Spring days in Taipei

Before moving on to the next destination, people always ask where I’m going next. When Taiwan was the answer, I always got a positive respone. People love this island and Taipei city, so I grew more and more excited to go. I had stalked the weather forecast for a while and knew it’d be around 20`C, and that the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom. I didn’t expect it to be so humid , and sometimes windy, so the 20` quickly felt like 10` since the sun rarely shone through. It’s a weird sky in Taipei, gloomier than a London gray, but not as thick as Delhi brown. It didn’t feel foggy or polluted, but the sky was heavy and no pictures turned out well in that kind of lighting.

Gray skies over Tamsui

Gray skies over Tamsui

Still I loved Taipei too. It’s always intimidating traveling in a country whose language you cant speak and alphabet you can’t read, but most people knew enough words in English to help me out when I needed to communicate. It’s a tourist friendly city to visit, with cheap and regular public transport taking you anywhere you’d want by train, bus or free bicycle. There was free wifi nearly everywhere, one which was connected to my passport number. There was a free youth pass for people aged 18-30, which is so much better than the European under 26 rule (says the newly turned 28 year old). There was free hot and cold water stations in most public areas or tourist attractions, and every temple, palace and museum I visited was free except for the Taipei 101 tower top floor.

one of Taipei's many night markets

one of Taipei’s many night markets

The number of markets, and different types, was overwhelming. There were tourist markets, night markets, fish markets, flower markets, and jade markets, all spread out all over the city, and each and every market sold delicious cheap street food and a hundred varieties of teas. You could buy soup, wontons, dimsum, tempura, meat on a stick, sweet buns, fried noodles, Nutella crepes, or a whole squid on a stick for $3. Sometimes the market was hidden down a pedestrian alley, and sometimes it was in the middle of the road, but they were always crowded and easily reachable.

the pretty gardens at Chiang Kai-Shek plaza

the pretty gardens at Chiang Kai-Shek plaza

If you’ve ever been to Chinatown in Manhattan, imagine an entire city of Chinatowns and you’ve got Taipei. My favourite part of Taipei was all the shiny streets and lights balanced out by huge parks and green spaces. Even the garbage trucks were pleasant, since they drove thru the streets playing Fur Elise on a loudpseaker, which reminds me of the icecream trucks in Canada that play The Entertainer. The highlight of my visit was when the Taipei Symphony Orchestra gave a free concert in Daan Park, where they played only the most famous and beautiful songs on an open-air stage. That was the one day it actually hit 20` so it was warm enough to sit outside, but a little bit of rain cancelled the last few songs and I biked home along the streets which turned into mirrors reflecting all the shiny bright city lights. I got a little too into it when I skidded to late for a stop light and crashed my bike into the curb… the bike survived, but not quite my knee. I also think I got lice from my couchsurfer’s dog, but atleast they’ve both left little scars that tell a good story.

 

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The Chinese and the Pacific

I didn’t expect to meet so many Chinese people on a trip through the Pacific islands, but they were on every island, in a very important way. The Chinese run most of the little corner shops, convenience stores and super markets, and sometimes all of the restaurants too. In the midst of a Mormon revolution and conservative bible belt, they are the ones who will work on Sundays and stay open late, sometimes even 24 hours, selling beer and the largest assortment of canned tuna. They import goods from China by the boat loads, and sometimes these goods are the only goods available to buy on an island. Food, drinks, clothes, car parts, furniture, and kids toys are all Made in China, and they sell like hot cakes every time there’s a new shipment in. Every island I’ve been to had a Chinese restaurant, sometimes it was the only restaurant, and sometimes there was a dozen, all with names like Fortune Star or Lucky Dragon. They served the cheapest and most generous portions of rice or noddle dishes, but the pork never quite tasted like pork and the chicken rarely had more meat than skin on it.

I always thought I’d chose Russian or Arabic as the next, most-useful language I should learn, but now I’m convinced its Mandarin. The Chinese who live and work these islands always learn the local language, in whatever dialect they speak, and that’s it, so no white-girl English. It’s funny to speak pigeon to a soft-spoken, pale, little shopkeeper, but if you don’t know Mandarin or Samoan or Tongan, then you just had to rely on body language and face gestures.

By the time I reached Micronesia, the Chinese population had grown, since tourists and business men started to grow exponentially. Palau is to mainland China what Mexico is to the rest of North America, a cheap and tropical little play land for the hard working to go and chillax. I happened to be in Palau for Chinese New Year, so there were literally thousands of them, filling every hotel and tour the island had to offer. Right after I went to Saipan, which and has successfully marketed car rentals (mostly Hummers and Mustang convertibles) as a tourist trap for teeny little Chinese and Japanese drivers that have rarely driven anything bigger than a Yaris.

boatloads of Chinese tourists empty out at the Milky Way in Palau's Rock Islands

boatloads of Chinese tourists empty out at the Milky Way in Palau’s Rock Islands

After coming to mainland China on my way back home, I decided I like Chinese locals much more than Chinese tourists. The worst experience I had with them was trying to snorkel around the Rock Islands and the famous Jelly fish lake – imagine a hundred black-haired people in leotard unisuits and life jackets flailing around in a sea they don’t know how to swim in, but meanwhile trying to look at all the pretty fishies through their awkwardly fitting snorkel masks, and every once in a while trying to adjust their snorkels while standing up on some super fragile coral or trying their best to pull out some clam shells or pick up some stingerless jellyfish to take home. There’s something about personal space they don’t respect above ground either (I’ve often been walked through by groups of Chinese tourists), but underwater (especially when I don’t have a life jacket) is a bit more dangerous, and I definitely choked on a few mouthfuls of seawater as floating Chinese kids thrashed into me or over me.

The best experience I’ve had with the Chinese was thanks to China Southern Airline. First of all, I was able to book a last-minute one-way ticket from Taipei to London for less than 500 euros, which is 2 flights connecting in Guangzhou, China. Upon checking in, I was informed I had a Premium Economy ticket, which would rival most other airlines first class cabins. I had a big comfy reclining seat with a foot rest and extra leg and arm room, a meal with wine, and free entertainment, just on the short 2 hour hop between Taipei and Gangzhou. I was expecting a shitty 16 hour overnight layover in the airport (which made sense since the ticket was so cheap), but then China Southern offers a complimentary hotel stay for connections over 8 hours. I’m not talking about a flight delay, but simply a layover entitles me to a 45 min shuttle to a beautiful hotel, where I was given a 3 bedroom suite, free breakfast, and a transfer back to the hotel, all for free. I literally couldn’t believe it, and thought it was some sort of scam and I’d have to pay later, but after drinking some Chinese tea while soaking in a bubble bath, I jumped for joy onto my queen sized bed, but realized a little too late that the bed was rock hard.

Its hard to imagine the pacific without the Chinese, but I did try. Maybe it would mean less industrialized islands with more self-sufficiency, not depending on shipments or trade… or maybe their seas wouldn’t be as exploited by the harvest of nearly everything edible (including coral). Or maybe the islands would have long gone under, tired of living with such limited resources and simple diets. Or maybe the Australians, Kiwis and Americans would have just filled the gaps instead… who knows. All I can say for sure is the Pacific economy would be totally different without the Chinese, and I wouldn’t have eaten nearly as well without them during my trip.

Saipan & Guam

When you’re in Guam, everyone tells you to skip Saipan, and when you’re in Saipan, everyone asks why you’d bother going to Guam. I don’t understand why there’s so much hate between them, since they’re really similar, very close to eachother, and share a common Chamorro heritage, but its just as confusing how they’re not the same country when one is an American unincorporated territory and the other one an American commonwealth. They both have a lot of American military, mostly navy guys affectionately called ‘ship guys’ in Saipan. Guam has a fully operational naval base and air force, teeming with weapons, planes, helicopters, ships, submarines and muscly guys.

the lovely Hyatt beach in Garapan

the lovely Hyatt beach in Garapan

I didn’t see or feel much of the military presence, but both my hosts were navy guys. Dale was a rescue swimmer and just finishing up his 4 year contract on Guam, so we celebrated that and my birthday with a bucket of beers on the beach. My other host was a 40-something year old retired navy guy, and now spends his time scuba diving and working at a scuba dive shop.

me and Kevin drinking from our sippy cups on Managaha island

me and Kevin drinking from our sippy cups on Managaha island

In Saipan I stayed with couchsurfers who worked at the hospital, but they were all from mainland America and still acted like the probably did as freshmen in university. Kevin was always RTR, ‘ready to rage’ – his reference to any sort of drinking or dancing; his roomate was a retired Special ops military guy who took me out to a rotating restaurant (housed in the previous Nauru embassy from back in the golden days) and popped champagne on the beach for me; and his best friend took me on a sunset dinner cruise for my birthday that I had to carry him home from (it was all you can drink screwdrivers and he was finished before sunset). Needless to say we raged together and with half of Saipan, and I acquired alot more party friends along the way. Patty was bat shit crazy, in the best kind of way, and cooked us the most amazing spread of chamorro food. I had lunch dates with her and with another doctor I met who got drunk after one sip of rose. We had brunch with bottomless mamosas at the Hyatt, and toured the islands tourist attraction (most of them being kind of morbid Japanese/American conflict points during WWII).

Patty and her brother join me for yet another beach day

Patty and her brother join me for yet another beach day

In addition to some sun and sand, I felt like Saipan was the Vegas of the pacific, not just for me but all of mainland asia, since downtown Garapan has more Chinese, Japanese and Korean shops and signage than anything else. It’s a raging resorty destination for alot of sunshine seekers, and pampers well with spas and restaurants for honeymooners to love. I had my 21st birthday in Vegas, and celebrating my 28th birthday in Saipan will be just as memorable. But maybe its time to grow up a little for the next one – Im getting too old for this kind of raging. (*thank you Kevin for a 5 day hangover!)

Palau and the Rock Islands

Palau and Yap are pretty close to each other, considering how spread out the rest of Micronesia is, but Palau is its own little island country. Historically, Palau and Yap are also very connected, but Palau has become a melting pot of Micronesian, Chinese and Philippino people catering to a huge tourism market, while Yap remains a quiet, traditional island with very few visitors.

My favourite snorkel spot in the Rock Islands

My favourite snorkel spot in the Rock Islands

Palau is to mainland Asia, what Mexico is to North America, a nearby tropical paradise for the masses to go on vacation. Technically, Palauan and English are the official languages, but I saw and heard more Chinese and Japanese than English, and barely a word in Palauan, during my whole visit. The tourist shops and tourist information are all catered for the Asian market, and I only met other Asian tourists except for one Norwegian anthropologist, and a handful of US Navy divers (the marines come here on vacation from their job posts in Guam or Kwajalein).

There’s only one backpackers on the island, and many locals are still confused about the difference between a brothel and a hostel, so the majority of tourism stays with the big hotels and resorts and packaged tours. But at Ms. Pinetree’s Hostel, her 14 beds were fully booked a month in advance, and all of her guests’ business stayed within the family. Her uncle was the shuttle service to and from the airport, her brother lived in the hostel, and her brother ran private tours to the Rock Islands in his personal little speed boat. She didn’t have a bed for me either, but I slept in my hammock on the balcony and gave her brother some business instead.

a limestone cave

a limestone cave

I went on his boat with the Norwegian Anthropologist and her boyfriend to the Rock Islands, the main tourist destination in Palau and a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s a huge lagoon scattered with rock islands of all shapes and sizes, a cluster of tree-covered, mushroom-shaped limestone. Noone lives on these islands anymore, but they were heavily bombed in WWII when the Japanese and American used to hide among them, and before that, the Yapese used to harvest their stone money from these islands. We saw the wings of a bomber plane washed up on one beach, and a sunken ship sheltered in one bay just a meter below the surface.

silica mud bath

silica mud bath

Like me, hundreds of tourists come to the Rock islands not only to see these strange formations of land, but to dive and snorkel the underwater world. I’ve never seen so many bright and varied corals and fish in perfectly clear water, colourful clams the size of a couch, and one lake filled with thousands of sting-less orange jelly fish. The Milky Way is a silica-mud bottom lagoon where the seawater turns from turquoise clear to milky blue, and it was a joy to dive down to the bottom and scoop up some mud, plaster it all over, dry off in the tropical sun, and then dive back in to the bath-warm water to scrub it all away and emerge with babysoft skin. It was probably more expensive than the Blue Lagoon back home, since you have to pay a $100US park fee to go to the Rock Islands (including Jellyfish lake), and another $100+ for the day tour. But I guess it was worth it, one of those once-in-a-lifetime places that people will continue to pay whatever it costs, which unfortunately keeps driving the price up.

Yap, Micronesia

The country Micronesia is a group of 4 main islands, Kosrae, Chuuk/Truk, Pohnpei, and Yap, and are still sometimes referred to as the Caroline islands. They are not atolls, but actual islands, the Jurrasic park kind of islands, tall and big and lush, spread out long and far between Palau and the Marshall islands. The only way to get to these islands is with United Airlines, who has a complete monopoly on Micronesia, and only connects them with cumbersome little island hopper flights. So, if you want to go from Majuro, Marshall Islands, to Palau, like I did, I had to stop at every Micronesian airport, except Yap (which came after Palau). The only thing I knew about Yap before going was that they used to (and still today) use stone money from Palau to settle disputes and mark wealth. The bigger the stone, and the more men whose lives were lost at sea bringing it back to Yap, the more its worth.

a traditional Yapese house and some stone money around it

a traditional Yapese house and some stone money around it

Yap was a pleasant surprise, maybe my favourite Micronesian island, but the one I spent least time on. Because of the United flight schedule of only one flight a week in each direction, I could stay 3 or 10 days, and being this close to the end of a 6 month trip means I dont have much choice other than rushing through 3 days. I magically found a couchsurfer, the first one since Samoa 6 islands ago, at the very last minute, and this guy Graham was one of only 9 profiles, and randomly studied in Isafjordur, Iceland, for his masters degree three years ago. What an awesome coincidence, except that we probably spent more time talking about Iceland than Yap, but I still got so much more out of Yap in 3 days because of him.

slaughtering lunch

slaughtering lunch

He lived in Tomil village, with a local family and all their Philippino workers (the owner ran a construction business), so it was like living in a village within a village. I arrived in the middle of the night my first day, and we sat up drinking rum and eating smoked fish with our fingers until I succumbed to a food coma in the little blue treehouse that was my ‘couch.’ The next morning I woke up to the sound of pig squeals, which continued for a few minutes until the Philippino’s finally had her tied down well enough to slit her throat. She was then roasted in a sealed oven of burning coals and served for lunch, including pigs head bits soaked in pig blood – which happens to taste much better than it sounds.

the beach house in Maap

the beach house in Maap

The food kept up to this standard throughout my stay, with boiled crayfish dinners and midnight snacks of fish soup. I only ate at 2 restaurants – Oasis, which felt kind of like an Irish pub meets pirate tavern, where I had a super American-styled burger and fries, and once at Village View Hotel up north in Maap, where the okonomiyaki was better than I’d had in Japan (its like a pizza with en egg/potato pancakey crust instead of dough).

the women prepare for their sitting dance

the women prepare for their sitting dance

Graham took me to Maap because him and his friends share a beach house there. It was a tiny shack on stilts, with electricity run over on an extension chord from the neighbours. There was no toilet but a shower, but of course the sea served both purposes just fine. I only wish I could have stayed there for 3 more days, since it felt like the type of place you would automatically fall into meditation just from being there, totally alone and relaxed without a care in the world.

photo 4

practicing for Yap day

But luckily I also spent some time in Graham’s village, where upcoming Yap day (March 1st) sent every man, woman and child into preparation for dances, costume making, or more pig slaughters. We went around the villages to watch some of the dance practices, and the women’s sitting dance was so touching. It was a line of nearly 30 topless women, ranging from 2-60 years old, wearing beautiful bark skirts, green leaves and colourful headresses. They sang these sweet and somber songs while sitting cross legged and dancing with their arms and heads, and watching them gave me goosebumps. The men’s dance was a little more commanding (and had twice the number of men), erotic even (their skirt is tied and hung to resemble a big ball and penis), as they thrust their hips around and yelled staccato words at the tops of their lungs. The mixed dance was the most technical one, when men and women of different heights, ages and skill danced together with bamboo sticks, synchronizing their dancing and singing with hitting their sticks together. Graham participated in the men’s dance, the only white guy, but they cover their bodies in tumeric-infused coconut oil so everyone just looked really yellow and greasy from far away.