Humidity 1, Me 0

I give!  I’m crying “uncle”! Enough is enough! I cannot stand the humidity one second longer! So…I made an appointment and had my hair cut REALLy short! Halle Berry I said and after some internet searches by the stylists (it took three) the cutting began. An hour later, a lot more of my hair was on the floor than on my head. But boy did it feel a whole lot cooler. I love it! It takes no time at all to  style in the mornings and I especially love that I only paid 600NT (20US) for the cut, shampoo (which was essentially a 15-minute scalp massage with some lovely lavender-infused Paul Mitchell product), and blow dry. I’ll post a pic soon!

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A valuable lesson

None of the clothes I brought with me fit anymore. After a month in Taiwan, my pants were a bit looser, so I used the one belt I’d brought to keep them up. Now it’s time. Time to run the dreaded gauntlet of clothing stores where there is nothing in my size! So, I’ll go find a new pair of pants. Definitely easier said than done. I’ve checked Costco (DKNY and Calvin Klein in size 0-8, $35 – $50 US). Next,  Sogo department store where  I actually found several options in a size that fits (CKs for almost 200 USD – yikes – and some equally spendy brands I’ve never heard of). I checked the stores on Nanjing on the way to the MRT. Nada. I felt like I’d walked into the petite department of EVERY store!

On the way to Wellcome to do grocery shopping, I see a clothing store and, ever hopeful, I stop in. Hey, this looks promising. The prices aren’t horrendous and the clothes look stylish. None of the staff speak English. Really? (I still find this odd, that adults in a progressive society don’t know even the basics of the language most parents here insist that their children learn.) It’s frustrating too because my Chinese is rudimentary at best (Lady, that one, how many money?). So, I browse the selection. The sales ladies have a unique method of telling whether pants will fit: they hold them up to a person’s NECK and drape the waist band around. If the ends meet behind the neck, it’s a possible fit. Hmmm….so I try a pair on and they are okay. Too bad there’s no lycra in the content and that they’re made in China.

On the way back from shopping I decide, what the heck, I’m losing weight so it won’t be long before the pants are a more comfortable fit plus they are on SALE. I buy them. Then the fun starts!

This morning, I try the pants (khaki capris with a black belt) on again, at home, and even though they fit, they aren’t that comfortable. Hang onto ’em or return ’em? By this afternoon, I decide to return ’em. No big deal, right? Walk around the corner, hand the pants + receipt to the mono-lingual sales staff, smile and walk away pantless. WRONG.

The staff acts like they don’t understand me (ok, probably technically true, but it can’t be the first time someone has returned something). The THREE sales ladies and one salesman speak among themselves while I try to discern what is being said. Then SL1 makes a phone call. To a manager to authorize a low value return? Apparently she has a friend whose English skills exist. I speak with someone on the phone. I’m told that they cannot do a return on a sales item. (Everything in the store is on sale.) I’m told that I must do an exchange (they don’t do gift certificates) and I must do it TODAY. The pants I have are their “largest” size (a US size 10, which for my height is SMALL) so exchanging for another pair won’t work. There are exactly 3, count ’em 3 t-shirts in the store in size 40 (the largest read:”my” size) and none of them appeal to me. In the meantime I call a friend of mine who speaks fluent Chinese and ask her to tell the sales staff I am not pleased. SL1 calls her friend who then explains that, oh wait, yes, I can do a return. SL2, 3 (and now 4) gather ’round smiling and saying sorry.

So, what did I learn? Lesson 1: don’t EVER buy anything that doesn’t fit me the way I want it to it. Lesson 2: don’t shop any establishment that doesn’t have at least one English-speaking sales person. ‘Nuff said?

National obsession

So far, I haven’t been able to identify one.  No national sports teams. No sports team colors being worn. No raucous debates and liquor-fueled bar brawls over a game score.  I hear tell about monster mah-jong games but have yet to witness (or participate in) one. If there is a common thread running through Taiwan society, I’d say it’s the constant need to SHOP! There are day markets, flower markets, flea markets (wish I could find these), and night markets. There are malls in every district., stores on every street and alleys, too. And the stores are open late 7 days a week.  Taiwan is a night owl’s shopper’s mecca.

Last night I found myself at the Momo mall (Nanjing and Tunhua)  after getting an IKEA receipt stamped with a tax ID for an expense report. To give you an idea of the mall’s size, even though IKEA  is HUGE, it occupies the bottom two floors of only the eastern quadrant of the mall! After getting a 10NT soft serve ice cream cone, I took the elevator up to the 5th floor (the building has 15) to look around Working House (a larger selection of house wares and decorative items than the one down the street from me) and down to 4F, Piin, to look at furniture and textiles.  While in Piin, I meet  someone else who speaks English – this is really a rarity! It turns out, she’s the wife of a China Air pilot based in Taiwan. We got to talking and she told me there are are lots of LIBRARIES here (!) and offered to send me the information about the main branch. Sounds like I’ve got next week’s adventure lined up…

Day market

I’ve been promising myself to brave the heat and humidity to visit the day market, in the same space occupied by the night market (go figure)! The day market is where you’ll find fresh produce of every shape, color, and size,  plus flowers and “lucky” bamboo – it’s everywhere, fish and seafood, meats (ugh), and rice and grains.  (At night, you’ll only find cooked/prepared foods.) I ended up with fresh grapevines (they smell strange but taste wonderful in a salad or stir-fried), basil, gold kiwi, honeybells (tangelos I think), guava (bah-luh) , both pink and white flesh ( they smell heavenly), and white roses with greenery – all for under 500NT (16.00 US).

Guava and flowers from the Day Market

Hungry Ghost Month

August is the time of year when the “ghosts” (of dead ancestors? any generic passing spirits?) must be appeased – with food! This makes no sense logically (ghosts don’t have a physical body so how can they eat anything?) but then, this is more about tradition than logic.  One day, the street outside the Temple (five floors below my apartment, literally) looked the same as always. By evening, a 8-foot high framework (bamboo poles, corrugated tin roof) had been set up all along the lane, obscuring the lanterns from the street level but protecting anyone under it from the frequent downpours. I noticed that the foot traffic outside the Temple dramatically increased  (as did the noise). For a week people brought flowers, paper “money”, and all sorts of fruits as offerings (to what, I’m not quite sure – maybe the hungry ghosts?) and stacked it up on the giant marble “alter”.  One morning, van after van showed up (blocking the alley) to deliver their cargo: enormous bags of rice were the only item I recognized. Wow, those ghosts must really be famished! Where will they store all those food stuffs? And then, the mystery of all that food was revealed! Lines of people (the faithful Temple goers?) stream into the Temple to collect (pink plastic) bags filled with (I’m guessing here) the rice and whatever else was previously delivered. At some point I will have to attempt communication with the Temple folk and ask them about this time-honored tradition.

Guarding the gates of the Temple

Taiwan dental arts

I got a recommendation to a dentist from several reliable sources, set up an appointment, and showed up, expecting the usual stressful experience. Was I ever surprised! Despite the language barrier, I was in the waiting room less than 5 minutes before being ushered into the x-ray room. No gagging on those horrid bite wings (shudder), no drool dripping down my chin (so not dignified) while the tech maneuvers the x-ray device. Nope, none of that stuff! This time I was outfitted with an x-ray deflecting gown, asked to step up to a small plastic bite plate and close my eyes. A soothing machine voice spoke to me in ENGLISH and in less than a minute my panoramic x-rays were done! No pain, no fuss. Now that’s the way dental diagnostics should be. The dentist turned out to have a gentle manner and even speaks and understands English. He (not a hygienist) cleaned my teeth and showed me, based on the x-rays, what word was needed and what my options were. Fast, simple, respectful. The cost for my initial visit: 100NT (3.00US). Amazing!

Getting it down to a system

Everywhere you look, something is happening. The sun crosses the horizon around 5am, the folks in the Temple downstairs start their chanting soon thereafter. I wake up gradually, in time to fix breakfast and get ready for work. Buses run on-time. Stores are just opening up as I walk to work  (mostly along the same route so I don’t get lost). Shopkeepers are cleaning the sidewalk outside their shops, cooks are chopping foods (yes, on the sidewalk!), laundry is dripping dry on balconies above the sidewalks, scooters are zipping by. Taiwan wakes up! And it’s hot enough to literally fry an egg on those clean sidewalks. Women with umbrellas shade themselves from the sun. People walk their dogs over to whatever tiny patch of green-ness will accomodate their bio needs. Lunchtime and the sidewalks are crowded with the hungry masses – very few people bring their own lunch (very few people cook because very few people have an actual kitchen!). The post-lunch lull: lights are off at work for those who prefer to sleep rather than eat. By the time I leave work, it’s already dark. (The sun goes down before 6pm.) I sometimes head down Heping to stop off at several organic health food stores and try to remember the way home, seeing a lit-up Taipei 101, in front of me, getting closer.  As I cross the street and walk past Watsons, people stare. I turn left into the narrow passageway, past the Temple, and the folks placing offerings on red plastic plates stop and stare.  The weekends are for travelling around, cleaning house, doing the laundry. On Monday night I follow the trail of people  carrying trash to the blue trash truck. Weeks fly by.

Eslite

I decided to reward myself for having  cleaned house and having made it through a particularly tough week. I haven’t found a library yet but I did pay a visit to the 24-hr bookstore off of Renai circle: Eslite (otherwise known as tons of shopping fun!). 5 floors of all sorts of made (or designed)-in-Taiwan items – oh and they sell books too.

I thought I’d try my luck to see if I could find anything (clothing-wise) that would actually fit me. It gets old walking into a shop where no one speaks much English, filled with cute clothing designed for what I like to call “tiny people”, and having the sales person (usually one of the aforementioned tiny people) answer “sorry no” when I ask in English whether they have anything that will fit me. (Guess they understood my question.) I find if I start browsing the inventory and hold something up, asking, “Do you have this in my size?” I have a better chance of actually finding something.  The first store I walked into had a saleslady that spoke English! She very sweetly walked around with me translating when needed.

On the book floor, I found a very detailed city map – let’s see if I’m better able to navigate the streets of Taipei with it! I browsed the magazines because certain issues (mostly the British and Chinese versions) have “free” items shrink-wrapped-ly (is that a word?) attached to them: tote bags in all shapes and sizes, cosmetics, and other items in colorful boxes (no clue on the ones with no pics since it’s all in Chinese).

Mela adventure, part 2

I stand in the front area of the Mela store. I’m obviously the only white person and I’m sure I look like I wandered in off the street. I’m here because I I’ve run out of some of my favorite health supplements and need some cleaning products too. I found out that Melaleuca has an Asian branch so I’m here to purchase what I need, only I have no idea how the Taiwan system works! A nice young lady fluent in English asks if I need some help and proceeds to help me shop!  Many products are familiar to me but there are some clearly designed for an Asian market: drinkable collagen, skin care products with “whiteness” in the name, and RICE! for purchasing a certain amount I get a “free” gift – some sort of hibachi. (I’m exactly sure what it is because the entire box is in Chinese.) I get a lot of curious looks but I’m used to it by now. I smile and nod when I catch someone looking. The taxi ride back takes less than 15 minutes and costs 140NT (< 5.00 US). Next time I’ll try taking the train…

After cooling off at the apartment I head to Wellcome for groceries. More curious looks or people turning their necks to see where the tall white girl is going. In the store, so many interesting products, so many labels I can’t read! I end up spending about 28US for a cornucopia of organic goodies (Danish butter!! Bisquik! Longan honey! Coconut “just add hot water” powder!). Check it out:

Wellcome groceries

Mela adventure across town, part 1

I checked the city map. I googled the location online. And then I started walking, through the day market, and turned – the wrong way (of course).  I didn’t notice at first. I did notice that none of the bus stops bore the bus numbers I was looking for. 20 minutes later, Heping was in front of me and I knew I had managed to get turned around.  Out came the map (again). I walked down Keelung (again), past Taipei 101, Taipei City Hall, and on until the Sun Yat Sen memorial was on my left. Wow, had I not been so focused on getting to my destination I would have taken pics (incredible building and surrounding grounds) but on I went…not many people were on the sidewalks (my first clue).  The road I was supposed to stay on (according to the map) was under construction (my second clue) so suddenly I found myself on a dead-end street. And just as suddenly, my resolve to walk the entire way to Songshan Train station melted. I asked several peeps if they knew where Bade road was. They didn’t. I hailed a cab and after driving me in circles it was apparent he didn’t either (couldn’t read the English address I guess). I asked several store owners and they pointed across the road so I walked a bit further and finally ducked into an office building  to try and cool off.  By some miracle, it was the building I was looking for. The email said what I wanted was on 3F but when I got off the elevator, the place was a ghost town. Arrrgh. Oh wait, there goes someone! He spoke English and directed me one floor up. Aaaaaah! The elevator doors opened and I found myself in Mela-land (an actual Melaleuca store)!

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As for me, I will take the road less travelled…