Friday, August 5, 2011

I'll Be Seeing You

Saying good-bye is something I should be getting better at, and I think I am.

Instead of "Good-bye." I choose, "See you soon."

Yesterday, I took the long way home after my final day of work and did some reflection on things I would truly not be seeing soon, but said my farewells to anyway:

See you soon, Healthy Fruits and Vegetables Market.
See you soon, CoCo tea shop.
See you soon, Fried Chicken Take-Away Open Since 1981 (that I never went to but always enjoyed smelling).
See you soon, 7-11, Family Mart, Hi-Life, and OK Mart.
See you soon, Lady Driving the Wrong Way Down The Street On Her Scooter. (Yes, I mean you.)
See you soon,  Security Guards who always commented on whether I returned home alone or not. Always got a better reaction when there were two.
See you soon, Musical Garbage Truck.
See you soon, 100% Humidity. 
See you soon, food. Oh, food. You saved my life. You gave me purpose. I look forward to seeing you in a few hours, but certainly not in the cheap, amazing, Asian way.

There were some more difficult ones:

See you soon, P1 Students. (Now "Small Class," and no longer mine.) You made every day difficult. You made me clench my fists and invent school appropriate new curses, like "You make me feel so silly!"

See you soon, Co-Workers. Actually, we had a proper gathering last weekend - four hours at a KTV singing karaoke and eating buffet.

See you soon, James, because meeting you and flying around the world to see you (twice, you expensive bugger) has always been worth it. Until we meet again.

And to you, readers far and wide (and mostly related to me in one way or another), truly see you soon. In 13 days, I will fly again, and you will have more stories to chuckle over, or cover your children's eyes over.

Until then, good luck on your own adventures.

The view from the top.
My damaged baby.
First cooking days on that tiny counter.

Jumping around dangerous falling rocks.

I miss you already, sketchy street veggies.

Doing what we do best, getting lost.

Birth control.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Waiao Beach...Looks Like Hawaii, Drier Than BYU

Go here. 

Beach weekends are the best, especially when you're looking into the future (like me) and seeing no beach weekends. The Czech Republic is landlocked and cold, and will not be so inviting for tanning. Not like I tan anyway, so no huge issues.

Beachside temple of gorgeousness
We were luck enough to be recommended a tiny, unknown beach called Waiao  by some fellow teachers in Taipei. Somewhere between Taipei and Yilan, on the Pacific Ocean, is this tiny, black sand oasis that bears no closer resemblance to Hawaii than...Hawaii.

Hawaii? Only 3 hours from Taoyuan? How did we not know about this sooner?

Waiao is completely doable as a "show up and see how it goes" weekend trip. That's exactly what we did. First, we knocked on the doors of all of the surf shops to see if they had any vacancies, which they didn't, but they were more than helpful to direct us to other places. James wanted to stay in the Waiao Temple which is about 300NT a person (and in a temple!), but Chelsea and I were adamant about splurging and staying beachfront in the VIP room of the Waiao Beach House, which is run by Auntie Betty, who is fabulously accommodating and makes a full-on Taiwanese Breakfast (radish cake, dan bing, toast, sandwiches, fruit, coffee...holy crap it's AMAZING!). How to feel like an adult: Spend a night in a beach front hotel room in Waiao, and take a shower in the 8 person bathroom.

The beach nap, out of the sun!
Waiao is awesome because it's simple. You get off the slow-train onto a tropical, foreign platform. The station is nothing but a rickety ladder leading up to the tracks and down to the street, and the beach is directly across the street. And what do you do there? Lot's of people like to sit on surfboards and wait all day for the perfect wave, but if you're not a patient person, rent an umbrella, rent a boogie board and just chill. Look at the beautiful green hills and the parasailers coming down onto the beach. Look out at Turtle Mountain Island in the distance. Body surf in the gorgeous warm water. Wear lots of sunscreen.
And of course, the best lu rou fan I've ever had.

WARNING: Do you want your Waiao beach oasis weekend to include several to many beers? Well, it won't unless you like Taiwan beer in a can. It seems that there is no supermarket or 7-11 in Waiao, which means: no booze. Except for this fabulous Mom and Pop shop along the beach who sold us practically everything they have. So if you're going, and you want to pop a few can lids, bring your own from Taipei and then find some ice.

I am a lucky girl.

(And now you can be, too!)

Sunday, July 3, 2011


It's been 11 months in Taiwan and would you believe it: I've never taken the train South. I've rushed onto the train dozens of times towards Taipei, past Taipei, into the nether regions of Taiwan but never, never South.

It was time.

This weekend, Chelsea and I decided to escape the rainstorms on Northern Taiwan (Forecast: 60% chance of rain, while already raining), and head to Taichung - a quick and painless train journey for the weekend. 

Time Capsule in Lugang
Did you know that on some Taiwanese trains, there is a "storage" car for bicycles that you can sit in if you are lucky enough to not have a seat on the train? Did you know it's very cold and leaks water? Well, you do now. Good news for you: Chelsea and I tested it out for you, along with our new group of Taiwan military teenagers training home for the weekend who kept us entertained playing pop music on their cell phones and trying to pronounce the word "sexy," which ends up always sounding like "sessy."

So after we disembarked our cattle car, we wandered the train station looking for the bus to Lugang, a tourist spot we found on a Taiwan map. Important point: This was my first weekend trip without the luxury of a Chinese translator, and had to rely on every single word I have picked up this past year to get us from place to place. With the help of about four different Taichung-ians, we finally found the bus stop on a random street and within an hour, were in the coolest place ever. Ever. 
"Where's the Whitey?"

Lugang is awesome. Over 20 blocks of decaying brick buildings, temples big and small, outrageous food vendors, people crafting crafts, and serenity. I really don't want to spoil too much for people who dream of going somewhere fabulously Asian, so hopefully the pictures paint a good...picture...of the scene. We contemplated scrapping our plans to stay in Taichung for the night and simply sleeping on the streets, possibly in the rain, in Lugang, simply because we didn't want to leave.

If you do visit Lugang, please give a shout out to our favorite pottery store, which you will recognize because it's one of the only stores in Taiwan where you are positive everything is made by hand and completely original. We walked away with five mugs with wooden handles, a teapot, free keychain things, and some room scent diffusers. These ladies were awesome, and it's rarer than not to see real art on this island.

But we did have to leave, because James' Chinese tutor hooked us up with a free room, and of course, my mother (or father) always told me to never turn down a free room, so we needed to make it back. We walked to the visitor's center to find out which busses would take us near Feng Chia University, only to find that we were 7 minutes late for closing time and the visitor's center closed on time. 

I've gotten really good at this point at either chasing buses, sticking out my thumb for hitchhiking (not yet successful), and making sad/hopeful faces at people who end up giving us rides places. In Lugang, the trick was chasing busses, and after boarding one with TAICHUNG on the front, using my excellent language and pantomime skills to communicate we wanted to be kicked off the bus by Taichung's biggest night market. Worked like a charm!

You've never had THIS dan bing.
The better kind of shrooms.
Enter Xiao Hei, our mystery accommodation host, who meets us at McDonald's and surprises us by being completely normal and cool. He takes us to our "room", only two blocks from the awesome night market, which turns out to be his dorm room. He's apparently working on his thesis and has decided to give us his bed, computer, bathroom, TV, etc...for free...while he studies through the night with his friends. Strange? TIT, is what I say. This Is Taiwan. Thank you, Xiao Hei, for your funky and functional room. 

Fung Chia University Night Market is the bomb. Though, it wouldn't be a great place for  a bomb, considering how many people squeeze into the tiny streets on a Saturday night. We're talking a 30 people+ line up for the most popular food stands - which seemed to be the "hot dogs" - condimented Taiwanese sausages of either the pink or white variety.

A quick shout out to my newest favorite Taiwanese food: white sausages. I was very, very skeptical of this pale weiner (is it intestines? is it chopped up pig skin?) until a friend cut into one at our favorite all-you-can-drink barbeque restaurant (where drunky me tipped over a steel hot pot onto hot grey coals....dui bu qi!) White sausage is filled with sticky rice! What a genius idea! Needless to say, I found some at the night market.

Other highlights include handmade dan bing (Since 1978), boozy milk tea (didn't try but gave the guy a thumbs up), and Chelsea's vegan favorite, barbequed monster mushrooms. Rolled into our free bed stuffed!

This brings us to Sunday morning, where we set out on foot to the Wu Wei Tsao Tang Tea House. If you love walking, Taichung is walkable. We walked diagonally across nearly the whole city in about two hours total. One hour down the road, we found our destination (so lovingly described in a blog I found!) a gorgeous oasis in the middle of the city that you might just photograph and walk past if you didn't know what was inside.

From 10:15 to 1:00, we sat at a beautiful wooden table next to a giant coy pond, where we were taught how to pour traditional Chinese tea service, ate copious amounts of food including vegan hot pot, fried radish cake and glutinous mushroom balls (don't be scared, the names are the only thing disgusting about it), and talked about anything/everything important in life for a grand total of about $20 USD (600NT).

Your tea lesson will be in Chinese, so be ready to nod happily and utter a lot of "Dui....dui...mmmhmmm....mmmhmmm..." but one of the most important things I have learned in all my time traveling is the best communication is simply through smiles of acknowledgement. And she got great pleasure from watching me try to pour tea like a deranged Caucasian concubine.

And there was no rain.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Destination: Penghu!

Penghu: the Hawaii of Taiwan. Or is it the Hawaii of China? The Hawaii of Japan? Oh heck, it's an island (or collection of), it's tropical, it's hot, and I give this weekend destination 4 out of 5 GOLDEN CAITLIN APPROVAL CUPCAKES. I think it's time we moved on from stars and thumbs and embrace what really matters: baked goods.
And I thought Taiwan was all smokestacks and milk tea waste!

This weekend is Dragon Boat Festival weekend. The story goes that a depressed Chinese poet in exile jumped into a river and people tried to paddle out to save him, but alas: he was gone. This weekend, we celebrate the holiday of the suicidal poet, and we get Monday off!

James and I have been trying to get away for a while, so we booked tickets to Penghu last week, knowing that we would leave on Sunday morning and fly back Monday evening - a short trip, but long enough, and all we could find considering its a remote destination where you can only fly in and out (or ferry) from a select few origins in Taiwan.  

Penghu, we read, is famous for a few things: relaxing holiday destination for Taiwanese, sea turtles,  coral beaches, brown sugar cakes and cactus. Oh yeah, wild growing cactus that gets turned into juice, mochi, and of course, ice cream, which really is the best stuff going. It stands right next to Tucker's Zinfindel ice cream, at the top of my "You need at least a cone of this a day" list. How could we resist?

You need at least a cone of this a day.
Sunday morning: Bus to the airport at 6:00 AM. Arrive at the check in counter to check in early, only to find out that James had booked our tickets backwards and effectively, we had no tickets to Penghu on Sunday - we had a ticket to Penghu on Monday and a ticket to Taipei on Sunday. (James later admitted he forgot you put the name of your origin first on the website, then your destination. It doesn't help that everything except the price was in Chinese.) FREAK OUT!

But this is Asia, land of beautiful and helpful-English-speaking flight attendants, and they quickly switched our tickets to some empty seats and within five minutes, we had run to the terminal and sat down on the plane right before they closed the door. It wasn't until we were in the air that we realized we had no flight back, but it didn't really matter. 

A quick plug for Asian airlines: they rock. So far I have used Mandarin Airways and Tiger Airways and they have been helpful, adorable, on time, and always give free tea. You go, foreigners!

Back to the story: arrived in Penghu at 8:00 AM to a burning sunny day. We had booked a room at the Penghu Breeze (last second vacancy) and this included airport pickup. James got off the phone with our ride and exclaimed "Wow, she's awesome. She has such great English!" It turns out, the liason for the Breeze is Ginger, American customer service extraordinare, and she also drives a mean stick shift diesel van. We really got lucky. 

A quick and painless scooter rental later and we were out on the road. We cruised into downtown Magong and were pleasantly surprised with the lack of people and the abundance of old and beautiful Chinese buildings. (I'm not going to lie, I thought Taiwan might look like this everywhere, but out here in suburbia Taoyuan, I think everyone is determined to modernize in an ugly, funky way.) Magong is adorable. There's a big seaside park with a temple, play equipment, grass, and stairs into the ocean where everyone can swim together in the bay. 

How often do you get to stay in one of these?
Pressing on: we drove the main road. We passed everything. The big tree, the windmills, the famous cactus ice cream shop (not necessary, they are everywhere.) We had lunch in a side-of-the-road shop, because honestly, Penghu is not crawling with restaurants. They are far and few between, and if you see one, eat there. Because you will be hungry, like we were. 

It was when we checked into our awesome old guesthouse room on the beach that we noticed: whoops. 4 hours and 2 applications of sunscreen wasn't enough. We were annihilated. We did damage to our skin that only 12 year olds can manage. Oh well. Aloe is cheaper than sunscreen, but that doesn't excuse our behavior. Kids, wear sunscreen, a hat, and an overcoat in the Penghu sun. You'll thank me for it. 

And being so sunburnt didn't make the beach as much fun as it could have been, although it was still incredible. I have been to the Caribbean, Thailand, Mexico and Hawaii and I have never seen ocean water this clear or clean. I have never seen a beach so moderately populated on a holiday weekend. In essence, it was beautiful. Some pre-teens asked me to take a photo with them. Even on Penghu, we're still novelties. 

The night was fabulous. It's been months since James and I have been able to watch a sunset, drink a bottle of wine, and do absolutely nothing. Penghu is good for this. If only we hadn't had to jump on the first flight out the next morning, on stand-by, we would have done it again...and again!
The Jist:

Go to Penghu. Just do it. It's less than $4000NT round trip. It's less than an hour from Taipei, and if you have to do it in 24 hours like we did, still do it!


Bring sunscreen and put it on every hour.
Bring mosquito repellent, mosquito coils, mosquito outdoor spray, and a mosquito net. There are billions of them, and they want you to remember your stay.
Drink water...and then drink wine or beer. It's a tropical island!

Bon voyage!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Today is Sunny and Scorching!

Summer has come to Taiwan again, much as I remember it. Except it's hotter.

Just look at that blue sky...and sun!
After coming through the most confusing winter of my life - humid, freezing, unheated, funky, dirty, cloudy - it's a relief to finally see the sun. It's easy to ask my students, "How is the weather today?" and they say without question, "Today is sunny and HOT!" I like it, when I'm inside. And then I put on my outside shoes (Have I mentioned that huge market Taiwan has for shoes, considering you need shoes for home, shoes for work, shoes for scooters, shoes for "partying", and shoes for the bathroom? Just kidding. Your bathroom shoes are called bare feet.)

I went outside and it was scorching.

Go to the beach when it's hot and find...part of a wall?
The dogs know it. All of the dogs that hang around the wet market were panting in the shade, one of them chewing on a stolen arm of young ginger. The cabbage slicers, with their special crescent knives made specially for chunking off rotten bits of cabbage, had large streams of sweat running down their faces. Up the street, the builders and road makers were sitting on the backs of their blue trucks, catching a bit of a cigarette smoke in the shade before having to return to the hot heat of midday.

I come home and turn on the fan. After all, there's not much more benefit you get from an A/C, besides killing Mother Nature, that you can't get from a fan. Or can you?

Remembering being in Cuba...with the air conditioning blasting at a comfy 22C while we took our afternoon siesta. There is something so wrong and so right about snuggling into a comforter when it's sweltering outside. Maybe we should play voodoo with Mama Earth and get some comfort - and soon.

Oh yeah, fry everything in the ocean!
Sunday was hot, too!

Saturday, it rained all day, so Sunday we went for a drive to the fish market by the Taiwan Strait. It's an awesome drive, with hardly anyone on the road (you can really open up the scooter, all 55K that she can do with 2 people on the back!) One hour to the town of Yongan, and about 5 minutes to decide that the best thing to eat would be deep fried mini-crabs, fish filled with eggs, prawns and sweet potatoes.

I can't BELIEVE I stopped eating fried food last year! Ladies, if you want to have fun, and you want to have an appropriately sized bosom, you have to eat some fried food. Just do it!

Can't buy a fish without Neopolitan soft-serve cones!
I love fish markets. Some are open in the morning and some are open in the evening. There's nothing like it at home - the beautiful colors and the clear eyes and everyone asking you "Yao shen me?" - Do you want something? In true indecisive fashion, I mutter "Xien zai bu zhi dao..." - I don't know right now.

Many of the fish are still moving. Most of the clams are still spitting water. And of course there are stranger things - urchins, giant snails, giant lobsters (not as common), small snails (very common), dried fish, fish floss...I love it all...except the floss.

I'm gonna love you, and then I'm gonna steam you.

Bought a fish, which was only slightly descaled unfortunately, and took it home and cooked it to deliciousness. I ate fish three times on Sunday. I guess it is the Lord's day. ;D My goodness, it's hot.

Oh dear - the heat has gone to my head. I'm all over the place. It could also be the 22 students in my 2-3 year old class now. Tell me it's crazy, and I'll tell you I'm about the turn on the A/C!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Dentist and the Swimming Pool

Sometimes living in Taiwan feels like living on the bottom of the ocean, sometimes it feels like living in a circus, and sometimes, it's just like living at home.

Take for example, the swimming pool.

James and I got a hankering for a swim two weeks ago and found several locations on the internet to check out. It turned out that our first choice was, TADA!, a vacant lot that used to be a swimming pool (the internet isn't as up to date as we think sometimes.) But another location, the SPA as the sign calls it, was open and awesome. I mean, really cool. $3 a visit gets unlimited swim time, sauna time, play time, shower time, hot pool time, and general people watching time, if you really want. You can even bring your white water kayak to practice flipping over in the pool, as we saw a man, in the pool, in a silver helmet, doing. I say, let's do it!

Lap swimming at a pool in Taiwan is a fashion parade. Wow-wow-wee-woo-woo: floral tankinis and swim caps are a must! It makes me feel just a bit more waiguoren when all I brought to Taiwan is a mismatched bikini (but had to buy the swim cap), but people don't seem to mind seeing my over-pale belly parading around.

Especially not the kiddies. We happened to finish a post-work stress relief dip right as an enormous group of school children pulled up. They couldn't believe there were white people at the pool. They couldn't believe it so much that they made a mouth gaping semi-circle around me in the changing room, clearly not aware that I understand much more Chinese than my face lets on. I love the swimming pool.

And the dentist?

I know when I hear field trip, I think "Please, let's go to the dentist." I bet it's what my 3 year olds were thinking, too. The poor things never saw it coming. All they knew was that we were taking the bus somewhere, and they love the bus.

I had heard stories about the dentist. Another English teacher went to get a check-up and a cleaning and ended up getting a "teeth scraping" - something that sounds on par with getting my arm hairs individually tweezed. I knew that something simple like toothpaste was a bit sketchy. A parent of a student gave me two tubes of toothpaste as a gift, which was great, except it was menthol toothpaste. Ah, just like brushing your teeth with bug spray and eucalyptus.

Plus, I just can't figure this out: Why is dental care so cheap and abundant, and yet children have the most disgusting, rotten teeth I have ever seen? Plus, it's standard to brush at least 3 times a day. The hypothesis is lack of flouride in the water, but really, maybe parents are just giving kids durian fruit candy or something to suck on while they sleep.

Some of my kids have teeth that make your toe hair curl. Beautiful, angelic faces, but blackened, holey, disfigured little gnashers. I love to make them laugh, I love to see them smile, but sometimes I can't help but think, if only you could talk, smile and laugh with your mouth closed! Seriously, very gnarly.

Back to the dentist: All the young students piled into the office to wait their turn. My job was to life the terrified toddlers into the dentist chair, where they were quickly poked and it was decided how many and where there were cavities (so the kiddies could come back with Mommy and Daddy another day to get them filled..or it might be necessary.)

Some of my students were so brave and happy to play "big boy" or "big girl" for 30 seconds while getting orally violated. But some were not. Five of them did not want anything do with it. One look at the bright light and the scary hook about to go into their mouths and they screamed. I don't blame them. I hate the dentist. And to be honest, I may have giggled a little, because they were so cute, so helpless, and so right: dentists are masochists and we should be scared.

Sometimes, Taiwan is like home. Babies hate the dentist and pre-teens are fascinated with nearly naked adults.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

All Day Long I Dream About...Chopping, Peeling, Boiling, Woking

Green Onion Asian Fried Snails. Sort of.
Since when did this become all about food?

As I write this, I am simultaneously freezing fresh strawberries (in preparation for leaner days ahead, as the mangos come in and deliciously snuff out the competition), simmering turkey soup, and planning a nectarine cobbler as a post-work relief for tomorrow.

And though it might sound crazy, at the end of the day, usually even my worst day (which tends to be Wednesday, because I teach a horrible class of awkward, unmotivated pre-teens in the last hours of my day), I would rather cook than anything. Saturday morning, outing? Heck no, brunch! Does it even matter where the passion began? I don't think so. What matters is, it's happening, and if you're lucky enough, it might benefit you, too.

The tortilla station.

Taiwan used to seem like a desert (not dessert) of familiar food items, and now, on my ridiculously lax budget, I can conceive and create practically anything. And it's all here, in Taoyuan (not even in Taipei).

Carrefour: white flour, couscous, black olives, canned sardines (no laughing until you've tried them), red wine, French cheese

Green/Yellow Sign Wholesale Baking Store: anchovies, flour tortillas, spaghetti, canned tomatoes, prolific spices, whole wheat flour, cornmeal, nuts and dried fruit

A-Mart: pinto beans, hot sauce, Guinness, ice cream - WOW, a fabulous new combination!

And of course, everything else comes straight off the street. I still carry everything home in my reused bags - eggs, fruit, veggies, meat, fish - which I now can order straight off the stainless steel market slab, instead of packaged.

And then I bolt for home, giant bags in tow. Saturday, I lugged home one bag of produce and a 10 pound watermelon. Then, I hit the countertop. In a 1ft. by 1ft. space is where I chop. On my one burner is where I multitask cook. It's blissful. It's orchestrated. And less and less, I make things I want to throw at the OhYa Hotel across the street. It's damn good. And I'm inspired, on a daily basis, to get better and better. (And praying, please, let me have TWO stove burners and a real oven in the Czech Republic...)
Floppy enchiladas, oh so good!

So whatcha makin', Caitlin?

Oh, you know, just green onion pancakes. And Mexican food. Ever since the arrival of the masa harina, the world has been a bit brighter. Have you ever made corn tortillas? GO. DO. IT. It takes no time at all and by the time you're finished rolling out the balls into creative circles, all your worries from your day are gone. Poof, into the tortilla. Enchiladas, fajitas, salmon tacos. Next up, we go sopes and tamales.

So, in quick conclusion, this was a little "Hello!" to tell you about something I'm loving, something I want to share with you, and something that I'm pretty sure will keep steering my interests the rest of my life. I am 23 years old and I love to be in the kitchen.

Now what do you think of that?
And to finish, the giant salmon tacos. Made in Taiwan.