannot). The numbers in the picture are in Celsius for the air and water temperatures.

In Taiwan, we have had quite a lot of cold spells recently, and the temperature in my office at home today never went above 68F, in spite of today being sunny and my room facing the sun, at least around the middle part of the day. The colder weather has also caused the water temperature at the pool to drop further. I remember when 73F felt cold. Then I got used to 68F and it did not seem too bad. Then 66F, and then anything below that felt cold, and the emphasis shifting from serious training to just seeing what I could withstand, and also only on an every other day basis.
Well, Monday may have been only 61F in the water and 50F out of it when I swam 1,000 meters, but this morning, the water was only 60F and the air temperature was only 44F at least when I entered the water. The push off the wall felt cold, but at least I knew I had swum in only slightly warmer water a couple of days earlier. On the first 50 meters I could particularly feel the cold air on my arms as my hands one by one entered the water. However, after about 200 meters I felt reasonably comfortable, at least comfortable enough to relax and slow down a little. At the outset I planned to do 1,200 meters and that is what I did. I could have done more. However, the problem is not so much with the swim, but having to handle things like a hot shower in a cold air temperature afterwards. I really don't know enough about all of this, but for one thing it was hard walking barefoot after the swim to get to the showers and I was not sure how the rush of hot water would affect my circulation, especially now that I was standing as opposed to being horizontal in the water. It must be a sign of age, I guess.
My stroke feels quite good, although the cold may make me feel a little delirious and so I wonder if I am zigzagging at times because of how I am set up when I take the pull or because my mind cannot think normally. I don't know. Hopefully, the cold weather will soon be gone and I will no longer face such a predicament. I really miss being in Hawaii at the moment (for the swimming that is).
It is a little unfortunate that we have to exit the pool at around 8 am in the morning. If I could swim, say, at midday, at least the sun would be a lot stronger. Still, when there are only a handful of people swimming, we are very lucky to be swimming at all.
I am not planning to swim the English Channel, and I realize that it is way beyond my capability. To do so, I would need to increase my body weight by about 20 kilos, and spend a lot less time working. If I did not live so far from the place, I would consider being a support swimmer, although I am not good at traveling by boat in anything but calm seas, and so I am not sure I would be able to perform when needed. Maybe I will just stick to pool swimming for now.
Anyway, in case I am looking for a pat on the back after all this, a 70-year-old gentleman swam something like 1,500 meters today in the same pool as me today, and he was there Monday, too. Hats off to him, truly awesome!
When I returned home at around 10:30 am, the sun was shining and you would not think it had been so cold earlier. On my bike are various fruits and vegetables I bought at the open-air market and some hard foam squares, the kind you piece together on the floor to provide a mat for doing sit-ups on or whatever. The 16 pieces cost me about 60 cents altogether secondhand. No need to buy them new. All they need is a little soap and a scrub. Kitty as usual was there to greet me.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Busy and Cold Start to 2009

This picture is very similar to the one at the top of this blog, the main difference being that this one is taken a lot later in the day. I heard the sunsets here were quite good and so I biked the 15 minutes from home one clear afternoon to wait for and see this. I hope these views can help me relax a little more.

The weather has been fairly cold, despite quite a lot of sunshine around the middle of the day. I have not been doing a lot of swimming. It is not that swimming in 65F water is all that bad, but I tend to feel fairly weakish for several hours after the swim and if I am not careful I catch colds more easily. It is not that much fun swimming at the moment. I guess I just want the winter to be quickly over. I am used to Hawaii weather. In Kona the water never seems to go below about 72F during the coldest times in the year and that makes a big difference.
With the colder weather, being busy and frequently feeling tired, I have often found myself in danger of falling asleep on the job. No kidding, working in surroundings like this is far better than in an office (except when I need my computer). What I make is based on my productivity, which is based on my ability to think, and has nothing to do with clocking in or trying to look like a professional or pretending I'm working. I am either working or not working.

I have been very busy working these days, a good thing in some ways since the economic recession is deepening worldwide. For me it is "Make hay while the sun shines." One never knows what may be around the corner. While we are fairly comfortable here in Taiwan, this is the year when our children will "move on" whether to college or just to try out life in a foreign country.
To readers, this might look just like a pair of jogging shoes and that's true. However, this is the first time I have ever found a pair of size 13 trainers in at least the last 7 years in Taiwan. These New Balance 373's may not be top of the line, but getting them for US$43 equivalent is not bad considering I find it so hard to find shoes my size. My feet are not particularly big, either. The shoes are very comfortable (including riding the MTB) and being new look very smart. I will wear them to attend a wedding of a couple of friends next week.

The Freeway is something I have to cross every morning I bike to the outdoor swimming pool. It is a constant reminder that I still live in a big city. However, I am glad I only have to ride a bicycle. The Freeway access road is very close (maybe a little too close) to our house. At least one day when we have a car we will be able to get out of town fast.

The Chinese see investing in the children's education as being very important, and so we may well be investing in them both for many years to come. This is certainly a different approach from what I experienced growing up, and while I eventually ended up doing what I wanted to do, I felt very restricted in terms of the choices I had when I was in my early to mid-20s. While of course I learned a lot of lessons in humility, etc., I feel that I also missed a lot of opportunities. Time goes very fast and a lot of those opportunities never come again.
Jocelyn had her birthday recently, and so we went out to celebrate it with a meal which included making your own cotton candy. A memorable occasion!

Morrison (left) and James (right) learned how to make pretty large cotton candy for themselves.

I'm thinking of a swim tomorrow morning, but it will be cold!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The British Consulate, Kaohsiung 英國領事館

Had there been less people around, maybe I would have tried to disguise myself as the person on the left.

Today Hsiu-chin and I celebrated the beginning of 2009 by visiting the former British Consulate in Kaohsiung (高雄港的英國領事館). Being a public holiday, there were many more people than we expected, and also compared with the last time we came here, which may have been when the boys were only starting elementary school.
The former British Consulate in Kaohsiung. It's always amazes me how great an influence Britain had in the far corners of the world a century or more ago.
I guess if I had been born a hundred years earlier, I would have sought to enter the diplomatic service.
While the building was very interesting, I was finding the view of the ocean equally interesting.
Hsiu-chin posing next to the postbox. Would we do this when in the U.K.?
This was the kind of boat used about 150 years ago when the British came here.
The ink in the stamp pads had more or less run out. Next time, I will bring my own stamp pad so that I can stamp a lot of things with the "official" chop of the British Consulate.
The buildings in the top left corner of the picture are only a couple of miles or so from where we live. So I could make this dream of coming here more often a reality.
Hsiu-chin wanted a picture by the British letter box. I actually wanted to post a letter.
Just sitting here about to edit a Taiwanese professor's academic research paper on econometrics. The rarified atmosphere reminds me of Albert Einstein's office in Bern, Switzerland, which I visited many years ago. This beats any modern office. People need to be able to think and concentrate. I doubt if many Nobel prizes were won through constantly being in noisy surroundings.
I'll have to come back again when it's quieter. I could bike from home to here within 40 minutes (mostly by "river" bike paths), and I could get a lot of work done here, too. I could go indoors to see the computer screen better, too.
The large concrete post is one of the entrances to the adjoining National Sun Yat-Sen University. The bay behind has a beach for swimming, and I could join a morning swim group for a moderate fee. I would not mind an occasional swim here, but am not sure if people would really let me swim out, so perhaps I'll just stick to the pool.
This beautiful mosaic is found on the ground in the courtyard of National Sun Yat-Sen University (about 1.3m x 1.5m).
One thing about watching the afternoon sun, is that no two minutes are the same.

Today, as it is the start of the New Year, I have made the following resolutions:
1. Smile and laugh more - I often take life too seriously.
2. Work harder and smarter - I will need to this year.
3. Keep up the swimming and eat and sleep well for my health and sanity.
4. Spend more time enjoying beautiful scenery and surroundings.
5. Pursue my dream of "cycling for cultural understanding".
6. Keep working on my two blogs (this one and a new one I am just starting).
7. Have more fun times with family and friends.

In closing, let me wish all readers a Happy and Prosperous 2009.

Today’s background music (Theme from Shaft) is played in memory of Isaac Lee Hayes, Jr. (August 20, 1942 – August 10, 2008), an outstanding musician and songwriter.