I am an American technology worker who just moved to Taiwan.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

New 'hood

So after spending what seemed like forever living at the Pullman Hotel service apartment I am glad to finally have moved into our apartment. The drawbacks of the Pullman:

  • The parking garage just doesn't f*&^ing work. There are 2 parking lots. There is a ticket with a barcode. There is a scanner machine at each lot entrance. It should be simple but the whole thing just doesn't work and it hasn't worked for 12 years that I know of.
  • It is good that there is a kitchen but they only empty the trash once per week and it gets stinky after 3 or 4 days.
  • The detachable shower head hose is a bit twisted and the holder doesn't have enough resistance to point the shower head straight and always have to prop up the hose in some way to get the shower to point toward me and not toward the shower curtain.
  • Hotel guests that use the spa seem to not understand the "locker room" concept so they wear the bathrobe and slippers from their room and go walk around the hotel lobby and other common areas in a robe and slippers. I'm not quite sure why this bothers me as hotels in Taiwan often have a Japanese robe set and one of my colleagues wore it out to the bar one night. I think I would be OK with wearing a robe to a bar because that's kinda reckless but wearing it in a lobby is just stupid.
  • The TV always resets itself to channel 2 and the volume level on 7 every time you shut it off.

I checked out of the Pullman and moved into the apartment on the same day that our sea container was arriving. The movers and the container delivery truck showed up at 9AM and the mission for the day was to establish a bed to sleep in, find a towel to shower with, and preferably some soap product. The movers would unpack and assemble all of the big stuff, so, beds, tables etc. That left me with about 87 boxes of cups, forks, key chains, paperclips, Matchbox cars, etc. The most ridiculous semi-facts about the stuff we moved that I would never have realized to be true:
Balancing Siphon Brewer

  • We have ~40 coffee/tea mugs (not including tea cups matching Shirley's tea pot collection
  • We have ~50 jars of spices. This might be great but I think there are actually only 20 varieties of spice. Somehow we ended up with 8 jars of nutmeg.
  • We have ~10 devices for brewing coffee including several French presses, a Vietnamese drip pot thingy, an espresso machine, and a balancing siphon brewer. Nonetheless, we don't need 40 coffee mugs but maybe there is correlation here.
  • We have many, many more electrical cables than devices that need to be plugged in. This is actually much better than the other way around.
On day one I technically met the goal of bed, towel, and soap if you count a golf towel as a valid towel. The next day I made an Ikea run to get a few towels. The past week I have spent nearly every hour other than work and sleep unpacking all this stuff and if it were not for the fact that the movers re-assembled the wardrobe closet upside down, I think I would already have everything put away. But the progress has been good and I have access now to most of the daily comforts and can cook at home. We left our old sofas behind in Taiwan and I will get a new one delivered this weekend so for now the living room has one folding chair and a TV but at least it has a folding chair.
New apartment

The apartment is fairly close to the center of Eindhoven on the southwest side of town which is close to the direction of my company. Today the ride home from work, during rush hour, was 16 minutes. I haven't had such a commute in over 20 years at which time I was working at a grocery store while in University. The apartment is a 1930s row house, very Dutch style. 

I'll post some more details about the apartment after I manage to get the 40 empty boxes removed so I can actually photograph something other than boxes. It has a nice small garden for BBQs and a terrace balcony off one of the bedrooms, maybe for another BBQ. Americans love BBQ.

Monday, August 3, 2015

New country, new blog?

I haven't blogged in quite a long time because after the novelty of a new place wears off its hard to come up with interesting things to write about and I start to sound like a broken record. But things may get interesting again as I have taken a position in my company that requires me to move to Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, close to where my company is head-quartered. I have spent quite a bit of time here on business over the past 12 years but actually LIVING somewhere adds a totally new dynamic.

I went on holiday to Spain with my family for the first 2 weeks of July and afterwards I moved to the Netherlands and started on the new job. Complicating matters is my wife is in the middle of a 2 year work contract and will stay in Taiwan until June '16 to finish. We did a similar thing when moving to Taiwan but the time frame was much shorter. Let's just say the work move for me was not exactly planned, certainly not in this time frame but I am replacing someone who left the company and the vacancy must be filled ASAP.There was actually a 1.5 month gap between my predecessor leaving and me arriving and that made it much more difficult form me to get oriented in the job.
Desired Car

So where is Eindhoven? It's in the south of the Netherlands close to the Belgium border, about a 1.5 hour drive from Amsterdam. I am living in a service apartment but have found a permanent home and will move on August 11. I found this sweet ride parked in the back of the apartment and was hoping I could get something like this. It even comes with a surfboard and bike, well tricycle. Although I ended up with a VW Golf, it doesn't quite have the same character as its black primered cousin.

Actual Car
Fortunately our new home fills the character gap as it is a traditional Dutch 1930s brick row house with some tile walls, plank flooring, heavy wood doors (some on wheels), a terrace outside the bedroom, a small garden area, and ivy growing up the outside walls. I'll post some photos and more info after I move.

The new job is quite hectic. Because the previous guy was long gone there was really no handshake or intro and on day one I was just thrown in the thick of things, running part of a factory over here introducing a key new technology for semiconductor production. I am supposed to have four team leaders supporting me but two of those positions are vacant and one of my team leads is on holiday now. So that leaves two of us doing the work of five while most Dutch are heading to France, Spain and Greece.

European glossary term #1: holiday: n. what Americans refer to as "vacation"

Friday, August 15, 2014

Indonesia SCUBA diving trip: part II, Arrive at Raja Laut

Dead chickens are at the top of the stairs
We landed in Manado,around 11:30 PM. At 1.6 degrees north, I think this is the closest I've been to the equator other than flying over it. We grabbed a ride from one of the touts ready to pounce on us as we left baggage claim and spent 20 minutes getting to the Hotel Celebes which was right across the street from the boat yard. At $28 a night, it was cheap and very conveniently located, though not conveniently stocked with anything like bottled water or toilet paper. The front desk clerk seemed surprised that I was only staying for one night but, in fact, I was only staying for 6 hours and anything more might have been too long at any price.

Putting the motor back together
We checked out at 6:30 AM and someone responsible for our boat transfer from Manado to Bunaken was supposed to meet us in the lobby of the hotel. There was a guy smoking across the street who eventually walked into the lobby and introduced himself as the "boat captain". Keep in mind, any term implying rank or prestige will be used very loosely here and I doubt this guy had any credentials to operate a boat. Of course, the guy doesn't really look like a captain and of course, we would have to walk past a lady hovering over two dead chickens on the side of the road at the boat yard. And, of course, getting the boat motor started would involve taking the cover of and spraying choke cleaner into the carb and pulling the starter 50 times to actually get it to start. We probably only had a 10 mile journey but I was not prepared to row. Oh yeah, this is the private charter service to get across. We would later find out on the public ferry they just fill it with people until you can't fit any more and then set sail,
sometimes having people fall off and drown mid way. But this is all "part of the experience"; the last thing I wanted was a boat on which I had to wear a life vest and pass some sort of safety briefing. That wouldn't be very exciting.

Arriving at Raja Laut
It was a 30 minute ride to Bunaken to a resort called "Raja Laut" (King of the Sea), run by an Italian guy, Roberto, who was very helpful with setting up the booking and answering all questions. The entire resort was 4 rooms in a bungalow style with 2 guests per room. All meals are included because, well, there is nowhere else to eat.

This is the first time I ever stayed at an "Eco Resort" which I've translated to mean "No AC and plenty of bugs". We've been to Africa so we are used to sleeping under mosquito nets and if we could survive living out of a tent on Kilimanjaro for a week this would be a relative luxury. Actually I found it to be a nice balance where you  don't have all the creature comforts of home nor need a team of 30 porters to ensure we didn't freeze or thirst to death (Kilimanjaro). Shortly after arriving, Roberto, the owner gave us some crepes for breakfast and started loading our dive gear onto the boat to catch the morning dives.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Indonesia SCUBA diving trip: part I

It only took  us four years to realize that our joint sport/hobby of preference, skiing, was not doable from Taiwan and we should look for a new time/money sinkhole. We now travel to many tropical places that have great SCUBA diving but have not been certified, we always leave the area saying, "We should get SCUBA certified and come back."

We finally took a diving class in Kenting in April to receive an "Open Water" certification and soon after took an "Advanced" level course which will allow the privilege to dive deeper. After receiving certification credentials and a nifty logbook, we were looking for a location for our first "dive vacation" to, well, fill the logbook. We originally were focused on the Philippines since it is close to Taiwan but geographic close and practical close are two different things. After realizing it would take us a day to get to water and the weather there is less than desirable in August, we broadened the search and settled on Bunaken Island, Indonesia, hoping for predictable weather, gentle currents, and spectacular coral reefs.

We left Taipei in the morning with a planned stop in Jakarta to catch a domestic flight to Manado, a fairly large city in North Sulawesi. We would spend the night at a hotel near the boat yard in Manado to catch an early ride to Bunaken just in time for breakfast and to board the first dive boat out that day. I had never really been to Indonesia, only to Bali, and the Balinese don't consider Bali to be part of Indonesia, despite what the map might say. I was prepared for the idea that Bunaken would not be Bali; there are no big resorts, just a small island focused on diving. I was planning on a moderate amount of electricity and hot water and wi-fi would be an unexpected bonus.

We had a four hour layover in Jakarta which I tried to avoid because Jakarta is not the most comfortable or entertaining airport to be stuck in for four hours. You can get a foot massage and eat noodles, that's about it. Air conditioning is minimal so there will also be some sweating going on. The flight out of Taipei left almost an hour late do to an "operational incident", the details of which I do not want to know. Upon boarding the plane they gave us a "fast lane" pass to get through Indonesian immigration faster. I tried not to build up false hope because I am at least savvy enough to know Indonesia is not known for speed. With that said, we only had to wait in the immigration line for about 3 minutes while the agent starting her shift shuffled papers, re-positioned her stapler, checked her Farmville, and filed her nails before actually starting to process some visitors. That would lead to a 45 minute wait for our luggage even though it was "priority" tagged. I can just imagine how long it takes to get the "expendable" luggage.

Now we had to get our luggage and switch to the domestic terminal to get the Lion Air flight to Manado. Lion Air is a local discount airline that happens to have some great post-plane crash photos available on Google. We were bringing dive equipment so had quite a load to drag over to the next terminal. As soon as you step out of the door towards the curb you are mobbed by touts trying to offer you a ride to somewhere or grab the bags out of your hands to drag them to somewhere and then charge you a couple bucks. Instead of just buying my way out of these situations my natural reaction is to resist and amble over to the free shuttle like the locals. Of course this is a lengthy process and the free shuttle is overcrowded hence, there is a market for taxi rides in between terminals. Perhaps, the shuttle driver is the market maker for the taxi industry.

By the time we got to the Lion Air check-in counter we only had about an hour left before our flight and were pleasantly surprised to find no line at the counter, quite contrary to our experience with local airlines in Thailand. We knew we would be over the weight limit but were happy to pay about $1.50/kg to check all of our dive gear. This process involves going to the check-in counter to get weighed, then bringing an invoice over to the luggage cashier to pay and get stamped, then back to the check-in counter to get ticketed.  You then pass through a "toll booth" where you pay a few bucks to be able to get to the security gate, some sort of island departure tax. At the security check I would come to realize that I was ticketed as "Johan" on the boarding pass and I would not be allowed to simply pretend to be Johan and get on that plane. Luckily the guard was quite responsive and ushered me back down through the toll booth to the counter to get re-ticketed under the right name, which of course required escalating the issue to a manager. Now it is about 20 minutes before departure and the guard escorts me back through the toll booth explaining to the attendant that I do not need to pay again and we go through the security check.

At the x-ray machine, yet another agent checks all my credentials and realizes that on the toll booth receipt, I am still named "Johan". At this point the time constraint must have made my frustration more convincing because after I pleaded "go ask the skinny guy (the guard who helped me out who is probably only slightly skinnier than the average Indonesian) I was simply waved through. Of course, our panicked rush was without merit as we would arrive at the gate 10 minutes before departure and just sit there for an hour waiting to board the flight with no indication of an actual delay. On the monitor they never even indicate a delay, they just erase the entire existence of the flight as the departure time passes as if it never existed. And they board many flights through the same door so you have no idea which flight is which or if you missed your flight and will be sleeping at the airport for a day. Such is my experience in Jakarta. All. The. Time.

Eventually we boarded the flight but were not seated next to each other due to my boarding pass debacle. I hope Shirley enjoys Johan's company.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kilimanjaro Day One: and then there were four

December 27, 2012, after day 1 hike

Stuck truck at Machame gate
 Day 1 didn't quite go as planned. The end result was achieved although Africa doesn't seem to be very "solution driven". The lost luggage was still lost at 11AM when we finally agreed to a plan: the four of us with luggage would go to the Machame gate and start the climb with the assistant guide. Elias would go to the airport with John and Cindy to get the one piece of luggage that might have made it there. The whereabouts of the other two bags is still unknown. Depending on which bag it was, they would attempt to secure some facsimile of the missing contents at an outfitter in Moshi. Then...?

It's now 8PM, we are in Machame Camp, just under 10k ft and they have yet to show up. Our 9AM start was severely delayed. We thought getting out of the hotel would be the toughest part, then we were met at the gate by a long line of traffic. One truck on the inside of the gate couldn't be started and they wedged a rock under the rear wheels to prevent it from rolling backwards. It was in the way and blocking an entire line of traffic running down the access road that leads to Machame gate. Had they been solution driven, they could have simply removed the rock, kept a foot on the brake, and allowed gravity to take charge, easily guiding the truck out of the way of inbound trucks and everybody could have been happy. Instead they played with the engine for an hour to finally get it to start and get out of the way for others to come in.
Waiting out the rain at the gate

In the mean time our crew set up lunch in the pavilion at the entrance while we waiting for some paperwork to get done. Meanwhile it was pouring rain, no surprise. As the rain burst from skies at the gate, locals selling backpack covers came out of nowhere. The cover was just a sheet of plastic with an elastic band around the outside so you have throw it over your pack to keep it dry. I didn't have a cover for my daypack but thought it would fit under my rain jacket. Still, I thought it might be nice to have but was shocked that the going price was $20. That's USD! I thought the asking price would be five bucks and you could haggle down to one or two. I decided to roll the dice with the rain jacket idea.

Nice day in the rain forest
We were at this pavilion seemingly for hours before we finally set foot onto the trail, still without Elias, John and Cindy. The climb was pretty tough because it was mostly stairs through the rainforest and could be treacherous to hike after dark. There is a climb up to Cixing in Taipei that it almost all stairs, steep stairs. This was not as bad and it was cool to meet some other travellers on the trail. This is high season so there is a constant crowd heading up the trail. There seemed to be an awful lot of students. What happened to the notion of "poor starving college student"? Africa is not cheap.

End of Day 1
We made it to the end of today's hike right around dark. Steven and Chris came upon a Russian guy at the top who, upon reaching today's apex, flopped onto his back in the grass like a snow angel. They dubbed him "heavy machinery" because he was quite large, maybe 230 pounds, maybe more. The mass of people climbing Kilimanjaro was probably the most fit demographic in a group that size that I have ever been part of. Perhaps, even more fit than casual triathletes. We were already speculating on how far "heavy machinery" would hike before he gave up.

Arrival of the dark lord
Warm and dry
We walked into camp and were looking for people from our crew. We were totally unsure of how many porters it would take to manage this climb and it turned out there were an army of them. Since we got off to a late start our camp was not ready when we arrived but very shortly after, tents were set up and coffee and popcorn were ready. We were wondering if John and Cindy would ever show up. It would suck to have to bail out on the entire trip due to some missing balaclavas. The whole luggage debacle turned out to be a blessing in disguise as there was heavy rain up until our delayed departure and then it eased up a bit. Shirley had rented this pancho and she looked like some evil villain from a sci-fi fantasy movie coming up the trail with hooded cloak and staff in hand. We got a bit wet but once inside the tent we were able to ditch our wet clothes and change into something comfortable. Comfortable and dry are synonymous at this point. Now waiting on dinner...

The Last Shower

December 27, 2012: Day One

We met up with out climbing group at the Arusha Protea Lodge, a hotel about 30 minutes drive from the Machame gate, where the climb will begin. There is a total of 6 climbers plus the crew, no idea what the crew:climber ratio is but I expect it to be embarrassingly high. We hit the jackpot, people-wise,  especially considering that an Amy Winehouse wannabe and her entourage are at the hotel and they are leaving on the same day. So we quite possibly could have drawn that straw.

Steven, the Scottish guy, made and interesting observation that each of us in our climbing group lives outside of their respective home country. Steven works in the ore mines of western Australia. John & Cindy are a couple that teach in Dubai, John a Kiwi and Cindy a Canadian. They came along with their friend Chris who is also a teacher from England. Our guide, Elias, took a survey of our equipment and Steven was severely under equipped, by our standards. Whereas we all had daypacks plus a 15kg rucksack filled with multiple baselayers, socks, hats, sweaters and rainproof gear, Steven was able to fit everything he had in one small backpack. He didn't even have gloves but assured us, if it really get's that cold he can just stick his hands in his pockets! The guide seemed quite uncomfortable with Steven's preparedness but I don't think he has much to be concerned about. He can probably summit in a kilt, commando style.

We were supposed to leave the hotel @ 9:30AM to head for the car to the gate but it is already after 10. I think Elias is probably stil scraping together some gear and had to collect John & Cindy's lost luggage. They were on an Ethiopian Air flight and there gear didn't make it through the layover. Elias is going to stop at the airport to pick it up. They are really anxious about the luggage because they bought all kinds of new gear especially for this trip. Shirley and I just brought our normal ski clothes and will rent sleeping bags and mattresses from the tour company. Since we have to lug all of our stuff to Zanzibar afterwards we wanted to travel relatively lightly.

The water pressure at the hotel is amazingly high, which is great, because this will be our last shower for seven days, need to make it count! I think the toothbrush is most important hygiene product we will be taking up the mountain.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Two days on safari

December 25, 2012

Saw a Cheetah close to the end of the day in Ngorongoro
Safari day 2 almost felt like cheating; it was like fishing in a barrel. I don't understand how Ngorongoro Crater attracts animals in, and then keeps them in, but apparently it does. There is a somewhat isolated ecosystem inside this crater that creates and environment for abundant animal spotting, even with quite a few tour groups in there, hundreds of tour jeeps, but there is a surprising amount of sprawling real estate to spread out into. It was still difficult to find the more elusive animals so it still had a bit of sporting sense to it. We only planned two days of safari on the advice of a friend and it was good advice. I'm not sure we could take another day of animal spotting as it became quite repetitive.

Christmas dinner was turkey and ham and an amazing stuffing which I think was loaded with...more ham. All the food at the lodge was tasted and only once included rice which was a welcomed change of pace from life in Taiwan where every lunch meal at work includes a scoop of rice.

After breakfast we started the trip down to Arusha to transfer to our climbing guide. The Mt. Meru lodge again served as the rendez-vous point. On the first day the tour operator who gave us the overall rundown mentioned that there was a guy from Scotland who would be on the climb with us. Shirley started to get nervous thinking that he would be some super mountain climber born in the Highlands who's veins flow single malt. We met him at the rendez-vous. She might be right.

Masai villages dot the savannah 
On the ride from Arusha out to the safari and back we travel through countryside inhabited by the Masai, the men recognised as being covered in a red cloth carrying a stick, typically herding cattle. They live in round huts with a thatched roof. I wanted to take more pictures but Shirley brought up this idea about cameras stealing their souls. I thought that was the Zulu but I didn't have internet access available to be able to debunk her theory so I just tried to be discreet. I wonder if anyone ever really believed that or if it is just myth.