Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Nov 03 2022

Tainan memories

Chenbl had got his hands on some hotel coupons, so we decided to spend a couple of days in Tainan, along with his elderly parents. Chenbl’s father is from Tainan, so he enjoys the nostalgia of trips back there.

We took the bullet train, Chenbl’s parents enjoying the plush purple business class seats with complimentary coffee and champagne or whatever it is they serve there, while we watched the brilliant green of the rice fields flash by as we consumed our brown-bag breakfast in the still-spacious blue standard seats. Tainan’s high-speed rail station is rather out in the middle of nowhere, as several of the stations between Taipei and Kaohsiung seem to be, no doubt thanks to land speculation, but no matter: We were going to experiment with the i-Rent online car rental system to save Chenbl’s parents, who are in their 80s, a bit of walking. I used my phone to locate the car, took some photos to show it wasn’t damaged, and then we were off.

It’s been quite a few years since I drove a car, but it didn’t take long to get used to piloting the white Toyota Yaris down the rural roads. The trick, I’ve learned, is not to get emotional while driving. Other drivers will do stupid things all the time, but if you leave enough space and think ahead, things generally work out. Not being able to see the front edges of the car was annoying, however. Never had that problem with 80’s cars, he grumbled oldly.

Chenbl had constructed an intricate itinerary with Google Maps, noting all of our potential destinations, and he used the service to issue navigation orders from the passenger’s seat, occasionally telling his parents to be quiet when they started suggesting oblique routes from half a century ago that may or may not still exist. Our first stop was at a market in an old row of buildings; we parked behind a factory near what was either a motorcycle that had been nearly consumed by weeds or a motorcycle-shaped bush. Chenbl bought snacks while I explored the strange blue-tinted light of the nearby alleys, and when I returned he was talking with one of the shop owners, who gave us free samples of their sausages. Tasty.

Next was the huge, elaborate Buddhist Daitian Temple complex at Madou. The place was very “sensitive”, Chenbl explained, as he is attuned to these kinds of things. The gods were kept behind ornate iron gates to keep them from being damaged by the huge crowds that visit during religious holidays. Behind the main temple is a huge structure in the shape of a dragon, full of scenes of whatever the temple’s founder envisioned heaven looked like in 1979. Chenbl’s father was going to go take a look inside until he found that the entrance fee was NT$40. We went instead, and the experience was indeed probably not worth NT$40, being a series of “It’s a Small World”-esque motorized figures depicting various deities having tea parties on lawns. There was a Monkey statue, however, so of course I had to get a picture with The Poagao, whom I’m fairly sure didn’t pay NT$40 to get in and probably had some tea party paraphernalia in his pockets.

Next to the exit of the Heaven experience was a gate to the Hell experience, which was also NT$40 and probably didn’t include air conditioning. We declined the Hell experience and went back to the main temple. Chenbl pointed at a palanquin parked outside, surrounded with surly young men in temple garb. “Someone is visiting,” he said. We went back inside to see a couple of elderly mediums shaking and shouting and pounding the table, while other devotees standing by interpreted all of this. After this we went to another structure, a large round edifice with very nice statues of the four Directional Deities inside, each one a different color. I hadn’t known about the Directional Deities; Chenbl’s father was filling me in when Chenbl suggested we take our leave due to my photo-taking causing a few mutterings from the staff.

Our next destination was Laotanghu, an “art space” out in the middle of empty fields. Apparently some enterprising painter had gotten the land for cheap and assembled the place out of stuff he’d found in an old village. Large buses disgorged tourists into the complex, where you could have your picture taken dressed up in cartoonish “traditional” garb, and a musician played guitar by the banks of the “lake”, which was most likely an old rice field. We got on a small boat to go out to a peninsula on the other side of the water, manned by one of the staff. When we’d all gotten on, the young man called out to the tourists at the front of the boat, “Hey! Start pulling the rope! This boat won’t move itself!” It was a neat trick; Tom Sawyer would be proud.

On the other side we encountered a group of Real Photographers surrounding a model in one of the traditional costumes. They saw me with my camera and beckoned. “Now you try!”

“Thanks, I’m good,” I replied, as I’d already been taking pictures of the scene, and I didn’t want to get in their way. They laughed.

The sun was edging towards the horizon, so we headed out to the coast to see some piles of salt. This is apparently a huge photography spot, and the area was swarmed with people hauling some serious gear around getting shots of an array of small piles of salt as sunset approached. The actual sunset was rather disappointing, as a passing typhoon was making Tainan’s usually sunny skies overcast and grey. We walked out to the windbreak, where a young woman posed for selfies and an older man shot invisible birds with his slingshot by a small earth god temple.

We set out again for a Michelin-rated restaurant Chenbl had read about, the Dongxiang. It was also in the middle of nowhere. We arrived just in time, though, as almost immediately a large tour bus pulled up, flooding the place with dozens of Women of a Certain Age, all chatting loudly. When the food came, I could see why they were so highly rated. The oyster noodles in particular were so good that Chenbl ordered another after we’d finished the first plate.

Driving back to the hotel at night was smooth, though again it had been a long time since I’d driven at night, so I was especially cautious, leaving plenty of space for the inevitable scooters weaving in and out of my lane. We were staying at The Place, which had been connected to a mall pre-Covid, and the severed connections had yet to be re-established, so we took an elevator to the basement, walked a few feet to another elevator, and then went up to the mall. There we did mall things until we tired, and went to back to our room to sleep.

The Place has an expansive breakfast that we took full advantage of the next morning. Outside, unfortunately, pouring rain had thrown a monkey wrench into the day’s plans. We set out, me driving even more cautiously in the rain, and found a small temple that Chenbl’s father had known when he was a young man. The table top in front of the altar was scarred from generations of mediums’ pounding. Chenbl’s father said that the temple had barely changed over the last 60 years. Almost every place we stopped required me to dig out my old parallel parking skills from high school. Thank you, Coach Munson, for teaching me an actually useful skill.

As we drove on, Chenbl’s father would sometimes point out spots he remembered. “That’s the stream we forded when we were fleeing the Americans’ bombs during the war!” We stopped at another old neighborhood to find the first house he had purchased, the last one in a row of two-story structures. After walking a short distance, Chenbl’s mother knocked on a door in an alley. A middle-aged woman answered, and she turned out to be Chenbl’s cousin, and one of his father’s family members with whom Chenbl’s mother had gotten along with the best. She even remembered Chenbl, even though he left Tainan when he was a small child. The group had a nice long chat in the alley, asking about this relative and that.

We then stopped by the house they’d lived in next before moving up to Taipei, finding the old well they used back in the day. “That used to be a machine shop,” Chenbl’s mother pointed at an old Japanese-era wooden house nearby. “I had to borrow their telephone to call the hospital when the kids came down with fevers. We didn’t have one of our own.”

The original plan had been to drive out to walk around several seaside villages, but due to the rain we limited our choice to just one. Chenbl’s mother stayed in the car after we looked at the inevitable temple facing the harbor. A bunch of local people hung out at a shop next door, chatting and laughing, and a group of students practiced violin nearby. We wandered the adjacent alleys in the rain, finding old wells that apparently represented Dragon’s eyes according to the fengshui masters, and chatting with some of the people we met, me testing the limits of my Taiwanese language abilities. There weren’t many people around; the area seemed largely deserted, with the foundations of long-demolished houses here and there. At one house we passed a large black dog, its age showing in its grey muzzle, barked furiously at us from through the mail slot. Its owner, a middle-aged man, told me not to take photographs after I took a few shots of the dog. “I’ll bet he uses that dog to intimidate people,” Chenbl muttered as we walked back to the car.

We drove around a few other interesting villages, but the rain showed no signs of letting up, so we gave up and drove back to the high-speed rail station, returning the Yaris early and trading our original return train tickets for earlier ones. The whole i-Rent experience was smooth and reasonably priced, and I can see using it more in the future, especially if they further expand their network.

The trip back was spent dozing. I’ve always enjoyed driving, but spending all day keeping my attention on the road was tiring as I’m not used to it. We’ll have to go back in better weather to get a better look at some of those old villages, or even, dare I say, one of the larger piles of salt. One can hope.

posted by Poagao at 12:16 pm  
Aug 02 2022

Busy days

Things are getting busy again, on several levels. Despite all the Twitter-based hullabaloo about Pelosi’s upcoming visit to Taiwan (most of which can’t even be called journalism and completely misses the point), life goes on as normal here as ever.

Last week the Ramblers played a three-day-long gig at the Lin Family Gardens in Banqiao, in a courtyard out in front of one of the old halls. My instrument cart no doubt scuffed several of the centuries-old stone door frames on my way in, but I’ve always liked the place so it was nice to play there despite the oppressive heat. The staff were nice, providing us with tasty bento dinners, souvenir photos of us playing in cute frames, and even umbrellas when a heavy downpour followed our second performance. Thumper and Red Man missed the first show, so Sylvain filled in. Our old friend Chalaw worked wonders at the soundboard to make us sound good, and despite not having played in a good while we managed to put out three solid shows in three days. In between the brutally hot soundchecks and the shows later in the evening I would walk around the neighborhood exploring the various alleys and bridges, the markets and temples. Police on scooters zoomed around checking people’s IDs. After the shows it was cool to be able to wander the complex at night, when it’s usually closed, imagining all the shenanigans and goings-on that happened there back in the days when it was an oasis of culture and taste amid empty fields and swamps. Now it’s an oasis of culture and taste amid apartment buildings and shops of every description.

On the morning after the last show, I met up with Chenbl  and his parents at the Taipei high-speed rail station; we had breakfast on the bullet train south, arriving in Taichung in short order. Chenbl’s parents were staying at The Lin Hotel, a ritzy place near the National Theater, whereas we were staying at a place called simply The Place in another part of town. The neighborhood is crammed full of  swank high-rises now, totally unlike when the Ramblers performed at Tiger City so many years ago, the bitterly cold wind blowing across empty lots as we played. We took a train to the impressive Nantian Temple, which features a giant statue on top, and then a bus to the Second Market, a hexagonal affair, where we had delicious noodles for lunch.

We then strolled through the city through the artsy West District. It’s been too long since I visited Taichung; I miss it. Chenbl’s father commented that Taichung seems to have more potential these days. While Taipei’s been content to rest on its laurels as the capital, Taichung these days seems more about exploration and experimentation. It’s also more physically spread out, which makes a second metro line a must  if the city’s going to continue developing.  Residents apparently don’t even have to pay for bus trips under 10 kilometers. We walked to the Place where Chenbl and I were staying, put some stuff away, and headed out again when what had seemed like imminent rain did not manifest.

As a lot of walking was going on, we all packed light, though Chenbl’s father insisted on carrying several heavy bottles of water in his backpack. I only brought one bag as it was just one night and all I needed to bring besides what I usually have on me was an extra shirt. After going through a series of cheap bags whose zippers would break almost immediately, not to mention a Domke that eventually disintegrated, and on the recommendation of some local photographer friends as well as the badge of approval of DPreviews’ Chris Nichols and Big Head Taco, I recently spent bag to get bag from Wotancraft, a local company, and so far I like it a lot. It looks heavy but is actually quite light and comfortable.

Sunset was seen from the odd and interesting roof of the National Theater, which reminded me of that of the Casa Mia apartment building in Barcelona. Chenbl’s parents were fine dining at The Lin’s popular restaurant, so Chenbl and I headed over to the food court at Tiger City for some excellent beef rice bowls.

On Monday morning we took a bus over to The Lin, and then walked to Taichung City Hall, a trim and efficient pair of buildings linked up in the middle. We browsed the exhibition and then took a bus at one of the failed BRT “stations” to another part of town to look at Literature Museum which features a huge old tree in the courtyard. As we were wondering how old said tree was, rain began pouring down. Chenbl’s mother was the only one of us with the sense to bring a real umbrella; she took refuge in a small pavilion while Chenbl’s father and I moved to a tin structure where we could feel the rain pounding on the roof reverberating throughout the entire structure. Chenbl had found a handy arcade. There we all waited for the rain to ease, and it did after about an hour. Chenbl’s father is always full of interesting stories and advice, so the time went by quickly. We then walked to the old martial arts hall, and then took a bus back to the train station, where we spent the rest of the afternoon having ice cream treats and dinner at the Miyahara Confectionery, previously an Optometrist’s office but now more like a rebranded Harry Potter exhibition with cookies. At one point Chenbl and I popped out to get some of the obligatory suncakes. Chenbl refused to be seen carrying the other store’s suncakes into the confectionery, as apparently there’s some rivalry going on there, so he made me carry them instead as I apparently DNGAF about such things.

Chenbl’s parents were itching to get back home, so we took an early train from the huge new station, dwarfing the stately old one next to it, back to the high speed rail station, and then back to Taipei and home. It was good to get out of town for a bit; we need to do it more often. Chenbl and I are scheduled to get our second booster next week, and case numbers are dropping steadily, though I still suspect that when the new variants might arrest that trend, but most people seem to still be wearing masks (despite all the white dudes on those sites howling in protest all day), so perhaps we can still get through all of this ok.

posted by Poagao at 12:00 pm