Before I start, I just want to ask everyone to keep the Nolan and Ericson families in our prayers. Ann made the first half of our travels in Japan and Taiwan a wonderful experience, and our hearts go out to her and her family.
Sorry again for the delay….Turns out there’s an awful lot to do in Hong Kong…
Today was our first day in Taipei. After classes and a nap, we went exploring for dinner. It was dark, dirty, and we were in very unfamiliar territory. It’s funny, comparing Taiwan to Japan. In our heads, it’s just Asia. But that’s like saying Ukraine and England are just Europe. They’re close-ish geographically, but they’re actually pretty darn different when you’re standing on a random street corner in any given city. What really shocked me about Taiwan was the omnipresent chaos. People seem to be walking any which way, jaywalking as they please. This contrasts sharply with Japan, where you wait for the pedestrian light to turn green, even when nobody is looking.
As we were walking down very local sidestreets-no English, street vendors everywhere, no t a foreigner in sight-I soon came to realize how much I underestimated my minor grasp of the Japanese language I can’t tell what’s a restaurant, what’s a store…I can’t ask for help or pretend to understand the locals…Nothing. Nothing at all. It’s kind of scary when you think about it. For this reason I was a little more observant and aware of my surroundings The street vendors, as I said, are everywhere. They sold all sorts of food, or at least what the Taiwanese consider food. I saw whole ducks, cooked and just hanging by their necks from the sign of the store, skewers of some sort of lizard, and numerous things that I won’t even bother trying to identify. After awhile, my eyes, nose, and throat all began to burn from a combination of smoke and pollution, and it gradually got worse as the night went on.
We later worked our way into a night market, which is a crowded series of streets lined with all sorts of stores, most hawking all kinds of apparel. Purses, bags, watches, clothes, wallets, toys, keychains, toothbrushes—stores were a seemingly random hodgepodge of whatever the vendors had to sell. We stopped for dinner at a little hole in the wall restaurant, where I decided to be “safe” with my food selection: lasagna with meat sauce. As I’ll come to learn in the next few days, there’s no such thing as “safe” from a street vendor. Apparently Taiwanese lasagna has eel, squid, octopus, cabbage, corn, and carrots. A pink sheet of…something under a layer of sketchy tasting cheese topped off the dish. After about four bites, I lost my appetite.
Overall, it was interesting to see how Taiwan differs from Japan in their dealing with overpopulation. In Japan, people are courteous, quiet, and avoid eye contact. The cars are very pedestrian friendly, as bicyclists and pedestrians are just as common if not moreso than cars. In Taiwan, people have just taken the opposite approach. If the roads are too busy, the mopeds will drive on the sidewalk. People will get out of the weigh or lose an appendage or two. If someone’s talking loud, the other people will just talk louder. If someone has garbage, there are piles of garbage everywhere..Who’ll notice another can or two?
Today was a little bit more exciting than the last two days. After our econ final, we had an end of term celebratory dinner at a Mongolian BBQ restaurant. It is actually very similar to our Mongolian restaurants in the States, where you load up on meat in a bowl with veggies and sauces, and they cook in on a giant circular grill right in front of you. The ride home, however, reminded me that we weren’t at Hi-Ho Mongolian Grill in Davenport.
I don’t speak Chinese. I’m not even to read any Chinese characters, except for a few basics ones that overlap into Chinese. But today I learned a lesson as to how helpless one is when there’s a language barrier. As a group of four of us get in the cab, I sit shotgun-I’m the tallest, it’s only fair. Whoever sits shotty is also designated the navigator and cab driver communicator. It can’t be too hard, right? We wanted to go to Jiantan Station…So all I had to say was “Jiantan.” Turns out, it was harder than I thought. I repeated “Jiantan” five times, and he had no idea what I was saying. Luckily I had a map, and I resorted to the pointing method. The taxi driver nods his head in recognition and says “Ahhh…Jiantan!” like my attempt to say Jiantan was so unintelligible that our destination was a surprise to him. This was proof enough to me that Chinese is ridiculous, and it’s going to be a long six weeks.
Today was my favorite day yet in Taiwan. We went north to Keelung, where we saw the Buddhist Goddess of mercy overlooking Keelung Bay, which acts as Taipei’s main port. Like Japan, the relationship religion has with society is very foreign to us, unlike anything we’d ever see in the US. In the little square right outside the temple where the giant statue is featured, there are all sorts of little carnival type games, and even a bunch of little cars that little kids (or Augustana students) can drive around for $30 NT. The mix of religious and commercial is fascinating.
Our second stop was Yehliu Geologic Park. The park itself was amazing, with all sorts of geological formations with the Taiwan Strait on one side and the mountains of Northern Taiwan on the other. The pictures tell a lot more than any words of mine can.
On the ride back, we convinced Norm to take the long way home through the mountains. The mountain scenery was also breathtaking, especially when the mountains intermingled with the clouds. On the drive, we saw all sorts of examples of terracing, with many locals outside working in the fields. Their economic situation seemed significantly worse off than those in the city, which supports the concept of a poor, rural, agricultural lifestyle. I’m sure the farmers are much worse off further from the main roads (we were only thirty minutes from Taipei), but the difference between rural and urban was significant. This bus ride made me realize that there was so much more to this country than just Taipei, and we could probably spend a term in Taiwan alone.
Today was a trying day in many aspects, and after a broken camera, attempted pickpocketing, and an overwhelming rudeness that would make Americans shake their heads in disapproval I was ready to pack up my stuff and go back to Japan.
However, I did get my history fix, so the day wasn’t a total loss. I ended up going to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, which was gigantic. Taiwan really loves this guy. The monument square consists of a gate, his monument, a national theater, and a national auditorium. The square itself doubles as a park, with groups of children and families all enjoying the weather throughout the square. The area was especially busy with preparations for 10/10, which is basically the Taiwanese 4th of July. Soldiers drilling, dancing practicing their routine, and musicians going through their music gave me a little preview of the celebration that we’d sadly be unable to see.
Yet again today I was reminded of the natural beauty of Taiwan that I first encountered at Yehliu. Norm led a small side trip to the Danshui Nature Mangrove Reserves located just north of Taipei. The mangroves are an ecological habitat that consisted of mostly mud and thick vegetation populated with crabs and birds. What I thought was most interesting was its location. It was right outside of two train stations, where high-rises have sprouted up to contain Taipei’s ballooning population. So in what is seemingly prime real estate in a near suburb of the nation’s capital city lies…a nature preserve. Thankfully, the mangroves have been left in their natural state, partly because of its park-like atmosphere but also because of its ability to shield the city from flooding and tsunamis.
Afterwards, we took a bus to the Fisherman’s Wharf. Here, we were met with more beautiful views. There were also lots of little stores, bars, and restaurants, but they were all closed. I think maybe everything closes on Mondays here…What grabbed my attention was the massive construction going on around the wharf, especially a giant hotel/resort built right near the bus stop. It was right on the water, and they were even taking out some of the boardwalk and putting in a sand beach, which I haven’t seen yet in Taiwan.
That night my venture into authentic Taiwanese fared a little better. We ate at a little Jiao Tze restaurant. Jiao Tze is a dumpling-like thing with meat and vegetables inside: pretty simple, but delicious. I realized that there are dozens of little Jiao Tze shops with only two or three tables lining most alleys in Taiwan…a true “mom and pop” experience. Our shop was ran by a little old lady who spoke absolutely no English, but was as welcoming as a grandma. It felt like a truly authentic experience to end our stay in Taiwan.