Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Experiencing Asia: Kenting

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill

                Our next trip was definitely one to be measured by friends. Having another long weekend to recognize Double Ten day, we set out for the southern tip of Taiwan. For those of you back home, Double Ten derives its name from October 10, the day Taiwan recognizes as their independence day. And just like the Fourth of July, people celebrate and things close down. So in celebration of Taiwan independence, we decided to visit Kenting, Taiwan and get some R&R at this popular beach destination. We booked our tickets on the High Speed Rail, grabbed our friends and migrated south.
                Unlike the train in my last blog, the HSR is new and shiny and fast. The ride is smooth, the seats turn so that you can face your friends and there is even a meal service like the airlines. Best of all, if this meal service happens to stage a surprise attack on your small intestine, there are normal toilets waiting in each train car. No squat pots here. We completed an uneventful trip to Kaoshiung (the southernmost HSR stop) and grabbed a taxi for the remaining two hour ride. We made it to our hotel and settled into our segregated rooms. Because of the holiday weekend, we had been forced to reserve two rooms for three couples. Reminiscent of college days gone by, we had a guys room and a girls room. (Minus any chaperoning in between.) The best part of this arrangement being the slat covered bathroom window adjacent to one bed. Accidental spying could only occur when jumping on the bed, but having a post 9/11 phone tap on the man toilet was a little unsettling. We each needed to turn up some music and light a candle for purposes strikingly different than romance. Once we acknowledged this awkward situation we fired up the old school sleepover.  Despite the late hour of our arrival we did what all real men rooming together do, we popped open Alex’s laptop and watched videos laden with stupid humor. I’m sure the girls didn’t go to bed immediately either. However, I’m not quite sure what they do when they stay up late these days. Probably girly things like brushing each other’s hair and painting nails. Finally, deciding it would be wise to rest, the three of us settled into our two beds. Alex and I became the bed sharers along with his ever present bottle of coke and Ipod touch. I’ve never slept with coke or an Ipod touch but neither was very restless. I did, however, feel a little strange sharing a bed with another guy and something named a touch.
                The next morning was exciting. We were on the south end of the island where all the great beaches are; where the sun is always shining. We threw on our trunks and headed for the sun and sand only to realize that it was cloudy, cool and windy outside. Kenting has approximately two rainy weekends each year and we apparently chose one of the two. We went to the beach anyway and checked out the local scene, including our two new friends, the trash puppies. Right down the street from our hotel lived two adorable little puppies. These mottled little mutts skittishly scavenged the local trash piles and cans. We tried endlessly to pet the little suckers but they were scared to death of all of us big scary white people. Failing in our petting skills and lacking good sunlight, we decided it would be a good day to tour the town. We attempted to hail a cab, but soon found that 99.8% of the taxis passing by were already occupied. This was our initiation into the cab nightmare that calls itself Kenting. On busy weekends you can spend hours trying to find an empty cab and when you do the prices are so exorbitant you will be sorry you finally found one. We gave up and began the long trek into Kenting proper, hoping the rain would hold off and that it was a shorter walk than we remembered from our late night arrival. Not even to the halfway point and the rain began to fall. At this moment my mood was wobbling precariously on the edge of unpleasant, about to tip over into “ogre” territory when my ears were assaulted by a loud honk. Done wobbling and ready to jump over that edge, I spun around and low and behold there was our taxi driver from twelve hours ago. He graciously offered to take us the rest of the way into town for free since he was just passing through. Hallelujah, no more walking, no more rain and no ogre.
                Kenting doesn’t consist of much; basically one main street with sundry restaurants, a few clubs and a lot of souvenir/beach shops. We found a place to eat and settled in as the rain came down. Taipei is a whole different world compared to Kenting but for some strange reason I expect cities in the same country to be relatively cost comparable. Maybe this is an absurd American idea, but when things cost three or four times as much as they do up north is gets bothersome. Thus, the overpriced souvenirs, the expensive but unexciting cuisine and the obnoxious cab fares all began to leave a bad taste in my mouth. (Kind of like licking a stamp after eating onions.) Fortunately, the weather would show a few moments of love in the next two days and our friendships would overcome the surrounding environment.
                The next morning, the sun decided that hide and seek is only fun if someone tries to find you. Greedily soaking up the few rays of sunshine like chronic alcoholics fighting over half a bottle of Nyquil, we explored some of the beach scenery and got the mandatory “jump on beach” photographs. There is a trend emanating from Asia where healthy young people choose one unlucky soul (or unsuspecting bystander) to try to perfectly time a picture that captures them in their rapturous, glee-filled, gravity defying, upward lunges. Not wanting to seem out of place (never mind our combined whiteness being greater than that of a New England snowstorm) we spent a tremendous amount of time attempting to mimic this phenomenon. I am happy to report that we had some minor success and that yes, white men can jump.  I must also take a moment to mention that poor Naomi is Taiwanese and was associated with all of this crazy “whiteness” for the entire weekend. She’s a very brave woman. After taking more photos of the surrounding scenery, teaching an Englishmen how to skip rocks and splashing in the surf for a few moments, we prepared for the journey of a lifetime and began our quest to Cabin Zarubin.
                Cabin Zarubin was a cozy cottage nestled in solitude outside of the heart of Kenting. Our friends Tyler and Tracy were staying here with their two kids and had invited us all over for a cookout. After fighting with the local taxi drivers and realizing that they all run a conspiratorial racket to hike up prices, we marched off in defiance. Cabin Zarubin was only four miles away. We would find a cabbie on our way who hadn’t been corrupted or we would just hike the whole darn four miles. Six, healthy young people can surely walk four miles for the sake of principal and saving money. After roughly one mile, no passing taxis, flip-flop blisters and a whole lot of sweat, we caved in and called the owner of Cabin Zarubin. She had a friend who had a van and he agreed to take us the rest of the way and get us home later for about a dollar cheaper than the town crooks. Moral of the story, Kenting taxi drivers work for the devil. Finally arriving at Cabin Zarubin, we fired up the grill, whipped out the fresh sashimi from the morning fish market and let the good times roll. The food was awesome and the friends were amazing. Our host was extremely flexible, kind and just all around cool. She had two young boys that were quite the entertainers as well. All in all camaraderie trumped complications yet again and reminded us all of the important things in life.
                There isn’t much else to right about our trip south. The weekend was short, the weather was surly and the “wow” factor was sadly missing. Perhaps a longer trip to Kenting or an intensive tour of the national park would encourage me to return or to recommend this Taiwanese destination. Unimpressive is mainly what comes to mind. However, no level of unimpressive can conquer the joy of friendship. This truly was a journey measured in friends. It didn’t matter that there were few postcard worthy scenic views. It didn’t matter that the culinary offerings fell far short of ninety percent of Taipei’s options. It didn’t matter that the rain seemed to follow us and interrupt our fun like a seventh grade nerd stalking the high school cheerleading squad. It didn’t matter that our wallets seemed to leave much lighter than we thought they should. All that matters is that despite these issues it was still a great weekend of friends, fun and fellowship; like a Baptist homecoming south of the Mason Dixon. True friends and sunny days should never be taken for granted.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Experiencing Asia: Hualien

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” – Martin Buber

                Our journey to Hualien, Taiwan was full of these secret destinations. After getting our first big taste of travelling, we were hungry for more. The next few school breaks were all short so we chose more local places to visit. First holiday on the list was Dragon Boat Festival and the first trip on the list was Hualien. Dragon Boat is a traditional boat racing festival where hundreds of contestants paddle along the river in boats that look like, you guessed it, dragons. Hualien is a small city on the eastern coast of Taiwan and is known for its gorgeous scenery. We packed our bags, hopped on a train with our friend Jessica and headed east.
                Train riding was a new experience for me. There is something uniquely vintage and surreal about slowly gliding scenery, a methodic side to side sway and the clickity-clack of the track. A strange metamorphosis occurred on this trip as the landscape changed from factory to rice patty to mountain to coastal shore; all intriguing in their own way. The only downside of the trip turned out to be the actual train itself. With the creation of a high speed rail in Taiwan, the classic train has moved to an old cabinet somewhere along with floppy disks and VCRs. The train feels and looks old and offers merely a squat pot to answer nature’s infamous call. For those of you unfamiliar with Asia, somewhere in this grand history one of the greatest con artists of all time confused the mass populous on this side of the world. Shunning the revolutionary idea of a toilet, this con convinced the eastern world that sticking a porcelain bedpan into a hole in the ground was equally effective. The unpleasant motions and acrobatics required to use such an item led to the common street name, “squat pot”. How the most technologically advanced societies on earth can hold on to an excretive tradition equivalent to a boy scout on a camping trip is beyond my comprehension skills. For those of us who are foreign, we avoid “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” at all cost, and search desperately for the nearest normal potty. Trapped in a Stone Age train for two and a half hours leaves one with little option. And so it was that we arrived in Hualien, ready to explore and ready to explode.
                Our overzealous host met us at the train station and whisked us away before we were even able to relieve ourselves. Thankfully, she stopped a few long minutes later at a local fruit stand. We were able to get some amazing fresh fruit and finally use a bathroom. Then it was off to settle our accommodations, tour the local market and buy a bus ticket to visit a local lake. Being a much, much smaller city, Hualien is far more “old school” than Taipei. The standard of living is much lower and people do things in a more traditional manner. For my Virginia friends, it’s like going to Scottsville after visiting D.C. This was very apparent as we toured the local market with fresh meat hanging on hooks, people haggling over unknown parts of a chicken and fish being gutted and scaled. Wanting to add to our fresh fruit snack, our lovely host purchased a bag of fried chicken butt for me to enjoy. (Parts now no longer unknown.) We then grabbed our bus tickets and headed for the lake.
                The lake was a mirror of magnificence as it lay nestled below giant green mountains. Renting a paddle boat, we slowly made our way onto this mirror to relax and rejuvenate. After living in a major city for months, words cannot describe the feeling of tranquility while floating along, gazing at the surrounding beauty. This was the perfect place to indulge in fresh pineapple and a greasy chicken butt. I have to say, as unappealing as it may sound, the butt isn’t too bad. Kind of a mental turn-off and a little bit of work for the meat, but overall it is acceptable in times of desperation. Unfortunately, I was not desperate. We enjoyed our snack and drifted lazily until finding the energy to paddle once more. At which point we chased a duck and discussed whether or not the Asian boaters nearby knew how to play chicken. Our time done, we returned to port, docked up and then traipsed over to the local market for some real food. We explored for a little while longer and then returned to town.
                The lake proved to be one of those secret destinations I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. It was not a big tourist hot spot and I don’t even remember the name. The big secret, however, is not truly a destination. The unexpected culinary offerings of Hualien are grandiose enough to count as a destination in my book. Even now, when I think of a reason to return it is often the food that brings these thoughts to my mind. We tried quite a few amazing dishes but the true winners are the pork buns and moachi. There is a famous little shack in the heart of Hualien where the line wraps around the block and the steaming bins are stacked high. Like many food havens in Taiwan, there isn’t much to look at, but the Bible has it right; appearances are not everything. I’m not sure of the technical Chinese name for these things but it translates out to something like “little white buns of porky perfection”. When you bite into a steaming hot, chewy bun and greet a little ball of minced pork taking a bath in perfectly spiced soup, you will want to jump up and yell, “Mamma!”. (I really have no idea why you would yell this and neither will you, but I do promise that you will want to jump up and yell something stupidly irrelevant.) Needless to say, I ate pork buns until I looked and felt like a pork bun. And just when you think you are done stuffing yourself, you begin to roll home and pass a window where they are making little dessert balls that resemble your stomach in its current condition. You discover that these are moachi and Hualien is known for their moachi. Moachi are very chewy little balls filled with all kinds of things. The best being the coconut, peanut butter, and frozen with ice cream variations. We tried some, became addicted and then plotted ways to eat more of them each day. If you know my mother, ask her about moachi. She loves it and hasn’t even had the famous ones yet. Unable to eat another bite, we crawled home and rested up for the big adventure facing us the next morning.


             Taroko Gorge is why people come to Hualien. Perhaps the most well-known national park in Taiwan, Taroko features some of the greatest scenery you will ever experience. For those on a short schedule, like us, the way to truly see it all is to hire a taxi for the day. These taxi drivers do tours of all the famous sections of the park and can give great insight and history about the well-known areas. Our host kindly requested an English speaking driver and we set out to see a whole new side of Taiwan. The next few sentences will feature quite a few words and I will attempt the impossible task of visualizing the surreal. Just close your eyes and try to see it with me. (Okay, so technically that is impossible. Read along and THEN close your eyes and try to see it with me.) The mountains and gorges are amazing. Colored rocks carved into patterns and formations like God was finger-painting with the earth. Rivers with water glistening like emeralds and sapphires. Hiking trails pass through caves and around waterfalls with rainbow creating mists. We saw bats and butterflies and unique trees and plants. We hiked mountains to ornate temples and waded into streams of crystal clear water. We saw mountains resembling an Indian head, King Kong and even the shape of Taiwan. We trekked barefoot through a cave that was a waterfall. We climbed stairs for what seemed like hours to ring a bronze bell overlooking the valley below. We wore hardhats to avoid potential death by rockslide. We took pictures, pictures and more pictures and created memories to last a lifetime. I’ve included extra pictures to hopefully help you capture just a moment of the natural beauty that pervades such a place. Awesome, in the true original form, is the only way to describe Taroko.

                Not content to merely hike all day, we insisted on biking for the last day of our visit. We went to see a local hero, famous in years gone by for saving people from drowning, and rented bikes for the day. The word bike is a stretch considering these were more like rusted pipes screwed to two wheels. But, they did their job (by this I mean they moved in a forward direction) and at three dollars a day I cannot complain any more. There are some amazing bike trails around the Hualien area and we chose one that followed the coast. Our journey took us through some previously unseen parts of the city, down an amazing stretch of coastline and even through a few farming areas with grazing water buffalo. At which point (thank you, Veggie Tales) someone must always begin singing a silly song with Larry. “Everybody wants a water buffalo…” please save me! We peddled to a nearby boardwalk area for some much needed breath catching and ice cream. We took some pictures and headed back, making a pit stop at a popular goat restaurant where we tried coffee and cheesecake made with goat milk. (Not bad, but no pork bun.) Knowing our ride to the train station would come soon; we left the goat behind and returned our bikes. Our whirlwind weekend was over, but not so over that we couldn’t scramble to the moachi store and get some to bring home.

                Tired, sun burnt and overwhelmed, we waited patiently to board our train. We settled in and tried to find a comfortable position to steal a few moments of much needed rest. The train rumbled to a start, the swaying began and soon the clickity-clack became a lullaby for our weary heads. I fell asleep praying that Mother Nature would not call while on the “Squatting Express”, and dreamt of the many secret destinations I had visited. Well, secret to me and my limited local knowledge. It had been a long weekend but one of the best ever. Tomorrow, school was waiting; but those cares and concerns seemed thousands of miles away.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Experiencing Asia: Pattaya

"One's destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things." –Henry Miller

                When you enter Pattaya, Thailand, near Jomtien Beach, there is a sign that reads, “Pattaya: The Extreme City”. Whoever designed the sign got it right. I can think of no better word to describe this over-the-top location. After our exhausting day in Bangkok, the next leg of our journey was visiting the Thai coast for five days. We would be staying in Jomtien, the name given to the actual beachfront area just outside of Pattaya. Surviving a marathon bargaining session (refer to the Bangkok blog) we were able to secure a reasonable ride for the two hour trip from Bangkok to Jomtien. Uneventfully, we arrived at our hotel and began our stay in the most exotic locale I have yet to experience. Pattaya, it seems, is one gigantic brothel disguised as a city. With two-dollar cocktails and twenty-dollar prostitutes, this town has become the wildest, craziest, most popular European male tourist destination in all of Thailand, perhaps even the world. The main street consists of bar after bar with neon blazing, music blaring and foreigners stumbling. It was quite the saddening sight to see old white males, two blue pills away from heart failure, weaving along in a drunken stupor. Thankfully, we were not staying in the middle of this and only experienced it during planned trips into the city for the sake of purchasing trinkets and giving me material to write about in this travel blog.
                Still a part of our first major trip outside of Taiwan, one of the first startling incidents was the price of our accommodations. We stayed in an amazingly clean hotel with plenty of style and space for a mere $27 a night. Those few bucks being inclusive of a great American style breakfast each morning as well. The first day in Jomtien found us searching the local food scene and scoping out the beach. According to the professionals, there are seven wonders in the world. I’m not sure what all seven are, but I do know that two of them could be found just outside our hotel. The first is a small wooden cart selling Thai coffee. Scott and I celebrated this miniature nirvana each morning. Perhaps choosing your bean roast, watching espresso steam and witnessing the fusion of rich condensed milk and hot coffee isn’t truly heaven, but I am positive that not partaking in the finished product is one of the nine levels of hell. (Not forsaking my Harris heritage, at just over a dollar a cup, the argument for heaven is really strong.) The second world wonder is only a block away, where classic Thai curries and noodle dishes are a mere three dollars each. Sitting on a patio a couple hundred yards from the beach and eating seafood fried rice out of a pineapple has to be on the top world wonders list somewhere. Having experienced these wonders and reassured that we would not starve or go broke during the next five days, we checked out the local beach. Jomtien beach isn’t much to write home about. (Yet here I am doing just that. What can I say? I’m a rebel!) The water is murky and the sand is dirty. The constant movement of countless boats is like a seven year old boy in the summertime; in and out, in and out. You’re either losing precious air conditioning from little Jimmy’s escapades or losing your water clarity and peacefulness from Banyat’s boat business. However, Banyat the boater does offer countless water activities like banana boat rides and parasailing. Thai beaches are also apparently the birthplace of henna tattoos and dirty car salesmen. As you lie on the beach and enjoy the beauty of the sun and the loud, incessant roar of outboard motors, you will soon feel a light tickling upon one of your extremities. Not a crab or a sand flea, just an overzealous tattoo artist beginning their masterpiece on your God-given flesh. For some strange reason these daring DaVinci derelicts do not understand complex ideas like personal space or the word, “no”. They do, however, understand angry inflection of the voice and vehement shooing motions. Once you overcome these minor annoyances you will begin to realize one of the most profound ironies known to mankind. Here, just a couple miles from the real “sin city”, where sexuality and adultery is glorified, the locals visit the beach fully clothed. Perhaps it is not ironic; perhaps they cover up merely to avoid becoming “black people” as my Asian students do so religiously during P.E. classes. But, it still blows my mind that women flaunt what their mamma gave ‘em on one side of the city while enjoying the wonders of the sea in black pants and a turtleneck on the other side. (If any PCC administration is reading, please realize that this analogy belongs to me and you will need my permission before using it to show the slippery slope of attending a college corrupted by accreditation.) I gripe about these minor nuisances in order to illicit humor from you, the reader, when Jomtien really is quite a nice beach. In the evening, when the boats are docked, dreaming of hoisting a Jolly Roger and terrorizing the seas, it is wonderful to just relax. Lounging in a beach chair, sipping juice from a coconut that just had a lobotomy while the sun slowly slips below the horizon is part of life we can often only dream about when our own “boat” is docked cozily in our covers.
                Top on my wife’s “to do” list was for me to take out the garbage. (Sorry, wrong “to do” list.) Top on my wife’s vacation “to do” list was riding an elephant. We set out to accomplish this feat during one of the most intense thunderstorms I have ever experienced. We discovered the tantalizing secret that Pattaya and the surrounding area are very susceptible to mass flooding. Our prescheduled ride picked us up and began snorkeling to the home of the elephants. We inched along alleyways with water up to the seats on scooters. This visual stimulation actually gave me the grandiose idea of incorporating a new phrase into our everyday vocabulary. Imagine in amazement along with me. “Chris, can you help me out, tomorrow?” “I’d love to, man, but I’m up to my scooter seat in grading, maybe Friday.” The next time someone tells you they are up to their scooter seat, you know who to thank. (Soon, I expect to be up to my scooter seat in thanks from all of you.) But, getting back to the elephants, we were seriously chugging along with water seeping under the van door and the exhaust gargling incessantly like OCD teeth brushing. Finally after sending out a raven and a dove, the dove brought back a banana leaf and we knew it was safe to leave the van. The rain held off for the most part and we met our new chauffer for the day. A quirky, feisty little elephant who, in elephant years, was either in her terrible twos or a teenager. She didn’t like following instructions. Riding an elephant is kind of like bungee jumping with an ADD instructor. You bounce back and forth like a pendulum, along with a slight fear of falling, considering the height of the elephant and the fact that your seat in hooked with a rope under the pachyderm’s posterior. The best part of our ride was when little miss moody decided to check out a tuft of grass off the beaten path. Her nosiness disturbed something in the brush, which in turn startled her and sent her on a stampede. Bouncing like a bowl of jell-o on a jackhammer, we hung on and prayed to see tomorrow without a full body cast. After a beating worthy of a Quentin Tarantino film, our guide got moody pants to stop running and safely returned us to base camp. Happy to be alive, a little damp from the drizzle and ready to be away from the stench of elephants “Doing the Doo”, we enjoyed the complimentary fruit buffet and returned to our hotel haven. We slept well knowing we had conquered land’s largest mammal and avoided “death by scared elephant”. (If “Death by Scared Elephant” is already a patented Ben & Jerry’s flavor, I sincerely apologize.)
                The other major highlight of our trip was escaping to the local island paradise. For less than a dollar you can climb aboard a rickety old ferry and traverse to a delightful getaway in the middle of the ocean. For the most part the island is devoid of man’s commercialized terror. There is a small, touristy section selling trinkets and necessary items, and you do have to pay for a chair on the beach but otherwise the island is untouched. Paying for a chair (when there is no beach without chairs) is probably the pinnacle of ripping off tourists, but when it only cost $1.50 for the whole day I think a free pass is acceptable. The difference between Jomtien beach and the island beach is like night and day, like hot and cold, like Obama and socialism. (Wait, that analogy is no longer valid.) Where Jomtien is murky, the island is crystal clear. Where Jomtien is dirty, the island is pristine. Where Jomtien is noisy, the island finds peace and solitude. Where Jomtien peddles unwanted graffiti, the island peddles real fruit slushies. There is really no competition here. The island destroys Jomtien beach like a Gosselin destroying reality TV. Words and pictures can never truly describe or visualize this amazing location. How can I even describe being in water clearer than a swimming pool or being surrounded by a Hollywood movie location? The beach was spectacular and even now, a year later, is one of the top highlights of any trip we’ve taken.
                The rest of our trip was consumed by consuming the great local fare and relaxing as much as possible. However, our eventful trips into Pattaya cannot go without being commemorated. You’ve already gotten a pretty clear picture of Asia’s “sin city”, but nothing can prepare one for actually walking down the famous/infamous “Walking Street”. This is the club district loaded with normal clubs, neon signs, restaurants, strip clubs, neon signs, 7-11, lady boy clubs, more neon, and creative hagglers and performers. Creative, how, you may ask. Well when I see a dark-skinned, shirtless midget break dancing for handouts and get haggled to pay for a photo while holding someone’s pet lemur, I use the word, “creative”.  Creative could also be used to describe Pattaya’s famous lady boys. I think the name says it all, but in case your elevator stops on the 10th floor of a 12 story building, I will elaborate. A lady boy is a man (that’s where the boy part comes from) who has chosen to make himself look as much like a lady (origin of the lady part) as is humanly possible. These “men” dress in elaborate, Vegas show girl costumes and perform extremely professional, neatly choreographed dance routines. After the show they come outside and pose for photos so that 300 people can gasp, and make comments like, “I can’t believe it’s not butter”. Despite the unnerving, “I’m a women trapped in a man’s body” concept, this part of Pattaya is actually well respected and mostly free of the seedier aspects of the town. Speaking of seedier aspects, the “Walking Street” hookers and transvestites (common name for a lady boy who didn’t make the cut) are relentless. The dancing, cat-calling and hand-pulling on all sides is more than a little overwhelming. It takes approximately 2.5 seconds to understand why this is a hot military port of call. It takes approximately 2 seconds more to realize how the aforementioned military’s personnel could awaken the following morning to a monster headache and the sober realization that Erin spells her name, Aaron. All in all, the heart of the city has some great food and cheap souvenirs, but the shock value is like wearing medieval armor to fly a kite in a thunderstorm.
                Senses overwhelmed, both from nature’s beauty and the unnatural violations of “Walking Street”, we got up early one morning and began our two-hour “taxi” ride back to the airport. I write, “taxi”, because the car that picked us up in no way fits any definition of that word. The speakers in the trunk were larger than our suitcases and left little room for our bags. The rims were custom, the lights were custom, the interior was custom. If you’re late for your flight, never fear. This “taxi” had NOS, a custom air intake and an intimidating growl from the custom muffler that demanded right of passage. I felt like we were Queen Latifah and Jimmy Falon, only my wife was not large, African American, or the one driving and our ride was more interesting that that entire movie. (If you have no idea what I am talking about consider yourself even luckier than those who missed the sparkling vampire analogy in my last blog.) However, even with the Fast and the Furious taxi, I was still too tired to really care. I fell asleep and dreamed of sipping fresh coconut juice while overlooking a gorgeous sunset on an amazing beach. Startled awake, I yelled, “No! I don’t want a tattoo!” but it was just the taxi driver. Our time in Thailand had sadly come to an end. As I waited to board the plane, I remembered the road sign and thought of how I would someday begin a blog with that phrase. “Pattaya: The Extreme City”; one simple road sign says it all.        

Friday, April 16, 2010

Experiencing Asia: Bangkok

“A passport, as I'm sure you know, is a document that one shows to government officials whenever one reaches a border between countries, so the officials can learn who you are, where you were born, and how you look when photographed unflatteringly.”  --Lemony Snicket

                The great part about this reality is that after surviving another flight I am usually able to match that unflattering look almost precisely. This was definitely the case on my great adventure to Thailand. We traveled with some friends from school and decided to take the midnight flight to Bangkok. This was agreed upon both to save money on tickets and to save money on hotel rooms. By arriving in Bangkok during the wee hours of the morning, we could simply sleep in the airport for a few hours before catching a taxi and exploring the city. (A truly amazing plan when you are unaware that the Bangkok airport has only metal benches and a frigid, fifty degree thermostat.) If sleep can be defined as chattering teeth and lower back pain then I say we got a good night’s rest.
Refreshed from our Siberian slumber, we ventured outside and were immediately introduced to two of Thailand’s famous attributes; humidity and haggling. If humidity somehow bettered mankind, Thailand would win the Nobel Prize every year. Heck, Obama won it for less than this. My vote is in for Thai Humidity next year. Seriously though, if air is ever thick enough to grab and throw into your pocket, it’s in Bangkok. Not to be outdone by humidity is the ever-present Thai businessman, always on the lookout for a lost traveler who needs help. If you look foreign he has a special deal for you. If you are lucky enough to look Caucasian and American he has a stupendous deal for you. After fifteen minutes and a taxi offer roughly four times the normal price, we finally haggle down to a normal fare. I must say that after quite a bit of travelling, I am willing to offer up a quote to the travel quote gods. “Your journey to a new city never really begins until you enter a taxi.” –Chris Harris (Copyright 2010. If you want to use this quote in your publication please contact me.) Somewhere there is a secret school for Asian taxi drivers. In order to graduate you must finish in the top ten of the IAD league. IAD stands for “I Almost Died”, and features racing that incorporates elements from Drag racing, drifting, Mario Kart and Frogger. Adding to the element of fear was my first experience riding on the wrong side of the road. Yes, Thailand follows in the footsteps of England (God save the Queen) and drives on the left side of the road. This fact was reemphasized over and over again during my stay as I attempted to cross the street, looked the wrong way and stopped one step short of meeting St. Peter. Listen to your parents, kids, and look BOTH ways before crossing the street. After thirty minutes with Captain Haggle and General Good Deal, we arrived at our hotel safely and with only a small stain in our pants. We left our bags until check-in, and began the grand exploration of Thailand’s capital city.
From the moment you step onto your first Bangkok sidewalk, the city’s Buddhist roots are evident. The intricate craftsmanship of so many local temples and idols permeates the bustling urban atmosphere. Perhaps bustling is an understatement. Like most places in Asia, Bangkok is crowded. You are constantly moving in a crowd of people. There is the constant noise of honking horns and the puttering whine from the Tuk-Tuks. (Little three-wheeled scooters that serve as public transportation) As you begin to experience sensory overload, yet another haggler steps into your path, peddling the next great Thai souvenir. At first, it’s overwhelming but it soon becomes the enchanting tune enticing you deeper into this new, exotic locale.
Wonder and awe beginning to fade, we realized that we only had one day in this great city and that we better start moving fast. We familiarized ourselves with the SkyTrain and took off to experience the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok’s swirling, thriving heartbeat.  After another intense round of haggling we were able to book a river tour at a reasonable price. We would tour the Wat Arun, navigate the tiny canals and visit a small floating market. The Wat Arun proved to be a very memorable stop while in Thailand. The architecture and attention to detail was truly amazing. It holds a two-fold spot in my memory though, because it was also the site of my first “dumb tourist” moment. As we got off the boat there were two lovely photo ops dying to make us look traditionally Thai. (You know, the big wooden bodies with a hole for your face.) We jumped right up and took our pictures and then, on cue with the last camera click, a mysterious lady appeared out of thin air. (Well as previously mentioned there is no thin air in Thailand but the expression is still fitting.) She had been hiding nearby waiting for our overzealous picture snapping. At this point she muttered something in Thai and pointed at some teeny, tiny writing at the bottom of the cutout. It said “40 baht”, which can be translated as “just over one U.S. dollar” or “Ha, ha, ha, sucker!”  The whole deal was a scam to charge morons like us roughly $1.20 to take a picture with a sheet of plywood and some poor painting. Touché, sneaky lady, touché.
 Wallets lighter, pride hurting, we clambered back onto our boat and set off through the maze of small canals. We skimmed along at a nice clip as dilapidated trapezoids of lumber seemed to float on murky waves. The river literally flows right to the doorstep of these shanties as inhabitants paddle small boats through the neighborhood. The setting was surreal; an entire community living, thriving, and existing in a river. Adding to the surrealism are the floating markets. These are entire “shopping centers” where each aisle is paddled along in a bustling freeway of little wooden boats.
Having finished the “special deal for you” boat tour, we set out to conquer the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, home of the famous reclining Buddha. By this point in the day our persistent visitor, future winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Humidity, was in full swing. Parts covered by clothing were saturated, cloth clinging like spandex on an overweight gym member dropout. Parts not covered by clothing were glistening like vampires in fresh snow. (If you fail to understand this analogy, consider yourself one of the few, fiction-reading virgins, unadulterated by the monster that is Twilight.) It was beyond hot. Few times in my life have I been so miserable while actually enjoying something. The sights and sounds were so incredible that even the constant oppression of being in a sumo wrestler’s armpit couldn’t destroy all enjoyment. The Grand Palace proved to live up to its name, as “grand” is one of many adjectives I might use to describe it. The shimmering awnings and rooftops, along with golden pinnacles and ornate statues are a visual masterpiece. You can feel the pride and care that went into building every detail. Not to be outdone by the Grand Palace, the Wat Pho is the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok and lays claim to the most images of Buddha and the largest Buddha in all of Thailand. Buddhist or not, you can’t help but stare in awe and amazement when you witness a reclining statue 150 feet long and 50 feet tall. Taking a picture of such a large structure, inside of a temple, is a near impossible feat. Walking through the temple was yet another surreal moment on this journey. Surrounded by ornate woodwork, Thai images rivaling the Sistine Chapel, a giant golden Buddha and drowning in a constant clink clank of coins being dropped into cast iron pots transports the mind to otherworldly locations.
Tiring of the endless glitz and incense, we decided to shift from Buddha to browsing, and headed for the largest market I have ever seen. As we approached on the SkyTrain, the market rooftops seemed to join with the horizon in an endless sea of multi-colored tin. We disembarked and began the labyrinth of souvenirs, clothing, food, furniture, household items, idols, unicorns and dancing monkeys. (Okay, so I didn’t see the last two items but I also didn’t have time to visit every shop.) We got our first “real” Thai tea and had some amazing Thai food classics. We huddled inside as we experienced our first Thai monsoon. Watching helplessly and humorously as shops flooded, people got drenched and umbrellas became high-speed projectiles. We bought cheap memoirs of Bangkok and “window shopped” items we had never seen before, until the immense activities of the past twenty-four hours began to catch up with us. Shopped out, we returned to our hotel to settle down. Our companions chose to search out a massage while we opted to just eat and crash.
My last truly memorable experience in Bangkok came unexpectedly. Settling down for the night, too lazy to venture far for dinner, we decide to try the traditional Thai restaurant right at our hotel. Excited to have a mass list of local curry dishes, I order the green curry and dive in. Have you ever seen that classic horror movie scene, Poltergeist I think, where the man washes his face in the sink, looks in the mirror and screams as his flesh slowly slides off in hideous chunks? Graphic, I know, but I have no better analogy for the feeling after about three bites of my green curry. I am no stranger to spice but this was beyond anything I have ever experienced. Culinary Hiroshima at it’s finest. I managed to finish most of my murderous fare but the memory would not soon fade. Fitting finale? Yes, perfectly fitting. As I sit here now, one year later, and begin this traveling memoir, the spice of Thailand is fresh in my mind.  One day in Bangkok left many, many lasting memories; the least of which still leaves a slow burn of excitement, experience and desire for more, much like a bowl of classic green curry in this legendary metropolis.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Experiencing Asia:The Beginning

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

                By St. Augustine’s standards this has been a year of considerable reading for me. However, the book of the world is quite different in that each page has a distinct theme. With each new page one is assaulted by sights, sounds and cultures. I suppose these blogs are well overdue and I’m sure those of you who were following my writing would heartily agree. My utter lack of writing has bothered me immensely, yet the time and words never seem to agree. It has been my goal all along to immortalize each new adventure in the blogosphere and I am finally setting out to accomplish this goal. In the next (insert guess here) days, I will revisit my journeys and hopefully bring you along with me. I look forward to recounting my trips to Thailand, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Malaysia. So grab your backpack, strap in and get ready to tour Asia with me.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bawdy Burgers

Chopstick eating, scooter riding, unedited rap music; random things that begin to form the tip of the cultural differences iceberg. (Although, given the current temperature, I have no idea why I chose to represent this with an iceberg; something that will never be a cultural difference here in Taiwan.) I must admit that during my mental preparation for our six thousand mile move, I never once thought, “Hmm, I bet they don’t edit rap music in Asia.” The truth is, I should have thought about this, considering many Taiwanese citizens understand very little English and would never be offended by four letter English words. However, with a few slightly more important things on my mind, I failed to devote any brainpower to the cultural differences in rap music listening habits.
Overlooking this fact had very little impact on my life until my first Taiwanese sports store shopping experience. Maybe I’m just a sheltered white cracker whose stores of choice experience extreme FCC oppression, but I’ve never been subjected to auditory blitzkrieg by the F-bomb while picking out a pair of Nikes. For all their hypocritical faults and mundane standards, the FCC really is taken for granted by many of us. Unless, of course, you usually listen to music by any of the 33 people with Lil’ in front of their name. That fateful day, shoes in hand and blood trickling from my ears, I realized that public shopping truly was different here in Asia. I must say that until recently I had learned to just shut out and ignore the background music. (Please, no comments from fundamental zealots about my poor conscience being seared with a hot iron.) However, as I ordered my hamburger last week, even my poor, burnt conscience found new life.
Being amazingly friendly food connoisseurs, the wife and I invited Becca, Chris and Ashley to enjoy a great, cheap hamburger at a local joint we had visited previously. I will admit that our prior visits had found the staff looking like background dancers in a 50 Cent video, and that the music had been rather “hardcore”. But again, that hot iron had done a number on me, and I just enjoyed my burger anyway. This visit proved no different. One cook was on break, smoking a cigarette and sporting some “shants” a la 1995. For those of you lost by that sentence, I will explain. Yes, I just made up a word and yes, that word is a hybrid for shorts and pants. And yes, that is the best word to describe the stupid trend of having one pants leg pushed up and one down, which appeared to be dead in America but somehow found reincarnation here in Taiwan. The cooks still in the kitchen proved their “gangsta-ness” (Another word from the Harris dictionary.) by wearing bandannas and rolling up their sleeves to expose explanatory tattoos like “#1 DAWG”, “HARD-CORE”, and “9 MILE”. (I’m sure the third guy was going for 8 mile but Eminem beat him to it.) And of course, as we began to order our food, we were happily serenaded by some random rap song about drugs and chrome wheels. It was not until we began to sink our teeth into the brown, ground, goodness of cow, that the musical Hiroshima began. As I licked mustard from my lip, the rapper on the CD began to speak. For some inexplicable reason (Perhaps simply because they like to hear their own voice so much.) rappers insist on putting little melodramatic, life issue interludes between their songs. This instance was no different, except if there is a line that defines crude, this little interlude looked at it and then jumped twenty feet onto the other side. As we continued to consume our food, Mr. Rapper was apparently struggling in his attempts to please his baby mamma. (By the way, I am the master of discretion, but if you are easily offended, please stop reading and come back in 2 months when I finally write another blog!) As said, “Mr.”, was attempting to please baby mamma, she was providing the usual background noises that said, “pleasuring”, involves. For a good 2 or 3 minutes, each bite of burger was accompanied by an orgasmic groan that would make Paris Hilton blush. As reprehensible as this sounds, the humor level was pretty off the charts as well.

Me: chewing “Soooo, nice weather today, huh?
Hooker: loud groan
Becca: “Gosh!”
Hooker: giggle
Me: “You guys like the burgers?”
Hooker: more embarrassing noises
Chris S: “Hey! Remember that time we were eating burgers with the orgasm soundtrack?”
Hooker: grand finale
All: laughing

Yes, my friends, Chris Simpson was correct. Despite all vulgarity, embarrassment and verbal assault, we experienced a moment that will be stamped in our memories for a very long time. The crowning moment had to be the lesbian couple sitting in the corner feeding each other little bits of burger like wedding cake. Perhaps the Broadway sex musical helped their date get rolling. I don’t know, but I do know I will never eat a hamburger again without bringing to mind that crazy night in Taipei. The night that lines were crossed, ears were assaulted, gangstas kept it real, and friends made memories through the most unlikely of circumstances. So the next time you want to rip out your hair from the media frenzy over a “wardrobe malfunction”, consider the alternate reality of being FCC free.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Night Markets

What do you get when you mix two parts carnival, one part flea market and sprinkle in a handful of Asian flair? (No, not a new Pokemon series.) You get a Taipei night market; perhaps one of the most exciting activities for a foreigner experiencing Taiwanese culture for the first time. The mix of sights, sounds and smells is overwhelming, and completely different than anything experienced in the States. Store after store, food cart after food cart, your senses are smacked with so much of Asia you’ll swear there’s a ninja in your head.
Where do I start? There are so many night markets, each with their own feel and flair. Shilin is the largest and perhaps the most popular. Raohe has a quaint feel and a definite lean toward clothing and fashion. Banqiao seems to stretch on forever and has a little bit of everything, including a great diversity of edible options. Most interesting (and disturbing) is Huaxi. Known as the “tourist” night market and by many as “snake alley”, it has snake blood, turtle heads and all the Taiwanese trinkets you could ever want. (Family at home take note, these trinkets make amazing Christmas presents!) Considering the many night markets and the vast amount of literary substance they contain, I will attempt to summarize each market and share some of the “highlights” from our visits.
Being more than a little OCD, this blog will follow the order of my night market visits, which means I am required to begin with Raohe. From the moment I stepped off the plane onto this island, I had been like a kid with money to spend. I had to go to a night market as soon as possible. I had done my research online and read about night markets and watched videos about night markets and everyone had a night market and I needed to buy a night market. Okay, I got a little carried away with my analogy as usual, but the point is, I was dying to go to a night market! One of our newfound local friends volunteered to escort us and immerse us into the night market culture. Being wholeheartedly Baptist, I went for total immersion; none of that half-hearted, Methodists sprinkling for me. I tried chicken feet and duck tongue and some unidentified seafood blob. I did the cattle herd shuffle with ten thousand Asians. I looked at cheap knock-offs of major brands and t-shirts poorly translated into English. I drank one of eighteen types of tea and haggled price on a backpack. As they say “When in Rome…” (Which really doesn’t apply, I guess, since I would have refused to fight to the death in a loincloth, had that been offered.) But I did my best to be as “Taiwanish” as possible. This was just the beginning of a small addiction.
Having decided to visit a different night market every weekend, next on the list was Shilin. Feeling bold after my first experience I figured why not go for the biggest, baddest night market of all? And why not tackle it without a guide or anyone fluent in Chinese? We grabbed Scott and Jennifer (our addict friends we picked up at night market AA) and headed out to tackle the beast. All of the descriptions were accurate; this truly was the king of night markets. The first section we found was the snack section which gives a very poor mental image considering you can find entire meals in all kinds of shapes, sizes and smells. Nestled in between the booths peddling Taiwanese hot dogs and stinky tofu you can find a few novelty shops selling different items. Let me take a moment here to explain stinky tofu. It is exactly like normal tofu except it’s stinky. (Rocket science, I know.) Shilin is the only place I have found that plays it smart and sells stinky tofu right beside the bathrooms so that you are always left guessing about the aroma. I’m told very reassuringly that it does not taste like it smells but I’m waiting until a future date to enlighten myself. Back to the shops; we found a quaint used book stand where I bought a bilingual copy of “Green Eggs and Ham” after which we moved on to find the heart of Shilin. After a little wandering we found the main streets of Shilin and the ten million people that were currently inhabiting them. Seriously, for the next two hours we walked like penguins with hemorrhoids. Coming at perhaps the busiest time of the week, we found it difficult to enter a store without crowd surfing. We enjoyed the shops as much as possible and made our way through the crowd until we could take no more. Following our internal compass we wandered back to refresh ourselves with huge corndogs and chips on a stick, and enjoyed watching the man in line with his seven foot albino python. The rest of Shilin would have to be explored on a night when less than eight percent of the country’s population was there.
If you think tofu that smells like recycled meatloaf is gross then you should most likely avoid going to the night market at Huaxi. Snake Alley derives it’s name from the eccentric old men who play with cobras and then peddle the snake’s innards. The true man can prove his worth with a simple three shot combo. The first shot consists of water and snake blood from the writhing, twitching cobra that has been hung, slit and bled alive. The second is cave man Viagra, a mix of water and certain parts of the serpent’s manhood. The third, by my observations and assumptions, is a small shot of extremely hard liquor. Not sure why anyone would want that after the previous two…This whole process is healthy and extremely safe; just ask the seven fingered man with the cobra. If this isn’t your cup of tea just slide next door to visit the snake man’s brother for some turtle and alligator. The showmanship is lacking but they do however, rip the turtle’s head off and leave it squirming in a pan. Not wanting to sicken anyone or give Huaxi a bad name, I’ll move on to the finer points like porno and prostitution. It was here that we met our first Asian hookers. Actually, Scott met them when he wandered too far without his wife. They are very persistent until the cops show up and send them scattering into the shadows. Apparently this section of town was formally the seedy, red light district. The hookers and porn stores right next to the kiddy arcades seem to back up this history lesson. All of this aside, Huaxi is very entertaining and diverse with a huge array of souvenirs and traditional Taiwanese trinkets. The other main attraction is the twenty-four dollar full-body massages. Which, after typing, will put this at the top of my mother’s places to visit list. Don’t worry, mom; there’s a discount on the snake blood if you buy a massage.
Next on our list was the Banqio market. A little more remote and a lot less exciting, Banqio was fun but nothing groundbreaking. There were still plenty of cool shops and lots of questionable, edible items. The greatest part of Banqio was the crowd. Having experienced the prom king night markets, this was Napoleon Dynamite. No where near as popular but still plenty strange, and cool enough to pull of some awesome moves in the end. Unfortunately I didn’t find any chapstick though, cause my lips hurt real bad. After describing the larger night markets, there is little new ground to cover other than the puppy store. This may not seem like a big deal, but you’re not married to Julia. The sight of any canine (even a three-legged, one-eyed, mangy, flea extravaganza) elicits a squeaky, quickly mournful “Puppy!” from my significant other. The next ten minutes revolve around her deepest desires to join the ranks of mutt ownership, and her perfect future adoption plans. Those of you at home, heed my warning. Anyone encouraging this cute, puppy obsessed craziness will be the lucky recipient of a cute puppy bag of flaming poo. Guard your words or you’ll need to guard your porch.
Last, but far from least is the Shida night market. Shilin having claimed the title of King, Shida most definitely comes in second as the Queen. For those of you from England it’s a Queen/Prime Minister thing without the silly accents and Austin Powers. Although we have enough clouds and rain to make you long for London. Not that I’ve ever been to London personally, but it doesn’t matter since Hollywood has given me a clear picture of the English. (See Austin Powers reference above.) Anyway, back to the bloody night market. Shida is located near a local college so the flair is definitely more youth driven. (Listen to me, dropping the word “youth” as if it doesn’t apply to me anymore. I’m getting way too old.) The greatest part of Shida is the food. They have the best Malaysian Curry stand in the world, followed by a fried mushroom stand and a great little drink shop. There are a million other amazing options but my stomach stopped there. Many of the shops are trendy and offer a little more of what you’d expect to find in the States. Once again the crowd was stupendous and with all the “youth” around it was like being in a mall in the middle of a concert mosh pit. By now, we’re just used to this feeling and embrace it as part of the culture, though I’m still not a fan of a knee in my butt and my face in an armpit.
In conclusion of this insanely long blog about insanely unimportant things, I’ve slowly been able to handle my addiction and curb my cravings. Visiting so many markets along with the patches and Nimarkorette gum, I’ve found a healthy control. The unimaginative would say that once you’ve seen one night market, you’ve seen them all. I beg to differ. While the atmosphere and offerings start to seem very familiar, each market has its own flavor and flair. Each one features something more prominently or has the better prices on certain merchandise. For the short term visitor however, stick to the royal family. Visit the King, Queen, and that crazy Joker known as Huaxi. If you’re English, I’m done translating, go read a history book.