Friday, October 30, 2015

so many rainbow villages!

Nearly two years ago, my husband and I decided to take our scooter far, far out of town. This was the very beginning of our scoot adventures. We were fed up with the city, so we turned down a road we had never driven before and kept driving until it ended in a three-way fork.

We took a right and ended up driving up into the mountains by accident.
We scooted and scooted until we found what I dubbed the rainbow village.

It was this bizarre, small town trapped in between the mountains and a valley. Strange and comedic murals adorned many of the brick homes, and we were enchanted. We even visited again. I knew rainbow villages were a thing in Taiwan because I had also heard of another more popular one in Taichung, a large city south of Hsinchu.

But, I still thought they were kinda rare.
Or special.

Imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago, I learned that they are not actually rare at all. They are all over Taiwan! I learned this on my way to Sheipa National Park. The route took us right past my rainbow village, and the road continued to climb high above the clouds and past many, many rainbow villages.

The entire route actually seemed to be dotted with an odd house here or there covered in bright, colorful, playful paintings, and sometimes rows and rows of rainbow houses too.

While I was able to dig up the story about my particular rainbow village, it doesn't really explain all of the others. From what I found online, my rainbow village was born from a deal made to solve a mosquito crisis. And I guess that kinda makes sense; right now, southern Taiwan is struggling with a Dengue Fever outbreak. It is a potentially lethal mosquito born illness. Years ago, my rainbow village was struggling with its own infestation.

The deal was simple: residents clean and maintain the surroundings, and those surroundings would be adorned with awesome murals. It really is such a fun place, but I still wonder about all those other rainbow houses and towns I passed on my way to the top of Sheipa.

On the way back home, we stopped at my village. After realizing that this village was more than just a random rainbow village, I had fun capturing scenes I opted to ignore the other times I visited.

The palms.
The canal.
The valley.

While this rainbow village is certainly a delightful rainbow village, there is a lot more to it that just those fun and strange paintings.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

moving abroad with a trailing spouse

I feel a little weird writing about this for a few reasons, but I am going to regardless because even though some thoughts and feelings may strike a nerve or two, that doesn't mean they are not worth talking about.

Plus, it's the season for international school recruiting, and maybe this could help someone.

Let me begin by saying that I had never encountered the term trailing spouse, which just means an unemployed spouse, before looking into moving overseas. I first encountered the term while searching through an online database of international schools while looking for job opportunities. The entries would simply read Trailing Spouse: Yes or Trailing Spouse: No-- meaning an international school would either accept teachers who have trailing spouses or it wouldn't.

A lot of schools wouldn't, and this was one of the first hurdles we had to overcome.

It makes sense for them not to hire a teacher with a trailing spouse. Most schools provide free airfare, free housing, free healthcare, and other free perks. It makes sense not to bleed money on a person who is not working for you or giving you a service in return. Sometimes, one income is also just not sufficient to live off of where the school is located.

Sometimes, too, a trailing spouse can leave the school hanging. What if he or, as is most common, she becomes unhappy and wants to move back home?

Well, there goes that hire.

Trailing spouses are common-ish in the international teaching community. However, from my (still limited but growing) experience, the majority of international teachers are either unmarried or married to another teacher.

I think many schools think these people are the safest choices, and frankly, that logic makes a lot of sense to me. Currently, I am teacher married to another teacher, but this circumstance is only three months old.

My husband was a very well paid roofer before we moved to Taiwan. He worked in the family business and really enjoyed it. Obviously, he had to quit when we moved to Taiwan, and he was unemployed for three whole years, our first three years here, while he completed his degree in education.

We both knew he would become a trailing spouse from the day I signed my contract, however, we really didn't understand what that would entail or how it would affect us as individuals or as a couple.

I think a lot of people with trailing spouses find themselves in that situation too. They feel relief to have found a job with a trailing spouse and then think their worries are over, but they are wrong.
A new set of worries and stresses are waiting around the corner.

At least, I have to think it was not just me. However, like I said at the beginning, talking about this kind of stuff strikes a nerve in some. Maybe that's why a lot of people don't talk about it.

Regardless, what I can tell you is this-- there are hundreds of websites and blogs for trailing spouses that offer support and understanding and tips. However, I have yet to find one for the husband or wife of a trailing spouse. In my opinion, that is ridiculous. It is like ignoring the elephant in the room.

Well, I'm not going to do that.

Instead, I will address some things you should think long and hard about before deciding to move abroad with a trailing spouse, especially if you both, like most people, worked before deciding to move overseas. 

What do I think budding expats with potential trailing spouses should consider?

First, are you truly okay with being responsible for earning all of your family's income for X amount of time? It is so easy to say "yes, of course!", but if this wasn't your reality before moving abroad, how do you know that you will feel that way six months in? Or two years in? Let me tell you that the pressure can be immense, and sometimes, the resentment can be too.

Some days, it will seem like you got the short end of the stick, and it's easy to feel stuck or trapped. After all, you moved abroad for your job, so there is this expectation that you will suck it up and deal with it, but that is just not fair. Really consider this-- what is your out? What can you do if the situation is no longer working for you? What do you expect your spouse to do in this circumstance?

Just saying we'll go back home is often impractical and, in many situations, the last resort, so what will be your Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D?

Researching potential job opportunities that your spouse can pursue before leaving might be a good idea, or looking into online work that is location independent. I think this matters a lot for couples who plan on remaining abroad indefinitely. We thought about these things and decided that the most logical thing for Sean to do was become a teacher. Not everyone chooses that path. Luckily, all of the non-working spouses I know who want to work were able to find work; one as a translator, many as tutors, and some continuing their work from the states via the Internet.

If you plan to stay abroad long term, you have two choices. One, accept that your spouse will never work again, which can be impractical for both people, or start figuring out what your trailing spouse will do so that does not become your reality.  

Second, how will you deal with money? Is it yours? Or is it both of yours? Does that mean the non-working spouse needs to talk to you before spending a larger than normal sum of money? Or does it mean he or she can buy things without thinking of speaking with you first? Will you give them an allowance? Will they get X dollars a month to spend on themselves and things they want/need? I know this sounds ludicrous, but for all intents and purposes, a non-working spouse is your dependent.

If you were both working before, these things would be non-issues. Now, you will go to work, you will earn X number of dollars, and most likely only you will have a local bank account and card. You have to have these conversations, and I think it is better to think about these things before arriving in your host country.

Once again, it's so easy to say "of course it's ours/of course you can buy whatever you want/ of course you don't need to ask for permission" but until you live it-- especially long term -- how do you know you mean it? And how do you take back those statements once you've made those assurances?

This was hard for us. Before moving abroad, we had separate bank accounts and didn't really worry too much about money. Neither of us are big spenders, we have no credit cards, and we always had enough to make ends meet. Moving to Taiwan changed everything. We were suddenly all up in each other's business, and it felt uncomfortable at first.

In the end, we settled with an allowance; I got so much to spend on wants a month, and so did he. Definitely, more than once, we had some pretty petty and intense conversations about money. 

Third, schedule time to check in with each other and have tough conversations. Do this regularly. Your marriage matters, and resentment should not be ignored. I remember waking up in the morning and being so put out that I had to go toil all day at work while my husband would get to sleep in and then have infinite free time. This changed when he started school, but still, some days, shouldering so much of the burden made me angry. 

This was not healthy, and it was terribly difficult to talk about for all of the reasons I already mentioned, but these conversations matter. Your feelings and needs matter just as much as your spouse's. Check in with your spouse so they know where your head is at;  it is completely fair to ask them to find work or pick up the slack at home when you are bogged down at work.

Marriage is teamwork; don't let yourself get to a point where it no longer feels like that. 


Now, maybe I was the only expat with a trailing spouse who dealt with these issues and feelings, but I doubt it. While it may be more socially acceptable for a woman to depend long term on her husband, I still think men feel these things too.

I think, at the end of the day, the more planning and thinking and soul searching and talking you do before leaving your home country, the better prepared you will be to meet challenges head on and together as a couple on the same page working toward the same known goals.

That is really my point.
You need to be on the same page about these issues before you move, and you need to have a few Plan B's in your back pocket just in case things don't work out the way you think they will.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

5 Finger Mountain

So I guess it's fair to say that I am obsessed with my weekend scoot adventures. But if you read this blog, then I am sure you already figured that out. After last weekend's daunting ride to the Sheipa National Park, this weekend's ride to 5 Finger Mountain was a piece of cake. 

One thing that I am growing to love about these scoot adventures? Every time I go somewhere new, I discover that I already kinda know the way. For example, last weekend, on the way to Sheipa, we passed the Rainbow Village I discovered years ago! This weekend, I laughed so hard because on the way to 5 Finger Mountain, we went right by the cold springs I have visited on multiple occasions, and even once looked up the winding road and asked: I wonder what's up there? Well, now I know. 

Despite my desire to see more and more, I have to hand it to myself: I have already seen and experienced a lot. I am so thankful for my adventurous husband who discovered so many of these places with me in our early years here, and now my scoot buddy who is helping me discover more and more every weekend (the poor husband is busy working himself to the bone, but such is the life of a first year teacher). Both my friend and I love our scooters so much, and we both love adventure. Neither one of us felt brave enough to go get lost in the hills on our own-- which, frankly, is probably for the best-- so finding each other and hanging out these past few weekends has been just perfect!!

Our adventure this weekend was certainly a journey-- I have to say that getting lost on my scooter in Taiwan has led me to some pretty bizarre places. Perched at the top of a steep hill in the mountains, at the literal end of a road, was a huge, ornate gate. This was a serious gate you guys. I wanted so badly to know what lay behind it, up in the woods, hidden behind a bend in the road. My best guess? A castle. Or, maybe not. But I am so curious!! 

We did make it to Five Finger Mountain eventually. At the top are a cluster of temples and trails, and because it's Taiwan, tour buses and people with little flags and matching t-shirts and loudspeakers. One thing I notice is that my friend and I are quite a spectacle, anywhere and everywhere we go on our scooters. I see such curiosity and confusion in the faces of locals and tourists. I can practically hear their questions: Who are you girls? Why are you here, on your scooter nonetheless? Where are you going? Where is your tour group? Where is your leader? Where are your matching t-shirts?!

Oh Taiwan, we just don't see eye-to-eye on certain matters. 
Like how to adventure. 

To avoid the crowds, we took a random trail head that looked neglected. It was washed out in certain areas and overgrown. But it had beautiful views from in between tall trees and intriguing shrines all along the trail. I had not planned on doing any hiking, so once again I found myself in my Toms trying to navigate a Taiwanese trail. I climbed under and over fallen trees and clambered up steep embankments. Brilliant light filtered in through the trees. 

Basically, it was awesome. 

Scooting back down the mountain, I once again felt so amazed and boggled and thankful that days like this are a part of my life. How strange that this girl from Washington State would end up in Taiwan, scooting down beautiful and foreign mountains roads with a no-longer stranger from New York. How wonderful that those two girls would spend an hour soaking their toes in a river and just chatting while enjoying the sound of the rushing water. 

I mean, really, how bizarre is that?
It is such an unlikely thing to happen, but happen it did.
And happen it does. 
Life is full of bizarre plot twists, and over the last four years I have certainly relished riding along the road of those bends and curves. 

One thing that is truer than ever? I am addicted to scooting, and where ever life may take me, scoot adventures will be a part of it. Although, I am thinking that maybe it is time to get a more powerful scooter-- that is also hot pink with a zebra print seat. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

ascending dula forest road

I really thought I was going to cry when my scooter died in the middle of the steep, one lane, mud & fog covered mountain road. 

But instead, I put on my big girl pants, ignored the freezing cold and persistent rain, walked my scooter up hill & out of the mud and tried the ignition again. 


I looked at my friend, who had pulled over while I dealt with my little crisis, and then nodded. So on we continued towards the peak of Sheipa National Park's Guanwu Recreation Area, located in central Taiwan. 
By this point in time, we had been scooting for more than 2 hours, and at least one of those hours along Dula Forest Road, the rugged 3-meter wide road that rises 6,500 feet in elevation to the top of the national park. 

Having done no research whatsoever, I was completely caught off guard by the dilapidated state of the road, which while always bad was actually badder than bad due to the recent landslides and flooding it experienced thanks to Typhoon Dujuan, which blew through the country two weeks ago. 

Looking back, I don't really know what I expected. Perhaps I thought that because I had successfully scooted through the mountains of Taiwan on numerous occasions, this would be no different. 

But what I absolutely failed to consider, which is silly considering I come from the Pacific Northwest, is that not all mountains are made equal. Some, like the ones I live next to along the west coast, are gentle rolling hills. Others, like the ones in Sheipa National Park, are steep, jagged, rugged peaks-- the very backbone of the entire country, actually. 
I really should have at least consulted the national park's website before leaving, which includes this pretty detailed warning:

The weather in mountain areas is changeable and road conditions are poor. For your own safety, visitors are requested to plan your trip carefully and leave the recreation area before dark.

Please note: After Wufeng there are no gas stations on the road to Guanwu. Drivers should fill their tank in Zhudong or Wufeng!

The Guanwu area is in a restricted mountain area. According to the National Security Law visitors must apply for a mountain entry permit at Yunshan Police Station, Wufeng Township (Dalu Forest Road 15K point). The permit can be obtained on the spot upon presentation of ID documents.

The Guanwu area’s accommodation and restaurants are limited in number. Please do not remain in the mountain area if you have not booked a room (Dalu Forest Road has guest houses and places to eat at the 15K and 21.5K point)

The mountains can be very cold. Visitors should bring a warm coat and never walk alone.

Only a few of the homestays in the Guanwu area provide food. Visitors are advised to bring along dry foods.

The area is often covered in thick fog in the afternoon and at night. Visibility can be poor so drivers should take extra care.

According to the National Park Act, lighting fires and cooking in the Guanwu Recreation Area are prohibited.

Dabajian Mountain climbing trail is in an ecological reserve. Visitors wanting to climb the mountain should apply to the Conservation Division of Shei-Pa National Park Headquarters for a park entry permit at least seven days before the date of entry (Dalu Forest Trail east route leading to the Dabajian Mountain trailhead has now been designated a trail).
If I had done so, I probably would have waited to go on a day it was not raining. I probably would have chosen to take my husband's much more powerful scooter rather than my cute little one, which I really thought I would have to abandon on the side of the mountain. I also would have brought warmer clothes and gloves.

This scoot adventure pulled me far, far outside of my comfort zone. I was actually really nervous and unsure about pushing forward, and probably would have turned around if it weren't for my friend.

Scooting along a narrow, high road that was recently washed out in a massive landslide is scary. Scooting into thick fog on a single lane road with cars coming at you and a cliff on the other side of you is scary. Seeing a small river form in the road from the deluge and having to scoot through it while uncertain of how deep it is is scary.

But, despite all of it, I am still glad we went.
Climbing on my scooter high above the clouds, I saw a Taiwan that I had never seen before. While we ate our PB&J sandwiches perched at the top of the mountain, the views below were stunning and haunting.

And while it is debatable whether going to Sheipa National Park on the day we did was a good & safe idea, it is unquestionable that it was an epic adventure and a chance to be brave-- and completely and mindbogglingly blown away by the beauty of my host country.

The journey down felt perilous, and I inched along. I turned on my brights and honked my horn and erred on the side of caution & safety as I took each blind corner ridiculously slow. But we made it home after a wild adventure, and I have a feeling this trip created a monster.

Now that I know I can handle tough terrain and six hours on my scooter in one day, the radius of possible scoot adventure destinations has widened immensely. It also means that circumnavigating the island on my scooter may be an actual possibility rather than just a fantasy.

In the meantime, I cannot wait to get back on my (husband's) scooter and put on my big girl pants and take off with a friend on another long distance adventure before winter settles in.

But next time, I will wait for a clear day.

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