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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!

Monday, December 03, 2012

On the Road Again, Again

(In which I take a break from being a mooch and return to life on The Bike.)

After about ten days of quality time with Tanya and Luke - most of it spent either eating or talking about where to eat, and thus a subject for a later food post - it came time for me to get a move on.  I had signed up for another (my 4th) Vipassana course on the other corner of the island and had about ten days to make it.  Considering that many locals complete the full "HuanDao" (Circle Island) route in as many days, me and my by-now well rested glutes ought to have no problem, right?  Right?

I exited Yilan surrounded by an intense drizzle, which cleared up after not long but reappeared once I hit my first mountain.  During the ascent I passed through several rain stages, from occasional little pleasant droplets to annoyingly sideways and gusty to somewhat serious downpour.  At one point I had the distinct feeling not of being rained on but rather of being located inside the rain. I finished the 400+ meter climb and began my descent in the rain, holding onto my brakes for dear life and stopping intermittently to check how much of the pads had turned to sludge.  Answer: most if not all.

Sludgy breaks + blustery winds + switchbacks overhanging the ocean = stressful ride!  But worth it for the sublimity.

Day 2: Out of the mountains, the most difficult part of the Taiwan coastal route completed.  Into the East Rift Valley National Scenic area - 200km of rice paddies squished between two mountain ranges.  Also, an end to two weeks' worth of lame weather.  Oh, the splendor!


Special thanks to the owners of this vegetarian dumpling shop, who fueled me up for free and even stuffed my bags with bananas for the road.  I ate: two veg dumplings, five veg pot stickers, one red bean roll, one sesame roll, and one cup of fresh soy milk.  Full power!

The ERVSA had some intermittent bicycle-only roads.  This one was a reclaimed train track.  The plain old car roads were plenty peaceful, but who could say no to riding on this?

One reason (among many) to learn to read Chinese: the translations aren't always accurate!  In this case, they straight up reversed "North" and "South."  Nice try, but I ain't no sucka.

On night 1 I couchsurfed, but I'm still not one for sticking a camera in a near-stranger's face to record  the encounter.  So, no trace of that except for the memory.  Night 2 though: I found this awesome campground, with elevated wooden shelters that even had electrical outlets!  Not pictured, but not too far away: shower stalls and bathrooms.  Deluxe!  Bonus: I showed up when it was dark and the main office was closed, so I camped for free!  

 Day 3: The spoke problems continue, but I've gotten a lot better at knowing what to look for and how to do minor repairs in a jiffy.  Note how the spoke has come unscrewed from its little socket.  I caught this one just in time - a couple more bumps or potholes and I might have been out of commission AGAIN.

What a healthy spoke looks like, for reference.

Out of the East Rift Valley and onto a stretch of flat coastal highway.  Pure riding bliss!  The only thing that could have made it better would have been having a machete to crack open all the coconuts that had fallen from the trees.

At some point, the coastal highway turned inward to avoid a national protected area.  As inward means mountainward, I had another 500m to climb - according to the 'net, the last big climb of the loop around Taiwan.  At some point I hit these signs - 2km at an 8% grade, as part of 5km of switchbacks.  This should be doable, right?  I made three simultaneous prayers: 1) may my spokes hold out; 2) may I make it up and over and down again before dark; 3) may the fog please please please not turn into rain.

Up about 400m and so far so good. And then, it started pouring!  Craaaaaaaaaaap.  Too dark to see, too slippery to ride, too in the middle of nowhere for there to be any open hotels, too wet  to camp.  What is the intrepid moocher to do?

How about pull up in front of the next house you see and ask the owners if you can camp under their tin roof?  My first real success at begging!  These kind grandparent folks took me in and even offered to feed me.  (Having a shred of decency left in me, I refused, and instead cleaned out everything remaining in my food bag: a couple of tiny bananas, a handful of peanuts, and a hand of raisins.  It's a wonder my body didn't consume itself over night.)  We chatted for a while and I showed them pictures of Beijing and my family back home, and eventually they offered to let me wash up in their bathroom and sleep in their spare bedroom.  Who ever heard of two seventy-five year old Chinese country folk and one American cycling vagabond sharing one roof for an evening?  Unbelievable.

The next morning, I made my way down the mountain and back to the coast.  Oh, the beauty!  There's nothing that can be said.

I swear, there were real live monkeys in here, hooting and hollering and jumping around showing me their pink, puffy posteriors.  As soon as I dismounted, though, they scurried into the background.

The combination of the incredible generosity shown to me the previous night and the amazingly idyllic scenery around me all day led to quite a frustrating feeling: I wanted to quit riding!  Each little village, every little plot, felt so perfect, I just wanted to plop down and live there forever.  Doing what?  I don't know. Just sitting around and picking fruit off of trees.  I wonder if there's a Visa Class for that.

Then again, it's hard to turn down the charms of the road.  Indeed, the sense of excitement mounted as I drew closer and closer to the southern tip of the island.  My trip has so far been mostly devoid of landmarks.  Beijing in the beginning, yes, and Xiamen later, but no real geographical stopping points.  But here, coming up on the end of the island, a feeling of real accomplishment swept over me, energized me, pushed me through to the end despite that fact that I had had a pitiful dinner and only mediocre breakfast several hours before.

Is this the end?  Let's celebrate, Street Fighter Style.  How is it that inner nerd and extreme athlete can so seamlessly coexist inside of one individual?

OK, that previous celebration, however enjoyable, was slightly premature.  This being Taiwan, everything is well- and cutesily-marked.  Zui nan dian (most south spot), brace yourself!

Yeah baby yeah!

Not only am I here, but the path I took was more than three months and FIVE MEGAMETERS! Powered (almost) only by my own thighs, themselves powered (almost) only by grains, fruits, legumes, and veggies.  Put that on your goddamn map why don't you?!

Celebratory punch-dance ensues.

As do a million photos with tourists from the mainland.  May of them were actually from Shenyang, the capital of the province where I started my trip.  Hooray for my homies!

At some point during the day, the following thought occurred to me: it doesn't take any particular photographic skill to take amazing pictures of the sky.  All you have to do is remember to look up!  With my hat on to prevent sunburn, my helmet on to prevent brain damage, and my eyes on the road to prevent accidents, I miss out on way too much scenery.  I almost always take my hat off in the mountains so I can see above and around me, but during the weeks of rain and city life I had all but forgotten what the sky looked like. How lucky are we to have stuff like this literally surrounding us day-in and day-out?

It's not easy to find a place from which you can see the sun set in the evening and rise the following morning.  Indeed, you pretty much have to be at the tip of an island.  After Taiwan, I'm heading back to the Motherland, so who knows when I'll get another chance?  (Apparently all this time outdoors is turning me into a pagan...)  Here's Maobitou, another one of Taiwan's tips.  

The sun had set by five thirty and it was pretty dark by six.  My computer was broken (more on that later) and I wasn't entirely sure about the legality of my plan to pitch my tent in the parking lot, so I didn't want to attract any attention by playing harmonica. How to entertain myself for several hours before it was safe to pitch my tent and go to sleep?  Thanks to some great foresight on my part, I had already been to town to stock up on salad supplies.  Then a custard apple for dessert.  Still three hours left before bedtime, so: trippy picture time.

My feelings about pictures these days are so screwed up.  I want to be immersed in every moment of my trip.  To what extend does taking photos of stuff distract me from interacting with people or paying attention to the environment?  To what extent does the camera come between me and whatever I'm photographing?
On the other hand, to what extent can the camera be used as a tool to actually enhance these experiences?  As a way to play with people who I can't converse with?  As a way to focus my attention, to actively search out and frame some beauty?  And to what extend does it depend on how I take the pictures?  Maybe if I put more thought into each shot, they'll feel less like trinkets and more like projects.

To be honest, I'm uncomfortable with the sense of acquisitiveness that underlies the desire photograph everything.  These moments are bound to pass, one can't hold on to them.  Indeed, that's a good thing; every moment has to pass to make room for the next one.

I don't have any conclusions here, but it was that mindset that led me to fooling around a little more with my manual settings.  In this case, setting the shutter to stay open for a full fifteen seconds, then dancing around and flashing a light in my face.  If you've ever wanted a way to give yourself nightmares, this is it...

Night clouds and moon.

10PM: It's so warm, I think I'll try to sleep in my hammock.
11PM: It's so windy, I think I'll pitch my tent.
1AM:  I'm getting rained on, I'd better clip on the rain layer
2AM: It's so windy that the tent and I are nearly being lifted up in the air.  The tent is shaking so violently that my mp3 player, which I had stowed in one of the side pockets, is swinging around and smashing me in the head.  If this keeps up for much longer, I'm worried that the tent floor will actually tear.  No choice but to undo the poles and sleep sandwich-style.
5AM: Wow, I actually caught a few winks.  Now it's time to pack up and go watch the sunrise.

Unfortunately, it was so cloudy that the sunrise was entirely obscured.  Pagan plan entirely spoiled, aganozing night spent in vain.  To top it all often: exasperating signs.

Lesson learned: no more camping in fricking wild sea current zones! I threw a berry up into the air as an experiment.  Once it got about three feet above my head, it immediately made a ninety degree change of course and zipped off to the west.  I threw another berry in front of me and it did the same, except it turned east!  What the hell?!

Let's get the hell out of here, I want some breakfast.  On the way, the notorious western plains winds carried an odd, invisible drizzle.  Very kind of the weather to also provide us with this short-lived rainbow as a means of compensation.

If you want to read a philosophical ditty about rainbows, read the footnote*  It may just convince you that you don't exist.

Neither here nor there: at some point, my computer stopped working.  It just wouldn't turn on.  Not surprising considering that it's going on five years old and that it's been through a year in a backpack and three months in a bike bag. What was surprising was how unperturbed I was by the thought that I could lose all my photos, music, movies, documents, and whatever else was buried on the hard drive. I feel like it would have been no major loss.  Maybe even some sort of liberation...

Nonetheless, I can't bear the thought of throwing out an entire electronic device when only one small part has failed.  What a waste of resources.  And of the land blown to smithereens to mine them from the ground.  And of the water polluted in the process! And of the life of those who did the work in deep, dirty holes.  Surely not everyone has it as bad as I've seen in documentaries...but knowing what I know, I simply can't be cavalier about these things.  So, open that darn thing up, void the warranty, and reseat those RAM modules. Success!  Win for me, win for the environment.

Now I've reached Kaoshiung and this week's odyssey has come to a close. Seven days on the road.  600km or so, bringing my total to over 5000.  Three nights couchsurfing, two nights camping, one night mooched from strangers, one mooched from friends.  Money spent: less than fifty dollars.  Fun times and sublime emotions: too many to count.   Gratitude for being alive: check.

Time to unwind for a few days with my buddy Zaizai, cousin to the son of my mother's neighbor's younger brother.  How the heck did I get here again?

Next up: another Vipassana retreat!  Yep, my fourth set of ten days of noble silence and more-or-less monkdom.  Just about no talking, writing, listening, reading, watching of any kind. Inward ho! What mysteries lurk in the depth of my mind?  Wait...how is it "my" mind?  What is it that's doing the owning?  Isn't it the case that I just AM that mind?  But...what is an "I"?  Where does it start and end? Does (do?) "I" exist?  Can sitting in silence help to unravel these knots?  Or maybe I should say tie these loose ends together?  Huh, who's "I" though?

I'll let you know the answers in a couple weeks.  Unless, of course, you've already got them.  In that case, clue me in!

There was a young man who said, "Though
It seems that I know that I know,
What I would like to see
Is the 'I' that knows 'me'
When I know that I know that I know." **  

*A digression on Rainbows by Allan Watts to prove that Paganism hasn't entirely overtaken my Hippieness:

"A still more cogent example of existence as relationship is the
production of a rainbow.(1) For a rainbow appears only when there is a
certain triangular relationship between three components: the sun,
moisture in the atmosphere, and an observer. If all three are present, and
if the angular relationship between them is correct; then, and then only,
will there be the phenomenon "rainbow." Diaphanous as it may be, a
rainbow is no subjective hallucination. It can be verified by any number
of observers, though each will see it in a slightly different position. As a
boy, I once chased the end of a rainbow on my bicycle and was amazed
to find that it always receded. It was like trying to catch the reflection of
the moon on water. I did not then understand that no rainbow would
appear unless the sun, and I, and the invisible center of the bow were on
the same straight line, so that I changed the apparent position of the bow
as I moved.
The point is, then, that an observer in the proper position is as
necessary for the manifestation of a rainbow as the other two
components, the sun and the moisture. Of course, one could say that if
the sun and a body of moisture were in the right relationship, say, over
the ocean, any observer on a ship that sailed into line with them would
see a rainbow. But one could also say that if an observer and the sun
were correctly aligned there would be a rainbow if there were moisture
in the air!"