Sunday, February 5, 2012

Day trip to the Mountains

1/18/12 afternoon

Jerry and his wife took us with their little girl to the mountains on Sun. It was an awesome day!

Note: Jerry’s wife and daughter do not have English names. I do not know what his wife’s name is...he's told us but I truly could not make out the sound of it. His little girl’s first name means “happy,” so I named her Happy. Though she doesn't have an English name, Jerry’s wife can speak more English than Jerry. Jerry brought his dictionary with him. We all communicated just fine.

Jerry, his wife and little girl, Happy

We drove separately; Don and I with Mike and Donnie in our van, Jerry and his family in their vehicle.  Donnie rode in front with Don to navigate while I rode in the 3rd back seat. I suspected we were in for a harrowing mountain road experience. I chose to sit in the back so as not to be “scared” looking out the front window and so as not to make Don “scared” by my gasping or holding onto the seat. I’ve ridden too many mountain roads in CA for me to be “comfortable.” It was the many drives to the sequoias that made me a fidgety rider. I looked up online the route that we were going to take on Sun. I wasn’t taking any chances. I saw those mountain roads with switchbacks and s-turns on the map, and I’m not ashamed to say it, they made me nervous.  The thing that really causes me to cringe is when the cliffs and gorges don’t have guardrails. This was something I couldn’t tell by looking at the map.

As it turned out, it was a better road by far than the one that goes to the sequoias starting at Three Rivers. There was not one stretch without barriers…not just guardrails, but barriers. It was wide enough easily for two cars to stay in their lane. The road turned out not to be a problem! Not a problem, I should say for me riding. Don might have something different to say considering he was driving…just as he had done going to the sequoias. As far as curves and switchbacks, this road might have been even worse than in CA. We went 45 miles up 6,000 feet and it took an hour and a half! That’s some zigging and zagging! But it was beautiful!!!

Before we reached our destination, which was Jerry’s family farm in the mountains, we stopped at a restaurant for what they call BBQ. Jerry bought BBQ chicken for us to have for lunch. BBQ is a misnomer in our American vernacular because it wasn’t grilled and/or basted with a sauce. It was technically deep fried…just like what has become popular in the US over the past ten years. This restaurant had a huge fryer on the front porch. We stayed in the car while Jerry went to the get the chicken. Jerry proudly brought the boxed chicken back to the car and said, “Chicken for lunch.” He did this thinking that Mike would have something to eat when we went to the restaurant in the mountains where the food would not be anything Mike would want to eat.

We stopped to meet Jerry’s sister at the last town before we started UP the mountain. She was waiting outside her house (another Taiwanese brownstone) to meet us. She gave us a gift of tea. She didn’t look at all like Jerry. She was much bigger in stature. She was very pleasant. We were honored that Jerry wanted us to meet some of his family. FYI There is also no resemblance between Cherry and her brothers, Johnson and Jesse. I’ve read that Taiwan is very diverse in its people groups. This must account for the differences.

The mountains were covered with banana trees. The banana bunches were all bagged, still on the tree, to protect them from bugs before they are ripe enough to pick. The mountains were also covered with bamboo forests and some kind of wispy pine tree. There were dozens of kinds of flowering plants like lantana, camellia, black-eyed Susans, and poinsettias.

We saw coffee plants, guava, peach trees, squash and some kind of fruit growing out of the truck of a tree that looked like grapes. Jerry showed us how to squeeze them till they popped open because their skin is very tough. Then we sucked the inside juicy fruit out of the skin and spit the seeds on the ground. They were sweet.

Speaking of plants, the flora was many but the fauna were few. We saw virtually no animal life…large or small. We did see many butterflies and bees.

We walked to a tea plantation beyond Jerry’s family farm field. All the tea bushes were planted in rows that curved around a hill, just like you’d picture it to be in China. Jerry explained that only the new leaves were harvested for drinking tea. The bushes had already been clipped of their “ripe” tea leaves. We could see when we looked closely how almost every twig on the bushes had been clipped off and the rest of the bush was no good. Jerry said they used to pick the leaves off by hand, but now they “Buzzzzzz…” He made a sound and ran his hand over the top of the bush. I don’t really know what they use to cut them with, but his motions looked to me like a hedge trimmer.

The tea plantation was on a hill above the mountain road. We walked down to the road and around the bend to a restaurant that is owned by Jerry’s friend.

 I have to describe this lovely little mountain restaurant even though, I must admit, I am tired of describing restaurants. This one was so lovely that accounting the experience would not be complete without putting this charming place into words. I will try to do it justice.

The restaurant was rustic with wooden plank walls and a tin roof. Jerry also called this a BBQ restaurant. This was more true to form than the earlier restaurant with the deep fryer. Outside, there was a large, round grate hung from a hook under a little roof over a fire pit. The fire pit had huge chunks of wood burning in it that smelled really good. On the grate were several kinds of cuts of pork being tended to by a woman who was, by clothes and color of skin, obviously native to this mountain.

Note: In the history of Taiwan, the “mountain people” are the aboriginals of the island who used to live in the low country. As the island became more inhabited by immigrants, first by the Dutch, then the mainlanders of China who came in two waves throughout modern times, the natives were forced into the mountains. Now the government recognizes the “mountains” as their land and legally, the land cannot be owned by anyone other than those of aboriginal lineage. These mountains above Chia-yi are the Ali-shan range and outsiders only come here as tourists. Tourist buses run twice a day between Chia-yi and the famous mountain resort of the same name as the mountain range.

Before we went into the restaurant, we chose what cut of pork we wanted with our meal from those that were on the grill being cooked by the native woman. We all chose the sausage and a slab of pork. Outside of the entrance were shelves of flowerpots and baskets of fruit. “Inside” (there was no door) we passed a little gift shop and then we went on to the eating area. There were six tables in a covered patio area with net curtains pulled to the side. Outside the farthest “wall” was a large old tree with origami-type decorations hanging from the branches.

 The mountain road ran outside the north “wall” and opposite it was the most fabulous vista of lush covered mountains that it nearly brought tears to my eyes. I could not believe we were physically looking at such a beautiful sight! I can’t say it was any more beautiful than the Napoli Coast in Hawaii or even the mountains of Dahlonega, GA or the Grand Canyon or the Swiss Alps or Half Dome in Yosemite or the Grand Canal in Venice or the north shore of Lake Superior…all of which we have seen with our own eyes. But there was something about that moment of looking over those ridges and valleys that look my breath away. Every so often the awesomeness of the creation can just make your heart beat fast and tears well up in your eyes! This was one of those times.

After we all took in the fabulous scenery, we sat down at one of the neat and clean tables that was spread with a tablecloth and had a little centerpiece of yellow flowers and a pottery animal. The nicest looking table we have seen so far!

Then the food began to arrive at the table along with forks for the “Americans.” I won’t try to describe everything, but we did have cold “jelly” soup with a lime on top, hot bamboo soup, vegetables, and boiled taro. Then the main dish of meat from the BBQ came on a small platter placed on a banana leaf. We were expecting that when we ordered a sausage on the grill outside, that we would each get a whole sausage. This was not the case. It may have been ½ of a sausage for the 4 of us cut up into small pieces and served with skewers as small as toothpicks. The slab of pork came in a portion about the same size as the sausage, also cut into small pieces.

 Knowing how the meal was going to be served, Jerry had prepared by buying the BBQ chicken on way into the mountain, so at this point he reached into the bag and brought out the box of chicken. You could see the relief on Mike’s face that he was going to get something “real” to eat. Jerry opened the box and pulled out the fried chicken. To Mike’s horror, it was the WHOLE chicken! It was a rooster at that. The head was completely in tact along with its red comb. Once it was laid out on the platter that had had the little bits of sausage on it, we not only saw the head but also the feet which were tucked up inside. What can I say? We ate the rooster. The method for eating the bird was to rip the meat off the carcass...with forks or chopsticks.

Note: Eating with chopsticks is cumbersome for Americans for several reasons. One of course is obvious…just the ability to manipulate them and actually pick up food. Secondly and thirdly, these go hand in hand, is that without a knife you can’t cut anything up into sizeable bites which means you pick up large portions intact and then bite into them a little at a time. This goes against all Western table manner instincts. Then there is the issue of eating noodles and rice politely and efficiently with chopsticks. Asians only concern themselves with efficiency, not politeness, so the method resorts to holding the bowl close to your mouth and “shoveling.” Lastly, soup is impossible to deal with with chopsticks, except for the piece of meat or vegetable that is floating in it. Sometimes a Chinese spoon, like a little ladle, is used for drinking the broth but more often the bowl is held up to the mouth and it is “slurped.” None of this must be considered “bad manners.” It is simply the facts of eating with chopsticks.

Incidentally, Don always tries to use chopsticks before resorting to a fork. People comment that he must have learned to use chopsticks in Japan, which he did, because he holds them “beautifully, like Japanese.” The Taiwanese just get them to work. There’s no style to it.

The only other food I am going to describe is the mountain rice in the bamboo shoot. Mountain rice is the Taiwanese equivalent to our wild rice in that it is grown only in certain areas thus it is less common and more expensive. It also looks different from white rice. Whereas wild rice is long and narrow and dark as compared to white rice, mountain rice is shorter…almost round…and has a yellow color. A large diameter (maybe 3-inch) piece of bamboo (12 inches long) was filled with mountain rice. I suppose water was added, then it was put on the BBQ to roast. It was served on a platter on top of a banana leaf. To eat it we cracked the bamboo at the top and it split in two. Each half was filled with sticky mountain rice that we scooped out with a spoon that was exactly the right size and shape to fit the bamboo. It was very exotic and tasted very good! Mountain rice roasted in bamboo is my favorite Taiwanese food so far. It has surpassed the dumplings.

We ended our meal with a Western cup of coffee and a Taiwanese “cookie,” a rolled up rice wafer with a light flavored filling. We then bought a few things in the gift shop and made our way back up the road to Jerry’s farm.

Note: While we were eating at the restaurant, a tour bus stopped and the entire other 5 tables were filled with people…none were Westerners. It was obvious that Jerry’s friend had a great business going by feeding the tourists as they made their way up to Ali-shan. Two buses a day, up and back, the only restaurant we saw…good business. And a good service.

Next we got in our vehicles and drove to a remote place where there had been typhoon damage two years ago. There was a gorge with two bridges, one for cars the other for foot traffic. When the rain began it flowed down that gorge, filled it up and washed out the two bridges. I can’t guess how deep the gorge was but it was DEEP. This day it barley had a river at the bottom. It was a horrific thought that water actually filled up that gorge and took out the bridges. I can only relate to that by remembering the flood at the Corona, CA plant. This gorge was 100 times, maybe a thousand times, deeper than that little creek bed in Corona. The bridges have been rebuilt. 

The one for cars was nothing to write about. It was immediately replaced with a functional bridge just to get people back and forth as soon as possible. But the footbridge was a fabulously designed span that had opened recently. It was quite intimidating to look at, but we braved it and made the trek across.

It looked almost like a “swinging” bridge but it did not move at all. It was very stable and still. There were no gaps between the planks. It was not at all scary to walk on. However, it was strenuous. It was not perceptible from looking at it, but the last ¼ of the bridge was quite a steep incline. We rested, then turned around and walked back. As I walked, I couldn't help thinking how my dad would have appreciated the engineering and beauty of that bridge.

Again we got in our vehicles and drove a short way to cross the “car” bridge that was just up the river from the footbridge. When we crossed the bridge we were at the entrance of Tanaiku Eco Park. It is a historical reenactment park that displays the life and work of the aboriginal tribe of that area. It was a small village with a few shops, restaurant, pavilion for eating, and a large BBQ pit where they were roasting two halves of a pig…must I say, it was a whole pig stretched out and attached to the grate of the BBQ that was attached to a spit that was turning the two full body halves at once.

The one other building on the site was a large open theater with a bamboo/tile roof, cement floor and cement bleacher-style seats. It was a very nice facility.  The purpose of visiting this park was that Jerry wanted us to see the aboriginal dancers. There is a group of native dancers that perform twice every day. We went to the afternoon performance. The group of dancers consisted of 8 girls and 3 guys. They did 5 or 6 different dances wearing a different costume for each. Sometimes they looked Hawaiian with colorful “puff ball” headbands and sometimes they looked Native American with the men wearing hide leggings.  Yet many of the outfits looked like Inca, as in the Andes of Peru. Those clothes were full-dress from head to toe including stripped (black and white; green, red and white) “leg warmers,” like from the 1980’s.  I found that odd considering the warm temperatures of the region.

The dances were all very interesting, but I will relate only three of them. One dance was done by only the men. They danced very aggressively slapping their body in time to the music, almost at times like the Mexican maccarena (sp?). Jerry said it was about the men showing their “security,” their ability to protect the tribe.

Then there was one by the women and the men where at one point the women laid on the floor in a star-like fashion, all their feet at the center and looked like synchronized swimming moves with their arms, not legs.

But my favorite was the dance where the women acted out winnowing the mountain rice. They used their flat winnowing baskets to dance with while they went through the steps of harvesting, grinding and tossing the rice into the air and catching it in their baskets. I liked it because I knew exactly what they were doing…aside from it being very graceful and pretty.

The only other performance I want to mention is that of a soloist. An older woman came out in a very ornate, full-length costume and sang a song that Jerry told us was in a vanishing language. Very few people still know this mountain language. He said he does not know it, but his father does and is teaching it to Happy. He said his little girl is probably the only one in the building who could understand anything the beautiful woman was singing.

Just to review, we had had an awesome day in the mountains! We walked to a tea plantation. We ate at a remote mountain restaurant. We walked across a bridge spanning a gorge. And we ended the day by seeing Taiwanese aboriginals perform tribal dances. Again I say, awesome!

No comments:

Post a Comment