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.



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.



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.


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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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.



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?


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.