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.

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