Hsinchu, Toucheng and Back – The Dairy of Another Journey

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Being dead and buried the morning after Chinese New Year is a common phenomenon amongst us Taiwanese, but waking up at 8 a.m. on the first day of Lunar New Year for a trip out of town is definitely something else.

The sharp sound of my cellphone alarm broke through the cool, crisp air, Sunday morning. Funny how the alarm seems to be the only function that works all year round; everything else crashes, stalls or just plainly doesn’t work. Not the alarm though. It’s pulled me out of bed every morning for the past year, and today was no exception. I dragged my luggage and took my guitar. This was it! Just me and Bridget, baby! Oh, right, and some relatives, ha ha; specifically a little half-German bandit who goes by the name of Korby.

We were heading to 新竹 (Hsinchu) for a new year’s lunch with my grandparents, a place I hadn’t been to since this time last time.
In my mind, 新竹 never really had anything to give me. No glamour, no excitement, just dusty old streets and unlit alleys. To some extend I was right, because that was the impression 新竹 gave me, but that was because the only place I’d been to is my grandparents’ house, and they’ve been living in the same place for the last 35 years, what did I expect? So, deep inside, I really hoped I could be proven wrong. And what better a time to visit than during the most significant occasion of the year – Chinese New Year.

Like Katt Williams once said, parents usually cannot wait until their children speak their first words and start stringing sentences together. But the converse is true, that once these little ikes start talking, they will be qualified to ask 500 questions a day.

“Why is the McDonald’s sign yellow, Mama?”
“What part of a chicken is a chicken nugget, Mama?”
“What’s the difference between barbeque and hot sauce? Is barbeque sauce just sweet and tangy and hot sauce isn’t tangy? What is tangy, mama? Is that sour but it isn’t quite sour?”

My cousin, Korby, the most energetic little bugger I have ever seen in my life. He’s so bloody lively he makes the Duracell bunny look weak. After setting off from 板橋 (Banciao), I sat in a pile of his toys in the back seat as we headed for the highway going south. Almost immediately after hitting the road, Korby began his four day lingual marathon, with me being the most innocent bystander:

“John! Can we play Battleships later?
“Yes, sure.”
“Joooohn, can we play Lego later?
“I thought you wanted to play battleship? What do you want to play? Battleships or Lego?”
“I want you to read to me.”
“…”

Eventually he started playing with his toy Husky and I could get some sleep. My aunt tossed her poodle in the backseat and it seemed pretty content just to sleep on my lap. I turned on some Stone Sour and got some shut eye. The road was long, and I was going to need all the battery life I could get to catch up with Korby, who seemed to run on solar power.

My good friend, Anna, once told me, there are some children who, when you tell them to stop doing something, will always purposely do it once more just to piss you off and to ‘have the last laugh’, so to speak. Korby is one of those kids.
I was woken up by the sound of Korby’s high-pitch scream (the same scream I hear every time he doesn’t get his way). He kept playing with the cup holders in the back seat and my aunt was getting impatient (bless her. She is by far the most patient parent I’ve seen). I honestly didn’t mind, I had Corey Taylor in my ears, nothing could bother me – or so I thought. Five minutes later, Korby unleashed his ultimate weapon: repetitive questioning without the need of an actual answer. Oh my, word!

“Mama, how long until we get there?”
“About an hour.”
“Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama! Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? are we th….”
I eventually fell asleep.

When I woke, we were preparing to enter urban 新竹. Turning off the intersection, I opened my eyes to see what we were passing, when I suddenly had a flash back, back to July last year, when K, H and I were touring Taiwan. I sort of wanted the same sort of excitement out of this trip, so I started paying attention.

I’d never been into urban 新竹, and just like when I went to Tainan last year July, I was shocked to find that it was not that different from Taipei. The city planning was quite discrete for an older city. It is where all the high-tech development in Taiwan takes place after all. The very cellphone I’m holding in my hand was probably designed by some poor sap who hasn’t seen sunlight for 10 years. So it’s no wonder they put effort into remodelling the town.
One thing that really stood out about 新竹 when we first drove into town was how it had everything Taipei had, just three times as big (and they had a lot more Betel Nut stalls)! Maybe it’s because they have more space, but some of their stores are huge! We passed by a three story pet store when I thought to myself, “Wow! What a lovely piece of archite-” “-are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

Damn it, Shrek! How many more children must you brain wash?

We went passed the industrial park where many car firms were situated. Volkswagen boasted one of the biggest showrooms in the area, with a stand-alone size larger than that of a shopping mall. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Honda, Infinity, Opel, Kia, Toyota, Volvo and even Skoda all had their showrooms set up. It was quite a nice sight. As we passed the Lexus showroom, I remember myself looking inside, trying to catch a glimpse of their ridiculous £300,000 supercar, the LFA. Let’s fix the break problem first, Lexus, and the global economic downshift, and then we’ll talk about speed, yeah?

Driving parallel to the train tracks, the shift from the industrial park to the high class suburban area was instant. It was as if we’d been watching a movie in black and white film and someone suddenly turned on all the colour.
First, Caesar’s Park Hotel shot me a glance, then the Sheraton made its presence known, glooming in the background, looking immaculate as ever. I remember passing a giant billboard advertising beds from Bed World and wondering to myself whether they were really selling beds or selling pornography on the side – quite an interesting marketing strategy. 新竹 was taking a turn for the better, and credit where credit’s due, I have to admit that I was quite impressed at how well it presented itself.

We eventually arrived at the Ambassador Hotel for lunch and tea. After finishing lunch early, Korby and I went outside to take photos and throw coins in the wishing fountain. We visited a market in the afternoon and Korby had some crazy fun on the over-priced and extremely unfair games designed by sales people to get children’s money. Yes, I believe that’s a fair reflection.
An afternoon of R&R was scheduled and I finally had time to play some guitar and relax. Korby taught me how to play Battleships (in German) and we sword fought with his Lego. So, all in all, a pretty nice day.

The Fray accompany me as I type my closing remarks about day one. Goodnight, 新竹, thanks for the warm welcome. See you next year.

Tomorrow we’re heading to the other side of the mountains for some sun. Things can only get better.

P.S. Happy Chinese New Year. And, erm…’happy’ Valentine’s Day.

I am running through a flower-filled field…big furry dogs are running beside me as it rains skittles from the sky…

“Joooohnny”
…the weather is good, the sky is bright. What the heck is that bashing sound?
“Jooohnny!” *Bam bam bam bam* “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, guten morgen, Johnny! Good morning! it’s time to wake up!”
What the devil?
“Johnnnnnnnn!”
My eyes shoot open, staring at the white ceiling.
*Bam bam bam bam bam*
I tilt my head right, and through the blurry glass doors I see the silhouette of a little man, shouting his lungs out at 8:54 a.m.
“Johnny! Johnny! Johnny”
I pretend I’m asleep, when in actual fact I heard this little bugger before he even left his room. By my book, I at least had another half an hour of stay-in-bed time.
My aunt saves me:
“Korbinian! Don’t be rude! Come in here and get dressed!”
I had my sleep.

宜蘭 (Yilan) was new to me. I had never been there before. Heading for 宜蘭, I had no impressions and no expectations. I had my coffee and my croissants and packed up for the road ahead. The long road, I might add. Three hours might not seem like a long time for people travelling by train, but three hours on a car is…distorting.

I don’t know how children do it, but they just seem to have an abundant amount of energy. The second he got on the car he took out books and toys and urged me to join him in his fun. Obviously, I was more than happy to oblige, until I started feeling nauseas of course, haha.
I plugged in my earphones and rested my eyes, thinking, surprise me, 宜蘭, surprise me.
Before long, I dozed off with Keith Urban ringing in my ears.
“Mama! Mama! Mama! How long until we get there?
“Three hours”
Uh oh.

When I opened my eyes again we were speeding through a tunnel at a steady 85km/h. I had no idea where we were. What was not surprising was that Korby was still jumping and kicking. I looked at my watch. 12:37 p.m. We’d been on the road for the better part of two hours, we had to be close now.
What I saw when we exited the tunnel honestly caught me by surprise. The four lane motorway weaved through a tight series of bends between the mountains. Oddly and amazingly, the clouds were right next to our car. Thick, thick bundles of cotton-like clouds gripped the mountainside and snaked its way across the canyon. Either we were really high, or the clouds were very low. I’d never seen anything like it!
The last time I came this close to clouds, I was visiting a famous tourist destination in South Africa known as ‘God’s Window’. But jeepers, that was almost 4000m above sea level! Taiwan doesn’t have motorways that high up. This strange phenomenon had me startled. It definitely added some colour to the grey and foggy day.
Tunnel after tunnel we entered, and tunnel after tunnel we would come out on the other side driving through a ball of clouds. Looking from the tunnel out, it’s as if there was a fire outside and we were going through the smoke. After another 30 minutes of snaky motorway we entered our final tunnel.
I was so busy wondering what the sky was going to look like on the other side, I failed to notice that we had been in the tunnel for over 30 minutes already. I was amazed at how long this tunnel was. Not until I overheard my aunt talking to my grandmother did I realise that were driving through the infamous 雪山 (Xue-Shan) tunnel.

Built a good while ago, heaven knows how many lives this tunnel claimed during its construction. 25km, 25.5km, 26km, 26.5km, 27km…As I watched the numbers on the side of the inner-tunnel wall increase, I realised that we were driving dead straight and right through the heart of one of Taiwan’s thickest and largest mountains, and what awaited us on the other side would most definitely be different to what we had seen for the most part of our journey east.

Blasting out the tunnel, I sort of got that ‘the sky is the limit’ feeling. Huge open spaces. The closest mountain I could see was at least a good 40km to 50km away. The sky was layered with foamy white clouds, they were out of reach. Looking down from the motorway I could see 宜蘭 township down below. The buildings did not exceed three stories, so conveniently everything looked very flat. It was a beautiful sight, definitely something one would not be able to see in Taipei. Because apart from Taipei being a basin, it is also the capital of Taiwan, making it the most well-developed and built up cities on the island. Let’s not forget, the once tallest building in the world is situated there – Taipei 101.

I imagined 宜蘭 to be much like 花蓮 (Hualien), old, traditional and slow-paced. I was right on all three counts. It was not disappointing, though. In fact, it was exactly what I needed to get away from all the bustle of city life. Winding down the motorway into 頭城 (Toucheng) city, we were soon driving amongst the city people. Driving passed a grave-covered hill, I saw a Christian cross in the middle of Buddhist burials, rather standing out. I was happy to see that amidst all this traditional culture, there was still space for cultural diversity.

We were looking for our bed & breakfast so we could take a well-deserved rest and finally eat some food. It had taken us over three hours to get here, and needless to say, we all skipped lunch and were starving. My aunt spotted a big grey estate on the side of the narrow road. It was located in the middle of nowhere and was situated right in the middle of some farm land.
“This is it,” she said, “we’re here.” It was a huge house, with four stories and a fabulous design, it looked more like a presidential getaway than a bed & breakfast. I didn’t even think 宜蘭 had these types of houses, let alone rent them out as B&B’s. Another strange thing I noticed was that the house did not seem very welcoming. Six dogs barked at our car, apparently trying to chase us off. After asking the owner of the house some questions, we knew why. It was because we weren’t even supposed to be there; we had taken a wrong turn and ended up on someone’s private property. Off we went then, and another few minutes later we finally arrived.

Number 596 協天 (Xietian) road doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s just a regular three-story apartment, but wait until you see inside!
The smell of lavender streamed into my nostrils the second I stepped in. Posh European wood paved the floors of the low-lit interior. Beautiful frescos hung from the walls and different brightly coloured couches, chairs, and bar stools were all around the house and in front of the counter. It was magnificent! Even the staircase leading upstairs was lavishly designed. Dark pine wood covered the floors of the second, third and fourth floors. The rooms looked better than in some hotels. There was even a big 72″ flat screen mounted to the wall! It was awesome.
The best part of the B&B was undoubtedly the view from the fourth floor outside on the balcony. They had turned it into an observation tower. Wood on the floor and beautiful European-style chairs surrounding a glass coffee table. Just right for those scenery lovers. Looking down, the sea was visible. We would definitely want to go down and play, if not for it being winter and the North-Easterlies being so bloody cold.

In the afternoon we went to see the docks then had dinner with my aunt’s friend and her children, Mindy and Matthew. They were going to be travelling with us as we toured 宜蘭 these three days.

At night, I grabbed Bridget and headed up to the fourth floor balcony. It sure was dark, not to mention it was freezing cold. I grabbed a chair and sat there in the dark and sang songs with my guitar, all the while listening to the waves which I couldn’t see crash against the shore line, until I was eventually forced in by the rain.

I seem to lose track of days during the holidays. It’s Monday, and tomorrow we’re going to visit some farm animals or something. Korby’s been going on about it for two days. Let’s hope it lives up to the hype.

it’s raining outside. No music for me tonight, just the sound of nature and its silence – and Korby snoring.

Sometime during the night I woke up because Korby had kicked me in the face. I have always been fascinated by the way children sleep, because Korby had somehow managed to turn 180 degrees on the bed. The funny thing is that he turned right back around in the morning. Haha. At 8:35 a.m. he head-butt me on my forehead, accidently I’m sure, and suffice to say, we were both awake. He woke everyone up and gradually at our own pace we all went downstairs for breakfast.

The plan today was to visit a recreational farm nearby. These recreational farms have been crucial to Taiwan’s agricultural existence ever since Taiwan joined the W.T.O., and all exports were deemed too expensive and could not compare with larger countries which had the advantage of mass production. Take America and China for instance, their agricultural turnout is enough to feed themselves and export to other countries, to a point where they would even have enough left over after that to give away to Africa. Although the recent instability of petroleum prices and the knowledge that petroleum will soon be running out has pushed America to more conservative ways. All the extra crop and agricultural harvest is no longer being sent to the African continent to aid poverty, rather it is being scientifically manufactured into organic petroleum, in hope of solving the fuel crisis. Although it must be said that organic petroleum is substantially more time consuming and expensive to produce than normal petrol, so unless you’re a green peace boffin, you probably won’t be too psyched about organic fuels just yet.
So amidst all this new age hype, traditional farmers in Taiwan have turned towards the trend that grows in popularity as the world gets more and more wealthy – tourism. More and more cattle ranches now allow tourists in to explore and understand the lives of cows, allowing curious tourists to observe, feed and even milk cows for a reasonable price. Some farms have all types of animals, making it a sort of interactive zoo.
Now obviously, with a successful business comes fierce competition. So these ‘leisure ranches’, as they are called, offer a complimentary lunch with their tour package if you’re willing to stay the entire day. That’s a pretty attractive offer if you’re the type who doesn’t want to drive all the way to the main road and back just for a meal. Smart marketing strategies are usually met with desirable outcomes, and the hundreds of people at the ranch today were a testament to the leisure ranch’s popularity.

We left the ranch in the afternoon and found a seafood restaurant by the port. Although it was a seafood restaurant, they still didn’t sell the one thing I had been craving since we got to 宜蘭 – big, fresh oysters. In fact, none of the seafood restaurants in the area sold oysters that way. I was kind of disappointed.

I remember in S.A. I used to be able to go to Ocean Basket and order a dozen fresh oysters. My friends and I used to add Tabasco sauce and down them like sweets!
I don’t think Taiwanese people like eating Oysters that way. Oh well.

After an early dinner we went back to the B&B and headed to our rooms for rest.
I was playing guitar and my aunt was watching TV when Jibi, my aunt’s travelling friend, came in and brought in some Australian red wine. She used to play guitar and requested some songs from me so we could all sing together. I felt like a bit of a dim wit when I told her that I only know to play modern songs.
“Uh, do you know Keith Urban?” I said.
She replied with a shake of the head, “Who?”
How embarrassing! I’ve now decided to learn some old classics, just for the road, haha.
Some Abba, Carpenter and Bob Dylan.
We finally found some songs we all knew and could sing together. We sang some songs and I headed for bed after taking a long, hot shower.

Another long day. Second consecutive day of rain, but that’s not going to bring me down.
Last day tomorrow. Let’s see what else 宜蘭 has to offer.

Much like day one, most of our time spent in 宜蘭 was made up of travel.
After a hearty breakfast in the morning, we all packed our things and headed out. We said our goodbyes to the owner of the B&B and travelled north. Since it was still pouring with rain, our plan was to find a coffee shop in the city of 宜蘭 and have some off-time for ourselves. But after an hour on the road, we hadn’t come across any coffee shops; the ones we had come across were either closed or there was a 45-minute queue.
Eventually, we’d been on the road for so long that it was already time for lunch, so we found a decent restaurant and ate away.

Although quite rainy, I would still consider this trip to 宜蘭 a fun one, especially because time with family is few and far between. And just like every other Chinese New Year, I had more food than I could handle. So much, in fact, that the mere smell of food makes my head spin a little. All part of the festivities, I guess. Once a year is not a crime, although the extra weight and the tight jeans might think otherwise.

After lunch, we hit the road.

宜蘭 back to Taipei was, on paper, a two hour drive, but when I saw the traffic on the road, I must admit I had my doubts. It seemed like many people were heading home from their rainy holidays too.
Driving from the city back into the suburban area before the motorway back north, the table cloth of white clouds had almost descended to ground level. The mountains were virtually invisible, covered with fog and rain. The cold front had finally hit, and that meant it was our cue to step out of the spotlight. It was back from whence we came, into the tunnels and back home.

My house isn’t big, but it’s homey – if that’s even a word. My dog seems like he lost a few pounds – my fault for not taking him to New Years dinner with me. It’s back to life and back to classes for me. All’s good in the land of John. I kind of miss the city, and I sort of miss Taipei. Not that there was anything I couldn’t find in 宜蘭 and 新竹 but I think I’ve been up north for long enough; long enough to call it ‘home.’

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Southern Taiwan – The Diary of a Journey

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

We were tired in the morning, too excited to sleep the night before, although the 6.3 Richter earthquake at midnight didn’t help with things either.
Gathering in front of the Banqiao rain station, the magnitude of what we were about to do hadn’t settled in yet. “John! Am i dreaming?!” H would ask. “Yes, you are.” I would reply, followed with a wink and a smile. This would be the first time either of us had toured Taiwan, and we couldn’t wait.

Taiwan is relatively small, and most people in Taiwan could think of a thousand other things to do rather than take a trip around Formosa.

The three hour train trip to Changhua gave us a good chance to rest. And rest we did, because in three hours time, we were expecting wonders.

The sun greeted us warmly as we stepped off the train and left our luggage in a paid compartment. This was the beginning of our adventure, and also the beginning of our own episode of “Lost”.

Hopelessly, we sweated our way around Changhua, cursing and laughing at the map we’d drawn for ourselves the night before, determined that it was the very map that would lead us to the promise land. H asked postman Pat where we could find the nearest and best local food, after which we asked the store owner where we could find a store that specialised in iced products, because that’s what we were really here for. Changhua’s shaved ice. Absolute bliss.
Back to the station. Tainan here we come!

As we, the infamous trio, take to the tracks for the second time today, we find ourselves in a comfortable locomotive with a purple interior. The adrenaline from this morning has long been worn off by the scorching southern sun, and miraculously, I am once again reminded of what we have paid for: air conditioning and soft, lavish seats.
A well deserved rest, I think to myself; time to give our already swelling feet a break.
We’ve only been through half a day! How on earth are we going to make it three more? we sit there sighing, but then think to ourselves, “Who cares? We’re on holiday! We’ll spend it however we bloody-well want! Be it rest or play, at least we’ll be comfortable with it!”

As we pass the vast and seemingly endless country-side of Tainan province, we stare out the large windows adjacent to our seats, too busy trying to get a glimpse of what others can see, instead of holding onto the one-in-a-million scenery that was racing past us. We clambered onto the window on one side of the train, staring in awe at the mountain range lying before our eyes,certain that nothing in the world could eclipse the beauty of these green giants. Just then, my vision seems to blur…only when I refocus my eyes do I notice the droplets streaming down the window. It fogs up, and as the backdrop of our picturesque day begins to fade, we sight a thick cumulonimbus approaching, in and between the mountain pass. I chuckle, ‘Well, that’s that.’
My friend, K, an artistic man of sorts, picks up his Sony Cybershot and presses it against the window. H, an enthusiast of art and all beautiful things that go with it, follows suit, grabbing my camera. The two of them try their best to snap anything that moves, which on a train, is everything.
I call H over to my side of window, wanting to showcase the scenery on this side of the carriage. The same cloud we saw hovering above the mountain range was now showering it with what can only be described as a giant garden hose. A perfect tower of precipitation lands onto and behind the mountains, giving the Taipei Basin its nourishment for the day. H hands me the camera, urging me to take a shot of this common, but so rarely appreciated phenomenon. I shake my head at first but take the camera anyway. After taking a dozen photos of the same scene, H finally realises the reason behind my initial hesitance. Besides the reflection of the opposite window being caught in almost every single picture, not one picture could accurately portray what we felt while looking at it through the window of the carriage, which by now was patterned with horizontal impressions — raindrops, reshaped by the passing wind. Natural force, along with man-made wonders, once again was creating spectacular images. The unstoppable force was once again meeting the immovable object. No one’s giving way, no one’s budging. So they match and they mingle, creating this, oh, so special feat.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, I couldn’t get a suitable picture, so I guess I’ll just have to replace it with 1,000 words instead.
Peering out the window as we leave another station before our destination, visibility is zero. The garden hose seems to be right over our heads. “Well,” I joke to H, “Looks like that moment of bliss was for our eyes only.”

An hour from Tainan Station. Seat back, feet up, Hinder through the earphones of my iPod. I motion towards the curtains, preparing to pull them shut. I stop short. How can I resist falling asleep with this marvelous view? I kept the curtains open.

“Ladies and Gentlemen. Next station: Tainan”
It was starting to get cold on the train; we had the air-conditioning to thank for that. When we arrived at Tainan station, I thought it might’ve been nice to get out of the air-conditioned carriage and walk around a bit — I was wrong. The climate that welcomed us was unbearable. If we thought Changhua was hot, we hadn’t seen anything yet. Tainan, a whopping 36 degrees Celsius, burnt us the second we stepped out, and this was after an afternoon of convectional rainfall!
Into the steam cooker we stepped, and immediately we were overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu. A young man came up to us and asked if we wanted to rent a car, then I remembered that that was common here; you arrive in Tainan, rent a moped and woohoo!
Walking towards the B&B we were supposed to be staying at, this seemed more like Taipei than Tainan. Modern streets, modern structures, 7/11, McDonald’s, KFC. Tainan was more developed than I thought, and my word was it beautiful. As hot as it was, we sort of got the sense that it was all worth it in the end.

After another 15 minutes of walking, we were already 20 minutes off our estimated check-in time, but on top of that, we were also lost. Oh my gosh…not now…not here, please…we kept going and kept going, until I was panting like my beagle, but we still kept going. Until I did something no man should ever have to do. I asked for directions.
“Excuse me, do you know where Dongmen road is?”
“Yeah! It’s right around the corner. Over there.”
Overjoyed, we rounded the corner, only to find Dongmen road longer than a bloody air-port runway.
Along the pen-straight road we went, with beads of sweat pouring down our faces, looking like we’d just taken a shower. Eventually we arrived at the B&B, and my, my, my, was it a sight for sore eyes! We rushed up-stairs and I called Alex. He was on his way here to meet us and take us around town. At least we didn’t have to risk being lost, again.

Day one ended with some tasty local food from the famous night market, and a couple of Coronas while we were perched against the wall in our room.
“What time are we waking up tomorrow, guys?”
“Who cares? We’re on holiday, man.”
H lets out a sigh of relief. “Yeah. Goodnight.”
Who says going on holiday means that we have to wake up at 5 a.m. and go sight-seeing until we drop? Why can’t we wake up when we’ve had enough sleep, then decide what we want to do? This was our own holiday. And we decided to spend it the way we wanted to: spontaneously.

The following morning, another sweat-filled ‘hike’ up the road to the train station left us hot and bothered. Once on the train, I caught part of a conversation happening behind me between an elderly man and a mother of two, travelling with her husband. The old man had boarded the wrong train. Although he was heading in the same direction as we were, he was without a seat.
“Where are you traveling to?”
“Kaohsiung,” he said.
I offered him my seat, acknowledging the fact that Kaohsiung was only 45 minutes away. That might’ve been okay for me, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to stand for that long. Being Taiwanese he immediately refused to take up my offer. But I being Taiwanese, too, knew that this was just a customary procedure before he could accept anything from anyone. Sigh, tradition.
He took the seat in the end.

Arriving at Kaohsiung station after a 45 minute train ride, we decided to take a rest at McDonald’s. Great holiday destination huh? We sat down. I saw an expression on K’s face that I couldn’t really make out.
“What’s up? What’s on your mind?”
“I’m just tired. All the walking. I’m just afraid of getting lost again I guess.”
In the end we decided to eat somewhere close. No regrets, no fear of a sight not seen or a temple left undiscovered, because this was what we wanted.

K’s mom called. A typhoon was coming in from the Philippines towards our next destination. I kept quiet after hearing the news, but we refused to feel down-hearted.
K spoke up first.
“I like rain.”
“Me too,” H and I both said, almost in unison.
“I like a rainy day. There’s an almost vagabond feel to it. Freedom!” K was right. He’s quite the optimist, and never lets go of a chance to see some magnificent natural phenomenon — no matter how dangerous.

In McDonald’s we talked about whatever. H spoke of her childhood pets and K his DIY slingshots of old. I enjoyed talks like this, because behind every person we see now is a past life that every biographer would be fond of writing about. Especially the few of us that have gathered in Taiwan from overseas. I guarantee, every story, every relived moment of their life is a head-turning experiencing like no other. Hearing things that left me flabbergasted, I saw the excitement in K’s eyes as he retold his stories of old about BB gun battles with the kids from the other side of town, or when he stole goldfish from his neighbour’s pond. I could tell straight away that this was what a holiday was about. Sharing life, sharing laughs and sharing sighs. Sharing the bad parts and sharing the good parts. Priceless.

The train ride to Fangliao was a short one, not much to see, not much to do. It was closing in on 6 p.m. and we still had a one hour coach trip to our hotel. As we waited for the bus, we discussed our next destination with excitement. Although we never openly admitted it, I’m sure Kenting was and always will be our favorite destination. I’d never been to any of Taiwan’s beaches, so Kenting, Taiwan’s most famous beach resort, was the perfect place to start.
Speaking of things I’ve never done. The coach we boarded was truly one of a kind. It was huge! Red leather seats, resembling something that belonged in the business class of a Boeing 747. I slouched in and made myself comfortable, only to find out that we were being driven by Evil Knievel. I should have realised that I wasn’t in Taipei anymore. We ended up unwilling actors in a scene of “Speed”. we were being raced down the duel-carriage country road at 60km/h and overtaking cars left, right and center. Our driver even overtook another coach on its way to the same destination. I tried to get up and ask him where the fire was, but every time I got up, I was shaken right back down. Well, I thought to myself, at least we’ll arrive earlier than expected.

As we sped down the interstate towards the most southern tip of Taiwan, we were captivated by the scenery around us. H was snapping photos of Kenting national park out the left side of the bus while K took photos of the ocean to our right. The mountain range seemed to extend forever, hill after hill, crest after crest, our line of sight was endless.
The enormous body of water to our right was shimmering and glittering under the remaining sunlight. We drove at sea level along the horizon. The scenery was breath-taking, and the best of both worlds were flashing before our eyes. Taiwan’s bountiful mountains accompanied with the vast southern coastline. The closer we got to our destination, the bolder the scenery around us became. The mountains grew in size, revealing cliffs and peaks. The ocean became more visible, connecting with white sandy beaches and smooth waves that seemed to be tripping over one another. The Pacific was screaming for attention, summoning its waves, crashing, roaring onto the beach front, creating a white foam canopy covering the sand, and before the sea retracts its waters it has another go.
On the mountain, the howling winds force the forest to bow in a synchronised Mexican wave, the sight is awe-inspiring. All this, however, is put to rest the second clouds start rolling in overhead. Blocking out the sun, the luscious green of the mountain is reduced to a dark, dormant form of itself. The ocean ceases to glitter and wink for attention. It, too, becomes an aspect of black. Our attention is diverted now, to the sky above the sea, where a “Transformers” cloud slowly turns itself into a long, dark and flat disc-like object, reminding me of the ship from the film “Independence Day”. The sun was trying to fight its way through the thickness; I could see patches of orange light struggling to peek through.
We drove alongside the storm cloud, eventually passing it, allowing, once again, for the ocean to show itself.
This time Apollo’s called it a day, and the sun begins his descent behind the horizon. He leaves a parting gift, dying the entire ocean orange. I find it quite difficult to describe the view, and so it is best understood by K’s response to it: “It’s beautiful. It’s fucking beautiful” he utters.
As the sun prepares for its final flourish, it dives beneath the horizon, letting out a stinging final ray of light. Off it goes to wake up some unfortunate people in another part of the world. The stunning finale left me breathless. If the Pacific Ocean was a woman, I’d be all over her in a heartbeat.
As if an Olympic Torch handover, the local residents on land immediately took over. The street lamps on our road lit up in a straight line, along with every other light, billboard and shop. We might be in different parts of Taiwan, but the nightlife stays the same regardless of where we are.

That night, after arriving at the hotel, we dropped our things and headed out for some chow. It is a known fact that in Taiwan, food largely reflects the area in which you are staying. The road was lined-up with Thai restaurants and seafood stands. Crab, shrimp, lobster, oyster and clam. In contrast to Changhua or Tainan, this was a sign that we had now found ourselves by the sea. Just like there’s always an Ocean Basket by the Waterfront in Cape Town, from the look of the restaurants, the smell of the air, the attire of the residents and the slow pace with which everyone walks, you know. You’re here.
After a splendid dinner at the hands of the seafood chefs, we packed in for the day. We were satisfied.
Even though the day ended as quickly as it had begun, we’d done enough today. Enough, at least, to say that we were tired and should probably take a break.

My alarm clock broke the silence as day three began. We wanted to wake up earlier so we would have enough time to go to the beach. So, after breakfast, the three of us made our way to the nearest beach around, which was a very convenient 10 minutes away. All prior thoughts of bad weather and disrupting storms were cast aside as soon as we set our eyes upon the striking beach front. Immaculately lit by the sunlight, it was just as we had envisioned it, only better — it was empty, and that meant we had it all to ourselves.
We ran towards the sea screaming, taking off our sandals and slippers, we couldn’t wait to feel the Pacific. I made contact with an incoming wave, feeling it chill me front head to toe. Well, more like from toe to head. K and H both ran in after me, jumping and dodging as the higher waves wet their shorts.
The waves roared as they clashed with one another.
We stood there basking in the sun, with the cool south Westerlies running through our hair.
We did what most people would do when arriving at the beach, we went searching for seashells. K wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and reached right into the water for whatever shiny object he saw. He found himself a few shells and a hosepipe richer when H was complaining about not being able find anything worthwhile.
In the sand on the beach H had written a message for our friend Anna, who wasn’t able to come with us. We missed her dearly and wanted her to know that nothing was ever done without the thought of her passing through our minds. “We love you, 媛.” it read in the sand as I took a picture and sent it to her through MMS.
I’d gone and sat down next to our shoes, where we were sure no water would ever reach. K and H just could not control their urge for adventure. K took off his shirt and waved it around in the air like Mel Gibson did with his sword in “Braveheart”. “Freedom!” he shouted, throwing his shirt and hat on shore. He dove right into the waves with only his quarter-cut jeans on. I had never seen him so happy. H left her bag on the beach and followed K into the water, screeching with joy as she felt the water chill her. As I was sitting there on the sand, I started to think about what I was going to write in my daily memo. When I regained focus, I found myself making a small mound with the sand between my legs, distinctively remembering I made a promise to myself to never do such a childish thing.
I was enjoying bathing in the sunlight with the cool wind brushing against me when K came running up to me, “Oh, my God,” he said, taking his Motorola out of his pocket, “I forgot to take it out of my pocket!”
Moments later H came up to us sheepishly, laughing as she took out two NT$1,000 notes from her left pocket. It’s like they were comparing who had gone into the sea with the most expensive stuff in their pockets. H went back to play just as K gave a huge gasp, pulling out from his back pocket a NT$500 note and a NT$200 note, shortly followed by his whole wallet. We burst into laughter as we lay out all the objects one by one to dry on the sand. H’s money, K’s phone, his money, his wallet, his ID, his PR, his student ID and his iCash. All neatly line-up like a yard sale. Suddenly, K bolts and runs towards the sea, chasing after a piece of paper. The blue color and the governmental insignia suggested that it was probably H’s NT$1,000 about to be engulfed by the sea. She wouldn’t want to lose that meal ticket.

I stepped back into the onrushing waves of Kenting for a final time as we prepared to depart. It was a brilliant view staring into the limitless sea, following the curvature of the earth, scanning the horizon. I didn’t want to leave, neither of us did. “Damn It,” I said, “I really should’ve applied for that ‘Best job in the world’ nonsense in Australia.” But as my good friend Annie once told me, “Sometimes, you’ve got to let the old go in order to welcome the new.” So, with that we went back to the hotel to wash up and pack our things.

The coach that was supposed to take us to the train station arrived 15 minutes late, which threw off our entire schedule. The original plan was to arrive at the train station 15 minutes before the train was to set off, but now it was late and I’d be biting my nails the whole way until we actually got there. I tried looking at things from a different perspective. OK, so the bus is late, but if we have a maniac driving the bus like the first time, then all our problems would be solved! Well, we didn’t. Instead, what we had was a driving-miss-daisy middle-aged man who likes sticking his hand out the window to signal every turn. Why on earth were indicators invented then?! As I stared at my watch minute after minute, I had a sick feeling that we probably weren’t going to make it in time for the train at all, which also meant we wouldn’t make it in time for our connecting train after that. The thought of it got me dabbing sweat off my brow. H read my mind and asked the driver if we were nearly there, he responded with a well received yes. H tells me it’s bad luck to ask the driver of a bus what time we’d be arriving. Can anyone tell me why? I’m extremely curious.
In the end, we arrived five minutes before the train left the station. We said our thank yous and bolted toward platform one.

The journey to Hualien would be the longest we’d undergone during our trip, lasting five hours in total. It really gave us a swell opportunity to catch up on some sleep. K did his leisure reading for a while, while my iPod and H kept me company on some empty seats at the back of the train. H and I would stare at each other sometimes, trying to guess what the other person was thinking; but we’d just smile and continue what we were doing before, me with my iPod, she with her beauty sleep. Life was good.

Arriving in Hualien that night, we went first to the beach behind the house we were staying in. As I walked over with H, who, by the way, was determined to go for another dip, there was something rather distinctly different about this beach head compared to the one we’d left behind in Kenting. Kenting’s sea had endless layers of blue, blue and more blue. The beach was full of golden sand and seashells; it looked like something out of the Travel Magazine.
Hualien’s beach, on the other hand, was littered with pebbles of all different shapes and sizes. It had something quite unique about it. The water was dark and the sand was grey. We would later learn that this is a distinct geographical feature belonging to Taiwan – four different directions, north, south, east, west, four different land and sea formations. H and I stood there listening to the tide rise, wondering when it would be slack water again so we could go in and fish for shells. The sound that the beach, the water and those pebbles made was a symphony like no other. When the waves crashed onto the beach, it was strong and forceful, but when the water died back down, it dragged pebbles, which knocked together with other pebbles, creating this magnificent swishing sound that would give me goose bumps every time. I could stand there listening to it all day.

We went to the night market for dinner and took a stroll while H spoke of her childhood crush and K and I piped in with stories of our own. After that we returned to the house for a few games of poker and turned in early for the night. The morning was promising, another event in this trip that we were very much looking forward to: sunrise.

Located on the west coast of Taiwan, Hualien is the perfect destination for people like us who want to see the dawn of a new day.

The forecasted Typhoon eventually caught up with us during the very last day. At 4:30 a.m. we woke up to a serene and unlit Hualien. Preparing our kit to go outside, we could hear the waves outside our door. It was high tide, and boy, did we know it. The sound of the waves rocking against the wave-breakers was a mighty thunderclap. The peaceful, rolling sea we saw yesterday afternoon was a mere shadow of its true self. The calm waves we once knew were now rattling the railings of the observation outpost, threatening to encroach onto land. All this was made even more frightening because of the darkness of the sky. Turning on the torch, we slowly made our way towards ‘our spot’ — the place we had chosen to watch the sunrise.
As we sat silently, listening, the sea slowly began to show itself. The brightening of the sky this morning was accompanied with drizzle. It was a nuisance, but not enough of one to make us turn back. It was an incredible sight, watching the sky light up.
Come 5:15 a.m., the sky was filled with storm clouds. Although the sun was up, we couldn’t get even the slightest glimpse of it. The mountains behind us were high enough to acquire some sunlight. The mountain tops were beginning to turn gold with the new day, but we three; we sat there with nothing. Between some cloud partings, the sun tried to squeeze its light through. As much as we pleaded for the sun to show itself, the fact of the matter was that it was 6:00 a.m., and that meant the sun was already well up into the sky. We just couldn’t see it.
We returned semi-disappointed, but still pretty chuffed at ourselves for making it up so early anyways. So, back to the house we went, with the gigantic waves now fully visible, they weren’t really as intimidating as first imagined. We took a couple of photos and threw our fatigue-stricken bodies back into bed.

Today, we went to Taroko National Park. We were now amongst all the huge mountain ranges we were looking at during our trip to Hualien. The larger-than-life marble cliffs had us slack-jawed as we drove in and around them. News of another 5 Richter earthquake that occurred during the night reached our ears, and thus revealing the reason for all the road closures within the park. We all heard the story about the Chinese tourist who got his skull cracked open by a falling rock the size of a peach, and even those are considered smaller ones. We stayed in our vehicle for most of the visit, stopping only to take pictures and gaze at structures built during Japan’s occupation of Taiwan, a good 50-odd years ago. For structures built so long ago, they’re holding up quite well in Hualien, which is probably the most typhoon-stricken area in Taiwan.

The rain started to pour as we drove home from Toroko. Only when we got out of the car did we truly feel the force of the winds outside. The raindrops stung me as I ran back into the house, H and K close behind. I had invited my cousin who works in town to come and grab a bite with us, but the arrangement was going to have to be rescheduled due to the ruthless storm now coming down hard on our location.
Not wanting to waste any time here, we braved the weather with our small umbrellas and went in search of an ice-cream store. To be honest, this was the first time I’d used my umbrella, I bought it only a few days before we set off from 7/11. We thought we could challenge the wrath of Taiwan’s deadliest natural disaster. All I can say is we got our day’s worth. The gale force winds upended our umbrellas and the rain finished us off. We drastically underestimated the ‘light afternoon shower’ and my NT$350 umbrella was as useful was one of those papers one you find in margaritas. I cursed at myself, what a piece of shit. The only reason you bought this 350 dollar metal stick was because it had Heineken written on it and had a cover in the shape of a beer bottle. Malakies…
We were soaked. But we made it to the store, dodging the rain. We sat down and ordered, getting ready to do that all over again.

Returning to the house, H and K fell limp on the floor, immediately falling asleep wherever they had landed. I sat on a chair in front of a fan thinking of what to write in my memo. It was quiet, apart from the non-stop slapping of waves outside.

The train ride back to Banciao was…difficult. We were all filled with mixed emotions. I wanted to go home, but only so I could get more clothes and come out for another go! H didn’t have to tell me what she was feeling for me to know. I was actually afraid that if she spoke of it, she might’ve burst into tears, and I would’ve done the same. K had always been spontaneous, and he liked whatever was coming his way. At the end of the day, we all knew it was about time we calmed down and started preparing for lessons in two-days time. No matter what emotions we felt while we were on our way back, be it joy, sorrow, unwillingness or even dissatisfaction. One thing was certain, and that was that if we had the chance to do it all over again, we wouldn’t think twice.

The Pacific Ocean greets us one last time as we prepare to round the northern tip of Taiwan. It adequately summed up what we were feeling inside: up and down, forward and backward. I definitely know I want to do this again. No, I have to do this again.

H shed a few tears stepping off the train. Only she could know what she was feeling inside; but K and I both knew that we were probably feeling the same way; we were just too proud to admit it. Damn Scorpios. JSF.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Absent but not forgotten.