Well, I’ve arrived in a small village on Taiwan’s southeast coast. This is one of my research sites (yes, I’m here to do anthropological work in addition to eating amazing food and admiring cats and flowers!) It’s absolutely beautiful here.

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Coconut palms dance wildly in the wind, making a delightful clacking noise. I’m standing with the sea at my back and the mountains right in front.

Yesterday I was thrilled to meet a man who knows how to make and shoot traditional indigenous bows and arrows. Mr. Gao, a retired tribal policeman, is of Amis ancestry and has collaborated with a man from the Truku tribe just north of here to re-create his traditional weaponry.

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Mr. Gao stringing a small bow used for rabbit-sized game. The young man in the white shirt was my ‘shooting coach’.

The bows are simple (e.g., not re-curved or compound), and their length and power is related to the prey targeted: big bows for deer, smaller ones for rabbits. With humor and grace Mr. Gao and his family offered to let me do a little shooting. Take up the arrow, nock it, raise to the target, pull the arrow to the crease between your cheek and nose, and let go. Sounds easy, right? I hit the board six times out of 20, but never the actual target, and my right shoulder was aching by the last shot!

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A toxophilist’s delight: traditional bows in all stages of manufacture in Mr. Gao’s workshop.

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In this scene from Seediq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow, tribal warriors with arrows on the nock are hunting for an enemy. This scene from the film directed by a film by Wei Te-Sheng can be found at \\http://www.coveringmedia.com/movie/2012/04/warriors-of-the-rainbow-seediq-bale.html

Taipei is a city of animal lovers, and cats have a special place in peoples’ hearts. A woman down the street feeds strays daily, and this little guy lives in a tiny house just near my apartment.

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Chillin’ on Wenzhou Street…

He loves to sleep on scooter seats…

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How does he manage not to fall off?

Every morning I am greeted by a lively rendition of Catzilla on a street corner.

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ゴジラ!!

Another favorite imaginary cat of mine is Maji Meow. Maji, a frequent commuter, is featured in public service announcements for the Taipei Metro. Poor Maji (I think of her as female as she is often encumbered with shopping bags) is constantly shoved, squashed, trampled, and denied seating by mean co-commuters.

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Maji Meow squashed by a heartless hipster, and blocked by an stampeding student.

Her brow is usually wrinkled in consternation–s/he even bursts into tears sometimes!

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I’d like to sit…but instead I’ll reproach you with tears streaming down my furry face!

If she was real I would take her into my lap and scratch her ears.

Taiwan is a fresh fruit-lovers paradise. From persimmons to dragon fruit to wax apples to starfruit and dragon eyes, the ingenuity of 10,000 years of Chinese fruit agriculture is on display at any street market in Taipei.

The mysterious fruit that has stolen my heart has many names. Sugar-apple, custard-apple, sweet-sop, cherimoya–its Latin name is Annosa squamosa, its origins lost in the mists of time somewhere in the central Andes of South America. Mark Twain called it “the most delicious fruit known to men”.

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Sekya ready to eat!

The Chinese call it Shijia, in the Taiwanese dialect, Sekya, after Shakyamuni or Gautama Buddha.

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Buddha’s distinctive hairstyle.

You won’t find this fruit in North America unless you get lucky in an Asian market–but if you do, feel it carefully (don’t squeeze!)  If it’s soft as, say, your upper thigh, it’s ready to eat. If it’s harder like the top of your shoulder, let it rest on a soft surface at room temperature till soft. Carefully pull open the sekia on a plate or saucer (these things are delightfully messy) and use a small spoon to scoop the out the flesh. The big black seeds are very hard, don’t bite ’em. The flavor will amaze you: creamy, sweet, tangy, fragrant: if ice cream, custard, pears and lemons got together and had a baby it would be the magical Sekia.

This afternoon was cool and breezy, with clean air and purplish clouds hovering over Taiwan’s green mountains. I walked in the green thickets of the Taiwan Water Park’s ecological trail and was delighted to spot a hummingbird hawkmoth sipping from the flowers. I’ve only heard of them before this: a precious sighting and apparently good luck!

These tiny creatures look so much like hummingbirds in flight I was fooled; but they are only the size of a baby’s thumb; their Latin name, Macroglossum stellatarum, is longer than they are. I couldn’t capture my little friend with my humble phone camera, so below are images captured by professionals courtesy of Wickipedia (next time they ask for $$, give them a little.)

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Haunt of the hummingbird hawkmoth. If you leave nature alone in Taipei, this is what you get! Luxuriant undergrowth along the ecology trail right in the middle of town.

 

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Captured in action, courtesy of Wickipedia contributor.

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Excellent photo, again from Wickipedia, that captures the birdlike tail of the hummingbird hawkmoth. Are you amazed? I was!

A fascinating blog from Taiwan Folklore–these dwarf people provoke comparisons with the tiny Homo floresiensis from Indonesia…

Island Folklore

| 中文版 |

Legends and myths about “the little folk” are common throughout the world. From pygmies and pixies to dwarves and fairies, these fantastic beings are found in the traditional tales of cultures as far-flung as those of Greece, Germany, India and Indonesia.

Taiwan also has its own native tales about a mysterious nation of dwarves. The following is just one of these and it has given rise to a well-known festival, which is still celebrated on the island.

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A long time ago, in the northwestern hills of the island of Taiwan, on the border region between the present-day counties of Hsinchu and Miaoli, lived the ancient Austronesian ancestors of the Saisiyat people.

In the beginning, these early Saisiyat tribesmen were as newborns in the world. Helpless and uninstructed, they looked to their neighbours—a nation of dark-skinned dwarves known as the Ta’ai—for guidance.

The Ta’ai were a people small…

View original post 664 more words

For those of you locked in winter’s icy grip and craving a little color: I offer images of Taipei’s famous Jianguo Flower Market. Tucked under an overpass, hundreds of sellers convene here every Saturday to sell flowers of almost every description. I was staggered by the variety and beauty of plants on offer: certainly, Taiwan’s lush sub-tropical climate is a flower’s best dream! The crowds eagerly buying plants for house and yard included many families, several Buddhist nuns, and a smattering of wai-guo ren (foreigners like me).

In this montage, see if you can spot: bromeliads, orchids; succulents; azaleas; hibiscus; peonies; and bonsai trees. Enjoy!

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Shoppers enjoying the huge selection of beautiful flowers and plants.

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Buddhist nuns in backpacks.

Today at lunchtime I foraged in the maze of lanes just north of National Taiwan University. A humble Buddhist vegetarian buffet beckoned; unlike American buffets, Taiwan’s are generally very fresh and very cheap.

This little restaurant, staffed by serene women in eyeglasses and aprons, featured meatless Buddhist dishes. Long before tofurkey, rich and savory flavors and textures in Asian vegetarian cooking have used a wide variety of fungi (lovely mushrooms of every shape and color and those crunchy black delights termed ‘mu er’ or ‘tree ears’), tofu in every form imaginable and some never imagined (silky, crunchy, in noodly ribbons), and an ingenious selection of wheat gluten nuggets in sauces sweet, salty, and spicy.

Rubbing shoulders with students and monks, I loaded my plate with delicious food for the US equivalent of $3. Nirvana.

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Vegetarian Buddhist buffet. A happy sight for hungry eyes!

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No one can prepare cabbage like the Chinese. When it’s fresh and cooked just enough, it retains a hint of sweetness.

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Chinese stewed boiled eggs: salty, savory, satisfying.

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Lotus root with red chiles; a lovely delicate flavor with slightly nutty overtones.

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Crunchy ‘tree ear’ fungus with red chiles.

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At least four different kinds of mushrooms evoke flavors of secret forests in Taiwan’s mountain heart.

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Stir fried tofu chunks in a sweet and sour sauce.

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Carrots, edamame, and tofu shreds in a light gravy.

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Mysterious sheets of tofu, just a bit chewy with nice star anise flavors.

The cities of Asia are surely places that younger countries like America should look for future examples, good and bad.

Taiwan has a relatively short history of colonization by industrialized humans and a diverse natural ecosystem that allows for persistence of animals and plants even in the core of Taipei (population closing in on 3 million). Here are a few images of Taiwan’s urban ecosystem, where human intent and design combine with natural forces to create oases of nature.

I hope you find them as mentally refreshing as I do.

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Da’an Park: skyscrapers loom behind the palm trees of the park.

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A beautiful pond lies at the heart of Da’an park. This park was created only about a decade ago from a large lot of urban blight, including abandoned buildings and waste dumps. This area is now home to dozens of species of herons, geese, hawks, ducks, egrets, and songbirds.

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Striped bamboo. There are many exquisite bamboo species gracing the park.

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Looking up: delicate green canopy of bamboo evokes the great forests of the mountains.

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Blossoms of every kind can be seen, even in winter.

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Common tiger butterfly. Dozens of species of Taiwanese butterflies float like poems through various zones of the park: sunny, shady, near water, flower patches.

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The old fig trees and rubber trees of the park are lovingly propped up and offer a haven to all kinds of birds, insects, and animals.

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Pallas’s squirrel, a happy inhabitant of the park’s older fig trees. Utterly without fear and capable of bounds of ten feet or more.

My room-mate Yin Ying-Mei is a PhD candidate in tourism studies, and is studying how food tourism affects emotional states and mental health. So it’s quite fitting that last night she treated me and a friend to her delicious handmade noodles, Shandong-style.

Ying-Mei is self-deprecating about her cooking overall, but proud of her skill with noodles.  First, she made a simple dough with wheat flour, cold water, and an egg, then patted it into a ball.

Then she laid some cellophane on the counter, sprinkled more flour, and began to roll out the dough.

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Watching Ying-Mei roll out the dough is hypnotic! 

When it was paper thin, Ying-Mei dusted the dough with more flour and folded it over, then used a cleaver to slice delicately thin noodles:

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She made it look so easy…

The noodles were carefully placed in boiling salted water and cooked till tender. Ying-Mei topped them with ground pork in a rich black bean, garlic, and red chili sauce. Delicious! A nice way to prepare for the new year.  I wish you all a happy, prosperous, and fun 2017 from Taipei!

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Ying-Mei and her friend Ms. Ting, ready to dig into a fantastic Shandong style meal.

 

 

 

At the end of a long day in class, then struggling to deposit a check and failing, I limped home along Wenzhou Street. My flagging spirits perked up when I hit the little string of coffee shops toward Xinsheng Road. Shaded by ancient gnarled fig trees and snuggled up against a lovely crumbling house with ceramic roof tiles, one small intersection contains four coffee houses facing each other amicably. Students and cats slouch past or huddle on ancient sprung couches, tattered books lie facedown on stained wooden tables. A scent of jasmine intertwines with coffee and cigarette smoke.  Strains of Taiwanese hiphop and jazz curl through the air.

Yes, there is still a genuine bohemian coffee scene on this planet–and it’s right here in Taipei. Drink up.

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Rebirth Cafe on Wenzhou Street. The barista seemed to be half awake and it took her 20 minutes to produce a caffe latte, but it was delicious.

 

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The inviting exterior of Rebirth Cafe. Note the huge fig tree hovering over it.

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The caffeine just hit my circulatory system and all is well.