See Taiwan, land of macaque monkeys, coconut toast and more

Sunday , July 08, 2018 - 12:00 AM

MCKENZIE LEININGER
TX. Correspondent

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Taiwan for 16 days. Taiwan, in case you haven’t heard of this tiny sort-of nation, is a small island off the coast of China.

According to China, Taiwan IS China — but the Taiwanese beg to differ. The country was created when a former Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, fled from Mao Zedong’s regime with his followers and set up base on Taiwan. Hence, China claims Taiwan as its own, while Taiwan insists it is independent.

About a sixth the size of Utah, Taiwan is almost entirely covered in lush jungle and, as an island, is of course surrounded by the ocean. It rains often there, and when it’s not raining, the humidity level in the summer is generally anywhere from 70 to 90 percent. Basically, even if it’s not raining, it pretty much feels like it is.

The heat, too, is pretty intense. I experienced temperatures up in the 90s. And early June, when we were visiting, is the coolest part of the summer. Fun, right?

One of the best things about Taiwan as a country is how safe it is. It has a very low violent crime rate, since guns and drugs are banned. I walked across town at 11 p.m. with my two younger relatives and felt perfectly safe.

• Exotic foods

While all of that may be mildly interesting, of course, the most fascinating thing about Taiwan was all the things we did and getting to know the culture and people.

First, let me explain why, exactly, I was in Taiwan. My sister’s husband works as a U.S. diplomat at the American Institute of Taiwan (a de facto U.S. embassy, basically), a career that requires them to move around every few years. This year, it was Taiwan!

I often tell people that my sister lives on an island, in a jungle that’s a national park, on an ex-military base located by a volcano, with wild monkeys and some of the most venomous snakes on the planet right in her backyard.

Sounds fake, but it’s really not.

So, what with staying in a national park and all, the first thing my family and I did was climb up into the jungle. It looked exactly like some mystical Shangri-La, with huge mountains blanketed in green and swirling mist. There was also a herd of wild water buffalo that meandered around the hills. If there’s one place that epitomizes what people think of when they hear “jungle,” this was it.

Next up? The Shilin Night Market. Now, a thing about Taiwanese food. Some people think of food in Asia as being just the same as American Chinese food. In some ways, yes, but in most ways ... just no. American Chinese food is really nothing like real Chinese (or Taiwanese) food. For example, for lunch and dinner your options will be almost all beef noodles or dumplings, and basically everything has seafood in it.

Some people also think, when I say that Taiwan has Costcos and McDonald’s and 7-Elevens, that such stores will be just like their American counterparts, which is also a misconception. I have yet to hear of a Costco in America that sells fish heads — only fish heads: eyes, teeth and all — in bulk. In Taiwan, 7-Elevens sell Hi-Chew popsicles, papaya milk, Lays seaweed chips, fermented duck and quail eggs, and grape ice cubes.

Not quite like home.

• To market, to market

But anyway, back to the night market. It was huge! Dozens of narrow streets were packed on both sides with hundreds of vendors and hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people crowded in the middle.

Now what, you may ask, would a Taiwanese night market sell? Well, everything. You could buy Buddhist statues, fans, purses, watches, bracelets, Nike shoes, iPhone cases, and of course — food. I figured if there was ever a time to be adventurous about food, it was now, so I ended up trying fried squid, codfish, cherimoya, dragon fruit, wild boar skewers, deep-fried milk balls, avocado milk, winter melon bubble tea, Ovaltine-Oreo milkshakes, and Cheeto-like corn puffs dipped in liquid nitrogen.

No, that was not a typo. I did in fact eat Cheetos served in a bowl of nitrogen. It was so cold you blew steam out of your nose and mouth when you ate it!

A few days later, we traveled to the other end of Taiwan and took a ferry to a scooter-only, tiny island off the southern coast. In Taiwan, by the way, scooters are ubiquitous. Sometimes you’ll see hundreds of scooters lined up to go through an intersection and no cars. It is the transportation of choice, and this island was no different.

While there, we stayed in a neon pink camouflage hotel called the iWow, filled with such inspirational signs as “Only the cactus survive” and simply, “Carry.”

We went out in the morning and snorkeled for the day, seeing hundreds of brightly colored tropical fish and gigantic sea turtles. Some of them were 4 feet long and 3 feet across! They were very calm and would swim right up to us as they munched on moss.

• Museums to mango ‘bings’

Throughout the rest of the trip, we did a ton of fun things — too many to list. We visited a mountain filled with wild macaque monkeys, walked through a museum filled with all the treasures Chiang Kai-Shek and his followers “saved” from the Forbidden City, toured Kai-shek’s house and gardens, watched teams prepare to race in the annual Dragon Boat Festival, and went up all 1,667 feet to the top of Taipei 101, which was the tallest building in the world until 2010.

We ate the famous mango “bings” (like a snow cone with fruit) and had enough coconut toast and dumplings to burst. We saw the packs of wild dogs that roam Taiwan and the venomous green tree vipers that are so common there.

But the best thing was being able to learn about a new culture and visit with all of the kind people of Taiwan. In all, it truly is a beautiful country, and it’s probably my favorite place I’ve ever visited.

McKenzie Leininger will be a junior this fall at Bonneville High School. She loves engineering, eating and writing. Email her at fiorgaoth@gmail.com.

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