Dongao Harbor

We get there just before 4:00 to meet the boat as it’s coming in. There is already a small crowd of Chinese people waiting. Everyone looks clean and fresh and the parking lot is full of new sedans, so I guess none of them are Dong’ao locals. We aren’t, either, but we’re barely dressed in swimsuits and cover-ups. We’re going snorkeling after this, and then we’ll take the fish up to the cabin. We want a tuna big enough to make sushi and grill the leftovers.

I watch an old man toss an empty liquor bottle–the local stuff I’ve often seen but never drank–into the ocean, followed by a plastic cup. He looks at it for a moment, bobbing on the surface, then he walks away.

I watch the crew of the ship. Only one man looks Chinese. He is bigger and paler then anyone else on the boat. He’s handsome in a rugged kind of way. I imagine he knows all about boats and the ocean and fish and weather, all very practical and good to know. Hemingway would probably like him. He is obviously in charge. The others are much darker, younger, thinner–almost gaunt. They scuttle over the boat and the dock in heavy rubber boots, but their pants are thin and loose on their thin legs. I’ve read articles about slavery in the Asian fishing industry. Are these guys employed legally, healthily, gainfully, happily? They are talking and laughing with their boss. They are smiling. Do slaves smile?

The crew notices me and they elbow each other and point at me with their chins and their eyebrows. I smile at them, even though I know they’ve taken off my tunic with their eyes. One of them chirps “Hello” in English, in a high, tight voice that belies his bravado. I’m feeling generous and I know I’m safe, so I say, “Hiiiii” back to him. I allow myself the lilt, like I’m flirting or talking to a kid. The men laugh and put their heads together in a huddle. I assume men all over say the same disgusting things about women, especially women who don’t look anything like their mothers or sisters, but I’m on the shore, in the daylight, surrounded by respectable people, within sight of my husband who looks big and strong. I’m not wearing pants, but I feel like I can afford to be friendly.

The men hitch the orange tubs of fish and ice to a pulley and this way move their catch from the boat up onto the dock. Other men tip the heavy tubs into crates and the cold water, pink with blood runs down the concrete of the dock back toward the ocean. A man tosses a puffer fish onto the concrete. It’s garbage, but I watch it gasp for air and the crowd gasps. I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself and I don’t want to get in the way, but I want to grab that fish up and toss him back in the ocean before he drowns on the shore. I imagine trying to get a hold of his slippery tail while avoiding his prickly body and trying to carry him back to the water. A mother runs over there, with her son, and picks up the fish. I’m so glad that sh’s going to save him and she tosses him off the dock, but she doesn’t aim and the fish lands in another orange tub full of fish and pink, icy water, back on the boat. She shrugs at her son. Later, more puffer fish will be tossed onto the concrete and the fishermen will kick them or step on them indifferently. In between assaults, their flanks will heave as they die in a long panic. The little boy who watched his mother fail to save the first fish will watch the men in their big boots kick the others and he will cautiously toe at them with his sandals until the adults warn him off. I want to save the fish and show the boy, but I imagine this happens every day at 4:00 so what difference will it make? I hate myself for being cynical, but I don’t move.

A woman walks along the front of the crowd to where I am standing and watching and she stops right in front of me so that I can only see the hair on the back of her head and nothing else. Her husband comes to stand behind her. “If you want that fish, talk to that man. If you want that fish, talk to that man,” he says. She wanders across the path of the orange tubs as they swing from the boat to the crates. Her daughter tries to follow her, but the father catches her by the arm just before she collides with a floating tub. Now comes the son, with a poodle tucked under his arm like a handbag, and the grandfather behind him. The heavy tubs swing around them and the pink water flows past their feet but they are unperturbed. Nothing bad can ever happen to them.

J waves me over. I haven’t been paying attention to him, or N—, or F—-, but they’ve already chosen and paid for a tuna. A big one, and it only cost NT$400. Later, N— will take the fish and a knife down to the driveway, and when he comes back he’ll have big strips of red meat ready to cut into sushi, and a bag of bones and skin for miso soup. The sushi is delicious, fresh and firm, but it makes me nauseous. I can’t stop thinking about the pink water and the puffer fish, but I don’t stop eating.

J took this photo. If you look, you can see me by the far pillar watching what's going on. The woman and her son are looking down at the boat after she tossed the puffer fish back into the tub. Can you spot the boy with the poodle under his arm?
J took this photo. If you look, you can see me by the far pillar watching what’s going on. The woman and her son are looking down at the boat after she tossed the puffer fish back into the tub. Can you spot the boy with the poodle under his arm?


amateur sashimi
amateur sashimi

Harvest Time

I hate myself when I get a sandwich at Harvest Time. The sandwiches are fine, not bad, and sometimes you’re in the mood for a sub and not another fried chicken lunchbox, and that’s cool.

But this sign. This f*&%ing sign right here. This sign is bullshit.

harvest time zhongli sign

This sign is a LIE. I like jalapenos on my sandwich, and these people will give you like one jalapeno for every three inches. That means out of your whole sandwich, you only get two bites with a jalapeno. WHERE IS THE BALANCE?

There is no fucking formula. There is only people being stingy. How about all the customers who don’t want jalapenos on their sandwiches? Can I have their jalapenos?

But there is no parking in front of the Subway by the movie theater…

Eat That Frog

I ate some bugs and a frog in Thailand.

We bought them from this vendor in Chiang Mai:


amateur vagrant bug vendor chiang mai thailand


amateur vagrant medley of fried bugs

J ate some mealworms, a grub, a grasshopper, and a cricket with me, but he would not eat that frog.

I think it’s a good time to point out that some people in Thailand eat bugs, not all Thai people.

Just like in Taiwan, some people are down with snake soup, but not anyone I know. I have students who won’t even eat century eggs, even though I personally like them in my congee. 

So just keep in mind when you see people eating “weird foods” in other countries, not even all the people in that country are down. Not all Americans eat runny eggs or rare steak.

When I was eating this frog, the Thai women in the back, young and old, were cracking jokes and laughing, but they wouldn’t even try it with us! They were yelling, “It tastes like chicken!”

It did not.

I really believe that we are all going to end up eating more bugs if not needing to rely on bugs for protein in the future. Factory farms produce so much carbon emissions and we’re already screwed because of global warming… I feel like I might as well get used to crunchy mealworms and creamy grubs.

amateur vagrant eating a grasshopper

Thai Farm Cooking School in Chiang Mai

Friday is food day here at Amateur Vagrant (or it is when I am on the ball, anyway), so I thought I’d use this chance to tell you about our family trip to Thai Farm Cooking School in Chiang Mai while we were recently on holiday in Thailand.

There are so many cooking schools in Chiang Mai to choose from that it was hard to make a decision, but what sold our family group on Thai Farm Cooking School was that it was rated number one on Trip Advisor, it included a visit to the wet market before we started cooking, and it was all day.

That’s the thing with Trip Advisor, though, isn’t it? Once something becomes number one, then it becomes every traveler’s first choice. But how many people are actually able to go to multiple cooking schools and do a thoughtful comparison? Most of us don’t have that kind of time or money budget.

We had a good experience, as a family, at Thai Farm Cooking School, but nothing that made me think it would be categorically better than the other schools that offered shorter sessions and/or lower prices.

And if you already know how to cook, if you already know how to prepare some basic Thai dishes, and you already know your way around an Asian grocery store, I am not sure you need to go to any Thai cooking school at all.

Let me get real: I gave Thai Farm Cooking School five stars on Trip Advisor cause it was a nice day and my family liked it.


There are shorter classes, cheaper classes, and classes in town.

And if you really know how to cook, this won’t add much to your repertoire.

But if you want to have a nice day with friends or family, go ahead! I’ll vouch for this place. We had fun.

So the trip to the market was cool. I wish I knew what market we went to because it wasn’t too far from where we stayed at Galare Guest House near the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. We had croissant sandwiches for breakfast that day and I regretted it as soon as we got to the market because there was so much good local food being prepared and I wasn’t even hungry and I was getting ready to go cook like five dishes, too, so there was no sense in buying anything extra.

We did buy some fried bugs for a little experiment of our own, though.

The bugs at the wet market we visited before class
The bug vendor at the wet market we visited before class

At the market, our teacher introduced us to a few of the ingredients we’d be using and then left us on our own for forty minutes. I don’t feel like I got much from that hour at the market. But if you’ve never been to a wet market before or never used Thai ingredients, you will find it very interesting.

Anyway, I’d like to find out what market that was and go back because it was nice and neat and full of good food.

Then we drove about 45 minutes out to the “farm”. We did not see an actual “farm”, but we got a nice tour of a garden where we smelled lots of fresh herbs and were introduced to some other ingredients, like the bitter mini eggplants that are in red and green curry and the small, round Thai eggplants. I had never heard of or used Thai parsley before, so I was glad for the introduction to that very fragrant herb.

There were a lot of bugs in the garden.
There were a lot of bugs in the garden.

We made two dishes right away–I chose coconut soup and pad thai. Everything was pretty much already prepped in trays for us, and we measured the soy sauce and oil, etc, into a small bowl with either a teaspoon or a tablespoon. It was basically foolproof. Again, if you’ve never cooked Thai food before, I think it would be very interesting. But I have my favorite pad thai recipe already, and it’s a real Thai recipe and I’ve been using it for years, so I didn’t feel like I learned a lot at this point.

Putting some condiments on the pad Thai I made
Putting some condiments on the pad Thai I made

I don’t want to sound like I am claiming I know all about Thai food, but I want to say that even though this class was taught by a Thai chef, it was a class for noobs.

I know what a tablespoon is!

I have a gas stove!


Anyway, we made those two dishes pretty quick and then we were given about an hour to eat. Maybe by then it was already noon or close to it. We walked around the “farm” a bit, but really, there wasn’t much to explore.

amateur vagrant thai farm cooking school waiting for instructions in the kitchen
Getting ready to cook in the classroom.

After lunch,  we all made our own curry paste with a mortar and pestle. That was cool! I’ve never made my own curry paste with fresh ingredients before. I made a yellow curry paste so I could make that heavenly yellow curry with potatoes.

amateur vagrant thai farm cooking school curry paste mortar pestle

Sweet baby Jesus, there is maybe nothing better to eat than Asian food with potatoes. That includes Indian dishes made with potatoes, Thai yellow curry, and mouth-watering “big plate chicken” (da pan ji) from Western China/Uzbekistan. Even French fries with Thai chili paste are awesome.

I love potatoes. So much.

Pro-tip: Some garnishes and a little coconut milk will make your curry look less like poop when you photograph it.
Pro-tip: Some garnishes and a little coconut milk will make your curry look less like poop when you photograph it.

Anyway, we made curry and I made chicken with basil but I was getting so full now that I couldn’t finish what I made. In fact, everyone was passing their leftovers to J, but not even he could finish it all. Our teacher demonstrated how to make green papaya salad with a mortar and pestle while we were eating, and we all sampled that as well.

amateur vagrant thai farm cooking school chicken and basil dish
Chicken with basil

We had about an hour to eat, and mostly we just sat and tried to get it in us. Then it was time to make dessert. By then, I was prepared to be kinda bored making “bananas in coconut milk”, but the teacher introduced us to pandan, another ingredient I’d never used before. She said it was also called “Thai vanilla” in English, and that I could use vanilla as a substitute.

Yay! New info!

Anyway, the bananas in coconut milk was simple, but it tasted like the most wonderful banana pudding you’ve ever had. I thought I was full, but I ate/drank the whole bowl.

J's sticky rice with mango. They added some butterfly pea for flavor and that pretty purple color.
J’s sticky rice with mango. They added some butterfly pea for flavor and that pretty purple color.

Then we all got some nice little cookbooks including recipes we hadn’t even made. We were wrapped up by about 3:00. All in all, I’d say we spent about two hours cooking: the rest of it included the trip to the market, travel time, the introduction to the garden, and the extra time we were given to eat and occupy ourselves. It was very laid-back, which was fine, but if you don’t want to give up a whole morning and afternoon to a cooking class, I think you could certainly try a different cooking school. There were cheaper options, too. But this school was well-run, clean, the equipment all worked, the instructor was very knowledgeable and professional, and the food we made was delicious, so I still think we had a great experience.

Frying up some tofu for pad Thai
Frying up some tofu for pad Thai