Sunday, 20 July 2008

From "Anansi Boys" by Neil Gaiman

It took me a while to track this one down, because I couldn't find a pirated edition on line (full text), so I had to pull out my paper copy and find the quotation by memory. Luckily my memory for useless passages of text seems quite alright - so here it is, the bit I was reminded of by listening to Bob Marley...

Spider began to sing. It was "Under the Boardwalk."
It wouldn't have happened if Fat Charlie had not liked the song so much. When Fat Charlie was thirteen he had believed that "Under the Boardwalk" was the greatest song in the world (by the time he was a jaded and world weary fourteen-year-old, it had become Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry")...

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Crazily long trek to the paper mill

Just before Toph left we went to the Guan Shin Paper Mill (廣興紙寮) in Nantou (南投). At the time I had wanted to buy a pig mask, and due to various cock ups, didn't end up getting it. Luckily Steve became interested in a trip out there after seeing my handmade paper - so we headed out today (in the middle of a typhoon which is devastating the more mountainous regions in Nantou).

The paper industry in Puli, Nantou, has been in existence since the late Chin dynasty. Apparently the water quality of Puli (埔里) city makes the area suitable for paper making, as water with a high concentration of iron turns out bad quality paper. Once paper mills dominated the region. Now there is only 10 (which still sounds numerous to me), and Guan Shin is the only one which specializes in handmade papers. The mill offers a guided tour by one of their guides - the majority of them seem to be female, and they all look a little harassed and slightly jaded about the whole arrangement. I guess that's what happens when you do 20 guided tours a day to people who flood in from all over.

After the tour I made my second bit of paper. It was easy this time around. I embossed it with a goat. The last time I did one of flowers. Handmade paper from the mill is exceptionally strong and flexible, because it has super long fibres which are arranged in irregular patterns during the hand-making process. This makes them very suitable for embossing.

This is how the paper making process goes:
  1. Raw material (bark of various trees, bamboo, and also husks of water bamboo (筊白筍), which is actually the stem of Manchurian wild rice, after being infected with the smut fungus Ustilago esculenta) is cooked and steamed and bleached and pulped. This process is not open to the public.
  2. The pulp, mixed with water, is scooped from a pool into a wooden tray with a bamboo sheet (like the type you roll sushi with, but finer grained) stretched across, like a flat sieve.
  3. The water drains and the fibres form a wet piece of paper, which is then peeled off, and laid on top of one another with a piece of string to separate one sheet from another, forming a curious block which looks a bit like soggy tofu. The artisans at the factory do this on a large scale, with giant frames that produce big pieces of paper. We paying customers do them on a tenth of the scale.
  4. The paper is pressed to dry. An industrial size block of paper-tofu needs to drip dry over night before pressing for 6-8 hours on a hefty looking big press. We got ours pressed in a matter of 5 minutes on small presses (which nevertheless required some muscle power to turn).
  5. The paper is laid out onto baking tables heated by steam, and brushed with pine needle brushes to get rid of air bubbles - the side which comes in contact with the table is smooth, and the other side rough. Laying out small sheets of paper is easy as pie - but the ladies who do the "baking," as it were, at the factory, have a knack of picking up individual sheets of wet paper with a wooden stick, waving them in the air like a flag, and laying them flat out on the baking tables. Neat trick!Then we were given an opportunity to do embossed printing on our own bits of handmade paper. There were numerous clay tablets (well worn with ink) on tables. Each tablet has a different design, some are modern (cartoon characters), and others are traditional Chinese symbols.
To emboss:
  1. The paper is laid directly onto the carved clay tablet, and wetted through with a spray bottle.
  2. A second piece of thin, machine made paper is laid over top.
  3. Both sheets get the hell beaten out of them by a big brush.
  4. Replace the top sheet of machine paper with another one, and repeat, until moisture has been absorbed out of the handmade sheet of paper.
  5. Ink is then applied with rag blobs.
This is my embossed flowers from my first visit. This time round I embossed a picture of a goat, and also got my pig mask, which was my main objective for going down there in the first place (the girls in the gift shop thought I was crazy to truck all the way down to buy a mask). Of course I also caved when I saw these paper woven pork-pie hats which were just absolutely perfect for me - waterproof too, and only NT$420 (less than a tenner!).

For more photos, check out my newly acquired Flickr account.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Distance, and the effects thereof

I've long since harboured the suspicion that us being together makes me less productive. I guess I've not gotten good enough at finding my own head space when you are around. Case and point: today you left to head back home, and it's 12:41 A.M. I've looked at all the frivolous things in my feed reader, which is nothing unusual even when we are together, but I've also read much of the serious things in my reader, and listened to 2 1/2 BBC podcasts, knitted loads, done the dishes, and booked granny a doctor's appointment for Friday.

Now I am adding an entry to the blog as a testament to the fact that head space is necessary to productivity. Next I must learn how to create the "I am alone and therefore can do whatever I need to do without diverting my attention elsewhere even when wholly unsolicited" frame of mind when you are around.

But I miss you! (even though it doesn't sound like it)

Sunday, 13 July 2008

The exponential rate of days...

When there's a date in your diary everything seems to move towards it at an exponential rate. For a while it's ages away, then it's quite soon, then suddenly it's 3 days away etc.

Topher goes home on Wednesday and I will be following shortly thereafter. Vacation called off early due to torrential thunderstorms. Beach plans drenched before they were formed. The benefit is that we've had time to pack (always something to be squeezed in at the last minute, such as, er, the act of packing itself), and to shop around a bit for completely non-essential items.

One of these items is vintage photographs from the most wonderful antiques/used books/coffee & tea shop in Taipei. It lives in the lane just behind Longshan Temple (龍山寺). It's the kind of thing that travellers go to the continent in search of - a shop with character, piled from floor to ceiling with dusty treasures and surprises for the unsuspecting. Stairs up to the top floor carries a warning for patrons to step lightly, as the building is in slight danger of crumbling from the weight of its antiquated wares. Right now the entire upper floor is closed, having finally reached its storage capacity.

Asides from picking up a few old porcelain bowls with hand painted geometric designs in blue and white, I couldn't pass up on these vintage photographs, even though buying them (and looking at them) has been a rather curious experience. They seem rather personal, especially the one of the little girl holding the baby (she's thinking: "don't drop the baby don't drop the baby don't drop the baby").

Here's a picture of me standing outside the shop.

p.s. if anyone on the blogger development team is reading this: can you make a better WYSIWYG editor for posting? It's extremely difficult to put pictures in, not being able to change the size or the alignment without going into the edit html mode. Would just be so much easier if it was built into the regular composition side... thanks!

Monday, 7 July 2008

Unemployed and itinerant

After bidding a fond farewell to the Taipei Times, I'm now on the road with Topher, dwadling in various tourist sites in Taiwan and generally coming to grips with the fact that my year in Taiwan has almost come to an end, and there is still so much to do. Not fun stuff either - mostly packing and applying for visas etc (more on that later, you'll enjoy it).

Half the time when I'm out traveling I'm actually slightly stressed. Partly because I'm the one to arrange everything (Toph doesn't speak Chinese), and also because I'm not in the habit of going off traveling before everything I need to do is done and dusted. Usually I'm super organized and get things done well ahead of time (I finished all my uni essays a day before the deadline).

So, I guess Toph is rubbing off on me. I'm getting much more messy and last minute. I know for a fact that when we live together I'll have to have a separate work area (so he can't foul mine up with his monkey mess, and I won't keep tidying away his relaxed clutter).

Maybe it's not entirely fair that I blame the physical and non-physical disorganization of my life in general on him? I can't help but think that when two people start living together, things do tend to get a bit messy (and more than a bit different for each person), at least in the first little while.

In any case, we'll have plenty of time to work it all out. Right now we are in Alishan (阿里山), enjoying the 14 degree weather while the rest of Taiwan roasts away at 38 degrees. The humidity and pollution of big cities here makes one sweaty and sticky in a matter of seconds. I tend to picture myself walking down the street, coated in syrupy chocolate as gusts of hot wind brings almond and peanut bits which stick to me all over - that's what walking in humid, polluted air feels like (though less yummy).

So yeah, it's nice to be 2200 meters above sea level, enjoying the fine air, and, er, drinking coffee at Asia's highest Starbucks. Normally we're not Starbucks folk. I have no particular feelings about Starbucks either way, not being a coffee drinker nor rabidly opposed to corporate chains. I do object to the homogenization of coffee shops - but I have to admit that it has practical advantages (standard of service, cleanliness etc). I mean, small places almost always have "character," though that in itself does not guarantee that those "characteristics" are positive. In any case, Starbucks in Taiwan is a bit of a god-send, since it's the only place where Toph can get soy latte. While good coffee places abound in Taiwan, most places (especially the more old school spots, such as 蜂大), look at me like I'm out of my tree when I ask them to make Toph a latte with soy milk. For me, more important than soy milk in my coffee, is the fact that Starbucks is always impeccably clean - and their toilets are always the sit-down type! Squat loos are something that I'm afraid I'll never be able to get-used to. I grew up with them, and would be entirely content to leave them in the pages of my past... but alas, they are really quite standard in countries such as Taiwan and Japan.

I would keep a running update of our travels - but sometimes time is better spent away from the computer screen. Though my new Eee PC makes it easy for me to keep up with web life on the go, I'll still wait till I'm home for serious blogging.