Sunday, July 29, 2007

Taiwan Part 2:

Tuesday on Green Island

I woke up at 5am to watch the sunrise and no one else was around, save for a solitary fisherman.

I took the one cross-island road to see what the vegetation was like. I was startled when a few lizards jumped out from the side of the road and was even more unprepared for when I turned a bend and almost collided with a bull! I quickly continued on my way, only to come across a group of 7 walking in the middle of the road. I respectfully made my way around them, after they had moved sufficiently to one side of the road.

Green Island is a volcanic island and used to be called "Fire Burned Island". The uneven and rough rocks made it difficult to walk along the shoreline but I liked the unexpected formations of the large boulders.

The ferry was crowded but people quickly dispersed upon disembarkation. I assumed most were busy racing around on their scooters because very few people were out along the water. I parted ways with the Taiwanese couple at the ferry station on Monday but kept running into them. When I saw them on Tuesday morning they invited me to drive around the island with them. I dutifully served as photographer.

My favorite view was from a lookout point reached by climbing the "Small Wall of China":

20 Taiwanese high school students and I went snorkeling that afternoon. One compassionate girl came over to me and explained what was going on. She is starting college in the fall but had spent the last two years in Singapore learning English. I made sure to stay in her group. After wriggling into wetsuits, we went to the snorkeling area by scooter. The guide made us pick a leaf from a low bush and carry it with us. At this point I wasn't sure if the leaf was for good luck or what... Later we rolled the wet leaves in our hands and rubbed them into our masks to prevent the masks from fogging up (very successful!). After some short instructions, we split into smaller groups of 7. We were instructed to lock elbows inside of a life ring, four of which were strung together for our group. We marched out to the shallows and gradually assumed a floating position as the water got deeper. Our guide slowly tugged us to deeper areas and all we had to do was look at the fish and coral. The system was low effort on our part and low risk on the part of the guides. There were 20 other such groups floating around in this one area and I made sure to look straight down to avoid looking at all the dangling black limbs.

The guides scattered pieces of bread and many different varieties of fish darted up from the corals to feed. There were just as many brightly colored fish as plain ones, but the whole color scheme was such a novelty for me, since I've only been exposed to the cold waters of the Atlantic. Even though the coral only varied in hues of beige and white, it was the most interesting part of snorkeling. I could have spent much more time looking at all the intricate geometric patterns.

After snorkeling, I took a quick shower and then went to the main strip of shops and restaurants. I picked up some ice tea and then parked myself on a bench so I could watch the last bit of sun dip beneath the waves. I came across the couple again. The man came over to my bench and looked at my pictures before falling into conversation with some other men, both of whom turned out to be Ministers of Education. They were running a special summer program for talented high school writers and were hosting a workshop on Green Island. They were excited to meet me and took my contact information, inviting me back to Taiwan as soon as I could make it.

I went for barbeque with the couple and was able to solve the vexing question of how Asian women stay so tiny. This woman just didn't eat. She took charge of cooking and kindly let us chat instead. I was happy to stay away from the hot charcoals. I still don't understand why do-it-yourself barbeque is so popular in such heat and humidity! Even though we were on an open roof deck, I was sweating the entire time and wasn't eager to eat hot food.

I perked up when two Westerners showed up at the restaurant. So far, I hadn't seen any other white people on the island and was excited to have the opportunity to talk with other travelers. After finishing dinner with the couple, I went over and had a drink with them. The two men were Austrian medical students who had been working at a hospital in Taipei as part of an exchange program. We decided to go for an evening swim by the lighthouse where there was a shallow and protected pool. We got some beers from the local Seven-Eleven and stopped off at our respective hotels to get swimming gear. We had the beach to ourselves and spent a few hours swimming, talking and gazing at the stars. Once I admitted to knowing a bit of German, our conversation switched back and forth between our two shared languages. It was good practice for me and I think they were pleasantly surprised as well. We parted ways in good spirits, all of us relaxed and refreshed. Without a doubt, that evening was the most enjoyable one of my trip.

Reflections on Taroko Gorge and Taipei to follow...

Friday, July 27, 2007

Taiwan: Part 1

I flew to Taipei on Sunday, July 15th and immediately made my way to Kaohsiung by Taiwan’s new high-speed railway. Traveling at speeds up to 295 kilometers per hour (~183mph), the train reached Kaohsiung in less than two hours. Taiwan’s trains consistently impressed me; they were frequent, clean and always punctual.

After settling into my hotel, I took a taxi to a night market to get dinner. Armed with a two dollar mango papaya smoothie, I slowly made my way through the market, peering at the offerings at the various food stalls. Despite the light rain and humidity, people slurped down steaming hot soups and feasted on all kinds of seafood and meat. Given the heat, I wasn’t inspired by any of the soups or fried foods. I ended up at a buffet place so I could try lots of different dishes. For three dollars, I got a bowl of rice and a platter of vegetables, chicken and fish. I sat at a table where I could watch the cooks and observe the street happenings at the same time. After I finished eating I noticed the cook throwing a large pan of mushrooms into a wok. A few mushrooms fell onto the wet and slightly muddied floor. The cook nonchalantly picked them up and threw them into the wok.

The next morning I was surprised that it was still dark even though my alarm clock read 6 am. When I arrive at the train station to catch a 7:10 train, I was only temporarily surprised to see the main clock reading 6:00 am. I neglected to change the time on my alarm clock, which gave me an extra hour to poke around the streets near the train station. Nothing was open and it was already incredibly sticky. I found temporary relief in the Seven 11 and had an awkward conversation with the clerk who warned me against “bad Taiwanese men.”

The three-hour train ride to Taitung was relatively uneventful. I appreciated the lush hills inland and the occasional view of the ocean. Given the short amount of time I had to plan this trip, I opted for a package to Green Island, which included all transportation, two nights at a hotel, one afternoon of snorkeling and the use of a scooter. It was easy to spot the sign with my phonetically spelled name, “Heyley”, amongst a sea of Chinese characters at the train station. I was whisked off to a small office and met two fellow travelers, a nice Taiwanese couple. The man spoke a bit of English and we fell into conversation. Once we get to the ferry station I stayed close to the couple because I had no clue what was going on.

After offering initial oohs and ahhs, everyone on the ferry quieted down as the novelty of momentary weightlessness gave way to queasiness. I later find out that a typhoon passed through a few days before, which accounted for the rough seas. The sound of retching quickly replaced the silence and people clutched or made use of conveniently placed plastic bags. Ferry workers deftly passed through the aisles and offered clean plastic bags to unhappy passengers. I assumed a somber demeanor and spent the last half of the 50-minute ride concentrating on the exit sign.

Although noticeably absent in Korea, the scooter is ubiquitous in most of South East Asia. My introduction to the scooter consisted of one of the hotel staff putting the keys in the ignition, revving the engine, and pulling on the breaks. How simple! I was eager to get to the water and one of the hotel staff offered to lead me to a quiet beach. I experienced a mix of nervousness and excitement as I tried to figure out how to manage speed and navigation. The man pulled onto some gravel near the beach and I panicked- I was fine with going forward but wasn’t properly prepared or coordinated to stop! I pulled the break for the front wheel, stopped suddenly and toppled over. The guy pulled my scooter upright, pointed to the beach and left- not aware that I might be hurt. I washed my hand off in the water and was begrudgingly thankful that I always carry a small first aid kit in my backpack. My hand kept smarting so I went back to the hotel to tend to it. I spent the next half an hour in my room soaking my hand and rooting out the last stubborn particles of sand with tweezers.

I gradually became more confident riding the scooter, although I was still a more tentative driver than all of the Taiwanese. Driving slower gave me the opportunity to peek inside the doors of all the structure that stand only a few feet from the side of the road. I noticed that there are shrines in the main rooms and quickly realized that I was looking into people’s homes. I confirmed my suspicion when a glance into one such opening discovered a boy sitting on his couch playing video games.

Koreans eat patbingsu, a refreshing summer dish of shaved ice and sweetened red beans, and I was hoping to find something similar in Taiwan. The first version, artfully served in an abalone shell, had firm purple gelatinous cubes in addition to two types of beans. Soft and smooth gelatinous something covered the mound of shaved ice.

The fruit is drizzled with sweetened condensed milk in this version. There's also a sweet syrup on top of the ice.
Both were delicious!

to be continued...

Monday, July 23, 2007


I have a lot to do for work but I'll hopefully be able to post something about my travels before the weekend. In the meantime, here are a few pictures from Green Island:

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Intensives and Vacation

My school's intensive summer program starts July 23rd and runs for five weeks. I am scheduled to teach 8 additional morning classes per week for a total of 20 extra hours of teaching. In addition to my regular 4-11pm schedule (plus the 3-4 additional hours of grading essays), I will have class from 9:30-12 and 1-3:30 Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Knowing I'll be rewarded with a fat paycheck does little to mitigate the dread I have for these weeks.

I was already barely excited for my vacation within Korea before I saw the intensives schedule. I had done zero planning which is quite unlike me. I've been in a blah Korea phase for a few weeks and seeing the schedule fully switched on the 'must get out of Korea' mindset. Once I got home from work on Thursday night, I emailed a couple of travel agents. By Friday afternoon I had transferred money to pay for my plane ticket to Taiwan. The flight to Taipei is only 2.5 hours from Seoul and I'll arrive in the afternoon on July 15th. I won't be returning to Korea until the 22nd. Hurray!

Why Taiwan? Cheapest flight (~$400). It's going to be hot and muggy there, but it's hot and muggy in Korea. At least there will be delicious Chinese food, night markets and easy train travel to beautiful beaches. My zeal for travel planning has returned and I'm happily researching where I can go and what I can do.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Spa Pia: The Price of Beauty

The Cost:
~$5 entrance fee includes access to saunas and baths
~$30 massage/scrub including facial

The Experience:
Upon paying the entrance fee, Cathy and I got our numbered wristbands which included the key to our lockers. We put our shoes in the downstairs locker and follow a Korean woman onto the elevator. When the doors open we blindly follow her and are about to turn the corner into the locker room when we hear her squeal. She comes scurrying back to the elevator, hiding her face in her hands. We quickly realize the error and are relieved we didn't follow her completely into the men's locker area.

Safely on the women's floor, we undress and head into the main area. After reserving time for our massages, we go to the showers where women are seated on low plastic stools, busy washing and scrubbing themselves. We plunk ourselves down and ease into the public bath routine.

Feeling sufficiently clean, we walk to the other side of the room to survey the series of shallow pools of varying temperatures. We slide into the green tea pool which records a temperature of about 40 degree Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). I am fond of lukewarm bathwater and am more than ready to move to a cooler pool in a few minutes. The one outside pool was especially relaxing until I notice huge spiders dangling from the overhead trellis. Cathy is easily convinced to go back inside. She introduces me to one of the underwater exercise devices which rather lamely proclaims to be a "super fat burn" machine. I press the button, hold onto the handles and brace myself against the force of water that magically trims fat from my abdomen. If it were only so easy!

There are three saunas to choose from and I opt for the least hot, which is still almost 60 degree Celsius. I have only recently begun to use saunas- Korean air quality inspires me to sweat out the impurities- and don't want to pass out. I'm drenched in sweat after five minutes and can at least understand the impulse behind the Nordic tradition of jumping in snow or ice post-sauna.

My masseuse is a round 50 year old woman in a matching red lace bra and panty set. She is one of five similarly clad women in the massage room. They chatter amongst themselves as they scrub, knead and slap. I keep my eyes closed for most of the 45 minutes, lest I peer into the crotch of my masseuse or witness the jiggling of the elderly woman on the next table. I grimace sufficiently when she starts scrubbing my legs that she switches mitts. I have never been scrubbed so roughly or intimately by a stranger before. I quickly tell that this is a functional massage, there's no time or common language to encourage me to relax and leave my troubles behind. I'm too anxious about where she's going to put her exfoliating mitt next!

After throwing a couple of buckets of water on me, she quickly covers my face in some goop and wraps my head in a damp towel. She squirts me with oil and begins the massage. I feel more like a percussion instrument as she slaps my thighs and cups my arms. When she grabs my fingers I can feel how wrinkled she is from doing this all day long. I worry about sliding off the plastic covered table when I have to turn onto my back again. She steadies me by grabbing a breast and I'm struck by the simplicity of having my body treated as just a body. That's the satisfying thing about going to a public bath here. Perhaps there's some curiosity at my Western body, but I don't get a sense of being judged as a woman. Little girls walk hand in hand with their wrinkled grandmothers and everybody just goes about their naked business. Body politics are left to the clothed, when Korean women are unabashed at their eagerness to powder, primp and otherwise admire themselves in their hand mirrors.

The massage comes to an end and I'm squirted with another liquid. She makes me sit up for a moment and I quickly flash open my eyes. There's a small, opened carton of milk sitting at the end of the table. She washes my hair, carefully removes the cream from my face and sends me off to the shower without further ceremony.

Cathy and I soak for a bit longer after our massages before languidly making our way back to the locker area. We emerge from the spa smiling contentedly and make plans to go again soon.