Friday, November 27, 2009

Freakishly large mountain friends

I like to make friends in the mountains. All of the bugs here are three times larger, like in Super Mario Bros.'s Giant World.

Me high-fiving the biggest daddy longlegs that I've ever seen.

I watch a black butterfly fall and sweep up only to break back a second before flying into a spider web. The web stretches five feet, anchored in four corners to bushes and its creater rests at the centre, plucking the strings with its knobby, twig-like legs, as if playing a harp. I'm as stunned as the butterfly. "That's a big effing spider."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A trip to Hualien and Taroko Gorge (rated PG-13, contains some adult content)

As we walk under a stone canopy with white hard hats jiggling on our noggins and gravel crunching under our soles, Tina points below to the water that eddies in the gorge.
"The water is so blue. I'll bet they came here last night and poured Jell-O mix into the stream."
A man in his seventies stands at the edge of a jetty and films the scenery at Taroko Gorge. Green hills and marble-walled cliffs. Black caverns like empty eye-sockets. At the mountain base, the almost ivory stone looks like stretched ligaments, disappearing into the Liwu river.
We meet eyes and smile. We will never run out of things that will amaze us, huh?

We're human so we look and see faces. We see humans. We see living things.
Our tour guide shows us the elephant, the alligator - "Don't worry, it's sleeping," she quips, - the Aboriginal head. She even shows us Obama.
"I've known this bear for a long time," she says as the bus slows near a protrusion of stone.
"I don't even need to go to the Taipei zoo," I tell Tina. "Where's the bear?"
"Right there."
"I see a rock."
Our guide is eager to show us "Mother Nature" - a set of green mountains arranged so that you might imagine that you are looking at a woman, from a gynecologist's point. The woman's bent legs. And the mountain is even peeing a small stream. I wouldn't have seen that. And seriously, who thought of that?
"And this," the guide says proudly and shows us a photo of a rock formation, "is Father Nature."

"Okay," I concede. "I see a penis."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Drink this and you will be marriage-worthy...

As we approach the Taipei Xia-Hai City God Temple, famed for getting worshippers hooked up, Tina says: "The Gods are like, 'You again?' You who cannot find love that lasts. You need to take some lessons.
"Usually people pray for love and then they come back here to thank the Gods with biscuits from the wedding. I'm like, 'Hey, remember me from a year ago?'

"What's up with that?!?"

I write the names of my best friends on money to burn for the Gods and I pray for decent men.

Tina and I stand by a chart with statistics on how many worshippers have struck the matrimonial jackpot (in 2008, apparently 9,316 couples got married after praying to the 43-centimetre tall statue of the Matchmaker). We wordlessly sip blessed tea brewed with red dates and Chinese wolfberries. The sign on the dispenser reads: "The tea will make you more attractive and help you get married soon."

I drink two cups.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Eating things to death in Seoul

I must admit that my best friend and I are sometimes too eager to prove that we are not girls. Well, we are. But not the eek-a-mouse kind.

So we set out this weekend in search of something that we could chew to death.

Seoul's Noryangjin fish market has plenty of choices. The tanks and buckets on either side of the wet pavement are filled with little eels, medium-sized eels, big eels. Tiny shrimp, the size of pumpkin seeds. Huge prawn, their eyes like black peppercorns. Bloated fish lying on beds of ice, their abdomens unfolded and pointed toward the ceiling lights like a body after an autopsy. Gutted fish like fat, grey, leather purses, open, items falling out. A man carefully put live squid into his mouth. He held the creature with his thumb and his index finger and directed it into his mouth like he was eating canapé. A white tentacle hung down his chin like a tendril of mucuous.
We eventually hid from the cold inside a small restaurant down the street with three tables inside. Two men and a woman were seated at the table furthest from the door. They served us makkoli and banchan and told us to wait.

Ten minutes later, the woman who runs the eatery came inside. She looked annoyed. When Brandon told her that he wanted to eat octopus alive, miming wrapping the octopus around a chopstick, she made a face.

My best friend and I knew the moment we saw the two soft creatures sliding around the plastic bowl that we could not do it. Not because we are girls. But they were so big. Not the baby octopus that my Korean friend Yuni told us to eat. ("Oh my God, we're going to eat babies," my friend had said on the subway.)
The woman stuck the chopsticks through its bulbous head, its tentacles clinging to the bowl, to the half empty plastic bottle of makkoli, and thrust it toward Brandon's face. There was a momentary look of panic in his eyes. Maybe the restauranteur was afraid that he would lose his nerve, or maybe that she would lose hers, so she rammed the fist-sized clump of squirming, wet, grey matter into his mouth.
"Chew, chew, chew," my friend told Brandon. "Chew, chew, chew."

He chewed for awhile. "It's been like 10 minutes," my best friend joked.

"I think I just ate its eyes," he said, once he could. "I just got two crunchy things."

The woman chopped up the other octopus and tossed the pieces in garlic and oil. The wormy bits wriggled and wriggled on the plate. We ate them with hot sauce and salt but I felt a little like a girl.

Our hero, Brandon.

What the girls ate. Brandon is still chewing his octopus.

National Geographic video about eating nakji, click here.

Yuni's instructions:

Go to a big fish market which is Noryangjin Soosan(fish) Sijang(Market) or Garak Sijang, and look for a stall that sells only octopus. They will have small ones.

1. Pick your octopus. 세발낙지 작은거 (Try to bargain.)

2. Go to a bistro or a small restaurant in the market. They cook what you purchased in the market for a fee (alcohol is separate). Ask them to cut the head and steam or boil. Rest of the part, u will have as it is: 머리는 삶아주시고 나머지는 통째로 주세요. 자르지 마세요.

3. Try with vinegarated hot sauce(초고추장) or seasame oil with salt(참기름장).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I will name it Dumpling

"You should keep a record of your growing stomach on your blog," Tina says one day while I rub my abdomen. "Every two weeks we'll update it with pictures."
"Like a pregnant woman?"
"Except that there's no baby. Just Yong Yin's junk."
"Hey, hey. Listen. Junk is back here."

Monday, November 9, 2009

What the hell am I saying, Pt.II

I have been thinking lately that I need some tenderness.
No one likes to hug. No one likes to shake hands. When I hug someone, it is like hugging a mannequin. When I shake someone's hand, it feels like squeezing a limp chicken's foot.
Instead, the people in this city have shown me genuine kindness. When I could not figure out the non-linear bus route, a girl by the bus stop offered me a ride. When I could not figure out how to order fried chicken, a young couple ordered it and paid for it. I chased them down the street with money and they ran from me, twisting their bodies to swat the air, as if I was a fly. When I did not know if I would like the taste of a bun, the bakery owner gave me one to taste, for free.
But I am craving palpable kindness. I want to feel pressure.
This, however, was not what I was talking about:

At the Taipei Fireworks Festival at the Dadaocheng Wharf this weekend, I felt the pressure of hundreds of thousands of people. (Last year's event attracted more than half a million.)
I tried to leave against the crush of sweaty bodies. We all squashed against each other and swayed together, collectively correcting our balance. There were children at my hip that I could not see. There were dogs in between my legs that I could only feel.
I have not been this squeezed since I was born.
I lost my new friend in the all of the pushing and the pressing.
My new friend, Eddy, had approached me at the wharf, hours prior to the light show when there was room to walk. He did not speak much English. I did not speak much Chinese. But we tried our best.

Later at Villa with some friends:
"What did you talk about?"
"I told him that I liked fireworks."
"Wo xihuan 'Pow! Pow! Pow!" I said and opened and closed my hands above my head, pumping them like a cheerleader.
Tina laughed. "You didn't say, 'Da pao' did you?"
"I don't remember. Why?"
"Da pao literally means big cannon. It's a slang for sex."
"I like sex, sex sex!" Tina said, imitating my cheerleading moves.
"He was probably there, looking for you all night, waiting for the big bang."
Tina explained the term to our Taiwanese friends. "The big know, finish with a bang."
"In science, the big bang was the start," David said. "English," he said, "is full of paradoxes."
I have the guy's e-mail address. I could write him to apologize for ditching him but I would not want to give him the wrong idea.
That is also not the kind of pressure that I am talking about.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The gun show

Tina tells me that I am fortunate to have seen the honour guards marching and lowering the flag at Chiang-kai Shek Memorial Hall or National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall (the name changes depending on the party in power).

The former Democratic Progressive Party government withdrew the guards for a time.

It's only nice to share one's good fortune (rifle drill 5 p.m.).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Because edible underwear is not enough

This place has candy in the shape of maxi pads but I can't find a drugstore that carries tampons?
"Mmm, Sophie did good," I say to Tina. "These are excellent. So soft!"
"The marshmallows here are really soft, softer than in Canada."
(I spend the following days eating all of the marshmallows I come across in Taipei.)

Photo: Imitation sanitary napkins, made out of marshmallows, 322 calories per 100 grams. One package, 95 NTD.

Translation: Sophie, soft, cotton experience. For all day use, dual colour. Super thick cotton layers.
Loving passionately hygienic marshmallows. You've never had it this clean!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Animal Kingdom

Tina and I go back to the Japanese/Taiwanese restaurant on Guiyang Street with the massive sushi.
A plate of six is 240 NTD or about $7.

The slice of salmon could wrap around the mound of rice twice, being the size of my hand. Tina lifts a piece to her face and I tell her she looks like the Phantom of the Opera.

After two pieces, it's kind of disgusting, I tell Tina. "It's just so much flesh," I say. "I feel like that pride of lions that we saw on TV."

(On the way back from the Confucius temple last month, Tina and I stopped at an electronics store to watch National Geographic.)

A moment later at the resto, Tina and I find something more disgusting. A couple sitting a few tables away floss their teeth. "I tell you, there's no social deviancy in this country. People just break the rules and everyone tolerates it," Tina says.
The man leans across the table and flosses his lady's teeth.
"We're in a zoo. We're lions. They're monkeys," I say. "Look at them picking at each other."
"Don't do that in public," Tina says. "You don't do that. You don't floss. You don't clip your nails on the MRT."
The couple leaves and Tina stands. "Where are you going?"
She goes to the empty table and returns. "They just left the floss on the table on a napkin," she says. "When I make wontons, I have the decency to take them with me!"
(She uses my expression "making wontons" which means filling kleenex with snot.)
"Who made you the social police?"
"I know that I'm not the social police but sometimes I have the urge to tell people, like that girl sitting with her underwear showing."
"I tell people. Once there was a guy on the MRT who had his fly open. I followed him to Taipei Main Station and then tapped him on the shoulder. I pointed at my crotch and mimed pulling up my zipper. He looked at me like I was nuts. Then I gestured at his crotch, which probably made it worse.
"When he finally got it, I ran away so he wouldn't be embarrassed."
See? We're not all animals. People have feelings.

A few items that we like to order. The resto (at 116 Guiyang Street, near Kunming Street, a 10-minute walk from Ximen MRT, exit 6) always has a line-up and is sometimes closed on Sundays or Mondays. No English menu is available.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

How to lose weight in Taiwan

I will try anything once. Within reason. Here are a few culinary delights that require some courage to taste - in most cases, courages that I have yet to call up.

A thousand-year-old egg: I have avoided trying preserved egg in Canada but Tina looked so positively excited about eating the dark, green goo oozing out, I figured, why not?

"Do you taste the urine?" Tina says.
"What? No, don't tell me."
"Do you taste it?"
"No, I have a cold."
"My dad said that they used to soak the eggs in horse urine to preserve it. Now they just use chemicals that have similar properties."

(The fried silk buns at the left of the egg are heavenly. Location: Golden Chicken Garden on Yongkang street, near Ice Monster and Shida University.)
Fried lizards and crickets: The dinosaur-themed Jurassic Restaurant on Bade Road was mostly empty when we ate there but it was a weeknight; and according to this recent Reuters story, the place is bumping. I just found it all strange.
Snake, turtles, etc: I found Taipei's infamous Snake Alley or Huaxi Street Night Market (by the Longshan Temple MRT) to be sad and seedy.
The shaded street is lined with sex shops, massage parlours and restaurants displaying caged snakes and rats. A bowl of snake soup costs 150 NTD or about $5. There was something tragic about seeing a pile of pale, headless, shell-less sea turtles on a counter outside one eatery. On the way out, a man invited us to try a massage with dull meat cleavers.

Gay Pride in Taipei

Taipei's pride parade reminded me of Toronto's festival, except that the guys here wear buttless chaps and medical face masks.
Hey, sexiness doesn't negate the need to guard against H1N1.

After the parade, the crowd of about 25,000 was treated to a performance by Rock In Hose, a new burlesque dance troupe in Taipei. I met one of the dancers last week at Roxy 99 because Little D was mesmerized by her cleavage.