Monday, December 22, 2008

Sanyi, Miaoli County

Weekend before last I traveled to Sanyi, Miaoli County. Sanyi's got two big things going for it.

First, it's a well-known center of wood carving, and it has been since Japanese days. People come here from all over Taiwan to shop for wood sculptures. Small wooden sculptures can be had relatively cheaply, but the many wood carving shops in town also stock huge, impressive works of art that go for serious sums of money. (The priciest I found was a huge wooden landscape with representations of a thundering herd of horses and peasants at work; it was up for sale for 8,600,000NT, or about US$250,000.)

Sanyi's other great draw is Hakka culture. Miaoli County is northern Taiwan's great Hakka center, and many local restaurants proudly advertise their Hakka cuisine. There are Hakka restaurants in Taipei, but down in Hakka country you can get the full range of dishes.

This is the local wood carving museum. The art gallery is well worth a visit, with plenty of modern Taiwanese wooden sculpture. The gift shop was interesting as well, with not only books and models of the museum's artwork but also locally made preserves for use in cooking. Though why they sold a model kit of the Cutty Sark is beyond me.

Afterwards we went to Shengsing, a nearby village with a historic train station and a cluster of touristy Hakka restaurants. Like the old train stations on the Pingxi Branch Line, Shengsing station has been preserved as a tourist attraction and is popular with train aficionados. Unlike the Pingxi Line stations, Shengsing is no longer in active use - trains no longer service the line.

The traditional menu at the place we stopped at. If you have limited ability in reading Chinese characters, hand-painted rather than printed characters just makes it harder.

The food we got (although the GIANT BLOB of rice gluten and taro is not visible).

Lei cha is said to be a traditional Hakka farmers' drink. The most recent Lonely Planet expresses some doubts about that, but still recommends travelers try the stuff. It's made from pounded nuts and grains. Restaurants encourage out-of-towners to make the tea themselves in true DIY fashion; we got a giant mortar & pestle and pounded the ingredients until they had been reduced to powder.
Here's the end product. I can imagine it tasting very good on a cold winter's evening in a mountain agricultural village.

Then we set off from the train station and hiked along the abandoned railroad for a few kilometers.`

We saw this interesting idea: give a Hakka language lesson to anyone who stops to park here!

And then we got to another local tourist attraction: the remains of an aquaduct that was destroyed in an earthquake in the 1930s.

As with most Taiwanese - or East Asian - tourist attractions, there was a whole tourist infrastructure nearby so that people who come to snap pictures can buy sausages on sticks.

Jenna also documented our trip and she posted about it here with photos.

Monday, December 08, 2008

India and Egypt

I got my Indian visa today. We're going there for about two and a half weeks in January and February. We fly into Bangalore and fly out of Mumbai.

People ask us if we're wary about going to India after the Mumbai attacks. Of course we are. But I'm not hugely afraid of terrorists. I figure that security in Mumbai will, if anything, be increased by the time we arrive in the city. Right now there is a lot of public outrage at the perceived incompetence of the police and the poor state of their equipment. The Mumbai police system won't be reformed by the time we visit the city in early February, but the police will be vigilant.

And before we visit Mumbai, we will spend most of our time in the states of Karnataka and Kerala. Domestic Indian violence has largely bypassed those two states. (This summer there was a series of bomb blasts in Bangalore that killed two people and injured 20, but that was atypical.)

As I said, I'm not hugely afraid of terrorists. What I am worried about is the possibility of the Mumbai attacks adversely affecting Indo-Pakistani relations to the point where a war seems possible by the time we depart. Unfortunately, that seems a very real possibility right now (not a war per se, but the threat of one) and it's our biggest potential worry as our trip approaches.

After India, we're flying on to Egypt, another country with a spotty record of safety for tourists. But since the 1997 Luxor attacks the government has been vigilant, and although there has been violence targeting tourists since then it's been aimed at well-heeled tourists who can afford top-line accommodations - in other words, not us.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Christmas tree - and a cat

We've put up our Christmas tree! It was a gift from a coworker which we got in time for last Christmas. We've decked it out with lights and some ornaments from IKEA, and it fits very well on top of our unused desk.

The problem is that we're afraid the whole thing may come tumbling down, due to our roommate we didn't have last year:

His name is Zhaocai (or Zhaozhao) and, quite frankly, I don't trust him. As most young cats do, he gets into these moods when he gets these energy surges and runs madly from room to room. Fortunately, we have a decent-sized apartment, so I'm not worried. I've seen happy cats who've had far less space than Zhaozhao to run around in.

But that is one precarious tree. And if it topples, it's going to bring the electrical lights and the surge protector the lights are plugged into down with it.

This is going to be interesting.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I guess I could be forgiven for not giving much thought to Taiwan's Aboriginal population. Here in Taipei, overt signs of Aboriginal culture are pretty sparse, apart from Aborigine-made goods in touristy gift shops and a market in Wanhua that sells Aboriginal food. A sizable proportion of Taiwan's population has some Aboriginal heritage, but only a tiny minority actually self-identify as Aborigines. (Rather like Native Americans in North America.)

Aboriginal cultures - plural, as there are several tribes - are not Chinese. It's not even descended from Chinese culture. The Aboriginal languages (of which there are several) are not related to Chinese; they're much closer to Tagalog and Indonesian and other Southeast Asian and Polynesian languages.

The Saisiyat are an aboriginal group of central Taiwan, and every two years they have a festival called the Pasta'ai. Full information on the legends behind the Pasta'ai can be found here. The Pasta'ai was held this past weekend, and we were determined to attend.

We traveled by bus from Taipei to the town of Jhudong, southeast of Hsinchu. (On a map Jhudong is an unimpressive little dot; when we got there we found a fairly sizable community with big chain stores and a decent market and everything.) We met up with the couple whose homestay we were staying at, and they gave us a lift to the town of Wufeng, where the Pasta'ai is held.

This is the sort of view you can expect to see around Wufeng.

First order of business was paying the (small) entry fee, then having Saisiyat elders tie a big blade of grass around my upper arm. And another around my camera strap, to protect from evil. Some people got it tied around their head; it seemed to be the Saisiyat elder's decision where exactly to tie it. (Both of my blades of grass loosened and fell off long before the evening was over, but no one else thought anything of it, so I didn't either.)

The big gathering place before nightfall. That covered area is where food and drinks are going to be sold in a few hours; it's also where tired dancers will rest.

The same area after our Saisiyat dinner of fish soup and fried tofu.

(From this point on some of the pictures were taken by Jenna using my camera, not me.)

The first of the Saisiyat dancers come out.

Dancing continued on like this for the rest of the evening. The smaller group of dancers created percussion effects by swinging tambourine-like straps they had hanging from their backs.

Most of the sizable audience passed the time by chatting and socializing. There were many spectators with some Aboriginal heritage, but there were also many non-Aboriginal Taiwanese people. And there were more Westerners concentrated in one place than I have ever seen before in Taiwan so far out of Taipei.

I hate to ruin some people's romantic notions of the beauty and mystery of ancient traditional ceremonies, but most of the attendees spent the evening (a) eating such foods as fried chicken and barbecue sausages, and (b) drinking excessively. Millet wine is considered a specialty of Aborigines, and several home-brewed varieties were available; they ran the gamut from good to vile. (Taiwan Beer was also available, for anyone who didn't want millet wine.)

An old man sat by me who had clearly had too much to drink. He kept trying to make conversation with me, although his speech was so incomprehensible that Jenna and I honestly had trouble figuring out what language he was speaking (the fact that there were five or six languages he plausibly could have been speaking didn't help.) He also tried to pull me up to dance with him.

Eventually the old man got up and ran drunkenly towards the dancers. He was forcibly led away by security. I suspect he may have ended up in one of those places set aside for tired dancers; they were probably also intended as places for people to sleep off their drunkenness.

More pictures of the Pasta'ai.

People selling Saisiyat clothing at the Pasta'ai.

Shortly after midnight, the dancing was opened up to all, Saisiyat and non-Saisiyat. Hordes of people descended from the stands to link arms and dance clumsily. We participated for a few minutes before giving up. Our hosts were clearly tired, and so were we. We walked for about twenty minutes from the Pasta'ai site to our hosts' van, which we rode in for another half hour or so through twisting mountain roads. Our hosts, fortunately, had not drunk any alcohol.

Our hosts were an older Aboriginal couple, though they aren't Saisiyat (we think they're Atayal). They speak Atayal (or something) to each other and are not native speakers of Mandarin, though they speak it fluently. They operate a very nice homestay near Wufeng, and they also sell Aboriginal souvenirs like clothing.

The view from the homestay.

Various homestay animals. The puppies are all skinny but seem to eat a lot; they're all apparently from the same litter despite looking very different. The cats are better fed; the black and white cat doesn't like people much but the orange kitten is very friendly and affectionate.

Jenna posted more pictures and commentary of the same trip over here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

English and Tagalog and Cebuano

While in the Philippines, I noticed language. Particularly the use of different languages.

Owing to nearly fifty years of American rule, the English language is ensconced in the Philippines. English is the language of higher education and government. There is also the Filipino language, also called Tagalog, which is what most Filipinos from the northern part of the country speak as their native language. In Cebu and the Camotes, most people are native speakers of Cebuano, which is distinct from Filipino/Tagalog but the two languages are closely related. I never figured out how to tell the difference between written Tagalog and written Cebuano.

The Philippines is one of those places where everyone with education is expected to be functionally bilingual. It's not the first country I've been to where that's true. In Sumatra practically everybody speaks fluent Indonesian even though the local language in the area we visited is Minangkabau. But Minangkabau and Indonesian are quite similar languages (though being able to speak one doesn't mean you'll be able to understand the other). In Taiwan, most people have at least a good knowledge of both Mandarin and Taiwanese (but not everyone is fluent in both), but again those languages are fairly closely related.

In the Philippines, a huge amount of the local TV that we saw assumes the viewer is perfectly able to understand both Tagalog and English, two languages which are utterly unlike one another. We even saw a TV drama with conversations where one character speaks English and one Tagalog. Local Tagalog (or Cebuano; I wasn't sure which) newspapers have stories in which certain expressions, or even whole headlines, are entirely in English. On the boat back to Cebu I sat behind a woman who was reading a romance novel; although mostly in Tagalog (or Cebuano) there was so much English that some pages seemed to be over 50% English.

The Wikipedia articles on Englog and Taglish are illuminating.

In one restaurant in Cebu City, on the radio station they had on, every advertisement was in English. And in every advertisement they spoke American English without even a hint of a Filipino accent.

But although nearly every person we encountered in Cebu City spoke good English, once we left the city we began to encounter communication problems. I can safely say that not every resident of rural Philippines is a fluent English speaker. Yet most official-looking roadsigns we saw were only in English. I'm still wrestling with whether that seems elitist or not. Everyone who went to school learned some English, and many people can probably read English better than they can speak it, so maybe not.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I'm back from my trip with Jenna to Cebu and the Camotes Islands in the Philippines.

We flew into Manila on Wednesday evening, from where we transferred to a plane to Cebu. We didn't have enough time to leave the airport and explore the city, but I had a good view of Manila as our plane landed at the airport. It's an absolutely enormous city - truly huge and sprawling. Just before the plane touched down it flew over a very affluent-looking residential neighborhood full of attractive single-family homes, right next to a decrepit-looking slum full of shacks. Even from the airplane it was a very striking contrast.

At the airport in Manila we went to a Jollibee. Jollibee is an ubiquitous fast-food chain in the Philippines. Jenna got hooked on them on her previous visit to the country, and insisted that I try it. I guess my Jolibee hamburger was my first authentic taste of Filipino food in the country.

We landed at Mactan-Cebu International Airport that evening. The airport is located almost directly adjacent to the beach where Ferdinand Magellan was killed in 1521. The spot where he died is something of a tourist attraction now, but we never got there.

One surprising thing about the Philippines is security. There seemed to be much more security for our domestic Manila-Cebu flight than our Taipei-Manila flight. On our return trip, we had to go through a baggage check in Mactan-Cebu Airport just to get to the check-in counter. In our hotel in Cebu, the gentlemanly middle-aged man who made us tea and tried to get our cable TV working wore a very visible gun and holster. This would have been unimaginable in Taiwan.

The next morning we took a bus to the town of Danau, to catch a boat to the Camotes. Danau is principally known to tourists for the St. Thomas de Villanueva Church, built in 1755 and restored in 1981.

More Danao pictures, from the vicinity of the church and boat terminal:
19th National Statistics Month.
Don't Text While Crossing the Street.

While waiting to board the boat to Consuelo, Pacijan Island, we observed a couple of very unhappy and uncooperative pigs which had apparently just come in on a previous boat being forced onto vehicles bound for elsewhere on Cebu Island. We were kind of wondering whether we would end up sharing a boat with a big unhappy pig, but although we heard some vaguely pig-like sounds on our return boat to Cebu, we never actually saw one.

Jenna's picture of a large angry pig on the pier at Danao (our boat to Consuelo is visible behind him):

After boarding the wooden boat - and waiting for about an hour as passengers and cargo continued to slowly accumulate - we left for the Camotes. The Camotes consists of three main islands: Pacijan and Poro, which are connected by a narrow land bridge, and Ponson, which is more distant. We never reached Ponson, but Pacijan and Poro Islands were more than enough to keep us occupied.

We were met at the dock in Consuelo by a van driver from Mangodlong Rock Resort, a beachfront hotel just a short ways south.

We spent most of the rest of the day at the hotel.

The next day, Friday, we traveled up the west coast of Pacijan Island. We hired motorbike drivers to drive us around the islands (once, long ago, I was terrified of riding on the back of a motorbike; Sumatra forced that fear out of me) and they took us to where we could hire a small boat to Tulang Island. Tulang's a small island off Pacijan's north coast, and we tried snorkeling off its beach. (Rather disappointing, except for the cool neon-colored sea urchins.)

There is a small village on Tulang Island - imagine a Westerner's mental image of a rural tropical island village, and you've got a pretty accurate picture. I don't think Western visitors are completely unknown on Tulang island, but we attracted quite a few kids practicing their limited English on us.

Some of Jenna's pictures of Tulang:

An old lady who chatted with us on Tulang Island insisted we accept a gift of a large fruit we didn't recognize.

We eventually found out that it's called a breadfruit, and it should be eaten cooked. We had absolutely no idea how to prepare it, so that evening we asked the kitchen at our hotel to cook it for us. It was served to us stewed and sweetened; it tasted vaguely like sweet potato. We liked it.

Jenna's picture of a road in the Camotes:

That day we ate lunch as the sole customers at a restaurant at Lake Danao, where we made sure to order vegetables as a change of pace from the food we'd been eating, which was mostly meat and rice. Then we went to Buho Rock on Poro Island for more snorkeling. The snorkeling was rather better at Buho Rock than Tulang Island - we actually saw fish, not just sea urchins and garbage.

On Saturday, we started out by trying the snorkeling at the hotel. It was surprisingly good - despite some heavy boat traffic, we saw a decent variety of fish, and a very surprising amount of live coral.

In a way, I think my very first snorkeling experience in the Penghu Islands in Taiwan spoiled me. There wasn't much live coral, but I saw a greater variety of aquatic animal life in Penghu than anywhere else I've snorkeled - puffer fish, colonies of squid, and a pair of cuttlefish who patrolled the rocky shallows. (Looking back, I think we got very lucky with those cuttlefish. Scuba divers encounter cuttlefish frequently in deeper water, but I don't think they often venture into shallow water.) Now every time I go snorkeling I expect to see a similar variety of swimming creatures.

For lunch on Saturday our motorbike drivers took us to San Francisco, the biggest town in the Camotes. San Francisco is the only part of the Camotes where I saw a chain store (Julie's Bakery, a common chain in the country), although we went to a small locally-owned place where where an unused karaoke machine sat in the corner and a couple of cats came by begging. (Both of these are extremely common sights in the Philippines.)

Then to Altavista View, a lookout point on Poro Island.

Looking west, that's Poro Island in the foreground and Pacijan Island in the background. The land bridge that connects them is to the left, out of sight in this picture. Lake Danao is at the left, and Tulang Island is the small island of the coast of Pacijan on the right. Cebu Island can be seen on the horizon.

Our next stop was Bukilat Cave, also on Poro.

Light was provided by holes in the cave ceiling; we never fully established whether there were safety measures in place aboveground to keep people from falling in.

Our final Poro Island stop was Panganuron Falls, a waterfall which proved rather difficult for our drivers (who seemed unfamiliar overall with Poro Island) to find. With no signs to guide us, we had to ask for directions a few times, and finally ended up on a hiking trail that led us to the very top of the waterfall.

The question is whether there was a more clearly marked trail that would have taken us to the bottom of the waterfall, presumably more photogenic. I'll probably never find out.

This ended our exploration of the Camotes. On Sunday morning we went snorkeling again at the hotel, then got driven to Poro Town for a boat direct back to Cebu City. Once again we boarded the boat, only to wait as passengers and cargo trickled on board. (And the boat was already full of passengers when we boarded!)

Upon arriving back in Cebu, we took a taxi to the same hotel we'd stayed at before. Then we walked over to the nearby Ayala Center to get our fill of Filipino mall culture.

Filipino mall culture is very different from what you'd find in Korea or Taiwan, or probably anywhere else in Asia. In Korea or Taiwan you'll find Korean or Taiwanese versions of American shopping malls. But I can't call shopping malls in urban Philippines a Filipino version of an American model - rather, I feel like they ARE American shopping malls, that happen to be located in the Philippines. Smaller shopping centers in Cebu look just like American strip malls. It all comes from the Philippines being massively influenced by American culture right when it was modernizing. They all looked to the American model, rather than European or Japanese models.

So in the Ayala Center we found Western mall design, Western food, and a surprisingly large number of Westerners. Presumably for Cebu-area expats, the best way to spend a Sunday afternoon is to hang out at the mall. It was even linguistically familiar - in Danao and the Camotes we'd run into some communication problems, but once in Cebu I found that most locals spoke good English. Often to each other.