It is late Saturday afternoon, and Connie, David and I have just finished looking at apartments. I stare towards the sun, which is dragging its way through sky, falling in slow motion as if caught in the wet viscosity of the air, Gravity pulling it down to the bottom of everything. The sun is lower than I am used to, but my body has begun to make the appropriate adjustments, my brain already beginning to compensate for the time difference and the lack of daylight savings. I estimate it is around 4:00 p.m., which is a dismal time in Taiwan; too early to eat and too hot to do anything else. But seeing as how I'm still "fresh off the boat," Connie and David are more than happy to indulge my child-like thirst to see EVERYTHING as soon as possible. I still don't think the reality of how long I will be here as set in yet. This still feels like a vacation.
So we blast, scooter-style, back across town to an area known as the Flower Market. I have never been a huge fan of angiosperms, so I wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of walking around a giant nursery, but I figured "what the hell. There's got to be a REASON why it's famous. Maybe there will be some Venus Flytraps or something cool there". As we fly down the wide three-lane road (which one would think would feel safer but, because of the traffic, is actually MUCH more nerve-wrecking than the smaller one-laners), I pull my wrist down and Princess Peach responds to the turn of the throttle. It is a good feeling, and I'm starting to feel confident and collected. I allow myself to look around cautiously, taking in the billboards, storefronts, streets signs. I still have no clue where I am in relation to where I've been or where I am heading next, but I suppress the anxiety that comes with losing one's bearings and accept being lost for the time being. "I've got all of the time in the world to figure out where I am," I think, and the double entendre echoes in my head in a profound and far-off way. Just then a bus comes flying out from a side-street, narrowly missing my rear tire and shattering the confidence I had worked so hard to build. I white-knuckle it the rest of the way to our destination.
The Flower Market, I soon find out, is poorly named. Sure, there is a small section that does indeed have flowers. However, this is just a tiny fraction of what one can purchase at said market, and the streets are packed with scooters as we amble down an adjacent alley, park our murder-mobiles, and enter into the sea of people. Immediately, I am accosted by a blitzkrieg of smells, bombing my senses and pulling me in several different directions at once. I can smell donuts, fried chicken, seafood, fresh fruit, and permeating all of these is the thick, sticky smell of grease and oil. I try to push this olfactory assault from my attention in order to create a visual map of my surroundings. I observe that the Flower Market is arranged similar to a carnival midway, with stands selling various goods running along both sides of a large path. The entire market seems to circle an enormous blue building which Connie says is a public track/swimming facility, though she says she's never been inside. "Which way first?" Connie asks me. An arbitrary question, so I choose "right". Right it is.
The first thing we encounter is, of course, the flowers. We walk quickly past the extensive display of plants hanging and grounded, and I note with some disappointment that almost NONE of the plants are actually blooming. Some flower market! There is, however, a very attractive tent selling Bonsai trees and, as I think back fondly to my childhood and watching Karate Kid II, I remember Mr. Miagi's obsession with Bonsai trees. I make up my mind to own one of these small twisty trees before I leave the country. After we pass the nursery the market begins to look more and more like a carnival. Here is a short list of some of the attractions therein:
Food stands - These sold everything from chicken to pig to squid to fruit to french fries. Yes, Dad, even traditional "fish head soup" could be found here. Also, almost everything in the Flower Market is deep fried or cooked in a ridiculous amount of oil. At one point David leans in and says that Taiwanese people do two things right: bake and deep-fry. Doesn't sound all that dissimilar from back home. I try a few new things, although much of what is offered looks a little daunting (like whole squid tentacles, pig ears, or chicken's head...yes, a fried chicken's head). I had read in my guidebook that the "stinky tofu" is a delicacy not to be missed in Taiwan, so for $60 NT I purchase a stinky tofu kabob, which is actually very good (although apparently it can get MUCH more stinky than what I tried). I also try, for the first time, a "dragons eye" which is a small fruit about the size of a grape. The dragon's eye looks like a kiwi on the outside, and the inside is sweet and jelly-like. However, I am not expecting the large seed in the middle and bite down hard, sending shock waves of pain into my molars. "Watch out for the pits" Connie warns. Too late. Later, Connie buys what they call "fish balls", which are just deep fried fish on a stick. They are very good, and I am beginning to see what David said about the Taiwanese and their ability to deep-fry.
Smootie Stands - Although I don't get to try any, these stands can be found all over Hsinchu and, I assume, Taiwan. The stand is full of fresh fruit, which you select by hand, and is then blended and mixed with cream or condensed milk to make the freshest smoothie ever. The price is determined by which fruit(s) one chooses. The smoothies look refreshing and incredible, but for now I'll conserve my funds. I still have many days until pay-day.
Gelato Stand - I only see one of these, although apparently gelato is popular here and most is made by locals and with fresh picked fruit from their gardens at home. This particular stand is attracting a lot of attention because they were using DRY ICE to cool the dessert! "I thought dry ice was expensive!" I say to Connie and David, "that CAN'T be cost effective!" The gelato stand is booming as the Dry Ice changes from solid to gas and "smoke" pours out onto the sidewalk. Little children run around in it and we feel the coolness on our sandaled feet as we watch the gelato maker work. He reminds me of a magician, and his magic is the happiness on everyones' faces as they eat his dessert in the hot sun.
Games - Similar to the midway, games can be found all along the Flower Market. However, most of them are for children and include things like catching minnows with a net, throwing balls at small targets, or trying to ring bottles for prizes. The only difference between these and traditional American midway games are the size of the attractions (these being miniaturized) and the person manning the booth is not screaming at every passerby to "COME, WIN A PRIZE! WIN A PRIZZZZZZE FOR THE LADY!!!!". It almost takes some of the fun out of it all.
Puppy Stands - These stands are where puppies are sold and, although very cute, is also very sad. Puppies are crammed five or six to a small metal crate big enough for one, and they are given no water or food despite being in the sweltering heat. I even see a "basket o' puppies" which is a small woven basket which contains four sleeping puppies, all piled on top of each other. At first I think they are dead, and I am mortified that they would keep the dead puppies out in the open like this. But then, much to my relief, the basket starts to move and the puppies are resurrected, whining and trying to escape their wicker prison. I want to buy them all, but I have no place to keep them, so I keep walking and try and imagine that they will all go to good homes.
T-Shirt Stands - Here, one can buy t-shirts for less than $100 NT ($3.00 US a shirt). Usually, these shirts have a bunch of random english words like "champion, crazy, respect, skateboard" just thrown across them in no particular order. Either that, or they will have weird pictures, like a Transformers "Decepticon" logo next to a cartoon monkey. None of these shirts make any sense, but for $3 a shirt, I suppose you could just wear them once and throw them away.
There are other stands that are some variation of these, but in general, this is what I encounter at the Flower Market. I like it, the whole place feels festive and drips with humanity. Families are everywhere. It reminds me that I am just like everyone here, and they are just like me. As we complete the circle (which takes about an hour), I am feeling more and more at ease in my new environment and around my Asian city-mates. We all head back to Connie and David's apartment to regroup, get hydrated, and wait until the fried food that has settled in our stomachs makes room for dinner. As we wait and watch bad cable television, I call AT&T from Connie's Skype and get the friendly man from El Paso to unlock my cell phone so I can use the extra IF card that David has to make local calls on my cell phone. The friendly man from Texas finally gives me the code, and I slide the IF Sim card in and replace my battery. I now have a cell phone in Asia, cell phone number (09) 5407-0445. I am slowly assimilating, piece by piece, like a puzzle. It seems like anytime we move, the puzzle of our lives gets dashed to the floor and we have to get down on our knees, once more, and slowly put all the pieces back together. Sometimes it is difficult and we can't seem to get everything to fit, the edges are too different. But eventually, the pieces come together and the picture is of the new life we made. Mine is coming into focus now. It is a beautiful picture.
Dinnertime arrives and I am still not hungry, but I can see that David and Connie are and I don't want to miss out on anything so I act like I am. We take the scooters back to the Flower Market; however, THIS section of the Flower Market is not anything like the Flower Market from earlier. THIS section is constructed under a freeway overpass, and thus feels seedy and "underground," like a massive homeless circus from some vivid fever-induced dream. The market is packed and we make our way through the masses passing similar stands to what I witnessed earlier. The cars and trucks rumble overhead and the lights from the stands throw shadows on the nearby buildings as we take a seat at a picnic table in front of a "Sizzling Platter" stand. At the Sizzling Platter, similar (it seems) to almost everywhere, I am to choose my meat and the hotness level of my food. I choose Salisbury Steak, just out of curiosity, and medium hot. Just as at the Teppannaki place, we have the option of unlimited corn soup and tea, which I have sparingly, trying to pique my appetite. When our Sizzling Platter finally arrives, I am instructed to hold my napkin in front of my chest and face, like a shield. I am confused by this until I see that our food is brought out on a huge metal skillet, just like a fajita plate, and is throwing scalding grease everywhere. After the Platter has calmed itself and ceases to sputter and spit, I dig in using actual UTENSILS! (The first time I have used a fork since I have been in Taiwan). It is good, and is like an Asian spaghetti topped with a tough steak and covered in a red pepper sauce. I finish everything but the gristle and we leave feeling overfed and sleepy.
Back at Connie and David's, I write in the dark spare room as the fan blows air on my face and dries my eyes. Today was another extraordinary day, and by tomorrow I will (hopefully) have my own apartment. One more puzzle piece. I drift to sleep thinking of my childhood and spaghetti, of carnivals and Mr. Miagi. Outside, the city breathes deep and is glad that I am here. So am I, city. So am I.