Buddha Box

I acquired the blessed thing on an express train from Hsinchu to Taichung.  A middle aged man with shaven head, orange robes, serene smile and half closed eyes, pulled it from an orange satchel and pressed it into my hands.  I thanked him and smiled for a moment before realizing, newly arrived and still perplexed by the ways of the East, that some contribution was in order.  Pulling a fifty kuai note from my pocket, I smoothed it reverently before placing it into his bowl.  He smiled, bowed his head and continued down the aisle.

Jet black and made of plastic, the box was clearly made to fit the average palm of an average hand.  It looked like an old style transistor radio, one with strange markings all along the front and an image of a charcoal brazier printed in gold ink alongside its single round speaker.  On the top edge of the box was a grooved volume knob, which I switched on.  Melodic feminine voices sprung forth.

Naaaa - ma aaa - mi to-o-o fo, nama ami to fo, nama.

Naaaa - ma aaa - mi to-o-o fo, nama ami to fo, nama.

A woman sitting in the seat across the aisle smiled at me, and though I’d felt at peace before switching the box on, I now felt especially tranquil.  I held the box in my average sized palm as the melodic chant continued its loop eternal (or at least until the battery gave out).  I felt one with Taiwan, at one with the universe.  My only concern was how they’d gotten a choir of nuns into the box in the first place, and what might happen should they suddenly decide it was time to leave.

~JSB

Love Hotel Etiquette

The short stretch of light rail that stretches between the Peitou and Hsin Peitou Stations is an anomaly.  Since it is not even long enough for the train to get up any speed and connects Peitou to a neighborhood that isn't populated enough to really warrant its own station, one tends to wonder just why this strange little appendage exists.  Suspicious souls might suspect that the ugly specter of political pork barreling in the extreme reared its head mightily in its construction, but such cynicism should be quickly dispelled by the realization that this amazingly expensive stretch of rail exists for one purpose alone – to make it that much more convenient for you, personally, to get to Hsin Peitou – Hot Spring Love Hotel Capital of the World.

A few hours at one of these places will set you back between 400 and 800 NT (the “take a rest rate”), and an evening will cost you and a loved one between 1200 and 2300.  A word of advice: go on a weeknight for the discounts, and spend the extra money; while the difference in price between the cheap and the chic may be an hour or two of pay, it'll be worth it just to see the look on your loved one's face upon seeing the 21-inch stereophonic TV and a natural hot-spring fed Jacuzzi big enough to float a small fishing boat.  And nothing says class like his-and-her individually wrapped toothpicks.

The hot spring love hotels of Hsin Peitou are your home away from home, except you won't have to clean up, and, unlike your nosy neighbors, the desk clerk will not judge you as you leave in the morning after a night of loving debauchery with the him, her or combination thereof of your choice.  The facilitation of your enjoyment is all that concerns them, and the strange, crooked smiles on their customers’ faces are the only thanks they require.  This leaves you free to shed your inhibitions to the fullest extent allowed by the law and/or your personal dogma.

Losing one’s inhibitions is easier said than done (except when drunk, when the opposite is often true).  As I walked out of one after a particularly decadent evening, I found myself wondering, "What will the cleaning lady think of the half eaten chunks of Laughing Cow Cheese scattered around the bed? Will the manager be informed about the quantity of cheap supermarket caviar floating in the Jacuzzi?" In my naiveté, I actually initiated conversation with the cleaning lady on the way to the elevator, to apologize for the extreme untidiness with which she was about to deal.

“Oh, na-li, na-li!” she laughed. “Our only concern is that you had a good time.  Leave the mess to us, and come back again soon.”  A far cry indeed from the words spoken by my parents the morning after my last sleepover party.

Of course, there are other activities available in Hsin Peitou for those disinclined to debauchery.  There are several public hot springs in and around the oddly named Anti-Calamity Park directly across from the station, and nestled as it is in the armpit of beautiful Yaming Mountain, Hsin Peitou is an excellent point from which to start any number of hikes.  Several of the bigger hotels in the neighborhood also offer both public and private hot springs, separated by gender or for the exclusive use of the paying customer and guest.  There is also a long-standing rumor that some of these seedier places will, for a fee, provide a bathing companion for the undiscriminating gentleman, but I'd advise against that.  Love, like advice, is best appreciated when freely given.

~JSB

Stinky Tofu

Cho dofu, or “stinky tofu,” is the Taiwanese snack that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and occasionally, the women from the men. Cho dofu is tofu that's been fermented to a nice degree of pungency, then deep-fried and served with pickled cabbage and hot sauce. Cho dofu is very much a Taiwanese delicacy. Carts selling it can be found at any night market, and in most neighborhoods and towns. Generally speaking, you can find the nearest cho dofu stall with your eyes closed, as the stuff is quite rank. Though tofu is usually thought of as a healthy alternative to meat, those making regular pilgrimages to the local cho dofu stand in the name of health are kidding themselves, since the stuff is as deep fried as deep fried gets, usually in animal fat, but some stalls catering to vegetarians use vegetable oil. Though I resisted it for the longest time, I finally gave in and had some with one of my students. (Taiwanese people enjoy bringing foreigners out for cho dofu, seeing it as a bonding ritual.) Eventually, I developed a taste for the stuff because it was cheap and filling. Though I knew it wasn’t exactly healthy, I justified eating it regularly by telling myself that it was served with pickles, and thus counted as both a vegetable and a protein. Describing the smell is difficult. To those who don’t like it, cho dofu is a cross between limburger cheese and fried sweat socks; to those who do, it's a whiff of pure heaven.

~JSB