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Taiwan 2002

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Taiwan Calibration Tour 2002 (& lots of other stuff)

I thought I would get some of this down on paper before I completely forgot and before events in my life spin completely out of control shortly. 2003 will be far busier for me as I have three tours planned early on and CES and a wedding to work on as well for the month of May. Add that to welcoming the future bride back to Canada and my plate is definitely full.

The events in Taiwan were actually somewhat calibration related so I can fit that one into the category of a real Taiwan Calibration tour. It really happened, honest. Truly amazing that enthusiasts from half way around the world could latch onto a thread saying that I was coming and available to do calibrations.

November 28 

The lost weekend as they say. A Thursday morning to get on the plane to San Francisco and by the time I arrived in Taipei, 36 hours would have passed in virtual time for me. The route to Taiwan was a more polar one as the flight path was literally along the shores of the west coast of North America to the eastern shores of Asia past Russia, Korea and Japan. Flight time from San Francisco to Taipei was 12 hours, a full hour earlier than scheduled. There is a strange irony to the fact that I had gotten a number of medical vaccinations in anticipation of my trip to the orient, but I would actually end up getting sick because of the food served on the airplane.

November 29 – Friday

The flight arrived at about 7:20 PM and my fears about going through customs and immigration with a less than desirable ability to speak mandarin left me anxious to say the least. Would I encounter gross difficulty conversing with the various officials? Fortunately, no. There were ample English signs and all the officials were able to converse in English as well. Whew. Big sigh of relief. No need to wonder where the washrooms were. Big signs in the airport that simply read "Toilet." No need to pretty it up.

I get out of customs and look around the waiting area to see my aunt waiting for me. A pleasant sight as I do not get to see her that often. A fairly close resemblance to my own mother, but no fiancée in sight. Seems that she ended up at the wrong terminal waiting for me, but she was there in no time flat and she had to remind my that we were indeed engaged now.

I’m going to continue to preface this write up by saying that it is simply one persons observations about a different culture and at no time do I want to make value judgements on the things that I see. Taiwan was a different world for all intents and purposes. At times things seemed to be the same and yet they were different. A person that grew up in Taiwan might have similar things to say about western culture and habits when they ventured to this part of the world so all is fare in how different people perceive different cultures.

I get to my cousins’ home to spend the evening and after trudging up five floors by foot (no elevator here) with my bags, I was ready to have a heart attack. Washrooms are slightly different from what we are used to in North America. A distinct lack of rolls of toilet paper made for a few brief seconds of panic. Seems that toilet paper here was simply found in plastic or paper boxes like Kleenex and you had to fold your own. There was also a drain hole on the floor of every washroom almost as if the floor was supposed to get very wet at times. This was not surprising since the bath tub did not have a shower curtain or door. It was in the open so getting the entire room wet was a definite possibility. Take that moveable shower head and get at it. Showers are taken in the crouched position. Of course getting out of the tub is also another chore since the bathroom floor is very wet and there are no floor mats, only your plastic sandals so you have to really watch your step. I can’t get used to this.

I keep muttering to my self, think of Star Trek. Think of the prime directive … non-interference. Do not impose your value system on others.

November 30 - Saturday

There was not much of a Jet Lag effect on me given the minimal amount of sleeping that I seem to do every night anyway. So I wander around the household and check out their Sony television. The high contrast levels hurt my eyes so I am resolved to fix this "problem" with their television. Problem is, the menu system is completely in Chinese characters so I fumble around with the remote control to bring up the TV menu and find a setting for English. It is always spelled out for you in there. What is not so easy is figuring out on the remote control which button is for display or mute or enter. Of course it never takes that long to figure these things out so out came the handy Video Essentials DVD from my packet and it was grayscale time. It is at times like this when you are happy that the VE disc does not have regional coding. It looks like the players were all Region 3 units and the assumption that everyone would have multi-region units was not quite right.

I’m doing the calibration of the set not as a favour to my cousins, but because I refuse to look at such horrible looking images. It is purely a selfish motive so the cousins might think that there is something wrong with their television.

Breakfast is provided through the local 7/11 with ham and egg sandwiches. Very tasty until I bite into the oriental special that is also part of the sandwich. A cucumber spread. A mayonnaise variation.

My fiancée picks me up and we head over to her brother’s apartment tower to visit the future mother in law. In my mind, I had played out many different scenarios of how the first meeting might go and there was blood in many of these variations. But the reality of it quickly sunk in. She could speak mandarin, but was generally more used to speaking Taiwanese. This meant that the mandarin that she did speak was accented heavily so it made my understanding of it difficult. Needless to say, a translator was needed most of the time.

We had lunch there and it was my first exposure to mom’s cooking. Overall, very tasty, but something funny happened at the beginning of the meal as she brought out all the dishes. There was something there that was black and gray and looked like a meat product. I could not pick out the type of meat it was so I had to ask the stupid question of what that actually was. Black Chicken. Initially a puzzled look and then something clicks. Just chicken, but simply not the white chickens that we are used to here. It looks funny, but it tastes pretty much the same. Sort of like red watermelon and yellow watermelon.

During a brief moment of relaxation at her brother’s home, I glanced at the Sony 27" television and there it was again. A second set with the contrast set so glaringly bright that it hurt my eyes. Another candidate for special calibration treatment.

Next up as pastry tasting. There were some four samples of different types of "cakes" that were to be traditionally given away at the engagement ceremony or prior to it. Essentially, an invited guest shows up at the future bride’s parents home to deliver a Red Bag with some money in it as a gift. The cakes are presented to the guest as a thank you. But the task immediately at hand on this day was to taste test the four samples and to select which one we would like to be handed out. We chose a pineapple variant for a cake over some red bean type and some meat based type which I found to be really disgusting. Cultural differences again. Of course later in the week, we would find out that it did not matter which one we chose since they ordered all four varieties anyway.

With the taste test completed, I was taken to a riverside park where there were many paddle boats on the river and penny arcade games on both shores of the site. It was the first time I encountered the stackable parking system employed in Taiwan. Up until this time, I had only seen this type of car parking system in Mad magazine. In the apartment underground parking, parking stalls were double stacked. In order to get your car out, you had to pick the slot where your car was and await this carousel system that shuffled the cars around until the your car appeared at the exit slot. Positively fascinating to watch, but a power failure would likely trap your car in there.

We took one of the boats onto the river for about 30 minutes and foot paddled around while taking some pictures and watching a person diving off a cliff edge into the river for fun. It is here that I finally realize why the paddleboats all have canopies. Aside from the sun, there were many birds residing on the trees to one side of the shore. Every so often, there birds would all launch from their perches and fly out over the water before returning to the trees. Guess what these birds were doing.

As we returned home to the apartment to get ready for a dinner party that I was hosting at a local restaurant, we did some studying for an upcoming event.

In Taiwan and possible many places in the orient, the engagement to marry rather than the act of marriage was actually considered to have more importance. In the spirit of this attitude, we had to prepare for something known as a bridal photo shoot. The best way that I can describe it is something similar to a wedding photo shoot, but far more involved and elaborate and fun, but also with far fewer people. The bridal shoot is big business here in the orient and people from all around the world fly in to get this work done. Two people, just the future bride and the groom. A lengthy photo shoot with many costume changes and make up sessions and location shoots and not nearly as expensive as one would have guessed especially considering what one gets out of it.

This was all new to me, but once I started to look at the bridal shoot that was done for my fiancée’s cousin Linda, I started to really appreciate the value of this and why they gave this thing so much importance. It was beautiful to look at and very tastefully done and fun and romantic as well. The images were like glamour shoots and one could never imagine the wonders of modern make-up work. Little did I know that the magic of the photos came with a price attached. Never as easy or romantic as we would like it.

With the impending photo shoot, we apparently had some homework to do. We had to pour through many, many bridal magazines looking at both hairstyles and poses in order to select the styles that appealed to us. Once we were done, these magazines would be turned over to the photographer to give him an idea of how we would like the shoot done.

There is something to be said about the driving and the way traffic behaves here in Taiwan compared to what we are used to in North America. I will touch on that in a bit.

December 1 – Sunday

Sundays in Taiwan are a lot like Saturdays here. Since most people work six days a week here, Sunday is the only day off. There are no Sunday drives as the markets are even more busy than normal. Pedestrians and motor scooters all over the place and never a parking stall to be found.

To prepare me for my own upcoming engagement ceremony on the following weekend, I was taken to a similar function for one of my fiancée’s family friends. The colour red is the order of the day and no dinner table at the reception is complete without a bottle of wine and a package of cigarettes and a lighter. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore. Sundays are huge for both engagement and wedding ceremonies given how people work here.

On-Street Parking was difficult to find as expected given all the activity, so we found yet another of those vertical parking lots. You park your car on a modified elevator platform and it takes the vehicle up may stories to vertically park the vehicle. When you come back, it usually takes about four to five minutes to retrieve the vehicle and bring it back down to the ground level. This is the stuff of science fiction writing from 20 years ago. It’s both real and yet unreal to see structures like this.

At the end of the lunch reception, we walked a few short blocks over to her friend’s home for an interview session. For the record, pedestrians do not have the right of way here at any time so one must be alert at all times. So if you were driving and you actually decided to stop for a pedestrian, they would simply stare at you and wonder what you were trying to do. Pedestrian signals here actually have count down timers displayed with them. The time is above the standard "walking man" and when the timer reaches about 10 seconds, the "walking man" becomes a "running man" which was an absolute joy to see. Being in the Transportation industry by day, we had joked that the pedestrian crossing signals should include running people and countdown timers and here it was.

Being the first time that her friends were able to meet me, they were understandably curious about who this man was that was coming to take away their friend. Who was the man that had won her heart? While I was not quit a complete mystery to them, not being able to fully speak or comprehend the Mandarin language actually benefited me more than I thought. There is nothing like interrogation sessions, but the most fun came because I was actually getting their 14 year old daughter to translate some of my English into Mandarin. Please translate the words "That is none of your business" as I smile politely to her friends.

After meeting up with her friends, it was off to the bridal studio where the photo shoot would occur later in the week. My fiancée had to model a few more dresses that she had picked out for the shoot so there I was giving my thumbs up or down to some of her selections. She was able to finalize the six dresses for the shoot. After this modeling session, we went downstairs to the main studio to discuss some specifics about what we needed to bring to the shoot and what other little things needed to be done like hair cuts and facial shape evaluations.

As my fiancée drove me around, depending on the area of the city, she would actually draw my attention to these young and very attractive women standing along the street in high heels and miniskirts. Store after store as we drove past. Were they there for prostitution purposes? Well, the answer was somewhat more innocent. They were there to attract customers to their stores to buy their products. Sex sells and these women were there to attract the drive by vehicle traffic. The stores they worked at behaved like small drive thru’s. A car stops at the store and the girl takes their order for cigarettes or beverages …

It seems they were having some troubles with stores like these distracting the drivers on the road enough to cause quite a few accidents.

December 2 - Monday

We came out of the Saturday evening dinner with her mother and her aunts and uncles with a list of things that were needed for a traditional Taiwanese engagement ceremony. Aside from a looming headache and ulcer that I was having as I looked at this list and the type of money that it required that I spend in the next few days. Can anyone picture what throbbing veins looks like?

In the Chinese culture, the number "six" plays a prominent role in determining fortune and luck where as the number "four" is considered to be very bad because of the ways one might mispronounce it and then it would mean "death." In a similar vein, even numbers are always better than odd numbers so giving someone $200 as a gift is better than $100, but wait!!! Isn’t $100 an even number too? Let’s not get too technical here and no one likes a wise guy. I asked those same hard hitting questions.

So with 6’s in mind, it was required that I have six new pieces of clothing for the engagement ceremony. Not to wear, mind you, but to display. So it was off to the department stores to look for a suit, a tie, shoes, shirt, socks, watches … and other things. This is what it feels like to be dressed by a woman.

Down in the basement of the department store is the food court. It’s just like the ones that we see in the malls, only that it is different. No hamburger chains, only noodle houses, Japanese food, Korean food … bakeries.

So with all the days shopping done for the man’s clothing, it was off to get a massage for the fiancée (where no man dares to tread) and suddenly I was feeling like I was already married and for a long, long time too. After the massage parlour, it was off to the hair stylist boutique and definitely something different. While waiting for the hair cut to begin, a young girl at the shop begins to give me a shoulder rubdown. A odd look to the fiancée indicated that this was normal … albeit unexpected from my perspective. Well, 20 minutes later and the massage is still going on and no hair cut in sight. Then finally it comes time to wash down the hair and once more there is another 15 minutes of scalp massage with shampoo. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy it. By the time the haircut itself was completed, an hour had gone by and the bill was $10 Cdn. or $7 US.

I had been warned to try and restrict my intake of the local cuisine, but I was actually doing okay and did not feel bad at all. No sick feeling at all aside from having to spend all that money on an engagement ceremony that you really don’t fully comprehend. We go to a Chinese Hot Pot restaurant called Shabu, Shabu and have a fairly sanitary meal.

December 3 – Tuesday

We’d have to wake up fairly early the next morning as we needed to catch a taxi to travel a fair distance to the bridal studio. We get there at 7:30 AM and begin the full day shoot. The women go through the longest make up sessions because they also have to constantly change their hairstyles. This was my first and hopefully only make up session in 20 years. They caked on so much make up and goo onto my hair that in the end, my hair was as hard as that of Astro Boy. They also added a lot of coloring to hide the gray hairs. Now was the time to pay the price for getting those nice bridal glamour photos. This was how it was done. So much make up and you feel like you are made of wax. Hold that smile, look this way, show your teeth, etc …. All this effort so that you can look human on a series of photos. This is so artificial. This is not the life for me and when the day of shooting was finally finished at 7:30 at night, I could not wait to get home to remove that stuff from my face and body.

Before I forget, my furry pig also got a chance to get in on the action.

When we get out of the studio, we were able to meet up with my fiancée’s good friend Ester for dinner. Now here was one of these girls that one seldom meets that just makes your heart melt because of the way they talk and act. She is so nice that you just want to do things for her, but hey, I’m the guy who is supposed to be marrying someone else. We go to a Japanese restaurant for dinner and we look at a number of these thank you cards that people collect when they attend weddings and engagement ceremonies. These are actually select photos from the photo shoot fashioned into business card size cards to collect.

We take a taxi home from the restaurant. A taxi flies by … but this is Taipei and Taxi’s are almost everywhere. Miss one and you need but wait 30 sec. and another will surely come by. There is virtually no waiting and the drivers are incredibly aggressive and get you to your destination faster than I would even dare. This is how driving is in Taiwan. It has been described as being organic in nature as it flows like a river. Drivers cannot hesitate for a moment before open spaces are taken up by other people. A world where your car is but an extension of an arm and putting a car through a space with only three inches of clearance on each side is common place.

I could not see myself driving in this type of world, but I probably could. The flow of traffic may be organic, but it also works because there is an under lying desire not to hit another car so people forcing their way into traffic can because they will let you in and they will not take out baseball bats to work over your head. I could not help but think of a Star Trek analogy here from the episode Mirror, Mirror. It is far easier for civilized people to behave like barbarians than for barbarians to behave civilized. Well, in its own chaotic way, it made perfect sense and it worked too.

I spend the rest of the evening with my head stuck in the bath tub washing away all the black paint that was put into my hair. Oh foul odour. Never again.

December 4 – Wednesday

The days don’t let up as things continue on a steady and busy pace. I convinced my fiancée to sit in on the pending calibrations on the next day with two clients. It would give her a good sense of what Michael does as a hobby job which sometimes might be mistaken for his full time job.

Going on all week while I was there was the pending election on Dec 7, 2002. It was a municipal election for two of the major cities in the country and as we drove around, we were constantly interrupted by these vast trains of electioneering for the various candidates. Since the Chinese are big on numbers, the position on the ballot seemed to be paramount. Everyone wanted to be 6th on the ballot or 8th. There were so many election banners all over the city that it actually made driving difficult at times. They definitely take their politics much more serious here than what I am used to back home.

My fiancée took me to her temple on this day. It was a Buddhist temple of a size and grandeur that I have never seen before. Very large. Of course being a person with a sarcastic wit, some things said never go over too well, but I try to not be overly insensitive to her beliefs. In one section of the temple, there is a figure/statue that looks like a happy fat man. There is a coin slot near the bottom so I indulge myself and insert a coin hoping that his mouth would open and a bird would come out or something similar to the film Shrek. All that comes out is a fortune … which says quite a lot of good things about any wishes that one person might have made. Unfortunately, I never bothered to make any wishes before I inserted the coin so a message saying that all of my wishes would come true did not help me at all. Of course as we walk away from the statue, I see that behind the unit are boxes and boxes of wish cards … or fortunes. Heck, we didn’t have to actually put money into it. We could have just picked out the fortune that we liked.

I think the fiancée was getting annoyed with me at this time.

There is a section of the temple where people go and burn vast amounts of gold coloured paper in the spirit of sending money to those departed in the after life. To get to this burning pit, we had to go through many monks (or people dressed up as monks) begging for money while sitting in wheelchairs. I had visions of these people standing up at the end of the day and driving home in their Lexus. I also has some very disturbing notions about setting these people on fire so that they would elicit more sympathy from the visitors to the temple. (Yes, I know that is a sick thought.)

Leaving the temple, it was time to go look at wedding rings and other things. We arrived at the jewellery store and proceeded to look at the variety of diamond wedding rings that she had picked out. Then we looked at this set of jewellery that she had chosen for the pending engagement ceremony. A necklace, two bracelets, ear rings … Of course the veins start to throb a bit more when I realized that I was on the hook for all this stuff and payment was due now. As some have indicated, by this time, the brakes are gone, no sense in steering so sit back and enjoy the ride. The marriage debt hole is starting to get deeper as costs are mounting. A bit of embarrassment as my Platinum MasterCard gets rejected when the store tries to ring up the sale. Large purchases from around the world tend to do these things to people. A minor glitch as I ended up trying to contact the credit card head office in Toronto at 4 AM eastern time to verify my identify. It took about two hours to get the problem sorted out, but I am glad to have to go through it for the sake of security.

While we were awaiting the credit card clearance, I went clothes shopping with the future Mrs. We had to pick up engagement ceremony clothing for her this time since we did my clothes shopping two days earlier.

With all the shopping completed by 8 PM, we headed back to the Bridal Studio to look at the proofs from the picture session the day before. They had some 160 pictures ready for our inspection. Our job was to select 36 shots, but of course the more shots one buys, the more money the store makes so they try their hardest to get us to buy many more. My fiancée’s cousin walked out with 100 pictures selected so that cost them a pretty penny. Joining us in the selection process were five of her cousins so we had plenty of input. During an initial lull in the selection process, I took the grease pencil provided and quickly went through the proofs nixing any image that I had the slightest negative feeling toward. Rely on gut reactions and the process would go faster. Within 10 minutes, I had gotten rid of 100 images. It took my future significant other much longer to go through it. By the time we finished, it was midnight and we settled on 42 images.

A funny side note here was that we made it a point to tell the studio not to use any English on any of the pictures. We had seen samples of poetry that would be inserted into the final product, but translated into English from the original Chinese words resulted in a plethora of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. For people living here in Taiwan it may look nice to have English on some of the pages especially with words like love and romance and devotion scattered about. But to someone that uses English as a first language, the mistakes become glaring. So no English in our photos.

December 5 - Thursday

It was the start of my calibration day with two clients in a row. A chance to pull back from the engagement ceremony matters and work on something that I was very familiar with. I’m in my element when it comes to TV calibration. First up was a 53" Pioneer Elite model for a fellow Canadian ex-patriot who had been living here for five years working to set up cell phone networks. He mentioned that his stint in Taiwan was now coming to an end as there was little new market left in the entire country. Cell phone penetration had reached 98% and many people with multiple cell phones were not uncommon. My fiancée sat through the first session and I hoped it interested her … but it definitely gives her an idea of how the process works. I sit there in front of the TV for some four to five hours and I chat almost non-stop with the client and before you know it, the TV is completed. Almost as if there never was any work to do. Of course there was a lot of work done.

The client was an avid movie buff so he collected many DVD’s … all imported at greater expense from the US. When the company you work for pays for your accommodations, buying a few more DVD’s is possible. Wonderful client and we got along just great. I hope to be revisiting him in Montreal or where ever he lands once he moves back to Canada.

As we went for a late lunch after the calibration, we started to talk about the traffic in Taipei and how different police officers were when it came to traffic. If you make an illegal u-turn and a police officer pulls you over, the first thing you are supposed to say to him is "Sorry officer, I did not see you." It pays respect to the police officer and indicates that you did not regret making the u-turn, (thus lying to him), but that had you seen the police officer standing there, you would have respected him by not violating the traffic laws in his presence.

We also talked about the many scooters that people ride on the city streets. The scooters weave in and out of traffic and build up in numbers next to the cars when the light is red. When the green light hits, the scooters literally blast off from the intersections from these so called launch pads painted into all the intersections. The scooter traffic reminded me a lot of the scavenger fish that swim around sharks in the ocean. Helmet laws are in place for motorcycles, but oddly enough, people wear helmets only because it is legally required rather than for safety.

Saying farewell to the client and his wife, we head off to the second client of the day with an analog 43" Toshiba 4:3 set. The people hiring me are all people that come from North America rather than native Taiwan folk. I guess this was to be expected.

And as talkative as the first client was, the second one was almost the exact opposite. He left me alone to work on the TV set. The client was a cat lover and he had somewhere between four to eight cats, but I could not tell. On all his very high end audio speakers and amps and processors, he had these sheets of paper set out with blue masking tape faced up in the shape of "X’s". An odd arrangement and I could not help but ask what the purpose was. They were there to keep the cats off the equipment because cats apparently hate tape or sticky surfaces.

The nice thing about this particular set was that it really was in rather mediocre condition. The geometry was poor and the focus was noticeably off. The image was also very red. But I was reminded of why I hate the Toshiba 43" cabinet design. It was hard to get at and many of the physical tweaks required that the TV be literally taken apart.

While I was working on the manual focus from behind the set, my arm slipped a but and made contact with a heat sink on one of the circuit boards. This in conjunction with what I was touching nearly electrocuted me. When the current flowed through the body for the brief split second, I screamed out loud. I had the electrical burns on my arm to prove it. Calibrating is not always the safest profession. Fortunately for my, neither my fiancée or the client was in the room at the time. The client did hear me scream though and asked if I was okay.

I’m still somewhat shaken as a result of the jolt, but I press forward and finish up most of the work and then the TV shuts off by itself. Oh boy … now what? First I nearly kill myself and now the TV dies on me? Attempts to turn the TV on fail. Even plugging the TV into its heavy duty surge protector does not seem to work. I inform the client about the problem and the client follows the wiring trail even further to the wall well away from the surge unit. He jostles something and the TV power comes back. The cats have been playing with the power plugs and have knocked it loose. A bit of good news. I could certainly use it. The calibration job gets completed and the image looks much improved from where we started.

I thank the client and bid him farewell and head off to a local downtown street side café/restaurant to meet more of my fiancée’s girl friends. A girls night out dinner date. There is nothing like sitting at a table with five very attractive women for dinner. Of course some areas are still not sacred as while we were dining, some beggars came in off the street to try and hock their wares on us. So much for no soliciting.

Thus ended a fairly happy day for me as I could get back into doing something that I was very comfortable at. And for at least one day, I reversed the flow of money out of my wallet.

December 6 – Friday

Yet another busy day in one of the most hectic weeks of my life. What is on tap for this day was to pack up and drive three hours to the south of the island to where my fiancée’s family lived, essentially the rural countryside. On the way there in the morning, we had to make one quick stop at the international airport to pick up a female friend of mine who was coming in from Hong Kong. An American Ex-Patriot living and working in Hong Kong. Given my general shortage of friends in this part of the world, when she asked if she could come for the Engagement Ceremony, I said yes. It was shortly before I first arrived in Taiwan that it occurred to me that I might have been creating a "My Best Friend’s Wedding" scenario between this friend of mine and my fiancée, but it was too late and I simply hoped for the best.

We picked her up and headed south. The conversation was interesting with my friend as it centered on who she was currently dating and that stuff. We stopped at a rest stop to take a lunch break and picked up some munchies for the road. My HK friend worked for Coca Cola in the Far East branch and she was promoting some new fruit drink product that was called Qoo. I saw it and decided to pick up a bottle to see what it tasted like. At 12% real grape juice, this thing was just plain sugar water and really not much else. I asked her what made this particular drink so special since it tasted no different than any other children’s fruit drink. Too sweat. Well, the secret of Qoo had absolutely nothing to do with the drink itself. It had everything to do with marketing a crudely drawn character that looked like something a three year old child might scribble. Since they could not sell empty bottles, they had to fill it up with something. Of course, you never heard that from her.

In addition to this discussion on the merits of fruit drinks, she also mentioned that she was scheduled to get a massage at a well known place in Taipei. A place where blind people would take care of all your massage needs. Too strange … so doing my best Austin Powers impression, I took the concept a little further and enquired about whether there was a place where massages were given by deaf people … or maybe even stupid people …

Of course this just got a quizzical stare back as why on earth would anyone every consider getting a massage done by deaf people or stupid people. This poor attempt at humour did not get anywhere, but of course from our perspective, the concept of this sounds terribly exploitive.

Upon arriving at the small village where my fiancée spent her childhood, it was a chance to go down memory lane with her visiting her elementary school and then her high school. Of course in this age of the car, driving to her high school was a mere stones throw at six minutes, but in the older times, walking took 45 minutes to an hour along the highway.

Well, my fears about the Best Friend’s Wedding scenario coming to pass started to come true. My fiancée was clearly disturbed at something and that something was the presence of my friend from HK. I could feel it and I knew that I had to make it up to her somehow.

Because of the arrival of my friend, initial plans for me to spend the night at a local motel away from the family home were scrapped. I would now spend the night at the family home. 29C humid weather as all. My friend spent the night at the local motel.

When we arrived at the country side home, it dawned on me that this was not a traditional home in any sense. It was actually a converted doctor’s office of some sort which matched what my future father-in-law did before he retired. The washroom experience continued to be strange as now shower stalls shared the same space as the toilet so one could actually clean the toilet as one showered … now wouldn’t the toilet paper get all wet if you tried this?

The excitement of seeing everyone for the first time settled down by 9 PM and I joined my fiancée up on her family balcony. I knew she was down because of what happened so I thought I would try to cheer her up by doing some ballroom dancing on the balcony. There was space and we waltzed and cha cha’d and also did some tango and rumba. One last quiet final evening before the engagement ceremony to come.

We took out all the clothing that we had to buy during the week for display at the ceremony and reception. We could not actually wear this stuff, it was only for display. This is where my future mother-in-law asked where my hat was? Hat?!! No one wears a hat anymore … but too late now anyway. She takes out a traditional Red Bag and places about $30 in it and labels the bag "for a hat." Hey!! … If it was going to be that easy, why could we not have skipped the entire clothes buying sessions and simply used six envelopes stuffed with money and simply labelled the envelopes. Golden rule, he who has the gold makes the rules.

December 7 – Saturday

After a very restless night staring at the ceiling, there were never any doubts about going through with it. It was just so hot and humid even inside the house that even a fan did not really help the situation. So I just laid there quietly hoping that things would turn out okay. No disasters. Of course before one realized it, it was 6:00 AM and time to get up. My fiancée and her party had already left the home by 5:30 AM for the inevitable make-up preparation and hair styling that was needed. I made my way to the shower area only to find that none of the taps delivered hot water. Just kind of luke warm at best. Yes, cold shower.

As part of the tradition and for good luck, when I get back to my room and start to look at some of the clothing, I find money stuffed into many of the pockets. Good Luck.

All dressed by 8:00 AM, I find out that my cousins and aunt from Taipei have arrived after their morning four hour drive to get here from Taipei. I am told that the groom’s side must now vacate the home and not return until 9:30 AM in preparation for the ring ceremony at 10:00 AM. I am not permitted to see the fiancée in full dress.

So a future uncle takes me for a long drive away from the madness that was beginning at the home front. As we drove out, you could see that the catering companies were already well underway making the food and setting up all the canopies and tables. I don’t recall ever seeing that many black chickens being cooked enmass.

We meet up with my cousins who are waiting in their parked car on the side of the highway. Time to head for breakfast and the local Buddhist shrine. It was my first chance to see my aunt and cousins all week.

By 9:30 AM, we are ushered back to the home and I am given some quick pointers about what is to come. First up was the "tea ceremony" where the bride to be comes out to serve myself and the friends and relatives from my side of the family tea. I am told that the drink itself isn’t really tea, but rather just some form of brown sugar water so it wasn’t really necessary to actually drink the tea. Tradition and ritual rules state that she comes out to serve us the tea and she goes away into the back of the home. We drink the tea and when finished, take "red bags" out with some nominal sum of money to place it under the tea cup. The amount of cash in the bags actually has to be in multiples of six for luck once again. So all my relatives put $600 into their bags, but I have to put $1200 in mine. (More eye rolling, but this is NT$ and works out to be considerably less if you convert it to US dollars. 1:34 conversion ).

There is nothing like following the masses as I was planning to just sip this tea, but when I saw that everyone else finished their tea and placed the red bag envelope in the empty cup itself … I had to follow suit. Gulp. With the completion of this segment, the bride to be comes back out to gather the cups and the bags.

Next up was the ring ceremony. It had to be done at precisely the stroke of 10 AM that morning for good luck. What this means is that I had to put the ring (in this case, both the engagement ring and the wedding ring tied together by a short red string) half way on her middle finger at the stroke of 10:00 AM. After that moment, the jewellery that I had purchased earlier would be placed on her and then my own engagement ring. So when I questioned if it was important to place the ring on my finger at a specific time, the answer was no. I am just a guy, it didn’t matter.

As the time gets closer, her brother calls up the local telephone time line and starts a count down. 10, 9, 8, …. I can just imaging that in more ancient times that people didn’t have the benefit of their cell phones to start this ceremony off at precisely the top of the hour. They probably looked at a sun dial and kind of guessed at it.

With the ring ceremony completed, we were now officially engaged by all of their customs. Now it was time to go back down stairs to wait for the start of the noon hour reception. I could not see the bride to be again.

Even more rituals to observe during the reception banquet itself. I was informed that the bride to be was not permitted to get any food off the table so I have to do the honours and get it all for her. And in small bite size pieces too.

Of course during this wait, it occurred to me that the "My Best Friend’s Wedding" Scenario was still playing out. Bride-to-be’s family members were deliberately forgetting the fact that my friend from Hong Kong was still waiting at the local motel to be brought to the reception. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and she was brought back in time.

Someone should have warned me that these ceremonies actually do not permit the engaged couple from eating very much even though there were vast amounts of food served. All our time was taken up in toasting duties. And if you had just walked in off the street, you would be hard pressed to know that this was not a "wedding reception."

With the first round of toasts completed, it was time to retreat back to the house to rest while the bride-to-be changed into her second evening gown. When she was ready, we came out and did the obligatory farewell duties as expected in this culture. When you realize that some of the things that had to be done truly turn your stomach, you just grin and bear it. Saying "thank you" and "good bye" was easy. What we were handing out the departing guests was not. Oh so politically incorrect for North American sensibilities, but completely normal here. We were holding up a large tray of farewell goodies. Candies on one side, a pile of cigarettes in the middle, and the most disturbing … a narcotic on the other side. Some type of disgusting plant people chew on that is called a beetle nut. It is addictive and causes mouth cancer and produces an awful red stain when people spit it out … and here I was handing it out (although not to children).

It ends as the guests head home or immediately to the fields to continue their farming. They were dressed that well indeed, but totally understandable give the rural nature of the area and who would want to take away a moment of fun and celebration over a dress code.

The rest of the afternoon was spent resting after the event and then we were off to visit a few more relatives that could not make it to the ceremony. We also had to pay respect to the ancestors through the burning of incense and paper burning.

After dinner, I said my good-byes to the new family and we headed back to Taipei.

Gas sells for about $0.60 cents a litre in US dollars and while high, was no where near as high as I thought it would be. And when you consider all the bonus items that you get when you gas up such as your choice of boxes of tissue paper or lots of bottled water, it was pretty even with what one might find in Canada. There is nothing like pulling into a station where the attendants all compete to draw you to their particular pump area.

As we drove through one of the smaller cities on the way back to Taipei, we were stopped at an intersection for the light when a police cruiser appeared on the cross street. He suddenly turned on his flashers, but strangely the siren was not used. I watched as he just patiently sat there in the vehicle appearing to be in absolutely no hurry to go anywhere. His police red and blue lights were flashing, but nothing. No urgency. I turned to my fiancée and wondered aloud if he was actually going to answer some emergency call. The answer was no. There was no emergency. The policeman was simply indicating to those around him that he was "on the job." Which roughly translated meant that one should not do anything stupid or illegal in his presence. Definitely something different here.

Back on the highway again, many more miles down the road … again we see the red and blue flashing lights of police cars. Must be an incident ahead or he must have caught someone speeding. But as we pass him, there is just one police car and no other vehicle has been pulled over. No accident to be seen. Just another policeman "on the job." Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Also a comment about greyhound buses and their equivalent here in Taiwan. We are all used to passing these vehicles on the highway as passenger cars usually want to go faster. Well, welcome to Taiwan. The bus lines are some of the fastest moving vehicles on the highway and are constantly behind you flashing you to get out of their way. This is actually quite consistent with the way the buses behave in the large cities as well. Their very aggressive behavior often permit the much smaller car enough protection to sneak past red lights or make turns that one would never dream of. This again just reinforces the idea of a strange symbiotic relationship between vehicles and how traffic works.

We get back home to Taipei and one last ritual to observe. She was not permitted to remove her make-up until past midnight. Someone had also left some fruit on the table unattended over a few days and the mini-ants were out in force all over the fruit. No matter what they do to keep the insects out of the homes, they are always there even in the high rise apartments. Put the food away and the ants disappear fairly quickly.

December 8 - Sunday

It is the morning and all I can say are three words. Snuggling is nice. But eventually everyone has to wake up. A cold weather system had moved in finally to cool things down and I was very happy indeed. Canadian boys are used to the cold and this 50 degree weather was just peachy for me. I could not say the same for the natives though so lots of huddling up.

I make contact with an uncle of mine at the request of my father and the two of us join him for lunch at a large hotel. Always fun to stand in a hotel lobby looking for people that you may not even recognize any longer. It had been years since I saw them last, but sometimes you just know them when you see them again. Two hours of life lessons and how to deal with future mother-in-laws makes for a great lunch.

The final evening was spent catching some taxicabs to get to the subway station. Like the park and ride lots that we see here, there are similar things there except they are only for scooters and one can sometimes see literally a hundred scooters all neatly parked near the various train station access points. We took the taxi to meet up with my aunt and cousins and then we all headed down into the subway to take the train to the restaurant.

Definitely a city that never sleeps and after the meal, we headed to a local Starbucks type establishment for some $4 coffee. Yes, it seems to be $4 no matter where you are in the world. An interesting note here is that the coffee shops like this and the MacDonald’s restaurants are often used by patrons for a dual purpose. People will often buy a coffee or what naught and spend many hours there doing other things like meeting friends or learning to speak English. Regardless of the coffee shop you go to, you could sit back and listen to the surrounding noise and you would almost always hear someone teaching spoken English to someone else. At times, one just feels like pushing my way into their conversation and using some slang or metaphors to really through them off.

December 9 – Monday

Last day. Time to pack up and go home. The hard part about leaving someone you care for deeply behind.

By locale time standards, I was to get onto the plane home at 2:00 PM. A flight from Taipei to San Francisco. The strangeness of travel and time zones allowed me to get back to Calgary at 3:00 PM local time on the same day. The trip took one hour. Not quite. Like to think of it as a person living on accelerated time. In that virtual one hour, I experienced 15 hours of my life pass before me.

And so ended my Taiwan Tour. There for calibration and a whole lot more. Are future trips possible back to this strange land? I think definitely so. So many TV’s left to save there. So many …