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A Cultural Meander Through the Massive City of Taipei

March 4, 2016 by  

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My plane technically left on Thursday morning albeit at 12:05 AM but as I woke up on Wednesday I was high as a kite. Or a plane. I couldn’t wait to get out! As I approached security at LAX I was in this other worldly mind space. Nothing seemed real. I actually thought for a moment that this was just a really realistic dream, I couldn’t possibly be getting on a plane at this moment. But the SSSS on my ticket brought me back to reality as I got a little pat down on the other side of the X-ray machine.

And then I was off.

Arriving in another country is always super interesting. I’m in a state of nowhere but everywhere. Nothing looks familiar, no one looks like me, and the signs are all indecipherable. It’s got the best qualities of being in a dream but I remember it long after I wake up.

Taipei is big. Really big. And tall. I followed the hostel’s instructions and took the airport bus to the main station. After that I was baffled. The directions were great but I wasn’t about to get lost in a place so unfamiliar. I grabbed a taxi for about 5 minutes, got out, went down a back alley, a man who didn’t speak english saw my confused expression and pointed me in the right direction, I pushed on an unmarked door and found paradise. City Home became my base for the next two weeks. I would venture out and away but Taipei being the hub it is, I always found my way back Home.

My first day was spent figuring out where the hell I was, local landmarks so I wouldn’t get lost, and deciphering the subway system. Luckily the latter was super easy and I was jetting about like a local by nightfall. There is so much to see and experience in Taipei alone. From museums to markets, temples to shopping malls (not like the ones in the US) this town has it. I walked pretty much everywhere and clocked in an average of 8 miles a day. Like I said, the metro is fantastic but the busses, well, they’re a bit more challenging. And walking is how you really feel the heartbeat of a place so that was my modus operandi here.

Being Chinese New Year, the tourists were out in full force. The national museum was packed to the gills and the markets were packed tight too. For the next ten days most Chinese and Taiwanese will be off from work. The government office, the banks are all closed. Changing my US dollars into New Taiwan dollars would be an exercise in futility. ATMs it was, then. Taiwan has scads of Chinese tourists during this time. The weather is milder than the mainland everyone flocks here for the holiday.

CNY Eve is a time for family. The locals cook massive meals consisting of about 12 dishes. Fish, pork, veggies, and fruit are in abundance. Luckily my old buddy Charlie from LA was in town to spend the holiday with her family. She invited me for the meal at her granny’s and I got to sample some seriously delicious food. But most importantly, she introduced me to pork floss.

Pork floss might be the stuff that the hair of angels is made from. It might be the very thing that the clouds in heaven consist of. God probably creates pork floss like humans used to spin cotton. Immediately I feel incredible sadness for my Muslim and Jewish friends, as they will never know what delicious magic this pork product is. It is a bit sweet and a bit salty. It’s denser than cotton candy but has that dry fibrous quality. It seems to be finely shredded dried pork marinated in some kind of god juice, I don’t ask. I just eat. And everywhere I found it, I ate it.

Taipei is one of my favorite cities in the world. It’s big, there’s a shit ton to do, and once you figure out the food situation, it’s delicious. I’m realizing that I’m a picky eater. I don’t eat beef (haven’t for 30 years) and I’m not a fan of the weird stuff like offal or whelks. Even squid is iffy for me, it needs to be completely camouflaged into something else for me to eat it. Tentacles? Feet? Tongues? Skin? I’m out.

It was challenging to eat at times and if I was in an area that looked like tourists were not so common, then I would walk to a place that had english or I knew what I was ordering. By and large the street food stalls were all in chinese. I know the food was good by the lines but the chance that I might get a mouthful of tripe was real and I wasn’t about to offend by dumping a full plate of food in the trash. If you are adventurous in your culinary choices, then you will no doubt fall deeply in love with Taiwan. When I just shut up and tried something new I was always pleased. But it helps to have a local friend who will steer you in the right direction too. And I have Nick to thank for that one!

A Local Moroccan Hammam and the Unexpected Goat

July 12, 2014 by  

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This is why I pay attention to my intuition. You just never know where it’s going to take you.

From Fes, I took the train to Meknes with the intention of staying the night in the old medina and maybe checking out the ancient pilgrimage site of Moulay Idriss. I took a taxi to the center of town but when I looked around, it looked like downtown Los Angeles in the 1990′s: shady as hell. There were people in dirty clothing and grey buildings with trash strewn about the front. I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt so I looked for a decent place to stay in a cleaner part of town. I wandered around with my backpack getting progressively heavier with every step for about 20 minutes. Every turn in the medina took me to a more desperate area. I had to reconsider this plan.

I decided to go to nearby Moulay Idriss but I had no idea how to get there. I hopped in a taxi and asked to be taken to the bus station. No, the train station. Shit, where was I going?? The driver asked me what I wanted to do as he was not going to drive in circles all day with a crazy white girl whose French was dreadful. I have no better hold of French than a 6 month old and that’s the language they speak here. Well, that and Arabic but I’m still in the womb with Arabic. It’s been challenging to say the least.

I said Moulay and he told me to take a grand taxi (a shared beaten up Mercedes that is packed with 7 people per trip). This should be fun, I hadn’t taken a grand taxi yet! I hop in and off we go.

Moulay Idriss is a small town built on a hill and there’s a mausoleum of a famous Muslim saint there. It sees some tourism but not loads and I was ready for a little break after Fes. My intuition led me to a great hotel, Dar Zerhoune, that is owned by a beautiful Kiwi woman. I felt right at home there and settled in for just one night. There were 2 other American women staying there so it was like a feminine oasis in the middle of what had been mostly a masculine trip thus far.

Rose, the owner, asked us if we would care to go to the local hammam and I quickly said, “Hell yes!!” A girly field trip! We would be pampered and scrubbed within an inch of our lives, or so I thought.

It was a very local hammam (read: I would have never in a million years have found it on my own or even thought that it was indeed a hammam). While descending the steps it got hotter and more humid. But wait. Why is there a goat tied up on the steps?? Must be for Ramadan or a gift for someone. We stepped over the goat and proceeded down the stairs.

Damn! We forgot the scrubbing mitts! We told the 2 American women to get undressed and wait for us to bring back the mitts. They were a bit uncomfortable and it would be good for them to slowly settle in. We got the mitts and hurried back. On the way back we heard some ululating and women yelping. When we descended the stairs there was no goat to step over, but taking the turn into the hammam we saw the goat. There was blood everywhere and the goat lay on the ground, its head separated from its body by about a meter. The women cowered in a corner fully dressed, heads down. When they noticed our arrival they looked at us with traumatized eyes. The goat had been beheaded in front of them. They are vegetarians.

Let me just say that blood was still pumping out of the carcass profusely. I was engrossed in this whole scene, a very old hammam, ancient women ululating and me, utterly confused. We hightailed it out of there to another hammam, the old women protesting that the goat was no intrusion on our hammam experience. I begged to differ. Nothing like the smell of goat to kill a relaxing day.

We went to another hammam and stripped down to our undies. Nothing like meeting someone and an hour later getting naked and scrubbed by a large woman with pendulous breasts. At least there was no goaty eyes staring at me this time.

Photo credit: MariaLovesWords.

Learning the Word Surrender at the Fes Festival of Sacred Music

June 24, 2014 by  

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Ever since I heard about the Fes Festival of Sacred Music, I wanted to go. I love devotional music of all kinds, the less I understand the words, the better. I coincided my trip with the festival so I could experience it for a few days. I knew I couldn’t hit up everything I wanted to see but even if I saw a few shows and was just in the atmosphere, I would be satisfied.

The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music is one of the signature events of the Spirit of Fes Foundation. The aim of this Festival is to harness the arts and spirituality in the service of human and social development, and the relationship between peoples and cultures. The 20th edition of the Festival ran from June 13 to 21 2014, with: The Conference of the Birds, “Journey of Cultures…” as its theme.

I had heard many stories from other travelers about Fes: the hassles, hustles, and fake guides were legend. I arrived by bus from Chefchauen and promptly hopped in a taxi. Wandering around the labyrinthine medina was my favorite. I never got hassled the entire time I was there.

The concerts were mostly free and in abundance. You only had to wander a bit, pick up the faint trail of music, and follow it to its origin. I saw some not so stellar music (a young painter who threw paint on the canvas, yawnfest) but there was enough great music music to make up for it (some local Fassi band with killer yellow shoes on). I missed Johnny Clegg and Youssou N’Dour as they were sold out. I had to pass on the Sufi Nights part too as the concerts started around 11pm and I had walked myself into a coma each day and was entirely too exhausted by that time to even contemplate leaving my bed.

The thing I miss most about Fes was the people I met. I thought the festival would be the main draw, that was the thing that I would remember for the next 10 years. But as the Universe constantly teaches me, it’s the things that are subtle, the people that smile at me in passing, the exchange of cultures with strangers. Those are the experiences that stay with me. Islam means “surrender”.

The Sufis abandon themselves to the ecstasy of God. Travel is really about these things too. One has to surrender and abandon oneself to the Universe. If you do, you will see divine spirit in everyone and everything. Just open your eyes and surrender.

Photo credit: Jazz Times.

 

Melanesia’s Malekula & The Namba Tribes

July 30, 2013 by  

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I heard night fall before I saw it. A cacophonous riot of insects alerted me to this daily occurrence. Sleep came soon after as there was nothing to do once the sun set. A bit of stargazing, watching the stars slowly show their faces then suddenly bursting forth at some heavenly signal unknown to me. That was my first night on Malekula.

Malakula also spelled Malekula, is the second-largest island in the nation of Vanuatu, in the Pacific Ocean region of Melanesia. There is an urban myth that the name was coined by James Cook, and was apparently derived from the French mal au cul (literally, ‘pain in the arse’). This was allegedly inspired by the presence of cannibals, volcanic activity and other unpleasant features of the island at the time of its discovery. Captain Cook, however, recorded that the inhabitants called the island Mallicollo and the ‘pain in the arse’ etymology is presumably a sailors derivation from the original name.

And so, I arrived.

Morning brought a very long walk. I walked for about 4 hours. The sun started to poke through the cloudy skies (finally) and for the first time in Vanuatu I felt the tropical sun on my shoulders. Dirt kicks up in my face whenever a truck flies past me. Thankfully it’s not too often. When I get back to my bungalow I crash until the truck comes to take me to the Small Namba tribe. “Namba” refers to the size of the penis covering. They use leaves and fibers to cover their parts.

The village is down some rough roads made rougher by the incessant recent rains. My guide is called Veronique and she speaks 5 languages fluently. She’s kinda da bomb. This village is made just for tourists but there are plenty of areas where people still dress and live in thier ancient “custom” ways. But those are insanely hard to get to and require days of hiking and plenty of guides. And really, I’m not one to taint another persons culture by infecting them with my own.

When I see my first namba I think, “looks like a good sized namba to me!” The men are all super fit and thier legs are strong. There is a coconut fiber and leaf wrap just around their willy and several strings of fuschia raffia dangling over thier butt crack. All of the is held in place by a kind of leaf belt. As the dances start the men don high feather headdresses that are structured with bamboo. It’s a bit Vegas showgirl and I’m super keen on them! The women wear a woven mat skirt and shell necklaces with fluffy feathers stuck into thier hair. It’s all very stunning and I may have to rock that shit back in LA.

The dancers wear ankle rattles but don’t do much singing. But it’s all gorgeous and I’m so fortunate I get to experience this whole demonstration. There is a headress change and another dance then I’m taken over to where the women are chilling out. They show me how to make a fire then cook me grated yam in a bamboo over the fire. Then fresh coconut milk is poured over it. It’s so bloody delicious I’d ask for seconds if there was any more. Then the women show me mat weaving and all the toys they make with palm leaves. Meanwhile the kids are near to naked and are playing hopscotch in the center of the area. Kids are kids wherever you go. Some things just never change.

It was sad to have to leave the Small Nambas and the whole thing just wanted to make me cry. People made me feel so welcome all over Vanuatu and thus tribe was no different. I don’t know how an entire country can be so accommodating, kind and generous to absolute strangers. Vanuatu has shown me what it’s like to never have to look over your shoulder, or fear a dark street. I love this place!

First Photo Credit only: AcrossOceania. com.