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Thursday, December 27, 2012

More Taiwanese Treats

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!  Spotted on a tree in a tiny grove on my way to Vipassana.  $100 to anyone who can identify this bad boy by the end of the post!

Nothing beats a papaya break on a hot day.  I'm now an expert a gutting these without losing a drop of precious papaya juice or mucking up my knife.

Another fruit mystery!  What the heck is in these bags?

A little sneaking around reveals that they are: rose apples!  I didn't steal any from the tree...but I did pick up a few that had fallen onto the ground.  Fair game, right?

A normal breakfast: sweet sesame seed paste buns, savory vegetable dumplings and spring onion rolls.

A $1 (US) vegetable platter.

Whenever I feel the need for a quick calorie load: battered and deep fried sweet potatoes.  I feel a little self-conscious being in love with such peasant food, but all I can think about when friends take me to restaurants that cost more than about $10 bucks a head is how that money could give me two or three days of blissful street eats.

"Hey boss, do you have any vegetarian food?"  "No, there's no vegetarian food in this town."  "Could you make me some vegetarian stir-fried noodles?"  "Sure, no problem."  Why don't they just say "yes" in the first place?

Buffet for 40NT ($1.33)!  Insaninty!  I was so engrossed in the marinated wheat gluten nugget at the bottom of the plate that I didn't see whoever snuck up to my bike and stole my speedometer.

Another day, another buffet!  This one only had disposable cardboard trays, but the owner didn't mind that I used my camping pot. In fact, whenever I pull it out, most people crack a big smile and go "Ah, environmentalism!"

A normal afternoon pick-me-up.

Sign that my life is reaching new levels of simplicity: buying three-dollar serving of candied kumquats, which will provide me with little snacks for three or four days, constitutes me "splurging" on myself.  I'm sure that buying these - and having them put directly into my tupperware, foregoing the plastic bag - gave me more pleasure than a new mp3 player would.

Breakfast in the woods.  Fresh fruit, dried fruit, and some nuts are always on hand, but I also thought ahead the night before and bought a veggie dumpling and a red bean paste pastry.

More peasant food I can never get enough of: roast sweet potatoes.  Cheap, filling, hot, sweet, creamy, and oil-free.  Easy to eat, easy to get without plastic, easy to digest, easy to clean up after, easy to store for later.  If only they were easier to find!

Yes, another buffet.  Why not?  That's bamboo on the left, boiled peanuts and peas and carrots on the right, and dried tofu with some sort of fermented black bean hidden there at top-right.

Even though I had filled up at the buffet, I wasn't going to turn down the owner's offer of this "tang yuan."  My Chinese is even good enough to understand that they're sweet rice balls filled with black sesame and sugar.  Warm, sticky, and chewy on the outside; rich, sweet, and crunchy on the inside.  In a sweet green lentil broth.  Bring on the food coma.

The answer: it's a jackfruit, perhaps the biggest fruit in the world.  These suckers can weigh over 100lbs!  There were about thirty jackfruit trees in this grove, some of them with ten or more fruits forming.  Imagine that - half a ton of fruit from one tree.  I had a little chat with the farmers, who told me that the trees were about 20 years old and that the fruit would be ready to eat in 40 days.  I may have to extend my visa just so I can have a chance to chow down on a few of these.  Then again, maybe I should just book it to Vietnam where they're on every street corner.  Decisions, decisions...

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Huandao" Complete

In which  I ride up Taiwan's west coast, finish my circle of the island, and take my vagabonding to new heights...or perhaps new lows.

After Vipassanna the Fourth (which blew my mind, but is proving rather tough to write about), I whizzed back to my buddy Zaizai's place in Kaoshiung.  Maybe it was the sunny weather, maybe it was the slight downhill slope of the road, or maybe it was my lightened heart and joy at returning to the external world; in either case, I enjoyed yet another blissful ride through the Taiwanese countryside.  Riding with no tent, no computer, and only two rear panniers, I made the 75km trek in 3hrs, 25 minutes.  (not counting a thirty minute papaya break)


After one day of lazing around at home and at the beach, where I met Taiwan's top-ranked "Skimboarder," Zaizai and I said our goodbyes.  This consisted of calling one another "dumbass" and "stupid" for the umpteenth time.  I think Buddha said something about it being good to retain the heart of a child.  I concur.

The first part of the first day gave me some more pleasant weather and a variety of interesting road signs.  For instance, the one above.  Permission to go on a little linguistics digression?  

Check out the characters on the top line there.  First, you've got 木 (mu), a pictogram of a tree.  Then you've got the ideogram (or is this one also a pictogram?  hrm, a category basher!)  森 (sen), composed of one 木 on top and two on the bottom, which means forest.  Third is 林 (lin), another ideogram/pictogram, this time composed of two 木's side by side.  It means woods, forest, grove.  So, we have a 木森林.  What could this mean? Wood forest grove?

Another interesting, if slightly less intellectually stimulating question: what does this sign mean, and what does money coming out of that guy's ass crack (look closely!) have to do with it?  I asked my family for an explanation and managed to figure out that it was some sort of loan company.

Within a few hours the winds had picked up, sapping my energy and drawing out my inner vagabond.  Not that it needs any drawing out at this point.  How's about a seaside nap on a bamboo bench with a shower sandal for a pillow?  If that sounds like a perfect afternoon to you, too, then maybe we can be friends.

The winds blew so hard that I had to put on my normal person clothes.  Of course, this cut my aerodynamicism in half, so that my already pathetic speed was reduced further, to under 10mph.
As I was hoping to make the 380km to Taipei in four days, this meant I had to ride well into the night. Which meant that I had to put on my third layer, and become even more blimpish, and even slower, and...ohhhhh my lord it was a draining experience.

On the bright side, I stopped at this restaurant in the middle of nowhere.  The owner (left) told me there were no veg options, but his buddy convinced him to whip up some stir-fried rice and veggie soup for me.  I am pretty sure they had been indulging in some beer or some betel nut before I arrived, because the one kept dancing and the other kept screaming at me.  In a friendly way.

The liked my story of having Fauxboed my way from northern China so much that they fed me for free, informed me of a campground nearby, and bid me adieu via karaoke.  The accompanying music video looked like some DIY snorkeling footage.  How do I get myself into such odd situations?

Unfortunately, this campground of theirs failed to materialize, so I wound up renegade camping in the back corner of some gardens belonging to a giant taoist temple.  After a noisy, windy, paranoid night, I woke up to more chilly weather, blustery winds, and a total absence of restaurants.  I finished my limited provisions, which consisted of a guava and handful of raw peanuts, and hit the road again.  Eventually I found this little town, where I managed to scrounge up some fried sweet potatoes, chow mein, and fried broad beans.  

 By now you may have noticed the conspicuous absence of landscape shots. It's because the scenery was pretty uninspiring this whole time.  The mountains and rivers and banana groves from the mountain foothills had been replaced by overdeveloped wetlands, mostly standing water and roads and buildings as far as the eye could see.  I must have been asleep on my bike, because I woke up to the sounds of a police car pulling me over.  Provincial road 17, which is open to cyclists, had merged with highway 61, which isn't, though the on-ramp doesn't have any signs.  I had missed the first exit because it was poorly labeled, had missed the second because it was totally closed, and was heading for the third when he started using his siren on me.  I tried to beg clemency by telling him as much, but he was having none of it and asked to see my "passapoto," so I started the slow and laborious process of undoing my bungees, removing my backpack, and digging to the bottom of my rear right pannier. I did all of this so slugglishly that before I had even finished step one, the cop gave up, wrote my name down on a piece of paper, and crept along behind me for the next 2km until I could get off the highway.  He was good-natured about the whole thing, and I managed to make out at the end that he said "I'm just protecting your safety."

The day had taken all the fight out of me and I didn't have the energy to camp, so I broke down and asked the boss of the little restaurant where I stopped for dinner (veg fried rice, again...) if there were any cheap hotels around.  He said I'd have to go another 10km, but then he got some idea and started scurrying around the street talking to people here and there.  Eventually he popped in his car, told me to follow him, and led me to this giant Taoist temple.  Apparently they have rooms!

The whole place was empty, so I had the entire third floor to myself.  Lights, electric sockets, blankets, a warm shower, and a water purifier.  If only all hotels were so simple - I don't want to pay for TVs, beds, mini-fridges, in-room computers (ok,  I wouldn't mind an internet connection), and fancy paint jobs.  I'd much rather save my money for one more kg of fruit or day on the road. For me, these "Miaos" are just about perfect.  The best thing? They rent out their rooms on a donation basis!  I shelled out three bucks, which wound up being the only time on my 11-day circuit of Taiwan that I paid for accommodation. 

The following morning, the wind died down and the skies went from grey back to blue.  Everything seemed to be looking up.  In particular, come lunch time I meandered into the market area and stumbled upon a vegetarian buffet that only cost 40 NTD - the same price as my lame plate of fried rice the night before.  Afterwards, I bummed around the market to pick up the usual camping supplies: guavas, legumes, and some dried fruit.  I even got to bask in the admiration of two lovely lady fruit vendors, who swooned over my exploits (though not enough to give me a discount).  I embarked all smiles, until I looked down and noticed:

I've been hit by a smooth criminal!  Sometime while I was at the buffet, someone must have snuck up to my bike and stolen my clock/odo-/speed-ometer.  It's a bit of a bummer, perhaps even more so because without stealing the little plate that's attached to the bike, the little magnet that's attached to my front spoke, and the little sensor attached to my front fork, the readout unit is completely useless.  So, the thief won't even be able to use or sell the thing!  It's probably already in a trash can somewhere.  Oh, humanity!  The tragedy and the comedy!   I rode for the rest of the day with a sort of phantom limb syndrome, looking down every so often to check my speed.  How long will  this habit will persist?

That evening, I snuck into "West Ocen (sic) Educational Sea World," which I had previously found on a map of campsites in Taiwan.  I had planned to reach this place on my second night, but due to the aformentioned wind issues, it took me a full three days to get there.  I arrived after nightfall and kind of had to sneak in, but didn't feel too concerned since a) the gate was open wide enough for my bike to slip through and b) the workers at the train station tourist info center had told me that I could sleep there for free.

Not only were there picnic tables and camping huts in the forest, there was a building with bathrooms and public (cold-water only) showers.  A few minutes of snooping around revealed this:

The second, third, and fourth characters say "please don't enter," but I couldn't read the first one.  I know it looks a little something like the character for "chive."  So, I've got plausible deniability on my side.

Turns out it was the janitor's storeroom!  I plopped down my tarp and sleeping bag and had a grand old evening meditating and watching documentaries.  Don't get me wrong, I love my tent, but why bother setting it up, taking it down, putting all my crap inside, waiting for the dew to dry off in the mornings, and trying to sleep through the wind's attempts to lift me up and fly me off to Oz?

A concrete walkway out to the beach, with shower heads mounted every here and there.  Not bad.

Worried that someone might come and find me sleeping in the janitor's closet, I woke up at five, did my morning meditation, and packed up and cleared out by 6:30.  After breakfast in the woods, I headed back to the exit...only to find myself locked in.  It wasn't until 8:30 that the guardsman came to let me out.  

My lord, this post is getting lame.  I rode again the next day.  All day.  It was about 140km to get home, which is much further than I like to go in a day, but I didn't want to bother camping again and riding a paltry 40 or 50 the next morning.  Luckily, it was a straight shot along a mostly empty road, and the weather held up.  I started at 8:30, took about ninety minutes' worth of lunch and snack breaks (including one photo op at a trash incineration facility), and got back to Taipei around six, knees burning and thighs quaking.  Whew!

I think I hit the mooch equivalent of a grand slam on this one.  Or perhaps a triple-double?  No-hitter? Perfect game?  Whatever the analogy, here are the stats:

Total days elapsed: 43
Days actually on the road: 11
Distance traveled: 1100ish km
Longest ride: 140km (first day and last day)
Shortest: 75km
Highest Elevation: 500ish m
Camps: 4
Couchsurfs: 2
Friends: 3
Hotels: 1
Turning a stranger's pity into a free room for the evening: 1
Broken rear spokes: 2
Cash spent: just under $100

So, it must be about time for me to head back to China, right?  WRONG!  Now it's time to take a break for the holidays, then do it all again now that Mingyu and his friend Hwa-in have arrived.  Hurrah!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

I'm on TV, I'm on TV!

While I was spending ten days in Noble Silence, my virtual doppelganger - ie a bunch of electrons arranged to look and act like me* - was chattering away about the last four months of its (my?) life.  What the hell am I talking about, you ask? A couple weeks ago I did a video interview with Alexa Hart, friend of a good friend and host of the internet travel show Atlas Sliced.  She asked some great questions, many of which of forced me to rethink what my trip must look like from the outside.  Having been on the road in various guises for so long, I didn't realize how thoroughly it's permeated my blood, to the point that I accept certain thing as natural that others would find totally bizarre.  For instance, the goat brain incident.

I've embedded the video for your viewing ease; you can also watch it on youtube or on the Atlas Sliced page, "Episode Slice 29: Bicycling All Over Asia."  Dang, it sounds like I'm really doing it when she puts it like that!

Enjoy and share.  Make us both famous!  Don't forget to check out the rest of the Atlas Sliced website afterwards.  It's full of other interviews with kindred souls who have found other interesting ways to explore the world.

Thanks Alexa!  May the future bring you many more wonderful interviews and hordes of fans.  

*Wait a minute...what am I if not a bunch of electrons clumped up into a Mike-like shape and habit patterms?  Am I the Doppelganger?  I think I may have meditated myself down a rabbit hole here.  More on the fourth Vipassana coming soon...

Friday, December 07, 2012

Buffet Mania

Having traveled, lived, and eaten in so many places, it's just about impossible for me to avoid the question, "what's the best place to be a vegetarian?"  Sometimes other people ask me, sometimes I ask myself.  Before I was a seasoned vegetarian, I think my instinctive response would have been a little pragmatic: the the answer must depend on how many Boca products or forms of tofu are in circulation.  Oh, and avocados . I might also have considered climate and geography - what plants grow well? are tropical fruits easily available?  All year round?  Religious factors might have come to mind: how many Buddhsits, Jains, or other vegetarians are around?  I would have been less likely to consider economic ones, such as whether or not the farmers can afford or have access to the fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified crops that make levels of meat consumption like our own possible. I almost certainly wouldn't have given much thought to the role of culture: How much is eating meat associated with status?  With masculinity? With alcohol? How homogeneous is the culture, and how far can one distance oneself from culinary norms before the culture considers you an outsider?

Taiwan has added a new variable to this list.  It may be relevant only to the traveler, but as I doubt very few locals from the places I'm visiting will ever read this, I'll go ahead and mention it: how does the ordering process work?  In most restaurants, you have to tell somebody what it is that you want to eat.  If the restaurant doesn't have menus, or if you can't read them, you're out of luck. In this way, Korea has broken many a Western vegetarian despite the omnipresence of amazing meat-free options.  Many people warned me that China would do the same to me, though thankfully I've managed to learn enough words and characters to get by.  Here in Taiwan, though, there's only one thing you need to know:

Welcome to the zi4 zhu4 can1!  Literally, "self help meals" the zi zhu can is a sort of buffet where you pick out whatever you like and pay either a flat fee, a fee based on weight, or whatever the lunchlady tells you after running everything through her own unknowable algorithm.  Some are veg only, some have meat and fish, none fail to please.

Here's a vegetarian one I stopped at in Henchung.  Twenty-five types of food, from my count, from pickled this and that and lightly braised greens stuff for the health-fanatic, to deep-fried doodads for the indulgent, with a range of tastes and textures in between. What did I pick?

Or rather, what didn't I?!  How about, starting from 12 o'clock: pumpkin boiled with ginger; braised napa cabbage (or some similar leaf) and braised fernish kinda guys; rice vermicelli noodles with soy sause; bean sprouts and seaweed; sauteed green beans (center); a sweet potato stick; a ball of battered dill; mushrooms fried with bread crumbs; eggplants with thai basil; and bitter gourd stewed with pineapple. And a dousing of peanuts on top for good measure.

A closer look at the dill ball.  Really weird - the taste of a pickle, the texture of a french fry.

These restaurants are all over the place (some, like this one in Yilan near  Luke and Tanya's house, have more ambiance than others), meaning that no matter where the clueless traveler finds himself, he can get a wonderful meal covering the entire color and taxonomic spectrum. Even without knowing the name of a single dish.  Or a single vegetable! Just three characters: one that looks like a window with a cowlick, one that's got a gravestone and the character for "power," and one that has a big mess up top and the character for "cuisine" at the bottom.  Indeed, many of the buffets are even open-air, so that without knowing a single character or a single word, you can fill up.  Where else can someone eating solo get so many different kinds of food?  

Would you pay $2.50 for this?  Yes, I thought so.

Lordy lordy lordy.

These buffets are also a prime place for food photography.  So many beautiful veggies, sitting there under the heating lamps!

Another variety of zi zhu can, where you point at up to five veggie dishes behind a window and they plop it atop a bowl of rice. A bit like custom-made bibimbap.

Outside of the zi zhu can, though, life here can be a little rough.  Taiwan uses the old style Chinese characters, which are quite a bit more complicated that the ones used on the mainland, many of which were simplified by Mao during the cultural revolution.  Much of my reading ability has therefore gone out the window, leaving me with occasional meal failures such as this one:

Giant radishes, definitely among my least favorite vegetables.  Bitter gourd, which I don't understand why anybody bothers eating.  Some so-so tofu.  And rice.  It'll get me through the next fifty km, I suppose. 

When in doubt, I just bust out this old gem: shu1cai4 de chao3mian4 chao3fan4 ke3yi3 ma?  wo3 bu2 yao4 ji1dan4 bu2 yao4 rou4.  "Can you do fried veggie fried noodles or rice?  I don't want any eggs or meat."  The answer is always: either ke3yi3!  (Can do!).  Well, except when it's mei2you3 fan4.  No rice!    

 In the street-food category, we have:

Cong you bing (scallion oil pastry).  Note that I have found yet another way to reduce plastic usage: rather than take a plastic bag that I'll throw out after scarfing down my snack, I can just set them on the inverted lid of my cooking pot.  Good job, self!

These were common in China too, but here in Taiwan you get to turn them into wraps, adding either some sort of meat, eggs and herbs, or just veggies.

At a dollar a piece, why not eat two?

What's this I spy?  Something Green Something Something Vegetarian Cuisine!

Oh holy lord god in heaven above, it's a vegan dumpling shop.  I nearly crapped my lycra cycling shorts with joy.  

Let's start with two veg dumplings, five pot stickers, and a cup of soy milk.  

What's that purple one?  Oh, it's a sweet one you say?  I think I'll take that and the sesame one next to it as well.  A little sweet talking about my trip and my efforts not to eat meat or leave behind any trash earned me a free meal.  They even offered to give me dumplings for the road.  Unfortunately my bags were full.

I can't remember what these little guys are called.  What I do remember is that they come with a variety of fillings.  Pictured here: one peanut, one sweet potato, one sesame.  3 for a buck.  Hot and fluffy and crispy and fresh.  Mouth waters at the memory.

Just like in China, after all the rich sautees and starchy street snacks, my stomach wants a raw meal every once in a while.  Camping is the perfect opportunity, since I can buy the ingredients ahead of time, cram them into my cooking pot, and chop them all up later.  Less than a dollar for this baby: greens, Chinese celery, carrots, cherry tomatoes, chives, and peanuts fried with Thai basil.  Who needs cooking?

As for fruits:

A guava a day keeps depression at bay.  These things are incredible.  And monstrous.

The guava is an interesting fruit.  It doesn't exactly have layers, and yet it does.  As you near the center, the flesh transitions from kind of bland and airy (like a cheese puff ball almost) to a little more sweet and gooey. As the guavas age, they get softer to the touch and the gooey core expands.  Most people don't like eating the seeds (though I don't even notice them), so they buy the guavas when they're rock hard, eat only the outer section, and throw out the middle.  I, on the other hand, search out the old, bruised, neglected guavas, buy them at half price, and revel in how much smarter I am than everybody else.


New fruit alert: a search for "yellow tropical fruit tastes like tangy roast sweet potato" informs me that this is a Canistel.  Whatever, it's like eating ice cream off a tree!  I've only seen these once, and at the time I didn't know what they were.  Also, at the time of eating my fingers were too sloppy (and my appetite too ravenous) to operate the camera.  Next time!

Annnnd I'll close with two photos that I like for purely aesthetic reasons.  

Water chestnuts.

Cute little buggers.  I hope nobody eats you. 

In case you were wondering, I haven't left Vipassana early.  I just wrote this post a few days ago and told it to upload later.  At the moment, I'm either sleeping, sitting in silence, or chowing down on some Taiwanese Vipassana food.  See ya in a week!