A blog about writing, reading, travelling and great characters I meet in life. I love these things more than cheese-on-toast times trampolines times monkeys.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Taipei - toon town of Taiwan

I remember a time when everything that was brilliant in my world was made in Taiwan.

Barbie dolls and Casio watches. Hand held Donkey Kong games and electronic keyboards.

It was the late 80s and early 90s. And I was a kid excited by new toys - especially man-made, electronic, plastic fantastic stuff!

It’s night time when I step off the plane in Taiwan, so when I get to Taipei city, it is lit up like a neon lollipop. Vivid colours and bold shapes just like an animation.

I come across Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world at 509 metres.

Inside, there are artist’s impressions of the city as a cartoon, with Taipei 101 at the centre.

In the world’s fastest elevator, you whizz up to the top of Taipei 101 in under a minute. My ears pop near the top of the tower. Looking out over the city, I’m struck by the shapes, lines and blue-green colouring.

And that's when Taipei starts to cartoonify in my mind - everywhere I look, cartoonification!

By day, I come across cute kids and daft animals – absolutely the stuff of cartoons.

We're sitting in Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Square watching the changing of the guards ceremony that takes place every hour.

And to a non-Chinese speaker like me, everywhere I look there are bright pictures and shapes and signs.

The power of branding is evident here. Logo is everything.

And there’s make-believe food – like toffee tomatoes at the night market and green fluorescent stuff that belongs in a Jetsons cartoon. There's also bubble tea (tea with pieces of jelly in it).

Market stalls with the everlasting Hello Kitty T-shirts...

Even some of the metro trains are covered in cartoons.

And I feel completely safe in Taipei. Even if something was to go wrong, just like Road Runner I’d be fine in the next scene. Turns out, I’m not just dreaming about the feeling of safety in Taiwan’s capital city – Taipei has a very low crime rate.

I stay in a great dorm in the centre of Taipei. I meet Johnnie Grinder there - he's from California but now lives and works in Taipei and is planning an amazing interactive installation. Johnnie's an animator, a coincidence that makes me smile in the light of how I’ve perceived Taipei before I met him – check out Johnnie’s fab blog. Here are a couple of Johnnie's sketches that I really love, can you spot any Taipei influences?

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

I've decided to invent a husband...

...because whilst travelling solo around the world, a fictional husband will come in handy. Particularly when I first arrive in a new town and I'm sussing out where the backpacker hangouts are.

I came to this decision after yet another Random Proposition in the Street on my travels - this time in Kuala Lumpur.

Random Propositions in the Street normally go something like this...

Out of the blue, as I’m browsing a market stall or looking through a menu outside a restaurant, a loud voice comes my way.

The voice cuts through all other noises of people and traffic and music:

‘Hello lady, where are you from?’

I glance over and sure enough, there’s a man looking at me.

Sometimes he’s another traveller (the latest Random was from Belgium).

Sometimes he’s a local guy.

Occasionally, it’s a really nice surprise when I look over – he has all his own teeth and he doesn’t look a) drunk or b) like a serial killer.

So I reply.

‘I’m from England.’

And there ensues a really nice conversation.

The trouble is that 95% of Random Propositions in the Street don't go like this.

95% of the time, the second question is:

‘Where is your husband?’

The Random looks at me with a grin on his face and waits for me to answer.

For the last 4 ½ months I’ve told the truth...

‘I don’t have a husband.’

At which point, normally the conversation goes in a direction I don’t want it to go. You can fill in the gaps yourself.

‘What? You don’t drink???!!!’

These 95% are also normally flabbergasted that I don’t drink alcohol, so there ensues another conversational tussle where the Random tries to persuade me to have a drink and I say multiple times that I don’t drink. He calls over a waiter and asks me again what I want to drink and I say ‘really, I don’t drink and also I’m not stopping, byeeeeee.’

Just occasionally, as I say, a Random Proposition in the Street has turned into an evening of fun conversation. But mostly, that doesn’t happen. So, there it is, the case for a fictional husband.

How to invent a husband

In theory, inventing a husband should be easy for me. I love creative writing and that includes inventing characters.

But when it comes to inventing a husband for me, I have no idea where to start.

So I write on Twitter that I’m thinking of inventing a husband and a friend replies.

She tells me she once invented a husband:

‘He looked like He-man and he had no body hair,’ she says.

This gets me thinking. My fictional husband should definitely have some alpha male characteristics for the purposes of dealing with Mr Random in the Street.

Ok, let’s start at the beginning...

Name? Adam - simple enough for me to remember.

Height – well clearly he’s taller than the average Random in the Street – so let’s say 6 foot 2.

And he’s funny – a Michael McIntyre and Michael Moore combination. Perfect. He looks like Michael McIntyre too - easy to describe.

What does he do? Well, he needs to be both intelligent and physically stronger than Mr Random in the Street. A photographer and a martial arts expert – yes, I think that works.

And, Mr Random in the Street, guess what?

My husband is just about to fly out and join me – after competing in the finals of a national karate contest.

Nearly wrote karaoke contest there – oh well, if I slip up, it won’t matter. Karaoke is big in this part of the world.


In conclusion...

There are some situations in life where a few white lies are better than telling the truth. This is one of them!

You need your wits about you whilst travelling solo as a woman and in the case of Random Propositions in the Street, I now have a fictional husband called Adam in case I need him :-)

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The tallest twins in the world and a couple of famous geezers

Just an ordinary travelling day...

I'm meeting a friend for lunch at Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur - the tallest twin buildings in the world (452 metres high).

'ello, 'ello, 'ello, what have we here then?

OMG, you'll never guess who it is...

Who is it then?

It's only General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

Er, who?

AKA the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

They've been talking today about multi-billion dollar trading - and I also overheard them having a natter about outfits...

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Doublemint seller - Taipei

I came across this man selling packs of Doublemint gum in Taipei – 15 Taiwanese dollars per pack (around 50 cents). He was asleep standing up, outside Dingxi metro station at 5.30pm on a Thursday.

Doublemint seller:
nine packets of gum to trade
before your day ends.

Arresting attire,
smart blue shirt, grey trousers, hat:
reflection of you.

Doublemint sleeper,
5.30 workers race home;
you snooze while you stand.

Head drooping forwards,
Right knee bending, hands falling
open eyes closing.

Doublemint dreamer,
still you sleep as rush hour fades,
faces smudge to grey.

I like to believe
you have Chinese tea at 6,
at home with your wife.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

So gorgeous, I could eat a whole one...

...I’m talking about the Taiwanese people

They are so welcoming. It’s in their blood to be helpful. Whenever I open a map in Taipei to figure out where I’ve wandered, someone always stops to help. Most people speak great English – and ironically, they all apologise to me that their English is 'not so good', when it’s clearly GREAT compared to my Chinese.

...and I’m also talking about the food

There is food everywhere.

I know every city has food but Taipei seems to have food proudly ON DISPLAY everywhere I turn.

Food stalls and food buffets.


Food at Shilin night market.

Food, glorious food, everywhere I go. I have shrimp dumplings for breakfast and drink sweetened soy milk. And I try peanut-flavoured ice at Shilin night market – it's weird but it works.

This is teppenyaki, one of my favourites, cooked by serious-looking chefs with Edward Scissorhand control of metal cooking implements.

Teppenyaki is spicy deliciousness cooked in front of your eyes on hot metal plates – I have omelette with scallions, crab cooked with chilli, rice and hot buttered cabbage. Yum yum yum.

...and there’s my writer friend Lisa too

I go to visit Lisa and her family in central Taiwan. This is Lisa and her Mum - they look like sisters.

I met Lisa whilst travelling in Laos in April. One of the joys of travelling is meeting up with people again in their country of origin. Lisa is a technical writer by day. And she has also translated children’s books from English into Chinese. These books were written by scientist Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy, no less, including George's Secret Key to the Universe.

Lisa and I talked about the translation of works of fiction as a creative writing process – Lisa has to hear the voices of her characters in English language first. And then she must find those characters' voices in Chinese. A fascinating job.

We drive to Lisa’s family home in the mountains.

Above the clouds, we are surrounded by beetle nut trees and blankets of grapevines.

Lisa’s family feed me lovely Taiwanese food – fish baked with ginger, asparagus, wood ear, rice, carrots and green vegetables. And for breakfast, the most delicious egg in pastry and fruit bread.

It’s a very playful and natural gathering. We play the international game of Paper, Scissors, Stone.

We look at the bugs on the window frame.

We search for frogs and fireflies.

We take pictures of a yellow butterfly in the house.

And we eat peaches from the tree in the morning.

And, next day I head to Taroko National Park...

For any aspiring writers, this place is an abundant source of creative inspiration....

I do my goldfish impression most of the day – saying ‘wow, wow, wow’ at the scenery, accompanied by an Aussie guy who laughs at me most of the way.

There are great names for the sights in Taroko National Park, straight from children’s adventure stories – such as Swallow Grotto, Taroko Gorge, the Tunnel of Nine Turns and Eternal Spring Sunshine.

And you’re warned about the danger of rocks falling on your head – which adds an adrenalin aspect to the day.

The road that was cut around Taroko's sheer mountains wows me the most with tunnels right through the limestone.

Built in the 1960s, sadly over 200 people lost their lives in the construction. They are remembered at a number of temples built into the mountainsides.

The last stop in my tour of the Taiwanese countryside is a pebbly beach...

It reminds me a bit of Brighton beach. Kids run across the stones.

Dogs eat ice cream cones.

And this is where I decide the Taiwanese people are so gorgeous that I could eat a whole one – so I choose one from the beach and dip his feet in soy sauce.

Back in Taipei, I go to the hot springs for a dip...

You soak yourself like a prune in water, the temperature is above forty degrees in the hottest pool. Then you immerse yourself in the cool plunge pool – to stop yourself from cooking.

Oh, and don't forget the bath hat if you want to fit in!