This will be a bit of a teaser post, since I only had a few hours in Taiwan on Saturday, but more is coming.
Saturday I unwittingly boarded the Hello Kitty flight between Tokyo and Taipei. HK was everywhere — the plane was painted with HK and her friends (prior to this weekend, I hadn’t realized she had friends), HK pillows, HK headrests, HK soap in the bathrooms, my HK lunch complete with HK utensils, HK fish cake, HK ice cream and so on and so on (see photo), I stole a HK barf bag and some HK bags of nuts, and they even had HK toilet paper. The entire inside of the plane was pink. It was pretty terrifying.
I landed in the airport that’s a ways outside Taipei proper and caught a cab into the city. I was a little worried because I had planned to have Jen with me (who speaks some mandarin) and who had done most of the planning for this trip — and I was still not sure that I had things like getting money covered. But fortunately everything went smoothly. The cab driver did a lot of belching in the car and driving like a maniac. Other than that my first impressions of Taiwan was that they like to put little domes on top of their apartment buildings. But I arrived safely at our friends’ place to fresh baked cookies and a cool glass of water (have I not yet mentioned the weather? Imagine living in someone’s mouth… about the same. Unbelievably hot and muggy.)
That evening we went out to a night market to meander and get food. Night markets are areas where vendors line the streets (and the illegal ones set up mobile camps in the center) which are packed with people strolling and buying clothes, jewelry, electronics, trinkets, food, and just about anything else you can imagine. I briefly contemplated buying jen a pair of fuzzy flipflops, each in the shape of half a lady bug. Instead, we picked up some pork buns and some tropical juices and continued to explore.
There was a temple on one of the streets where a lot of people were sitting on the steps eating out of paper sleeves and slurping tapioca pearls from their drinks while others lit incense and went into the temple to pray. The temples have “gone digital” in that there’s a big light-board across the front advertising something in Chinese. But otherwise they’re traditional-looking and exceptionally ornate (just wait till the Day 2 post!)
But the real food action (beyond just the snacks) happens down in the basement of a market-building, where stalls fry, grill, and boil all kinds of food. There were places that did seafood on sticks, places that had stacks of crabs, flat-top grills sauteeing greens and pork, massive pots of soups, and signs everywhere with rice and noodle dishes. It’s packed and hectic, and everybody stares — I’m used to being the enormous gaijin, but in Japan people don’t stare very much, or they try to be subtle about doing so. In Taipei they really have no compunctions about boldly staring at you. Later on I discovered that just smiling at them brings out the friendly, smiling side of the Taiwanese, but the staring is a bit intimidating at first, particularly in the bustling crowds.
We settled on a counter that wraps around a flat-top grill where a couple fellows were whipping up a variety of dishes. They put them on foil around the edge of the grill and then you grab what you want and it stays warm (not that the ambient temperature really allows for much cooling!) We got scallops, oysters, spinach, rice, soup, and these amazing crabs. When I’ve had crabs before it’s always frustrating to pull the meat out of them, and there’s never very much in the end. I don’t know what happened to the internal organs of these crabs, but they were so meaty, tender, and delicious all through the center. Picking a crab with chopsticks is not as difficult as it sounds, either. Although we did eventually just decide to pick the things up and sortof suck the meat out. At any rate — amazing. And in the end it’s like $4 for dinner.
After dinner we got more tropical fruit drinks and continued exploring. I went for some plum contraption that was too sweet and appeared to have jam in the bottom. Overall though, the night market was a blast, and was a fantastic introduction to Taiwan!