Thursday, June 21, 2012

To-do list progress: teaser entry

My time in Taiwan is running really short. Tomorrow Becca goes back home and I become the last remaining CIEE student. On Sunday, my parents arrive and although I won't be leaving Taiwan, it will be a departure from the life I've been living here, so I essentially have two days left to wrap things up. I have lots of stories from the past week but as just a taste of what you have to look forward to hearing about, I will let you in on the progress of my to-do list...

My To-Do Before Leaving Taiwan List (developed around 6 weeks ago):

- Everything on the metro list: (13/16)
                X - Yangming Park
                X - National Palace Museum
                X - Xingtian Temple
                National Taiwan Science Education Center
                Shilin Official Residence
                Taipei Expo Park
                X - Martyrs Shrine
                X - The Lin Family Mansion and Garden
                X - Taipei Fine Arts Museum
                X - Longshan Temple
                X - Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall
                X - Taipei 101
                X - Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
                X - National Museum of History
                X - Taipei Zoo
                X - Maokong Gondola
- Daan Park
X - Starbucks on 35th floor of Taipei 101
X - Hike at school
X - Hike elsewhere
- Sun Moon Lake [I will go here with parents next week]
X - Bike ride
X - Make something
X - Develop skill
X - Get massage
- Go to coffee alley
X - Start painting
X - Wear clothes I wouldn't wear - polo, traditional, other?
X - Eat snake
X - Eat shark

A good number of these items have been crossed off in the past week and you will be hearing about them soon! It's been a school-intensive week so I spent more time than I would have liked in my dorm either doing work or procrastinating doing work. But now I have finished all of my finals, papers, presentations, and classes... except one :( due in July. Which is going to ruin me. But for now, I'm going to try and forget about it and enjoy my final moments in Taiwan!

Stay tuned for all the gritty details!!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Class Cancelled!

Today classes were cancelled due to flooding!

Campus river getting a little over zealous

These photos have been spreading widely across facebook.

I have been doing school work lately.  It's a weird change of pace from the rest of my semester, I don't like it.

Another thing: I revealed to Becca a while back that before coming here I never differentiated between "noodles" and "pasta".  I think I would pretty much use them interchangeably, or maybe it would depend on shape or something.  Here it's very clear when you're eating noodles (which is most of the time) versus pasta, which is always described in Chinese as "Italian style noodles" but which everyone translates to "spaghetti".  Anyway, now I know, they're made from different things, totally not the same at all, blah blah blah.  Apparently my body has learned the difference too!  I had pasta today for the first time since February and not only did it seem totally different to chew than the noodles I've grown used to, but my stomach wasn't used to it, either, and it felt like I had eaten rocks.  So strange!  I've had so much pasta in my life and now it's like a whole new food!

Also, I went to the doctor on Monday.  I was nervous because I don't exactly have health insurance here - I mean, my American one will work once I return but until then it's all out-of-pocket.  The doctor looked at my ear, and prescribed both an oral and topical antibiotic.  I didn't even have to go to a drug store, they gave me the necessary medications immediately.  All for a grand total of... just over $13.  Which is less than my usual co-pay for one generic prescription.  This is honestly the first time I really understand why people say the health care system in America is so dysfunctional - if this is the alternative, sign me up!  Ear is still nasty and painful but I am hoping for a breakthrough in the next day or two.

Hoping I'll still have the chance to complete my "before I leave Taiwan" to do list in the midst of all this work and rain.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Cute Restaurants and Day of Tourism

Side note: When we first arrived, some of us joked that our definition of a "nice bathroom" had changed from something with fancy decorations to one that had both hand soap and paper towels.  Since then, I think it has changed to one that has a toilet and toilet paper.  If that sounds like a joke, it's not - here you're expected to carry around your own toilet paper so many public restrooms don't provide any, and some of them only have squatters for use.  Never thought just a simple toilet with toilet paper would feel like luxury.  But anyway, I have actually really grown to appreciate the fact that so many restrooms don't provide paper towels (or hand dryers).  At first it was a great annoyance.  But then it occurred to me how eco-friendly it must be!  I think the real reason is for cost savings, but still.  In America all these places offering high-speed hand dryers tout them for being so eco-friendly, when in reality, isn't it much "greener" not to use any paper or electricity?  And you know what?  Having wet hands for two minutes really isn't that bad.  So, America, if you want to brag about being environmentally friendly, lose the dryers.

My most unfortunate update is with regard to my piercing.  I got it the Thursday before last, and for the first few days it seemed to be doing just fine.  However, unfortunately (probably my fault) early last week it started feeling sore and swollen and red, and hurting more and more.  For a while I thought it was okay and normal (because your body is naturally going to be a little pissed when you punch holes and shove foreign objects in it), but as time went by, a few things started to make me nervous.  For one, the area seemed so swollen that the jewelry might be pinching it, which isn't good.  My entire ear - not just that spot - was incredibly swollen, such that the previously defined lines and squiggles were now marshmallow versions of their past selves.  Also, one thing that started freaking me out was that (I assume from swelling) my pierced ear was clearly sticking out considerably more than my other ear, which made me look pretty wacky.  Lastly, at some point I realized I was not only feeling pain in my ear but in my jaw and neck surrounding it.  So I figured it was time to take action.

This past Thursday I went back to the piercer to have him take it out.  When I went the first time, I was with Becca and Emily who served as my translators, and this guy was very talkative and argumentative.  Going back the second time, alone, I was nervous that he would be asking me lots of questions and giving me lots of instructions and I wouldn't be able to communicate with him at all.  That's not how it went at all!  I walked in, and he patted the stool for me to sit down.  Without a word, he looked at my ear and started taking various actions to clean it up and eventually take the jewelry out.  We were silent pretty much the whole time.  One of the only times he spoke, he said in a very soft voice, "很痛" (hěn tòng), which means, "very painful."  I nodded at him through tear-filled eyes.  "痛."

Anyway, since then it has still been giving me a hard time so I may be going to the doctor on Monday, if it doesn't seem better.

On to cheerier subjects!

On Friday I had a day full of eating good food in cute places.  Becca and I have been discussing for a while returning to the adorable bagel shop that we went to on our scavenger hunt ages ago.  So we set the date for Friday at lunch and, after magically both being correct about our vague instincts on how to get there, we made it happen.  And oh man.  It really is just the cutest little place.  To me it really feels like somewhere you could go in Seattle, or Ithaca, or Austin - selling little artisan soaps and organic flavored olive oils and charming books of photos alongside fancy bagels of so many enticing flavors - plain, of course, but also double cheese, tomato basil, rice, banana chocolate, black sesame and brown sugar, sweet potato cream cheese, mango, sweet potato red bean and brown sugar, and more... and instead of the kind of bagels where "sesame" means sesame sprinkled on top, all of these are like hollow tubes stuffed with whichever ingredients.  Yummy.  And that's just for take-out!

We got there at the peak of brunch and had to wait almost an hour for our seats - it was nice to get to look around at the shop, but I was getting seriously hungry so I did end up buying a double cheese and a sweet potato cream cheese to-go and took teeny nibbles to hold me over.  Finally we were seated and we both decided to splurge and get a set (added coffee, salad, and dessert) in addition to our meal bagels, all of which are far more elaborate than the take-out bagels.  Becca got a bagel with seared duck and grapefruit - it looked amazing and from the taste I had, it was!  I got one that had tofu with button mushrooms and a distinct orange flavor- also a hit!  And very unusual.  We deliberately took our time with each course and lingered to make up for the long wait time.  And I mean... that place is so freaking cute.

Me with tofu mushroom bagel.  Unfortunately their ceiling isn't cute so this photo doesn't capture the cuteness
I'm also coming to terms with the fact that I have to get out of the mindset that if I like some place, I will come back.  I only have two weeks until my parents arrive!  My seemingly infinite time here is dwindling and so instead of making my usual promise to return, when we left, I said goodbye to the bagel place... forever.

We then went to Taipei 101 and poked around a very cute bookstore for a while before I returned to school, the whole afternoon having passed.

I met up with Afore for our language meal, at a Chinese/Japanese style restaurant in the Gongguan area.  Because our language meal is subsidized by CIEE, we wanted to go somewhere a little classier than usual.  And this place was adorable!  We were sitting on pads on the ground, and our table was glass revealing an aquarium within.  The hanging lamps were shaped like lotus flowers, there were plants outside the window lit up artfully, there was traditional Chinese artwork on the walls... everything about it was totally charming and adorable.  And my food was amazing!  I got a mutton green curry (maybe more Indian than Chinese style), and it was fantastic.  Plus the meal set came with tea, french bread with bruschetta, three small dishes (a piece of sweet potato, about a tablespoon of pickled veggies, and some soy product that was QQ的), soup, salad, and passion fruit vinegar.  People drink vinegar here, and once I did by accident and was horrified, but Afore assured me this one was good... and what do you know, she was right!  And so healthy!  Afore got as her meal milk tea hotpot which actually did taste like milk tea and actually came with boba in it!  Kind of crazy.  Anyway, it was such a sweet place and a great meal.

See the aquarium underneath?

Afore with lotus crown!
Then, we strolled around the area just long enough to clear room for dessert.  We just happened to be in the same neighborhood as this hole-in-the-wall cookie and cupcake place with a really friendly guy from California who gives out free samples, speaks a bunch of languages, bakes everything by hand, plays guitar, and keeps random stuff lying around the shop.  I came here once before, way in February.  This time I got a strawberry lemonade cupcake, which, despite my full stomach, I devoured.  Then we met up with Becca to return to the very first cafe/bar that we went to in the first week and we felt very sophisticated when we asked for their cheapest wine.  And that place is so cute too.  Every place was so cute.  It was an adorable and highly caloric day.

Seeing my time here running so low, I have new determination to spend less time in my dorm room, on the computer, or otherwise wasting my few remaining opportunities to get out and see Taiwan.  Plus, my to-do-before-leaving list is still considerable and my work load is only getting heavier!  So, on Saturday, I decided to seize the day and cross a couple of items off my list.  I grabbed my list from the metro (with 10/16 items already checked off!) and set out for the Lin family garden and mansion.

The day turned out to be full of opportunities to practice my Chinese!  First, on my way to the mansion, I asked for directions that led me down a cute windy road featuring a traditional market.  Once I made my way around the huge property to the entrance, I expertly told them in Chinese that I would like to buy a ticket, but they still laughed at me because it's free and you don't need to buy a ticket.  So I started wandering around the garden, which is kind of like a maze except even more difficult to navigate because I had no idea how big an area it was supposed to be or what areas I'm not allowed to visit without a guided tour.  So, after spending about ten minutes in one small courtyard of a hundred, I was ready to declare victory and assume I had seen all there was to see.  Luckily, a few friendly women approached me and asked if I had ever seen a Taiwanese Opera, to which I replied, " :) ? " because I didn't know the word for Opera.  So one woman indicated that I should follow her and she led me out of the courtyard I had become trapped in and into a bigger section of the garden, through several big and beautiful areas before arriving at - surprise! - a performance of Taiwanese Opera.  She was very friendly and asked me a lot of questions, most of which I understood and answered appropriately!  She introduced me to her husband, who, upon finding out I was from Houston, kept making a hand motion I didn't understand that I eventually realized was indicating that NASA was there.  We parted ways and I explored the rest of the gardens (although I still very well may have missed significant portions), occasionally asking people to help me take a picture (new vocabulary!) and sometimes being the subject of other's pictures, too.  The garden was totally beautiful - lots of interesting plants, architecture, carvings, furniture, tree roots, cave tunnels, bonsai trees, etc etc - and I really enjoyed looking around it.

When I left, I practiced even more Chinese as I asked a woman about the mangoes she was selling and elected not to pay her outrageous price for them.  I bought a couple of other things to nibble on (practicing that Chinese!) and soaked up the atmosphere of this new part of town before getting back on the MRT.

I hadn't made up my mind at that point whether I was going to go to Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, Xingtian Temple (both on my MRT guide), or return back to school.  I impulsively decided on Xingtian Temple (since I've kind of already done CKS Hall) and so got out at the appropriate stop and headed to it.  It was far less interesting than I had hoped, since the pamphlet said it is the most frequently visited temple in northern Taiwan.  Honestly, it had a lot of people but other than that was unremarkable.  I took some pictures and crossed it off my list anyway.  And fortunately I got a chance to take all these photos - of the Lin garden, too - the way they should be photographed: set against the gloomy Taipei grey skies.  Any sun would have been so inauthentic.

Here people are waiting on line to (I think) get blessed or cleansed or something by the women in blue

I wandered around that area for a while, keeping an eye out for a charming cafe to rest for a while.  I stumbled on a cute little park or two and, after a coffee, decided to walk to a neighboring MRT stop so I could soak in some more Taiwan street feeling in my last few weeks here.  Another charming park came in my path, so I walked through it (and took some photos, including one of a strange looking and unidentified bird and one of a group of old men crowded around an intense game of Chinese chess).  It was a pretty nice walk and so after reaching the MRT stop, I kept walking - walked into a nature store (very reminiscent of Austin) and into a bakery, and walked until sunset!

Saw this fancy shmancy car getting that ticket (tee hee)

As if there was any doubt in your mind...

Last night, there was an earthquake!!  It was so exciting!  For me, at least.  According to a few news articles I've seen, it was rated at a 6.5 off the coast of Taiwan.  I have never felt an earthquake before so it was a pretty cool experience for me.  Actually, since I've been here, we've had several minor earthquakes or tremors that I only hear about by word of mouth the next day, but I'm such a heavy sleeper that I never wake up or notice them.  This one, however, woke me up.  It was around 5 am, and my first thought was that my roommate was shaking her bed.  It increased and I realized what was going on - at some point definitely all the furniture was shaking noticeably and audibly.  It soon decreased to just a minor rumbling, but I could still feel it in my bed and my chest.  My first instinct was definitely, "Cool!  My first earthquake!" but then it occurred to me that I had no idea how big or severe it was going to be and maybe I should be evacuating the building or getting under the door jams or something.  Thankfully, that wasn't necessary, and from everything I've heard it seems to have been pretty benign.  So... cool.

This morning I had a project meeting scheduled for 10 o'clock for which both my classmate and I slept through - better two than one!  Instead we met up at 11 and worked for a few hours before I headed to a cafe called Woolloomooloo with Becca, in hopes we could sit, relax, eat lunch, drink coffee, use wifi, and get some school work done.  Well, I didn't get any work done (by no fault of my own!) but the french toast was delicious, the place was cute, and the area of town was new.

Becca left to meet up with some other friends, and I, inspired by my wandering adventures of the day before, decided to walk around to a neighboring MRT stop to get a feel for this part of town.  The good news is that it turned out to actually be a very cute and charming area, with lots of trees in the road median, tucked-away sweet restaurants, and a good balance between tranquility and civilization.  There were more cute parks, and an elementary school playground full of happy children.  The bad news is that my navigational skills let me down a little more than the day before, and so I ended up walking for something like an hour or two, asking at least five different people for directions, and ending up not only at a different subway stop than I anticipated but one on a completely different line than I anticipated.  But it was good exercise, I'm sure.

I have been planning the itinerary for when my parents come to visit in two weeks.  It's a stressful task because I want to show the essence of Taiwan, the essence of my life for the past four months, along with combining shopping, strolling, museums, tourist spots, temple stuff, historic stuff, nature stuff... it seems impossible but it's kind of fun trying to decide what activities combined would make a perfect day.

It's been 118 days in Taiwan - 18 to go!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Danshui and Music

Not a whole lot to say today, but here goes -

Here are some of my more recent favorite Chinese-language songs:
不得不愛 (bu de bu ai) - I have been listening to this on repeat for the past four days.
朋友 (friend)

Check them out!

I finally went to Danshui (Tamsui) for the first time last weekend!  Becca, Emily, and I all made it out for a few hours to stroll along the water, play silly games and eat delicious food.  It was lots of fun!  Definitely contributed to my ever-expanding waistline!

Home of the super tall ice cream!

I've been meaning to take a picture of these because I thought they were so creepy looking at first... but now they seem really normal
Tired on the MRT home... don't judge us, the floors are reallly clean.

Nearly everyone has left for the US already... Becca and Phuab are sticking around pretty much until the end, and a few other students (and the ambassadors, of course) are still around, but my social circle is getting smaller and smaller.

I had a final today!  So I studied a little for that.

Also, the other day we went to this light show at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall -

And here is a cute nest of birdies!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Philippines and Other Updates

Well, since my last entry, perhaps my most noteworthy experience was my trip to the Philippines, however, it doesn't come the first chronologically so I'm not going to start with that.

I tried durian for the first time!  For those of you who may not know, durian is sometimes referred to as "smelly fruit" - I had heard a lot about it before ever tasting it, particularly with regard to its odor.  Emily famously described the experience of tasting it as being like "someone farted in my mouth."  When I first arrived in Taiwan it was out of season, but for the past month or so I have smelled it from time to time in fruit shops or on the street.  I think it smells like garbage - others have said gym socks or any number of other unpleasant things. Another thing I had heard about it was that it tastes like custard and if you freeze it, it tastes like ice cream.  It looks like this:

That's from the outside, but the way you typically buy it (or so I'm told) is by piece of the inside, which is white and fleshy and creamy, as shown below:

I tried it both room temperature and frozen.  It is definitely stinky, but not so bad.  It didn't really taste like fruit - it is creamy and even tastes more like a vegetable than a fruit.  Overall... not bad.

Also, we went to this amazing all-you-can-eat vegetarian restaurant that CIEE paid for - something like $20US/person - and they had over 100 courses to choose from, including Haagen-Dazs (which is really expensive here) as one of the dessert options.  It felt more like going to a department store than a restaurant - it was incredible.  They even had vegetarian sushi! (?!)

Last week my roommate very sweetly got me a ticket to a dance performance!  I guess her teacher has access to a bunch of free tickets to performances around Taipei, and so she managed to snag me one.  So nice!  It was great - I'm not any kind of dance expert (and I didn't quite follow the plot because the helpful summaries were all in Chinese), but it seemed really good and I definitely was glad to have the opportunity to go.  Plus, at least I could follow some of it!  I know there was a couple, and then the guy had to leave, but at the end I think either he finally returns, or he's dead... or she's dead...  something like that.

On Wednesday after class, I set out for the Philippines!  Just before heading to the airport, I made a last-minute stop at Watsons to pick up a can of pepper spray... just in case :)  My bus -> metro -> bus -> airport -> plane -> Philippines all went smoothly - we even got served a meal on just a two hour flight.  Plus, I got to watch the sunset from above the clouds, which was pretty neat.  Although I was kind of thinking of it as a more exotic vacation, in several ways the Philippines actually felt more like the US than Taiwan does.  Everyone speaks English.  They don't use chopsticks, they use forks and knives.  The toilets are the kind you can sit on.  And when I ordered iced tea in a restaurant, what I got was Nestea, which, of course, doesn't taste anything like iced real tea in Taiwan.

I had been advised to be sure to only take a metered cab from the airport, not an airport taxi, which would be overpriced.  Anyway, this overly-friendly-to-the-point-of-sleazy-and-creepy guy approached me and asked if I needed a taxi, and I asked him, "Is it metered?"  He assured me it was, and led me to the car.  But it didn't look like a taxi - no phone number painted on the side, no light on top... just a regular looking car.  And when I got in, I definitely didn't see a meter.  Then, maybe the weirdest/most uncomfortable part, he got into the passenger's seat because there was a different guy driving.  I asked again, "now, this is metered, right?"  And again he said it was, but I was sure there was no meter.  Anyway, after we drove about one minute (of this guy being a little too friendly), I brought the issue up again and he took out a sheet of paper and said, "Yes, and here are the metered prices!" - as in, they were all pre-set prices and the exact opposite of being metered.  From everything I had read online, the taxi to the hostel was supposed to cost around $5-10 US.  He wanted to charge me $45.  I told him that was too much and to please take me back to the airport.  The whole situation got very creepy... they offered to let me out right where they were, on a dark and dangerous street with no sidewalk in a strange city...  I insisted, please, just take me back to the airport where we were.  Then he asked where I was from and told me that it was his dream to date - or, "have an experience with" - a white girl.  At this point I was already clutching my can of pepper spray.  I kept asking why we weren't at the airport yet, and again they offered to let me out on a dangerous sidewalk-less road, and he kept offering to be my guide around Manila, because he's "a very friendly Filipino."  Eventually we did return to the airport (without ever needing to make use of my pepper spray) and I thanked them, apologized, and got the hell out of there.

The cab I did end up taking was much more comfortable.  The guy never talked and it only cost $7.  The tense grip on my pepper spray eased.

But that was really the only scary moment of my trip in the Philippines.  Actually, the director of the Taiwan CIEE program, Christie, was so worried about me that she called her friend who lives in Manila, Andy, and so he very generously took me around for the duration of my trip.  On Thursday we went to Tagaytay, south of Manila, where lies the smallest volcano in the world, Taal volcano.  It is a really beautiful area, with the volcano surrounded by a lake - plus, skies were bluer than they've ever been in Taiwan.  On the way there we stopped at a fruit stand where I had coconut water straight from the nut, and the sweetest pineapple I've ever tasted.  We also went to Andy's Buddhist temple in Tagaytay, which was beautiful and very welcoming.  Then Edna (Andy's coworker who came with us to help show me around) and I went to Mahogany market where I got to try all kinds of new fruits I'd never even heard of before, and got to feel the authentic Philippines market feeling.  We also got some little fried fish and a beef soup, which are specialties of the area.

The next day we spent some time at one of Manila's museums in the financial district, an area of town that felt a lot like New York's Midtown (rather than some of the areas of Manila, which look more like this:)

I didn't take this picture, but it is really Manila, and I did see some areas that looked like this
After the museum, I took a walking tour of Intramuros, the historic part of Manila that remains from the Spanish colonial period.  This tour came highly recommended from Gene (who gave me all kinds of tips and pieces of helpful advice before my departure, thanks Gene!), and it was really great.  This tour guide, Carlos Celdran, has a tremendous amount of knowledge about the history of Manila and the Philippines, and he goes through each period of colonization with different hats, jokes, a very animated and theatrical manner, and sometimes even surprises, like a horse ride and a free dessert.  That night we got dinner at a buffet of all types of traditional Filipino food so I got to try a little of everything!  And then, early the next morning, my flight brought me back to Taipei.

General impressions and expansions: the traffic in Manila is ridiculous.  Just, ridiculous.  It took forever to get anywhere, at any time of day.  Also, a lot of the time cars acted like there were no lane markers - the flow of traffic looked a lot more like a crowd of people all kind of pushing and squeezing to get past each other, creating new lanes when there was a slight opening.  They also use their horns far more liberally than in the US, and definitely than in Taipei (where I'm not even sure cars are equipped with horns) - to signal things like, "you aren't merging now, but in case you were thinking about it, you should know I'm right here," or, "you're not doing anything wrong but if you move over just a little farther then I can squeeze by," or, "pedestrians, get back on the sidewalk!"  Although it makes the street a noisier place, I actually prefer these uses to in the US where I feel like a lot of people only ever honk to mean, "fuck you!!"

Also, some of the most commons modes of transportation are jeepneys and tricycles, neither of which I had seen before Manila.  Apparently the origin of jeepneys is that after World War II, the US left behind a bunch of extra jeeps behind that I guess started being used for public transportation.  As I understand it, they run like buses in pre-set routes, but they don't have designated stops, so you can hail one or request a stop anywhere along the line.  The seating is along the sides of the car, like a limo, and they are all decorated really crazily with bright colors, random signs and pictures, and names painted on the front.  Very interesting!  The "tricycles" are a lot like the bike taxis I've seen in New York and Austin, but the car is on the side, many of them are run off motorcycles instead of bicycles, and they are way, way more common in Manila than anywhere else.  Sometimes you see them way overcrowded with, like, 6 people squeezed into the car and then three dangling off the bike... it's crazy.

Food: I tried so many things and I can't remember most of them, but the most memorable of all was: mango. I had two fresh, wild, Filipino mangoes, and they were unlike anything I've experienced before.  Instead of having that fibrous stuck-in-your-teeth texture, they were just soft and smooth and sweet and perfect.  If I could only eat one food until the day I day... maybe that would be it.  One of the dishes that Gene recommended very highly before I left was adobo, a style of cooking meat by stewing it in vinegar and garlic and stuff.  I had some chicken adobo at the buffet - it was amazing!  Really tender, juicy, flavorful... I definitely want to try making it when I get back to the US.  Halo-halo, a traditional Filipino dessert meaning "mix mix", was pretty crazy.  It was the dessert we got as part of the walking tour, to symbolize how the culture and people of the Philippines are a mix of all kind of things.  And it really had all kinds of things - beans, rice, dried cranberries, jackfruit, jello, pudding, sweet potato, tapioca, shaved ice, evaporated milk, about fifteen other ingredients, all topped with sugar.  Quite an experience.  The last food that I wanted to call specific attention to was one at the buffet - I noticed what looked like meat in some blackish sauce, so I put a small helping on my plate thinking it could be black sesame or something.  When I tried it, it wasn't black sesame, but I couldn't tell exactly what it was.  It tasted fine.  Then, as I was about to eat the last piece of meat, I looked at it and thought to myself, that sure looks a lot like intestine.  So, I asked Edna what the dish was.  In her words, "Pig's blood and organs."  After I heard her say that, I had a flashback to my conversation with Gene, where he made a list of foods not to eat.  It was only two items long: Balut (the eggs prepared with fetus included, described in a previous entry), and dinuguan, "pig's meat cooked in its own blood."  Oops.  Well.  Wow.

Gene also told me that Manila airport is rated as the worst in the world.  When he said that, I was wondering what could possibly be so bad to earn them that ranking, but I can safely say that after going through it, I understand.  I've had some bad airport experiences, but mostly just if there were so many people that lines were long.  This was different.  It isn't even like anything went wrong while I was there, or that there were too many people, it's just... the airport.  It is exactly what you'd expect if the DMV decided to branch out and designe an airport.  First, I waited on line for an initial x-ray, then Filipinos have to wait on a different line to pay a "travel tax" (unheard of in other countries), then wait on another line (by flight number, not by airline) to check in, and another line to pay the "terminal fee" (unheard of), and then another line to get the passport/ticket checked, and then ANOTHER line for the final security check.  It just felt like everything I had taken for granted in other airports suddenly seemed so well thought-out, like the passport check and security screening being in the same line.  Once I finally got to the (poorly marked) gate, there were no friendly announcements to signal the start of boarding - in fact, for 20 minutes after our boarding time, some people would go up to the counter and be let through, and others would go up to the counter and be turned away.  Once we commoners finally were allowed to board, we got in line (!) and were let through, only to find ourselves boarding... a bus.  The bus took us to the plane and after 27 lines and over two hours of being bounced around, we boarded the plane.  I will never speak an unkind word to IAH again.

Only about a week after I got back did Gene reveal to me that 1) the Philippines is on the US travel advisory list, along with Iraq, North Korea, and Somalia and 2) Philippine airlines, with whom I traveled (and found no problems) is blacklisted by the EU and downgraded by the US for not adequately complying with safety standards.  Well!  In any case.  I made it through safe and sound, and it's probably for the best that I didn't know those pieces of information before leaving.

Here are some photos from the trip:

Tagaytay - and that, in the middle of the lake, is Taal volcano!

Those are giant hanging pieces of meat - I don't think this meets US health codes!

Hanging out the back of a crowded jeepney
Another jeepney!

Tricycles - two in front, one in back

Tour of Intramuros

Since getting back last Saturday morning, I have had a week with hardly any class (April is still out of town) but lots of busy activities to say goodbye to all the CIEE language students!  The intensive Chinese program ended last week, so most people are headed back to the US.  It's sad!  Already several of my close friends have gone back, and several more leaving soon.  On Wednesday we had the CIEE farewell party.  There were several highlights: the ambassadors put together a really sweet video of photos and memories and Chinese lessons, and we all got a copy on DVD!  Also, we had a live performance by none other than Transitions!  If you haven't heard of them... it's your loss.  I actually was introduced to their song, 對不起 (I'm sorry) (click here to watch!) at the beginning of the semester as motivation to continue my Chinese studies.  I guess they are big with students studying Chinese, but also have many Taiwanese fans.  Anyway, Avalon originally introduced them to me, not realizing that our very own Kohan happens to be friends with the band!  So, this is actually really cool.  And it's even cooler that he managed to talk them into doing this performance for a group of 15 American students and 20 Taiwanese ambassadors, in their final week in Taiwan before getting deported!  They were really good and I'm still shocked that they agreed to perform for lil' old us.

Another part of the farewell party was the talent show!  Chris and I had discussed (half-jokingly) doing an interpretive dance for it together.  We agreed that "the only way to prepare was not to prepare."  And I guess we really embraced that philosophy because we didn't even have a song picked out until the day of.  I was definitely doubtful that it was actually going to happen... but Chris found a song and we came up with a leader-follower-free dance structure and so... we went through with it.  A total unrehearsed interpretive dance to a song I had never even heard before.  I think it was pretty silly but we both gave it our all... as I think you can tell from the photos:

Here we actually look coordinated!! almost!

... so that was silly.  I mean... "art".

The farewell party ended with everyone writing nice things about each other on posters to take home.  There weren't any tears, but I do think we'll all be sad to say goodbye!

... and the two guys with guitars are Transitions
Other activities this week: a stroll around unknown parts of the neighborhood with Rebecca Pollard, a night market we'd never been to before, honey toast with Becca and Emily (wow! yum! exquisite!), Vietnamese food, shopping at gongguan with Emily, going to her roommate's department talent show (which was actually a lot of fun - everyone was talented and the crowd was soo enthusiastic), shilin night market, a traditional market full of old lady clothes (and old ladies), and, of course, a few hours of class (?!).

We also had our last language corner.  It was sad!  I know I've said this before, but I really love my group.  I brought them cake, and they all made me very sweet cards thanking me, and we finished up by playing hot seat and entertaining the idea of all meeting up before I go back to the US.  I hope we do!  They are the best!
Jay, Vicky, me, Heidi, Sophia, and Jocelyn

 Yesterday, Becca, Emily, and I all went to get piercings!  Unfortunately, according to the piercer, we all have flawed ears that are specifically bad for whichever individual piercing we wanted.  Emily had fat lobes and wanted a lobe piercing, Becca had ear bumps in the wrong place to get a conch piercing, and I wanted a rook piercing but apparently my rook is all stretched out or receded or whatever so we spent half an hour arguing where to put it - hidden in the fold of my ear for no one to ever see it, or out where it's visible and horribly painful (according to him).  Well, I'm afraid he may have gotten his way and it's definitely tucked away more than I would have liked, but still:

Do you see the new one?  No?  Waaaayyy in there?  Just take my word for it.

Anyway, when we returned from that, we were delighted to find... the mysterious duck truck!  I first ever saw this a few weeks after arriving at NCCU.  Someone pointed to a little stand selling duck that is on the street with all the restaurants, across from the main gate and the bus stop, a place we walk past several times a day.  "I can't believe I never noticed that!" - and I couldn't believe it either.  But then, the next time I looked... it was gone!  Since then, we have always kept an eye out and I've only actually seen it there three other times, always at night, seemingly on a whim.  The duck truck.  Such an enigma.  Anyway, finally we saw it and were not in a rush or stuffed too full to eat, so Jack, Gene, Becca, Emily and I all got the duck.  Even the ordering was mysterious - no obvious menu, but we got a half duck.  The duck was good and we even found out his mysterious schedule... but I'll never tell!

Final photos:

I was wondering why this car was swerving so much...

oh hai!

The elegant and artery-clogging honey toast
Now unfortunately in the next few weeks I have a number of papers and presentations to do... :( also now that almost everyone is gone, I think I'm going to be having a lot more "me-time" (not by choice).  So, we enter a new phase of my Taiwan journey!

... and someone's excited!