January 13, 2017

Taiwan, Revisited

Sunrise view of Taipei 101 from our Elephant Mountain hike.

We hadn't been to Taiwan since 2008, and most of Taiwan felt the same (except for cell phone culture).  We did laundry at a blessed self-service laundromat within walking distance of the Grand Hyatt and it was completely reasonable, like less than 2 hours and less than $15 US to do 7 days of laundry for both of us.  I think I may be leaning towards rating countries on the basis of the laundry situation, mediated by food, and if so, Taiwan is top tier!

Even though I hadn't studied it in 2 years, my erstwhile Mandarin efforts proved helpful.  I could tell servers that we didn't speak Mandarin and needed an English menu; I could apologize; and I could sort of communicate things like here, there, stop, go, want this address, etc. to cab drivers.  After Korea, I was amazed at just how helpful this basic non-existent level of language was versus literally *nothing*.

Hard to tell, but those crowds are all in line for dumplings at Din Tai Fung.

On our first morning's sunrise hike up Elephant Mountain, I listened to the extremely impressively healthy old-folks yell at one another while they vigorously hiked, ran, swung from side to side, used the public free weights, and slapped themselves on their bodies as part of their bizarre, but apparently very effective workouts (judging from their appearances).  The language they yelled back and forth reminded me how to listen to the tones and many things I'd forgotten.  Zao!  Qiang! and my favorite -- Meiguoren, ma? (yes, we are crazy Americans hiking at dawn with all of you who so kindly greet us in English with "Good Morning!" or "Have a nice day!" and occasionally, "Do you need help?")

One of the big treats in Taipei was meeting up with Jen for some shopping at Sogo.  I love meeting up with people we know from our non-travel life when we're traveling.  There's something so improbable and shocking about the fact that it even happens that makes me super grateful to be alive at a time when things like this are possible. 

This Big Cock Pineapple Cake was for sale all over the place -- confusing, to say the least.
One of our nights in Taipei, we went back to the Taipei 101 teppanyaki restaurant of such a great story from almost 9 years ago. We sat around 6 pm and enjoyed a delicious meal.  We shared our grill with randoms, but no one remotely as interesting as our hosts the previous time -- I considered this the ideal outcome -- I don't think my liver could handle the situation we encountered before.

One day, we walked to the original Din Tai Fung location to try to get lunch.  MISTAKE.  Lunch time a this location is a madhouse of tour groups and others all standing in crowds blocking the sidewalk.  I was too hungry from a gym-based workout and the 2 miles of walking to wait for what would likely be several hours, so we went to a local option around the corner and had perfectly delicious non-famous xiao long bao without any wait at all.

Shilin night market's indoor basement with stalls and seating -- our favorite.
The next day, we went to the Taipei 101 branch of Din Tai Fung, and arrived shortly after they opened, for a 5 minute wait. We were served quickly and left by 12:20, by which time the wait had extended to 40 minutes and would likely only get longer as the day went on.  I confirmed that I *love* DTF, but not enough to wait much more than 30 minutes (at least now that I've had it recently). 

That is one happy man with many fried crabs!
After DTF lunch, that night, we went to the Shilin night market for dinner.  E was thrilled to realize you could order deep fried baby crabs.  We also had shrimp wontons in spicy sauce and some sauteed greens.  It was a delicious (and very economical) meal -- arguably one of the best we've had on the Asia trip thus far.

Another great meal at Miaokou: E selected one of the huge tentacles and it was sliced, grilled, and sauced.

We ate it in the street from the plastic bag, and it was delicious.
We spent 2 wonderful nights in Keelung (Jīlóng) -- one visiting temples and Miaokou Night Market and the next day doing the bus trip to and from Jiufen in order to enjoy the narrow alleys, delicious foods, and sip on a beer in a teahouse overlooking the ocean through the rain.

One of the many narrow stairways in Jiufen.
And then, 6 days and 5 nights after we arrived, we said goodbye to Taiwan until next time and took a plane to Manila.

January 8, 2017

2016 Books Wrap up

As I've mentioned before, one of the surprising developments for me this Sabbatical year is that visually reading is actually very hard to fit in.  In my dreams, I'd double or even triple my visual reading while traveling.  Now I wonder exactly when I thought I'd be doing this, and what I'd be missing out on while doing so.

Between making the most of the locations where we find ourselves, language study, geographical and infrastructure research and just general life management, I haven't really found much time to read much other than travel resources during the sabbatical.  The last couple of visually read books I haven't written about in 2016 were book 8 (Matter) and book 9 (Surface Detail) in the Culture Novel Series.  I enjoyed them both immensely, and now I'm making my way through book 10, which is the last.  It's a nice juxtaposition to consider how "foreign" our travel on earth is to us on a daily basis vs. how "foreign" the various worlds/Universes/situations the Culture novels describe would be.  When I'm back to a fixed location life, I'll likely seek out books 4-6 in the series, which weren't available on Kindle.  If you think you'd like the Culture Novels, here's a nice detailed overview.

In contrast to taking the time to look down and read, audiobooks have been much easier to consume while traveling.  On the US/Canada roadtrip, E & I often listened an hour or so on each long drive stretch.  While traveling internationally, I listen to my audiobooks when visiting the gym, running, or walking solo (particularly when back in the US on visits).

2016 totals are 22 visual books and 32 audiobooks, both down quite a bit from 2015 (29 visual books and 48 audiobooks) - so, if there's one thing I'm looking forward to about returning to my normal life, it's reading and enjoying more books than I do while traveling.  For those of you who are interested, all of my previous books posts can be found here, and the remaining 2016 audiobook reviews are below.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and other stories
Flannery O'Connor
Good road trip enjoyment.  Harsh character portrayals of southerners by this classic American author.  I would *never* want to be subject to her written description.  Her turns of phrase for physical descriptions as well as her command of dialect are entertainingly impressive.
The Crossing
Michael Connelly
A nice twist in the Lincoln Lawyer/Harry Bosch series -- Harry is on leave from LAPD and his brother convinces him to act as his investigator in a defense case trying to clear a convicted felon of murder.  Great LA background, legal theory, thriller material, etc.
The P.G. Wodehouse Collection
P.G. Wodehouse
We listened to these stories (many of them the classic "Jeeves" tales of the clever butler and his addled leisure-life British employer living in New York in the 1920s) on our roadtrip and found them very enjoyable.  The humor is super dry and ascerbic.
Still Life: Inspector Gamache, Book 1
Louise Penny
It started with a desire to find a new audiobook set in some of the places we'd be driving on our road trip and it developed into my newest mystery series obsession.  Ms. Penny has created the absolutely lovely imaginary village of 3 pines populated full of Anglos in Quebec near the US border.  Inspector Gamache and his team are the french-speaking murder team of the Surete de Quebec who come to town to investigate a suspicious death.  Simple but wonderful character development, scenery, and portrayal of the modern day tension between the Anglophone and Francophone communities in Quebec.  Some credit Ms. Penny with reviving the classic style of murder mystery originally popularized by Agatha Christie -- I see the parallels and agree, and I read almost if not all of Agatha Christie's works as a child, so I'm guessing I'll be doing the same with Ms. Penny.
The world's best classic short stories
Various: Poe, Wilde, Saki, Chopin, Hardy, Kipling, etc.
A great exposure to shorter works of some of the most well-known English/American authors, many of whom I've never read.  We made it about halfway through the collection before arriving in Atlanta, so we may revisit the remainder on our drive back to California next Summer, but who knows.
Fatal Grace: Inspector Gamache, Book 2
Louise Penny
More of 3 pines.  Great character expansion and continuity of background from the first book plus stereotypical puzzle-mystery unfolding.  Ruth Zado, the local poet is a composite wonderfully bitter curmudgeonly character whose lyrics contain influences from Atwood and no doubt other Canadian poets I am unacquainted with -- I do love me some poetry in my prose, even in my murder mysteries where possible. The Cruelest Month: Inspector Gamache, Book 3

The Cruelest Month: Inspector Gamache, Book 3
Louise Penny
Still more of 3 Pines and I can't still can't get enough.  Seances. Haunted Houses.  Easter.  And, of course, a murder mystery.
A Rule Against Murder: Inspector Gamache, Book 4
Louise Penny
Inspector Gamache and his wife are celebrating their anniversary at the Manoir Bellchance and a murder occurs.  An entirely new character set and scenery, for the most part, and yet, I still love this book and this series.  
The Brutal Telling: Inspector Gamache, Book 5
Louise Penny
Back to 3 Pines for some shocking revelations about characters you thought you knew and, of course, another murder mystery.  The townsfolk make some tongue-in-cheek comments regarding how unlikely it is that their tiny town should be the site of so many murders in such a short time, but other than that, the magical realism elements continue to preserve 3 pines as the wonderfully perfect location it has been thus far.  Continued character development for some of my favorites (including Gamache) as well as the introduction of some memorable new ones make continuing with this series an even better pleasure than the Agatha Christie tales to which Ms. Penny's works are compared.
Bury Your Dead: Inspector Gamache, Book 6
Louise Penny
A split tale, with Inspector Beauvoir back in 3 pines while Gamache is passing time in Old Quebec after an unfortunate accident.  Perhaps the most complex of the books in the series thus far, with 2 concurrent investigations and historical look-back tale-telling of the accident.  Very well executed with the lovely 3 pines attraction remaining strong while characters continue to grow and evolve.