Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Bestest Tour Ever

(Aside to my family:  Happy Thanksgiving!  Sorry I couldn't be there with you.  And could somebody tell mom to check her email?)

Wow.  What a difference a day makes!

(And again, we start with a detail from yesterday which I hadn't thought was important at the time.)  The dude who had picked us up and taken us to the airport was a nice, reliable guy who spoke English really well.  He got us aimed in the direction of the right plane, and told us Mr. Su would meet us.  When Mr. Su eventually did meet us, his English was crappy and he arrived with a nearly-full tour bus.  In other words, Mr. Su hauled 40 or so of us through Taroko Gorge, in three different languages.  So, not only did you have to try real hard to understand Mr. Su's English, you also had to elbow your way to the front of the crowd when he was speaking your language, or he'd be completely drowned out by the noise around him (passing cars, waterfalls, the sounds of a marble factory...)

OK, today.  Before I went off on the Taroko Gorge tour, I had a chance to book a tour for this morning.  There was a Northern Coast Tour, where I'd be taken to a city and harbour up north, or the Chiufen Village Tour where I'd be taken to a city in the mountains about an hour away.  And I thought... well, to tell you the truth, I'm not real sure I was bright enough to anticipate that I would be sick to death of tour buses by today... but I decided that what I really wanted was the "Health & Culture" tour of Taipei.

I was to meet my tour guide at 8:50 a.m. in the hotel lobby.  At 8:50 on the dot, who shows up but the nice dude from yesterday.  And he's driving a small seven-person van.  Score.

Turns out I'm the only one in it.  Score again, big time.  I ended up with a 4-hour private tour of Taipei.

First, Jackie--  not his real name, I venture.  He told me his name was Jackie Chan and that I was to call him Jackie.  (I expect this goes over a lot better on the big tour buses, but what the hell.  I figured he probably had a difficult name to pronounce and was sick of foreigners getting it wrong.)

Anyway, Jackie takes me to DiHua street, which is where the vendors sell all sorts of medicinal herbs and other folk-remedy like items.  Jackie led me through there with several games of "Guess what this is."  I have to say, I did quite poorly -- being unable to identify the caviar, the jellyfish, the dried lemon, and the dried deer penis.  (The latter, he explained, was sold for ... well, you can just guess.  He said it used to be expensive but has become a lot cheaper now that Viagra is on the market.)  I didn't buy anything (can't imagine what it would be like getting a dried deer penis through customs) but it was extremely educational.

Jackie then dropped me off at Confucius Temple and circled the block for 20 minutes while I checked it out.  This was a total bonus of the solo tour -- we were actually supposed to just drive by the Confucius Temple, but since there was just one of me, Jackie let me check it out on my own.  It was lovely -- very serene, peaceful.  But more ornate that I would've imagined.  (I guess I figured Confucians to go in for simplicity, but apparently not.)  I snapped many pictures.

I met up with Jackie across the street, and we went to Pao An Temple, a Taoist temple.  (Jackie tells me how to spot the difference between a Buddhist temple and a Taoist one.  The Buddhist ones lack the ornate decorations on the roofs.  Also, Jackie said Taoist monks need not be vegetarians, and needn't shave their heads like Buddhist monks.  They may also marry.)  The Temple I'd been to before (that first night here), Longshan Temple, was also Taoist.  I had seen many people there praying, and throwing little wooden half-moon shaped objects, but had no clue what they were actually doing.  Jackie explained all this to me -- it is the way you get guidance from the gods.  First, you light your incense -- the gods can hear what you say when you're holding the incense.  You identify yourself and make your prayer.  Then you select a long stick from a nearby barrel of such sticks.  Each one has a number on it.  Then you toss these two little half-moon shaped wooden things.  Depending on how they land, you either repeat the prayer (perhaps clarifying it), choose a different wooden stick, or receive confirmation that you have the right stick.  THEN, go over to the wall where there is a box with about sixty slots on it, each slot containing a little stack of papers.  Take a paper from the slot corresponding to the number on your stick, and you have the god's answer (which is, as gods' answers often are, subject to interpretation).  The main god at the Pao An temple is a god of medicine.  We saw an old man in front of the altar.  He had an injured foot (a crutch was propped up against the wall beside him), and we watched him cast the wooden pieces and swap sticks from the barrel.  It was really quite moving, to see someone actually participating in this means of prayer, for something that was obviously very important to him.  I hope he received a favorable answer.

Then we drove over to the Lin An Tai Historical house -- it's a 200 year old house formerly owned by a wealthy family in Taipei, and it now serves as a museum.  Very interesting to see how people used to live here, back then.  (Jackie and I again played, "Guess what this is," and I again failed -- missing both the fish-shaped chopstick holder and the extremely ornate ceremonial drum stand.)  We saw a bunch of school kids there on a field trip -- and when we left the house, we saw them all mount up on matching bicycles (and put on matching helmets) to head off.  Very nifty.  (Could you imagine a field trip by bike in the States?  The waiver forms alone would be pages long.)

THEN -- by the way, I should note that this entire four-hour private tour set me back about $36 -- Jackie took me a tea shop where the proprietor taught me about the three different grades of Taiwanese oolong tea.  (Go for the mid- or high-mountain stuff; the low mountain is bitter.)  Complete with taste testing and a lesson on how to properly accept and drink Taiwanese tea.  I got a sales pitch here -- after Mr. Su, yesterday, I'd come to expect them -- but I am a tea drinker and it was tasty tea (supposed to be good for lowering your cholesterol, too) -- so I gave in and bought a small bag.

Afterwards (but wait! there's more!) Jackie hauled me over to an Asian medical-type place for a reflexology foot massage.  I'd been a little nervous going in the unimpressive storefront, but the establish itself was pristine, huge, and completely professional.  After washing my feet at a cute little ... footwashing stand (you had to be there), I was escorted to a big comfy chair with a big comfy ottoman, wherea woman (wearing plastic gloves) just worked away at my feet.  She handed me a card with all the reflexology bits pointed out on a map of the foot, and every so often when she'd find a knot or some tenderness, she'd say something like "23 no good," and I'd look at 23 on the map and see that she thought there was some problem with my spleen.  About 60% of her calls were accurate -- some others way off.  (Either that, or they need to renumber their foot map -- I'm pretty sure I don't have prostate problems.)

(Since all tours involve an opportunity to sell you something, it was explained that my 20 minute foot massage was free, but if I gave her another 200 Taiwanese dollars, she'd give me a 10 minute neck and shoulder massage.  That's about $6.  I went for it.  Neither the foot massage nor the neck and shoulder massage felt particularly good while she was doing them -- but I felt surprisingly good afterward.

With the new spring in my step, Jackie took me upstairs (yes, upstairs) for the, er, last bit of my tour, a short Kong Fu demonstration.  To tell you the truth, I wasn't that enthusiastic about this when I signed up for it, so I was actually grateful when Jackie said that, since I was alone, it would be rather shorter than the 20 minute show promised in the tour book.  In the limited show, I saw a dude hammer a nail through a board with his hand, and also jam a piece of soft candy (like chewy caramel) clear through a hard piece of sugar cane.  This was impressive.  (I wondered whether to applaud, as one person clapping sounds pretty ridiculous, so I just said "thank you" a lot.) 

(You may wonder -- I did -- what they try to sell you at a Kong Fu demonstration.  The answer is ... a "magic hand cream."  (Softens skin!  Eliminates acne!  Reduces wrinkles!  Juliennes fries!)  Unfortunately, it's also a miraculous burn cream, so they had Kong Fu Demonstration Guy run his hands along a burning hot chain (which they had been heating on a frying pan in the corner) in order to burn his hands and then demonstrate the healing powers of the cream.  I'm not a skin cream user and there was no chance I was going to buy the stuff.  I felt pretty bad that they'd burned the guy on my account, and did hope that the "magic hand cream" really did make the burn go away -- or, in the alternative -- that there was some trick involved here and he wasn't really hurting himself.)

After that uncomfortable moment, Jackie packed me up and we headed back to my hotel.  I asked if he had a tour this afternoon, and he said he was doing a tour of a pottery factory and museum.  He laughed and said he had only one person signed up for it, and asked if I wanted to go for free, to keep him company.  Having dinner plans (and no interest in purchasing pottery), I declined -- but I gotta admit, I was tempted.  These individually guided things are the way to go.

1 comment:

helmswondermom said...

Now that tour I would have enjoyed.  Especially the reflexology and massage part!