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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Night Moves

Imagine your typical street fair. Ok? Now make it ten times as crowded. So crowded you can barely move forward.

Add about three times the number of stalls in a block. Now, instead of it going for five or six blocks, imagine it going for about a square mile.

Oh, and add a fierce powerful stink.

Now add a man with no left hand banging his head on the ground and people paying to get knives swung at them.

Welcome to the Shilin Night Market in Taipei!

Taipei is known for its night markets. They are everywhere, and you can get just about anything at them. And I mean anything. Hundreds of vendors sell clothes, toys, food, shoes, bags, music and other services.

Check it out! Shin Chan boxer shorts! $3 US in the market. If you know the cartoon, you can sing the Man Song with me. 

Like massages.

No, not full release. Unless the "release" is your arm from your shoulder because the knife massager got a little frisky.

Yes, knife massage. One of the booth offered "Alien Knife Massage." Their banner claimed (in English) that "Aliens were at the Shilin Night Market!"Apparently offering massages.

You sat in a massage chair, putting your face against the headrest. Someone would stand behind you and then whack the sharp edge of a knife against your back. I guess the aliens knew just how much force to use so it would loosen you muscles, but not cleave them off your back. And they were doing a good business, too!

Across the way there was another massage booth. In this one, they wrapped a towel around your head and then whacked at you with what looked like a bundle of kitchen matches. Okay.

Each market is known for something, and Shilin is known for the variety of food it sells. Unfortunately, to my western nose, it smelled quite awful. Honestly, it smelled like deep fried vomit. (My Lovely Wife told me that it was likely the stinky tofu I walked by. Truth in advertising.)

Look, I'm sorry to be the ugly American. I was born near Philadelphia, land of scrapple. I am not one to talk. But, wow, the smell was unappealing. And not recognizable. So many stalls had odd looking cuts of meat and I had no idea what they were,

Most of the signs in Taipei are in Chinese and English. Not in the market. Most of the food stalls were Chinese only. So, the odd looking chunks of meat remained a mystery. I took that as a sign. If they didn't want the foreign devil to know what he was eating, the foreign devil was not about to find out the hard way. (I walked through a dried good market the next day that had a barrel of big, dried, caterpillars. Thank you, no.)

Mmmm... Caterpillars...

So, I stuck with my tapioca pearl bubble tea. ($1 US!)

The place as a whole is quite ovewhelming. The noise is constant. The smell is everywhere. The people  crush against you. And you can see some disturbing things.

One night as I walked in there was a man banging his head on the ground, very rapidly and without stop. He had no left hand. I'm not sure if it had been amputated or if it was congenital. He had a bowl in front of him, so I guess he was abasing himself and begging. He didn't say anything, just beat his head on the pavement. It was sad and disturbing. And not something you'd see in Times Square. At least not on a Monday.

Nothing quite like the night market.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Best Worst Meal

You've been gone a while! What do you have to say for yourself???

Well, following in my father's footsteps, I have discovered the wisdom of getting your employer to pay for you to go on vacation.

I recently returned from a trip to Taipei, Taiwan, where I was enjoying a week of sightseeing and volcanic hot springs representing my employer at a very important conference. Taipei had never been on my 1000 places to see list, but as long as someone else was paying I was going to find exciting things to do there. And there were many interesting things to see and do there, as I will tell you in a post to come.

Unfortunately, good food wasn't one of those things.

Now, since I have extolled the virtues of gravy shakes and bigoted chicken in the past, you might expect my standards to be somewhat low. And you'd be right. So ponder that for a minute. How bad would something have to be to make me say, "Damn, this is bad!"

Pretty bad, that's how bad.

We were staying at a glorified hostel in the north part of Taipei (which was actually very nice). Unfortunately, it was not near any restaurants. It was near the Shilin night market, which had many interesting sights and smells - most emanating from street carts of strange food - but precious little english translation. I was in no hurry to snack on something I could later find out was duck penis, so I gave it a pass.

After getting back from a late night at the conference, two of my co-workers decided to go to the fancy hotel across the street for dinner since nothing else was open.

The hotel looked stunning, both inside and out. It was a very grand style of hotel (quite literally a Grand Hotel), something straight out of the fifties, but gone slightly to seed.

The inside of the Grand Hotel. The artistic dutch angle is due to the artistic Mai Tai I was served.

The restaurants also looked beautiful. Unfortunately, they were all closed by 9:30 PM. The only one open was the lobby cafe, which looked fine. The menu was largely American Diner style, and - important! - there was alcohol. We have a winner!

We sat near the window of the hotel, which afforded a marvelous view of the valet parking.

The staff was friendly, but they seemed somewhat nervous about serving English speaking Americans. They seemed quite nervous about getting everything exactly right.

The menu had a lot of wine and alcohol. I ordered a Mai Tai, having loved them ever since finding a Waikiki Beach bar that offered them for 99 cents at happy hour. However, the drink I was served was not a Mai Tai. Oh it had rum. Not dark rum, but rum. And Hawaiian Punch. So, props for creativity, but no. Not a Mai Tai. Oh, I drank it. (Did I mention the rum?)

My friends ordered a bottle of wine. The staff made a big show out of bringing the bottle and uncorking it. Such a big show that I started to worry my friends might grab the bottle away from the server and uncork it with their teeth. She offered the cork to sniff, but the cork was rubber. This made the whole sniffing the cork part of the operation superfluous. (You sniff the cork to determine if the bottle has suffered cork rot. Rubber corks do not get cork rot.) It was as if they had seen a movie about wine, but never actually served it. They smelled the cork in the movie...we should do that too, right?

We ordered a plate of Asian Delicacies for an appetizer. (Hey, that's what they called them.) We discovered that this was a plate of heavily fried bite sized morsels. A couple spring rolls. Some indeterminate fish bites. Over all, not as good as what you'd get at PF Chang's.

My friend is a vegetarian. She ordered a Croque Monsieur, and somehow managed to convey to them that she wanted the ham left off. Out came a triple decker grilled cheese sandwich. Made from barely singed Wonder Bread, two slices of slightly warm American cheese, and a whole lot of chutzpah.

It also came with french fries. These weren't too bad. However, we had also ordered a plate of fries for the table so we had a mountain of fries. Which was good, since the Asian Delicacies were a little rough going down.

After the pound of fries, I finished off my "Mai Tai," so I tried to order a Jack Daniels and Coke.

I would like to again stress that the Taiwanese are very gracious and accommodating hosts. All of the street signs are in English as well as Chinese. Most menus and storefronts are Chinese & English. Most of the staff in the more tourist friendly destinations speak at least a few words of English. (Which is at least a few more that I can speak or even attempted to learn.) Still, if you understand Jack Daniels and you understand Coke, I don't see why mixing the two would be a problem. It apparently was. Asking for a Jack and Coke caused such a look of panic on our host's face that I was afraid he would stroke out. I changed my mind and instead asked for Jack Daniels on ice. (Asking for it "on the rocks," well that's just asking for trouble.)

So after a delectable meal of fried foods and warm bread, we were sitting and chatting when a new party arrived on the scene.

A three inch long cockroach.

And boy could it move!

One of my dining companions saw it from across the lobby, and by the time she finished saying "Oh my god look at that!" it had made it over to the side of our table.

Well, bills were paid in record time. The total for this wonderful experience was 3000 Taiwanese Dollars, or about $100 US for some french fries, a crappy grilled cheese, and a bottle of OK wine.

Expereiencing international hospitality...Priceless! 

Still, we had a great time during this meal. It provided no end of humor during the rest of our stay.

And it made the Big Mac I had in Taiwan that week all the more tasty. (Especially the fries! How come I have to go to Taiwan to get hot McDonald's fries?)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

But I want it!

So there's this ad that's been on all summer. It starts off as an ad for something called the "Carm Sleeve."

But! In a twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan (At least, The Village era M. Night) it turns out that it's a plug for a website called! "Doesn't this product suck? You can sign up for consumer surveys and tell them that at!"

Ha ha ha! Stupid Carm Sleeve!

But, I love the Carm Sleeve!

I spend a lot of time driving, and by driving I mean crawling along in New York traffic. It's nice to get some sun while trying to get by the summer lane closures by rolling down the window.

Anyway, I can TOTALLY see the wisdom in a protective shield for your outside arm. I sport a farmer's tan all summer, and if you look at my left arm you'd think I had mediterranean heritage! My right arm, not so much. If someone were to make one, I'd get one for the car! (After all, My Lovely Wife once bought antlers and a red nose to put on the car at Christmas.)

So screw you,! I know where you can stick that Carm Sleeve.