It has been a long while since my last entry. Over the past few months I have traveled through much of Taiwan. And Thailand, a land of fast cars, narrow roads, mesmerizing beaches, mouthwatering coconut curry soups, enchanting ruins, young prostitutes, deep underwater caves, friendly people and countless Buddhist temples. But for now, here’s a tale of Taiwan.
My younger sister moved to Taiwan to teach English in August of 2009 and I found it to be a perfect excuse to visit this strange and unfamiliar island. I arrived in Taipei early in the morning. The air was warm and tasted of earth and gasoline. The most basic and popular mode of transportation in Taiwan is a scooter. Their abundance overwhelms ones’ senses, meddling with smell of spices in the air, taste of salt water of the ocean, touch of wind upon the face. The air feels, smells and tastes polluted.
Taipei is located on the northern tip of the island, the rest of the cities are scattered on the east and west coasts. The middle of the island is taken up by enormous unpassable mountains. In order to get from one coast to the other, one has to travel all the way north or south and proceed onto the other side.
My sister lives in Taichung, a city located on the west coast, only a few hours away from Taipei. And my first destination. I stayed in Taichung for a few weeks, relaxing from continuous travel in Japan and enjoying the company of my sister and her two Taiwanese roommates. We spent a lot of time tasting local foods at a night market (a popular attraction among locals), drinking abundance of coffee in Match Café (where one of the roommates worked), dancing and singing in The Londoner (a party pub where we caught an amazing Improve Show and became friends with the actors), staying home and talking for hours about our travels and “new” lives.
Finally, I was ready to leave Taichung and explore the island. Since the transportation is cheap, I chose to abandon my “regular” mode of transportation, hitchhiking, and travel by buses and trains. First city down the coast was Tainan. I surfed with two French guys who were super friendly and adorable. They moved to Taiwan a year ago to receive Masters in Space Engineering. Unfortunately, the easygoing and party-filled life has taken all their time and they haven’t even started writing their dissertation, which is due in February. Of course, it didn’t stop them from taking me to the night market in the evening and spending several hours eating Taiwanese food and playing street games.
The next city was Kaohsiung. Kaohsiung hosted 2009 World Games and so the city was clean and refreshing. I surfed with a wonderful Taiwanese boy who took me a “Taiwanese only” restaurant where every single person stared at me so much I started to feel the holes they were burrowing through my body. At night, he took me to the top of a mountain where I could see the whole city bathing in lights. It reminded me of Hakodate and Nagasaki and made me nostalgic. While I was roaming the city the next day, I met a university student who volunteered to be my guide and took me around the city on his scooter. Unfortunately his English was poor so we enjoyed the city in silence.
Kaohsiung was a nice change from the other cities, which made feel claustrophobic. Large parks with lakes and pagodas. Beautiful beaches filled with families. Wide streets abundant with restaurants and small shops. Still, it was a big city and the pollution was overwhelming. I continued on south.
Next stop was Kenting, southern most point of Taiwan and a town comprised of one street. The street is a few hundred feet from the coast and filled with hotels, pubs, strip clubs, food stalls, surfing stores, restaurants and happy chilled people. The weather was warm enough that I was able to relax on a beach and get some tan. I spend only a few hours on the beach. A time I didn’t know I needed to treasure because the weather was to change drastically just a few days later.
In Kenting I met a couple who spoke very good English and was driving up north on the east coast to Taitung, my next destination. Lucky for me, they offered a ride and soon I was riding through steep and narrow roads of the mountains. Up and up we went. Popping ears and feeling slightly dizzy I nevertheless couldn’t stop staring out the window. The mountains were astonishing. Yielding the mighty power of mother nature, every sharp turn revealed sights I gasped for. Slowly, we started to descend the mountains and ended up on the east coast. Ah, the road going up the east coast runs only a few feet away from the ocean. Where the west coast showed industrial cities full of smoke, narrow streets, constant buzz of scooters, haunting smell of “stinky tofu”, the east coast was the absolute opposite. The ocean hummed the noise of scooters, the fresh breeze scattered odors, the roads were wide and open and the air felt clean. I finally started to appreciate the beauty of Taiwan.
In Taitung I surfed with a 30 year old Taiwanese Marine with a heart of gold and a warmest smile. Hank abandoned the comforts of a young man’s life to take care of his old and sick grandparents. He works at night so he can take care of them during the day. He cooks them meals 3 times a day and takes care of all their needs, including driving them to the hospital when needed. He sleeps only a few hours a day, doesn’t go out to party and only worries about his grandparents. When they found out about me, they made him leave the house for the whole day and show me around the area. It was one of my best days in Taiwan. Even though Hank didn’t speak English well (when we were at his house, we conversed through Yahoo Translator), we found out that body language can speak much better. He took me to an unusual site where the water runs up the hill. He took me to the market where we tried one the best chicken I’ve ever had. He took me to an abandoned park in the mountains where a, ruined by earthquake, bridge was adorned with lianas and palm trees. He took me further up the mountains where monkeys roam free and love to be fed by passing tourists.
At one point, we stood on dead-end bridge, surrounded by about 20 monkeys who looked fairly friendly. I made one wrong move towards a baby. What happened next made me fear for my life. Monkeys started to screech so loud, the king came running towards us ready to pounce. I was terrified. Not able to breath, I started to back-up toward the dead end of the bridge. They were increasing in numbers, shrieking and surrounding us. There were absolutely no other humans in site. We were deep in the mountains, surrounded by about 50 monkeys at that point. The king looked aggressive and started to move-in on Hank, who stood in front of me. And then, Hank raised his hands high in the air, stomped his feet, looked at the king straight into the eyes and yelled from the top of his lungs:
-I am a man. I am a Marine. I am strong and powerful. Back away.
I stood behind him completely speechless in shock and fear. I thought he would provoke the king to attack us with this tantrum but instead, the king stopped screeching and started to back away. Hank continued on screaming at him, keeping his hands high in the air until we walked right through the mass of the monkeys that gathered in front of us. I couldn’t believe Hank got us out. My feet were shaking and I barely made it to the car. He later explained that under no circumstances one must show weakness when facing the king. Raising his hands in the air, Hank made himself taller; screaming back at the king, he showed him, he was more powerful; moving toward the king, Hank gave him no choice but to back-away. I knew if I was there by myself, I wouldn’t have made it out alive. The fear gripped me so much, I lost the ability to fight for survival. I lost the moment I started to back away. My heart continued pounding way after we cleared the park and the mountains. Unfortunately, this experience developed a phobia in me, which I only realized when I saw monkeys again in Thailand.
It was almost painful to part with Hank when the time came. I sensed a very strong bond between us and felt like I was leaving a part of me in Taitung. But it was time to move on and it was time to find new adventures. My next and unfortunately last stop was Hualien. I sent a request on couchsurfing to a very interesting lady but didn’t expect a reply back since she required a few weeks notice and I only gave her a day. Gloria wrote me back right away saying that if I will help her translate her website into Russian, she’ll let me stay in a hostel she just opened. It was a done deal. Last year, Gloria participated in a Taiwanese contest, which awarded a winner with a world round-trip ticket if they wrote the best essay why they deserve this prize. Gloria won. She’s been to many countries and has many stories to tell. After coming back to Taiwan she wanted to open a hostel which would help tourists with every aspect of their visit to Hualien and Taiwan in general. Partnering up with a friend, Sunny and her younger daughter, Moon, they opened a beautiful place, in which I had the pleasure of staying. If anyone ever makes it to Hualien, Colorful Taiwan Hostel is the only place they need to know.
Gloria introduced me to her friend Yatin, who was kind enough to show me around Hualien on her scooter. We became friends fast. Having Taiwanese breakfast next to a temple, visiting her university, checking out a kids’ gallery, walking around park on the ocean, trying to hide our faces from very strong winds (by then the temperature was way in single digits, Celsius of course).
At lunch time we met up with her friends who decided to join us on a ride outside the city to the “flower sea farms” and Lake LiYan where we rented a paddle boat and rode around a huge lake while singing taiwanese and english songs. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Yatin and her friends. They were very friendly and lots of fun.
In the evening, Gloria planned for us to catch a Taiwanese aborigines performance near the night market. We met up at 7pm, got dinner (THE absolute best Taiwanese dinner I’ve had; tasted like mom’s cooking) and by 8pm we were at the place where the performance was to take place. The stage was set-up outside on the old brick stone street. The road was closed off to traffic and surrounded by small souvenir shops. The aborigines Taiwanese ran around practically naked while we stuttered our teeth from the chilly breeze and wore several layers of warm clothes. The performance started late but it was beautiful. The young men and women played out scenes of humans communicating with nature and asking permission to use its energy. I was mesmerized by their movements, strong tanned bodies and mystical music. The performance was in its heat when Gloria stepped away for a minute and left me alone. Suddenly I felt the ground shake. With each passing second, the shaking continued to amplify. Because the adrenaline has shut down my senses, I was a little slow to realize that I was experiencing an earthquake. The feeling was a mix of panic and bewilderment. I felt completely helpless. No matter where I would go, the earth would be shaking. There was nothing stable to grab onto. The one thing I believed to be solid and fully trusted, the earth, was giving in. The shaking was violent enough that the nearby scooters started to fall down like dominos. The locals started to run around and I knew I had to move. As suddenly as it started, it was over. I saw Gloria run towards me with a very worried look. I must have looked scared so she tried to reassure me that everything was ok. And although the earthquake was over, my legs continued to shake. My first earthquake was 6.8 on the Richter scale and did some structural damage as far as Taipei. Unfortunately, the one place I especially desired to visit, The Taroko Gorge, had to be closed off the next day due to fears of damaged roads and fallen rocks. I had to cut my trip short and return to Taichung.
As quick as the earthquake, my time in Taiwan has come to an end. I was sad to leave but I was cherishing all the friendships I made. The faces and names stood out clearly in my mind and I was re-living the experiences over and over again. My next destination was Thailand. Lucky for me, my sister was coming along and we were going to meet my two girl-friends from U.S. and spend and incredible month getting to know this stunning country.