Last Taiwan Post: Taipei

We spent most of the first afternoon shopping around the main train station.

We got some sushi for Chris and fruit for me. If you didn’t know that dark purple stuff is dragon fruit. Also a coke can in Chinese.

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Our first full day we finally went “hiking”  – remember we only came to eat and hike and so far there was just eating.

Hiking turned out to be this:

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Paved roads and stairs. It suddenly made sense why so many feminine female Asian bloggers had been bragging  about “climbing” a mountain. People were doing it in high heels just to take a selfie on the top then head back down. We came for a hike so we kept going past the touristy areas. Some places were blocked by fallen trees – there was so much damage from the typhoon still.

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We followed a man using a cane up to some much older and wetter stairs. Very old stairs. We were off the beaten track as much as we could go.

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Then it started to rain. An intense downpour – the cloud cover made it nearly pitch black in the jungle where we were.

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It rained on our hike in Hong Kong, too. It’s how you know you’re going to have a good time, it seems. We had umbrellas so we huddled under them for a bit while the path around us began to flood. It never let up for a solid 3 hours of bucket-pouring rain. There were pools of water everywhere. It was running down the stairs almost like that scene from Jumanji.

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Even with the umbrellas we were soaked. We took a break at the now abandoned lookout point. That’s when the lightning and thunder began. One hit right in front of us, and I do mean RIGHT in front of us. We decided that being on the mountain was just downright unsafe so we began powerwalking/running down the stairs off the mountain. By the time we got down we were even more soaked. We had no other way of getting back to the hotel except to take the subway. Here Chris started dripping a very large puddle – about 2 cups of water worth on the floor of the subway. When the subway accelerated it sloshed backwards. When the subway stopped it sloshed forward. Thus Chris had soon surrounded a 10 foot area with rain water. Elderly people were scowling at us and it soon became extremely funny how upset they were about the water. They were rolling their eyes and glaring at us – what we were supposed to do about it?!

Granted, we were the only people wet but we had been hiking for the full 3 hours it had been raining. I had a towel wrapped around my waist because I had light shorts and dark undies -you can guess those showed through. So Chris was dripping everywhere and I looked idiotic with a towel around my waist in public. We were a great pair.

We went to the worlds only 24-hour bookstore after getting dry. I suppose you should all be lucky that we’re not still there. There were plenty of English books. 4 floors of books, office supplies, music disks and stationary – but 24 hours. Our heaven.

(Now Chris is writing) We decided to give our stair-climbing- muscles a rest, and to focus on traveling around Taipei, we saw some interesting shopping areas, and we visited the Chiang Kai-shek (C.K.S) memorial hall.

I think that C.K.S, and therefore Taiwan in general, deserves a bit of explaining. Lets go back real fast to WWII, when China was occupied by the Japanese.

Old China was under the leadership of C.K.S..  But, the communists were also starting their movement in China. These three sides (Communist China, Japan, and “old” China) fought each other for control of China.  When the Japanese left, the communists and the old Chinese government continued to fight each other. Eventually the communists won, and the old government retreated to Taiwan. Taiwan was now the official seat of the original Republic of China (ROC). The communists then set up the Peoples Republic of China (PROC) on the mainland.

C.K.S became “president for life” and wasn’t a really great person. He died, got his massive memorial hall, and his son (who seems like he was alright) became president. The son actually started making the country more democratic and free.

It’s actually a little similar to the Korean situation.  Only imagine North Korea being the fastest growing economy in the world, and having…hm… a billion more people.  That’s Taiwan’s current situation with China, more or less.

And now you’ve learned something!

Back to the point. We visited the C.K.S memorial hall. We would describe it as overly grand as far as memorial halls go. Definitely the largest either of us has ever seen.

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We walked around that area for a bit, we found a German restaurant that we had to try for old times sake.  And of course we visited the book store…again.

Most visitors who come to Taiwan come to visit the night markets. We had visited one in Keelung, where we ate some very delicious pork, but supposedly the best markets were in Taipei.  It was large, crowded, loud and full of great looking food. The problem we encountered with night markets is that when you see something good, you cannot stop to buy it because there are too many people pushing you from behind. Its like trying to stop on an escalator, people will bunch up behind you and get very pushy.

The first night market was okay. We bought dumplings, and deep fried shrimp covered in mayonnaise and cake sprinkles (seriously, sprinkles). The second night market we visited in Taipei was just as crowded, but it had maybe 1/4th the space.  The ass hats in charge of this market had decided to push their stands so close together that only two people could comfortably walk abreast between them. This allowed for two lines of people, and the theory must have been that people will form two orderly rows, each traveling in opposite directions. The reality was probably the worst crowd experience we have ever been in. If even one person slowed down, then people started pushing past that person, which lead to near-crushings at time (because no one is patient).

We bought nothing from this market, and we shoved our way out as soon as there was a break in the food stands. After this we had a laugh about the whole thing, and just bought another one of those scallion pancake things we like so much.

To be honest, Taipei does not have much to offer. There is some great hiking (real hiking, not stairs) in the area, but if you cant go hiking because you need a permit which you can’t get as a foreigner The memorial hall is nice I guess, the Taipei 101 building  (5th largest in the world) makes for a great skyline but we would never pay to go up in it. I suppose the night markets are good for trying new things. But after you’ve seen those three things, there is little left to do.

There were over crowded museums you couldn’t pay us to visit. So on the last day we decided to go to the zoo. We’ve seen zoos before but there’s really nothing to do in Taipei.

Also it was raining. We figured that the rain would convince people to spend their time in the already overcrowded museum, where it was nice and dry, and not at the zoo.

Honestly the rain probably had no impact on the crowd. We had a fun time seeing the animals though, and the surprise star of the zoo in my opinion (this is still Chris by the way) were the hyenas. I am very serious. I’m not sure why, but you could get pretty close to them, they were relatively active, and nobody else was interested in them, which meant the pack of howling mainlanders weren’t pushing us around.

What the mainlanders were interested in were the pandas. Yes, there were pandas, yes we managed to see them, and no it was not as cool as seeing the hyenas.  It was difficult to see the pandas through the mob of selfie taking, “professional”photographer wannabe jerks who came JUST to see the pandas. And not just to SEE them, but to take hundreds of pictures in the futile attempt to get the perfect shot of a sleeping panda at 15 yards through smudged Plexiglass. It was like when we saw the Mona Lisa in Paris. With 100 people in the way, anything will loose its allure. Even pandas.

So that’s it. The vacation was a little like Hong Kong in that it was a little disappointing but this was a lot better with better food and less terrible people. I think the issue is starting to become an Asian issue not a Taiwan or Hong Kong issue. We’re getting tired of things (hint: Asian things). Our tolerance levels are down. Do you want to get pushed around and have to shove-or-be-shoved adventure in some museum? Yawn, no I think we’ll just eat scallion pancakes and watch HBO in the hotel. Which we did sometimes. But it was our vacation period and we needed to relax.

Now we’re back at the grindstone trying to teach English phrases at 800 students a week. November will bring renewals (unknown what we’ll do) and then our next vacation period …. who knows.

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Taiwan Trip #2 – Keelung

After the odd time in Hualien and “Taroko” we headed north to Keelung. We wanted to see a couple things around Keelung and it made sense to spend a few nights there. We got in late afternoon and headed to a night market. Like we said, we went to Taiwan for two things: to hike and to eat. We didn’t get to hike so now it was time to eat.

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We started at a night market where we were the only white people and some of the taller people there. There were a few signs in English and the rest was up to guesses. We got some suckling roast pig and a Japanese snack takoyaki (deep fried dough with squid inside).

DSC03475We walked around a lot more and found some strange looking pancake things. Looked cool enough – my god these things were good (says Chris). They’re scallion pancakes that are wrapped around a scrambled egg with a spicy red sauce. That may not sound like much until you learn more about the scallion pancake – it’s a laminate pastry- other laminate pastries you might be familiar with are phyllo dough or croissants. Layers and layers of flaky pastry with egg and sauce. Wow.

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Also worth noting was the honey beer. Parts of Asia are going through a little honey craze. Japan and Korea are obsessed with “Honey Butter Chips” and now everything is honey butter this and honey that. Taiwanese Honey Beer is good unlike all those weird chips.

The next day was my birthday. We decided to take the Pinxi Line – an overrated train line that follows a route through old mining towns…. wow, when you say it like that it sounds a little familiar… Unfortunately the train isn’t even quaint or steam-powered, it’s just packed packed PACKED with people. Everyone is touching everyone else, there’s no space and it reeks of body odor. We endured this for 45 minutes before pushing and shoving our way out to see a waterfall.

Everyone was obsessed with the train tracks – something about love and romance. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a lantern salesperson. They were selling tissue-paper lanterns. You write a wish on it then send it into the environment as trash – er, you launch it. Again, some stupid wishy washy romance thing. We marched past that – I suppose it would be gorgeous at night but still trashy. waterfall

The waterfall was pretty enough but it was the only real thing to do on the whole Pingxi Line. The Pingxi Line doesn’t actually offer much besides tourist traps. Still we found a cafe nearby and had some peppermint tea and just people watched for a while.

We shoved back onto the Pingxi Line – it was somehow busier and worse than last time. We made a last minute decision to see the Cat Village. An ex-mining down that has feral cats living everywhere. It was actually pretty nice.

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The cats were tired of people but still had the cat attitude of secretly loving all the attention and worship. There were cats on every surface and sleeping in every box or bowl-like object around. Shopkeepers had cats on their merchandise and on their tables. Most flower pots had crushed flowers from all the catnaps inside of them. And of course everything was cat themed. Cat shaped baked goods, cat music (Christmas jingles in meow-format). It was nothing else but a little cute.

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Afterward we went to the big event – Juifen. If you’ve ever seen “Spirited Away” – a gorgeous Japanese animation you should watch just to see the art – a lot of the movie was inspired by this city. So we were interested in it.  Basically all of Asia was as interested as well. It was impossible to go anywhere except to just be pushed along by the crowds. It was a mess. If Chris and I had been sepreated I don’t think we ever would have seen each other again. And it wasn’t even that pretty. A lot of the inspiration was exaggerated or it was too busy to enjoy it.

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But because we make our own fun, we walked up the road to some kind of graveyard and got some fantastic views of the sea and the valley area.

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We asked the hotel where we could find some famous Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup. They recommended a mom and pop restaurant a block away. It was a place we never would’ve chosen – there wasn’t a door but a plastic flap. The menu was a small sign all in Chinese. They didn’t speak English but we managed to get exactly what we wanted and it was the best thing we’ve ever eaten.

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Again – wow. The beef has been simmered for ages, the flavors complex and the noodles were homemade and lovely. Here’s a recipe if you want to try.

The next day we headed to Taipei…

Taiwan – Hualien and “Taroko”

Our trip to Hong Kong last summer wasn’t exactly our favorite mostly because of Chinese tourists and its proximity to China. So it’s surprising that we decided to to go Taiwan – a place that is basically China and also filled with Chinese tourists. We had been planning to go to Mongolia. However Mongolia is the size of western Europe so it didn’t make sense to try to force that kind of landmass into 10 days.

We picked Taiwan because of two things: food and hiking. And we didn’t get to hike because of Typhoon Soudelor. Still we had a nice time and made our own fun.

We started in Hualien and the Taroko Gorge area. We picked out a bed and breakfast that was highly rated and ended up being a small disaster. There were bugs crawling on and even in the walls, the owners didn’t speak English. It was certainly an adventure – but one we were excited to be finished with.

We arrived in Hualien, the only city near the rural area where we would be staying. We asked a help desk how to get to the lodge and they bent over backwards to try to help us. We soon learned that most Taiwanese people (outside of Taipei) are some of the most friendly and helpful people we’ve ever met. The woman helping us worked for nearly 15 minutes to call the lodge, get taxi quotes and look at the address online. We finally made it. It was very awkward, the bed and breakfast was basically their house. It felt intrusive and it felt a lot like Kaeti’s time in Ghana – nice, but not that nice.

The owner decided we would go to dinner and drove us to a restaurant. Outside of the restaurant was a glass display case full of organs, entrails, still moving sea creatures, and a preserved chicken head. If that didn’t suit your fancy there was also dried meat with bone ends sticking out of either end that looked like some kind of demonic rolling pin -I have no guess as to what it was. As I stared at a clam attempting to get out of the bowl it was in – I didn’t even know they could move like that – the owner/driver gestured proudly at the case.

“What do you like?”

“Ummmmm… Err…..”

Thinking fast, Chris pointed quickly at some overboiled tea-eggs “Eggs!”

I also chose the eggs and so we headed inside to find there were other guests at our B&B that had been left to drink at the restaurant while they waited for us to arrive. We met a Dutch couple – both pilots- who were spending 2 nights in Taiwan before flying (working) back home. There was also a Scottish couple who were retired BBC reporters who had sold everything and – get this- became English teachers (in Spain).

They hadn’t had anything to eat yet, since Chris and I picked the tea eggs (just hard boiled eggs stained with tea) they soon brought out a plate of the eggs for the 6 of us to share. Then they came out what the Scottish couple had picked out of the display case- frogs. But not frog legs, like most of the frog. It had been fried in a sticky soy sauce and was actually very similar to eating chicken wings at a bar. Except the texture was more like a weird fish. The Dutch couple had picked out collard greens as they were vegetarian. They were unrecognizable greens and the restaurant owners were very proud to tell us “special Taiwanese vegetable!” It was slimy like seaweed but tasted like a hardcore spinach. I’m not a food-blogger so just try to figure that one out.

Talking with everyone was great but when we went back to the B&B we were reminded of how, well, shitty it was. I was eaten alive by mosquitoes and woken up very frequently by the sounds of crawling and tapping. Something big was crawling in or on the walls around me. I like camping- but when I’m paying to be indoors I don’t want it to be like camping. And as tropical as the climate was, I had no idea what kind of bugs or creepy crawlies were around us.

The next morning I wanted to leave – we hadn’t gotten any sleep in Korea before we left because of a loud hotel room there. Chris reassured me “We’ll get ourselves so exhausted that we’ll sleep great for the next 4 nights.” 4 nights. God what had we gotten ourselves into?

Hiking. That’s why we had come to Taiwan. That, and food. But the owner told us: “Typhoon will come tonight -midnight. No hike today. Not safe. You hike tomorrow.”

I will pause to say how much I regret not telling him how illogical that was. The day was perfect – blue skies and sunshine. A light wind. How on earth could the day after a typhoon be less dangerous? Because of his poor judgement call we never got to hike – the whole reason we had even come to his shitty B&B.

What’s worse is that he basically wanted us out of his house for the day  – or was desperate to entertain us- so he decided to send us and the Scottish couple to Hualien. We were sent away with the promise that he would pick us up at 5:30. Ugh. Chris and I like to travel freely. Some people surely find that convenient – that there’s a schedule and a driver so you don’t have to worry about taxis. We found it stifling and over-controlled. Again, there was the feeling of what have we gotten ourselves into.

There’s nothing to do in Hualien but go to night markets (it was 10 am). So we walked around aimlessly. Enjoying the gorgeous weather and wondering why we weren’t hiking.

DSC03349But we were here, so  we headed to the sea just to see it. We’re landlubbers, any chance to see the sea is interesting. Since the typhoon was coming the sea was even more interesting than normal because it was an absolutely churning, smashing misting mess of ocean. The pictures don’t do any justice but we tried – the waves were easily 5-10 feet but we were kept at a safe distance by the military. Just that day a mom and her twins had been swept out to sea in the area north of us.

 

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The weather started changing later in the day – the wind kicked up and it started to rain just a little. The cooling rain made us realize that we were very, very sunburned. We forgot that we work inside, and even if we’re outside Korea is usually too smoggy to have sun.

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We decided to walk back to the lodge – we didn’t want to wait around until 5:30 to be picked up. It was a gorgeous walk with so many trees and flowers I’ve never even seen or heard of. We saw rice paddies, bananas, a dragon fruit farm, guavas, and so many other things that we don’t know what they were. The rain kicked up and felt so good on our sunburns. It was nice to be just marching home in the middle of nowhere completely soaked.

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That night the typhoon hit around 3 am. The winds shook the house and windows. The power went out briefly. At one point the wind kicked up for a solid minute that shook the walls and floors so much that the bed was vibrating around. It was honestly terrifying, we didn’t know how safe the house was and with the many, many trees around us it often felt like any minute a tree or branch could come crashing into the bedroom. We looked it up and there had been108 mph winds for a sustained 1 minute. There’s videos of a Boeing 747 being lifted up and down and a motorbike being picked up into the air and spun around.

You may be familiar with this typhoon (depending on your news) -Typhoon (Hurricane) Soudelor. It was the strongest storm in the area for over 30 years and the worst storm of the world so far in 2015. The aftermath involved a loss of drinking water and telephone lines and nearly 5 million people were without power for a few days. We only lost the internet.

The next morning we had nothing to do – our promised hike was obviously cancelled indefinitely. We set out with our Scottish friends to go to a 7/11 and get a beer and see all the damage.

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All the beautiful trees and things we had admired yesterday were either listing at a 45 degree angle or were on the ground.

The agricultural damage has been quoted at nearly 94.8 million dollars (USD) worth – mostly in bananas. And boy did we see bananas. They’re too heavy to stay up. Also a lot of coconuts which had broken open on impact. Locals had already collected unbroken ones. We grabbed one that was open and munched on it a little – why not? – as we observed all the destruction.

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We made it to the coast and saw 10- 15+ foot  waves. Again, the coast guard and police were there to make sure we didn’t get to close after that family had been swept out to sea.

 

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There were some structural damage to some buildings – panelling and tiles ripped off the walls. The worst was some kind of apartment complex shack had been blown off the top, breaking a lot of windows and scattering a rooftop garden all over the street.

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Hiking was definitely cancelled permanently. Also the Scottish couple wanted to head out and continue their trip around Taiwan. We didn’t want to be left as the only guests and English speakers in the sad little lodge so we planned to leave 2 days early. Anywhere – we didn’t care where.

Unfortunately the trains were stopped – the owner of the lodge said maybe they would start running at 6 pm so we all went to Hualien to see. Cancelled, cancelled and cancelled. We were clever and found a hostel – not to stay in the dorms with 20 other people like our time in Europe, but to get private rooms. This hostel was nicer than some hotels we’ve been in. We went out drinking together that night and had a really wonderful time.

We spent the next two days in Hualien relaxing and sleeping. Then headed up north to Keelung…

Summer Camp

My after school club had some of the worst students I’ve ever had the displeasure of interacting with. I had some of them removed from the roster but it didn’t stop the bad attitudes, selfishness, and general too-good-for-you bullshit that some middle schoolers have down to a science.

After all that drama of having them removed I got the green light to interview students personally for clubs and even camps. This was supposed to stop students from signing up just so they could take advantage of me (I don’t enforce school rules because, quite frankly,  I don’t know what they are until it’s too late)

The most interesting part was because of budget cuts I wasn’t going to have a Korean co-teacher at my camp for the whole time – only half of the time. So I really needed to make sure I had a decent group of students.

When summer camp neared I was able to interview them. I had over 35 second grade students sign up and had to interview all of them down to 20. Some were kicked off the list for wearing makeup to the interview – I can’t trust you to follow basic rules like no makeup on a normal school day I know you’ll be a nightmare for me at camp.

For first grade students we had only 16 sign up. I pestered them weekly to try to get to the golden number – 20. Soon we only had 20 signed up and one of them could barely speak English. My coteacher outright bribed (with food) some of her students to join my camp. It was just not a very good group but, of course, we didn’t know that at the time.

So I had my handpicked second grade camp and my begrudgingly accepted 1st grade camp. I worked for ages to come up with fun things. In the end, the first graders were lazy and had pretty bad attitudes throughout. Nothing was fun – woe was them. Ohhhh sigghhhhh god no I don’t want to decorate my own t-shirt. That’s just the wooorrrsssttt. So much wooorrrkkkkk…. Ohhhhhhhh whine whine whine, I don’t want to paint this. Oh whine. Pizzas are so hhharrrrddd.Nnnnooo I wooonnnttt cleeann up after mysellfff I’m just going to texxxxttttttt even though I shouldn’t have my phooonnnnne.

I hope that was as annoying for you to read as it was for me to listen to for 5 days. The first graders left a terrible taste in my mouth to the point that I outright hated this job. Both Chris and I had been slowly decending into hatred over the past month – after finals we had to babysit all our classes for about 3 weeks and everyone had an attitude about it. But camps are supposed to be fun for everyone – I create games and a sort-of curriculum and they are supposed to just relax and speak English without worrying about tests. But the first graders were just terrible. Fortunately the 2nd graders arrived with their can-do kickass attitudes. I asked them to put their phones in a box so that they couldn’t use them  – did they whine about having to do it? No. They did it and remembered to do it everyday without me nagging them. They were creative, open minded and  asked fantastic questions. They were just what the doctor ordered for a burned-out I-don’t-think-I-can-do-this-job-anymore-attitude I’ve been stuck in for over a month.

I’m glad to have had the 2nd grade camp and be reminded there are some good students at my school (even if I handpicked the best of the best) – because I had honestly forgotten.

Here’s some pictures from camp-

Making paper mache monsters. The big mistake I made was making it with flour and water. In this summer heat (we’ve been getting emergency alerts about the heat – it moulded over the weekend. Whoops).

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This picture looks staged but that’s just how studious they are:

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Presenting about the Bermuda Triangle-

 

 

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End result on monsters – I had silver spray paint and as a middle schooler you can’t pass that up. Many monsters ended up being chrome even if it didn’t make sense for them to be shiny.

 

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The best monster of all time: a shark horse. The tail was braided and had a ribbon. DSC03329