Bahn Mi the Savior

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Original Photo by Jeremy Brooks CC 2.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 I try to stick to a routine when preparing to check out from a hotel.

Zip all compartments on my pack, make sure money and documents are secure, check under the bed and flip the sheets for lost items, check the bathroom, make sure bus, plane or train tickets are accessible in my day pack.

It’s not flawless (I still managed to lose shit from time to time), but it’s helpful to at least avoid losing anything important.

I’m going through this routine at a hotel in Can Tho whilst explaining to my girlfriend how far the bus station is from our hotel. I haven’t a clue of the exact distance and she probably knows as much, but in my defense, it looks walkable on the map. Whatever the distance, I’m in no rush to hop in another taxi after battling one too many rigged taxi meters in Ho Chi Min City that jack the fare up to triple the normal rate.

“It should only take twenty minutes or so to walk to the station.”

My girlfriend isn’t convinced and she shouldn’t be. For all I know it could take an hour. Distances aren’t really my thing.

What’s of equal concern–for me, anyway– is bahn mi (pronounced bun-mee), Vietnam’s answer to the po’ boy and one of the best damn sandwiches on the planet. It’s a four hour ride from Can Tho to Ho Chi Min City and my hunger is real. I would’t mind a long hike to the bus station if there’s bahn mi to be had along the way.

Since arriving in Vietnam nearly a week ago I’d made a habit of eating several bahn mi sandwiches a day, pretty much any time we passed a vendor.

A crispy-on-the-outside-chewy-insides baguette split open and slathered with liver paté, stuffed with several cuts of pork, cilantro, cucumbers, pickled carrots, daikon, a splash of fish sauce or soy and finished off with jalapeños (if you’re lucky); it’s easily one-third of the Holy Trinity of all sandwiches (the mufaletta and classic PBJ make up the other two-thirds, respectively). I am but a man. It’s lure: too great for me to pass up.

My beef with the French is well documented, but they did Vietnam a solid by leaving behind a portion of their culinary influence in the form of a sandwich (if only it came without the heavy dose of colonialism).

Original Photo by Jen R. CC 2.0

Original Photo by Jen R. CC 2.0

I should mention this isn’t the first time I’ve been addicted to street food. When visiting a new country, I tend to gorge myself on a single item until I either get food poisoning or something more delicious takes it’s place. In Florence it was gelato, in Cuernavaca–al pastor (in all it’s delicious variations). In Indonesia I would woof down bowl after bowl of nasi campur with sambal chili sauce. That didn’t end well.

I flip the sheets in the room and check under the bed and find nothing but the TV remote. We failed to take advantage of the free cable channels, but we’ve only been in Can Tho for one night and we’re keen to make it to Mui Ne by day’s end.

While not exactly bustling, Can Tho City is the largest city in the Mekong delta and has similar vibes to that of Phnom Penh or Vientiane: rough and unattractive but generous in its chill riverside charm. Sleepy enough to stroll and explore at your own pace, but with enough to see to avoid boring you to death; a transit hub for those headed south looking to explore more of the delta and a fine place to try turtle hot pot (ban phu sa), cong cake (a fried rice flour cake with green beans and shrimp) and other delta specialties.

We came to see the floating markets. Something my girlfriend has convinced me is worth experiencing and something that I have little say in anyway because it was left to her to plan our month in Vietnam after I plotted our route through Indonesia. Not that I didn’t want to see the floating markets, but I would’ve been just as content sitting along any riverside in the Mekong Delta watching boats lug their cargo up and down the river while drinking thirty-cent beer and scarfing down bahn mi. To be fair, touring the floating markets by boat proved to be more interesting than getting drunk and eating cheap sandwiches.

Vessels of all sizes ply the river flinging merchandise from boat to boat in a style of commerce that reminds me of Seattle’s Pike Place fish market or the dough chucking chef at India’s Baskar Restaurant, only instead of fresh fish and naan dough, dragon fruit, pumpkins and lettuce are tossed through the air. Most vendors advertise their merchandise via long bamboo poles erected in the bow of ships, allowing potential customers to easily spot goods without having to maneuver closer.

cantho

We booked a boat tour of Cai Rang and Phong Dien (the two closest and most popular floating markets in Can Tho) and spent half a day weaving and bobbing between barges and row-boats packed with various wares and produce, snapping photos while our oarsman crafted jewelry and trinkets from river reeds for my girlfriend.

I have no doubt there are plenty of people that find Can Tho’s floating markets enjoyable, but the hype surrounding the necessity of seeing them is somewhat lost on me.The markets are lively and there are ample opportunities for photos, but being the focal point for many a tourists’ visit to Can Tho seems to have turned the experience into a smash-and-grab ordeal where a large majority of operators clamor to rope visitors into spending money at pre-arranged restaurants and gift shops without even completely delivering on an informative and comfortable tour of the floating markets.

Our tour included a trip to a rice paper factory and a jaunt around some of the surrounding canals but things got a little tense between us and our tour guide after we refused to buy anything more than coffee at the small restaurant we stopped at before returning to the city. Three to four hours was more than enough time to see the markets as we were able to tinker about the city on our own during the afternoon.

A floating fabric shop

Floating Fabric Shop

I give the bathroom one last check before hoisting my 65-liter pack onto my shoulders. My girlfriend has of course been ready to go for the last ten minutes. She’s not exactly impressed with my checkout routine. We return our key and thank the receptionist, who points us in the direction of the bus station. I completely forget to ask him if there’s a place to buy bahn mi along the way.

We make it a block away from the hotel when I feel sharp pressure in my stomach. I loosen the waist strap on my pack, but that’s not the cause of discomfort.

I assume it’s gas and fully expect the pressure in my stomach to produce nothing more than my usual brand of foul air. Instead what I expel is significantly more discomforting.

“I gotta go back to the hotel,” I blurt out to my girlfriend. I’m already turned around by the time I finish the sentence.

I would find out months later that my girlfriend was able to decipher the situation immediately, probably owing to the perfectly crafted I-just-shit-my-pants expression I was wearing. I Imagine it’s the same facial expression all potty-trained adults make when they inexplicably soil themselves–a mixture of confusion and horror as they come to terms with the reality of their predicament.

I briskly wobble back to the hotel and find the receptionist in the same place we left him. He pops up from behind the counter, pointing to the ceiling and nodding his head as if he knows why I’ve returned.

“Ahh, yes…,” he proclaims.

The only words I want to hear out of him is where the bathroom is.

He reaches underneath the counter and produces two small blue books.

“…your passports are here.”

Again, a look of horror and confusion.

With all my tedious checkout preparations–meticulously combing the hotel room to avoid leaving anything behind–I’d completely forgotten it was hotel policy for guests to leave their passports with the front desk during their stay.

I’m glad I’ve retrieved our passports, but there’s still the issue of the Hershey squirt that’s currently plastered in my undies.

“Uh, yeah. We…almost forgot them. Can I use your bathroom?” The urgency of my request is lost on him as he points me down the hallway.

The tendency to re-trace your steps is quite natural after experiencing an uncontrolled bowel movement. It becomes a guessing game of sorts as you try to pinpoint the cause. Questionable water? Uncooked meat? The boiled snails you precariously shared over whiskey with a group of Vietnamese construction workers?

For me there’s no question of the culprit.

I’d been completely non-discriminatory in my selection of bahn mi vendors. The sign could be on a store front or pushcart; it need only say “bahn mi.” Common sense would suggest that a sandwich composed of ingredients that have been basking in the Mekong sun for an unknown period of time is probably best avoided, but I’ve rarely let conventional wisdom dictate the food I eat, particularly when I’m hungry.

That’s not to say bahn mi is worth shitting your pants for, but I have a hard time regretting any sandwich that keeps me from accidentally ditching my passport.

 

If You Go…

Getting there:
From HCMC Phuong Trang and Thuang Buoi bus companies service Can Tho. The trip takes 3-4 hours which includes a pit stop for restrooms and refreshments. Tickets shouldn’t run you anymore than VND 110,000-120,000 ($5-$6)/person. Your hotel or guesthouse should be able to arrange the tickets for you, but I would recommend going to the south-east bus station (Ben Xe Mien Tay) in person to book tickets.

Floating Markets:
The most popular and convenient way to visit the floating markets is by boat tour. You’re hotel or guesthouse will most likely have a guide they recommend. This isn’t necessarily a bad option, but make sure you understand exactly what you’re paying for. If possible, take a look at the boat you’ll be riding in. Ask if the person booking the tour will actually be accompanying you on the trip.

Typically you can choose between full-day or half-day options. Half-day options will most likely take you to Cai Rong and the smaller Phong Dien with a small tour of nearby canals and a possible visit to a rice noodle factory. Full-day tours may visit several smaller floating markets and take you on a longer ride through the canals. Whichever you choose, I’d recommend getting an early start to avoid the tourist crowds. Tours can run anywhere from $15.00-$30.00 per person depending on the length of time. Cheaper rates can be had by strolling along the riverfront in the morning and haggling with boat operators.

 

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Instablurb: Taiwan’s Night Markets

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Rueifeng Night Market, Kaohsiung

Taiwan is often ignored by the dominant forces in travel publishing. It rarely makes the cut on any of the “Top Ten Tropical Getaways” lists that litter the interwebs, and the under abundance of drug induced beach parties largely keep it off the backpacker circuit, but the few glitzy websites that do give Isla Formosa some play almost never forget to include Taiwan’s night markets as must see attractions, and rightly so.

Similar to strip malls in suburban America (only less tacky) and Trattorias in Italy (only more crowded), you’re never too far from a night market in Taiwan. Ask any Taiwanese where their favorite night market is and they’ll probably give you two; mention your favorite night market and they’ll respond with one that’s better. The open air conglomerations of food stalls, clothing shops, carnival games and craft stands are best taken in with all senses–ideal places to smash on local food, try your hand at mahjong bingo, people-watch to your heart’s content and browse for everything from panty hose to house pets.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

For expats in Taiwan it’s sometimes easy to ignore the lure of night markets and it might take an argument over just which one is the best before you rediscover why making weekly visits to your neighborhood night market is a part of life for those who call Taiwan home. Fail to check out a few night markets as a visitor and you’ll indeed be missing out on an interesting chunk of Taiwanese culture.

Somewhat driven by a recent visit to the Labor Park Night Market ( 老公夜市) near my apartment in Kaohsiung, I snapped a few photos of night market scenes worth sharing and dug through my iPhone for old ones as well.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Probably the most highlighted aspect of Taiwan’s night markets is the food. The general rule when dining out in night markets ought to be to keep an eye out for stalls that have their food reviews on display or have a line of patrons. These tend to be long-standing tenants with reputations for serving up culinary crack. Of course this doesn’t mean you should pass up stalls without queues and newspaper clippings, but with so much grub competing for your attention, it’s nice to have some local guidance.

Rueifong Night Market. Kaohsiung City.

Rueifeng Night Market. Kaohsiung City.

Eating your way through a night market will also mean coming across some pretty weird shit. Chicken feet, pig blood cake and duck tongues are mainstays and I promise you’ll smell the stinky tofu long before you actually see it. Be as adventurous as you want, but I stop short of animal rectums (no chicken ass, please) and most insects (shoutout to Andrew Zimmern).

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Rueifeng Night Market, Kaohsiung

When I ask my students what they enjoy most about night markets the majority of them mention the games: toss a ring, shoot a bottle, pop a balloon; it’s all there–plenty to choose from if you’re looking for a place to win a stuffed Hello Kitty for your girlfriend or to park the kids for a couple of hours while you try on sunglasses and fish for live shrimp.  I often chuckle when seeing kids go buck wild at a game stall while mom and dad sit nearby scrolling through Facebook, passing money to the game operator every few minutes to keep the party going.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Even more interesting, there’s usually a gaming section devoted to mahjong bingo where for NT$15-$20 a game, you can flip over fifteen mahjong tiles with the hope of landing a straight line on the gaming board. You’d think gambling was involved considering how many people hunker down in front of the tiles, but prizes rarely exceed the normal collection of children’s toys and stuffed animals.

I’ve noticed that while there are common threads that run through almost all night markets, each one still has its own unique vibe. Some are massive and cater to tourists looking to snatch up a few Chinese made souvenirs and pose for photos while holding stinky tofu. Others are more chill and locally driven–narrow lanes where people stop to grab their favorite dumplings or grilled squid on their way home from school or work. Some night markets function better as social hubs: landmarks to meet at with friends and browse but never buy; places where broke teenagers can take their dates.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Some of my favorite night markets are mainly clothing markets selling T-shirts with incorrect English printed on them and wide arrays of clubbing garb, priced to sell and in line with the latest fashion from Korea, Japan and the U.S. Two years ago on my birthday I bought a cap at the New Shinkuchan Night Market in Kaohsiung loaded with so much bling that I felt like a Saudi prince as soon as it touched my skull. There’s no way you’d find that type of swag in SOGO or any other department store chain in Taiwan.

Still, there are some night markets that are unapologetic in their randomness, completely undefinable and seemingly unmatched in their versatility. Meccas of commerce that have no problem catering to those who’d like to pick up a new cell phone case, have a pair of jeans tailored, get a manicure and snack on strawberry glazed penis cakes all at the same place.

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Fengjia Night Market, Taichung

Find Dreadlock Travels on Instagram: @jaywoodson

Author’s note: If you’re in Kaohsiung, Taiwanvore has done a fine job mapping out a lot of the night markets in the city. Peep his Photo walk through the Labor Park Night Market post as well.

S.K.S. Attempts to Debunk Misconceptions of Blacks in Taiwan

Taiwan video production group Stop Kidding Studio recently released a video entitled 台灣人對黑人的四大誤解:Things Taiwanese Don’t Know About Black People. In the video, African-American Tiffany tries to explain and debunk some of the common misconceptions Taiwanese have of blacks in Taiwan.

The video was posted to the Facebook group for Teachers Against Discrimination In Taiwan (TADIT). The title caught my attention because it’s something I’ve written and talked about at length since I first moved to Taiwan two years ago when, shortly after arriving in Kaohsiung, I was told–flat out–that finding a teaching gig would be difficult because my skin color didn’t fit the bill. Sadly, Taiwan has some catching up to do in the area of cultural diversity. It’s an issue that baffles me still, but given Stop Kidding Studio’s track record of creating provocative videos aimed at traversing the cultural rifts between Taiwanese and foreigners, I was optimistic about how they would handle the glossed over topic of Taiwanese untruths about black foreigners.

Photo: Facebook/StopKiddingStudio

Photo: Facebook/StopKiddingStudio

Unfortunately, the video falls short of actually addressing some of the nuances of being black in a country where everyone loves Obama and Lebron, but where many can’t fathom the idea of a black native English speaker.

It begins with the common misconception that all blacks in Taiwan are from countries in Africa–a promising start as far as I see it. Indeed blacks hail from many parts of the world and represent a wide array of cultures, but perhaps further explanation is needed about what that means.

It would be helpful, for example, to mention that because “black” as a racial construct has very little (if anything) to do with nationality, there’s no set of cultural or behavioral traits that can appropriately define “being black.” What’s true for a black American is not necessarily true for someone who’s black from the U.K. or Belize or Kenya. It shouldn’t be surprising that we have different traditions, eat different foods, adorn ourselves in different fashions. Taiwan’s incredulous attitudes regarding blacks being from countries other than those in Africa is undeniably absurd, but failure to mention how we are as culturally diverse as the places we come from can be just as damaging as any misconception the video aims to correct. It’s nice that we’re told blacks are a global race, but how about a disclaimer that the views expressed in the video are from the perspective of a black American?

I applaud Tiffany for bringing up the belief that blacks only favor Hip-Hop music and nothing else, but again more is needed beyond listing off the music we’ve had a hand in creating or making popular. As annoying as it can be, it’s not surprising that people in Taiwan feel Hip-Hop is the only music blacks associate themselves with (people think the same thing in countries all over the world). Hip-Hop culture has had a significant influence on the global black community and it’s cultural texts are better traveled than most blacks from the country where Hip-Hop arguably was born. In Taiwan this has given birth to false assumptions about how blacks talk and carry themselves.

It’s probably the reason why, when in public with my white girlfriend, many Taiwanese will greet her with “Hello, how are you?”, while I get “Yo wassup, man!” or “Wassup mu’fucka!” Quite often I respond with a wave and a disappointing shake of the head.

True, it’s not as extreme as crotch grabbing and dropping the N-word, but when the swagger and bravado of Hip-Hop music becomes the outline upon which Taiwanese interactions with blacks are predicated, it takes more than a simple mentioning of our musical taste being eclectic beyond Jay-Z and Lil Wayne to set things right. Music matters but it doesn’t write the script for an entire race.

Still, probably the biggest issue I found with the video’s assessment of things Taiwanese don’t know about black people is the handling of black food tastes. I relate to the idea of “soul food,” but I come from an African American household where recipes for greens, yams, fried chicken, cornbread and the like have been swapped and handed down for several generations. I know this food. I love this food. I highly doubt this is the same food found in black households across Latin America or in the Caribbean or anywhere else that’s not the United States of America. Variations certainly exist (many American soul food dishes have their roots in Africa and the West Indies), but black cuisine is far more than what can be seen in the 1997 film Soul Food (a good movie that explains soul food about as much as Boys n the Hood explains malt liquor). During this segment in particular it would’ve been nice to hear from blacks from countries other than the U.S. to provide a better cross-section of black food opinions. How does traditional black food in the U.S. differ from that in South Africa? Soul Food doesn’t actually address this question or anything similar, so sending a bunch of curious Taiwanese netizens to black Hollywood for answers about what us black folks tend to eat probably isn’t the most culturally aware strategy.

For all it faults, the video does make a good point about the constant touching of black hair and questions about how it’s washed. It happens to me so often that I’ve almost ceased waiting for the question to be asked upon meeting Taiwanese for the first time. There’s usually a long pause right after “nice to meet you” in which my hair is curiously examined. This is usually my cue to say “yes, my hair is real, I wash it just like you’d expect and okay, you can touch it.” I can handle this with grace, but like Tiffany, I find it rude that someone would take it upon themselves to fondle my hair without my permission. No complaints from me on this front.

I appreciate Stop Kidding Studio’s efforts to put down the misconceptions many Taiwanese hold about black people, but because of the lack of opportunities for Taiwanese to interact with actual black people (rap videos, internet news reports and movies don’t count), greater care needs to be given in explaining the varied cultural facets of blacks from around the world.

A single voice speaking for an entire village is bound to piss off few neighbors.

Authors Note: Check out S.K.S.’s 台灣人有種族歧視??Taiwanese Are Racists? for related content.

Three Meals: Singapore

Photo: Bigfoto.com

Photo: Bigfoto.com

Singapore. The tiny island nation that could; a mega mash-up of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian influences; a blank canvas of sorts for the ultra wealthy and if you’re there on a lengthy layover, a foodie playground for vagabonds with fat kid tendencies.

When faced with less than 24 hours in Singapore, ditch the shitty must-see list you copy and pasted from Trip Advisor or elsewhere on the interwebs and focus your efforts on working your way through the diverse range of food offerings.

You won’t be able to try everything. There’s too much. Attempting to tackle it all too quickly could result in a mad dash from one district to the other with nothing to show for it besides a destroyed palate the bubble guts.

I scored two long layovers in Singapore on trip to Cambodia last summer (shoutout to Tiger Air) and like a chump, carefully plotted a route through several districts and several of Singapore’s famous hawker centers looking to get bent on shameless gluttony. This of course meant dragging my girlfriend around the island looking for “The Best” of everything, passing up plenty of local dankness along the way. No doubt there were a couple of meals that aren’t worth the digital space I pay WordPress for (shoutout to banana flavored Hi-Chews–BANANA), but once I kicked the idea of seeking out “The Best,” my search got a helluva lot less stressful and the food a helluva lot better.

Rather than jab you with a twenty-bulleted index of food-stuffs to go tramping around Singapore for, here’s three plates that I’d order again if given the chance and that can be found nearly anywhere on the island. Just look for the lines of locals. If everyone in the place looks just like you, chances are you might as well be eating at McDonalds.

Kaya Toast with Eggs

Original photo: Shenghung Lin, CC 2.0

Original Photo: Shenghung Lin, CC 2.0

On appearance, Singapore’s oft touted “national breakfast” looks more like dorm room slop. She may not be the prettiest, but she’ll take care of you in the morning and will most likely be there when your drunk ass comes stumbling onto the food court after a long night out. A healthy spread of kaya (a thick curd of coconut milk, eggs and sugar) sandwiched between crispy crustless toast and paired with two soft boiled eggs seasoned with salt, pepper and a few shakes of soy sauce; it’s straight crack, homes. If Singapore made it illegal, people would still sell it under bridges and in dark alleys. Expats and tourist would ask for it using code names. “Yo, you know where I can score some breakfast bricks and jelly beans?”

Throw in a hot cup of Kopi (coffee, typically served with sweetened condensed milk) and you’re set. I spotted plenty of locals dipping their toast in the egg yokes, but make sure you give the kaya its due respect by enjoying a solo piece.

We found ours at a small hawker center behind the Boon Keng MRT station, but you can get  kaya toast at pretty much any kopitiam (traditional coffee shop/cafe) in Singapore. Some ratchet up the swank more than others, but you should’t pay more than SGP $4.00-4.50 regardless of the establishment.

Wanton Mee (Wanton Noodles)

A cantonese classic gone global, wanton mee has about as many variations as there are countries in East Asia. Eaten as a soup or dry, Hong Kong serves it in steamy fish broth with shrimp and scallions, Thais take it with plenty of chili and sometimes a flick of sugar, Filipinos have a version with mung bean spouts. Similar to Malaysia, Singaporeans tend to serve the wantons in a soup completely separate from the noodles, but in Singapore you might come across a version that includes a thin chili sauce resting in the bottom of the bowl. Almost all are are accompanied with a few slices of char sieu (barbecued pork).

We’re in the middle of a to-eat-or-not-to-eat debate over durian when my girlfriend spots  a stall offering wanton mee just off Sims avenue in Geylang. “Isn’t that on your list?” She knows I already have a specific place in mind for wanton mee, but her tone is clear: drag me to another district for some damn noodles, and you’ll be dining alone.

We sit down and look over the menu options posted in front of the stall. There’s wanton mee dry, wanton mee soup, laksa and steamed pork wantons. I go for the dry and look on as the chef is painfully meticulous in preparing the dish, coating the bottom of the bowl with a deep red chili sauce, ridding the noodles of any moisture by hoisting the straining basket above his head several times before depositing it’s contents into the shallow red puddle along with the char sieu and leafy bits of cai xin. The side of wanton soup was nothing spectacular, but the noodles–in that sauce–crushed it. Enough spice that you’ll need periodic gulps of tea, but not so much that it robs you of the noodles and seared pork. It’ll run you SGP $4.00.

A hundred food blogs will tell you a hundred different places to find wanton mee in Singapore. I’d suggest letting that sexy red chili sauce be your guide. Anywhere you find it is worth sit down.

Claypot Frog and Porridge

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Photo: Kickerjean

 

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Photo: Kickerjean

I can’t knock a person’s reluctance to eat amphibians. I’ll hardly pretend that frogs, or salamanders are somehow more appealing proteins than chicken or pork because, if nothing else, frogs and salamanders have barely enough meat to justify the effort it takes to cook them. It’s for this reason that I couldn’t believe how wildly popular claypot frog is amongst native Singaporeans and and transplants alike. Many offbeat foods rose to delicacy status out of necessity: at some point in the past, due to poverty or famine, (usually both) people started eating weird shit because it was either that or starve. Singapore isn’t necessarily hurting for cash or good cuisine these days–haven’t been for a while, so that people still line up for butchered frog and rice porridge is either testament to how good it is or how far people will go to save a buck.

Adding claypot frog to the list of food to tackle while in Singapore seemed like a good idea in theory as I sat in my living room, in Taiwan, munching on Doritos while hustling the internet for food tips. Look how cultured I am!, I thought, wiping bright orange tortilla dust on the couch pillows. However, when the clay pot was finally placed on the table–right under my nose–it took a solid dose of self coaching, a la trying-everything-at-least-once, before I could take the first spoonful.

Tender bits of bone-in frog meat swirl in a rich, dark soy sauce with green onions and (at least in the spicy version) dried red chilies. I peek at the many tables around us to see how others were eating their frogs. Do I toss a few pieces into the rice porridge and scoop it all out together? Do I go at it bones-in-hand like chicken wings, using the steamy porridge as filler in between bites? should I use chopsticks or a fork? Did that woman just order lemonade?

While similar in taste to dark meat chicken, the texture is closer to what you might expect from clams or mussels. That’s not a slam. I’m game for clams and mussels any day of the week. I had a difficult time, however, convincing myself–despite being solid tasting meal–that all those tiny bones nestled in the pot didn’t matter. Which is to say that I had a difficult time convincing myself the frogs I was eating weren’t the same slimy creatures I used to collect in buckets and store under my bed when I was eight years old. Cultured traveler or not, mind trumped matter on this one.

Would I order claypot frog again? Sure. Would I absolutely crave it next time I’m in Singapore? Probably not. Would I recommend it? Without a doubt. We hit Geylang Lor 9 Fresh Frog Porridge (SGP $8/$16/$22, plus $2-$4 for rice porriage) and had to grab a table at the back of a crowded alley full of diners, but there’s some dispute amongst foodie netizens over rather it’s them or the one of several other places in Geylang that churn out the best frog.

Philippine Omens: Morse Code

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El Nido, Palawan  Photo by Philippine Fly Boy Creative Commons 2.0

El Nido, Palawan
Photo by Philippine Fly Boy Creative Commons 2.0

I’m often amused by the varying standards of airport security around the world.

In the U.S. you could easily find yourself locked in a dimly lit interrogation room with a husky TSA officer for answering your cellphone in the customs line; while in Thailand, the four-inch hunting knife and sandwich bag of valium you forgot about in your carry-on after last month’s bender in Bangkok easily make it aboard your outbound flight to Malaysia.

In Dubai, A dildo tucked into the abyss of your checked luggage might get you put on “the list” while the the nugget of hash your scored in Morocco somehow finds its way back to Wisconsin via the pocket of your cargo shorts. Whoops.

The varying degrees of scrutiny do nothing for me in terms of airport safety, but I appreciate the sense of relief and triumph tied to unknowingly breaking the rules–that feeling you get when you discover the lighter in your camera bag right before take-off or when the flight attendant fails to notice that your iPhone is indeed NOT on airplane mode. Take that, Luthfansa.

This is what I’m thinking as the security official is clawing through my bag In Manila. Supposedly the extendable monopod in my pack has raised suspicion. “Sir, may I check your bag?” He asks as if I have a choice in the matter. I imagine myself saying no and being hauled off–hands bound by zip ties.

He pulls out the camera pole for inspection, checking its heft by swinging it through the air a few times. “Sir, this is not allowed on the plane…” I try to look confused as if I hadn’t already been told this at the airport back in Kaohsiung, where it took ten minutes to first find a box and then have it checked in.

“…but I’ll let you bring it. Your hair is cool, like Bob Marley.”

At first I’m slightly disappointed. There could’ve been anything hidden in that camera pole; a knife, liquid explosives, miniature bottles of vodka. Then I realize this is one of the only positive omens I’ve had on what is surely a final attempt to enjoy a relaxing vacation amongst Palawan’s scattered islands, the first one being that we’re even able to find a flight going to Palawan after so many failed attempts.

Rather fortuitously, the same typhoon that kept us from departing by ferry and grounded the morning flight to Palawan also kept the Tao Expedition vessels from taking to the sea. Should we be able to make it from Puerto Princessa to El Nido by the following morning, the company will allow us to take the tour from the opposite direction and we won’t need to charter a private boat to catch up with the rest of the group.

There’s a shit ton of “ifs” in the equation, but after dealing with an airport security official who likens me to Bob Marley, I like our chances.

After a quick google search, we find a blog that mentions a bus company–Roro–that makes the seven hour trip from Puerto Princesa to El Nido overnight. There’s also mention that during peak season seats tend to sell out fast but neither phone numbers for Roro work so we turn up blindly at the San Jose Bus Terminal, a shoddy looking structure resembling an abandoned fruit market about a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride from the airport. There’s mud everywhere and the electricity is out. Across the road there’s a small food stand serving typical Filipino fare out of varied pots and pans laid out for display on a long candle-lit table. Additional food stands selling pork rinds, bottles of water and beer are tucked in between the terminal boarding gates. I have no doubt that during the day this bus terminal looks like just about any other bus terminal you’d find in small town Southeast Asia, but at eight o’clock at night and with no electricity, it looks more like the perfect place to hold a satanic seance, or maybe snuggle up with a serial rapist.

Along with Roro another bus company–Cherry–also offers the overnight trip to El Nido. There’s seats available on both, but Cherry leaves at nine, an hour earlier than Roro. We purchase tickets from the bus driver and chat with one of the teenage boys milling about the terminal. He mentions that the bus will arrive in El Nido around 4:30 in the morning, but because the the driver and porter won’t be returning until the following night, they’ll allow us to sleep on the bus until we can check-in at the Tao Expeditions office. I float the idea of buying some pot before the bus leaves, but he either doesn’t care to point me in the right direction, or he’s more inclined to discuss my thoughts on the NBA.

“Kobe Bryant is best player, right?”

“Actually Kobe Bryant is old and I hate the Lakers.”

“But he’s best, right?”

“No.”

“So who is best player?”

“Right now? Maybe Lebron James, but I hate Miami.”

“What about Michael Jordan?”

“Michael Jordan doesn’t play anymore.”

“Hmm…So Kobe is best.”

I just about go into a rant about how big-money basketball is depleting the entertainment value of the NBA, but instead ask him where the bathroom is.

Before the bus departs I grab a bag of pork rinds and we board the half-empty bus joined by five or six flip-flopped twenty-somethings from France who I peg as gap year kids on the backpacker circuit. I’d like to say that I wasn’t nervous about being annoyed for seven hours by our French busmates, but experience has taught me that–much like cats–young Frenchman have a tendency to hiss and moan until someone acknowledges their existence, at which point they turn up their tails and tell you to fuck off.

The route from Puerto Princesa to El Nido is best described as morse code: dashes of jaw rattling gravel road dotted with quarter-mile sections of paved asphalt. Throughout the journey I manage to fall asleep during the short paved sections, only to be awaken by a barrage of rocks and dirt bouncing around under the bus as we rip through the gravel sections. Having a full bladder only makes it worse. Three hours into the ride I give up on sleep and hone in my frustrations on the French delegation in the back of the bus loudly discussing matters of who gives a shit.

By four a.m. our bus is making it’s way down the nearly vertical hill that drops into El Nido after dispelling most of the other passengers just outside of town. The sun is starting to come up over the green crusted limestone karsts and we catch a glimpse of the beach before descending into town.

The porter gives a quick demonstration on how to make a small bed out of the bus’s seat cushions and I’m hoping we’ll be able to sleep for a few hours and maybe get some breakfast before checking-in with Tao Expeditions.

Stretched out over the prickly cushions, I don’t know if I’m more relieved about our trip finally coming to fruition, or finally being able to get some sleep.

I’m just about to dose off when the porter–laying atop a mountain of seat cushions–whips out his cellphone and launches into a Christian sing-a-long session comprised of Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” on repeat. Fists clenched, eyes closed, veins protruding from his neck, he belts out every verse and crescendos on the chorus. I sit up to shoot our karaoke comrade a scowl that will convey “shut that shit up,” but he’s too entrenched in the music to notice.

The driver–on his own mound of cushions–is completely passed out, seemingly unaware of the performance happening just a few feet from his face. It gives me the impression that this is a regular occurrence; a religious ceremony perhaps: arrive safely in El Nido or Puerto Princesa and thank the savior above for not allowing the bus to careen off the scantly paved road. For that matter maybe I should be singing as well.

Eventually we’re able to rest for a couple of hours before sauntering into El Nido’s maze of beachside narrow lanes. The town is just waking up and Tao’s office isn’t open yet so we settle into a small restaurant nearby that looks to be recovering from a long night. It’s raining and I’m staring at my corned beef hash over rice, looking up between bites to take in the beach with its stray dogs and rubbish.

After what it took to get here, I’m fully preparing myself to be told that due to unforeseen circumstances, our idyllic boat excursion has been postponed or otherwise cancelled.

*Authors Note: This is part II of a three part series about a two week trip to The Philippines for Chinese New Year. Read Part I here.

Links:

Ironwulf En Route has done a fine job reviewing both Cherry and Roro bus companies that offer service between Puerto Princessa and El Nido.  Tickets can be bought directly from the driver. From the the airport, it will take about 30 min. by tuk-tuk to get to the San Jose bus terminal. Walk just outside the airport gates and haggle for better rates.

Cebu Pacific– apparently lax on security if you have the right hairstyle, they offer regular flights from Manila to Puerto Princessa

Tao Expeditions– Open itinerary, multi-day island tours in Northern Palawan.

K-Town Paparazzi

Photo by Funkypancake CCL 2.0

Photo by Funkypancake CCL 2.0

One of the schools that I work at is next door to a hair salon.  A long while back a co-worker tells me that a stylist at the hair salon saw me in a different part of the city. I tell my co-worker I’m not exactly hard to miss in Kaohsiung and stand there for a moment thinking there’s more to the story. There isn’t; someone saw me somewhere, that person thought my co-worker should know and my co-worker thought I should know.

The whole exchange didn’t make much sense until last week when, after finishing my classes, one of the T.A.s asks me if I have time to stop by the hair salon before I go home for the night.

“They want take picture of your hair.”

I head over and a stylist sits me down in her chair and confusingly eyeballs the small black ropes hanging from my scalp.

She speaks very little English but starts asking me how it’s done.

I grab a tuft of my hair and think of how I might explain dreadlocks in Chinese, but with my limited vocabulary the best I would be able to convey is “head chopsticks,” and I’d probably still screw up the requisite tones. Instead I scribble “dreadlocks” on a piece of paper and tell her to Google it.

Using her cellphone, she begins taking pictures of my hair from every angle imaginable and asks (through the use of Chinese, broken English and hand gestures) what products I use. Not knowing how to convey “organic lock and twist gel” I again consider using my Chinese skills to say something that might vaguely translate to “head glue” before sheepishly pointing to a bottle of shampoo on a nearby shelf.

I get that she probably wants to offer dreadlocks to her clients some day, but I’ve just finished teaching. I’m not really in the mood to explain how it’s done nor why it will take a helluva lot more effort to create the same hairstyle for someone with thinner hair than mine.

I’m just about to leave when she tells me that it was actually her friend who saw me before. The hair stylist knew it was me because of the Facebook message her friend sent with my photo attached. She swipes around on her phone and shows me a grainy zoomed-in photo (a la TMZ) from nearly a year ago of myself and several friends sitting outside a 7-11 drinking beers. I’m not even remotely aware that I’m being photographed.

“Is it strange?” As she asks the question I realize I’m not doing a good job of hiding the stupefied look on my face.

A complete stranger shows you a photo of yourself that looks like it was taken by a stalker? Fuck yes, it’s strange.

I think about it on the way home and it starts to bother me. Isn’t it rude that someone would take an unsuspecting photo of me then share it with someone else as if to say “look what I found?” Wouldn’t it be better to have at least asked my permission first (something that happens frequently) instead of acting like a creepy paparazzo lurking in the shadows of 7-11? Am I being too sensitive?

I’ve since thought that maybe I’m not being fair. The incident was weird and mildly intrusive, but had I not been shown the photo, I would’ve gone about my business ignorant to the fact and thus un-nuanced by it. Effectively, there would be no reason for this blog post.

Thinking about it within the context of unabashed Taiwanese photo glut, one could assume this is business as usual, as many Taiwanese rarely miss an opportunity to whip out their cellphones and click away, regardless of how mundane the subject.

A latte during breakfast–click.
A dog wearing a miniature jacket–click.
Each and every meal consumed at a restaurant–click, click, click.

While I personally question the need to photograph any of the above examples, it doesn’t surprise me when I see others do it. Tis the norm in the R.O.C.

Why then, is it bothersome that someone covertly took a photo of me because of my (scarcely found in Taiwan) appearance? Couldn’t there be a western equivalence of this given the proliferation of a click-share-discuss culture ushered in by Facebook, Instagram, Hipstamatic, Picstich and the like?

A quick scroll through my Instagram posts reveals that I have indeed taken photos of at least five people without their knowledge or consent, but the purpose of these photos is hardly based on a person’s appearance so much as a humorous situation (a toddler riding in a remote controlled miniature sized Audi and a man sleeping next to his scooter) or a t-shirt with a cheeky message printed on it (“COMME des FUCKDOWN”).  Would these be considered on par with my 7-11 portrait?

I’m having a hard time figuring out if this is simply a cultural difference in photo etiquette or if I truly have reason to find fault in what was likely meant as a harmless gesture of curiosity.

Drop a comment below and let me know what you think.

 

Weekend Wanderings: Xiao Liuqiu

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Flower Vase Rock on Xiao Liuqiu

Four-day holiday weekends In Taiwan often mean getting out of the city and finding a nice piece of somewhere to temporarily escape  lesson plans, tests, and cheeky preteens who scoff at the idea of anything being more interesting than K-pop stars and computer games.

For us, this last holiday weekend meant throwing a few things in a bag and loading up my scooter for a trip down to Xiao Liuqiu, a drop of coral island off the southwest coast of Taiwan.

The weather wasn’t perfect, we had yet to eat breakfast and the island was swarming with tourists, but we had a mini cooler, a tent and some snorkel gear. At the very least we could stage a nifty Instagram photo and lie to everyone about having the perfect long weekend on an island paradise.

With a total land mass of just under seven square kilometers, Xiao Liuqiu clearly isn’t the biggest, but it’s the only one of Taiwan’s fourteen islands made completely of coral. Take the twenty-minute ride around the island by scooter and you’ll notice an abundance of cemeteries and solitary grave sites. Apparently island regulations prohibit graves from being in too close to homes so when grandma finally keels over, she’s relegated to a roadside mound to rest in peace. She might also be next to an electric scooter charging station.

We arrive on the island and grab some food then head off to sort out where to sleep for the night. The number of people pouring off the ferry almost certainly means that finding a reasonably priced hotel room will be out of question, but we’d heard that it’s possible–while technically prohibited–to pitch a tent on one of the island’s four beaches.  After meeting  two girls from Tainan who were looking to camp as well, we decide to stash our tent in the brush near Geban Bay and return at sunset to set up camp. The idea being that island officials would be less inclined to boot us off the beach once the sun goes down.

Plenty of tourism websites and blogs will lead you to believe that the attractions on Xiao Liuqiu are “amazing,” “fabulous” and even “captivating.” And why shouldn’t they? Fishing has been on the decline so local islanders have began banking on tourism to make make a living, which means up-selling mediocre (albeit naturally beautiful) highlights:

Black Dwarf Cave
A dark coral crawl space that will make claustrophobics soil their pants; connected to a path the twists between a few boulders and spits you out onto a stairway which leads to a sea facing pavilion. By definition, this may be the only actual “cave” on the island.

Wild Boar Trench
A labyrinth of wooden paths criss crossing a forest of banyan trees and narrow dirt paths that may or may not lead anywhere and several ditch like crevices that I chose not to venture into. It’s a nice place to take a quiet stroll or get some island nookie if you and your boo are feeling frisky. Grab some ice cream across from the entrance when you’re done.

Flower Vase Rock
The symbol of Xiao Liuqiu, Flower Vase Rock looks more like a cheap bouquet of flowers rather than an actual vase. It’s probably among the most crowded places on the island and you might end up fighting for space amongst vacationing families and couples looking to capture the perfect selfie, as well as snorkeling groups donning wet suits and life jackets. I’m not saying the thirty-foot crag isn’t interesting, but I can only be so enthralled by the beauty of sea erosion before my attention is captured by something else, like say, ugly dogs wearing sweater vests.

The list of goes on, but I’ll spare you the details.

Call me picky, but if you come to Xiao Liuqiu for anything, it should be for its snorkeling and the abundance of sea turtles that come to snack on its healthy corals. This was the one thing mentioned by just about every person we asked before deciding to visit ourselves. Doubting that we’d be so lucky as to actually see any turtles, I still made sure to pack my GoPro just in case.

I slip on my fins and hop in the water off ChungAu beach just east of Baisha port. Not anticipating a long swim, I leave the GoPro on the beach and am content with kicking around the corals nearest the shore. Just twenty yards from the beach (and still rather close to where the ferries pull in) , there are plenty of fish and the visibility near perfect.

I return to the beach after fifteen minutes and an expat visiting from Taipei who’d just exited the water asks if I’d seen the turtle swimming just beyond the wave breakers. I tell him no and he points me in the direction of where he and his girlfriend were just swimming, some 30 yards out.

I immediately kick out past the wave breakers, hopeful to catch a glimpse of said turtle and right before I decide to turn back I see the dijon yellow underside of it’s oval shell as it’s scraping for food between two pieces of coral. I let out a “holy shit!” and nearly choke on a mouthful of salt water. I follow it along the coral for ten minutes before spotting another smaller turtle to my right, closer to shore. I decide not to chase the second turtle, opting to float at arm’s length with the first one until it eventually turns and heads out to deeper waters.  Damn my idiotic self to hell for forgetting to bring the GoPro.

That night, the Tainan girls inform us that they also spotted turtles on a different side of the island. Kay and I decide to head out out together the next day. Having stayed on the beach during the first sighting, we’re both anxious for her to catch a glimpse firsthand and I’m hoping to get some quality GoPro footage. We follow the the advice of the Taipei couple and check the waters off the beach at Flower Vase rock (no doubt the tour crowds were amused by the two guide-less foreigners scrambling over coral to safely slip in the water).

We drift east with the current towards the pier before I realize that just below my stomach, a mammoth sized sea turtle more than a meter in length, is feeding on a piece of coral. I stick my head above the surface and yell to Kay and reach for my GoPro.

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

I swim in circles above the creature shooting photos and video before diving closer. It seems unalarmed by our presence and continues its snacking for a few moments before treating us to a swim-along: rising towards the surface and slowly drifting in a circular pattern as if–I shit you not– inviting us follow. Eventually the creature  grows tired of us and begins flapping out to sea.

At this point the recurring thought “holy fucking shit I just swam with a giant sea turtle” is bouncing around in my head and I’m keen on making the journey back towards Flower Vase Rock. Enter turtle number two.

This one is a considerably smaller with a shell that looks as if it’s been painted in hi-def. Not as outgoing as its larger sibling, it’s vigilant of our proximity, but doesn’t shy away from the camera as it rotates a few degrees to its side–fins extended– allowing me to capture a shot of of the mural on its back.

DCIM100GOPRO

Four turtle sightings in not even two days. We spent nearly two weeks in Palawan, Philippines and, while the snorkeling was remarkable, I saw only one turtle at a depth where I could barely make out it’s shape, let alone take any pictures.

The abundance of turtles on Xiao Liuqiu is perhaps a testament to a small but vibrant ecosystem that has remained protected and largely untouched (the island is also home to an inter-tidal zone with an equally diverse range of sea life).

On land Xiao Liuqiu probably won’t make anyone’s year-end list of top island destinations, but as far as it’s waters are concerned, you’d expect to drop a good chunk of loot for the opportunity to gawk a sea turtles in many other parts of Asia. Here it’s available to anyone with access to snorkel gear and a willingness to shimmy over some coral if necessary. 

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Getting to Xioa Liuqiu:
If you’re coming from other parts of Taiwan, you’ll need to make it to either the Kaohsiung Main Train Station or the Kaohsiung International Airport. Both locations have buses that can take you to Dongnag. Once in Dongang, hop a taxi to the ferry pier. Just tell the driver Xioa Liuqiu (chow-lee-oh-choh). A round trip ticket will cost you NT$380. You can rent scooters on the Island just across from the ferry terminal. It will cost an extra NT$100 each way to bring a scooter. More ferry info here.

It takes about an hour to get from Central Kaohsiung to Dongang if you decide to drive. Take highway 17 out of the city and turn right when you see a sign for Dongang Township. Stop in a 7-11 or McDonalds and ask them to point you in the direction for the ferry terminal.

Where to eat:
There are plenty of Taiwanese restaurants around the ferry terminal but don’t expect any of them to be English speaking. A Dui’s Tuna Restaurant is a popular, cheap option that has and English menu. We went for the grilled tuna fried rice and an order of sashimi.  If fish isn’t your thing, they also have standard fried rice dishes and typical Taiwanese veggies. If that still doesn’t do it for you, pop into any place near Baisha Port with a line and utilize the point method of ordering.  If all else fails, grab the microwavable curry bowl at 7-11.

Where to sleep:
Most of the hotels and guesthouses are concentrated around Baisha port. It gets crowded on the weekends, so it always safe to book ahead, but one could still show up a secure lodging if it’s not during a holiday.

For camping there are two campgrounds to choose from(Dreamland and Samaji) or you can be a rebel and pitch a tent on the beach. The north end of Geban Bay (Venice Beach) provides a great sunset, plenty of firewood and nice view of Koahsiung’s skyline. There’s more info on eating and accommodation on the Liuqiu Tourism website.

The Powerful Powerless

Superhero-Kid

There’s a thin veil of power and control when teaching those who don’t share your same native language. Sudents might respectfully listen to what you have to say and maybe they can get the gist it, but inevitably there are times when the inability to articulate instructions in an understood manner results in mutiny: the students can’t understand you so they do what they want or nothing at all. This thin veneer of pedagogical influence is even more frail when dealing with toddlers and preschoolers– those cute uncalibrated snot buckets that I liken to miniature uncalibrated robots.

When hiring for teachers of young learners, many buxibans in Taiwan will ask about classroom management skills. This, I feel, is pointless. It’s easy enough to offer up some bullshit about a foul-proof method you’ve contrived to control thirty or so Taiwanese 5-year-olds whose English proficiency stretches little beyond  “Hello how are you? I’m fine, thank you,” but a more honest response might involve explaining how you plan to make an example of the first student who cuts up, no matter how minute the infraction. Answer a question without first raising your hand? Minus 100 stickers. You might send a kid home in tears (it took him all semester to earn those stickers), but the message–this teacher is not to be fucked with– will resonate with the rest of the class, and if you’re lucky, the entire student body.

Regardless of any class management method you employ, at a certain point the kids are so young and the language gap is so wide, that asking a non-Chinese speaking foreigner to brave such a classroom alone is about as useful for teaching English as plopping a group of students down in front of a stereo and cranking up The Very Best of 2 Live Crew.

I teach a very young group of students –we’ll call them the Tangerine class–and luckily I have a Taiwanese co-teacher to help heard them around and fill the lingual gaps during my 2-hour lessons. Eighty percent of the reason I’m able to teach anything is because of her. Among the twelve or so students that I see daily she is both a source for love and trepidation. They turn to her when they’re hurt and cower in front of her when they’ve done something wrong.  Her pet peeves are like draconian laws for preschoolers. Run a foul with her and you run the risk of being taken into the bathroom for “readjustment.” Every kid that enters returns teary eyed.

While my co-teacher is in the room the kids are as responsive and well behaved as you’d hope any preschool class of ESl learners would be. There’s always a few laggards, but my instructions are more or less followed and when I need to bring the class back to attention I can usually do so without strain. That’s when she’s in the room.

Believe me when I tell you that if my co-teacher is absent I’m vulnerable to student rebellion.

Eyes watching.
Ears listening.
Mouth quiet.
Hands nicely.

These are the classroom commands that are most effective on a good day. Beyond that, I got nothing. I know it. The students know it. After five minutes solo they begin testing the limits of my patience: the defiant nose picking, sprawling out on the floor, eating pocket lint. At twenty minutes I’m left shouting the same commands that ceased being useful ten minutes ago.  Eyes watching, ears listening…

Not all is lost, however. They comprehend and execute “put your book away” with lightning efficiency.

Some teachers employ “the look,” that stern face of dissatisfaction meant to scare students into compliance. With the Tangerines, there’s not a shred of logic behind this tactic. They only understand maybe thirty percent of what I say anyways. Instead of the “look” being synonymous with “Teacher Jeremy is serious,” they interpret it as “please keep screaming at the top of your lungs and continue playing with your saliva.” Maybe it’s a cultural thing.

As young as they are, the students are keen enough to understand that the control I wield over them is easily circumvented due to my lack of Chinese and their lack of English.  They agree that as a teacher I have at least a morsel of authoritative power, but beyond that I’m just the facilitator of  English games who is to be repeatedly contested or ignored in the absence of their more fearful lao sieuh.  The Tomatoes’ perception of me is similar to my perception of any substitute teacher I encountered in the seventh grade: You’re not my REAL teacher hence any interest I show in what you’re doing or saying is provided as a courtesy at best. Unless, of course, I start shilling out candy and Sponge Bob stickers.

Before leaning to ask permission to use the bathroom some of my students would get up in the middle of class and stare me down as they trudged slowly to the toilet, ignoring my every protest which helplessly morph from demands (“Kate,  you need to sit down.”), to denial (“Kate, you can’t just get up in the middle of class…”), before finally, acceptance (“Yes, Kate. You may go to the bathroom.”).

With each act of defiance the class grows bolder; my grip on the throne–looser.

This is often accelerated by attention spans that pitter out after about seven seconds. A microscopic dust mite crawling across the floor has the ability to derail a lesson at not even a moment’s notice. Again when my co-teacher is around I have no struggles in getting them refocused. If she’s gone however, and a few students decide to take a mental break (perhaps to admire the wrinkles on their knuckles), it might take ten minutes to get them back on course.

By then it’s snack time and they’ll have successfully orchestrated a thirty minute break from the strange looking teacher whom they can barely understand.

Alas, the struggle continues tomorrow and I’m nearly out of candy and stickers.

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?

Weekend Wanderings: Green Island

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Photo by author

Taiwan does a good job of providing an abundance of places for quick weekend excursions and with the heat and humidity beginning to set in on Kaohsiung, we recently jumped at the opportunity to join some friends on a trip to Taiwan’s Green Island.

The small speck of an island, located about 19 miles east of Taitung in southern Taiwan, is a popular diving and resort destination for those within the country, but is rarely mentioned as a “must visit” among other travelers in the region. It would be a rare sight, for example, to see a hoard of Aussie backpackers slamming beers on the ferry deck in route to Green Island’s Nanliao harbor.

Still when our group of five showed up there were plenty of Taiwanese tour groups moving about in scooter herds and crowding the souvenir shops.

For us, the trip brought welcomed respite from the Kaohsiung smog and an opportunity to see some more of Taiwan’s fabled coastline. The island itself–a stunning mixture of lush vegetation, crushed coral beaches and jagged volcanic mountains–seems much to0 pristine of a setting to have ever been home to a brutal political prison.

We planned to grab a few scooters as our transport for the weekend, but a recent fatal crash involving two foreigners on the island prompted scooter rental companies to change their policy, renting only to those with Taiwanese drivers licences–frustrating, but understandable.

Instead we settled on the option of bicycles. Sadly I was quite disappointed with the quality of the rides we were given. Had they been bicycles properly suited for the terrain, circumnavigating the island–and all her seaside cliffs–would’ve been a welcomed challenge. Instead I found myself dreading the trips we made from our campsite into town and back again, pretty much ensuring that an attempt at cycling around the island would not be made (big shout-out to Nomad Notions author Jenna Longoria and her boyfriend Dominic for accepting the challenge and succeeding).

We were able to set up camp on the southern tip of the island, on a bluff just above the island’s famous hot springs, about 100 yards from a scenic lookout post. I’m not entirely sure if camping here is even permissible, but the official camping grounds were closed due to renovation and the small herd of goats grazing nearby weren’t noticeably bothered so we claimed it as our own for the night, taking taking note of the goat shit scattered around the site.

Among all the things to do in Green Island, I was probably most interested in visiting the Zhahori salt water hot springs–one of only three in the world.

There’s five or six pools that range from chilled to steamy and you can grab a basket to put your belongings in while you take a dip. We changed in our tents, but there’s locker rooms with showers on the premises as well.

As is the norm we attracted a few stares but many others couldn’t have cared less about about our presence. Before we could take the plunge, however, we were quickly informed that we would need to wear swimming caps if we wanted to enter the main pools. Should we not want to wear  swimming caps, we would only be able to sit in the pools closer to the beach. The only noticeable difference besides the location was that the two pools near the beach were essentially dead coral tide pools ringed with cement barriers that have the warm spring water piped-in. Fair enough.

None of us were in the mood to purchase a swimming cap so we headed towards the beach and joined two Taiwanese guys already there. The water wasn’t as hot as I wanted but still relaxing and whereas were were told we couldn’t have beverages at the pools requiring swimming caps; here we’re able to knock down a couple of beers in peace–at least until one of the attendants began glaring at us and grabbed his walkie-talkie. I have no idea what he said to the person on the other end, but we clearly heard him mention “weiguoren” (foreigner). The jig was up.

We returned to the the other pools and wrapped our heads with towels and sarongs, satisfying the swimming cap rule. The sight–I’m sure–did little to combat the “crazy foreigner” stereotype (Kay looked like the Chiquita Banana lady) but none of us cared as we were finally allowed to enter the other pools. I went for hottest available and followed the example set buy an elderly Taiwanese woman–lapping water onto my neck and shoulders. I somehow felt this was the more therapeutic way to enjoy the hot spring. I added to the strategy by sipping wine out of a paper cup every so often. I would go on to try out all but the coldest of the springs before rain sent us scurrying back to the tents.

It should be mentioned that there’s nowhere near the hot springs where one can easily take a swim in the ocean. Nearby Dabaisha beach is one of main spots for snorkeling and diving, but is also ill suited to take a dip due to dead coral. From the road I could see a few people swimming off a small strip of beach just south of Nanliao village, but never went down to explore further. I’ve also read that the eastern side of the island has beaches where one can easily access the water.

In terms of eating, there seemed to be plenty of places in Nanliao village, near the harbor, but on our visit there were a lot of people who were contently eating at 7-11. We took the recommendation of another visitor and ate at a restaurant on the main strip. Among other things on the menu they offered rice and noodle dishes with venison (deer meat). So far as I know there’s not many many places to try venison in Taiwan so we decided to give it a go. A plate of the venison with noodles, some sashimi and a bit of sautéed cabbage did us well and was cheap enough that I could’ve ordered another dish and not felt guilty.

On a return trip to Green Island I think I’d prefer to have a scooter to throughly explore the whole of it, but I still enjoyed taking in the views and soaking in the hot springs. Our small second-hand tent did well to combat the light rain, but suffered two broken tent poles from battling the wind. Rain on the last day left us soggy on the ferry ride back to Taitung, but the weather more or less cooperated other than that. I won’t count it as a complete success being that we were limited in what we were able to do, but it held it’s own in terms of a quick weekend getaway.

Enough said.

*You can get to Green Island via Taitung. From Kaohsiung it takes about 3 hours by train, after which you will need to make your way to Fukang Harbor (easiest by taxi NT 150-200) and hop the 50 min ferry to the island (between NT 800-900 round-trip).

*Update: a taxi ride from Taitung station will be closer to NT 300-350. I previously posted the price at NT 150-200.

If you decide to camp at the designated campground it will run you NT 400 a person.

Entrance to the hot springs is NT 200 plus the cost of a swimming cap, should you decide to buy one. Avoid the crowds by going during the early morning or doing the day.

Rental scooters can be had for NT 300-400 per day, but you’ll need a Taiwanese scooter license. Should you choose to rent bicycles (not recommended) they’ll set you back NT 150 per day.