Taipei, Taiwan: Notes From the Road

Hot off the streets of Taipei, Jaunt Contributor and Guest Blogger, Sarah Breidenbach, takes us on an inside tour of Asia’s post-Chinese New Year bliss.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about life ‘n things in Taipei.

Sarah Breidenbach - Jaunt MagazineLife in Taipei was a rough adjustment after the luxurious US lifestyle tour I took in ’08, but I’ve managed to fall newly, and madly, in love with the place. A friend who has lived here for a long time recently told me that it takes coming back to Taipei several times before you start to understand it.

It’s true. Taipei does not present beauty up front. It doesn’t it hand it to you sweetly and easily. But after enough time, you start to dig the jewels out of the rough. The beauty seeps through cracks and shines forth in your direction.
(c) Tina Nance

That’s certainly been my experience lately.

We’ve just completed the Chinese New Year which always happens in February. Last year I was in Thailand because, well, that’s what everyone seems to do when the whole island shuts down and goes on vacation. But this year I stayed home and enjoyed the fruits of our urban monster’s slumber.

I ate steamed rice flour cakes.

I watched hoards of fireworks from the terrace and stepped through the red dusted streets the next morning. The tradition is to let off fireworks that leave a red powder everywhere. The smoke, noise, and lights scare off demons and clear away bad energy so that the year begins with the fresh dew of your heart’s desires and clean visions of your mind’s determination.

I visited the oldest temple in Taipei and filmed the many who were there holding traditional ceremonies. It’s a very individual process of lighting incense and setting your own prayers forth. Some walk through archways, touching the dangling strings of giant lanterns for good luck. (see photo)

This all takes place on dark/new moon followed by the lantern festival on the following full moon. OH… the moon this year! It was magnificent! So bold, golden, and pregnant with possibility.

During my free time, I went on hikes and visited various hot springs. There are hot springs in every direction from Taipei. South of here, there is an area called Wulai where there is a river, small town, and beautiful quiet Japanese style bathhouses that serve yummy ginger tea. There are also many hotsprings to the north that are easily accessible by the subway. Beitou is about a 45-minute trip from my home. Most of the hot springs are sulfur based but there are all different kinds including one that sources iron ores from under ground that make the water a beautiful black/burnt orange.

At one such hot spring that was quite old, simple, and traditional, I was met with a group of older women in their 60s who spoke no English. This place is known for being cheap and having “good soup” (direct translation from Chinese) which means ‘the water is white and cloudy.’ Full of tasty therapeutic minerals.

The ladies were fascinated with me and couldn’t stop staring with curiosity. They helped me bathe before getting in the water. The handled my arms and moved me around. They seemed to know each other like they were regulars coming to soak every night.

They then began asking me questions, few of which I understood due to my poor Chinese but we managed to communicate.

“How old are you?”
“I’m 33.”
“No! You can’t be! You look 19 or 20!”

This coming from women who look like 40 at age 60. They shared their age after much probing from me.

“Are you married?”
“You no… dun dun DUNHHHH…”
“Oh! Ha! No, not yet.”

I learned early on that it’s better to say “not yet” over any other lengthy explanation of possible values. This got them all giggling and plotting which son they might marry me off to. I then noticed the smell coming from one lady’s exfoliate/all body scrub. “Is that coffee?” I asked. She answered by handing me the jar of coffee grounds and helping to put some in my hand.

Now, I’ve heard of coffee enemas but I’ve never tried scrubbing my skin with it. I loved it. And I marveled at the whole experience because it felt like the first time I had ever had that sort of kind cultural exchange one might hope for in traveling abroad. What can I say? Taipei had been unique in its initial harshness.

There are more stories. Images etched in my mind from daily living and commuting. Things that continue to amuse me and surprise me. Like, crimped puffy hair on the boy working at a fast food shop. (see photo *note megaphone. People ain’t afraid to use ’em.)
Like…stripper boots in the middle of the afternoon after a day of shopping at the mall.

Like, dogs sitting at the table at restaurants. Like the woman who clears chicken bones from the table top after people have eaten up a storm. Like, weird unidentifiable meats at the market just near my house. And much, much more. It’s Taipei and it’s downright charming.

If you really want to see a display of Taiwan eating habits, you can have a seat at the Sogo (Shopping Mall) food court. Today I watched a kid place his mouth at the table’s edge while shoveling rice into his mouth with chopsticks. I watched a variety of mothers yelling (in whiney pitches) at children. And of course, I watched the innumerable small sized peeps consuming enormous quantities of food with a fervor that might lead you to believe they had been starving for months.

I’m presently nauseous after eating six very fried round octopus balls. I’m a sucker for that crispy on the outside, soft in the inside combination, but the creamy sweet, dare I say, herbed up mayo content with chunks of chewy pus was something I ‘loved up’ once in a night market, but much less so on this day. For some reason I chose to follow that up with an oyster omelet which consists of small gray slimy guys wrapped in an egg & glutenous rice flour batter that stretches and pulls as you attempt to break up the pile with your chopsticks.

Eating these items in a fluorescent lit mall’s basement food court so crowded with people that you often sit 3-4 strangers per table, is enough to make a girl feel light headed. Funny enough, I used to find this sort of thing slightly painful and overwhelming, but now it makes me smile. I find it comforting and familiar. Nevertheless, I think today will mark my quota for such dining since these particular foods are better eaten while taking in the fresh air of a night market.
(c) Tina Nance

Now I sit in the “gay village” waiting to meet my screenplay writing partner to hammer out character developments on a new story. There is a hooka to my right, sitar playing through the speakers and a rose milk tea in my hand.

In the distance there is the low humming of dizzying techno beats, cocktail glasses clinking and gay boys giggling. I could be anywhere in the world right now. The only give away was the initial subway arrival when I stepped out to a sea of young people, massive movie screen billboards and what looked like the activities of a large ant colony. There they were being good capitalists on a Sunday evening. Their shining black beetle heads busy taking away well packaged and purchased consumer goods for the queen.

The other giveaway was the sweet scene I witnessed on my way here. I live on the “brown line” of the subway. It also happens to be the only subway line that goes to the Taipei Zoo. Last stop on the line. On weekends this usually means the cars are packed with families.

Today, I watched a sleepy mother and daughter who had passed out on a bench, heads collapsed on each other’s shoulders, the little girl clutching a stuffed panda bear with a bamboo stem in its hand. They had probably spent most of the day waiting in an endless line to see the newly purchased panda bears from China. The Taipei zoo has limited the number of daily visitors to 2 million – this reported to me by one of my 8th grade students.

I think he must be mistaking his number vocabulary but then again, maybe I’ve just become accustomed to living so densely. I mean there is a monitor in the subway station letting you know how many people have seen the pandas. I suppose I could do the math. But for now I’ll just sway, like a willow tree among the masses. The details don’t really matter as much as the quirky bits that make up any given day.

Documentary filmmaker, artist, and social activist, Sarah Breidenbach graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon where she earned a B.A. in Sociology and Cultural Anthropology. During the course of her stellar life and studies, she has lived and worked all over the world including: Ireland, Israel, Argentina, Zimbabwe, Mexico, and currently, Taiwan. Sarah has produced, directed, and edited two documentary shorts entitled “With These Ten Fingers” and “Machismo Mata”. While we applaud her amazing talent and works, Breidenbach carries on, creating a global community of like-minded people seeking to build a new world through art in action.

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