This Mum LOVES these Mums

Some girls have a thing for shoes, some have a thing for the sparkly ... and some like me can go totally nuts for flowers. "I LOVE FLOWERS" is an understatement, so of course I need to regularly go and drool at the huge, local flower market. This usually leads to lots of indecision about what to spend my weekly budget for cut flowers on (the equivalent of $3, which I almost NEVER seem to be able to stick to ... he, he).

But this week there was no indecision, because when I spotted these gorgeous chrysanthemums I was sold. I can see why these flowers reign supreme in Asian brush paintings. In addition to the bamboo, plum blossoms and orchid it is called the "Four Gentlemen" in Sumi-e and Chinese ink painting. They represent an exalted place in Oriental culture, representing dignity, grace and strength.

Speaking of orchids, Taiwan is the world's largest grower and exporter of orchids, so the flower market provides plenty of temptation. Costing between $3-10 for most common orchids, they really are not much more expensive than cut flowers, but provide months and months of blooms. I have been meaning to do an e-card about orchids for some time, hmmm, another excuse to go and do a little 'research' :)

Options when creating ecards

There are 4 options you can set in the card creation page. You may find them very useful.

  1. Save recipient name and email to address book.
  2. Please notify me when this card is sent.
  3. Please notify me when the recipient views this card.
  4. Please send me a copy of this card.

card options

The 1st one is set by default. However, for the free ecards that we offer for the non-members, this option is disabled. Here are our ecard collection if you are interested.

The rest you must set manually yourself when creating the card.

When you set the 2nd option, an email notification will be sent to you when the card is sent. This is particularly helpful when you have scheduled many cards in the future for different dates.

When you set the 3rd option, an email notification will be sent to you when the card is picked up the first time.

When you set the 4th option, a copy of the ecard will be sent to you. With this option, a new ecard will be created with the same card greeting and message, but the recipient information will be yours. This is done this way so that when you view this card, the card for the other recipient won't be marked as being picked up.

Observing the Longest Solar Eclipse of the Century

Yesterday, July 22nd, we were able to observe a near total solar eclipse from Taiwan (it was a total solar eclipse when observed from southern China, but Taiwan lies that much further south that it was only a partial solar eclipse here). This will be the longest solar eclipse of the century, so needless to say we prepared to make this a perfect homeschooling opportunity.

We couldn't get our hands on the special shades needed to observe the eclipse, so instead we used the pinhole cameras the boys had made some time back. But the urge to glance upwards was almost irresistible, despite warnings this could lead to serious eye damage - so when a patch of dark clouds passed in front of the eclipse I snapped some shots.

In truth it is easy to think this is only the moon during the day. But the light was otherworldly and as we watched day turned to pitch darkness on the news in some places in southern China, you become aware of the awesome power and light that radiates from even a sliver of sun - because even during the partial eclipse here that left a sliver of sun, it was still bright enough to seem like 'merely' early morning. Follow this link to see some amazing photos of the event shot by other photographers in different parts of Asia where the eclipse could be seen. I especially like the tenth image - now why didn't we think of that! :)

Creativity = hard work

I tend to be reading at least three or four books at the same time, except when I start a book that is so captivating that I read it in one sitting. For some books, reading bits and pieces here and there actually makes for better, gradual absorption. Creativity For Life by Eric Maisel is one of these books, giving me a nice kick in the b*tt each time I pick it up.

There is a prevailing myth that creativity is something that just comes to us, like lightning from the sky, or that it is all fun and play, but the reality as most artists know is that it is more often than not hard work (albeit it fun in a masochist kind of way).

While many parts of the book deal with some of the more destructive personality traits of many artists, even for those of us who do not suffer from depression, alcohol abuse etc. the book is a great resource for introspection. If you just need to overcome a creative block, get motivated or disciplined about creative pursuits, or really want to understand aspects of your artist personality this book is one of the most comprehensive I have seen. For me the most useful was the extensive chapter on the many, many causes of blocks (20 are discussed in great detail!).

Launching the new website for Tibetan Musician Techung

Acclaimed Tibetan musician Techung asked me about a year ago whether I would be willing to design his website. You might remember that I created a card with a message of peace shortly after the uprisings in Tibet that shocked the world a little over a year ago. Techung kindly allowed me to use his beautiful music in the card and so I was very happy to help with the design of his site.

It has taken some time for us both to make time between my regular work on the cards and his busy tour schedule to get the site ready to launch. So I am delighted to announce that today, an auspicious date selected by Techung's 87 year old father, we have launched the new site.

Please check out the site to hear more of his wonderful music and read about his impressive past and upcoming tour schedule. The site will be an on-going source of news and upcoming events and hopefully you will be able to enjoy his performance live at some point.

To celebrate the launch of the site, the first, fifteenth and thirtieth person to join his mailing list will receive a DVD of the concert in Taipei, Taiwan. To join, simply access the news section of the site and scroll to the bottom where you can enter your email address.

My new favorite cookbook

It is rare for me to find a cookbook that leaves me wanting to prepare almost every recipe - and then to find that each recipe is an instant success around the dinner table. But that is just that case with my newest cookbook, although I had to wait almost six month for amazon to stock and ship it to me:

Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia by Jeffrey Alford and Noami Duguid.
I am fortunate that most of the ingredients are staples here in Taiwan, cheap, fresh and easy to find, although strangely a few things such as lemongrass, galangal, curry leaves and lime leaves that feature dominantly in other south east Asian cuisine are difficult to find here. So I grow my own lemongrass, hoard the galangal when I can find it and use dried lime leaves.

So far here are some of the recipes from the book we love:

White Fungus Salad (tastes amazing, don't let the name put you off :), here is how it looks prepared in our house:

Aromatic Steamed Fish Curry
Khmer Fish Stew with Lemongrass
Stir-Fried Fish with Ginger
Grilled Chicken with Hot and Sweet Dipping Sauce (my kids couldn't get enough of this)
Grilled Lemongrass Beef
Quick Khmer Pork and Green Beans
Jungle Curry
The best Eggplant Dish Ever (no kidding, it really is, even my kids who normally are not crazy about eggplant like it - pictured below)

Taxonomy Scavenger Hunt

This past week we had a bit of fun teaching the boys about taxonomy in their science class at home.

First we did a bit of initial reading on the topic before we set out on a little field trip to see the special Darwin exhibition at the Taichung Science Museum. The exhibition was great, although I would have loved it if it had been in English as well as Chinese. Luckily I read "The Kiwi's Egg: Charles Darwin and natural selection", by David Quammen about a year ago, so I was able to answer the barrage of questions the boys had. Emil was fascinated by the exhibition, taking his time to read and thoroughly explore the exhibits. Esben is still not able to read as many Chinese characters having just finished first grade, so Tim walked around with him, while I tried to keep up with Emil.

The next day we went out looking for anything interesting they could find on the grounds at the university next door, ranging from organic to man-made, rounding out the selection with a few things from around the house as well.

We then created taxonomy cards for each item determining whether it was organic or not, the material, color, symmetrical or not, whether it would float in water, etc. For most items we could guess whether it would float or not in water, but a few created disagreement, so had to be tested. We were surprises to find that BANANAS FLOAT (actually, that had been my guess, hum, hum, but nobody agreed with me) and the boys discovered that some things float initially until they absorb too much water ...

Finally they grouped these items, first making groups according to whether they were organic or not, then regrouping according to color, and so on.

For the last two days the boys have been attending an insect summer day camp at TaiDa university in Taipei, which seems like a great follow up to this initial class at home. I am looking forward to hearing all about it when they return tomorrow ...

Crafty Kids

One of the first things many people comment on when they first come to visit is the fact that we don't have a television. We hardly notice unless they remind us, but as the boys are growing older we have noticed that they have a great love of books - perhaps even more so because they don't have a TV to entertain their little minds for hours each day.

Emil usually makes a little reading 'cave' in the corner of our sofa by surrounding himself with pillows and can stay there reading for hours.

So I figured it might be fun to make some bookmarks for their books and that is what we did one afternoon ... totally nerdy, I know. We got some fun supplies, like paper punches, ribbons and wavy cardboard and they had a blast with it.

The next morning I found them busy making more, haven woken up early to keep crafting away while we slept in ...


Esben ready to kick some bad *ss

Last Saturday Esben finally qualified to take the official black belt test in Taekwondo and passed. When he received his belt with his name engraved on it he was sooo proud and mommy was even prouder!

waiting to compete

Emil will qualify in a few months as well, but most importantly both boys continue finding their daily practice lots of fun. Since they are being homeschooled it provides lots of social activity, not to mention exercise - these days they come back drenched in sweat as it is still hot and muggy even during the evenings.

A few months ago both Emil and Esben won silver medals in the regional major's taikwando competition.

As Tim and I watched the sparing match that won Emil his silver medal from the sidelines we were probably more nervous than him :) Now ain't that just typical?

the coach is really encouraging

Emil receives his silver medal

Hiking to Lake JiaMing

I promised to write a little about my trip to lake JiaMing here in Taiwan, a high altitude lake created by a meteor over 3000 years ago, located at 3310 meters in altitude.

I set out at 5 in the morning with my friend, landscape photographer Ming-Nan, as we wanted to reach the cabin early enough to avoid the usual afternoon rains that the plum rainy season brings to Taiwan this time of year. The hike is not too challenging to the first cabin just past the 4 km mark, taking us about two hours and making a nice spot to stop and have our breakfast. It is located right next to a mountain stream you have to cross in the middle of the pine forest which opens up nicely by the cabin to let in lots of sunshine.

The trail becomes very steep for the next 2 kilometers or so as you ascend to the first pass, reaching old juniper trees. The high altitude leaves you feeling pretty zapped at this point as you have ascended more than 1000 meters, but the threat of rain left us unable to take any breaks. We finally reached the second cabin by 13:00 hours. Much to my delight a group of vinaceous rose finches were happily hopping around camp, not at all bothered by our arrival. Since I was not carrying my heavy 300mm lens, I did not snap any pictures, but here is one of my shots from Mt. Hehuanshan of a rosefinch:

After a little bite to eat we settled down for a nap, with the monsoon rain pummeling the roof of the cabin I was quickly lulled to sleep. A few hours later we were woken by the arrival of a small group of hikers, soaked to the bone. Taiwanese are well-known for their hospitality and are always very, very friendly - and so when you meet fellow hikers there are always exchanges of stories over tea, lots of chit chat and when spotting me - lots of curiosity.

My head had started pounding for real from the altitude at this point. Moving made me real queasy and sounds made it all worse ... there are oxygen tanks in the cabins since many hikers suffer from worse problems due to the high altitude.

Ming-Nan brewed a hot concoction of from dried plum paste that the aboriginals here swear by for altitude problems - and lo and behold it really helped. Two hours later I was feeling much, much better. By then the weather had cleared to reveal the most stunning star studded sky, with the milky way being clearly visible from north to south. I was starting to feel excited about having to get up at 3 am to start our hike to the lake, because with views like this I was sure it would not be dull.

Now even though rising at 3 am might sound like a pain in the you know what under normal circumstances, when sleeping on a hard wooden platform, frankly, I am ready to get up by about then anohoo. The night was cool (9C) and walking in the dark was really pleasant after the scorching time in the sun during the day. The hike to the lake is not a walk in the park though, taking you over several peaks and up and down some rather treacherous terrain that invites the mantra 'just don't look down'. As the first light and color appeared on the sky we could make out some ominous cloud formations right above the area where the lake is, even though there were clear skies almost everywhere else. Ming-Nan muttered something that left no doubt that this was not a good sign.

When we reached the lake the weather was indeed less than perfect for photography, but then again in such matters there never are any guarantees and at least it was not raining. We spent about 6 hours at the lake taking pictures from various angles and just enjoying the blissful quiet and peace by the lake. When we started back it very quickly packed up for rain, earlier than normal, so unfortunately there was no chance to stop for photos along the way back. Luckily the rain didn't start coming down at full monsoon strength until just before reaching back to the cabin.

We were debating whether to make another hike back to the lake the next morning when hikers started arriving in substantial numbers. One of the guides confirmed there was a typhoon on the way so any thoughts of going to the lake again we scratched.

The cabin filled up to capacity as it was Friday evening. Almost all activities in Taiwan center around eating and hiking is not exception. While we were making due with dehydrated rations, the arriving groups had brought bags of vegetables, cabbages, meat, kilos of rice, huge pots and woks and too many gas canisters to count. A makeshift kitchen was set up in one corner of the cabin, where little by little meals worthy of an upmarket Chinese restaurant started to take shape. The cabin filled with the smell of fried garlic, chili, ginger and soy sauce. The rain stopped.
A brilliant full double rainbow formed right outside the cabin from one end of the valley to the other as at last we glimpsed the late evening sun on this almost summer solstice. We all crowded out of the cabin, mugs in hand, and despite the slight drizzle Ming-Nan and I grabbed our cameras. There is always a feeling in me that the camera cannot do justice to the experience in such a moment, but still here is what I captured:

By 8 I snuggled into sleep, my earplugs being my most treasured possession after my sleeping bag that night. I slept like a baby and didn't wake until 5 am. Ming-Nan confessed he had barely slept a wink due to the noise level in the cabin. Earplugs, gotta love 'em.

We slowly packed up and started off on the return hike, where I had planned to do some more photography, but once again the weather sidetracked those plans. We were able to patch through a call on our mobile phones to find out about the typhoon and apparently it was fast approaching Taiwan. The clouds were moving faster and faster above us, the weather packing up, looking ominous. We made a rapid descend of about four hours. My toes were blistering and when we were caught in a huge downpour by the end of the trail, I didn't bother to get out my rain gear. The cool rain was a welcome shower after days of sweating it out :)

The next day the typhoon became weaker and changed course so nothing serious came of it.

Now this was good news in more than one way: usually the crops of the farmers are badly destroyed by summer typhoons here. But so far this year they have been spared and as a result the price of mangoes, guava and lichee fruits is so cheap they are almost not worth picking for the farmers. Meanwhile we are enjoying this very much as Taiwan grows some of the best fruit in the world. Tonight we made a favorite of mine, sticky rice with sweet and salty coconut cream and mango. There were no leftovers :)

America the Beautiful - Animated eCards for July 4th

We have added two new cards to our selection for U.S. independence day. The first card, "Liberty" features Ginger, a golden Labrador, who unwittingly creates quite the piece of art out of sand on the beach. Despite a funny twist, it ends on a touching note.

Both cards are set to two very different renditions of "America the Beautiful". The second card by the same title as the song includes a wonderful jazzy swing rendition to get you right in a big Apple sort of mood. This card is an adaption of the card "Celestial" released last year for New Year, updated to capture just a few of the things that must have inspired the title "America the Beautiful".

In addition to these two new cards there are a number of other cards that were created for July 4th celebrations, below are a few. The card "Hope" is an uplifting alternative for those looking for a message of peace that is still highly suitable for celebrating July 4th and features one of my favorite musical pieces by composer Respighi.