Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Taroko Music Festival

Good news: My poor busted ankle has finally recovered enough for me to do some hiking again. To celebrate, I headed down to Taroko Gorge National Park to support my friend, fellow Fulbright ETA and French horn playing pro Dan Severson, who was playing in the annual Taroko Music Festival. To celebrate Taiwan's 100th birthday, this year the festival organizers decided to bring in 100 French horn players for one epic concert in Taroko.
Dan doing some last minute rehearsing before the concert
 They had free shuttle buses running from the train station to Taroko's visitors center (where the concert was being held). When Christine and I boarded our bus, the volunteer tour guide on board got on the loud speaker and started giving everyone all of the details about the concert and the day's events. But the highlight of her speech was when she announced: "And this year, we have two foreigners in the French horn group!" Although our fellow bus riders had been pretty quiet up until then, at this announcement everyone gasped and started excitedly discussing whether or not the foreigners were "shuai ge" (handsome boy) while Christine and I, the only non-Taiwanese people there, tried unsuccessfully to contain our laughter.

We got to the park at about noon and Dan's concert didn't start until 2, so Christine and I met up with Dan's wonderful LET Angela, who was also there early, and decided to hike Shakadang Trail.
Angela and I at the trail-head (which is actually a big staircase that leads to the base of a bridge)
Taroko is famous for it's great hiking and absolutely breathtaking scenery and I can tell you it doesn't disappoint. The lovely afternoon weather didn't hurt either (it didn't start raining until later). The trail we took ran along a long cliff overlooking the bluest river I've ever seen.
Look how blue it is! *I swear no photoshop was  involved in the making of these pictures*

But, just to make sure that you don't let the beauty of the place lull you into a sense of false security, the park has lots of signs like this to remind you that you just might die there at any time and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it:
"Falling rocks no stopping." 没办法 (mei ban fa), I guess you'll die.
By the time we got back to the concert venue, the show was about to start. All the chairs were full, so Christine and I watched the beginning of the concert from a tree (Angela refused to climb up with us). We soon became a source of great interest for all of the photographers and camera-men who were covering the event.
Making a scene as usual
The concert itself was very fun. I can't think of a much cooler venue than the bowl in the middle of a ring of gorgeous green mountains. My favorite moment of the day was when they played the "Jurassic Park" theme song since the whole area felt like something out of Jurassic Park already. Whoever made the fantastic decision to add that song into the repertoire, I salute you.  
Just wait... the raptors are coming...
Hangin with the star of the show!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thanksgiving in Taiwan

This year I had my first Thanksgiving away from my family (not to mention my first Thanksgiving in a foreign country) so, to make up for it, I had two Thanksgivings. After all, Thanksgiving is a strictly American holiday and what's more American than drowning your sadness with an abundance of food, wine, and good company during the holidays? (That only sounds super melodramatic. I mean it as a joke.)

The first party was held in Taipei by the American Institute in Taiwan. It was held on the top floor of a ritzy apartment complex right by Taipei 101 and the Fulbright staff and all of this year's recipients were invited. All the food was delicious, especially the bread pudding, and William Stanton, the director of AIT, carved the turkey.

William Stanton and the head chef tackle the turkey
The whole Fulbright Yilan crew!
While the AIT Thanksgiving party was held the Friday before Thanksgiving, the second shindig was a somewhat more low-key event on Thanksgiving itself. The girls at the Zhongshan apartment (where I lived for the first month after I arrived in Taiwan) were awesome enough to host a great big pot luck for all us Yilan-ites. Turns out that, when we pooled our resources, we had just about everything traditionally required for Thanksgiving dinner (except maybe green bean casserole) and a few distinctly Taiwanese things to boot.  

One of our food tables (there was a separate salad/sandwich table and a third for drinks and desserts)  
Through a funny twist of fate, we even ended up with a big fat turkey with all the fixins from a fancy restaurant in Taipei free of charge. Of course, then the problem was actually getting the turkey from said restaurant to the party in Yilan. But Vivian (who lives in Taipei) came to the rescue, volunteering to pick up the 6kg turkey and bringing it all the way to Zhongshan apartment in a taxi. 

Christine, the only one of us who had ever carved a turkey before, shows off her handiwork

*Sappy moment of the day* This Thanksgiving, I was thankful that, even though I was about as far away from my home and my family as I could possibly be, I was still fortunate enough to be surrounded by good food and great friends. 
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us in Yilan!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich

Let me begin this story by saying that, as a child, I loved Shel Silverstein. So, when it came time to pack up my life and move to Taiwan for a year to teach English to elementary school children, I reveled in the idea of getting to share this particular aspect of American culture and language with my new students. Despite the weight restrictions on my luggage, I ran to the store and picked up a copy of my favorite book of his poetry, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and I've just been itching to use it in the classroom ever since.

Then, my day came. My fourth graders at Dong Sing Elementary were learning about food and, since it was midterms week, we didn't want to start a new lesson yet. We wanted to do something fun but still somewhat on topic, a review activity of sorts. So I turned to good ol' Shel and found "Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich." It goes like this:

by Shel Silverstein  
A hippo sandwich is easy to make.
All you do is simply take
One slice of bread,
One slice of cake,
Some mayonnaise,
One onion ring,
One hippopotamus, 
One piece of string, 
A dash of pepper-
That ought to do it,  
And now comes the problem... Biting into it!

Siena and I read the poem with our students and taught them a few new vocab words like "bite," "hippopotamus" and "mayonnaise." Then the real fun began: we assigned all of our students the task of writing their own recipes by changing the animal and all the food words in the poem. The best part: since Shel Silverstein's poem had an illustration, I made all of my students illustrate their poems as well. Some of them are, admittedly, a little bit gruesome if you think about it too much but they're just so funny I had to share. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Looking like it just stepped out of Sanrio, Lily's elephant sandwich was one of the cuter submissions 

Roger decided to add a few sprinkles of rainbow to his whale sandwich

I don't know if you can see it but this cat sandwich comes complete with a "slice" 
of dog (or at the very least a mini dog strapped to the cat's back)

Don't forget to add one car and some jam next time you make yourself a "pig sandwich"

Davis and his recipe for a dog sandwich (although it's really more of an impressively 
drawn wolf sandwich if you ask me)

And, last but not least, we have my absolute favorite: Vic's dog sandwich.
It was my favorite mostly because of Vic's unflinching realism. Unlike all of his classmates with their happy smiling sandwich centerpieces, Vic went to great lengths to reinforce that the dog in his sandwich is, in fact, dead. Just in case it wasn't enough that the dog's eyes X-ed out and its tongue is lolling, at the last minute Vic grabbed his pencil and added the dog's angelic spirit rising from the sandwich. And let's just stop for a minute and reflect on how very proud he looks about the whole thing.
Here's a close up in case you couldn't see the angel dog in the other shot:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Luodong: The farms, food, and baby animals grand tour

Thanks to my twisted ankle, hiking and other forms of walking-intensive travel were off the plate for a few weeks. But don't worry, I've still been keeping busy. For starters, Christine and I figured out how to bake muffins in a toaster oven (a general lack of conventional ovens in Asia is just one of those "cultural differences" I'm learning to get over).
Experiment #1: Pumpkin cream cheese muffins
If you can't tell, we voted them a success
Then, Christine, Cherrica and I got to go on a scooter-tour of Luodong with my host dad, Jason. As you may have inferred from my blog post title, baby animals and food figured heavily in said tour (my host family has already figured out my two favorite things).

After a wonderful lunch of homemade pork and green onion dumplings, we started off our tour at a goat farm/baby animal petting zoo/cafe/kid's carnival. I realize that that's a really bizarre description but I don't know how else to explain it. Anyhow, we skipped the carnival rides and headed straight for the animals.

Jason says, "bahh!"
The piglets were my favorite. I was sorely tempted to take one home with me (side note: this farm lets you rent piglets by the night, so taking one home with me was a legitimate option).

The farm also lets you buy milk by the bottle to feed to the piglets and the baby goats.

Awww! So darn cute! 

The farm also had some friendly free-range chickens and turkeys wandering about the cafe and the neighboring playground.

 Feeding the goats was also an option.

Of course, not all of the goats were strictly interested in eating grass.

And, just in case you still haven't reached your cute quote for the day, here's a baby bunny:
Happy year of the rabbit!
When Cherrica and Jason finally managed to drag Christine and I away from the animals, we headed to the night market for lunch (despite the somewhat deceptive name, many parts of Taiwan's famous night markets are open during the day as well). After a quick ride around town during which Jason pointed out all of the good places to eat, visit, or park a scooter, we stopped to pick up some 蔥油餅 (green onion pancakes) from the most popular stand in Luodong. For desert, I tried 豆花 (a desert made of shaved ice, tapioca pearls, and sweet tofu pudding) for the first time. 

 Lunch! Christine (right) got traditional 豆花 with peanuts while Cherrica (left) went for tried grass jelly (I promise, it tastes a lot better than the name makes it sound).

Next, we headed out of the city and into a beautiful patch of countryside to visit Happiness 20, a farm/restaurant/park with its own orchard and an emphasis on DIY crafts. Again, weird description but "farms" I've been to in Taiwan are just so different than most farms back home. I think maybe a tourist-friendly organic farm run by hippies in Vermont is about the closest you would come in the US.

Two of Jason's friends opened the farm a few years ago, so parts of it are still being built and expanded. One of the most fun things about the farm was their DIY pizza station, complete with a brick pizza oven (which Jason's friend constructed after watching an instructive YouTube video). We built a fruit, honey, and marshmallow dessert pizza and the owner's kids joined us to make a more traditional ham, tomato sauce, and green pepper pizza.

 We used honey for sauce. Other toppings included, pineapple, bananas, marshmallows, 
tomatoes (they're a fruit in Taiwan), and cheese. I feel like this should also be filed under 
"sounds weird, tastes wonderful."

After they put our pizza in the oven, we got to feed the goats while we waited for the food to cook. No offense to Dixie Crossroads, which will always be a special part of my childhood, but this was way more fun than feeding the fish while you wait for your dinner.

When they were ready, both pizzas were delicious. 

And we had fun herbal flower tea, complete with edible flowers, to go with it!
What more can a girl ask for?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How I twisted my ankle (and then proceeded to make it worse by climbing a mountain)

So let me begin by apologizing for my radio silence of late. All I can say is:
現在生活是瘋了 (My life is crazy right now).
Anyhow, here's a quick story about my complete lack of grace and how I ended up limping around Taiwan for the last few weeks.

It all started with Taipei's annual Gay Pride Parade, which is the biggest gay pride event in Southeast Asia. Sadly, one of the reasons for the magnitude of this event is that in many countries here being gay is still considered a crime. So once a year LGBT citizens from all over head to Taipei to celebrate and protest. This year's there was "Discrimination get out!" A group of us Yilan-ers all decided to head up to Taipei for the afternoon to take in the festivities and show some anti-discrimination solidarity. We knew it would be a fun afternoon when this is what greeted us when we got off the subway:
Yes angel dog!
There was also your usual cast of colorful characters:

One of several Lady Gagas to make an appearance
There were a significant number of protesters from Malaysia, a predominantly
Muslim country where gay rights are still nonexistent 
All in all, it was a very fun event. If you want to know more, there are some short articles about the Gay Pride parade here and here.

So back to the point of this story: my poor busted ankle. After the parade was over, Christine and I were wandering around the Da'an district searching for a famous cookie shop and generally killing time until we could meet up with my friends Stephanie and Colleen (who had planned to come to the parade with us but were running rather late due to some unexpected circumstances). Right about the time they were supposed to show up, Christine and I were walking out of this really cute (but kind of bizarre) candy store.

I say cute because of this:

And bizarre because of these: 
Please note that the chocolate band-aids say "Queer-aid." Not sure what that's about. 
Seriously, who would ever think it was a good idea to market candy pads?
I don't think I can think of anything less appetizing. 
As we walked out, I didn't notice the step down from the entrance, so I stepped my foot totally wrong. You would think that with how often I trip over my own two feet I would have learned to catch myself by now. But no. Instead, I received my first real twisted ankle. Actually, as it turns out, I did worse than that. I managed to give myself a partially torn ligament. Ouch. But I didn't know that yet. So I convinced myself that it wasn't really all that bad and doggedly limped after my friends the rest of the evening.


The next day, we had planned to go hiking in one of the many forest recreation areas in Yilan county. However, given the very swollen state of my ankle by the time we got home from Taipei, we ruled that plan out. Instead, we decided to take a nice, leisurely scooter ride over to Plum Blossom Lake. It's a beautiful area and you can rent these ridiculous 4-person bikes to ride around the lake (For some reason, I find multi-person bikes very funny).

On the little island in the middle of the lake
And now we come to the part of the story where I took my already busted ankle and managed to make it worse. You see, in addition to ridiculous bikes, Plum Lake is also home to the largest Taoist temple in Taiwan. Unfortunately, it's on the side of a mountain that you're not allowed to take bikes up.

Of course, my friends wanted to hike up and see it. I tried to just stay with the bike but they convinced me that I just had to come. For the record, hiking up a mountain the day after you sprain your ankle: not such a great idea. If I weren't so darn stubborn, I would have done the smart thing and given up after a few yards. But I have to say, the view from the temple was great. The temple itself was very pretty as well.
We made it! 

By the time we had climbed all the way back down to our bike, my ankle had given up for the day. It was pretty much me and an ice pack for the rest of the evening. 


When the swelling in my ankle didn't go down after a few days, Christine, who as a ballroom dancing instructor has had ample experience with sprained ankles, knew something wasn't right and finally managed to drag my butt to a doctor (resisting and insisting that I was fine the whole way, of course). He took an ultrasound of my swollen ankle and found that I had a partially torn ligament. He printed off a picture of it "for my scrapbook" and told me to get an ankle brace and stay off my feet as much as possible for a few weeks to let it heal.