Monday, October 31, 2011

(Host) Family Vacation!

You may remember my host family from last month's Moon Festival. Well, they're still pretty much the nicest people ever (I really can't say enough good things about this family, I'm so lucky to have them in my life!). Recently, they were nice enough to take me with them on their family vacation to Kenting, the county at the very southern tip of Taiwan. It was a pretty long drive down, but that just gave me more time to bond with my host sister, Candy. It turns out that, despite a slight language barrier, angry birds and origami are universal.

This is Candy. She's adorable. End of story.
A roadside display for the "Hometown of Hawks"
Kenting National Park is a famous pit stop for migrating hawks and other birds heading south to the Philippines for the winter. So, every October, lots of hawk enthusiasts like my host dad, Jason, head down to Kenting as well.
Jason hawk watching with his super-zoom
We did get to see some hawks but I, unfortunately, didn't manage to get any really good pictures of them. Most of my good bird pictures from the trip are not of the raptor variety. But that's okay with me. If you know me, you probably already know that I love birds (and other animals) of just about any variety.

Cranes at Eluanbi lighthouse
Kenting is an absolutely beautiful area. The beaches are gorgeous and there are mountains and forests everywhere. The whole place is like a giant postcard. I also got to check out the National Aquarium and hike down to the most southern point in Taiwan! (Which has made me determined to make my way to the most northerly point on the island as well sometime this year.)
My host family in the giant whale fountain outside of the aquarium 
Lunch, aquarium style
Beautiful beaches!

At the Southern most point in Taiwan!
Also, at Jason's insistence, I tried some new and unusual food. Strange food is pretty much becoming a traveling trend for me at this point. 

Raw puffer fish skin salad
Flying-fish jerky 
Cheese baozi from a really famous restaurant in Kenting! Soooo good.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Halloween in Taiwan Part 1: How to make a bat costume

Christine and I in all our bat glory at the Leopard Garden hostel in Taipei

This project is adapted from:

Materials needed:
Black hoodie
Black umbrella
Wire cutters
Needle and thread

Construction Time: 2 episodes of It's Always Sunny and 2 of Big Bang Theory

Step 1: Buy materials.
Go to your local Carrefour. Stop at the little umbrella stand just outside of the front doors. Tell the saleswoman that you and your friend want to buy 2 plain black umbrellas. When she gives you a blue umbrella, tell her no, you really do want a black one.  Repeat process as she tries to sell you a silver umbrella, a black and white polka dot umbrella, and a decorative navy umbrella. Finally convince her to sell you the two cheapest black umbrellas she has. Enter Carrefour with your new umbrellas (which you will soon be cutting into pieces) feeling very accomplished.

Search the entire clothing section of Carrefour (including men's and children's) for a black hoodie. Find only raincoats in adult sections. Try on the largest kid's hoodie you can find. It has giant shoes printed all over it and it's too small. Give up on trying to find anything as simple as a plain black hoodie on such short notice in Taiwan. Try to improvise. Decide to buy a black men's dress shirt to sew your wings on instead. Ignore the cold stares of the other foreigners as you and your roommate try on articles of men's clothing in the middle of the supermarket. Try to find a hat that you can glue bat ears to. Give up after the salesperson tries to give you the white hat off of a mannequin. At least you have your umbrella and a shirt.

Step 2: Disassemble umbrella
Attempt to unscrew the little metal wires holding the umbrella spokes to the center of the umbrella. According to the directions, they should just "pop" off. Lies! After trying for about 15 minutes and only getting 2 of the 3 off this way, give up and try to just cut the third wire with the new wire cutters you just picked up at Carrefour. Quickly come to the realization that you are now the proud owner of the most useless wire cutters on the planet as they cannot cut even this one small, cheap piece of wire. Conclude that you perhaps should have spent more than one US dollar on your new tool. Go back to struggling.

Okay. Wires successfully removed!
Cut umbrella in half along the seam, removing one spoke on either side. Attempt to cut off the metal ribs in the middle of each spoke (the ones that used to connect it to the slidey part of the umbrella stick). Curse your cheapie wire cutters again. Resort to prying the ribs off with a combination of a flathead screw driver, your good for nothing wire cutters, and pure brute strength.

Showing the umbrella who's boss
Tie remaining spokes on either umbrella piece back together at the top with the wires you so painstakingly removed earlier.

Step 3: Sew umbrella to shirt

Watch It's Always Sunny as you sew. Trust me, it makes all that hand stitching much more tolerable. Try not to stab yourself in the finger too many times. If you do, it's okay, your costume's black. The blood probably won't show.


Step 4: Run amuck all over Taipei in your swanky new bat costume
Amuck, amuck, amuck!

You and your 15 foreigner friends in costumes have to get from your leopard themed hostel to the Halloween party you're attending somehow. May as well take the subway.

On Ximending
Our entire group with a random Taiwanese guy who wanted to get a picture with us. Can't blame him,
it's not everyday you meet so many well dressed foreigners.
Suave hipster cowboy Ari always gets the girls
Just a bat on the subway. Casual.
"Happy Hallo Ween" everyone!
At the party!
This week, I'm super excited to get to wear my costume to school! More Halloween fun in Taiwan coming soon.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

MOFA's Centennial Double Ten Celebration

October 10th, or Double Ten Day, is celebrated here in Taiwan every year as the National Day. It commemorates the uprising that led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912. In other words, it's kind of like the Taiwanese version of the 4th of July. This year, 10-10 was especially exciting because the ROC is celebrating its 100th anniversary!

Commemorative arch set up for the occasion on a street shut down for the occasion 
Every year, Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs holds a swanky Double Ten gala for all the diplomats and other important people in Taiwan. This year, all the Fulbrighters were invited. It was very exciting getting to go to a bona fide red carpet affair. We may be just lowly elementary school English teachers but lot of dignitaries and diplomats also attended. The president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, even made an appearance.
My lovely roomie and I on the red carpet
"I'm President Ma and I approve these dumplings." I didn't actually get to meet
him but I did get a chance to stand a few feet away and take his picture!
There were lots of interesting people from all over the world, more delicious food than I could possibly eat, and there was a fantastic traditional dance/drum performance in the middle of the little lake on the property. To be honest, I didn't really make a lot of fancy new political connections. The most famous person I actually talked to was Miss Taiwan (who, I found out after attempting to speak with her in Chinese, is actually from California). I mostly ate a lot of free food and enjoyed the spectacle. All in all, it was a pretty awesome party.

This one's for you, Dad.
Making custard cakes
Yum! We approve.

Giant flowering Taiwan! Let's hear it for agriculture, everyone.
They even hired some artists to make little clay figurines for guests. Apparently making clay miniatures on a stick is a type of traditional handicraft here in Taiwan. Back in the day, they used to be made of edible materials but now they're just for show (and therefore full of toxic chemicals that make the clay easier to mold). Either way, my parrot was way too cute to eat. 
The artist and my fun new souvenir. Getting him home in one piece
was a definite challenge but he's very happy at home on my desk now.

Down South in Kaohsiung

As you may know, the Fulbright ETAs here in Taiwan are divided between two counties on pretty much opposite sides of the island, Yilan in the northeast and Kaohsiung in the southwest. Of course, here in Taiwan, distance is kind of relative. So being on opposite sides of the country really means that we're an hour bus ride to Taipei, a short trip on the MRT, and then an hour and a half ride on the high speed railway apart. In other words, when we decided to take a trip down to visit our southern friends for the weekend, we left after lunch and made it in time for dinner. 

Being the second biggest city in Taiwan, Kaohsiung has a little bit more variety when it comes to international food than we have back in Yilan. So, of course, we took full advantage of that fact and headed over to General Pancho's for some authentic Mexican cuisine (trust me, it's really hard to find good Mexican food in Asia, so it was something to be excited about). 

Outside of General Pancho's with our hosts, Esther and Andrew, and some of our other
Kaohsiung 朋友們 (friends).

Real chicken burrito and margaritas for dinner = a good night.

Saturday was a big day of doing touristy things around the city. To start our morning off right, we headed over to Shoushan (壽山), also known as monkey mountain thanks to the thousands of Formosan rock macaques that call it home. The trailhead was on the far side of National Sun Yat-sen University, so we got a little tour of the campus (which, for the record, is absolutely beautiful) on the way there. We ran into a whole horde of monkeys right next to one of the dorm buildings. 

There is a dorm literally 10 yards to our right. How crazy would it be
to live there?!?

Adorable monkey family!
About 5 minutes after this picture was taken, the money pushed Andrew
out of the way and stole his seat

After the hike, we headed over to the former British Consulate building, which is just a little further down on the same mountain. It is a pretty little colonial era red brick building that boasts great views of the city and, best of all, serves afternoon tea! Of course, I had to try it. 
The steps up to the former consulate building
A display about how the British made trade deals with Taiwan back in the day
The view of the Cijin Lighthouse
Lauren and I had tea for two! It was a little bit British,
a little bit Taiwanese, and all delicious 
We had dinner at an amazing little Thai place that served some of the best fish I've had so far in Taiwan. And, as a tropical island nation, Taiwan is very proud of it's wonderful fresh seafood, so that's saying something.
Spicy lemon pepper Thai fish. Yum!
On Sunday, Esther, Christine and I took the ferry over to Cijin island. It wasn't very good beach weather, so we decided to just wander around town for a bit before hiking up to visit the Cijin lighthouse. 
Cijin beach
We're crabs! Not totally sure why this guy was there but I liked him.
Esther and I at Cihou lighthouse
Siena, one of my wonderful LETs, is actually from Kaohsiung county. Since we visited on a holiday weekend (Double Ten weekend, more about that later), Siena had also headed down south for a few days to celebrate with her family. Her parents own a restaurant and she was kind enough to invite Christine and I to come out to meet her family and have a late lunch. It was a bit of a treck to get there but the food was SO good! 
Her family's specialty is Taiwanese style fried chicken. But it's not you average fast-food style fried chicken. As Siena informed us, you have to wait a little while to get you food because the chicken is still alive when you order it. In fact, at their old location, customers used to be able to walk over to the pin and pick out the chicken that they wanted (as a child, she always hated it when it was her job to catch a specific chicken from the pin because sometimes the others would poop on her head). However, since they moved to a more urban location, there isn't room to keep the chicken coup where customers can go see it. Anyhow, this point is that my lunch was very fresh that afternoon.
Fried chicken good enough to rival my grandmother's
After we had stuffed ourselves to capacity, Siena drove us up the side of a mountain to visit a temple and monastery with a great view. Our timing worked out just right because we just happened to arrive right before an elaborate ceremony was put on in front of the temple. Apparently, to keep the idols at one temple from getting too bored, they are sometimes taken to visit the idols at other temples. Then, when it comes back home, the worshippers go through an elaborate procession with lots of dancing in order to welcome back the returning idol. Here's a clip from the dance (the whole thing lasted about 10 minutes):