Day 3 – Learning the History

My TSTL Colleagues were working from their homes. It was Friday, and their manager had designated today as their once-quarterly team outing. Apparently the lunch that he had treated us to the day prior did not count as an outing (especially since it was only the TE group), so he would take his entire group of reports (consisting of both TE and ME) out for a very special lunch. The local team told me that since the restaurant was so far away from work for everyone, that they would all elect to work from home and take the afternoon off, as is common after any team outing like this.

After my usual morning routine I sat in my hotel room and fired off some important e-mails that had piled up over night I would be picked up around 11:30 AM to head out to the team outing, which I still had absolutely no information about. All I knew is that it was a lunch that would be paid for, which was good enough for me. Every time I get treated to lunch, no matter what level of quality said lunch is I always think back to my college days. I had a professor, Dr. Xiu who taught a handful of Electrical Engineering courses. One of his favorite sayings was, “In this world, there is no free lunch” — well guess what Dr. Xiu, I eat free lunch all the time… wait a tick. The slave labor that I pay in return offsets any provided meals and heavily tips the scale in “their” favor, which means… *sigh*, you win Dr. Xiu. Touché.

When I finally met Eason at the front of the hotel and jumped in his car, I was desperate to find out exactly where this outing was going to be. He informed me that it would be at, “some kind of Japanese restaurant”, which was enough to satiate my thirst for knowledge. The remainder of our cross-town trek was spent trying to figure out exactly where the hell he was going. There were at least five times that he whipped out his iPhone and told me that he had lost the way, which I was okay with considering how fascinated I am by the driving habits of foreign cities and the drivers within.

One of the important lessons that I learned during this journey about the drivers in Taipei concerns the act of turning left. Now obviously, I have no idea what the traffic laws are here, but I do know that in the States one must yield to oncoming traffic when making a left turn, which is apparently not the case here. When either cars or scooters are waiting at a red light it is literally like a race to see who can make it through the intersection first. Additionally, when traffic is already flowing and a driver needs to make a left there is no hesitation to place the vehicle directly in the path of oncoming traffic, even when driving a scooter and multiple buses are barreling down on their position, they will simply block the intersection and wait for all oncoming traffic to flow around them, at which point they will continue on their merry way. It’s all really thrilling and fascinating at the same time, as the other drivers simply accept this behavior as standard practice.

After observing this completely foreign concept with wide eyes for around 30 minutes, we finally arrived close enough to our destination to search out a parking spot. One of the few things that Taipei is in severely short supply of is parking spaces. Like many other densely populated cities, most of the parking has been tucked away beneath the Earth, which is an entire adventure in and of itself. We took a severely steep and winding ramp down into a parking garage underneath a green city square to search out a space for Eason’s Toyota. As we reached a level surface I noticed a very poorly translated sign that read, “Please to secure the belunging and trun on headlight”, spelling mistakes and all, which made me chuckle.

Once we had secured a parking spot we made our way through the steamy underbelly of the city to a nearby stairwell. From my limited experience, these underground parking areas were all the same in that they were hot, steamy and looked like they might be carrying some sort of disease. Entering the dimly-lit stairwell only helped to reinforce the feeling of dread that came along with being in a dark and dirty underground concrete jungle. As my eyes adjusted to the partial daylight that was streaming in from above I saw the faded yellow tiles that lined the walls making them look sticky, as well as the tattered rope net hanging limply over the landing, which had to have served an important purpose as nets are wont to do.

The remainder of our walk to the restaurant was only but a few minutes, and when we arrived the majority of the team was already seated and sipping on their beverages. At first I couldn’t make out any details as to the name of the establishment, as the servers all wore shirts that were adorned with “Love Nature Okinawa”, and the posters of Okinawa that adorned the walls of the interior made it feel like a travel agent’s office. Adding to my confusion was the business card that I was able to secure from the head chef, which was in all Chinese and the only Latin Alphabet characters that I could make out were “Se Fa 58”, which did not return any meaningful hits on Google. Afterwards I enlisted the help of my good Taiwanese friend Jimmy to search around for these words and he found a mysterious album from another group of people who seemed to have visited the very same restaurant (where the picture at right came from). He explained to me that Se Fa (清風) meant light wind and was basically a Japanese way of describing a “breeze”. Thusly, the restaurant was called Okinawa Breeze – 58. Nobody knows why there is a number in the name, but that’s not really important.

This particular Okinawa breeze blew in some very delicious food and we had an extremely interesting meal. I wasn’t sure if the local team’s manager kept ordering random dishes from the menu or if he had ordered a single “combo” item that everyone was just getting a small portion of each individual section. I could not get a straight explanation from any of my colleagues on what was going on, as it felt like they just kept bringing more and more food out, but it was basically a 13 course meal. It was also the worst possible opportunity for me to forget my camera, as I can’t currently recount every single thing that we ate, but I can certainly give it my best shot. Over the course of about two hours we ate the following:

  • Lime flavored seaweed
  • House salad
  • Black beans in a sweet syrup
  • Beef and cabbage mini hot pot
  • Goya and tofu salad
  • Deep fried pumpkin
  • Deep fried steak
  • Mexican cheesy rice
  • Flatbread pizza with Goya
  • Deep fried onion hunks
  • Flatbread pizza with onions and mushrooms
  • Chicken on a stick
  • I know there was more… but it escapes me

A few things that I learned on this day: people eat pizza with chopsticks, they have interesting double-sided pizza cutters on this side of the world, Goya is disgusting, and all Taiwanese people seem to have the same ability to demolish me in a marathon eating contest. Now after reading that list perhaps you’re asking yourself what exactly Goya is. I had the exact same question in my head, and after Googling around for the answer, I finally understand why I thought it was so disgusting and bitter. The actual name for Goya is Bitter Melon and it “is among the most bitter of all fruit”. Now it all makes sense. It was honestly just terrible and nearly impossible to eat without making a “bitter beer face”; however aside from the dishes with Goya it was all wonderful. The only caveat was that I was put into a very strange position that I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt before. I was basically sitting there around course 10 or 11 saying to myself, “Please don’t let there be anything else to eat — PLEASE do not bring another dish out”, which of course was a silent request that went ignored as the nice Japanese chef just kept bringing out more dishes. It was really intense. My brain and my stomach were both in pain at this point, and the unlimited kiwi soda with strawberry ice cream that I had been sucking down this entire meal certainly wasn’t helping the situation whatsoever, much to my surprise.

After a quick food coma, everyone began to part ways as the afternoon rain started coming down outside. It is quite common for daily rain showers in Taiwan during the summer, and Eason was nice enough to offer to go retrieve his car and pick me up at the front porch of the restaurant while another TE Ingrid waited with me. Earlier in the day, he told me that he would be dropping me off at my hotel after lunch; however during the course of eating we had discussed going to see the most famous museum in all of Taiwan. When we saw that it had started to rain, he had called off the plans and said that we would revert to the original plan; however by the time that he had returned to the restaurant with his car and another passenger in tow, the plan had changed yet again. I had begun to lose track of what the plans were, as is par for the course, but in the end we went across town to the National Palace Museum.

Eason, Ingrid, Hans and myself settled into a tiny parking spot on the complete opposite side of town, and after a quick hike uphill found ourselves in front of the National Palace Museum. The building was home to incredibly ancient Chinese relics that were nothing but fascinating. The exhibitions that we were particularly interested in were the Jade, Bronze and Calligraphy sections. Each one was progressively more interesting, and the Calligraphy most certainly took top prize on this day. One of the most intriguing things about the ancient scrolls within this section was learning about something that we’ll call “stamping”. As the ancient Chinese dynasties rose and fall, the art of each dynasty would become inherited by the next. Regardless of whether it was an ancient scroll of text, painting or even woodwork, whoever the noble was that possessed the piece would place their own stamp upon it. Some would even go as far as to add “comments” to the art such that long scrolls started to look like MySpace discussion threads about Justin Beiber’s new hairstyle.

Seeing these ancient pieces of art with marks all over them was both fascinating and disheartening. Some of the nobles would literally stamp right in the middle of the artwork, which is very distracting. Others would be more respectful of the piece and either stamp at the very edge, or at least place the art onto a new piece of material, leaving a “frame” of sorts around the piece for them to stamp and comment on. What surprised me the most was that we went outside after touring two levels of the museum and ran down to the Chinese Garden named “The Garden of Benevolent Perfection” … Or perhaps it was “Perfect Benevolence”.  I actually don’t remember…

Either way, it was an old Chinese garden just like I had learned about in my online college course “History of Landscape Architecture”, which was incredibly interesting and really helped me appreciate this very large space. While we were touring this area and looking at the beautiful water ways and ancient, twisted trees we ducked into a pavilion to avoid the rain that had started to fall. At one side of the pavilion was a large wooden piece of art that had Chinese characters etched into it, and it was not particularly interesting for me until I went closer to it and noticed that even this had been stamped (refer to picture at left — click to see the full piece). The stamps in this case appeared to have been etched into the wood instead of being ink stamps like on the other pieces we had seen, but I certainly recognized the patterns from the displays that we had perused inside the museum.

During our time in this pavilion I also was slightly irked by a group of young Taiwanese “punks”. Before we had sought out shelter, we were walking around one of the water constructs and we saw a group of three younger boys with their obnoxiously large sunglasses, popped collars and tight girl jeans stepping over the barriers and taking pictures of each other making their best “MySpace faces”. As we walked by the group, they all stopped and stared at me. I’m not sure if they thought they were being sly or not, but they started following closely behind us and taking pictures of me. I guess I don’t understand what is so interesting about a white guy in a Hawaiian shirt walking around with a group of Taiwanese people, but maybe they just really wanted to put up pictures on me on their MySpace pages. I’m not quite sure.

After 15 minutes or so we decided to make a break for the exit instead of trying to wait out the rain. On our way out of the gardens I saw three big-ass millipedes (big ass-millipedes) chilling on a rock, which I took pictures of and I’ve included to the right! After this brief pause we continued to the car in the drizzling rain, and headed back towards our next destination. After a quick stop to drop Ingrid off at a bus stop, we headed back to the other side of town so that I could have my first night market experience. Unfortunately for you, this post has grown to be entirely too large so I’m going to cut this story short here. Stay tuned for my Day 3 Part 2 post as I detail one crazy night at the biggest, and most famous night market in all of Taiwan. It has been the highlight of my trip so far, and I’m going to do it justice by dedicating an entire post to just it (and a side note about KTV – a.k.a. a better way to Karaoke).