Friday, September 08, 2006

Pinang (Betel Nuts)

I've encountered a strange social phenomenon in this part of the country. Pinang, or betel nuts, are very popular in Nantou and are available just about everywhere around here. These small nuts grow on a tree that looks similar to a palm tree.

The culture behind pinang is rather strange. Older men usually buy and chew the nuts, and they are sold in little stands on the side of the road. The stands have large glass windows for walls, are decorated with bright neon lights, and are attended by young, scantily clad women.

The effect of chewing on these nuts is a mild stimulant, similar to the effect of nicotine. It causes your mouth to go numb and produces a "dry" effect in the back of your throat. For me, it just made me gag and want to spit. It tastes a lot like peppermint, and you spit out the husk after you chew it thouroughly.

Chewing on pinang is known to cause mouth, throat, and stomach cancer. There is a warning on the box from the department of health describing such damaging effects. I guess this pretty much equates to cigarette smoking in the States, including the social stigma.

Mountains of Nantou/Puli

About 2/3 of Taiwan is covered in mountains, and we are now in a mountainous county called Nantou. Nantou is the only county in Taiwan that does not border the coastline. We had spent most of our time in urban areas up to this point, so it was time to explore some nature.

Our first stop was a landmark near Yi-Wun's home. This spot is famous because it is the geographical center of Taiwan. I am a bit skeptical as to how they measured the "center" of Taiwan, considering that the island isn't anywhere near a perfect geographical shape. AnywHavingays, it gave us a good view of Puli, and warmed us up for our next hike.

We drove up a winding road into the mountains, traversing up the steep slope. We stopped along the way to get some coffee, at the highest Starbucks in Taiwan. Yes, Starbucks really is EVERYWHERE. After taking a short break, we headed up further into the mountains.

After parking, we began our ascent by foot. The first obstacle was a large set of stairs, 487 stairs, to be exact. My calves burned towards the end, convincing me that I need to hit the gym when I get back home. Another set of stairs led us to a large statue of Chiang Kai-Shek, the former Kuomingtang (KMT) leader that fled China during the Communist Revolution. At the end of our hike, we arrived at Green Green Pastures, an open area near one of the mountain peaks. Here, we saw sheep and enjoyed an ice cream bar.

Heading back out of the mountains, we stopped at a vegetarian restaurant for some lunch. Many of my family members are strict vegetarians, due to their religious beliefs. We enjoyed a hot pot meal, with tons of mushrooms and veggies. For desert, we had almond soy milk with red beans, which was deeeeelicious.

Yi-Wun brought us to a paper factory after dinner, where we did a short tour and watched some of the workers make paper. Check out my Flickr account for more pictures from the day.