Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bullet Point Updates on Life in Taiwan

Bullet point notes on Life in Taiwan

• We did not go to Luang Prabang Lao during Thanksgiving. It seems that a civil uprising trumps a trip. The protestors took over both airports in Bangkok and held them until the King’s birthday by which time there were close to 100k people stranded in the airport and in Bangkok. Our airport driver called us around midnight to say all flights were cancelled. After one night stranded in O’Hare, I have no desire to be a human shield during a civil war in an airport. We stayed home, rested, worked on our porch and said THANKS for not letting us get in harms way.

• Kindness….the young owner of a DIY bake shop who was so excited talking with Carol about baking that he gave her four books he wrote on Chinese baking. No way would he take an NT$: just come back so he might work with Carol baking.

• Traditions….for the third year we went downtown to the Xinyi shopping district near the 101 bldg to watch the multiple street performers entertain the cutest children in the world. There were 3 performers dressed as ET like aliens with blue costumes with 1’ fingers. They invited the little kids to come into their midst and shake their fingers. There was a band of young jugglers and acrobat contortionists who placed three young children between them, posed them in the traditional Taiwan picture pose with the V sign in both hands and then juggled bowling pins over their heads while the kids stayed still, absolutely frozen in smiles.

It is so hard to describe the joy of the many families who are strolling between high end shops with kids dressed with rainbow colors in multiple layers, animal backpacks, striped pippi longstockings, holding hands and speed babbling about the sugar blowing artist or the balloon bending artists or the terra-cotta warrior wooden clapper performer or the African drumming ensemble or the Disney ad-girls dressed in thigh high white boots, butt-showing white short shorts and Vegas headdresses. OK I know this is a RO sentence but that is what Xinyi is like…one beautiful sensory overload piled on another in a living collage of vibrant city life. Merry Christmas to us!

• Bread…as I have said before, we are awash in fine bakeries, sometimes 6 in two blocks all displaying chocolate, fresh fruit and cream laden fantasies that are sculptural wonders of sweet design. But then there are the specialty breads encasing wieners, pork floss, onions, cheese, shrimp, peanuts, pineapple ……and the flours based on taro, green tea, red beans and yes, the pitch black squid garlic bread. As with all Chinese cooking, there is nothing wasted in baking even the black briny ink of the squid. Uh…….Yum I think?

• Christmas cookies…Carol had just said, I do not think I have time to bake cookies this year when her Tai Chi class reminded her that she had “mentioned” having them over for real American style cookies (never a date suggested). Well, they , the class, told Carol when they would come over. No negotiations. Just “family lunch” at the American’s house. And besides, this gives them a chance to inspect and pass judgment on our apartment for any additions or new design elements. Very important that her friends know everything about her…How old are you…really?

• HUGE spiders…Carol said she is warming to the 4-6” inch spread-hand sized hairy tarantula-like spider that we can not catch in our apt. I am telling you, this is a monster spider, the stuff of which nightmares and C-grade movies are made. It hides someplace in the living room and occasionally migrates to my office and scares the sh.t out of me when it pops up. But, and here is its virtue, it eats the 2-4” cockroaches that are natives of Taiwan. So, it is balance of life, Yin-Yang, whatever. Sigh

• Fruit excess…Papaya, mangos, guavas, 5 different kinds of bananas, bowling ball sized asian pears, square watermelons, pineapple, sugar cane, oranges, rose wax apples, chermoya (Buddha head), durian, jackfruit, lychee, dragon eyes, pomegranates, mangostens, rambutan, cow-eye size grapes, blueberries, strawberries, kumquats, calamancie, …..can I stop yet? These are fruits we have available to us almost all year long. Some are imported but most are grown on island and sold in the street wet markets or off the back of trucks double parked along any street. Yet, I regard our Sunday breakfasts on our balcony with fresh cut passion fruit to be the height of indulgence. Passion fruits are deep purple 3” diameter thick skinned balls sold in a bag of 12 for about USD $2. One lets them get all wrinkly and shriveled before cutting them in half to scoop out the deep yellow loose flesh and grayish black seeds cushioned in orange juice colored liquid. The taste….oh my…slightly tart with a saturated sweetness that is knee-droppingly wonderful. It feels like health coursing through your veins to lustily suck down one of these wonders. The flavor absolutely vibrates you with pleasure. Oh,, and if they are available in the states, they are about USD$3 each!

• Temples…..There are approximately 10,000 temples on this little island. We have posted pictures of some including our own local one. The worshipping population at this temple is particularly active sponsoring imported Taiwanese operas (presented only for gods, no audience required), puppet shows presented in a rented theater space built over the sidewalk and part of the major street in Tien Mu, and feast days that end with block long strings of firecrackers lining both sides of the street as well as the median strip. There is always lots of activity with brown robed choirs chanting to bored, cigarette smoking drummers and erhu playing accompanists. But it has been especially interesting to watch the members repaint all the dragons, relacquer the inlaid offering tables and re roof with ornate ceramic tiles. No expense seems to be spared as real gold leaf is applied to all the dragon scales and gods’ robes. Not only is it good luck to walk through the temple on the way to school but fascinatingly instructional as well.

• Winter—we know winter is here, kind of, by the way folks dress, kind of. The two biggest clues that it is winter are the boots and the rabbit fur scarves that pop out as if by secret message between women. You can not begin to imagine the variety of boots that are here; knit boots, white boots, thigh high boots, boots with bling, boots with leather tassels, Hello kitty boots, everywhere boots. The guys are pretty dull in their down stuffed parkas. But wait…I am still happy in shorts and a tee shirt and there are many girls in provocative short short short shorts and off the shoulder expensive ripped shirts that create a quandary about perception and reality. Whether it is winter or summer,Taiwan fashion is a wild and all over the map, over the top, cute, weird, cacophonous, collaged and a jumble of disparate elements that seems to work on the locals folks but does not translate to westerners at all. Oh well, OshKosh bibs look out of place on them…But That is the ONLY thing.

• Offerings…the porch kittens and their vicious mom Mei Mei are great hunters as most feral cats are. They live on our porch and love to pull down the broom so they can sleep on the broom head. They race up and down and momma sits on our chairs and outdoor table making many tableaus, Mama avec kittens. In gratitude for the kitty munchies which we supply daily, they brought us a rat, a big rat, a big, thank you, dead rat and laid it between the food bowls so we would step on in and notice it when we opened the sliding porch doors to go outside. It was so obviously an offering for us, so completely displayed as to not be missed, that all we could say was, “Thanks a lot ladies.”

• Body percussion…Alright I admit it, I am a hedonist and one of the many joys of here is that massage is a part of normal life. We mentioned that we have the beautiful Megan come once a week to hurt us sweetly. But the new ritual we are trying to start is a Friday afterschool music department communal foot massage at a new local parlor followed by a Bombay martini and an evening activity. So far we have had 4 regulars who troop into the 6 Stars Foot and Body Massage parlor near our house and sign up for the 50 minute foot and shoulder massage session. The most important task is choosing your therapist. Personally I am partial to #28 because he has just the right balance of firm but not excruciating touch that leaves you breathless yet breathing. One starts with proper disposable slippers while attendants whisk you your shoes and socks to a locker and then offer you your choice of teas to have during the session…somewhat akin to the old rope between the teeth trick of the old west amputation days. I am partial to the lemongrass tea. Then is it on to the massage station for a good soak in warm water while the therapist finds every knot in you neck and shoulders and applies every once of body weight to replace your old pain with new pain. You know it will only last 13 minutes because you have been shown the timer that says “13” on it. At least you can hope they hear the alarm on time, One has to straighten up every now and then just to see if you still can. Then it is time to switch to the leather chair with the side mounted TV in case visual diversion might distract from the uplifting (read rising out of your seat) actions of #28. He will dry you feet, calves and thighs and apply a lotion. I rather hoped it had novacaine in it but no such luck, just slippery soothing gel to let his hands glide over every single muscle, fiber, tendon, blood vessel and bone you have in you lower body. At least sticks are not used like in Thailand but let me tell you a thumb on the hand of a person who knows how to use it can be a near lethal weapon, so do not underestimate the power of 1…..;thumb that is. Okay so after 35 minutes of intense focus on every minute aspect of legs and feet (remember the timer… it was reset to say 40 minutes with the new round of stimulation.) one is then wrapped in warm towels and the party begins. Each therapist has his or her own signature drum tattoo that they beat out, and I do mean BEAT out on you legs and thighs. I think it has something to do with circulation or some such. In any case, once #28, #13, #52 and old what’s his number found out that we all were musicians, they really bent (us) to the competition of who could have the most complex repeated rhythmic pattern applied to our lower body. I really do mean the are coming down on you from about 3 feet away and not pulling their punches. Listen, Stravinsky would have been proud of the rhythmic layering that goes on at the end of our sessions. And the number people look at us waiting for approval of their minimalist ensemble. Out of the haze of pain, one looks up and gives them a warmish sort of grimace at which they smile and carry on past the 40 minutes just to show you how much they want you to be satisfied…. wipe off legs and feet, hobble down stairs, land with no dignity on the stools, on with the shoes that somehow do not seem to fit you as well they did before, take the business card from you guy (I already have #28’s card) and then it is out the door and on to the martini. Only after the martini does one assess the quality of the experience and the relative merits and characteristics of each #. I still think my #28 is going to be my choice next week. And rest assured we are strong. We WILL be back next week on Friday, after school, before the martini, before the adventures of the night.

• Whiskey samples…Go to Carrefour (French) or Costco (US) stores and you can have samples of Glen Livet, McAllen (sic) , any other single malt scotch whiskey or red wines from Chile, white wines from Australia or heavy malted beer from Germany from the time the stores open until the time they close. The beer girls are in their ubiquitous thigh high white boots with the skimpy plastic everything but the scotch ladies are in gold ( scotch colored) dresses with 4” high heels. The only thing you don’t get is a cigarette after you drink the scotch and look at the girl. Ah well… Wait there is more…whilst on the XinYi expedition, outside of NEW YORK NEW YORK mall, the scotch ladies kicked it up several notches by serving samples on the sidewalk BUT in overstuffed leather chairs on a royal blue carpet, I repeat, on the side walk. Because they were outside and because it is winter, remember winter?, their skirts and dresses were modestly an inch below the knee, but who was looking?

• Advertising…next to the scotch ladies was the outdoor sales pitch area for COLDSTONE CREAMERY. I know, you are getting confused with all these familiar US iconic names, but we really are in Taipei not Santa Fe. Anyway, there were long lines of fathers and daughters lined up to buy a special Coldstone ice cream treat and then get fitted from a special rack of Coldstone logo’ed, stuffed down parkas before they could” EXPERIENCE THE FEELING OF -9 C TEMPERATURE” in a special sidewalk freezing cabana. It should be noted that in honor of the occasion, the replicated stature of liberty outside NY NY held a dripping ice cream cone instead of the torch. As the kids came out they were met by the spouse who was too frightened to go who consoled and tried to warm them after their ordeal. Ya, just gotta laugh.

• Carols…on a concluding tender note, it brings tears to our eyes to hear familiar Christmas carols sung in the stores by choirs of little children who neither have any idea what they are singing nor how to pronounceate the words. The Chinese accent on Jingle Bells is truly charming in its innocence and just for a moment, reminds us that we are not in Kansas or Wisconsin. Sniff.

We hope we will have time to post more before the Holidays. We will try again to go to Bangkok for a week and then on the an island south of Bangkok to see just how many massages one can have in a day before OD’ing. Please know we do miss you and offer you our thanks, best wishes and hope for peace during this season and in the New Year. Change We Can Believe In!!!

Our best,
B and C

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving Break Trip

Hello all,
We are off for our first trip together of the year. We are going to central Lao to the small town of Luang Prabang on a tiny peninsula in the Mekong River. We obviously will have more information and photos when we get back but I wanted to give you an opportunity to preview what we will see.

Above is a 5 minute YouTube site that has good information. The New York Times also ran one of their 36 Hours in.... here is the link

We are staying at a small hotel called the APSARA so that can also be googled. We look forward to resuming our Asian adventure.

We wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving and pray that the chaos will somehow improve so we can face the future with optimism and hope for renewed but more enlightened progress and prosperity.

Our best wishes,

Bill and Carol

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Notes from Carol

Hi at last, I’m still trying to come down from today and yesterday….what an experience! Saturday Ivy met me at the Arena (new, gorgeous, and huge!) and I got registered, etc. and then she says to come with her because she is one of the board members of the Tai Chi Federation and sit with her on the dais! I tried desperately not to, but it was the only way she could explain things to me. Fortunately, I later realized no one could actually make out who you are from so far away, and the President introduced me as being from Germany, so I think I’m still incognito. The opening ceremony was like a small Olympic event with all the teams and contestants (except me, of course) marching in behind their country sign and assembling on the floor. The following hour and a half was devoted to a Taiwanese passion –speeches with loud reverberating microphones, LOTS of dignitaries, including the mayor of Taipei, who I got to meet, interminable comments by EVERYONE who could be remotely considered important and finally it got going with about an hour and a half of performances, both Chinese theatre and folk exhibitions, lots of great drums, etc.

Following a ubiquitous “bin dan” lunch, which is a cardboard box filled with a lot of things, recognizable and unrecognizable and a yogurt drink to calm your stomach, exactly 3 ounces of it, we were back for the Master Exhibitions and the beginning of the group competitions. This is when I realize the competition is not in a nice little room, you and the judges, but on the floor of the arena where there are 6-7,000 in the audience! It was fascinating to see the various forms demonstrated and I took lots of pictures and some videos. One master stood in one place, or sat in a chair and could literally “throw” attackers 15 feet away from him without any apparent movement of his hands or body. At one point, he did 3 at one time in opposite directions, and once, a line of 5 men braced against him in a line, every one of them went flying!! These masters are not young, but one of my favorites who did the old Dao Yin style literally floated to the floor held himself horizontally and floated back up again without so much as a finger to the ground!

After my return home Saturday, I completely melted down at the level of this thing, had a full-blown panic attack, couldn’t feel my hands, knees shaking, a total 61-year old mess.
Didn’t sleep, couldn’t eat breakfast, met Ivy at 7:00AM to warm up and dress, and just went over and over and over it to warm up. Finally, sheer exhaustion, I think, won and I got control of myself. We had to wait until all the men went in the event, so lots of time to worry, but still OK. Then…the big moment, Ivy had had to leave to teach in Tainan, so she arranged for a nice official to make sure I got to the appointed spot on the floor, and there it was. Not until then did I find out I wasn’t in a “Foreigner” category like I thought, but in my group was competing beside the last World Cup 42-Form Champion! It was way too late to flee, so just had to do it.

I forgot one small part (age and short-term memory –what a surprise!) but even though I have done it hundreds of times, I was so thrilled that I had held the big extensions, that I lost concentration for a split-second, and that is fatal. Overall, I think it was a solid C, but given my inexperience compared to the other competitors, I’m very happy. I don’t think I disgraced Ivy, and it was a “dancing bear” thing anyway. If I ever do it again, I think it will be much easier. I truly expected to just crash and burn on the difficult moves. Needless to say, I couldn’t even eat for about 4 hours afterwards, my knees starting shaking again after it was over, talk about adrenaline poisoning! Bill got the video…. A bunch of my Chinese tai chi class friends came down to cheer me on, which was incredibly sweet, and I got to meet people from all over. There were more than 30 countries represented and communication occurred in a whole lot of ways. It was so amazing to see people everywhere doing all these different forms and weapons and groups, at two times there were demonstrations of over 300 people all doing the same routine. My friend Kathleen and her friend Cecile, who is a Jamaican-born Canadian doctor (talk about your multi-cultural moments) did one of those, and were avidly following the fan events, which is their particular interest. There were fans, and swords, and staffs, and hand-to-hand fighting as well, so lots to see.

All in all, it was an unforgettable life experience, but I’m really looking forward to getting the play opened this week and a little more quiet appreciation of culture. It seems that the essence of tai chi is really not competition, but I have really learned that it is the practice of it, alone or with others, that makes you grow, your heart sort of “stretches” as you learn more and more.
Our Taiwanese friends had their baby 3 weeks ago and he is so much fun –almost as cute as a kitten!-OK, as cute! We’ll put a picture on the blog. Katrina is doing the traditional one month confinement. Her mother came from the south of Taiwan and she and the baby are staying in one of their apartments for 30 days. Roger goes home at night to take care of the two older boys. She cannot wash her hair, which is driving her crazy, use warm or hot water to wash, must eat special food which is catered in every day three times a day and just recuperates and bonds with the new baby. It is really a civilized custom and if modern moms want to do it and do not have an older female relative to take care of them, there are now special “maternity” facilities which provide all the services after the new moms leave the hospital.

Midsummer Night’s Dream just closed last night. The kids were just great. Shakespeare is always magic, nothing like getting the best material you can! Some pictures follow. I miss the fall colors but we are nesting on the porch like made, we just enjoy the fact that stuff grows so much longer here that at least I have something blooming most of the time! Leaves in colors would be very nice, though, everyone enjoy them for me!

Remember Taiwan ...the only true democracy in SE Asia

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Our Taiwanese bear arrives in good spirits???????

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The Hugh Egg..the Taipei Arena

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Older ladies doing Tai Chi outside the arena

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Flags from all the competitor nations

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The Big TIme

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Last Minute Coaching from Ivy, her Master

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Warm Up in "The Huge Egg"...Carol center right

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Carol's Cheering Section from her Tai Chi Class

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Carol, Her Master, and two competitors

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A Dear Bear Waiting for the Big moment...scared but undaunted

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The dias of the arena

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Hello Green Island, Medical stuff and life in general

So it has been a long time since I have laid finger to key to let you know what is going on her in Taipei, the only working democracy in south east Asia. As Garrison Keller would not say, “ It’s been a wild week in Lake Wobegon.” Life is so full it is hard to know where to start.

We have had typhoons that took down huge trees and reduced me to stooping to walk. We have had heat that would drop those of us from Wisconsin to our knees. And now, almost the end of October, while Wellcome grocery store is carrying huge pumpkins from USA, it is still 27-33C. aka hot and humid. We have had some few days that hint of “winter” and the boots have come out every now and then and an occasional down coat has made its appearance, but the bears are still in shorts and sandals and I just turned on the AC to cool down. Yes my brother, my blood is getting thinner and a Wisconsin winter seems like a romantic memory not to be relived with grace.

Carol has been a wild woman!!!!!! She will blog about her tai chi exploits but just let me say that I cannot believe her courage and will to compete in a world class sized arena (known here in Taipei as “The HUGE Egg) with World Cup Winners in Tai chi, with over 7000 people watching and all her Tai chi class in the front bleachers in class A1….the most difficult class. My beautiful wife was just that…beautiful and graceful as she moved through forms designed to block, maim, and kill people foolish enough to assume fragility. Her 9.15/10 score in no way reflects her accomplishment under fire. WOW!. She is now in her other life as an artistic director of Midsummer Nights’ Dream presented at TAS. And next week she takes over the Asia conference dance program while the instructor is on maternity leave. No rest no rest no rest.

I, the other hand, got to go to Green Island in the SE corner of Taiwan for the 10/10 holiday. Carol could not go because she had final play rehearsals so there was no one chaperoning me and I have the scars to prove it. A group of us from TAS who normally travel together got in 8 dives in 2 days, had great scooter expeditions around the island and lived in local Chinese B & Bs eating local food and loving it.

There were several highlights on this trip. #1 I got bitten on the hand by a largish Batfish at 28 meters depth. Cheeky bastard thought I was the other white meat and had ¼ of my hand in its mouth and tugging it off into his lair. NOT!. Also I had opportunity to photograph numerous sea snakes up very close..some by design and some because that is where they wanted to go. They are incredibly poisonous but everyone keeps saying they can’t bit you through a wet suit which would be comforting except I do not wear a wet suit. No problems though. The other find was a giant Mantis shrimp which is not at all a shrimp but very large and aggressive. This fellow was out of his lair and I got so close that he could not get up the motive force to smash my mask or camera lense. Truly this was a major find. I will include pictures below.

During this trip, I had great fun on the scooters. I kept trying to shift like my motorcycles but there was not shift….just ride. We drove around the whole island, which is not that big, and braved the crazy people who stop in the middle of the narrow road to look at a goat or deer, who park and completely block the lane while the garbage truck is coming or who just stop suddenly to talk to each other. Take your eyes off the traffic one second and OOPS! I compared the driving to a day in Sturgis on smaller bikes and people.7-11 is the hot spot gathering point in the little village because if you can not get what you need at 7-11, you don’t need it. From medicine to meals, wine to batteries, hot dogs to fish bits, it is all there. Some people eat exclusively from the “fresh” and frozen meals and snacks at the store. Not a great idea but it works. And you can pay all your bills there as well. As I mentioned before, in Taipei, there is one for every 1756 people….given the millions of people in Taipei, that is a lot of red white and green signage.

Part of the trip was to a unique hot springs that is ocean tide pools heated by volcanic venting. One goes into the hot pool and cools off by going in the ocean. When we were there, the tide was coming in so the surf was very very high and crashing waves. My buddy and I got tagged by the Spa police for being too far into the surf and getting upended by a huge crashing wave. He kept eying us suspiciously like we belonged on the Group W bench (Ah Arlo where are you?).

Green Island once housed the infamous prison that Chiang Kai Sheck (sic) used for all his political prisoners. The cave behind the prison was the site of many executions. The facility is now closed but accessible to those of us who choose to venture in, even at night. It had a very ugly aura to it. It did not help that my scooter key fell out of the ignition while I was poking around the compound. Luckily, we found it after suffering a panic attack. Nothing a Taiwan beer could not help.

We stayed in local digs which are alternately rustic ala the UP of Michigan, or uptown odd, like an older hotel with marble everything. I can not say enough about the warmth and kindness of the Taiwanese people. Given one bit of a smile, most will respond with exuberance and seek to help you do or get whatever they think you want. The sense of family and community is powerful here. Example: the cook at the restaurant where we ate all our evening meals did not serve us the pineapple shrimp (a delicacy) that we requested because she thought that was too common for us. Instead we were served fresh caught oysters on the half shell which was, in the cook’s mind, a better gift to us. Like I said, it is what they THINK you want.

I have been plagued by nasal congestion, drainage and middle ear infections like I have never ever had in my life. I do not know why but the upshot is I am a major proponent of socialized medicine. I have had my ear drum punctured for drainage 3 times ( sorry about way too many details) and received massive amounts of medicine for no more that $6 USD a visit to a major ENT doc. And the problem with this is????????? Absolutely no complaints and major raves instead for this system. I hope the condition with go away but many folks here are suffering as well. We are going in for full physicals this coming week and expect to pay $500 USD for a full day of tests, full cardiac workup, complete blood work etc. etc. etc. AND they give you breakfast and a cute warm up suit to wear, a translator to accompany you, give you a complete report at the end of the day, and put all data on a DVD for you to take with you. I repeat, the problem with this is ??????

I think this has gone on for enough space but I just wanted to let anyone know that we are so very happy here on this wonderful island. I adore my students, love the opportunities for adventure and find every day marvels around each corner. Be well! Write to us on email or through this blog. We miss hearing from a lot of you.

PS please remember to click on the slide show and go to Picassa Web albums for many more pictures of our adventures.


The Batfish who loved me

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Unicorn Fish

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Mantis Shrimp exposed

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Sea Snake close up and personal

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Even scooters need gas...the long line

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Diving Scooter Style

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Site of the Offense against the Spa police...They were justified

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Green Island Hot Springs Tide pool

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Saturday, September 20, 2008