Jan 192006

San Francisco (Tuesday, January 17, 2006)

Breathe, breathe, I had to remind myself while rushing through last minute details at the office, running through Long’s for Pepto and bottled water, and packing too much stuff into too little space. The stress was intense, but the effort was repaid with a leisurely 2 hours at the airport before boarding our red-eye flight. (Note: I don’t recommend the chicken salad at the Andal√© Mexican Restaurant and Bar.)

Eva Air offers an intermediate class of service known as Evergreen Deluxe. The seats seem no wider than economy, but are spaced further apart and have individual video screens and leg rests. The level of service appears to be intermediate as well: less intimate than business class, but much nicer than coach for a 14 hour flight.

We lifted off about 20 minutes late, and most of us had settled into a nap when the first meal was served. Everyone in front of me and around me chose the “chicken and potatoes,” but I thought the “eel with rice” sounded interesting. It was, in fact, una-don, grilled eel over Japanese-style rice. The eel was tasty and succulent (i.e., fatty), but the whole dish could have used a bit more time in the warming compartment. The accompanying sugar snap peas were too long in the tooth. Of the side dishes, the most intriguing was a small salad of sliced cucumbers generously topped with small brown cubes that must have been some kind of marinated meat. I didn’t ask.

The Merlot was tannic and brisk and cool, just right for cleansing the mouth of eel oils. But I wouldn’t want to sip it under normal circumstances. (Airplane wine never tastes good to me.) The light spongy cake was awful. Not a bad effort overall, but I have fonder memories of Singapore Airlines. I finished the meal with a shot of orange-flavored Airborne, the effervescent vitamin-herb concoction that is supposed to ward off colds. Here’s hoping!

Hours pass… These seats certainly are not the equal of business class sleepers, but once the person behind me fell asleep and stopped blocking my seatback with her knees, I was able to fully recline and catch some winks. We then went about 10 hours without a meal! Some people were served large “cup ‘o ramen noodles” type containers, but I couldn’t figure out the system.

Eventually the breakfast carts starting bumping down the aisles. Omelet or rice porridge? Easy call: this is a Chinese-run airline, so I had to try the porridge. I was surprised to see porridge served in the same relatively flat bowl as the omelet and sausage, but was pleased to see a good number of shrimp as I lifted the foil. Despite the ginger shreds, the porridge tasted of little but rice and water. Fortunately, the bland jook was balanced by a strongly flavored side dish of pickled diced radish (or turnip, perhaps), and a chilled brown tofu-green vegetable dish. Together with a sweet rice flour bun twisted like a dollop of whipped cream, and a cup of tea, it made a good “brunch,” splitting the difference between 1PM California time and 5AM Taipei time.

Taipei International Airport (Thursday, January 19, 2006)

Passage through security was surprisingly simple, and I found myself wandering the airport’s various art alcoves to kill time. To check e-mail, I tried to crash the Evergreen Lounge, but only Business class passengers are admitted. I was directed to a small storefront with three free terminals where I was able to read e-mails, but try as I might, I could not figure out how to set the multilingual keyboard to English characters so that I could type a reply. With heavy leakage from the smoking lounge, it was no longer fun being on the Internet.

About 10 minutes before boarding, I stumbled across a “snack bar” near gate C5 which serves dim sum made on site. Here was an opportunity to sample more authentic xiao long bao, AKA juicy miniature pork buns, AKA soup dumplings. Removing the lid of the steamer basket revealed five pale yellow dumplings closed with the characteristic “twist” top. The skins were delicate and plump with broth, in stark contrast to the chewier, drier ones served in California. I ate them the way I learned from an article in the United Airlines in-flight magazine: put the dumpling in the bowl of the ladle-like soup spoon, then tear a small hole in the side of the dumpling and slurp up the broth before proceeding to eat the dumpling’s skin and tiny pork meatball.

Despite being airport fast food, I enjoyed these little gems much more than their larger (and saggier) cousins, the acclaimed “soup dumplings” at Joe’s Shanghai in New York’s Chinatown. I don’t know how much they set me back, as my VISA was charged in “NT$”, and the order of five cost the same as one Tazo tea. I hope to have some more on my return, budget permitting.

The Next Leg

Eva does not guarantee Evergreen Deluxe seating for flights from its hub in Taipei to Bangkok, as it sometimes substitutes smaller planes when the flight is not fully booked. Today, though, despite a shortage of passengers, we got the good seats. Taipei was dreary, but as we completed our U-turn around 7,000 feet and headed down Taiwan’s West Coast, we broke through the shroud to see a picture-perfect display of ragged black peaks above a sea of dazzling foamy white clouds. (Sadly, airplane windows make a poor portal for photography, especially if you don’t have the window seat…)

For second breakfast we had a choice of a tomato omelet or fried rice. In accordance with my new “all carbs, all the time” diet, I chose the fried rice. No surprises here, and serving a noodle salad and a flaky roll filled with chopped bits of char siu (BBQ pork) reinforced the theme. The sweet rice flour bun on the side was just a little too much starch for one sitting, but I should sleep well during the remaining two hours of the journey.

Navigating the Jam

Last year I arrived in the middle of night; this year, just before lunch. By the time I got through the lines at Immigration, baggage, money changing, taxi queueing, and the freeway and street jams, I found a friendly hotel check-in counter with no wait. And the room! Radically upgraded from the ones I stayed in last year. (But there is no such thing as a nonsmoking floor, so I might be less impressed in the morning.) After a much needed shower and shave, I headed out for a little shopping.

The only “critical” item was a “triple tap” that would let me plug in one computer and two camera battery chargers to a single wall outlet. I had posted on a Thai discussion board about where to shop and was told that these are sold in every drug store, but a good place to find them would be MBK center. Mahboonkrong Center is at the end of the elevated, air-conditioned BTS Skytrain line from my hotel, so it was a no-brainer getting there. From the station, there is a walkway directly into the Tokyu department store, MBK’s anchor tenant. After wandering for a while, I discovered the fourth floor, “IT zone” which claimed to be the place for electronics, with over 600 stalls dedicated to mobile phones. Wow. With everyone seeming to sell the same thing, most of the counter girls were doing their makeup rather than soliciting business. I was overwhelmed and ducked into the grocery section of Tokyu.

Bypassing thousands of packages of crunchy snacks, I spied a young coconut for 20 baht (about 50 cents). Hacked open on the spot, served with a straw, a spoon and a smile, it got me up and running again. I guess I forgot to eat lunch. I checked a few stalls which had power-related accessories, and found a bulky item that could have worked for about 99 baht, but in a second run through Tokyu, I found what I think is a workable adapter for 12 baht. Now, to get something to eat. I checked out the offerings on several floors of MBK and decided to head back toward the hotel to the “night market.” Somewhere along the way I took a few photos of a group of young people doing dance exercises in the BTS station. I took a detour through the relatively new and decidedly upscale Siam Discovery Center. This is where you might buy the “real” designer products that are such a deal over at MBK, the good boy to MBK’s bad boy. I’m sure Siam Discovery Center doesn’t have a politically incorrect sign referring to its disabled-accessible restroom as the “Cripples room.” Ahem. Anyway, I bought a local map and headed back out to the BTS.

Stopping to flip through the tour book, I found a strong recommendation for the MBK food court as a kind of pollution-free indoor street market. Sounded good to me, so I headed back to the 6th floor. You start by purchasing coupons so that the individual serving stations don’t have to handle any money and you don’t have to queue at a cashier. I bypassed lots of poorly identified fishballs or meatballs, and stopped at the green papaya salad station where a woman was working up a sweat pounding the ingredients for dressing and then mixing them with shreds of green papaya. When it was done I said I would take one of the same. The amazing thing is that everything was measured just by eye and never tasted, but it was perfect. And just hot enough to welcome me to town without doing any serious damage. I stopped at the BBQ chicken station for some chicken (just average) and rice, with a rich and mysteriously spiced chicken broth on the side. All this used only 80 baht worth of my 200 baht in coupons. I would need dessert to get past $2. I settled on a simple smoothie of papaya cubes and ice, and cashed in the balance of my coupons. Just too full for dessert right now.

A cool train ride and I’m back in the ‘hood. My favorite spot at the Internet cafe, where I can connect my own laptop, was open. If I finish this quickly, I still can get to the night market for some dessert before passing out.

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