31 July 2004

One China.

Taiwan was the port I knew the least about, and was thus the least excited about, but it turned out to be one of my favorites. I'd always only known of Taiwan as 'that place where the Nationalists fled when the Communists took over in 1949,' but it was so much more than that! I was surprised by how friendly the people were, considering we don't officially recognize their country. They were friendlier than the Mainland Chinese, and didn't have that peculiar habit of taking pictures with every American they saw, which was rather refreshing. On the first morning, we had a visit and speech from an American working at the American Institute in Taiwan, what would be the embassy or consulate if we recognized the country diplomatically. It was interesting to hear from him, and made me want to take the Foreign Service exam someday and end up living in some exotic country- always something to consider!

We docked in Keelung, a major port city only 45 minutes from Taipei. Both of the cities were astoundingly westernized, more so than anything we've seen so far. Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Dominoes, KFC, Circle K, and even a Red Lobster Seafood Restaurant (no relation to those in the US, however). Just like at home (except of course in Gainesville!), there was a 7-11 on every corner. From several places in Keelung, I could see 3 stores within one block of where I was standing. There are over 3000 in Taiwan- a tiny little island the size of Maryland and Delaware! There are also 11 million scooters, for 22 million people- crossing the street is a death defying cultural experience in itself!

Taiwan is also one of the most environmentally conscious countries we've seen yet- every restaurant has a minimum of two trash cans (one for trash and one for recycles), and some had as many as 4- one each for trash, paper, plastic, and metal. There was even a garbage boat in the harbor that sailed around collecting floating debris. The environmentalist in me cheered, especially after the questionable standards present in Vietnam.

On the first day, I spent the morning wandering around Keelung. We found a friendly English-speaking tailor, and I got measured for a tailored suit for all those interviews and other occasions coming up in the near future. It turned out beautifully – the two women were amazing and they had it finished in less than two days. We had lunch at our first Western restaurant over here, KFC. It was surprisingly good- far better than those in the states. We returned to the ship for our Taipei city orientation. First, we visited the National History Museum, which had a beautiful collection of ancient Chinese scrolls and calligraphy and other artifacts.

After the museum, we continued to Chiang Kai-Shek's memorial hall, which resembles those of Mao and Ho- the building was enormous, with 80 steps to reach the second floor. Our tour guide emphasized that his body was laid to rest in one of his favorite parts of Taiwan, (rather than preserving him like those godless Communists was her unspoken message!). Instead of his body, there is a huge twenty-foot statue of Chiang sitting in a chair, a bit reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial. The statue is flanked by two guards who stand completely still for one hour each before the ceremonial changing of the guard. The guard position is extremely competitive and prestigious- the men have to be at least six feet tall, in good physical condition, and must train and condition their bodies to stand still before assuming the actual position.

The first floor of the memorial is a museum about the Nationalist Party in Taiwan, complete with an eerie wax sculpture of Chiang in his office- they didn't preserve his body, but him sitting up at his desk was equally creepy! Next we visited a temple in Taipei- it was full of people worshipping and asking questions and advice of the gods, which was interesting to watch. Finally, we went to a Mongolian BBQ restaurant, which was delicious! Mongolian BBQ consists of thinly shaved raw meats and many vegetables and sauces. You go down the line, pick out all of your meats and veggies, and add the combination of sauces you'd like, then hand it to a chef at a large flat grill, and he stir-fries it right there for you, in less than a minute. There was also a large buffet of cooked foods like dumplings, pot stickers, noodles, rice, and fresh fruits. It was definitely one of our favorite meals to date! After dinner, we visited one of Taipei's numerous night markets, where the famous Snake Alley is located, before returning to the ship for the night. There are numerous restaurants serving snake meat, organs, and blood, and they often display the dying and living snakes outside the restaurants. Some of my friends tried the snake blood, but I decided to pass on that one. Drinking the water was enough of a gastrointestinal adventure for me.

On the second day, I took a trip led by the ship's museum expert to the National Palace Museum, the Lourve of Asia. It holds all of China's greatest historical artifacts, which were packed up when the Japanese invaded China in the 1930s, and moved to Taiwan by the Nationalists in 1949 when the Communists took power on the mainland. Although part of the museum was under renovation, there was still more than enough to see. There was an amazing jade collection, and even more impressive scrolls than at the National History Museum.

After returning to Keelung, we went back to my tailor to see if they knew of a men's tailor, and her son, who spoke excellent English, ended up leading us through the market to another tailor instead of just giving us directions. We talked with him about school and life in Taiwan versus the US. He stayed as a translator to help Justin order a suit, then walked us back to the market and insisted on buying us some street food sandwiches to try. Although they were less than delicious (mayo, ham, egg, and cucumber on fried bread?), it was extremely nice of him, especially after herding us around all evening. He just reaffirmed our conviction that the Taiwanese are ridiculously generous. We stopped at the Internet cafe nearby (a mere 60 US cents for an hour!) and went to Pizza Hut for dinner – a little taste of home (very good, but a bit pricey compared to the rest of the city).

For the last two days, I took an overnight trip to Sun Moon Lake and Lukang and Taichung, two smaller Taiwanese cities. According to our field program guide, we were supposed to visit an Aboriginal Cultural Village, which sadly turned out to be an amusement park, and a bad one at that. The village turned out to be fake houses, and a horribly commercialized dance show. The park even had a "Space Mountain" and other cheap rip-offs of Disney rides. All in all, a major disappointment, even for the people not from the tourism capital of the world.

After the theme park, we traveled to Sun Moon Lake, a beautiful natural area of Taiwan protected as a national "scenic treasure." We visited two temples overlooking the scenery before we left, and continued onto a restaurant for a below par dinner before going to our gorgeous 4 star hotel, complete with big fluffy beds! The second day was much better than the first- we started off with an impressive breakfast buffet at our hotel before leaving for the drive to a nearby Taiwanese University, where we saw the chapel designed by IM Pei in the 1960s. It was a giant triangle, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially after seeing his skyscraper in Hong Kong.

We continued onto the city of Lukang, where we wandered around the meat and produce markets, as well as the ordinary markets, before visiting the Folk Culture Museum, which housed a collection of artifacts like clothing, pictures, household items, games, and several varieties of puppets. They had some of the shoes for women with bound feet, some only 3 inches long- it was painful just to look at them! After the Museum, we returned to Keelung via Taichung, the pottery and ceramics center of Taiwan. There were plenty of shops selling gorgeous plates, bowls, vases, and other ceramics, and very affordable compared to what they would cost in the US. After Taichung, we got back on the bus for the long drive back to Keelung, where I went back into the city for ice cream and the Internet before we had to be back on the ship to sail for Japan. Considering it was the port I was least excited about, it ended up being one of my favorites. I would love to come back and see more of this tiny island country/rogue province.

Some news from the ship. We took the second exam in the core class, Global Perspectives, after Vietnam, and now most of the ship is up in arms because a lot of people failed, even though they "did all the reading and went to every lecture!” Everyone's running around complaining about the professor, the test, the class, and the ship in general- lots of drama! I'm kind of detached from it all, as one of the small group who's done well on both exams. Thanks to my scores, I was selected as one of two students to participate in the welcome reception held in our honor when we arrive in Kobe. I'm excited, it should be interesting! Also, the "Sea Olympics," the competition between the students (divided by floors) and the senior adult passengers will be held tomorrow- Justin and I are both competing in the Scrabble tournament (surprise, surprise) for our respective seas. There are many other interesting events, among them a synchronized swimming competition (in the Union, not the pool!), a mashed potato sculpture/eating contest, and a blindfolded two-person PB&J sandwich-making contest. I'll be sure to let everyone know how those turn out! We arrive in Kobe, Japan, our final port, on August 4th for our 6 day stay- I can't wait, but I also don't want it to come because it signals the beginning of the end of this amazing trip!

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