Thirsty in Tainan? Have a drink, maybe of your choice.

I’ve travelled all over the world – 65 countries at last count. Something that keeps me exploring is how different the world can be at times. Today, I’m writing about a trivial but fascinating difference – what the Taiwanese choose to drink and when and how they drink it.

Our team has learned that beverage consumption is different in Taiwan, in several valuable lessons.

1) Coca-Cola products and other soda – rare to non-existent. Yes it’s a bad habit, but I tend to have one Diet Coke/Coke Light/Coke Zero in the morning where many normal adults choose to consume coffee. Caffeine delivery is required, and this is my choice. Here in Taiwan, I have yet to find a restaurant that serves Coke Zero or Diet Coke. Even regular Coke is pretty rare. Pepsi is non-existent. There isn’t a local equivalent like Inca Cola in Peru either. It’s just not a drink of choice here.

The only real place to find Coke Zero is in a supermarket or at 7-11. Which leads to lesson 2:
2) 7-11 and its competitors are ubiquitous, every few blocks in the cities…but…even they don’t major on cola or similar. It’s mostly about tea. Lots and lots of tea. Some juice, some coffee and other beverages, but mostly tea.
Drinks sold at 7-11 in Tainan. See what’s missing in that picture? Soda pop. There might be carbonated apple juice from time to time. But mostly not.

3) What can you find besides tea? Juice. Lots of juice. Yesterday, Irv and Anjana and I had lunch in a place that served mostly tea, but also passionfruit juice. Interestingly, it was mixed to order – how much sugar you wanted and what size etc. Then, the plastic cup came out with the juice – and a sealed lid on top. Many stores have the heat-shrink plastic machines to seal their drinks.

One juice we’ve had a few times is smoked plum juice. When I first saw it in the store, it didn’t sound that good. But it was served at a dinner last week, and it was really nice and refreshing.

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4) We’ve also struggled with wine. Beer tends to be readily available, but wine, especially white wine, is uncommon. Perhaps it is because of refrigeration costs, but it also seems likely to have to do with local tastes. Mixed drinks are *never* consumed at a meal, only in a bar… or, in some cases, at the night market.

5) It seems like beverages in general are often considered something to be consumed after a meal. We went through a whole lunch over the weekend without anything to drink ever being placed on the table. Somehow this worked.

6) Thankfully, our hosts got me a case of Coke Zero from the supermarket. Tainan has been survivable as a result. :-)

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Tainan – Days 12 (continued) 13 and 14

Team Tainan has had a busy Friday-Sunday on our final weekend of the project.

On Friday afternoon, we presented findings and preliminary recommendations to the Tainan government. It was a positive and affirming experience for us, as even through translation, many of our positions were met with nods and other positive body language. We have work to do to refine our proposal in the week ahead, but we are on the right track.

Friday evening, we attended a dinner party with Tainan Mayor Lai and his senior staff. The dress code was “shiny” which lead to some fashion choices we may want to forget…however the reception, held at renovated gallery BBArt, was quite fun. A few of us went to explore on Hai-An Road after the party.

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Saturday, we headed out with the tourism board and local guide Kevin to see some more of Tainan City. We started at the market on Hai-An Road, where for whatever reason, we were offered many treats for free. Lychee, Longan, roasted pork, taro cake, sticky rice, and more all headed our way “just to try.” Then we visited some of the nearby street food and tried yet more local specialities. Moving on, we visited a few temples, including two where parades were being held. The firecrackers announcing the parade were pretty loud! Our tour concluded at a traditional tea house, which was quite refreshing after the long walk in the hot sun.

Saturday evening and Sunday were “on our own” days but it didn’t really turn out that way. In a city of nearly 2 million people, how random is it that Ed, Irv and Anjana, and Hari all met each other in the alleys near Confucius Temple?!?! Donna wasn’t far away, either. Irv, Anjana and Ed had lunch in a very small local place where we dined on various Thai fried rice and passion fruit juice…total for three people: NT $250, or US$8.33! Each of us had shopping agendas, with Donna and Ed returning to the recently-restored Hayashi department store for gift-buying. It was much busier on Sunday than it had been during the week; the staff was very helpful even with the crush of people, and it was one place where we seemed to reliably be able to speak English.

This Monday morning, it’s back to work – our recommendation report and presentation must be completed before meeting Mayor Lai again on Friday.

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Tourist Friendly Tainan

This is the end of my second week in Tainan. Like last Sunday, I ventured out on my own today. I wanted to go to the Confucius temple area again.  Unlike the last time (when I took bus #88), I decided to walk. I had the map given by the bicycle shop owner last time. With that, I fairly easily figured out which way to walk from the Tainan Station.  It took a bit longer than I expected.  In any case I was there in about 25 minutes from our hotel and I ran into my colleagues who were out for a while and were looking for a place to eat.  Since I had a late breakfast, I decided to explore more on my own. I went to a small gift shop and thoroughly searched for something for my wife. I finally found a hand-crafted and artfully decorated flower vase for her. I bargained a little and bought the vase.  Interestingly, the shopkeeper only spoke broken English, but we managed to close the deal.  I now had to ask them to pack it well for my long journey to the US.  The shopkeeper and his helper girl were both very nice, understood what I was asking for, and packed my purchase in two layers of bubble wrap.

Next I roamed around a bit and then I was looking for a restaurant to eat lunch.  Earlier I had looked up an Indian Restaurant on Google at 54 Guanting street. I walked towards that based on the high-level map the restaurant had on their website (BTW, I didn’t have connectivity while I walked I just had the image on my phone from the time I had seen it at the hotel).   I remembered that I had to come back to the Tainan Hospital area and then make a right turn. As I was approaching the circle near the Tainan Hospital, I asked someone who looked like a student. He tried very hard to communicate in English but I couldn’t tell whether he knew where that street was.  He was very apologetic that he couldn’t communicate well. I said ‘no problem’ and moved on.  When I reached Guanting street I couldn’t find anything like an Indian restaurant there. There was a small fast food place with the only English words I could read saying ‘Curry Soup’. That couldn’t be it, I thought.  In any case I went in and I asked a girl if she knew the restaurant I was talking about. She, with difficulty, told me to go back a block and turn left and I would see it near a 7-Eleven.  I did that and that turned out to be a busy intersection but no sign of this Indian restaurant. I then looked for Guanting street again and tried to reach 54 Guatnting street.  The numbers weren’t in perfect order but I did see 65 on one side and 29 on the other side of the street. After 65 I saw something like 38. In between I saw a parking lot with a lot of scooters.  The  whole street looked quiet and didn’t look very commercial.  I theorized that the restaurant either moved or went out of business and the place was converted to a parking lot.  Ok, I didn’t find the restaurant I was looking for but the girl at the fast food shop again tried her best to help me.

It was getting close to 2pm and I decided to walk back to the hotel area. As I started doing that, I saw Jhongyi Road and I recalled seeing that near the Chihkan tower. I also saw a sign that said Chihkan tower in 320 meters. I walked in the opposite direction and based on my partial map I thought I could take a shorter route to the Tainan Train station and walked in that direction. After a long walk, and a few more ‘short cuts’, I still wasn’t hitting Jhongshan Road (that I took while going to the Confucius temple).  I now realized I was lost.

I was getting hungry and there isn’t any decent eating place near by. The afternoon heat was also peaking by then.  As I was walking I found a fruit shop.  The girl in the store didn’t know any English but she greeted me with a smile. I pointed to a banana. She picked up the whole bunch and started weighing it. I pointed to a specific banana and showed ‘one’. She signaled eating and asked ‘today’ or ‘tomorrow’. I said ‘now’. She didn’t understand. I then said ‘today’ because at least she seemed to know that word.  She then searched for  a ripe banana (just right) for me from some other bunches and got me one.  In a pure business sense she didn’t have to think about whether my banana was ready to eat, but her friendly attitude and caring impressed me.

I continued to walk for a few more minutes and concluded that I was definitely lost.   I decided to call it quits. I stopped by a 7-Eleven store, showed them my map and asked them where I was on the map. They looked at my map but couldn’t tell me our location.  I then asked them to please call a Taxi for me.  There were two girls and a guy in the store, all in their 20’s. The guy looked at my map, said something in Chinese, went to what looked like a kiosk and typed something and printed a receipt.  BTW, I had a map in Chinese (same picture as the English one) also and I gave it to him. He still couldn’t tell me where we were.  In any case, he logged into the kiosk and printed a receipt for me. I offered my cell phone and said ‘please call a taxi for me. I don’t speak Chinese’.  He wasn’t taking my phone.  As I said earlier, there were two other girls in the store and one of them could speak broken but understandable English. She said the other guy had already called a Taxi for me and I should wait there for 6 minutes. I waited for a few minutes. Actually, used the time to buy some milk and yogurt. My taxi arrived and I got back to the hotel. Again, very helpful 7-Eleven people.

I got back to the hotel and went to the food court in the next door mall. I now had to ask for vegetarian food. All these days our hosts Lisa, Red, Anny and others have always been with us and they have been carefully screening the restaurant menus for vegetarian foods.  Today I had to do it on my own without knowing the language. I went to one of the food stalls and asked her if she spoke English. She said she could manage.  Interestingly, she really didn’t know any English besides saying ‘yes’ ‘I know’, ‘ok’ etc. However, she is tech savvy.  On her mobile she brought up an app that could do the English to Chinese translation.  It wasn’t great at translating sentences but things like ‘Rice’, ‘Vegetable’ could be translated. She understood what I wanted.

On the whole, whoever I met on the street have been always been ready to help. I am impressed by the friendliness and the extra mile the Tainan citizens go to to help Tourists.

Thumbs up for friendly Tainan!

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Mango Heaven

On Thursday, we took a trip to the Yujing district of Tainan, which is the major area where mangoes are grown.  As we stepped off the bus, we passed a roadside store selling mangoes.  The sweet smell was in the air, and I was unaware of how the day would progress.

Mango Shop

Mango Shop

We then walked through the town towards the wholesale market.  Here, they sold a variety of different mangoes.  The main mango that is in season at the moment is the Aiwan mango, also called the Irwan mango, which is close enough to my name meaning that I was approaching mango nirvana.  Apparently, this mango came to Taiwan in the 1950’s from Florida, where I was born and raised.

Mango Warehouse

Mango Warehouse

We purchased a bucket of mangoes for us to eat for the remainder of our stay here.  The cost for about 22 mangoes was 400 New Taiwan dollars, which corresponds to about USD $13.33, which is around 65 cents per mango.  In my local food store, I would pay over 5 times as much and they would not be as ripe.  We then proceeded to the “Mango Ice House”, where they use mango in a variety of dishes.  We had mango bread.  I had a chicken dish with a mango sauce. For dessert, there was mango pie, mango ice cream with mangoes over shaved ice, and mango pudding.  My mouth was watering and I kept eating.  Two days later and I still feel full from eating so much mango.  And I keep eating them whenever I can.  We are in the height of the mango season in Taiwan, and I’m truly in mango heaven eating these ripe and tasty mangoes!!!

Mango Bread

Mango Bread

Mango Pie

Mango Pie

Mango Ice Cream with mangoes over shaved ice

Mango Ice Cream with mangoes over shaved ice

Mango Pudding

Mango Pudding

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Tainan – Days 10, 11 and 12

Over the last few days, team Tainan has had several additional meetings to observe and inform.

On Wednesday, we visited the Tainan Police to learn about the CCTV camera monitoring system. The police have 2-way or 4-way cameras installed at intersections throughout Tainan, which do vehicle detection and real-time monitoring. The CCTV system has a 98% accuracy rate at capturing license plates, meaning the police can recreate routes of any car or scooter in the city. The police were, as with all our meetings, very hospitable, and really helped us understand more about what infrastructure is in place in Tainan.

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Following the Police visit, I had the opportunity to speak to the senior staff at the Environmental Protection Bureau. They were interested in hearing more about our observations and projects that IBM has undertaken all over the world.

Ed Brill's Smarter Cities Speech Session

Our dinner Wednesday night was with the economic development commission, who were extremely generous hosts. We ate in a traditional restaurant, with danzai noodles brought in by street vendor, bean jelly served up by cart, and dozens of amazing dishes on the table. The more adventurous meat-eaters among us got to sample pig’s ovaries…but there were many traditional dishes as well.

On Thursday, we had the opportunity to ride the green line bus out to the suburbs. Irv Lustig will write about the “mango mania” we experienced there, but we also made other stops. Our first was to a bus transfer station, recently modernized with an air-conditioned waiting room and new restrooms. In this village, we also took a walking tour to see some baroque-style shophouses, eat street food, and visit a Japanese dojo.

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Our second stop was to another new bus station, where we made some local friends through “selfies” and saw another modernization.

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Dinner was with the cultural commission, after a tour of the beautifully-restored Hayashi Department Store. A return trip to Hayashi is in order for this weekend…

On Friday morning, we visited the T-Bike pilot station in Anping. T-Bike is a city bike program similar to the system in Paris or DIVVY in Chicago. Right now, with an “IC” card – also used on the bus – taking a bike is free. The government hopes to expand the T-Bikes throughout tourist areas of the city.

Tonight we are honored to have been invited to a dinner banquet with Mayor Lai. The dress code is “sparkly” – I can’t wait to see what that means!

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Trip to Alishan Mountains, Taiwan

On the first weekend SCC Team Tainan had the whole of Sunday for relaxation from the hectic schedule of Week 1. As recommended by our local hosts some of us decided to explore and experience more of Taiwan outside Tainan. Irv and I decided to take a day trip to the famous Alishan Mountains of Taiwan. We had booked a car with an english speaking driver/tour guide who arrived sharp at 9:30am. We left our hotel and took three freeways and exited on to the very windy road towards the mountains. Our driver Kevin was a talkative person providing us information about the places we crossed on the way and also shared with us his hotspot as a complimentary service. The road journey was approximately 2.5 hours long and on the drive up the mountain we crossed some beautiful scenes of lush green tropical trees. We were headed to the site of the Alishan Forest Railway, which is approximately 2,300 meters above sea level. Interestingly, the road up the mountains was pretty busy and we passed many tourist buses and cars on the way. It seemed everyone was headed up to the mountains on a weekend day!

We reached our destination around 12 noon and as we stepped out of the car we were greeted by a lovely gush of cool mountain air. The temperature was around 18 degrees centigrade and I was glad that I had carried a light shawl. We were hungry and decided to have lunch at a nice restaurant that our guide recommended. It was a delicious preset meal with hotpot, 5 other dishes, rice and free Wi-Fi service. Post lunch we headed to the railway station to board the train. It was a red train of six coaches that is pulled by a steam locomotive and runs on a narrow gauge. This railway line was previously a long stretch from the bottom of the mountain that had been damaged by a typhoon and therefore only a part of it at the top of the mountain was now being used for tourists. It took only six minutes to reach our destination, the Chaoping station.

Ready to board the Alishan Train

Ready to board the Alishan Train

Next, we headed for the Alishan Forest Park with the tall cedar and cypress trees. The local people consider the Cypress a sacred tree and worship it. There was a sign next to the cypress trees asking not to scratch the tree trunk, probably because of souvenir seekers!! Previously this forest was made up of many ancient cypress trees but due to logging and planting of Japanese cedar trees in the early 1900’s, the number of cypress trees has dwindled down to less than 40. The cypress trees were a glorious sight with their huge girth and height. Some of them were 2300 years old and it was nice to imagine how much history they have witnessed over the years. We were soon playing a guessing game about the age of the cypress trees. The youngest of them was only 800 years old! The remaining stumps of the fallen cypress trees had interesting shapes formed over the years, like the snout of a pig, a heart, an elephant trunk and so on.

Alishan Sianglin Sacred Tree -   Circumference 12.3 metres

Alishan Sianglin Sacred Tree – Circumference 12.3 metres

The downhill walk through the forest was very refreshing with flowers and ponds along the way. We kept stopping to take pictures. Towards the end of the long walk my feet had begun to hurt but I was happy about the good exercise. We headed towards the train station as the last train was leaving at 4pm. The station was crowded with tourists like us waiting for the train to arrive. When the train arrived, I could manage to get a seat but Irv and Kevin had to remain standing for the short 8 minute return journey. Getting off the train we took some more pictures and then headed to our car for the downhill journey. Before moving on, I purchased a bottle of wasabi that is locally grown and is quite cheap compared to the city.

On the return journey we again crossed beautiful views of clouds over the mountains. Our next stop was a local town and we walked along its narrow lanes crossing shops and houses. We also got to see the wasabi plant that was being sold in the shops. We then decided that we had done enough walking and it was time to have something to eat. Kevin took us to a local indigenous restaurant where he managed to obtain a table for us since the owner was his friend. The food was made with local organic vegetables and was really delicious. You could taste the freshness of the vegetables. We quickly finished our dinner and then sat down in the car for the drive back to Tainan. I was exhausted and sat back in my seat to sleep through the return journey.

We reached our hotel around 9pm and it was time to say goodbye to our guide. As we headed into the hotel we reflected back on the day and the beautiful experience of the trip to the wonderful Alishan Mountains.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Irv for enhancing the content of this blog entry.

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The Tainan Social Eating Experience

I thought I’d write a post about the social aspects of eating in Tainan.

Last week, after our first day of meetings, we had a formal dinner hosted by Mayor Li of Tainan on Monday evening. The five of us were seated at his table along with the Deputy Mayor, the General Secretary of the Tainan government and IBM Taiwan’s General Manager. The meal was a 12 course meal and this was our first such dinner in the city. There were 4 other tables at the dinner where other IBMers and government officials were eating. At their tables, each course was served family style. This allowed them to take small portions. However, at our table, we each received individual plates for each of the courses. By the 7th course, I was completely full. This presented a dilemma, as it was my understanding that it was considered rude to not finish what was served to you. The mayor left after the 4th course to attend another dinner, but the remainder of our hosts were still at the table. Finishing every dish. I then noticed that the IBM General Manager was not finishing her plates, and felt safe that I could partially eat each dish. What concerned me more at this point was that I had 3 weeks ahead of me and I could not imagine how I would consume a 12 course meal each night.  Fortunately, that was the only time we had to eat each of the courses as well as have so much food.

On Thursday evening, the Director-General of the Bureau of Transportation hosted a barbecue, which was more of an outdoor buffet.  The 5 of us were seated at different tables with members of the Transportation department.  Being a barbecue, it was time to drink beer.  The beer glasses were about 4 ounces.  The atmosphere is that you raise your glass, say “Gambe!!” and chug down the 4 ounces of beer, and slam your glass down on the table.  At my table was the Deputy Director of the bureau and I was informed that he was the best beer drinker among the group.  So he looked me in the eye, and the challenge was on.  I was up for the challenge.  Then they replaced my 4 ounce glass with a 24 ounce mug.  Fortunately, I did not have to finish the mug of beer each time they shouted “Gambe!!”.  But it was clear to my new friends at the table that I was up to the challenge of drinking that much beer.

My colleagues have also found out that I am a mango lover.  I grew up in Florida with a mango tree in my back yard.  I eat Mango sorbet at home almost every night.  I get mango smoothies. I can never have enough mango.  The mangos in Taiwan are fantastic. We have had mango over shaved ice. Mango over ice I drank a 32 ounce carafe of pureed mango juice. mango carafe I purchased a tub of cut-up fresh mango at the Taiwan night market.  I’ve had our local host purchase more for me to consume in my room.  I cannot get enough mango.  When we have meetings with government officials, they often supply us with snacks, which sometimes are fruit bowls containing mango.  I am in mango heaven.

Tonight, we had dinner with the Bureau of Economic Development.  The table had the largest lazy Susan I have ever seen.lazy susan  Fortunately, the dinner was served family style and I could maintain some portion control.  What was fun was that they brought the dinner in using someone carrying in the food like a street vendor. food service The conversation was fun, and the food was excellent.  These experiences have all added to the pleasure of being in Tainan.

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