Quin's Progress


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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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Beetlejuice!

Betelnut packages in India. (Image from flickerhivemind)

Betelnut packages in India.
(Image from flickerhivemind)

I was introduced to betelnut in India, back in 2001.  Everywhere, I saw these rickety little stands on the street corners, with long strips of square, foil packages hanging over a wire.  I thought they were condoms.  At some point, I made a comment to Bhawani—the driver I had hired—that it surprised me so see so many condom vendors, as India didn’t strike me as a particularly contraception-focused place.  After Bhawani stopped laughing at me, he explained that the foil packages contained betelnut, and that people chewed it like tobacco.  I tried it.  It was gross.  Kind of like chomping on Mexican jumping beans, or badly roasted coffee beans, mixed with spices.  But, you know, I suppose I’ve put worse things in my mouth over the years.

Fast forward a dozen years, and I’m in a taxi, on my way to soak in a natural hot springs just outside of Taipei that the taxi driver promised would make me “look like sexy teenager again.”  We were cruising along a frontage road under the elevated rail tracks, and I noticed a long line of storefronts, each with a young, gorgeous, scantily clad girl sitting on a tall stool in the front window.  It reminded me of Amsterdam, back in the day.  The driver noticed me looking at them, and responded to my unasked question with “Betel Girls!”

That's not Maybelline on those lips; it's betelnut juice!  Gross.

That’s not Maybelline on those lips; it’s betelnut juice! Gross.
(But, those aren’t betelnuts he’s selling, just regular peanuts and ling nuts.)

Apparently, betelnut chewing is popular in Taiwan, too, among drivers and manual laborers, and anyone who needs a legal stimulant boost to get them through the workday.  You can tell who uses the stuff, because their lips and teeth get dyed a juicy red color, like that produced by those plaque-disclosing tablets the dentists used to make us chew as kids to teach us how to properly brush our teeth.  The betelnut product is pretty much fungible, so the vendors compete for the consuming public’s business by hiring pretty girls to sell it in glass cabinet-like storefronts along side streets.  The taxi driver asked me if I wanted to try some, but I declined, saying I knew the stuff and wasn’t a fan.

The Package

The Package

A couple weeks later, I saw a package of Taiwanese betelnut up close, and it was totally different from what I had seen in India.  Instead of crunchy, dried nuts with spices, this was green and fresh looking, in a clear zip pouch.  I was intrigued.

The white stuff on the leaf is lime

The white stuff on the leaf is lime

The green bud of the nut that contains the active chemical compound was wrapped in a fresh, green leaf with a smear of lime paste on it.  (The leaf is the “betel” part, actually, as the nut is an areca nut, and the wrapping is a betel leaf.)  According to the expert instructions I received, you bite off the stem tip of the bud, and spit that part out.

That's the tip you bite off and discard.

That’s the tip you bite off and discard.

It’s fibrous and woody and would get stuck in your teeth.  Then, you pop the rest of the bud and the leaf in your mouth and chew and chew and chew.  It was nasty, but not nearly as far down the scale of nastitude as the stuff I tried all those years ago in India.  (No offense, Indian betelnut fans/purveyors.)

The immediate taste of the Taiwanese betelnut is very astringent, and both bitter and sour from the lime paste on the leaf wrapping.  It almost stings.  After a moment, your mouth starts to tingle, and you might feel a little bit of a head rush.

Betelface

Betelface

I’m told my face turned pink and my eyes watered.  I can’t say it made me high, though, which is what I was warned might happen.  Or, perhaps, it just wasn’t enough to override my normal, baseline dizziness.  We’ll never know.

ABC Betelnut

ABC Betelnut. Sorry.

As you chew, the taste turns into something like chalky lawn clippings, and the red juice starts to form.  That’s when I spit the stuff out.  I’m all for a local experience, but I just had my teeth bleached before leaving San Francisco.  Don’t want to be counteracting the magical, rejuvenating effects of that hot springs with nasty, red teeth, now do we?


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Three Wimpy Immortals & The Naughty Turtle Elf

One of the many things I love about Taiwan is that there is a folksy “legend” attached to just about every notable geological formation.  I put “legend” in quotation marks in much the same spirit Marcy put “enchilada” in quotes in the 1974 Weight Watchers recipe cards (see here), because their status as actual “legends” is truly questionable, but they are, nevertheless, entertaining.

Sanxiantai, or "Three Immortals Terrace"

Sanxiantai, or “Three Immortals Terrace”

For example, there is a small island off the southwestern coast called Sanxiantai, or Terrace of the Three Immortals.  It’s got three big knobs of rock that stick up out of it, and the locals used to keep goats out there.  Why?  I don’t know.  Now, there’s a wild, wavy bridge connecting it to the shore that is a chore and a half to traverse, but looks really cool.  Anyhoo, the local “legend” goes that, once upon a time, China’s Eight Immortals were flying home to China from vacationing in the United States…you know, like they do…they stopped on this island for a rest, and three of them decided to stay, because it is so pretty.  So, those three big rock outcroppings represent the three lame Chinese “Immortals” who punked out on flying all the way back to China…from vacationing in the USA.  Yeah.  Legend worthy, for sure, no arguments here.  Although, the locals’ self-esteem is concerning me, if they don’t think they were worth all eight of the Chinese Immortals, or even a simple majority of them, choosing to stay there with them.

Yehliu 1

I like to imagine that this lady is singing “The hiiiiills are aliiiiive with the magic muuuushroooooms”

My favorite one, though, is the “legend” associated with the Yehliu Cape, about an hour or so northeast of Taipei.  The coastal landscape in this one area is comprised of a ginger-colored sandstone layer underneath a denser sedimentary rock layer.  Erosion from the rough surrounding seas eats away at the underlying sandstone faster than the rock layer, creating these groovy, mushroom-like stone towers with black rock caps on top.

Yehliu Cape

Yehliu Cape

It’s otherworldly.  The black stone caps sort of look like turtle shells on the softer, narrower sandstone stems, so the area is also colloquially known as the Yehliu Turtle.  Now, here comes the legend (note, no “enchilada” marks on this one).

Yehliu 8Yehliu Cape is just north of Keelung harbor, which used to be one of the main commercial harbors in Taiwan for shipping traffic from China.  The seas around it are pretty dangerous, and there were a lot of shipwrecks.  The locals attributed the danger in the shipping channel to the troublesome “turtle elf” at Yehliu.

Yehliu 4

They draw that red line on the rock to mark where people are not allowed to cross, so they don’t have to constantly pick tourists out of the water.

The Jade Emperor, whoever that is, dispatched an elephant-riding fairy with a holy sword to deal with the truculent turtle elf.  So, she saddled up her elephant, got her spear and magic helmet—sorry, I mean, sword—and galloped out to pick a bone with the Yehliu Turtle.  According to the Yehliu Cape Park website:

Yehliu 10“When she arrived, she yelled at the turtle and said, ‘What a naughty turtle; how dare you do such evil things and kill so many innocent people. I, bestowed with the power of this holly [sic] sword, shall punish you and you shall have no way to escape.’ The turtle elf was serious hurt then.  After that, whenever the weather changes, people may notice a strand of smoke permeating through the air at Yehliu Cape. And that’s when you’ll hear local people say, ‘Look, the half-dead turtle is making its last breath again.’”

Yehliu Queen

This formation is called the “Queen’s Head,” but I like to think it’s the Elephant Fairy

I can’t tell if the turtle elf’s feelings were so hurt by the serious tongue lashing he received from the elephant fairy, that he curled up on the cape and sulked and smoked for eternity, or if she actually just did a half-assed job of killing him.  I think I prefer the former; I’d rather think of a sullen turtle dude smoking a joint out there by himself, than a wounded turtle elf, wheezing and gurgling away next to the sea, unable to just kick the bucket once and for all.

Yehliu 2Either way, it’s a way better legend than 3/8 of a group of deities stopping in your back yard and saying to the rest of their travel companions, “Y’all go on without us, we’re pooped.”


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Qingshan Wang’s Birthday Bash

Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple is on the short list of sights to see in Taipei.  I saved it until a Sunday evening, because I had heard it’s very pretty at night, and there’s a big, famous night market right next to it.  So, two birds, one stone and all that.  What I didn’t realize was that I had picked the fourth day of a four-day religious festival honoring a deity named Qingshan Wang.

qingshan4I could hardly get near the temple.  Wriggling hordes of people crowded the square and entrance courtyard, pushing for a good place from which to see the dragon dances and parade.  I’m getting pretty good at elbowing my way through a crowd now, so I managed to get a decent spot to see the costumed dancers on stilts.  Amid firecrackers and a lot of high pitched, screechy music, they strode, one by one, into  the clearing in front of the temple, did their ceremonial dance, and turned and stalked out.

Part of the procession

Part of the procession

They were going around performing the ceremony in front of all the temples in the area–and that is a LOT of temples.  qingshan3I followed the procession from temple to temple for a while, swept up in the festive atmosphere.  My eardrums were not speaking to me for a few hours afterwards, though.  Such a racket, you can’t imagine.  I’d post a video, but I’d worry the sound would crack your computer screen and make your dog run away.

qingshan2Inside Longshan Temple, worshippers crowded the holy shrines, smouldering joss sticks raised in front of their faces as they silently prayed, eyes closed, bowing three times when they finished.  Monks and nuns tended the large candlestick holders, aflame with clusters of red candles that looked like cartoon bundles of dynamite.

Qingshan feastLong tables of offerings to the gods overflowed with sweet buns, cookies, flowers and the occasional package of storebought digestive biscuits.  Hey, even a god can get indigestion sometimes, especially after a throwdown like this.

The festival also draws “spirit mediums” who flagellate themselves to a literal bloody pulp, and act in ways that would cause you to cross the street if you saw them in San Francisco.  I’ll spare you those photos.


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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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Thankful In Taiwan

Kenting National Park, Taiwan

Kenting National Park, Taiwan

Gobble, Gobble, everybody!  Happy Thanksgiving wishes coming to you from Taiwan!

This year has brought me a bounty of things to be thankful for.  Not the least of which happened yesterday.  I was strolling through Kenting Forest on the very southern tip of Taiwan.  It was quite hot and humid, and I was being feasted upon by the most ravenous mosquitoes.  I was not feeling grateful at all for the experience.  I felt like the mosquitoes’ Thanksgiving turkey.  butter2Then, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a stray Kleenex float by on a breeze.  When I focused on it, I realized it was a butterfly.  The biggest butterfly I had ever seen in real life, just drifting delicately through the air in slow motion.

She lighted on a nearby cluster of blossoms, and I crept silently toward her to get a closer look.  butter3Gossamer velvet of the purest white, calligraphed with inky black flourishes, upon lacquer spindle legs.  Achingly beautiful.

Then, her friend joined us.  He was an extrovert; he fluttered softly around my head for a few seconds, so closely, I thought for a moment he might land on my shoulder.  buttersAs I watched him fly about, so languidly and leisurely, I noticed three more of these big, lacy, white angels perched upon blooms in the foliage.  Every few moments, they would lift off and float slowly around for a bit, barely having to flap their broad wings at all to stay aloft.  butterI wanted to laugh out loud, but I didn’t dare utter a sound for fear of breaking the spell.  I had landed in the middle of a giant butterfly jamboree.  For once, too, I was keenly aware of the blessing it was as it was happening.

Giant Autumn Maple in Kenting Forest

Giant Autumn Maple in Kenting Forest

I read later, at the visitor center, that these beauties are “Milkweed Butterflies,” and that they fly slowly, because they are so big, they have no natural enemies, so they have the luxury of being pokey.  My kinda critters.

Finial on a bridge post in Taroko Gorge

Finial on a bridge post in Taroko Gorge

I have been getting back to nature quite a bit this week, actually.  I’ve been visiting some of Taiwan’s natural wonders in the southern and eastern parts of the island.  I am spending Thanksgiving this year in the marble mountains of Taroko National Park, named for the Taroko Gorge.

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge

The Taroko Mountains are made of luminous, white marble, striated with ribbons of jade and green schist.  A milky river cut the gorge in a jagged pattern through the mountains, and the porous stone has erosion pockmarks throughout that make it look like a the cross-section of a bone.  taroko3It’s not the easiest place to get to, but the effort is generously rewarded.

Our American holiday of Thanksgiving obviously isn’t celebrated here in Taiwan, of course, but there is still a certain symmetry to being in Taroko Gorge on this holiday.  tarokoMuch of the eastern side of Taiwan, where Taroko Gorge is located, is still peopled by indigenous tribes, who were moved to reservations here after their ancestors’ lands were taken from them by Chinese colonialists hundreds of years ago.  Sound familiar?  Throw in a turkey and a pilgrim hat, and we’re almost there.  The few hotels and concessions in the park are operated by the local tribes.

Shrine of the Kind Mother in Taroko National Park

Shrine of the Kind Mother in Taroko National Park

So, even though there was no turkey on the buffet in the hotel tonight, my Thanksgiving feast was prepared and served by the local indigenous folks.  I may not sleep tonight.  Liberal white guilt is worse than heartburn.

Suspension Bridge Across Taroko Gorge

Suspension Bridge Across Taroko Gorge

Nevertheless, it is impossible not to be thankful for this place, and for the opportunity to be here to see it with my own eyes.

Happy Thanksgiving, gentle friends.