We have breakfast at Mr. Lin’s (non-guest) house, comprised of oil bread wrapped in sesame bread. It’s basically what we had at Er Jiu’s house the other morning but folded into a sandwich. It’s great. Also, warm, fresh soy milk (does not take like the soy milk from home) and some local fruit called lian wu (shaped like a pear but a little crunchy, sweet and juicy on the outside and soft and fibrous, like a spider’s web, on the inside) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syzygium_samarangense.
The plan had been to pick up a rental car for the day but those plans eventually collapsed, I’m not sure why. We were first supposed to have picked it up yesterday, at the train station, but we were too late. Then, today, but we didn’t have the address of the rental agency. Instead, Mr. Lin arranged for a friend of his to drive us around for the day, and to use Mr. Lin’s minivan. This was a much better deal as it was a large vehicle, the driver was comfortable in the somewhat aggressive driving conditions, and we didn’t get lost. So after breakfast we walked to Mr. Lin’s office (about 50m away) and headed out by minivan.
Our destination today was Yanshui, the town where Melinda’s mom was born and grew up, through about age 10. It’s about an hour’s drive north(?) of Tainan. There, we find the school where her father was a principal (he did not found the school but was a principal there in 1949 or so). It’s still a school today, hosting 556 grade 7-9 students. We had tea with the principal (probably the best green tea I’ve ever had – matcha but not bitter) and he showed us around the campus a little. It was lunch time so we saw students fetching lunch from the kitchen. Students eat in their classrooms, not a central cafeteria, but the food is provided by the school. Students fetch a tray of rice and a pot of other food (buns or something else, say) from the kitchen and it’s shared by the class. We were then joined by a few of Yulin’s classmates, from way back when, who live nearby and traveled here today to see Yulin again. Two classmates and one husband, IIRC. We continued our tour of the school up to the library. It’s nothing special but Melinda’s mom wanted to know if the school still had the books that her dad and brought over from China in 1948. And, sure enough, they did. The books are a history of China, a set of books for a class (eg, maybe a dozen copies of each volume) stored in a bookcase with a door that’s decorated with which dynasty each section of books records. The books and case date to the late 19th century, as I understand it (the Qing dynasty) and, although not in pristine condition, they do look pretty good for being more than one hundred years old, especially given the humid climate. We take some photos and head out of the library.
Oh, one more thing at the school. The house Yulin lived in in her early years was on the site of the school. The house is gone now but there are still some remnants. For example, part of the wall around the school looks different, because that’s where the gate to the house once stood. We take some photos for posterity. [About taking photos: I’ve taken way more photos on this trip than I’ve done in recent memory. I’m trying to take more photos, it’s true, but Yulin didn’t bring a camera and she really likes taking group photos in front of places: all of us in front of the school, or in front of the house location, etc. Also, when traveling in Shanghai I noticed that the only people with cameras, even in the park areas, were foreigners.]
We drive a short distance from the school to a nearby restaurant for lunch. It’s a more modern restaurant than I’d expect for its setting: they have Chinese, Japanese, and western cuisine (eg, our driver had a baked rice dish covered in cheese) and were playing Western pop music in the background. I had a hot stone dish – sizzling bowl and plate, heated by a Sterno, with chicken, fish balls, bean sprouts, ginger, green onions, and an egg. Pretty nice. The fried tofu and iced(!) tea were also highlights. Weird thing we noticed: there’s a canal along the street outside the restaurant, and on the edge of the canal I spotted what looks like a pistol(!). Dunno if it was real or not but it surely was out of place.
This town is generally unremarkable for most days of the year, but one day each year they hold the Beehive Fireworks festival http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yanshui_District#Festival. It’s a celebration around the temple in the town, to Kuan Kung, the god of justice(?), and the highlight is setting off “bee” fireworks. They’re just like the bee fireworks you used to get in the States: like short bottle rockets and when they fly they sort of coil rather than fly straight. During the celebration tens of thousands of these bees are fired off; and if one hits you you’ll get “stung.” We toured the temple today, again taking lots of pictures, and asking the gods for various favors.
We part company with Yulin’s childhood friends and head next to a hair salon (and another school classmate). The salon is sort of just the front room of this couple’s dwelling; that’s a common motif for many of these businesses, in fact – you live where you work. Yulin has a full hair cut and chats with her friend at length in the process. Edwin, Melinda, I, and the driver sit patiently, sometimes Melinda translating what the women say (unless they speak in Taiwanese) and sometimes we talk among ourselves. Melinda also gets a trim and layering cut. The stylist works without hesitation and has nice tools for the job – scissors and razors that have teeth to make thinning out hair easier, for example. It’s a curious contrast to the surroundings: the shop is sort of cluttered, sort of dirty. She’s also a typical Chinese host(ess): she brings out a half-dozen bottles of water and soda, some candy, and some other treats (dried tomatoes, apparently), and when we leave she insists we take them with us.
Our visiting is done for the day so we return to Tainan city. Melinda and I head out for a walk from the house, in search of a local SIM card (should have bought it at the airport but we had to hurry along when we’d landed). And, also to just take a walk – we’ve driven around but haven’t been on the sidewalks yet. So Melinda and I leave Edwin and Melinda’s mom at the guest house and head down the road. We figure we’ll just bump in to a mobile phone store eventually. We walk three legs around a circuit before we find Far EasTone but that’ll do. We do struggle a bit to find an appropriate plan but with some translations by Melinda, some use of the internet at the store (they have a netbook demo station set up that I use), and some faith we walk out with a SIM that promises to offer unlimited data for the next five days, for the cost of $350NT (about $15USD). We have to come back later in the evening to activate the data portion (don’t know why, but we do), and when doing so the staff has some trouble finding information on the phone. They figure out to change the interface language to Chinese so they can navigate the menus; I think they needed the model number. By the time we leave the store for the second time my phone’s already sync’d my gmail on the data network. Hurray! [Update on the network: it’s working, and I get get Google Maps and such, but it’s slow. Maybe it’s a weak signal? Dunno. Also, tethering works okay, but DNS resolution is timing out, so browsing the web is sort of broken. But I’m happy to have Google Maps, especially because Melinda and I will be on our own starting tomorrow morning.]
Dinner is with Mr. Lin and an associate (who was he?) at a seafood restaurant. They place the orders, I think by pointing at the seafood in the ice chest in the front. So along comes shrimp, tiny squids, “silver fish” (sardines, I think), clams, squid balls, and a Matsusaka beef dish (like Kobe beef but from somewhere else in Japan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matsusaka_beef). I don’t like peeling my own shrimp but these were very good – fresh and not overcooked. I’ve learned this trip that “family style” in Chinese restaurants in the States isn’t the same as here. So, there’s a continuum. On one end each person orders a plate of food and eats only that. That’s, like, the Outback. Then, there’s when you each order an entrée, the entrees are communal, and you each have a plate on which you place rice and servings of the entrees. The entrees have their own serving spoons, or, if you use your chopsticks, you turn them around to use the part you’ve not be eating with. Call that family style. The point on the continuum I’ve learned about this trip is Chinese style: the entrees are communal but you have only a bowl in front of you. You take each bite or unit of food directly from the communal plates, using your bowl to hold things only temporarily. Not sure one is obviously better than the other but when I’m eating from any plate on the table I do pay more attention to the table, and not just to my plate, which is kind of nice when eating socially.
It’s about 9p by now and for a change I’m not sleepy but Yulin is. Melinda and I do want to go over our itinerary with her, though, as she and Edwin depart Thursday at dawn leaving us for another week. Melinda’s translated most of the itinerary but Yulin fills in the gaps. The plan is roughly this: Thursday morning Melinda and I taxi to the train station, train to a town then bus to Kenting. We arrive in the afternoon and spend that day and the next in and around the park. Saturday we bus and train to Hualien and spend two nights there, taking two bus tours during the day. Then another train and taxi to Taipei, staying with Martha Liu for two nights, and having unstructured wandering time in the city. We fly out at 11p on the Wednesday, arriving in SFO around 7p Wednesday.