Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Chicago in a weekend - day 3

Day 3: fascinating architecture, zoo (rawr), and touristy Navy Pier

Our last day started with Stax Cafe, this time for the chocolate, peanut butter, and banana pancakes. Once again, I'm really not sure what Jeremy had because I was too focused on my own plate - chocolate and coffee tend to have that effect on me. We headed to the Chicago Zoo (free!!) with Aaron, passing many of the places we walked through yesterday. 

I didn't really believe all the hype about the Chicago architecture, thinking, "right, how cool can a bunch of buildings really be?" I was pleasantly surprised at being proven wrong! Walls that angled back and forth, patios designed to create a visual waterfall effect, an entire building of blue glass, a rounded cloverleaf building right by the lake, and stones from famous historical sites jammed into a front wall (Tribune Tower) were just some of the fascinating thing we saw.  I would love to go on an architecture tour next time we're in town.

Gotta get a picture by the famous Chicago Bean.
The zoo was nice, especially because it was free! I liked seeing some of the animals close up, including these two lionesses. I also got my first look at a full-sized gorilla - he came right up to the glass and struck a pose, solemnly surveying the crowd.

At the zoo with the Chicago skyline in the background. Yes, we were the tourists with our new Art Institute t-shirts, but I thought they were pretty fun!
Finally, we walked along the Navy Pier before heading to the airport. The Navy Pier has shops and a small amusement park as well as being the launching point for party boats and tours. The pier was busy because of the 4th of July, but we walked all the way down to the beer garden at the end before turning around. The water around the pier was bustling with ships and sailboats coming and going while jet skis zipped in between. I enjoyed being by the lake in the beautiful weather, but I would probably not go back to the pier unless I was attending a specific event there - not much to do besides walk around.

We stopped by Al's Beef to get a famous hot beef sandwich before heading to the airport. Getting the bun dipped in the meat juices is the way to go - yum!! All in all, a fantastic weekend in Chicago. Until next time!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Chicago in a weekend - day 2

Day 2: blueberry crisp pancakes, strolls through the park, and lots and lots of art.

Breakfast on Sunday was at the Bongo Room, by recommendation of our first Lyft driver (pro tip: Lyft and Uber are the way to go in Chicago for quick transportation). The blueberry pancakes with vanilla sauce and cinnamon granola on top were excellent. The sauce tasted like a creamy yogurt - delicious and not overpoweringly sweet. Jeremy had a pork loin burrito thing with some magic pesto sauce that went perfectly with the sauteed potatoes seasoned with fresh herbs (didn't really pay much attention - did I mention the pancakes were good?!). Once again, the place was tiny but hopping. I'm starting to get the hang of this city thing!

The Bongo Room is on the south end of Grant Park, so we took advantage of the perfect weather to walk through some great scenery on our way to the Art Institute. I enjoyed all the large-scale art displays in the park, including this multi-colored rectangle with artists' names. It's called "The Artists Monument" by Tony Tasset. The designer wanted to honor all artists without creating a hierarchy of prominance, so the names are simply listed alphabetically. It adds a fun and bright pop of color to the surroundings, especially in the winter!

In front of "Artists Monument" by Tony Tasset.
Chicago skyline, as seen through Grant Park.
The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the best art museums in the nation, and after touring it I can definitely see why. The museum covers a wide range of art styles, but it doesn't throw every single piece of its collection onto the walls. So, you're able to actually appreciate and absorb what's there. Jeremy pulled me to see the Asian art because of his involvement in Muay Thai, and I pulled him to see the huge European pieces because of my experience in Europe. I particularly enjoyed Monet's work - his art always brings a deep pleasure and contentment to my soul. We both had no idea what was going on with most of the contemporary and modern pieces, but we dutifully looked at the famous stuff anyway.

Also, did you know that the famous "American Gothic" painting of the skinny man with the pitchfork standing next to the long-faced woman with a bun is actually a father and daughter combination, not husband and wife? It was painted during the Great Depression, when many people were reaching back to rustic and agricultural roots for something to latch on to. Learn something new every day...

Two of Monet's paintings and an inlaid Japanese box.
We walked around the city center (pictures to come later), then hit up Summer Dance Chicago. An open dance floor with rotating dance styles, Summer Dance was hosting two-step on Saturday with old-style live music (think "Turkey in the Straw"). We swung by, made a splash for two dances, threw a few dips in, then dropped the mic and peaced out. Dinner was Lindy's Chili - famed according to my "Vintage Chicago" book, but not actually that spectacular. Kinda a flop, solid chili though.

Chicago in a weekend - day 1

Last weekend, my boyfriend Jeremy and I traipsed around Chicago for the first time, while Jeremy's best friend from college was our gracious host in the Little Italy area. Our big goals were to hit the Museum of Science and Industry, visit the Art Institute, eat good food, and "do city things," (as Jeremy put it). Well, we did it all, folks!

Day 1: Mini waffles for breakfast, a full-scale captured German submarine, and deep-dish pizza

On Saturday morning, Jeremy and I walked down the block to Stax Cafe, eager to start our adventures. The menu was overwhelming because everything looked so good (I mean, Nutella pancakes?? Why must you tempt me so?!). Aaron recommended the waffles, so I ordered an omelette with a side of mini waffles. They were cute AND delicious! Plus, the coffee beans were roasted by the local Intelligentsia Coffee company.

Mini waffles at Stax - so cute!
At the Museum of Science and Industry, my favorite exhibit was the U-505 - the first German submarine the United States ever captured intact during World War II. After a long chase and an intense battle, the Germans abandoned ship but planted booby traps and tried to scuttle the sub as they left. Several American men risked their lives to clamber inside the sub and turn valves, stop leaks, and un-jam the rudder so the sub could be successfully towed back to American waters. This capture was incredibly important because the US did not yet have submarine technology. Also, the US was able to keep the capture a secret for a long time, so the Germans did not change their transmissions or codes related to the subs. The MSI in Chicago holds the complete, restored, original U-505 stretched out in all it's glory, plus a great story about the chase and capture - very cool to see! The rest of the museum felt disjointed to me, to be honest. Some of the individual displays were interesting, but I was confused and/or underwhelmed about what I was supposed to be seeing and learning in many places. However, I felt the same way at the science museum in Corpus Christi, so maybe it's just me...

At the Museum of Science and Industry with the U-505 behind me.
Dinner was scintillating conversation with Aaron and Jeremy over deep-dish pizza at Peqods. The restaurant was tiny but HOPPING - welcome to the city! The crust was amazing, the experience sublime - what more can I say?

Deep-dish sausage and pepperoni pizza at Peqods.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Temples in everyday Taiwanese life

After the zoo, I headed north to explore several temples. Religion is woven into everyday life for many Taiwanese people, and they freely mix strains of belief together. The Confucius temple had a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere. Confucius advocated for education for all people, so this temple is used once a year to celebrate his birthday and honor the top scholars (I think, but my understanding of the Taiwanese script may have been a bit fuzzy). The temple was beautiful, and my traveling companion and I took advantage of the quiet surroundings to have a theological discussion ourselves, which felt like an appropriate topic for the temple of a philosopher.

Confucius temple - the black plaque means "education for all."
A short stroll across the street brought us to Baoan Temple, which is Daoist in nature. Last, we visited Longshan Temple, which is Buddhist. Both temples were more lively than the Confucius temple, and streams of people constantly cycled through the worship areas. We visited the Longshan temple close to 5 pm, so I'm guessing that many people were stopping by quickly on their way home. The worship setup was similar in both cases - a square plaza with a central incense burner, a beautiful enclosed area to house the primary god of the temple, and smaller shrines around the edges with other gods. 

I was fascinated by the rituals of worship. The Taiwanese seem sincere in their desire to gain spiritual favor and engage the spiritual realm, as evidenced by the number of people at the temples and the fervency of their prayers. The air was full of the smell of incense sticks that worshipers would light and hold during prayer. Tables and alters were laden with gifts to the gods, including flowers and fruit. Circling an item over the incense burner three times seemed to be a way to consecrate or bless the item. Doing things in groups of 3 also seemed to be important in general - bowing three times after prayer, circling three times, prostrating three times, etc.  I also saw some people dropping two red crescent-shaped pieces of wood on the ground - these are called Jaiobei. If you are seeking wisdom from the gods for a yes/no question, you can drop these on the ground and discern the answer based on how they land (one side is flat and the other side is round). The worshiper throws them three times in a row to gain accuracy in the answer.

Worshiper holding Jiaobei pieces and praying (left), central incense burner (top right), and the view into the central shrine area (bottom right).

Beautiful waterfalls in the courtyard of Longshan Temple.
I was struck by how smoothly religious life and normal life flows together in Taiwan. Temples sit right in the middle of bustling city life, and no one blinks an eye about it. I captured a few pictures that exemplify this integration to me, since it contrasts with my own culture that concentrates religious activity on one day of the week.

Street vendor preparing sesame buns right outside the Confucius temple. I love how he glanced straight into my camera lens.
View of Taipei city in the background with the Zhinan temple welcome sign in the foreground
A small temple pokes out from the high rises on the south side of Taipei - just one of many buildings in the area.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Fun in the hot, hot sun - Taipei Zoo

With the conference over, the question became what to do with the rest of the week. Over casual breakfast conversation, one of my new friends from the conference suggested the zoo. I added my suggestion of some temples, which he found amiable, so we decided to explore together. I will cover the temples in another blog post - too much to write about at once!

Partners in Taipei discovery.
To put it succinctly, the zoo was fantastic. I remember reading about animals in theory growing up, but somehow I missed out on the study of animals in practice (Ranger Rick magazines apparently did me no good). I felt like a little kid, fascinated by seeing many things for the first time. "They DO that?!?" came out of my mouth more times than I care to admit... I was grateful to have my friend along - he was a wealth of information, a patient teacher, and good at spotting the animals within the rocks and trees. I don't think I would have seen half of the animals I saw without him there! These ones were pretty easy to see though:


My friend was exceptionally good at spotting a huge, local, non-poisonous spider that spins webs as large as a bicycle wheel. Females can grow as big as your hand, but the males remain tiny. I asked, "is this one of the species where the female eats the male after mating?" My friend replied, "well it depends on fast the male can run, but generally, yes." Oof... I got a picture of a female spider with 6 or 7 competing males crawling into her web. My friend held up his sunglasses as a size reference. The female is black and yellow, perched on the back of the web - see her legs hanging down? The males are the tiny red spiders dotted all over the web.

The weather in Taiwan is HOT and HUMID this time of year. We learned to keep an eye out for the shaded areas (of which there were many, thank goodness), but even so we both sweated like crazy. If you go, I recommend lots of water bottles and the occasional ice cream, for good measure. The Taipei Zoo is designed to be congruent with nature - the paths maintain the local habitat as they weave around the exhibits. My experience with the Bronx Zoo many years ago felt commercial and urban in comparison. I enjoyed the vibrant flowers and butterflies that met us along the path. For example, orchids:

I also discovered a beautiful red bird: the Scarlet Ibis. I have never seen such brilliant colors in a bird before, and the photos barely do it justice. I found my future pet here as well - the adorable side-necked turtle! The name comes from the fact that these turtles have much longer necks than usual, and therefore they bend them back sideways into their shell. This little guy was swimming all over the place - how could you not love such cuteness??

Side-Necked Turtle 
Scarlet Ibis
I was hoping to see the African elephants (bigger than the Asian elephants we saw) and the gorillas, but the elephants were out for a medical checkup, and the gorilla area was under construction. The Taipei Zoo is also famous for its family of pandas - mom, dad, and baby. We stopped in to see them, but they were sleeping and not doing anything interesting. More for next time, I guess!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Ancient Treasures: National Palace Museum and Shung Ye Aborigines Museum

The last hurrah of the conference was a guided tour to the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines and the National Palace Museum. The former educates about the 16 indigenous tribes of Taiwan, and the latter displays precious artifacts from Chinese history and culture.

Here we go! In front of the National Palace Museum.
The first people came to the island of Taiwan several thousand years ago (the exact date is debated) and lived very simple lives. Some of the tribes were matrilineal, which I found intriguing. Each tribe used local material to build their homes, ranging from shale rock to bamboo poles and grass. Our personal tour guide was fun and informative, and she did a great job describing the aborigines' way of life using the most interesting parts of the exhibits. For example, she narrated a video about making clothes that gave me a deeper appreciation for the bajillion-step process, from scraping thread out of fibrous plant stalks to weaving the final garment. What a time commitment! Pro tip: when visiting a museum, get a tour guide - they can turn a static artifact into a living piece of history.

Before we started the tour, we watched a 10-minute animated video about a native tribe. At least, I think that's what it was about. As far as I could tell, the movie showed a native hunter who was obsessed with hunting down a legendary boar the size of a mountain. However, when he shot the arrow at the boar, the boar turned into a Dutchman! Then he ran to the shore only to find a fort full of Dutchmen fighting against the invading Chinese! Then he ran back into the forest, ran through 500 years of history, and came out on a modern-day hunting ground - a baseball field!! I really think I'm missing something about Asian entertainment.

But, I was not the only one confused. The best comment came from my colleague as we were filing out of the theater: "I think the point was that if you ever meet an aborigines hunter, don't look like a boar."

The National Palace Museum was a complete shift in atmosphere. This museum teemed with guests, so we all had headphones and a radio frequency set to match our tour guide. I died a little inside - I always make fun of those dorky tour groups in my head, and now...I was one of them! My only consolation was that we were not the only headset-toting group in the museum.

Oh yes, we were THAT group.
The National Palace Museum in Taiwan was built to house many items transferred from the sister National Palace Museum in China. There are almost 700,000 pieces in the entire Taiwanese collection, but only 3,000 are on display at any given time. The other items are kept deep in the caves behind the museum to avoid being damaged by earthquakes. Perhaps there will be even more items in the future from the unexplored tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, China's very first emperor. As of now the tomb has not been opened because a) certain painted pieces lose color vibrancy as soon as they are exposed to light, and b) the tomb is surrounded by mercury deposits, which are toxic. Huh - that's a hindsight, it was great looting protection to build the tomb in the middle of a moat of toxic mercury, but at the time they did it because they thought mercury bestowed immortality. Whoops...

There were many valuable and impressive artifacts in the museum, but among the ones that struck me the most were:

- A breathtaking folding panel screen with jadeite insets, given as a gift to the reigning emperor of the time.
- Ivory carvings so intricate they could only be made by chemically softening the ivory first.
- Pottery and porcelain glazing advances through the years, giving brighter and brighter colors over time.
- Glaze colors so loved by the royalty that no one else could use the exact same shade.
- 1000-year-old bronze work so beautiful that it helped me realize why China was considered a world powerhouse in ancient times - they knew their stuff!
The view from the entrance of the National Palace Museum, and me up on the plaza area.
Upon returning to the hotel, I trudged down the street to get a Subway sandwich with a colleague and then called it a night. Tomorrow will be a new day with new adventures. More to come!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Taiwan - night market and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial

This week, I'm in Taipei, Taiwan to present my work at an electrowetting conference. I spent my first day in-country listening to a variety of talks, with a view that mainly looked like this:

Not the most interesting thing ever, but I am enjoying the networking. Plus, several talks shed light on the struggles I am currently facing in my own experiments. My talk went well, except for the moment where Dr. Really-Important-Expert-Guy asked me a question that I had no idea how to answer and I had to honestly say, "I have no idea. BUT! I would love to discuss it with you." Maybe not the best response, but at that point I just wanted out of the hot seat! Can I also blame it on being jet-lagged and tired? I'm going with it...

This evening I tagged along with a group of new friends to explore the night market scene. A night market is a set of connected streets that have late-night restaurants, little shops, and street vendors. There are many night markets around the city, so this one was close to the hotel and had a fun, party atmosphere. It didn't take long for me to realize that there are mopeds everywhere on the streets! They sound like a swarm of insects when they take off from a stoplight. Vehicles also take "walk" signals as suggestions, so crossing the street is a dance between pedestrians and cars.

Night market, bustling with activity
All the mopeds!
We wandered in to a promising restaurant, but the menu was all in Chinese (duh)! There were pictures of dishes with their Chinese names on the wall, so we all huddled over the piece of paper to match the symbols on the wall to the symbols on the ordering ticket. The waiter eventually had mercy on us and gave us a pictorial menu, so we just pointed - "one of those, two of these..." Dumplings were a definite must. Everything was delicious!!
Trying to puzzle out the menu
We visited Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which was built in memory of one of China's great 20th century political and military leaders. The hall was beautiful and awe-inspiring, even by night. We were surprised to see a decent number of people walking the park grounds, including several groups of dancers both young and old. Taiwan's youth don't congregate in parks to drink and smoke, they get together to hone their hip-hop moves and choreograph dances! Another symbol of artistry marking the streets of the city was the intricate and beautiful street mural we passed on our walk home. The word "love" and Marilyn Monroe's famous dress pose mingled with panda bears and Chinese characters, showing the intricate weaving together of cultures both new and old.
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall - I'm in the top photo, although you can barely see me!
Overall, I have found the Taiwanese to be warm and friendly people, so I look forward to the rest of my stay in this country. Tomorrow is more of the conference!