Ballin in Bali

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A few weeks ago I found myself chasing a monkey in the Ubud, Bali monkey forest. I definitely wasn’t supposed to be chasing monkeys, or carrying plastics bags or taunting monkeys with delicious metal elephant sculptures they misconstrued as food. But it turns out monkeys aren’t that bright, in fact they are quite savage in their search for more bananas.

Kuta man

Kuta man

It is probably obvious that I don’t like monkeys. I might go so far as to say they are on my list of least favorite animals because they are intelligent, but disinterested in following human contracts and they carry a number of communicable diseases for humans.

View of the rice paddy from the ecotourism garden and kopi luwak coffee tasting.

View of the rice paddy from the ecotourism garden and kopi luwak coffee tasting.

So why was I hanging with a bunch of monkeys in Bali? It was a holiday, for my friend’s birthday vacation and a reunion with my elder brother. I had never visited Indonesia before and it was a pleasant surprise. I appreciated the artistry present in the everyday sculptures and Hindu household offerings: canang sari. And I definitely didn’t appreciate the Muslim call to prayer that was amplified over one town five times a day. It just didn’t sound good.

Kuta morning market dragonfruit on top, mangosteen on the left and local snakefruit on the right.

Kuta morning market dragonfruit on top, mangosteen on the left and local snakefruit on the right.

Balinese people surprised me with their good humor and their hustle. Everyone has an angle and a friend with a taxi, but sometimes they really do just want to help you. Sometimes they feel entitled to your money just for giving you advice whether you asked for it or not. Kuta morning market looking at balloons. The island is covered in thick, nearly impassable jungle interspersed with rice fields and beaches along the coasts. The flowers and fruit are beautiful. The sarongs are cheap and the festivals plentiful.

Mountains near Padang Bai harbor, Bloo Lagoon view point.

Mountains near Padang Bai harbor, Bloo Lagoon view point.

The food varies greatly from one region to another. Luckily for me there was an abundance of curries, which I love. There was also a lot of fish and bananas and thick, almost muddy sweet coffee. I really loved the strong flavor of the coffee each morning and the fried fruit pancakes, almost chewy on the inside, and crispy on the outside.

Balinese Hindu daily offerings

Balinese Hindu daily offerings

I flew into Kuta at the Denpasar Airport and appreciated some good and reasonable priced Indian food. The next day we headed to a festival in the mountainous region of Candi Dasa. Then we spent a few days chilling in a port town Padang Bai, the leaping off point for the party island Gili Trawangan, known fondly as Gili T.

Chandi Dasa fighting festival with sharp leaves and woven shields. Sacrificing shed blood to the gods for prosperity.

Chandi Dasa fighting festival with sharp leaves and woven shields. Sacrificing shed blood to the gods for prosperity.

bloodback Gili T, while possessing many water sport opportunities and a colorful range of accommodations from flophouse to fancy resort, and recreational drugs, was the low point in the trip for me because it was all foreigners and people intent on trying to take their money.

Chandi Dasa princess at the temple the women gather in beautiful clothes to bring fruit offerings.

Chandi Dasa princess at the temple the women gather in beautiful clothes to bring fruit offerings.

After ferrying back from Gili T, we taxied over to Ubud the yoga and art cultural capital of Bali. We went to see a more traditional Balinese dance at the palace on Sunday which ended with characters flying away on a Geruda, a winged-beaked flying monster. We also found the best food the night before we left that offered food from different islands in Indonesia.

Invited to sit, drink coffee, palm wine and sing with these Chandi Dasa locals back for a visit.

Invited to sit, drink coffee, palm wine and sing with these Chandi Dasa locals back for a visit.

I would definitely recommend going back, with more plans to explore Ubud and maybe take a boat along the coastline. IMG_3981

Temple Business Time

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A few weeks ago I was invited to a Taiwan temple fair for a banquet. This particular temple was honored for business purposes, for example burning incense and ghost money to certain gods that will help a business prosper and ultimately make more money.

Trisha, a friend I made through Couch Surfing meetups in Kaohsiung, is a member of the business that bought a table at the event to support the temple. As the representative she hosted and invited a few crazy foreigner friends to eat ten courses of food and watch the Chinese opera afterwards.

I have to admit even after almost two years in Taiwan passing by temple gatherings, it was surprising to be part of one. I was also exhausted and possibly hungover on this particular Sunday evening.

To create the venue the temples string together multiple rainbow striped tents like an outdoor wedding, then block off a whole street, like a block party. Then there is the makeshift stage that has a percussionist onstage to the side, and lots of cross-dressing mothers with long wigs holding microphones.

But first, the dinner. They started with some thin noodles served with a haunch of pork, then a brown viscous fish soup, a beautifully steamed whole fish, some boiled shrimp (most beloved by Taiwanese), some small individually wrapped sweet rice dumplings with pork filling, herbal soup made with black chicken, some broccoli covered in another syrupy sauce and something meaty and suspicious, and finally a fruit platter. That’s nine, so somewhere along the way I think they served duck as well.

I tried to talk to the host sitting next to me and my friend Amy on my right, however it was too difficult to communicate seated in front of the speakers blaring traditional squeaky music. Think of music you might consider Chinese, and then think of a polka and it will be close to  the 100 Best Taiwan Traditional Hits mix they put on at all they temples.

Luckily, my friend saw the anguish I was feeling over the music and continued to pour me Taiwan Beer into the small glass cups at the table. A group of temple elders walked around doing cheers and “ganbei” with all the tables that were drinking. Afterwards they had a trio of women in pink qipao walk around serenading each table in turn; the live Chinese violin and cello made the recorded music sound less offending and the result was not as loud.

With the dishes being cleared there was time to watch the opera that was happening at the opposite end of the tent. My Chinese comprehension isn’t good enough to translate the play, but what I could infer from the acting was a family drama. The insolent son, the abusive father, the ruined family business, the protective mother and obedient daughter; all the stereotypes were present and accounted for.

There was acting interspersed with long-sleeve gown dancing and music with an exceptionally loud wood block to punctuate certain movements.

Overall, it was enlightening and served as a reminder of the gap between feeling comfortable living abroad, and really understanding the cultural context that is behind so many traditions. I certainly have a long way to go before even partially understanding why some things are acceptable and others are not. For instance this temple gathering was conservative in nature, but some temple gathering have half-dressed women dancing. Of course, what god wouldn’t want to see more women? But in a culture where women are considered slutty for wearing bikinis at the beach, its a serious double standard.

All countries and cultures have their blind spots, and traditions that are inherently contradictory. That’s part of the reason being in the presence of others’ traditions can be so interesting, and sometimes frightening.

Slideshow of some of the photos I took, hopefully next time I try I will figure out how to add audio of my choice.

Productive New Year Buffet

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This is the season of resolution, false promises and gym memberships. Much to the chagrin of T.S. Eliot, I ended 2014 not with a whimper, but a bang! The morning of 2015 in a flurry of productivity I arranged to tutor during the four day weekend.

In the afternoon I met a group of Couch Surfing friends for a buffet. I don’t generally like buffets. I am smallish person, and I already eat enough without the temptation of overeating persistently nudging my elbow like a begging dog.

The gluttony of buffets somehow devalues the food and the quality isn’t there. Even if the quality was the same, the volume somehow makes it seem poorly prepared. Those familiar with TED talks will remember more options don’t make us happier.

Still, I had never been to a Taiwanese buffet and I was curious so I arrived…thirty minutes late, but who is counting? There is a strategy to Taiwan buffets that makes the experience cost efficient. 

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First, attack the shellfish preferably a mound of shrimp! After eating as much sushi as humanly possible, retire with a large bowl of icecream. Of course I observed, but as a contrarian browsed to fulfill my own needs and ignoring the “make the money count” method.

I’m not a big fan of shrimp so I went and got a salad to start and some pizza, that wasn’t bad. I sampled some fries and sushi and finished with some tiramisu, that wasn’t. It had something cakey on the bottom, not ladyfingers and more than one person choked on the thick layer of powdered cocoa on top.

The desserts confirmed that Taiwan doesn’t have much to offer in terms of calories equalizing the enjoyment for sweets. Still, I tried a piece of pineapple with caramelized sugar that was delicious.

In a very hippie tradition, one of the group moms had us write notes of good will for each other on heart shaped puzzles. I tried to come up with something new for everyone, but all the notes I wrote were along the lines: “I hope you have new experiences that bring you happiness this year.” Some of the wishes other participants wrote me were in Chinese, tiny Chinese that I can’t read, but I am pretty sure it isn’t a Taiwanese curse. Pretty sure.

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Romance and a food analogy

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When I came to Taiwan my decision was shaped by a desire to learn Chinese and teach English, perhaps save money and live a less  work-driven lifestyle. The location within Taiwan was chosen primarily because I knew friends living and working in Kaohsiung. After all there are fewer romantic opportunities for a western woman relative to a western man in Taiwan. 

In the past few weeks, as summer simmers down to autumn, several couples have broken up. Whereas in mid June everyone was dating or having some kind of summer fling, now the cooler weather has also cooled the heads and hearts of my young adult friends.

One breakup in particular interests me because it addresses many of the issues of biracial couples in Taiwan. She is Taiwanese, he is American; this is her first boyfriend, and it is not his first girlfriend. Originally I met them a year ago as a long-established couple. 

The woman, J, became my friend because she was a friend of a friend and also has a very generous disposition when it comes to sharing food and travel with people she knows. The man, E, did not strike me as very pleasant; although we shared common interests his pomposity was only endured in social gatherings for the sake of J.

The understanding from the perspective of of Taiwanese people is that all white American men are sleazebags that have come to Taiwan to sleep with Taiwanese women. Some will say this is because Taiwanese women will happily sleep with Caucasian men because of their “western looks” and, ahem, other physical attributes despite their lousy work ethic or commitment phobias.

Talking with my male friends they admit it is also easier to date Taiwanese women because the women don’t ask to be impressed the same way a more belligerent western woman would demand, “What can you do for me?” or “Why do you think you’re special?” My understanding from talking with friends is that many relationships between western men and Taiwanese women are pursued because they are easy to start and maintain, although I have witnessed much harder to dissolve.

Taiwanese girlfriends have a reputation for trying very hard to “get him back” and “make things right.” There is an implication that as an expatriate from a first world country if a man visits a country lower on the economic food chain he can have his pick of the young beauties that want to make a financially advantageous match. The bigger the economic gap between the two people the more disparity in physical beauty as well. For example a friend mentioned seeing many creepy fat old white men with beautiful young Cambodian wives, and the same in the Philippines. 

In the case of J and E, it seemed as though it was very advantageous for E to have a Taiwanese girlfriend to show him around and help him order food not to mention improve his quality of life as a social hermit. Of course I am sure there are also pressures put on him from dating J as well, but being her friend I am blind to them. I believe E is that lecherous American male stereotype and within their shared apartment building the neighbors and friends often talked about how loud he would yell at her when he got angry, which was often.

Unsurprisingly, the western women who lived in the building with J and E were not supportive of the way he treated her and more than once told her she should leave him. So for a long time she didn’t see our group, much of winter and spring she was a stranger because she realized none of her friends liked E.

Even talking with her two weeks ago at the hair stylist when she talked about the relationship no longer working, all she said was she remembered how sad she was last time he broke up with her. As an excuse she would say, “You know he is my first boyfriend.” 

There is an exaggerated romanticism about ‘first love‘ here in Asia, an understanding you will never really fall out of love and maybe years later you will reconnect…many Korean soap operas are right along these lines. Despite J being an intelligent, multilingual young Taiwanese woman she is still subject to these cultural guidelines: 1. find a first love between 20-25 years old 2. marry or date that person for a long time *3. (optional) have one child and be a stay at home mom that sends her child to English preschool and cram school. **4. If at all possible marry someone from North America or Europe so you can move there and live the life of a rich and famous suburban housewife.

From my own trials and errors I know that finding people to sustain relationships or friendships is difficult. Now, for the food analogy: people are all different flavors and they can combine well in many unexpected new flavor profiles to become something even better. Even if you don’t like the taste of licorice that doesn’t mean it doesn’t match well with another flavor. It just means licorice and lemongrass don’t work well together, each have their merits and can compliment other flavors very well. Lemongrass and coconut milk are natural friends and bring out the best qualities in both. In the end we are all looking for people that bring out our own natural good qualities, for however long that might be. Even the best chocolate has a shelf-life, so enjoy it while you can.

Jin-Zuan Night Market

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On Monday night it is hard to convince anyone to get off the couch, but with the assistance of my stalwart roommates I ventured to Jin-Zuan Night Market.  Kai-Xuan, as someone was kind to point out is the largest night market, then Jin-Zuan is the second largest Kaohsiung night market right next door selling pretty much the same experience.

darts

Here you can play darts and by hitting the balloons. If you hit enough you are eligible for an additional prize of a stuffed animal displayed nearby.

fishing

Meanwhile at the fishing pond several young mothers “catch” fish with well bundled children. The temperature here in the winter is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius.)

hotpot

Above is a hot pot station. Many Taiwanese apartments have minimalist kitchens and I think this is one reason there are many popular restaurant options to cook your own meal. At hot pot the server will bring you your broth and you can request the meat, seafood, vegetables or mushrooms you would like to put in.

majong

A small gambling table, it looks like mahjong tiles but I am still unfamiliar with many of the gambling options.

milklady ringtoss

On the left is a woman working at a fruit milk stand. In Taiwan there are many options to flavor your milk with watermelon, papaya, strawberries or apple juice. My personal favorite is the avocado milk where they add custard to make it even more creamy and decadent. On the right a couple is throwing rings, in the event one goes over a bottle they can pick a prize in that line of bottles.

stalls

The stalls stretch on for about a city block, but not all of them are open to all hours. By ten o’clock in the evening many of the clothing and food stalls will have shut down for the night.

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Fires of Dulan

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I am no surfer. The closest I came to that growing up in Montana was my sister’s two month fascination with skateboarding and bruising my tailbone in a skate park near our house.

Despite my lack of experience I jumped at the opportunity to take the train to visit the South African surfing hostel in Dulan, Taiwan. Friday evening we jumped the Kaohsiung express to Taitung arriving at one in the morning. The two hours on the train only allowed more time to enjoy libations and catching up with friends because Taiwan has no open container laws.

The local beverages of Taiwan include primarily beer, Kaoliang 高粱 a sorghum liquor and balida medicinal alcohol.  PAOLYTA is the balida brand necessary for these weekend excursions.

The trips to Dulan require surfing, beach bonfires and excessive drinking. The best places were food are the reasonable priced Vietnamese restaurant and newer Italian restaurant both on the main street. The local drinking stations include the 7Eleven and the Sugar Factory although the music happens early around 9 or 10 so get there before 11 or you will miss out.

If you find yourself in this part of the world don’t be surprised by the kindness of strangers. Don’t be surprised by the quantity of beer consumed. Don’t be surprised to be walking home from an all night beach party at five in the morning.everyonenight