We were informed early this week that February 28 is a national holiday. "It's a government mistake," they told us. "They forgot to not make it a holiday any more". Some fifty years ago, a protest that took place on the last day of February resulted in police violence, which escalated into a widespread national massacre of dissenters. Certainly not the kind of event one wants to remember by partying the night before and having a backyard barbecue. But what was done was done, so Dave and I ended up having an unplanned holiday.

The days leading up to it were hardly devoid of interest. On Monday night, Our Host took us out to see more parts of town, including Lungshan temple (one of the oldest traditional buddhist temples in Taipei). It struck me that, despite all the assertions one hears in religion classes that Buddhism is not about praying to the Buddha, the reality about what modern-day everybodies do in a Buddhist temple is surprisingly theistic.

Add a baby, and it's just like Christmas!
Three wise men, a baby and a donkey... just add a virgin and stir

The kneeling and praying in front of the "special" buddhas (one for when you need to pass a test, one for when you seek good financial fortune, one for when you want to have babies, one for when you seek health), the symbollic burning of incense, and the food offerings all are not very distant from lighting a votive to the Virgin of Guadalupe or burning a cow because the smell of burning flesh is pleasing to the Lord. Some of the lanterns where only a donkey and a virgin removed from a Christian nativity scene. Interesting how one may explain certain things theologically and encounter a completely different praxis.

We also went to a night market nearby known affectionately as Snake Alley, but officially called the "Lungshan Tourist Night Market". It is the one night market that has been "prettied up", so to speak, by putting a domed glass roof overhead, lighting looking antiseptic. However, and I think it is very telling, this was the only place in Taipei where I actually felt unsafe, even mildly unclean. I'm not sure if it was due to the endless rows of barkers trying to peddle their snake soup and bile, or the couple of sex toy stores, or the very, ahem, friendly ladies sitting at the food stalls. In any event, the general seedy feel of this emphasized to me, once again, that seedy is so much more than plain dirty or even tawdry. This was the kind of place where you might be compelled to jump into a tub of Clorox after leaving, just so you can feel clean again.

One notable memory of Snake Alley were photographs pinned on posterboard at some herbal remedy stand. After looking at them for a few minutes, it dawned on us that what we were seeing were pictures of people's perineal area, and that those big, red, pustulent lumps were overgrown hemorrhoids covering their rectums. Apparently, if you ate whatever centipede-looking thing was in front, you would either prevent or cure such painful growths. I was almost tempted to eat the bug as prophylaxis--Buddha protect me from ever getting anything that vile looking.

Other memorable things this week, before the holiday, included an English course on television where a lady was teaching Mandarin speakers how to say "My underwear is too tight" (I could not make this up--that was it, word for word, honest to goodness, and by Buddha). Additionally, a Colleague of our Gracious Host treated us to dinner in what had to be amongst the most exclusive seafood restaurant in Taipei. Delicacies of the evening included shark fin soup (Dave had a hard time with it, I didn't even know it was shark fin, I thought it was just an unusually tough portobella mushroom), crabs with most of the white meaty stuff removed and left with the hardened crab fat and roe, sea cucumber stomach on whitefish, and an amazingly succulent lobster. I think Dave and I handled it pretty well, despite the general viscosity of the whole meal.

Which leads to 2/28 day. We decided that we wanted to be adventurous, to leave the city (and avoid night markets), so we decided to head to Yangminshan National Park, about 15 km outside of Taipei. When I asked the woman at the concierge desk what the best way to get there was, she looked at me as if I had just mentioned my third eye or commented on the size of her breasts. With some disbelief, and not without fearing for our getting lost or being baffled by why we'd want to go there, she gave us some directions. Another concierge mentioned that "yes, the air there is more fresh, healthier than in the city."

This should have been a warning. Apparently, we were not the only people who had this idea, as we were stuck in a traffic jam on the way there that was so bad that we decided, 3/4 of the way there, that we'd make better time walking, even though we didn't know how far we were from our destination. The park itself
Strange ladies lying at the bottom of lakes is no basis for a form of government.
"Please refrain from feeding the Lady of the Lake"
was full of flowers in spring blossom, and the strong smell we initially attributed to stinky tofu we later decided was stinky tofu plus sulfur emanating from the steam vents--Yangmingshan is in a volcanically active area, and there are multiple hot springs there. We found none where we might dip our weary, wet bodies, although I hear that there are some user-friendly springs. We walked, were asked by a group of Taiwanese teenagers to be in a picture with them, and saw a funeral procession. Our return trip to the hotel involved walking back to where we got out of the taxi and then some, in the rain, hoping to find a cab to take us back.

Back at the hotel, we treated ourselves to the hotel's spa and, realizing that despite our desire to order a pizza we'd never be able to communicate our desire for a ham and pineapple medium pizza with the local Domino's, we walked towards the Pizza Hut that was nearby, and treated ourselves to local delicacies like tuna melt pizza and mexican pizza (with corn and jalapeños).


ENDOFSTRING; $node['date']=strtotime('2/28/2001 01:06:00 PM'); $node['number']='2458765760134760509'; $node['permalink']='http://www.saddlesores.org/new/2001/02/taiwan-walk-hao-or-power-of-two.html'; echo "INSERT INTO node (nid, vid, type, title, uid, created, changed) VALUES(".$nid.",".$nid.", 'story', '".addslashes($node['title'])."', 1, ".$node['date'].", ".$node['date'].");\n\n"; echo "INSERT INTO node_revisions (nid, vid, uid, title, body, format) VALUES(".$nid.", ".$nid.", 1, '".addslashes($node['title'])."', '".addslashes($node['body'])."', 3);\n\n"; echo "INSERT INTO term_node (nid, tid) VALUES(".$nid.", 6);\n\n"; $iid = '7061154575427075068'; $nid++; $node=array(); $node['title']=<< Week One! (We can have lots of fun!) ENDOFSTRING; if (trim($node['title']) == "") $node['title'] = "title"; $node['body']=<<I began my journey this morning at 8am , boarding the flight headed towards San Francisco, then to Taipei. Nothing particularly eventful happened yet. I did have the pleasure of having my seatmate almost spill some of his Starbucks triple-shot venti skim latte on me, which was ironic given my very deliberate care to not spill the motherf---ing drink as I took my seat.

Every 19 or 20 minutes we get a very dramatic waft of odor through the cabin. I believe the guy sitting in front of me either has a horrible case of flatulence or he's already filled up his adult diaper. I hope this isn't a signal for a very, very long set if flights.

I'll be in Taipei sometime tomorrow night.

(February 19, 2001)

My arrival in Taipei happened without incident. Had a cute seat mate for the flight to Taipei--that always helps. The hotel had reserved a car to pick me up at the airport, and it drove me straight to what would be my lodging for two days, the Asiaworld Plaza hotel on Tunhua Road, in the center of Taipei's ritzier shopping district.

The AsiaWorld turned out to be more Asia than World--it seems that the company's travel agent booked me at what is primarily a hotel for Japanese tour groups and visitors from the mainland and other parts of Taiwan. I believe I am one of two Western people at this hotel. Breakfasts are an amusing experience in dodging Nomura-san and Sasaki-san, who are racing each other to the coffee buffet. Alas, I never seem to be quite as nimble as the grandmothers reaching for gyoza or congee.

I spent most of yesterday walking around town with Geri, with whom Dylan, Erica and I did some hanging in Hong Kong last summer. She was kind enough to take the time to show me around and proceeded to show me how to take the bus, get on the subway, and read some basic signs. It set me up to be much better prepared for Taipei. Earlier that morning I had headed out on my own to see what I could see. I bought a Dick Lee album and a highly inexpensive Caetano Veloso recording. Geri would, later that day, show me that paying $10 for a CD in Taiwan is a crime, as just about anything can be purchased for mere pennies. The electronics stores are packed with all sorts of goodies, the kind that have historically made me wax slightly poetic. Our long walk, where Jeri explained much about the purchasing of dirt cheap books, pig blood cake, and pearl milk tea, also set me up to be prepared for what would lay in store in the realm of food.

(February 20, 2001)

Just got an attempted lesson in geography from a travel agent in Milwaukee who blamed me for not being specific when asking for a reservation for the Hyatt in Taipei. It seems that I didn't tell her that Taiwan is not a city in China. I guess there's another example of how the US educational system failed all of us; her ignorance (and feeble attempt at phone service rep pseudo-patronizing attitude) just cost someone NT3000 for the ridiculously long call.

(February 23, 2001)

The course has not been proceeding as smoothly as I would have hoped, but I think I've managed to salvage a lot of it. We'll need to do some fairly extensive overhauling of the content to make sure that potential areas of confusion are minimized. But then again, why am I writing about work on my own website?

Could it be because it's become very apparent that in Taiwan there seems to be no line between personal living and business? I know that most of the people with whom I'm interacting in the class have wives, boyfriend or children. However, they have been extremely deferential to the foreign visitor, spending an inordinate amount of time with me, well into the late hours of the evening. The attention is highly flattering, although certainly making me wonder whether I actually deserve all of it. Monday night, the COO of ecommerce for this company took me out to dinner, where he treated me top that evening's delicacy, simmered frog.

Tuesday night, the director of software development training showed me the area around the hotel I moved to (left the Asiaworld, moved to the Hyatt. If the Asiaworld was decidedly asian, the Hyatt is unabashedly western). Had Shabu Shabu on my own at a japanese department store--that was fun. The next evening I was taken on an outing to Shihlin night market, which is the oldest night market in Taipei. Take a huge wet marketplace, replace every stall with a food vendor, fill it up with people looking to eat, and you'll have an image of what this place looks like. We sat and ate oyster omelette from one of the vendors (my host ordered a squid soup as well for us), and as we walked, the odor of a pig farm started overwhelming my senses. Eventually, I gathered that this was the smell of Stinky Tofu, apparently a very popular form of fried bean curd. I don't think I'd be able to get over the smell for long enough to try it--even though I consider myself a brave eater.

Thursday night, when I had hoped to settle into my hotel room for some time and then head out on my own to explore Taipei at night, I got a call from the sales people of the company, who wanted to take me out for drinks. I met up with them, and for about four hours I managed to communicate in pidgin English and my own butcher-friendly version of Mandarin. Again, I'm learning that I HATE not speaking the language--I feel that I'm just not spending enough time studying it. Tonight, they plan on taking me out for dinner and drinks... I'm trying to figure out how to get out of it.

In general, this trip has not been devoid of its own culinary delicacies:

DayExotic Food items
SundayPig Blood Cake
MondayFrog legs in sesame oil sauce
TuesdayTaiwanese shabu shabu (ordered on my own--that counts as exotic)
Wednesday-LunchSzichuanese food: duck blood pudding, beef aorta, sea cucumber, tripe, all simmered in a hot spicy broth that could burn a hole through lead walls, accompanied by some juice which was hardly helpful--Dave P., who would later join me, described it as "reminiscent of Jake's Barbeque Sauce" when he tried it. I compared it to the taste of campfire you get in your mouth after a night of camping.
Wednesday-DinnerTaiwanese oyster omelette and squid soup, eaten at a marketplace. Grilled eel. Avoided, at all costs, the Stinky Tofu and assorted duck parts. Host commented "You pass on everything!". How unfair!
ThursdayThe exotic gift of General Tso's Chicken, ordered by the training director because the waitress at the bar suggested that the 'Merican visitors tend to like it. He, of course, mentioned that he had never had such a dish, and I mentioned that well, 'Mericans call that Chinese food. He had a puzzled look on his face, a certain sense of disbelief.

It seems that Taiwanese food (traditional Taiwanese food, that is) tends to fall into three categories: the Tentacled, the Once-in-a-Shell, and the intensely aromatic.

(February 23, 2001, Later)

Dinner with the sales people, The Night After: We headed out to a seafood restaurant where everything one was to eat was still wiggling its tail, snapping its claws or swimming merrily. My host asked me what I wanted, and I pointed to assorted varieties of fish, squid, crab and vegetables. Every time I pointed at something to ask my host what it was, the fishmonger who was taking our order would get very excited and say "Barbecue?". One particularly interesting item was squid mouth--the amount of culinary specialization that has to go into deciding that the mouths of squid are, on their own, something special to eat is astounding. Taiwan Beer was consumed in copious quantities, and my appetite was sated by all those little creatures that died for my pleasure.


ENDOFSTRING; $node['date']=strtotime('2/17/2001 01:02:00 PM'); $node['number']='7061154575427075068'; $node['permalink']='http://www.saddlesores.org/new/2001/02/taiwan-week-one-we-can-have-lots-of-fun.html'; echo "INSERT INTO node (nid, vid, type, title, uid, created, changed) VALUES(".$nid.",".$nid.", 'story', '".addslashes($node['title'])."', 1, ".$node['date'].", ".$node['date'].");\n\n"; echo "INSERT INTO node_revisions (nid, vid, uid, title, body, format) VALUES(".$nid.", ".$nid.", 1, '".addslashes($node['title'])."', '".addslashes($node['body'])."', 3);\n\n"; echo "INSERT INTO term_node (nid, tid) VALUES(".$nid.", 6);\n\n"; $iid = '5626238571893990273'; $nid++; $node=array(); $node['title']=<<What an intense amount of walking. I saw a bike I thought I'd want to buy, but decided it was not worth the hassle. I saw signs that confirm to me that Taiwan is a nation full of inventive people.

Any degree, we've got it!
What do you want to be? We can help you!

Was accosted by a group of 6-year olds who felt the need to yell "Hello! How are you!" at me as I walked down the street. Another computer marketplace filled me with lusty feelings. I took a cab in which the guy driving decided that he really needed to tell me how much the Australian tourists liked coming to Taipei to hum-hum with the Taiwanese girls. "All night!" he said.

I also got proselitized in pidgin English by a Taiwanese lady as I munched on a rice burger at a Japanese department store. I saw that there was an empty seat in front of her at the crowded food court, and in my little Mandarin I asked her "dui bù qíรข", pointed at the chair, and as she nooded I sat. She asked me something in Mandarin, I understood "meikwo" and answered that I was American, but then I said I wasn't, said I was from Peru. I then said that I was sorry, that I spoke Mandarin poorly, and she replied that I didn't. Thank you Mr. Pimsleur, creator of Pimsleur's Mandarin Chinese I, for making "Excuse me. I am/am not American. I don't speak Mandarin well. Do you speak English?" the whole of lesson 1 in your wonderful tapes.

After some more pidgin, where she asked me what I did, and when I showed her the Palm Pilot in my wallet she mentioned her husband did that too. Then she asked me "Do you love Jesus?" I did a double take, then said that no, not really, and she said "You are always welcome in his church."

The close encounter with Taiwanese evangelism behind me, I headed to the hotel, where I'd meet the folks that had been volunteered to take me to the airport to pick up Dave P., a co-worker who would be arriving that evening from the US.

The folks that were picking me up, Sean and Steve (I forgot his name, I'll dig up his business card at some point, Steve will work), turned out to be not only pleasant but very much a couple, which was not hard to determine once I boarded the car. Sean's english was about as strong as my Mandarin, but Steve spoke English fluently. Within a few minutes of chatting I caught enough references from the International Gay Lexicon, and managed to toss out enough of my own to clue him into the fact that there were now three Friends of Dorothy in the car. This night also brought out the second reference to Dick Lee in one week, where I found out that Steve has met the guy. He also confirmed to me that the composer of The Mad Chinaman and Fried Rice Paradise has a level of fagulousness that should be apparent from his latest birthay bash, a party fully in Pink. I guess I've just been let into the kind of Outing Worthy data that I might be advised not to post online. So there...

Dave arrived without incident, although one of his first experiences on Taiwanese soil was, well, colliding with it. It was great to be able to interact with someone in a language I speak fluently, rather than communicate in preschool Grunt. When Sean and Steve got us back to our hotel, and after Dave settled in, Dave and I took a walk around Tunghwa night market, where Dave had his first pearl milk tea experience, as I prepared him for the culinary delights that awaited him.


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