Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Taiwan

One in the stink

Night markets rank up there on the tourist list of things to do in Taiwan.  For good reason- CHEAP DELICIOUS FOOD.  The Shilin market is the big draw, but in every neighborhood you can find tiny temporary stalls filled with noodles, fresh vegetables and sizzling hot meat skewers.

Shilin Night Market

Shilin Night Market

Night Maket in Taiwan

Night Maket in Taiwan

You wander around, starving, drooling over the huge selection of food in front of you, getting ready to settle in for a magnificent meal and then – BAM. The nauseating smell of over-ripe human feces hits you. Stinky Tofu.

This smell haunted us as we traveled through China and horror upon horrors, it’s even more popular in Taiwan. People told us, “It’s just like blue cheese.  Just try it! It smells a little offensive but tastes delicious.”

What cruel words. Not only do I not have access to any of the world’s delicious cheeses, but I was encouraged to actually put the tofu into my mouth.

I dearly wish that you had a scratch and sniff screen, because nothing can adequately describe how utterly obnoxious, odious and offensive this small square of fermented bean curd actually is. And it tastes worse than it smells.

Eating Stinky Tofu is now on our list of “things that we can’t believe we tried and will never do that again.”

The taste is so utterly foul

The taste is so utterly foul

Hot Springs, Haunted Spirits and Human Rights

Human Rights

I don’t know how many island prisons there on on this earth, but somehow I manage to find them when I’m traveling. First Robben Island, then Alcatraz and now Green Island. It’s amazing how much history you absorb just by visiting a country. In Taiwan we discovered that the ROC didn’t treat their citizens any better than the PRC during the immediate aftermath of the Chinese civil war. The commies and the nationalists were equally shitty. In China you were beaten, your possessions were taken away and your house was repurposed. In Taiwan people suspected of political dissidence were sent to a labor camp on what is now a beautiful tourist island off the east coast of Taiwan.

The Coast!

In the winter there is only one ferry a day that scuttles between Taitung and Green Island. The guide book author warned us that the hour-long ocean ferry to Green Island would make even the most sea-worthy passenger deathly ill, particularly in winter. That guide book author is a pussy. We survived the waves with our lunch intact, only to discover that it wasn’t throwing up that we should worry about.  It was eating. You see, there are two ATM’s on Green Island, and neither of them take foreign cards.  After renting scooters for $9 and paying $30 for a hotel, we had exactly 3 American dollars remaining – and needed to buy gas for the scooters!

Thank god it doesn’t take much to power a scooter, so for $2.50 we were able buy just enough petrol to scoot around the island three times, leaving us with just enough for a bag of dinner Doritos.

Urban Hiker/Scoot Star on Green Island

Urban Hiker/Scoot Star on Green Island

Hot Springs

Most American’s expect some level of comfort when they’re on vacation. On Green Island the hotels are pretty basic, and you shouldn’t expect much in the way of fancy tropical vacation atmosphere or posh restaurants. Comfort comes in the form of a salt water hot spring – one of two in the entire world.

Holy Moses.

On the tiny eastern corner of this tiny island lie the most deliciously indulgent bathing experience I have ever had the luck to enjoy.

Jhaorih salt water hot springs on Green Island

Jhaorih Salt Water Hot Spring!

Being the off season, we were on our own, faced with an entire coast of warm sea water all to ourselves.  We floated, we flounced, god damn, we frolicked. As the sunset we watched a heard of goats wander by on their way to the hillside. And when the wind turned colder, we worked our way up to the 50 degree water and soaked. And soaked. And soaked.

Chilling in the ocean water hot spring

Six hours after our toes turned wrinkly and dead skin began to float away, we decided to head back to the hotel.  But I didn’t want to, memories of this hot spring will fuel my travel fantasies forever.

Sunset from a 42 degree hot spring

Haunted Spirits

Unlike mainland Chinese under Mao, Taiwanese people were able to continue to practice their religious beliefs under Kuomintang. Everywhere you turn in Taiwan there is a shrine or a temple. People are incredibly spiritual.  They consult with God by throwing tiny wooden blocks and reading fortune sticks. I’m not talking about elderly people, everyone does this – young and old, professional, student or retiree. Green Island is no different.

Guanyin Cave on Green Island

Guanyin Cave on Green Island

One of the oddest shrines I saw in Taiwan was in a cave that once protected a lost sailor in a storm.  The sailor believed that a stalagmite in the cave was the incarnation of the Goddess of Mercy who guided him to the safety, and now it is a popular place for pilgrams.  As you approach the underground opening there is slightly creepy, tinny music playing from a speaker.  Peering down into the cave, you see a rock covered in a red cape and a tiny underground alter where people can light incense, throw their divining blocks or chose their fortune sticks.

I didn’t feel in touch with any spirits while I poked around the Guanyin Cave cave, but walking past the grounds of the crumbling prisons sure gave me the creeps.

Prison walls complete with great view of the water

I’m fully aware that the planet is old and people have been tortured on all corners of the world, but standing on the grounds where people were held captive and tortured for transparent political motives gave me the heebee-jeebees. And I couldn’t help but think that my own country currently has it’s own island prison where innocent people continue to be held for the same political transparent motives.

We should all learn from our combined past mistakes and concentrate on building more salt water hot springs, not island prisons.

Gorgeous hot spring coast

Adventures in Chinese Mothers

Riding a scooter is great fun.  Scooting in freezing cold wind and sleeting rain is not. And with our limited wardrobe and lack of scoot experience, I was not only freezing, I was scared.

Highway 11 is supposed to have outstanding coastal views. But instead of blue waters and green forested mountains, I saw angry grey skies, skidding trucks and handles gripped by ice blue fingers.

Angry ocean and gorgeous clouds

The wind that was busy whipping huge white waves along the coast was also determined to unseat me from the scooter.  Going fast helped you remain upright but brought the risk of skidding on the wet pavement.  Slowing down meant flying sideways across the highway as huge trucks rumbled past.  This was not fun.

Scooting down Highway 11, Taiwan

Scooting down Highway 11

We finally reached some famous lookout point where we stopped to check out the view and hopefully buy some hot coffee.  Instead we found a duo of Taiwanese women who Chinese-mothered all over us.

I have come to love Chinese mothers, which is easy to say because I don’t have one up in my business 24/7. Unlike American moms (or at least my American mom), Chinese mothers tend to fawn all over you –  from physically holding hands and petting you, to explaining in exact detail how to do a certain thing, to actually taking the reins and just doing it for you.

The Taiwanese women we met on that freezing cold afternoon tsk’ed all over us – questioning our choice of clothing, feeding us sweets and warning us to stay off the scooters.  Seeing that we had bare hands, one woman ran into the back room and produced white gardening gloves.  The other women insisted that we stuff ourselves with newspaper for better insulation.

Well Insulated

As we scooted home I could only think of what would have happened at an American rest stop. Nothing.  People would have made eye contact, smiled and gone on with their own business. But in Taiwan, you’re treated like family. What a great country. What fabulous people!

We are absolutely loving our time here!

Highway 11, Taiwan

Highway 11

Future ScootStars of America

One summer our friend Peter rode a 50cc scooter across the entire United States and filmed it.  We may not be official ScootStars, but after riding a scooter down the coast of Taiwan we’re close. I now understand the ass-numbing thrill and frustration of riding the equivalent of a John Deere lawn mower for days on end.

We assured the scooter folks that we had certainly driven scooters before although it was pretty clear that we had never even sat on one. Our cover was blown when we couldn’t figure out how to turn it on and asked how to change gears (there are no gears on a scooter). Then, immediately upon turning the engine over, Vinnie took off into traffic and crashed into a cement barrier. The scooter people didn’t appear to care, and for the equivalent of 10 American dollars and our driver’s licenses, we were given the official vehicle of Asia – a beat up grey scooter. And since Vinnie’s foot wasn’t broken, we bypassed the hospital and proceeded down the coast.

Future ScootStar

We went in search of coastal highway 11 and instead found ourselves inland on the farming oasis that is Highway 9. We slowly learned how to scoot as huge trucks whipped the wind past us and gravel bit into our eyes. Not even the rain could dampen the pure beauty and fun of zipping down Taiwan’s east coast.

Ruìsuì

Ruìsuì

After 20 minutes we were surrounded by mountains, huge swathes of tropical farmland and palm trees. We gassed it, passing old timers on rascals and speeding by tiny towns at a top speed of 43.5 miles an hour. Sometimes we stopped to putt down main street, waving to kids and waking up the dogs who didn’t bother to move out of the street. We even dropped by a local cemetery to check out the tiny mausoleums that decorate so many hillsides in Taiwan.

Taiwanese Cemetery

Taiwanese Cemetery

After a few hours of leisurely exploring Highway 9, I found what I was looking for: Ruisui’s famous carbonated Hot Springs. 43 degrees of hot water INDULGENCE.

Ruìsuì carbonated hot Spring

Ruìsuì Carbonated Hot Spring

Hello relaxation and vacation!  This is when we really started to cut loose and release all that backpacker tension that had been building up over the last few months.  Even better, we had the entire hot springs to ourselves.

And since we’re not in a rush, and we don’t believe in schedules, we decided to stay.  We stayed in a real bed.  With clean, laundered sheets.  And a HOT SPRING IN MY BATHROOM!

Thus began possibly the best part of our trip so far. Our couple interests were finally aligned – maybe for the first time ever!  Vinnie loves his scooter and I love my hot springs.  Together we can combine these two passions, spending the day scooting to the next hot spring.

And this is how we spend the next two weeks.

Leaving Highway 9

Leaving Highway 9

Here’s to more stories in 2011!

Tonight we’ll be spending New Year’s Eve out in front of Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world with Stephen and his awesome friends.

There will be a dragon of fireworks climbing the building – can’t wait!

100 days and 21,159 km of traveling!

Last year’s show:

Taroko Gorgeous

Ilha Formosa. Beautiful Island. I swore those were the lyrics to some Madonna song but I was wrong; Formosa is the name the Portuguese gave to Taiwan as they sailed on past in the 16th century. I totally agree, this island is straight up stunning AND super easy to explore.

Longshan Temple

Saying some prayers for my Grandma at Longshan Temple

National Theater in Taipei

National Theater in Taipei

After a debauched week of endless nuits blanches, we dragged our quickly aging bodies out of bed and stumbled, possibly still drunk, to the train station. A week in Taipei had already softened our traveler’s edge, and something as backpacker basic as packing our bags felt us feeling exhausted rather than excited about our upcoming trip around the island.

Dolla Dolla Bills Y'all

But we had to go. Already my cousin Stephen was having back problems from sleeping on the couch and we were all beginning to feel the effects of too much fun and not enough sunlight.  With our heads full of rumors about tropical beaches and stunning scenery, we jumped on a high speed train and headed down the east coast (no K-series hard seat trains in Taiwan!)

Holy crap!

The east coast of Taiwan is simply breathtaking. Highway 11 runs straight down the Pacific coast, tightly hugging the jagged coast one one side and on the other, the forest mountains that happily made beach-front construction nearly impossible.  Our first stop on the east cost was Hualien where we immediately jumped on a bus to Taroko Gorge.

What a bus!  It couldn’t be further from what we suffered through on the way to Litang. And it was Free!

Bus to Taroko Gorge

A bus of a different color

Taroko Gorge is a wonderland of marble cliffs, massive stone boulders, and crystal clear turquoise water.  Most folks explore the gorge in tour buses, getting off to take a quick photo and jumping back on again.  How awful!

Homey don’t play that.

We jumped off at the first stop and stood there slack jawed, staring at the enormous canyon rising above our heads.  Our hike meander through the gorge led us through the tunnels and trails traditionally used by the Truku people. There are still a few Truku still living in the gorge, making their living selling handmade woven goods and fruity liquor. We happened upon a booming liquor stand 3 km into the hike, people were hiking in with cardboard boxes to carry the bottles home.

We walked all day, managing to see only a few of the amazing sites that Taroko has to offer. By the end of the hike our pallor had returned to normal, our eyes appeared less bloodshot and our standing heart rate managed to decline slightly.  I believe we managed to fully recover from the perfect storm that was a week in Taipei.

Note for those of you heading to the Gorge: Rent scooters. The bus is great but only comes once an hour to take you between hikes in the gorge.  A scooter will allow you to see more, without waiting.  No one told us this, but we would have been too hungover to manage to drive a scooter anyway.

Shankadang Trail, Taroko Gorge

Shankadang-a-doo Trail, Taroko Gorge

Big foot lives in Taroko Gorge

Big foot lives in Taroko Gorge

Swallow Grotto Trail, Taroko Gorge

Swallow Grotto Trail, Taroko Gorge

Swallow Grotto Trail, Taroko Gorge

Marble cliffs in Taroko Gorge

Lantern Explosion in Pingxi

Every Chinese New year there is a lantern festival in Pingxi, Taiwan.  Huge, person-sized lanterns are lit on fire and the heat sends hundreds of paper-mache lantern into the sky. I image it’s pretty beautiful. (Don’t ask where the burning wire lantern frame lands, I still haven’t figured that out.)

Pingxi Lantern Festival 2007 by sheng-fa lin

We have no plans to be anywhere near China during Chinese New Year as that would be my personal hell – a billion camera-happy people vacationing en masse led by screeching tour guides. But in Pingxi you can send a lantern wish at any time of year, so we seized our opportunity to send good wishes for the year of the Rabbit.

We send you our wishes!

First you buy the giant paper lantern and write wishes all over it. Then you head over to the (active) train tracks and send it into the air.  How many people can you wish for, really? Somewhere along the way I remember reading that it’s impossible to maintain more than 150 stable social relationships at one time. Honestly, I think I top out at 20 people, and couldn’t manage to fill up the entire lantern with enough wishes. (Hint:Write Big).

Well, the Chinese Lantern God must have been pissed that I didn’t send enough wishes into the air because the damn lantern blew up in my face.

(OK, we paid for fireworks and that’s what blew up. But the fuse was too short and they blew up on the ground.  Very dangerous stuff, this Lantern wishing!)

Taiwan is AWESOME!

If you had told me that Taiwan (TAIWAN!) is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, I would think that you had too much happy tea in Dali. Who knew such an island -one with marble canyons, palm trees and hot springs – exists just outside China? Who knew that there is an entire population of Han Chinese who eat delicious food but don’t scream or attempt to run you over with their scooter? Who knew that there was a city with beautiful temples, fabulous food and class-A hiking within the capital city.

WHO KNEW? And why didn’t you tell me?

Climbed this Mother! (Mother Loving Mountain)

We Climbed this Mother! (Mother Loving Mountain)

Ok, there are a lot more words that I want to say about Taiwan, but I’m too worked up with sheer surprise and utter delight.

Perhaps we spent too long in China? Maybe the emotional toll of internet starvation and the physical strain of avoiding death by scooter was just too much.  Could it be that I had forgotten the wonders of a fully developed, democratic country?

Ya! I love Taiwan!

As we were boarding the airplane in Kunming, China, an older gentleman cut in front of us while screaming into phone, “WEI!” Landing in Taiwan the world felt a little different -a little calmer, more orgainzed, less frantic. I couldn’t put my finger on the exact difference until we were on the airport shuttle bus.  A phone rings, a man answers and in a sexy low timbre says, “Wei-baby.”

These people are STANDING in LINE!!!

OK, so it’s not just the people (whose kindess is legendary), it’s also the sheer amount of things to do and delicious food to put in my mouth. In one week we managed to drink our weight in beer, hit up a night market, binge at TWO all you can eat/all you can drink venues, get our Gaga on at KTV and hike a gorgeous mountain.

It could help that we’re staying with my cousin Stephen (the one who slept in the woods after partying with us in Korea) and he’s a faaabulous host.  Not only do we have his huge queen size bed and soft fluffy pillows, we have also been adopted by his crew. This country is AH-mazing!

Welcome to Taiwan!

Stephen's Crew of Cool Dudes