Monday, February 28, 2011

The Parrot of Da'an Park

With the recent warm, sunny weather, I figured it was timely to write a post about Da'an Park, as half of Taipei seems to be hanging out there over the long weekend (the other half is either on Yangmingshan or "sleeping and watching TV" as always).

If you hang out around the amphitheater, the one about halfway up the park on the Xinsheng side, you might notice a bright green bird flitting around and cawing.

You're not hallucinating: it is in fact a green, red-beaked parrot (or parakeet - it's hard to tell: the coloring is more similar to a parakeet, but green parrots do exist, and the size is more akin to a young parrot).

Are parrots local to Taipei? Uh, no.

I can't find any information on a native, even an accidental, population of parrots in Taipei (or Taiwan). There are several feral populations worldwide - there's one in San Francisco - formed from escaped parrots - and it's fairly clear that this little fella is an escapee and has settled in Da'an Park as being the most tree-dense part of the city. Polly got out of his cage, didn't he?

What with all the people who see him digging into their picnic bags to throw him crackers and crumbs, he seems alright for food now, and summer is coming. I just hope he makes it through next winter.

On a slightly different note, Da'an Park is great for seeing all sorts of still-captured species:

Of course the park abounds with dogs of all sizes being taken out to play (apparently they're starting to enforce leash laws, though - a woman with a huge fluffy white mound of dog was getting a citation as we arrived), but you'd be a fool to miss the cats and rabbits, not to mention the occasional guinea pig, ferret, large lizard or flying squirrel on a tiny chain.

These fuzzballs were born and raised housecats, and this was their first foray outside. You can see that they're, uh, taking it pretty well.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Johnny Cucina Italiana

Johnny Cucina Italiana
#125 Zhongyang Road
Xindian, Taipei County
MRT Xiaobitan, Exit 2, turn right and walk a short distance
(yeah I know it's technically "Xindian District, New Taipei City" but you know what, screw that)

Five words to describe this place: yum yum yum yum yum.

Taiwan is overrun with Italian restaurants, and to be honest, most of them are a special kind of awful (including "We Make It Different" - yes, you certainly do make it "different", but by that you clearly mean like when you're 12 and decide to try your hand at fashion design and show your mom your hand-sewn frock and she says "Um,'s so unique and different").

Johnny Cucina Italiana is refreshingly different - in the good sense - from the other places which are merely "different". Run by an actual Italian chef who makes his own pasta noodles and pays close attention to flavor and detail, we enjoyed every moment of our meal there.

I haven't seen this place on any of the usual food review outlets popular with foreigners (including the Taipei Times reviews and Hungry Girl) - it was recommended by a student who studied in Belgium and knows his European fare, after mentioning in class how impossible it is to find good Italian in Taipei.

The meal started slow - honestly the "Salami" (typical cheese, meat and vegetable selection antipasto) appetizer was a bit of a let-down, but someone from the kitchen came out to explain that they didn't have a lot of the things usually served with it due to import issues (I gather that they import a lot of their vegetables from Australia which has suffered from all sorts of problems these days) and couldn't get the promised Parma ham, either. The items available - delicious, rich but not greasy salami and three kinds of high quality cheese were delicious. I did wish that by "olives" (in the menu description) that they'd meant real Mediterranean olives - my mom still observes the rich culinary traditions of Mousa Dagh on the Mediterranean coast so I know my olives, dammit, and "black and pimento" are not olives. They're posers.

However, we did get a free extra artichoke salad (the house dressing is lovely) as a result of them not having the entirety of the appetizer on hand, and a few items on the house with dessert, which made up for it. My advice? When ordering an appetizer, ask what's fresh and available and what's recommended and get that, instead of ordering blind. The staff will recommend something that they can serve fresh, and I can guarantee it will be tasty. If you order something that presents an issue, they will do their best to make it up to you. The server had suggested the salmon salad appetizer, and we would have been wise to follow her recommendation (but the salami and cheese were really good - that's worth remembering).

We also started with a glass of house red each - Brusco dei Barbi, a Tuscan wine. I know that one is "supposed" to drink white with pasta, but whatevs. We prefer red, so red is what we drank. My feelings on wine are "drink what you like and eat what you like", rather than listen to some expert tell you what you should and shouldn't pair with wine. Wine is about socializing, warmth and good times, not about "a full flavor of graphite, salmon roe, zesty minerals, elderberry liqueur and dark chocolate ganache" or whatever BS people make up about it.

Brusco dei Barbi is a light, dry but slightly fruity wine (without being syrupy or sweet in the least). It goes down easily without the slight burn of most dry reds, and manages a complex flavor without being too heavy. It is exceptionally balanced and frighteningly easy to drink.

For entrees, I ordered the Pasta con i Ricci - pasta made with sea urchin paste, cream, olive oil, white wine and other flavors, served with crabmeat. See, I always have to go for the richest, creamiest, most oddball-ingredient-intensive, umami-dense thing on any menu. It's just how I roll, baby. That, and I love sea urchin. I've been known to take the train to Keelung to the night market stand that has four different kinds of urchin and order it sashimi-style for $10 a pop, just to get my urchin fix. Sea urchin, for the uninitiated, is a taste extravaganza.

Brendan ordered the pasta parmagiane, figuring that it's such a basic dish that the chef's skills would really show through in the combination of simple ingredients.

Also on offer are pizzas, various pastas and a page of meat-based dishes including steak and duck leg. We intend to return to try one of the pizzas for my upcoming post on the best pizza in Taipei.

The pasta made up for whatever was lacking in the appetizer: the serving size appears initially small but I assure you it is not. The pasta dishes are deeper than they appear at first, and the servings more generous than the small amount of pasta visible when the dish arrives. My creamy sea urchin pasta was a bright yellow-orange and so rich and flavorful that my tongue might have exploded if I'd had even one more bite than what I was served. The flavors blended perfectly so that there were no distinct overtones of wine, garlic, onion, cream, olive oil or sea urchin, but they all sang in harmony to create a gorgeous, new flavor not unlike the blend of a high-quality perfume might blend several scents to create a unified new fragrance. For all its creaminess and depth of flavor, though, it was not heavy or overpowering, and the crabmeat was light and fresh.

For all the richness of my pasta, Brendan's was tart and springy in flavor. With a popping parmesan cheese (the real kind, not the scary powdered stuff from a cardboard tube) and a fresh, almost lemony tomato sauce, it was simple but delicious. It came encased in a "shell" of four ovals of perfectly roasted eggplant that looked so good I almost wanted to reach over and steal one. I practically had to slap my own hand to stop myself. Bad Jenna. Bad!

It is worth noting that both pastas were quite fresh and served perfectly al dente, and went well with more red wine - like I said, forget those people who say that pasta goes with white. Drink what you like and be proud.

For dessert, we got the flavor combo - a tiramisu and a brownie, with a cheesecake on the house (and some grappa). All three were ridiculously good - I felt like we could come and have a full meal just by ordering every dessert. The tiramisu was light, not too sugary, and soaked with liqueur as a good tiramisu should be. The cheesecake was rich and creamy, as cheesecake should be, with a crunchy but pliant chocolate crust. The Italian-style brownie was hands-down one of the best chocolate desserts I've had in Taiwan, ranking right up there with La Boheme's hot chocolate (note, the La Boheme I go to on Wenzhou St. is not the same as this La Boheme, which I've never been to). Heavy but not thick, with a crispy crust and deep chocolatey inside, and topped with real ganache, it's a delectable chocolate treat not to be missed.

All in all, great stuff. Stick with server recommendations on appetizers and you'll have an amazing meal at Johnny Cucina Italiana!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Honeymoon Redux III: Nicaragua

Nicaragua was one of my "surprise" favorite destinations - I was the most excited about Panama after getting ardent recommendations, Costa Rica as it's famous and Guatemala, and was a bit worried that Nicaragua and Honduras would be too dangerous, too sketchy, too overwhelming to really appreciate.

I was, fortunately, wrong.

I enjoyed every moment of relaxed, laid back Nicaragua even though we only made two stops, on Isla de Ometepe and Granada (Granada, Nicaragua is a namesake of Granada, Spain). I found it to be friendly, affordable and enjoyable, with a world-class historic city and lovely natural scenery (although it did rain a lot while we were there).

We took the bus across the border from Liberia, Costa Rica - a refreshingly easy to deal with town in a country so teeming with tourists that its reputation for scams and con-artistry are nearly as legendary as Egypt's and India's. More on that in Part IV.

It was immediately apparent that we were now in the less developed part of Central America - Panama and Costa Rica are both relatively wealthy (by regional standards) and had better infrastructure and a seemingly higher standard of living than I'd expected.

Once we crossed the border to Nicaragua, it was clear how little Nicaragua has in comparison - I've never crossed a border with that much of a striking difference on both sides: India/Bangladesh and Laos/Thailand, not to mention China/Laos - borders where I'd expect to see a huge difference in development on both sides, looked relatively equal on both sides (generally due to border towns on the more developed side being scruffier than the rest of the country they were in). Crossing into Nicaragua, I could almost draw a line with a marker where Costa Rica stopped and much poorer Nicaragua began.

When we arrived we took a Managua-bound bus that would stop in Rivas, a mid-size town up the road from San Jorge, where the ferry left. Just trying to figure out in broken Spanish if the bus to Managua did in fact go to Rivas without a transfer was a huge ordeal, but once on the bus it all worked out. If you cross this border, you will be bombarded by taxi drivers wanting to leech your money away, "helpers" who have forms and lend you pens for immigration and then demand a $1 tip (sadly, I fell for this, and I should know better, but it was $1 and my life will go on. I feel worse about reinforcing and enabling such behavior).

Our first stop was Isla de Ometepe - Ometepetl meaning "two hills" in the local indigenous language - made up of two volcanoes on the massive Lago de Nicaragua.

Lake Nicaragua is less than 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, but is connected by a river to the Caribbean. As a result, it was a contender for what eventually became the Panama Canal. Panama was chosen only because it "proved" that its earthquakes were less severe than those of Nicaragua.

Of the twin volcanoes - Volcan Maderas and Volcan Concepcion - Maderas (right) is the lower and easier of the two to climb, whereas more conical Concepcion is a tough hike, an active volcano, and its surrounding land is where most of the development (and the only paved road) on Ometepe is.

And if you're wondering how big the lake is, well, it's big enough to hold an island that hosts two large volcanoes!

The guidebooks praised Charco Verde, a rural area out past the main town of Moyogalpa with good walking trails, natural scenery and gentle, lapping waters. We headed out that way in a taxi - we took the bus at later times but with luggage we figured a taxi was an easier choice - and checked into the Hotel Charco Verde Inn, which was quite nice at a good low season price.

What we hadn't counted on was the rainy season - the walking trails were all washed out, the "beach" was completely flooded, and in the evening tiny white gnats swarmed everywhere.

The sunsets were great though.

I'd happily stay out there the dry season!

To get around we generally took the rickety old bus - buses in much of Nicaragua are mostly decommissioned American school buses painted bright colors and stuck all over with shiny religious stickers and fake BMW logos - and Ometepe seems to get the worst of those (the worst of buses that were considered no longer fit to carry schoolchildren back in the USA).

The room between seats was often so tight that Brendan noted that if the ride to town had been any longer, he might have been permanently disfigured.

One thing that Ometepe does have is an abundance of picturesque little churches.

...and here, like in the rest of the country, people take their freedom of speech very seriously. Most blank spaces were covered with political graffiti - pro-Ortega as this one below, pro-Sandinista but anti-Ortega, and anti-Sandinista.

Someone thinks they should re-elect Daniel Ortega in 2011.

Coca-Cola is everywhere in Nicaragua - it's almost a bit too much.

To get to our hotel on Charco Verde, we would get off the bus at the turnoff and then walk for 10 minutes down a dirt road between farms. At one point this idiotic dalmatian (he really was a moron) that had been following us decided to sniff a cow's butt. The cow was not pleased.

On the second day, we climbed halfway up Volcan Maderas (the easier of the two climbs) to the cloudline. Due to trees and constant cloud cover there's rarely a view from the top, so we were happy with stopping at the cloud line - plus the final 2 hours of the hike gets very steep, damp and slippery. I can do it, but I'm not gonna do it for no view!

From here you can see Concepcion, also covered in clouds as usual. It's like the clouds are attracted to the peaks.

I do recommend hiring a guide to take you on the hike if you go here - it's not expensive, you can book it easily in Moyogalpa (transportation is a bit expensive though) and the trails are a bit hard to follow in places - it'll be good to have someone who knows their way. I would, however, make sure that you read your guidebook on good tour agencies that will arrange a guide and you choose one yourself - don't hire a guide who seeks you out.

The views, as above, are amazing, you are likely to see all sorts of interesting animals, from insects to monkeys. It was not that cloudy (at least below the cloud line - derr) or muddy the day we hiked but I absolutely believe that once you cross the cloudline, it gets extremely muddy and wet.

If you want to save money on the climb and don't mind being out of the way, you can stay at the farm at the base of the volcano - it's quite lovely with amazing views of Concepcion from the open air eating area, though it's probably not cheap.
When waiting for the rickety old schoolbus (once per hour) to go back to town or just leave Charco Verde, we waited in the shade at this little cantina in the tiny settlement of Las Cruces.

When we returned, our ferry left before the Che Guevara ferry.

Only in Latin America is this not hilariously fauxronic (fauxronic = faux+ironic).

The ferry arrived back in San Jorge, we took a taxi to Rivas for $1, and hopped a bus to Granada after fending off more taxi driver touts who insisted the next bus to Granada wasn't for several hours (despite the presence of a bus with a painted sign saying "Granada" right there). The bus left 30 minutes later. I snapped this photo from the open door.

Whatever you do, do NOT, NOT NOT NOT try the red soda. I have ingested many terrible things in my life, from chicken rectum to duck tongue to asparagus juice, and this was absolutely the most horrific thing I have ever allowed to touch my tastebuds. I didn't know that they actually made a soda flavor called "Chemical Red" (or at least that's what they should call it), tempered with five pounds of sugar.

The bus duly arrived in Granada, not via Managua as the taxi touts said it would (never listen to a taxi driver in Nicaragua, ever), and we settled up in a room at Hostal Esfinge, across from the market and not far from the Parque Central. In a restored colonial building with a friendly but watchful owner, it was a fantastic value for money in an atmospheric space.

Granada is gorgeous, restored to grand colonial beauty in some areas:

Still "under construction" in others, but still quite grand nonetheless, such as at the Iglesia San Francisco, below:

...and has a gorgeous Parque Central with the lovely yellow and white Cathedral de Granada at one end and a string of high-end hotels at the other (I recommend not staying there unless you want a little luxury, but definitely going there for some well-mixed cocktails when the backpacker bars down by Iglesia Virgen de Guadelupe get old). There is great coffee to be had at an upscale coffeeshop on the verandah of one of these hotels if you get sick of Euro Bagel (which also has good coffee) on the other side of the square.

Parque Central, Granada

...and some places are in desperate need of a little care. This shot was taken at dusk - I do not recommend traveling alone at dusk on foot in Granada. If you are in a group, fine, but not alone.

The market area is not as well-renovated as the Parque Central and has a lot of dirt and scratches around the edges.

...but also has brighter colors and more vibrant street life going on. The Parque Central is manicured and lovely, but all you see are tourists, horse-drawn carriages and touts selling necklaces.

Near the market in the early morning. These tiny stands all line up and repair watches, shoes or other small items.

What I loved in Granada was the use of bright colors - different buildings and houses were painted a panoply of brilliant shades.

...and yet Granada is still a lived-in city. It's not like Antigua which seems like one giant (but lovely) museum - it's a working city with real people in it, and part of that city is not so nice - ask your hotel owner where it's safe to go. This shot was taken in a middle class residential area.

The government is still working on getting the funds to restore the old hospital (Hospital Viejo) as you can see by this antiqued photo.

Kids playing in Granada.

Bright colors in Granada.
Granada has no shortage of gorgeous doorways - there are even posters and postcards titled "the doorways of Granada"! This is the entrance to the Iglesia Xalteva, across the street from a pretty little brick-laned park (Parque Xalteva).

Granada also has a lot of the wonderful, whimsical door knockers seen all over Antigua.

More Granada doorways.

It is worth the walk to Iglesia de la Merced, a lovely old church with an elegantly paint-peeled steeple. You can climb the bell tower for $1 and get a fantastic view of the Cathedrale de Granada, in orange/yellow and white, in the distance, over old red tile roofs that remind me somewhat of Chinese roof shingles.

Different brightly-painted buildings as seen from the bell tower.

People can and do socialize in the public space just outside churches in Nicaragua - they perform a similar function to temples in Taiwan, where old folks and kids crowd around the court and banyan trees outside.

The lovely old Iglesia de la Merced.

The nightlife scene is definitely down past the Parque Central, on the way to Iglesia Virgen de Guadelupe (below) - here you can get sandwiches and Italian food as well as Mexican and local fare (don't bother with the local fare, eat that in Los Bocaditos - and make sure to try the salty local cheese - it's a nice change from rice and beans as usual), hamburgers, pizzas, ceviche (YUM!), and the usual selection of local beers and Corona.

On our second day we took a day trip to Masaya to check out the market. I wasn't terribly impressed, to be honest, though the main local market was fun. It didn't help that it was pouring and we got soaked - I had to buy a new t-shirt and change into it in a repulsive public restroom.

It rained so hard that the streets actually flooded and we had to wade a bit as cars stopped in the riverine streets to get back to the bus after visiting the "artisan's market" (ahem, tourist market). The artisan's market in Masaya is worth a trip only if you want to buy some souvenirs without much hassle - it's not worth it just to see.

On the way down, I stepped on a loose sidewalk stone and filthy, rancorous black water spewed up and covered my left foot.

A few days later, in Semuc Champey, that foot began to swell. I didn't think it was a big deal until I got medical attention for it back in Taiwan, but the doctor said it wasn't just too much stress from walking on cobbled streets - there was an infection under the skin. EW!

Lesson? Be careful where you step on a rainy day in Nicaragua.

One thing you can see in Masaya are these giant idol-like parade dolls that remind me of the tall gods that parade around in Taiwanese temple fairs (called "dua sen" in Taiwanese, usually recognized as being 七爺 and 八爺).

We did have decent coffee and tres leches (I love tres leches) in the tourist market, and we met a young boy with a pet spider monkey (let's leave aside the probable cruelty of this). He let me pet the monkey, and as he - being a young boy - was generally more playful and not gentle with it, but I was gentle and stroking his neck and side, he decided I was his mother. He crawled on my back and did not want to leave - it took the restaurant owner to pry him off me as the boy couldn't get him to move.

(The picture is at the top).

From Granada we boarded a bus headed straight for Tegucigalpa (well, with a transfer in Jicaro Galan). The heavy rains all the way up through Nicaragua brought people out to stare at swollen rivers and farms that had turned into lakes.

We did stop in Managua briefly, but we never left the highly-secured bus station area. I got the feeling that it was a city of sprawl, though we never did make it to whatever town center it may have (the old town center was destroyed in an earthquake and the government simply can't afford to rebuild it).

One thing I kept noticing were signs by several bridges on the Interamericana that said "Taiwan-Nicaragua Cooperative" (in Spanish) - as diplomatic allies, Taiwan provided much of the funding for the bridges that Nicaragua so desperately needed but couldn't afford.

Tip - change your money before you cross the border. We didn't get the chance at the border and were having an awful time exchanging cordoba in Honduras (some friendly foreigners heading that way did it for us). Do it before you get on the bus, because cross-border buses won't stop for you.

All in all, enjoy Nicaragua!

What Scares Me, and What Gives Me Hope, Part I

Yes, this does concern China and to a lesser extent Taiwan - I'm just going to take my sweet time getting there!

We've all been watching as governments across the Arab world have either fallen or begun to teeter, and hopefully have absorbed several lessons from it.

I include Iran in "the Arab world" even though I realize they are not strictly defined as "Arab", by the way.

The first thought that came to my head when Tunisia fell and Egypt followed was simple - "you can't force democracy. People come into it on their own". If you read my blog regularly at all, you've surely guessed by now that I'm a die-hard liberal who never supported the Iraq war. I don't think in this moment of hindsight that I need to defend that view by stating the obvious. I'm surprised it isn't being said more - that it hasn't become a cliche in the way that "have an adult conversation" has regarding budget deficits. It is painfully evident that our military, top-down, "Pappa knows what's best" attempts at bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East failed, and that grass roots desire for change has triumphed.

Frankly, I'm not sure why this isn't talked about more - is it just too obvious to say out loud?

This was its own cliche years ago when we lefties originally protested the war (I went to an actual protest, and then because I didn't want to be too much of a stereotype, got a giant Starbucks latte) - "you can't force democracy". "Going into Iraq and taking down their regime for them will never work. Saddam sucks, but the Iraqi people have to want to get rid of him themselves". Even I admit that it all sounded a bit hippie-dippy: because of course if people truly want democracy they'll risk their lives to fight for it. Yeah right. It is a fact of life that while people do generally value democracy, they value their families and personal relationships, not to mention lives, more. I'm not sure anyone who said the above actually believed at the time that the Iraqis would, in fact, oust Saddam on their own.

Things change now, and I don't know about you, but if we'd never invaded Iraq, I could certainly envision a mob of angry Iraqis not unlike those in Tunis, Tahrir Square, Tehran, Bahrain and Tripoli storming downtown Baghdad and demanding change. It sounded hippie-dippy, but it turned out to be not far from the truth.

The second thing I have taken away from this is the driving home of the point that the basic rights of freedom and self-determination are not inherently "Western" even if they came from Greece (arguably the birthplace of much of our Western culture). India has had a messy but functional democracy for over half a century - I get the feeling that at the top the votes are accurate: all the election corruption seems to be on a more local level, Taiwan, Korea and Japan have frisky but working democracies, as do many other nations, and yet "democracy" can't seem to shake its reputation as a "Western import".

When we were sending in troops to cram it down the throat of a nation, it sure played the role with gusto: what could be more of a "Western import" than a democracy that the USA decided to force on another country? It cemented the idea of Western-style government as 'evil' and 'foreign' to many, all a part of our sinister American plans for world domination (mwahahahahaha).

Now that the Arab world is on fire (both literally and non-) not unlike the European revolutions of 1848 from a desire for self-determination brought on for the people and by the people, it doesn't seem so "Western" anymore, does it. It sounds more "human".

Finally, what I'm getting from this is a small but slowly growing hope that these non-Western homegrown revolutions will slowly creep their way over to Asia. Tiananmen was a failure (both in the immediate sense and the hindsight sense), but if it did anything at all, it was to open up a tiny fissure in the defensive wall of the CCP. There are still Tiananmen deniers in China, but I daresay that more Chinese than not have an inkling as to what happened. My own experience in China generally confirmed the idea that many Chinese will publicly "support" or at least not criticize the government, but privately their feelings are very different. It might not be revealed at the drop of a hat, but it's there.

I'm reminded of an anecdote from my last days in China, back in 2003. My boss, M. Huang, had a younger brother (they were pre-One Child Policy). He was the much-desired boy child of her family, and if you know anything about old-skool Chinese culture, you know that back in the day (and to some extent today, regardless of what Hanna Rosin says) sons were prized well above daughters. As a result, Q. Huang was raised to be spoiled, difficult and entitled. I strongly disliked him - he had misogynistic ideas about the role of women in society, made fun of fat people, smoked indoors while we were trying to eat (when we ate at work), tried to impose his views on people, had a "job" at the school but never did anything and was generally an ass.

My town (Zunyi) had a river running through it, with a bridge and cemented embankment (ah, China). The embankment was a gathering place for locals - it was the least polluted part of town and not far from the relatively attractive new Old City (the Old City was oldest part of town but had been re-developed as a tourist area as it had some intact buildings of Communist historical significance, so it was the newest part of town - hence the New Old City). Cart vendors selling beer, tea and snacks began to congregate there much in the way that they do in some areas of urban Taiwan, and it became the de facto town bar, with the cheapest beer imaginable.

At my going away party, we all went out to dinner and then some of us went down to the river bank to hang out at the "bar". Q. came with us, which I wasn't pleased with, but I was also already a little tipsy so I figured it didn't matter.

I changed my mind about Q. that night - not entirely, mind you, he was still a sexist ass - but he proceeded to get hammered and tell the only people he felt he could trust to tell exactly what he thought of the Chinese Communist Party.

Q. had been studying in Beijing in 1989 and went to Tiananmen with his friends to join the protests - none of them wanted the Communists to stay in power. My bad Chinese and Q.'s drunkenness made the middle of the story a little unclear, but Q. started to cry (alcohol, the great fermenter of emotions!) - the only time I ever saw a man in China cry and by the end of the tale, he was standing in a doorway spattered with his friend's blood. The friend had been shot in the face.

Why connect that story to the current narrative of the Arab revolutions? To show that the dissent and dissatisfaction is there in China, and I do hope that the tales of other non-Western oppressive countries toppling so many autocrats in such a short time will eventually wind its way eastward. China is already censoring search results pertaining to the Middle East (apparently at one point searches for "Egypt" brought up no results - yeah, because the Internet doesn't have any info on Egypt. Yuh-huh). They're clearly concerned.

For what it's worth, I'd like to see Myanmar fall, too.

What we can certainly take away from this regarding China is that revolutions have a better chance of success when they've got bottom-up support and are not instigated from abroad.

Neither America nor any other country or body can push China towards democratic reform - we all know that. It's bloody obvious. What gives me hope is that the Arab revolutions have shown that it is not as impossible as previously thought.

Soon, I'll write up Part II: What Scares Me

"I Have To"

I've noticed something recently, and I'm not quite sure I can pinpoint the reasons behind it - so I'm hoping for some enlightenment.

When teaching presentation and meetings skills, I often do a practice session on giving opinion - different ways to ask for and give opinions and their more subtle meanings and strengths - for example, "From my side" is a way to acknowledge that your view may not be true from another perspective, whereas "I'm inclined to think" intones less commitment to your opinion. "As far as I'm concerned" is a bit stronger, and "I've come to the conclusion that" implies that you've thought about the issue for awhile. Things like that.

Then we practice giving our opinions on various business- or industry-related topics - and some that are not so business-y, though I never get closer to politics than "What are your thoughts on the rise of China?". I throw a few fun ones in there ("What's your take on betel nut beauties?"), too.

Here are some betel nut beauties for you. Got your attention now? Good.

And here is a sampling of the most common type of reply I used to get, until I specified what I meant by "opinion":

"How do you feel about wage stagnation?"
"We have to accept it."

"What's your take on learning English?"
"I have to do it for my job."

"How do you feel about mandatory unpaid leave?"
"We have to deal with that in the global economic downturn."

"What are your feelings on your current career?"
"It's OK...I must do it."

"How do you feel about the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to China?"
"We need to accept it."

"What's your take on the Eurozone problems?"
"They have to fix that."

"How do you feel about your next product launch?"
"We need to work overtime to finish that."

"What are your reactions to current levels of R&D funding?"
"I must handle that."

And so on.

See what I'm getting at here? These aren't opinions. When I start to notice this in a class, stop the activity and point out that "I have to do it" isn't an opinion - I don't like it or it's a good idea or that would be profitable or the company should do that or this is/isn't satisfactory/interesting/important/vital - those are opinions.

Yes, I made sure that everyone understands each question and potential problem word before we begin.

The upside is that once I point out that "I have to do it" is not an opinion, they generally do get the point and start giving real thoughts, but it surprises (and, frankly, worries) me that I so often have to give that push. In a Western business or class setting, it wouldn't be necessary. Ask about teaching methods, wage stagnation, foreign language, infrastructure,'ll get all sorts of opinions and thoughts.

Another upside is that not every question gets this answer - ask about infrastructure, anything cultural (food, betel nut, convenience stores, Asian vs. American flight attendants, parenting) and you're more likely to get a real opinion.

So I've been wondering:

Is this a basic cultural difference?
Is it common in Taiwan, if you figure you can't change something, to accept it rather than give an opinion on it, or even cultivate an opinion on it?
Is it (heaven forfend) an idea that their opinion isn't important?
Is it because their opinion is negative and they don't want to sound, well, too negative?
Is it because they simply don't have an opinion, so rather than admit that, they'll seize on a fact?
Is it that they're shy for whatever reason to give opinions so freely (I don't think I inspire fear or shyness, but hey...)
Is this a Taipei or northern Taiwan thing? I have to point out that if one asks someone from southern Taiwan their opinion, they'll bloody well give it to you and give it to you good (if you ask a taxi driver (s)he may start flailing his arms and forget he's driving while racing down the road as he tells you exactly what (s)he thinks). I only really notice it in Taipei.

As the commenter below pointed out - is it that many Taiwanese people are "afraid" or "shy" when it comes to giving out their opinions to strangers or foreigners?

Food for thought anyway.

I have to go to bed now. ;)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Honeymoon Redux II: Honduras

When I think of the Honduras, I can't help but think of this photo or one like it (from the Sydney Morning Herald years ago, who got it from Reuters). Look at that picture now and ask yourself:

"Which one of those two had a worse 2009?"


Traveling in the Honduras is a bit of a paradox: it's one of the most dangerous (if not the most dangerous) country in Central America, with a reputation for armed robberies even on luxury buses, a long tradition of carrying concealed and not-so-concealed weapons, a Caribbean coast overrun with drug runners and a capital city that every travel guide advises you to take taxis in rather than walk (some say it's OK to walk around in daylight, but none advise this at night).

And yet, for us, it was one of the easier countries to get through. We didn't stop much, though, considering the reputation of the place - we're not big fans of being robbed at gunpoint on our honeymoon.

To be fair, Honduras wasn't that unsafe. We went straight from Granada to Tegucigalpa in one day (that is one long bus ride, let me tell you) with a stopover in Jicaro Galan. We spent the rainy night in Tegucigalpa at Hotel Linda Vista - so chosen because it is in the more upscale neighborhood of Colonia Palmira - we didn't feel personally at risk there. Do book ahead if you want to stay there - you can call once you arrive in Central America.

We took the first overpriced taxi that appeared at the bus stop in Tegucigalpa - rainy, dark, and in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city (which is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the region). It cost $10 USD, but it was worth it for piece of mind.

The taxi was so ancient and rickety that it shook in odd places whenever we hit a pothole - both Brendan and I were convinced that it was going to start slowly falling apart, random pieces falling off down the road, and at the end the last wheel would give out and we'd be left standing in the street with the driver, confused but unhurt as a long trail of taxi parts littered the road behind us.

The next day we had breakfast and immediately boarded a Hedman Alas bus to Copan Ruinas near the Guatemalan border. The security check to board the bus was stricter than at most airports I've visited (and I've visited quite a few) - they checked two forms of ID, took our pictures and matched them to our name and ticket, inspected and x-rayed our bags, handled our bags (we were not allowed to touch them until we reached Copan Ruinas, even when we stopped in San Pedro Sula) and patted us down with hands and metal detectors.

Hedman Alas had probably had some problems with gangs and armed robberies and instituted the new measures to improve the safety of their passengers. Which was...comforting.

Central Honduras is a gorgeous place, with hilltop vistas, pine trees and soaring views through the mountainous, vertiginous countryside. I did feel that if we stopped in some of the small towns we passed that we'd be fairly safe, and would like to return someday to explore those areas, even though I'd take pains to avoid Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.

By the way, don't take a rickshaw from the bus station when you arrive, or if you do, bargain them down to about $1 US. It's not $3, 4 or 5 as they try to tell you. The usual in-town price for a ride is a buck...but honestly, if your luggage is light you can walk into town and find a hotel fairly easily. We did, as a rickshaw followed us insisting on "$3! Normal price I tell you!" (It reminded me a bit of India in that way).

For all those worried about safety in Copan Ruinas - don't be. People will overcharge you for souvenirs and rickshaw rides (especially right off the bus), but that's about it. ATMs and even the local coffee shop are guarded by semiautomatic-wielding security guards, and you are basically safe: Copan Ruinas and Roatan (an island off the Caribbean coast) are the two main tourist draws, so the tourist police have a strong presence there, which tends to keep funny business at bay.

We had planned to spend a day in Copan Ruinas but after our two-day long bus trip (for which it rained the entirety of one day - so much so that across Nicaragua villagers were coming out to look at the swollen waters under the bridges we crossed) we decided to budget two days, and take the second day to (mostly) relax.

One thing I definitely noticed was the greater influence of Mexican culture: in Panama, it felt very South American - wetter, a bit more humid perhaps, and laid-back. Here, the cowboy hats were out in force, as were the mustaches. Brendan asked me if he should try to blend in by wearing jeans with a pistol slung in a holster, a giant cowboy hat and a bushy, no thanks. It was also true that carrying guns was much more "done" here - we didn't see many people openly slinging firearms in Panama or Costa Rica, but by the time we hit Honduras, everyone was packin' heat!

On the first day, we visited the Ruinas themselves - Mayan ruins of the ancient capital of Copan. The ruins are famous for their intricate, detailed carvings and inscriptions. Though there are some flat pyramid-style structures and a few high walls and a staircase or two, you won't find the towering, massive temples of Tikal here: the emphasis is on smaller pieces, but with much more design and flair. To be honest, as someone who creates art inspired by mehndi designs, I preferred the aesthetics of Copan to those of Tikal.

As you can see in many of the carvings, the remnants of paint still cling to the stone: it is believed that many of these were brightly painted in their day.

You can also see that the people of Copan were fascinated by death and death rituals - frightening old, demonic faces and skulls are found in all sorts of places across the ruins (which span two fields) and the Copan Ruinas museum (which is definitely worth the price of admission). The Mayan use of skulls and other death symbols is stronger here than at any other known site of ruins - if I'm wrong on that, please do leave a comment!

Copan Ruinas is perhaps best known for its Petroglyph Staircase (also called the "Hieroglyph Stairway")- a tall set of stairs covered in inscriptions, many of them worn down from generations of people being allowed to climb the stairs. The stairs are now off limits to further preserve the petroglyphs, and covered by a protective tarp that is somewhat mood-smothering, but they're still awe-inspiring.

Simple called "The Old Man Face", this is one of my favorite carvings at Copan Ruinas.

The backs of god statues are covered in inscriptions/petroglyphs: I'm not sure what they say because I am not familiar with Ancient Mayan - fancy that - but they're cool nonetheless. The front of the statues look remarkably like Hindu god sculptures in India (I'm no conspiracy theorist, though).

Another thing I noted is how much the decorations often resemble Shang dynasty Chinese art with their angular, almost keyhole-like designs. Again, not so into conspiracy theories and the eras were totally off - I think it's more that angular keyhold designs with details and squared-off swirls is an aesthetically pleasing configuration that two cultures happened to think of at different times. It happens!

A petroglyph. In Copan Ruinas town you can buy silver-pewter reproductions of these petroglyphs strung into necklaces. They're gorgeous but expensive (a little overpriced if you ask me, for something that is not sterling)

On the second day we visited Macaw Mountain - a natural rehabilitation center for injured or mistreated birds. The $10 entrance fee goes to fund the rehabilitation, so it's well worth it. Included is a free tour (it's nice to tip) and it's a lovely place to wander around by yourself or have a coffee, too.

It was a great place to relax on our second day without stressing too much - a necessary bit of unwinding considering our long bus and van ride to Tikal the next day.

The highlight was when some birds were allowed out of their cages and placed on us: