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...


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