Taiwan has the fresh fruit, friendly nature and island feeling of Indonesia, the hot springs, fashion and manners of Japan, the infrastructure and good food of China, and the mountains and beaches of the Philippines. Unfortunately it also has the seismic activity of the ring of fire and the violent weather of the pacific islands.Four years ago a typhoon decimated many small villages. Last week a large earthquake rocked the western coast of Taiwan.
Having failed at hitchhiking, I took a train to Hualien where I visited the nearby Taroko Gorge. The marble mountains of Taroko are threaded with caves, each showing off a different geological feature. Some sparkled while others shimmered, some were white and others green, some had waterfalls coming out of nowhere and others felt like silk.
That evening the owners of my hostel took me and a few other guests to the night market. Night markets in Taiwan are some of the best places to get food in one of the most delicious countries on earth. Among the many things I sampled was "coffin bread", so named for the way the bread entombs it's savory filling. Throughout the evening I explained to the owners of the hostel how I like to travel and asked them for a suggestion of a place to go. They told me that the cleaning lady is an aboriginal from a village in the south, and recommended me to visit her village.
The next morning they made some phone calls and brought me to the train station where they helped me buy a ticket. They told me someone would pick me up when I got off the train and then said good bye. My fears of finding my ride amidst a frenzy of busy travelers was alleviated when I was the only person to alight at the garage of a stop which lounged on the beach at the foot of the mountain's jungles.
A short, heavy set, dark skinned woman soon arrived and ushered me into her car. She spoke very little English so I had to content myself on the little information I had learned from the owners of the hostel in Hualien regarding my future destination. They told me that the village where I was going had been destroyed by the typhoon four years ago and suggested that I may be able to help them plant trees, build structures or work with computers.
We arrived in the village in the late afternoon and the woman showed me to a bamboo house where I was to sleep. She showed me around the facilities of the building neighboring my abode and then bid me good night. I was left wondering and wanting. What am I doing here? Is there anything to see or do in this village? Does anyone speak English? Resolved to make the most of it however, I took a walk around and explored the tiny village which couldn't have been more then eight square blocks.
Two things stood out to me: the preponderance of murals and the abundance of running water. Many walls on both the city streets and peoples homes were decorated with beautifully painted murals. Running taps seemed to be everywhere. In gardens, alongside the road, besides peoples houses. It seemed as though there was water coming from everywhere I looked and no source of the fluid had any means of making it stop.
Finding nothing to do and receiving interesting stairs from the locals, I went back to my hut and hunkered down for the night. It was nice of them to give me my own traditional house, but it was a little funny considering that everyone else in the village lived in more modern, though in no way immodest or ostentatious, concrete walled dwellings. I slept poorly and was awoken early by the voices of men working outside my building. Three men and a lad of 18 were fastening tarps above bamboo scaffolding in preparation for a market which was to take place outside my hut the following day. I helped the men, using my significant height advantage to fasten metal ties overhead without the aide of a ladder.
After about an hour, the job was complete and we went to sit in the shade and refresh ourselves with paolyta, a sweet local alcoholic beverage which we mixed with canned milk. After a sufficiently long rest the woman who had brought me to the village came to beckon us back to work. A whole pallet of rice needed to be moved into the storehouse and we quickly accomplished the task. Having apparently completed all the work for the day the men invited me to come drink and sing karaoke.
The woman who had the karaoke machine at her house wasn't home when we arrived so the men called her and she quickly came back. A thick book was placed in front of me with a small section devoted to random old English songs. Unfortunately the machine didn't have any of the English songs so the men took turns singing songs in Chinese. Around noon the proprietor of the machine showed up and told us that we had to stop because people were trying to sleep.
I should have mentioned that the 18 year old guy spoke some English and that was primarily how I was getting by. After we got cut off from karaoke, he asked if I wanted to go swimming in the jungle and of course I said yes. We hopped on his scooter and drove down a path leading up into the mountains. It was like the Singapore zingiberales exhibit. Lining the path were birds of paradise, lobster claws, gingers andJESUSCHRISTLOOKATTHESIZEOFTHATSPIDER! It was a jungle to be sure.
After a refreshing dip in a spring fed mountain stream we returned to the village and ate some dinner. Following the meal we went to the towns recreation center which consisted of a large hanger with a full basketball court inside. We played some half-court bball with some boys from the village. The whole time we were playing, three young boys danced around center court eagerly trying to swat down a massive bug that was attracted to the lights. They succeeded on many occasions, after which they would toss the bug back into the air. I tried to get them to hold onto it long enough for me to get a look but they didn't seem to understand what I was asking and instead brought me a shoe box full of live rhinoceros beetles.
When the games were over I went to go sit on the sidelines, at which point my young friend pointed to the disc that was protruding from my satchel. I took it out and motioned what it was used for. He seemed intrigued but uninterested in trying it. The other boys however, were very interested to give it a go. Once again we returned to the basketball court, but this time with a disc instead of a ball. I'm always impressed by how naturally some of these kids seem to be able to throw a frisbee. One of the boys that was on my basketball team was a pro at it.
Once everyone had had their fill, my 18 year old friend brought me back to his house so that I could shower before bed. The shower was like the type I used in more remote places in Indonesia, which is to say a bucket which you scoop water out of a basin with. This basin was constantly overflowing due to the stream of water running into it which my friend said was coming from the mountains. Showering with me that evening was a fair sized praying mantis which was busy cleaning its legs as I cleaned mine.
The next morning the market which I had helped set up for the previous day, took place outside my hut. There was traditional food, traditional crafts and traditional dances. The dances were segregated by gender and led by the village mayor, a woman whom I had seen leading dance practice in the recreation center the evening prior. During the womens dances the town gay guy joined in and no one seemed to notice. When the dances were over I was perusing the craft-work when I heard a voice from behind me ask something like: "Can I assist you?". It always catches me off guard when I hear such good English in a place where I wasn't expecting to hear any English at all. I turned around and saw a tall, comparatively light skinned, thin lady. She was an odd sight in the village since everyone was dark, short, and most of the men were overweight.
She was also a man. It turned out that that village had at least one lesbian, gay guy, transvestite and post-op transsexual, all of which are completely accepted and treated as an equal member of their preferred gender. It was a very refreshing thing for me to witness, as the places in Asia where I had been most recently were very homophobic. I hung close around the ladyboy for the rest of my time in the village, at least partially because she spoke English so well. Before the market closed she preformed a more modern dance. It was interesting to see a man dressed like a woman dressed like a man dancing like a woman.
When the market was over, all the young people went to the swimming hole in the jungle and invited me to join them. There was a 4 meter/12 foot waterfall which me and a couple other boys jumped off of. After a couple hours of swimming, bathing and playing tag, we got out of the water and ate some soup which a girl had been cooking over a fire on the shore. Right as we were finishing the soup, two more kids showed up with several bags of meat. Apparently they had arranged a special BBQ just for me. As the meat cooked we watched multiple groups of monkeys jump through the trees immediately on the opposite side of the river from us.
The BBQ was just a snack and when the sun went down we returned to the village where they had prepared a traditional dinner for me. It was a relatively bland rice porridge but they had fish and spicy tofu to add to it. After dinner we all sat around drinking—first beer, then wine, then beer mixed with wine, then beer mixed with paolyta, then some awful rice wine. I also tried betel nut, which I figured it was high time I try. Eventually an acoustic guitar was produced and the villagers sang songs in Chinese or their aboriginal language, and hummed the occasional American pop song which they would always invite me to sing.
The next morning it was time for me to leave and my 18 year old friend woke up early and gave me a ride to the train station. Though I had only spent a few days in the village I felt sad to leave. Everyone had been so incredibly nice to me. Very few of the people in the village had any money, partially owing to the fact that there were no jobs. While walking under the stars with the ladyboy, she told me how half the village had been washed away in just a couple hours and how since then everyone had been working together to rebuild it. Before I left, my young friends mother—who said I was the first American she'd ever seen—gave me a charm. I left my friend with the final frisbee which I had brought from home.
I'm so glad that I had that experience in the aboriginal village in Taiwan. It was great to see how they live compared to the rest of the Taiwanese population. It was also interesting to juxtapose them with other indigenous people in the area, as well as the indigenous people back home. It's amazing how similar they all are and how many of the same problems they're all facing, especially having to do with the modern societies around them. Before I left, everyone asked me when I'd be back and I told them I didn't know, but I can say for sure that I'd love to return some time in my life.
It's rare that I know exactly where I'm going much before I get there, but it just so happens that I have the next month or so planned out. In a couple days I fly to Hong Kong where I'm playing in another frisbee tournament and hopefully getting a new Chinese visa. Then I'll be making my way across the mainland to Beijing to meet up with a friend at the end of June. We'll be traveling in Inner Mongolia and/or Mongolia itself and then I'll be heading into Mongolia for an indefinite amount of time. I'm telling you all of this because if you happen to have any advice for me or plan to be traveling in the area and want to meet up, I'd love to know about it.Soundtrack: Waka Waka (Esto Es Africa) - Shakira