Sunday, May 20, 2018

Taiwan Night Markets

Night markets are the social fabric of Taiwan.  It's a way of life there.  Local residents love going to night markets to shop, eat and meet their friends and families.  Every night market offers different things.  Some have more food; others sell clothes, household stuff, etc.  On the map of Taipei, you see night markets all over.  I visited several of them while in Taipei.  The variety of food is astounding.  Below are some pictures of them.

Shilin Night Market

Selling clothes and knick-knacks at Shilin

BBQ Octopus

Roast pork is popular here

Keelung Night Market

In Ximen area

Ninxhia Night Market

BBQ Squid

Very popular oyster omelette restaurant
Drinks made from winter melon

Shaved ice dessert

A bun with meat inside, like a hamburger

near National Taiwan University
Saxophonist at the Hualian Night Market

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Beautiful Taiwan - A Nice Place to Visit

My last visit to Taiwan was in 1985, about 33 years ago.  My memories from that visit and the one before that was dirty and smelly toilets, incessant honking by taxis, betel nut spit on the sidewalks, etc.  They were memorable visits for the wrong reasons.

Since I've been coming to Asia almost every year for the last 10 years, I've been trying to include a return visit to Taiwan.  On this trip to Singapore I scheduled an 8-day trip, not being sure of where I'd go and what I want to see.  I was thinking of a more comprehensive round-the-island tour but after talking to several people, I was told that only Taipei and the surrounding areas is worth spending much time.

I had many friends from Taiwan but I've either lost touch with them or they have moved away from Taiwan.  One friend I have in Taipei is Phung Bang, who was teaching me Vietnamese when I was living in Hanoi.  He was offered a scholarship to study for a Master's degree in Civil Engineering at the National Taiwan University, the top-rated university in Taiwan.  After finishing his Master's he was offered another scholarship to do his PhD, working on an Earthquake Engineering project.

Bang (the "a" pronounced like in father) was very generous with his time.  He met me at my hotel when I arrived the first evening, with his 2-year old daughter.  We went out to dinner in the Ximen area where the Diary of Taipei hotel is located.  Bang recommended that I stay here because it's a very lively area.  Many of the streets in the area are closed off to vehicular traffic.  Throngs of young and old, locals and tourists, walk around the area.  It's like a night market but not a night market.  It's simply a pedestrian mall with lots of shops and restaurants, instead of street vendors.

Night scene at the Ximen Pedestrian Mall

One of the gateways to the mall during the day

Ximen MRT Station, Exit 6, near the hotel

A very popular noodle house, always crowded all day
Top on my list to visit in Taipei is the National Palace Museum.  When the Nationalist Government under Chiang Kai-Shek fled China in 1949,  they took with them some of the best Chinese artifacts from about 6,000 years of Chinese history.  It is considered the best museum on Chinese history.  I've planned to spend as much time as I needed there.  I ended up spending about 6-7 hours.

Top attraction: cabbage carved from jade

A carving that looks almost like a piece of meat

One of many beautiful porcelain vases from the Ming Dynasty

A porcelain spoon with sanskrit writings either from the Ming or Ching Dynasty

A bronze vase from the Qin Dynasty
Other interesting places to visit are:  Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Taipei 101, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial and night markets.  Night markets are very popular in Taiwan.  I plan to write a separate posts on this subject later.  The Chiang Ka-Shek Memorial sits in a park in central Taipei.  Within the park are the National Theater and the National Concert Hall.  The memorial pays tribute to Chiang Kai-Shek, the former president of Taiwan, who moved the National Government from mainland China to the island of Taiwan and established a government-in-exile there.

CKS Memorial

Statue of CKS inside the memorial

Changing of the Guard
The National Theater
Near the memorial is a local market that I happened upon when getting off the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit, the subway system in Taipei) station.  This market sells many local foodstuffs.

Cooked foodstuffs

Braised Pork Belly

Fried crullers

Preserved foodstuffs

Vendor selling greens
Chinese Bacon
I also spent some time traveling outside the Taipei city center.  I will talk about those places in another post.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Pachamama - Highlights and Lowlights of my travel in South America

Pachamama means Mother Earth to people of the Andes.  You hear that mentioned a lot when traveling in South America.  It embodies the spirit of the people here; to take care of the environment because Mother Earth provides for you.  It's something that they worship because their lives are so entwined to Mother Earth.

At this point I am finished with my South America trip.  I am sitting in my daughter's apartment in New York City (NYC) writing this last post for the trip.  Six weeks of adventure and excitement went by too quickly.  However, memories start to fade after only a week.  That's why I am writing this blog.  To preserve those memories so that I can go back and read them.  And cherish them.  It's also how I share my travels with friends and family who read this blog.  Friends who are not as fortunate as me to be able to travel so much.  I write as if I am telling my story to them.  Thank you for reading.

I want to summarize my South America trip in this post.  What are the highlights?  What are the lowlights?  What did I like and what I did not like.  I started this trip on February 7, flying from NYC to Rio de Janeiro.  I returned to NYC on March 20, which means the trip was 42 days long or a total of 6 weeks.  Here are my favorite moments and memories of the trip:

  1. The hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu .  Visiting Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list for a long time.  But hiking the Inca Trail, then seeing Machu Picchu for the first time from the Sun Gate, that's even sweeter.  It's the reward after a tough four days of hiking.   
  2. Rio Carnival.  Before I came to Rio I thought the Carnival was just a parade.  Then on my first day I heard about blocos, or street parties.  The first one I attended was in Santa Teresa, near Lapa.  I couldn't believe the spirit and joy of the Brazilians as they dressed up, dance, sing and simply have a good time.  They drank and laughed.  But they did not fight, as some in other cultures would do.  It was partying for 5 or 6 straights, day and night.  Yes, the parade at the Sambadrome was nice but the spirit of the Brazilians just overwhelmed me. 
  3. Iguazu Falls.  One of the biggest waterfalls in the world and seeing both sides of it.  What a spectacle!  And hear the roar of the waters falling over the falls.
  4. Christ the Redeemer statue.  The visits to the statue on top of Corcovado and then to Sugar Loaf Mountain, two famous landmarks in Brazil, were moments to remember.  Everyone has seen the statue but to see it live and be so close and touching it, that's a different feeling.
  5. Altiplano of Bolivia.  I never thought much of Bolivia before although I've heard of the Salt Flats and La Paz.  It's a poor and obscure country that is not in the news much.  Traveling through the Altiplano, or the high plateau of Bolivia, changed my opinion.  I eat salt.  I don't stand on it.  But, that's what I did.  Standing on salt that is submerged in water.  Seeing the volcanoes and lakes and the remoteness of the land gives me an appreciation of the beauty of the country.  
  6. Wineries in Mendoza.  Maybe it's not the wineries themselves but the way the tour was conducted. We ended up at a nice winery with a wonderful lunch.  It was a perfect setting for trying some Argentinian food and wine.  If we had just ended the tour with just a sampling of wine, it'd have been different.  But everyone left with high spirits, probably because we drank  too much Malbecs.
  7. Food.  I tried very hard to eat local dishes.  They were all good.  I don't think any of them stood out but just the local flavor made my culinary experience so much better.  However, this is the first time that I remember eating quinoa and I love it.  Whether in a soup or like the dish I had in downtown Lima, it made a favorable impression on me.  I will be eating more of it.
  8. Fruits.  Chimoya, tuna, passion fruit are the ones I remember because I've never had them before or in a different form.  But I love all kinds of fruits, unless they are sour.  My golden rule for traveling is "have at least 1 fruit a day."  This wards off minor illnesses like cold, sore throat, etc, and it keeps your "internal plumbing" working smoothly.  All the countries I visited have a variety of tasty fruits.
  9. Meeting some excellent and professional guides.  Two stand out:  Santiago, who took us on the Inca Trail, and Wahberto, who took us through the Altiplano of Bolivia.  They made the places we visited so much more enriching and memorable.  I learned so much from them!

What are some of my disappointments?  Here they are:

  1. Santiago.  I hear a lot about Santiago because it's a big city but I didn't find anything that stands out.  The pre-Columbian museum was nice and there were a lot of activities around the Plaza de Armas but nothing else was exceptional.
  2. Amazon Jungle.  Perhaps this was an anti-climatic visit after the high of visiting Machu Picchu.  Maybe we were just tired but the 2-night stay at the Eco Lodge did not spark any interest in many of us.  On our first hike, we were sloshing in the rain.  The other problem was that the guide did not do as good a job explaining what's exceptional about a tropical rainforest.  We also did not see much wildlife as we thought we might see.
  3. La Paz.  Other than the witches market, it is an uninteresting city.  Many of us said that it's very unlikely we'll come back to Bolivia.  The poverty of the city and the people really shows.  Besides, the Bolivians just did not want to be photographed.
Surprises?  Here they are:
  1. San Pedro de Atacama.  I've never heard of this place but when we arrived there I was surprised to see so many tourists along the unpaved main street.  When we went to watch the sunset, the area was full of people.  Where did they come from?  For as remote an area as this is, the number of tourists here is stunning.
  2. Buenos Aires.  I've heard that BA is a beautiful city but visiting it made me a believer.  The wide boulevards lined with old European-style buildings make this a unique city in South America.  It also has some modern buildings to balance off the old.
  3. Favela.  They were mentioned a lot before and during the 2016 Summer Olympics but I did not have any clue what they were like.  Going into one opened up my eyes to the poverty of some of the Brazilians.  Give them credit for their ingenuity too, for being able to survive in such a tough neighborhood.
I will be taking a short break in Phoenix before embarking on another trip in May, this time to Asia.  I will be traveling to Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Lima - on the home stretch

This is Day 31 of our South America Highlights Tour.  Tomorrow is officially our last day.  The group will disperse.  Some will go home while some will continue their adventures elsewhere - surfing in northern Peru, camping in Colombia, seeing the Mayan ruins in Mexico.  I am going to spend 3 extra days in Lima, then go back to New York City to spend time with my family.

I booked a hotel in downtown Lima, reasoning that I want to see the museums and cathedrals more than I want to see the beautiful buildings and condos in Miraflores.  However, after the unpleasant experiences at the last couple of hotels and roughing it on the Inca Trail, I decided that I want to stay at some place nice and comfortable.  I decided to change my hotel reservation to a Doubletree Hilton Hotel in the center of Miraflores.  It turned out to be a wise move because I was able to get some rest, get some good food at the hotel and nearby restaurants, and catch up on my blog.

We flew into Lima from Puerto Maldonado, a flight of about one and a half hours.  A bus was waiting for us and dropped us off at the Hotel Santa Cruz in Miraflores.  That night we had a farewell dinner at the El Parquetito restaurant in the John F. Kennedy park.  After the team dinner a couple of team members left because they have early flights the next day.  The rest of us continued on a walk towards the beach and enjoyed the beautiful view.

The next morning our tour leader, Christian took us downtown to visit the Basilica of San Francisco. We had a guided tour of the 17th century church with its old paintings being restored and underground, a network of catacombs.  A lot of the influential people in the city were buried in these catacombs during the colonial period.  It was a fascinating 2-hour tour, with the guide explaining much of the history behind the church and how the catacombs were designed.

Basilica de San Francisco

Catedral de Lima in the Plaza de Mayor in downtown Lima
Don't know why but there were a lot of police in the downtown area

One of the churches near the main square

Another church
About 2 blocks from the Main Square of Lima is Chinatown.  I was fascinated to learn that there is a Chinatown here but I heard that the Chinese have been here for generations.  The few blocks that comprise Chinatown is a very busy area with all kinds of businesses.  What was interesting to me is how popular Chinese food is here.  As we drive around Lima I see many Chinese restaurants, known locally as Chifa.  In Chinatown there are even more and everyone of them was packed.  The prices are very reasonable but I guess you get what you pay for.  Some restaurants even have Chinese roast duck or pork hanging from the windows.  I even see some selling dim sum snacks.

I had this dish at a clean-looking Chinese restaurant

Chinese roast duck

Chinatown is a popular place to visit in Lima, Peru
The gate to Chinatown
A Chinese restaurant menu

A very busy street in Chinatown

Chinese egg-tarts
One of the places that was highly recommended to me is the Larco Museum.  I had to take a taxi there because it's not anywhere near any public transportation.  In fact Lima does not have good public transportation.  I see the Metro (bus) running but the stations are always very crowded.  I saw mini-vans picking up the locals.  Taxis are cheap.  The ride from the hotel to the museum costs 20 solares, about US$6.  The Larco Museum has some of the best pre-Columbian art.  It was founded by (obviously) the Larco family.  It is not a very big museum.  It took me less than 2 hours to see the whole museum but the exhibits were very well done.

Museum for pre-Colombian and Inca artifacts
Largo Museum Entrance

Story of the Inca Empire

One of the old artifacts

A nice display
There are two Lima's - the poor and the one with money.  The one with money lives in San Isidro and Miraflores.  The poor live in the rest of Lima, especially central Lima.  The contrast is quite stark.  You can tell by looking at the buildings.  In central Lima the buildings are old and rundown.  In Miraflores and San Isidro, high-rise condos line the ocean-front.  The shops and restaurants are nicer and the parks are full of people nicely dressed.

Condos by the ocean in Miraflores
A fruit vendor in the poorer part of Lima
Wong - a high-end supermarket in Miraflores
One of the things I enjoyed a lot traveling in Peru is the food and fruits.  I don't think I remember eating quinoa before until I was in Bolivia and was served quinoa and chicken soup.  South Americans have been eating quinoa for hundreds of years and recently, the West found out about this high-protein grain.  It is usually served in soup or part of a main dish, just like rice or potatoes.  One of my favorites was a dish that used quinoa just like rice, fried with chicken and topped with an omelette.  Simple but tasty.

My favorite quinoa dish with omelette
Quinoa, cooked like fried rice, with omelette on top

A very popular and tasty soup - Caldo de Gallina
Chimoya.  In SE Asia, it's called soursop

Inside of a chimoya, which is sweet.
This is called tuna.  They look like prickly pear cactus, but they are not.

Inside of a tuna when it's cut open.  It's sweet
Inside of a fruit that's similar to a passion fruit
I also had the opportunity to meet a friend of my neighbor.  Jonathan opened a bakery about 7 years ago and now has two restaurants and getting ready to open a pizza restaurant.  His bakery is one of the most popular in Lima, called El Pan de la Chola.

El Pan de la Chola on Av Mariscal la Mar in Miraflores

Jonathan and I at his second restaurant in San Isidro
I am glad I had a chance to relax and enjoy Lima before flying back to the US.  Although the tourist attractions are limited I enjoyed walking around Miraflorest and enjoyed seeing the shops and the restaurants.  The staff of the hotel also treated me very well and I felt safe walking around the area of the hotel.