In the heat of the night (markets)

Trip Start Feb 26, 2006
Trip End Sep 16, 2006

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Flag of Taiwan  ,
Monday, March 6, 2006

If you've never been here, it's impossible to understand.

There's not any single frame of reference that can prepare you for the mallet-over-the-head sensory overload that is the Taiwanese night market. The mad energy, the cacophony of sounds, the bizarre sights, the funky smells... they are all utterly alien, unusual and completely fascinating.

I've touched on Taiwanese night markets in a previous post. We've been to several big and small night markets in Taichung, Khaosiung and in Taipei the Huahsi "Snake Alley" night market (I'll discuss this further in a forthcoming Taipei entry.)

All night markets have one thing in common... food. Lots of food, for ridiculously cheap prices. I mean, what right-minded person wouldn't eventually begin snacking on roasted squid jerky if a bushel barrel full only cost 75 cents?

The point really is that anything goes. Picture a big city wholesale district, with salespeople hawking $5 dress shirts with a wireless microphone, like a carnival barker. Next door is a wheeled cart spewing mysterious steam, and dozens of people crowded around eating, smelling, experiencing. Next to the cart, a shop run by an elderly man selling corn on the cob (on a stick) by placing the corn in a hollow tube which is specifically designed for roasting corn. (Of course in true Taiwanese style, this immediately Western-compatible concept of roasted corn is subsequently slathered in some kind of funky mystery sauce that may or may not appeal to you.) The larger night markets have integrated actual retail stores, some you may actually recognize. I've seen Levis stores in several locations, and of course 7-11 is inexplicably everywhere (containing the same old rotating hot dogs, but with bubble milk tea and pork stuffed steamed buns instead of Mountain Dew and nachos).

On the main drags, you are at all times surrounded by flashing lights and scooters zipping past and missing you by inches. There are so many things trying to get your attention simultaneously that you must eventually either begin tuning out or to try and escape, if only for a moment to clear your ears and your mind. You decide to walk down a narrow alley, a distinctly quiet corridor which belies the activity that you're about to experience. Although you've dodged the main bustle, you're now in the side alleys of the night market, which are even more compelling by virtue of their understatement. Away from the carnival barkers and the glaring lights are the darker shops connected by seemingly endless narrow, winding roads and the ubiquitous steaming food carts lining every step of the way. Around each corner you feel as if you've discovered some exotic new world, always seeing or smelling something you'd never dreamed of before. But of course you didn't have to dream of it, you silly American or other generic Western stereotype. The Taiwanese have done it for you.

The day markets are considerably different. They are still social affairs, but of a more "civilized" variety. Mothers and old ladies go out to buy their food from local vendors. Steam carts are on every corner, but seem slightly less mysterious under the bright sun. I've read that the Taiwanese do not do their shopping at supermarkets because there is no guarantee of freshness. If you are Taiwanese, you have most likely bought your meat for example from the same person for 10 years, and you trust his business practices, despite the fact that his raw chicken (with the black feet still on, pointing towards the heavens) lies out on an unrefrigerated table all morning (Perhaps the fact that they were slaughtered that morning and not sitting in a giant supermarket warehouse for a month before reaching the market has something to do with it.) Rotating happily away above the chickens are what look like little motorized, rotating wire coat hangers with tassels attached, automatically shooing away the flies. Certainly it's primitive, but it seems to work.

Each day that I'm here, I find myself doing my best to reserve my judgments and prejudices, and try to find out the reasons why certain things are done in ways that are so different from back home. I don't claim to ever have all the answers, but I'm very happy to do my research, as I take in the unusual sights and smells in Taiwan's markets.

We did visit some larger department stores for the Taiwanese take on the Western shopping experience, but all but the toilets were dull by comparison. (see photos)

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