Barrelled Thoughts #20

Saturday, September 19, 2009

August 8, which was a good month ago, was supposed to be the mark of autumn in Taiwan. But for those of us who have to bare the scorching heat, we know that the hottest part of summer has just begun.

A friend of mine informed me last night that his country had just officially entered autumn; and he tells me that his country has very distinct four seasons. Kind of like South Africa.
The willows in Edenvale would dye themselves green and the flowers would bloom in spring. The leaves on the old oak tree outside would glitter as the birds atop its branches hatched and started to fly during summer. Everything turns red as autumn approaches. The driveway would be lined with piles of fallen leaves which we had raked up just that morning. Nights got longer and days shorter. It’s that time of year when we would head to our favourite Chinese restaurant and enjoy some steamy soup; and feast on freshly made Peking Duck. Mmmm…
My favourite season, though, in the northern hemisphere, would undoubtedly be winter. My friend, Adam, tells me that eastern European winters are somewhat troublesome because of the below freezing temperatures they experience. Nevertheless, one aspect of winter has always grasped my imagination. It is also, ironically, the main cause of many unfortunate deaths in Europe during winter: snow.

Growing up in South Africa, snow was nothing but mere childhood fantasy. All the movies and all the books showed depictions of beautiful white snow and well-decorated snowmen. Sometimes I would see scenes of Christmas celebrations with snow drizzling down outside the window. What a pleasant sight.
Come Christmas time in South Africa, looking out my window, I would be greeted with lush green fields and the blazing sun shining down, or pairs of butterflies and migrating birds flying overhead. Because, unlike America or Taiwan, Christmas time in South Africa is slap bang in the middle of summer.

In South Africa, winters are cold. Frozen-bird-ponds-and-layers-of-frost type of cold. But never in Johannesburg had it snowed. Well, never when I was there anyways. When I left SA in 2007, it snowed in Jo’burg for the first time in two decades. I saw some snow-filled pictures of SAHETI, and friends having snowball fights on the field. It really did look like something out of a Harry Potter movie. Ha ha.

My only encounter with snow in South Africa was when I went to Drakensberg with my family, a good six or seven years ago now. It snowed on the mountains while we were driving there, so we had missed the good part. When we got there, the snow was melting and we still had to drive up the mountain to the cottage we had rented for the week. On our way up, we saw patches of snow and puddles of water next to them. Looking at the tiny stream next to the mountain pass, I could notice how the water had frozen dead in its tracks. The little stream of water looked no more than 30cm deep and about a meter wide. “Welcome to Sunny Pass”, the signpost read; and there we were, the highest mountain pass in South Africa.

I still remember on our way up the pass, we ran into a group of tourists trying to get themselves around a bend leading up to the pass. There were about eight or nine cars parked alongside the road. Some 2×4’s and a couple of 4×4’s like we were driving. Mitsubishi Pajero, to be exact. Ah… old times.
A 4v4 carrying a car load of tourists had stopped on the side of the road, too. The driver was carefully installing chains around the enormous 19″ tyres in order to get better grip. The tourists, mean while, were trying to walk up the bend themselves, wanting to board the car again once it had rounded the ice-covered corner. All I remember is a huge burst of laughter from our car and from groups of on-looking tourists. Looking out the window, I could see them walking up the 20 percent-incline hill and losing their footing, tumbling back down one by one.
A while later, while we were still wondering how to round the bend since we didn’t prepare chairs or any form of anti-friction for our tyres, a 2×4 Nissan Bakki’s engine screeched to life from behind us. Next I saw the vehicle speed forward straight towards the icy hair pin turn! My heart pounded hard, “What the fuck is he thinking!?”
Without any tyre gear, the little Nissan accelerated at tremendous speeds — or at least what was considered tremendous seven years ago, and the driver attempted the turn. What I heard next was the terrifying sound of wheels screaming as they completely lose grip on the ice. The car oversteered, then understeered, then oversteered again; and somewhere during all of this chaos, the car stopped moving forward altogether and began sliding down the slope. Instinctively, all the onlookers turned and looked at what awaited the tiny Nissan at the bottom of the slide: a one-hundred-something meter drop to certain death. The Nissan struggled to regain grip, and as if the driver knew the fate that awaited him, he fiercely pulled the emergency break and the car spun to a halt two meters from the edge of the free-fall. We all shrieked in unison watching this unfold in front of us, knowing that there was nothing we could do to prevent it. The driver sat in his seat motionless as we all breathed a sigh of relief. Just then, one of the Afrikaner tourists said, “Ja, if he had fallen down there, it would’ve taken him straight to Durban.” I managed a weak chuckle, but to be honest, I was shit scared, ha ha (Durban, the city which I was born in, is located in sea-bordering province Kwazulu Natal, or KZN for short. The Drakensberg mountain range has a river flowing out towards the east; through Durban, and eventually leading to the Indian Ocean).

You know that feeling you get when you ride a roller-coaster? Imagine that feeling multiplied by about 1000000000000000. That’s how I felt when my dad decided to just get on with the whole thing and sped up the slope and rounded the corner. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it and ended up at the bottom of the canyon. Oh wait…never mind.

I don’t remember what we actually did at Sunny Pass. I just remember that we went there and paid a visit to South Africa’s highest pub! A few thousand meters above sea-level, the pub had a well decorated restaurant, which added to the atmosphere of being on top of one of South Africa’s most famous tourist destinations. A memory I hope to keep with me always.

As the days grow shorter and the nights slightly longer, September slowly ticks away, but the weather stays the same. Every morning the thermometer displays 27 degrees Celsius, which doesn’t seem that bad. But during the day, usually around lunch time, the temperature soars to about 35 or 36 degrees which, without air-con, is absolutely unbearable!

They say when autumn eventually arrives, which is “supposed to be in a week or two,” there will be a severe outbreak of H1N1. The heat we’re experiencing at the moment is just enough to suppress the growth and spread of the pandemic, but come October, when the average temperature drops below 30 degrees Celsius, Taiwan’s going to be in for a real treat. So, logically speaking, the heat is preventing 90 percent of Taiwanese people from infection, but the heat is also killing us off. But the hope is that by the time the virus starts to spread, we will all be properly vaccinated. Fingers crossed.

I love winter. It’s my favourite time of the year, no matter which hemisphere I’m in! I love wearing scarves, and I love walking around windy Taipei in a big coat. I love the idea of a caramel Latte and a copy of TIME, or some Rooibos tea around a table of friends, talking about how fast-paced life is in Taiwan, and how it’s marvelous that we can find time to stop and enjoy life.

I like standing atop Taipei while gazing down at the city life, wrapped up comfortably in my winter clothing. Although, I think this winter could turn out to be slightly different. Apart from the scarf, gloves and coat; possibly a cup of coffee in my left hand and a magazine in my right. My winter might be accompanied by new apparel. Something that might ensure that I actually make it through the winter this year: a medical mask. JSF.

Baie mooi, Suid Afrika!

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