Tag Archives: Taiwan

A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake

A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake is a story that didn’t make it into Formosa Moon, and probably for good reason. Stephanie and I traveled to this fabled tourist destination for the book, and actually had a wonderful time.  Alas, when we started posting little snippets of our lovely experience over the digital herpes machine that social media has become, we were predictably treated to the golden shower of comments from a few of our fellow expatriates concerning their own negative feelings about the place. Overdeveloped, not “the real Taiwan,” too many tourists, yadda yadda…

I suppose this was for the best, as it triggered my aforementioned contrarian nature in two ways:

First, I decided that I was going to absolutely love the place. This proved to be anything but a challenge, as Sun Moon Lake turned out to be the epitome of loveliness, and we got several great chapters from Sun Moon Lake for the book.

And second, being a comedy writer, I decided to use the juxtaposition of being in an absolutely lovely setting and seeing comments disparaging the place on my fairly innocuous social media posts about the area to write some comedy.

Without further ado, “A Nihilists Guide to Sun Moon Lake”

(Though it isn’t in Formosa Moon, I may include it in the audio-book version, but only if I can get Werner Herzog to read it. In my mind, the piece is best read in his voice.)

Nihilist Sun Moon Lake

A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake

Driving through the mountains and valleys of Nantou County, we pass through towns and villages scarred by natural catastrophe, stopping to visit a plaza containing two ornate houses of worship. The first had been destroyed in an earthquake, and the second was built afterwards to house idols rescued from the first. Both are without meaning.

In a nearby market, villagers sell local fruits, teas and tonics for health, unaware of the futility of their industry for buyer and seller alike. After brief repast, we drive to the lake itself.

Thought by some to be among the most beautiful spots in Taiwan, Sun Moon Lake was formed by a cataclysmic strike coming without warning from the endless and indifferent void of space. The blow likely as not destroyed most of the island’s life at the moment of impact, itself a mercy.

Over millennia, the crater filled with water and slowly trees and plants grew around the damp hole. At some point, humans arrived and thought the place pretty. Then as now, this was merely a mental self-preservation construct designed as distraction from existence’s ultimate futility for whatever time it takes to ensure copulation, thus ensuring biological continuation of the ghastly charade. These days, there are many hotels diminishing the lake’s beauty while simultaneously providing a place for human sexual encounters. Contemporary social mores require such encounters be conducted indoors. Why is this?

We stop to visit the Wenwu temple overlooking the lake, inside of which ornate statues represent various folk deities. Local people pray to these idols, but their prayers go unheard. God is dead. On the third level is a temple constructed to honor the sage Confucius, who died alone as do all men. In the attached gift shop, foodstuffs can be purchased.

On opposite sides of the lake lie two collections of buildings, clustered in futility, seeking solace in number. We head to the smaller of these for shelter from the rapidly approaching night, pausing to watch from the pier extending timidly over the water the setting of the sun. The same star that gives our planet life will inevitably destroy it. This is inescapable fact.

Now it is time for evening sustenance.

There are many restaurants, but we choose instead to eat smaller items of foodstuffs from vendors who have set up small stalls in the alleys and streets of the villages. Village vendors wear clothing signifying belonging to the local tribal group, whose ancestors came to the area before those of the island’s current-dominant culture arrived in response to a multitude of political and social pressures in their own homeland, quickly exchanging the mantle of oppressed for oppressor. If the vendors are aware of various theories stating that their ancestors played a similar role with a previous indigenous group, the very existence of which is now lost forever, they make no mention of it. We who enjoy sticks of pork grilled over flame despite our own awareness of the sentience of pigs can hardly judge.

For dessert, we eat shaved ice served with crushed fruit, served to us in a shop in which a young girl happens to be sitting stroking a pet cat. In the natural course of things, both the cat and the girl will die, yet if the cat outlives the girl it will be considered tragic.

Why?

We return to our hotel room to bathe and though procreation is not our goal, we copulate. Despite the presence of road and futility of man’s every endeavor, tomorrow we will take a boat across the lake.

~ Fin ~


A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake does not appear in Formosa Moon, by Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman. You should purchase the book nonetheless at Powell’s City of Books, Amazon, or wherever else you purchase books to fill in the time before the inevitable occurs.

Wind Warriors of the Pescadores

On the subject of windsurfing in Taiwan, one of the strangest years of a life with no shortage of strange years was spent living on an archipelago called Penghu, halfway between Taiwan and China. It’s a remote, beautiful and extremely windy spot. Like most of the other strange places I’ve lived, what brought me to Penghu was a combination of travel writing (my first guide for Lonely Planet had me covering the outer islands) and a woman (my girlfriend at the time, Laurie – who would later become my wife for an amusingly short period – was offered a teaching job there).

I haven’t been back since 2007, but I’m hoping to return in the next month or two to re-acquaint myself with the place, continue my windsurfing lessons and maybe write a few more stories.

This story originally ran in the Hong Kong Weekly Standard: Words and images by Joshua Samuel Brown. 

Wind Warriors of the Pescadores

(Windsurfing in Taiwan)

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan, 2006

It’s eight AM on the first day of the sixth annual Penghu ProAm windsurfing tournament, the first stop on the 2006-2007 Asian Windsurfing Tour, and the event promises to be a veritable sailing whirlwind.  The crème de la crème of the windsurfing world are gathered by the harbor, preparing to do precisely what sixties mystic troubadour Donavan once advised against; to try and catch the wind.  The sun is bright, there isn’t a cloud in the sky, and the archipelago halfway between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland,  statistically among the windiest places on the planet, seems custom made for competition windsurfing.

But by the water the faces of the sailors show concern, for one crucial element has failed to appear in expected quantity: wind.

“Last year at this time the winds would’ve blown your tits off, they were forty, maybe fifty knots,” says Dirk Michielsen, a Belgian designer of sports eyewear who’s made his home in central Taiwan for over a decade. “But this year, ach, it’s strange. There’s no wind.”

“No wind” isn’t quite accurate. There’s a fairly steady breeze of perhaps 15 knots blowing in from the Chinese mainland. But on Penghu, where farmers encircle their fields with walls made of interlocked coral to protect their peanut crops from being blown away and wind speeds that would send most Middle Americans running for the root cellars are the norm, 15 knot winds barely register as a breeze.

“Anywhere else in the world this’d be considered excellent windsurfing conditions.” Says Larry Davis, a long-time island resident slated to compete at the Masters level.

“But in Penghu, windsurfers call this bicycling weather.”
Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan
Weather is a fickle mistress, and for windsurfers this can be especially frustrating. Wind, unlike snow, cannot be manufactured.  For this reason, professional windsurfing circuit events generally last ten days. But the Penghu Pro-am, an event that brings professionals and amateurs windsurfers together, is a three day event.  While the professionals have sponsorship, equipment makers like Neilpryde, Starboard and AB+,  most amateurs find taking ten days off to chase the wind an impossible luxury.  Before the events are slated to begin, local event organizers, who have a vested interest in making the name Penghu synonymous with windsurfing, head down to the nearby Matsu temple and make offerings of pork, chicken and fish to the goddess of the sea.

Perhaps the supernatural offerings are to thank; obviously there are more scientific expiations. Regardless, by 9 AM the winds have picked up enough to make competition possible.  An announcement comes over the loudspeakers, first in Mandarin, then in English, and the first round of competitors sprint for the water carrying their rigs.  Once immersed, the sailors hover next to their boards, waiting for the shrill blast of the air horn that will announce that the first heat, which, wind permitting, will be the first of many, is on.

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan
The first heat is a slalom run, its competitors big name sailors of the windsurfing world like Swede Anders Brigndal and Austrian Chris Pressler. The shrill sound of the starting air horn is followed quickly by a second sound, this one the galvanic crackle of sails inflating, straining against carbon fiber frames held fast by champion riders. Organizers and future competitors alike gather on the beach to watch as these champions of the windsurfing world attempt to outdo each other in a completion in which they’ll be judged both on speed and grace.  After five slalom runs, clear winners emerge, and first place is taken by Australian Jesper Orth, with second and third going, not surprisingly, to Brigndal and Pressler respectively.

After the event, Pressler, who is in Penghu for the first time, seems pleased with his performance, and says that the unexpectedly low winds should not detract from the overall competition.  “Everybody competes in the same wind,” says the Austrian. “These conditions are excellent for kinds of sailing that higher winds would make impossible, and I think a lot of the less experienced sailors will find them ideal.”  Nonetheless, Pressler says he is eager to test his skills against higher winds; he has already made arrangements to stay after the end of the three day competition to take advantage of the extreme winds which should come to Penghu ahead of a forecasted typhoon moving towards the Philippines in the next week.

Anders Bringdal is also planning to stick around to test his skill against the coming high winds. “Really the optimum speed for windsurfing is 30 knots,” says Anders Bringdal, who came equipped for higher winds. “Once you get above that, it’s a shit fight, you need a small sail to keep stable.”   Though he’s done well with his borrowed lower-wind board and sail, Bringdal seems eager to test his own high-wind equipment in the coming storm.
Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan
Professional windsurfers aside, most who have gathered in Penghu for what they hope will be three days of sun and high winds are talented amateurs, devotees of the sport who’ve come from across the globe. One group of Russian surfers hails from Vladivostok, Russia’s windsurfing capitol, where cold winds make sailing without a wetsuit impossible for most of the year, and seem happy just to be wearing shorts and tank-tops in late November.  There are also a few competitors from Hong Kong. Kowloon native Chou Siang Min, who winds up earning a respectable 3rd place showing in beginner’s slalom, has been to Penghu many times. “Hong Kongers mostly train in Sai Kung,” says Chou, “but anyone serious about windsurfing in the region needs to come to Penghu.”

Wind conditions combined with equipment limitations conspire to keep some from competing entirely.  Dirk Michielsen says he expected last years 30 knot winds, and came prepared accordingly. “You need high winds to push a 6.6 meter sail and narrow board like mine,” says Michielson. “I even brought my 5.1 meter sail in case it got higher, but in a breeze like this I’d sink like a stone with that kind of gear.”

Nowhere else is matching gear to wind conditions as crucial as in competition windsurfing, where having just the right size sail, or perfectly suited board can make a huge difference in speed.  Though an asset in high winds, a smaller sail doesn’t allow for enough forward velocity in a low-to-medium blow. Even variations over the short run (like, say in the course of an individual slalom heat) forces each sailor to make constant adjustments to their individual sailing techniques. Though the winds generally stay in the high teens for most of the morning, even gusting into the twenties at times, there are still periods when riders mid-heat find themselves faced with brief lulls. A sailor in this situation does whatever they can to keep themselves upright, jerking the sail like the handle of a water pump.

But occasionally the opposite happens; a sudden gust catches sails flagging mid-heat with a series of electric cracks, and within seconds boards, sails and sailors are skipping across the surface of the water like flat stones.  From that moment, the race is truly on, and as long as the wind keeps up, and again, remember the words of Chris Pressler, that all sailors share the same wind, the competition is entirely about each individuals skill and instinct.

Handling the board, knowing precisely how to tilt the sail to achieve maximum speed without sacrificing stability, is at the heart of competition windsurfing. Watching equally matched sailors compete in a slalom heat, one can’t help but be reminded of world-class track bike racers competing in a velodrome, each racer cyclist a course within a narrow band, tilting to shave inches and seconds off their end speeds.

But the crucial difference comes in strategy; whereas a cyclist knows the benefit of dogging an opponent, of conserving energy by drafting in a fellow rider’s wake before passing at a crucial moment, in competition windsurfing the strategy is almost entirely opposite. For nothing will kill a sailor’s speed more surely than getting too close behind a fellow sailor at the wrong angle.  A talented sailor with a slight distance edge can capitalize on this, especially while cornering around the buoy demarcating the turnaround point for the slalom course – in sailing parlance, this is called jibbing. With the right timing, the lead sailor can literally take the wind from the sails of the trailing sailor; the effects are instant, and often devastating. During the morning slalom runs on the first day at Penghu, more than one trailing sailor finds their sails deflated by the lead sailor rounding the curve. The move is known as “rolling your opponent,” and the sailor who’s been rolled knows they’re in trouble.

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan

An opponent gets rolled in Penghu

Windsurfing is not an old sport, at least not professionally. Whereas it’s well known in the surfing world that tribesmen on various Pacific islands took to the notion of standing upright on crude board hewn from tree trunks long before the phrase “hang ten” was ever uttered, the combination of surfing and sailing is something that really only came out in the latter half of the 20th century. The first windsurfing boards looked, more or less, like the mutant offspring of a regular longboard and a small sailboat. Cumbersome and difficult to master, the sport nonetheless attracted enough devotees to encourage the development of lighter, faster, and easier to handle equipment. encouraging more neophytes to take to the wind and waves.

Technological breakthroughs have made windsurfing accessible to those who might otherwise be intimidated by the taken martial arts devotion mastering the sport might have taken in decades past; nowadays the tourist can come to a place like Penghu and, after a few hours in the water with a moderate breeze and a good instructor like Alex Mowday, who operates Liquid Sports, Penghu’s oldest windsurfing club & pro shop,  should be able to harness the wind well enough to want to keep coming back.

“The equipment is better, and beginner boards are wider, more stable,” says Mowday. “In Taiwan, the sport is really picking up.”

Considering the fact that, during the days of martial law, and even for several years after, private sailing vessels were forbidden by law, water sports in general have come a long way in Taiwan. Nowadays surfers are a common site on Taiwan’s east coast beaches; two decades ago the few westerners brave or foolish enough to attempt to surf in Taiwan often found their fun curtailed by warning shots from an ROC coast guard boat.  That the local government of a key strategic area like Penghu should be so enthusiastic about promoting windsurfing on the island is a good indicator of just how far the ROC government has stepped away from its traditional defensive war footing.

Penghu has another potential ally in its bid for international recognition as a windsurfing training grounds, albeit one not old enough to shave.  At 16, Penghu native Chang Hao already shows many of the hallmarks of a champion.  With a lithe, compact frame built for speed and an islander’s instinct for the water, Chang Hao handily beats old older, more experienced sailors to take the gold in the morning Masters section on the first day.  The buzz locally and on the circuit is that Chang Hao is a sure pick for either the 2012 Olympics, and possibly even the 2008 competition, which is to be held in Qingdao.  If true, if this native of Penghu gets the chance to go for the gold on the international stage, Penghu’s position as a world class windsurfing training grounds, on par with the Canary Islands or Hawaii, seems assured. Chang Hao, who has already traveled internationally for the sport, takes it for granted that his home island is well on its way to sailing fame.

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan

“Penghu is better than the Canary Islands, and once word gets out windsurfers will be coming here in greater numbers, to train and to compete.”

It’s a brash statement, based at least partially on local pride. But it isn’t necessarily untrue. Penghu is perfectly suited for windsurfing, thanks to its fengshui – in the most literal sense. The three main islands of the archipelago, flat stretches of land connected by bridges, form a near-perfect horseshoe, with two narrow inlets to the north and one wider one to the south. The arrangement combines perfectly with the prevailing – and usually fierce – winds blowing from north to south, and for most windsurfers, this would be enough.

But for the true speed chasers, Mother Nature herself requires occasional augmentation. Enter the trench.

The trench is basically what it sounds like, a smoothed underwater channel constructed to provide ideal conditions for speed sailing. The local government is currently considering constructing one on one stretch of beach on the east side of Penghu’s main island. If completed, it’s hoped that the trench will become a magnet for the sailors seeking the holy grail of sailing – the thus far elusive speed of 50 knots (the current record, held by Irishman Finian Maynard, is 48.7 knots). Conditions need to be absolutely ideal to allow for this degree of speed, and the water must be absolutely smooth. To facilitate this, a section of the ground beneath is flattened and maintained regularly. Very few areas offer facilities like this for sailors, and by doing so Penghu hopes to increase its profile in the sailing world.

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan

Surfing the Trench, Penghu, Taiwan

But terraformed ocean floor and just-right winds aside, no record can be set without a champion sailor equipped with the right rig.  In a way, both the current competition and the speed trench project is a lure to try to entice the best in the sport to help transform this barely-known vacation archipelago into a serious destination for water sport enthusiasts. Clearly the local government, already considering a number of schemes to vastly raise Penghu’s profile as potential vacation destination, chief among them less wholesome offerings, such as 24-hour casinos and legalized gambling, is looking at the wind as a major draw.

“We’ve always made good use of the wind, what with our windmills and so forth,” says Caroline Lee, a bilingual young Penghu native acting as a liaison and coordinator for the event. “Its only natural that we should use this asset to attract windsurfers.”

Luckily for all involved, Penghu has other assets besides wind, because by the end of the afternoon Matsu seems to have all but shut the tap, and the forecast for the next two days calls for calm wind and clear skies. While today has been one of judged and scored competitions, it’s likely that the next two will consist of just-for-fun, non-scoring events.  The assembled windsurfers, some of whom have either been on Penghu for several windy days prior to the competition, and others who are planning to stay for the very promising storm currently heading in from the east, take it in stride.

“This is part of the sport,” says Russian Igor Balabashir. “When there is no wind, we wait. Sometimes we play volleyball.”

His countryman, Yuri Markedonski, gets in the last word.

“Also, we drink.”

~~~

Wind Warriors of The Pescadores ran originally in the HK Weekly Standard, 
December 2, 2006. Words and images by Joshua Samuel Brown.

Interested in coming to Penghu to windsurf, kitesurf, bicycle or just enjoy the landscape? Drop me a line.

Interested in more adventures around Taiwan? Formosa Moon is now available for pre-order.

 

Alpacas and Kitties and Coffee (Oh My)

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 2

Taiwan’s Alpaca Cafe was someplace we’d been meaning to visit for almost a year but hadn’t made it to for a variety of strange reasons. We’d heard about it last year, a large cafe and restaurant in Sanzhi, a town located about 30 minutes north of Taipei city’s northernmost MRT stop in Tamsui. Though you’ll find it online by searching any variation of “Alpaca Cafe Taiwan,” the name of the place is Oia Art Cafe. The Chinese name 草泥馬, pronounced cǎonímǎ sounds dirty if you say it fast, at least according to our friend Candice who accompanied us. But Taiwan Alpaca Cafe would be a good name as well, since it’s a cafe whose claim to total uniqueness is the fact that a pair of extremely friendly – maybe even overly friendly  snow-white Alpacas wander the floor entertaining diners.

Pet Cafes in Taiwan

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 10

Animal-themed cafes aren’t a new phenomena in Taiwan, and while I’ve been to several good cat cafes (not as many as my friend Pauline, who’s chronicled a bunch of them at her blog The Neighbor’s Cat ), I’ve also visited a number of spots claiming to be animal cafes on fairly thin grounds. A bored house-cat or two, a few bits of dog-related artwork, that sort of thing.

Our group of four got there mid-day on a Saturday, and within ten seconds of walking through the front door it was clear that Oia Art Cafe wasn’t just going to live up to its reputation, but totally exceed it. The place was crowded with couples and families with kids, all happily eating ice cream and french fries, sipping coffee and soda as Snow and Li Bai wandered from table to table like celebrity restaurant owners interacting with customers. As our hostess (who spoke pretty good English – we found out later that this was her first day on the job at the Oia) weaved us towards our table, Snow, the larger of the pair came over to check us out, and I could almost imagine it sizing us up to see how many carrot sticks we’d be good for.

We sat, ordered lattes, fries, waffles and a few other items, and long before our items had arrived Snow had already decided that one of us had something that she wanted. The someone turned out to be Tobie, and the something, apparently was salt, or to be more specific, sweat. Tobie had been out all morning at an outdoor wedding, and while hardly odoriferous in any way, Snow’s keen nose detected that his shirt contained nourishing electrolytes and proceeded to chew it gently on and off for the duration of our stay.

Alpaca Cafe Tobie Shirt Collage

My own garments were worth barely a sniff.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 1Prized by knitters, alpaca fur is cloud-soft and known for its durability and warmth-retaining properties. As an integral part of an animal that’s nuzzling your armpit and demanding cuddling, its pretty safe to say alpaca fur is the creme brule of animal fur in general. As we sipped our lattes (which were strong and excellent) and ate our food (which was pretty good pub fare), both of the Alpacas made the rounds and nuzzled us before moving onto other customers.

 

After finishing our coffee, we headed out back to a larger area housing a small flock of brown alpacas on one side and a tribe of goats on the other. Both animals were friendly enough to be pet, but clearly not hygienic enough to be allowed inside of the dining area. I’ve long had an affinity for goats, and while alpacas are Oia Art Cafe’s main attractions, I found the pygmy goats friendly and seemingly some of the more intelligent of the cafe’s resident animals.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 3

 

Meeting The Alpaca Godfather

Heading back inside, I was approached by a man sporting a magnificent mullet. This was Michael, the Oia’s owner, and while chatting about what inspired him to open the cafe in the first place, my first thought was that Michael may well be a contender for the title of “World’s Greatest Dad.”

“My daughter really loved alpacas, and we used to watch films about them on the internet. The more we watched, the more she fell in love with them, so we flew down to New Zealand and imported some.”

You can watch the rest of the interview in the film below (most interesting not so much for the noisy multilingual conversation as for the fact that you can watch Snow and Li Bai greeting customers in the background). But if you’re more into bullet points from this and later conversations with Michael:

  • The Oai has been open for almost five years.
  • Some of the alpacas were imported from New Zealand, and the younger ones were born in Taiwan.
  • Snowy and Li Bai are the two who have been raised with humans the longest, and are therefore the only two “House Alpacas”. They get bathed and groomed a few times a week, while the ones in the back lead a bit more of a hippie lifestyle.
  • Michael has been a lover of unusual animal-related business ventures for most of his life. An earlier animal-related business endeavor involved raising donkeys to make Pule, a Serbian cheese made from the milk of donkeys which, at over USD $1,000 per kilo is probably the most expensive cheese in the world. (I’d never heard of Pule, and asked Michael how his came out. “I was not successful,” he answered.)
  • In addition to the alpaca cafe, Michael also raised a small group of very unusual Mangalica, woolly pigs originally from Hungary, on a farm he owned in the mountains. (“They are very cute, but also quite delicious,” Michael told me, mentioning that he also sold sausage made from the unusual, apparently tasty, swine.)

Of Course There Were Cats

Michael turned out to be a wonderful host, and in addition to the indoor alpacas, their outdoor brethren, the pygmy goats and the off-site woolly pigs, he also counts among his extended menagerie a pride of Savannah cats bred from a group he’d brought from the United States. I’d seen a few of these when I came in, but it turned out he had many more upstairs in the floor below his living quarters.

“If you like cats, I can take you to visit them.”

How could we say no?

A criticism that’s been made against certain American situation comedies involving 20-30 year old’s living together in generally super-expensive cities like New York and LA is that their apartments are way too big for any actual 20-30 year old’s to ever be able to afford. The space that these cats had was kind of like that, if it had been designed by cats. The area, about half as big as the cafe downstairs, was mostly taken up by an enclosed area with huge windows and a series of catwalks leading to perches, ledges and other feline walkways. There was even an old sofa that had been turned into a massive scratching post.

Inside, abut a dozen of the most beautiful cats we’d ever seen sat, lay, reclined, played and otherwise were doing what cats do.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 6

“Just don’t let them downstairs,” Michael said. “They can be naughty.”

We went inside for a visit with Michael’s feline family while he told us how he’d fallen in love with this specific breed, which looked like miniaturized leopards, on a trip to America. The cats were typically cat-like, alternating between demanding attention, rubbing against our legs and ignoring us entirely.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 8

Heading back downstairs, Michael asked us if we wanted to head to the farm to see the woolly pigs.

“Let’s save it for the next visit,” I said. “I get the feeling we’re going to be regulars here.”

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 11

Getting to Taiwan’s Alpaca Cafe

The Oia Art Cafe (Oia伊亞藝術咖啡館) is located in Sanzhi in
New Taipei City. The address is Sanzhi District, 252新北市三芝區後厝里北勢子12-1號. Your best bet if you’re not in a car or on a bike is to take the MRT to Tamsui (also spelled Danshui) and hop in a taxi or on a bus to Sanzhi. The trip from Tamsui station takes about 40 minutes.

Visit them on Facebook

Like reading heartwarming and somewhat off-kilter tales about Travel in Taiwan (often involving animals, puppets and the occasional funeral? We’ve got a whole book of ’em called Formosa Moon! Buy it at Amazon now.


 

Does Humor Belong in Diplomacy?

Humor is a tricky thing to translate, which is a pity since humor is also such a good icebreaker.

Last week I gave a talk on promoting tourism in Yunlin (an agricultural county in Taiwan), and while they didn’t bring me there to do a stand up routine I still managed to get a few big laughs (in Mandarin, no less). The quip that got the biggest laugh was an anecdote about coming across an event and seeing a strip-tease performance in the mountains of central Taiwan.  It was my first year in Taiwan, and I assumed the event was a bachelor party.

A Taiwanese Funeral Dancer. Photo by Tobie Openshaw.

Taiwanese Funeral Dancer. Photo by Tobie Openshaw.

Actually, it was a funeral.

What made my audience laugh wasn’t the obvious fact that strip-tease acts are sometimes part of a traditional Taiwanese funeral ceremony, which would have been the punchline for a western audience. They were laughing at the idea that a newly-arrived westerner stumbling across a party with scantily clad women dancing on a neon lit stage would think it was something besides a funeral.

So while humor may be universal in the broadest sense, what makes people laugh differs between cultures.

Humor is also unique in that it seems to be a tool that people falling broadly into that somewhat open-ended political category of progressives are able to use more effectively than those on the other end of the spectrum.

This is only partially subjective.

While I find left-wing comic Margaret Cho (whom I interviewed last month for Taiwan Scene just before her first gig in Taipei) funny and right-wing comedian Dennis Miller unfunny, there’s no objective way for me to call one funnier than the other outside of maybe who’s sold more concert tickets over the last twenty years.

A more useful barometer would probably be to look at the fact that the longest running political satire shows in America tend to skew left. Humor shows skewing right tend to go off the air quickly, not for a lack of a right wing audience, but because conservatives (or regressives, as I believe we should call the ethos) seem to have a hard time using humor as effectively as progressives.

Similar trends apply on the international stage, with nation-states steeped in liberal tradition being able to wield humor more effectively than authoritarian counterparts…at least intentionally.

Humor in Dipmomacy

Ri Chun Hee, the North Korean newswoman who regularly comes out to promise death to imperialists is very funny to western sensibilities, though this likely isn’t her intention.

As political entities go, Taiwan falls squarely on the progressive end of the scale.

Taiwan’s government is a parliamentary democracy bearing many of the hallmarks commonly associated with liberalism: Universal healthcare, a willingness to protect gay, lesbian and transgender citizens from discrimination, an overall commitment to human rights that befits a nation with a large Buddhist population. 

What’s more, Taiwan has the sort of commitment to free speech that tends to develop in countries where having been denied free speech is part of the living memory of anyone over 40.  

But Taiwan is also unique, having a “nation but not in name” status that colors nearly every aspect of its relations (diplomatic and otherwise) with the rest of the world.

Though Taiwan very much wishes – and deserves – recognition for its contributions to the betterment of the world at large…and here it gets complicated way beyond the scope of this article, calling into question whether said recognition would come to it as Taiwan or The Republic of China…Taiwan is blocked at nearly every turn from doing so by the government of the People’s Republic of China (which refuses to allow it to be recognized by either name). 

As a result, Taiwan has had to become particularly adroit at using what’s known in international politics as soft power diplomacy. This manifests itself in myriad ways, including (but not limited to):

  • Sending volunteer teams to disaster areas;
  • Providing finance and intellectual assistance to developing nations;
  • Getting the name Taiwan out there in positive ways.

One of the problems with western media in general is that it tends to take a copy-paste approach to complicated subjects, and in the case of Taiwan that CTRL+V shortcut inevitably winds up to be some variation of

“Taiwan split from China in 1949.”

Which is a) an oversimplification, and b) inaccurate.

Writers with academic backgrounds have written about this issue at great length and from all sides, so for my part I’ll just do a CTRL+V of my own from the Taiwan In A Nutshell boxed text from my upcoming book Formosa Moon:

Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated”

Though neither academic nor historian, I do seem pretty good at writing funny stuff (as my presence on the contributor’s list of the highly esteemed American humor magazine Funny Times, in which FUNNY literally makes up half its name proves).

Funny Times May 2018

Funny Times May 2018

I’ve been contributing to Funny Times for three years or so, mostly lighter side of travel stuff, but I’ve also done a few Taiwan-specific articles for them as well.

This one seemed a natural fit. A few months back Taiwan was trending in the international media not for anything having to do with its ongoing disagreement with China (Taiwan believes it should be allowed to chose its own form of government; China disagrees with this), but over the as silly to experience as it sounds issue of an artificially induced toilet paper shortage.

So I wrote The Great Taiwan Toilet Paper Panic for Funny Times.

Funny Times Taiwan

Funny Times Taiwan

(Paper scan is strictly for reference. You can read the full text at My Several Worlds; Funny Times is strictly old-school.)

I wrote this article for several reasons (besides that sweet, sweet Funny Times money, which is the main thing keeping Dave Barry retired).

First, the idea of a substantial portion of a nation’s population going cuckoo over toilet paper was intrinsically funny. And second, I was happy to be able to get the name Taiwan out there for something other than travel related stuff (my day job) or, Buddha forbid, something actually newsworthy that might require me to explain Taiwan split from China in 1949 following a particularly heated argument over the origin of Kung-pao chicken. 

As I mentioned at the start of this column, humor doesn’t always translate.  I showed the article to a few Taiwanese friends. They were perplexed by one part of the article in particular, where I’d included Chinese text:

It was then that Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je took to the airwaves, making a speech that moved the nation to tears.

“全台灣人民是一個家庭” Said the Mayor. “就像是在家裡有人會占用廁所太久. 可是說真的,我們都只有一個屁股要擦。我們可以停止這衛生紙囤積的行為嗎?說真的,我們的鄰居都覺得我們瘋了!”

Translated from Mandarin, what the Mayor said was “Taiwanese people are one family, and like in any family, someone is always spending too long in the john. But we’ve all got one ass to wipe, so seriously people, can we just knock it off with the toilet paper hoarding? Because our neighbors are starting to think we’ve gone nuts.”

“Did Mayor Ko really say this?” One Taiwanese friend asked quite seriously.

“Well, kind of. I took something I heard he had said and exaggerated it for humorous effect. In the context of the article it makes sense.”

But the point wasn’t to make Taiwanese people laugh (By the time the article ran most here had forgotten about The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2018, because news moves fast in Taiwan). It was to get the name Taiwan out there in a normal, not connected to cross-strait politics way to John and Judy Q Public of Des Moines (my biggest – and only – fans in Iowa), to promote the mention of the name Taiwan in casual conversation. Like…any other country, a la

“I’m thinking of trekking in Nepal this summer.”

or

“Belgium! There’s a nice place to visit if you like beer!”

or

“Where is Canada again?”

Because Taiwan deserves to be talked about for more than just its status as a political anomaly. It should be hailed as a place where people build churches shaped like glass slippers for no apparent reason, an island where three-story high inflatable ducks explode in harbors, a nation where for reasons probably better left unexamined, for a few weeks in 2018 a significant portion of the population suddenly started hoarding toilet paper.

Because these things are funny, and humor breaks the ice. And while breaking the ice isn’t the goal of diplomacy, it’s a good place to start.

Taiwan’s Diplomatic Allies

Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have been much on my mind lately, not so much on a national level like will Honduras be the next to flip but more along the lines of elements within the American government coming out on Twitter to support Taiwan, and, in a few cases are coming to Taiwan personally.

To say that I’m deeply conflicted would be an understatement.

Because while there are some non-right wingers involved (thank you, Senator Edward Markey of the great state of Massachusetts), by and large the people currently speaking out for Taiwan are from America’s deeply right wing, and not the now-comparatively sane right wing of yore that once flocked to the defense of “Free China” because it was an unsinkable battleship with courageous Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (who they called Cash My Check behind his back), but the bat-shit fanatical foot-soldiers of Trump whose motives are far, far uglier, and with whom it seems nearly unthinkable to make common cause.

Ah, for the halcyon days when you could embody the struggle as one between Yippies and the John Birch society. It was an illusion, I know, but one that was easily encapsulated (as this illustration from the Book of the Subgenius does nicely):

Far Left meets Far Right: From the Book of the Subgenius

Far Left meets Far Right: From the Book of the Subgenius

It’s far more complex these days, especially where Taiwan is concerned.

Today’s right wingers aren’t grandpa’s right wingers. Whereas the conservatives of the mid-twentieth century supported “The Republic of China” as a fellow right-wing client state that was a handy bulwark against an ultra-leftist China, today’s Republican party shares far less common ground with the political realities of present day Taiwan. To wit:

Taiwan is a thriving democracy; today’s Republican party subverts democracy at home and abroad.

Taiwan is liberal; today’s Republican party despises liberalism.

Taiwan is a defender of human rights and increasingly considers itself a haven for immigrants. today’s Republicans have turned their back on human rights and are vindictively anti-immigrant.

Taiwan is pro gay rights; today’s Republicans are viciously anti-gay (Which is funny considering the high number of “family values” Republicans that wind up having their pictures splashed across the internet after being caught having gay sex. But I digress.)

Taiwan is pro-universal health care; today’s Republicans are adamantly against universal health care.

I could go on, but you get the point. In nearly every way that matters with the notable exception of cannabis laws (which are about the same in Taiwan as they were in 196o’s Texas), Taiwan is thoroughly progressive and today’s Republican party thoroughly regressive.

Hence, the aforementioned deep conflict at the sudden outcropping of support for Taiwan by people whose politics are so far removed from my own.

(I have more in common with yesterday’s John Birchers than I do with today’s Republicans. We’re both against fluoridation, but for different reasons. But again, I digress.)

A few days ago I watched Metal Politics Taiwan, a film about Freddy Lim. Lim (for readers not familiar with either Taiwanese politics or Heavy Metal) is the lead singer of the band ChthoniC 閃靈. He’s also a member of Taiwan’s parliament. It’s a great film, one which really encapsulates the current zeitgeist in Taiwan.  I hope it gets wide distribution.

Metal Politics Taiwan

Metal Politics Taiwan

One scene from the film sticks out in particular: Lim, having been elected to Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, heads to America for Trump’s inauguration. Clearly not a fan of Trump’s politics, Lim nonetheless had to suit up and show up for the inauguration of a man who’d now become extremely important to Taiwan’s relationship with the USA.

Like Lim clearly did at the inauguration, I, too, feel conflicted with the nature of Taiwan’s new allies.  Taiwan clearly needs every friend it can get, and it’s a well-worn maxim that politics makes strange bedfellows. Equally well worn is the saying the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But I can’t help but also be reminded of a lesser known quote by Henry Kissinger, namely

“To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal.”

At no point in history has that statement seemed more relevant, and I’ve got no answers at the moment.

Perhaps music is the answer? I’ve gone ahead and embedded Chthonic’s Supreme Pain for the Tyrant below, which in addition to presenting a very clear picture of the band’s feelings towards the regime so beloved by the American right wing of old also seems to illustrate a general antipathy towards authoritarianism.

Looking to read more about Taiwan? My latest book, Formosa Moon (co-written with Stephanie Huffman) will be available for pre-order in July. Click here for more details.

The Four Stages of Life (as experienced through Taiwanese cuisine)

The four stages of life as experienced through Taiwan food

The four stages of life as experienced through Taiwanese Cuisine

SEO-destroying, algorithm-annoying preamble: A lot of my stories have stories of their own. This one about Taiwanese Cuisine (chew on that, WordPress SEO monitor) has two or three, so…read on or not.

One of the pleasures of establishing a long-term working relationship with a particular magazine or editor is that you can pitch your more experimental stuff to them and they’ll not delete your emails unread. Sometimes they’ll even commission the story. In the case of this article, one of the magazines I’ve written for since the early 2000’s is Topics Magazine in Taiwan, whose editor, Don Shapiro – in addition to being an excellent editor – is also, as they say in Yiddish, a real menschFor the last couple of years I’ve been able to pitch more experimental work to what’s primarily a Taiwan-centered business magazine.

The Four Stages of Life as Experienced through Taiwanese Cuisine is one of these, and you can read the original here in all it’s glory.  Basically, what I wanted to do was to write four short vignettes about Taiwanese cuisine, and this seemed a fun way to do it. The first of these stories is about eating at the night market, and it concerns a trip I took to the not-too often visited by westerners Jingmei market in Taipei with William Tang of the website Going Awesome Places.

William Tang of Going Awesome Places

William Tang of Going Awesome Places

The Jingmei trip was the first time Will and I hung out, but not the last. After taking a lengthy trip around Taiwan with my company, MyTaiwanTour (which I wrote about here, though nowhere near as extensively as he did at Going Awesome Places), I took Will out to one of my favorite spots close to Taipei, Wulai, for a soak and a tribal meal.

When I originally turned The Four Stages of Life as Experienced through Taiwanese Cuisine into Don for the January, 2018 issue, it had a completely different vignette to represent Maturity, namely a tribal meal I’d had in Wulai with my good friend, filmmaker, photographer and all around mensch himself, Tobie Openshaw.

A week after I turned the story in, I got an email from Don letting me know that he’d already commissioned a fairly extensive  story about tribal culture and cuisine for the same issue, and could I substitute a different vignette for the Maturity section. So I did, and the version below is the version that ran in the January, 2018 issue of Topics.

However, I still quite like the original version with the Tobie story, and since I’ve been meaning to do a guest column for Going Awesome Places, I thought, hey, why not send the original version over to Will. So that version will run soon, and I’ll link it when it does.

In any event, now that I’ve chased away the Instagram-only crowd, without further delay:

 The Four Stages of Life

(as experienced through Taiwanese cuisine)

Childhood: Consequence-Free Dining at the Night Market

Will was on assignment in Taiwan, one of a group of bloggers, YouTubers, and other influencers invited by the Tourism Bureau to produce millennial-friendly content promoting Taiwan on the internet. It was his first day in town, so I figured the night market was a good place to start.

I texted my suggestion. When he replied, “Take me where the locals go,” I knew I was dealing with a fellow travel professional.

While Taipei’s night market scene is well-known, the casual traveler generally tends to stick to the big three as promoted heavily by the folks in the aforementioned bureau: the ever-popular yet maddeningly confusing Shilin market (the confusion begins with the fact that if you get off the MRT at the Shilin station, you’ve gone a stop too far), the more traditional Raohe market, and the tourist-friendly Ningxia market.

But Will had requested a local experience, so I brought him to Jingmei, where the only Occidental face (other than my own) occasionally seen chomping down a comically Flintstones-sized grilled octopus tentacle slathered in teriyaki sauce generally belongs to one of the long-term Western denizens of the neighborhood (still reasonably affordable by dint of its being nearly on the city’s outskirts).

Our epicurean excursion began with the tentacle, grilled to moist perfection over hot coals, and I felt strongly that the folks at the bureau would appreciate the film Will was making of our eating this most monstrous of appetizers. After we’d wolfed down our snacks, Will asked me to introduce him to another typical night market dish. Across the lane, an old woman stood behind a metal grill preparing one of Taiwan’s better-known dishes, oh ah jen, the oyster omelet. This artery-clogging fare consists of a dozen or so shucked oysters cooked on a generously lard-lubricated grill in a batter made from egg and cornstarch, fried to the consistency of cold motor oil and served smeared in red sauce.

As a travel blogger, Will couldn’t resist ordering the dish, and being a glutton for punishment, neither could I. “Take that, coronary health, hashtag heart-smart,” I said, doing my bit to promote Taiwanese cuisine to Will’s YouTube subscribers by shoveling a plastic forkful of weapons-grade cholesterol into my mouth.

Will had heard about another typical Taiwanese dishthe famous night market beefsteakAs we walked to a stall specializing in that dish, I sought to explain how it differs from its namesake as he knew it back home.

“Whereas your North American steak is served a cappella, a night market steak is part of an ensemble act including spaghetti, sauce, and a raw egg cracked on top of the beef. The whole thing is served on a heated steel plate.”

“But is it good?” Will asked. I quoted Hamlet in reply: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Will decided to give #IronPlateHeartAttack a pass, so we headed for lighter fare, a dozen deep-fried sweet-potato balls. Afterward, though already stuffed, we felt that something sweet was in order. “How about some cake?” I suggested.

Close to the market’s entrance, a young baker was busy taking a cinderblock-sized pound cake out of a massive oven. Of the various dishes we’d seen and consumed in the past hour, this one struck us both as the least nightmarket-y of the lot.

“What’s in it?” Will asked the baker.

“Flour, eggs, water, sugar. Very simple.”

Will was intrigued. But he had another question. This being his second trip to Taiwan, he’d noted with curiosity that despite the national love for highly caloric dishes, most Taiwanese were fairly svelte. “How do you stay so slim, what with your working in a night market?”

The baker answered by lifting the tray filled with steaming pound cake over his head and shaking it several times like a Russian weightlifter before upending the thing with a dull thud on the stall’s metal counter. “I exercise at work,” he answered.

The cake was delicious, and if it wasn’t the lightest thing we’d had all night, it was likely the healthiest. Though fully sated, we headed back into the market for one last round. After all, the night was still young.

The Jingmei Night Market is located by the Jingmei MRT station.

~~~

Maturity: The Business Dinner

Stephanie and I had been awake since before sunrise, and were nearly catatonic by the time we were halfway through the hour-long drive from the Taitung coast to the town of Luye. Hosted by the local tourism bureau as part of the research for an upcoming book, we’d been crammed with activity for three days and were looking forward to a long bath, quick dinner, and lengthy sleep, preferably in that order.

Walking through the lobby of the Luminous Hotel, we saw other guests milling about the buffet. We took the elevator up to our room, looking forward to a low-key dinner. The view from the floor to ceiling window of our room, the outline of the central mountain range, was a welcome sight indeed, and the hot spring tub in the center of the bathroom beckoned.

I’d just started filling the tub when the phone clanged. It was our handler from the tourism bureau. “The Hotel Manager has invited you to dinner in 15 minutes. He wants to tell you about the hotel.”

Our plans for a long soak in the tub would be delayed. We showered quickly and returned to the lobby, where we were greeted enthusiastically by Mr. Pan, the Luminous manager. After the ritualistic two-handed exchange of name cards, I began walking towards the main restaurant, but Mr. Pan gently cradled my arm, leading Stephanie and me away from the buffet room.

“Your visit is very special! Tonight I have arranged for a special meal in our hotel’s second restaurant.

Why are we going away from the restaurant?” whispered Stephanie, not understanding Mandarin. “We’re getting VIP treatment,” I replied, digging deep for some vestige of enthusiasm.

Mr. Pan led us into a smaller restaurant, which I’d assumed on earlier passing was a coffee shop. “You won’t have to get your own food tonight. Everything has been prepared especially for you.”

He waved his hand, and seconds later small plates with three delicately laid out tempura items were placed before each of us. “The bureau told me that your girlfriend is allergic to wheat. This tempura has been prepared with sweet potato starch. Now, I must ask you to please excuse me.”

Without touching his tempura, Mr. Pan got up and departed, leaving us to eat quietly. He returned a few minutes later and ate half a tempura shrimp portion as the second course arrived, delicate cakes made of radish and root vegetables.

“Everything here is prepared using organic vegetables grown in farmland right around the hotel. Local, organic and sustainable. This is the guiding principle of the Luminous.”

Stephanie and I both agreed that these were excellent principles by which to be guided, as Mr. Pan consumed half of his delicate radish root cake before again excusing himself.

“Please continue enjoying your meal.”

“I thought we were going to a buffet…” Stephanie said, eyes half-closed as yellow miso soup with tofu, garnished with a spring of green, was placed before us.

“VIP dinner,” I shrugged. “Welcome to the glamorous life of travel writing.”

Stephanie and I, too tired to think much about the manager’s mercurial presence or much else, continued our meal. Mr. Pan returned shortly after arrival of the fourth course, a brown rice dish containing several varieties of pickled roots. As we ate, he elaborated on the Luminous philosophy.

“City people come to places like Luye and they see in the faces of the local people a serenity, a tranquility, a glow that they lack. Even though the people around here lack money, and even a lot of the material comforts and conveniences that are readily available in places like Taipei and Kaohsiung, there is still something here that they want, something that money really can’t buy.”

The conversation continued along these lines through the fifth course. Though the boneless eel, braised and broiled in a savory sauce, was delicious, Mr. Pan ate only a few mouthfuls before again excusing himself. I watched him as he walked through the lobby and into the buffet dining room. When he returned a few minutes later the plates from our meal had been cleared, and Stephanie and I were working our way through dessert, a vanilla pudding with just a hint of fruit compote.

“I hope you’ve enjoyed your meal, and hope further that you enjoy your stay at the Luminous.”

“We did, thank you, and I am sure we will. The food was outstanding, it’s just that…I can’t help but notice that you’ve barely touched yours.”

“Please accept my deepest apologies,” he said. “These are busy days at the Luminous, and I am currently also having dinner with another group from Hong Kong.”

Smiling in a way that denoted professionalism, wistfulness, and an exhaustion almost rivaling our own, Mr. Pan excused himself one last time.

Stephanie and I finished our desserts before returning upstairs to pass out in the stone bathtub overlooking the hills of Taitung.

The Luminous Hot Spring & Resort (Tel: 08 955 0999) is located on Zhonghua Road in Luye Township, Taitung County. We stayed there for two nights while researching the Taitung chapter of our book, Formosa Moon. Great place!

~~~

Middle Age: The Bill Comes Due

Doctor Yu shook his head as he looked over the results of my recent blood test on the screen in front of him.

“Your cholesterol is elevated from your last checkup. Have you cut back on fried foods as I suggested?”

“Somewhat,” I answered vaguely.

“Cut back more. No more than once a week.”

“Do you mean one fried item a week or one day weekly in which I should solely eat fried food?”

Dr. Yu was not going to dignify the question with a response. He was a busy man, with two dozen patients yet to see before lunch.

“You should be staying away from fried food anyway,” he continued. “As I told you on your last visit, it can trigger your gout.”

Ah, gout. Lifelong unwelcome guest, enemy, and Teacher, shared with luminaries from Henry the Eighth to Benjamin Franklin. The Teacher had made his first appearance right here in Taiwan two decades ago after an all-I-shouldn’t-eat crab buffet, and after many years’ absence had recently returned for more regular calls. In an effort to keep the big G from my doors, I’d cut out all shellfish from my diet. And though night market foie gras isn’t yet a thing in Taipei, I had a ready-made excuse outside of basic decency to turn it down should this ever change.

“I’ve been pretty good about staying away from purine-heavy foods,” I said hopefully. “More pasta and bread, less meat.”

“Yes, about that,” Dr. Yu said, swiveling his monitor until it stared me in the face. “The third number down is your blood sugar. You are now in the pre-diabetic stage, so you should probably not be making carbohydrates the staple of your diet. It just becomes sugar in the body.”

“What about rice?”

“Cut down on rice, too.”

My list of appropriate foods was shrinking fast.

“So what can I eat?” I asked.

Dr. Yu paused, and removed his spectacles in a way that made him seem especially sincere.

“Your best strategy is to not eat too much of any one thing. As you say in the West, ‘Eat the Rainbow.’ Many different things at each meal. Such as you will find at the buffet downstairs.”

I refrained from saying that the last time I’d heard the expression about eating the rainbow, people still thought of margarine as healthful. Dr. Yu replaced his glasses and gestured towards the door. My appointment had already exceeded its allotted time. I got up to leave.

“How about bitter melon?” I asked at the door.

“Eat as much bitter melon as you like,” replied the doctor.

I was about to discover exactly how much bitter melon that was at the vegetarian buffet in the hospital’s basement, Taipei’s most convenient eatery for those who’ve just received advice of the ‘you’d better change your ways’ variety. A steam table of dishes crafted to accommodate both the Hippocratic oath and Buddhist doctrine lay before me.

In its natural form, bitter melon gourd resembles something like a Klingon marital aid, phallic and covered with bumpy nubs. Buffet chefs had sliced it into circular sections about the thickness of a 50 NT coin and thrice the diameter, the outer rings an almost fluorescent green, dimming down to a pale white towards the interior, perhaps in keeping with the first noble truth of Buddhism about life being suffering.

Taking my wellbeing seriously, I fill the corner cube of my cardboard tray with eight slices, arranging them neatly as the smiling nun behind me looks on in passive admiration. I take other items down the line, including a braised gluten and tuber mix, a healthy (literally and figuratively) helping of mixed vegetables, several cubes of bean curd, asparagus and carrot sticks wrapped in long-since-limp seaweed to resemble sushi’s cousin that’s found religion, and two cubes of jiggling yellow custard sprinkled with coconut.

I’d devised a strategy to consume the bitter melon. But I needed first to know what I was up against. The first slice, eaten alone, was unbearably bitter. The second I ate wrapped around sushi’s spiritual cousin, the bitter melon almost completely overwhelming the asparagus-carrot-seaweed roll. A mouthful of braised gluten in brown sauce restored equilibrium, but six slices still stared up at me.

I wrapped the third around the custard, hoping that bitter and sweet cancel each other out both on the tongue and in the intestines. Only my next blood test will speak for the latter, but as for the former the experiment worked well enough to allow for a repeat with the fourth slice.

Having now used the dessert portion of the meal as camouflage, I was forced to combine two more slices with the savory bean curd. By this point the bitter melon had coated my tongue to the extent that everything tasted like Chinese medicine. I couldn’t stomach the final two slices, so I opted for the spiritual path instead, sliding them into the compost bin so that they might lower the blood sugar of some lucky pig.

Minder Vegetarian Restaurant is a chain run by the Tzu Chi Foundation. The one referenced in this story is in the basement of the Tzu Chi Buddhist hospital in Xindian.

~~~

Death: Embracing Mortality with Coffin Bread

I hit Tainan feeling like death warmed over, thanks to a cold that had chosen to make its presence known just past the Banqiao HSR station. Too late to turn back from my commitment, the only sensible thing to do was to go looking for a casket. Luckily, I was in the Taiwanese city known for a culinary oddity known as Guancai Ban (棺材板) or “Coffin Bread.”

“Where’s the best Guancai Ban in town?” I asked my taxi driver. I might as well have handed him a business card reading Tourist, but I didn’t care.

“Chi Kan,” he answered “Famous place. You had Guancia Ban before?”

I told the driver that I’d had the dish before in Tainan, years ago, and didn’t remember much outside of having liked it. I had also visited one or two spots in Taipei claiming to serve it, but found these to be pale imitations. Some foods – San Francisco Sourdough, Philly Cheese Steak, Brooklyn Egg Creams – are justifiably best sought out in the city for which they’re named, and such is the case with Tainan Coffin Bread.

The driver dropped me off in front of a bustling if somewhat rundown-looking mall on Hai’an Road in the West Market District. A short walk through a maze of alleys brought me to a colorful, simple eatery with low tables and metal chairs, inside of which a dozen or so diners were scooping creamy filling out of bread with spoons.

Although the placards inside and out indicated that Chi Kan was now primarily popular with tourists, the place still retained a local greasy spoon vibe, and after a bit of chit-chat with my waitress concerning what varieties of Guancai Ban were available (two, it turned out), I settled on the traditional non-curry version.

A few minutes later I was served a slab of bread about three times the thickness of a standard slice. Deep fried and still oily to the touch, it was filled with a creamy, milky chowder of seafood and vegetables.

Though I’d eaten the dish before when I’d first visited Tainan in the nineties, my palate was now far more experienced. This time I found the dish quite curious, far removed from the usual Taiwanese spiciness. It tasted more like the Chicken à la King of my long-lost childhood than anything I’d eaten in years. It was delicious, and filled me with something akin to nostalgia.

I waved the waitress over to order a second serving.

“This really tastes like a Western dish,” I remarked when it came.

“It kind of is,” she replied. “There were a lot of American soldiers stationed around here after the Japanese left, and when the Americans came, the chef realized he’d have to start catering to different tastes. So he invented this dish.”

“So it’s not really a ‘traditional’ Tainan dish?”

The waitress shrugged.

“It is now. But it’s not ancient, if that’s what you mean.”

“But what about the name coffin bread”?

“That came later. Because it looks like a coffin.”

I could see the resemblance to a Chinese-style casket. I dug into my second serving, which was even greasier and even more delicious than the first. I wasn’t worried about my health. That ship had already sailed.

Chi Kan Guan Cai Ban is located at 180 Zhongzheng Rd., West Central Dist., Tainan City 700. Tel: 06-2240014.

~~~

 

Eight Hour Taipei Layover, Midnight Special

I used to write a lot of articles on the theme of short layovers around Asia.

Seven hours in Seoul,”  “A Day, a Night and Some Petty Larceny in Okinawa,” that sort of thing. When I was younger, I did a lot more of these super-short duration trips that would leave me trying to get the most of of short visits to exotic spots.

A few days back I got a message from a friend of a friend from the Nomadness Travel Tribe asking advice on a stopover she’ll have in Taipei in a couple of weeks on a flight from the states to Bangkok. Nikky told me that she wanted to experience as much of Taipei as she could in eight hours, basically a 12-or-so hour layover with two hours on each end for a safe buffer for clearing customs on both ends, storing and collecting her luggage and getting between Taoyuan Airport and Taipei.

I searched my database for a previous “Things to do with eight hours in Taipei” article, only to realize that I’d never written one.  And why would I have? I live here, so it’s one of the few cities I’ve never actually visited under time constraints.

So I started this article:

Things to do with eight hours in Taipei

But here’s where it got complicated. I started thinking of the usual things that could be done with eight hours: A good meal, a visit to a couple of museums and temples, maybe even a guided tour. (My company, MyTaiwanTour, does tons of customized tours exactly like this, with airport pickup and delivery.)

But before I got halfway in, I realized that I ought to ask Nikky what her time-frame was. Because, you know, logistics.

She told me she’d be landing at around 8pm on a Sunday night and taking off at 8pm the next morning.

This, of course, changed things entirely, since at that hour the museums are all closed, there are less temples to visit, and once you hit the city you’ve only got a couple of hours until Taipei’s fabulous MRT system shuts down for the night.

So halfway through, I changed the article title to 

Eight Hour Taipei Layover: Midnight Special

And here we are.

In a nutshell, I’ll be offering a few suggested activities that’ll allow you to cram maximum Taipei experience into the eight hours before dawn. If you’re the sort of reader who’s already got their finger hovering over the TL:DLR button, I’ll front load the important fact: Safety.

Q: Is Taipei safe  for a solo female traveler to  wander around at night?

A: Taipei is among the safest in the world. Taipei has a very low crime rate, similar to Tokyo. Shit does happen, but our shit happening rate is ridiculously low compared to pretty much any city in America. Furthermore, if you do encounter a problem – or if you need directions – you can approach any cop and they’ll do their best to help you out.

(For more on the topic of safety in Taiwan, check out this article from Taiwan Scene.)

OK, now that that’s out of the way. First, lets get the boring stuff out of the way:

  1. Go through customs. As an American, you don’t need a visa for your 12 hour romp. Hell, if you fall in love with the place, you can stay 2 months on your landing visa. Or is it three months these days…anyway, it’s beyond the scope of this essay.
  2. Change some money in the airport. You won’t be able to do it in Taipei in the middle of the night. $100 USD will turn into just a tad under $3000 New Taiwan Dollars. Your biggest expense will be the taxi back to the airport (see above note about MRT schedule). It shouldn’t be more than 1200 NT, but let’s budget 1500 just to be safe. So $100 US bucks should be enough for food, transportation and a foot massage. If you want to get a drink or two, a full body massage, or a more expensive meal, get $200 to be on the safe side. You can change it back on the way out.
  3. Stow your luggage. This website lays out the options nicely. I’ve not confirmed the info, but it seems correct to me. (To paraphrase Jay Z, “Taiwan’s got 99 problems, but not being able to store your luggage at an airport, bus or train station ain’t one.”) Moving on…
  4. Hop on the new MRT that goes directly to Taipei. It takes a bit under 40 minutes and costs NT$160. It lets you off (1) within walking distance of the neighborhood you’ll want to explore first.
Eight hours in Taipei map

Eight hours in Taipei map

Now lets get to the more interesting stuff.

Depending on various factors, you should now find yourself at the northern end of Taipei Main Station (1), and it should be around 9:30 PM.  You could hop on the MRT to Ximen station, or you could walk. I’d suggest the latter.

See that big (and quite professionally rendered, if I do say so myself) circled area with the “2”? That, roughly speaking, is the Ximending district, Taipei’s answer to Tokyo’s Ginza. Wander there first. The massive pedestrian mall has tons to see and do. There’s street food, good restaurants, shopping and people watching galore.

Ximending One by Jean-Jaques Chen

Ximending One by Jean-Jaques Chen

This building is a landmark. I don’t know why.

The pedestrian mall has tons of stuff. Wander to the west of the pedestrian mall and you’ll find alleys filled with tattoo shops, skate punks, more street food, more little shops, street art, stuff like that. You’ll find about half a dozen good massage places (foot & full body) on Kunming and Xinning streets (two main drags running north to south). Just south of the plaza where exit six of the Ximen MRT station is located (kind of the heart of the neighborhood – there’s a jumbotron that shows movie previews) is where the Red House is. It’s Taipei’s main GLBTQ nexus is, so tons of bars surrounding a restored Japanese colonial era building. You can’t miss it.

Photo courtesy of Jean-Jaques Chen

Pedestrian Mall, Ximending. Photo courtesy of Jean-Jaques Chen

 

Though not a night market, Ximending tends to be more happening at night then in the day.  Most restaurants will close around midnight, but you won’t have trouble finding something to eat at any hour. There are a few 24 hour places in the neighborhood.

So let’s assume at this point it’s, oh, 1:30 am. You’ve eaten, explored the area, gotten a massage, and now you’re having a drink somewhere around the Red House. (It’s Sunday night, so it’s entirely possible that this area won’t be as happening as it would have been were it Saturday. You’ve still got 3-4 hours to kill before having to hop a taxi back to the airport.

Grab yourself a cappuccino at a 7-11 or Family Mart. (You’ll have no problem finding one.) Start walking eastward, towards the area circled in the map above and labeled “3”.

How do you know which way is east? Look for this building in the distance:

Taipei 101 Shutterstock

Taipei 101 Shutterstock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taipei. It’s East of you. Do not confuse it with this building:

Shin Gong Tower

Shin Gong Tower

That’s the Shin Gong Tower. It’s much closer (you could walk to it in 15 minutes), and throughout your brief evening stroll, it should remain to your north.

(Sorry for using Shutterstock photos. I’m too lazy to search through my hard drive at the moment for photos. Take some of your own!)

Heading directly east from the Red House will bring you into 2-28 Memorial park, which has some lovely gazebos, a band shell, a foot massage path, a monument to the massacre for which the park is named and more.

Though the park won’t be deserted at that time of night, there should be a few people wandering around. It’s a fairly well known meeting place for local gay men, or at least it used to be when Taiwanese society was a bit more repressed. It’s a peaceful spot, day or night.

South of the park, you’ll see the Presidential Palace. If you’re lost, or just feel lonely, have a chat with one of the soldiers guarding the place. They’re probably bored at this hour.  Keep heading east past the Presidential Palace and you’ll walk into Liberty Square, a massive plaza that’s home to Chiang Kai-shek memorial. The memorial and museum are closed, which is just as well. But the plaza is open, and who knows? You may see some super-early risers doing TaiChi here.  Lots of cool stuff to look at.

Depending on your pace, and whether or not you’ve run into the president out for a late night stroll with her cats (I have no idea if the president takes her cats for walks, but we have to assume that if she does she does it late at night), it’s probably about time for you to think about getting yourself back to the airport.

If you still have an hour to kill and are feeling a bit hungry, you can either wander back to the Ximending area (there are a few 24 hour restaurants there, and there’ll probably be a couple of street food vendors still out as well, and of course, 24/7 convenience stores) or head down to Roosevelt Road (where the red and green lines meet way down on the bottom edge of the map below) and walk a bit. You’ll find something.

Since the MRT won’t start running until 6am, trying to use it to catch an 8am flight seems a bit risky (especially since you’ve got to grab your luggage in an unfamiliar airport and clear customs). If it were me, I’d hop in a taxi no later than 5am to get to the airport around six. (Traffic is usually pretty light this early)

From this neighborhood, a taxi to the airport should be around NT 1200, about $35 bucks. But let’s say NT 1500 just to be safe. Most taxi drivers can understand “Taoyuan Airport”. If not, show them this: 台灣桃園國際機場, and your ticket, which should also have the terminal number and so forth.

So there you have it, my suggestion at least, an uncomplicated single pot meal visit requiring no extra transportation outside of your trip back and forth from the airport.  You’ll experience some neon glitter, exotic culture, Taiwanese cuisine, historical architecture, a sliver or two of nature, and whatever other surprises unscripted travel can bring.

Here’s another map with some possible walking routes. You’ll be able to see Shin Kong Tower, represented with the reddish-purple blob

walking route for 8 hours in Taipei

walking route for 8 hours in Taipei

Let me know how it goes. Leave a comment below.

 

Grace versus brute force: Mixed Martial Arts in Taiwan

It’s five in the afternoon at Hsinchu’s Municipal Stadium, inside of which a crowd of about twelve hundred have gathered, their vibe rowdy, but polite. Welcome to the world of Mixed Martial Arts in Taiwan.

Heavy Metal music blares over loudspeakers, and around the still-empty battle octagon, anticipation mingles with dry-ice fog.  Outside of the stadium doors an ambulance sits waiting.  “Just in case,” announces an event organizer.

Welcome to the world of MMA – Mixed Martial Arts – in Taiwan

The concept of MMA is simple: Fighters trained in different schools and styles compete. They are matched up roughly by height and weight, but this is generally where their similarities end.  A typical MMA match might see a Kung Fu fighter going toe-to-toe with a wrestler, a judoka may be pitted against a boxer, or a jujitsu master might find himself facing a straight-up barroom brawler.

Grace versus brute force. Strikers fighting grapplers. Pit bulls against alligators.

The first round pits two roughly-evenly matched strikers against one another.  It is over before I can get any meaningful notes.

MMA in Taiwan 1

Mixed Martial Arts in Taiwan, Round One

The second round begins similarly, with both fighters trading blows and displaying beautiful striking form.  However, it’s clear that one of the fighters, a Taiwanese with blue gloves and buck teeth, is more interested in grappling than striking.   In short order, he drags his opponent down gets him in a classic triangle hold with his legs. Pulling him tighter and tighter, the grappler looks like a python taking its time with its prey – and the conclusion is foregone by the one minute mark. Hold broken by the bell, the two men embrace like long lost brothers – a beautiful moment in man-to-man combat.

The crowd is getting more worked up as the third round opponents come out, the first match pitting a local fighter against a western import.  Lin, a freestyle Kung fu fighter looks nervous early on but still draws first blood from his opponent, James, an American whose listed skills include Brazilian jujitsu and some sort of Muy Thai hybrid.  But Lin is a striker, clearly unprepared for James’ plan B, which entails pulling his opponent to the ground and quickly pummeling him into submission.

MMA in Taiwan

“These Kung Fu guys get wiped out”

“These kung fu guys get wiped out,”  Paulo, a NYC native working in Hsinchu says to me as James is declared the winner. “Kung fu is a soft art.”

I agree with him. The other guy didn’t have the eye of the tiger.

It’s in the next round that the meaning of “just in case” becomes clear.  Victor is a Canadian specializing in Taikwondo and freestyle fighting, and his opponent is a shorter, thicker kick boxer with massive legs.

“Look at those legs,” Says Paulo. “The Canadian is going to go for the legs first.”

Paulo’s words are frighteningly prescient, as Victor comes out after the bell and, using his longer reach, begins systematically chopping his opponent’s legs as if they were wood. Both men are strikers, but deprived of his legs the Taiwanese kick boxer is powerless.  Victor lunges with a devastating punch to the head, dropping his opponent like a dead tree.

Down for the count

Down for the count

For a full three minutes the crowd buzzes with nervous excitement as the smaller fighter stays down, eyes staring blankly at the ceiling high above.  It is an ugly end to a brutal match, and a collective sigh of relief is breathed when the smaller fighter stands. He leaves the ring beaten, and possibly concussive, but vertically – proving the maxim that any fight you can walk away from is a good one.

The event goes into intermission. A good excuse for the drinkers in the audience to sneak more beer (Verboten in the stadium, being city property) and for me to get a few photos of the event’s beautiful and scantily-clad ring girls.

MMA in Taiwan

Me and the Beer Girls

The fifth match – the first after the break – is a quick one. Wu and Cheng seem equally matched, being roughly the same size and practitioners in disciplines involving both striking and grappling.  But again, it boils down to that elusive psychological aspect.  The look on Wu’s face tells the story. He seems nervous. His opponent, red-gloved Cheng, seems not merely confident but angry.  Wu gets in a few strikes, but these are matched by Cheng who quickly takes him to the mat.  Wu struggles, striking in so far as he is able, but as Cheng holds him firm from behind Wu’s blows fail to land with any meaning.   After less than thirty seconds of ground struggle, Wu strikes his final blow, not on Cheng but to the ground,  the internationally accepted cry of “Uncle!”   The sound of air filling Wu’s lungs competes with the roar of the crowd.

Wu and Chang, not so evenly matched.

Wu and Chang, not so evenly matched.

The next match is between a French mixed martial artist / Judoka and a Taiwanese striker.  It is a round completely devoid of foreplay as the Frenchman gets down to business quickly. Any dubiousness I feel about the applications of Judo in a mixed match ring are quickly dispelled. Within the first five seconds the Frenchman has his opponent in a choke hold, and the striker can get neither leverage to break the hold nor opportunity to punch his way out. Before a minute has passed, the striker is pinned, and the Frenchman declared the winner.

The seventh round is a painful mismatch. Sammy is a South African with the build, swagger and paunch of a barroom brawler. His fighting style, according to several ringside friends who know him, is simply “South African.”   His opponent, Wu, while of the same weight class, is close to a twelve centimeters shorter and in reach.  To make matters even stranger, Wu comes out wearing a cheaply made cloth gladiator costume. “Is this some sort of a psyche out,” I wonder. “What sort of a fighter comes out against a monster dressed like a Chinese court jester?”

Remembering the words of Sun Tzu advising the strong to appear weak,  I begin to entertain the idea that this might indeed be a psychological ploy.  This is swiftly dispelled at the fourteen second mark.  Sammy’s first blow, a knee to the face (or, as they say in the back streets of Cape Town, “n Snotklap teen die kop”) knocks Wu unconscious.

Audience Watching the fight

Audience Watching the fight

The South African giant is graceful in victory. “It seems we have a little extra time here,” he begins, before launching into a good-natured soliloquy that ends with an invitation for the audience to join him in a post-brawl barbecue.

It’s during the last fight that the beauty, majesty, and brutality of MMA truly comes to life.  Wu Dongxing  is a Taiwanese brawler, a specialist in a kind of striking and kicking art known as Sanda.  Weighing in at 105 kilos and 175 cm, Wu’s build could charitably be described as portly.  His opponent, American-born Pete, though ten kilos lighter, is also a head taller. A student of Brazilian Jujitsu at a respected Filipino Martial arts academy, Pete (who begins the match with humility, kneeling in prayer in the center of the ring) seems to outclass his heavy opponent.

This final match, and with it the event, seems poised to end quickly.  Faster, more agile, and with more moves than Wu, Pete circles his opponent like a shark, every now and then lunging in for a blow.  The fat man absorbs most of these, seemingly unconcerned with even rudiments like blocking.  Whereas Pete is dancing, using footwork, Wu just stands there, rooted to one spot. Until, that is, the western fighter gets in close.

MMA in Taiwan

Beauty and the Beast

There is a heavy thud, like the sound made by a truck hitting a cow. Wu’s sledgehammer of a foot connects with his opponent’s midsection. As  Pete grimaces in pain, wu stands still, his posture saying come closer, have another.

Pete, chastened, dances more carefully around Wu, carefully aiming blows of varying style and intensity to his heavy opponent’s face, head, and body.  Wu absorbs them all, not seeming to react to any in particular. But collectively, they are taking their toll, and the blows, along with the effort of moving his own weight around the ring, seem to portend the end is near.

Or is it? Wu is striking slowly now, with neither charm nor grace, landing only one blow in three. But each that lands seems to make Pete a little more careful, a little more reluctant to move in for the kill.

A punch is thrown, and caught, and soon the pair are on the ground. Wu is on his back, and at first glance it looks like the heavier fighter is being pinned. Only when I move closer do I see that Wu has Pete in a vicious chokehold, pulling the back of the taller fighter’s head into his fat stomach, growling like a wounded bear.

The American is in agony, his neck twisted backwards. He must be running out of air. He lashes out at the only target available, the sides of the fat fighter’s stomach. The clench is held for over a minute, the taller fighter trying desperately to break his opponent’s grip, managing eventually to do so with his left arm.

Wu is still on the ground. Pete is winded.  Both stand up and assess the damage slowly.

More ring work. Wu launches himself head first like a cannonball into Pete’s midsection, smacking him back into the octagon gate. The ground shakes.  Both men are breathing hard. The bell rings, and for the first time tonight a match goes into round two. Wu leans into the gate as his friends try to staunch the bleeding from a cut above his eye. Across the octagon, Pete may be wondering about the efficacy of his pre-match prayers.

The bell rings again, and the fighters come out for round two. Both are exhausted, bloody and battered. Both seem chastened, as if they’d underestimated their opponents. Wu is still breathing hard, and Pete dances around him, launching fist after fist into Wu’s face with horrifying cracking sounds.  Wu is bleeding from both nostrils now, and Pete is grimacing as well.  His body language suggests that the cracking sound just heard was that of his own fist breaking on Wu’s nose.  Wu tries to launch a roundhouse kick but, exhausted and slow, fails to connect. Pete, knowing another kick might be his last, has no intention of getting that close. He continues dancing.

The end comes without drama. Wu, eyes nearly swollen shut, backs into one end of the Octagon while his opponent remains at a distance.  The referee calls a quick pause to inspect Wu’s badly damaged face; whether it’s the fighter or the ref who makes the call is unclear, but the determination is made that Wu should not be allowed to continue.   The crowd screams as Pete is declared the winner. Bleeding but unbowed, the portly Wu exits the octagon with his entourage.

The end came quickly

The end came quickly

Somewhere in my head, I hear the nasal, ghostly voice of legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell:

A brutal end to a brutal match in a brutal sport; Not since Santa spent Christmas delivering presents during the great reindeer strike of ’57 has a fat man tried so valiantly to beat the odds. And for that, you just have to give him credit. 

~~

Special Thanks to Tobie Openshaw for suggesting the phrase “n Snotklap teen die kop”)

Taiwan: from Bike Kingdom to Cyclist’s Paradise

One of two articles generated from my recent Taiwan trip, sponsored by the Taiwan Trade Association.  Story begins here, click link to follow on to Topics Magazine, wherein lies the original in its digital glory (with photos):

Taiwan: from Bike Kingdom to Cyclist’s Paradise

“Ni Fengle!” (You’re crazy!)

I remember fondly those words, spoken by my Taiwanese landlady Ms. Yeh on hearing my plan to cycle to Taipei from our shared home in Shuangshi, a small town on the outskirts of the Hsinchu Science Park. She’d never seen a man clad head to toe in skin-tight spandex and apparently found my costume shocking.  But Ms. Yeh was not alone in thinking me mad. Ours was a small town, and as the strange foreign transplant I was often Shuangshi’s unofficial source of entertainment. Before I’d gotten past the betel nut stand marking the town’s edge, several neighbors had come out to wish me well on my journey, with more than a few casually dropping a derogatory comment about the helmet.

It was Spring 1995, and while Taiwan was being called The Bicycle Kingdom…

(continue reading here)

Taiwan as my literary muse

I was honored last month with an offer to speak on the subject of Taiwan in Literature and Taiwan as my literary muse at a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival called  “The Beautiful Island: Taiwan in the Literary Imagination.”

The panel will be held on June 4 at 11:45am, and if you’re interested in showing up, come to the Journey’s Stage at the Osher Studio (map here) in downtown Berkeley.  

The invitation comes at an interesting time for me personally, as I’m working on the second draft of my novel Spinning Karma, a story in which Taiwan plays a major role. (Currently in deep edit of the middle act, or the muddle. Fellow writers will know what I’m talking about.)

Taiwan, due to its strange geopolitical status, can be a tricky muse. Yet its been mine for as long as I can remember. So long, in fact, that I sometimes forget why. An incident a few days ago reminded me.

Specifically, a friend of mine got run over. By a truck. In Taiwan.

(No, this is not the stuff of usual travel writing!)

So as not to risk burying the lede, this friend is fine (at least as fine as can be expected after such an event) and already planning his return trip to ride around Taiwan in the autumn.

I met Jeff Barth last year after taking a gig as consultant and tour guide with a company called Bicycle Adventures.  We led two tours 11-day together through Taiwan last autumn, and got to know each other pretty well. (Spending close to a month in hotel rooms with a guy you’ve just met will do that.)

Though I couldn’t do the spring trip, Jeff and I have remained friends and I’ve been following his current cycling trip through over Facebook, happy to see that a new group of people are learning to love cycling in Taiwan.

So naturally, I was concerned a few days ago to see a photo of Jeff laid up in a hospital bed. The photos had been posted not by him but by one of the drivers from the group, Simon Lee.  I made a few calls and found out what happened. Near as I can tell, the details were Windy road, fast descent, and a truck driver who….well, Jeff said it best on his own Facebook post a few hours later:

“He is a good man who made a terrible mistake.”

Jeff made the quip after the driver came to visit him, both to make amends verbally through a translator and to work out a reparation plan. The post was beneath this photo.

Inline image 1

Jeff, shaking hands with the driver through a hole in the bicycling jersey he’d been wearing when hit.

 

For me, the take-away from this is that decency is so ingrained in Taiwanese society that even an incident as objectively awful as being run over by a truck can end on a positive note. Something…life affirming, even.

Which brings me back to thoughts of Taiwan as my muse.

Though it’s been ten years since I wrote my first book, Vignettes of Taiwan, it remains the one I’m still most proud of. Some of the stories in it are more of the travel journalism variety, while others are more personal vignettes. Of the latter category, about half fall under the category stories about things not going as planned.

These include

The Unhappy Affair at Happy Kids Kindergarten (Getting hauled in by the police for teaching at an unlicensed school)….Fight Club (having my ass kicked by a kid half my age, in front of an audience no less)…Shotgun Wedding (a cultural misunderstanding turns a first date very awkward).

These things were not fun while they were happening. (I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they didn’t suck as much in the moment as, say, two bone fractures requiring surgery; in my defense, the cop who interrogated me for four hours in Hsinchu didn’t offer me codeine first.)

But the events made for good stories, made all the more good by the fact that they a) taught me things, and b) ended well.

Taiwan has never bored me, often taught me, and has yet to kill me.

Could anyone ask for a better muse?

Get well soon, Jeff, and see you on the road!