amw (amw) wrote,

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rain, beer and the people of Ximen district

The weather is getting to me. I knew before i came here that i'd be arriving in the middle of the rainy season, but i had hit my last straw at work and wasn't going to delay my trip a couple months just to get some sun. And besides, the monsoon is just a normal part of life here, so why not embrace it?

The problem is that it's altering how i can enjoy myself. My greatest pleasure when traveling is just wandering around on foot, but when there is a constant torrential downpour, walking is not much fun. If i wear my jeans and sneakers, they get soggy after an hour or so and become uncomfortable to move around in. If i wear shorts and sandals (like most of the locals), i can't walk for hours anyway because they're too slippery. Add to that having to carry an umbrella all the time, and not being able to sit down anywhere, it just kinda kills the feeling of freedom i normally enjoy when walking.

So, what to do? Spend the time inside, i guess. But spending time inside either means spending money (shopping, movies, eating) or sitting in my windowless hotel room with no phone signal and flakey wifi. I guess i could spring for a more expensive room with a window and good wifi, but that would be no different from frittering my money away in a mall.

It's funny, i spent three weeks "trapped" on a cargo ship with nowhere to walk, no internet and no restaurants and was quite happy to just read and doze. Here i feel like i would be a waste to do the same. There's a whole city out there - shouldn't i go and see it?

I have spent a fair bit of time out and about. I walked around most of the neighborhood of my hotel - the Ximen district. And i walked to the river. And under many overpasses. I walked through the botanical gardens and the government areas and out to Taipei 101, which is a very cool building. I walked up past the oldtown and found a delightful old Christian chapel and a temple completely surrounded by food stalls and a fabric market. I started going into department stores and food courts. I took a subway up to the expat area near the international school on a tip that i might be able to find Western-sized clothes there. Given that i can't even fit into Western-sized clothes when i go shopping in a Western country, that was a fool's errand. But i bought a coffee and sat down at a convenience store and watched pizza delivery guys come and go and felt very American until this Hunter S Thompson looking Chinese guy sat down next to me with a Louis Vuitton bag and three cans of premium beer and started smoking a cigar. That was peculiar.

Each day i got very wet, and stomping puddles back into my hotel room i realized i kind of like this district better than any of the other ones in the rain anyway.

Yesterday i went to one of the vegetarian restaurants i found, and ordered a rice plate with a bunch of fake meats. (On my first day here i ordered a kimchi rice cake soup at the same place and it was terrific.) As i sat down, a stranger who was also alone asked if we could eat together. Of course i was fine with that, so we struck up a conversation. He was a local, born and raised in Taipei. I asked if he had traveled much and he said that recently he biked around Taiwan, which i am realizing is a popular way for both locals and foreigners to see the country. He asked what my favorite city was, a loaded question if ever i heard one. I said i liked Kaohsiung, but tactfully added that it was hard to compare because Taipei is so very much larger; it feels vastly more cosmopolitan and there is a lot more going on.

What a wacky coincidence, it turned out he was a software developer. He seemed quite surprised to hear i have spent my career working as a developer too, because he found his colleagues very shy. I said developers come in all shapes and sizes, though it's definitely a job that has more than its share of socially awkward characters. We talked shop. It was refreshing to be able to speak so much English. He said i should get in touch if i wanted to visit a night market or do anything. In another country i would've thought he was coming on to me, but now i know Taiwanese are unusually friendly (and, honestly, i think they pity me traveling alone), we exchanged Facebooks and who knows if i'll see him again.

One of the waiters at a gay bar the other night might have been coming onto me, though perhaps that's just wishful thinking. Turns out there is a little cluster of gay bars in one corner of this district and i sat down to have a beer at one of them after hearing tribal house blast out of the speakers. I haven't been out to a gay thing in ages so it was funny to see how similar the scene is. 20 years on, other side of the world, there are still bears and twinks and daddies and gym bunnies and fruity cocktails and pumping house music and waiters dressed in muscle shirts. My 15 minute crush was on the waiter with big hoop earrings and red lipstick and his hair back in a high ponytail. He looked like a beautiful girl, but still kind of manly. When i left he came up and lamented my early exit. "Will you be back tomorrow?" I nodded, but it turned out i had somewhere else to be.

My intent was good. I have had a bit of an itch to go clubbing here, since i know there is a small rave scene in Taipei. I was all lined up to head out to Korner nightclub on Saturday, and what better place to go for pre-drinks than the gay bar with the hot waiter who asked after me? Well, honestly, i think i am either getting old or stuck on the Berlin day-clubbing schedule, because i was in bed before the club opened. I didn't even make it to the bar.

I went to one of those izakayas for dinner. There are a bunch round here, but i ducked in and out of several because they were not my bag. Very expensive, lots of sake and sushi and fishy things on the menu. Eventually i settled at one situated in a side-alley where i could sit outside and watch the rain pour onto the tarmac as i ate. I ordered a beer and some rice and king oyster mushrooms and tofu skin with garlic. The latter was the best thing i have eaten since coming to Taiwan. The tofu skin was thick with garlic paste - something you don't find at many vegetarian restaurants here because Buddhists avoid garlic as well as meat - and then pinned into a roulade. But it didn't stop there - the roulade had been flame-grilled till the tofu skin flaked and blackened. The crispy texture was awesome. After that i ordered some of the regular tofu too, which was also delicious. And this, at a BBQ joint with dozens of meat dishes on the menu.

Actually, it wasn't just a BBQ joint. It was a BBQ joint and bar and graffiti and tattoo place. According to the menu blurb, a local crew just wanted to create a place featuring all of the things they love. Ximen is full of graffiti, by the way. It is very different from the political graffiti of Europe, it's not gang or sport related, i'm not even sure much of it is kids tagging either. A lot of it is gorgeous street art, well-organized and presumably sanctioned by the city. But, in spite of the district's glossy façade, i had ended up in an alley whose character got deeper as the night went on.

The rain didn't let up. The music coming out of the bar was an odd mix of 80s hi-nrg and new age warbling. Kids in increasingly bold and colorful outfits walked by, huddled under umbrellas. The lights of passing scooters reflected in the puddles. Paper lanterns swung overhead. And then a dude with dreadlocks walked out of the bar with a meat cleaver, which he used to trim jagged edges off a board and staple up some event flyers. A tiny delivery van zoomed past with a grim chap inside, cigarette dangling from his lips.

At some point the waitress came out for a smoke and we started chatting. She said she loved Kaohsiung. It seems a lot of people love Kaohsiung but no one lives there. I guess all the jobs are up here. She was from Taichung area "in the mountains". She rushed back inside as a cluster of guys with tattooed hands and necks walked in for a late-night feed. Back in the alley, a toothless old man yelled out "hello" to me. I smiled and said hello back. "Hallelujah! Black power!" Those were the two least-likely things i expected to hear out of the mouth of an old man in a Taipei back alley.

The waitress came out again a bit later with a pint of beer, sighed and sat down. I asked her about the music, since it seemed to me that surely no one here would be old enough to remember it. Was it a retro/revival style? She said no, but these were songs that everyone knows, the sort of thing you can sing at karaoke. "Singing modern songs at karaoke is no fun." I confessed i have never sung karaoke despite having been out with friends a bunch of times. She asked if i sung along with songs at home and then said it was the same thing. She said even when she goes to karaoke places with a stage ("like when i go with my mom"), she is shy but always sings.

I said i don't really know the words of many songs because almost everything i listen to is house or techno. But, then, there are some old songs - like this 80s pop style - that i go back to when i am feeling sad and want to mope instead of enjoy music purely for the music. She said she is the same way, that if people ask her what her favorite music is, it's gangster rap and hip-hop. But if she is honest, any time she is feeling sad she secretly listens to pop music - because it speaks to her heart.

She pondered a little about how sometimes she likes to go out to the riverbank and sit down with some beers and smoke a cigarette. "People probably think i'm homeless, but i don't care." Apparently it's okay to picnic with a group of friends, but not alone. I said the kind of people who will judge you for sitting in the park having a drink on your own are probably not the kind of people you want in your life anyway. "It's true. I don't care what people think, i will dance and sing on the street if i want."

She talked a bit more about why she doesn't like Taipei. She said the people here are very "cold". Like they will be nice to your face, but it's fake. At her last job she had a colleague she thought was a friend, they went out to eat and so on, but then she found out that she'd been gossiped about behind her back. It was interesting for me to hear her talk about the drama because i don't really experience it, not being young any more, or having very complex friends groups. She said people back home were very different. "All my good friends are straight." For a moment i wondered if she was gay, but i think she meant straight-up; honest or trustworthy.

I asked about "back home" and she said she didn't know the right word, she said "we are... mountain people". I asked if she was a Taiwanese Aborigine and she said "yes, that's the word". She said several of her colleagues and her boss here was too, and that it was a nice feeling. Suddenly that fact put into perspective some of her previous comments. It also suddenly clicked why some of the music sounded new age-y. One of the tunes i recognized had been the Deep Forest collaboration with an aboriginal couple that Enigma ripped off in Return To Innocence. The original song is called Elders' Drinking Song, which i think is awesome and will now be my Taiwanese theme song.

Difang - Elders' Drinking Song

She said it's hard sometimes to watch the news and see that the government or big companies want to develop her mountain, destroy the nature. "There is a lot of racism here." We talked a bit about the Dakota Access pipeline fight and how it has raised awareness of indigenous rights and environmentalism across North America and much of the Western world. I was getting drunk and a bit choked up recalling the injustices my indigenous friends have suffered. Fuck all white people. Well, here i guess it would be fuck all Han. I wondered about the old guy who called out "hallelujah" earlier. Most Taiwanese Aborigines are Christian.

I would have enjoyed chatting longer, but i was done. Before i left i took a photo and the waitress pointed out that the portrait spray-painted across the alley was an aboriginal pop singer we had been listening to for the last couple songs. "She knows the owner and comes to eat here sometimes. She's really great."

I left with a completely different view of Ximen, a part of the city that up until that point i had felt to be spectacularly bourgeois, with all the chain stores and flashing lights and fashion trends and pan-Asian mish-mosh. But, also Ximen: a diverse crew of hip-hoppers painting the walls and cooking up delicious food and sitting down to share a beer and some straight talk with a drunken tourist.

Tags: travel

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