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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was thinking about my two landlords and also how a lot of the people I work for and with are like my first landlord, the one who wasn’t really bothered about the terms of the lease because he assumed we weren’t going to be dicks, and seemed to think we should have expected him to come to us with six months’ of electricity bills because he was too busy to get in touch with us at any other time.
A lot of my issues with this way of doing things can be explained by an exploration of the differences between high-context and low-context cultures. Chinese culture is high context: they assume every one is on the same page and asking questions is weird. American culture is low context: we assume we have no idea what anyone else is thinking, so we want it all spelled out for us, in writing, with dotted i‘s and crossed t‘s. For example, I’d like some numbers multiplied by some other numbers on a piece of paper showing how many hours I worked when they give me my pay every month, and they seem to think I should trust that they probably got it right. (And if not, c’mon, we’re all friends here. We’re practically family. It’s barely about the money.) (That being said, they are more accurate than the HR at Rosetta Stone who used to screw us all coming and going when it came to recording our pay and benefits.)
I’m not an anthropologist, so I’ll just tell you some of the things that frustrate me less as time goes on, but still baffle me even after years here. Sometimes, you have conversations, very explicit, where you say, maybe, “Okay, but you have to watch our performance rehearsal a month before the show, two weeks before the show, not two days before the show, because if you want us to change something, you have to give us time. We’re working with young learners here, and we can’t change things on them too fast or they’ll get confused and that’s not fair.”
“Of course, of course,” your manager says. It’s nonsense to imply she is not reasonable or that she does not realize how long it takes to teach a class of kindergartners your original choreography for Katy Perry’s Firework.
But then, she walks into the gym two days before the show and the kids are near tears because they are sick to death of being told to smile and sing loudly and dance properly NO NOT LIKE THAT NOBODY TOLD YOU TO KICK HIM FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS HOLY DO NOT I SAID NO I AM SO DONE WITH THIS I HAVE A PHILOSOPHY DEGREE I NEVER WANTED THIS FOR MYSELF and she asks you to change the choreography because there isn’t enough dancing in circles. “It’s boring, they’re just dancing in lines.” No one ever mentioned anything about any kind of standards, let alone circles, and you didn’t think it would be possible for twenty kids dressed as baby zoo animals to be at all boring, so you tell them you have to go to the bathroom and you run to parking lot and flail your arms and smoke a cigarette and wait for a foreign teacher to walk by so you can complain about unfair life is and how she agreed weeks ago not to change anything two days before the performance.
But then, if you’ve lived here a while and you like living here, you knew that was going to happen anyway and you just go with it. You smile and you spend six hours over the next two days begging twenty four-year-olds to please remember to make two circles and turn around for the chorus of Katy Perry’s Firework.
Or you go to a job interview, you tell them you’re available to on Tuesday and Thursday for NT$700 an hour. You do a demo and they tell you “Good, good” and they write down your phone number. A month later you ask your buddy who told you about the job if they are still looking or if they’ve found someone else, and he’s confused because they said they were going to hire you. So he reaches out to them and they say, “Yes, yes, we want her. Classes start in September and we’ll contact her then.” (As in the week before classes start. No need to try to prepare ahead.)
Then when they contact you, they say, “Sorry, how about NT$650 an hour instead of the NT$700 we agreed on?”
“Oh, okay. And did your friend tell you about exercise time?”
“No, what’s that?”
“Oh, I thought he told you everything!”
(Friend: “I brought her in for the interview. It’s your job to tell her what her responsibilities are.” And that made perfect sense to me.)
“You have to come in ten minutes early and lead the entire kindergarten in an exercise routine. It’s unpaid. You have to find your own music.”
“I can do that.” [← That is how a teacher who’s been here almost a decade responds to this kind of request.]
“Okay, great. Exercise time is on Wednesday.”
“I told [Manager] I could do Tuesday and Thursday.”
“But exercise time is on Wednesday.”
“Okay, let me rearrange my schedule with my other school, see if I can accommodate you…Okay, great, we’re sorted. I’ll come in on Tuesday and Wednesday.” [← Ten years of being overruled.]
“Okay, then Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.”
“I said Tuesday morning, not afternoon.”
“Okay, let me talk to the manager and see if that’s okay.”
Not gonna pretend like I didn’t work at an American office that wasn’t rife with miscommunications and inefficiencies, but they usually came about after meetings where at least some people tried to drag everyone onto the same page. Here, it’s more like the assumption is that everyone is already magically on the same page, or once the boss has spoken, everyone will be on the same page. You can voice your opinion if you want people to know you’re difficult and insubordinate, but then you had better just get on with it.
Dulan is such a small and unremarkable place at first glance it would be easy to cruise straight through without realizing what you were missing, like this guy apparently did. You can drive right past the one 7-11 and the one gas station in town and without noticing if the ocean here is any more beautiful than the ocean is all along the east coast.
Pro-tip: “Water Running Up” is not really worth stopping for. It’s a place on the side of a road where there’s basically a nice-looking gutter next to the parking lot and the water is crawling–not running–up a gentle slope. Unusual, unless you’ve ever seen a fountain or any other instance of water pressure in action. If you’re in Dulan, yeah, stop. Just don’t try to make a weekend of it.
But the waves here break against warm sand instead of intimidating walls of stone, and they come in fast and high enough to attract surfers from all over the world. There’s actually an international surfing competition held at nearby Jinzun Bay every year since 2011. If you just pass through Dulan without stopping, you’ll miss some of the most awesome beaches in Taiwan–an island blessed with plenty of breathtaking shoreline, but few accommodating spots to lay down a towel for the afternoon.
We booked a room at a hostel called Wagaligong at the recommendation of a friend, who knew one of the owners because he was also South African and had also lived in Chungli for many years. He and I spent a long time tossing out names of other people we knew who’d lived in Chungli at the same time we had, only to conclude that we didn’t know everyone like we’d thought we did, and that we’d led parallel lives for years. It’s always unsettling to realize your world is bigger than you thought it was.
After a few drinks the first night, none of that mattered. I went to bed early after booking a surfing lesson for the next morning, but Tieney and J stayed up all night drinking with other expats who wandered in and out of Wagaligong. Obviously, J was in rough shape for the surfing lesson the next morning, but our instructor was Irish so it didn’t faze him. In fact, he turned out to be a super friendly and generous guy. For the next few days, we followed him to wherever the local surfers were surfing whenever we weren’t too hungover or lazy to get ourselves out of bed.
The expats we met in Dulan were a loosely-assembled motley crew of teachers, surfers, chefs, businessmen, and fathers. The only expat women I met were guests at the hostel where we were staying, though I saw the same fair-skinned, light-haired family in 7-11 almost every morning. There were dogs and naked kids all over the place; wives, kids, and college students taking orders for expat chefs locked in hot kitchens to cook. In between orders, the men would come out to smoke and chat with the customers until they were chased back to their stoves.
I got the impression that if I sat at the bar at Wagaligong for enough nights in a row, I’d eventually lay eyes on everyone who lived in town, either as they walked by or when they stopped in for a drink and some gossip. I could collect a book’s worth of secondhand stories to share as they drank and shared stories of past lives already used up before they got to Dulan, where they can live the next thirty years by the beach, swimming and surfing and cooking for tourists. I met so many men and women who spoke two or three languages, who were multiskilled in music and arts. Everyone could surf; asking about the waves served as a greeting. They moved from chair to chair at friends’ houses, dogs and children and instruments and surfboards in tow. In their company, I felt filled up with inspiration and empty, as I have nothing to offer. I wanted to be one of them, people who make the easy yet impossibly bold decision to live lives that will make them happy, even if they have to “sacrifice” being encumbered by the artificial trappings of conventional successes.
I felt lovesick after leaving Dulan. When I unpacked my bag a few days later and I saw the sand in my bag and the tan lines on my chest, I felt sad because it ended, the same way anyone feels when they find tokens of an old love and regret that a special time in their life was over too quickly. I want to go back and learn how to surf, get a dog or three and walk them on the beach in the mornings and evenings when the sand is cool, walk down the street with a cold six-pack in a plastic bag and see who wants to share it with me. But I don’t want to keep working for a paycheck or open a restaurant where I’ll be locked up cooking food for hours every day, so I still have a long road back to Dulan, or some place like it.
J and I decided a while ago that we wouldn’t leave Taiwan this year. Part of that was my concerns about how Obamacare might affect expats and our tax status, etc. Basically nobody had any answers by late 2013, so I felt like playing it safe by not going into the US for all of this year was the best policy.
It also costs a lot of money to pare all your stuff down to two suitcases then get set up again in another country, and the trip back home is extremely expensive: about US$2000 for one round-trip plane ticket back to the States, plus the wages you miss by taking time off, plus the cost of hotels, car rentals, meals with friends, shopping to stock up on things we can’t find as easily or as cheaply here, etc. We figured there was plenty to see in Taiwan, and when you’ve got a job, time off is at least as precious as discretionary income, so we wanted to use the time we had to explore the island.
Staying in Taiwan was far cheaper than travelling back home, but J and I did not travel on the cheap at all. We drove scooters, but that was part of the romance and adventure (and discomfort) of it all, and not necessarily because we wanted to save money. The cheapest we spent on lodging was NT$700 (about US$23) for one night in what was essentially somebody’s spare bedroom in Fulong. The most we spent was on a hotel room our last night in the road, when we stayed in Taichung. That stupid room cost us NT$2,500, orUS$way-too-fucking-much, and didn’t even include breakfast. We stayed at a hostel in Dulan for NT$900 a night for a private room with air conditioning, but we did share a bathroom with a few too many other people: we were always waiting for a chance to use the toilet or take a shower. However, we saved a lot by staying there since staying in the Japanese-style rooms in at the hot spring in Ruisui cost us NT$1400 a night, and we were still sharing a bathroom. In Kenting, we paid NT$1500 a night for a nice clean, comfortable room that was at a hotel a short drive from the shore.
If you were on a tighter budget, you could definitely find cheaper digs. For example, our hostel in Dulan, Wagilong, had rates as low as NT$300 a person, but that was for sleeping on a mat in a big community room with no air conditioning. We were basically paying NT$450 a person to stay in a private room with air conditioning (they had some discounts running as the rooms we stayed in usually cost NT$1000 a night), so travelling with a friend or two could help cut down lodging costs.
Our gas costs were incredibly low, as it doesn’t cost much to fill up a scooter in Taiwan. My scooter takes about NT$120 to fill it up when it’s empty, and J’s takes up to NT$150. We got gas every day or two, but we weren’t necessarily filling up empty tanks. The gas meters in our scooters aren’t very sensitive, so we stopped anytime the needle started to fall below “F” to get NT$60-80 worth of gas each.
We spent some money on tickets to national parks and scenic areas, which were usually NT$50-100, so it was really cheap. Rafting down the Xiuguluan River cost us NT$750 each, including transportation there and back to our hotel. We took a surfing lesson in Dulan which cost NT$1500 each: $1000 for an hour with the instructor and $500 to rent the soft boards for the whole day. We also would have liked to hire a guide to do river tracing in Hualien, and for the two of us that would have cost NT$4000 for the day, but the typhoon made that impossible. The ferry to Green Island and back cost NT$900 or so each, and we also paid NT$300 to take over one of our scooters to get around. That was unnecessary, but we had our reasons. We missed out on whale watching and snorkeling basically because we didn’t really plan for them: the days went by so fast that it seemed like all our time was accounted for before we knew it. I’d happily go back to Taidong/Green Island for either of those adventures, though.
Our biggest excessive expense was food and alcohol. We could have saved a ton of money by eating more cheaply, and I’m ambivalent about how we did it. Basically, we could have driven around Taiwan sampling local fare, especially night market and street food, and eaten our fill for NT$100-150 each every night, not including breakfast and lunch. Instead, we had cheap meals at breakfast shops and convenience stores (they have food like Wawa or Sheetz back home) and then we had a pretty extravagant meal for dinner. Almost every night. It was kind of ridiculous. Basically, we do eat Chinese food a lot, we love it, but we took every opportunity to try some really authentic Italian pizza, Mexican food, Indian fusion, South African boerewors, Japanese okonomiyaki, or dessert prepared by a real French person.
Those kinds of meals are definitely more costly, so we easily spent as much on our food every day as we did on the lodgings, so between NT$700-1500 per dinner for two. As we were coming home, I started to feel some regret for not searching out the local “famous foods” in every city as Taiwanese travelers will do, but then I remembered the equally fantastic food we’d had instead, so I am not going to beat myself up about it. However, if you’re travelling on a budget, you can get so much really good food here for really cheap, so don’t let me scare you. We just eat cheap, delicious Chinese food all the time in Chungli, so we opted to try foods we can’t get here while on vacation. Also, I had some kickass margaritas, mojitos, and caipirinhas that cost between NT$180 and NT$220 each, but fuck it. You go get beer at 7-11 if you want to.
And yes, I love to be self-deprecating:
All in all, we spent about NT$60,000 on three weeks travelling around the island, which like I said is about the cost of one round-trip plane ticket from Taiwan to Virginia. We could have saved a lot by staying in hostels the whole time or intentionally eating cheaper local food, but without even trying to budget, we had a pretty epic vacation for US$333 per person per week, including food, transportation, and lodging. Depending on your destination and budget, that might sound like a good deal or an unfeasible dream, I don’t know. I know that you can definitely do it cheaper here,but we had fun, good food, and made memories, so life will go on.
Now, how can I reconcile spending so frivolously on vacation when we are trying to get out of debt, as in 100% debt-free, and trying to save and invest big money? I can’t. We did not budget and that is always our downfall. But we didn’t use our credit cards or deplete or savings to take this trip, and we’re still on track to pay off one and maybe two of our remaining student loans before the end of this year, so I am not totally disgusted with us.
Here’s the post about what it was like to ride scooters around the island for three weeks.
The 環島/huándǎo is the trip around Taiwan that loads of people make every year: expats, students, families, and soul-searchers. You can drive a car, ride scooters, ride a bike, or even walk, as we saw one man doing.
I know a (much younger) guy who on a whim took two weeks of his summer holiday to bike around the island. It all depends on how badass you are. You kind of have to go out of your way to make it difficult since Taiwan isn’t very big and it’s probably the most convenient place on earth. There are 7-11s, coffee shops, and guesthouses everywhere. Only once were we worried about getting gas, but then we got gas. No big deal.
If you know me, you probably know that I drove “around the island” by myself during the summer of 2008 because it’s one of the few things I think I can brag about. I took just three days to go west from 中壢/Chungli/Zhongli, then up and along the northern coast, down the breathtakingly beautiful east coast, and started back up to Kaohsiung, where I surrendered because I cannot read maps, my butt hurt, and I wanted to make it back in time for French class that Friday. I put my scooter on the train and I took the high-speed rail home, sitting on each butt cheek in shifts.
Granted, I didn’t see much, but riding 70 km/h for hours and hours along an incredibly beautiful highway with the blue, blue ocean almost constantly in sight is not an experience that should be underestimated. It was amazing. I took that trip after a particularly tough breakup: I learned how to be alone, I learned that I could rely on myself (except when it comes to reading maps), and I did something not a few people told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t do. It was my own quick gloss of Eat, Pray, Love.
J being the extremely enthusiastic man that he is, we decided to take our time, stopping at major cities around the island for a couple of nights consecutively so we could explore. We took three weeks to go around the whole island during the height of summer, which turned out to be hours and hours of driving in humid, tropical heat that reflected off black asphalt and burnt our legs and arms pink.
The first day, I was dressed entirely wrong. I had on my denim shorts, a tank top, and a crop top over that, which only meant that my thighs and arms were getting mercilessly pummeled by the sun. I thought slipping on my lightweight cargo pants and a very lightweight nylon jacket would help because the extra layers would protect my skin, but they only made me so hot that I was incredibly irritable whenever we stopped so J could take a picture, which was every.fucking.where. Dude got a new camera right before we left, specifically for this trip, and he wanted to record every gorgeous thing he saw. Taiwan is an incredibly gorgeous place, so you do the math. He took like 2000 pictures, no joke.
After a few days, I had a system of covering up my legs with a sarong tied at my waist and wearing the light jacket over only a tank top, and quickly shedding that outer layer as soon as we stopped before the humidity made me want to rip off all my clothes and run naked into the ocean. Even still, I resented every second that I had to wait for J to finish a cigarette or quadruple-check the map once I had already put my full-face helmet on. It was temper-tantrum hot, every day.
Then when we got back on the scooters, I’d fall in line behind J because he’d plotted our route and looked at the map, but then I would get pissed if he drove too fast, or too slow, or missed a turn, or stopped to look at the GPS, or asked me if I’d bothered to look at any of the road signs we’d passed. I hadn’t. I looked at nothing except his back for hours and hours every day, it felt like. Sometimes, I’d realize that I wasn’t even breathing, and I’d remind myself to breathe, until I started to wonder if my body was no longer really doing that automatically, then I’d panic and concentrate on my breathing until I forgot about it again.
For hours every day, we sat in shallow swamps of our own sweat. For relief, I’d drive with my right hand and bundle the sarong into the jacket, then stand up and lean over like a jockey on a racehorse and let the wind flow between my legs and dry the sweat off my seat. When the sweat dried, then the skin of my thighs stuck to the plastic seat like masking tape and hurt just as much to pull off. We got heat rash on our butts and we both smelled like gym bags left in a hot car at the end of every day.
We drove so much that it was almost like I couldn’t hear the engine of my scooter anymore. Also, because we drove separately, I had hours to myself to think about important things, like the lyrics to The Impression That I Get, that alliterative line up there about butt sweat, and what kind of cancer I’ll eventually die from. Evidently, this trip was a good time for me to start smoking again, so with that and the regular sunburn, just about any cancer is on the table right now.
But, despite all that, this trip was the adventure of a lifetime. It was the first time J and I got to go to the beach together, it was our first long vacation together, and I love rediscovering the island with him, and falling in love with him and this place all over again. Traveling can really make or break any relationship because you’re out of your element and you can’t fall back on roles that might only make sense in certain contexts. You have to figure out how to relate to each other differently, and find out if you can depend on each other in times of stress and uncertainty. I definitely learned that it would be to my benefit to give a shit when he takes three months to plan out everything he wants to do for a three-week vacation instead of making suggestions and complaining when we’re actually on the road.
Anyway, this was just about the drive itself, which was beautiful and grueling like the best things in life, so there are more posts to come. Let me know if you’ve gone around the island or do any epic scooter trips.