About Jay Woodson

I'm an American severely addicted to traveling and travel writing, currently living in Barcelona. In between writing and researching, I'm usually waxing poetics about minority travel, good beer and adventures that push us to keep exploring. I love Hip Hop. I hate airplane bathrooms. Segway tours freak me out.

Riding Escalators in Hong Kong

DSC_1583Hong Kong is awesome for people watching. You get a little of everything. Merchants and businessmen, international students, fashion models, expat teachers, wealthy retirees from all over the world, travelers and locals all moving about in a hurried, jumbled frenzy, in a mega city of just over 7 million.

Being the nosey person that I am, I hold a special affinity for good people watching. You’ll see someone and think “what the hell are they doing?” or “I wonder where they’re from” or “Damn, that lady has some fucked up teeth.” It’s wholesome fun for the curious soul.

If Hong Kong is the best place for people watching in the world, then the Central-Mid-Level escalators are its raison d’être. This series of covered escalators and moving walkways spans over 2600 ft. and climbs a height of nearly 450 ft. up Victoria’s peak–connecting the Central  business district to Mid-Levels, a tiered maze of high rise apartment buildings resembling Manhattan or Tokyo. The system carries an estimated 60,000 passengers per day.

I’d first read about the elevators while planning our previous trip to Hong Kong. They brought up images of 10-year-old me racing my brother up an escalator in the wrong direction or dance-walking at the entrance, before the conveyor belt turns into a step (yes, I was THAT kid.). Not that I planned on doing the same in Hong Kong, but I could. The escalators are included on many Hong Kong to-do lists, but few go beyond mentioning them as a “free” and “if-you-have-time” activity.

I viewed the Central-Mid-Level escalators in the fuck-yeah-I-wanna-do-it activity and let it be known that I wasn’t leaving Hong Kong until I saw them firsthand. This is even before I knew they had Guinness World Record status as the longest series of escalators in the world.

We’d reach a point in the day when a decision on what to do next had to be made and I’d float the idea of swinging by the escalators. My suggestions weren’t exactly met with enthusiasm, and I realize that a grown man excited about riding escalators is probably repulsive, but you needn’t be seeking cheap thrills to enjoy the Central-Mid-Levels. For one, the route (from Queens Road in Central to Conduit Road in Mid Levels) is lined with chill  bars and restaurants carved into buildings just out of arms reach from the escalators. Seating is outward facing so you can sip a cocktail or glass of wine while watching a never ending conveyor belt of people glide by–a sophisticated real life version of The Jetsons. Some establishments even place thigh high wooden tables in the walkway parallel to the elevators. The message: no need to sit;  just stop and have a drink. Brilliant.

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Hop off the escalators on Hollywood Road and peruse the nearby antique shops and art galleries. If you visit within the next couple of months, you can swing about the Graham Street wet market (Gage St. exit) for good photos and traditional seafood. Sadly market vendors may be closing down for the last time in March as the 170 year-old market will be demolished to make way for more high-rises. If you miss out on the Graham Street Market  you can still find a few vendors in the alleys and lanes around Wellington Street.

We make it to the escalators after a morning spent recovering from a night out in Lwan Kwai Fong and an afternoon at Chunking Mansion with its mob of Indian restaurant owners. We have time to kill before we need to meet up with friends in Mong Kok. I figure we’ll ride the escalators to the top and make our way back down on foot stopping for a drink or two and maybe checking out some antique shops, then catch the famous Star Ferry Back to Kowloon.  It’s 3:30 and theres a steady stream of people headed up, but it’s no too crowded; mostly tourists ascending through the narrow column of shop windows and loudly colored signs.

And the people watching is stellar.

On Shelly street two guys are exiting the elevator barefoot, wearing nothing but board shorts and carrying surfboards (still tethered to their ankles). My guess is that their were coming from nearby Big Wave Bay, but they could have at least put a damn shirt on.

There’s a guy jogging down the stairs in workout clothes near Cain Road. Helluva place to go for a run, buddy.

We decide to grab window seats at a small bar just as happy hour starts. People begin to pour off the escalators and onto bar stools and curbside chairs near tables that are just big enough to fit two drinks. It gets darker and Hong Kong’s iconic skyline begins to glow. A group of twenty-somethings is talking loudly behind us, two business men have beers at standing-only tables on the sidewalk and my Stoli martini is arctic cold. I take out my phone to snap an Instagram, then abort plan.

Another bar just down the hill has modestly priced mojitos and front row seats to the escalator. We give up on the idea of visiting antique shops. Cold drinks in the in the shade of skyscrapers is a powerful weapons against Hong Kong’s summer time heat.  I’m pissed we that we have to meet up with friends in an hour.

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There’s a family held up on the steps across from us. Mom has a glass of white wine, dad looks to be two or three beers in and their baby is happily kicking away time in it’s stroller.I contemplate riding out the rest of happy hour bar-hopping our way back down to Central. If only the drinks were a little cheaper.

The area isn’t as rambunctious as Wan Chai or Lwan Kwai Fong, but I was happy to take it easy and after a day of poking around the city.

My suggestion for the Mid-Levels: Do all your sightseeing and market scavenging early in the day then hit up the escalators in the evening (your feet will thank you).

Have a drink, people-watch the weirdos, grab dinner in SoHo (the area south of Hollywood road) and plan the rest of your night.

*Budget Tip: Drinks and food can get expensive. Swing by a 7-11 to grab snacks and libations, then park it on the large steps by Shelly street, just opposite Yorkshire Pudding. All the fun for half the price. For cheap(er) food options check the small alleys around the escalator exits and entrances or hit up the smaller concentration of bars and restaurants between Elign Street and Cain Road.

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How to get there:
Central MRT stop exit E2.

Keep in mind that the escalators only run uphill from 10:15 to 12:00 AM. If you’re too tipsy to make it back down via the stairs, Take the Green Minibus back to Central from Conduit road near the escalator exit or grab a taxi.

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Ricky Doesn’t Comb His Hair

I’ve written about some of the issues Taiwan has related to race and ESL eduction and I try to carry the flag in bringing awareness to this problem here in Kaohsiung, but alas there is still work to be done.

I recently came across this in one of the textbooks I teach out of:

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In this particular book the characters are visiting New York and apparently saw fit to visit the Bronx where you can see black kids with afros and cornrows break dancing in the street, every afternoon.

What was probably a guileless attempt by the school (one of the larger chain schools in Taiwan that publishes it’s own curriculum) at introducing students to different English speaking cultures (in this case, black American culture?), comes off as uneducated and offensive. I’m surprised that a company so obsessed with providing a well rounded learning experience could be so off base. This is a wholesale buy-in of the shitty American stereotypes that have made their way across the ocean and found new homes within the Taiwanese global psyche.

I stare at the pages in disbelief before thinking about how I can skip over this part of the dialogue, but the dialogue is an extension of the grammar pattern to be taught in the next section and will need to be memorized and recited. The kids will learn it whether I teach it or not.

I decide to have a quick conversation about what’s on the page. This is a class of eight to ten year-olds so I try to make it as simple as possible. I explain to them that despite what their book says, “Ricky” needs to comb his hair every morning just like they do. This is difficult for them to understand because they know Teacher Jay doesn’t comb his hair and as far as they’re concerned Teacher Jay is the same as Ricky: black and with hair different from their own. For my students there’s nothing separating blacks from other blacks (regardless of where their respective countries); just blacks from Taiwanese. So not combing ones hair becomes a defining feature of all black foreigners. This mistruth is then used to stress the grammar pattern being taught in the textbook:

Does Ricky comb his hair every morning?
No, he doesn’t
Does he dance every afternoon?
Yes, he does.

I see this and immediately think of the experiences I had on arrival while searching for a teaching job. Wrestling with the widely accepted view that blackness is this weird otherness that cannot survive outside of only being “the other.” There’s little difference between this and my difficulties finding teaching work the first few months on the island. In both situations, blanket stereotypes left unchecked have become the common truths from which to hang opinions. The end result is that people are only able to relate with those perceived as “other” through differences instead of through similarities, and in Taiwan, difference is sometimes met with adversity. Inserting these stereotypes into an ESL textbook is dangerous in that they become perpetual, further strengthening faux  truths for Taiwanese students about people who are different from them.

In arguments  conversations with other expats on forums and in person, I’ve fielded the opinion (multiple times) that nothing can be done about this; that there’s no use in trying to change local opinion; that foreigners have it good in Taiwan and I shouldn’t complain. That because most schools are only concerned with maintaining a revolving crop of eager English learners (i.e. maintaing a steady cash flow) they’re reluctant to change anything and reasonable complaints unnecessarily stir the pot.

Fuck that. When I open up a textbook and see something like this,

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I’m more inclined to curse someone out than reluctantly dismiss it as acceptable. I find it hard to believe I’m the only foreign teacher who’s seen this and thought it inappropriate, but it’d be easy to assume that few (if any) teachers actually voiced opinions about it.

That being said, I still believe the best attempt at  combatting these hiccups in intercultural understanding is through added exposure to the cultural facets of foreigners in Taiwan–instead of only the language (that the two are often separated is odd to me). Most of this shit comes from western cultural texts so I feel we shoulder some of the responsibility to help sift through the bullshit. Talk with students and coworkers about why it’s not acceptable to snicker or make snide comments about different types of foreigners, but also take the time to highlight cultural similarities when opportunities present themselves. If there’s an opinion or idea expressed that is based on a cultural untruth, set it straight instead of waiting until later to bring it up when you’re safely entrenched among other expats.

A little cultural respect goes a long way. We can start by speaking out and having more of it for ourselves.

Southern Rap Marathon

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The English cram school I work at likes to be thorough in their education methods. Everyday before classes start, while the students are arriving and milling about the front lobby and hallways, they pipe in all English radio via Sky FM. Doing so helps maintain the facade of an all English atmosphere.

It’s a sincere effort that comes up short. The students and the Taiwanese staff dismiss it as background noise. The songs being played overhead won’t be on this week’s homework and it doesn’t appear on a test therefore it’s largely ignored. It’s a shame because there’s regularly times when the music selection is quite good. I suspect that one of the assistants clicks a different station at random when the school opens.

What this means is that I’m able to jam out to the likes of Boys II Men and Mariah Carey on Monday, followed by Cee-Lo Green  and The Roots on Wednesday. It’s long since become a normal occurrence to catch Teacher Jeremy in full sing-a-long mode while lesson planning in the teachers’ office. The playlists are that damn good.

Even with the varied and noteworthy music selection, I’m shocked when I hear Lil Jon and the Eastside Boys’ “Bia Bia” blasting through the speakers as I’m prepping my lessons the other day. The song is halfway finished before I realize  it’s the uncensored version. Naturally I figure someone downstairs will eventually hear the “fucks” and “shits” coming from overhead and change the station, but two songs later when Crime Mob’s “Knuck if You Buck” came on, I decide it wise to mention something to the Taiwanese staff.

“Are you listening to the music?” I asked one of my co-teachers. She seemed confused by the question.

“No. Why?”

I let her know that the music being played contained a heavy dose of naughty words, to which she tells me that it’s fine because the students just tune it out. In other words: disregard the extremely profane language on the loudspeakers even though you’re at an English cram school full of children.

I return to my desk to finish prepping lessons but I can’t help thinking about the possible unseen consequences of an afternoon-long southern rap-a-thon. The students may not be affected, but what about me? I listen to rap music regularly and just about every song being played is also in my iTunes library. Who’s to say I don’t accidentally let one of those explicit lyrics loose in the classroom? I’d hate to be known as the foreign teacher who told a kid to “fuck dat shit!” because he fudged a verb conjugation.

Alternatively, Who’s to say one of the older students (who relish opportunities to learn and incorporate slang and swear words) isn’t able to pick out a few choice words that he’s heard before on TV or the internet? Now I’m forced to explain to my advanced class what  “let the sweat drop down my balls” is referring to.

Normally I might embrace such an opportunity in the classroom to discuss counter-cultural aspects of the English language, but in this case it’s probably more trouble than its worth. Some of my mid-level students sill have problems recognizing present progressive. I’d be skeptical about them being able to wrap their heads around “twerking” or say, “pussy poppin.”

“…but teacher why she standing on her head?”

I also wouldn’t want to deal with the fallout that could come from students incorporating heard rap lyrics into their writing exercises, particularly because I wouldn’t want to sift through the barrage of grammatical errors they’d undoubtedly contain. “Ima throw dis money while you do it wit no hands”  Isn’t exactly proper usage of future tense. It’d take me hours to correct the assignments and I’d be left with the feeling that I’m ultimately tutoring a group of rambunctious Hip Hop artist instead of my normal crop of Taiwanese high schoolers. I didn’t sign up for that.

By eight o’clock someone has switched the station to Top 40 and no one but me notices. No one but me cares. My last class of the night is about to start and no one but me realizes the ESL clusterfuck that was just avoided.

Since that day I’ve become more emboldened by the music at my school. The rap music has toned down a lot, but when its playing I sing along and try to keep a clear conscience.

Taiwanese Animators Take on Black Friday

Without snow or a or a decent turkey dinner Thanksgiving wasn’t quite as good as it could’ve been, but thanks to Facebook and Twitter I was still able to laugh at all the morons who ditched their families (some in the early hours of the morning) to ransack Big Box stores across America on Black Friday.

Despite internet-wide requests to boycott the shopping bonanza when stores slash prices to lure in early Christmas shoppers, people still went out in droves to secure the best deals. There were reports of fights, stampedes and other violence, and as with every year, we sat back and scratched our heads trying to understand how the black Friday phenomenon came about and why we repeatedly come to blows over discounted flat-screen TVs and video game consoles.

I’m no closer to an explanation than I was last year, but I can’t stop laughing at one offered by a group of animators at Taiwan’s Next Media Animation. Why an animation company in Taiwan would take on the debacle of America’s Black Friday is anyone’s guess (maybe they realize how absurd it is), but I commend them for their cheeky interpretation. The less than perfect English subtitles only make it better.

Hong Kong Dim Sum at Tim Ho Wan

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Tim Ho Wan--Taken after the lunch rush.

Tim Ho Wan–Taken after the lunch rush.

Ask an Asian cuisine foodie about dim sum and you’ll most likely see their eyes roll back in their head while they fire off a series of odd sounding food descriptions, making it seem as if dim sum is the best food on the planet that you should never try.

Google “dim sum in Hong Kong” you’re likely to find more information than you care to sift through on where to find the “best” and “most authentic” dim sum in arguably one of the best culinary countries in the world.

Enjoying a quality dim sum meal was certainly high on the to-do list when I visited Hong Kong for the first time last month, but not enough to sift through thousands of google hits and restaurant reviews to find the “best” one.

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Lunchtime host.

When the time comes to choose restaurant, I pick the closest place to our Airbnb room in Mong Kok: Tim Ho Wan. It’s earned a Michelin star and has received praise from food bloggers all over the interweb so I’m confident it won’t be a blank mission.

The restaurant is easy to find. We hop off the subway and stroll through a small street market and quiet neighborhood to get there.

It doesn’t look like much; sporting a boring green and white sign over a humble entryway with a few plastic stools. If it wasn’t for the group of 20 or so people waiting outside and the host shouting out numbers over a microphone, we might’ve walked right past it.

We give the host our name and snag an all-Chinese menu. I stare at it for a moment pretending to understand what I’m looking at before trying to sneak a peek at the people around me to see what they are ordering (a method I employ often but seldom have success with). When this fails I resort to comparing the Chinese characters on the menu to those on a few photos of a newspaper article the restaurant staff has hung in the entryway.  None of this matters because 20 minutes later we’re seated inside and given two menus printed in perfect English.

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As expected, the restaurant is packed tight and what little space is provided for walking is dominated by servers shouldering large trays of food stuff. As with the outside, the interior is nothing special–a simple black and white decor with little to no wall decorations and a glass case holding various awards. The cacophony of clanging tea kettles and plastic chopsticks might piss me off anywhere else, but here it’s shrugged off a necessary component of a popular restaurant. Also, I’m too hungry to care.

We’re seated next to a woman and her tween daughter who’s shoulder deep into her smartphone. Mom kindly instructs us to rinse our cups, chopsticks and bowls with hot tea before using them. Her daughter looks up for  moment to survey our work, then returns to Candy Crush Saga. We’re then told (through hang gestures and thumb ups) that we should order the baked pork buns.

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Rinse your dishes in tea and you’re good to go.

We tick seven different dishes on the menu (including the baked buns) knowing it would be too much but wanting to sample as much as possible.

The top favorites include steamed shrimp and pork dumplings (shu mai), steamed beef balls wrapped in bean curd and the steamed vermicelli rolls stuffed with beef (the version with BBQ pork seems to be more popular, however.

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Beef balls wrapped in bean curd.

The steamed spare ribs in black bean sauce and “Chiu Chow Style” dumplings were middle-of-the pack favorites but more than warranted a spot on our tiny table–save the slippery nature of the spare ribs which nearly caused me to shoot one into the lap of the woman sitting next to me.

I probably would have enjoyed the glutinous rice dumplings more if I wasn’t already stuffed by the time they came out, but I still had enough room to polish off some of the grilled pork inside.

The baked pork buns (char siu bao) recommendation holds up because it’s perhaps the best item on the menu; flakey and slightly sweet on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside, oozing with tender pork and a BBQ sauce that is nothing like you’d expect to find in this part of the world.

I was tempted to grab six for the road.

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Baked pork buns, vermicelli rolls stuffed with beef and a single “Chieu Chow” style dumpling.

By the time we are finished the restaurant has cleared out a little and we thank the the woman and her daughter for their recommendation. The entire bill runs us 129 Hong Kong dollars (about $17 USD).

Michelin quality food for less than twenty bucks.

Boom.

*Authors note

Tim Ho Wan has several locations. We Visited the Fuk Wing Street location on Kowloon:

G/F, 9-11 Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon
九龍深水埗福榮街9-11號地下
8:00-22:00

Take the Tsuen Wan (red) subway line north to Sham Sui Po. Walk straight out of exit B2 and you’ll be on Pei Ho St. Walk through the market and take a right on Fuk Wing. It’s four blocks down on the right, just before Fuk Wing meets Tai Po.

Hong Kong Yam Cha has a complete list of Tim Ho Wan Hong Kong locations

What the Duck?

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Kaohsiung’s massive rubber ducky at night.

Last weekend I wanted to check out a Cafe near Kaohsiung’s Sihziwan bay, but plans had to be aborted.

The streets near our apartment were impassably clogged with vehicles containing people hell bent on seeing the 60 ft. yellow duck floating in Kaohsiung Harbor.

The duck is the work of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who has exhibited different versions of the childhood favorite in several countries around the world. In 2009 it was on display in Osaka Japan and it caught the attention of Kaohsiung city government officials including Mayor Chen Chu who–after hearing the duck would make a showing in Hong Kong–sent Hoffman a letter to persuade him to bring his duck to Kaohsiung.

You needn’t only search to hashtag, #rubberducky to see that the duck has been well received in the countries that it has visited, but Kaohsiung has gone absolutely crazy over this thing.

The duck was officially unveiled on September 19, as Typhoon Usagi was expected to hit southern Taiwan. The typhoon barely dusted Kaohsiung City and more than half a million people showed in the first week to get a glimpse of the floating giant.

500,000 people.

What exactly is the cultural relevance of a rubber duck? Remember Ernie from Sesame Street? He proclaimed his love for a rubber duck while taking a bath and the yellow fowl instantly became the symbol for bath time, but I doubt Hofman is taking his duck around the word in an effort to promote global hygiene. Do they even watch Sesame Street in the Netherlands?

Since the beginning of September everyone’s been looking to get their share of the $30 million in revenue the duck is estimated to bring in. Every 7-11 in Kaohsiung is selling small replica ducks and duck cups and duck hats and duck pens.  Bars and restaurants have put up duck decorations and have begun selling duck memorabilia, and some places have added duck inspired items to their menus.  The city has begun selling taxi tours that take in all of Kaohsiung’s sites before stopping to check out the yellow beast. Vendors near the pier sell  balloons, hats and other duck inspired souvenirs. Even the guy who usually sells peanuts in front of our apartment building has suspended his nut sales and is now offering 4-packs of miniature rubber ducks. It’s not the authorized merchandise you’ll find on the duck’s official website, but it doesn’t seem to have affected his sales.

Duck inspired birthday cake.

Duck inspired birthday cake.

Hoffman says his duck is meant to spread happiness around the world, but a comment he made for the Associated Press makes me question if he has other motives as well:

“This big rubber duck in your harbor, in Kaohsiung in this case, changes Kaohsiung. And it changes also your fantasy and your brain. And it’s a piece of art.”

My hope is that this is nothing more that artist jibberish, otherwise it sounds like Hofman is trying to induce all of Kaohsiung with a psychedelic animal fetish.

Whatever his intentions, some Taiwanese have wasted no time in comparing their duck with one currently on display in Beijing–also created by Hofman. Duck fetish or not, he may have just helped Taiwan stick it to China.

Taiwan’s duck is not only taller than the one in China (and second biggest in the world), but event workers in Kaohsiung have figured out a way to inflate their bird in a fraction of the time that it normally takes. In China visitors must pay to gaze at their duck whereas here in Kaohsiung it’s free of charge 24 hours a day. Both ducks had test runs before their official debuts, but the duck in China had a hard time staying inflated during it’s opening week.  Taiwan: 3. China: 0. Just saying.

It’s easy to poke fun at this for all of it’s whatthefuckery. Having a 60 ft. rubber duck parked in your harbor is certainly newsworthy, but is it really worth the hype? Is it worth battling the crowd and the heat to see a freakishly large piece of pop art? Can this even be considered art, given the amount of commercialism it’s drenched in? Are the aesthetics lost in a sea of cellphone photos and duck balloons?

Honestly I don’t know that any of these questions matter. The duck is a hit in Kaohsiung for the same reason that selfie foam art would’ve been a hit had it came to fruition: Taiwan is fascinated with displays of the quirky and strange, and if i there’s a line to view or partake in an weird spectacle, it only solidifies it’s legitimacy. That’s not a slam. If anything, Kaohsiung has turned it’s love for the odd into real dollars for the city. They can’t sell the official merchandise fast enough. On the duck’s website some items are completely sold out while others are waiting to be restocked. People have come from out of town to see the duck, so Kaohsiung hotels see a surge during it’s run.

Duck crazed tourist have an opportunity to take in other nearby sites as well. Glory Pier–where the duck is stationed–is a short walk or bike ride down one of the city’s bicycle/pedestrian-only paths to the Pier 2 art district. Go a bit further and you’ll reach Sihziwan bay and the beach. Go north along the Love river and there’s plenty of riverside parks and cafes to check out.

Clearly Kaohsiung has gone bonkers over this giant yellow duck, but at least the city has put itself in a position where it can benefit from the craze as much as possible. Really, Typhoon Usagi did nothing but help launch the duck to superstar status when it prompted event officials to suspend the exhibit for two days. A little drama just makes the fans love you even more.

The duck will remain in Kaohsiung until October 20, before heading to Taoyuan (10/26- 11/10) and Keelung (from 12/21). Should you want to see it in Kaohsiung head down to Glory Pier at night when there’s less of a crowd. There’s lights on the duck until midnight so photos are still possible.

Check out the Yellow Duck website for more info (Chinese and English) including a map with the location of Glory Pier.

Camping Truths in Taiwan

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Free camping in Dulan.

Free camping in Dulan.

For some the lure of camping is non-existent and for good reason. You drive (or hike) into the middle of nowhere with very few comforts from back home, set up your shelter, forage for firewood, battle mosquitos, rodents and other pesky creatures, often eat bland food and on the tail end of things you end up smelling like shit.

I hear the complaints and I can sympathize, but I also enjoy escaping the city and its traffic noise, annoying neighbors, blaring stereos, barking dogs and that damn garbage truck song, in exchange for some fresh air and natural scenery.

I never took the chance  to camp while living in Korea, but on a scooter trip during our last vacation we camped out for seven of nine nights at different locations scattered about Taiwan’s east coast and central mountains.  The trip went as planned but I now realize that there are several truths about camping in Taiwan that may or may not hold true elsewhere.

I tend to better enjoy camping when there’s no more than a few people along for the trip (The less smelly bodies in and around my tent the better). Nonetheless I was baffled by how many large groups I saw during our trip. It seems that for many Taiwanese, the more people you can cram onto one campsite, the better.

At a campground in Kenting we saw a group that, by outward appearance, looked like a small family reunion. They erected a mansion of  tent that made our small 3-person look like a plastic dog house. Right next to it they set up an equally impressive screened in gazebo with a fold-up table and a few chairs underneath.  By the time they rolled out their buffet style dinner spread I almost forgot that we were at a seaside campground and halfway expected to see them cart out a portable karaoke machine.

The view from the campsite in Kenting.

The view from the campsite in Kenting.

Honestly I can’t blame them for wanting to enjoy the scenery as a family. The campsite is run by a friendly Taiwanese gentleman who rents out space on his land situated just above a coral beach, there’s no swimming, but you’re close enough to the water to hear the waves from inside your tent.  That being said, 15 people nestled onto one campsite is a tad excessive by my standards.

In  Dulan I would learn a second truth about Taiwan camping: despite popular belief, you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere you deem appropriate.

Our original plan was to utilize the free campground at the Dulan police station (yes, the police station), but because all the sites were claimed we end up with having to find another place to put our tent.  We ask around at the nearby sugar can factory turned art studio, and are told by an elderly fella to just set up our tent in a grassy area next to one of the factory buildings. We do as such, but are eventually told (rather harshly) by a young girl outside of the Dulan Cafe that if we wanted to camp there we would have to pay a fee to the owner of the property. We decide to take down our tent and set it up across the street in area where a  few other tents are already set up. This time we take no chances and ask permission at a nearby house before unpacking. The other tents just so happen to belong to some friends from Kaohsiung and we lay waste to a few beers 7-11 before taking in some live music at the Dulan cafe.

The "campsite" we got booted out of.

The “campsite” we were booted out of.

Further north in Shihtiping I began to understand that when camping in Taiwan, it’s better to do with than to do without.

In the states  it’s perfectly acceptable–encouraged even–when camping, to go a few days without bathing properly, or having decent facilities to use the bathroom. You haven’t lived until you’ve had to drop a deuce in a 2-foot hole  that you dug yourself. Still, it appears that most Taiwanese campers don’t share this sentiment and many insist on having as many comforts as possible when enjoying the outdoors.

Despite its ill sounding name, Shihtiping was the nicest campsite we stayed at during the entire trip. Each individual site has a raised wooden tent platform with shelter and and an accompanying picnic table. Bathrooms and showers are just a stroll down a footpath lined with night lamps. Theres also electrical sockets just in case you decide to bring along a blender for beachside margaritas. The entire campground faces the ocean and some pretty funky rock formations. There’s a small pebble beached cove near the center of the main row of campsites–perfect for a sunset swim after everyone retreats to their campsites for dinner.

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Shihtiping campsite at sunrise.

The place is stacked with more than enough amenities, but you also come out of your pocket for it. At $NT 1,000 a night ($NT 800 on weekdays) it is just as cheap or cheaper to crash at a hotel. I wouldn’t mind giving up the use of electricity and the sheltered platform in exchange for a few hundred NT off the bill. Still, given the gorgeous setting, we couldn’t pass up a chance to camp here regardless of the price tag. Shihitiping also has the advantage of a nearby fishing harbor with a few seafood restaurants worth checking out.

After getting gouged in Shihitipeng, Taroko National Park ushered in the truth that camping in a nice location doesn’t have to break the bank. Being the biggest tourist draw in Taiwan, you’d think camping here would cost a fortune. Instead NT$200/night gets you onsite bathrooms with showers and wooden platforms (unsheltered), and it’s in the middle of the gorge. Taroko was also the only place where we were able to build a campfire. There’s a fire pit and barbecue grate at every site. Because we were so close, we were able to explore most of the gorge early in the day, before it got overran with tourist buses. It was easy enough to find a site midweek but, I’ve heard that you need to get there early on the weekends to stake out a spot.

Sun Moon Bay campsite at Sun Moon Lake was the last campground we stayed at before heading into Tainan and it’s a perfect example of a place that should probably give up and close shop. It’s right on the lake, but you can barely see the water because of the boardwalk leading to the gondola that crosses right in front of the campground. During the day it can get a tad noisy with all the people strolling past and there’s little to no privacy. There’s bathrooms and showers, but no wooden platforms. Instead they’ve cleared an area at each campsite and covered it with jagged rocks so you know where to put your tent. If you’re lucky enough to have thick sleeping pads (we were’t) you might not feel the rocks stabbing you in your gut as you sleep. We were the only ones at the campground, but it didn’t look like the place had been used in while. That being said, the bathrooms were still clean and the showers (mostly) bug free.

Campsite info

Kenting $NT 100/person/night

Look for this sign on the right side of the road.

Look for this sign on the right.

Besides Dulan (where the camping was free) this was the cheapest campsite on the trip. To get here follow the main strip in Kenting south past the parked van bars. Look for a sight that has with a picture of a cow on an ATV and turn right toward the water. If you’re on a scooter it’s about a  3-5 minute drive past the van bars. There’s showers and electricity on site.

Dulan Free
Again, the police station in town provides free camping so if you’re not planning anything crazy, this should be your first option. If not Head to the field across the street from the sugar cane factory and Dulan cafe. turn right out of the parking lot of the factory then take your first left. The field will be on your left and it has a ring of wooden benches around a fire pit, I believe. Watchout for snakes. I’ve heard there is another paid campsite in the area but we never found it.

Shihtiping $NT 1,000/night 
2 km north of Fengbin in Hualien county, The campsite is a part of the Shihtiping recreation area, but the camping itself if ran by a private company. Book your site at the building just above campsite 25. I’d suggest walking around the campsite and choosing a site to your liking before going to book. There’s a store across from the park entrance for munchies and as I mentioned above, trying the seafood at the nearby fishing harbor is a must. The place we went to had no English menus so pointing at dishes that look good on other tables might be the preferred strategy.

Taroko $NT 200/night
There are actually two campsites in Taroko, Heliu and Lushui (free). Heliu is across from the Lushui-Heliu eastern trail head and is the better of the two (fire ring, showers, etc). Showers are cold water only. Luishe is 600 meters or so down the road near the Lushui service station. Each site has a fire ring, but there are no tent platforms. There are no showers but you could easily use the showers at Heliu. The campsites are inside the park, 20 mins buy scooter from the main entrance.

It’s important to mention that it’s worth it to stock up on food before getting into the park. There are a couple food stalls and a small store in Tianxiang, but the selection is paltry.

Sun Moon Bay (Sun Moon Lake) $NT 200 for the site and and additional $NT 200/person/night
Should you actually want to camp here you needn’t only find the Sun Moon lake gondola. If your’e facing the gondola entrance there is driveway to the left that leads down to the water. Head down it and inquire about camping at the coffee shop. We didn’t encounter any English speaking staff so be prepared to point and mime if your Chinese skills are shitty.

Culinary Cravings

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I’m a big fan of expat living. The challenge of navigating through daily life with little knowledge of the local language combined with the opportunity to see something new everyday is an addiction that, for me at least, is not easily kicked. It’s the reason I came to Taiwan despite having announced at the end of my last stint abroad that I would not be returning to Asia anytime soon. I’m constantly reminding myself to observe as much as I can and be aware of the small, seemingly minute details of what makes living in a foreign country so interesting: The security guard who teaches 15 second Chinese lessons as we pass through the lobby; an elderly Taiwanese exercise group that meets in a small promenade across from our building (Kay came home one evening to them practicing the Macarena); the many brightly dressed couples that congregate at the beach around sunset with a platoon of photographers to take the perfect couple/wedding photos. I take it all in and try not to take it in stride.

Of course, not everything involved with expat living is quirky and enthralling. There’s plenty of things that make it atop my “most–annoying-shit-ever” list and times when I wish for just a modicum of western comforts–most notably, western culinary comforts.

Before I took off to live in Korea several years back the most interesting parting gift I received was a jar of Skippy peanut butter. I didn’t and still don’t eat enough peanut butter to warrant adding the extra luggage weight, but it did remind me that there would be food items that are next to impossible to come by in Asia. Receiving care packages was a common topic amongst my expat friends on Facebook where they’d brag about having gotten vegemite (the brits),  proper gravy for poutine (Canadians) and beef jerky (yours truly).

Some would say that when in a different country one should enjoy the local cuisine as much as possible and while I agree, I also know that there are times when you just want a sandwich with mayo on it and a decent bag of chips, or a steak with legit barbecue sauce or some friggin granola. Damn the arguments abut skipping out on the local food. Sometimes you just want a taste of back home.

Unfortunately there are odd habits that can develop from these cravings if left unchecked…

A recent craving had me pacing up and down the aisles of a high-end grocery store comparing different crackers, cookies, and biscuits searching for the closest thing possible to graham crackers. I found more than enough digestifs and butter cookies, different flavors of wafers–even lady fingers and stroopwaffles, but not a single box of graham crackers. After 20 minutes of searching–just before frustration morphs into rage–I managed to find a bag of what looked like the closest thing to graham crackers. The shape was all wrong and they looked slightly more dense than what I’m used to, but everything else fit the bill. Like an idiot, I tried to gather the scent of the oddly shaped crackers through their plastic wrapping and got a nostril full of dust and cellophane.

I was equally troubled  when I came across a bag of my beloved Flammin’ Hot Cheetos priced at nearly three times the amount of what they go for back home. I passed on buying them that day confident that the Cheetos well would be plentiful. When I returned a week later they were gone. I search in the same spot every time I visit that store and have yet to find them. It’s become somewhat of a ritual: I search for my Cheetos fix,  go find Kay (she’s usually in the sauces aisle searching for Siriacha) and she asks “Did you find them?”

Once when browsing through the foreign foods section of Carrefour Kay let out a gasp like she was choking on something. I turned around to find her cradling a bottle of ranch dressing with a look of joy on her face normally reserved for child births and weddings. Nevermind that it was double the price of what it cost back home. We had to have it.

Recently a friend told me that she managed to find Frank’s brand hot sauce at her local supermarket. An hour later I was still seething in jealousy. Why should SHE be able to enjoy proper hot sauce when I’m stuck mixing random asian brands of chili sauce trying to find the texture and flavor of what I love back home. It took a few beers before I could get over it.

True, Taiwan offers a lot more variety in western comfort foods than other countries, but finding them can be frustrating. Mega-chain Costco holds its own when it comes to many hard to find items (one of the best places to find a decent variety of REAL cheese), but you need to buy items in bulk and some expats are put off by the membership charge.  Jason’s (where I had my graham cracker struggles) is another good option for foreign needs (squid ink pasta, imported wine, maple syrup) but you’ll pay a hefty premium for some of the items they have in stock. I found a small tub of sour cream (for taco night) going for nearly $7 USD. Increasingly there are more grocery stores around the island that are setting up “foreign food” aisles that contain popular fare from North America and Europe as well as food items from countries in Asia and (sometimes) Latin America. Again, finding these gastro-oases can sometimes be difficult, but are well worth seeking out.

It’s also important to realize when your cravings are simply out of reach. There’s nothing wrong with an addiction to organic canned sardines in olive oil, or Coleman’s mustard powder, or southern Quick Grits, but you might be better off having someone back home send  you a hearty supply rather than criss-crossing the country looking for them or constantly badgering members of expat forums for advice on how to track it down. You could also get creative. You may not be able to find tahini, but maybe you can score some sesame seeds and olive oil and throw it together yourself. Can’t find the salsa you want? Look up a simple recipe online then head to the produce market for ingredients. A fellow expat in Kaohsiung enjoys hemp smoothies and was able to track down organic berries (albeit frozen) and even wheatgrass to sort himself out.

Whatever the cravings, try not to let them completely take over your eating habits while living abroad. You might miss out on some tasty local grub.

Stinky tofu, anyone?

Taiwan’s Selfie Latte’s

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Taiwan just stepped it’s coffee game up.

Coffe company Let’s Cafe has made it possible to print your portrait onto a latte, taking foam art to a whole new level. The Company operates it’s coffee kiosks out of Taiwan’s Family Mart convenient stores and are striving to give customers something they can’t get at the more established coffe joints.

How does it work?

Order a latte, upload a selfie from your smartphone and the machine sprinkles the image into the foam using cocoa powder. Boom. You don’t even have to drink it. Just stare at yourself in all your frothy goodness. Of course the point is not just to stare and marvel. You’d be missing out on the moment if you didn’t whip out your phone and take a photo your foam portrait.

Kudos should be given to Let’s Cafe. They’ve found a clever way to capitalize on both Taiwanese photo glut and a ridiculous “selfie” phenomenon gone global (thanks, Instagram). Now, instead of having cell phone photo shoots in your bathroom in fornt of a dirty mirror, you can have them at a local convenient store in front of random customers. As you pay for your latte  you can seek the admiration of the store clerk for haven taken a picture that transferred to milk froth so well.

It’s a quirky idea and I’m sure it’ll be a big hit, but it’s not winning any awards for practicality and there are still a few questions to be answered:

How long will it take to get your latte?

The reason Let’s Cafe has launched its new latte machine is so that it can better compete with larger coffee chains like Starbucks And Taiwan’s own Donutes Cafe. But they’ll do little to knock off  the competition if it takes twice as long to get your order because of hyper stylized foam decorations–which begs another question to be asked: what exactly is an appropriate time value for detailed latte art? A nifty Starbucks barista can drizzle a maple leaf into your morning Cappucino and it only takes a few seconds. Let that same barista take an extra 5 minutes crafting your leaf and there would be a line of  pissed off customers who couldn’t give two shits about the barista’s artistic pursuits.

Of course Let’s Cafe’s foam art is derived from a digital image so you would think it shouldn’t take too long, but I would hate to be stuck waiting for my drink behind a group of Taiwanese middle school girls trying to decide on just the right photo to upload. Inevitably it would happen on your way to work or some other important engagement, but you would be in the wrong let your frustations get the best of you. If all you want is a quick latte you can go somewhere else. Those girls are there for the ultimate experience in Taiwanese coffee consumption; what Let’s Cafe is calling “ridiculously unique and fun.” Never mind that it took half an hour to get it.

Will a photo latte be more expensive than a non-photo latte?

After watching the promotional video it’s clear Let’s Cafe feels their latte photo machine is already a big hit in Taiwan, though I have yet to see one anywhere in Kaohsiung. They mention how their customized latte art became “the talk of the town” and “won over the hearts” of customers. What the video fails to reveal is how much it will cost, but I noticed something that makes me think it’ll cost a lot more that your average convenience store latte .

At one point a guy in the video get’s his customized latte and decides to share it with his lovely female companion. He carefully hands it to her with a subtle but stern glance that says: “if you fuck up and drop this, you’re buying me a new one.”

It seems odd to charge more for something that will most likely disintegrate as soon as you put a lid on the cup which, unless you plan on enjoying your drink inside Family Mart, you will have to do, but not before taking a photo of it to share with others. This of course could create a vicious cycle: take a picture of yourself, have it put on your latte, take a picture of yourself with the latte containing your portrait, then have that put on another latte….I’m probably thinking about this too much.

Are we allowed to put ANY photo on a latte?

If so, we shouldn’t overlook the fun to be had from this in the form of well executed social experiments.

Imagine, for example, how interesting it would be to put a random stranger’s photo on your latte. You’d want to catch someone unexpectedly–either right when they’re entering the store or while waiting in line to check-out:

“Excuse me, sir. Would you like to have your face on my morning latte?”

Better yet, instead of asking permission, just whip out your smart phone and snap a photo of an unsuspecting stranger (happens to me all the time) then head straight for the latte machine. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up next to that same person in the check-out line. They’ll glance down and see their mug shot sprinkled on your drink and you’ll have made a new friend. After posting the photo on Facebook the stranger would arouse the curiosity of your closest friends:

“Say Gary, who’s that person on your latte?”

You can boastfully, “Some guy I met in Family Mart. We’re meeting for drinks and sashimi later tonight.”

Better still, how fun would it be to have a dirty photo dusted atop your latte? Perhaps a set of tightened buttocks or a voluptuous pair of double D’s? Of course doing such a thing would mean putting the store attendant in a rather precarious situation: does he ring up your latte like normal and pretend not to see the pair of protruding orbs afloat in your cup? Does he refuse to sell it to you? On what grounds? Indecent espresso? Does Family Mart have a contingency plan in place if such a thing happens? They should.

Again, maybe I’ve gone too far, but mobile photo glut has the tendency to bring out the worst in people.

I have no information on when these machines will hit Family Mart stores in southern Taiwan (if they haven’t already), but if anyone in Taipei or elsewhere has tried it, I’d love to see the results. Drop a link in the comments or find me on Instagram @jaywoodson.

As for me, I tend to get my coffee from 7-11, but I won’t pass up an opportunity to try it at least once.

*Update: As fellow Taiwan blogger, Taiwanvore so nicely pointed out, Let’s Cafe will not be rolling out it’s photo latte machine in Taiwan after all. The video was shot by a marketing company hired by the makers of the machine itself. Looks like we won’t be able to plaster our faces (or body parts) on our lattes after all.

Licensed to Scoot: How to Get a Scooter License in Kaohsiung

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A few months back I bought a scooter and have been ziping around Kaohsiung ever since. I was initially nervous about making the purchase because of two low-speed, minimal-impact crashes I was I in; one in Indonesia (not my fault) and one in Vietnam (very much my fault).

Many expats told me not to worry about getting a scooter license because in the unlikely event that you get pulled over the cops will almost for sure let you off the hook once they notice you’re a foreigner. I can’t say whether that’s true or not, but I had all but written off getting a license until I was denied a rental scooter on Green Island on the basis that I didn’t have one.

In some ways I find it odd that Taiwan even requires drivers to have a licenses for operating scooters considering what passes for acceptable driving here: blasting through intersections well after the light has turned red; coming to a near complete stop in the middle of the street to ponder the design of a new tea shop; speeding down a busy sidewalk to avoid congestion at a traffic light. All of these are damn-near everyday occurrences and seem to be completely acceptable as normal driving practice.

Still, if a scooter license is needed for foreigners to rent a set of wheels around Taiwan, then getting one makes perfect sense.

To be honest, I tend to handle situations like this as half-assedly as possible. When I took Driver’s Ed. in high school, I completed the whole course then skipped class on the day of the written test to avoid paying for the mandatory behind-the-wheel driving practice. Months later–after turning 18–I strolled into the local DMV, knocked out the written test, had the 6-month permit period cut in half and took the driving test with little to no practice. Yes, I had to wait longer than most of my peers, but I saved more than a hundred bucks doing so. Genius.

I probably would’ve never gotten around to getting a scooter license in Taiwan if the school my girlfriend works for didn’t let me tag a long when they organized it for her and a few other teachers.

Essentially it’s a 3-step process: physical examination, written test and driving test.

Physical Examination:

Before taking to the road Taiwan needs to see that you can physically operate a scooter. On the morning of our physical the obvious assumption is that it will take place at a small pristine health clinic where blood will be drawn, reflexes will be tested, and eyesight will be checked.

Instead we pull up to a dingy run-down building on a sketchy looking narrow street. By outward appearance it seemes as if the place was really a front for some other less-than-legal enterprise.

The room is dimly lit with dusty grey wall and a lone table with a few chairs serve as a waiting area. The only medical looking devices in the room include a weight scale and an optical contraption that is positioned in such a way that allows patients to look into it while seated in front of the table. I begin thinking it’s the type of place where–with a special code word–one can score more than just a physical exam.

“Yes, I’m here for the driving physical and…’bubble tea.'”

The first lady I come to calmly studies my ARC and checks that I have all the correct paper work and the required number of passport photos before taking my weight and sending me to the second nurse. This lady checks my eyesight by first asking what color she’s pointing at on small flashcard and then directing me to look into the aforementioned optical device and spout off the position of a gap in a series of different sized circles. It takes a moment to understand what i’m supposed to do so the nurse holds up a notecard with English instructions printed on it. She does this two more times before I’m able to get it right. eyetest

The next part of the exam involves an elderly Taiwanese gentleman sitting at a desk in the back of the room reading a newspaper. He motions for me to first hold out my hands palms up,  then close them and open them again. We then hold hands for a second and he examines the backs of my hands. I’m not sure what he is looking for, but I’m somehow nervous about what he might find. Can he see that I’ve previously been in a scooter accident? Is he looking for signs of excessive beer consumption? Is he judging me for not having applied enough hand lotion? Does he notice that I bite my fingernails? Does it matter that I bite my fingernails? Am I being scouted to participate in an underground martial arts tournament?

Before letting my hands go he looks into my eyes (into my soul?) and gently asks me where I’m from. The tone of his voice prompts me to answer slowly in a complete sentence.

“I am from the United States of America.”

He smiles, nods approvingly and sends me on my way. I linger for a moment, wondering if I’ve somehow missed a meaningful revelation, then head out.

Written Test

After a visit with the scooter shaman, you’ll need to then pass a written test to demonstrate that you know all the Taiwanese traffic laws that are hardly obeyed and rarely enforced.

The test is made up of 40 questions–half multiple choice and half tue or false. Besides traffic laws and road signs, the test also covers driving ethics. A passing score is 85% or higher.  Fail it and you’ll need to wait a week before you can take it again.

Taiwan has been kind enough to create an English version of the test and even provide study materials and a mock test for practice, but the translation leaves something to be desired. Take this true or fase question, for example:

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The correct answer is True (or “O” on the actual test), leading one to believe that–if nowhere else in the world–at least Taiwan has a safe place for zebras to cross the street.

Still, even with the translation errors, some questions leave no doubt as to the correct answer…

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while others are undoubtedly confusing:

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I have yet to see any slick roads covered with branches, but I’m constantly on the lookout.

Taking the test will set you back $125 NT.

After paying the fee our group is led into a bright room with 3o or so computer terminals. Once again my ARC is checked closely and I’m shown to the terminal where I will take my test. I’m feeling confident about my chances of passing despite having hastily studied the night before over dinner and a few beers. I took the practice test as many times as it took to pass (twice) and was satisfied with my preparation.

The test takes about 15 minutes to complete and I just barely pass with 87%.  On the way out I’m handed a slip of paper that will allow me to take the driving test.

Driving Test

I have no problem fully admitting that taking the driving test was the most difficult part of getting my Taiwanese scooter license. Even with plenty of practice and a clear understanding of the manuevers I needed to execute I still had doubts about my odds of passing.  The test course is nothing special, mind you; a simple U-shaped obstacle course under a sheet metal roof that, if done properly, should take  no more than 45 seconds to complete.

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We arrive before the 10:30 AM test time and are allowed to practice. Most of the course is simple. There’s two places where you need to signal your turns, two places that require making complete stops and a stop light thrown in for good measure. All of these elements need to be properly executed within the confines of a three foot wide track with sensors on either sides. Veer off the track and a loud siren will sound (with lights) signaling your failure.

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The 7-Second Balance Strip

By far the most challenging part of the road test, however, is a 50 foot narrow strip at the beginning of the course. The object is to drive the length of it in no less than seven seconds (there’s a timer right in front of you). Touch the sensors on either side of the strip or touch your feet to the ground and it’s an automatic fail.

I nail the entire course time after time while practicing. At this point our small group are the only people there, but by the time the test is about to start a crowd of test takers and on-lookers has formed and a few people have taken a keen interest in how the foreigners will do.

Before the start of the test an administrator walks us through the course explaining all the elements and possible point deductions in Chinese. I can’t understand what he’s saying, but I stroll with the others anyway, nodding my head every so often to show that I’m paying attention. I don’t notice that there’s English instructions printed on a large board near the beginning of the course until he’s finished.

As the test begins I position myself in the middle of the pack so I can see how the first few people do on the narrow strip portion. Some are wobbly in their method, but most everyone gets through it without any problems. Some people ease their way through it gently twisting the throttle to give the scooter as little thrust as possible while focusing on maintaining balance. Others hit the gas right away and then let off, relying on their break at the end so they don’t finish under seven seconds.

As I approach the start I notice that several people have gathered along the side rail near the 7-second balance strip. I give myself a small peptalk: “Don’t f**k this up, Jay. All of Taiwan is watching.”

I decide to gas it at the beginning and coast the rest of the way. By the time I make it to the end the timer is only at four seconds so I gently squeeze the brake to buy more time. This slows me down too much and my scooter begins to lean to the left. I clip the left corner of the sensor and the sirens wail. The administrator waves me back to the beginning of the course to start over. I have one more chance to pass it then I’ll have to wait a week before I can try again.

On the second attempt I try to ease my way through the strip, twisting the trottle as little as possible, only this time I don’t have enough power and I’m forced to put my feet down to keep from tipping over. I’m once again waived over and given my test sheet with a big red stamp on it.

Out of our small group of foreigners that took the test I’m the only one who fails the driving test, but Im not alone. After everyone is finished,and at the insisting of the test administrator,  I take turns practicing on the course with a with a teenage Taiwanese girl who also didn’t pass. It’s feels like a victory lap for losers.

The next week I return by myself, pay the $125 NT fee to take the test again. When I finally pass the annoying seven-second narrow strip (I fail once more before getting it right) I almost forget that I have to finish the rest of the course. I halfway expect someone to be clapping for me when I approach the booth to get my licence: a small piece of paper laminated on one side with my name and the same shitty pasport photo I used for my diving certificate.

For $200 NT, victory never looked this good.

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Links:
Study guide for written test
Practice test
Extra info from Tealit.com