Random Experiences

Random Experiences:

The Marriage of Music and Meat or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Swine

It’s amazing how the most random experiences in life are often the most memorable. For a 25-year-old American I like to think that I am fairly well traveled. I’ve seen the Roman Coliseum, stood in the shadow of Picasso’s looming “Guernica” in Madrid, smelled the air that flows through the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., to name a few “must witness” essentials. Still for every monument visited, cathedral climbed, painting seen there are countless captured moments of everyday life.

For as long as I live I’ll never forget driving in a cramped Euro hatchback with four other tall Americans as we headed from Northern Spain to its Southern tip. We survived numerous close-call lane-changes, saw the back roads of Iberia and learned a thing or two about driving in Europe. I still remember approaching Cadiz, driving on fumes and listening to Muse’s appropriately chose song, “Time is Running Out” as we desperately tried to find a filling station.

There was the final night in Warsaw where my friend Paul and I sat outside our youth hostel with the three Polish hostel workers, a guy from Bangladesh, a Frenchman, a brash Texan, and an Aussie card shark, sharing travel stories, drinking Żubrówka and apple juice and eventually singing favorite songs from our individual countries of origin (in their native tongues), eventually culminating in a multi-lingual rendition of “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King.

I remember being taken off the tourist grid of Rome by the proprietor of the dirty hostel I was staying at to a “mob run” neighborhood and ultimately drinking Peroni with a bunch of hash smokers in the streets, fearless of any police interference due to the confidence of the mob’s rule over the turf.

There was the hostel from hell in Dublin and the Indian family searching for their “lost” son at 4AM in our cramped 16-bed dorm room. “Wheeerrre is my soooon?!??!!”

I can distinctly remember The Proclaimer’s “Sunshine on Leith” being played not once, but twice at a pub after a local football match in Edinburgh and how I remember seeing everyone around me, old and young, singing every lyric and raising their pints into the air, pride for their Scottish heritage and their hometown band’s unofficial city anthem. I also remember the chills that ran down my spine after the occasion had finally soaked in.

Life in Taiwan is full of similar moments impossible to find in a guidebook, real life experiences that are instantly burned into the eternal psyche. Two weekends ago was no exception.

In a previous entry I mentioned a bar called Maybe that I discovered. Summed up for those who know me: this is my kind of place. While not as good as Definitely, Maybe is ten times the bar that Certainly is and for my money it serves a meaner gin and tonic than Perhaps, its rival to the South (I’ve clearly been teaching too much English). The drinks all have promising names like the aforementioned, Baby Sleeps for Three Days, and the proprietor and head DJ, Bruce, is the kind of music fanatic that I could happily spend hours talking to, the kind of fanatic who single handedly spent hours loading the lyrics to every song in his massive iTunes library, thus creating Taipei’s most refined karaoke jukebox. Bruce and I hit it off right away and I now have the luxury of skipping the queue of songs waiting to be played. If I have the sudden urge to belt out Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” or Petty’s “Straight Into Darkness,” Bruce is there to deliver.

Two weekends ago my buddy and Mandarin school classmate, Michael, invited me to a birthday party at Maybe for his girlfriend’s friend. The invitation basically read: stop by for a BBQ on the roof and some good music. Sure.

BBQ could technically mean anything in this part of the world and to be fair I didn’t plan on eating. When my eyes fixated on what the gang was up to on the roof all bets were off.

Anthony Bourdain, that oh so fortunate foodie and traveler, has often commented that the pig is a magical animal. Even if you look at its contribution of bacon to the world, a global net positive ingredient that might just be the only portion of flesh food that would make vegetarians exclaim, “just when I thought I was out, it pulled me back in.”

Pork, as you might assume, is very big in Taiwan and Mainland China. Like most things eaten regularly or out of habit, pork here can get a bit tired. When a 100LB sacred being is skewered and slowly roasted over an open fire to the delight of a handful of drooling Taiwanese and foreigners, pork (or zhurou) takes on an entirely new face.

I’ll set the stage for you. I enter Maybe, pay my respects to Bruce in the DJ booth and notice a heaping pile of shredded white meat sitting next to his computer control console. Hmm, bit curious but then again it is his bar.

I grab a bottle of Taiwan Beer, find my friends and am eventually led upstairs. A whiff of heavenly smoke has filled the upstairs private party area and it’s the kind of aroma that could make heads spin. I step out onto the porch and see what is at one second grotesque and then suddenly beautiful.

(I’m doubting that any of my vegetarian friends have continued this far but in case you have I am not responsible for any toilet hugging the following prose might instigate. Animal cooked over fire is a primitive thing of beauty and is, if you believe what Michael Pollan, the author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” has to say, the spark (literally) that started the rise of civilization and the birth of the food culture as we know it.)

Back home I probably wouldn’t know how to go about acquiring a whole pig (though my Bucktown apartment was down the street from a sketchy live chicken shop/coop, which may or may not have doubled as a crack den) but here I’m pretty sure I could get a pig by cocktail hour.

My friends had brought some local Taiwanese (of aboriginal descent) from down South to serve as roast masters. With them they brought a monster of a porker, at least 100lb, maybe more. As I approach the pit master, a burly, sweat soaked man who clearly knows his way around a rotating hog, I tell him (in Chinglish) that this is a without a doubt a thing of beauty. While others are ooing or saying icky, I’m quickly establishing camaraderie with the folks behind the spinning impaled Babe with hopes of some future under the table samples of the best parts. Some skin crackle, a colossal rib, or a piece of loin perhaps. It’s amazing how quickly one can morph from a sophisticated young man who minutes before was discussing the relevance of the modern day David Byrne with a DJ to a full-blown drooling wild dog, focused solely on the possibility of a handout.

The handouts were heavenly. The tender bits were moist without being overly fatty. The pieces cut closer to skin were crispy with just the perfect level of melt-in-your-mouth fat. Then there was the rib, a generous offering that I was privileged enough to receive–you see most others were busy coaxing poor Bruce to spin another Bon Jovi tune.

Ribs back home come in many intriguing incarnations, BBQ being the true “cultural” food of America. I often try to explain to the locals that Americans don’t just eat hot dogs and hamburgers, that, in fact, there is a national culinary movement that we call our own, one that incorporates whole hogs, beef brisket, and countless variations of the same sauce. The rib that was snapped off this particular hog was a taste experience in itself. For starters it hadn’t been rubbed down with any “mama’s special blend” or slathered with a sticky sweet sauce. It was meat, plain and simple, and it was to die for.

The rib was easily as long as a mid-sized-ferret and was covered with perfectly cooked meat–fall off the bone tender with just the perfect amount bite and pull required, the best of both worlds.

By now I assume you, the readers, are either sitting at work with a grumbling stomach and a preamble to the meat sweats or rethinking your relationship with the writer of this carnivorous homage.

H1N1 (formerly swine or oink-oink flu) is no joke over here. There is a national furor going on in this part of the world towards this rapidly spreading illness, however, the swine part of this flu has been completely overlooked (and to be fair, pigs and the country of Mexico got a particularly bad rep during the flu’s initial rise). Pork is a staple part of the Taiwanese diet. Even something as simple as rice or stir fried greens may just have a surprise piece of pork fat thrown in for a trip to flavor country. This is a pleasant part of eating in Taiwan but one aspect that must make being a vegetarian in this country about as easy as asking for a glass of Grüner Veltliner at Milwaukee Brewers game.

In conclusion, the pig roast and the late night festivities that followed will undoubtedly go down as one of my fondest memories of life in Taiwan. Even if this experience were replicated somewhere down the line–and the meat + bonfire possibilities are endless, especially when one of your housemates is from New Zealand–it won’t have the same lasting impact that this evening had on me.

Seeing the flames tickling the burnt red carcass and tasting the results gave me a newfound appreciation for the consumption of animal. There is something very personal about witnessing the time and labor that goes into such an event and observing just how many souls can walk away from the experience content and with full bellies. The experience has also made me rethink the various times over the years I used to poke fun at my Greek friend, Ellen’s many family lamb roasts, which always sounded brutal and unnecessary, but now seem to be the best way to do things. Ellen, if you’re reading, I take back all my smartass gyros spit comments and sacrificial backyard lamb jokes. You can count me in your next Greek lamb orgy!

Until the next psyche-burned experience, this is your faithful rotating meat enthusiast who never quite makes the cut when it comes to candid photography, signing off.

Random Experiences: Welcome to the Jungle: A Tale of Battle

Random Experiences: War Games in the Jungle

Note: Exaggerations might be sprinkled throughout the following prose to add a bit more tension, excitement, humor and baadassness! Unnecessary adjectives and an overall heightened reality should be embraced. 

Last weekend my buddy Stuart came to visit for a couple days. What do you do when a guest comes to town? Why take them to get shot at of course! 

Some of you might remember my friend Stuart from such Warner Life Chapters as Spain 2005 and NYC Part 1. Stuart is from the Dallas region of Texas and was my housemate in Salamanca at Casa del Oscar y Leticia. Oscar and Leticia were our young host parents who we quickly figured out were only in it solely for the money. Summed up: If you weren’t sure what “poor man’s paella” is, I’ll tell ya, it’s pretty much just hot dogs, rice and ketchup. They had nothing but contempt for Stuart by the end of our time there (long story) and as a result questioned my friendship with him. Spain aside, Stuart is a great friend and a fellow traveler soaking up all there is to experience here in Asia. 

Stuart has been in the Far East since he graduated from college. He lived on a small island in southern Japan then moved to Mainland China for six months and is now living in Hong Kong, teaching English at a Japanese school.

Oink-Oink Flu recently broke out in HK and as a result the majority of the city schools were closed indefinitely. Stuart and I had been planning on meeting up at some point (I figured I would visit him in HK once a free weekend came around) so when he found himself with nothing to do for an extended weekend he jumped a cheap flight and stopped by Taipei. 

I know if I were visiting a friend in a foreign city the opportunity to shoot perfect strangers with skin-bruising paint pellets would be right up my alley. I was able to get Stuart on the list and Sunday morning we headed out of Taipei with my housemate Ant and our friend Jenn. 

Paintball is a messy affair and it doesn’t help that our battle was to be set in a steamy mountain forest arena, after two days of continuous rain. We were told to bring old, ratty clothes and shoes, both of which I don’t have seeing as I’m still fairly new to Taiwan. I found an old pair of sneakers left by the guy who used to rent my room (a small size 11), cut holes in the front to let my finger-toes breathe, and grabbed a white tee-shirt, which I hoped would accentuate some of the fluorescent colored flesh wounds that I, the bulls-eye-tall novice, was sure to endure. 

There were around thirty of us to start but by the end only a handful of brave souls remained. 

Mobilizing a large group such as ours is hard work. We rendezvoused at the closest MRT station at 11:40, shared a series of cabs to the actual park. Arrived at 12:30, went through a brief orientation (primarily in Chinese mind you, however, it was easy to understand certain no-no’s like never take your face mask off and yes, shooting someone at point blank range could do some serious damage) and by 13:30hrs we were dressed in our army fatigues and ready for battle. 

We split into two teams. Ant, Jenn and Stuart were on one, and I found myself on the opposing side. “I’ll see you in hell” I would later tell them. Choosing teams was a bit like the playground politics of softball in elementary school with the “sure thing” players getting picked first and the questionables hugging the bench till the end. I wasn’t the last person picked but I definitely wasn’t in the first round pick either. I suppose being tall doesn’t bode well for war. 

I’m to the far right. My housemate Ant, far left, chose the “Beyond Thunderdome” attire.

14:00 hrs: We make the trek up a steep hill to the first terrain, a timed warm-up course that pits the two teams against each other in a free-for-all, last man standing scenario. 

The course has a number of obstacles, hiding bunkers, and plenty of trees to use for cover. I decide to go all out for the first game and take a front position behind a giant tractor tire. 

I run down the slick hill and take a crouching position behind the yellow and red stained mass facing enemy fire. Little yellow pellets start whizzing by my head. To the right of me one of my teammates takes a fatal shot to the chest, his blue shirt sodden yellow.  

Pellets explode upon impact as they rain down upon my surprisingly feeble cover. My thick and rolling hair (I’m in need of a haircut by this point as the photo above can attest) catches a fair amount of side spray and eventually I catch a direct hit to my facemask, blinding my peripheral vision yellow. 

During orientation we are told that if you receive a “kill shot,” the proper etiquette is to slowly rise with your weapon pointed towards the sky in a surrendering, “I’m dead” position. Once you’re in the shit, however, rules don’t seem to apply. 

I consider trying to wipe the war scars from my facemask to elude those around me but decide to play by the rules. I rise and am immediately struck in the back by one of many faceless soldiers–friend or foe, I may never know who was responsible for my sole body wound of the day. 

Our team ends up taking the first game, despite my unfortunate demise (a loss for the team you see) three-minutes into play. We switch sides and the Taiwanese coaches inform us of a some game changes, the most intriguing of which involves lighting a decently-sized bottle rocket at a mutual, no man’s land halfway point. 

The goal is still kill as many of the opposition as possible with the additional five points rewarded to the brave soul crazy enough to light a flimsy but powerful proper rocket during the mayhem of yellow. The coaches warn both teams that the rocket must remain standing upright so as not to pull a sporadic flight into someone’s exposed neck flesh. 

I take point behind two trees lined with green mesh material indicating a safety zone. I have a direct view of the rocket and set my aim to kill. The first to make it to the rocket, Brian, who was one of the hosts of the day’s festivities and was also enjoying a birthday, is from the opposing team and as he starts to reach for the lighter I unleash a fury of yellow his way. Birthday or not, I don’t give him the satisfaction of mercy. 

It’s hard to say what happened next. I definitely hit him in the arm (merely a flesh wound!) and me thinks I take out his shoulder as well, however, he manages to light the rocket, which of course falls to its side and zips to the right, directly into a tree, a tree which very well could’ve have been an unfortunate Taiwanese girl dragged into the mess of war by her boyfriend. Or worse, yours truly, a tall-ass bloke who’s only experience on the battlefield consists of “Full Metal Jacket,” “The Thin Red Line,” and countless Schwarzenegger vehicles, including the appropriately set jungle guerilla warfare of “Predator.”

15:45 hr: We re-hydrate, wipe the combat juice, a putrid mélange of sweat and yellow chemical paint, from our masks, and make our way to the second course of the day.

If the first two games were merely warm-ups for the real deal, a la paintball basic training, the “trench” obstacle course that followed was the no-holds-barred game that the hardcore players amongst us were dreaming of. 

The course was built on a long and steep hill that was made even more treacherous thanks to the week’s subtropical rainfall. Each end of the course had a flag–one red, one that was at one time or another some sort of blue. The game changes yet again.

Kill shots go from torso and above to strictly the head shot, duration time goes from six minutes to fourteen, and the goal of the game is simple enough: capture the opposition’s flag without catching a yellow stray to the face. 

Our team strategize for a good ten minutes setting up a fierce defense line and sending our smallest and fastest out for the slaughter with hopes of at least one reaching the flag. I take a defensive position behind a fallen tree and some shrubs, which I later discover also, house a colony of Taiwanese ants. Ingenious little fuckers who manage to infiltrate my body suit via the sleeves. We are confident and seemingly prepared for anything that comes are way. The firecracker game starter is lit and we rush into position. It’s not two minutes into the game when my housemate Ant and three other fearless bastards rush our defensive line without a hitch and storm the flag. Damn. One instant I’m keeping my eye out for a curious enemy trying to test my sniper skills and the next, my housemate is literally leaping over my position to the prize. 

We lose the first round mainly due to the fact that head shots are harder than they sound, especially when you’re running at top speed.

The next game we lose five players, one from our team, four from the other, each saying they need to get back to Taipei for work (on a Sunday). For those of us drenched in sweat, mud and yellow, we know these cowards simply don’t have the cajones for war.

The teams are uneven and our team needs volunteers to change sides. I feel no particular attachment to my clan, considering by the second game we were hardly a band of brothers. I end up volunteering with the plan to play alongside Stuart and Ant, maybe even getting a chance to shoot Stuart on friendly turf. What happened next can only be described as one of those, “for real?” moments in the life of Warner. 

While my first team was pretty intense in its preparation (the team captain hinted at a military past during one of his game plan powwows) the other side was more relaxed and it basically seemed like “an every man for themselves” plan. 

I initially stayed in the back on defense but quickly grew tired of the lack of action and decided to make a go for it. 

In an act of pure pyrotechnical wickedness one of the Taiwanese coaches set off a couple smoke bombs filling the dugout trenches with a protective purple haze (“Apocalypse Now” anyone?). I moved quickly into the colored fog, staying low and keeping my air-powered weapon at kill height. 

My vision had become blurred from perspiration and countless wipes from the communal paint towel. Yellow pellets continued to rain down around me but there were also stretches of eerie silence. At one point I look down at my hand shaking to the sound of paintball fire. I’m in the shit.

At one point I didn’t really know where I was in relation to the opposition’s flag but I found myself locked in a heated firefight (or should I say yellow ball fight) with an enemy combatant perched behind some shrubbery on top of a small hill.

I carefully crawl closer to my foe’s position and begin to unleash all hell. Up until this point I had been using my paintball ammo sparingly but with this duel I go ballistic. 

After a while the unfortunate soul in my sight gets up and retreats back up the hill, which of course prompts me to shoot him in the back. Who knew I could be so ruthless? 

I then realize that I am fairly close to the flag, a mere 300 yards down a trench and over a small hill. My vision is obscured and I can’t really tell who’s around me but I decide to make a run for it.

I sprint down the carved mud trench tripping, or should I say, strategically falling, all along the way. Surprisingly nobody is standing guard so I rush over the hill and touch the flag in a fit of glory. Remember that scene at the end of “The Rock” where Nicolas Cage falls to his knees with a white flag in hand behind a wave of fire. That’s me. The Taiwanese female coach, a beast of a woman who clearly considers paintball more of a lifestyle rather merely an amusing Sunday afternoon gala, blows her whistle and the game the remaining live souls on both teams rendezvous at the neutral zone. 

It’s always refreshing to know that the most unassuming of us all can sometimes doing incredible things. My first team seemed stunned and I must say a bit disappointed that I didn’t bring the thunder while I was on their side. My team members were just happy to have won. One Taiwanese girl didn’t even know I was on her team. War, I learn, is all about keeping a low profile then shocking the hell out of those around you. To be fair I probably just got lucky.

17:30 hr: Stuart, Ant and I catch a cab and head back to Taipei. We are soaked with sweat and my hair is a possum’s nest of waves and yellow.

Stuart and I are beat (especially since the paintball excursion followed a night of drinking) but I decide that there might not be a better way to finish off the day than with a dinner at the acclaimed Taipei eatery, Din Tai Fung.

When it’s all said and done, Din Tai Fung is really just an over-hyped dumpling house. Don’t get me wrong it’s a damn fine one but it was hardly the most memorable meal I’ve had in Taipei thus far.

Din Tai Fung specializes in Xiaolongbao or soup dumplings. These tender morsels of steamed dough and meat (usually pork or crab and shrimp) are literally flavor explosions for the mouth as each dumpling is a vessel for a spoonful of hot Au Jous. There is a proper way to eat a Xiaolongbao so as not to burn the roof of your mouth with piping hot broth.

First you lightly dip your dumpling in a soy sauce and rive vinegar sauce. Then carefully place the dumpling on your soupspoon. Once the dumpling is settled it’s a race against the dumplings temperature clock. Carefully puncture a hole in its side with your chopstick spilling its liquid guts into your spoon’s basin. Then slurp up some of the soup and gobble down the dumpling.

Stuart and I go through an order of pork and crab soup dumplings, a bowl of “niurou mian,” a sinfully decadent beef and noodle soup with a dark brown broth and tender chunks of brisket that could easily pass as Vietnamese Pho’s gluttonous wealthy uncle, a side of buttery sautéed pea shoots, and a spicy wonton dish that we learn was just added to the menu. The wontons, with their slightly spicy, slightly sweet flavor ended up being the hit of the meal. We shared a couple bottles of Taiwan beer and reminisced about our time in Spain, Stuart’s many adventures here in Asia and plans for the future.

All in all, it was another memorable day in Taipei, one that will no doubt go down as one of the best. For Stuarts remaining time in Taipei we found a hookah bar near the university, ate a wonderful seafood meal at a local restaurant that one of his Taiwanese friend’s took us to, and explored the Shilin night market. I have an open invitation to Hong Kong, one that I hope to use as soon as I can.