Quin's Progress


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Tattoo d’Etat

BrainsI have not been in my right mind for quite some time, gentle friends. Before the amused chorus of “you don’t say” rises from amongst you, I should be clear, this time, I’m talking about the right hemisphere of my actual brain. You know how, apparently, the left side of the brain controls logic, reason, analytical thought, and verbal skills, and the right side is where creativity, art, music, imagination and rainbow unicorns live? Well, I’m a lawyer, so you know my zip code is on the left side of town. I’m all about words, not pictures. Recently, however, I decided to pay a visit to the other side, just to have a look around.

That is a banana blossom, about to be turned into a scrumptious salad by yours truly, in Cambodia.

A banana blossom, about to be turned into a scrumptious salad by Yours Truly, in Cambodia.

It all happened quite innocently, at first. As I’ve mentioned before, I love to take cooking classes. As most such courses focus on formulae (recipes) and technique mastery—i.e., science—my left brain stays comfortably in command, while my poor right brain stands off to the side, whispering ways to freestyle the recipe into something even more magical with other ingredients when I get home.

That's supposed to be a flower.

That was supposed to be a flower.

I took several cooking classes in Vietnam, and each featured a segment on fruit and vegetable carving to garnish the finished plates. I, of course, sucked at that part. I even cut the bejeesus out of my thumb while attempting to render a lotus blossom from the butt end of a carrot.

IMG_0791I do not like sucking at things. (Insert Beavis & Butthead snicker here.) Ordinarily, if I can’t do something well, I just avoid it. And, although one might argue that I could easily avoid fruit carving, something about it challenged me. I became determined to master at least one tomato or carrot flower, even if it killed me.

Suck it, bitches.

Suck it, bitches.

So, I hired myself a fruit carving sensei, and buckled down. And I must say, aided by good instruction and the proper tools (there are special fruit carving knives), as well as a bunch of practice, I got to where I could turn out a respectable variety of blossoms and woodland creatures from everyday items found in your local produce aisle. IMG_0788Not too shabby, eh? Remember me next time you have a buffet table to decorate for a bridal shower or red carpet awards show viewing party.

Emboldened by my admittedly moderate success at crafting fantasy vegenalia, I decided to take it to the next level: Tattooing.  On people, not fruit. Such an obvious next step, I know, forgive my prosaicness.

IMG_0589As I quickly discovered, tattooing isn’t something you can just sign up for at the Learning Annex and go do. The people in the industry don’t make it easy to get in—and they shouldn’t. Basically, the way to learn is to get an established tattoo artist to teach you, in an apprenticeship. There are some instructional materials available for purchase online, but I wanted to do it properly, so I wasn’t about to go to correspondence school. After much investigation and multiple inquiries, the tattoo masters at Bangkok Ink agreed to take me on for tutelage.

IMG_0740Bangkok Ink has a deep bench of really talented tattoo artists, including Krit, who specializes in traditional bamboo tattooing—no machine, just tapping the tattoo into the skin by hand with long needles. This guy does cleaner, more precise work in bamboo than most artists can do with a machine. It’s something to behold. They also have a relationship with a Buddhist temple, where sacred Sak Yant tattoos—done bamboo style, and supposedly embodying a sort of protective magic charm—are blessed by a monk, and sealed with a piece of gold leaf.

IMG_0743When they have room, Bangkok Ink also takes on students. It’s kind of a commune of learning, where all the resident tattooists take part in helping out the newbies. You can even learn bamboo tattooing from Krit, if you want, but I wanted to start with the modern machine style.

Bangkok Ink's guard kitty.

Bangkok Ink’s guard kitty.

I was so nervous. I had no idea if I was going to have any aptitude for this at all, and I sure didn’t know if I was going to fit in at the shop. I was the oldest person there by a good margin, and my image is pretty clean cut. I could just see the cartoon thought bubbles over their heads when I walked in that first day, words in Comic Sans font, saying “What’s that middle-aged Farang (Thai for ‘foreigner’) lady doing here? Someone give her directions to Starbucks.”

This thing scared the crap out of me every time I rounded the corner.

This thing scared the crap out of me every time I rounded the corner.

To top it off, the day I arrived, nobody knew who I was, because they had been expecting a man (I get that a lot because of my name), and Aum, the tattoo artist who was supposed to teach me, was in the hospital following a bad motorcycle accident. But, when the owner, Martin, arrived, all got sorted out quickly, another artist took over the task of instructing me, and I got down to work.

IMG_0602It was all very informal, but immediately hands on. My teacher printed out some illustrations of various things off the internet, handed me some special carbon paper, and told me to make a stencil of the image by tracing over it to get the carbon on the back side of the paper. My first several tries were dreadful, and I got purple carbon paper ink all over myself and everything around me. IMG_0597After I got a stencil of a big, cabbagey-looking flower sort of passably acceptable, she gave me a hunk of pigskin they got from the butcher, and showed me how to transfer the stencil ink to the pigskin using a tube of Mennen SpeedStick deodorant. Then, as the stencil dried, it was time to learn how to assemble and use the tattoo machine.

IMG_0605I labored over my first practice effort for almost five and a half hours. When I was done, hand cramped into a nautilus curl, Martin looked at my work, dispassionately said “not good enough,” and went on about his business.

My first attempt.

My first attempt.

I was so demoralized, I went home that night thinking, “what the hell am I doing here?” I was sure I’d made a huge mistake.

But, Day 2 went a little better. Same routine: pick an image, make the stencil, transfer to pig skin, and ink with the machine.

Day 2

Day 2

Bucket o' Pigskin

Bucket o’ Pigskin

It was still not something you’d actually want to put on a human being’s body, but nevertheless, some improvement was evident. Praise was received. I verily skipped home. Maybe I wasn’t going to suck so much after all.

Ugh.

Ugh.

Day 3, tried shading. Another disaster. I almost cried. Suckage, assured. Dragged my ass home in a funk. This endeavor was going to turn me bipolar before long.

Waf, the Phenom.

Waf, the Phenom.

It didn’t help my morale any that there was another student there, Waf, from Belgium, who started two days before I had, and on his third day there was already working on real live people, doing beautiful work. Min and WafIn fairness, he was an artist to begin with, so he already had the skill and confidence to gracefully create images. This was just a new medium for him. He was great, right out of the gate. And, so nice and encouraging to me, too, as I struggled along my much steeper learning curve.  If he wasn’t so nice, I’d have been really jealous of him.

L->R:  Aum, Tom, Ori and Waf

L->R: Aum, Tom, Ori and Waf

Two other guys—Ori and Tom—who were not beginners (at least, not by the time I got there) were also in residence.  When they weren’t cracking us up, they were spending some time polishing their already impressive skills, banking some experience, and developing their individual styles.

Ori, inking his own leg. And me, in the mirror.

Ori, inking his own leg.
And me, in the mirror, taking the photo.

When the shop was quiet, Ori would get bored and tattoo his own leg, while sipping a beer for the pain. And, can I just tell you, even though he was half in the bag, and all twisted up like that, his lines came out as clean and perfect as if he’d used a ruler. Dude is a natural.  (Click here to see more of his work.)

Practice, Practice.

Practice, Practice.

I, on the other hand, was clearly not a natural. You could just hear the rusty gears creaking in my head and smell the smoke coming out of my ears as I concentrated so hard on getting the lines even and the shading nice and feathery. My teacher was pretty laissez faire, which was probably good, as I get very frustrated and touchy when I’m having a hard time mastering something.

Hung prominently in the shop.

Hung prominently in the shop.

From the look of the work I was turning out, I was having a very hard time. The only thing I had any immediate gift for was creative draping of pashminas around the other guys’ more modest female clients who didn’t want to expose too much while they were getting worked on. A useful skill, sure, but not what I was there for.

IMG_0679But, around day 5, something shifted. Things started to click, and the machine felt more natural in my hand. I held it less tightly, and it flowed more easily over the pigskin, and suddenly, my lines looked better. The shading looked softer. The colors were going in nice and solidly. Day 5 was a good day, indeed. In fact, at the end of it, my teacher said I was ready to work on a person. IMG_0745I said no, I’m not ready. But, Pang, the manager came by and looked over my shoulder, clucked with approval, and went and put my name on the schedule board for a live, human model the following Monday.

IMG_0831I tell you what, if there’s anything that’ll motivate you to spend the whole weekend hunched over a piece of spoiling pigskin in the Bangkok heat practicing lining and shading, it’s the knowledge that some naïve kid who wants a free tattoo is going to be putting his pristine arm in your hands to indelibly mark for all the world to see. I didn’t want some epic tattoo fail ending up on the Internet—or anywhere else, for that matter—on my watch.

My walk to work along the Saen Saep Canal in Bangkok.

My walk to work along the Saen Saep Canal in Bangkok.

Monday arrived—Day 8—and I hadn’t slept much. I made sure to eat a good breakfast so my hands wouldn’t shake, and went to the shop to await my first victim. When he arrived, two hours late, I was nervous, but composed. He didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Thai, so Aw, the shop assistant, translated for us. The model was a skinny slip of a kid of about 20, and he indicated he wanted his tattoo on the inner side of his forearm, but he didn’t have any particular image in mind. I found that strange, but I had bigger fish to fry.

Aw, our trusty shop assistant, and interpreter.

Aw, our trusty shop assistant, and interpreter.

We sat down at the computer together and sifted through various tattoo styles until he saw one he liked: a neo-traditional pocket watch flanked by some roses. He was a toothpick, though, so the image wrapped almost all the way around his arm, and he refused to let me shrink it to fit the flat part of his forearm. But, as Tim Gunn says, it was time to make it work.

All stenciled up and ready to go.

All stenciled up and ready to go.

In those last few seconds before I touched the needle to his skin for the first time, I stopped to take a breath, and looked at his clean, smooth baby skin. It was never going to be the same again. Whether it would look like a poem or like tire tracks by the end of the day was up to only me.

Ori, fixing my cable.

Ori, fixing the cable.

Unfortunately, I was beset by technical difficulties, right away. The power cable to my machine was wonky, and I kept losing power. Ori fixed that for me.  Then, because of the location of the tattoo site, and the way we were sitting, my boob was in the kid’s hand the whole time I was working.  He didn’t complain, though, and I forgot about it after a while.  Also, because I was obsessively cleaning the skin as I worked, the stencil was rubbing off.

Yes, my boob is in his hand.

Yes, my boob is in his hand.

Aum, who had returned from the hospital a couple days before, was standing over me, his eyes still swollen and black from his accident, urging me not to stop, to just continue working freehand.

Half-way, and the stencil is rubbing off.

Half-way, and the stencil is rubbing off.

But, he had a whole lot more confidence in me than I did that I could do that without utterly defacing this child’s arm. So, I kept stopping, referring back to the printed image, and manually drawing the stencil back on. After about the fifth time redrawing the stencil, though, Aum was getting impatient with me, saying we were going to be there all night.

Finito!  My very first tattoo on a real, live human.

Finito! My very first tattoo on a real, live human.

I said an inner “TAWANDA!!” and did my best to finish the rubbed-off parts freehand. And, for a first effort, I think it came out reasonably well. Only took six hours. And, boy, did I sleep like a rock that night.

IMG_0876

Did that one, too.

The ensuing days were a flurry of sweet, tough, Thai kids happy to let me cut my teeth on them in exchange for free tattoos. Oddly enough, they usually didn’t have any specific image in mind when they came in, frequently saying “Up to you,” when I’d ask (through an interpreter) what they wanted. Up to me? Really? Well, then guess who’s getting a tattoo of a penguin in a hula skirt dancing on the tip of a giant corndog! That usually got them engaged in the image selection process pretty quickly. It also ensured that I ended up doing a lot of skulls flanked by roses. It’s a classic choice, easy to make on the fly.

The picture he brought.

The picture he brought.

What I gave him.

What I gave him.

BOOM!

BOOM!

In fact, there was only one time someone came in already prepared with a picture of what he wanted. It was a kind of rough illustration of a knuckle dagger that he wanted tattooed on his tricep, exactly as pictured, but embellished with some blood dripping from the blade.  I had to do an especially good job on this one, too, as my victim had absolutely gorgeous work done already by my comrades—mostly by Tom—and I didn’t want my contribution to the glorious canvas of his body to be an ugly toad. In the end, both he and I were very happy with the result.

The Shop.

The Shop.

IMG_0709Once I found my footing, just being in the shop was a blast. We had a mild, comic uprising when someone put techno music on, as it made everyone’s lines come out all uneven and bumpy. In fact, the only music no one ever complained about was Johnny Cash. I settled a mystery for those who thought the clients were sniffing glue for the pain during tattoo sessions, by imparting my earlier acquired knowledge of the universal Thai addiction to menthol nasal inhalers (they really are great if you are feeling dizzy from the heat or pain). MuralWaf painted fantastic graphic murals—his original wheelhouse—on the exterior walls of the shop. Tom would sing while he worked. Pang would bring us food, sometimes with chicken feet in it, that we’d eat at the picnic table on the patio, sometimes under the laundry strung up to dry. PicnicGroups of loud, vacationing blonde girls would come in groups of three or four, get matching tattoos, and squawk away at the top of their voices about their supposedly-wild-but-actually-pretty-tame sexual exploits in a manner clearly contrived to garner the interest of the guys in the shop, but that resulted only in us making vicious fun of them after they’d left. (Seriously, ladies…no one cares who you blew.) It was very colorful, in more ways than one.

Pretty sure that's research.

Pretty sure that’s research.

One afternoon, we were all absorbed in our respective projects, and out of the quiet, Tom said: “Do you guys remember that Friends episode where Phoebe and Rachel go to get tattoos?” Ori, without even looking up, answered, “No, I didn’t watch that show.” I, however, had actually just been thinking about that very episode a couple days before, so I chimed in with, “Yes! And Phoebe chickened out, and just had a dot on her collarbone, saying ‘it’s a lily, as seen from space!’” To which, Tom responded “No, it was ‘This is a picture of the earth from space!” Ori finally interrupted us and said, in a mildly exasperated tone, “No, it was: “It’s the way my mother sees me from heaven.” Tom turned around, eyebrow cocked, and answered, “I thought you said you never watched it.” Ori shrugged. “Well, I didn’t want to admit seeing it, but if you’re going to quote it, you should at least get it right.”

(If the video doesn’t show above, click here.)

The last one I did before leaving.

The last one I did before leaving.

As my time at Bangkok Ink drew to a close, it was clear to me that, although I had come a very long way from that first disaster of a cabbage flower on pigskin, I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go if I’m going to be anything but a dilettante at this. I am really hoping to get back there someday, to see how much better I can become.  I’m also looking into other places in the world where I can continue to learn and improve my skills as I continue my travels.  We shall see.

Words to live by.

Words to live by.  Written on the wall of the shop.

If I’m honest, though, I think it’s safe to say that, unlike Waf and Ori and Tom, I’m just not an artist. I sense that the best I’ll ever be at this is a competent technician. I’ll always have to farm out creation of the actual artwork to a real artist, or, you know…the Internet. I can live with that, though. I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ll just never really be completely in my right mind. I mean, brain.


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Some Stuff – Pacific Islands Edition

In Batangas, Philippines.

In Batangas, Philippines.

As of today, I have been on the road for exactly six months. I can hardly believe it. Seems like just a few weeks to me, and yet, when I consider how much ground I’ve covered since leaving San Francisco, how far away my life as an office denizen feels, and how many truly lovely people I’ve been privileged to meet along the way, it seems like an awful lot for such a short period of time.

IMGP0621

One of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. Steven, of Yap.

In this edition of Some Stuff, I bid adieu to the islands I’ve visited since New Year’s Day 2014, in Micronesia and the Philippines (I know the Philippines is officially categorized as part of Southeast Asia, but it’s also one of the Pacific island nations, so I’ll cover it here). There are so many wonderful people and amazing things I will remember fondly from my travels around the Pacific. Without repeating things I’ve already written in other posts, here are just a few.

Everything’s Pretty in Saipan

Saipan

Saipan

Banzai Cliffs in Saipan

Banzai Cliffs in Saipan

Saipan is pretty. It’s quiet and lush and the water is so blue it looks fake, like it was dyed with Tidy Bowl toilet cleaner.  But, when I say everything is pretty in Saipan, I mean everything is “Pretty” in Saipan.

Kokoda, Kelaguen & Corndogs

Foodspotting App.

Foodspotting App.

I hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings by saying that I don’t think the food is the best reason to travel to Micronesia. The Philippines, yes. But, Micronesia’s culinary offerings are, to me, a bit less of a draw, in part because of the difficulty of obtaining fresh ingredients, other than fish and taro root. That’s just my opinion, but I don’t think I’m alone in it. In fact, the Foodspotting app—which uses GPS to direct foodies to delicious dishes in their immediate proximity—recommended popcorn at K-Mart as one of the top lunch options in Guam. This, I don’t understand, when there are corndogs on that island.

IMG_6843Yes, corndogs! There is a Wienerschnitzel inside the airport, and a Hot Dog on a Stick in the Micronesia Mall, where, on weekdays, it’s buy one get one free. IMG_6737I was so happy! By the time I left, the girls at the Hot Dog on a Stick and I were on a first name basis.

As much as I would like to try, one cannot live on corndogs alone, and there are a couple of stand out Micronesian foods that I still crave.

Kokoda

Kokoda

Kokoda is the Marshall Island’s coconutty take on ceviche. It’s a soupy concoction of lime-marinated seafood—squid, fish, clams, whatever is fresh—with chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro and coconut milk. You scoop it up with salty tortilla chips and wash it down with beer. So delicious, so rich, so messy.

Kelaguen is Guam’s culinary crowning glory (if you don’t count barbecued fruit bat, which is illegal now). Saipan’s, too. A Chamorro specialty, it is actually pretty healthy, and would be a huge hit with anyone watching carbs, or looking for a unique dish to bring to a barbecue or potluck. KelaguenEvery local family has its own recipe, and most of it is inexact kitchen science; a little of this, a little of that, spicy or not, as you like. Originally, kelaguen was made of minced raw fish or shrimp, cooked only in the acid of lemon juice. Today, the one I saw most prevalently was made with barbecued chicken, but you see it at the night markets made with any and all types of lean protein, including beef, shrimp, fish or even octopus.   Some add shredded fresh coconut, usually to chicken or fish versions, but I prefer it without. It’s served by itself with “titiya” flatbread, as a salad topping, or as a side dish with barbecue, or grilled fish. Here’s the recipe and instructions I got from Randy, the ATV driver on my jungle safari, after we bonded over a mutual love for kelaguen. It’s his family’s recipe.

Randy’s Chicken Kelaguen

ŸBarbecue a whole chicken, cut into parts, making sure to get it black in places, so the flavor of the smoke and char gets into the chicken meat, without drying it out. (You could use a rotisserie chicken, but Randy says it’s best to barbecue the chicken yourself, so you can make sure it’s good and charred and smoky.) Let cool, and remove skin and bones.

Ÿ Chop the meat very finely. The chopped bits should be about the size of grains of rice. You can use a food processor, or if you have some aggression to get out, a Chinese cleaver works well, too. Transfer chopped chicken to a mixing bowl.

Ÿ Finely chop about six or so scallions, and add to the chicken. You could use a red or a Spanish onion, if you prefer, or a combination, but the classic has scallions.

Ÿ If you like a little spice—and Randy and I both do—finely chop a Serrano, jalapeno, or bird chili—any hot pepper of your choice—and add as much or as little of that as you like. You can take the heat level down and keep the flavor by removing the seeds and ribs before you chop the chili. Add to the chicken and onions.

Ÿ Add the juice of one large lemon, and toss to coat well.

Ÿ Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ÿ If you want to add some coconut (I don’t care for it in this), mix in a handful of FRESHLY grated, unsweetened coconut. Don’t even think about using dried coconut. If you do, the police will spontaneously show up at your door and…pull your hair. I don’t know, just don’t.

Ÿ You can serve it right away, but Randy says it’s better if you let it sit in the fridge, and allow the flavors to marry really well, for a few hours at least.

Enjoy!

Candygram

Dear divemasters of Palau:

This guy was probably 12 feet long.

This guy was probably 12 feet long.

If there is even a slight possibility that there will be a school of huge sharks circling under the boat, please do your divers a favor and tell them about it before they jump in the water.  It’s just good manners.

Coconut-Eating Chickens & Snorkels the Pig

ChickenutsHere’s something I bet you didn’t know: Chickens love coconut. I learned this in Yap. I know chickens aren’t typically discriminating diners. I had chickens when I was a kid, and ChickensI saw one eat a piece of string so long once, that it started pooping out one end of the string before it had finished swallowing the other end of it. But, they go really bonkers over coconut. It’s like…chicken nip.

Also learned in Yap, vis-à-vis barnyard animals and coconuts: you shouldn’t park your pig under a coconut tree. This is Snorkels. Snorkels was my friend. Snorkels lived under a coconut tree.

(If the video doesn’t show above, click here.)

Gentle friends, may you never hear the sound of a coconut falling on a pig. (Don’t worry, Snorkels was okay.)

Tuba

IMG_6543“Sweet Tuba” is not a really nice brass musical instrument. It’s a milky wine made of the fermented sap of a coconut tree. You see Tuba all over Micronesia and the Philippines.

Bottles of Tuba

Bottles of Tuba

The Tuba Man has to climb up the tree and hack at the base of the fronds every day to make sure the sap continues to run, so he can gather enough to make Tuba.  Tuba comes in sweet, for beginners, or the regular, high-octane variety for the hardened Tubaholic.

Sweet Tuba in a coconut cup.

Sweet Tuba in a coconut cup.

I only had the sweet version, which is not as lethal, but will still give you a hell of a hangover. The morning after I hung out with the Yapese Tuba guys, I felt like Snorkels after the coconut.

Subterranean Flows

On an island in Palawan, in the Philippines, there’s a deep system of limestone caves, through which one of the longest navigable underground rivers in the world flows directly to the sea.

The mouth of the Underground River, Palawan, Philippines.

The mouth of the Underground River, Palawan, Philippines.

UNESCO put it on the World Heritage list in 1999, and in 2012, it was named one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” by that group in Switzerland that has appointed itself arbiter of such things. I can see why, too, it’s a pristine and eerie Underworld.

He's about to snatch my friend's purse.

He’s about to snatch my friend’s purse.

The mouth of the river is guarded by a band of extremely larcenous monkeys. Underground RiverIts vast caverns are full of bats, stalagmites and stalactites. They said there were tarantulas, too, but thankfully, I didn’t see any, or I would have jumped out of the boat.

Midget Boxing

If you’ve been watching the news about the vanished Malaysia Airlines jet, you may have noticed reports that the USS Pinckney—a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer—was dispatched to assist in the search. IMG_6853It was close by, according to the Pentagon’s official explanation, conducting “training and maritime security operations” in international waters. Well, apparently, by “training and maritime security operations in international waters,” they mean refereeing midget boxing matches over drinks at the Ringside Bar in Manila. Busted!

I want to join that Navy.


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Some Stuff–Taiwan Edition

Taiwan FlagWere it not for all the typhoons and radiation in Japan when I was in Korea deciding where to go next, I might not have landed in Taiwan, or at least, not planned to stay so long.  I’m so glad I did.

Yours truly in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in Taipei.  Forgive my hair, it was a rainy day.

Yours truly in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in Taipei.

I had a blast in Taiwan!  The people?  Oh my god, so friendly.  The food?  Oh my god, so delicious.  The island?  Oh my god, so beautiful.  Sometimes, the universe really does send you where you need to go.

Here’s some stuff I will never forget:

Some Groovy Buildings

Taipei 101

Taipei 101

Taipei is a big ol’ city, but its skyline isn’t full of skyscrapers.  What it doesn’t have in volume, though, it makes up for in style.  Taipei 101 is a grand landmark, sticking up out of the middle of the tony Xinyi District like a giant, green glass syringe.  Finished in 2004, Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world for a while, until 2010, when the Burj Khalifa in Dubai knocked it out of first place.  It still has the world’s fastest elevator, though.

See?  No other tall buildings.  I took this from Maokong, in the suburbs.

See? No other tall buildings. I took this from Maokong, in the suburbs.

I must say, it is a little bit wooziating to ascend 89 floors to the observation deck in just a few seconds.  There’s a sign that says pregnant women and people with blood pressure problems shouldn’t go up in the elevator, and now that I’ve taken the trip, I can see why.  tp101-2It pulls on you something fierce.  But, you can’t see that warning sign until after you’ve paid your 450 Taiwanese Dollars and stood in line for an hour, so by then, you know…screw it, if we faint, we faint.

Now, remember, Taiwan is in the Pacific Ring of Fire, so it’s a hotbed of earthquake activity.  Temblors awakened me in the middle of the night a couple times during my stay.  There are usually three or four small earthquakes per day in Taiwan, and real shakers on a fairly regular basis.

The Damper, from above.

The Damper, from above.  Look how little the people look next to it.

Between the frequent earthquakes and yearly typhoons, the architects of Taipei 101 had to make sure their masterpiece wouldn’t fall down too easily.  So, it’s got an incredibly stable foundation, and a massive, 728 ton steel pendulum, with the largest wind damper in the world, suspended from the 92nd to the 87th floor, to offset the sway from typhoon winds.  wind damper2They call it by its technical name:  the “Super Big Wind Damper.”  They have little miniature “Damper Baby” dolls in the gift shop, along with, for some reason, replicas of some famous jade cabbage that everyone gets very excited about.

The diagrams are super helpful, don't you think?

The diagrams are super helpful, don’t you think?

There’s also, apparently, an issue with people not knowing that you’re not supposed to squat and pee on the floor in front of the toilet.  The fact that they even needed to make this sign both disturbs and amuses me.

Speaking of buildings and earthquakes, there’s a very interesting memorial in central Taiwan, in the small town of Jiji.  The big 1999 earthquake—the second deadliest and most destructive quake in Taiwan’s recorded history—was centered near Jiji.

Wuchang Temple in Jiji.

Wuchang Temple in Jiji.

Wuchang Temple in Jiji collapsed in on itself, in a very tidy, almost purposeful heap.  fallen templeOfficials decided to rope it off and leave it that way, as a vivid reminder of the quake, and the nearly 3,000 people who perished in it.  It’s something to see.  It almost looks like it was built that way.

Bananarama

Bananarama

There’s not much else in Jiji, besides a stand selling bananas.  Lots of bananas.  The plethora of bananas in Jiji made me giggle, because I had been previously told that the word “jiji” is a Taiwanese slang term for penis.  P1060380I know, I’m hopelessly juvenile, I can’t help it.  They also say that someone who brags “blows air into a cow’s vagina,” and I’m still laughing about that one.

Some Stuff That’s Just Five Kinds of Wrong

french akitaI saw this poor pooch at Sun Moon Lake, looking all kinds of embarrassed.  He must have chewed up someone’s Jimmy Choos to deserve a shaming of this magnitude.

befroeWhat caught my eye about this sign at first, of course, was the hilarious ‘fro wigs on the babies.  “Befroe,” indeed.  That little guy in the darker wig is just not having it, is he?  Then, after examining the arrows and labels, I realized, it’s not about the hair…it’s about the eyes, and that’s supposed to be the same baby in both shots.  I don’t know exactly what kind of baby-improvement service they were advertising here, but I’m fairly sure it would get the CPS called on you in the States.

Self-explanatory.

Self-explanatory.

I love Taiwan’s open-air markets.  The lanes near the numerous temples in every city are crowded with vendors selling everything a body could need, from food to clothes to medicines to car seat covers.  pedicureYou can also get your toenails scraped and cut, and your chin hairs tweezed, right there on the sidewalk for everyone to see, right there next to the lady selling roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts.  threadingI’m sorry…that’s just nasty.  Maybe I’m a prude, but to me, some stuff should be taken behind closed doors, and hoof and tusk trimming is one of them.

modern toiletEver wanted to eat dinner out of a toilet bowl?  Me neither, but I did it voluntarily.  I’m sorry, but in my book, if there’s a restaurant called “Modern Toilet,” you go.  pottyAnd you order the curry.  I had hoped they might have pot roast, but no.  The dining room is done up like a big bathroom, with glass-topped bathtubs for tables and toilets for seats.  modern toilet2PooEvery entrée is served in a porcelain throne, and desserts come in a mini Asian squat toilet.  Latrine cuisine, at its finest.  And, yes, it tasted just like it looks.

Ahh, the air of New York at the "summer climax" is just the sort of scent you want to bottle and sell, isn't it?

Ahh, the air of New York at the “summer climax” is just the sort of scent you want to bottle and sell, isn’t it?

You have to have experienced the thick, chewy air quality of China to understand why “New York Air Flavor Spring Summer Climax Shower Gel” is something you might be willing to pay 500 New Taiwanese Dollars (about $17 USD) for.  At least, it was buy one get one free.

Some Stuff I Ate

Taiwan’s cuisine is the product of a lot of fusion of different things with Chinese food.  Gratins were surprisingly popular, and there are more pastries and baked goods than you would expect.

Dumplings...ohhhhh

Fried Dumplings…ohhhhh

My favorite bites include these crisp, fried green onion pancake thingies that you could get from street vendors, beef rolls that reminded me of Baja-style grilled burritos, but with Chinese flavors, the spicy beef soup with hand-cut noodles, and of course, the dumplings.  They have these “soup dumplings” that look like regular steamed buns, but when you cut or bite into them, soup pours out.  So good!  Good thing I did a lot of walking, to burn it all off.

coffee bagsOh, and whoever invented these single-serve drip coffee bags that clip onto the rim of the mug should be nominated for the Nobel Prize.  Although, the coffee that comes inside is definitely not created equal, let me tell you.  I can now vouch for Mr. Tom’s and a brand called “Blendy.”  Good stuff, and excellent for travel.

Some Stuff I Cooked

Ivy in her kitchen.

Ivy in her kitchen.

I had the good fortune to take several days’ worth of one-on-one cooking classes with chef and food writer, Ivy Chen.  What a wonderful, talented lady!  Ivy’s is a well-known advocate for organic, sustainable food in Taiwan, and regularly publishes articles and cookbooks about Taiwanese cuisine.  And, she teaches the occasional cooking class, if you’re lucky.

Floss Maker

Floss Maker

She took me with her to the market, and explained to me what all the weird things were I’d never seen before.  That was worth the price of admission, right there.  For example, meat floss.  They take different kinds of meat—chicken, pork, fish, beef, you name it—desiccate it, and then spin it into “floss,” like cotton candy.

Meat Floss

Meat Floss

The finished product looks just like upholstery batting, but tastes savory and salty and melts right in your mouth.  It’s the weirdest thing.  You eat it plain, as a snack, or use it as a garnish on stews or rice dishes.

Braised Pork with Peanuts and Floss

Braised Pork with Peanuts and Floss

We bought some pork floss and used it to garnish a typical Taiwanese dish of braised pork and peanuts on rice.

She also took me with her to the Chinese pharmacy to buy spices.

Ivy at the Chinese Pharmacy.  We were buying cinnamon and star anise.

Ivy at the Chinese Pharmacy. We were buying cinnamon and star anise.

She said you can get some spices in the market, but if you want really good quality spices, you have to go to the Chinese herbalist.  They use spices in Chinese medicine, so the quality is superlative.  Made sense to me.

Can you believe I made this?  So good....

Can you believe I made this? So good….

Thanks to Ivy, I am now the proud wielder of some wicked wok skills.  Wait until you try my—or, rather, Ivy’s—Taiwanese-style Kung Pao chicken.  Guaranteed to knock your socks off.

Traditional Taiwanese Pineapple Cakes

Traditional Taiwanese Pineapple Cakes

She also showed me how to make Taiwan’s trademark sweet—the pineapple cake.  Little shortcrust pastries with pineapple filling.  Kind of like pineapple Newtons, but the pastry is richer and crumblier.  They make the cakes out of other types of fruit, too, but pineapple is the classic.

Hello Pineapple!

Hello Pineapple!

There are pineapple cakes for sale everywhere; they even make Hello Kitty pineapple cakes.  Ivy said they used to be traditional for weddings, but now they are just everywhere, like macadamias in Hawaii.  We made some from scratch, from fresh pineapple.  I can hardly believe these perfect little gems in the picture above (not the Hello Kitty ones, obviously) were made by my own two little, clumsy hands.  I would offer to send y’all some, but I ate every last one.  Not all at once, of course, but I was not sharing these.

Just Stuff

If you're over the age of six, you have to have a high dork quotient to pull off riding one of these.  Thankfully, I qualify.

If you’re over the age of six, you have to have a high dork quotient to pull off riding one of these. Thankfully, I qualify.

I don’t know what category to put this in, but they have these big, plush animal cars for kids to ride/drive around on, and yes, they will let big kids ride them if it’s not busy.  My steed was the tiger in the middle of the picture.  They don’t go very fast, but they will tip over if you take a corner too tightly.  Don’t ask how I know that.  They should require protective headgear to ride these things.

So, Zàijiàn Taiwan, and Xièxiè for showing me such a good time!  Save me a pineapple cake!


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Strange Fruit

custard apple1My first day in Taiwan, I was wandering around in the Ximending neighborhood, and saw this lady on the street corner selling what looked to me like green plush toys shaped like dinosaur eggs. She saw me looking, and I was toast—she grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me over to take a closer look. I didn’t understand a thing she was saying, but that didn’t stop her from launching into her sales pitch, putting a couple of the weird, bumpy aliens in my hands. I could see and feel that they were some kind of biological material, but they had no particular smell, so I was completely clueless as to what they were. I didn’t know whether to try to eat it, or sit on it to hatch it, or kill it with fire.

I made the international shrugging gesture for “WTF?” and she responded with the international gesture for eating – the rapidly repeated spoon-to-mouth wrist flip. Okay, it’s food. Gotcustard apple2 it. I followed up with the palms-up “how?” gesture, and she performed a winning charades move, demonstrating that you pick off the green bumps with your fingers, one by one, to open the top, and then plunge in with a spoon. So, I got one and took it home with me. She even threw in a spoon for me.

custard apple3Back in my apartment, I followed her directions exactly, pinching off a big, green bump at what I thought was probably the top, and hoping I didn’t make the thing mad. Once I pierced the rugged skin, a sweet, tropical fragrance released into the room. Much better than Febreeze. The inside was a fluffy, creamy white. I looked closely to make sure it wasn’t breathing before I went in with the spoon. It wasn’t. Boy, did it smell good.

custard apple 4I scooped out a spoonful of the soft, segmented, sticky flesh and tentatively put it in my mouth, unsure if it would sting or what. Oh my goodness. So strange. Sweet as honey, and delicately floral. The flavor is not strong; the texture and sweetness are most prominent. But if I had to name it, I would say the flavor suggested the second generation after the love child of an apple and a banana. You know, kind of a diluted version of what I imagine that flavor combination would be.

custard apple cross sectionBut the texture? Flan. Flan with occasional seeds. Big, shiny seeds that look like those from a watermelon, but are the size of pumpkin seeds. (You spit those out.  I checked later.) I ate the whole thing, scraping out the inside of the hull with the spoon.

Seeds

Seeds

I don’t know what it’s called in Chinese, but I later learned that it’s called a custard apple in English. Atemoya, if you want to get horticultural. It’s apparently a hybrid of a soursop, or sugar apple, and a cherimoya.

popsiclesOnce I knew what it was, I started seeing them all over the place, made into popsicles (yum), in fruit salads, or just cut into cubes in cups, to eat with toothpicks. But, I still like to eat it with a spoon, right out of its weird, preternatural shell, like the auntie selling them in the market taught me.

Wax Apples

Wax Apples

The custard apple isn’t the only fruit revelation I discovered for the first time in Taiwan. There were wax apples, or “lambu” in Taiwanese, that look like apples pretending to be bell peppers, and taste like apples pretending to be cucumbers.

Wax Apple

Wax Apple

They are crisp and watery and not especially sweet. Very refreshing on a hot day.

Then, there was roselle. Peculiar, dainty little roselle. I think it’s a succulent, but I’m not 100 percent sure. Not unlike a prickly pear.

Roselle

Roselle

Coquettishly pink, with a flavor like hibiscus flower tea. Makes fantastic popsicles. I suspect it would also make killer margaritas. Or, in this case, rosaritas!

"U.F.O.s"

“U.F.O.s”

In the southern part of Taiwan, I saw a lot of these bright green, fringe-bottomed weirdoes, and never did figure out what they were. I took to calling them U.F.O.s—unidentified fruity objects. If you know what they are, let me know in the comments. zoidbergThe fresh ones look like Zoidberg from Futurama. The chopped, dried ones taste, honest to god, like lemon-lime soda. They’re crunchy and zingy, like Bottle Caps candy. They sell them in another form, too; dried like prunes and pitch black from being treated with some kind of charcoal dust.

Charcoal U.F.O.s

Charcoal U.F.O.s

Those have a medicinal taste. The woman selling them kept pointing to her throat and making an “ouchy face” as I was sampling them. So, I assume she meant they were good for sore throats. Made sense, from the taste. Nature’s throat lozenge.

Dragon Fruit

Dragon Fruit

Dragon fruit is very popular, served everywhere cut fresh, or in neon purple smoothies. I was already familiar with dragon fruit, but I had only seen the ones with the white, black-flecked flesh before. These were blazing magenta inside. You don’t want to get the juice on your shirt, if you can help it, unless you want it that color.

Cran-Mato Juice

Cran-Mato Juice

Like the Koreans, the Taiwanese also acknowledge the tomato’s true status as a fruit.  Even Ocean Spray tips its hat to the tomato’s fruity qualities, and includes it among the many fruits and berries with which it blends cranberry juice.  I’ve heard of Clamato, but Cran-Mato?  Ish.  Blech!  But, you can buy this juice blend in every convenience store in Taipei.  Twenty-three million Taiwanese can’t be wrong.  Or, can they….?

Ling Jiao, aka, Devil Pods

Ling Jiao, aka, Devil Pods

Not a fruit, but definitely strange, are the “ling jiao,” which seem to have many English names: the Jesuit nut, the bull’s horn, the bat nut, the winged water chestnut, and the devil pod. Or, just a ling nut.

Don't they look like little moustaches?

Don’t they look like little moustaches?

I dubbed them moustache nuts, because if you flip them over, they look just like those black plastic, old timey barbershop quartet moustaches that pop up in stores around “Movember.” Indeed, these pods are in season in November, thus supporting my thesis. Vendors sell them on the streets, steamed or roasted, like you see chestnuts in New York. If you pinch them in the middle, one of the sides will pop off, and you can bite the soft, savory nut out of the remaining side of the pod. Quite tasty. Also said to have anti-cancer properties. But, if you buy a big bag of them and take them home, you have to eat them fairly soon. They grow mold really fast. Take it from me.


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Those Are Not Apricots

Jeonju

Jeonju

I just read something that one of my friends back home posted on Facebook, and it reminded me of something I meant to tell you.  About a month ago, I was in the town of Jeonju, South Korea.  Jeonju is famous as the place bibimbap supposedly orginated.  It’s a fair size town, with a very big old quarter filled with “Hanok”–the traditional, old style Korean courtyard homes with the elevated, heated floors that you sleep on.  They call them “ondol” rooms.  Some of these old hanoks operate as bed and breakfasts.

Jeonju Bibimbap

Jeonju Bibimbap

People go there to stay in these old timey hanoks and browse through the very quaint old town.  Kind of like Korea’s version of Colonial Williamsburg, or Solvang.  You see a lot of out-of-towners there on weekend getaways; mostly Korean folks.  I didn’t see another westerner the whole time I was there, and there wasn’t a lot of English spoken or on signs.

Jeonju

Jeonju

Anyhoo, I wanted to have the experience of staying in a hanok, and sleep on the floor and the whole shebang, so I was researching online to find a good one.  I often check out TripAdvisor when I’m looking for recommendations for places to stay; I find, if you read about five or six reviews, you usually get a pretty good sense of whether a place is going to work for you.

Bibimbap House.  Note the pottery vats in the garden; those are for "jang"--fermented foods, like gochujang and soy sauce.

Bibimbap House. Note the pottery vats in the garden; those are for “jang”–fermented foods, like gochujang and soy sauce.

So, I perused the reviews of various hanok in Jeonju, and I noticed that many of them referred to all the lovely apricot trees in town.  Several different people gushed about it; some even referring to a specific hanok in which they had stayed having a “big apricot tree” right there in the courtyard.  I thought “okay, have to make a note to see what kind of apricot stuff they have there that I can try,” assuming the locals would have all manner of jams and pastries and candies, etc., if they had so many apricots around.

Persimmon Tree

Persimmon Tree

When I got there, I kept my eyes peeled for these supposedly ubiquitous apricot trees, but there aren’t any.  There are, however, scads of persimmon trees.  Everywhere, branches loaded and heavy with the voluptuous, orange fruit.  In October, persimmons were starting to drop on the ground and sidewalks all over, like sweet, pulpy, orange bombs.

Another Persimmon Tree

Another Persimmon Tree

There’s nothing mutually exclusive about persimmons and apricots–we had both types of trees in our field when I was a kid–so it didn’t hit me until I had explored the whole area for a couple of days without seeing a single apricot tree, that I realized those TripAdvisor reviewers didn’t know a persimmon when they saw one!  Oh, no no no no no….those are not apricots.  Not even close.  The only similarity is that they both grow on trees, and they’re both some shade of orange, although not the same shade, at all.

Persimmons are very popular in Korea.  They eat them fresh, like any fruit.  I’m not crazy about the texture, but there’s no denying the sweet flavor.  It’s like candy.  Also, when the fruit is at its peak of ripeness, they freeze them, and then cut up the frozen persimmon flesh into cubes, and eat it like ice cream.  You don’t have to add a thing (although, I personally feel that most things benefit from a dab of cream, and I bet this would, too).  The freezing does away with the weird texture, and makes for a unique, delicious and healthy dessert!


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Some Stuff–Korea Edition

krlargeWrapping up almost two months in the “Land of the Morning Calm,” I thought I would start a tradition of saying goodbye to the lands I visit on my wanderings by jotting down some stuff that I saw/did/ate/learned during my time there that I will always remember.  So, in this, my 50th post on this site, I bid adieu to South Korea with the inaugural edition of “Some Stuff.”

Some Interesting Beauty Stuff

oliveThere have to be more beauty product stores in Korea than there are people.  Olive Young, Nature Republic, Skin Food, Etude House…I could go on for pages, there are so many.  They are often right next to each other, too, sandwiched between the endless sock and cell phone cover vendors.  I love potions and lotions and beauty gadgets almost as much as corndogs, and finding exotic ones always makes me smile, so I spent more than my fair share of time perusing these shops’ wares.  Let me just say, they put some fun stuff on their faces in Korea.

I saw a lot of these eyelid tapes and glues in various shops.  I was wondering whose eyelids were flapping around in the wind so badly that they would need to be glued or taped down.  But, it’s actually used to create an extra fold in the eyelid when the eye is open, to change the shape of the eye.  This made me a little sad.

Next time I go to Korea, I’m taking a suitcase full of Herbal Essences and Burt’s Bees products to sell on the street to finance my trip.  A regular sized bottle of that bargain basement shampoo that costs just a few bucks in the States will run you 13,900 Won, or about $14 USD, in Korea; a tiny tin of Burt’s Bees lip balm or cuticle cream is even worse:  about 20,000 Won, or roughly $20 USD.  I wonder if they know Burt’s Bees is owned by Clorox?

flush buttonThis doesn’t really fit into the “beauty products” category, but it is under the umbrella of feminine modesty and demureness, so I’ll just stick it here.  In some public restrooms, they have these little boxes on the wall with a speaker and a recording of a toilet flushing, that you can play while you tinkle so you can delude yourself that no one can hear what you’re doing.  Staves off the bashful bladder syndrome, I guess.  Saves water, too, by keeping women from constantly flushing the toilet while they’re trying to go.  This is not just in fancy public powder rooms, either.  I took this photo in the KTX train station in Seoul.  They also have panic buttons in there that you can press to summon help if you’re in trouble, like, if you’ve run in there to hide from someone trying to attack you.  Pretty nifty.

Some Stuff I Ate and Will Now Forever Crave

Galbi grill and a kajillion banchan.

Galbi grill and a kajillion banchan.

Oh, gentle friends, I could devote several pages to waxing poetic about Korea’s food.  I now have a number of new temptations to resist.  The barbecue, obviously, is out of this world.  Whether galbi (short rib), or samgyeopsal (pork belly), or what-have-you, the tabletop grill and scores of “banchan” (side dishes) make for a blow-your-mind meal.

Pork of "8 Kind Tastes"

Pork of “8 Kind Tastes”

I was just lucky to have friends to go with, as the tables are those giant, communal deals, and you never see anyone sitting there solo.

Tteokbokki

Tteokbokki

My friend Jung Eun told me on my first day in Seoul that, unless you have eaten Tteokbokki (also known as topokki), you can’t say you’ve been to Korea.  So, she took me to her favorite shop and we ate a pile of it.  I was skeptical at first.  The dish is described as “rice cakes and fish cakes in spicy sauce,” and that just didn’t ring any bells for me.  But, I’m a good sport, so I tucked in…and I loved it.  It’s sort of like chewy pasta in red enchilada sauce.  You see it a lot at street stands.  It’s cheap, delicious snack food.

Half jjajangmyun, half spicy seafood soup

Half jjajangmyun, half spicy seafood soup

There was a Korean soap opera I watched that was basically a Korean re-write of the movie “Overboard” with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.  But, since it was 16 one-hour episodes, obviously they had to expand the story.  Anyway, one of the little bits of the Korean version of the story that was cute was how the rich, amnesiac lady–who had been such a snob before hitting her head and forgetting who she was–wouldn’t eat anything except this cheap noodle dish called “jjajangmyun,” or noodles with “brown sauce.”  Well, apparently, jjajangmyun is to Koreans what mac n’ cheese is to Americans.  And it rocks, hard.  Comfort food in the extreme.  Salty, slightly sweet, savory…so perfect on a rainy afternoon.  It is also one of the few things I could order coherently when I was alone in a restaurant, so I ate a lot of it.  mcdonaldsAt Jung Eun’s house, we had it delivered in these little divided bowls–half jjajangmyun and half spicy seafood soup, the perfect combination–and after we were done, the delivery guy came back and took the dirty dishes away!  I love that.  (You can get anything delivered in Korea; even KFC and McDonald’s deliver.  Not that it did me any good; I couldn’t order anything over the phone because I don’t speak Korean.)

I don't know what these little pancakey things are called, so I'll just call them Heaven Puffs.

I don’t know what these little pancakey things are called, so I’ll just call them Heaven Puffs.

In every market, some vendor will have a stand selling these nutty little pancake thingies, serving them folded in half in a paper cup.  Just to look at them, they reminded me a bit of the round puffs in face powder compacts.  They’re about the size of the palm of your hand (well, my hand), they have a chewy texture, and are filled with brown sugar, sesame powder, peanuts, and any number of yummy spices that melt into the dough as it fries on the grill.  Er-mah-gerd, people, these things are addictive.

Patbingsu

Patbingsu at Eskimo Hawaii

And then there’s Bingsu.  If “shaved ice with toppings” gives you visions of snow cones drizzled with syrups of colors that do not occur in nature, think again.  Bingsu is a whole different ball of wax…or, rather, bowl of ice.  Lots of places serve green tea flavored bingsu in a big, quart-sized Pyrex mixing cup, loaded with fresh fruits, mochi nuggets, and of course, the ever-present red beans (which makes it “Patbingsu”).  eskimoThat’s good, and much lighter than ice cream.  But the bingsu that will now forever come to my mind when I get an ice cream headache is from a place called Eskimo Hawaii.  Their “shaved ice” is made of milk that’s been hyper-frozen until it’s bone dry, and put through a shredder that makes it like sawdust.  So strange.  Then they top it with candied pumpkin, sweet rice cakes, and yes, red beans.  The milk flakes melt on your tongue and mix with the sweet toppings…it’s like milk and cookies all in one bite.

Some Stuff on a Stick

I love food on a stick.  Put anything on a stick, and it’s just better.  I think they should figure out a way to put spaghetti on a stick, I really do.  Korea agrees with me.  In every market and street food stall, there is no lack of stuff on a stick.

Meh.

Meh.

With all the pseudo-corndog teasing that I was subjected to, however, there was one cruel joke.  Long before coming to Korea, I had read about a mythical french fry-encrusted hot dog on a stick that was to be had in street food stalls Seoul.  Finding this unicorndog was on the top of my list of things to do while in Korea, understandably.  Accordingly, one day, I put on my walking shoes and set off to the big market in Namdaemun, vowing not to rest until I found it.  And find it I did.  And you know…it was just okay.  It needed salt, and it wasn’t as crispy as it either looks or should be.  Not at all worth a special trip.  Phooey.

Some Stuff I Ate and Was Surprised I Liked

fish intestinesWhen in Rome, as they say, do as the Romans do.  So, when in Korea, eat as the Koreans eat.  Some of that stuff can be pretty intimidating, though.  But, you know, if you just open your mind, and dispense with the preconceived notions, you just might slip one past your Western palate, and discover that you like fish eyeballs.  Yes, I ate fish eyeballs, and did not die.  They’re kind of like little savory raisins.  I won’t be getting into any slap fights to get my share of fish eyeballs anytime soon, but I can honestly say I didn’t hate it.  Also surprisingly good, the aforementioned sausages encased in fish paste on a stick.  It won’t be replacing the corndog in my heart, but they weren’t bad.  Fish intestine soup was pretty strange looking, but went down easy.

Those are not chicken breast tenders, they are fish egg sacks.

Those are not chicken breast tenders, they are fish egg sacks.

But the biggest surprise was pollack roe on rice for breakfast.  Had anyone told me a few months ago that I’d be happily nibbling on fish eggs and seaweed soup for breakfast, I’d have had them drug tested.  But, it’s true.  They marinate the egg sacks, and the roe takes on a smoky, very non-fishy flavor that, on rice, is about as close as Koreans get to lox and bagels.  I know you don’t believe me, but it’s the truth.

Some Stuff I Refused To Eat

Penis fish in the Busan fish market.

Penis fish in the Busan fish market.

I am a pretty good sport when it comes to most things, especially food, but even I have to put my foot down sometimes.  One of the things I just couldn’t bring myself to put in my mouth, was the penis fish.

Penis fish on a plate.

Penis fish on a plate.

Some try to make it better by calling it by its alternative name, the spoon worm.  Not helping.  In Busan, this creature is served live, sliced and still squirming.  Sorry…couldn’t do it.

silk worms

Boiled silk worm pupae (beondegi).

When I was in Mexico City earlier this year, I ate crickets (chapulines) and ant larvae (escamoles), and I won’t say I liked them, but I got them down without having to leave the table or spit them out in a napkin.  They eat roasted crickets in Korea, too, but I felt like I’d done my cricket duty in Mexico, so I politely declined.

Looks like I'm not the only one who had that reaction.

Looks like I’m not the only one who had that reaction.

But, when confronted with the Korean beondegi–boiled silk worm pupae–I almost threw up a little in my mouth.  This dish is common, too; you see it all over at street stalls.  The sight of it is bad enough, but the smell…oh god, the smell.  Imagine you’ve gone off and forgotten a load of laundry in the washer for a week during the hottest week of summer.  So very gross.

Umm...no thanks.

Umm…no thanks.

I know tomatoes are technically fruits, but before visiting Korea, I hadn’t seen them actually prepared like fruits.  Except, once, the Korean deli near my office in Oakland put cherry tomatoes in their fruit salad.  But, now I understand why.  Koreans treat tomatoes like the fruit that they are, making sorbet and sugary desserts and smoothies out of  them.  It just didn’t do it for me, though.

chickenbutt

I don’t see any bandages over his gizzard….

Finally, there was dakdongjib.  Literally translated as “chicken shit house” in Korean, dakdongjib is part of the alimentary canal of a chicken, close to the exit.  There is some dispute about whether what is served is actually the anal sphincter, or rather, the gizzard.  I don’t know the answer to that, but the restaurant in Busan that serves it has this illustration as its logo, so you do the math.

Some Stuff I’m Glad I Got Off My Ass To Do

Woljeongsa Temple in Gangwon.

Woljeongsa Temple in Gangwon.

Anyone who has traveled in Asia knows what it is to get temple fatigue.  After a while, one temple starts to look like every other temple, and they all require you to hike up bloody steep hills to get to them, and then prohibit you from taking any pictures.  By the time I was in Busan, toward the end of my time in Korea, I not only had a bad case of temple fatigue, but my Achilles tendons were inflamed, and I was in no mood to hike up any more mountains to then climb up another dizzying staircase just to see another statue of the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion who, I’m sorry, if she was really the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion, she’d have met me at the bottom of the damned hill.

Yonggungsa

Haedong Yonggungsa

So, it is all the more remarkable that I was even open to taking the bus 40 minutes north of Busan to see Haedong Yonggungsa.  But, I’m so glad I did.  For one, it’s the only temple in Korea that isn’t on top of a mountain; it’s perched on a bluff above the ocean.  The story goes that some ancient Buddhist monk had a dream about a sea god, in which he was instructed to build this temple by the sea.

108 steps.

108 steps.

But, that didn’t spare me climbing stairs, oh no.  There are 108 steps from the gate down to the bridge across the rocks to the temple.  The number 108 is a sacred figure in several eastern religions, including Buddhism, which holds that there are 108 human feelings, and 108 “agonies,” the latter of which inspired these steps, I can testify.

yonggungsa2But the effort was worth it; Yonggungsa is an ethereal place that invokes anything but a somber mood in its visitors.  It’s joyful and bright and leaves you feeling clean and light, even if you are not a particularly spiritual person.

Traffic Safety Pagoda

Traffic Safety Pagoda

There’s even a special pagoda for “Prayers for Traffic Safety,” marked with a truck tire.  Very practical, I think.  And since I was planning to rent a car the following week in Jeju Island, I threw a few Won into the box, lit a stick of incense, and said a silent prayer, just in case.  There are other well-worn prayer spots, too, such as a granite Buddha statue whose belly you can rub to ensure that your baby will be a boy–that one was rubbed smooth and shiny–as well as heavily attended shrine where folks can pray for “Excellence in Academics.”  But, not by me, I’m done with all that, thank goodness.

Some Stuff I Was Too Lazy To Get Off My Ass To Do

"Come have a slumber party with me!"

“Come have a slumber party with me!”

Read any information on how to make your trip to Korea authentic and wonderful, and you’ll run across information on doing a “temple stay.”  I read this stuff, too, and thought seriously about checking it out.  Temple stay is where you check in to a Buddhist temple for a few days or weeks, live with the monks, meditate, eat with them, etc.  It sounded like the type of experience that might be interesting, if not fun.  monk signSo, I investigated it at a number of temples, such as Woljeongsa in Gangwon.  It’s affordable, and I know I could do the required work, and the meditation. I could even deal with the all-plant diet and the doing your own dishes and the scratchy clothes.  But, then I found out you have to get up at 3:30 a.m. every day, and I said “Oh, I’m out.”  If anyone hears of a swing-shift temple stay program, let me know.

Some Stuff I Bought

I just wish they had printed it the other way around, so it would look like he is looking up at me when I have the socks on.

I just wish they had printed it the other way around, so it would look like he is looking up at me when I have the socks on.

I don’t do a lot of shopping when I travel, especially on this trip, where I would have to lug anything I got around indefinitely, unless I shipped it home.  But, I have picked up a couple of fun things.  My favorite Korean soap opera heart throb is Song Seung-Heon.  He’s stars in at least seven of the K-Dramas that I’ve seen–some of which I watched simply because he’s featured–and I think he’s just so pretty.  So, when I saw these goofy socks with his face on them, that say “I Love You,” well, I just had to have them.  Turns out, they’ve been useful, as I packed too few socks, thinking I would be wearing sandals more than I have been.

I love you even if you are doing weird.

I miss you even if you are doing weird.  I really do.

The other useful thing I bought is this cute utensil set with a spoon and pair of chopsticks in a pink carrying case.  I got it so I could eat yogurt or noodles or such in my hotel room, so I wouldn’t have to go out to eat all the time.  The case says “Lovely Friend” above the little bear with his cap on backwards, and below, it says:

“Naughty Bear

I’m really missing you, even if you are doing weird.  You understand me and take care of me.  So I thank you.  I wonder what you are doing now.  I think you every moments.  Perhaps, I like you.  I am your valuable friend.”

Even if I hadn’t have been in need of a portable utensil set, I think I would have to have bought it just for that inscription.

Some Stuff I Learned

My Kimchi Baby

My Kimchi Baby

One thing I was determined to learn when I went to Korea was how to make kimchi.  And I did.  I learned to make a number of classic Korean dishes, in fact.  I took some one-on-one cooking classes at Food & Culture Korea, with the beautiful and talented Jae Jeong.  I told her I wanted to learn techniques more than recipes, so I could really understand how the food is prepared.  If you know the technique, you can cook without a recipe.

All prepared with my own two little hands.

All prepared with my own two little hands.

She gave me exactly what I asked for, and now, I am equipped to cook you all an authentic Korean meal when I get home.  My dumplings may be ugly little piglets, as I lack Jae’s dumpling folding skill, but they will taste good.  I didn’t get to try the kimchi we made, though, because it had to ferment for a few weeks before it was ready.  But, my little ball of kimchi fermented away in my friend Jung Eun’s kimchi fridge, and when it was done fizzing itself to readiness, she informed me that it was, in fact, edible.  I am so proud.

The Billboard

The Billboard

Before I left San Francisco, I was driving back into the City over the Bay Bridge one day, and I noticed a big billboard right off the 80, just past the Fremont Street exit, seemingly advertising a vacation destination called “Dokdo Island.”  It had a beautiful picture of a rocky, exotic seaside and a lovely Korean woman, and a caption that read “Visit Beautiful Island! Dokdo, Korea!”  I had never heard of it, but knew I was headed to Korea, so I filed it away in my mental notebook of things to look into when I got there.  Well, I didn’t get to visit Dokdo, it was too out of the way, but I did learn something about it.  dokdoDokdo is the center of a brewing new dispute between Korea and Japan.  Dokdo is out in the East Sea between Korea and Japan, and apparently, despite centuries of settlement by Korean people, Japan has recently taken the position that Dokdo belongs to Japan.  This has Korean wigs in a major twist.  They are, after all, a tad sensitive when it comes to having their land claimed by Japan.  to NYTSo, there is a rather urgent PR campaign going on to make sure the world knows very well that Dokdo belongs to Korea, not Japan, and that the sea in which it lies is not the “Sea of Japan” but the “East Sea.”  That’s what that billboard was all about–planting in the minds of anyone who drove past the name of the island, and it’s association with Korea…just in case.

There is more…so much more.  My memory is full of vivid colors, wonderful people, funny signs, idyllic towns and oh so many teeny tiny towels.  Maybe next time, I’ll get to the bottom of why all the towels are so very, very tiny.  Or, I’ll just bring my own towel.  Either way, I am pretty sure I will be coming back.


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Sex, Mermaids & Tangerines

Jeju1Jeju Island.  Semi-tropical, volcanic island off the southern coast of South Korea.  Favorite honeymoon and golf getaway venue for the better-heeled Korean, Chinese and Japanese set.  Also, the setting for the most infuriating Korean soap opera finale of all frickin’ time.  If you’re a K-drama fan, you know I’m talking about the last scene of the first season of IRIS.  Okay, hang on, let me catch the others up….

IRIS

IRIS

All you need to know, is that the couple in the following clip both just retired from active spy duty with a South Korean government intelligence agency so they could finally live a quiet life together.  For 20 episodes, they were star-crossed, kept apart by the lies and malevolent agendas of various Svengalis, as well as their own conflicting loyalties.  Every time they were about to get together, something would tear them apart.  They even each thought the other was dead for a while.  So, they’ve been through quite the wringer.  In Episode 20, the final chapter, the Baddie gets his comeuppance, the two lovers quit the spy biz for good, and run off to Jeju Island for some long overdue R&R&R (rest & relaxation & romance).  He casually proposes and asks her if they can have five kids; she jokes that she can’t take such a random proposal, with no ring, seriously.  So, later, he leaves her a note to meet him at the lighthouse, and he goes and gets a ring.  She knows what’s coming, so she happily goes and waits for him, wistfully reflecting on all they’ve been through.  Then, this:

What.  The.  Hell!  They killed him in the final scene?  After 20 episodes of spectacular betrayals, intrigues, and narrow evasions of death at every turn?  When, finally, all obstacles to their love had been cleared from their path?  With her, standing on the lighthouse platform, waiting for him to come propose to her properly, right there in his sight as he bleeds out?  Aww, man…Korean soap operas have a tendency to have less than the full Hollywood happy endings, but this was just uncalled for.  I was so mad, I watched Spanish telenovelas instead of K-dramas for two months afterward out of spite, as payback for that beaver tail slap to the face.

The infamous lighthouse

The infamous lighthouse

But, I got over it.  There are, after all, a host of other K-dramas with happier scenes filmed on Jeju Island—or Jeju-do, as it’s called in Korean.  In fact, the tourist maps have all the film locations noted on them, so fans can easily find them.  Naturally, I made a beeline to the infamous IRIS lighthouse.  I even parked my rental car in the spot where they filmed his car screeching to a halt after he’d been shot.  It gave me closure.  I can move on now.  I might even watch the second season.  Maybe.

Jeju MapBut, back to Jeju.  The southern tip of South Korea shatters into a spray of little islands, and Jeju is the largest, and one of the most distant, of them.  Still, it’s a snap to get to, with ferry service from Busan, as well as practically hourly flights from Busan, Seoul and other major Korean and Japanese cities.  I took the 45-minute flight from Busan, and the ticket only cost me about $40 USD on Jeju Air.

Jeju Dolharubang

Jeju Dolharubang

Jeju has a personality all its own, very distinct from the mainland.  The local saying goes that Jeju-do is a land of “Three Abundances: rocks, wind and women”–because of the rocky lava landscape and the Dolharubang (ancient stone statues sprinkled around the island), the windy climate and the fact that Jeju women are more plentiful and dominant in its society than men–and “Three Lacks: thieves, locked gates and beggars”—as the community values are such that there is no theft or begging, and thus, no need to lock the front gates.  I can vouch for the Three Lacks, but from what I saw, I think they need to revise the Three Abundances to read “women, tangerines and sex museums.”

embraceThe place is lousy with “museums” of all kinds, actually, due to an apparent special tax benefit for museum owners.  But, on an island of roughly 700 square miles, there are three fairly large scale museums devoted to sex.  In the town of Seogwipo (pronounced “soggy-po”), there is the somewhat clinical, yet still X-rated, Museum of Sex and Health, as well as the World Eros Museum, devoted to erotica.  But, the biggest, and best known, is Jeju Loveland in Jeju City.

leg archLoveland is an adults-only sculpture park, started in 2004 by art students from Hongik University in Seoul.  The 140 sculptures in the park are all sexually inspired; some are more graphic than others, and some are even interactive.  boobie mountainsWith a few exceptions, the tone is humorous and playful, and encourages visitors to lighten the heck up about sex.  From the gaggles of giggling grannies I saw gleefully frolicking amongst the interactive exhibits, I’d say that message was received, in spades.

She's dropping a red chili pepper into a giant clam.  Subtle, no?

She’s dropping a red chili pepper into a giant clam. Subtle, no?

fanny fountain

There’s a snack bar at the far end of the trail through the park.  It’s adjacent to a giant, mosaic-tiled posterior—complete with butterfly tattoo–peeing into a pond, next to which a comely maiden rides astride a rearing, phallic steed.  Because, you know…that kind of sight can make a person a bit peckish.  As I approached, an apron-clad auntie came out of the snack bar and insisted I try a sample of some fragrant, fresh baked goods she had in a basket.

Bag o' Dicks

Bag o’ Dicks

They were little cream-filled waffles shaped like boobies and wee-wees.  Of course.  What else?  Although, I personally felt the joke would have been carried home a little better by some kind of Bavarian cream filling, these were filled, like almost all pastries in Korea, with sweet red bean paste.  Anyway, I always feel obligated to buy after I accept a sample, and they weren’t bad, so I went inside to buy one.  But, they only came in bags of three.  So, I bought and, yes, ate…a bag of dicks.  And, I thought about Louis C.K. the whole time.

I may have to tweet him about this.

jeju1More ubiquitous than, and some would argue equally salubrious as, the sex museums, though, are tangerine orchards.  For centuries, Jeju has been famous for–indeed, practically synonymous with–tangerines.  The island is, literally, covered with tangerine trees.  jeju3The climate and volcanic soil on the eastern side of the island, near Seogwipo, are perfect for citrus cultivation.  In the IRIS video above, notice that, when the girl is sitting by the window reading, she’s got a big basket of tangerines next to her, and there’s a giant pile of peels on the floor.  Oh yeah, you don’t go to Jeju and not gorge yourself on tangerines.  It just isn’t done.

Historical records indicate tangerines were offered as tribute to the king as early as 476 A.D., in the Baekje Dynasty.  They were prized not only for their sweet taste, but also for their value in oriental medicine.

Smell-evision at the Jeju Citrus Museum.  Push the button, and the fragrance of different citrus blossoms wafts out.

Smell-evision at the Jeju Citrus Museum. Push the button, and the fragrance of different citrus blossoms wafts out.

Once the royals got a taste of Jeju’s tangerines, they couldn’t get enough, and demanded a huge tribute of tangerines each year, to the point that the local governors requisitioned the fruit on all the trees on the island, including those in people’s back yard gardens.  Here’s a groovy 3D video they had at the Tangerine Museum (yes, they had a tangerine museum, complete with “Smell-evision”) of a dramatic reenactment of the ancient King first learning about the wondrous tangerine:

Got that?  Good.  So, civil servants would run around the island during the bloom, and count the buds on the trees, and then show up to collect exactly that number of fruit at harvest time.  If your tangerines failed to develop, fell, or got eaten by bugs or birds before they could be collected, you had to pay a fine for the missing ones.  If your tangerines were of inferior quality, you could be charged with mismanagement of tangerines, stripped of your property, and converted to a person of the slave class.  Harsh, no?  So, during that time, people who didn’t want to take the risk, would pour boiling water on tangerine saplings, to kill the tree before they could be held responsible for it.  But, on the flip side, if a slave managed to plant some tangerine trees and yield some good fruit, he could be elevated out of slave class to a citizen.  Later, when the tangerine industry started to be a profit center for Jeju residents, they called tangerine trees “college trees,” because if you planted enough, you’d be able to afford to send your kids to college.

Tangerine Tree Root Chandelier, as tangerine trees are the root of Jeju's economy

Tangerine Tree Root Chandelier, symbolizing tangerine trees as the root of Jeju’s economy

There are several varieties of tangerines grown on Jeju, and citrus stands dot the roads all around the island.  I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some.  Tangerines have been my favorite fruit since I was little, when we had tangerine and tangelo trees in our groves in Southern California.  I have many fond memories of sitting under the trees in the sunshine, sweet tangerine juice running down my chin, my hands and arms all sticky, as the honey bees buzzed whimsically around.

fruit standSo, first thing, even before I went to Loveland, I stopped at a roadside stand to buy some tangerines.  The farmer sent his helper running up to the house to fetch his daughter from her homework to come help, as she could speak a few words of English.  I’ll spare you the play by play, but suffice it to say we had a minor disagreement about which, and how many, tangerines I would be taking home with me.  tangerinesI wanted the plumper, dark orange ones with thick, dimpled skin, and he seemed to want to unload these sad little greenish, golf ball-sized, shiny, thin-skinned ones that didn’t look appetizing to me.  And, he insisted I had to take at least a kilo, which is a lot of tangerines.  Finally, by the time his poor daughter had smoke coming out her ears from trying to translate the exchange, I agreed to take a kilo, and he agreed to split it half-and-half between the two varieties.

The sour ones

The sour ones

And darn it, he was right.  The ugly little green splotchy ones were sweet, juicy, brilliant ruby and delicious inside, whereas the big fat orange ones that had attracted me were sour and dry, like the Naranja Agria you get in the Latin markets back home for cooking rather than eating.

The good ones

The good ones

Shows you what I know.  I had to go back later and apologize to the farmer, and get some more of those yummy little ones, after I hoovered through what he had given me in one day.  To his credit, he didn’t gloat.  To my face, anyway.

One of Korea’s uniquely charming traits is how it can embrace modern progress, charging headlong into the high tech future, while at the same time, its historical and folk culture remains intact.  This is evident nowhere plainer than on Jeju-do.

Seongup

Seongup

jeju1I’m not talking about self-consciously quaint reproductions of old-timey traditional burgs filled with souvenir shops, although there are some of those.  No, Jeju’s got the real thing.  There are entire villages of inhabited thatch-roofed, mud and stone hut compounds surrounded by low walls of stacked lava rocks to keep the pigs and chickens from taking off.  Seongup is one such village.

Air-conditioned mud hut

Air-conditioned mud hut

People still live and work in these anachronistic communities, and not just to provide atmosphere for the tourists.  It has been their way of life for generations.  They do add modern conveniences here and there, though.

Because livestock is kept inside the walls of the homesteads, they put stone pillar gates–called “jeongnang”–at the entrance, and block the gate with one to three wooden poles to keep the animals in when they aren’t around to mind them.

Jeongnang

Jeongnang

They also use the jeongnang poles as a message system to communicate with the neighbors, as well as any camera-wielding tourists who may wander in.  If all three poles are up in the gate, it means “Don’t come in.”  Two poles up means the owner is out for a while, but will be back in a bit.  One pole up means the owner is not in the house, but is somewhere close by.  All three poles down means the owner is home, and visitors are welcome.  Remember, no locked gates on Jeju-do.

haenyeo4The most defining cultural feature of Jeju-do, though, is the Haenyeo.  The “sea women.”  Specifically, women free divers.  If you drive along the coast, chances are you will catch a glimpse of a group of black rubber-suited figures popping their heads up from the surface of the dark, clear sea, whistling like trains in the distance as they exhale their long-held breath.  These are the haenyeo.  Jeju’s mermaids.  They work in tight sisterhoods, diving for as long as two minutes at a time without the assistance of air tanks, to hand-gather abalone, oysters, mussels, octopi, urchins, and any other edible, useful or saleable sea creature or plant they can find.  They even dive when they’re pregnant, and well into old age.  Some of these broads are in their 70s, and they’re still hauling their entire extended family’s livelihood out of the sea with their bare hands, every day.

These haenyeo statues are dotted all along the coast.

These haenyeo statues are dotted all along the coast.

haenyeo1As early as the 17th century, women were the breadwinners in Jeju, diving for marine products from the sea in the morning, and tending family farms in the afternoon.  This came about in part, because so many of the island’s men blew away when out to sea to fish (remember, wind is one of the Three Abundances), but also for a much more practical reason.  Under the early laws, women weren’t taxed.  So, Jeju’s women took to the seas, and the yield from their day’s work was more profitable, because they weren’t taxed.  Soon, they figured out that women were more suited to diving; they didn’t get cold so fast, because of higher body fat.  As a result, gender roles on Jeju reversed, with women assuming the place as heads of the household.

A Haenyeo Village

A Haenyeo Village

They created a sure-fire matriarchal society on Jeju-do.  Confucian traditionalists on the mainland didn’t like that; women were supposed to be inferior and submissive.  So, they tried to ban women from diving.  But, the Jeju haenyeo ignored them, and went about their business.  So central were the haenyeo to the economic health of the island, there is a saying on Jeju when someone has a baby:  “if it’s a girl, we’ll roast a pig and have a party; if it’s a boy, we’ll kick him in the hip.”  Not that the haenyeo didn’t have any use for men in their circles.  You know…as pets, to keep warm at night.

Look how tired she looks.

Look how tired she looks.

The haenyeo were also critical to the anti-Japanese resistance in Korea.  They continually staged protests and fought against the Japanese occupation in Jeju in the 19th century.  In the 1930s, Japan had turned Jeju-do into a military base.  The haenyeo organized two years of full-scale rebellion against Japanese oppression of Jeju’s fishing and marine industries, rallying thousands of villagers to stand up for their rights.  It is considered one of the three most significant anti-Japanese movements in Korea’s history, and the only one lead by women.

Casting of a hanyeo's face

Casting of a hanyeo’s face

At the height of Jeju’s marine product export economy in the 1950s, there were as many as 30,000 haenyeo on Jeju.  They made good money, and sent their daughters to college instead of having them follow in their flippers to a life in the sea.  As a result, by 1970, the number of working haenyeo was down to 16,000.  Today, there are fewer than 6,000 haenyeo still plying the waters around Jeju-do.  Two-thirds of them are over 60 years old, and over a thousand of them are over 70.  But, they remain the pride of Jeju.  So concerned is the community that the haenyeo are dying out, they have established a school, where anyone who wants to learn the haenyeo trade is welcome to enroll.

If it wasn’t for Dale, and my extra-buoyant figure, I’d give it a whirl.  But, I’d probably end up like this crusty old bat (note the tangerines):