Saturday, January 31, 2009

My God, My India

I apologize for the lower-than-usual quality of these photos - with no editing software to rotate the vertical ones or clean up the lighting, contrasts and colors, they're not as good as they could be. Oh well.

I believe I last left off in Udupi, birthplace of the mighty masala dosa and location of a famous Krishna temple. We enjoyed a car festival on our second-to-last night there; it wasn't so much a car festival as a car-pushing at the behest of a heavy donator. People were taking blessings (bringing the smoke to their foreheads through cupped hands) from used fireworks and from people with fire, but I have to admit I didn't feel much in the way of spiritual purity.

The next day, however, was a different story. After a simple-but-delicious breakfast of masala dosa (what else?) we headed for Mangalore. We were dumped into a pile of fish; I tumbled off the bus and found myself face-to-face with a fishwife and ankle-deep in the water dripping off her wares.

Our first stop was the Manjunatha temple; a temple northeast of the city built in the Keralan style; after circumambulating (walking around the shrines before approaching directly) we sat next to one of the temple's benefactors and chatted for awhile as the noontime mahapuja (grand prayer ceremony) got underway. This temple does a fire puja twice a day, meaning lots of priests with lots of torches accompanied by drumming and cymballing. It was very, um, cymballic of a country so intent on its faith.

Manjunatha Temple is home to the Trilokshetra, one of the finest bronzes in India. It is a three-faced deity (a seated Shiva I believe) and considered the finest outside Tamil Nadu (they are quite proud of this; they have a little sign in several languages announcing it). I couldn't take a photo but I was awed at the nuanced beauty of the piece, which was so detailed that it seemed to be embroidered rather than cast.

Our next stop after the Milagres Church (nice, but not overwhelmingly impressive) was St. Aloysius College Chapel, which reminded me that great works of devotional art are not limited to India and Greater China:

St. Aloysius Chapel is covered on the inside - and I do mean covered - with frescoes. Fairly new frescoes, but fine nonetheless. I could nitpick that a few of the people depicted look a little stiff, but hey. The painted columns could be the envy of marble, and the friezes illustrating the life of Jesus were beautifully matched in color, tone and composition. The colors - mauve, rose, teak, cinnabar, cerulean, sunburst, all the colors you only see in catalogues - were magnificently matched and almost hummed, as though they were in tune somehow, in a fine aesthetic harmony.

It was the closest I've ever come in a Christian religious space to having a spiritual moment, and I am avowedly non-spiritual.

We left Mangalore the next day for Kannur, a small town in northern Kerala. There are really only two things to do there (besides visit a weaving cooperative) - go to the beach and see Theyyam. We stayed at Costa Malabari (very nice - it's a small hotel in a 120-year old traditional house) and first, went to the beach:

...a lovely semi-private and peaceful cove. The sand wasn't as white and the water not as blue as in the Philippines or Indonesia, but it was still quite lovely. The next morning, we rose at 4am and sleepily piled off in a rickshaw to head 20 miles out to see Theyyam:

Theyyam is a north Keralan temple ''dance" - not so much a dance as a form of devotion. Related in form to Kathakali (next post), devotees wear large, unnatural costumes and terrifying makeup and allow themselves to become possessed by the gods of the temple. It's similar in a way to the dangki tradition of Taiwan, except they don't hurt themselves. They just dance a lot, issue proclamations and sayings from the gods, and generally run about. We saw two dancers, one in a very tall mask and one in a wide skirt, in which flaming torches were set, as well as a flaming headdress. Sorry that the picture is not so good, but it was hard to take photos in the pre-dawn darkness and I felt a flash would be intrusive.

The torch-bearer would run up to the audience - separated by gender - who would joyfully take blessings from the smoke. It's the only time I really feel I can use the word worshipful and mean it. I didn't expect this and Brendan and I were the only foreigners there, so of course he had to run up to me first (the gods apparrently like me) - which was utterly terrifying.

The women around me thought it was hilarious, of course.

After Kannur, we headed up into the hills to the Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary. We stayed at Varnam Homestay (highly recommended - I can't speak highly enough of them). Not knowing the distance involved, we hired a Jeep to take us from Mananthavady, the town where the bus let us off. It should have been Rs. 200 - we paid 600 (about $12 US; not a big deal). Turns out the proprietor of the homestay is a police officer who lodged a complaint about the Jeep driver...sweet, sweet revenge.

The next day, we took a Jeep safari through Tholpetty, seeing Hanuman monkeys (langurs), a wild bison and not one but three wild elephants:

Varnam is also near a tribal area, dotted with villages and paddies. You can usually tell tribal women because unlike the other local Hindus, they cover their hair, and unlike the local Muslims, they use kerchiefs, not shawls or hijab.

It was lovely, being welcomed in villages that aren't reliant on the tourist trade or saturated with souvenir shops, and to just get out and meet some friendly people. As monkeys played in the bamboo at the edge of the clearing, we watched the village children run home across the dry rice paddies - almost all of them stopped to us to first gape, then chat. At least one of them had a cell phone; let this be a lesson to American parents who think it's spoiling to give such devices to children.

Our meals at Varnam were excellent, served by candlelight and flashlight as the power went out every night at 8pm sharp for exactly 30 minutes. Amidst the dim glow we enjoyed savory chicken curry, daal of various flavors, some traditional Keralan foods from the mountains including freshwater fish and a delicious green vegetable with potato, cooked with lots of fenugreek leaf and mustard seed, and "magic balls" - rice flour balls filled with spiced coconut gratings and jaggery - raw sugar. Laying in the hammock or relaxing in the traditional-style house, I felt quiet, so at peace as to be sleepy while Beena (mistress of the house) led the cows in or Don (their son) raked the drying coffee .
A lover of coffee since I was about 3 years old, it was utter bliss to fall asleep rocking in the hammock listening to those coffee beans roll back and forth under the noontime sky with a gentle scritch-scratch.
Our next stop was Calicut; unfortunately most of my photos from this stop are vertical so I'll have to post them later. We had only a half day in Calicut and spent it shopping (approximately 110% of the city's income comes from the UAE and overseas Indians working there, so shopping options are plentiful) and visiting ancient wooden Moppila mosques - the mosques built 700-1100 years ago before the Portuguese came through and defaced them all. Fortunately most are still around and still active today.
Unfortunately, thanks to the Gulf influences, they are rather orthodox mosques so I, as a woman, was not allowed to enter. Brendan, bless his progressive heart, wouldn't go in without me. When invited by some students he said "Sorry - either we both go or neither of us do." (For the record I would have let him enter if he'd really wanted to).
The next morning we bundled into a train bound for Cochin - the stuff of spice and dreams.
A few photos of Cochin before my next post:


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Windows and Mirrors II

(Please read the post below to preserve the order of these two sections)

On the train to Bangalore, from which we transferred to a Mangalore-bound bus, we shared a compartment with several friendly people. Before boarding we picked up dinner; curd rice (rice and plain yoghurt with spices) for Brendan, and Lemon Rice (hard to explain, kind of like a non-greasy biriyani) for me.

After we finished eating as the train chortled away, we were greeted by a deep, fermented smell. One of our kind cabin-mates had uncontrollable belching gas and did not look one jot happy about it. Every few minutes, from the depths of his kidneys, he released a rumbling, Richter-scale burp that soaked the air with a dark, intestinal stench. I set my will against my gorge and smiled silently as my stomach pickled itself.

Waiting for our bus to Mangalore, from Bangalore - confusing, I know - was quite the adventure. Trying to get a clear answer in India is like playing an extended game of "Who's On First?"

"Is this where we catch the bus to Mangalore?"
"So the bus to Mangalore will come here?"
"You catch the bus to Mangalore here?"
"Oh. You catch it there?"
"Yes - so the bus to Mangalore comes in there."
"Then where does it come in?"
"OK, then we wait here for the bus to Mangalore?"
"No, you are waiting there and bus is coming."
"Coming there?"
"No, coming here, going there."
"Going where?"
"To Mangalore."
"I know. But where do we get on?"
"Here. Or there only."
"Wait, is it here or there?"

(The bus ended up pulling in "here" but stopping "there" after picking up some passengers. I think.)

When we finally arrived in Mangalore, and then Udupi, 24 hours later (yes, you read that right, 24 hours to get across one Indian state). We took KSRTC - the state transit company - which meant that our breaks were all at government-run rest areas.

And let me tell you, the food at these places is fan-freaking-tastic. I had the best vadai of my life at a tiny whitewashed building quite literally in the middle of nowhere; in all directions was a rock-strewn plain. Later on we stopped at a small restaurant at the foot of the Western Ghats, near the Coorg area where cardamom, cocoa and coffee are grown. We weren't hungry but had the most delicious cardamom-spiced deep roastted coffee; easily rivalling Sumatra as some of the best coffee I've ever tasted.

Hampi and Mangalore are mirror images of each other. They have only the red dust in common; otherwise one is at the edge of the great Deccan plateau, the other is a port renowned for spice and coffee exports since the Middle Ages. One is a backpacker town strewn with scantily-clad white women and grungy white men; the other has been influenced by Arab, mostly Yemeni, traders for centuries, has few foreigners and many women wear burkhas. Hampi is full of rickshaw mafia trying to suck you dry like so many vampire bats - Udupi and Mangalore are honest and friendly places. One has crumbling ruins set around a newly developed town; the other is full of crumbling Portuguese-style buildings.

Both Hampi and Udupi are saturated with Iberian and Arab influences:

But Udupi, the smaller of the two and arguably the more pleasant place to stay, is also famed as the birthplace of the humble, yet delicious, dosa:

A far cry from the sad and soggy banana pancakes of Hampi.
(This is, by the way, why so many South Indian restaurants abroad are named "Udupi Palace" or the like.)
I am sorry that I had to include my worst photo here, but the others need to be rotated and this cybercafe computer won't allow that.

Udupi is also the site of a famous Krishna temple, which is awash with foreigners becoming enlightened. It's not Hare Krishna but shares many of the same values and is well-known in the West. The temple is, however, lovely and the people here are lovely. It has three temple chariots ("cars"), all in traditional Karnatakan style. We were lucky enough to see one of them pulled around 'Car Street' - a service performed for devotees who donate a certain amount to that end. Photos of that later; they can't be posted now.

We noticed a lot of similarities, however, with Taiwanese god processionals. Similar sorts of music and dancing, fireworks, large costumed deities dancing, a large chariot/palanquin being pulled along. It makes you wonder if the devotional festivals of India and China have a common root (Buddhism is too young, methinks, and the Buddhist temples of Taiwan don't do this as much as the Daoist ones), but diverged as they split. China's would have died out in the Cultural Revolution, but lived on in Taiwan. Makes you think.

Advertising in India is usually painted on buildings, not just along billboards. At times it is quite photogenic.

...more later!

Windows and Mirrors I

My Sweetie Honey Pie, Brendan in Hampi
(I can't be affectionate in real life in India so I have to blog affectionately)

Bangalore is not a terribly fascinating city unless you've got an insatiable lust for call centers. We had planned to get a few things done; book hotels in Kerala, eat a good meal and print our PDF guidebook pages for Egypt, in that order - and then head out to the ISKCON temple before meeting my friend Hemant for drinks. The ISKCON temple is apparently a massive glass-and-steel temple with traditional gopurams (temple gates) attached; it even has a shopping mall inside.

So we are told, anyway - we never made it. It took us most of the day to run the errands we needed to finish and the piece of Bangalore we saw while doing so was enough for us. It was a delight to see Hemant, but unfortunately had to be on the Hampi Express within hours.

We hurtled through the night on the train; Brendan's first Indian train experience. We stopped the chai-wallah and drank around of the sweet stuff in honor of our trip before Brendan crawled atop the highest bunk (the middle bunk has to be pulled up but the top is always rolled out) and promptly fell asleep. It was probably the Indian heat; I have been finding myself dropping into the netherworld earlier and earlier each night and nodding off on buses and trains during the day. Something about the sun here saps the energy from your bones.

We awoke at 6am to a Martian heath:

All red dust and diaphanous white light.

Hampi itself is one of those 'land of contrast' cliches - the beauty of a highly civilized culture and the crumbling ruins that now mark its existence. Friendly restaurant proprietors and scheming rickshaw drivers. A beautiful river and a red, sun-dumped landscape. Temple gates, only 500 years old - that's not a lot in the Indian historical canon - that looked as though bites had been taken out of them:

Half-Eaten Gopuram

It was, however, a treat to show Brendan his first Indian India. I found myself drawn to photographing not only individual sculptures, but scenes with pillars and windows

It sounds silly, almost cliched, but I love being blessed by temple elephants. The elephant at the temple in town is particularly friendly. For one or two rupees, you get a holy bop on the head and if he's lucky, he gets a banana (he got a lot of bananas from us).

Photographing ruins and historical sights is all well and good, but besides photographing the lathe-turned columns and sculptures of Hampi, I find local people interesting photographic subjects as well. That's not a reflection on race or 'local color' - I do the same thing in the USA. Having people in your photographs adds something to them, otherwise you have a pile of pictures of buildings and nothing of what life is actually like.

It was really in Hampi, though, that my penchant for photographing people through windows and doors took hold. This was especially fun in the area full of royal ruins, which are remarkably well-preserved when compared to the state of the city around them. The problem with these particular ruins aren't that they're mobbed with tourists or expensive to enter; it's that they're surrounded mostly by gardens and landscaping and therefore lose all sense of self.

The walls, however, are still quite arresting, all over the city. Some are plain brick faces, others are adorned just so:

On the third day we left the 'ruins' behind and took a coracle - a small basket-boat - across the thin river and got ripped off in the process. Although the ride was over 1 kilometer, it should not have cost 300 rupees (and that after bargaining down from 1,000 and then 600). We didn't feel too bad about handing over far too much money though; the 'boatman' was a young boy and he was obviously not well. He vomited copiously into the river about halfway through our trip, not far from some fording cattle. If anyone deserved all that extra money, it was him. We gave him a little baksheesh on top of the extraordinarily extortionary price because we suspected his father would pocket the rest of the money. We didn't feel this was right; his father wasn't rowing two chubby foreigners down a river while heaving up the contents of his stomach.

The ride was otherwise gorgeous; red boulders in teh distance and green grasses up close, with the tiny whitewashed castle of the Hanuman temple atop a hill straight ahead.

The Hanuman temple (monkey god, companion and comrade to Lord Rama) was awash not only in gorgeous views, white paint and of course monkeys - but also foreigners. The "Om" shirt and dreadlocked wearing kind. No mind; the views were gorgeous.

One of the trees at the Hanuman Temple

On the way up, we saw a single Hanuman Monkey among the macaques. The monkey god watching us?

Brendan and the glorious view

Another cliche to be sure, but the rice paddy and sugarcaned ground below looked just like a patchwork of green stained glass and clouded mirrors.

The monkey god Hanuman

Tiny Hanuman Temple
We left that night for Mangalore; the mirror image and exact opposite of Hampi. More on that in the post above

Thursday, January 22, 2009


We're in India now, online hiding from the heat of the day as we await the departure of our train bound for Bangalore (from which we'll transfer to Udupi by bus).

Hampi, a small town smack in the middle of breathtaking ruins from the capital of Vijayanagara (c. 1500 AD, plus/minus a few hundred years in each direction), is a place I could take or leave. It's got all the amenities - internet, travel booking, money changing, guesthouses - everything a traveler needs. It's got some really friendly people; our guesthouse was run by a good, honest family who gave us a fair exchange rate to change money and gave us the low-down on fair prices. The three small restaurants where we chose to eat most of our meals are all run by lovely people. If you look beyond the backpacker cafes, it's got some good food.

But every other business exists to serve backpackers, and there are hordes of them. Fisherman's Pants Wearing Hordes. They wear inappropriate clothing (the men looking like poor farmers or worse, brahmin priests who really need to do a load of laundry, the women wearing shorts and tank tops). They eat crappy backpacker food in India - India, the land of absolutely delicious food - and they walk around at 21 or 22 pretending to be enlightened.

So, ahh, despite meeting some lovely locals, I could take or leave the town.

The place where we ate dinner most nights makes all food fresh and the owner put on the Inaugural address for us:

The ruins, however, are spectacular. Worth suffering the Om t-shirts and peasant pants, the muesli and banana pancakes.

Rather than rave about how amazing the ruins of Vijayanagara are, I'll show you some photos and let the images speak for themselves.

Hemakuta Hill

the Hanuman Temple

Temple carving

Temple activities

The Queen's Bath

Giant Nandi and other structures at the far end of Hampi Bazaar

Ruined gopuram

Salvaged Statue

The Underground Temple

Brahmins washing dhotis

Monday, January 19, 2009

Confused About The Process

The Time: Our first day in Bangalore

The scene: The very friendly, helpful and on-the-level offices of Worldview Kerala Dot Com (Manipal Centre, MG/Dickenson Road) booking accommodation for Kerala. We don't want to have to lug our bags around in each town looking at hotels.

People are coming in and going out. The phone is ringing. Someone is helping us find accommodation in our price range in various places - they do a very good job of this and I highly recommend them, by the way. One hotel in Ernakulam is found, then the proprietor comes in and says he can find a better hotel for a steal, in Fort Cochin (he can and did). We've already paid for the first hotel, they're 'alternating' the money (?) and the phone rings.

Then some other people come in, and the phone rings, and then the other guy is talking to the first guy.

Brendan: "This is great, but I'm a bit confused about the process."
Me: "That, right there, needs to be India's next tourism campaign slogan, my dear."

India: This is Great, but I'm a Bit Confused About the Process

What do you think? I think it's perfect, personally. Sums up the country beautifully.

This is great.

But we're a bit confused about the process.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Greetings from Singapore!

Without the ability to upload photos on this clunky airport computer (hey, at least it's free) I figure I'll keep this short and write a better post later with illustrations.

Brendan and I have just landed in Singapore and spent the day in transit.

I wuuuuuuv Singapore. I know it has its detractors, people who call it SingaBore and that it's quite fashionable to hate the place. Sorry, though, I love it.

I love the hot weather - Singapore boasts my ideal climate. Hot in the winter and hotter in the summer. I can fly home to upstate NY if I really want to be cold.

I love the mezcla of cultures - it helps that I can speak two of the four official languages and have a rudimentary knowledge of the other two (Tamil more than Malay, but I know a little Bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia from my time in Sumatra). I love that Lee Kiew Trading Co. is in a shophouse right next to Krishna Emporium. I love the Chinese temples, Malaysian/Indonesian food and Bollywood soundtrack.

I love the food, of course. Every meal is good. You have to actively try to eat a bad meal in Singapore and even then what you get might well be fantastic.

People say it's too clean - I think it's got its grit (Little India and Chinatown are not 'spotless' by any standard) and the clean part is refreshing. I don't get people who don't like cleanliness.

I do get hating Orchard Road. I've never walked down it, but we took a taxi down it today. Yucky. If you've never been past that strip of consumerist horror, I can understand hating Singapore.

The last time we were here we wandered Little India, Chinatown, the colonial area, Clarke Quay, Boat Quay and Esplanade at night after a Lau Pa Sat dinner, and enjoyed ourselves a lot.

This time we took the usual spin around Little India for an idli-dosa-vadai-kappi breakfast (romba nalla irukku!) and then the cable car up to Mt. Faber - overrated. We are happy we did it so now we can say we've done it, but won't be rushing back. There is almost no view due to the trees and the harbor is nice, but not worth the combined S$25.00 it took to get up there and back. We then headed to the National Botanical Gardens and enjoyed the orchids and the giant pond - although the craziest orchids were not in bloom, it was still lovely and romantic on a sunny tropical day.

Next stop: Bangalore!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Leavin' on a Jet Plane

Just to let y'all know, it'll be quiet around here for the next six weeks or so. We're taking a long-awaited and well-deserved vacaaaaaaaaaation!

On Saturday we head to Singapore, and spend most of Sunday there before flying to Bangalore, where we'll see my good friend Hemant and his wife for the first time in years (actually I've never met his wife, but I know her - long story).

We'll then ramble around southern India hitting Hampi, Hassan and surrounding temples, Mangalore, Udupi, Kannur and surrounding villages, Calicut, Wayanad (Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary), Cochin and the Kerala backwaters, hopefully in the most eco-friendly way possible.

Then we'll take a 26 hour train up the Konkan coast to Bombay - yes, Bombay - where we'll meet more friends and go sightseeing before boarding a plane to...

...Cairo! We'll spend 4 days in Cairo and around before heading down the tourist circuit to Aswan, where we'll spend a few days relaxing by the Nile and a day in Luxor to hit a few ancient temples (after Hampi and the Pyramids we figure we don't need to see more than a day's worth of temples) before heading back to Cairo to transfer to New York.

Then I'll head up to my parents' house and visit relatives for a week while Brendan does the same in Maine. We'll meet again in New York and head down to DC for a few days to visit friends before returning to Taipei on one looooong trans-Pacific flight.

Brendan's excited because he's never been to India before (so am I, even though I've already been to about 50% of our itinerary - we're hitting the main sights because he's never been), and I'm excited because I've never been to Egypt before. Our flights will circle the globe - heading across the Indian Ocean to Africa before hitting the Atlantic and the USA, then crossing back over the other way. It'll be my second round-the-world and Brendan's first.

I'll still be around on here, posting the occasional update from the road - but it'll be March before you get any more Taiwan blogging out of me.

Happy New Year - Xinnian Kuai Le and Gong Qi Fa Cai!*

*again too lazy to type in Chinese

Mother Goose Goose Meat (and other Taiwanese treats)

I love the name.

Mama E Rou has terrific goosemeat - succulent and fresh, lilting and savory.

You can locate it at Jingmei Night Market - take Jingmei MRT Exit 1 and when you exit, turn away from Roosevelt Road, instead heading left along the lane that takes you to the night market. Across from Cafe 85 is another lane that bisects Jingmei Street (the night market main drag) which is laden with good options. The "stuff on sticks" guy to the right is also quite good.

Anyway, walk in a bit, and it's right near the little shrine on the left. It's a basic Taiwanese 'joint' - not a restaurant, not an eatery, not a cafe, but a joint - where you get goosemeat, white or dark. it comes with bones and skin, sliced onto a plate with two dipping sauces the way cold chicken does (but the sauces are different). You can order noodles to go with it, made with a velvety goose broth, as well as xiao chi and seasonal vegetables.

It's really, really good. They do an excellent job with high-quality meat, the way any little joint should.

Sorry that I'm lazy about typing in Chinese; I would really prefer Pinyin input - sorry, I know, evil Communist Pinyin - and it takes too long to do the bopomofo. I am practicing though. I'm trying to do more reviews of Taiwanese restaurants as opposed to foreign food. It is easy to get reviews of foreign food in Taipei online (I subscribe to Hungry Girl, so I know) but really hard to get info on the little places - the joints - that serve the best local food and snacks.

Someday I'll write an epic post on the myriad kinds of onion pancake and where to get the best ones, I swear.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Zhongxiao E. Road Section 4 (near Zhongxiao Dunhua MRT) Lane #216, Alley 11 #21

Go here.

It's a new foreign-owned Tex Mex restaurant and it's fabulous. The food isn't "Mexican" (as in, no corn tortillas and delicious tamales from the back of a van by the side of the road outside Houston, which is my fondest memory of true Mexican fare) but it is legitimately "Tex Mex" (the American spawn of Mexican + Southwestern) and is legitimately good.

I know there's a good Mexican place up in Danshui, but dude, that's Danshui. An hour on the MRT? I know La Casita has a good reputation for food, but their reputation for friendly service is lacking. Tequila Sunrise on Xinsheng S. Road does Tex Mex tailored to Taiwanese tastes - that is, entirely too mild. Jake's is alriiiight but a bit greasy, and I do think Tianmu is inconvenient.

This place is the real deal, and in a convenient location, too. We came at 4:45 and were still allowed to order off the lunch menu (ends at 5). Service was excellent and friendly, and the staff speaks fluent English as well as Chinese, which is good because I have no idea how to order Mexican food in Chinese unless it involves Chinese-ifying words like 'tortilla' into 'tou ti la' and 'salsa' into 'sa lu sa' or some such.

The food was great. The nachos...were really...nachos! REAL NACHOS, people. I haven't had those in awhile. Real cheese, real melting, real toppings. Not just microwaved Doritos with a few sad strips of plastic cheddar. Real salsa, not glorified ketchup. Real. Sour. Cream.

Emily said the rice was too mild, but I am sure a kitchen request could fix that. She had effusive compliments for her ribs, though, which "were so tender they were just falling apart. I'm used to having to saw ribs apart to get any meat." Our sandwiches were fantastic, with lots of spicy jalapenos, tender chicken and other good stuff, and came with generous corn chips and salsa. They were also huge, and on the lunch menu, less than $200 NT each.

I do wish the dinner menu contained more options for those of us who like our Tex Mex food pre-wrapped in tortillas - the only fajitas are steak fajitas, and otherwise it's either nachos, half-chickens, ribs, shrimp, etc.

They had flan with vanilla ice cream, but we were too full for dessert. The margaritas (only a few on the menu but all looked good, not foofy or frilly) looked fine, but I'm on meds for bronchitis so no drinkies for me. We only went there in the first place because I am sick and craving Western goodies. I always want pasta, Tex Mex or some such when I'm ill.

A generous meal for 3 came to $1170 and there was no service charge! We tipped, because we liked it. Good deal for tasty foreign food, I'd say.

The service was spectacular - friendly staff, helpful but not intrusive, and honestly trying to please. The waitress confirmed the order and the waiter who spilled a few of my chips on the table brought a bowl of fresh ones.

Bonus - the decor wasn't tacky, froofy or embarrassing. It was minimalist, with a southwestern feel. No plastic cacti or sombreros with poofballs on walls or all those other things that make me avoid Tex Mex restaurants.

It was nearly empty at 5pm on a Friday night, and that just ain't right - though it seemed they were setting up for a party downstairs.

So. Um. Go here!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Racist Toothpaste

For those of you who are already familiar with Darlie (which used to be labeled with something much more offensive, differing from "Darlie" by just one letter), you must know that the label in Chinese has not been changed. In Chinese, it's still "Black Man Toothpaste".

Seems offensive enough already, right?

Now pair that with the travel toothpaste you get in many hotels, which conveniently has an English label on one side...



...wait for it...

...and yes, the backside of the smaller tube says "White Man" in Chinese.

I believe "guffaw" is the correct reaction here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The New Year's Taiwan Loop II (South Link Railway and Taidong)

After a day and a half in Tainan and Anping, we took a short trip down to Gaoxiong (sorry, Kaohsiung just looks funny) and spent just a few hours wandering down by the Love River.

Recommendation: Don't go to the Love River during the day. It's quite boring and the city views aren't even that great. Do something else - go to Chaishan and the Old British Consulate, or explore Cijin island, go to Little Liuqiu, Meinong, Zuoying or do anything else. Save Love River for an evening when its promenades show some sign of life, when the city lights make Gaoxiong look beautiful (it's not a bad city, but it's not on my hot list of scenic cities of the world), and when the beer gardens are open. We had to leave that area and go searching in Yancheng for some food.

We ended up eating a delicious, inexpensive and relatively healthy meal at a small restaurant near the City God Temple.

One of the lions outside the City God temple.

Then we boarded the South Link Railway. On this segment of the railroad, you can't go north past Taidong, and I am not sure if you can do so on the Gaoxiong side. There are plenty of options along the way, though. Hengchun is not only the jumping-off point for Kending, but also boasts its own natural gas-and-water hot spring in which bubbles of gas catch fire as they exit the water. Guanzilin has something similar. Taimali looks like an interesting stop; the name is almost certainly of aboriginal extraction and my students later told me that if I want to try local food, Taimali is the place to do it. Taidong really doesn't compare on a culinary level.

The scenery along the way is also quite spectacular. It begins with the fading industrial plain and turns to southern countryside before ringing several palm forests and then coming out along the eastern shore, with nothing but sea views on one side, and mountain vistas on the other. I took a few photos, but not many came out well. I am, however, quite happy with this one:

This railway is a good alternative for a scenic ride along the southeastern mountains, as the Suao-Hualien stretch of railway is mostly tunnels and you get very little in the way of good views.

We arrived in Taidong at sunset and went to our hotel (Ming Yu hotel, off Zhonghua Road - good value for money at $2500 or so a night for a clean room with lots of amenities, though we didn't use the breakfast coupons for McDonald's because we don't really like McDonald's and anyway, it was too far to walk. Bonus: gangta rap in the lobby. Ha). There isn't much to do in Taidong, so we satisfied ourselves with a grazing dinner of dumplings, stinky tofu and other snacks and headed back early.

I enjoyed the fresh sea air of Taidong - it was softer, milder and cleaner than elsewhere in Taiwan and the light had a different, almost filtered, quality. I think that and the mountains in the distance really made the city for me, because the urban bustle is all but nonexistent. On the second day (Sunday) we checked out the night market but it was already winding down at 9:30 (!!) - all that was left were games, knock-off accessories and fried food. I was hoping for more aboriginal fare but there was none to be had.

We're not really museum people - I, for one, prefer to see life in action rather than a display case - so we forwent the Museum of Prehistory and spent the second day hopping up the east coast to Sanxiantai and Baxiandong.

Sanxiantai - or Three Immortals Platform - was beautiful:

...with lots of rocks, paths, crevices, niches, stairs, walkways and caves to explore. We never made it to the lighthouse, but we did find a path through a cave on the larger of the "immortals" (the rocks, presumably volcanic in origin) which was quite a lot of fun, and included lots of scrambling to get to.

The souvenir and food area nearby isn't so bad - you can buy CDs of aboriginal music, decent food and good seafood, and grab a cup of coffee afterwards to warm up on a cool, windy day. It's also very accessible by bus and very near the fishing town of Chenggong.

Baxiandong (Eight Immortals Caves), however, was something of a disappointment. The sea views were lovely, and we did see a monkey playing in the trees on our way down, so all was not lost. The exhibit housing the neolithic tools found was quite small, however, and the Daoist grottoes were kind of tacky. Tthe group of meditators at the top were very peaceful and lent a lovely air to the place, though.

The grottoes of Baxiandong
Obviously not a neolithic cave sculpture, but photogenic nonetheless.

We returned to Taidong via Chenggong, where we stopped for a lovely seafood dinner of squid, a heavy fish with an almost chicken-like texture to the flesh, clams and shrimp with egg. There's not much going on in Chenggong but it's a good place to grab a meal.

The next day we returned to Taipei from Taidong via the East Rift Valley. Riding a train with large windows that beautifully framed the passing scenery, I've decided that this has to be one of the most scenic railway journeys one can take not only in Taiwan, but in the world. Especially when crops are in full bloom - we seem to have hit mustard or rapeseed season by the look of the yellow fields. You can see mountains on both sides and rural roads twisting away like ribbons between the fields, and it's wonderful just to contemplate, even if you don't stop. Taking the railway, in this way, is better than driving because you don't have to pay attention to the road; you can admire what's around you instead.

I enjoyed snapping pictures along this route, thinking about how much fun it is to watch the natural and human worlds take turns dropping things in front of you, and as you move, twisting them around into new positions and scenes. Your job, as the photographer of that scene, is to snap right when those arrangements are best. Wait for that unfurled road when it's most striking, or take the shot when the sun hits the water just so, or the cloud passes right there. When the person walks in front of the building in exactly that way, or when a bicyclist or vendor moves a little bit to make the scene more compelling.

I'm not very good at this, of course, but it's wonderful to think about.