Taipei, the city in which I was born, smells nostalgic. It’s a humid blend of street vendors, motorbike exhaust, urban sewage, and ripening tropical fruits. For me, there’s nothing in the world that triggers a more powerful sense of reminiscence. I don’t actually have a lot of “real” memories from the time I lived here as a kid—most are constructed memories from photographs or my parents’ stories. I do have fleeting kinesthetic images: standing in my mom’s motorbike as she zooms through a narrow alley, dipping a spoon into a bowl of sweet grass jelly, jumping back on the sidewalk as a stray dog bounds past and barks, biting mangosteen slices from my grandfather’s hand. Mostly though, my memories are suffused with this very particular smell—at once tropical and urban, dirty and piquant. It’s distinctively Taiwanesque, a combination of busy metropolitan streets and easygoing island sensibilities.
I am currently on a three-week trip to Taiwan, with a five-day sojourn to Thailand in the midst. Every two or three years, when I return to this island, this scent/sensation inundates me. It’s a remarkable feeling—familiar yet not familiar, peculiar yet not peculiar. It’s not the feeling of home; I only get that comfort in the Pacific Northwest. It’s not the feeling of adventure; I’ve traveled to a few places and I know that kind of thrill. It’s something… else. I don’t quite have the words for it yet.
Let me tell you, I absolutely adore the place I came from. I love the street food—the BEST street food in the entire world, and I will fight you if you say otherwise! 😉 I love the kind people, the polluted skies, the proliferation of 7-11’s. I love the fruit: immense mouthwatering mangoes, dragonfruit, lychee, guava. I love the buildings, from the skyscrapers to the tin shacks to the temples. I love the birdcage windows. I love the amazing public transportation systems. I love the typhoons. I love the night markets. I love the bakeries. I love the musical garbage trucks. I love the motorbikes and motorcycles like swarming ants. I love the mountains. I love the seaside. I love the rich, dynamic, complex culture and history.
It’s been fascinating to witness this country’s progression throughout the years. Drastic changes have happened in such a short amount of time. Taiwan is a young nation, still struggling for sovereignty. When my parents were kids, Taiwan was under martial law and authoritarian rule. By the time I was born in the 90s, social reforms had democratized the country. Taiwan is thriving. Even just a decade ago, stray rabid dogs roamed garbage-strewn streets and the cities were lined with one-lane/two-way streets. Nowadays, people walk their pet puppies in the newly constructed parks and traffic has improved. (Well, okay, people still think red lights are suggestions, but there is definitely less hazardous weaving. I’ve even seen people use blinkers to change lanes! Gasp!) Environmental edicts and investment in public transit have made a huge difference. Every time we return, I can see the amazing changes that continue to happen.
This trip is also special because it’s my husband Robert’s first trip to Asia! He’s delighted by Taiwan so far, even though I’m a terrible translator (Sorry, Robert!). He’s amazed at the cheap prices of spectacular foods (our first full-spread breakfast here was NT$240, or about US$8, for five people), as well as the contradictory landscapes (a juxtaposition of “developing economy” and “cosmopolitan”). These sights and experiences are all familiar to me, but I’m also seeing the city afresh through his perceptions. Robert is photo-documenting the food, so I will be drafting a food post later. 🙂
If any of you are ever fortunate enough to visit Taiwan, please feel free to contact me for recommendations. I’d be more than happy to send you a list of a few places to see, a few things to do, and a few million foods you HAVE to try!