Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Taiwan Trip Diary, Days 5 and 6

Into the mountains!

I've been sick--flu, cold, allergies, whatever you want to call it, but instead of blogging I've been stuck in bed reading (and finishing) Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet for the last couple of  weeks. My particular copy of The Quartet contained all four volumes in one door-stopper of a monstrosity, and my shoulders and wrists are suffering the consequences, LOL! Anyway, I'm much better now, have moved on to some lighter reading, and am ready to continue sharing my Taiwan trip, Days 5 and 6.

So . . . by Day 5 I had devised a sketching routine for my bus rides. I decided to divide some of my sketchbook pages into grids of six and then whenever we stopped at the traffic lights, or just slowed down, I would draw as quickly as possible in one or more of the squares. Some of the drawings are a bit esoteric, for instance:



At other times, however, the scenery was so consistent I was able to use a full page and go for some color, such as when we were following the coast:


They're funny little drawings, I know, but they mean a lot to me--and I now have some good references for larger work later this summer.


Other than drawing, the main focus for Day 5 was the National Center for Traditional Arts, and perhaps one of my favorite places on the tour. The idea behind the winding streets and specialty shops is to give visitors a sense of "old world" Taiwan while demonstrating how the various items for sale from puppets to paintbrushes are made. I found it utterly charming and ended up buying incense (complete with history lesson and a chance to sniff a wide variety of sandalwood shavings); preserved kumquats; dried "squid" cheese (a stringy cheese snack guaranteed to have not harmed any squids); and my most extravagant purchase to date: handmade lampwork glass beads for yet more jewelry-making. (I’m going to have to open my own shop at this rate.)

At lunch, served in a building that had once been an old kiln, one of our group members asked an interesting question: What have you learned about yourself so far? At first I seemed to have so many answers I couldn’t concentrate on just one, so I think I said something inane, like, “A lot!” But later that afternoon I wanted to examine the question in more depth. Here’s my reply straight and unedited from my journal: 

“I’ve learned that I don’t need to go on my dream-vacation to Japan. This trip is enough and even better. For years I thought I was “Japanese” in spirit. Now, after this trip, that no longer rings true. I have learned that I am more complex: for instance, in the Palace Museum I read that everything in Chinese culture and life holds meaning and symbolism. And it all has to add up and create the ultimate state of harmony. I have learned that I want that too. And that I want to use my five senses in my art and writing much, much more than I have in the past. I guess I've learned I am hungry for life. I want to keep learning."

Time Travel!

After lunch my quest for more "art and life" came to vivid life when I got caught up in a street theater performance—letting me believe I had been transported to another world and  century.

Then it was back on the bus for our next destination: our hotel and such a steep drive into the mountains we had to be calmed (i.e., distracted) by watching a spectacular movie on Taiwan's geographical wonders. Refreshments for the ride were what our guide referred to as “donkey tongue cookies.” Although I think something may have been lost in translation, they were very good, about ten inches of pastry filled with cinnamon, and I suppose they do look like donkey tongues (not that I'm any kind of expert on the subject).

And then . . . we arrived at our hotel, a wonderland of a resort owned and managed by the local Aborigines. I had NO idea we would be staying here (or anywhere like it, for that matter):

Magical morning.

My "10-minute" version of our cabin.

The dining room--great for early morning
journaling and sketching.
 

Using our hotel as "base camp,"  Day 6 took us hiking into the marbled cliffs of the Taroko Gorge:




Helmets were compulsory in this section--not, in my opinion, to protect us from the falling rocks, but because of the narrow walkway along the highway where buses, cars, and scooters whizzed, I mean whizzed by. Add to that my general fatigue from reaching the halfway point of our journey, and it's a miracle I didn't fall over the edge or in front of a speeding Porsche.


Taroko Gorge also provided my first monkey sighting in the village where we had lunch, followed by cold beers in a scenic garden setting while waiting for a few of our more-adventurous explorers to return. 


Beer finished, it was onto the bus and off to  a marble factory where we were able to take a peek into the high-security jade jewelry vaults. These star-fire gems (there is no other way to describe them) were unlike any pieces of jade I'd ever seen before--highly lustrous in shades of green, blue, and lilac, quite expensive, and guarded by uniformed girls straight out of a James Bond film. And, boy, did they keep their eyes out for sticky fingers. Once we'd had our look-see the cases closed with a bang, bang, bang and we were quickly ushered into the next room. Very quickly.

Marble chunks perfect for home or garden!

Back on the bus we had a lovely surprise waiting for us: our bus driver had bought us all porcelain pendant necklaces while we were admiring the jade. Mine was a miniature Blue Willow plate on a deep blue cord which I wore for the remainder of the trip. (It's currently on display in my writing room as part of my "Taiwan Memories" grouping.)

Necklaces in place, we then set out for another Aborigine village, this time with a lively dance show followed by a "hot pot" cook-your-own-dinner restaurant. As was often the case, I was given my own special vegetarian items to cook, starting with this amazing lotus flower:

 
A small lotus bud placed in  boiling soup water turned into . . . a 
genuine Kodak moment.
(And yes, I drew it in my sketchbook too.)

Highlight of the Day: Our Luxurious Leader Hotel. We were lucky enough to stay two nights in this beautiful setting and I don't think I'll ever forget a single moment. 

P.S. The dialogue in the video is in Chinese, but I thought that would provide an accurate example of what it was like to be there, rarely able to understand a single word anyone said! One difference between the video and our own stay is that the the grounds are shown to be more crowded than they were for us, but otherwise it's exactly the same. I even recognize some of the staff and  performers. So please turn on the sound, sit back, and enjoy.


Monday, May 11, 2015

A Little Musical Interlude

Lotus Lake, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Today I've been going through the photos I took in Taiwan. Altogether I took a whopping 893 (a record for me), of which I printed out 293 over the weekend. Some will go into an album, but the majority are for art reference, especially pictures of temples, monkeys, and cats. Thanks to a handy mix-up at the developers, I ended up with an extra 181 doubles! I can't wait to start painting and experimenting with color, media, and some new techniques.

Before then, however, (and before I continue with my Taiwan Diary posts) I wanted to let you all know about an  exciting music-and-art event here in Albuquerque. 

Pianist Hui-Mei Lin, sister of our super Taiwan tour leader, artist Ming Franz, will be giving a concert on Friday, May 29, with cellist Peter Seidenberg. The concert will be followed by a reception at the New Mexico Art League, where the tickets are currently on sale. Phone: (505) 293-5034.



The New Mexico Art League Presents
"Classical in Bloom"

About the musicians:

Hui-Mei Lin, pianist, a native of Taiwan, received her Bachelor’s degree from the Hartt School of Music, and Master’s degree from the Juilliard School. In 2002, she received a Doctoral of Musical Arts degree from the Graduate School of the City University of
New York.

Hui-Mei made her New York solo debut at the Weill Recital Hall at the Carnegie Hall as the winner of the Artists International Competition. She was described by the New York Times as “an excellent pianist throughout” and the Taiwan News as “a sensitive and powerful pianist.” Concert tours have taken her to Italy, Canada, and various cities in Taiwan, including two concerts at the National Concert Hall in Taipei. Her media broadcasts include solo performances at PBS, WQXR, Taiwan Television and China Broadcasting Company. As a chamber musician, Hui-Mei has performed with cellist Carter Brey, flutist Robert Stallman, soprano Berenice Bramson at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall; the New Hungarian Quartet in Taos Chamber Music Festival, New Mexico; and the Peregrine Trio throughout the North East. 

Dr. Lin maintains an active performing schedule. Last season she performed with her duo piano team, “Hudson Connection” at UC Davis, Metro State University of Denver, Bard College, Sarah Lawrence College, and with Peter at Music Institute of Chicago. This season her concerts include various venues in NY area, SC, CA, and NM. She is currently the Music Director at Briarcliff Congregational Church and a faculty member of The Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.  

Peter Seidenberg, cellist: “Totally enchanting, inspired performances, brimming with natural, spontaneous musicianship”, raves Gramophone Magazine about cellist Peter Seidenberg. Mr. Seidenberg has played in major halls throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. He made his solo debut with the Chicago Symphony, and has since appeared as soloist with many orchestras including Century Orchestra of Osaka, New American Chamber Orchestra, De Paul Chamber Orchestra, New York Chamber Soloists, and the Eastman-Rochester Philharmonic.

For four years he served as principal cellist with the Century Orchestra of Osaka. He was founding member of the critically acclaimed Elements Quartet which created groundbreaking commissioning projects involving over 30 composers. He has collaborated with members of the Cleveland, Tokyo, Juilliard and Emerson Quartets and has participated in the Marlboro, Aspen, Caramoor, Casals and Norfolk festivals. 
His numerous recordings can be found on the Pantheon, RCA, EMF, CRI, Albany, and Lyrichord labels. He has been featured on PBS, NBC, NHK, New Zealand Public TV, Air Espania and European Broadcast Union (EBU) broadcasts. 

Currently, Peter Seidenberg is the cellist for the Oracle Trio, the Queen’s Chamber Band, and the New York Chamber Soloists. He now lives in Hastings on Hudson, NY with his wife, violinist April Johnson, and two daughters, Beatrice and Olivia. 

It's quite an honor to have two such talented and accomplished musicians coming to our city.

Something that made my trip to Taiwan particularly magical was the sound of music wherever I went. At first I thought it was my imagination, but no, soft neo-classical music was really floating onto the streets from shops, restaurants, hotels, and strategically-placed municipal speakers. (I've since learned it also emanates from the garbage trucks making their rounds!) The music didn't stop once we were inside, either. Besides music on the bus, we could listen and relax to all kinds of gentle sounds in several of our hotel rooms right at the push of a button.

So with these happy memories still in mind I'm very much looking forward to Hui-Lin and Peter's concert. Piano and cello are two of my favorite instruments, and getting the chance to view some art on the same night will certainly prove inspiring. If you're already in Albuquerque, or perhaps traveling here that weekend, I hope to see you there!

The "art of the flower" as displayed in another of our 
magnificent Taiwanese hotels: more on this amazing place later!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Taiwan Trip Diary, Days 3 and 4

Dawn breaking over Taipei's Grand Hotel.

Hello, Everyone! Where do the weeks go? Despite my best intentions, it's been nearly two whole weeks since my last post. I need to catch up, so let's just start with Day 3 dawning over Taipei:


Sunny and mild, Day 3 found us traveling to the Tamsui Bay region where we explored the ancient Spanish Fort San Domingo, with its classic old Western-style architecture, garden, furnishings and views of Guan-yin Mountain. For some reason I didn't take any photos--probably because I was concentrating on the views:

Tamsui Bay--looking forward to painting this.

Going through the various rooms of the fort's living quarters, displayed to resemble the way the house appeared during the time of the last British Consulate, I came across this intriguing message on the wall: "One may ask, From which angle will the mountain look like the Goddess of Mercy most?" 

Hmm. I found the answer fairly soon when I turned the corner and entered an exhibition of mid-century modern Taiwanese art focusing on scenes of Tamsui. Cubism, Fauvism, 1950's "primitive," so many different techniques but all with an Asian flair I loved--a little too much as I then had to run to the gift shop to buy the exhibition catalog/book. And there went "traveling light."

After the fort and a drive along the coast, we lunched (feasted) at a seafood restaurant. Being a vegetarian I was given my own special selections, but I couldn't help but be impressed with the artistry of the fish presentations--fish as food sculpture was a new one to me! Better still was the fact that I started using my chopsticks with serious proficiency. I can only thank the Goddess of Mercy for such kindness.

Scooters!

One of my favorite things was seeing all the family businesses in action.
So many just like this.

After lunch: the wild and crazy Yehliu rocks, a coastal phenomenon unique to Taiwan. The rocks are truly unbelievable, shaped like chess pieces, dogs, mushrooms; whatever you can imagine there's a rock to match. Climbing up and down the walkways got a tad slippery for me (especially with my uncanny ability to trip whenever possible) so midway along the tour I stopped to rest with one of my fellow travelers, a lovely woman and new friend from the UK. While we were happily chatting in the shade about how difficult it is to get Americans to call a bathrobe a "dressing gown," we noticed people taking our photo, not once, but several times, only then to be asked if the photographers could be in the photos with us. It turned out that tourists from mainland China had never seen an American--or English--traveler in person before. They were thrilled, and I have no idea how many family albums we'll be appearing in over the next few months. 


Yehliu mushroom rocks--incredible!


Straight out of Alice in Wonderland.
Day 3 ended and Day 4 began in the port city of Keelung:

From our hotel room window!

Night view from the hotel restaurant.

Early morning stroll along the docks.

The sidewalk was narrow . . .  but I was on a mission . . . 

. . . to buy these. Delicious.
And then we were off to gold mining country, waterfall viewing,


and a terrifying bus trip while standing (I had to keep my eyes closed) into the romantic and exceptionally steep village of Jiufen. Once we arrived we still had to go further uphill, climbing, climbing, and climbing to the very top of the village accompanied by the pervasive scent of what's known as “stinky tofu," a local delicacy and a taste I'm embarrassed to say I never tried. I’m a bit disappointed at myself for being such a coward, but it was just too . . . stinky. 


The streets of Jiufen filled with happy strangers. 

No clue what they're selling here,
but it looks like something fun!

"No, it's your turn to buy the stinky tofu!"

Unbelievably, it was lunchtime again (the meals never stopped appearing). This time in a delightful open-air wooden tea room with the usual abundance of delicious offerings. Good thing we were forced to walk down to the bottom of the village to catch our bus. Calories, calories!


Before leaving the village we were given an hour or so to sightsee on our own, so my first choice was to visit a natural stone store I remembered passing on the way up and where I was able to buy beads for jewelry making. I came away with jade, aventurine, and citrine (so, so pretty), and at a bargain, too. (BTW, in case there's any doubt, let me just remind everyone that shopping IS sightseeing. It's very educational to learn how shopkeepers in foreign parts write up receipts, display their goods, etc. etc. I highly recommend it.)

After shop-seeing and some more much-needed walking, we then learned how to shove our way onto the shuttle bus. Being a Sunday, the place was crowded to capacity, so we had to be aggressive if we wanted get down to our tour bus waiting at the bottom of the mountain. So all together now: Shove, shove, shove! I felt terrible. Sort of.

Safely back on our home bus again, shins and elbows intact, we again followed the coastline, this time to the tune of soul-soothing classical music, before we stopped at this architectural wonder of a museum:

The island-shaped Langyan Museum.

Inside the museum I was able to learn more about the Aboriginal people of Taiwan, and the history of the Chinese settlers. My favorite moment was sitting inside a replica of an Aboriginal thatched hut to watch a movie (the big screen TV was something of an anachronism, especially as I was sitting on a log) about their daily lives, arts and crafts, and hunting methods.

After the museum: another spectacular hotel doubling as a spa (complete with deep stone-tiled spa tub and hot spring water right in our room) and known as "A Spring Full of Indulgence and Comfort." Taiwanese pajamas were provided for our comfort, that is if you were the size of a small teddy bear, but the cute free flip-flops fit like a dream--I'm still wearing them as I'm writing this post!


Tea for two.

Highlight of the Day: Shove, shove, shove! Nah, just kidding. Fortunately, we never had to be so ruthless again. Instead, I found the majority of the trip to be extremely calm and restful, a mood I'm celebrating with my new Pinterest board: I Love Taiwan! I'd love for you to take a look when you've got a free minute or two. In the meantime, stay tuned for my next post, Days 5 and 6.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Taiwan Trip Diary: Days 1 and 2



Taipei from the bus.
Today I start my "Taiwan Diary" posts, outlining as best I can our 12 days of non-stop fun. 

Day 1 of the trip, a full travel day, might not sound like a thrill-a-minute, but I actually enjoyed it. Starting here at home in Albuquerque: up at 5.00 AM to shower, breakfast, and get to the airport (thankfully just a 20 minute drive away) in time for my flight to San Francisco where I would catch the plane to Taipei.

From Albuquerque to San Francisco I got the surprise of my life: several crates of puppies were packed behind me in the cargo area—aarf, aarf, aarf for the next two hours! At first I thought it was the guy sitting next to me--I was terrified he was making barking noises and I would have to call security.

When I realized he couldn't possibly be barking in three different languages (i.e., chihuahua, poodle, and mutt), I finally arrived in San Francisco: collecting luggage, checking in to EVA Airlines, and meeting up with the rest of the tour group. After a several hour wait, we then boarded our plane for a long (14 hours?) trip made bearable by movies, a much better system than the days when I used to fly back and forth to New Zealand. 

I watched The Theory of Everything (the recent film about Stephen Hawking); Someone to Love (Scandinavian tear-jerker about a selfish rock star who has to raise his grandson when the child's drug addict mother--the mean superstar's daughter--overdoses. It might have been a bit heavy for in-flight entertainment, but I felt I got to see a side of Scandinavian life I would otherwise have missed); and Gemma Bovary, a rather strange and dark French comedy (I think it was a comedy) about a woman whose life mimicked that of Madame Bovary. Which anyone familiar with the story would know is not very comedic!

By the time we arrived in Taipei it was a couple of hours before midnight, but we had yet to get through immigration, a seemingly endless line of night-arriving travelers. Once that was over, we were next into a shuttle van and off to the City Suites Hotel, a clean and comfortable stay perfect for when you have absolutely no idea where you are, what time of night or day it really is, and just need to crawl into bed. 

At first my roommate (who turned out to be the best roommate anyone could ever ask for!!) and I couldn't get the lights to work until we figured out we had to place our room key card in the light switch. And then we couldn’t figure out how to turn them off--I think we slept with the lights on. Until dawn, at least, when I got up and unplugged all the lamps without telling her so that she thought there were no lights at all. Not my smartest moment.

What I do think was a pretty smart move, though, was my idea to throw away my entire airplane outfit! Yep, this had been my plan all along. For traveling I wore my very worst yard clothes and during the rest of the trip I managed to throw out 1 pair of jeans, 4 tops, 2 cardigan sweaters, a pair of shoes, and ALL of my underwear and socks. Talk about traveling light. My "Throw and Go" system was the best travel brainstorm I’ve ever had: months ago I started collecting things that would normally go in the rag bag or trash and decided to wear them one last time on the trip. I will never travel any other way again. "Throw and Go" not only solved the laundry problem, it left plenty of room in my suitcase for shopping.

Day 2 found me getting up at 5.00 AM again—I felt completely rested and ready to see the sights. This pattern seemed to follow me the rest of the trip—I didn’t want to miss a thing! 

The day turned out to be cold and overcast, making me grateful to have brought a raincoat with a removable liner and hood. Coming from Albuquerque, I found the light drizzle something of a novelty, providing a mysterious dreamlike atmosphere that only added to my sense of adventure. Our tour guide also informed us that water brings good luck, a statement that proved itself just about every day.

After breakfast (with some of the best coffee I've ever had in my life--another great thing that continued throughout the entire trip) and waiting for everyone to gather for the bus, I took a few minutes to sketch the back view from the hotel lobby where a small canal or stream was flowing past:



My chosen medium was watercolor pencils, and everything was going fine until I went to fill my water brush with water and it broke in two. For anyone not familiar with a water brush, it's a brush that holds water in the tubular barrel and is (usually) great for travel. Except for when it breaks, which had never happened to me before. During the flight it must have developed some kind of airlock from the pressure, finally snapping in two. At first I was totally devastated; my whole "art plan" depended on my water brush. I consoled myself with the fact that we were going to an art supply store in the afternoon where I could buy a new one and I could always add the water at any time, but I wanted to paint now.

Painting woes aside, it was time to get on the bus, and our first tour stop of the day was the residence, now a museum, of Chang Dai-Chien, Taiwan’s most famous splash ink artist. 

The entrance to the neighborhood housing the residence.


The Master's carp pond.


The Master's inner courtyard.


The back of the residence. Bonsai trees, rushing water, mountains, and white butterflies.


The Master's pickle jars!

The residence was definitely well worth the visit, an experience made even more interesting when our guide explained that the reason for all the water (ponds, waterfalls, river) was not only for the visual beauty, but for the sound. Chinese art strives to use, and be inspired by, all the senses, something I want to keep in mind for future artwork.

From the Master's House our next stop was the National Palace Museum—one of the largest collections of Chinese antiquities in the world.

I have no idea who these people are or how they got in my photo.

Before we started exploring the museum though, it was time for lunch. With chopsticks. Here is the sad story of me and chopsticks: despite having watched 3 Youtube videos prior to my departure on the correct usage of these darn little sticks, and practicing at home with knitting needles, I still made a big mess. Everyone else at my table seemed to be genius chopstick users. The thought occurred to me that I  was going to have to solve the problem soon or I might soon be banned from the table. I couldn't eat with my fingers forever!


From the museum steps. (And an exciting view of the backs of people's heads. Sorry!)

Once I was finished throwing my food around the room we were given several free hours on our own to wander and absorb the magnificence of the actual museum. Again I noted in some of the displays that same theme of Chinese art using all the senses, particularly those that help to find  the "chi" of whatever subject is being portrayed. For instance, if the artist was painting an animal, that chi might be found in the way the little creature lifted its paw or angled its head--an excellent starting point for any work of art.




Although the museum was far too big to cover in a single afternoon, I managed to see more floors and exhibitions then I thought I would, but it was tiring work. To recover I decided to get another cup of wonderful Taiwanese coffee and go outside for some more sketching. Another piece of advice I recalled from The Tao of Sketching was to cultivate "visual memory," so I tried to reproduce a Ming vase I saw in one of the exhibitions. I don't think I captured its "chi" exactly, but it makes a nice memory all the same.




My sketch and coffee finished, the chilly weather drove me back inside and surprise, surprise, into the museum gift store. I had wanted some cat art and sure enough, there it were two prints just waiting for me:

Lots of chi here, don't you think?
I'll be framing these soon for my office.

At last it was time to go to the art supply store, an old-world traditional shop up a steep flight of stairs and next to a street vendor making and selling delicious-smelling steamed pork buns (and that's from a vegetarian!). While the others in our group ordered authentic carved name seals (I opted out because I wasn't sure I really had a need for one) I started searching in vain for my water brush. Not only were they nonexistent, no one had a clue what I was talking about (neither in English nor with the help of Chinese translation.) 

Which leads me to this important travel tip: keep the various parts of your brush separated while flying. Better still, take at least two brushes—this was one case where “traveling light” was too light.

However, all was not lost. I ended up purchasing something much, much better: a little Chinese watercolor brush I will treasure forever. The only downside of this brush was having to use a bottle of drinking water for dipping and cleaning it, and then having to constantly remind myself not to drink my paint water . . .  


Such a sweet little brush. Excellent quality. I love it.

Last stop of the day was dinner and bed, all at the spectacular Grand Hotel where we turned into royalty. Sheer heaven. What a way to travel.



I reveled in the abundance of soaps, shampoos and lotions all smelling better than Chanel No. 5. Chinese artistry celebrates the senses for sure.

Highlight of the Day: Rubber stamps! Starting at the National Palace Museum I discovered that most tourist sites and even some hotels provide rubber stamps and ink pads to commemorate your visit with a mini work of art. It was so much fun collecting the various images throughout the country and I think they really enhanced my journal/sketchbook. The one I added to my museum sketch (and after I was able to use my paint brush) was one I found several days later at a Buddhist monastery. I have no idea what it says, or if I have the characters facing the right direction, but I'm glad I found it.