Taiwan Soul Food

I had just finished walking through Shilin Night Market. Being completely honest, I have a sort of love-hate relationship with night markets. I enjoy the sensory overload – the nonstop array of sights, smells, and sounds. Within a matter of feet the smells alone can vary between grilled meat, waffles, or stinky tofu. What I don’t like are the crowds that accompany the market. It’s almost impossible to walk at a reasonable pace, and once you’re in the market, it can be difficult to leave just because of the slow nature of the traffic.

By the time I made it through the night market, I was starving. While there were countless stalls and restaurants inside the market, the raw number of people and frenetic energy influenced me to eat elsewhere.

Daily Pictures: Taiwan Soul Food

taiwan soul food restaurant

“Taiwan Soul Food”; the English name of this fast food restaurant caught my eye. When I think of soul food, I think of southern food. Paula Deen, and typically unhealthy/delicious southern classics such as chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes loaded with butter. What could Taiwanese soul food possible be?

The answer is gravy. That’s the direct translation – in reality its more of a thick, delicious broth. Stock made from cooking virtually every kind of animal meat and bones together. Hungry patrons each get a pasta strainer and a set of tongs. You pick your starch, vegetables, and meat as you like.

collage 2

Udon noodles, ramen noodles, rice noodles, thick rice noodles, mung bean noodles, spaghetti, and rice are all available. Little sausages, krab meat, quail eggs, caramelized tofu, cheese rangoons, and tens of raw meats are all available. Bags of fresh tatsoi, corn on the cob, and mushrooms are available,  It’s a free-for-all.

After paying accordingly, the food is dropped into the ‘gravy’ broth and cooked to perfection.

taiwan soul food soup

How was it you may ask? To be completely honest, I was my own enemy. I ordered 小辣, or a little spicy. My first taste of the soup was a spoonful of broth, and I nearly choked from the heat. Back home, it would probably be a solid four out of five on the spice-o-meter. All of the individual ingredients were delicious however. I ate what I could before running to a nearby boba tea shop for some ‘sweet’ relief.

What struck me from the experience mostly was the very identification of the food as ‘Soul Food’. Back home, soup often isn’t considered a meal. However, being able to pick noodles, vegetables, and meats to be poached in broth is considered comfort food here. I think that’s great.

A Colombian Café

You’re walking around downtown Bogota. Sooner or later you arrive at a café. They serve either coffee or alcohol. That is – unless you would prefer to have coffee mixed with your alcohol, which is perfectly acceptable at 10:00 pm in Colombia.

A zealous Colombian waitress spots you staring through the tinted windows. “Bienvenidos, a la orden?“ She’s short – around five feet tall with heels. She sports bangs and a gaping smile. “A la orden?” she repeats – emphasizing that the cafe has drinks ready to be served. Like a broken cassette tape she repeats “A la order?” yet again, as she widens her smile.  She’s charming, no doubt about it. You let yourself be lured inside.

Your eyes adjust to the dim lighting. There are roughly 20 tables squeezed into the small café. In the back is a massive couch for relaxing, but it’s taken all night. The pathway through the restaurant is less than a foot wide; at some points you turn yourself sideways to squeeze through.

Eventually you make your way to a table. Upon seating you, the waitress from the door immediately asks for your order – expecting you to already know what you want. You ask for the menu, and she leaves in search of the only copy in the entire bar.

Sit back and you notice just how loud the music is. So loud that it can’t possibly be healthy. You try speaking to the person across from you, but all they do is cup their ears in confusion. They don’t understand a single thing you said. Pretty soon you give up on talking altogether and begin nodding your head to the rhythm.

The waitress is back with the menu. She hands you the menu and peers over your shoulders as you read. You spot the ideal drink – not too cheap nor expensive. You yell the drink’s name to the waitress, trying to be louder than the pounding music. The veins in your head throb yet you can barely hear your own voice. Miraculously, the waitress understood and nods her head.

colombian bar rose seller
Photo by Rachel Jones

At one point during the evening, a short man carrying dozens of flowers enters the bar. So many flowers  that they practically cover his face. He offers a flower to each table, expecting each man to buy one for his date. He is successful more times than not. When he comes to the couch at the back of the bar, one man stands up and buys for each of his many lady friends.  A plethora of giggling and chatter ensues. Minutes later, the short waitress shoos the flower seller out of the building.

A moment of silence as the song ends. Peace, solace, a chance to relax. You lean back in your seat, but sudden trumpet blasting takes you to the edge. The next song has begun. On the other side of the café, a couple stands up from their seats, locks arms, and slow dances around their seats. Shortly after, another couple begins dancing – then another, and another. Eventually, the entire pathway around the bar is blocked as couples serenade each other. They share intimate dances, sharing affection and kisses along the way. Your eyes bear witness to the fact that there are no limits to public displays of affection in Colombia. The aisle remains blocked for the duration of the song, business shut down. The song ends and the couples nonchalantly sit down and resume their conversations.

Soon after, your group leaves to go back to the hostel.  As much fun as it was to ‘people watch’, the music’s volume has gotten to your head.  As you leave, you notice that the people at each table are the same ones as when you arrived.  Not a single Colombian left while you were there – they arrived hours before you, and have no intention of leaving soon.

Your ears ring from the music as you fall asleep.

Ways to Know You’re Living in Ghana

  1. Air conditioning makes you shiver.
  2. You know every person in your neighborhood and interact with them daily.
  3. People don’t understand anything you say despite knowing small amounts of two tribal languages plus English.
  4. You pronounce ‘pepper’ as ‘peppey’.
  5. You think that ‘Obrunis’ (including yourself) look funny.
  6. After telling your host mom you’re not hungry she says, “Okay”, and still serves you enough rice for two or three normal people.
  7. Cars and motorcycles drive quickly on the sidewalk and nearly hit you – but you’re so used to it that you don’t even flinch.
  8. You stop exercising because washing your clothes by hand is enough of a workout.
  9. You regularly see people sweeping dirt floors.
  10. Internet peaks at 100 kilobytes per second (2011)
  11. Students get in trouble for smuggling soccer magazines to school.
  12. The first question you get asked when meeting someone is, “Are you a Christian or a Muslim?”
  13. After telling locals you’re from the United States they respond, “Are you from New York or California?”
  14. Skin color is merely a fact of life – a given that we are born with. Oftentimes I am referred to as “White man”.
  15. (Many) African-Americans are not considered to be ‘black’.
  16. People occasionally ask you to ‘say hello to Obama’ for them, and sometimes even  refer to you as “Obama” if they do not know your name. Ghanaians love Obama – see the photo below for proof.
  17. The only shows on television are English dubbed Spanish soap operas, Nigerian movies, and  religious gatherings.
  18. Americans would not be able to pronounce the names of most foods you eat.
  19. People carrying bags placed anywhere besides on top of their heads is a rarity.
  20. You are faced with the challenge of eating extremely hot soups and stews with your hands.
  21. You show up an hour late to a party and it still hasn’t begun.
  22. You can ask for a ‘hard one in a rubber’ (an aged coconut in a plastic bag) without getting strange looks.

Ghanaian Elections

Last weekend I went on a trip to Kumasi with my host dad to be introduced to several of his childhood friends. On the way, we stopped at a political rally for parliamentary nominations. The entire Muslim dominated community of Aboabo seemed to gather at the small NDC (National Democratic Congress) headquarters, where incumbent Honorable Alhaji Mohammed Mubarak Muntaka was to be nominated for another term in office…

Every car around the block was decked out with the same campaign poster for their incumbent parliamentary candidate.

After decorating our car accordingly with Honorable Muntaka's face, we proceeded to pack 8 NDC members into our 5 seater car, and left for the town center with the intent of dropping off the parliament nomination papers. Due to the sheer amount of people, there was a traffic jam, and it ended up taking us hours to get there and back.

Despite the burning heat of the Ghanaian sun, the traffic jam was remotely enjoyable. This is because everyone – shop owners, schoolkids,  and policemen alike, were all standing outside of their buildings to wave, hoot, holler, drum, and dance as we drove by.


There was even a miniature parade at one point – including drummers, musicians, and men doing backflips for no apparent reason.

Eventually we arrive at our destination: a massive city square. It was chaotic – with dozens of drums being pounded, a crowd energetically dancing in the stifling hundred degree weather, nosy merchants pestering me to buy corn, begging children with eyes glued on my (empty) pockets, and reckless motorcycles constantly rushing through the rally at high speeds without warning. I had to always be on the lookout.

At one point, someone held up a poster for an opposition member to the incumbent. Madness ensued. The entire crowd began pushing and screaming; on the  building where the musicians were playing, two people were pushed to the point that they were dangling from the third floor balcony.

After an indeterminate amount of time, we began our journey back to the NDC headquarters. People on the street were excited to see us once again; I felt like a king as I waved them on and  fist pumped for 'my candidate', despite the fact that I I didn't even know who he is/what he stands for.


In case you couldn't tell from the photos, Ghanaians really 'get into' their elections. In America, electability is based on cyber campaigns, debates, platforms, but most importantly, money. In Ghana it seems to be more the common voter getting involved for the cantidate of their community – wearing t-shirts advertising the candidate, spreading flyers around town, and doing all that is possible to 'drum up support' (pun intended).

One interesting tidbit to me is that even though Ghanaians are very involved in politics – they have a lot of fun supporting their party, and tend to be 'die hard' fans of candidates- they still constantly complain about how corrupt Ghana's government is and how little ever changes in the system. But it's only natural this will happen – people vote for the same political party and incumbent year after year.

It's almost reminiscent of the United States in that most people approve of the job their congressman is doing, but strongly disapprove of Congress.

Another interesting fact about Ghana's political party system is that people tend to vote along party lines based on the political party of the candidate and their location. For instance, the Volta and Western regions will always vote NDC, while the Asante regions will always vote NPP. While America has stronghold states for both Democrats and Republicans, in Ghana over half of the 10 regions will always vote a certain way. There's little or no point for the opposing candidate to even campaign in these locations.

Another issue is corruption. A Ghanaian friend of mine knows someone who voted over 15 times for the 2008 election, simply by bribing officials. This is the easiest way to have your way in many third world countries. For instance, if you are fined 125 cedis for doing something illegal, why pay in full when you can simply bribe the official with 50 or 75 cedis and be let off the hook?

Ghanaian political parties aalso llow donors to state 'what they want the party to do should they win', so it essentially becomes a bribe in itself. The following source says that after one voter made a small donation to a political party, a party official personally approached him and asked what he'd 'like in return'. When he responded, "Nothing," the officer was shocked and asked 'Why would you even bother donating?' (Source)

Anyways, that's Ghana for you. In my opinion, both Ghana and the United States could learn from each other. The United States could take lessons on how to make politics more accessible, leading the average citizen to become more involved in the future of their nation- while Ghana could improve on issues such as corruption. Neither country is perfect, but both are making efforts to improve.


A final note – this was just a rally for nominating the incumbent candidate to office. I can only imagine what it'll be like in 2012;  it's a shame I won't be able to witness the actual election.

Edit – 12/06/11:
Looking back, I might have been a little harsh on Ghana. The fact remains that- while they have their difficulties- they are one of the only African democracies that consistently have violence-free elections, and are setting an example for others to follow. I believe they are on the right path, but true change needs to take place in many of their policies for further improvements.

Ghanaian High School: A Typical School Day

Many of my previous blog posts have been about exceptional experiences, special events, and have mainly served to highlight the best times in my Ghanaian life.

This post simply chronicles a typical day at school. It’s nothing extraordinary, just a ‘day in the life.

5:30 a.m. – Wake-up

5:35 a.m. – Second wake-up alarm

5:40 a.m. – Actually wake-up

5:45 a.m. – Turn on water heater (I’m one of the lucky exchange students enjoying luxuriously hot showers).

5:50 a.m. – Brush my teeth and shower

6:00 a.m. – Eat a typical Ghanaian breakfast. This is composed of overwhelming soft white bread and either Lipton (tea), or Milo (a type of hot chocolate). Occasionally I supplement this with fresh fruit from the market – my favorite being bananas, pineapples, papayas, and mangoes.

6:30 a.m. – Leave the house to catch a trotro. This is usually instant, but on busy days it can take over twenty minutes.

The ‘Achimota’ trotro signal involves making a gun with your right hand and pointing it in the air over your shoulder. Because I’m white, the cars sometimes don’t stop for me because they aren’t sure if I mean to be signaling for them.

7:00 a.m. – Morning assembly for all students. There’s no separation between Church and State in Ghana – the assembly is essentially a massive prayer with sermons, hymns, and psalms. I’ve only been to two or three of them because I would have to leave the house by 5:45 to make it in time.

During one notable assembly, they preached to the students that they shouldn’t let teachers ‘take advantage’ of them, because when students get pregnant, they’ll be kicked out of school. There was no mentioning of repercussions for the teacher, but when I later asked students, they said they teacher would likely be sacked.

7:30 a.m. until 10:50 a.m. – Classes. School follows a rotating schedule, so every day of the week has different classes for different amounts of time.

Following are my thoughts on my classes and teachers:

1. Literature: When your class is taught by someone who goes by the nickname ‘Ringo,’ it has to be good. Ringo’s love of reading, teaching, and students shows clearly in every class. He’s the type of person who you just want to hug – intellectual, well-read, and always with a low buttoned collared shirt that clearly shows his ‘Austin Powers’ chest hair.

Here’s a few quotes by Ringo that I wrote down today:

  • On Reading – “When I read I enter into the spirit of the novel, and the spirit of the novel enters me.”
  • On Students – “I truly love you like you’re my children. When you don’t buy books and read for my class, I feel like dying.”
  • On Buying Books – “A book is like a pair of panties – you don’t share it with anyone, prefer new ones to old ones, and only borrow someone’s when yours have been stolen”

I love this class, and appreciate that half of the literature we study is British/American, while the other half is African. When Ringo teaches, you can truly tell he actually cares about the subject and his students – unlike many other teachers.

2. Government: Another great class – although for entirely different reason. Although I’m taking a history class, this is where I learn modern Ghanaian history. The teacher, Alex, goes into great detail of all aspects of Ghanaian politics. One ‘fun fact’ about politics in Ghana is that the region where a candidate comes from is the main factor in determining how successful his candidacy for office will be, and much about the many government coos and rebellions that led Ghana to its current state.

After these two, there is a steep drop in class enjoyment.

3. Agriculture: It’s nice learning how rural Ghanaians practice farming – especially since we read about all areas of it including farming, egg production, and raising/slaughtering animals, I just wish this class had a more practical ‘hands-on’ approach. Our school has an enormous campus – it could easily be put to use as some sort of farm.

Last week we drew/labeled the parts of a chicken. Here’s my masterpiece…

Every time someone made fun of my chicken, I responded, “It doesn’t matter how my chicken looks – all that matters is that it tastes delicious.”

4. Social Studies: All our class has done so far is talk about the pros of democracy (never the cons), and about Ghana’s current constitution. The teacher is nice, but with subjects like social studies, reading the book and memorizing the dictionary definitions for words such as ‘work’ and ‘relationships’ does nothing. It’s simply not practical.

One interesting fact I’ve learned in this class is that same gender relationships are forbidden/illegal in the constitution of Ghana. More on that later…

5. English: Ghana, being a formal colony of England, learns the British version of English. It’s an entirely unfamiliar concept for me – full of unique spellings (i.e. colour, faerie), and sometimes even entirely different sentence structures/grammar.

Due to me not understanding what a ‘noun clause’ is, I scored a 22/40 on the first monthly test.

6. Economics: Alwazi, the teacher, is a very nice and overall ‘cool’ guy. He can’t help the fact that I already have passed two college credit economics classes – rendering his class useless.

7. History: The teacher, who regularly points out that he wrote the textbook, has been teaching (aka reading the textbook out loud) the time period before 800 A.D. for the past 2 months. It’s complete overkill. The teacher has a characteristic monotone voice, and the only enjoyable part of the class is listening to him insult students – something he’s supposedly ‘famous for’.

8. Biology: Despite the fact that biology is taught by a chief who’s entirely full of himself, the class isn’t not too bad. It’s just very basic. So far we’ve covered food webs, food pyramid, ecological pyramids, and industrial pollutants.

9. Chemistry: Not only has this teacher never even said ‘Hello’ to me, but he looks right through me in the classroom – pretending I don’t exist. This is my class’s third year of high school chemistry; I never took it in the states.

Needless to say, it makes for an excellent time to catch-up on sleep.

Now back to the school schedule…

10:50 a.m. – Break-time. I usually snack on plantain chips or kettle corn, but many classmates buy food such as Fanta, Coke,  sausages, jollof rice, yam, and biscuits.

11:20 until 2:20: Classes. One or two teachers each day don’t show up and we get free time. Either the teachers are doing something else, are sick, or simply hate our class.

There’s no such things as ‘substitute teachers’ in Ghana.

2:20 – End of the day.


I’m one of only two day students in my class – the rest are all boarding students. According to them, boarding is ‘Hell.’ It involves waking up at 4 a.m. to scrub, having no communication with the outside world, not being allowed to leave campus, and essentially doing most of the work around the campus (weeding with a machete, sweeping, etc) to prepare themselves for the ‘real world.’

Ghanaian School: Overview

In order to understand Ghanaian high school, one must understand that the goal here is to pass the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). The goal isn’t to learn practical knowledge for use in the real world, rather to pass the examination  required to graduate, receive your diploma, and go to university.

Picking Classes: When in Ghanaian high school, class ‘groupings’ are picked, rather than the individual classes. For example, as I am in ‘Arts 4’, which is composed of economics, history, government, and literature. I had to do all four of those classes – no picking and choosing. The main sections of the school are arts, science, and vocational studies. Other classes include French, Bible studies, chorus, food and nutrition, chemistry etc.

Teachers Changing Classes: This is proving to be one of the most difficult aspects to get used to in Ghanaian schools – the fact that you sit in the same classroom all day with the same people, while the teachers go from class to class. Besides our 30 minute break in the middle of the day, there’s little opportunity for movement, you’re sitting in terribly comfy desks (see below) and you’re with the same students all day.

Teaching Styles: Ghanaian education is done ‘textbook-style.’ When teachers teach terms, many of them read definitions straight from the book, and you are expected to know the textbook definition and nothing else. If you add or forget words to the textbook definition it is considered wrong, despite the fact that you’re pretty much saying the same thing that’s in the book. Another thing is that teachers in America lead you to discover knowledge, by getting you to interact with the textbook with worksheets, powerpoints, etc. Here, the teacher stands in front of a class “like a God” (as my history teacher says), and teaches you exactly how things are. There’s no debate, and what the teacher says is taken for the absolute truth.

Taking Notes: In America, notes are taken so that you can study them later on. Notes here are periodically inspected/collected by the teacher, and you’re expected to write ‘word for word’ what the instructor says. It’s rather difficult for me, seeing as in America shorthand is what I write everything (excluding essays) in. ‘
For instance, let’s say I have to copy the sentence: ‘Biology is the science of life and of living organisms.

A Ghanaian would take a full minute to copy it word for word.
I would take 5 seconds to write ‘Bio = sci of live organ.’

Teachers seem to be puzzled when they read my notes, but I have no intentions of switching to the Ghanaian style.

Teachers not Showing Up: At Achimota, one of the premier schools in Ghana, the class prefects are held accountable for the teachers’ attendance – and mark the times they arrive/leave, as well as the lesson taught, etc. However, in most schools across Ghana, teachers will continue to be paid regardless of whether they show up or not. I’m not 100{3a5a0fd47fd42b6497167aecc6170a94848f1ba936db07c4954344fcfff1d528} sure how it works –something to do with the government corruption. Nonetheless, even at Achimota, I’ve already had several teachers not show up due to the fact that my class is one of the ‘more rowdy’ ones in the school. Sometimes they leave notes to be read/copied, other times they give no notice. Either way, it’s not likely to have any effect on their job security.


Where Time isn’t Money

Americans are obsessed over time. From fast food to the latest electronics, we’ll gladly open our wallets to save a few seconds. If there was an invention to avoid the hassle of peeling bananas, it would sell like hotcakes… banana hotcakes that is.

Ghanaians live on the opposite side of the spectrum. While certain aspects of their life such as the education system and medical visits require being on time, almost all other parts of life here runs late.

This morning my AFS “Auntie” sent a text to my host-mom and said that she, “would be picking me up at 8:45 A.M. to drive to Achimota Secondary School to pick up my uniform.”

I woke up at 7:30, planning to get a haircut. However, by the time I finished showering and eating it was already 8:15, and I didn’t think 30 minutes would be enough time to walk to and from the barbershop.

Forsaking the haircut, I waited for my Auntie. 8:45 soon arrived. So did 9:00, 9:30, 9:45, 10:00, and 10:15. I was starting to worry for her safety when, lo and behold, at 10:27 she finally knocked on my door.

Theoretically, not only did I have enough time to get a haircut, but also if the barber had accidentally cut me, I would’ve had enough time to go to the emergency room and get stitches – with time to spare for bowfloats and coffee.

When Americans are late, they’ll call in advance to let you know, and usually apologize profusely. Ghanaians are so used to it that when Auntie came into the room, her body language seemed as though she didn’t even notice she was close to two hours late.

My host-mom said if you show up on time to a party, you’ll be the only person there. People will normally start arriving anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour after it "begins." I'm rapidly coming to realize that is the truth.

This post isn’t meant to argue that the Ghanaians concept of time is bad, or good. It’s just “different,” and takes time to get used to it.

But thanks to my latest experiences in Ghana, I know one thing for certain. Next time I have a get-together at 8:45, I won’t wake up until 9:30.

Impressions of Accra – the First Few Hours

Note: This posting was written on 9/12/11, but due to lack of internet, it hasn’t been posted until today.

Even though our group has been staying in Accra at the Coconut Point Regency Hotel, we haven’t really experienced the city due to constant orientations and lectures. However, yesterday we took a trip to the center of Accra and walked around for a few hours. Here are the first impressions:

•The Traffic: To sum it up, Accra is as busy as New York, but much crazier and hectic. First of all, cars (not pedestrians) have the right of way. If you’re walking across the crosswalk and the stoplight turns green for the cars, you better start running. Cars will slam on the accelerator, and start honking at you immediately. A personal estimate is that at least 50{3a5a0fd47fd42b6497167aecc6170a94848f1ba936db07c4954344fcfff1d528} of all vehicles on the road are either trotros (see below) or taxis. People drive like complete jerks – cutting people off, not letting people merge, and even driving on the sidewalk just to pass someone. It’s probably a good thing that AFS doesn’t let us drive over here…

• The Trotros: Generally speaking, a trotro is any form of public transportation besides a bus/taxi that is designed to carry many people. In Ghana, they are either a large van or very small bus, and are the primary form of transportation for Ghanaians (most cannot afford a car). There are also a variety of hand signals used to show the conductor where you are going, and conductors also yell out of the side of the vehicle their destination. I will be taking 2-3 separate trotros to get to Achimota once my school begins this Tuesday.

• Using Their Heads: Ghanaians carry everything on top of their heads. In just a few hours, I saw cartons of eggs, chocolate bars, mini-fridges and even clay pots balanced on their heads. Although people carrying everything on their head looks very silly at first, it makes perfect sense because it helps avoid back strain and is much easier for carrying heavy items long distances. Sometimes people wrap cloth in a circle to help stabilize their goods, while other times it’s flat on their head. Regardless, I have yet to see a Ghanaian drop anything.

• The Market: It’s almost indescribable; absolutely chaotic, yet perfectly in order. To be honest, it’s still overwhelming for me – the constant shouts of “Obruni” and “buy this” while watching where I am stepping in the unpaved path are so different from home. Everything from Nigerian movie DVD’s and bananas to t-shirts and fufu pounding sticks are sold. Every couple of seconds the smell changes completely between anything from garlic and old fish to human excrement, so be careful about how deeply you inhale.

• Poverty: To be honest, while poverty does exist in Ghana, it’s not as overwhelming as you think. I have yet to see something that I couldn’t imagine taking place anywhere in the United States. One thing that was new for me (coming from Naples, Florida) was the following people asking for money.

o The Kids: While they are very cute when asking for money, they usually aren’t Ghanaian. Most kids we’ve seen have been Mali, and beg for money which they then proceed to give to their parent. Their parent may then proceed to buy food for the kid, but it’s just as likely that they will use it to buy alcohol or drugs for themselves.

o The Handicapped: As you are driving, handicapped people will either wheel themselves to you, or do something else to get your attention. This type of begging does take some getting used to. According to our orientation, if a child is born handicapped, there is a large chance they will be abandoned on the streets because many African parents believe handicaps to be a form of witchcraft.