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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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.

Eat This: Rice Stuffed Chicken Wings (飯飯雞翅)

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Photo By Kickerjean

Photo By Kickerjean

Sun Moon Lake did very little for me during a short visit last year. Its campground should probably be relocated, a cable car ride to the mountain above the lake wasn’t an option due to crappy weather, I’m not really enticed by butterfly gardens and frilly mountain-top theme parks are, well, creepy. Swimming is not permitted (aside from the annual 10,000 People Sun Moon Lake Traverse) so many visitors opt to take a boat tour or hit up the lakeside hiking/biking trails.

Because of almost constant rain, we were more or less relegated to either visiting the several temples peppered around the lake (yawn) or browsing around the shops and food stalls in Itashao (伊达邵) and Shueishe (水社) villages. We chose the latter, which amounted to buying a slightly perverted phallic-themed keychain and discovering this awesomeness:

Photo used with permission by Fob

Photo used with permission by Fob

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take a grilled chicken wing, get rid of the bones, jam pack it with seasoned sticky rice, garnish with scallions and red onions and sell it for $NT 60 (not even two bucks).

Yes, please. And thank you.

I’ve since run into these rice stuffed wings (饭饭鸡翅) at night markets around Taiwan, but none have held up to the standard found in Itashao village. Probably because the stall in Itashao uses proper sticky rice (a favorite among Taiwan’s aboriginals) whereas other places use white rice.

There wasn’t much of a line when when we visited, but a row of photos in front of the stall suggests that whoever is involved with this version of the dish is a big deal.

Photo by Kickerjean

Photo by Kickerjean

Find the stall on the main road heading towards the pier in Itashao village, among the other food stalls and knick-knack shops.

Philippine Omens

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Photo by John McGarvey. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic

The majority of my experience with bad omens comes almost entirely from watching sports: A bad play occurs early on or at some pivotal point in the game foreshadowing the impeding demise of my team. Given the amount of sports I watch you’d think that I’d be adept to spotting bad omens when they occur in travel.

Like when a Philippine Airline Express representative–kind as she is–informs my girlfriend and I over Skype that our flight from Cebu to Coron has been cancelled. It would be nice to have the foresight to recognize what will be the first of many hiccups to occur during our two week stay in the Philippines. At least then I could mentally prepare myself and pack extra ibuprofen.

Instead the omen slips past me and I’m left with the obvious and irrelevant question: why?

The Airline has cancelled the flight because they’ve decided to cancel the route.

Why?

Who fucking knows.

What’s for certain is that PAL Express can get us to just about anywhere in The Philippines except the one place we’d like to get to for a Chinese New Year vacation of island hopping around Palawan Province. They also inform us that for a refund, we’ll need to print out a form and submit it in-person to a PAL Express service counter in the Philippines.

“Uh…we live in Taiwan.”

Hunched over my MacBook in the living room, I resist the urge to throw a profanity tantrum while my girlfriend calmly explains that this is unacceptable while taking down an email address to forward our unresolved complaints. As is the norm when dealing with budget airlines: money very easily slides into the pocket; getting it out is much more difficult. Nonetheless we need a book alternative transportation if we plan to make it to Coron Town in time to depart for the multi-day sailing tour we’ve booked with Tao Expeditions. Alas, all flights are full–another omen that I fail to recognize.

Plan B involves a 14-hour ferry from Manila that will put us in Coron Town two hours before our tour is set to depart. So long as the ferry is on time, we’ll make it. Otherwise we’ll have to charter a private boat to catch up with the rest of the group. We email Tao and ask about the ferry’s punctuality and they tell us it’s dependable and will get us there in time for departure.

We turn up at the ferry port in Manila with two stacks of required documents, check in, clear security and are ushered into a large waiting area resembling an airplane hangar, joining the other haggard passengers, most of whom who look slightly constipated and like they could spontaneously combust at any moment. The look of people who have been in the same enclosed area for too long. Upon sitting down I hear the disgruntled complaints of a guy sitting across from us who, judging by his accent, is French. Something along the lines of “…so we may not leave for another five hours?”

There’s no fucking way he’s talking about the ferry to Coron, right? The ferry we booked in place of a cancelled flight? The ferry we just checked into without a single mention of any delays or cancellations? Yes, that ferry. Enter, omen number three.

I approach a group of ferry employees–Filipino teenagers armed with smartphones and walkie-talkies–to ask about our expected departure. The response I get is a mashup of speculation and hearsay with bits of fact: A typhoon along the route has prompted the coast guard to suspend all sea travel until further notice. That notice is expected to be issued sometime between two and five o’clock, and possibly not until tomorrow or the next day. If given the green light today, we’ll depart at six p.m….maybe. In other words, we can sit for four hours and possibly leave, or sit for six hours and be told to wait longer.

Remembering that the ferry was originally scheduled to leave at four, I begin to feel constipated.

Four hours later they cancel the ferry for the day. We’re given the option of a refund or we can call a hotline the next day to find out when (if at all) the trip will be rescheduled. This means we’ll be losing one day of the planned six we’ve booked with Tao–provided we make it to Palawan at all.

With our flight and now a ferry being cancelled, I begin to notice a pattern and mull over the notion of canceling our trip with Tao and hopping a cheap flight to Boracay to drown our frustrations in a bottle of rum.

We’d probably still be sitting in the ferry terminal sulking had it not been for two blithe NGO workers who approach and offer to let us crash at their apartment for the night while we figure out what to do next. On R&R from emergency typhoon relief, their itinerary is open so they’re content with swapping their previous plans of Coron via ferry for Puerto Princesa via airplane, tomorrow morning. We’ve been invited to tag along if we decide to give up on the ferry. Puerto Princesa is indeed in the same province as Coron, but it’s nearly 240 miles south, so catching a flight there is only a slightly better option than the unreliable ferry. Even more, Puerto Princesa is still roughly seven hours by bus from the town of El Nido, where Tao has a second office and where our sailing tour is slated to end. So while Coron is all but out of reach, we might be able to make it to El Nido (via Puerto Princesa) and possibly take the trip with Tao in reverse.

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Northern Palawan Province

It’s either head back to Malate for another night of pounding San Miguels at 7-11 and chatting with strip club promoters–betting on a slim-chance ferry, or accept free accommodation from strangers and catch a morning flight that only puts us in the peripheral of our sought destination.

We choose the latter, go through yet another refund process and are soon crammed in the back of a taxi whipping through Manila’s dusty evening traffic. One of our NGO pals Lange, a slender Harvard graduate who could pass for either Filipino or hispanic mentions he has a cousin who’s celebrating her birthday later at a nightclub called Hyve. He makes a phone call and is able to get our names on the guestlist.

I admit my geographical knowledge of greater Manila is negligible, but the vision I had before arriving was mostly of urban sprawl and decay, synonymous with other capital cities in S.E. Asia that I’ve visited. So much in fact, that when our taxi pulls up to a luxury high-rise building resembling some swanky hotel in New York or Mumbai, I’m sure the driver has brought us to the wrong address.

“Welcome to ‘The Fort,'” says Lange.

The Fort he refers to is Fort Bonifacio or Bonifacio Global City–once a base for the Philippine army until it was sold off to private interests and turned into a glitzy commercial district populated by foreigners and well-off Filipinos. The place we’re staying for the night is one of several condos and office buildings that tower above tree lined streets and grassy promenades. It hardly resembles the area we just left, near Manilla Bay, where I noticed people sorting through roadside mounds of trash  and sleeping under dilapidated flatbed trucks. Even local jeepneys are prohibited from entering the district’s borders. Fort Bonifacio looks more like what you’d find in Hong Kong or Seoul, though with fewer people and not as many plastic surgery clinics. They’ve even thrown in a Tony Roma’s steakhouse for good measure, adding a tinge of sleaze to the overall glamour.

We head upstairs to an apartment that’s more plush than most hotels I’ve stayed in. The night club we’re going to allegedly has a strict dress code so the flip-flops, board shorts and tank tops my girlfriend and I have packed won’t do. I borrow a button-up shirt from one of our hosts and Lange calls a female colleague who lives in the same building from whom my girlfriend procures a skirt and some make-up. Before leaving we book a flight for the next morning headed to Puerto Princesa and decide to sort out how we’ll get to El Nido later.

When we stroll up to the entrance my girlfriend is stopped at the door. Her dusty flip-flops are against dress code. Thankfully Lange’s female coworker swoops in and throws a fuss about how dusty flip-flops are currently high fashion in the west and clearly the club is not as hip a they claim to be if they can’t recognize as much. Caught by surprise, the bouncer reluctantly lets both girls past the velvet rope. Sometimes it’s better to act the part if you can’t actually be the part. Soon we’re shown into VIP where the birthday girl has ordered a bottle Hennessy encased in lights to give it a glowing aura. Introductions to her entourage are made and I muster up just enough small talk to avoid being rude as I pour myself two fingers of the best France has to offer. photo (2)

Again there’s a noticeable difference between the patrons at Hyve and those at the curbside eatery in Malate where we chugged Red Horse and munched on bistec taglog after our 7-11soirée. Here everyone is glittery and drenched in cologne and perfume. Servers sift around the club carrying glowing bottles of alcohol with large sparklers attached, eliciting cheers from patrons huddled around tables crowded with lo-balls and buckets of ice.

On the dance floor, sweat, outstretched arms and raised cocktail glasses mix together in a cloud of lazer beams and strobe lights–the type of setting in which you’re meant to have the time of your life, or where you can take a killer Instagram photo with the hashtag “YOLO.” Generally speaking, I don’t take these types of places too seriously. The usual displays of wealth and sex that occur in nightclubs aren’t nearly as entertaining as watching  the people who frequent nightclubs (many of which are neither wealthy nor sexy i.e. me) dance to crappy music, so I tend to view such establishments with the same sardonic attitude reserved for petting zoos and really shitty amusement parks.

Still, having arrived at Hyve with someone else’s shirt on my back, to find a VIP table holding a glowing bottle of booze, after a five hour wait at the port, for a cancelled ferry that is threatening to derail our much needed vacation, it takes nothing more than four measures of Kanye’s “Niggas in Paris” for me to act a damn fool. Sure, I’d rather be laying on a beach in Palawan sipping Emperador, but the bottles at Hyve come with sparklers.

I sip more Hennessy, get invited to (and eventually booted from) a table of partying Koreans, flail my dreads around, laugh at the guys hitting on my girlfriend, drunkenly stare at a half empty parking lot from the club’s balcony and all but forget that we’re supposed to catch a flight at 9:30 a.m..

I awake the next morning with no recollection of coming back to our temporary apartment and only a vague recollection of why my breath smells like I drank a quart of rubbing alcohol. Our hosts are already awake and tell us through the bedroom door that the’ve bought donuts for breakfast.

We have about an hour to catch our flight to Palawan, but Lange tells us not to rush.

The flight has been cancelled due to dangerous weather conditions.

*Author’s note: This is part I of a three-part series of longer, feature style posts about a two-week trip to the Philippines.

Links:

Malate Pensionne–Spent a night here after arriving in Manila. Standard, clean rooms, shitty Wifi. Was a bit noisy at night, though our room was toward the front. Plenty of Korean restaurants and strip clubs in the area and a 7-11.

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

2GO Ferry–I gave them another shot and have decided they’re not so bad, especially for the cost, but be weary of shitty weather when not booking in advance. If you pay by credit card and you decide to cancel, it can take up to 2 months to get your money back.

Hyve–Not sure of an actually cover charge, but this place does it big. Bottle service, a rotating cache of DJ’s, fancy bathrooms. You get the idea. There’s a Latin restaurant nearby with cheap bottomless margaritas should you decide to pre-game.

Philippine Airline Express–Cheap as hell. Book with caution.

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.

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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.

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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.

Riding Escalators in Hong Kong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the people watching is stellar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to get there:
Central MRT stop exit E2.

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

Ricky Doesn’t Comb His Hair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bang Bang–(Surviving)The Yanshui Fireworks Festival

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Anthony Bourdain VS Eddie Huang: Taipei

I recently watched the Taipei episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “The Layover” (big thanks to Thinking About Languages for the heads up). To be honest this was the first episode I’ve seen since the show first aired in November of 2011. I’m a die-hard junkie of “No Reservations,” often times watching it to scout for future travel destinations. I didn’t enjoy everything that Bourdain and his producers chose to highlight (the dancing and guns segment in Greece was a little odd), but they did a solid job of showcasing the glamorous and gritty of different countries.

The premise of “The Layover” is different from “No Reservations” in that Bourdain only spends 48 hours in each location, mainly focusing on the must-see, must-do and must-eat.  We still have the normal bleeping-out of Bourdain’s colorful language  and a solid mixture of destination insiders to consult, but the clock is always ticking. It’s not a format I would personally ascribe to for visiting anywhere, but it works for the purposes of television.

That being said, I couldn’t resist comparing Bourdain’s view of Taipei to that of Eddie Huang, the badboy chef/hipster host of Vice Magazine’s ‘Fresh Off the Boat.’ Here, the Taiwanese American raised in Orlando but based in New York, along with his crew, strive to “venture into subculture through the lens of food”  (though the food part sometimes takes a backseat to other subjects). Since the show’s release (via YouTube) last October Huang has shown us some of the lesser known angles of his destinations (he goes hunting for rabbits in Oakland), utilizing an eclectic cast of chaperones and a heavy dose of east coast slang. It’s not the type of stuff you’d find on the Travel Channel, but that’s not surprising given Vice’s reputation pushing the envelope.

Coincidentally, the last segment of “Fresh Off the Boat: Taiwan” was released a week after ‘The Layover’ and naturally I thought the two hosts would present us with different but equally important views of the island. After watching however, I was surprised at how similar the two episodes were. Normally Chef Huang has a penchant for slamming other celebrity chefs.  

Both Huang and Bourdain do a good job of talking about the different foods they sample and Huang in particular seems to dim his east coast bravado when doing so, taking great care to explain the different flavors and textures. They both stroll throug night markets stopping periodically to showcase a specific item; Bourdain quickly gobbles down a pork belly gua bao (steamed bun sandwich) at the Keelung night market and Huang pauses to joke about penis shaped waffles at the night market in Shilin.

The two hosts also visit the 24-hour shrimp fishing restaurant, Cheun Chang as well as a place where western and Taiwanese fare is served in different types of miniature toilets. Neither of them seem to enjoy either experience which makes me think the shrimp fishing and toilet food segments were included only for their novelty.

I could see why both hosts decided to include a trip to Din Tai Fong. Bourdain and Huang rave about how good the restaurant’s soup dumplings are, and the process of how they’re made is worth showcasing. I’ve never been there personally, but I’m inclined to seek the place out next time I’m in Taipei. (If there’s a Din Tai Fong chain in Kaohsiung let me know and the first round of dumplings is on me.)

Given all the similarities between “Fresh Off the Boat: Taiwan” and “The Layover: Taipei” there’s still enough differences to warrant taking in both. Bourdain has a drink or two during his time in Taipei, but Huang goes for the gusto and picks up some betelnut, a popular Asian stimulant that is chewed–similar to chewing tobacco. Huang (who speaks fluent Chinese) is able to mix it with locals without a translator and is thus easily able to tackle the sticky subject of Taiwanese independence, while Bourdain focuses keeps it pithy with conversations about strippers at Taiwanese funerals and an odd form of martial arts. The aims of “The Layover” involve giving a short-term visitor an idea of what to see on a visit, but “Fresh Off the Boat” attempts (with varied success) to unearth the layers of culture often unseen by tourists. Fair enough.

I haven’t been here long enough to decipher which account of Taiwan is more encapsulating, but I’d love to hear feedback from anybody who has.

Fresh Off the Boat has two episodes in Taiwan, broken up into six parts. Find part one as well as The Layover: Taipei below.

Peace.