Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Our Taiwan Vacation - Day One

12/25/2010 - Our first full day in Taiwan. We awoke Christmas morning somewhat rested and still dehydrated. Breakfast at Chinatrust was decent but not as good as it’s been in the past. Many years ago when I was in Taiwan working for Caterpillar I spent weeks staying at this same hotel and the food was definitely better back then. After eating and reorganizing our luggage we were ready to hit the road and head to Taichung, where my wife’s family lives. It was still rainy and dreary, so we walked over to the 7-11 on the next block and pickup some sports drinks and an umbrella. The drinks helped our dehydration. We made it out to the freeway and encountered a minor traffic jam. People were probably headed out for the weekend and all the construction around Jhongli did not help. We stayed in the middle lane most of the time, keeping out of the way of fast drivers on the left and slow trucks on the right. Heck, we were even passed many times on the right. We kept to the speed limit and everyone else seemed to drive at least 10km/hr over, if not faster. It’s better to get there safely than quickly in my opinion. As we approached the outer parts of Taichung we were greeted by brighter skies. Not really sunny, but at least brighter than the area to the north. I don’t think we were using the GPS yet at this point – I had maps printed out of all the locations in Taiwan we planned to visit. We were able to find my in-law’s house without too much difficulty. But then comes the fun part – finding a parking space. My in-laws do not have a car and rent out their parking space, so we must hunt around the city streets looking for a spot. We parked illegally at first to unload luggage then drove around until we found an opening. Throughout our trip parking would always be a challenge. Sometimes we parked at the McDonald’s which is right across the road from the in-law’s building. We were buying coffee there every day, so we felt entitled to use their parking lot temporarily (later we noticed a sign which allowed temporary parking with a purchase of 50NT or more).
With the parking situation settled we spent the day hanging out with family and enjoying a real meal around the dinner table. It was good just to chill out for a while and relax. Jet lag was hitting me all afternoon but I tried my hardest to stay awake. Late in the day we decided to get over to our hotel and check in. We reserved 4 nights at the In One City Inn near FengJia night market. Getting there was quite a challenge. The area around FengJia night market is crowded with people, cars, buses, taxis, scooters and more people. The roads near the hotel are very narrow and just wide enough for our car in most places. People are everywhere and it is like navigating an obstacle course. Thankfully the hotel has parking in the basement levels so that was one less thing to worry about. Arriving in the hotel lobby we immediately noticed the colorful and trendy decor. Very modern and cool! As you walk around inside the hotel there is art and color everywhere. I am really kicking myself now for not getting photos of the hotel interior. The room we had was narrow and long, but the space was sufficient. The bathroom was glass-enclosed so there was not a lot of privacy but the lower sections have frosted glass. The close proximity to FengJia night market is great as you can walk out of the hotel, go to the end of the block and you are basically at the north end of the market. As you walk further down it gets busier, more crowded, with more and more food options. We had some wonderful stinky tofu with quite a spicy kick – served differently than we have had in the past. Later we bought some more typical stinky tofu served with cabbage. Overall the food was OK, not spectacular. We really did not explore everything due to being so tired. We found a cell phone shop in this area and purchased a SIM card for my phone. We could not figure out how to get it working but the next day we noticed the phone was suddenly working. I guess we just needed to wait for the activation to take effect. We went to bed a little early and with the help of Advil PM we both slept great.

Below: 臭豆腐 stinky tofu at 逢甲夜市 FengJia Night Market

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Our Taiwan Vacation - The Flight, and The Arrival

Our flight, Delta 281 ATL-NRT, departed very close to on time and we settled in for the long 14 hour, 50 minute flight. This was our first trip on a Boeing 777. Our previous trans-Pacific flights were always on the old 747’s (like the one we would not enjoy on our return trip through DTW). In comparison the 777 looked nicer inside and featured a personal TV screen in every seat. But I thought the seats were a bit harder than the old 747’s. I couldn’t help looking forward in envy of the business class travelers in their huge lie-flat seats with thick quilted blankets and a full-size pillow. Meanwhile we are all crammed like cattle and I am using my pathetic blanket and pillow to support my back and my butt on these damn rock-hard seats. As usual I picked an aisle seat so I can easily get up when I want to. My wife sat in the middle and a rather tall gentleman, who was a really nice guy, sat by the window. My wife and I each brought noise-canceling headphones to drown out the steady roar of the engines. Those things are essential for long-haul flights. I was looking forward to watching all the movies I loaded up on my laptop, but unfortunately the power plug under the seat would not work. Oh well, at least we had a decent selection of movies and TV shows on the on-demand system. I watched 3-4 movies but for the life of me I can’t remember them all now. The entire flight seems like a blur. I never can sleep on any flight which makes it extremely tiring and explains why I can’t remember much. What I do remember is looking at my watch frequently (perhaps too frequently) and staring in disbelief at how little time had passed since the last time I looked. We both drank lots of water, quickly depleting the 6 bottles we had brought with us. Dehydration is always a problem on these long flights and we could never seem to get enough water. As far as the food goes, it was OK but nothing fancy. More like the average frozen TV dinner you buy at the supermarket (and not the good ones either!). Time kept moving slowly, we kept asking for more water, and we got more exhausted as the flight went on. Occasionally we would stand up by the galley for a while, stretching our legs and trying to keep our moods up. We talked about how we would most likely fly to the west coast on our next Taiwan vacation before making the flight to Taiwan. It helps to break it up into shorter segments. Sitting on this plane for a solid 14-15 hours is almost more than we can take! The last part of our flight as we got close to Japan was rather bumpy and did not help us feel any better. We safely landed in Narita pretty much on time as the sun was about to set – which seemed pretty early for 4PM in the afternoon. Now we needed to get through the Narita security before doing anything else at the airport. Why we need another security screening, after going through a more exhaustive examination in the USA, is beyond me. A waste of time in my opinion but at least they are quick and efficient at it. No removing of the shoes here, expect for my wife who had a little too much metal decoration on her boots. We gathered our stuff on the other side of security and made our way into the terminal, first in search of a toilet then in search of the Skyclub. We had a couple of hours to kill again and I couldn’t wait to see the NRT Skyclub which I had heard so many good things about. My overall impression of the airport was not great as we walked through the terminal. It looked old, tired and outdated. The bathrooms were not in great shape with lot of broken parts here and there and dingy tile that looked 30 years old (and very well could have been!). This is the main Japan hub for international travel? When we finally discovered the Skyclub location we were pleasantly surprised. It was large, clean, and comfortable. The food selection was not bad and there was a decent choice of drinks, even self-serve beer machines! I want one of those at home! But sadly I didn’t partake of the beer because I think it would have made me feel worse at that point. I went straight for the coffee in a vain attempt at waking myself up. Didn’t help much, but at least I was comfortable for a short time in the cushy chairs while browsing the internet (checking Facebook of course). I wish I would have taken some photos but I just did not have the energy to mess with it. When it got close to boarding time we repeated the same process as Atlanta. This time my wife got snagged for a security check on the walkway to the aircraft. This was something I have never seen before and yet again seemed like a silly waste of time. I was worried about overhead bin space so I grabbed her roller bag and went on to our seats. Getting that bag into the small bins of this ancient 757 was a challenge. I managed to cram it in sideways and the girl already seated in our row was nice enough to move her bag back so I could fit my backpack up there. My wife eventually joined me a few minutes later and we wedged ourselves in another uncomfortable aircraft. Leaving NRT seemed to take forever. We taxied for at least 30 minutes while my wife was in dire need of using the lav. After takeoff the wait was too much to bear for her and she got up long before the seat belt sign was turned off. When you gotta go you gotta go! The flight to Taiwan was rough, adding nausea to our exhaustion. I couldn’t even think about eating the meal they served. We made it to the gate slightly early but still at a late hour of nearly 10PM. With a little second wind of energy we sped through customs and out to the arrivals area. Now we faced the challenge of contacting the rental car company. We had no phone (I brought my GSM-capable phone but we needed to buy a SIM card first) and no Taiwan money for the pay phones. My wife went over to a little shop and bought a couple of drinks so we could have some coins for the phone. While she called I stood by our luggage fending off half a dozen cab drivers who wanted our business. We got our directions where to wait for them and proceeded outside the terminal and across to an island in the middle of the roads in the cool and wet night. It felt good to be outside, even if we were surrounded by a chaos of cars, taxis, and shuttle buses. Our rental company van eventually arrived and we were told we had too much luggage to fit in one van. They suggested I go first and my wife follow on the next van. She was not too pleased with this arrangement but reluctantly agreed. The trip to the rental car office seemed like a crazy maze of incomprehensible logic. I remember at first we made a big loop around to the left and drove right by the very place we were just standing, but from the back side. All that way to go around just to make a right turn! Great planning there. I was dropped off at the office along a dark, dingy road and stood there feeling a bit lost and disoriented. A couple more vans came in but still no sign of my wife. After what seemed like an hour, but was really only about 20 minutes, my wife arrived and stepped out of the van looking a little displeased. I found out later that the van had nearly passed her by and she yelled out some obscenities before another company’s driver assisted and got the van to stop (kudos to that guy!). After a few minutes our Nissan Livina arrived and we were ready to officially begin our vacation in Taiwan. We liked this car from the beginning, with ample space for all of our luggage. It was a little hard to get used to at first and being so late and dark it did not help us to locate all of the controls. We cautiously made our way out to freeway #2 and immediately got a strong dose of Taiwanese driving. Cars flew by us on both sides and, as we merged onto the freeway, they even came by on the right side long after the lane ended. We made it to Jhongli where we had a room reserved at the Chinatrust Hotel. Once we got into Jhongli my wife’s memory kicked in and she knew her way around. We arrived at Chinatrust close to midnight and parked in the sidewalk/courtyard area right in front of the building (with their permission of course). Once we made it to our room we were tired but strangely not ready for sleep. We were hungry and decided to venture out and see what we could find. One thing I love about Taiwan is always being able to find some street food when you are out late at night. We found a corner shop serving a variety of soups, noodles, and dumplings. That really hit the spot! Later we walked down to a nearby night market and everyone was closing up shop already. Too bad, back to the hotel! We hit the bed very late and managed a few hours sleep before another day would begin.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Our Taiwan Vacation - Departure Day

We arrived at the airport in Atlanta very early to beat the morning traffic. I’d much rather relax at the airport, even if it’s for 2-3 hours, than sit in rush hour traffic and worry about making our flight on time. And, being so close to Christmas I fully expected a huge amount of people flying today as well. We parked off-site to save some money and rode the shuttle bus in to the terminal. As we made our way into the terminal our bags were already starting to feel a little heavier. We each had a large rolling duffel packed to the limit (just shy of 50 lbs. each). And we each had slightly smaller duffel bags which were also stuffed to the breaking point but fortunately much less than 50 lbs. For carry-on luggage I had my Tamrac Expedition backpack for all my camera stuff and a messenger bag my dear wife made for me. She carried the ubiquitous black rolling carry-on bag as well as a matching messenger bag (with a little more girly flair of course!). Overall we were each loaded down with nearly our own body weight in luggage! As I write this in hindsight now I know that I will never, ever pack so much stuff again.
As we entered the terminal (sometime between 6-7AM, I can’t remember now) there was already long lines of travelers queuing up at the various check-in lines and baggage drop off line. Since we had used online check-in we headed straight for the nearest baggage drop-off only to be told to go to another area all the way at the end. The long line moved fairly quickly and in about 20 minutes we were finally free of our heavy bags, for now at least. We made our way through security, which was quick and painless as it often seems to be at Atlanta, and took the underground train out to the international terminal. The international terminal at Atlanta has, in my opinion, the best selection of food anywhere in the airport. But with all those choices we always seem to end up at McDonald's! Today was no different, and it seemed to be the popular choice as there were several long lines of people waiting for their greasy breakfast too. We sat in the food court and enjoyed our high-calorie high-fat breakfast while sipping on piping-hot coffee (McDonald’s coffee is one of our favorites). After we finished our breakfast I decided to make a quick visit to our gate to make sure we had an aircraft sitting there. It was, so now I could really relax. At the same time I looked out the large windows and noticed it was getting close to sunrise and our gate was facing directly east. With the sun rising further to the south this time of year I could see it would come up right under incoming flights. Sounds like a prime photo opportunity! I rushed back to the food court to get my wife and my gear and headed back to the gate. I snapped off several photos of the rising deep-orange sun while trying to get the timing right with the incoming flights. I had to keep the lens hood against the glass to avoid reflections. I got a few decent shots before the sun starting getting too bright.
At this point we still had a couple of hours to kill and fortunately we each had one-day Delta Skyclub passes courtesy of our bank, Suntrust. We had previously signed up for their Skymiles debit card and were each given a one-day pass as a thank you. There are two Skyclubs in Terminal E, one small club open in the morning and a much larger club than opens later in the day. We headed over to the smaller club and first verified that we could use our passes on our connection in Narita, Japan. They said we could and we proceeded to spend the next 90 minutes or so enjoying free wireless internet and free drinks & snacks. I wish we could always enjoy this privilege but I doubt we will ever get the opportunity on future trips. The time went rather quickly and before we knew it, it was time to begin boarding. Boarding a flight is always a fun social observation for me. You always have the people with status at Delta standing right up front long before the flight begins boarding (called “gate lice” on a certain discussion board). They are easily spotted usually wearing a sport-jacket, holding their roller bag with their proud Delta tags attached while talking loudly in their cell phone. The rest of us common folk queue up in the area near the gate, all taking small steps forward as they progress through the boarding sequence. Usually by the time they call our zone I have already quietly & stealthily made my up towards the front. Overhead bin space never seems like enough so it always helps to get to the seats as soon as possible. We took our seats on the 777 and prepared ourselves for the long journey to Japan.