Sunday, September 4, 2011

Turning Taiwanese: January to June 2011

Our return to Taiwan brought us back again to the frantic pace of life we had become accustomed to during the past several months, but had forgotten about while enjoying the slower pace of life over the Christmas holiday.  We were immediately thrown back into our roles and teachers, coaches, and colleagues - not to mention still newly arrived foreigners living in a still somewhat mind-boggling atmosphere.  As we began to catch our stride we realized how much we had needed our short interlude over Christmas; the rest we got over the last two weeks of 2010 would have to sustain us over the first two months of 2011.  Basketball, traveling, conferences, a soccer tournament, a Master's class, a Kinzer family visit would all have to fit on top of our already busy 'regular' schedule of things to do.

KAS basketball teams in Beijing - outside the Forbidden City

January can be summed up by "Basketball".  Dan's Varsity team had to focus it's preparation for their big tournaments at the end of the month - first in Beijing, and then in Seoul.  They had Saturday tournaments the first two weekends  after Christmas break (one of which was Erin's birthday, and a visit from one of Erin's former Swedish teammates - Lotta, and her boyfriend, Fredrik), and then they were off to Beijing.  The teams played very well in Beijing, and enjoyed making new friends with student-athletes from other schools in China even if they didn't quite like the freezing cold temperatures.  We also got to experience the Beijing subway and made our way down to Tiananmen Square to explain, experience, and contemplate the past, present, and future importance of the place.  We only had a couple of hours but we took a quick photo with Mao and then made our way into the Forbidden City to marvel at the grandeur of the ancient Chinese empires.

It felt as though we had just found our way back out of the Forbidden City when we set off to South Korea with another pair of basketball teams.  With only one day back in Taiwan between trips it felt as though we were just visitors to our own home and classrooms.  Nevertheless, we were excited to experience Seoul and compete in another tournament.  We were also happy to find out that, unlike Shanghai and Beijing, the student-athletes would get to participate in a homestay with players from Korea International School - the host of the tournament.  This adds another dimension to the experience for the players, and it was fun to listen to them describe the food they ate, the personalities they encountered, and the different culture they were able to observe from the inside. A couple of logistical hitches at the last minute kept a few players from traveling, and as the plane approached Incheon International Airport outside of Seoul we were amazed to see a sea of white - Korea was covered in snow!  All we could do was shrug our shoulders and laugh - just another 'added dimension'.  The boys and girls faced tough competition on the courts in Korea, but fought hard and earned the respect of their friends and fellow competitors, and the Sportsmanship Award.  We try to remind ourselves, and our players, that playing your best and giving all that you have, is the only thing you can do.  We were proud of our players for living this out over our weekend in Seoul.  As always, the team travel experience has such a positive impact on the players (and the coaches) and it's a real joy to be able to watch (and experience) their growth first-hand.  Coaching, more than teaching, demands a greater commitment to the relationship between leader and follower.  Even though most people argue that academics are 'more important' than athletics I sometimes think the reverse is true - success in life depends upon pursuing common goals with an intensity and trust that is very difficult to achieve in the context of a classroom, but comes much more naturally within the dynamics of a team.  As a teacher it can be a struggle to get to know all of our students.  We often have more than 100 of them, and get very little focused time with each one.  As a coach, we have the privilege of a lot of focused time with each player and by the end of a season we really get to know each other well.  Perhaps this is just cause to reconsider the way we teach young people (we would argue it is), but if not, it at least provides a good reason to value the lessons taking place on the courts and the playing fields - these are the lessons that will often matter most.

Vulcan Mayon - Philippines

February brought in another New Year Chinese New Year, and our time off school gave us the chance to travel to the island of Palawan in the southwest Philippines.  It's a beautiful and wild place, and we spent most of our time in Bacuit Bay, just off shore of the town of El Nido, exploring the hundreds of islands and wiling the day away sea kayaking and scuba diving.  The place we stayed, El Nido Resort, was posh and a bit extravagant but we decided that for a short stay and a much needed vacation we didn't want to spend our time, as we often do while traveling, trying to figure out logistics.  So everything was taken care of for us - in fact, Dan was even able to Skype with his good friend and photographer, JB, in order to work out the details of an upcoming class session and project with his Humanities students.  It's amazing to think that we can now see the person we're talking with when they're in New York City and we are on some remote beach a short flight and long boat ride away from any significant civilization.  Needless to say, we fell in love with Palawan, and the Philippines: from the intrigue and natural beauty of Bacuit Bay, to the world's longest navigable underground river, to the friendliness of strangers - this incredible nation made of up thousands of islands captivated our spirits of adventure and love of nature.  We knew we would be back.  We didn't quite realize that we would read about the quiet little village of Donsol on our way back home, and decide to make our way back to the Philippines later in the same month for a 3 day weekend filled with chasing whale sharks, scuba diving, admiring volcanoes, and playing a little street ball with the village kids.  In between we moved from coaching basketball to soccer, and enjoyed the festive Kaohsiung Lantern Festival that kicks off every Chinese New Year.  Fireworks over Love River, good street food, and rabbit-themed lanterns everywhere - Happy Year of the Rabbit!

Dan (and Erin, the photographer) scuba-diving in the Philippines

Like January and February, March would also prove to be a busy month - filled with lots of work and play.  In the middle of the month, during Tim's spring break from USC, the California Kinzers made a trip to Taiwan.  During their first weekend Dan took them down to Jialeshuei to catch a few waves and admire the beautiful southeastern coast scenery, and get a whiff of chou dofu, or stinky tofu, at the Kenting Night Market.  Erin tried the stuff back when she was in Taiwan for the Deaflympics, but Dan still hasn't tried it, and couldn't even get his family to believe that smell was coming from something you are supposed to eat.  Erin was in Shanghai for the first part of the weekend for a meeting of Athletic Directors from all over China, but arrived back in Kaohsiung on Sunday so we could share a meal with the family before sending them off.  Dad made it back to Taipei the following weekend, after a few work days in Korea, and we went up to meet him to hang out in Taiwan's biggest and most well known city.  We spent the days wandering the streets and visiting the major memorials and museums, as well as the zoo.  In Dan's five years in Pensacola, Florida his family only came to visit one time - for the wedding.  In our two years in Curacao they made one trip to celebrate Christmas and New Years.  In just our first year in Taiwan, the whole family has already come once, and we've gotten to spend time with Papa Kinzer four different times.  Maybe we just needed to move to the other side of the world to get more frequent visitors.  After the Kinzers left we had some work to tidy up before leaving for Spring Break, which would be filled with work and play in both Malaysia and Bali, Indonesia.  First, we were off to Kota Kinabalu again for an East Asian Regional Council of Overseas Schools (or EARCOS) Teacher's Conference.  It was a fantastic professional experience as Dan was inspired by, and connected with, some incredible educators - some well known, and some soon-to-be well known.  His favorites from the Conference were Carl Hobart, of Axis of Hope and Boston University (; Geoff Green, of Students on Ice (; and Michael Thompson, co-author of Raising Cain and an expert on the educational challenges and potential of boys.  Like Dr. Zhao, from the Conference during the first semester, these three educators are changing the face and heart of education and Dan was thrilled to begin developing a working relationship with all three.  Besides being a wonderful professional experience it doesn't hurt that the conference is hosted in one of Malaysian Borneo's most luxurious hotels, and we both enjoyed the fantastic scenery and interesting culture of Kota Kinabalu before heading off to Bali.

The Year of the Rabbit - Kaohsiung Lantern Festival

Bali was a dream come true.  Despite having too many people living on too small of an island, the culture and energy of the place make it a true tropical paradise.  We spent our first few days relaxing, surfing, and wandering around the Bukit Peninsula, a region of Bali renowned for it's epic surf spots (Uluwatu, Padang Padang), it's beautiful temples, the laid back vibe, and where the beach scene in Eat, Pray, Love was filmed.  We both caught some great waves and enjoyed the quality time together.  After a few days of surfing and relaxing we made our way by boat towards the island of Lombok.  Like most of Indonesia, but unlike Bali - which has retained it's largely Hindu identity, the people of Lombok are predominantly Muslim.  Other than the Maldives we haven't spent much time inside the Muslim culture, and while we look forward to traveling to Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia in the future, we were excited to get a glimpse at Indonesia's muslim identity.  It didn't actually work out too well: we had chosen to spend our time on the small island of Gili Trawangan, or Gili T as it's affectionately known, to do some diving and experience the culture.  The culture was more of an ex-pat diving community filled with mostly European tourists and a few guys from Lombok who had discovered an opportunity to make decent money selling weed to these tourists.  We politely declined on the marijuana and made our way down the single dirt road to the small dive shop and hostel where we had booked a room for our two nights there.  Despite not being surrounded by the culture and community we sort of expected the few days we spent on the island were wonderful: fantastic diving and even a decent right-hander peeling off the reef on the southern point.  After a few more waves, and some world-class diving, we made our way back across the straits to Bali and on to Ubud - the cultural heart of Bali.  We had two days left to enjoy traditional Balinese dance and craftsmanship, and just enough time to squeeze in a little bit of work and adventure as well.  We made our way to visit Bali Green School (, an inspiring initiative to build a school that not only teaches, but models, sustainability and an environmental conscience, as the main piece of its curriculum.  The school is growing and flourishing, and after speaking with the founder, John Hardy, as well as some of the students and employees at the school, we were convinced that the school will ultimately push the Bali and global communities towards a better way to educate young people.  We also got to bicycle through some charming villages and serene rice fields, enjoy some close encounters with the Asian elephants at Bali Elephant Park, and paddle hard down one of Bali's few rivers open for white-water rafting.  It wasn't even one day out of Bali that we were already itching to go back.

A day of mountain-biking, white-water rafting, and riding elephants in Bali

Actually, it was only one day out of Bali and Dan did have to go back … well, sort of - to Indonesia anyway.  The Global Issues Network students that Dan advises at KAS were attending their regional Conference at Jakarta International School.  The Conference lasted four days and while the students shared their thoughts and action plans for solving some of the world's most daunting challenges, Dan was able to network with other educators from around Asia with a similar vision for education.  All of us were inspired by the keynote speakers, and the students' and teachers' energy in working together to make our world 'suck less' - as one of the less eloquent young minds phrased it.  While Dan was being inspired in Jakarta, Erin was back in Kaohsiung busily dealing with the final preparations for the soccer tournament that KAS was hosting.  Ten teams from all over China were making their way to Kaohsiung for a weekend tournament in mid-April.  This was KAS' and Erin's first experience hosting a major tournament, but with the help of the KAS community - teachers, students, and parents - Erin pulled off an incredible event.  The kids were healthy and competed hard under the already hot sun of southern Taiwan.  While it was a relief to have the tournament come to a close she also felt a great sense of well-deserved accomplishment.

Fire Dance in Bali

The rest of April seemed to be the beginning of the end of the school year.  We began to prepare for final exams and work with our students on their final projects.  Dan celebrated his birthday with his good friend, and new college James, as well as Papa Kinz - who made one more trip to Taiwan to bring in the Big Day with Dan by climbing one of Taiwan's tallest mountains.  It was no easy climb, but it was exactly the kind of birthday celebration that Dan hopes for.  Once April was over it really was "down hill."  Middle School basketball and high school soccer and volleyball tournaments kept us busy, but having fun, during the first two weekends, and after that both of us were working hard to meet all of the requirements of the end of the year and prepare for our summer travels, work, and study.  Of course, we also had our end of the year party for school and several invitations for lunch/dinner before many of us parted ways for at least the summer (sometimes indefinitely).  We got all of our work and preparations in order and managed to sneak away for a weekend to celebrate our 3rd Anniversary.  Courtesy of Typhoon Songda, our Anniversary getaway happened to coincide with 15-20 foot swell on the east coast of Taiwan.  The swell began to dwindle as the weekend faded away, but Dan was still racing down the faces of a near-perfect overhead left-hander well into Sunday afternoon. In only the most wonderful way, it is hard to believe that it has only been three short years.  We have grown so much together while we worked, played, and explored alongside each other.  There have been so many people, and so many places, in our first three years of marriage that have helped to shape and define who we are, and pushed us to discover what we want our life together to be about.  From our old friends, to our family, to our students and student-athletes, to the numerous colleagues we've had the privilege of working with over the past several years, to the travel companions and gracious hosts that we've met on each of our adventures - these people, and the places in which we've shared our company, are helping us become who we are, and want to be: adventure, compassion, generosity, humility, love, insight, innovation, exploration.  What will today add to our lives, and how about tomorrow?

A romantic dinner in the Gili Islands off the coast of Bali

As could be predicted, our last week in Taiwan was a bit frantic.  Dinner dates, and lots of hours up at school - packing up classrooms and organizing for next year; Dan had a meeting with a group of young and energetic students from around Kaohsiung who are helping to coordinate the first ever TEDxKaohsiung, of which Dan is the main organizer.  This is an exciting opportunity that Dan hopes will help him dive deeper into the Kaohsiung community, and build a bridge between the large number of expats and local Taiwanese living in Kaohsiung.  Other new partnerships and potential projects in Taiwan have us both excited to return in August, despite being overwhelmed at the enormity of our voyages between now and then.  "Between now and then" - finding that balance between cherishing the present moment, and anticipating the future possibilities - is perhaps what this summer will be about.  There is so much to be happy for now today, and there will be so much to be happy for tomorrow.  We hope you've enjoyed the stories from some of our yesterdays, and that you too will discover the joy of your present moments and future possibilities.  For now, our possibilities reside at the beginning of our summer voyage - here we come Beijing.

 The Temple of Heaven - Beijing

Turning Taiwanese: July to December 2010

What better time and place than to sit back and contemplate the last year of life than together, amongst new Russian friends, somewhere near the border of Europe and Asia riding the rails along the famed Trans-Siberian bound for Moscow (and then on to St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Brussels, Lisbon, Madrid, and Ireland)?  A ride in the plastkart, or 3rd class train car, for three days across the beautiful and boundless Russian landscape has a way of putting life into perspective and pulling on the thoughts and insights that have buried themselves in the hectic pace of our personal and professional pursuits - or maybe it is just making us crazy.  I find myself wondering if it had a similar effect on the countless Russians exiled to this part of the world during harsher times.  The two of us certainly long to venture out from the tracks, and escape the train for a few days at each brief stop along the way, but we know this time of reading, reflection, and introspection is what we really need (and we don't have the time this go around).

Boarding the train in Mongolia

So here it goes: while our bodies journey across the plains of Russia and over the Urals into Europe (for Dan's first visit to the continent and Erin's first time back in over 10 years) and we're tempted to ponder the rich, varied, and sometimes brutal culture and history of this part of the world we will instead go back to a different time and place - nearly one year ago as we began making our lives in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.  Perhaps the context of our travels will uncover some hidden insights, and if we're lucky, reveal more to us about the world and our place in it than we have even anticipated.

An unusually clear day on the Great Wall of China

SIDENOTE: Before going any further: if you're one of those who prefers pictures to words, we have included many new photo albums from our lives in Taiwan and various trips around Asia on the right side of the blog, and we have frequently updated Facebook with pictures as well.  A good photograph is often worth far more than a thousand words, so please feel free to skip the rambling below and enjoy a more visual story-telling.  If you can tolerate it, continue on, and hopefully you'll discover something of yourself in the stories of our lives and adventures of the past year.  We've included some of our favorite and most vivid photos in this post, but it only scratches the surface of what we have seen through our camera lens, not to mention through our own eyes.  Please share your own stories and questions as you like - we love to hear of others' escapades as much as we enjoy our own.

Our new home - Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Exploring Kaohsiung and discovering Ilha Formosa, as Taiwan was called by early Portuguese traders, has been an incredible blessing for the both of us.  When we arrived to our new home at the end of July last year we knew we were in for a completely fresh and foreign experience, but we had no idea how challenging and inspiring living on the other side of the planet would be.   Both personally and professionally, life in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and East Asia has forced us to reconsider our views and values and broadened our scope of possibilities.  Nearly every day feels like a tremendous learning experience - a session in ethnography, language, balance, culture, city planning, nature, spirituality, negotiation, history, politics, globalization, partnership, psychology … the list goes on.  As always, it is an incredible journey that the two of us get to take together, and we're glad to be able to share it.

A popular park near our apartment building

Our initiation to life in Kaohsiung was a bit frantic.  We arrived late in the evening with many of the other new teachers (a few of which shared our flight across the Pacific) and were taken to our apartments.  Over the next couple of weeks our primary focus was adjusting to the demands of a new job at a new school, getting to know our colleagues, and acquainting ourselves with the city we now called home.  It was intensely hot, but the blue skies of August we were told would give way to gray, polluted skies for most of the school year - so we should enjoy it while it lasted.  Kaohsiung American School, or KAS, has a short twenty year history where it has grown from a small kindergarten class in the basement of the county hospital to a school of over 400 students in kindergarten through grade 12.  The last few years have seen a significant amount of growth in terms of size and reputation of the school.  Its current location is an older facility that we are beginning to renovate to meet the needs of our growing school community, and it sits in an intriguing, historical section of Kaohsiung that constantly makes us laugh, stare, and wonder.  Very nearby we can walk around Lotus Lake where you can wander up and down the famous Dragon and Tiger pagodas, visit the Confucius temple, or give wired wake-boarding a try.  No matter where you are in the city you've got to keep an eye out as thousands of scooters zip in and out of traffic and onto the sidewalks.   Tea shops and food stalls line the streets, and we quickly honed in on our favorite offerings - pu tao you lu cha and guo tie or grapefruit green tea and fried dumplings.   Kaohsiung also has many parks and a couple of beautiful natural landscapes.  The main one is Monkey Mountain where we could retreat from the hectic pace of city life and escape into a forest filled with wild macaque monkeys.  Kaohsiung is also Taiwan's largest port, and one of the biggest and most important in East Asia.  Taiwan is well known as a manufacturing hub, especially for electronics - hence, the "Made in Taiwan" that appears on so many cell phones, computers, etc. - and the various products made here are sent out to the rest of the world via the enormous quantity of container ships that move through Kaohsiung on a daily basis.  We quickly found that the best views of the harbor comes from either the viewing deck of Kaohsiung 85 - the tallest skyscraper in the city; second tallest in Taiwan after Taipei 101 (formerly the tallest in the world), and once one of the tallest in the world itself; from the short ferry boat ride across to Cijin Island - a stronghold of the local, fisherman culture that has existed in this part of Taiwan for a long time; or from the Lighthouse atop the hill at the entrance to the harbor.  The city is bisected by the Love River, which is lined on both sides with a bicycle path and wonderful walking parks that we hope to take more advantage of next year as we will certainly fall deeper in love with our new home - from the school (both the place and the people), our apartment, the city, and our beautiful island.  We're thrilled to dive more fully into life here - exploring and involving ourselves even more in the community and it's fascinating history and potential - and continuing to build our 'home' together.

The Dragon and Tiger Pagodas at Lotus Pond - a few blocks from our school

As time moved on, and we began to know our new home and neighbors more intimately, we inevitably came across the things we would/could do without.  Most are minor annoyances, and as we've written about before, actually become some of the reasons we have for loving the place and the people that are now part of our idea of home.  We can look at the pollution, the 'crazy' scooter drivers, the noisy streets, the stray dogs - we can stare back with a smile at the locals - and we can love Kaohsiung even more.  We're trying to become thankful for it's imperfections, and our own - discovering new possibilities and opportunities in all of them.  As time moved on we began to settle in, find our routines (going to our gym, bowling with colleagues, our favorite restaurants and food stalls, Chinese lessons on Thursday afternoons) and also found ourselves with more opportunities to explore beyond the boundaries of KAS and Kaohsiung, and venture out to other parts of our 'beautiful island' and East Asia where we found even more beauty, adventure, and a break from the routines we had so recently created for ourselves.

Kung Fu Dan and Jacky Chan at Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong

One of the first breaks in our routine, and an opportunity to venture outside of Kaohsiung, was a surf trip to the south east corner of Taiwan.  Of course, Dan had done his research and made sure there were waves in Taiwan before agreeing to move there, but the first trip to the small beach town of Jialeshuei exceeded all expectations.  To top it off, he found out that great surf he found there was pretty common, and that further north he could find even better surf.  August of course, is right at the peak of typhoon season and Dan had several opportunities to surf the breaks on both the east and west coasts of southern Taiwan.  Incredible beaches and good, consistent surf weren't the only attractions calling us from beyond Taiwan.  A short drive outside of the city are some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes in the world, and we made our first exploratory visit when Papa Kinzer came for a short weekend visit in the middle of an Asian business trip.  We discovered that the same typhoons that bring so much joy to Dan, and other surfers, often ravage the interior of the island and the small indigenous populations that live there.  We scrambled over a washed out bridge and enjoyed a hike up a mountain stream, but left unsatisfied - with a longing to return and go deeper into the mountains of Taiwan.  We did make it back to the beaches and fell in love with the rugged east coast, where Dan not only found the great surf he was promised (especially in his latest typhoon surfing adventure at the end of May), but a thriving surf community made up of expats and locals alike.  We also made our way to, and through, Taroko Gorge, an incredible marbled canyon running from the east coast and up to the central mountain spine - it would have been nice to enjoy the scenery a bit more but time was short and we were really there to join a few of our colleagues in running the half-marathon.  Erin, as always, performed very well while Dan was happy eating his gummy bears and bringing up the rear.  We spent Thanksgiving thankful to be in the company of wonderful new friends in the high mountains of central Taiwan, and amazed at the number of meaningful relationships we had already developed since arriving in July.  Dan also found a way to get more involved in the Taiwanese community - through one of his favorite mediums, TED (; TEDxTaipei is a young and flourishing organization that hosts multiple events each year, and Dan was able to get a few of his students into the TEDxYouthTaipei event to be inspired.  Beyond the details of our lives in Taiwan we think there are many lessons - some new and original, others timeless and worth repeating.  The creativity and spontaneity of adventure and the significance of the concept of 'home' … the importance of a balance between a routine, and breaking the routine … the incredible beauty that is revealed unexpectedly when you step off the beaten path.  Life in Taiwan is rich - rich in culture, natural beauty, international flavor, adventure, and an ancient spirit - and rich in lessons about ourselves and our place in the world.

Sunset over Malaysia Borneo

Even in the midst of discovering Taiwan, and appreciating the lessons of our new lives there, our love of travel, and growing responsibilities at work, took us off the island three times between our arrival in July and our departure for the United States over the Christmas holiday in December.  Travel has lessons of it's own, and the context of being in some place new, as a guest, and for a short amount of time gives a different perspective than the one we were acquiring as residents of Taiwan.  And yet, while travel connects us physically to different parts of the world it also connects us conceptually.  We cannot help but compare our destinations to home, and seek out the patterns and elements that unite and distinguish different places and people.  Two of our trips were work related.  First, in mid-October, Dan travelled to Shanghai, China with the boys volleyball team for their tournament and visited the Bund and the World Expo during it's final week there.  The boys and girls teams came back to Taiwan with 3rd place finishes after competing very hard and having legitimate chances at the championship, but far more importantly they were able to learn important lessons that only team sports and travel can teach.  It's always a joy to watch teams bond and work out problems with increasing mutual respect, and become more 'grown up' as they're forced to take more responsibility for themselves.  It's also a pleasure to take students on their first somewhat independent adventure through a foreign city - working our way through the subway system, finding our way through the city streets, marveling at the differences and the similarities between the new sights and the ones they are so familiar with back home.  Coaching and traveling with the teams is one of our favorite aspects of our new jobs in Taiwan - familiar to us in so many ways, but opening our minds in so many others.  Second, at the end of October, we both travelled to Malaysian Borneo and the city of Kota Kinabalu.  Erin was there for an Athletic Director's Conference and Dan just wanted to tag along, but they found themselves with some time to get away and squeeze some play into Erin's work schedule.  Their were two major highlights of the trip, which was fantastic even if it was far too short: the first was the day spent in eastern Borneo visiting the Orangutan and Probiscus Monkey sanctuaries and the second was listening to and getting to know Dr. Yong Zhao (, a University of Oregon professor and dean of education who resonates with our own philosophies and ideas surrounding the future of learning and schools.  Our other trip was pure enjoyment: early October had brought Papa Kinzer back to Asia, and this time to Hong Kong - so we hopped a short one hour flight across the Taiwan Strait and joined dad for a weekend outing in Asia's answer to Sydney, San Francisco, New York, and London all rolled into one.  Wandering around by foot, taxi, ferry, and train pondering the urban density of this unique international city forced us to consider the future and ask ourselves, "Is this the future you've chosen for yourselves?"  As a growing percentage of the world's growing population moves to major cities around the planet, and especially in East Asia, we have to wonder if this is the best design for human communities.  We are both biased towards beautiful natural landscapes and uncrowded, open spaces - but even we can't escape the powerful pull and intense energy of the world's most sophisticated and dynamic cities.  In spite of these questions running through our heads, ultimately the weekend was about another opportunity to enjoy some time with Papa Kinzer.  It is such an incredible miracle of the times that we can not only move to the literal 'other side of the world' but enjoy the company of family and friends; whether walking through remote river canyons or the city streets of Hong Kong or Taipei - sharing waves in southern Taiwan or beers in SoHo, Hong Kong - we cherish time with family and friends anywhere in the world.

Monkey sanctuary in Malaysia

Time with family in friends anywhere in the world is great, but nothing is the same as a trip back to our childhood homes.  El Segundo for Dan, Pensacola for Erin - these places, and the people that live there, saw us grow up … no, they were the places and people that grew us up … before we ventured out to discover what more we had inside and what else the world had to offer.  It is wonderful to meet family in Hong Kong for the weekend, or have friends from around the world visit us in Taiwan, but it is as wonderful to be able to return back to our childhood homes to celebrate family, and with family, during the Holiday season.  We left Taiwan at the end of our first exciting and exhausting semester to spend two weeks in both Los Angeles and Pensacola.  It had just started to cool down a little bit in Kaohsiung, and those gray skies we were promised when we arrived had made more frequent appearances (but not nearly as frequent as they had made us think they would).  We were ready for a chance to step away from our lives in Taiwan, and back into the comfort and ease of life back in the U.S. for a couple of weeks.  We flew to Los Angeles for a few days and enjoyed time with family and friends.  Dan's grandmother, with whom he was very close, passed away while we were in Taiwan and it was a blessing to reunite with that side of the family to celebrate her life and one another.  From Los Angeles we moved on to Pensacola, and brought Dad, Mom, and Tim Kinzer along for a Christmas in Florida.  Pensacola could have given us a warmer welcome but it stayed quite cold the week that we were there.  Regardless of the weather it was fun showing the California family some good ole' Southern Hospitality and having both of our families together to celebrate.   Day trips to Destin and through South Alabama, bowling, Pensacola sight-seeing, and a get together for wings and beer at Kooter Brown's kept us busy when we weren't enjoying Momma Hirsh's delicious Christmas dinner, wine and good cigars with friends on Papa Hirsh's back patio, or unwrapping presents together.  It was Christmas just as it should be - sharing time together with the ones we love the most.

 A November trip with friends to Green Island off the coast of Taiwan

As 2010 came to a close, and the California Kinzers made their way back home, the two of us jumped in our rental car and made our way north to Atlanta, Georgia to celebrate the New Year with our wonderful friends, Jennifer and Scott/Mandy and Seth and their beautiful families.  It was a relaxing couple of days spent playing with the kids and catching up.  We were also lucky enough to get some time with another Atlanta friend, one of Erin's close friends from college days, Elizabeth.  To top off an already perfect couple of days of cherished time with friends, Mandy and Seth had gotten us 2 extra tickets with them and Mandy's parents to the Chik-Fil-A Bowl in the Georgia Dome, where we watched as cows fell from the ceiling and Mandy's alma mater, Florida State, defeated the University of South Carolina.  It was an exciting game and a wonderful evening - and a perfect way to finish off an unbelievably blessed 2010 and ring in an incredibly promising 2011.  It once again reminded us of how outrageously lucky we are to spend so much of our time visiting dozens of new countries and exotic destinations while making friends across the globe - truly exploring the world and the inspiring beauty and diversity it has on offer; and yet still be able to return to our roots - the friends and family we've always had, and the people and places who know us best.

The beautiful beach where Erin grew up - Pensacola, FL

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Listening to the Lessons from a Summer in South Africa (and a few other places)

With the swarming vuvuzelas still ringing in our ears, it is time to sit down and reflect on our summer experience. Taiwan is fast approaching (we'll land in our new home in one week - now, we're already here (because it has taken me over a month to finish this post) and memories of Curacao are already being overtaken by the excitement of South Africa and the anticipation of the coming culture shock (yes, it has been shocking). The questions are the same at the end of every summer: how have we grown; how have we changed; what fresh new perspective can we take with us into the coming school year; when is Dan going to shave that beard? (The answer to the last question is 'when you least expect it.')

Along the right hand side of the blog you'll find our series of slideshows from all of our travels since getting married two and a half years ago. The slideshow from South Africa is at the top of that series. We hope you enjoy those photographs and can begin to unravel our visual experience for yourselves. You can also check in with us on Facebook for even more pictures, or on YouTube for a few videos; and I'll be sure to include a few of our favorites here in this post. This post, however, will be about the lessons we learned and the teachers who taught them to us. Our adventures this summer were some of the most exciting and dramatic of our lives.  Through sharing our most memorable experiences we hope to shed some light on what we feel are the most valuable insights we'll be taking with us into our new lives in Taiwan and beyond. As one of our inspirations, Gandhi, said, "My life is my message" and we hope by sharing our lives we are also able to share our message.

Lesson #1: Saying "Good-bye" OR Leaving a Place Better Than You Found It OR Being in Love

Curacao will forever hold a special place in our hearts.  When we arrived on the incredibly small Dutch island two years ago we didn't know what to expect.  I had hardly heard of the place before we accepted the positions to work there. In the midst of wedding preparations, Nicaraguan adventures, our bachelorette/bachelor weekends, Final Exams, the Wedding Weekend, Tim's Harvard-Westlake School graduation, and our incredible honeymoon voyage to Singapore and the Maldives, we had little time to develop any actual expectations - let alone some actual knowledge of the place we would soon call home.  In fact, it was the first place we could honestly call home as a married couple, and until our recent arrival in Kaohsiung, the only place.

Life in the Dutch Antilles may sound idyllic, and truth be told, in many ways it is pretty ideal.  Beautiful beaches, palm trees swaying in the constant tropical breeze, an eclectic blend of cultures and ethnicities from all corners of the globe, and turquoise blue water teeming with an abundance of sea life.  We spent our last weeks there enjoying sunset cruises, happy hour cocktails, and some spectacular diving; but that wasn't our whole life there.  We lived in the frantic traffic and sometimes suffocating pollution.  We dealt with long lines and customer service in dire need of a training session.  We paid exorbitant prices to escape the tiny rock and venture out into the pulsating surrounds.  We taught, and learned from, people young and old who sometimes weren't much interested in learning or teaching - only existing on some fairytale tropical island we couldn't seem to discover.  In our two years in Curacao we truly made it home.  We understood the discomfort of 'island fever' and we came to feel passionately about 'our' new island abode.  Many people talk about how much they 'love' a place, or something, or someone; and often we see that they 'love' the idea that place, or thing, or person represents.  Perhaps, they even feel an intense connection to the wonderful things that it offers; but I have a sense that a more meaningful version of love entails looking at a place, or a thing, or a person and reflecting on all of the faults, the ugliness, the bad habits, the chaos, the problems and still allowing that connection to grow.  Maybe love is not naive - maybe love is knowing everything, good and bad, and then loving even more than you did before you knew.

While we were living in Curacao we sometimes got caught up in trying to 'fix' it.  We sent emails, stayed up late, showed up early, started committees, recycled, conserved water and electricity, signed petitions, attended meetings: all in an attempt to make Curacao better.  We did these things out of a kind of love that wants to change.  In all honesty, it may have left us a little disappointed.  You see, we believe we did change the island, but not in any of the ways we set out to.  It doesn't need to be changed after all; it needed to change us; and we needed to learn to love it for what it was, and probably always will be.  Erin has always said to her students and athletes, "Be sure to leave a place better than you found it," and while I'm not sure we managed to leave Curacao a better place than we found it I can definitely say we left Curacao better people than we were when we found it.  There's a small chance that was the intention all along (and if it wasn't ... well, maybe it should have been): just be sure to grow a little bit better every time you show up someplace.  Take a piece of it with you. So even if we didn't leave a big mark on Curacao, rest assured it left its mark on us, and we're just fine with that because it means we never have to really say "Good-bye".

Lesson #2: How to Cook Triggerfish OR Stand-up and Paddle OR American Soccer Fans OR Family Matters

Summer-time family vacation ... it's a Kinzer family ritual.  This year, the entire crew got together in the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a week of good 'ole fashioned, southern-fried, sunburnt, beach livin'.  Seeing the family and running around my old beach haunts of Vandy Surf Club days was the perfect relaxing start to our summer of adventure.  Erin and I learned to stand-up paddle surf with my dad, went fishing for bluefish with the New York contingent, and watched the last remaining World Cup group stage games alongside the entire Kinzer clan as most of them pretended to care, if only for a brief moment for Erin's sake, about the great game of soccer.  As I observed my family over the course of our few days in North Carolina I realized how truly magnificent the notion of family really is.  Erin, of course, is a natural Kinzer woman and always fits in perfectly when it comes time to put the Kinzer men in their place or make sure that everything is in proper order.  It just reveals how even those with the mighty challenge of being married into the Kinzer family bring not only their unique and 'outside' experiences to the family table, but also manage to find such a comfortable and permanent seat.  You would be hard-pressed to find more diversity in imagination, demeanor, religious or political views, and character across all the nations of the world than you would find at the dinner table of our guest house on the Outer Banks.  Yet, that is not what is remarkable.  It's the unconditional, if not sometimes difficult to muster, love that we offer one another at that table.  As different as we all are, we all know that family matters.  It's incredible to me that in the midst of such diversity we can be so willing to stay connected; perhaps it can be explained through evolution and genetics, but perhaps we've evolved past those simple explanations.  Or maybe, and this is most likely to be the case, I am blessed with a family that has moved beyond minor differences to see the beauty of unconditional love.  Here's to wishing the same for everyone else.

Lesson #3: Shifting Gears Left-Handed on the Right Side of the Car on the Wrong Side of the Road OR Playing African Instruments Made in China

I went to South Africa with only two major concerns.  While others were concerned about robbery or other forms of crime, the logistics of accommodation and transportation, and dangerous wildlife I was predominantly consumed with worries about ... the vuvuzela and driving on the wrong side of the road.

First, the vuvuzela: a loud, but not especially alluring instrument with its roots in tribal southern Africa.  I could understand its role as a sounding horn to call the tribal community together, but in a soccer stadium?  Even before arriving in South Africa I was wary.  Will these things leave us with a constant headache?  Will we suffer permanent hearing loss?

As it turns out, you are more likely to get a headache from wanting to play your single-note vuvuzela than from listening to your neighbors, and as far as hearing loss ... who needs their hearing anyhow?  The World Cup variety proved a great deal of fun as long as you were willing to join the party, which was no problem for us.  To make the vuvuzela situation even more compelling was the fact that the World Cup variety had to be manufactured in Chinese factories thousands of miles away and made with plastic that I'm sure will turn up as toxic.  Add this to the fact that the World Cup theme song, Waka-Waka, is performed by none other than the great African ... I mean Colombian vocalist, Shakira, and the only beer available for purchase in all World Cup stadiums was that fine African ... I mean American ale, Budweiser (not even Bud Light?!)  If there was anything I should have been concerned about it was the corporate takeover of World Cup by FIFA endorsed contractors that left South Africa with far less than what they deserved for doing such an amazing job of hosting this epic event.

Second, driving on the WRONG side of the road: it's just wrong.  I know that all formerly British colonies can be expected to behave in similarly ridiculous ways as the British, but you would have thought they would have rectified at least this one Victorian brain fart with independence.  I only had one other experience on the wrong side - 4 years ago in Australia and New Zealand, and while I enjoyed exploring both of those countries I struggled to accept the silliness of sitting in the passenger seat while driving.  So after making the decision to explore South Africa via rental car I began the long and arduous task of shifting all of the left brain to the right side and vice-versa in hopes that this would somehow help.

Again, as it turns out, our rental car was not the automatic transmission I had reserved, but a manual transmission 4-wheel drive.  Did I mention I don't really drive stick-shifts?  I mean, I know the rules - clutch in, shift gears, clutch out, and come off easy out of first - I just have nearly zero practice.  And wait ... I'll be shifting with my left hand while driving on the wrong side of the road and sitting in the passenger seat.  Accident waiting to happen?  Definitely.  But the first two weeks were safe with Erin at the wheel.  After a few brush-up lessons from my very patient (and extremely brave) wife I took the wheel, and the stick, and ... absolutely loved it.  Driving had never required so much of my attention, and there had never been so many interesting things to pay attention to.  Surrounded by beautiful South African scenery and blessed with what were surely newly-paved roads I found myself falling into a 'flow' - a sense of harmony - the feeling that I was needed as one part of a working system.  Conventional driving (that is ... driving from the driver's seat rather than the passenger seat) comes easily and happens with a frightening lack of attention and sense of purpose.  In fact (or close to fact anyway), in the United States they have to pass laws to keep people from trying to talk on their cell phones, design their new living room, and build model airplanes while driving on the freeway.  Driving in South Africa couldn't have been more stimulating and purpose driven.  At the end of it all, I can't wait to tell future generations about learning to drive a stick shift with my left hand while driving from the passenger seat on the wrong side of the road.  I love it when my biggest concerns turn into sources of great joy and insight.

Lesson #4: Penguins Are Funny OR Baboons Are Dangerous OR Jet-Lag Sucks

Penguins look cute and cuddly.  They are, although they stink.  Baboons also look somewhat cute and cuddly (see our photos).  They are NOT, and they also stink.  Immediately upon our arrival at the Baboon Road Block on the Cape we were screamed at by the Baboon Monitor (no joke, real job title - said so on the back of his vest), "Lock your doors! DO NOT get out of the vehicle."  We immediately scanned the area for the nearby lions, leopards, or South African rock pythons but couldn't see a thing.  It can't be that bad, right?  The baboons looked cute and I wanted to get a better angle for a photo.  So I did what any ignorant Western tourist would do - I jumped out of the car and started approaching the family of baboons.  Almost immediately the big male began his charge and showed me what I had to look forward to if I didn't beat him back to our vehicle and quickly lock the doors - his five inch fangs.  So now I would make a pretty good Baboon Monitor because I too have seen the angry side of a baboon.

Penguins and baboons were our primary wildlife experience while in the Western Cape and Cape Town.  For most people visiting this part of the world for the first time it would stand out as remarkable, but to me, it was simply not enough.  I came with grander plans.  The stretch of ocean where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet at the southern tip of Africa is home to what many people believe is the largest population of Great White Sharks in the world.  I have had a long-standing fascination and appreciation for sharks, and especially the king of the sharks, the Great White.  When we decided to travel to South Africa for World Cup one of the "Must Do's" was getting in the water (preferably knowingly, but without being in a cage) with these awesome creatures.  It sounds crazy to many, and some would guess I would be defeated in my attempts: by common sense, by bad weather, by a wife with a quick left hook; but it wasn't any of these things that stopped me.  It was jet lag.  Jet lag sucks.  To make it worse, it wasn't even my jet lag.  I have discovered that while experiencing jet lag (I rarely suffer from it) must be really lousy, it is actually far worse to be the good friend and travel companion to someone with jet lag.  So, with half the crew of four not really being up for our daily activities until sometime approaching noon, getting into the water with the Whitey's just wasn't going to happen.  Well, at least not this summer.  I'll be back.  Tell my big buddies in Shark Alley.

Lesson #5: It's Finally Good to Be Dutch OR How to Scare the Lions OR Finding the Best View in Jeffrey's Bay

The Netherlands defeated Brazil in what was one of the most exciting matches of the tournament.  We were there.  That is awesome!

At Sea View Lion Park you can enjoy the experience of playing with lion cubs ... big lion cubs.  It's unforgettable and will forever connect us to the wild side of Africa (watch the YouTube video).

Jeffrey's Bay will be our home one day.  I already feel as though it is.  We stayed 8 nights on the sand dune overlooking the world renowned Supertubes ... the surf was pumping ... for 3 days we watched the world's best surfers compete at one of the world's best breaks.  Yes, I'm addicted, and I'll never quit.  Even Erin fell in love all over again, and she never even got in the water.

Lesson #6: Shopping for Semi-Final Tickets OR Leap of Faith OR Suspended OR How to Find a Room in Idutywa

On the certificate I received for leaping (harnessed) from the edge of a 400 foot waterfall into the famed Oribi Gorge and experiencing the bliss of flight through the incredible canyon:

"Come to the edge," he said.  "We are afraid," they said.
"Come to the edge," he said.  "We are afraid," they said.
"Come to the edge," he said.
They came.
He pushed them.
And they flew.

Whether hoping to come across a steal on some World Cup Semifinal (Spain vs. Germany) tickets outside the Durban stadium only minutes before kickoff, contemplating your leap from the edge of a 400 foot waterfall overlooking the magnificent Oribi Gorge, dangling over a deep canyon at the center of a decades old suspension bridge, or looking for a place to rest your tired eyes in a seemingly run-down South African township, this profound little passage packs a lot of insight.  Take a few minutes to let it sink in and imagine yourself face to face with the edge.  Will you come to the edge?  Will you ever fly?

Lesson #7: The Difference Between a Whale and a Whale Shark OR Is That a Hippo on the Beach OR How to Spot the Big Five

Surprisingly, whale sharks are the size of whales but have none of the fearful characteristics of sharks.  They are beautiful beyond description.  Swimming alongside a gentle giant for several minutes in Sodwana Bay was definitely one of the highlights of our trip, and in fact, our lives.

The coastline along the northeastern stretch of South Africa is awe-inspiring in so many ways.  Making your way to the beach you're likely to encounter a family of hippos or a Nile crocodile sunning itself.  A drive up the coast to check the surf will take through the Greater Saint Lucia Wetlands Park where you have to keep your eyes peeled for Cape Buffalo, Rhino, Eland, and many other members of the African wildlife family.

We saw so much of this family, in fact, that we can nearly claim having spotted all five of the famous Big Five: Elephants, Rhinos, Cape Buffalo, Lions, and Leopards.  While we missed out on seeing the elusive leopard in the wild we were able to see the other Big Four plus some - giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, and warthog were everywhere as we drove through several of South Africa's finest game reserves.

Lesson #8: What to Do With 5 Hours in New York City OR A Happy Homecoming OR A Thank You Note for BP

Returning home after epic adventures is always a bit depressing, and this time would be no different.  With an oil spill still looming over the Gulf and a general depression sinking in along the Gulf Coast I wasn't prepared to deal with the post-adventure sinking feeling while surrounded by gloom.  Fortunately, on our long voyage back to Pensacola and then on to Los Angeles before setting off for Taiwan, we were able to spend an afternoon with friends and family in Manhattan.  We landed early in the morning at JFK, had to gather our luggage and hop the bus to La Guardia, check in our bags with United, and get picked up with our wonderful friend Marla - who was back in New York on a visit from Curacao to  visit her family.  It was off to Manhattan for a few hours to have some lunch with Aunt Jeanne and Cousin Julie, and then to venture through Downtown to grab some organic smoothies with our friends Alison and Zolton.  To wrap up our time in "The City" we scrambled over to Chelsea to check in on my other little brother from another mother, Timo, who is now moving out of the ranks of up-and-coming and into the realm of established fashion designer.  It was a packed few hours, but the perfect little layover break on our way back home.

When we arrived in Pensacola that night and were picked up by Mom Hirsh I have to admit it actually felt good to be 'home'.  It's a long journey from the southern tip of Africa to New York and back down to the Panhandle.  Our few days there turned out to be a lot more uplifting and enjoyable than I would have guessed - while the people of the Gulf Coast may have been down about the spill they always manage to be a friendly people, and it had been way too long since we had gotten to spend quality time with friends and family in Pensacola.  It's always a Happy Homecoming when you get to return to so many wonderful and inspiring people, and it never fails to amaze us how lucky we really are.  The same can be said, of course, of the Southern California crew - who we visited for a few days before embarking on the final leg of our summer bonanza.

Lesson #9: Turning Taiwanese OR Making It Home

I have always thought of 'Home' as an illusion that others succumb to simply because they never manage to muster up the courage, resources, or will power to hit the road and explore.  It certainly didn't feel like it existed for me: my life for the last many years (perhaps in some ways my entire life) has been spent in transit, and my mind always thinks forward to the next 'destination'.  That doesn't mean I don't leave a piece of myself in the places I've lived, and that they haven't left an indelible mark on my life - I have, and they have, as most recently shown in Curacao; but it does mean that I've never been able to call a place 'Home' in the way most people mean it when they say it.  Something about this summer, our past two years of married life together in Curacao, and this new move to Taiwan has made me think that perhaps I've misunderstood the notion all along.  It's not the place - it's never been the place ... it's clearly the people and the attitudes we carry with us.  I believe that technology is going to continue to change the concept of 'Home' and I believe it will happen in a way that I can embrace.  My friends and family in combination with myself - my 'Home' - has managed to follow me and Erin around the world and land itself alongside us here in Taiwan.  I can't express what a gift that is - to be so completely and utterly new in a place I have no comprehension of, and to feel, so remarkably, right at home.