Stray Observations #1

The Mister Donut–Photo c/o the internet

Stray Observations From An Amused Foreigner #1

Coming to a foreign place ensures a certain level of culture shock. While I embrace the hundreds of new sights and sounds I come across on a daily basis here in Taipei, I feel it my duty to share some of the more out-there cultural differences.

ON SCOOTERS

— Never mind the fact that the thousands of scooters flooding the streets of Taipei only add to the city’s growing smog presence. The real hazards of these motorized zoom-zooms come at the pedestrian level. Walking in Taipei requires the same amount of focus and attention to the surroundings as someone traversing through a minefield. Scooters ignore most logical street signs, and will hit you if you happen to be in their path. Not too long ago while sauntering my way through a local night market I was struck by an anxious scooter’s side view mirror as the rider weaved his way through a mob of shoppers. Instead of apologizing for smacking my elbow the elderly rider scolded me in Taiwanese and may or may not have responded with a fist of dissidence in the air.

— Riding a scooter (or in my case, hanging off the back of scooters wearing helmets made for children) is on par with the thrills of walking. Taxi cabs and buses would just assume cut you off if it meant catching a fare, red lights are merely suggestions for some Taiwanese commuters who see the lights as an excuse to speed up, and helmets protect the skull but do nothing for the flesh (check any MRT train car and you’re guaranteed to find one wicked flesh wound from a recently scarred ex-scooterist).

–Riding during a torrential rainstorm, aka the month of June, is about as smart as taking your Mazda Miata out for a spin on the Dan Ryan during an icy Chicago winter. Finally, a note to all the Taiwanese, just because you wear a body-sized “scooter poncho” during aforementioned road conditions, you are hardly the wiser commuter; you’re, however, a hell of a lot more colorful. This all said and done, I still desperately want a scooter of my own. Is this wrong?

ON FOOD

— I don’t care that you’ve flash-fried the specimen to a “delicious” black char, you WILL NOT trick me into munching on a whole duck/goose head–neck, skull, beak et al–even if you somehow manage to impale it on a convenient stick like some ruthless Hun.

— Chicken as an animal and food group is a lot more complex than you may think. Summed up: If you think you’ve had chicken, you really haven’t.

— If you put custard pudding in ice tea, they will come.

— Duck blood by any other name is still duck blood.

— If you pretend that the surprise pieces of pig intestine at the bottom of the delicious steaming bowl of Mian Xian (oyster noodles) are really morsels of calamari, you can in fact fool the mouth.

— Unforgiving Taiwanese rice liquor could and should be used to remove paint. East Asian whiskey, however, should not be overlooked on the world stage.

— Dumplings are understood.

— Becoming a regular at a street vendor cart is easy. Show up once, spew out some complimenting Mandarin phrases, and reap the benefits the follow. A neighborhood dumpling shop owner (one of the few places around my apartment open late) is happy to slip in an extra dumpling or two to my order since we are on a first name basis and she is still amazed at my height. A steady use of the word “haochi” or delicious also helps.

— A long line may not ensure quality but will most definitely beckon the flock. The Taiwanese seem to attribute long lines at food vendors and shops as being a sign of quality. Case in point, the popular JiPai, or over-sized fried chicken breast stands. In the Shi-Lin night market there are two prominent stands that sit right next to each other on a busy drag. The vendor on the right side will at times have a queue thirty people deep, while his neighbor on the left will be empty. When I ask one university-age girl why she chose the vendor on the right, she replied, “Because the line was longer.” It should be noted that the final products at both stands are identical and the two supposed rival vendors might in fact be brothers.

— The Taiwanese truly believe that American food consists of hot dogs and hamburgers. One afternoon at my school the staff ordered delivery McDonalds from down the road. When I declined the chance to order a value meal and said, “I actually don’t really like McDonalds” my boss, Vicky, was downright shocked. “Don’t you miss your hamburgers?” she inquired. From peeking at a carryout menu Taiwanese McDonalds appear to be the same as say a Nebraska McDonalds.

— No matter how much area you conquer, you will never win, Starbucks. 

— Mister Donut, a Japanese donut chain sprouting up all over Taipei, serves your typical donut. That they offer chopsticks for their sugary treats does however up the establishment’s weirdness.

— The consumption of properly prepared Chinese cabbage is an ethereal experience.

— I have long argued that adding a fried egg to just about everything ups the ante. Eating in Taipei only confirms this position. Lunch boxes are not complete without the essential fried egg topper for the rice. The sandwiches at my housemate’s restaurant, Kiwi Gourmet Burger, served with a fried egg (not to mention pineapple and pickled beets) are to die for.

— Keep the chili peppers coming. It turns out the Taiwanese are not as brave as their Sichuan brothers on the mainland when it comes to spicy food. “Hen la” or very spicy has become a favorite phrase when surveying the culinary canvas here in Taipei, however, I have yet to come across something that numbs my mouth and rips my insides apart. I need to find a true hotpot!

— Noodles shaved by hand from a mothership of homemade dough into a giant vat of boiling water are worth the extra time and money.

— Sprouts, yes please!

— In a country where half of the food you see is still a mystery I’ve realized it’s best to just jump right in and hope for the best. Over the years my stomach has definitely become a lot more adventurous through travel and interest in foreign cuisine. East Asia is like one giant test for the inside. So far I have yet to take ill from anything thing eaten on the streets or inside more established restaurants. I haven’t turned down anything that has been offered to me (save of course for the aforementioned duck/goose noggin, because, and let’s be honest here, one must have limits) and have already found a number of must-go hotspots.

ON PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

— I’m tall and yes, I just hit my head on the hanging support handles. Get over it. 

— The Taiwanese are a polite and organized people. Sometimes. The MRT trains are a perfect example of a society that respects their elders and knows how to make a system work. The commuter trains here can fill up fast but no matter how busy or full a car might be, people will always offer up their seats to small children, the elderly and women. The Taiwanese also know how to line-up, whether it be to board the train (lining up on in a marked and designated area) or to wait for an escalator. For as busy a place as Taipei is the people never seem to be in a hurry (though it could be said that due to long work weeks many commuters are anything but anxious to get to work). I wish I could say the same for the street traffic scene here, which is a cluster-fuck, free for all of fleeting scooters, ambitious taxis and fearless buses.

— You are forbidden to eat or drink on all MRT trains inside each station creating a sterile but delightful area. Ever felt disgusted by the homeless guy eating a bucket of hot wings on the Howard Red Line ‘L’ train in Chicago? Well, behavior like that is non-existent here in Taipei. 

ON DOGS

— For the most part the Taiwanese are a dog friendly people. It is very popular to own dogs, particularly four specific breeds–a long haired brown lap dog of sorts, run of the mill golden retrievers, some curious lab/terrier mutt, and some no-name cross breed that I can’t recall seeing in the States. The dogs are sold at night markets, which is even worse than it sounds. The ones that don’t sell are unleashed to the streets. The city is full of strays. The lucky ones find a nice old lady who feeds them regularly and they mark their territory. Others create instinctual gangs and roam around parks and by the river. Outside of my apartment there are at a given time at least four, sometimes six dogs. They are covered in fleas, attract flies, and in the case of one doomed pooch are riddled with stomach worms. Depressing. I make it a habit to buy dog biscuits at the grocery store as often as I can but the problem is clearly too big for the occasional treat. I hear that it is 50 times worse in Mainland China where strays are even more abundant and certain breeds, i.e. the unfortunate raccoon dog, are bred for their pelts, faciliating a hush-hush illegal tender of fake furs that might just end up on the racks of JC Penny.



— Then there’s the amusing side to the Taiwanese’s love of dogs. Not only are dogs accessorized much like the downtown Manhattan purse pooches that you might run into at a Dean and Deluca but they are also given fashion cues. It is not uncommon to see a beautiful golden retriever shaved completely bald, save for the hair around the neck, head and tail. I kid you not. A friend’s Taiwanese girlfriend has at least two-dozen photos on her cell phone of her dog dressed up in various inappropriate costumes. From a watermelon to what looked like an airplane pilot’s garments, the dog’s masculinity is non-existent and would probably last a good six hours out in the wild. Dogs ride scooters with their owners and sometimes even manage to fit on normal bicycles. Finally, certain Taiwanese, specifically at said dog haven night markets, carry their miniature canines on their chests in makeshift doggie backpacks.

— Stray cats are present in the city but I have yet to figure out if felines are welcomed pets here or merely a type of training-pet for future dog owners.

— Bringing your pet rabbit to a busy park with dogs and hundreds of people may not be the wisest move, even if you walk the bunny on a leash.

ON TEACHING

— If you give a mouse a cookie, he just might kill Teacher Warner. It’s hard to say how it happened but ever since I started teaching my three day-a-week “Treehouse Class” seem to have this fascination with creating English sentence patterns that place yours truly in harms way. Teacher Warner has been eaten by a shark, a lion, and spider, not to mention a monkey who is a mascot in the book series. I was once hanged using the keyword ROPE. Last Thursday Lucas, the classroom’s resident terrorist, decided to use the new word SAW (part of a construction/cleaning unit) to cut my head off–verbatim sentence spoken out loud: “I will use a saw to cut Teacher Warner on head.” And I can’t even begin to tell you how violent things got during the Natural Disaster debacle of Unit 8 when I met my demise in lethal hurricanes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, tornados, drought and somehow by a mudslide. Still, if it teaches the children English then I guess I don’t mind being their personal voodoo doll.

— Apple will never be a real name. For that matter, neither will Rock.

— The Taiwanese love ‘em some office supplies. I have never seen such adoration for pens, pencils, notebooks, pen cases and erasers than inside the Taiwanese school system. Pencil lead flows like water. Erasers are traded like currency. Hi-lighters come in more colors than you might think. And don’t even think about using the pencil’s built in eraser to correct your mistake. For the task of homework editing you must utilize the heavy-duty pencil/pen eraser that’s shaped like a Hello Kitty.

— White board markers are bitch to clean off clothing.

— If your teacher ever seems dazed and confused he/she has probably been inhaling too much white board marker ink. Weekly ink re-fillings of these tools of the trade could very easily be killing my precious brain cells.

— The game of Hangman, it turns out, never ends. No matter how many letters the students go through before reaching the correct word there are certainly more body parts and accessorizes to add to the hanged stick figure. Top hat? Why not! Backpack? I can’t draw that, but sure.

— Trying to practice my rudimentary Chinese with the students only leads to trouble and requires at least one class period of reclaiming my authority.

— Finally, in response to my Step Ahead Class Level 5 workbook’s written suggestion that I reward the winning student of a word puzzle activity with “a big sloppy kiss,” the answer is, No. No, I will not.

ON THE TAIWANESE

— Never before have I felt so welcomed in a foreign place than here in Taipei. Not unusual but worth mentioning. 

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A W of Suburbia Fan in Turkey!

So when I originally set up this blog, going back to my Eastern Europe romp in the summer of 07, I figured it would be a place to share my experiences with family and friends, maybe test my hands at light Travel Writing. I have always enjoyed writing the entries and find that the logs as a whole create quite the narrative. I also tend to write a lot more on a computer than in my actual print journal I keep. 

The other day I was friended on Facebook by a Yesim Budak, of Istanbul. Turns out she had stumbled upon my blog (through Google she later told me) and had taken a similar trip through Croatia. Anyway, if you believe what Thomas Friedman says, you will agree that this is truly a flat world. A Turk stumbled upon my humble little blog and enjoyed it enough to seek out its author (her friend request said, “Warner Sills, of Warner of Suburbia???”). So Yesim, if you’re reading, thanks for the read and keep on traveling. Your photos from Lokrum and Dubrovnik bring back fond memories of a truly beautiful part of the world. 

Dragon Boat Festival Day 2


Dragon Boat Festival Day 2: Day Trip to the Caoling Historic Trail

 

Packed Like Sardines in a Tin Can – It’s Hot – Climb to the Top ­– A Flora and Fauna Report – A Fellow Traveler – An All Girl Taiwanese Punk Band and The Shit Disco

After a successful adventure in Danshui the day before, I decided to take another day-trip outside of Taipei proper, this time heading to Taiwan’s stunning Northeast Coast. I left the house on the early side with the intent of catching a morning train to the town of Daxi (spelled on signs as Dasi, but more on the various forms of Chinese Romanization another time). Sure enough I arrive at Taipei Main Station ten minutes after the 8:40 train departed, with the next one arriving two-hours later. Way to go. 

My original plan to skip a weekend trip to the Toroko Gorge National Park was fueled by the notion that the park would be flooded with tourists and that all accommodations–hostels, trains, buses etc.–would also be hindered from the holiday travel rush. Of course this logic should have worked for every remote destination in Taiwan and my two-hour train ride to the East coast was proof of how unbearable crowded travel in Taiwan can be. 

Let’s begin: This trip was my first experiment with the Taiwanese Rail system. Taipei has its MRT metro, a foolproof system that connects the entire city and more remote destinations like Danshui. The rest of the island relies on brand new Japanese engineered high-speed trains, middle-grade passenger trains and bottom of the barrel antique city commuter trains that somehow have been converted to accommodate long-distance travel, think an “L” train car running from Chicago to Springfield. 

My guidebook tells me that the Taipei-Daxi train takes 90 minutes and costs NT$104. I use this information to find what I assume is the only train to the small coastal town. The train turns out to be an aforementioned old city train, a la the pre-MRT era in Taipei. There are seats but the majority of the train is standing room only. Since the cars don’t have reserved seats of any kind this also means that there is no limit to how many suntan lotion soaked passengers can be squeezed in. 

I get on along with a hundred other eager passengers running to the sliding doors to ensure a spot. The air-conditioner is working but cannot keep up with the volume. I am sandwiched between a group of university age students, two couples, a family and a young child who immediately starts gorging on a pastry of sorts filled with warm chocolate goo. Not ten minutes into the trip and the train already smells like sweaty ass and Nutella. Later an older gentleman in one of the seats cracks open a tea egg, which only adds to the array of unpleasant odors circulating in the stale train car air. 

The 90-minute trip is extended to a little over two-hours since we stop at every station on the line and are idle for five to ten minutes at a time while station platform hopefuls attempt to squeeze in the already overstuffed cars. At one stop there must have been at least 200 people waiting and maybe only 20 got on. Damn. 

I am the only foreigner in my particular throng and most definitely stand out. I attempt to grab my camera to shoot the inside of the car, which is a wall-to-wall mess of people, but I am unable to get into my bag without sending a bony elbow or knee into my neighbor. Taipei MRT cars can get crowded but I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Five stops before Daxi (an hour and half later) two-thirds of the passengers get off at a popular beach destination allowing for a bit of stretching. As we approach smaller village stops, old ladies wait on the station platforms with pre-made lunch boxes. 

On the few chances to look out at the passing scenery I see aqua blue rivers and streams with locals fishing and basking in the sun. We pass through mountain tunnels, happen upon lush green forests and eventually catch a glimpse of the Pacific. Taiwan’s West coast is fairly industrial and is home to the island’s three most populous cities. The East coast however is where the Taiwanese escape to for the serene, natural beauty, the half of the island that epitomizes the Portuguese’s coined phrase, Ilha Formosa, or “beautiful island.”

The trip was worth the temporary unpleasantness. Looking back on the trip I figure it was only a matter of time before this sort of transportation fiasco would happen (I suppose it’ll be even worse in parts of Southeast Asia and on the mainland, where buses ignore occupancy warnings).

The Caoling trail is a 16KM hike connecting the sleepy surfing village of Daxi with the town of Fulong, home to a popular public beach. The trail is the last remaining stretch of a longer early 19th century trade route that spanned from Taiwan’s Northeast coast to Danshui. The actual Caoling Historic Trail runs 9KM along a mountaintop valley overlooking the Pacific to the East and the Central Mountain Range to the West. Trail extensions have been added over the years bringing the full trail to around 16KM. 

It’s hot and right away I realize that the one coat of suntan lotion that I applied earlier in the morning will probably leave my skin its usual summer coat–lobster red splotches with a 75% chance of peeling. 

I’m not five minutes into my ascent up the steep stairs leading to the top of the mountain when my refillable Taiwanese brand Nalgene water bottle falls from my camera bag and cracks. Strike-two Warner. 

I keep climbing. I learn quickly from the amount of people I see coming down the mountain that most people start their journey from Fulong and end up in Daxi. Others only do small stretches leaving the 16K hike for soon-to-be-dehydrated Americans.


The first hour of the hike is all dense forest. While I’m shaded from the sun, the forest ceiling creates a saunaesque effect. It’s hot. I greet some of the locals coming down. Halfway to the top I bump into an American who is just finishing the full 16km hike and tells me that I’m doing the hardest part now. He also tells me that once I hit the mountaintop valley I will be blown away. Promises like these keep you going.

A taste of what’s to come…

Just shy of the first “rest stop,” a picnic table and a chart documenting local plant species, I surprise a large snake bathing on a rock off the trail. We don’t have snakes in Chicago, save for zoos or in the terrariums of pre-pubescent Middle School boys. When I startle this particular serpent, the kind that could guzzle down rabbits or small lap dogs with the ease of someone slurping up broad noodles, I keep my distance and wait till it’s slithered its way back in the deep brush before continuing. 

The American from earlier wasn’t lying about the mountain valley stretch on the trail. The climb to the top was arduous but the pay-off was oh so worth it.

Vast grassy hills, a strong and cool breeze, and the Pacific are in full sight. The sky is clear, and the ocean, especially the areas hugging the coast, is a light, aqua blue. In the distance I can see c two small islands, both of which I learn later, can be visited by ferry from Fulong. 

A third of the way into the valley stretch (about 7KM of ascents and descents) I begin to see more people, a lot more, and as I approach I stumble upon about a hundred grazing water buffalo, famous to this region but a bit surprising considering we’re in the mountains. The buffalo are apparently a nuisance for hikers as they block trails and litter overlook rest areas with their dung. Save for some stray cats outside Fulong, this wraps up the Caoling Flora Fauna Report.

At one particular overlook I meet another solo walker, Ricky, from Taipei. I ask him to take a picture with my camera (as seen below) and offer the same service. We begin chatting in English and end up walking the remaining three and a half hours together.

Mind you, I could have easily done the universally recognized reverse peace sign/Nixon victory finger salute

Ricky, a 29-year-old computer programmer from the Yongan neighborhood in Taipei, tells me he is always looking for ways to escape the busy city and get into the mountains. He studied English and Computer Sciences at University and took a job that he tolerates but does not love, a norm with people his age he tells me. His English is surprisingly good and when I tell him this he always responds with a, “no way! I only know little bit.” When I tell him towards the end of the trail, “Listen Ricky, we just spent nearly four hours talking about a wide range of advanced topics in English, and I understood everything you had to say,” his humbleness quickly changes to pride.

Along the way I ask him about life in Taipei, his travels around the island and Northeast Asia. We discuss the cuisine of Taiwan. He tells me where his favorite hole-in-the-wall haunts and night markets are. We discuss America, President Obama, Chicago style deep-dish pizza, which he can’t seem to comprehend (“Chicago pizza is how big??” making hand motions) and baseball (I of course realize that not only does he know more about modern American baseball than I do but he is also more familiar with the Cubs and White Sox’s current lineup). Strike three.

Ricky tells me that he would love to do exactly what I am doing, that is take off for a year to travel and explore different cultures, but he said that it is very hard to leave family for long periods of time. If I haven’t mentioned already, family is very important to the Taiwanese. Most of the young people in this country live with their parents till they’re into their late twenties, often later. Sundays are often reserved for meals or an outing with relatives, and it is frowned upon to leave home for extended period of times (students studying abroad in the U.S. or Europe are exemptions, especially for those seeking two-year master degrees abroad). He tells me that when he is older he would very much like to see more of the world and I tell him that he is welcome in Chicago any time. The deep dish will be on me.

The Earth God shrine was surprisingly a bust. Basically just another picnic table rest stop.

By the time we reach Fulong (it should be noted that while the last hour was all downhill, the steep descent, mainly on jagged stone steps, reeks havoc on the knees) we are both pretty exhausted but proud of our accomplishment. Ricky tells me that he’s only done this trail twice before but never all the way through.

We grab some drinks and a snack at Fulong, which by 7PM is a bustling mess of sunburned beachgoers and locals all waiting for the train home. It turns out Ricky was on the same train earlier in the day and tells me that the government should run more trains on holidays but sadly do not leaving travel a constant hassle. He ends up setting us up on a better, faster train home (with fewer stops and reserved seats!) for the same price as the earlier train. When I ask him why he didn’t take the nicer train earlier from Taipei to Daxi, he rather oddly replies, “Oh, it doesn’t work like that.” I will get to the bottom of the train system on this island soon enough. 

On the relaxing ride back we continue talking about Taiwanese culture and its history. He gives me a brief but thorough cram course in the island’s geopolitics over the years, starting with the Portuguese and Dutch explorers/settlers, carrying on through China and Japan’s occupation up until Taiwan’s current status as a breakaway republic of the mainland. We discuss the various islands off the coast of Taiwan, some off-the beaten path havens for indigenous Taiwanese tribes, others military bases. He also makes it a point to go through my guide book and correct a number of key vocab words that Lonely Planet managed to fudge up, mainly pertaining to traditional Taiwanese cuisine. 

At Taipei Main Station we exchange cell numbers and plan on meeting at some point for dinner. He tells me that there are all kinds of local dishes that most foreigners never find but are very popular with locals. Perfect.

Ricky is yet another example of the kindness found with the Taiwanese. I am constantly approached by locals of all ages wondering where I’m from or what I’m doing here in Taiwan. All are legitimately interested and everyone is welcoming to their country’s guests.

I get back to my apartment completely spent. On the way I grab some dumplings and have every intention to relax and eventually pass out. My housemate Ant has other plans for me. 

Ever since arriving in Taiwan I have been keen on finding good live music venues and up until this evening I had my doubts that such a place existed. Enter The Wall, Taipei’s gritty underground punk and drum & bass hall. 

I meet up with Ant, a fellow Kiwi named Steven (who shares similar tastes in music and runs his own Taipei live music blog, Gig Guide), and two Chinese-American girls from Northern California. Jenn has been here for at least four years, Lisa for three and both are thrilled to show me, “the newbie,” the ropes.

Ant, Jenn, & Lisa, plus  my usual stupid, non-photogenic pseudo-gang hand sign – Photo c/o Jenn C. 

The Wall is officially my new favorite nightlife destination. The subterranean bar has the feel of Chicago’s Metro theater–small, intimate setting with a decent crowd of music enthusiasts. We arrive for the final set of a local DJ, who in ten minutes manages to trump all the previous DJ’s I’ve seen at local nightclubs, the majority of whom play nothing but recycled 90s hip-hop and the occasional Kylie Minogue record. Next up, an all female electro punk ensemble, Go Chic.

Nice.

The next group, an ensemble from Glasgow, Scotland called Shit Disco play a four-hour DJ set. The Carlsberg was flowing, the bass was loud enough to make your nostrils itch, and everyone was dancing. All in all, a perfect end to one of the better days here in Taiwan.

Photo c/o Jenn C.

Up next, The Dragon Boat Race, A Day in the Life, Tales From Beginner’s Chinese Vol. 1, Culinary Adventures #2: The Lunch Box, and Singing the Ghostbuster’s Theme Song at a Giant Karaoke Bar with two Indonesian girls, a Handful of Taiwanese, a Guatemalan, and a Cheap Bottle of Taiwanese “Whisky.” Who ya gonna call.

Day Trip to Danshui, Northwest Taiwan

Dragon Boat Festival: Day Trip to Danshui, Northwest Taiwan

 

Efficient Public Transportation – Sleepy Port Town Comes Alive – Pigs Hold Down the Fort – A Mob With Firecrackers – Stalking a Parade 

The last weekend in May was the Taiwanese Dragon Boat Festival, a national holiday observing the three-day Dragon Boat Race in Taiwan and Mainland China. The festivities kick off on Thursday, the races run through Saturday and as a result the Taiwanese enjoy a four-day weekend, a rarity in these parts. 

I’ve come to realize that the Taiwanese are hard workers. They work long hours, and they rarely enjoy breaks. For example, at my school I work alongside three other Western teachers. If we have two classes each day we might come in at 3:30 for a 4:30 class, including prep time, and we’ll usually stay till about 9PM. The Chinese staff, the local teachers who sit in on all of our classes and teach their own classes, often in the local tongue for clarity, come in around 1PM and stick around till maybe 10PM. We all work six days a-week, although my Saturday classes are only in the morning to early afternoon and I enjoy a fair amount of free time throughout the week. 

When it comes to holidays, there are few nationally recognized days off. Dragon Boat Fest’s official day off is Thursday, however the government here allows businesses to take off Friday as well (ensuring the four-day stretch for travel) on the condition that the workday be made up, usually the following Saturday or Sunday! 

I’m still new here so the bureaucracy of this system doesn’t bother me yet, however, I knew that I would have to do something for this nice holiday. 

My original plan was to head down South to the Toroko Gorge National Park. I hear from locals and other expats who have been here quite some time that the Gorge itself–basically a giant hole in the ground–is underwhelming and overly touristy. Coming from the flat Midwest and having just tasted a bit of the serene mountain life on a trip to Colorado earlier this year, I was still eager to check out Taiwan’s most popular destination. 

Of course since it was Dragon Boat Weekend, I was not the only person with this vision of grandeur. All the hostels in the area were booked, my Lonely Planet guide book read, “avoid at all costs on National Holidays” and the two-hour plus train ride wouldn’t be worth the time or money for a simple day trip.

I decided instead to use the free weekend to explore some of the many day trips offered outside of Taipei. 

As far as big cities go, you couldn’t really ask for a better-situated one than Taipei. Sure it’s noisy, polluted, overcrowded at times and void of most natural life, save for the surgical-masked hordes that crowd the streets, but by way of a simple city train or bus outside of the city center you’re suddenly staring up into lush green mountains or sunny seaside towns. 

The most popular daytrip from Taipei is Danshui, a little port borough located just Northwest of the city proper, and conveniently situated at the end of the Red Line on Taipei’s MRT Train system, a NT$45 trip from my apartment, cup-o-noodle prices people. 

Public transportation, at least Taipei’s metro system, is one of the best I’ve ever encountered. It could be that since it is not even ten-years-old the city was able to really plan ahead for the future. The system connects most of the major points in the city and is the perfect vehicle for getting away for a simple daytrip to places like Danshui or the natural hot springs at Beitou, another future destination. 

Danshui is to Taipei, what Coney Island is (or once was) to New York City. It’s a festive getaway by the shore with its own boardwalk, its own unique cuisine (Coney Island has its dogs, Danshui, its squid kebabs), some monuments and sights, a beautiful temple, games and other forms of entertainment and its own ferry across the Danshui river to Bali, another, road less traveled coastal community. 

I arrive early afternoon Thursday along with a train car full of Taiwanese, dressed in their sun hats, children and elders at their side, smiles on their faces. It’s a bit more overcast than I would have like but this setback doesn’t stop the crowds.
Immediately upon exiting the MRT station I am thrust into a busy plaza of food stands, toy vendors, bicyclists (Taiwan is a wonderfully bike-friendly country I should add!!) and local musicians singing to pre-programmed tunes off a PA-rigged, 90s era Casio keyboard, you remember, the ones that played all classics but with the sonic finesse of say, Nintendo. 

I grab a quick snack before heading off for some daytime sight seeing. As you might have seen from the previous entry, Danshui is known for its seafood and quail eggs. My first foray into the countless tasting possibilities were steamed shrimp balls, served, predictably, on a stick. 


I make my way towards the first of Danshui’s three most famous sights: the Fuyou Temple. Like the awe-inspiring cathedrals of Europe, or the lively and ornate mosques in Turkey, I can’t seem to get enough the many temples I’ve come across during my time in Taiwan so far

For starters, all the temples, even the oldest, are still active and always full of people of all backgrounds. The Fuyou Temple is small and is located on Danshui’s busiest drag, a busy shopping street by day, and a bustling night market by night.

I spend a good twenty minutes or so seated in the corner and out of sight and watch locals and tourists flow in, each carrying a long stick of incense. The temple has an open roof but the sanctuary still floods with aromatic smoke. Large wooden tables play host to various offerings–boxes of noodles, sweets, tea leaves, a couple pieces of bread, etc. I feel uneasy snapping photos but I can’t resist.


Next up was the Fort of San Domingo, one of the few remnants of the Spanish occupation from 1626 to 1641. The current sight is actually a rebuilt imagining of the original structure that was either destroyed by the Spanish prior to the Dutch take-over in 1642 or by the Dutch or Chinese later on. Nobody really knows for sure I learn. The current fort is a bit disappointing on the outside, although the hilltop view of the coast and the city of Danshui is worth the hike up.

Next I head over to the old British consular residence, located adjacent to the Fort of San Domingo. Like its neighbor, the building itself is average but the spectacular interior with original furniture and masterful colorful tile work from the British Raj era. 

… 

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a wandering traveler, the kind of curious soul who uses the map sparingly and often heads off the beaten path, is stumbling upon the truly unexpected and outrageous. Such a moment befell this writer while heading off the tourist map towards what looked like a hidden, more industrial part of town. 

I happened around a corner and noticed two large beasts outside of what appeared to be a fish house or rundown bait and tackle shop but ended up being a food stop/convenient store/betel nut depot. Two dogs? Perhaps. The Taiwanese do enjoy their four-legged friends and many leave their pets tied up outside stores and restaurants back in Taipei. I never suspected to find two, full-grown, elder hogs standing guard outside a rundown corner store. 

Jules: Pigs are filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals. 

Vincent: Bacon tastes gooood. Pork chops taste gooood. 

Jules: Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, 
but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfucker. 
Pigs sleep and root in shit. 
That’s a filthy animal. 
I ain’t eat nothin’ that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces. 


A nasty sight: flies hovering around their nether regions, saliva drooling out of their gluttonous maws. Still, I can’t turn away and ultimately continue to photograph the giant show-pigs to the merriment of the toothless old shopkeeper inside (on a side note, the betel nut is essentially similar to chewing tobacco only far more disgusting and destructive to the mouth. The nuts are shelled, wrapped in betel leaves, soaked in lime and chewed by the elders in Taiwan who then spit the vile but colorful excrement all over the streets and walkways, staining the ground a bright red. The lime reeks havoc on the teeth and gums, as was confirmed by the proprietor of the two watch-pigs, possibly this woman’s twisted interpretation of Taipei’s Betel Nut Beauties). I end up buying a bottle of water from the shopkeeper who asks where I’m from but doesn’t bother following up after my response. She is, however, impressed with some of my Mandarin and the few Taiwanese phrases I’ve picked up. 

Danshui’s boat wharf, a curved mile-long wooden boardwalk that hugs the northern most part of the shore, is the perfect spot for watching the sunset and proves to also be a popular destination for the recently married. I spend a bit of time by the shore, soaking in the sights, occasionally interacting with some locals. I meet a tall Swede and his Taiwanese girlfriend both on a similar daytrip away from Taipei. The Swede has been in the country for over a year and gives me some advice on what to see, where to go and what’s good to eat. “You must try the squid!” he exclaims.

After snacking on the Swede’s recommendation while also picking up a refreshing orange bubble tea of sorts, that is chock full of orange and papaya pieces not to mention weird looking tapioca shapes and jellies, I head back toward the main drag and stumble upon the start of Danshui’s Dragon Boat Festival Parade.

Mind you, the decision to visit Danshui was random and I had no real plan for my time in the town. I also had no idea about the festivities ahead of me.

On a previous day adventure in Taipei I randomly walked into the middle of a large political march for the Taipei DPP party. Here in Danshui I stumble upon the start of something even bigger. 

The parade line stretched around the corner of the main drag. It featured at the front various colorful, neon-lit floats, musicians banging on drums and various pounded metal cymbals. 

Throughout the middle were local dancers, and walkers, some donning traditional garments, others in full-face paint. The parade moves at a slow pace due to the thousands of people crowding the narrow streets. Firecrackers are set off at various times, always around large groups of people, each eruption numbing the ears and filling the streets with heavy smoke. 

It is hard to maneuver through the masses, but my ability to see over the heads of most around me an unfair advantage. I snap a ton of photos often-beckoning participants and onlookers to flash the universal Chinese sign for peace or hey (hand facing outward, index and middle fingers standing tall mimicking a rabbit ears or the Nixon “Victory” gesture). 

Man, I would kill for a new Nikon 50mm, F1.2 lens

The music is fantastic. Simple drum rhythms played on large stretched-hide wooden barrel drums. The Taiwanese marching bands put their cymbal players to work filling the ear with a shrieking clang of metal that rivals the intensity of the nearby firecrackers. Children and some elders play wooden flutes, the face-painted clan of colorful demons (or dragons) dance and jive down the street, and the spectators watch in awe or walk in and out of the streets. The scooter traffic is minimal but present. The rhythm of the parade is understood.

Just when I think the parade is beginning to wind down the line makes a turn and heads towards the MRT station and continue down a long, more modern stretch past irritated cars and scooters stopped at street barricades. 

At 10:30PM my feet are spent and I head back towards the train station and pack into the train car along with everyone else back to the city. 

While I should’ve assumed that the first night of Dragon Boat Fest would be anything but average, I had no prior knowledge of the festival in Danshui. A similar experience happened when I was in Eastern Europe two summers ago on a backpacking trip

We arrived late in the evening to the Southern Polish city, Krakow, made are way down an unassuming street towards our hostel and literally shuffled into an incredible outdoor concert festival in the town’s central square–the final night of a week-long celebration of the city’s 750-year history. We spent at least two hours staring at the large stage and the breathtaking orchestra playing. Had we been just a day later we would have missed the whole event. As luck had it, with no prior knowledge about what was scheduled that night, we stumbled upon a moment that I’ll undoubtedly cherish the rest of my life.

It’s safe to assume this will not be the first traditional parade I happen upon here in Taiwan or anywhere else in East Asia, however, taking into account the trip’s serendipitous nature, this was one hell of a memorable night.

Up next, Dragon Boat Festival Day Two: Day Trip to the North East Coast of Taiwan, a16KM walk between two towns, water buffalo, and a new friend. 

Until next time, your trusted long-legged wanderer and guard-pig enthusiast. 

A self-portrait of sorts…