Saturday, December 04, 2010


So now that we're seeing iPad ads all over, my question is this.

What's up with the iPads in local advertisements showing the New York Times? I understand that reading American newspapers is a big selling point back in the United States, but this is Taiwan. Why not localize a bit?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Dust Has Cleared

So what actually happened in those Taiwan municipal elections?

BEFORE THE ELECTION, I believed Su Tseng-chang had a real shot of knocking off Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin, and in any event the race would be close.

WRONG. Hau demolished Su by 12 percentage points. There are rumors that Su's unexpectedly large loss has ended any realistic shot he may have at winning the DPP presidential nomination in 2012, though I think it's a bit too early to tell.

BEFORE THE ELECTION, I thought the KMT would achieve a better performance in Sinbei than in Taipei. I thought Tsai Ing-wen could only hope to win election if she rode a nationwide DPP wave.

MOSTLY WRONG. Tsai lost, but she made it close, winning a greater percentage of the vote than Su.

BEFORE THE ELECTION, I thought the Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung mayoral races would not even be close, with the KMT winning easily in Taichung and the DPP taking the other two.

PARTLY WRONG. Tainan and Kaohsiung voted pretty much the way everyone expected them to, but Taichung mayor Jason Hu got a real scare on Election Day when his opponent, Su Jia-chyuan, came very close to unseating him. Now Su's getting a lot of praise in the DPP and people are talking about him as a real 2012 presidential contender.

The day before the election, people told me they expected something surprising to happen on Election Eve. Sure enough, that evening a prominent KMT politician (not a candidate for anything, but a famous face), Sean Lien, was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt in Yonghe, not far as the crow flies from our apartment. Lots of famous and non-famous people have theorized that the KMT got a good deal of sympathy vote as a result, which may well have denied Tsai Ing-wen and Su Jia-chyuan victories in their respective cities.

As a result, of course, we're already hearing the conspiracy theories.

The sad thing is, unsuccessful attempts to assassinate politicians the day before elections, causing people to argue over whether it skewed the results, is something of a tradition in Taiwan. Hopefully it won't happen in 2012.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Taiwan Elections 2010

Has it really been 2 months and I've neglected to update this blog with our trips to Honduras and Guatemala? Wow, it really has.

Well, that's going to have to wait, because I have Taiwan Election 2010 Pictures!

Also see Jenna's election coverage here.

Elections are Saturday, November 27 for the mayorships of Taiwan's five biggest municipalities, as well as a host of lesser offices. Taipei is now absolutely covered with signs for various candidates, and the streets are full of campaign workers distributing flyers to passers-by as if to say, "Here, you throw this away".

Little cartoon avatars of the candidate are pretty common, as you can see with Popeye here. If it's common in Taipei it seems to be even more common in Kaohsiung, which is full of cute little Chen Chu cartoons.

In Kaohsiung, Tainan, and Taichung the mayoral races are not expected to be especially close. DPP candidates are generally expected to win election in Kaohsiung and Tainan, and the KMT mayor is expected to be re-elected in Taichung.

That leaves Taipei and Sinbei, the latter of which is not, properly speaking, a "city", but rather the suburbs of Taipei packaged together and newly incorporated to form the new largest municipality in Taiwan.

The incumbent mayor of Taipei is Hau Long-bin, seen here in improbable clothing on the side of a Taipei City bus (if I'm reading the Chinese correctly, it's about Hau's tireless efforts to prevent flooding).

Here's Hau with a local City Council candidate. It's common on election posters for local, lesser-known candidates to pose with a much more prominent member of the same party.

Hau's opponent is Su Tseng-chang of the DPP. It's universally believed that Su's real goal is to be elected president (he unsuccessfully campaigned for the DPP's presidential nomination in 2008), and many go so far as to say he entered the Taipei mayoral race expecting to lose, hoping the publicity and campaign organization would give him a stronger platform from which to challenge Ma in 2012.

If that's so, it looks likely to backfire for him. A year ago, nobody thought Hau's numbers would be as weak as they are now. Su looks very likely to actually topple Hau, which will put him in the position of either having to scuttle his 2012 ambitions or going back on his promise to serve out his term if elected. (I'm not certain, but I believe he'd be legally obligated to resign as mayor if he ran for president.)

Local candidate Zhou Ni-an's truck there has lots of political imagery. That's not only Su Tseng-chang in the right background, but former president Lee Teng-hui on the left. He's the former KMT president who has since turned his back on his former party and actively campaigns against it every time election season rolls around. On the right there's a pun, which is pretty common on election posters; it says something like "Wishing you well," which sounds like Zhou's name.

I don't live in the not-yet-existing Sinbei City, but as it comprises most of Taipei's suburbs, plenty of Taipei city buses whose routes are partly in Sinbei are festooned with Sinbei campaign advertising.

On the left is Sinbei mayoral candidate Chu Li-luan; on the right is a local candidate for, I believe, city councilor. They're trying so hard to convince us that they're cool, with their "MiB" getup.

Chu, universally referred to in the English-language media by his Anglo name Eric, is considered the KMT young handsome rising star right now. If you asked Taiwanese people to predict the likely KMT presidential nominee in 2016, you'd hear Chu's name more than any other.

Tsai Ing-wen is the chairwoman of the DPP and Chu's opponent for mayor of Sinbei. She's also generally thought to be planning to challenge Ma in the 2012 election, which means the DPP will be in an interesting position if Tsai and Su both win their respective elections.

I'll probably make another election-themed post in a couple of days once we know more of the fate of Mr. Hau, Mr. Su, Mr. Chu, and Ms. Tsai.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Granada & Masaya

Sorry, no pictures yet because this computer has no working USB port (and three non-working ones!)

Ever-popular with foreign tourists and with good reason, Granada is a city where you can take pictures of the beautiful architecture almost without effort. Casco Viejo in Panama City was being restored to its former glory when we were there, but in Granada the process has been completed.

Tourism is clearly a huge moneymaker in Granada, with backpacker hostels and tour companies all over the place, as well as many touts and independent vendors clearly targeting the tourist market. But this is not to say Granada is in any sense not "the real Nicaragua". There are bustling markets catering primarily to locals, and all over the place one sees political banners and graffiti pertaining to next year´s Presidential election.

Granada´s got a reputation as a historic center of right-wing politics (nemesis of lefty Leon) but the political signs and slogans we´ve seen have been overwhelmingly pro-Sandanista. Same in Ometepe, come to think of it; maybe the Sandanistas are just more prone to decorate walls and buildings?

We spent a day and a half exploring the city, taking pictures of its old buildings (which I hope to have on the blog soon). We saw several churches, and heard much on the history of the city, much more about William Walker than the Contras/Sandanistas. Walker was an American warlord (he´s usually called a "filibuster" or "adventurer", but "warlord" sure seems like the best term from our perspective) who tried to conquer all of Central America in the 1850s with Granada as his capital before he burned much of the city to the ground.

The next day was a day trip to Masaya. Lonely Planet describes Masaya as having a touristy handicrafts market which is a good place to shop for local handicrafts, and a local market where all the, well, locals shop. We got off the bus in the pouring rain (Tropical Storm Matthew´s advance scouts) and made for the local market, which turned out to be HUGE, partially covered, and in parts very touristy. We bought umbrellas (at which point the rain abated) and sat down for lunch at a very non-pretentious counter. I was amused that, while we both ordered pollo asado, what we got was chicken cooked in very different ways; she got warm roast chicken, while I got room temperature fried chicken, possibly from the day before.

With the rain stopped, the two of us walked across town to the touristy market. It turned out to be very touristy indeed; the only people we saw who appeared to be locals were working there, and the stalls mostly all sold the same sorts of merchandise, much of it rather generic Nicaraguan souvenirs (including tacky cups shaped like women´s breasts featuring Nicaraguan slogans, which were being sold by vendors across the market). But it wasn´t all bad, and we bought a table runner, and we relaxed for coffee and tres leches in the cafe. (The waiter initially said they didn´t have tres leches; then he reconsidered and said they did. After a wait, we received two servings of tres leches, in cheap plastic cups. We think he ran out to the neighborhood panaderia to procure them for us. They were pretty good, at any rate.)

Then we went over to check out the baby spider monkey that someone had brought to the cafe. He took quite a liking to Jenna. She wouldn´t have been able to pry him off her neck without his keepers´assistance.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Ometepe is rural. It`s rural enough that on the island`s main highway it`s common to see pigs crossing to get to their preferred foraging spots. Buses have to honk so that horses (roaming freely) will get out of their way. Traffic is regularly brought to a standstill because some cowboy is taking too long to get his herd of cattle across the road.

Ometepe is an island where cars that aren`t 4-wheel-drive will have their movement severely curtailed, and for many sorts of journey the easiest and most practical mode of travel may be on horseback.

A pole painted by the local Sandinistas, and some dogs. Political posters, murals and graffiti was everywhere we went in Nicaragua, and it was almost entirely pro-Sandinista.

Ometepe`s located on Lake Nicaragua, an inland body of water so vast that it could pass for an ocean depending on where you`re looking out from. A lake so big it`s got sharks, though not as many as there used to be.

We went for a hike halfway up Maderas, the shorter of the two volcanoes. Although not an inherently difficult path, our hike was made more tortuous by the fact that the trail was so muddy and slippery. (I`m not convinced that there are times in the wet season when the trail is not muddy and slippery.)

But we saw many beautiful insects - including several huge owl butterflies that I had little hope of taking decent pictures of - and a couple of howler monkeys. The views from Maderas´halfway point were spectacular.
The taller of the two volcanoes, Conception, from Maderas. This picture does not do justice to the view.


After our flight from Osa to San Juan - in the smallest airplane I have ever flown in - we took a bus up to Liberia. Liberia is a handsome little city in northwestern Costa Rica, an hour and a half from the Nicaraguan border. We only spent one night there on our way north, but we liked it a lot. The area around the central square reminded me of popular images of old-timey American small towns. There was even a brass band giving a free concert in the evening.

Outside of the city center, though, Liberia`s got its share of chain stores, including the first Cinnabon we`ve seen in Central America. Or outside of the United States.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Costa Rica is the most touristy country in Central America. Seeking to avoid the crowded tourist spots and the associated pickpockets and shady individuals, we made immediately for the Peninsula de Osa, sparsely populated and home to a huge variety of animal species.

We stayed at the Iguana Lodge near Puerto Jimenez, home to friendly staff and several cats and dogs.

That`s Spike on the left. The day after we arrived Spike decided we were his humans, and for the rest of our time there he followed us around, even napping in our room and sitting by our feet as we ate. When any of the much larger dogs at Iguana Lodge tried to nose in on our affection, he would get angry and drive them off. The exception was the cat, whom Spike was clearly wary of.

Sometimes a group of squirrel monkeys passes through the lodge, fascinating to watch and maddenly difficult to photograph. I suspect a similar gang of macaques or baboons or other Old World monkeys passing through would make the humans lock their doors for fear that the monkeys would leave a trail of stolen food and modest destruction in their wake. But squirrel monkeys are tiny and harmless - their name is apt, as they look like squirrels with monkey forepaws and heads. They aren't the least bit intimidating.

Our first morning we went kayaking, which Jenna hadn´t done in years and I had never done before. Sharing a two-person kayak, our guide Adriana took us up a river through a mangrove swamp. We saw baby crocodiles and capuchin monkeys, and got a physical upper-body workout of the sort I don´t often receive.

On our second morning, we went on a hike, accompanied by an excellent naturalist guide, Sidnar. With his help we spotted all 4 species of monkey native to Osa: the small squirrel and capuchin monkeys, and the large spider and howler monkeys, the latter of which (as their name implies) are more commonly heard than seen. We also saw some beautiful macaws and parrots with Sidnar´s help. Sidnar has an excellent eye for these things. He saw a distant lump on a tree, one that Jenna and I would just walk past without really looking, and he set up his telescope and invited us to look through it. And it turned out the lump was a sloth, sleeping with his limbs wrapped around the treetrunk.

I didn`t take many pictures in Osa, but Jenna`s got some great wildlife pictures here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Boquete is a small town in the western Panamanian highlands, an hour´s drive north of David. It´s a relatively wealthy town due to the coffee plantations and the large number of rich retirees setting up estates. There are many long- and short-term foreign residents. Habla Ya! is a well-known Spanish language school in town and on our second day Jenna and I took a 2-hour refresher course to improve our basic linguistic ability.

Local coffee producer Cafe Ruiz let us start off our day with a coffee tasting, in which we were encouraged to pay attention to the tastes and smells of their coffee. (I had a cold so I´m not sure how many fine distinctions I was able to make.) Then we went on a tour of the plantation itself.

Young Geisha coffee plants. They are going to be mighty expensive one day.

Coffee beans. When they turn red they´re ripe for picking.

What you get when you break open a a ripe berry.

Bean washing and drying facility at the plantation.

The interior of the roasting plant back in Boquete.

They´re proud of their coffee at Cafe Ruiz. Panama is the only Central American country where coffee is grown by totally independent growers, as opposed to places where growers are forced to belong to and sell through a cooperative.

On our second day we went on a zipline tour. (All of these outdoor activities are scheduled for the morning. That´s because you can usually count on it raining in the afternoon.) It looked intimidating enough at first, as our guides talked us through the safety protocols, to be followed exactly lest disaster ensue! But one of the guides had his six-year-old son accompanying us so we figured it couldn´t be that bad. It was much more fun and less intimidating once we were actually doing it.

I had one bad habit I had to overcome. I consistently broke too soon, forcing me to haul myself the final short distance to the platform with my hands. Subconsciously I figured, better brake too soon than too late. My subconscious didn´t care about the automatic brake and safety precautions that would have kept me from slamming into the tree at full speed.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Panama City

We began the Panama portion of our trip with 2 full days in Panama City, based in the neighborhood of Casco Viejo. Casco Viejo is the old city -- but not the very old city, which was sacked and burned by pirates in 1671. Afterwards the city leaders decided to rebuild in a more easily defendable spot, so they picked this peninsula which juts into Panama Bay.

When Panama became independent, Panama City was still limited to the Casco Viejo area. As the city grew, Casco Viejo went into decline, becoming a neglected slum. Recently the government began a concerted effort to improve the neighborhood.

Now, as you walk around the neighborhood, there are decaying buildings everywhere, and streets and sidewalks that are full of holes. But there is reconstruction work going on too. Several old buildings were in the process of being repaired when we were there, and much of Casco Viejo is beautiful now.

Plaza de la Independencia in Casco Viejo. Top picture is of the National Cathedral. The third picture is looking towards the glitzy new section of Panama, one of whose towers is visible.

That´s the President´s house in Casco Viejo on the left. This is as close as we could get.

Looking towards glitzy modern Panama City.

Our second day we went to the Canal. The Panama Canal´s visior´s center at Miraflores is very touristy, so of course we went there. What other obvious place is there to pick up a Panama Canal shot glass? We then checked out the museum on the history, ecology and workings of the Canal. It´s a very well-done, modern exhibit, with everything bilingual in English and Spanish.

Then we went up to the observation deck where, with the hot sun beating down on us, we watched as a huge container ship passed through the locks on its way to the Pacific.

The ship enters the locks.

The water level has been made equal.

And the ship goes on through.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Kaohsiung and Kenting

This past weekend was my latest jaunt around southern Taiwan, including days spent in Kaohsiung (where I'd been before) and Kenting (where I'd never been).

On Friday afternoon Emily and I took the HSR down to Kaohsiung and quickly located Kaohsiung 202, a neat little backpackery hostel near the Love River. Kaohsiung 202 was great, the first backpacker's hostel I've stayed at in Taiwan. Our room, although extremely basic, was also clean and extremely cheap. The shared bathrooms were sufficiently clean. And there was free Internet. The hostel is marketed entirely to foreigners, and the women who run it didn't seem Taiwanese (we think they were Filipina).

Although it's a bit of a walk from the MRT, the hostel is centrally located. We headed to the Kaohsiung municipal film archive, just a short walk away, which has excellent exhibits on the history of Taiwanese moviemaking with an emphasis on southern Taiwan. We got dinner at Liuhe Night Market - often reviled as excessively touristy, but you can count on it for a fine meal - and returned to the Love River for drinking Taiwan Beer at a riverside cafe.

There's the view from the roof of the hotel. The Love River is visible beyond the parking lot.

The Love River used to be known as a dirty polluted mess. Now that it's cleaned up and the riverside area is developed, it's a center of Kaohsiung civic pride.

There's an election coming up in November, and like Taipei, Kaohsiung is covered with political posters. Beyond the obvious political differences with northern Taiwan, the other thing I noticed was that almost all the politicians running for office here have little South Park-esque cartoon avatars of themselves in their ads. Chen Chu, the mayor of Kaohsiung and easily the most visible political figure in all of southern Taiwan, is the most obvious example, but even the old male KMT candidates for office have their cartoon avatars.

Chen Chu's cartoon self spreading the word about a municipal hotline. Chen's adorable avatar is seen on all manner of information billboards and signage that have nothing to do with politics or the upcoming election.

On Saturday we met up with Emily's former housemate Robin, a Kaohsiung native, and went off exploring the British Consulate and Cijin areas. The old British Consulate is now a museum and a cafe (Jenna and I visited the cafe when we were there in 2008); at the moment the consulate's home to an exhibit on the Beatles and the city of Liverpool, and how Liverpool compares to Kaohsiung. I assumed they were sister cities, but Wikipedia says I was mistaken. So why Liverpool then? I don't know.

Flags and visitors at the very touristy British Consulate.

Cijin is an island in the harbor best approached by ferry. We'd had substantial Japanese noodles for lunch so we were not yet in a mood to appreciate Cijin's seafood offerings. Instead, we took a look at the historic lighthouse (closed) and the ruined fort.

The fort, and Kaohsiung beyond it. The fire in that last picture looked pretty serious, but I never found out what it was from.

That evening Jenna arrived via HSR after working all day, and we rented a car and headed south. (We headed south eventually. Thank to our unfamiliarity with the city's road network, it took us longer than it should have for us to be definitely going in the right direction.)

We stopped for dinner at Donggang, a coastal city south of Kaohsiung that's become quite wealthy as a center of bluefin tuna fishing. Jenna and I visited Donggang on two consecutive weekends last year to see the King Boat festival, which climaxed with the burning of a huge boat on the beach in the early hours of the morning. Central Donggang has several well-known seafood restaurants, but if you want the best food in town you do what we did: go to the harbor and eat at one of the outdoor restaurants there. We got there after ten in the evening, and there were still several places open and doing good business. We didn't have tuna, but we had oysters and crab legs and clams and non-tuna varieties of fish and it was all quite excellent.

We reached Kenting, a town of bars and restaurants designed to separate tourists from their money, after one in the morning. Driving right through it, we located a campground off the road south of Kenting. We paid, set up our tents, and realized our rented car had suffered a flat tire for some reason.

We fixed it in the morning, after a very hot and muggy night (the guy who'd set up a large fan to blow through his tent had the right idea). The car came with a spare tire, tools to change it, but no jack. The guy who ran the campground had a jack. Emily, being the most mechanically competent among us, was able to change the tire. Problem solved. We washed up (the shower facilities were extremely basic, but I was amazed they had hot water) and went off to explore the southernmost parts of the island of Taiwan.

The big stone marker at Taiwan's southernmost point.

The seaside at Kenting.

It was enough to make me regret not bringing snorkeling gear. I'd assumed there wouldn't be enough time.

Emily with coconut. They're available everywhere in Kenting.

Later on we turned inland, driving through Kenting National Park.

To tell the truth I think Jenna took these pictures; her camera was unavailable so she used mine.

Hengchun is one of the largest, if not the largest, town in the Kenting area. The oldest part was lies within the well-preserved old city walls.

That's the old North Gate, as the barely-visible Chinese characters say. Jenna's pictures.

Emily atop an old tank by the North Gate. There's nothing to say you can't climb up on it, and after Emily got off some kids got on. Again, Jenna's picture.

On the way back we stopped in Donggang again, this time at a decent restaurant near Donglong temple. Then we hustled back to Kaohsiung before the deadline passed before returning the car -- it was a relief when we saw giant billboards with photos (not cartoons) of Chen Chu, meaning that we were getting close to our goal. We got back to the HSR station with some time to spare, and they didn't charge us for the flat tire (good thing, too; we would have protested if they had). Hooray!