Culinary Adventures #1

Candied fruit on a stick, gives you a toothache just looking at it

Culinary Adventures #1: Food on a Stick 

Taiwan is undoubtedly a country based on the concept of street food. Few families here actually cook whole meals, especially lunch and dinner (breakfast, from what I understand, usually consists of some sort of oatmeal or a rice porridge called congee that is old, mushy rice mixed with leftover bits of meat and vegetables) and instead rely on the thousands of little shops and stands that litter the streets and alleyways. Night markets provide an orgy of culinary possibilities for locals and tourists alike and every neighborhood seems to have its own special haunt, be it a mom and pop dumpling shop or a noodle and soup stand with all the fixings. 

Most of the Taiwanese, however, seem to eat like the Spanish do–light snacks spread out over a long period of time. Since much of the food is eaten as you stroll through a shopping bazaar or on your way to the train station, the majority of these tasty snacks are served on a stick, kebab style, or in a bag, eaten with a stick.

Case in point, the aforementioned Chou Dofu, Taiwan’s official favorite snack and probably one of the few things you wouldn’t easily find outside of this part of the world.

Oh, stinky tofu

I had previously written about my first foray into this pungent delicacy on my second day in Taipei. I have since tried a number of different stands, some bearable, one downright foul, and have returned to the original vendor at the Shilin Night Market at least three times since on my way home for work.

Deep fried and then slathered with a somewhat spicy, oyster based sauce and topped with shredded cabbage, Chou Dofu is a bizarre but thrilling bite to tackle. While I have only tried the various fried incarnations, all served on a skewer, there are other preparations including a raw version served in an equally stinky soup broth. At least when deep-fried a certain amount of the fermented tofu’s funkiness is flash-fried away.

Taiwanese sausages are another big hit here. It’s hard to say what’s in the various encased meats found around town. Pork, sure. The nasty bits, most definitely. Blood sausage is common, often served in the traditional natural lining tubing but also served in rectangular pieces mixed with rice. No matter what the type of sausage you come across it’s going to be served on a stick. I’ve tried two different stands, one at the Shilin Night Market (Taipei’s largest, located near work) and most recently on a day trip to Danshui, a port city just North of Taipei proper.

The sausage is generally plentiful in its portion size and has a nice amount of spice to it, though not too spicy, but overall is very fatty, which is understandable considering both occasions each sausage cost about 15 dollars, or 50 cents US.

Seafood should be bigger in Taipei considering we’re on an island, however, with the exception of fried shrimp or fish balls and the occasional fried squid bag, seafood on the street has been minimal. A trip to the coastal town of Danshui proved to be a different story.

The first thing you see when you leave the Danshui train station is a tiny grill cart with a woman painting a bright red sauce on the tops of a large squid smoking on the hibachi. There are two main eating drags in Danshui, a boardwalk overlooking the water and an old night market strip famous for its squid kebabs and a fried shrimp cakes. I have always been a fan of calamari. Something about the rubbery texture that just does it for me. Not sure why. Truly fresh squid, however, is something entirely different. For starters the rubbery texture is a more tender, with the tentacles having just the right amount of bite. Deep-fried and served with cocktail sauce takes away from the squid’s natural flavor, which is subtle but present when grilled.

Fresh squid is common in the Mediterranean, often grilled and served with a lemon wedge. Here in Taipei the little sea monster is grilled whole, lathered with a fairly spicy tomato based sauce and served whole on a stick or chopped up and tossed in a bag to be picked at with a toothpick while you sashay down the boardwalk. I chose the stand that has the longest line of locals. One couple next to me notices my habitual tourist move of photographing the food being made and comment that the squid is, “Very good. Very tasty.” I order mine La, my new favorite word meaning spicy, and debate whether to tackle the specimen whole on a stick to the amusement of all around me or in the more refined paper bag that I can enjoy in peace as I watch the fishing boats come into the harbor. Before I have the chance to choose the latter option, the lady quickly chops it up with three hard hits from the cleaver and throws the diced goodies into a bag. I pay the lady NT$50 and take the treat to a bench near the shore.


Eggs in Taiwan are everywhere and are never refrigerated, always fresh, always ready to go. It’ll be 95 degrees and sunny and you’ll see a local oyster-omelet vendor with a basket full of eggs left on the sidewalk. In the grocery stores the eggs are left out next to the produce. Foreign practices like this, or other countries that do not refrigerate highly pasteurized milk, makes you wonder if Americans are a bit too paranoid about what they eat. 

Then there are the quail eggs, which are popular in certain day markets in Taipei and are everywhere in Danshui.


In Danshui quail eggs are made to order, quickly fried in an iron skillet, molded into little cups. Each egg is fried into a little ball, four are slid onto the skewers, two sauces are brushed on for extra flavor, and a NT$10 coin is handed to the lady. Quail eggs prepared this way tastes pretty much like fried eggs only in a Fun Size!

One of the more clever stick treats I’ve encountered was a large potato chip swirl. Basically a small potato is carved to produce a spiral, and deep fried on a long stick then seasoned with an Old Bay style seasoned salt, which may or may not be unadulterated MSG. Why not make something as simple as a chip that much more intriguing to tackle.

Finally the other day I was coaxed into trying something completely unfamiliar by a convincing vendor woman who knew just what to say in English to woo a clueless foreigner: “Hey, handsome boy. You try!” The Taiwanese seem to love food that is molded into other shapes, generally spheres. These were most likely doughy fish balls fried in a bit of oil. A hearty portion was served with very little money exchanged. The balls were loaded up with a healthy serving of fried onions, a spicy wasabi mayonnaise, and something that tasted like mustard but still remains an enigma. The snack was pretty good, a bit too gooey for my tastes and definitely more than enough for one person. After dining I saw that the line for the place had grown and was at one point 10 people deep. Who knew!

Until next time, your trusted writer with a curious palate, who may or may not muster up the courage to try chicken feet on a stick by the next entry.

 

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Adventures From Week Two

Week Two:

Settle In – Start Teaching – A Trip to the Hospital – Bike the Riverfront – A Hike in the Mountains – World’s Tallest Mall

It’s okay for a 25-year-old to have a blue Snoopy pillow, right? Buying bedding for my new room was a bit more difficult with the language barrier. The bed in my room came as is: desk, wardrobe, mattress, chair, and the occasional fly. I had been told that any night market would have a store with sheets etc. I settled on a small neighborhood joint near my apartment, where I figured prices would be cheaper. I was able to tell the nice (and patient) lady that my bed was a double size but somehow I still managed to walk away with two fitted sheets and a baby blue pillow with Peanut’s beloved beagle plastered all over it. Walking down the street carrying my purchases definitely made me stand out more than usual. Still I had my sleeping arrangements down. 

My apartment was a perfect choice all around. For starters my roommates are all very friendly and have been showing me some of the ropes around the area. The rent is low, my room is quite spacious, and the location is ideal–an eight minute walk to the MRT station, close to a nice riverside park and tucked away down a quiet alleyway, away from loud scooters and serious foot traffic.

As you can see from the photos the living room is guarded by two Japanese Samurai suits of armor, which Ant (the Kiwi) picked up in Japan a while back. There is also a Zeus statue that may or may not have once been an elaborate lamp of sorts. My bed is basically a box spring thrown on the floor, though it surprisingly did not take long for me to become accustomed to such rigid sleeping habits. I found out that the Taiwanese sleep on bamboo bedrolls that are supposedly good for the back and actually cools you down when you are sleeping.

A good night’s rest was needed for my first week of actual classes. Actually I have a fairly easy schedule with only afternoon classes (4:30-8:30), save for the unfortunate 9am-3pm schedule on Saturday mornings, which includes an early class for incoherent zombie 8th graders, followed by a two-hour unpaid break, and then my only Kindy class for a six energetic five-year-old girls. 

My first week goes well. Much of the curriculum is by the books so that as long as I cover all the material at hand, I’ve done my job. There is room for adding your own two cents and coming up with clever ways to convey certain sentence patterns and grammar points is entirely up to the teacher. 

I’m thinking I’ll eventually get around to writing an entire entry devoted to what goes on in the classroom, but until then I’ll give you a basic rundown: All classes start with a vocabulary quiz of words from past lessons and homework. This is followed with the reading exercise of the day. Depending on the class this could be a short passage taken from a workbook or a short children’s book. For my more elite Treehouse class (I have them three days a-week as opposed to the others which I get once-a-week) they have a series of short books including the current Candy Disaster, which follows closely the adventures of a brother and sister team as they navigate their way through Toffee Typhoons, Chocolate Fondue Volcanos, Cotton Candy Tornados etc. 

In another class we read about Jesse Owens’ triumphant gold medal sweep at the historic 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Trying to explain to a class of puzzled kids how Owens’ victory was a humbling moment for the Nazis was as difficult as explaining to them (in simple English mind you) who this man Hitler was. Can you say H-O-L-O-C-A-U-S-T? Heavy reading choice if you ask me.

The students seem to like me and while most of them know my name by now, there are a couple of troublemakers who still insist on calling me Teacher Water. All of the students pick their “Western” names at an early age, which still manages to surprise me. I have a chatty gal in my Treehouse class named Apple. There’s Rock, a lethargic gentleman who sleeps through my Saturday morning class. A bright lad named Gilbert has a promising grasp of the language. Gigi, Cherry1 and Cherry 2 (or Little Cherry as we call her) like to gossip in my Thursday afternoon class while Angel and Mitch are both brownnosers. Anyway, you understand why taking attendance the first week was a treat. 

I am still in the process of obtaining my ARC card or Taiwanese work permit, an essential document that allows me to stay in the country past my 60-day tourist visa. Part of this procedure meant getting a health exam, you know, to make sure I don’t teach these kids English and what contracting Swine Flu feels like. 

Taiwan has universal healthcare and from what I hear, it is quite good. On a Wednesday I am asked to come to school early to leave enough time to make a trip to the hospital. My co-worker Calvin has been helping me with all my transitions so he is in charge of making sure the check-up goes accordingly.

Calvin, like most Taiwanese, is the proud owner of a scooter. The hospital is at the other end of town. Upon arriving to the school I am handed a child-sized Pokemon bike helmet and told not to move while in transit. With an enthralled Pikachu covering my skull and my legs crammed on the side of a bike clearly made for one, we ride. 

Scooters are everywhere in Taipei and no doubt play a large part in the city’s smogosphere. The trip to the hospital can only be described as exhilarating. Every turn is a close call with fellow riders. Buses ride our tail at red lights. At one point we pass a savvy individual carrying two propane tanks on his bike, most likely for his food stall stove. While normally the sight of a scooter bomb would make me a bit nervous I can’t help but think, wow this is a lot of fun! At times red lights don’t imply stopping. Left hand turns are a free for all. One treacherous pothole and I’d bounce off the back of the scooter like a bucking steed throwing his rider.

The hospital is more of an efficient medical procedure factory. I go through some basic paperwork and pay a standard NT$700 (a little over $20 USD) visitation fee. The first exam tests my height and weight, which gets a “wow! You are tall.” from Calvin. Then my vision and hearing are given the okay. After this I am asked a series of questions pertaining to my health history. I am led to the X-Ray room where they do a full scan of my chest, I suppose to make sure I am, in fact, human or to ensure that I am not playing host to some alien chestburster. When I explain to Calvin that in the states X-Ray tests are generally not common practice in routine physical exams, he asks, “well, why not?” Then we get into a discussion about the monetary highs and lows of the American Healthcare System while waiting in line for the lady with the long needle to work her magic. 

After a blood test and with a sore shoulder, we hit the scooter and return to school. With a valid work permit I am granted full healthcare coverage, including dental. If I were to get hit by a reckless scooter driver a trip to the hospital will be fully covered by the government. I pay $200 a month from my paycheck (roughly $7USD). 

I celebrated my 25th birthday here in Taipei, an age that doesn’t really hold a lot of meaning to me. My theory is once you reach the goal age of 21 each subsequent birthday is just a reminder of how much older you are. While I was hoping for some rustic facial hair for my birthday, possibly a goatee, I settle for the thoughtful cake and Happy Birthday serenade I receive at the school. I learn that it is custom to eat cake with a toothpick and that it is also a Taiwanese custom to applaud someone on their birthday, as was the case with all of the students in the building. For example, if I walked to the bathroom during break I was followed by the sound of hands clapping. Great job, you’re about to have a piss!

Calvin gave me his old and untouched bicycle for my birthday, a Taiwanese version of a Huffy. A generous offering I must say. One day I casually expressed the desire to find a bike in Taipei. It could be Calvin had been waiting for someone to unload his bike on. Perhaps who is just that nice. Anyway, the bike is made for someone half my size, but I of course accept the gift and later have a fairly difficult ride home.

The school is a good 30-minutes from my apartment by train and there is a riverside bike path route that I assume would take about an hour to complete. The bike, I discover, has brakes but everything else is a mess. The seat cannot be raised and the gears don’t exactly do what they’re supposed to. As a result the ride home takes roughly two-hours, includes having to backtrack a bit to find the bike path entrance and reeks havoc on my knees. Remember the clowns at the circus that ride the mini bikes with their legs hanging off the side, well that’s me. I don’t even get a bell to truly make my presence known as I breeze along the path with normal bikes passing me at every chance.

Taipei has a fairly extensive system of bike paths that run along the rivers that bisect the city. The trails aren’t exactly the picturesque as you pass under giant bridges and industrial waste pipes, but the fact that the Taiwanese have a chance to have peaceful rides is nice.

Note that on this particular afternoon it was particularly overcast with a chance of pollution. 

The bike will do for around the neighborhood, but I would still like to eventually get an actual Warner size set of wheels to really take advantage of the bike friendly part of the Taipei.

On Sunday, my only full day off in the week, I check out one of the Taipei’s many hiking trails, which, like the bike paths, offers residents an escape from the hectic and polluted city life. Taipei is built around mountains and hills and the city has done an amazing job keeping the trails up and running. One minute you’re staring down a scooter’s exhaust pipe, the next moment you’re in the tranquil surroundings of the mountains overlooking the city below. The air is cleaner, or at the very least, a lot more lush and the only faint sounds heard are those of birds and large insects chirping. Along the way I come across a giant ass spider (seen in the photo below), some equally large caterpillars and two Taiwanese women who start up a conversation in English with me, which eventually morphs into a free English lesson. I am hoping to hit up all the trails in the city, which, according to my map, includes at least 20.

My final tourist moment of the week was a trip to Taipei 101, the massive edifice that can be seen pretty much anywhere in the city. The 101 is currently the world’s tallest building although once Dubai’s Burj mega-building is completed Taipei will forfeit this fairly meaningless title.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

From an engineering standpoint the skyscraper is a modern marvel (after all the Taiwanese were able to successfully build the tallest building in a region known for its Typhoons and Earthquakes). The building has a large spherical tuned mass damper suspended from the 92nd to the 88th floor that acts as a pendulum and balances the building during high-winds or earthquake tremors. They say it is the world’s most stable building.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

The building’s inside is fairly underwhelming mainly housing various offices. On the ground floors there is a run-of-the-mill shopping mall, a number of high-end restaurants (one which curiously uses Picasso’s Guernica painting as its welcome emblem) and a massive global food court.

The Taipei 101 Marketplace may be the building’s one impressive feature. The sprawling eatery has just about everything you could imagine and more. Want some spicy Malaysian laksa? Care for some sushi served on a conveyor belt? Even the grocery store had an array of international goodies ranging from New Zealand packaged meat to a Korean kimchi bar.

The area surrounding the 101 is definitely Taipei’s wealthiest borough and was worth a walk-through but is forgettable compared to the city’s smaller neighborhoods. Taipei 101 is one of those tourist trips that all must take at some point. Do I see myself going back to the area any time soon? Probably not, in case, of course, I’m in desperate need of a Versace suit.

Up next, do the Taiwanese like dogs? Also, more adventures in Taipei’s culinary underbelly, more Canadians, and an examination of bubble tea.

Until next time, your teaching extraordinaire and scooter enthusiast. Keep On Keeping On

Can anyone guess what this curious subway ad is selling?

Week One: Sights and Sounds
Longshan Temple – Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial – A Parade – A Concert 

Taipei has numerous temples open to locals and visitors alike. Unlike some historical sights that are strictly museum spaces, these temples are still functioning. On a Sunday afternoon I take the MRT train to the Longshan Temple stop. I hear that between 4 and 5 pm the temples in Taipei are packed with people chanting prayers and burning incense. I snuck a couple of photos but held back after a while so as not to look even more obvious than I already am.

Incense and candle burners. Another interesting part of the temples were the large wooden tables holding offerings from temple-goers. Everything from a small bowl of rice to a bottle of Taiwanese Energy Drink were left.

The temple itself is a thing of beauty. This is the first of many in the city that I plan on visiting.

Longshan Temple entrance

Waterfall right outside of the open-air temple. If the prayer chants weren’t soothing enough, the falling water will surely suffice.

Prayer


Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall, theater building

Chiang Kai-shek memorial park and pond (notice actual memorial in the background)

Theater/Concert Hall

The actual memorial

 Outside of the Longshan Temple I literally stumbled upon this massive parade for the Taiwanese Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP One moment you are walking down a street lined with food vendors and people selling knock off Reeboks, and all of a sudden, a mob of people wearing green and white. There were people blowing horns, trucks with musicians, and lots of flag waving. Nice Sunday if you ask me.

Onlookers

Video of the parade
After the parade I made my way over to the 2-28 Memorial Park, one of the nicer parks in the city that I’ve discovered. The park has its own museum, pond, temple shrine and outdoor ampitheater. Sunday evening I stumbled upon a “Rock Fever Festival” concert with various local bands. The first I saw was a Taiwanese hip-hop/metal quartet that was actually pretty decent, albeit a bit loud, especially considering the audience was made up of older mahjong players and small children. The bass player was actually very talented.
This group was either billed as Decay Paradise or Attila. Difficult to say really. 
Content with the heavier group I decided to stay for the follow-up act, which, judging from the acoustic guitar and saxophone, promised to be some lighter fare. I was not expecting what happened next. Turns out Taipei has its own Dave Matthew, as the poster billed the group. A Taiwanese Dave Matthews Band, cover band. Who knew! It’s been a while since I seriously sat down and listened to good old DMB but these guys reminded me that “Jimi Thing” is a pretty decent tune. I stayed for the start of their next song, “#41” but had to leave early to go meet some friends for dinner. Bizarro world.

Taipei Week One: Explore

Week One: 
Orientation – Find a Home – Eat Some Weird Shit – Show Some Taiwanese How to Dance

My first week in Taipei was busy, to say the least. At the school I spend most of my afternoons screening classes, watching training videos, doing paper work, and on my free time brushing up on some Mandarin phrases to survive the nights. During the days and after work I divided my time between exploring the city of Taipei and getting to know some of my co-workers, i.e. letting them show me around.

My co-worker Mark, who hails from Buffalo, NY, was a big help showing me the ropes during my first week in Taiwan. On my first night here he showed me good places to get food near the school and my hotel. On my second night, despite my impending jet lag, I went with him to the Shilin Night Market, the largest outdoor eating/shopping orgy in Taipei, and later to a Taiwanese all-you-can-drink nightclub (more on that later). Upon my arrival I had prepaid for an entire week at my budget hotel, which, compared to most hostels in the city, was still fairly pricy. Still the location was ideal since it was minutes from the school and it was nice being able to catch up on my sleep in a quiet hotel room.

After a couple days of coming down from my initial high of being here in Taipei, I began weighing my housing options. My boss Vicky thought it would be best to live near the school, however, the area is more of a suburb of the city with most stores and food stalls closing down on the earlier side. My co-workers gave me suggestions on other possible neighborhoods that had a younger vibe and would be cheaper. Ever since Taipei underwent a massive public transportation overhaul in 2001, it’s now easier than ever to get around the city by the main train/subway system, The Taipei MRT. Wherever I was to end up it had to be close to an MRT station, other than that I could potentially live wherever I wanted. My school is off the red line at the Shilin stop. I am told that anything on this line is perfect. Commutes become substantially longer if you stray to other lines.

I began checking out Taiwanese message boards for students, teachers, and expats living on the island. One in particular tealit.com proved to be the biggest help and I began looking at places in the Da’an/Shida neighborhood, which is home to Taiwan Normal University (SHIDA) and one of the best night markets in the city. The area is about 30 minutes to the school by MRT, it is close to some of the city’s nightlife, and seems to be a lot more welcoming to foreigners. The other draw was the University, which offers Mandarin classes to foreigners.

I emailed a number of prospective listings and was able to actually check out four different places. There was the six-room flat shared by five meaty Canadian hockey players looking for a housemate/sixth man for their Taipei league hockey team. There was the local Taiwanese guy who lived with a Norwegian and was looking for a third housemate to take over the apartment’s closet (cheapest apartment I looked at). The Brazlian/Columbian/Japanese house was definitely the most intriguing and the price was right, however, they couldn’t have anyone move in until June 10th. Finally I stumbled upon an ad for a room available immediately, minutes from the MRT and the riverside park. The place was NT$7500 a month (about US$230), had a washing machine, kitchen and AC unit.

During my first two weeks here I was conducting all my business via payphones since I could not get my beloved Nokia from back home to work here (unlocking this particular model proved more difficult than my friend and the internet had said). I called up the name on the ad, one Ant, took a look and was instantly sold.

The four-bedroom flat was the largest of all the places I looked at. It was tucked away down a quiet alley at the end of a fairly major street, which promises a lot less noisy scooter traffic, and was about a hundred yards from the entrance to one of Taipei’s many riverside park with running/bike paths, basketball and tennis courts, and a lovely view of the industrial swamp land that is the Hsintien River. The four-room flat is shared by a 30 something New Zealander named Ant (short for Anthony, although I must say a part of me was hoping it was short for Ant), a Brit/German named Phil, and Dave who hails from New York City. To boot the street has its own family of stray dogs guarding the entranceway, but more on the stray dog epidemic here in Taipei later.

The housemates were all very friendly and welcoming, so I took a night to look into any other options, and in the morning emailed Dave that I was in. Bam, housing was one less thing I had to worry about.

The Taiwanese are not heavy drinkers by nature, however, most of the nightclubs in this city offer one flat entrance fee that includes a cup and all-you-can-drink access to the bar, which more often than not pours the cheapest of the cheap. On my second night in Taipei (a Saturday) I join Mark and his friend Ryan (from Milwaukee!) to Wax, a small subterranean club for Taiwanese university students. NT$500 buys you a small plastic cup, single entry to the club and the assurance that you will be stared and smiled at all night long to the sounds of late 90s era hip-hop. I sip Early Times whiskey and excessively syrupy Coke for the rest of the night and hit the dance floor during obvious music cues. I mean, could I really pass up the opportunity to dance with some locals to 2Pac’s “California Love” or “Mambo No. 5”? “Hey Ya” is still going strong over here, as is All 4 One’s “I Swear.” I kid you not. 

Prior to the festivities at club Wax, which ended with a late night cab ride to the hotel/into the unknown and a massive headache that only a jetlagged fool who partook in cheap whiskey till 4:30 in the morning would get, Mark took me to the Shilin Night Market. Mark describes going to Shilin as the weekly opportunity to bump into thousands of people in the matter of two hours. It is Taipei’s largest outdoor market and feeding fest and on a Saturday is literally overflowing with Taiwanese. Incredible. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been to some big markets before, the Egyptian Spice Market in Istanbul being one notable example.

The Taiwanese do not normally cook food in their homes so late night markets feed the masses. Before coming to Taipei I had read about these eating extravaganzas and didn’t know where to start. Skewered grilled meat kebabs, oyster omelets, fresh cut noodles, steamed meat dumplings and buns, hard-boiled green tea eggs, bizarre fresh-cut fruits, various soups served in plastic bags, and all sorts of odds and ends, the likes of which you would never see in the U.S. Still the first culinary adventure this brave traveler embarks on is the ubiquitous Chou Dofu, Taiwan’s favorite snack.

photo courtesy of the internet

I had read about Stinky Tofu prior to coming to Taiwan. I knew I would have to try it at some point, however, I figured like most things here I would ease into it. Still as we approached the stand, an unofficial vendor planted in the center of one massive walkway, making the fermented tofu’s stench hard to ignore, I figured now was as good a time as ever. On an empty, growling stomach, I gave the man NT$15 in coins, requested the two skewered pieces of aged bean curd La, or spicy, and dug right in.

Despite its unfortunate name, stinky tofu really isn’t that bad. In fact it’s downright tasty, though one would have to appreciate other fermented delicacies like Korean kimchi to really dig this light snack. In many ways the chou dofu tastes like scrambled eggs cooked with a pungent cheese of sorts.

Mark informs me that this particular stand serves a milder version of the dish and that he has had chou dofu dishes that literally made him gag. Still, overall this was a promising start to Taipei’s culinary underbelly.

For the rest of the week I checked out other parts of the city, started carrying my camera with me everywhere, was given a free bike that can only be described as a low-rider when this 6’4” writer takes it out, and managed to pick up more helpful Mandarin essentials, mainly in regards to directions and food. Ordering food at night market stands is fairly easy for foreigners who don’t speak the language. First you learn “wo yao,” or I would like, then you follow through with a series of pointing and eating gestures to let the vendor know you mean business. Sometimes I’ll work a tummy rub, pat your head exercise into the routine to see if I can get a laugh. But I’ll dive into the food scene another time.

Up next, trips to various Taiwanese temples, taking a 12km bike ride on a bicycle made for Willow, more food, teaching, another night club, buying bedding and walking away with a baby-blue Snoopy pillow.

Until the next time, your trusted ambassador of foul tofu.

Taipei, Day 1: A zombie on foreign soil

TAIPEI, TAIWAN (REPUBLIC OF CHINA) –

A year ago if someone had told me that come Spring I would be sitting in a riverside park in Taipei, Taiwan writing this entry, I would have been perplexed. Why Taiwan? Why now? What a random change of scenery from my Midwestern abode in sweet home Chicago.

East Asia is an exciting part of the world these days. The industrial boom in China over the past two decades has changed the face of the region. I’ve known for some time that I’ve always wanted to explore this neck of the woods and considering my life in Chicago was wide open for change, I figured why not now!

My original plan was a two to three month East Asian backpacking extravaganza starting in the North (Japan, S. Korea) and then working my way down into Southeast Asia, following the Greater Mekong river through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, ending up in Thailand. I figured I would bum around with my backpack for a couple months, take some photographs, eat some weird food, and then head back to the states for Graduate school. But Asia is a big continent. Did I really want to breeze through each region without really soaking up the culture? The other option was teaching.

ESL teaching is a global industry for travelers, explorers, expats and those simply wanting a job that takes them outside of the norms of the post-college job market. During my semester in Spain and the foray into European backpacking that followed (Spain, Italy, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava) I was introduced to this community of wanderers, facilitating their globe treks through English teaching jobs. There was the Canadian couple on a train from Barcelona to Valencia, on holiday from their teaching gig in Bucharest, Romania. I got my first taste of Vegemite from a 30-year-old Australian teacher in Naples, Italy. In Vienna I shared a hostel dorm room with an American on a long return home from two years teaching in China.

To be fair, before looking into the many opportunities for working and exploring East Asia I knew very little about the island of Taiwan. I was partially familiar with its history as a break away republic of mainland China. I knew the island was a major technological manufacturing hub in this part of the world (MADE IN TAIWAN anyone?). I had read about the Taipei 101 skyscraper, which is currently the world’s tallest building. Other than these random facts my knowledge of this island was limited. 

The more I read about the Taiwan’s history and heard first hand from multiple sources about how friendly the Taiwanese are, the choice seemed obvious. I had looked into programs in Japan, arguably the most popular destination for English teachers looking to explore East Asia. South Korea’s budding teaching industry paid the most but the number of horror stories I read about regarding shady business doings and highly reserved, sometimes unfriendly people outweighed the financial perks. Hong Kong is a pricy city to live in. Mainland China is still an authoritarian mess despite recent face-lifts. Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries seemed like better travel destinations. This left good old Formosa, a fitting name given to Taiwan by Portuguese explorers–translated as “Beautiful Island.”

Geographically Taiwan is centrally located in this region off the coast of Hong Kong and Mainland China. To the north, Japan and South Korea; due south are the islands of the Philippines. Southeast Asia is a budget flight away and, thanks to the recent addition of direct flights from Taiwan to Shanghai and Beijing, Mainland China is now an easier destination for Westerners.

The notion of living on a subtropical island always played a big role in my decision making. Taiwan is known for its gorgeous coasts, breathtaking mountain ranges (hiking is a very popular pastime for the Taiwan and a quick metro train ride outside of Taipei takes one to various trails), and natural hot springs galore. 

Mandarin seemed like the most important East Asian language to learn in the global arena and classes here in Taipei are fairly inexpensive if you factor in the hour-to-dollar rate (for those interested a beginning Mandarin course I’m looking into costs about US$600, is ten hours a week and lasts three months).

So after a lot of reading and many days of contemplating this life-altering decision, I decided to apply to some programs and spread the news of my decision to friends and family, always a good way to lock down plans that breed hesitation.

Four to five months later, including a delayed departure date, I found myself packing my bags, heading to O’Hare and hopping on a flight to the unknown. Was I nervous? As nervous as anyone else. Was I anxious? After a month of waiting for an okay from my program, you bet! Did I question my sanity? Of course, but who doesn’t during adventures of the spontaneous nature.

… 

My flight left Chicago on a Wednesday evening. The first leg was a United 767 to LAX where I would change planes and enjoy a two-and-a-half hour layover. At 1:40 A.M. I boarded an Air Malaysia Boeing 747 along with a plane full of Taiwanese and Malaysian passengers each wearing surgical face masks (more to come on these).

(Stock photo courtesy of the Internet)

At LAX a kind young man at the Air Malaysia check-in counter took pity on towering height and switched my sit to the coveted exit window seat, thus ensuring that on the 14-hour flight I would not succumb to painful leg cramps and the amused expressions of curious onlookers. Sure enough the space in front of my seat was ample enough for stretching my shit out and could have easily doubled as an area for performing yoga if one desired such a luxury. 

Air Malaysia, which by the way was the cheapest flight around, is the kind of airline that sounds sketchy but in reality is a fairly nice choice. Upon boarding I was greeted by a number of attractive female Malaysian flight attendants dressed in colorful uniforms with bright smiles that seemed to ignore the fact that it was one in the morning and a 14-hour stint of waiting on tired passengers awaited them. 

(Stock photo courtesy of the Internet)

Besides having the extra legroom I was lucky enough to have an empty middle seat next to me for the entire flight, convenient for storing essentials like giant water bottles, headphones and overpriced airport pretzels. After passing on a dinner that actually didn’t look half-bad, considering most airline food makes discounted school cafeteria food look downright gourmet, I popped two Tylenol PMs, set my iPod to Brian Eno’s lulling Ambient string of albums and managed to crash for a good six hours, waking only ever so often to the sounds of passengers coughing up God knows what, always a comforting sound while breathing in stale recycled air for the better half of a day. 

The feeling I got right before setting down at Taipei International Airport can only be described as an adrenaline rush. I was over 7,000 miles from home. I had no idea if anyone was actually going to be meeting me at the airport, only that an email from the program director said all was taken care of. I imagined how the island air would smell when I left the airport. Tropical? Industrial wasteland? I began to wonder how the following year or so would pan out. When preparing to embark into the unknown all preconceptions of how things will go suddenly become irrelevant. 

After the plane touched land and the passengers started the impatient rush to get to the overhead compartments, I immediately hit my head while standing up (way to go!), exited the plane, gathered my bags, sashayed through customs, and was greeted by an older Taiwanese gentleman holding a sign that read Clarences Sills. It was 6:30AM on Friday, local time. 

The man, a cab driver sent to pick me up by the school, spoke two words in English–‘teacher’ and ‘thank you.’ After mangling the few phrases in Mandarin that I had prepared on the plane I offered the driver a piece of Trident gum, and enjoyed a pleasant, albeit quiet ride into the heart of downtown Taipei.

Foreign places always have an unfamiliar scent in the air when you first arrive. Taiwan has a curious odor, a blend of sweet ocean breeze and volatile smog fumes that create a haze over the city of Taipei and its industrial surroundings. Mmmm.

As we drove I watched as hundreds of scooters zipped by carrying face-masked wearing Taiwanese riders on their way to start there day. We drove by the Danshui river, went through a two-mile mountain tunnel, soaked in an array of colorful signs written in Chinese characters, and on a number of occasions nearly took out passing cars and scooters. On one occasion my driver purposely sped up to cut off a small Nissan that was waiting to change lanes a good 100 feet in front of us.

The driver dropped me at a small hotel located in an alley off a main road. Taipei is a labyrinth of major roads, small alleyways and side streets. The Chinese characters are pretty but offer no clues as to where the hell I am. The hotel clerk speaks no English but hands me a note from “your future co-worker, Calvin,” which informs me that I should “have shower, eat some food, take nap and await my meeting you at 2:30.”

The school that I will be spending the next year working in is tucked away in a fairly small neighborhood, away from any signs of Westerners. It is a three story narrow building with about six classrooms, a teaching library with books for students to check out ranging from Where the Wild Things Are to a Halloween back-issue of Martha Stewart Living, and a small office area for teachers.

There are four English teachers in total Mark from Buffalo, New York, who I will be replacing shortly, Sharlene from South Africa, David from Vancouver, Canada, and Calvin who hails from good old Taipei and was an English Lit major in college.

The first day at the school is spent taking care of some paperwork, sitting in on two classes, and watching a training video hosted by a fairly creepy Aussie who sings and dances for the students pleasure. The Hess English Language School is a lot more rigid than I had originally expected. Most of the curriculum is by the books with very little room for creativity. Since all the tests come from the material covered in the various workbooks and lesson plans, and since high test scores ensure a teachers tenure, there isn’t much room for steering the class in my own direction. To add to this a number of the books, particularly the older editions are rife with illogical sentence structures and curious vocabulary choices. For example, in one chapter of a lesson that will be my first official class, the students are to learn about different weather-related disasters like Typhoon and Earthquake (which, by the way, Taiwan has both). In one story, two children are caught in a storm where it is raining cats and dogs, literally. A discussion question reads: Why is it raining cats and dogs? Baffling.

For most of my first day in Taipei I am a tall walking zombie. I was able to get a nap in upon my initial arrival at the hotel but by 6PM I am a mess. I leave the school at around 8:30, grab my first street meal consisting of fresh noodles in a beef broth served in a plastic bag (the whole dish, which it turns out was delicious, costs less than a dollar and will no doubt be a staple snack in the area).

I return to the hotel, greet the cute girl at the front desk with some more mangled Mandarin, and immediately hit the bed to rest up for another day in my new home.

Until next time, your trustful ambassador of all things Taiwanese and towering white boy.

Bob Dylan Album #8, John Wesley Harding


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #8, John Wesley Harding
Columbia Records, 1967


After a life changing motorcycle accident and a series of underground recordings with The Band, Dylan went to work on his follow up to the rock world altering, Blonde On Blonde. Seven albums into what was already a prolific recording career, and 18 months since the bombshell release of Blonde, it’s safe to say expectations for Dylan were high. 

The motorcycle mishap and sudden rush of fame had left Dylan jaded with his notoriety. He was tired of his constant need to appease the masses–critics especially–and his “voice of the people” label was more of a burden than a luxury. He was tired of being in the spotlight. Tired of the constant nagging of fans, many of which would take pilgrimages to his home in upstate New York. He had a family to be with and the desire to be nothing more than a musician and songwriter.

Taking into account the work on The Basement Tapes (which it should be noted were recorded months prior to the work on John Wesley Harding but was not “officially” released until the mid 1970s) and his newfound outlook on life, it comes as no surprise that Harding is more stripped down and less stylistic than its überhit predecessor.

For fans still grinding their teeth over Dylan’s electric period, John Wesley Harding must have also been a pleasant return to the simpler days of Dylan, his guitar, and his poetry. While folkier on the surface, the music on this album is equally as complex as the electric predecessor. The energy, however, is restrained. 

The record kicks off with its title track, a story-ballad recalling the tale of real-life outlaw John Wesley Hardin. The instrumentation is sparse with a focus on Dylan’s harmonica while Dylan’s croons through the fairly straightforward lyrics. In many ways the song is a return to the Americana country folk of his early years, absent, however, of the blatant protest lyrics. 

“As I Went Out One Morning” features one of the most memorable, albeit simple bass lines in rock and roll–a rubber band twang courtesy of one Charlie McCoy, who previously lent his guitar talents to “Desolation Row.” The song itself follows suit by weaving a tale from history, possibly referencing Tom Paine, an 18th century American revolutionary. When Dylan/narrator opens by singing, “to breath the air around Tom Paine’s” the metaphor could be a slight reference to political protest however many of deemed this song (and subsequently this album) an allegory for Christianity. The story of a damsel in chains wanting to escape and the narrator seeing danger (possibly the temptation of sin) only to be saved by Paine, the song’s savior like figure. 

The trio of songs that follow–“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”–are openly pious with references to biblical figures (Bishop St. Augustine who fell to an angry mob), temptations (Judas Priest) and possibly in “Watchtower,” the Tower of Babylon and the city’s demise. 

“Watchtower” is undoubtedly John Wesley Harding’s most significant song, one that has been immortalized through countless covers, and continues to leave interpreters puzzled to its meaning. Some believe it references modern day musicians struggling with fame (Dylan being the Joker character needing to break away from the spotlight), others believe it to be a precursor to Dylan’s eventual converting from Judaism to Christianity in the mid-70s, as seen in his born-again period. 

What’s most striking about the “Watchtower” of this album is how understated the song is compared to the roaring live anthem renditions that others, including Dylan, would flesh out further down the road. That the true songwriting origins of the song are still up for debate only adds to the song’s allure and easily warrant an entire column based on the song’s controversy. 

John Wesley Harding’s second half is truly Dylan’s first foray into country music. There is a notably voice change on tracks like “Drifter’s Escape” and “Dear Landlord,” and the steel guitar notes on the album’s closers, “Down Along the Cover” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” are in-the-moment reflections of the Nashville setting, a sound that would come full circle on the radical departure of Nashville Skyline.

Musically speaking, “The Wicked Messenger” is the album’s stand out track, a fiery blues number that is a lot more complex than it appears. From the piercing harmonica trills to the falling guitar licks and jagged rhythm, the song is the one moment on the album in which Dylan truly lets loose. The song snuck into Dylan’s live sets in recent years taking on a new, more timely fierce blues incarnation that perfectly compliments his touring band of recent. 

If “The Wicked Messenger” is John Wesley Harding’s understated masterpiece, the aforementioned “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” may the one track on the record that is most out of place. Dylan has said that the album’s two closers were the only full songs written and imagined in Nashville. While musically “Baby Tonight” exudes all the sounds of Dylan’s new stomping grounds, it’s blatantly romantic lyrics would have been more welcomed on say Another Side of Bob Dylan. Ultimately the song feels like an after thought tacked onto the album at last minute. The fact that UB40 would later release a cover single of the song doesn’t bode well for its standings in Dylan’s oeuvre. 

John Wesley Harding may be one of Dylan’s most underappreciated albums to date. The average Joe is familiar with the immortal “All Along the Watchtower,” however it’s safe to say most people, light “Greatest Hits” Dylan fans included, couldn’t tell you the album the song resides on, or any of the Harding’s other memorable moments. 

What’s striking is that besides the notoriety of the album’s surprise hit, this is an unexpected and ambitious offering from Dylan during a time when the artist could have very well attempted to blow listeners away, yet again. Unlike his contemporaries at the time who were experimenting with psychedelia (The Beatles unleashed Sgt. Peppers) and budding art rock (Pink Floyd released Piper At The Gates Of Dawn), Dylan once again chose to go back to his roots, while also exploring historical and non-secular motifs throughout his lyrics. It’s classic Dylan without the grandiosity of his prior ascent to mega-stardom. Simply put the album is a concise collection of stripped down country folk songs that paved the way for future musical transformations, some welcomed, others not so much.

9/10

Essential Tracks: “As I Went Out One Morning,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Drifter’s Escape,” “The Wicked Messenger”