Chapter 2
Taiwan in the aftermath of the Quake-Part 1


A short preface to this story. This is not written for the web. It is an actual e-mail I sent to a few friends while sitting in the dark waiting for power to come back. It just shows what a slightly atypical international adventure is like, and what went thru my mind at the time. The other point to make, is please bear in mind that I live in New England and I have never experienced a strong quake. To me the threat of danger was real. (Although not strong enough to make me cancel and leave town.) I have told this experience to friends in California, and having experienced many quakes, they shrug it off as a long, uneventful story. If I tell it to New Englanders, I have their complete attention. I stopped telling the story altogether, after I began to tell it to a few friends in Mexico and almost immediately a girl left crying. Apparently, she was in a very large quake in Mexico city and lost friends in it. I should add, that many people were lost in the Taiwan quake, and so quakes themselves are not funny. (Sorry, I didn't mean to depress everyone even before I tell the story!) However, as this was one of my adventures in internationalization, here goes:

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Chapter 2: Taiwan in the aftermath of the Quake - Part 1

Dateline: October, 1999, Taipei, Taiwan
Taiwan had a major earthquake (7.8) recently. It was followed a few days later by a significant aftershock (6+), so I was a little hesitant to come here. Fortunately, most of the news in Hong Kong, where I was just prior to coming here, was in Chinese, so I couldn't learn what was up... The English news was very limited.

The Hong Kong office had been trying to reach our Taiwan distributors, and were finally able to. The Taiwan office said there were some power outages still near the earthquake region, but other than that "it was perfectly safe for us to come". At the time I remarked that I was skeptical that they had the right perspective to determine our safety. I am now encoding this as Tex's Law of Disasters:

Never ask someone in a disaster area, if it is safe for you to come.

It seems, they always think as long they are there, its also OK for you. Besides, why do you think they live in a disaster area in the first place? For further proof, look at the folks rebuilding homes on the New England coast, where they get washed away every 30 years...

Anyway, apparently when they were telling us it was safe to come, they were sitting in the dark, because I heard today they still don't have power.

So my colleague Dennis and I head to Taipei as scheduled. On the plane I am reading Time magazine's story about the earthquake and they have a nice chart of the 51 fault lines running thru Taiwan, and the plate tectonics explanation for the continuing quakes as well as predictions for several more significant quakes over the next few months. I was not happy reading these predictions, but the plane was already in the air, so not much I can do about it.

The landing was pretty smooth and we catch our ride to Taipei. Five minutes into the ride, Dennis gets a call from our new distributor with info about getting together this evening. Dennis and I remark about how efficient he is, since the plane just touched down. However, later I learned there was another earthquake just 20 minutes before we landed, about Richter 4+. I therefore suspect he was actually checking on our safety not planning dinner.

Arriving at the hotel, the registrar asks me if I want a high floor or a low floor. Having never been asked such a thing before, I ask    ""What's the difference?".
"Well, in case of an earthquake," I am told, "some people like the high floors because they don't want all the higher floors to fall on top of them. Some people like the lower floors to be better able to exit the building. And in case the building tips over, you don't fall as far!"
(One of the significant events in the recent earthquake was a tall building toppled over onto its side. There was a video that was shown over and over on the news around the world.)
Still, this is not your "Smoking or no smoking room?" type question...

I decide to go with a high floor and wonder about using the elevators as I ride to the 31st floor. I am in the room for no more than 10 minutes when the power goes out. Now I have no idea why the power goes out, all I know is it's gone and I am sitting in pitch black, and I imagine perhaps an earthquake is happening and it destroyed the power plant and the building will start moving any minute.

Now, way back in '69, I was in NY during the Big Blackout. When the lights went out I was in the shower. I have very vivid memories of being wet and naked and yelling, to what was only a moment ago a house full of people, asking what was going on... However, I never got a reply, since everyone in the house went outside to see how far the blackness extended. It took me forever to find some clothes and learn that my family and our electricity had not been abducted by aliens. Instead, my family were outside with the neighbors listening to news reports on a car radio.

Anyway, I only mention this because when the power went out in my hotel room, I find myself again in the dark in the bathroom, this time I am sitting on the throne with my pants down around my ankles. I am debating the proper sequence of operations in this situation. Find the toilet paper or brace myself in a door-frame? For what it's worth I decide I would rather be caught dead with my pants on, then to be naked in the doorway. (The expression "swinging in the breeze" comes to mind and seems quite apt for an earth tremor.) I am sure my mother would be quite proud of me, because I was also thinking about her reminding me of the importance of clean underwear in the event I am in an accident and taken to the hospital.

After a very few minutes the light comes back on, and I proceed nervously back into the elevator and down 31 floors, to meet Dennis and our new distributor in the lobby as previously agreed.

Later that night I am in the hotel room, preparing for the next day, when the television stations disappear and the TV starts to give off a loud hissing crackling noise. I figure a quake has taken out the cable company and move away from the glass window, waiting again expectantly for something to happen. I feel pretty silly when the TV comes back on uneventfully in a few minutes.

The only channel of interest is CNN and I find myself learning of the breaking news that Mexico is having an earthquake. So much for TV taking my mind off of aftershocks. On top of that Japan has a significant radiation leak. I find myself calculating the distance between Tokyo and Taipei, while looking up the jetstream direction, to see if a nuclear cloud is heading my way.

I was in Europe when Chernobyl happened and at the time we couldn't eat any of the fruits or water there due to fears of the radiation cloud contaminating anything in open spaces. My healthplan at that time covered the radiation test I had when I returned to the US. However, I was guessing that with my current health plan I was probably on my own, unless I can come up with a clever way to expense it. I am pretty sure the international lab that I run would be greatly improved with a Geiger counter, don't you? CNN isn't saying anything about wind directions so I figure the hell with this and go to bed.

Presentations to the new distributor go well the next morning and at 3PM I arrive back at the hotel. There is a mall next door and I decide to drop by. It's kind of dark when I get there although there are some lights on. I start to realize its the backup emergency lights and go to an information booth to ask "what's up?". Apparently, the mall and the hotel were told they could not use electricity for 7 hours since there is not enough to go around. However, the mall is open and I am welcome to view their wares, but I can't buy anything until later when the electricity comes back. (So much for e-commerce when the chips are down! Although, they also would not even do a cash transaction.) As I don't have a flashlight with me to view their wares, I go back to my room. A bellboy assures me the elevator is safe running on their backup power supply, and on the way up I consider recommending the bellboy for a position with the distributor that told me it was fine to come to Taiwan...

The emergency power runs the TV and some lights, so my room is fine to stay in until I have to meet with some folks from the distributor's office for dinner.

I had a nice dinner although perhaps I made a faux pas. They asked me where I would like to go and I remembered their manager had suggested a Hot Pot place, when I said I liked spicy foods. They must have expressed concern for my being able to take their hot spices a dozen times, as did the waitress, so we ordered a medium hot version. We had a nice, spicy, but not killer spicy, meal. During dinner I learned that two of the three had never had such a meal before and the heat was a bit over the top for them. The third stuck with only non-spicy bits. The meal reduced one guy to tears. I felt bad that I put them through this. An odd thing about the meal is they each ordered prune juice to drink. They thought prune juice would compensate for the hot spices. I made a remark about prune juice bringing them to the bathroom which at least one of them, if not all of them, thought was untrue. I stuck with Coke since I didn't want to be pants-less during the next power outage.

It was a good decision. I started to read a lengthy thread of Unicode emails, when there is this big bang and the power is again out. The room goes dead quiet when this happens as all of the fans and equipment in the building come to a stop. I am sitting here (pants on!) with the only light being the light from my laptop.

There is a flower in a vase to my right which I noticed began shaking. It's not a very big motion and its been more than a few minutes so I've decided its not a tremor and just normal building vibrations.

Ah, the lights are back on. I'll go back to my Unicode thread. We leave for Korea tomorrow at 4 or 5pm, after meeting with the powerless distributor. I haven't heard from Dennis yet where we are meeting with them. They requested we come to their office, so I am wondering if they have a candle-powered projector to use with my powerpoints. I will attempt to repress the urge to invite them to Boston during our next blizzard.

Oh yeah, one more thing: Anyone know whether the jetstream blows from Tokyo towards Seoul or from Seoul to Tokyo?

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