Taiwan 2015 (pt. 1) | Recap
What we did in Taiwan
Seeing as I had never met Ewa's dad's side of the family, we figured that it was about time we made a trip out to Taiwan together. Ewa's dad is one of 8 siblings, so he was very excited to see everyone again. For me, this trip meant spending 2 weeks among a group of new people, while only speaking at a 1st grade level in their native language. Woohoo!
Luckily, her brother Andrew would be coming with us; so I figured that he could be a buffer and translator of sorts. Mr. Huang still hadn't totally accepted me (Asian fathers can be tough), so I had to be on my best behavior. I wanted to impress everyone while not embarrassing myself. Tall order...
On an early Monday morning, we all hopped on our international flight (shout to Eva Air) and took off. With a stop at Narita Airport (Japan) before our destination in Taipei, the flight was about 20 hours total. The flight itself was pretty unremarkable, except that they played Jupiter Ascending to the entire plane at one point. If you don't understand why that's notable, check out this Honest Trailers for the film.
When we finally landed in Taiwan, it was evening there. We were picked up by Ewa's uncle Jimmy (her Dad's identical twin) and his son Michael. I could tell immediately that I was in for a tough time because I couldn't understand a thing that was spoken in the car. To explain, there are several dialects of the Chinese language. I am fluent in Cantonese. However, her entire family speaks Mandarin. While the 2 dialects share a written language and a similar grammatical structure and vocabulary, they are still quite different. For comparison, if you are from Midwestern America, you wouldn't presume to be able to easily communicate with someone from the countryside in Leeds.
Anyways, everyone was speaking too quickly for me to pick up; so I just nodded politely and smiled (I hope they weren't asking me if I was an idiot). We arrived at her grandparents' home in the Datong District. We would be staying here for most of our trip. Taipei, similar to any big city, has very limited space. So accordingly, real estate prices are through the roof. For her grandparents to own their own place — not to mention a full 4-story walk-up at that — is quite impressive.
A few of her family members were there to greet us. I continued this nodding/smiling routine as I met each family member. We ate snacks in the living room while everyone caught up with each other. I found out that her grandparents only spoke Taiwanese (a language that is losing popularity to Mandarin) or Japanese. As such, most of the grandchildren couldn't communicate easily with them. I secretly breathed a sigh of relief because my lack of language skills wouldn't be an issue with them.
After the meal, it was time to go to bed. Andrew and I went to checkout our room. We were in the back room on the 3rd floor. Before our arrival, the family had re-done the room, as well as the private bathroom next to it. I was overwhlemed with the kind gesture and thanked the family profusely. While we were unpacking our luggage, I noticed a large 2'x4' hole in the top corner of the room. When I asked her uncle about this, he said that they were going to put an AC unit in, but it hadn't arrived yet.
This was problematic in 2 ways. First, if you've ever been to Asia in the summer, you know that it's hotter and more humid than a sauna. Secondly, what about the mosquitos!? When I asked if we should seal up the hole with some tape and plastic covering, her dad told me not to worry about it. Not wanting to question his authority in front of everyone, I reluctantly accepted the situation. Andrew and I got ready to sleep and laid down in the single bed. Being 2pm stateside, my body and mind were fully awake as I spent a sleepless night, swatting the mosquitoes away from my face and ears.
I woke up (if you can call 6 hours of fitful mosquito induced fever dreams, sleep) at about 8am in agony. I was covered from head to toe in mosquito bites. It was at least 30 bites. The worst however, were the 3 across my forehead. The giant bumps aligned in such a way reminiscent of Orion's Belt. I looked so stupid. Andrew, who was sleeping right next to me, only got 2 or 3! I had a brief panic attack at the thought of 14 more days of this. I quickly fought through them and manned-up.
We got dressed and went downstairs, where I was immediately clowned by everyone for my visage. I was mad at first, but had to admit that my forehead looked ridiculous. Ewa's mom is the only other person who got mad mosquito bites on her. I guess that our blood is just more delicious.
When her family had arrived, I met everyone who wasn't at the house the previous evening. One of her aunt/uncle duos are professional tour guides, so they planned an itinerary that covered most of our visit (except for the evenings). The plan was for our to visit several landmarks in the city over the next few days. Then, we would spend 3 days in the countryside of Yilan.
After greetings, we set off into the city. The first stop was to eat some hibachi. Unlike most American hibachi restaurants, where the grill is square shaped, this venue had one giant half-circle grill. This made it easier for the chef to face us all at once. We pulled our seats up the the grill and let the party begin. We had several courses, mainly seafood-based, before we finally called it quits. The food was delicious and cheap. Gotta love Taiwan!
Next, we headed to her Aunt's ice cream shop. This dessert joint has been featured on the travel channel due to its exotic menu. What kind of exotic flavors you ask? How about Soy Sauce chicken ice cream. Exotic enough for you? I tried a bite of this flavor and it tasted exactly as advertised. I didn't go back for seconds. The more regular flavors — taro, melon, strawberry — were delicious. We stuck with those for the rest of our order.
Sufficiently fueled up, we made our way to Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. Chiang Kai-Shek was a political and military leader who oversaw the establishment of the Republic Of China in Taiwan. In his day, he was a controversial leader; both revered and hated by many. However, regardless of your political leanings, you have to admit that his memorial is very impressive.
The hall itself is situated in the east side of Liberty Square. In front of the hall is a massive open lot. To the left is the National Concert Hall and to the right is the National Theater. We spent about 2 hours here, walking around the grounds, going inside the hall to learn about his history and taking many tourist photos. It was fascinating. At sundown, her family headed out for home.
At this point, Ewa's cousin Wei Wei came to meet us up.
Sidebar: Oh man oh man, Wei Wei. Where can I even begin? Meeting this guy was one of my favorite parts of the trip. We were kindred spirits almost immediately. He is about 1 year younger than me, and one of the most interesting people to know. He was born and raised in Taiwan, but spent his undergrad in New Zealand. As such, he is the only member of the Taiwanese family to have true life experience outside of Taipei. He can speak 5 languages, and epitomizes the definition of the term "hustler" (in a good way). He is also super funny, so we got along great.
When he got there, we decided to eat some noodles before setting out for the night. During dinner, Wei Wei regaled us with stories of his partying prowess. He claimed to be a tank when it comes to drinking. Since he spent 4 years down under, we figured he must be telling the truth. We mentally prepared ourselves for a wild night. It was Tuesday, so way less turned down than what the city usually is; but there was still a good amount of people out and about.
The first stop was a bar across the corner from the noodle stand. We had a couple beers here and talked about what we'd been up to in our lives recently. Apparently, Wei Wei had been involved in some "shady" jewelry business, but got out just in time. Oh boy...
Next, we stopped into 7-11 and grabbed a few cans of beer to go. Taiwan is pretty lax about their open carry laws, but we would be testing those limits soon enough. We walked around a nearby shopping district for a bit, before deciding to pop into a Zara. In here, we talked loudly, bumped into displays and pounded our beers. This type of thing must happen a lot, we never got kicked out (no one even yelled at us).
After getting bored, we left and headed to the W Hotel. We knocked out a few roadies before getting to the front door. When we attempted to go the rooftop bar, security gave us a perplexed ocular pat-down before reluctantly let us up. Now's a good time to mention that we didn't have a chance to change before going out. We were still in our dorky day clothes — more utility than fashion. Like any big city, people generally dress up nicely for a night on the town.
Luckily, the rooftop was pretty empty (you know, because it was a Tuesday and people were being responsible). Here, we had some nice cocktails, took photos and generally looked out of place. I had a chance to talk to Wei Wei one on one here and do some bonding. His language skills (including Cantonese) would be a life saver during the trip. The drinks were pretty pricey here so we left to go to another bar more suited for peasants like us.
At the next spot, Michael came to meet us out. He had just gotten out of work so he was sober. Conversely, the rest of us were about 7-8 drinks in and buzzing heavy. I quit cigarettes for a while before this trip, but we went through a full pack that night. I will say though, the Taiwanese brands have way less pollutants in them. I didn't even feel bad the next day.
We ordered a few more rounds here. Michael was a great sport, politely listening to our drunken ramblings while sipping his own drinks at a normal rate. While out for a cigarette on the patio, we met a group of tourists from Ireland. I don't remember what we talked about but it must have been deep. We had our arms around each other's shoulders, (poorly) singing some folk songs that they taught us. Once we had our fill, we hopped in a cab over to the Mandarin Oriental.
Michael worked in the kitchen at the Mandarin, so he requested that we be on our best behavior. We promised. As soon as we got there, we drunkenly stumbled out of the cab. Off to a bad start. When we got to the bar door, the security instantly rejected us. Apparently our sweat-drenched casual day wear didn't fit the dress code and we wouldn't be allowed into the establishment. Everyone turned around to leave, but I am no quitter. In this moment, I did the only thing that I could... I pointed at Andrew and told security that he was Leonardo DiCaprio (or Lee-oh-nah-doe Dee-cah-pee-yo in my chinglish pronounciation). I don't know why I thought that this would work because Leo D. is one of the most famous actors on the Earth, and Andrew clearly isn't him. After a few more attempts to convince security, they took pity on us and let us into the smaller, more casual bar around back.
We slide around and go in. Even in here, we were clearly out of place. We ask for some water bottles at the bar. Now, we were 3 poorly dressed Americans, 1 well-dressed but wasted local and 1 soberish employee of the hotel who was clearly mortified to be seen with us here. Not to mention that we were drinking water, while all the grown adult patrons were drinking their $20 cocktails. We took this as our cue to leave.
We hopped in a cab to the final stop of the night — Karaoke! We got to the venue and rented a private room. We also ordered several snacks and a full rack of beer. We proceed to sing (screech) to a plethora of both Chinese and American songs.
At one point, Wei Wei passes out on the couch with maracas in his hand. So much for being a tank! At around 4am, we figured that it was time to go home. We wake Wei Wei up and head out.
We send him home in his own cab (his family lives in a different apartment). The rest of us ride back to the house. Before going in, I run to the 7-11. I buy tape and grab several plastic bags on my way out. When we get to our room, I proceed to cover the entire AC hole with plastic before passing out. Fuck mosquitos.
I woke up hungover, but not as bad as usual. One benefit of the heat and humidity is that you continuously sweat out the toxin while drinking. It's like a drunken sauna. We go downstairs and lounge around while her grandma cooked us lunch.
When it was time to eat, we were genuinely surprise. Gram gram had whipped up an 8 course meal! It was incredible. The labor must have been intensive because she didn't stay to eat. She went straight to the bedroom to take a nap. We gathered around along with her parents, aunts and uncles and scarfed everything down. There wasn't a scrap left in the house.
After fighting through the food coma, we went out to do some more sightseeing with her family. Our first stop was the Confucious Temple. We walked around lighting incense and admiring the architecture.
Next, we shuttled over to the Grand Hotel. This landmark was built in the early 50s and is one of the world's tallest Chinese classical buildings. In its heyday, the hotel has accommodated a who's who of notable guests, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nelson Mandela, and Margaret Thatcher, to name a few. It was captivating to be surrounded by such a tangible piece of modern history.
After taking a sufficient amount of photos, we went home to take a rest. Ewa and I had plans to meet with one of her vendors (through work) later that evening.
When the time came, the 2 of us set out. The vendor's office was across from Taipei stadium. The journey there sapped a lot of energy out of us. When we got to the office, we mustered the last of our energy to greet everyone inside. Luckily, her vendor needed to finish some work before she was done for the night. Ewa and I sat sipping vitasoys in a conference room, enjoying the AC. When her vendor finally got done, we hopped in a cab and took off to Liaoning Street Night Market. I passed out immediately after sitting down. Ewa told me that she was falling in and out of consciousness, only waking up to answer her vendor's questions.
When we got out of the cab, we were running on fumes. However, the lively energy of the night market breathed some life into us. Night markets are very popular in Asia. These are pockets of shops, restaurants and bars that come to life every evening. They are incredibly popular and can span several streets, or in the case of the larger ones, entire neighborhoods. I suspect that they became popular due to necessity. The heat and humidity is less stifling at night; which makes it the perfect time to be out and about, shopping and eating the night away.
We spent about an hour here with her vendor, who brought us to some of her favorite spots. We really tried our best to be more enthusiastic, but could only muster spurts of engagement. Taking mercy on us, her vendor said that she had to go home due to an early morning meeting. We said our goodbyes and hopped a cab back home, where we enjoyed the most amazing night of sleep.
This day was less eventful than the rest. After eating some delicious buns at the stall next to the house, Andrew and I went to a local gym and spent a couple hours there.
After that, we went to their Dad's high school reunion (dope that they managed to stay in touch all these years). Nothing too eventful happened here, except that several of his classmates were eager to talk to me. I'm not sure why, especially since my poor Mandarin skills prevented the conversations from having much substance. Whatever the reason, I guess that I made a good impression. I felt that my stock rose a little bit in her Dad's eyes. Oh yeaaaah, making my way up to Asian Dad acceptance level 2!
The 3 of use left the reunion early to go home and nap. When we woke up, it was night time already. I had plans to meet my cousin Ray in the city. Andrew decided to hang back so Ewa and I rode out. The bar was in the ATT Fun Center near Taipei 101. It was in a strange location, so it took us a while to find it. When we got in, it was already 11pm. We had a couple rounds with Ray, who was with his new girlfriend Anne. Unfortunately, we had to excuse ourselves because we had to wake up early. We'd be leaving for Yilan first thing in the morning with her entire family.
To be continued in Part 2...