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Yam Wielding Grannies, Plastic Bugs, and Cilantro Ice Cream

This guest post is from North Carolina author and sculptor Joel Haas, who is traveling in Taiwan and taking plenty of pictures. Today's post is the third installment of Joel's travel reports (also see parts one and two), in which he visits Yangmingshan National Park.

I describe Taiwan to American friends as a place the size of New Jersey, with the population of Canada, divided into a about a dozen ethnic groups (depends on who's counting), speaking about the same number of languages (or more).  Did I mention about 80% of the island is uninhabitable because of steep mountains and jungle?

Yangminshan National Park is more like the majority of Taiwan's terrain than the crowded cities along the western coastal plain.  The forest cloaked mountains rising above the city to the north,  was once the cool, scenic preserve of the elite.  Now, with the island's political and economic development, the park is open to the public.  City buses (the #260) run to it and, in fact, the National Park is part of the city.

But you would never know it.

The park is actually larger in land area than Taipei proper.  Like American national parks, roads and small towns dot the interior.  Camp grounds, nature study sites, trails laid out to see butterflies (best hiked in May and June) and trails to see the cherry blossoms and azaleas (best hiked now), areas of interest to geologists, and areas of interest to people just going out for the views, areas of interest for artists, and for those just looking to relax in some of the many hot springs doting the old volcanoes.

A friend attending a business meeting at the park offices in Yangmingshan took me along several hours before the meeting to a local restaurant with a fantastic view of one of the valleys and, incidentally, one of Generalissimo Chang Kai Shek's villas.

The villa is the low green building, barely visible, on the ridge.

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The proprietress, Ms Lee, was a bundle of energy and good will.  Her mother, renown as one of the best cooks in the area,  is the core of the family restaurant which Ms Lee manages. When not puzzling out the thoughts and actions of the odd wyeguhrun (foreigner), Ms Lee devotes her formidable energy and talents to nature photography, making natural dyes and paints, making terrifically engaging little sculptures of bugs from scrap plastic, and just in general being a force of nature which she so carefully observes and documents in her native mountainside village.

Ms Lee gets some coffee brewing for customers by using an alcohol lamp

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I noticed a bowl of what looked like paper hats on the table.  But that couldn't be right, I thought, not even baby heads are that small.  All was made clear to me in a moment.  It seems in many traditional restaurants, these are little disposable bowls for bones, seed pits, and  gristle.  Children or the grannies make these little folding bowls out of scrap paper.  Nothing to wash and just throw it away.  A great recycling use of old magazines and flyers.
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Our folding paper bones plate (note red sweet potato in the vase)

My friend left for her meeting and I was in the capable hands of Ms Lee.  Between her 100 words of English and my 100 words of Mandarin we did just fine.  I figured out she had said I should wait ten minutes while she finished cleaning up the restaurant and we would go wander the mountainside and village to take photos.    In the meantime, I took photos of Ms Lee's handicrafts, her garden, and of her mother preparing taro to mix with plums and brandy.  Ms Lee's progress was slowed as she would periodically dash out into her garden to name plants for me in Chinese which she uses to make her paints and dyes.  I don't remember the names of the plants, but I did learn my colors in Chinese.
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"Ahmah" (Grandmother) Lee prepares taro

Progress came to a complete halt as a couple walked in with what appeared to be a quivering mass of library paste in a brownie pan. Nothing would do now but that everybody sit down and have some mwahdjee  topped with ground peanuts and caramel (more on the peanuts and caramel later). We had to eat it right now, an elderly gentleman explained, while the mwahdjee was warm and still soft. I poked at it tentatively with my desert fork—I could see his point.  It was already gluey enough we could have pasted tiles to NASA's Space Shuttle with the stuff. Like all traditional Chinese deserts, it possessed only a hint of sweet as we would define it in the West. Sugar is not a major component of cooking here.

my serving of mwahdjee and ground peanuts

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Ms Lee kindly gave me a bug she'd made from plastic box strapping.  She's made dozens of animals and bugs from a variety of colors and textures of box strapping.

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I love the ant!

Ms Lee got her camera, grabbed a few oranges off a tree for us, and we headed down into the village. When I say we headed down, I mean we headed down.  The village is on a mountainside.  There are no up-down roads as such, only narrow stairways and paths steep as a ladder.  I was grateful for all the leg exercises my trainer at the gym had put me through.  Roads along the mountainside are recent, the older ones being more like level paths with the odd handrail or wall to keep you from tumbling down onto a neighbor's roof or field.  We had not gone far before we meet four "ahmahs" sitting in their traditional place along the mountain path into the village.  Of course we had to stop and make our manners here.  I was photographed with the eldest (she's 85.)
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Modernization means cast off office furniture to sit on and corrugated piece of tin over the wide spot they sit in on the mountain trail.
A hundred yards past the ahmahs, we came to an old traditional house dating to before the Second World War.

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An old woman trudges up the lane behind the old house. As you can see, she's not afraid of color.

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Plunging down another lane ourselves, and on past a water tank set in sturdy tree...

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which, it turned out, provided water for part of a local village market in a wide spot in the road above the fields in the valley.

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Cala flowers, sunflowers, dried squid, umbrellas, etc.  What do you want?

Despite having been served waaaaay more food than humanly possible to consume at Ms Lee's restaurant—and with the mwahdjee still making my insides sticky, there was nothing for it but to be polite and try everything offered by the local vendors.  As a guest of Ms Lee and as a foreigner (I did not see any other Westerners on my trip that day) everybody insisted I try their specialty.  Nobody would accept payment—in fact, when Ms Lee left some coins on a vendor's platter while she was away, the lady returned shortly and ran us down to physically force the money back into Ms Lee's pocket!
I started taking lots of photos so I would appear too busy to try more food.

There's always room for ice cream—especially ice cream wrapped in soy tacos and stuffed with fresh cilantro!
Bear with me.  This is one of the most delicious treats I have had here.  Follow the photos below.  We were making our way out of the market area when I spied a block of peanut brittle (it's not, but for lack of a better word...)  I started to take a photo as I saw another little lady sneaking up on my flank armed with breaded fried sweet yam slices on a stick.  Taking several photos to ward off the yam lady, only set up a hue and cry for the vendor at the peanut block to reappear and make his or her manners to the foreign guest.  I had no idea ice cream was involved.

A lady shortly appeared and pulled out what looked like a carpenter's hand planer.  She industriously set to planing off a half cup or so of grated peanut brittle, plopped out an ultra thin taco made of soy flour, and dumped the grated peanut brittle in the middle.  Next, she reached into an ice chest, plopped two scoops of home made vanilla cream onto the peanuts gratings in the middle of the taco and proceeded to chop up a handful of fresh cilantro.  I had no idea what she'd do with the cilantro until she dumped it onto the ice cream.   Then, in less time than it takes to tell about it, she wrapped the taco up tightly and presented it to me.

There was no getting out of this.
Unlike a lot of the other food offered me, you can't simply drop ice cream into a bag with a promise to have it for supper.  Ice cream is now.

Ice cream in a taco with cilantro is thinking outside the box.

With all eyes on me, I bit into it.

Thank God, it is DELICIOUS!

You can bet when I get back to Raleigh, I am going to start running some home experiments with filo dough, crushed peanuts, vanilla ice cream and cilantro.  Or try it yourself before I get back to the States and write me what you think.

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We finally got past the food vendors and into the area with National Geographic quality scenery. (see my Flickr photo sets)

Passing a waterfall fed by a mountain spring, we came upon a garden landscaped with pagodas, pines, cherry trees, azaleas, and more.  From  here, we could look out over the valley.

(I love how the setting sun brushed pink where it hit the water further up the mountainside!)

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At the garden—a young woman stands on the bridge over the mountain stream surrounded by azaleas

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from the bridge—stream and azaleas at sunset

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On the way back down the mountainside we came across the vendors closing up shop.  Before you think "Oh my God, how unsanitary!" please consider these ladies are washing their dishes in pure mountain spring water piped down from the same source as the waterfall; it is pure, and the water they use is then drained along the roadside canal you see into the village vegetable and flower gardens.
Can't say the same for your kitchen drain and dishwasher now can you?

My coach turned into a pumpkin and it was time to leave.  Ms Lee took me to a place only 50 yards above her house to have a perfect position to take photos of the sunset over Yangmingshan.

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Joel Haas is a sculptor and author from Raleigh, North Carolina. You can see his works at his website or at Neighborhood Sculpture Walk, and read stories at his blog.

See also: A Trip to Taipei's Shilin Night Market and Red Bean Filled Hockey Pucks and Mind Control.

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Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.
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4 Festive Holiday Road Trips To Take in December
Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.
Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.

Road trips are often reserved for the freedom of summer vacation, but if you miss the open road, there’s no reason you can't find holiday-inspired adventure along the highway during the winter. Work these festival stops into a trip back to grandmother's house, or follow the trail for a merry and bright day trip.

1. PORTLAND, OREGON TO SALEM, OREGON

Oregon holiday road map
Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.

Stop 1: Christmas Festival of Lights in Portland

If you can't get enough of belting out "Jingle Bells" and "Deck the Halls" with family and friends, take the music of the season one step further at Portland's Christmas Festival of Lights. This month-long festival runs through December 30 and features more than 160 indoor holiday concerts. The 2017 festival marks 30 years of holiday performances at what organizers consider to be the world’s largest choral festival. And if your road trip companions aren't feeling the music, there's always a lighted pathway, puppet shows, and a petting zoo complete with baby camel cuddles.

Stop 2: Oregon Garden in Silverton

Heading one hour south from Portland, swing into Oregon Garden, an 80-acre botanical garden that becomes a German-inspired Christmas wonderland. Open most days in December, the Christmas in the Garden event has drawn in thousands of visitors (peaking at 35,000 attendees in 2016) thanks to its Christmas market, ice skating rink, biergarten, and never-ending glühwein—a spiced, mulled wine popular in Deutschland. There’s also snowless tubing, two restaurants, and more than 600,000 Christmas lights hung throughout the botanical garden for a festive and glowing holiday adventure.

Stop 3: Christmas Tree Hunting Near Salem

The nearby Salem area is home to nearly 20 Christmas tree farms, making it a great stop for picking up the family tree before wrapping up a road trip. While that may seem like market saturation to non-Oregonians, the number of tree farms throughout the state isn't at all surprising, considering Oregon is the top Christmas tree-producing state in the nation, harvesting an estimated 5.2 million trees in 2016. Douglas and Noble firs are easiest to find, since the two varieties make up a combined 86 percent of the state's Christmas tree population. With 42,000 acres of tree farms throughout the state, it shouldn't take too long to find the perfect fir to take home.

2. ROCHESTER, NEW YORK TO ITHACA, NEW YORK

New York holiday road map.
Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.

Stop 1: George Eastman Museum in Rochester

Even if you snap a selfie with a cell phone instead of using a point-and-shoot, it's worth swinging through Rochester to thank George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak Company, for his impact on the photography industry. The George Eastman Museum is housed in Eastman's former residence, and has collected and preserved photography and cinema history since 1949. During the winter holidays, the museum is also host to Sweet Creations, a gingerbread house display that features more than 50 edible structures. Running through December 13, visitors can view the tiny homes among other exhibits. But unlike most of the museum’s artifacts, these displays are auctioned mid-month with funds used towards museum restoration projects.

Stop 2: It's A Wonderful Life Festival in Seneca Falls

From December 8 through 10, the 9000 residents of Seneca Falls celebrate the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. The town claims to be the inspiration behind Bedford Falls, the fictional setting for the 1946 Christmas film, and even has the evidence: Director Frank Capra visited in the 1940s, exploring the town and getting a haircut. Now, Seneca Falls celebrates with a three-day festival featuring a gingerbread contest, soup cook-offs, and several panels about the meaning of life. But even if you miss the fest, Seneca Falls is a lovely drive down memory lane, thanks to its classic, 1940s style.

Stop 3: Ithaca Ice Festival in Ithaca

If you've ever wanted to see just how a giant ice luge or fancy ice sculpture is made, Ithaca's annual Ice Fest is the place to go. Ice carvers from around the country compete for the chance to win cash prizes in three rounds of carving competitions. From December 7 to 9, ice carvers compete based on how quickly and impressively they can transform blocks of ice into art, while crowds watch from the ice bar or sample more than 20 different kinds of chowder during the fest's adjacent annual chowder cook-off. If that seems too chilly, don't worry—there’s also a litany of fire demonstrations and a silent disco to warm you up.

3. DEARBORN, MICHIGAN TO HOLLY, MICHIGAN

Michigan holiday road map.
Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.

Stop 1: Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, in Dearborn

Christmas past blends with Christmas present in Dearborn, Michigan, where weekends in December play host to the Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village festival. Throughout the month, Charles Dickens reigns supreme, with mid- to late-1800s carolers, reenactors, and performers milling about the town to spread history-based cheer. But, that's not the only era represented; visitors can take a spin on a 1913 carousel or visit a Civil War encampment. Model T rides are available, as well as ice skating, historic home tours, and live reindeer. It's almost too much Christmas history for any one town.

Stop 2: Christmas Markets in Detroit

Detroit is home to a variety of Christmas celebrations, but holiday market lovers will enjoy browsing through various local vendors at the city's Christmas Markets. Through Christmas Eve, the market spreads through eight spots in the city, including Cadillac Square and Capitol Park, and takes its German inspiration seriously with dance bands, glühwein, and accordion and polka performances. There are also heated tents, an ice rink, and the city's 60-foot Christmas tree to enjoy.

Stop 3: Holly Dickens Festival in Holly

If you haven't had enough Dickens adventures on this trip, stop into Holly, Michigan, where the town hosts the longest-running Dickens festival in the country. Running for 44 years, the three weekends after Thanksgiving (through Dec. 10 this year) are filled with performances of A Christmas Carol, horse-drawn carriage rides, vintage photos, museum tours, tea parties, and shopping. If that wasn't enough, couples can renew their vows with the help of Queen Victoria while attending the festival.

4. ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA TO BREVARD, NORTH CAROLINA

North Carolina holiday road map
Composite by Lucy Quintanilla. Illustrations by iStock.

Stop 1: Christmas At The Biltmore in Asheville

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is known for being a romantic getaway for couples and a perfect Christmas town. It's also home to The Biltmore, the largest private home in the U.S. The Vanderbilt mansion has historically accepted guests for Christmas since 1895, and it still opens for the holiday season each year. Visitors get an upper class taste of Christmas throughout December, which includes 55 decorated trees, more than 1000 poinsettias, "miles of ribbon," and other opulent décor. Christmas at the Biltmore also includes a gingerbread house tea, candlelight tours, carriage rides, and garden and grounds decorated for winter. Go on and pretend it's all yours.

Stop 2: Santa on the Chimney at Chimney Rock State Park

Chimney Rock State Park, about an hour's drive south of Asheville, is home to a 535-million-year-old rock face—aptly called Chimney Rock—that you can climb. But on December 9, you can also see how Santa takes on chimneys of all sizes. The big guy with the presents rappels the 315-foot rock as park-goers and Christmas enthusiasts watch. Visitors also get to snack on holiday treats and hang out with live critters that call the park home.

Stop 3: Aluminum Tree and Ornament Museum in Brevard

"Jingle Bell Rock" turns 60 years old this season (it debuted in 1957), and in Brevard, you can jump right back to that time. The Aluminum Tree and Ornament Museum (called ATOM) hosts the country's only known display of aluminum Christmas trees—most dating to the 1950s, when the tinsel-colored trees were mass produced by the millions. Decades-old ornaments bedazzle the restored trees (which are given pseudo-scientific names, like Silvercus pinii holidaeus), and retro-inspired musical guests perform original Christmas carols through December 23. This blast from the past might wrap up a road trip through North Carolina, but it is sure to create plenty of modern memories. And after all, isn't that the best part about holiday adventures?

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For the First Time Ever, Rome's Barberini Tomb is Now Open to the Public
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iStock

In addition to the Coliseum and the Roman Forum, tourists exploring Rome and Italy’s greater Lazio region can now be among the first public visitors to ever step inside an important ancient tomb. As Lonely Planet reports, the two-story vault, known as the Barberini Tomb, dates back to the 2nd century BCE. After receiving a much-needed facelift, it’s now open to history lovers for the very first time.

During the mid-19th century, scholars excavated a group of elaborate Roman tombs at the ancient Italian city of Praeneste, also known as Palestrina. Situated along the Via Latina, an important Roman road, they contained fine furniture, golden jewelry, and other luxurious items. These structures included the Barberini Tomb, which is also referred to as the Corneli Tomb. Today, it’s the only one among this group that's still largely intact.

The Barberini Tomb received its name from the princely Barberini family, who were the last known landowners of the surrounding estate. (Today, this land is part of a public archaeological park.) It’s well preserved “because through the centuries it was always used as a shelter for agriculture and sheep-farming purposes, up through the 1800s," said Francesca Montella, the archaeologist in charge of the Barberini Tomb’s restoration, according to the Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata.

In addition to its two stories, the Barberini Tomb contains an underground funerary chamber with a mosaic floor, which once contained a stunning Roman sarcophagus. (It was moved to the Vatican Museums during the 1700s.) There are also frescoes portraying animals, plants, and mythological figures.

Conservators spent two years restoring the Barberini Tomb, a process that included installing a lighting system and rebuilding its staircase and collapsed ground floor. The nearly $300,000 project will be completed sometime in 2018, but in November the tomb opened to visitors, who can now make reservations to take a guided tour of the building.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

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