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 (www.ted.com); 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 (zhaolearning.com), 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.
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.