Without hesitation and with some wonderment at the opportunity, I accepted Christopher and Kate’s invitation last summer to join them in Taiwan in January. My role would be ancillary: grandmother to Solomon and companion to Christopher while Kate spent her days at the National Taiwan University library. She is considering the influence of malaria in the relationship between China and Vietnam, two countries in conflict in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries, e.g., the belief that malaria was spread somehow by “miasma” or fog and that the flow of the disease may have determined the areas of Vietnam first conquered by the Chinese. Although obscure, I find her theories fascinating. Many of her primary resources, in Mandarin, are not yet available in the US so it made sense to travel to Asia for some concentrated library time. She chose Taiwan as she’d lived there before and felt it was a safer place to be with a nine-month old baby than Beijing or other large cities in China with which she was also familiar.
Christopher, Kate and Solomon had been in Taipei for a week when I arrived. Alex and Glory, who’d also welcomed the chance to travel to a new country, knowing they’d have a place to share for a week, had just left. Our paths likely crossed over the Pacific Ocean someplace on Friday, January 8. My flight was long, almost fourteen hours from San Francisco to Taipei, in addition to an hour’s delay for “mechanical” problems (not an encouraging thought before commencing a very long flight over water). Once I passed through the arrivals customs and saw Christopher’s head above the Taiwanese, though, my heart skipped. I was here and soon I’d be hugging baby Solomon. Joy!
We shared an Airbnb apartment, situated close to the university, Daan Park, subway stations, and the river. The small three-bedroom apartment, built of concrete blocks (earthquake and typhoon protection?), was crowded into one of the many side streets of Taipei. We had to squeeze past the ubiquitous scooters crammed along the buildings to make our way to the front passageway, metal doors similar to roll-up doors of retail shops. The living room, tiny kitchen, and bathroom overflowed with evidence of a baby: toys, diapers, baby carrier, stroller, rice crackers, tiny bananas, and flannel onesies.
As many of you know, I spend a lot of time alone: hiking, reading, running, and writing. Doug and I can be in the same space for hours without the need to talk. I cherish my solitude but I absolutely, without equivocation, love my sons. Concentrated time together is rare now that they have their own families and careers. The chance to spend time with Christopher and his family, especially to have consistent and constant time with our grandson, outweighed any (well most any) concern of living in close quarters with three people in a city where I did not speak the language and had no familiarity, other than some historical (and more recently current events) understanding. I accepted the challenge and was not disappointed in the slightest (except for one evening after a VERY long day of travel when I needed alone time, only to realize our hotel was a shared room, Japanese style, with tatami mats on the floor and very hard mattresses on which to sleep). No mind, we continued to get along well.
Some thoughts and impressions to go with many of the photos I’ve already shared:
Taipei is a bustling city, crowded with motor scooters, bicycles, families, and night markets. It is not a beautiful city by any measure: the short, concrete buildings seem to belie any idea of architectural design. The side streets, usually a combination of apartments and tiny shops selling everything from squid on a stick, to roasted sweet potatoes (one of my favorites), to huge cabbage, to spare car parts, are many and confusing for a neophyte to maneuver. The broad boulevards, however, the primary streets for automobile traffic, seem to work well to keep traffic flowing. The public transportation system, very organized, efficient and clean subways and buses, handle millions of people seamlessly and cheaply. I can’t even compare the experience to subways in New York or Bart in San Francisco. In Taipei, people stand patiently in lines, do not push once a train has arrived, and generally give up seats to people carrying a wide-eyed, smiling western baby in a baby carrier!
Christopher and Kate welcomed me into their little family, so appreciative of my help watching the baby, allowing them some alone time, accompanying Christopher and Solomon on day trips while Kate worked. Most mornings Christopher and I ran either along the river or on the clay paths at Daan Park: although he is so much faster than me, the first few days we ran along side one another. As I got more familiar with the area, he’d run ahead, returning to check on me, then back at his faster pace. I’d hoped my running would be faster than my last three months in Boulder at altitude: alas, the long plane travel, sleeping in a strange bed, jet lag, and sore hamstring, dampened my plans. Still, running to the park with my older son, listening to music while many Taiwanese practiced Tai Chi, played croquet, or walked in the misty morning air, was exactly what I’d hoped to experience. I even tried out the reflexology rocks, tough on westerner’s unpracticed feet! Perfect way to start each day.
We had our routine: the quick morning run, breakfast with Kate and Solomon, maybe a shower with the baby (such fun, where he sat on the shower floor while I washed my hair and body, then soaped him up), then discussion about where to explore after Kate left for the library (or some days, her hours’ long sessions with a Taiwanese teacher, practicing her Mandarin). Our agenda was often determined by the weather, typically cloudy, misty and sometimes heavy rain. Yet we were intrepid (and besides, we decided better to get wet than be cooped up in the small apartment). Solomon absorbed all the sights and sounds, especially the blinking lights, the red and gold upcoming Chinese New Year decorations, and the tiny Taiwanese grandmothers smiling and clicking at him. Christopher either carried him in the baby carrier or pushed him in a stroller, with snacks (bananas, muesli, apple mix or rice crackers), diapers, guidebook, and subway passes our only necessities.
We walked miles around the city: to Taipei 101/World Trade Center, the tallest building in Taipei. We hiked up (thousands?) very steep stone steps to Mt. Qi zing, one of the highest mountains in Taipei, starting in bright sunshine and ending in cold, wet mist. We snacked at a number of the “night markets,” teeming with exotic foods, carnival-like games, and people. We walked through the Taipei Zoo, almost empty of people except for a few children’s school outings. Sightings of panda bear eating a huge lunch of bamboo, leopard, Bengal Tiger, Bactrian camels, zebra (Solomon especially liked the young ones), giraffe, yellow monkeys swinging from tree branches, yelling in sing-song voices, penguins, and tiny horses. We rode a gondola high above the zoo to tea plantations (reminding me of Jurassic Park with the lush canopies of tall ferns, pine trees, bamboo, and gorgeous parasitic flowers) where Solomon laughed and giggled looking at the forest beneath his feet.
On other days we rode the subway then walked to bookstores, coffee shops in old Japanese houses, the almost-gaudy Grand Hotel (built after Chiank Kai-shek’s retreat to Taiwan after the civil war in China in 1949 as a place to meet high-ranking officials from other countries); the Taipei Story House (the only Tudor-style house in Taipei), the Fine Arts Museum (the special exhibit was the 2015 Taipei Art Awards, incredible, innovative, huge works of art), the Exhibition Center, with thousands of families enjoying street juggling and performers, food vendors, and novelty stores. We visited the Creative Design Center, old warehouse buildings remodeled to house restaurants, movie theatres, coffee shops, and pop-up design and temporary art shows.
Kate remembered an exquisite Japanese restaurant in the mountains above Taipei from her time studying Mandarin at TNU: the night was dark, rainy, and mysterious as our taxi driver maneuvered a narrow road deep in the hills. The restaurant was situated back from the road, where we walked along stone bridge over misting ponds, lit by an occasional lamp, opening onto a small, glass-enclosed restaurant. The food was unique, many courses, each paused by a soup or broth or nectar. Sushi, abalone, and salmon with roe, followed by a multi-flavored mushroom soup, complimented the earthy vegetables. The ginger and lotus teas were delicious, warm, and thick.
We spent two days in the Alishan Forest Recreation Area, about five hours south of Taipei, in the mountainous center of the island. The forest is about 7,000’ elevation, with ancient Taiwan Red Cypress trees (some 2000 years old), very windy roads, miles of wooden plank walkways to explore the ferns, three-generation trees (with the first generation 1500 years ago), serene ponds, and not-quite-in-season cherry blossom trees (with some ancient trees propped up to try to save them). It was chilly after the wet and humidity of Taipei, so a nice change of pace. We drove partly down the mountain to spend the night at Fenchihu, a small village tucked behind mountains, surrounded by bamboo, cedar, and peacock pine plantation trees. The proprietor of our hotel had invented “train-car lunch boxes,” licensing them to the many thousands of Seven-Eleven stores in Taiwan (the boxes are round aluminum containers with lids, filled with rice, cabbage, chicken and pork). The staff was quite proud of this local delight! Meanwhile, Solomon was in heaven with our tatami-mat room: he could crawl from corner to corner without fear of bumping his head or falling off a bed or sofa. Freedom!
We traveled to the end of the subway line to Tamsui along the river, almost a Coney Island-type place, with rides, games, food hawkers, young Taiwanese lovers sharing umbrellas. Christopher tried most every kind of food imaginable, from ink-fish sausage, to fried and flattened squid, to eighteen-inch high ice cream cones, to prickled plums. Solomon was such a trooper; head popping out of his carrier, eyes focused, smiling, trying many of the slightly less spicy foods, especially wanting to eat from chopsticks! We often took breaks at coffee shops so he could stretch his legs, crawl and explore. When I first met them in Taipei, he was slowly crawling. By the time I left he was darting here and there, standing (balancing carefully with one or the other hand), and eating whole (baby-sized) bananas by himself. We ended that day with a short train ride to Xinbeitou (“new Beitou”), a town famous for the Thermal Valley Hot Springs (almost 100 degrees Celsius), where signed warned only “tourists” not to go into the water. The steaming water and bubbling streams enthralled baby. I wonder how he processed all the experiences of this trip?
One night I had an adverse reaction to some chicken; it is not fun to be sick in a small apartment without your own bathroom while traveling. The next day I was very weak so left the exploring to the others while I read (“H is for Hawk,” an incredibly well-written, heart-felt, and beautiful book) and slowly walked to the park. By evening I could eat sweet potato (often roasted skins with the softest insides—don’t know how it’s done but definitely the best I’ve tasted and I eat sweet potatoes almost every day) and pumpkin soup.
We witnessed a potential historical election of the Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate to the Taiwan Presidency, Tsai Ing-Wen. It will be important to watch the developments between Beijing and Taipei over the next few years as the independence question continues to rally the Taiwanese majority. Tsai is in a position to become one of the most powerful women in Asia.
Words and narrative, even photographs, cannot do justice to the ten days in Taiwan with my son and his family. This time together was unprecedented and uninterrupted, with no urgent distractions. To be there at a time of Solomon’s physical and mental growth was special. Although many of his actions were documented with video, others photographed on my smart phone, most are seared in my mind. We live almost two thousand miles apart, so to have ten days together was unique, special, ordinary—a slice of our lives spliced together.