Day 1: Feeling It Out

My first night of sleep in Taiwan felt long overdue.  From the time that I left Durham on Monday morning, until the time I checked into my hotel on Tuesday evening around 8:30 p.m. local time (that’s +12 hours into the future from Eastern Standard for all you math nerds), I did not sleep. This was only partly thanks to the rambunctious children next to me on the airplane, but more accurately due to my own personal remedy for jet-lag.

I typically try to change my eating schedule to match that of my destination the day before travel.  When traveling forward in time (zones), I will typically attempt to bridge the gap of time change by staying awake until the next appropriate sleepy time. In the case of traveling to Taiwan, I ate a very late meal the night before travel around 3:30 am and then remained awake for approximately 27 hours the following day. I consider this approach to be somewhat of a “cold splash of water” effect to my circadian rhythm. I’ve been successful with this method in the past when traveling Eastbound (back to the future); however I’ve yet to adapt this method to Westbound travel, as the removal of hours in the day is more difficult to rationalize in my mind. So far the only method that I can picture in my head for quickly adjusting my internal clock in this type of situation requires a Delorean, a Flux Capacitor and a Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor.

So after an extended 27 hour session of travel I was relieved when I checked into my hotel room and found a few amenities left near the TV for my enjoyment. As the front desk had described, these were provided by the Hotel manager as of way of saying “thanks” for booking a 19-night stay with the Grand Hyatt Taipei. The amenities were really just a free bottle of dry red wine and two oranges (interesting combination?), but they were certainly appreciated.

My first order of business was to pop open my laptop and get connected to the internet so that I could check-in on my wife. I don’t have an international cell phone (thanks, Verizon), so I was feeling very out of touch. The last I had heard from her was that she would be stuck at the car repair shop until early afternoon having the tires on her Subaru Forester replaced, all the while dealing with the after effects of her recent surgery. I could do nothing but worry about her from the moment that I left the States, so I was more than relieved to get a hold of her through IM and learn that she was safe and sound, albeit at work — I had secretly wished that she would take another sick day. Regardless, I was simply happy to talk to her after such a long travel session, and with the comfort of knowing she was okay, I allowed myself to finally go to sleep.

My first thought when I lied on the bed was, “Wow! This mattress is ridiculously firm”, which was immediately followed by “Zzzzzzzz”. I was out like a light.

As I awoke to my 5:00 AM wake-up call, I quickly told the front desk receptionist that she should call me back in 10 minutes.

As I awoke to my 5:10 AM wake-up call, I jumped out of bed and tried my best to shake the sleep out of my head but it simply would not go away. I threw on my athletic shorts and a T-shirt and fumbled my way down to the fifth floor. It was labelled as the “Club Oasis” level on the elevator directory, so I could only assume that was where I would find the exercise room. I had not expected to find three separate rooms that were jam packed with equipment, including a refrigerator in each room with bottled water and all of the accoutrement one could desire for an enjoyable workout session. I had brought my own iPod, headphones and bottle of water, so I did not take advantage of those items, nor did I grab a sweat towel or yoga mat, but I was happy to know that those would be available to me from now on.

After spending a few minutes in the weight room I made my way down the hall to the aerobics room and joined the other sweaty people for a nice run. The room was on the front side of the hotel and overlooked the street and courtyard area, including the green square across the street in the form of a City Hall Park (we are located right by Taipei City Hall). It was pretty fantastic having this view while exercising as watching the never ending mass of scooters drive by during morning rush hour could keep me entertained for hours. At one point I even saw a wild dog walking briskly down the sidewalk. He didn’t seem to have any goals in mind, he was just going for a stroll. Some part of me had desired to run down and hug it. But he probably wouldn’t have understood my Engrish anyway.

After I was sufficiently sweaty and started to make my way back to the elevator, I noticed a door with some bright red numbers on an LED sign. They had Chinese characters next to them, but they seemed to indicate temperature and pH levels. The door led outside to a rooftop area, and I was more than curious so I hopped outside for a quick little peek. What I found was surprising, because it was the first of my knowledge that this hotel had a rooftop pool and bar area. It was all in immaculate condition and a very gorgeous setup. Unfortunately this made me realize that I had not thought ahead once again and failed to bring any swimming trunks. Perhaps this could be my first purchase in Taiwan? Once my inspection was complete I finally made it back to the room for showering and getting ready for work. After a quick and highly anticipated G+ Hangout with my lovely wife (so glad to see her beautiful face!), I made my way to the hotel breakfast buffet.

This particular hotel had been recommended to me solely based on this buffet. To say my expectations were high would be underselling the way I felt. It would probably be fair to say I was as excited as a young boy on Christmas morning, and this feeling certainly played out once I crossed the lobby and entered the “Hyatt Cafe” area. Why it’s called a cafe is well beyond my understanding, but what I saw in-front of me literally made my jaw drop.

The hotel staff seated me at a small table in the far corner of the cavernous room that was butted-up against the glass wall, looking out to the side courtyard of the hotel. I don’t recall if I actually sat down immediately or just pretended to and hovered for just a moment before I made a beeline to inspect my options. Typically when I picture a buffet in my head I think of a single “island” of foods, which in this case would be breakfast themed. Sausages and bacon, some old sweaty eggs and then a mountain of cereals, fruits and breads. I can’t even accurately express how relieved I was to see that this buffet was a far departure from what I was expecting.

The first area that immediately caught my eye was more of less the size of the buffet I had pictured in my head; however it was populated with nothing but sweet pastries (pictured left). I saw fresh fruit danishes, local rolls filled with various creams and fruits, croissants, sweet breads (actual SWEET breads, not sweetbreads), and even a rack of raw honeycomb, which was dripping sweet, fresh honey onto a collection plate suspended below. Sadly, I was only able to get a picture from each side of this little island before one of the hotel staff caught me and told me that pictures were not permitted. Bummer, because the rest of this buffet can barely be described by words. You’ll have to suspend your disbelief for the next few paragraphs while I try my best to reproduce these incredulous sights with my words alone.

Next to the pastry area was a mini-bakery area. This was where they baked the various treats hot and fresh, but the staff behind the counter were also there to serve the customers fresh breakfast favorites. I’m not entirely sure of everything that they offer, but I’ve seen waffles, pancakes, french toast and crepes all get handed over the counter, which can then be topped by numerous fruits, creams and jellies that are splayed out along the counter top. Pushed up against the counter also lurks a time bomb. Quite literally in fact, as it’s a self-serve, hand-scooped ice cream freezer. As of this writing it has been three days that I’ve visited this buffet and I’ve yet to indulge my craving; however I’m not sure if that’s because I’ve eaten ice cream each evening before or if I’m just that strong-willed. I will be certain to enact Ice Cream Watch, and give instant updates if (when) this ticking time bomb goes off. And as a side note, all-you-can-eat ice cream is pretty common in Taipei for any type of buffet, so really this whole city is like a mine field to me and my digestive tract. But that’s an entirely different story…

Moving away from the side of the Cafe where the pastries area is, we have a large seating area that is slightly raised above the ground floor. Among the individual tables lies two islands that are equal in size to the pastry one pictured above. These are where the standard “continental breakfast” fare awaits. Plenty of fresh fruit, cereals and yogurts as well as a few slightly more “cultured” breakfast items like aged cheeses, artisan breads and smoked salmon along with all the fixin’s.

If we move past this area to the far wall we find the real meat n’ potatoes of  the buffet. And I’m not talking figuratively here, it’s literally where all the meat and potatoes are served. Every morning so far this area has had a whole leg of ham, a selection of bacon and sausage, and an assortment of potato dishes (e.g., scalloped potatoes, frittata, potato wedges). This is also where you can come to order eggs any way you’d like them; however from my limited experience the cooks at this station seem to be pretty angry or frustrated every morning. Perhaps its because they always seem to be getting pounded by numerous guests every morning, and I can see how they would be the most popular area of the buffet.

At the lowest section of the buffet and closest to the entrance is what we’ll call the Asian foods section. This area is humongous, and slightly different each day. It usually plays host to Asian-style dishes like hot buns, steamed dumplings, different styles of tofu, noodle dishes, and various selections of soups. The foods here are pretty hit-and-miss, but for the most part the dumplings and fried cucumber dishes are very often the best items that they have to offer.

If all of that food was not enough there’s one more area nearby that is entirely dedicated to juices. Oddly enough this is the only section that has a sign on the wall, which reads “Juice Bar”. They rotate the juices daily, but there’s always a selection of at least 5 different juices.

This first day was overwhelming for me. There were so many different areas to visit and an incredible amount of new things that I wanted to try, so I made a terrible decision and pretty much tried everything. Most people that know me well are aware of the fact that I consider myself to be a fantastic over-eater. Sometimes it feels like there is a trigger missing in my brain that tells me when to stop eating, such that I usually have the ability to eat until I’m literally in pain — well, more like discomfort — from all of the food that I’ve consumed. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I could ever be one of those world champion eaters that could wolf down 100 hot dogs in an hour, but I’m sure that I could at least give them a run for their money.

At some point during this face-stuffing fest, one of the servers brought over a cappuccino and placed it on the table. I cocked my head and gave her my best confused puppy face. I was on maybe my fourth plate of food and this very same server had come to fill my coffee cup around five or six times at this point. At first I thought that this could be some kind of prize for eating so much. But after she saw my confusion and I asked her why this was placed upon my work area, she quickly apologized and whisked the frothy cup away. Sadly, now that this treat had been offered to me and swiftly revoked, I had an odd craving for a cappuccino; however I was already at the point of busting the seams of my pants so I decided to simply finish my plate of food and waddle back to hotel room to lie on the floor and moan for a few minutes before I went to work.

My dedicated host Eason had told me that he would come pick me up at the hotel around 8:30, and it was nearly quarter after eight, so after I had sufficiently moaned and complained to myself for a few minutes in the hotel room I prepared my laptop and made my way back down to the hotel lobby to await his arrival.

It was only a few minutes before he pulled up in his champagne-colored Toyota Altis, and after exchanging our greetings and tossing my backpack into the backseat we headed out into the morning rush hour traffic. I was in part expecting to see a lot of slow-going, aggressive driving based on my observations of the number of cars and scooters on the streets at all times throughout the morning, but surprisingly it seemed to be a very smooth journey.

From my experience in foreign lands, I’ve noticed a common theme when it comes to drivers on the road. For the most part, the lane markings on the road have little to no meaning, and what I saw on this particular morning was even more complicated by the constant mass of scooters that were weaving in and out of traffic. Also, the use of turn signals when merging or changing lanes is non-existent and the process of merging basically consists of placing your vehicle directly in the path of the other vehicles moving at full speed, which works surprisingly well. The scooters on the other hand, don’t appear to obey any traffic laws/rules what so ever. They more or less cut off cars and trucks without any hesitation and regularly ignore red lights, even making use of the sidewalks and oncoming lanes when necessary. Nothing really seems to stop them, which at least shows that they are dedicated to their goals — but I also wonder how many accidents are caused by or at least involve these crazy scooter operators every year.

After a quick jaunt down the highway we arrived in the Nankang Software Park, which was described to me as the Taiwan version of Research Triangle Park, and all of the biggest Taiwan companies had an office space somewhere within this area including Yahoo, HP and even those seedy bastards at Dell. The parking in this area is surprisingly limited for containing so many different companies, so Eason dropped his car off to get washed in what can only be described as a hovel in the middle of a destroyed parking lot with tarps strung about to provide cover for the “wash stations”. He exchanged some words with the old women operating this place of business and we set off towards our target destination, which was just a few blocks away.

The morning sun was blazing, but thankfully the humidity wasn’t nearly as high as it usually is in Durham, so the walk was not even close to being unbearable. That being said, entering the Software park’s main building was equally as satisfying as jumping into a cold, refreshing pool on a hot day as the air conditioning enveloped my warm and uncomfortably stuffed body. The offices where we would be located were on the eighth floor, and as we crammed into the elevator along with what felt like twenty other people I began to regret wearing backpack full of electronics and assorted cables, as we could have easily fit another two humans into the space that it was occupying. There was an awkward silence that came over the elevator as mostly everyone stared at me and tried to figure out exactly what sort of strange creature stood amongst them.

Once we arrived at the eighth floor and squeezed our way out of the elevator, we entered the IBM offices and I was given a very brief tour of the lab space and cubicles where our Taiwan Software and Technology Lab (TSTL) team spent most of their time. After meeting all of the Test Engineering (TE) and Quality Engineering (QE) team members, we walked upstairs to the 11th floor to meet the Manufacturing Engineering (ME) and Manufacturing Program Management (MPM) folks, as well as make our first attempt of many at acquiring a temporary badge for me. This initial attempt was a failure, as the receptionist told us that we needed to get an approval by the TE team’s second-line manager for some reason. Oddly enough, another Engineer from Rochester had recently visited and he had received his badge the first day with little-to-no resistance, so I’m not sure if he did something while he spent his time here to require this extra security or if the local team had simply forgotten that I would be spending time with them.

Once we returned to the eighth floor and settled back in to our seating area, a bunch of boring work stuff happened that I will spare you from having to read about; however the next exciting part came around lunch time. All of the TE’s and a small selection of QE’s and ME’s got together to go down to a nearby eatery to enjoy steamed dumplings that were cooked out on the street and brought inside to the tables in those classic stack-able bamboo dumpling containers We also ordered a round of soy milk that came in sealed plastic cups, which required a pointy straw to be jammed through the plastic film on top (not too unlike those bags of milk that I used to get in elementary school).

During lunch I had to explain twice where all of my long hair went, and that there are in fact charities that take human hair as donations. I additionally had to turn down multiple offers of silverware from my colleagues, who were unaware of my almost perfectly-honed chopstick skills. When I wasn’t being quizzed, I took a few moments to savor the delicious steamed dumplings, which were flavorful enough on their own but also complimented by a soy-based sauce that I had prepared with some “spicy” peppers and garlic. Naturally, I put quotes around that descriptor because what the Taiwanese call spicy is more akin to the spiciness level of warmed-over milk. They have even told me that in general nothing in Taiwan is as spicy as the food in China, which I’ve covered before and discovered that only the rarest of Chinese dishes even begins to register on my own personal scale.

This dumpling eatery was rather popular and a few groups of customers were eyeing our table, so once everyone had finished their meal we quickly returned back to work and did a whole pile of boring work stuff. The only notable item was that we returned to a darkened office space, which was to aid in the post-lunch napping that is common among Asian cultures. When I asked about their nap time habits, the local team said that in general less people take naps in Taiwan and even when they do, they only nap for a fraction of the time that their Chinese neighbors like to indulge in.

Near the end of the work day, my generous Taiwanese hosts offered to take me to a basketball game. The game in question was actually two games and were both part of the William Jones Cup, which is a very popular regional basketball tournament that happens every year similar to March Madness but for Amateur regional teams. The two games on the docket this evening would be Korea (the good one) vs. the Phillipines, and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) vs. United Arab Emirates. I took the offer and a contingent of the Engineering teams took off on a 45 minute drive through rush hour traffic over to New Taipei City, which would regularly host this tournament in the Xinzhuang Gymnasium located near a busy downtown area (pictured at the top of this post). The event was even being covered by ESPN, who had two cameras stationed in the upper seating areas along with two roaming camera men on either side of the court. According to the local team, I was even on the local TV stations for a minute as I was the only Caucasian person in the entire arena. Fun!

Before we even entered the building we ran down to the corner across the street and found a food cart that was selling various local foods to purchase a Taiwanese sausage snack that came on a bun with some cooked onions and peppers. We also ducked into the 7-11 on the same corner to get some beverages. I took this opportunity to try a local favorite called Milk Tea, which was literally just tea with milk already mixed in, but was very good and almost had a sugary sweetness to it. This actually came in a carton like a juice box and continued the streak of drinks requiring the use of a pointy straw to enjoy the delicious contents within. We were not allowed to bring any food or beverage into the Gymnasium so we scarfed all of this down on the steps in front and then headed inside to catch the last half of the Korea vs. Phillipines game. The two teams were very evenly matched and the game eventually ended in the Koreans topping the Phillipines 78 to 70, which was an extreme disappointment for the crowd as “nobody likes the Koreans” according to my hosts.

During the 20 minute break before the next game started, we returned outside to get another snack. This time we found ourselves in a small school classroom that also happened to serve some traditional Taiwanese shaved ice treats  (complete with pint-sized chairs and desks for eating on). I was still full from lunch and the pre-game sausage, but Eason insisted that I try something so he got me a very popular shaved ice snack that I could barely eat. It was more or less a large scoop of shaved ice with some sort of sweet syrup that sat atop a syrupy mess of grass jelly and long white jelly pearls that looked like worms. The entire combination was sweet and savory, but hard for me to enjoy with how full I was from the day’s multiple huge meals, so I only ate about a third of it.

We departed from the school house and went back to enjoy the main event of the evening, which was the local Taiwan team vs. the UAE.  This game started out with the middle-eastern team out-pacing the Taiwan team by 12 points or more almost the entire time. It wasn’t until the last five minutes of the game that the home team turned on the heat and with a thrilling end to the game, claimed victory from the clutches of the injury-prone UAE, who had at least three separate injuries (although they might have been to the same player each time — it was hard to tell). Secretly, I had been rooting for the UAE team, since my sister lives and works in Dubai, but it was also great to see the home team pull out the victory as the crowd was going crazy with every point that they fought for at the end of the game. It really was an awesome sight to see.

We left the stadium and had a quick conference call with a small portion of the IBM Rochester team to discuss important matters. While this was happening, Nelson the QE went and found me an exciting new food item to try. I had basically been stuffed all day starting from my gorging at breakfast, but when we were at the food cart earlier in the evening I was shown a popular food item sold on a stick. It was described to me as sticky rice, soaked in blood and fried — and after searching around on Wikipedia I found that it is called Pig’s Blood Cake (I mentioned it in my abbreviated update the other day). It was very delicious and I was happy to add to my already stuffed belly just for a chance to try such a unique local favorite.

It was certainly an exciting and eventful first day in Taipei and I went to bed hungry for more. This could only be the beginning of what was sure to be a great and eventful experience in a country that is both culturally rich, and full of wonderful and generous people.