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.

 

Advertisements

Weekend Wanderings: Xiao Liuqiu

flowervaserock

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. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

What the Duck?

photo

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

Featured

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.

DSC_1318

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.

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

IMG_1114

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:

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 3.13.38 PM

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…

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 3.02.18 PM

while others are undoubtedly confusing:

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 3.16.33 PM

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.

IMG_1108

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.

IMG_1109

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.

IMG_1153

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

K.I.F.F. a “Delicious Success”

DSC_1183

These last few days have been rough.

Not only did I have a severe case of F-U-Mondays, but the recovery from my food bender last weekend has taken longer than originally anticipated.

I’ve never been a shining model of self-restraint–even less so when it comes to food, but all hell breaks loose when you subject me to a smorgasbord of culinary crack like what was found at the Kaohsiung International Food Festival.

Please take a moment to back-hand yourself if you missed it. DSC_1049

I had doubts about the chosen venue, but the Dream Mall worked well, allowing attendees to move though a corridor of food booths before being deposited in front of the main stage or along the side of it pass through and exit the festival altogether.

When we arrived Sunday afternoon I quickly went about the business of snacking on all there was to offer–successfully knocking off Taco Rico’s yellow corn soft shell tacos, roasted pork knuckle and sauerkraut from Deutsche Kuche and New Zealand hard cider from Sarkii alcohol importers. I then moved on to The Bayou’s catfish tacos, and a tasty Portugese egg tart compliments of Cafe de Macau. As promised, most of the food was priced to sell so wallet guilt was nil.

Haxstrong founder Greg Haxton

Haxstrong founder Greg Haxton

The Haxtrong charity crew was also out in full force selling raffle tickets, T-shirts, brownies, banana bread and other goodies to help further their much needed cause, and judging by the constant swarm of people around their booth I’d say their efforts didn’t go unnoticed.

Kaohsiung’s reigning burger champ The Eatery was de-throned by Foster Hewitt’s Pub and Grill for Best Burger accolades and The Bayou took the Best Pizza title, but my personal congrats go to the brave folks that entered into the Burger Eating contest.

Three 2-person teams spent thirty minutes trying to consume a 6-pound burger appropriately named “The Hulk.”

Why anyone would volunteer for such a task is beyond me as I’m sure there are health risks involved in consuming that much meat in one sitting, but I rather enjoyed being a spectator and snapping photos of a scene that looked like something out of The Walking Dead.

At the 15 minute mark the contestants were looking sluggish and I became increasingly concerned about whether or not I was in range of a potential projectile vomit barrage. The foreigner squad was well ahead of the two Taiwanese teams but I still gleefully cheered on, urging them to take one more bite to honor their respective countries.

KIFF Burger Eating Competition.

KIFF Burger Eating Competition.

When it all ended the stage looked like a lamb slaughter had just taken place and the six lethargic contestants smiled at the crowd with ketchup stained lips. The winners were given a couple gift cards, a plaque commemorating their victory and a liter of Coca-Cola.

Feeling inspired, I headed back over to the food booths to see what was left to sample.

Round two included a bratwurst from Cory’s Kitchen, more hard cider and several spoonfuls of frozen yogurt from Hello Berry. I flirted with a bite size sample of panzerotti at the Lulu John booth, but gave the full sized portion a miss in hopes of saving room for St. Louis style ribs from Blue Smoque BBQ. Sadly I had to throw in the towel. Vetti Vetti Vicci.

The food gave way to music towards the end of the night and those who weren’t too stuffed hung out and did their best to provide the bands with a dance crowd. By then my stomach was too full for me to do anything more that sway and bob my head, but I stuck around to hear K-Town’s much loved Liger Attack.

Kudos to Ryan Parsons and the participating vendors for putting together an event that everyone can boast about. I was pleased to see a healthy mixture of foreigners and local Taiwanese vying for positon in the food lines. Perhaps an added benefit to events like KIFF is that they help illustrate how diverse the foreign community is while dispelling the myth that we’re all a bunch of loud drunkards looking to get laid.

When I asked Ryan about next year’s festival he rattled off his process for figuring our how to make it even better.

One suggestion: cots and pillows for the gastro-inebriated.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Peace.

2nd Annual Kaohsiung International Food Festival 3/23-3/24

Image courtesy of the Kaohsiung International Food Festival

I don’t usually need a reason to gorge myself on international cuisine being that I tend to sample any and everything that catches my senses, but this weekend presents a unique exception.

The 2nd annual Kaohsiung International Food Festival kicks-off this Saturday and will offer ample opportunity to stuff your face with foreign goodies from Kaohsiung’s expat chefs. Expect to see less stinky tofu and more smoked ribs and levercase.

Around 30 restaurants and food vendors from 19 different countries will be showcasing their fare throughout the weekend and several will be competing for Best Pizza and Best Burger titles. Festival goers can also flex their skills in several competitions including the Waiguoren Wok Challenge (foreigners cooking Taiwanese food for a panel of Taiwanese judges) and an air guitar competition benefiting local charity, Haxstrong.

Besides the food there will be a DJ ad several local bands on deck to help deal with “The Itis” (AKA food coma) and an MC will floating around interviewing participants and helping to move the event along smoothly.

The festival is being put on by Event Chairman and Kaohsiung veteran Ryan Parsons who was able to field a few questions about this year’s KIFF and the festival’s origins:

DT: How long have you been in Kaohsiung?

RP: On and off since 2000.  I arrived the day Chen Shui-bien got elected and the country was going crazy!  It calmed down the next day but I thought it would be that hysterical all the time. 

DT: What are a few things that you’ve seen change since you arrived?

RP: The city isn’t even close to what is was like in 2000.  The government has (since) funded city projects that have truly made Kaohsiung a city of the future.  The international community was non – existent when I arrived and now we have the largest international food festival on the island that is completely run from top to bottom by the expat community.

DT: How did the idea come about to put together a food festival in Kaohsiung?

RP: When I used to have restaurants what I loved most was sharing my culture’s food with the locals in the same way they get excited about sharing their local cuisine with us (foreigners).  As the international community increased in size so did the restaurants opening to serve them.  Its been a project of mine for 4 years and I’m blessed to have such great foreign restaurants to be able to make it a possibility. 

DT: Can we expect to see Taiwanese food vendors as well?

RP: The Taiwanese have so many unique and fantastic festivals and markets. It’s our turn to serve them and treat them to a weekend of our food, music and culture.  Thank you for making us feel at home, Taiwan!

DT: What’s included in this year’s KIFF that wasn’t a part of the festival last year?

RP: The Waiguoren Wok competition, Kaohsiung’s Best Pizza competition, Latin dancing lessons, (food) demonstration and interactive video tents, A Bourbon Street bar and stage, more food and drink and a wider array of music and activities.

DT: One thing the absolutely MUST be sampled at this year’s KIFF?

RP: With prices starting at $60 NT we’ve made it possible to sample everything, though you may have to come both days.

Ryan graciously dodged plugging any specific vendor on that last one, but I’ll personally be seeking out Deutsche Kuche’s Bavarian roasted pork knuckle, and Mama Africa’s roti.

Keep in mind that this is a green event and everyone is encouraged to bring their own plate and utensils or else borrow them from the KIFF information desk.

The festival takes place at the Kaohsiung Dream Mall (look for the dubious ferris wheel on the roof).
Sat. 3/23 12 pm-9 pm
Sun. 3/24 12 pm-7 pm

Be sure to check out the KIFF website for updates, full menu and entertainment listings and vendor & sponsor info.

Peace.

 

 

Bang Bang–(Surviving)The Yanshui Fireworks Festival

DSC_1139

It’s Saturday night and we have our friends Simon and Tina over for dinner. In between bites of tacos we’re discusing our plans for the rest of the weekend. I have to turn down Simon’s invitation to a pick-up game of ultimate frisbee on Sunday because Kay and I have made tentative plans with some other friends to visit a town north of Kaohsiung in search of a fireworks festival. Tina says she’s been to the festival before, but that she probably doesn’t need to do it again. She also tells us that if we go we’ll need to wear motocycle helmets.

“What for?” I ask. I’d heard very little about the festival and was putting off doing a web search until I knew for sure that we were going, but  certainly didn’t anticipate needing a helmet to attend.

“For protection against the fireworks,” says Tina.

Now I’m confused and thinking about all my previous firework  experiences: numerous Fourth of July celebrations, carnivals, the Minnesota State Fair, the Busan International Fireworks Festival in Korea. I don’t recall needing protective head gear for any of them.

Maybe the Taiwanese have different, more sinister versions of fireworks than what I’m used to. Maybe the festival is a town-wide Roaming Candle war pitting visitors and tourist against the locals. Maybe “fireworks” is an incorrect English translation and the meaning is closer to “gunpowder” or “dynamite.” Who wouldn’t want to visit a Taiwanese dynamite festival?

The next day I do a quick web search and discover that every year on the 15th day after Chinese New Year visitors flock to the town of Yanshui to be repeatedly shot by hundreds of bottle rockets.

The Yanshui Fireworks Festival (widely considered to be one of the most dangerous festivals in the world) stems from a cholera outnreak  in the late 19th century that nearly wiped the small town out. The citizens of Yanshui called upon the Chinese god of war, Guan Dong (also called Guan Di) to help fight the the disease by carrying his statue around town on a palanquin while shooting off  fireworks every step of the way. The epidemic receded and the locals have been paying homage ever since by annually reenacting the pyrotechnic exorcism.

The highlight of the festival revolves around the sporadic lighting of “beehives” –large structures built with wood or steel, laden with thousands of bottle rockets connected to a single intertwined fuse. Once lit, rockets fire in all directions and festival goers donned in motorcycle helmets and coveralls gather around and allow themselves to be pelted.

Positioning the beehive.

Positioning the beehive.

Kay and I decide to visit the festival with some friends, but opt out of being bombarded with fireworks. In fact, of the four people in our group only our friend Jenna (author of the blog Nomad Notions) is brave enough to join the rocket fodder. We hop a train to Tainan City then continue by taxi to Yanshui. We don’t make it more than 5 feet out the car before  hearing the rumble of fireworks in the distance.

The streets are lined with food vendors and local shops have tables set up with scooter helmets, gloves, safety glasses and other rocket protection gear for sale. the air smells like rotten eggs and the entire town is under a heavy blanket of smoke. Dim pulsating lights can be seen flickering through the smoke overhead and groups of people wearing matching coveralls with burn stains are roaming around–no doubt in search of the next beehive explosion.

DSC_1174

We stroll towards the center of town stopping sporadically to sample street food and buy beer. There’s not a lot to do for those uninterested in pyromania, but families still gather for photo ops near a creek littered with glowing ornaments of different sizes, and to send  the occasional prayer lantern floating into the sky. It’s been about two hours since we arrived and we still have yet to witness the lighting of a beehive. We’d gotten word that a large one was set to go off at 10pm, but when that was pushed to 11 (and later, 11:30) we followed others who claimed to have knowledge of one being lit a few blocks away.

Anticipation mounts as the large contraption is rolled into the middle of the street and a fellow who’d clearly been chewing betel-nut all night encourages all the foreigners who want to get blasted by the bottle rockets to be doused with water beforehand to avoid their clothes catching fire. As with many small towns in Asia, the large group of foreigners draw a lot of attention and many of the locals are taking pictures with several expats who have added themes to their protective gear (big shout-out to Captain America).

Waiting for the Beehive to be lit.

Waiting for the Beehive to be lit.

DSC_1089

Participants have water sprayed on them to avoid catching fire.

I snap as many photos as I can then retreat to what Kay and I think is a safe  distance–20-30 yards from the beehive, behind a parked car. They parade the palanquin of Guan Dong around the premises and the crowd quiets as the fuse is lit.

When it starts the first few shoot straight up into the air and rain down sparks onto the entire scene. Then row after row of the rockets fire directly into the crowd, causing those in the front to dance and turn away in an attempt to dampen the force of the barrage. As the fuse travels through the frame the smoke thickens and only long streaks of light left in the wake of the rockets are clearly noticeable. None of them have shot in our direction yet so I rise from the hiding spot (fully exposing my head) to take some photos. By now everyone close to the beehive is hopping around trying to cover the more sensitive areas of their bodies and the entire street looks like an astronaut rave in the middle of a meteor shower.

I whip out my iPhone and begin recording video hoping not to catch a bottle rocket to the face, and a Taiwanese gentleman appears at my side gesturing for me to follow him to a better vantage point. I crouch down and scurry behind him, feeling like a solider scrambling into a foxhole for cover. As he ushers me into a nearby tent (turns out it’s the same tent where they were storing the beehive) two rockets go off near my head and I give up on the recording. I’m way too close. 

 Luckily I end up next to a couple who have gotten ahold of some cardboard and together we hunker down behind it.  After a few minutes the barrage of rockets shifts to a different direction and I’m able to make my way back to the previous shelter behind the car. It’s been ten minutes since they lit the damn thing and it’s still going strong. Some people emerge from the crowd to take a breather and bat out the flames on their clothes before retuning to the onslaught.

When it’s finally over we emerge from our shelter and search for Jenna and some other friends to inspect for injuries. There’s a few burn holes and a mangled umbrella, but no one is hurt and everyone is wearing a wide grin. Beers are drank and we take some time to enjoy the fireworks that are being shot overhead instead of into the crowd.

DSC_1160

Captain America took one for the team.

We watch a couple more beehives explode (one made to look like Sponge Bob and the other shaped like a tea pot) before calling it a night and heading back to Kaohsiung. It’s 1 a.m. but some people are just arriving as the festivities will continue until 4. I’m secure in my decision not to join in on the action, but pledge to partake next year. It’ll be two hours before we make it back home–plenty of time for my ears to stop ringing.

Peace

*Author’s note: If you’d like to read about Jenna’s recount of her experiences on the front lines, you can do so here.

The Search Continues

The last few weeks have brought about a lot of change. Kay and I were able to move out of our temporary housing into a spacious two-bedroom apartment that we both enjoy, we were able to set up internet service (though it wasn’t installed until after Chinese New Year) and we survived copious amounts of time spent at Ikea Carrefore, and the ever helpful Daiso (Japan’s take on the dollar store).

Life in Kaohsiung is slowly creeping toward normalcy except for–despite my sincerest efforts–I haven’t been able to find a teaching gig.

I was more than happy to suspend my job hunt during Chinese New Year. All  schools closed up so that employees could enjoy the holiday and join the hoards of Taiwanese traveling around the island and crowding every shopping mall, movie theater and any other public space to celebrate the year of the snake. Besides taking a break from canvasing the city for job leads, I took advantage of the CNY sales. A family pack of toilet paper was going for less than two bucks.

But now that the holiday is over I’ve returned to my daily routine of searching expat forums and cold-emailing potential schools hoping to find one that is in need of a teacher. I’m kicking myself (a little) because a school that I previously did a lesson demo for called me back; not to offer me a job, but to allow me to provide a second hour-long demo. I turned the “opportunity” down mainly because the atmosphere seemed frantic, with teachers scrambling to prepare for their lessons in between sips of tea. Also there’s a good chance that most of my hours would have fell on a Saturday with the rest being scattered throughout the week. I’m not against working on Saturdays, but a six-day work week isn’t for me.

Other potential job leads include a single conversation before the holiday with a recruiter from one of the bigger chain schools. She sounded confident that she could help me out after Chinese New Year and told me she would email some info regarding the position, but I have yet to hear back from her and all my efforts to contact her have been unsuccessful. I’m beginning to think I’m annoying her somehow. I’ve also walked into schools and handed them my resume with a smile. Maybe there’s a postion about that’s about to open up; if so I’d like to be considered for it. Today I called a school that I recently left a resume at and the manager couldn’t remember if she took a look at it or not. She took my number and promised to get back to me.

Some teachers I’ve talked to have claimed my lack of success with landing a job is because I’m black (one woman all but told me to give up) and employers are nervous about hiring people of color because they don’t want to agitate parents who would rather see their kids taught but someone with less melanin. I did some research on this before I came to Taiwan and found that while it may be true that some cram schools are partial to non-whites, there are still plenty of blacks from all over the English speaking world teaching in Taiwan and enjoying it. I’d be taking the defeatist approach if I were let this deter me from seeking employment at any school, rather it be a small mom-&-pop Buxiban or one of the bigger chain schools.

With frustration mounting, I’m curious as to how others–either here in Kaohsiung or elsewhere in Taiwan–have gone about finding gigs. Subbing is fine to gain some quick cash, but it doesn’t provide an ARC and making visa runs every few months is not a habit I’m looking to get into. I understand the time of  year matters a lot and that lately there are more teachers than jobs available, but I’d still like to hear how those currently employed went about finding their teaching job, particularly when they first arrived. The tips could prove helpful to other newbies like myself.

Peace

Formosa First Impressions: Kaohsiung

Kaohsiung

There are plenty of cities on this planet that suck and make you vow never to see them again after the first date. There are plenty of cities that suck less once you get to know them a bit and allow them to soothe you into a bittersweet commitment (I’m talking to you, Ko Pha- Ngan). Yeah you might date for a while, but you don’t tell your friends about it. Then there are cities that you plunge into head first and are quickly wooed into a long-term love affair after only a few days together. Suddenly that other hot city you promised never to cheat on is long forgotten and you find yourself making direct comparisons between the two in order to justify the money you’re about to spend going exclusive. Yeah that other place had sexy beaches, but the food this city churns out makes my mouth water from the smell alone. You feel the burn of guilt for a little while, but only until your work visa arrives.

For me Kaohsiung is one of those “love affair” cities. Hanging out on the southwest coast of Taiwan and facing the Taiwan straight, it’s home to about 3 million and receives less rainfall than most other cities in Taiwan–and ideal location to set up shop. Insert me.

It had been 4 days and we’d had about as much rain as we could take in Taipei (not to mention the steep hostel rates) so we decide hop a bus south hoping to find sunshine in Kaohsiung. Luckily we secure a host on Couchsurfing willing to put us up short-term while we search for either more hosts or paid accommodation. We moan about the possibility of paying week-to-week hostel prices, but are prepared to shoulder the costs if need be. After 5 hours we arrive a begin the task of finding our host’s apartment. We make it to within one block of the place, but still manage to spend 45 minutes stranded in confusion, looking for an “orangey looking” building with a semi-circle driveway. It took a troop of Taiwanees women on their way to dinner and a friendly security guard to help us find a building that was not more than 60 yards away from where we stood.

This is where the love affair with Kaohsiung begins to take hold; not from her sunshine or wide boulevards or quirky coffee shops, but from the wealth of generosity her residents (expat and otherwise) bestow upon us newbies.

Our host–we’ll call him Catlard–couldn’t have been a better person to meet just arriving in the city. He offers us a place to crash, shows us around the neighborhood, takes us us out to breakfast, gives us a quick Chinese numbers lesson and sets us up with a pre-paid phone(this is in addition to teaching me poker, something I’m still horrible at). He also introduces us to a few of his friends who are equally helpful in answering questions about the teaching market and providing possible avenues for finding work. You’re the man, Catlard! I try to return the favor(s) by teaching him how to Moonwalk, but somehow I don’t think it compares: He lets us sleep on his living room floor. I teach him the signature dance move of a deceased, loony, mega pop-star. You be the judge.  After 4 nights, Kay and I find a cheap room to rent in central Kaohsiung (from another awesome expat) set about making it the base of operations for finding teaching gigs.

We’re not there 2 nights before meeting yet another friend who tips us off on an teaching position opening up nearby. Within a day Kay is able to secure an interview, and as I type, she’s probably finishing up a lesson demo. Time will tell if it all works out. Meanwhile I’m still in the hunt.

After canvasing some well known teaching websites I head out and get lost while searching for a school I heard is hiring. I pass a mega-department store boasting every designer brand from Gucci to Ferragamo (after walking 3 blocks in the wrong direction) and enjoy the feeling of not really being noticed. I’m sure I stick out in every way possible, yet  no one seems to care. I stroll past small shops and restaurants, a dental clinic and an European looking round-a-bout and no one bats an eye at my presence or tries to fondle my odd looking hair (which happend all the time in Korea). I find the school I’m looking for and am greeted with a look of confusion as I tell the receptionist that I would like to drop off my resume.

“May I ask what country you are from?”

The question doesn’t come as a surprise. Unfortunately there just aren’t enough black Americans/Canadians/South Africans traveling about Taiwan to justify her assuming I’m from an English speaking country. Fair enough. I tell her I’m from the U.S. and she nods in approval and accepts my resume, promising to submit it to the director of the school. Being that this is my first morsel of a job opportunity, I leave feeling like I’ve already got the job.

On the way back I cut past Kaohsiung’s central park. It’s rush hour. People are walking their dogs, middle schoolers frolic and flirt at a busstop an old man rests on a bench sipping a liquor bottle filled with a mysterious green tonic. It’s getting dark and the city begins to put on her make-up of neon lights and flashing billboards. You’re a fly gal and your friends are pretty nice, Kaohsiung. We should hang out for a while.

Peace,

Jay