You are what you is.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Taiwan Earthquake 2/6/16

"The world is falling apart and nowhere is safe."
~ My father, in one of his lighter moments.

Yesterday an earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale hit the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan, bringing damage, death and fear. 

The earthquake hit at the start of the Lunar New Year's festivities, meaning that family homes in Tainan are likely filled with people who'd moved to Taipei years ago but returned to spend the holidays with their families, making the disaster all the more pronounced.  

I don't have any solid numbers, just pictures of toppled buildings and various posts on Facebook and Twitter from friends (and friends of friends) to let me know what's going on. 

So what is going on? 

The same thing that happens in Taiwan every time disaster strikes. The people of Taiwan (and here I'm including Taiwan-born and Taiwan-adopted, a category in which I've fit before and plan to rejoin) rushing to relieve the suffering of their fellows and working together mitigate the damage and return the island to it's usual state of chaotic peace and harmony. 

When 9-21-99 earthquake (the big one, as those who lived through it recall) struck, I was away. 

Feeling helpless, I penned an article titled SEND NO MONEY NOW for a rather unlikely publication (given my own political leanings): The American Spectator, a politically Conservative magazine of the old-school American Conservative movement (i.e., before American Conservatives had gone completely insane - still, disaster makes strange bedfellows). 

The article is online somewhere, but my main point was that Taiwan deserves to be recognized as the epitome of what a civil society should be, and that these qualities shined particularly brightly when disaster struck the island.

Since writing that article in 1999 I've returned to Taiwan many times, both as a visitor and long-term resident.  I've written three books and a hundred or so articles about Taiwan.  

And I've experienced firsthand a few disasters as well, nothing as big as 9-21 or the present quake, but a few typhoons and earthquakes of note. Each of these served to reinforce my position that Taiwan remains the epitome of a civil society. 

As I write this, many in Taiwan are heading south to join in rescue efforts, donate blood, and minimize human suffering in general. 

Of course I'm not naive - photos from at least one of the collapsed buildings revealed sub-standard building materials that likely led to the collapse. Taiwan, like anywhere else, has it's share of greedy assholes willing to sell out their humanity for a quick buck. But after the worst of the crisis has passed these people will be held accountable by Taiwan's justice system, which works fairly well.

Taiwan will recover from this disaster quickly. The dead will be mourned, their souls chanted into new incarnations, their families cared for.  

The areas afflicted will be rebuilt. The fabric of society will remain intact.

Sometime this weekend, my father will call me after watching a report on the news. Predictably, he'll say something along the lines of
"Another earthquake! Do you really want to move back to Taiwan next year?"
My answer will be yes. I wish I were there now, and wish I'd been present yesterday.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Quick Draw Dumpling at Din Tai Fung

Back from my epic tour of Taiwan for Bicycle Adventures since late November, I've been too busy with other (mostly Taiwan-related) projects to even get to the month's worth of photos and films I shot.  

Having just received a request from a magazine for which I'm doing a story about cycling in Taiwan for some images to go along, New Years day seems as good a time as any to get cracking.

Though it won't make it into print for obvious reasons, being a) a film and b) completely unrelated to cycling, I'm particularly fond of this short time-lapse video I shot at the famed Din Tai Fung restaurant in Taipei 101. Looking forward to getting more into doing time lapses like these on the next trip this spring.


Friday, December 04, 2015

Farewell to a friend

Woke up this morning to news that my old friend, Martin D. Sterbal, has passed on.  He'd been battling lung cancer for the past year or so, though battling might not be the most appropriate term.

Infiltrating would be more in line with Martin's overall strategy.  A smoker for over three decades, Martin wasn't about to let something like a late-stage lung cancer diagnosis slow him down.
He smoked religiously, zealously, even during our last few conversations about his cancer.

Martin may have died well behind enemy lines, but as with every other pursuit he undertook he did so without apology. He was not one for half-stepping.  Martin was probably mad and sometimes even dangerous to know.  But no one ever called him boring.

I was a high-school punk-rock freshman when I first met Martin, and he, a senior with a bad reputation and his own apartment, had already obtained urban legend status among my circle of friends and enemies.

The first time we met he introduced himself as

"Martin D. Sterbal. As in, Martin...Disturb...All."

Our early circles - social and anti-social - intersected.
Punk rockers, potheads, German language students, bike messengers. Martin was an important character in the David Lynch tragi-sit-com that was my adolescence, and one of a handful of people with whom I remained in contact with over the decades as I moved from east to west to far east and back.

Though we'd go years without contact, as technology made the world smaller we communicated more frequently.  Every now and then I'd get a long, rambling voice mail, him espousing on everything from politics and current events to ongoing plans - business ideas, travel schemes - plans that from anyone else would have seemed insane.

But with Martin the most far fetched conversation came laced with possibility. I have no idea how he accomplished half of the things he did - infiltrating business gatherings and political functions ill-aligned with his own lifelong leanings - but infiltrate he did, usually coming away with impressive photographic evidence.

We connected more frequently over the past few years, being separated only by a continent rather than an ocean of time zones.

In the last serious conversation we had before his illness he told me that he would be running for political office - mayor of Washington DC, I think it was.

He had facts and figures, and told me that he'd been hob-nobbing with the sort of people who made these things happen. Though I didn't fully comprehend the conversation (it was early in the morning and Martin was already drunk on premature victory... alcohol too), I remember being left with two thoughts:

1)  Martin is clearly out of his mind, and
2) What if Martin actually pulls it off?

A few weeks later he called again, though this time to tell me about his diagnosis with stage three lung cancer. Victory over the illness would force a delay his political plans.

Through his treatment Martin seemed optimistic. Until the end it seemed possible that cosmic forces, with their unfathomable sense of irony, had agreed to give Martin, cigarettes, booze and all, a new lease on life - perhaps just to stick it to the forces of temperance and sensibility.

But no such luck. The gods had other plans.

I like to think that had illness not intervened Martin might have succeeded in his plan to infiltrate the American political system and somehow gotten himself elected Mayor of Washington (if indeed that's what he was going for).  Martin lived in that most slim of areas, the border between crazy and genius. Not an easy place to live, at least not for long. That he managed to pull it off as long as he did stands as testament to his undeniably unique character, his indomitable force of will.

Crazy? Like a fox, perhaps. But he will be missed. Missed by me, and by the many extroverts, mutants and genius outcasts whose life he touched.

With your passing my world has become a slightly less interesting place. Rest in peace, old friend.

Martin D. Sterbal
1964 - 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Three Days in Yilan: To Leave is to Return

Invisible and omnipresent digital efficiency greeted me as I stepped off the plane. I called my girlfriend through Facechat on the airport's free network, treating her to a brief visual tour of the Taoyuan airport immigration area. Whisked through customs, I collected my luggage.
Five AM, and I was back in Taiwan, in a peculiar position, simultaneously at the start of a lengthy absence and returning home.
The sky was pitch black as the taxi raced along the elevated highway into Taipei. I dropped my bicycle off at the Grand Victoria in Neihu. Though it would be a critical component on my upcoming Bicycle Adventure around Taiwan, I wouldn’t need it on the first leg of the journey, a three-day semi-independent tour of Yilan county.
I'd called many parts of Taiwan home, but never Yilan. I'd ridden along the Northeastern Coast, and visited the hot spring town of Jiaoxi on many occasions (including one particularly monstrous drunk which began in Yilan City and ended lying in Jiaoxi bathtub, only flashes of which mercifully remain). Still, Yilan county had always been more of a pass through rather than a destination.
From the hotel, I headed over to meet my old friend Tobie, who'd be joining me for the first part of the trip. After waking him (and his upstairs neighbor, who was less happy to see me), we headed to a local coffee shop to meet Amon Lee, the trip's organizer.
Amon and I discussed the itinerary over coffee, and she gave me the number of Cheng-shu, the guide in whose charge I'd be for the next three days. Though the original plan called for a mix of cultural and outdoor activities, a typhoon forecast to hit the island urged flexibility.
After a second cup of coffee to forestall the jetlag, I was en route to Yilan with Tobie on a road passing through a 12.9 KM tunnel (the world's longest). We entered under blue skies and emerged into ominous dark clouds and made a beeline to Jiaoxi, A.K.A. the only place in Yilan that most westerners in Taiwan have ever heard of.
Famous for its healing waters and more than a tad overbuilt, Jiaoxi is home to numerous hot springs, one of which we'd be visiting later that evening. But first, some touring around the county's lesser known areas was in order. We dropped our stuff off and went to meet Cheng-shu. 
A graduate of Parson's university in NYC, Cheng-shu had returned to Taiwan to pursue both work as a photographer and as a guide in the area. His first question was
"Have you eaten yet?"
And I was glad that higher education in the city of my birth hadn't blunted his fine Taiwanese manners.
Cheng-shu drove us out of town to Old Mama's, a traditional Taiwanese countryside restaurant with a few notable features: A dozen clay pots sat on one side of the building and a row of metal drums stood in front. Despite the crowd, large for a rainy Sunday afternoon, food appeared quickly.

Lunch at Old Mama's. Photo: Li Cheng-shu
Chicken, piping hot with crispy skin, a basket filled with salad greens and another with a soft bread. And lastly, a dish filled with a thick, aromatic soy paste. As we pulled apart (literally, with plastic gloves provided) our mountain chicken before wrapping the pieces in first the greens and then the bread before dipping the ad hoc sandwich into the black bean paste, Cheng-shu explained that time itself was Old Mama's key ingredient.
"Time Iteself!" Photo: Li Cheng-shu
The chicken was cooked quickly using the high, dry heat provided by the metal drums up front. And the sauce-Old Mama's secret recipe-had been aging and fermenting for six months in the clay pots on the side of the building.

My first home style Taiwanese meal in three years did not disappoint.

After lunch, we headed to the Jhentoushan Agricultural Leisure Area, a collection of attractions just a few kilometers to the west of Yilan city, driving along roads flanked by rice paddies and cloud-shrouded mountains.

We stopped at Jung Lung Jai, an old farmhouse reincarnated into a rustic café serving coffee, kumquat tea and freshly baked goods. In many ways the café represented the changes that have taken place in some parts of Yilan as places like JALA have widened their focus to incorporate leisure activities into traditional agricultural life.
Dragon Watching Pond. Photo: Li Cheng-shu
After an iced cappuccino, we walked to Wang Long Hu, or Dragon Watching Pond, an artificial lake with a multi-angled bridge leading to an island in the center. But there were no dragons to watch, only cormorants, clouds and a few fellow travelers enjoying the moody ambiance.

The rain was coming down steadily now, dashing our hiking plans. Cheng-shu drove us instead to another of JALA's attractions, a small plot of land with a dozen or so beehives. We knocked on the door of a nearby house, and after a few minutes an old man tottered out. Old Zhang told us he'd spent the better part of eight decades bringing his hives to pollinate the pomelos, kumquats and other assorted fruits of the area, and while age had slowed him down physically, age wasn't solely responsible for his diminished hives.

Mr. Zhang. Photo: Josambro
"These are a fraction of what I used to have," Zhang told us. "A few years back they started dying out, some disease from America…."
The rain drove Zhang back into his house, and us back into Cheng-shu's car. We headed to another of JALA's attractions, Bo Zen Farm. Exiting the car, we were greeted by a tall and strangely inquisitive white goose who seemed intent on corralling us across the short and muddy field. Inside a large greenhouse on the other side we found Mrs. Chen tending thousands of pitcher plants, Venus flytraps and other carnivorous foliage that are Bo Zen Farm's agricultural output.

Bo Zen Farm. Photo: Li Cheng-shu
Loco Mosquito. Photo: Lin Cheng-shu
Handing me some dried corn to bribe the goose, Mrs. Chen explained that Bo Zen grows carnivorous plants sold throughout Taiwan, also doubling as a tourist attraction. To drive this home, she had me climb inside a man-sized plaster pitcher plant sculpture for a photograph.

Our last stop in JALA was the Agrioz museum of Candied Fruit.

Agrioz Display. Photo: Li Cheng-shu
It was somewhat more popular, judging by the number of tour buses. Part factory, part store, Agrioz earns the right to call itself a museum thanks to the educational tours, complete with courses in DIY candied fruit-making. We declined the course, but accepted several candied fruit samples and a serenading in Taiwanese by second-generation candied fruit maker and Agroz manager Lin Ding-gang.

With jet lag closing in, Cheng-shu drove us back to Jiaoshi, where Tobie and I headed to the Art Spa - about which much has already been written, some of it by me. After soaking for an hour (the hot spring fed water slide was, alas, closed), we went in search of seafood in the rain before heading to the hotel to crash.  

Three Days in Yilan: The Angels' Share

I woke under dark, wet skies in the wrong time zone and headed out in search of breakfast. At that hour my options were 7-11 or Family Mart. By the time Tobie had gotten up, it was clear there'd be no hiking that day. Dawn had barely broken through the clouds by the time Cheng-shu arrived, so we decided on a different kind of exploration and headed to a local whisky factory.
Barrels of fun or a quick call to one's sponsor.
Photo: Li Cheng-shu 

The Kavalan Distillery is named after a local tribe (many of whom would prefer to decline the honor). Taiwan's first foray into whisky, Kavalan is said by many in the high-price booze business to produce the world's finest single-malt scotch. We toured the factory and learned more about whisky production than I ever thought there was to know, but I gave Kavalan's tasting room a miss-it was still early, and I was buzzing from the fumes.
Tobie, Chengshu and I took advantage of a break in the rain to head over to another of Yilan's agricultural tourism blends, San Fu Leisure Farm. More jungle than farm, we were led through San Fu by an exuberant ranger-nicknamed "Elephant".

Tobie, Elephant (with the first of many creatures
caught and released) and I. Photo: Li Cheng-shu
A man who clearly loved his job, Elephant spoke as excitedly as any kid show host. As Elephant walked us over hills filled with exhibits and instillations designed to turn the area into a respite spot for local wildlife, he introduced us to the myriad species that call San Fu home.

Another hands-on introduction
Photo: Josambro
These introductions were personalized by Elephant, who plucked butterflies out of the air and frogs off their lily pads, seeming to hypnotize the creatures long enough for him to offer narratives on their life cycles before releasing them. We spent an hour on the nature trail with Elephant, leaving educated, duly impressed and hungry for an early lunch.
Luckily, San Fu had an excellent restaurant with large table, lazy Susan ambience more typical of China than Taiwan and excellent food.
I overlooked the inauspicious numerology presented by the appetizer dish, a quartered square plate featuring four mini appetizers-marinated baby octopus, pickled kumquat, braised eggplant and a smoked scallop. All four were delicious, as was the rest of the meal.
Cheng-shu enjoys the meal despite inauspicious appetizer arrangement.
Photo by Josambro, arms by Openshaw. 
Xi lu rou. Photo: Openshaw
Most representative of Yilan was a dish called Xi Lu Rou which historically had been made from the leftovers from other dishes, often following weddings or other communal occasions. Offering tons of variation, our Xi Lu Rou had chunks of fish, bok choy, mushrooms, chicken and the occasional piece of offal, with a scrambled egg on top to hide said offal-or the dish's ad hoc nature.
From San Fu we headed to the Fang Yue Tea Garden, whose proprietress Hong Hsou Ing was about to begin lessons in DIY tea cake creation. Within moments of entering, we found ourselves sat before small piles of the following ingredients:
  • Green Bean Flour
  • Green Tea Powder
  • Jellied fillings made from mulberry, pomelo and orange peel
Raw ingredients. Photo: Lin Cheng-shu
 Mrs. Hong ran a tight DIY kitchen, making sure that all in her charge would leave not merely knowing the proper way to make a green tea cake but with a box filled with presentable cakes suitable for gifting.
My first two attempts proved not up to snuff. "You're not pressing them hard enough," Mrs. Hong told me. But practice makes perfect, and within 30 minutes I had a box filled with 15 perfectly presentable cakes-minus three I stuffed in my mouth.

Mrs. Hong found Tobie a more apt pupil than myself.
Photo: Lin Cheng-shu
Delicious though they were, the three green tea cakes-along with an assortment of Taiwanese pickles and other traditional tea snacks-only took up valuable space better used at the second day's last stop, dinner at the amazing Du Hsiao Yue.
One of the most highly regarded restaurants in Yilan, Du Hsiao Yue may be a contender for one of Taiwan's best restaurants, and our meal was, if anything, too opulent…the sort of meal best reserved for important dates like weddings or business mergers.

The meal was unforgettable, with all ingredients and recipes being the best of the best.

The first course was sashimi, cut fresh off the sides of fish still alive when we'd parked the car.  In short order, eight other courses had come, including small plates with a single bacon wrapped scallop, a plate of cherry-marinated duck served with caviar sauce, and a rich item of sponge cake texture containing a delicate mix of chicken breast, pork and a savory stock.

Photo: Openshaw
Photo: Openshaw
Photo: Openshaw
Photo: Openshaw
Other items, less specific to Du Hsiao Yue but no less excellent, appeared in time, including a bowl of shrimp fried rice garnished with cherry blossoms and a grilled salt water fish caught earlier that day.
Leaving Du Hsiao Yue, all were stuffed. Tobie and I parted ways, and he drove back to Taipei. Chenshu took me to my place of residence for the second and third night-a quirky, somewhat remote, bed and breakfast called The Frog Pool.
Fully sated, I took a long bath in my deep tub before settling in for sleep beneath the increasingly heavy patter of rain on the roof.  

Three Days in Yilan: Request for a goddess

Rain falling throughout the night had flooded the surrounding fields. With only a few days to go before the start of my cycling trip, the typhoon was starting to worry me.

Breakfast at the Frog - Photo: JSB
After a fine breakfast - something for which the Frog Pool is justly known - Cheng-shu picked me up for the long drive ahead. My final day in Yilan would begin with a visit to the village of Dong Yue to see how the Atayal, one of Taiwan's aboriginal tribes, were using tourism as a vehicle for strengthening their own cultural traditions.

The drive down the winding, narrow coastal highway that stretches along the coast between Suao and Hualien feels dodgy on a good day and perilous in the rain, which was coming down heavily as we approached the station after nearly an hour on the road.

There we were met by Yo Gan, a cheerful Atayal wearing a transparent yellow rain poncho over shorts and a t-shirt. He seemed used to wet weather, and told me that he'd spent three months in Tacoma and Seattle as part of his military duty with the Taiwanese navy. But the weather was concerning him as well, and Yo Gan said that of the day's activities-including a nature walk - had already been canceled. But there'd still be singing, a meal and a lesson in preparing Jutongfan, a traditional dish comprised of rice or millet steamed in a bamboo tube. I asked Yo Gan if there'd be roast wild mountain pig, something I'd enjoyed in other tribal communities in Taiwan but he shook his head.

"It's been a while since we had one of those," he said.

Preparing the feast. Photo: Li Cheng-shu
The feast site was quiet when we arrived. I chatted with Su Xiuli, a Han woman who told me that she was Atayal by marriage and that she was far happier living in rural Dong Yue.

She'd just started to introduce me to some of the foods we'd be eating when our conversation was cut short by canned tribal music blaring over the the loudspeakers, indicating that the other guests - a group of tourists from Guangdong - had arrived.

What followed was something of a staged affair featuring a small song and dance routine, more canned tribal music and a fair chunk of cultural Disneyfication.

The food was excellent, but the event struck me as being more than a little staged. Perhaps sensing my cynicism, Yo Gan came and sat next to me, speaking over the music and general din from the mainland tourists.

"You'd asked about the wild mountain pig," he began. "The truth is, not a lot of Atayal people know about trapping mountain pig anymore, especially not those under 30. But skills like that, and like this…"

He gestured at the prepared meal now being consumed by voracious Chinese tourists, including wild harvested giant snails, smoked river fish with green pepper, Okra with pork and onions.

Yogan schools me. Photo: Li Cheng-shu
"Part of the reason a lot of Atayal under thirty know how to cook dishes like these is due to outsiders' willingness to pay for the experience of indigenous culture. In many ways, tourism is a main driver in the passing down of the old skills."

We finished our meal-which of course, included zhutongfan and thanking our hosts, left before so as not to get stuck behind the tour bus.

The rain was coming down more heavily, so we headed to Nanfang'ao to visit the town's famous Matsu Temple.
Distorted Panorama of Nanfang'ao harbor. Photo by Josambro
There are many temples in Taiwan dedicated to the Goddess, whose domain is all things nautical, but the one in Nanfang'ao ranks as the most important. As we walked towards the five story temple that looks out over the village harbor, now packed with small crafts seeking shelter from the storm, Cheng-shu explained why this was.

"About 30 years ago, the coast guard intercepted a smuggling ship coming from China, and found five ancient statues of Matsu on board. As this was during a time when the old religions were still frowned upon in China, an arrangement was made to keep them in town rather than sending them back. This has made this Matsu temple a very important one."

Climbing the stairs to the uppermost shrine, I made a humble donation and asked Matsu if she'd consider steering the brunt of the storm in another direction, for the sake of my upcoming bicycle trip.

We spent another hour exploring Nanfang'ao before heading to Yilan for one final stop before dinner.

Some cultural cross-dressing. Photo: Chengshu Li
Filled with costumes and scenery, the Taiwan Theater Museum is dedicated to keeping the traditions of Taiwanese opera, theater and puppetry alive. The two story museum displays puppets, sets and costumes spanning several generations of Taiwanese theater.

From the museum we headed to Luodong for dinner at the Luodong Night Market. Though not the most famous of Taiwan's many nocturnal outdoor eating streets, Luodong's night market is famous for great food and boisterous energy. On some nights can easily become one of the most crowded spots in greater Yilan.

Cheng-shu and I ate grilled oysters, deep fried squid and a few items I'd not seen elsewhere, including a hand sized deep fried dumpling with vegetables, shrimp and oysters that any cardiologist would advise against.

Grilled Oysters. Photo: Li Cheng-shu

Seafood dumplings prior to frying. Photo: Josambro

It was still raining, albeit with less intensity than it had been that morning, when Cheng-shu dropped me off for my final night at the Frog Pool. Before going to sleep I consulted my mobile phone's weather tracking app and was surprised to find that the storm bearing down on Taiwan seemed to have moved slightly southward.

Perhaps Matsu had heard my prayers after all, or maybe it was just wishful thinking. One thing was for sure - If the storm did hit, forcing the group currently en-route to Taiwan to delay their eleven-day cycling tour, I now had a place to bring them to pass the time, a place with excellent food, views and hot springs. A perfect place to sit out the storm, not in Taipei but just next door.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

From the Frog Pool

It's Ten AM on my first (and last for some time) down day between my three-day exploration of Yilan county and the first of two eleven-day trips with Bicycle Adventures. The rain is coming down but I'm comfy and dry in my room at the Frog Pool, a quirky Bed & Breakfast in the town of Wujie, just outside of Loudong.

Semi-rural Bed and Breakfasts are apparently all the rage in Yilan, and The Frog Pool definitely earns its Artsy cred.

Cheerfully painted, the B&B's common areas contain art, books and alcoves large and small designed for eating, drinking tea, socializing, or in my case, writing up the experiences of the last three days.

Huge windows (some with stained glass) provide views of the surrounding rice paddies and ample light, a good thing considering current weather conditions.  Breakfasts are excellent, and coming from Portland the inclusion of freshly ground coffee was a welcome surprise.

My own room - not pictured, as I've allowed the contents of my bags to cover nearly every surface, a situation not likely to resolve itself until five minutes before I check out - has a rough-hewn wooden desk, a futon, a very comfortable double bed, a CD player with some aboriginal music CD, and an extremely long and deep bathtub.

It's the tub, along with the overall quiet of the area, that I credit with the almost-total lack of jet-lag on this trip.

The Frog Pool is not a place for those looking for excitement; for that I suggest the Art Spa in Jiaoxi, about which I've already written and will write more again later.

But for a travel writer seeking a quiet place to work between storms (both literal and figurative) the Frog Pool has proven a most comfortable lily pad.

More about The Frog Pool here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A New Adventure

Adventure, action and really wild stuff. That's what I signed on for, and that's what this blog has been about (mostly) since 2006.

Which is why its been so thin on the ground lo this past year (or more), because like that of an off-duty porn stars the life of an off-duty travel writer is anything but worth watching.

But all that's about to change, chums, as JSB is back on the road as of this Friday, back on the road to Taiwan for a series of adventures, one of which for a company that literally has the word ADVENTURE in its name.

But we'll get to that in a minute, for unlike a Kurt Vonnegut tale this blog goes in chronological order, at least most of the time.

On Friday I'll be heading to Taiwan, first as the guest of the Yilan tourism department to spend three days in Taiwan's great Northeast.

Yilan, home of some of my favorite places in Taiwan, including the Insanely cool Art Spa Hotel (written about on this very blog) and Du Xiao Yue restaurant (among the best meals I've ever eaten).

This time around I'll be visiting a bunch of places I've not yet visited. I'll do some fishing (or at least eat some fish) at the  Dongao Harbour Fish Market, visit with the Atayal people of Yilan, chill out at some of Yilan's most beautiful local temples, hike a bit on the Linmei Shipan Trail, and get into various assorted hi-jinks with my buddy Tobie Openshaw, who also happens to be among the finest photographers in Taiwan.

Aboriginal villages, Tea farms, hot springs and great food are all well and good, and definitely the stuff of "mature" travel writing aimed at grown-ups looking to figure out where to go on their upcoming visit to beloved Isla Formosa. 

Fun and enlightening, yes. Content-generating, for certain.

But will it be Epic?

Perhaps in a certain way. Normal situations have a tendency to turn weird when I'm around (For more on this head to Smashwords and buy my most recent book, How Not To Avoid Jet Lag & Other Tales of Travel Madness.  Pay your own price.)

But unless the tour organizers throw something into the mix about which I'm unaware, I'm not expecting Epic in Yilan.

But I'm sure as hell expecting Epic, of the Icelandic Saga magnitude, in the weeks to follow, for starting on October 24th  Tour Taiwan Phase Two begins with a bang as I greet guests from the serious side of the cycling world at the airport for the first of two eleven-day cycling tours I'll be leading around the island for Bicycle Adventures. The trips start in Taipei, where we'll spend two days recovering from Jet-lag with a few shorter trips (over Yamingshan and through Tamshui) before bullet-training it down to Kaohsiung for a quick cycle jaunt down to Taiwan's southern tip for a fine night's sleep at the Chateau Kenting.

After this, the trip gets epic indeed as we head, to quote Gene Hackman in the original (and still the best) Superman film, North! Miss Tessmocker! - riding up coast and rift through Taiwan's most beautiful biking country for another three days, stopping in Chiben, Ruisui and Hualien for hot springs, hot springs & ice cream (in that order).

Whereupon, on day seven, the Epic gets cranked up a notch as the tour heads west, into Taroko Park, where the group will climb and wind through a dizzying gorge road, the physical manifestation of the never-say-die attitude for which Chiang Kai-shek is justly famous. Which isn't to say that people didn't die building the road; many did, and we'll be visiting their shrines on the way up to give thanks, ask forgiveness, and take photographs.

Day eight we'll be spending at the fabulous Silks Place Taroko, resting or not, depending on the riders. And on day nine we'll be challenging riders who believe there's no higher to climb by heading higher still, into the very heart of the central mountain range on the road hosting Taiwan's KOM (King of the Mountain) race. It'll be a challenging day (especially to me, your humble narrator, with ny peak NYC bicycle messenger form decades behind me), but it'll also be beautiful. And the reward - Day ten, an 88km, multi-hour cruise from the highest heights down to sea level and another night of luxury at the fabulous Kapok hotel in, yes, you guessed it, beautiful Yilan.

(Don't you love it when things come full circle? I know I do.)

Day eleven is feasting, museums, soaking and more feasting. Our guests head home (or stick around Taiwan, if they like), and me and fellow Bicycle Adventures guide Jeff will take a few days to hang in Taipei before starting the second tour.

How's that for epic? Oh, did I mention that you can join? Yes. (Talk about burying the lead!)

Click here for full details on my Bicycle Adventure tours.  If you sign up, tell them you heard about the tour on Snarky Tofu for a discount.

And check this space next week for my pre-epic report from Yilan.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Harbin Hot Springs

Harbin Hot Springs is a place I've written about very little but have gone to often over the last twenty years, my own personal place to regroup & ground after lengthy periods on the road or whatever. At some point a few years back I tried to figure out how many times I'd been there but couldn't really get an accurate tally, remembering only that the first time I'd gone there it was on a borrowed motorcycle loaned to me by my friend Jeff in San Francisco, sometime in the mid 1990s. 

When I lived in San Francisco for about a year, working for a company called Mr. Taiwan in 2001, I went there a lot, riding my single-cylinder Suzuki Savage from the city in a few hours, camping out overnight, soaking in the meditation pools, going from warm to hot to cold over and over again. Walking the trails. Hanging out in the library.

Once I went there to camp, but it was so cold I crawled into the library and slept. A no-no, more strictly enforced over the last few years, but nobody every bothered me. Other times I'd sleep in the dorm. Later, as my financial resources grew and I started going with other people - girlfriends, mostly - I'd rent out the dome cabins on the hill. Had some pretty awesome experiences, spiritual, sexual, magical. But mostly I went there alone. It was a good place to share with other people, but also a good place to just be. 

In 2012 I applied for residency at Harbin, with the idea that since I was planning to give up travel writing and travel in general for a while, I might as well live at the place I'd been coming for years to ground myself. 

The process involved my being interviewed by three Harbin managers. Two of the interviews were pretty straightforward. The third was with with a woman who had that sort of strong with the force way of looking right into people. At some point in the interview she asked me if I thought I was ready to actually stop moving.

You're always in motion, she said. You're moving right now, even though you're sitting still. 

I had to admit that I was. I was planning an upcoming trip to Malaysia for Lonely Planet.

I didn't think I'd be accepted, but a week later I got an email welcoming me to come on board as a provisional resident for three months to see if Harbin and I would be a good long-term fit. I wrote back and told them that I'd contact them when I was back from doing my last round of guidebook gigs.

One book turned into two, which turned into an extended stay in Taiwan, and by the time I got back to America some priorities had shifted. I wound up putting my plans to become a Harbin resident on the back shelf for a while and moved to Portland, returning to Harbin Hot Springs only once since - a few months ago, in fact.

My partner and I drove down and spent three days and two nights, living in the dome tents, soaking, hiking. It was good to introduce her to the place. It felt like coming home, like it always had before.

This Saturday, Harbin Hot Springs was evacuated as a massive forest fire spread across the county, threatening to destroy everything in its path. By Sunday, reports and pictures were already starting to trickle in, and by Monday morning it was confirmed that Harbin Hot Springs - the buildings, at least, had all been destroyed. 

Photo: CBS News
Words fail me.


Monday, June 22, 2015

Thoughts on seeing a confederate flag in Oregon

Driving on Sauvie Island today, a farming island north of Portland. A pickup truck drives by with a confederate flag - not a bumper sticker, but flying from a post from the bed. I found it jarring, not just because I live in a state that, while historically steeped in racism (about which this article will tell you more), is about as far geographically from the deep south as its possible to be.

While we've no shortage of rednecks in Oregon, I've not seen many confederate flags. Certainly not in Portland.

A few minutes after spotting the truck with the confederate flag, I ran into a black family shopping for fruit at one of the farm stands. I couldn't help but wonder if they'd seen the truck as well. If so, how did it strike them, so close on the heels of a horrific crime made in the name of much of what the confederate flag stands for.

I know there are many who believe that, no, the confederate flag stands for state's rights, rebellion against a central government, what have you.

A (former) friend of mine, an avowed libertarian, holds this opinion.  During a recent trip together, we had many heated conversations in which he tried to convince me that the the confederates were the wronged party in the Civil War, that Lincoln was a fascist, and that slavery was never really the issue.

Strangely enough, this person was from upstate New York, and for all of his bad points (a handful of which eventually led to the ending of the friendship), wasn't someone I considered racist. How he came to be a born-again Confederate I believe has to do more with the tenets of the Libertarian philosophy to which he fiercely adhered. But I digress.

To a black person in America, the confederate flag must represent something similar to what a swastika flag would represent to a Jewish person. A sign that the person flying it wishes ill upon both them personally and their entire race.

Yes, the argument could be made that the German flag of 1933-45 also represents - in addition to untold suffering, racism and death - a sense of pride for some in Germany. After all, the flag flew during the period in which Germany was among the most powerful nations on the planet.

I doubt many Germans would accept this argument, even if they were not legally forbidden from flying the Third Reich-era flag. But that's an argument for another day.

How must it feel for a black person in America to see the symbol of the confederacy flying so frequently, not just from the back of pickup trucks, but from government buildings?  Just another indignity in the hundreds of daily indignities black people in America have to endure? Another paper-cut in and endless parade of them?

I don't think this country will ever heal from the monstrousness of racism, because I don't think we, as a nation, have really acknowledged it.

I have a good friend who's from South Africa. I won't mention him by name, but he reads my stuff.

I'm sure he'll correct me if I'm wrong here, but my assumption about Apartheid is that everyone in South Africa during the decades of Apartheid had, roughly speaking, the same definition for the word Apartheid. The white South African who supported it, the black South African who fell victim to it, and the many people in between.

My assumption is that the word "Apartheid" summoned up roughly the same definition, even if the attitude towards that definition as being a good thing or an evil thing differed from person to person.

We don't have a word like that to describe America's racism towards black people, the legacy of a nation founded with a document stating that "all men are created equal" while at the same time accepting the legal enslavement of one race by another.  Yet it is all around us.

We need a word for it. We need a word that means the same thing to the guy flying the confederate flag from his pickup truck (who might think it a good thing) as to the black family shopping at a fruit stand (who will certainly have a different opinion). In the same way that the word apartheid had a meaning, either to support or rally against.

Maybe I am naive.

I felt sad after seeing the truck with the confederate flag, and wondered why someone would want to fly one while driving on Sauvie Island. I felt like apologizing to the black family at the farm stand, but realized that would be weird.

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