amw (amw) wrote,

Pointing and smiling through the first 4 days

The smells here are incredible. Every step is either a tug on my memories or it sets my stomach rumbling. Often both. Fivespice, joss sticks, fresh flowers, humidity, oolong tea, welding fumes, smog... I expected a soulless cookie-cutter burg, but this is far more interesting. Little furniture shops and scooter mechanics and cafés and tea houses and fruit stands and bike shops and machine shops and clothing shops and kitchenware shops, all the things you need to get by in a walking distance.

Aside from congee for breakfast, i got a "vegetarian" lunch of green beans, napa cabbage, fried egg, rice and a ridiculously delicious piece of tofu that tasted like it was brewed in tea. Then the vegetarian-ness was broken because the rice had bits of oily mystery meat on it, almost as a garnish. I shall boldly guess it was pork, but, eh. Compared to my meals of the last 3 weeks it barely counts. 65 fucking kuai. I mean, that's like 2€.

I'm sitting on a bench at the foot of a hill and watching a tough old lady in pink and turquoise sitting opposite me smoke her cigarette. She scootered in a few minutes ago with a bamboo and twig broom on the back and several bags of garbage. I am not sure why she is scootering around with bags of garbage. I'm glad for the "company", if only to confirm my suspicions that the wild dogs skulking about the place are harmless.

I expected far more people, but i am overjoyed at the lack of them. I don't think it would have gone well to drop me into the thick of it all. I don't know if Kaohsiung is just a sleepy town, or if i happened upon a sleepy part. Admittedly, my usual method of exploring a new place is to walk down the least-trafficed streets and change direction when i see a chain store. No one speaks English, not even a little bit. No one understands my learned-on-a-cargo-ship Mandarin and i don't understand their slow baby-talk, whether it's because of my poor pronunciation or their Taiwanese accent. It's also possible they don't even speak Mandarin - the local dialect is an offshoot of Hokkien. It's fine, though. Pointing and smiling goes a long way.

Her hat is an umbrella, the pink lady. She is now sweeping her way up the stairs i am about to climb. It doesn't look like she's working - she's not wearing a uniform - but she just turned on her radio to some music with flutes and synthesizers and monastic chants, so i guess she'll be there a while.


I wonder if sweeping the steps is a religious thing? Maybe it is some kind of penance, or a meditation. This whole hill is riddled with tiny overgrown staircases through the jungle, and several of them have brooms at the bottom. It is really bizarre, because most of the paths are completely overgrown, the concrete stairs are crumbled with rebar sticking out the sides, old benches and signs have completely rusted through, tree trunks and wild dogs block the way, and then you pop out in a tiny pagoda where a guy is sitting on a plastic chair making tea like it's the most normal thing in the world.

After climbing the steps and looking at more pagodas and temples and a view of the city, i came back down and ended up at a tourist bar. Or, at least, the first time i have heard English spoken and the first white people i have seen since i arrived yesterday. Bunch of heavily-tattooed, loudmouthed Northerners. And here comes the prejudice. Oh gawd, listen to that fucking obnoxious Geordie, him and his ilk Brexited us. I have a knee-jerk reaction to rust belt England because they selfishly stripped away my citizenship out of spite and hate. Yeah, and then one started talking about the plight of the Taiwanese Aborigines and mentioned he'd been living here for a year and i realized my mistake. You can be a bunch of rowdy lads but still be well-traveled. I guess they were oil men or engineers or construction workers, the kind of guys my dad works with.

Looking back at the river a gondola is pushing off. The gondola driver is serenading the couple. Better than Venice? I think so.


It's been ages since i've been in a jungle. Probably since i left Brisbane, well over 10 years ago now. It is stupendously green. Not just green compared to the yellowy-brown of my favored steppe climates, but an eye-searingly bright, rich, luscious green. And the flowers erupt forth in every shape and size and color. It probably helps that we just had an epic tropical downpour. Everything is shining and dripping. It's like the whole hill is one big, breathing organism.

I remember how much i hated the weather in Australia, and i'd probably hate it here too if i had to work. Or perhaps i would care less these days about smudged makeup and sweat spots on my boobs and damp jeans chafing my thighs.

I still find the jungle claustrophobic, despite its beauty. Somehow i find it easier to deal with than more temperate forests, though. Perhaps it is some kind of ingrained cultural phobia. My lizard brain knows that the jungle is full of dangerous plants and creatures, it's thick and misty and much of it unpassable. My hormones adjust going in and i walk through it alert. Apparently in Taiwan i am as likely to meet my doom as an old guy in flip-flops making tea. "Regular" forests, though, they just cause me anxiety. Not seeing the sky makes me feel trapped, i get an uncontrollable fear of psycho killers hiding in trees, crazy hunters with guns, and besides, i might step on a snail or a slug, or slip on moss and get mud all over my butt. I'll take a jungle over that any day.


The greatest thing i have discovered in Kaohsiung so far is the garbage trucks. For the first day or two i thought it was the cheerful melody of an icecream truck echoing through the buildings. Today i followed the happy tune and found a garbage truck, and people rushing out of buildings to dump their stuff in it. Perhaps that's why the pink lady was carrying her garbage. On the hunt for a mobile, musical dump.


I decided to book another 3 nights, because i feel like i haven't quite "gotten" this place yet. I realized when i bumped back into the same fucking ex-pats from the night before at another bar that i needed to expand my walking circle. I am not sure if Taiwanese go to bars, or at least, not during the daytime like us loutish Brits do.

So, i walked out of the bar in another direction and found a night market. I recognized the sign for bean (豆) and some pointing and smiling ended up in my first "stinky tofu" experience. Reports of its stench are greatly exaggerated. It smells funky, but it's not much worse than a strong cheese, and it tastes similar but with a better consistency (crunchy and chewy on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside). I also ate a selection of deep-fried mushrooms. Bubble tea on the way home. A kick-ass spinach bun on the way in. This afternoon i ate at a place that in America would have been a soul food joint. Fried chicken, greens, okra, cabbage, potatoes. I ordered all the green veges and rice and spicy black bean pickle and a tofu dish i now recognize (similar apppearance to mapo tofu, but there is no meat and it's a bit sweeter). 50元 - under 2€. Insanely good. Every dish i try here is fresh and delicious.

The exuberant temples make me want to take up religion too. They are all so colorful and elaborate. Many have iridescent dragons and fish dancing off a pagoda-style roof, a stark contrast to the squareness of the surrounding buildings. Inside they have statues of demons or spirits or saints, i am not sure what. Fairy lights and flashing LED signs and paper lanterns advertize their presence for a block around. Sometimes you get there and it turns out it's just a ground floor room in some guy's tiny apartment. I think those are the best ones of all.

The coffee shops make me smile too. Coffee here seems to have an association with kawaii - it is something to drink with sweets and cakes. I am sitting in a coffee shop decorated with pink glittery curtains and a giant human-sized teddy bear is sitting at a table across from me. It's funny how in the west we see tea as being something whimsical, like the Mad Hatter's tea party, or a child's tea set, whereas over here coffee seems to be that way.

Of course you can also just get a coffee to go like Americans do. Don't get too carried away in my hyperbole, i'm just writing for fun. It's a nice place to sit down and write.


I have been walking north today on the hunt for something different, and i just found it. Most everywhere i have been up until now has felt like Chinatown, but city-sized. Just miles and miles of mid-rise buildings with shops downstairs and (presumably) apartments upstairs. Mom and pop stores selling everything under the sun. Food stalls. Markets. Pedestrians zig-zagging between parked and moving scooters. There are main streets where the banks and chain stores are, and there are alleyways where the rats and cockroaches are. You know, a city like a city is supposed to be. That changed when i hit the north loop of the Love River.

On the south side was a sad, abandoned-looking park where i climbed up a rusty old lookout. Even the abandoned parks still have schoolkids whizzing through on bikes and joggers and old folks sitting about the place. When i say this city isn't busy, i mean by standards of a European city, not an American one (most of which look like ghost towns). Here there's never no one around, there's just less people. Anyway, when i ducked across the bridge to the north bank, there was even less people. Eerily less. I ended up on a higgledy-piggledy road barely wide enough for a car and navigating through a "village" of busted-up, desolate buildings. Beat-up old cars. Broken windows. A whole pack of rabid dogs jumping up against the fence growling and barking at me. This city has tons of dogs - wild and not - all off-leash, but these are the first ones that made a sound or seemed threatening. I tried to defuse any situation ahead of time by putting on my dopey tourist face and asking one of the residents how to get to a street on the other side. Pointing, smiling. Now i knew someone might have my back if i got mauled.

5 minutes on i popped out under a skyscraper with statues of angels and goddesses and other frou-frou, European-looking nonsense at its base. Security guards out the front. Mercedes pulling in. Give me a fucking break. After the poverty on the river, literally one block south? No stores on the ground floor, unless you count 7-11, and some of the buildings didn't even have that. Gotta have space for a fountain in the lobby, right? It's horrible. Disgusting. The living cliché of condo hell. And i am trapped in the middle of it. I wonder if the Chinese new cities are like this? I wonder how long it will take for any character to come back here. This is really abysmal.

I know there is a night market somewhere nearby, so let's see if i can find it.


That last section i wrote last night. It's now around lunch time on Saturday and i am typing up all these notes.

The night got worse. I found the night market, which is the most popular and recommended in Kaohsiung. I should perhaps mention that night markets are one of the biggest tourist draws of Taiwan. They are street markets that open around 6pm and stay open past midnight selling all the usual market stuff, but most importantly unique food and drink. Anyway, i walked through this night market and... it was alright. I did feel i learned a little more of the culture, seeing people line up for ages to get fried chicken, like it was the last dodo or something. Forget the fact there are 3 other stalls selling the exact same thing in the exact same market. It's all about which stall is highly acclaimed, which stall was the first one to invent the dish, which one has the most storied history, bla bla bla. All the same kinds of reasons foodies use in other countries to justify lining up or paying through the nose for their dinner.

I love food, but i'm not into hero worship, so i picked up a passion fruit green tea, and looked at all the sad shrimp and crabs waiting to be boiled to death, and inhaled the smells of deep-fried everything, and marveled at those wacky cubes and spheres of mystery meat, then left to pick up a meal at a cafeteria somewhere among the condos.

And then it happened. I had accidentally picked up the "to go" container instead of the "eat in" container, and then i felt too stupid to eat in with my doggie bag, so i decided to find a quiet place to sit down. I walked around and found a parking lot without many people and sat on the curb to have dinner. Within about 30 seconds, a guy comes out and says "ah, you are welcome to eat your food inside". First guy i have found in town who speaks excellent English. Even at my hotel noone speaks English. He was one of the fucking security guards from one of the fucking condos. He acted all polite, like he couldn't possibly let me sit on a curb and let's be gracious letting you sit on a chair in the lobby, and here let me offer you a drink of water, some coffee, bla bla bla. But what he really meant was "people in my building don't want to see westerners eating rice on the curb".

In all the rest of the city i have been pretty much ignored, people sit around on planters and bollards and plastic stools that i swear fall from the sky because there are so many of them everywhere, now some guy comes up to me and "invites" me to eat inside. It was the most awkward thing and ruined my night even worse than walking into the condo hell had already ruined it in the first place. He probably lost face because after i refused coffee three times he still brought me one anyway and i refused it again, but i am so not here for that shit. For the first time i felt completely out of place. Ironically, it was in the part of town that most resembles parts of Toronto and Melbourne, places where friends of mine actually live. The experience made me realize how universal this idea of wanting to live in a squeaky-clean, family-friendly, 100% residential neighborhood is. And how very, very much i hate it. I know now never to waste my time in places like that, even in a culture very different from my own. I high-tailed it out of there on the subway and emerged "downtown" (?) where i picked up two cans of beer from a corner store and a fresh sliced guava with salty plum powder from an old guy on the street. Hotel room dessert 😊

It's hard to find information about the districts and villages of Taiwan because most of it is in Chinese, so i can't really find out what happened, but i don't need wiki to tell me that area just got hit by the gentrification hammer. It's funny, because this whole city is pretty new. Even the "oldtown" area, which it turns out is where i have spent most of my time up until now, is less than a century old. But i dig that tacky 20th century stuff that's all shabby and run-down now. People live there. There's almost no graffiti - i presume that's a cultural thing since this isn't a police state - but in the older buildings you can tell the character of the place by the little stickers around the door and the curtains and the letterboxes, or by the local temple on the block and the people sitting out front playing cards, smoking and drinking tea. I know high-density living is more efficient and humanity needs to embrace high-rises for the sake of the planet, but there has to be a way to make them feel like mid-rise city streets instead of hospitals or shopping malls. Then again, it seems a lot of people actually like it that way. Sigh.

This has been a majorly lazy morning. I think i am going to take the ferry to Cijin, the barrier island in front of the city where everyone says i should go. I usually try not to go where everyone says i should go because fuck tourist traps, but after yesterday i do need to see something a little bit less sterile. Or i could take the day in my room and just veg. I miss those days from the boat. First i need to find something to eat.
Tags: food, travel

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