By Mary Weathers
The Wild East
As soon as I had secured myself a teaching position in Taipei, I decided to take a couple months off to tour the Island that is Taiwan. I needed to see more of the country; I had certainly not fallen head over heels in love with the filthy city. I was afraid that if I stayed in the city and went straight into working I would lose interest, which was also my nerve, and would fly right back to Canada. Am I ever happy I decided to get out and sniff a butt or two, because my travels certainly gave me a reason to stay a little longer.
I had a rough idea of where I wanted to travel and what I wanted to do. I knew three things for certain: I was going to couchsurf for my first time, I was going to hitchhike for my first time, and I was going to get myself to Orchid Island if I had to swim there.
Not yet having enough confidence in my thumbs, I began my journey by bus down the West Coast, to Tainan. The panorama was farmland, rice fields, and smoggy city sights. It felt good to be in motion. Tainan was originally where I had wanted to teach. The old capital of Taiwan, it seemed, would be the perfect place to learn about the country’s history and religious practices. Looking back I’m happy I changed my mind and decided to reside in Taipei, for Taipei is the perfect blur of contemporary society and old tradition. It is this interaction between opposing aspects of a society that interests me most. Anyhow, I wanted to at least visit Tainan, see the Dutch colonial forts, visit the old Taoist and Confucian temples, and walk down fortunetellers’ alley.
Tainan would also be where I would have my first couchsurfing experience. I had arranged to stay with two Parisians who were living in Tainan, studying biology at the University. A friend from Canada who had lived in Holland as an au pair told me about couchsurfing and I must say when she first told me about the website I thought she was an absolute idiot, since I tend to have a dark mistrust for technology. I’m beginning to get over it but at that time I still thought the internet was for pedophiles and perverts. I did my best to maintain an open mind as she went through the logistics of the couchsurfing operation, explaining it was a network of travelers helping out other travelers. She basically told me to grow up and get with the times, so I did.
Jay and Dan were kind enough to meet me at the train station and took me back to their rather large apartment. They told me that I was the first to come and that there would be three more couchsurfers to arrive later in the day, but that since I was a girl I could have the bedroom to myself. The others could sleep on the couches and floor of the living room. These weren’t creepy peevers but were true gentlemen. It was a relief my friend hadn’t failed me.
And so we sat in their living room sharing Taiwanese sugar snacks as the other couchsurfers arrived. Jay was a shy and quiet type, very sincere with dark features and an innocent smile. He had a girlfriend back in France whom he adored. Dan looked like a cartoon. He had a French he he he hon hon hon laugh and you could do a ski jump off his nose. He was boisterous and laughed gregariously at his own awkward jokes. He was single and adored himself.
Two big men arrived, one Italian the other a Taiwanese. They had also met on the couchsurfing website. The Taiwanese man was taking the Italian on a tour around the island. The Italian was here taking pictures of rare indigenous Taiwanese birds. They were both quiet and intense people.
Next came in a saxophonist from Alabama. He was much younger looking because he had a tall skinny frame and a baby face. I took a liking to him instantly. He was calm and intelligent. We spoke about literature and when we parted ways he left me with a copy of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” which was very kind of him. So this would be my first couchsurfing experience; me in a two bedroom apartment in Tainan with five strange men. If my father could only see me now.
The first night spent in Tainan the French guys invited us all out for a night on the town. They told us that there were only two clubs in Tainan and that they’d take us to the best. Alabama and I decided to tag along, but the other two men stayed behind because they had to be up at four in the morning to take a picture of some rare beach bird. When we entered the club we were attacked by lights, laser beams, bubbles, mist makers, and disco balls. The worst affront was the terrible Fifty Cent rap music that was blaring from muzzled speakers. All the Taiwanese party-hoppers and show-stoppers were up near the front going wild over something. When I looked over I discovered there was a young man up on stage, lip synching the words to Fifty Cent. All his cronies were cheering him on. Karaoke in Asia was offensive enough, but this was just shameful. As the drinks were two for one, I ran to the bar and ordered two vodka crans. They weren’t nearly strong enough. I ordered two more, this time doubles. I was going to need a lot of booze to get through the night, and kept drinking, but to no avail. After realizing I was bleeding my wallet dry without recourse I decided to give up and commit myself to people-watching.
Looking around that place I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many fake eyelashes or pleather dresses, not even last week when my best pal “Faye” and I went cruising for hos and hobos for a photo session behind Snake Alley in Taipei. The most interesting character to observe was certainly Dan. He acted like some sort of gigolo, perusing the ladies and busting out dance moves that haven’t been out of the closet since the 1980’s.
When the boys told me it was time to head back at around five in the morning I was relieved. I wanted sleep. Dan had managed to swindle a young Taiwanese lady out of the bar and into our taxi. She was heavily made up, had pockmarks on her cheeks, and was about the size of a pixie. I tried to be friendly with her, but my efforts proved to be fruitless for she spoke absolutely no English. How Dan had managed to get her to bed I do not know for he certainly couldn’t speak any Chinese. That night I wondered what sex would be like with someone you could not verbally communicate with. Probably very exciting; probably potentially very, very awkward.
The next morning I woke up to Dan cussing and freaking out over the fact that his playmate had taken a shit in his private bathroom and had left used tissue in the bin, instead of flushing it down the toilet. He was unforgiving of cultural differences and perhaps unaware of Taiwan’s poor sewage system. He was very upset; however, it didn’t put him off completely, for he called her later that day to join us at the Dirty Roger for a beer.
The Dirty Roger was more my style of place; all the walls were completely lined in records and the barstools were scooter seats. Roger would play whatever song you wanted to hear. The bar had lots of character and so did he. When the boys invited me out for another night of dancing, I politely declined the invitation but committed myself to reading up on Taiwan history late into the night.
The next bit of my time in Tainan was spent being a tourist. I got to know the goddess of the sea by way of the many shrines dedicated to her honor in Kaiji Tianhou Temple, the oldest of the Mazu temples. In Diantianhou, the official Mazu temple, I read about how captain ShiLang dedicated this place to the sea goddess he believed had won him the battle against Ning Jing. Mazu is a very important and perhaps the most popular folk god in Taiwan. Her function can be compared to that of a lighthouse beckoning those lost at sea to a safe haven of solid ground. Being an island, discovered by seafarers, once run by pirates, and inhabited by immigrants from mainland China who needed to cross the treacherous Strait, it is easy to understand how Mazu became such a popular figure here.
I got a bitter taste in my mouth from gazing at Guanpi’s hateful expression in the Official God of War temple. A Taiwanese I bothered on the street told me that this was a very important temple to gangsters and the police. They come here to pray for strength and loyalty, he told me. At the time I thought the image of these opposing characters worshiping at the same temple was a beautiful thing. I had not been living in Taiwan for long, and this was before I realized that gangsters and police here are often one and the same thing.
By the end of the day I saw everything I had come to see, so when the Italian and Taiwanese told me they were heading to Kaohsiung the next morning, I asked if I could hitch a ride. Kaohsiung would be my second couchsurfing experience and it would be of an entirely different nature. I had arranged to stay with a twenty-something Taiwanese girl named Pita. She was stunningly beautiful and proved to be one of the sweetest and most modest of people. She met me at the MRT stop. As we walked to her apartment she asked me if I was hungry or needed anything from the shop before we went to her home. She would remain very conscious of my well-being throughout the duration of my stay at her home. She told me that this was her first time doing couchsurfing; her new husband, a Westerner, had set up an account for her. They were about to do some traveling in Europe and she wanted to gain some practice meeting people in this manner before she became a guest herself in a foreign land.
She told me that she lived with her sister but not to worry because her sister couldn’t speak any English so that I wouldn’t have to converse with her. This reassurance I found odd. Once we arrived to her apartment, her sister and her sister’s dog followed. Her sister was very socially awkward. She was very aware and unhappy about my presence and very attached to her disgusting little skin-colored dog. She was perhaps socially anxious because of insecurity from a serious injury. A chunk of her face was missing, from a scooter accident, Pita later told me. The overall atmosphere of their apartment made me uncomfortable and I found it very unappealing that the girls let the dog pee in the shower of the bathroom inside the apartment but Pita was so kind and gracious it put me at ease.
The next morning when I woke up Pita was already dressed and showered. She greeted me with a glass of water and asked me what I wanted to do with my day. I told her I would love to do a hike up Monkey Mountain so I could catch a glimpse of the formosan macaque. “Catch a glimpse” — little did I know the mountain is littered with these vicious little beasts. She said she didn’t have any work or anything to do and that she’d love to accompany me. So we went were attacked by a gang of monkeys protecting a baby left behind on the path. The experience brought us closer together. After the hike, we were starving and Pita took me out to a Thai resturant. During dinner she asked me what else would I like to do in Kaohsiung. I told her I’d like to visit the Fo Guang Shan monastery. Pita told me her parents often visited there and that perhaps they would like to take us to go tomorrow in their car. When we got back to the apartment she wasted no time in phoning her parents and the next day was arranged.
That day I woke up feeling blissfully happy and alive. We went down to the car park to meet her parents. Her father greeted me first. I went to give him a hug but he wasn’t a hugging man. He gave me his hand instead, and quickly shuffled his wife over to make my acquaintance. I was embarrassed. Earlier that morning Pita had debriefed me. She told me neither of her parent’s spoke any English but that if anyone asked I was an old friend she had met during her travels in America. Her parents wouldn’t approve of couchsurfing. I could relate. During the car ride her parents drilled me with questions, Pita serving as our translator. I felt uncomfortable lying to these people but I knew it was necessary and so did. After a game of fifty questions they deemed me adequate and relaxed; I could finally relax, too.
The rest of the day was absolutely perfect and I got a chance to experience Taiwanese hospitality to its utmost. Pita’s parents took me to Fo Guan Shan where we walked around the beautiful golden Buddhas. There her father bought a calligraphy set from the rather ritzy gift shop; apparently he is quite the gifted penman. They offered to take me to the monastery where they pray, the I Kuan Toa Golden temple. They are not kidding when they called it Golden. You can see this place beaming from the freeway. It’s blinding. There the old Taiwanese couple took a nap underneath a pagoda, while Pita and I giggled at the stone child Buddha statues showing off their bottoms.
I Kuan Toa, I would later read was a new religious movement that had originated in China in the twentieth century, incorporating elements of Daoism, Confucianism, and Chinese Buddhism. “I Kuan” means penetrating with the one. “Tao” means the way. The way to penetrating with the one. Sound a bit kinky? Not at all. Practitioners follow the 5 ethics and 8 virtues from Confucianism, participate in chanting, and perform daily prayers.
Pita’s parents then took me to the traditional Hakka village where the mother grew up. We went to see an umbrella craftsman and an old tobacco factory. Then, just when I thought I was going to keel over from too much kindness they asked Pita and me if we would like to have dinner with them. Knowing I was a vegetarian, they took us to a fancy veggie buffet in Kaohsiung, where they encouraged me to eat until I felt like I was going to explode. They of course refused to let me pay for dinner. On our walk back to the car we ran into one of the mother’s friends practicing Tai chi in the park. Her friend could speak English and encouraged me to join in on the exercise. This is how I learnt to count to ten in Chinese. I thanked Pita’s parents profusely on the way home, probably enough times to make us all feel rather uncomfortable.
And that night when we got back to Pita’s apartment I told her about my dilemma: Lanyu.
Before I had made my decision to come to do a year abroad teaching in Taiwan, I had read about Orchid Island. Descriptions of such a place left my skin tingling: an isolated island inhabited by the Tao people, an egalitarian tribe of people who had very much maintained their traditional way of living because of their isolation. I had a keen interest in indigenous culture and issues ever since I had taken a course in University on Aboriginal Health and Healing. I had long ago decided that Orchid Island was the first place I wanted to visit in Taiwan. I told Pita about my dream, and she thought it was wonderful. She had never been to Orchid Island and didn’t even know any Taiwanese that had. Most people she said prefer Green Island for its convenience. This made me want to go even more, as it felt I was getting far off the beaten track.
I told her my problem was this: I would need to take a train to Taitung, then a taxi to either the ferry or the airport, then a plane or boat to the Island. I knew that the planes were unpredictable because they were small, and the passage to Lanyu was often too windy for landing. I knew the boats were more reliable; however, I couldn’t find any information in English online. I had tried phoning the tourist information center in Taitung but no one working there spoke any English.
Pita quickly went to work. She got online, found the train schedule and tried to book me a ticket to Taitung; no seats available (it was a long weekend). “Not to worry,” she said, “I’ll phone my father. He works for the train company.” I don’t know how her father managed to do it, but he got me a seat and of course refused to let me pay for my own ticket. Pita called the tourist office and arranged for a driver to meet me at the train station to take me to the ferry port where she had reserved me a ticket. I had to memorize my name written in Chinese to identify my driver. I was so excited and so thankful towards Pita and her family for putting the whole trip together.
Looking through my guidebook, I found a place to stay on Lanyu, a homestay run by the Presbyterian minister of the Island, perhaps the only person who spoke fluent English. I called him and booked a bed. Having read about how remote this island was I was unnecessarily fearful about my survival. It seemed best to prepare myself for the worst-case scenario, which included me not being able to find the homestay; but my greatest fear was not being able to find adequate food. In preparation, I stocked up on muffins, nutra bars, peanut butter and crackers, nuts and dried fruits. Food has always been my biggest and number one concern while traveling. I suppose I didn’t want to risk dying from starvation in this “wild” place.
Having memorized my name written in Chinese I located my driver without a problem and he sped me to the ferry port. Locating my boat was another story. No one at the port seemed to speak any English so I kept showing different people my boarding pass and kept getting shuffled from one side of the docks to the other. Finally as my boat was just about ready to leave a port policeman came and scooped me up on his motoche and took me to the other side where it was boarding. Perhaps the workers were having a laugh at me walking back and forth from dock to dock. I don’t know why it was so difficult.
The boat was small and filthy. I made the stupid mistake of sitting in front where the ride is bumpiest. It made me cringe to see puke bags attached to the backs of the chairs for passenger convenience. I think that the horrific boat ride over is the number one reason most people do not go to Orchid Island. It truly is awful. I had the terrible misfortune of sitting next to a stringbean older Taiwanese man. He puked violently the whole way across the sea, missing his bag every time and wailing like a small child the whole way there, ayeeeeuuuuhhhh! I closed my eyes and blared hard rock music as loud as my headphones would allow, but every time a song changed it was just enough time to let in a scream and a gag through my headphones.
When the boat landed I could barely stand up. The sea breeze slapped me in the face to revive me. The Island was a beautiful green gem. I looked the situation over and saw some men renting scooters by the dock. Although I had never driven a scooter before, I thought this would be my best shot to get to where needed to be. I gave them some money and hopped onto my scoot. I turned it on and immediately jetted off directly towards the ocean. I managed to stop the machine right before it hit the rocks by pulling out the keys. The two men who had rented me the scooter were screaming at me in Chinese, running up to meet me. I felt like crying. They were going to take the scooter back when they found out I hadn’t a license, and then I’d be up shits creek without a paddle. But all they really wanted was to lend me a helmet and then they sent me on my way. I couldn’t help but laugh at that.
A Taiwanese couple had been watching my struggle, and they were the ones to come to my rescue. The boy gave me a quick scooter lesson, while the girl phoned the minister to get directions to where I was staying. They took me to a gas station, paid for my gas, then led me all the way to the minister’s home, stopping to take some pictures on the way. I was relieved to get there. The homestay was immaculate. I walked in the door and there were all these woodcarvings and beautiful pictures in the hallway. The minister was a proud and handsome Tao man. This surprised me. I was expecting an old, decrepit white man for some or other reason.
Originally, I was very nervous to stay with a Presbyterian minister. Being a student of world religion and a Canadian I have my misgivings about the Church and their questionable place within indigenous communities. It was later I learnt the relationship between the Church and indigenous Taiwanese is different than the relationship between the Church and the indigenous people living in my part of Canada. The power structures differ. The Taiwanese people themselves seem to have control within the Church organization and many Church leaders in Taiwan are indeed indigenous Taiwanese. Anyhow, there was no need to be nervous as the laoban, (‘the boss”) as we called him, and his wife, were so kind and gracious. I shared dinner with them on a few occasions and during these dinners the laoban and I had lengthy discussions about life on the Island.
Speaking with this man about his heritage and about Jesus I realized that he was not first a Christian and second a Tao; nor was he first a Tao man and second a Christian. His faith and his heritage were not in competition with one another. This I found quite bizarre and remarkable. He told me stories about some of the things the Church had done for his people, one of them being the Christians put a stop to the killing of twins. It was a long-held belief among the Tao that with the birth of twins one would end up evil; therefore one needed to be put to death.
He also told me about how the Church helped facilitate protests on behalf of the Toa people when martial law in Taiwan was lifted in 1987. These protests were an outcry against the disgusting lies and hideous actions of the government-owned Taipower company, which was shipping barrels of nuclear waste onto the beautiful Orchid Island. The Church was instrumental in gaining international attention for this huge neglect of environmental and humanitarian considerations.
When I asked the minister about the ways life had changed on the Island, he looked me in the eyes and said “many.” When I asked him about the future of the island he shook his head. He said that there are more and more tourists who come to Lanyu each year, more construction, and more motorcars. He said the young people “don’t want to live here anymore. They’re off in the city chasing big dreams.”
I felt remorseful for being there and contributing to the change, but guiltily I also felt a twinge of joy at the fact that I got to see the Island before it gets too different. I got a glimpse of the few traditional semi-underground homes still intact before they too perhaps get bulldozed into the ground and replaced with less adequate Chinese-style structures. I got to see men fishing in their intricately carved, red, white and black boats before they become only a novelty in the tourist shops. I felt blessed.
My time on Orchid Island was incredible. I was visiting during a long weekend so it was busier than usual. Still you could scoot around the Island for an hour and not encounter another soul — though you would have to dodge several wild goats. This is how most of my time was spent on the Island, riding the wind on my scooter, ’round and ’round the island’s one road. I’d stop to go for a swim or sleep on a rock, or read my book when I felt like it.
Often when I went through the villages I would be called over by families. They were shocked to see a lone white woman circling the island, turbo-speed, in a bikini top and army shorts. They wanted me to come over and try their “fly fish” and fish eggs. It was flying fish season, so boney fish were hanging outdoors for every household, covered in salt. I was also told not to touch the boats because it was fishing time and I was a woman, so it would be bad luck. The men wanted me to drink their rum and chew their beetlenut. They thought it was hilarious when I spit out the juice and my cheeks would turn red. It’s a shame I don’t know any Chinese and couldn’t ask them more questions. Still they made for amiable drinking partners, the minister’s boisterous older brother being the best drinker of them all.
I was lucky enough to have translators with me for some of the time I was on the island. Two young Taiwanese boys were also staying with the minister and invited me out to go on a couple adventures. We went snorkeling together, and a midnight tour of the forest. The guide pointed out the family markings on trees and we searched for the infamous owl, indigenous only to that small island. Apparently, it is a bad omen if he lands on your house for this means you’re being haunted by an evil spirit. We also shared many meals together; I hadn’t a need for all the preserves I brought with me after all.
I was in tears when I had to leave Orchid Island. It continues to be a very magical place in spite of the troubles it has had to overcome and the problems it now faces.
After Orchid Island, I bitterly spent a few nights at a hotel in Taitung. I couldn’t find any couchsurfers or hostels, but it felt great anyway, to have checked two things off my ‘to do’ list. I had successfully couchsurfed and had somehow (much thanks to Pita) gotten myself to Orchid Island and back, in one piece. I had one check left to make: to hitchhike.
Having read some of the Beat Generation literature, including of course Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and also, having friends who have accomplished brilliant things by way of thumb I have always wanted to hitchhike. I have always wanted to feel what it’s like to be at the mercy of strangers, to feel the freedom of the open road.
However, being a small, blonde female, I have reserved my hitchhiking adventures for a place that feels moderately safe. Taiwan was a good bet.
I had gotten a highway map from my hotel clerk and was sitting in the lobby trying to map out my best plan of attack. I knew for certain I wanted to thumb it all the way down Highway 11, so that I could gaze at the coast and stop for a swim in the ocean when my heart so desired. I also knew for certain I wanted to stop in Hualien and spend a few days acting as tourist before getting back to Taipei to settle into my apartment in the city.
What I didn’t know was at what point to start. While I was contemplating my next move a forty-year-old Japanese man named Pan came up to make my acquaintance. He was in Taiwan for a holiday; Taiwan, he told me, was his ultimate vacation destination. It was hot, tropical, and surrounded by ocean. He asked me if I wanted to go for a bike ride. I obliged.
We biked along the forest park and ended up near the ocean. As we stopped to park ourselves on the beach to watch a family fish for crabs, I told him about my plan. He thought I was crazy. He renounced my idea as idiotic, but continued to ask me questions about it.
“Why would you hitchhike when the trains here are so cheap?” He asked, puzzled. It’s not about the free ride I told him.
“What’s it about then?” he asked me.
“The freedom of the free ride. No tickets. No schedule. No worries.”
After he questioned me a little further, he asked me if he could come along. He had decided that hitchhiking was something he should try to do before he dies. Why the hell not, I told him.
Actually, having Pan tag along proved to be quite useful mainly because he could speak and write Japanese. Many of the older Taiwanese men can speak Japanese because they were forced to learn it at school during the Japanese colonial era. Japanese and Chinese characters are very similar, and so we could also communicate with those who could not understand spoken Japanese through writing. The first driver who picked us up only took us about an hour up the number 11 highway but he was awesome.
Practicing essential Chinese in the back seat I was rehearsing the word for beer, “Pijio.” Pan assisting me in mastering the correct pronunciation. Our driver took this as a demand that we wanted beer and pulled over to order us two each. I felt guilty but gulped happily in the back seat, finishing my two and one of Pan’s beers. When he let us off the road I had just enough of a buzz on to want to dive right into the ocean. I changed into my bathing suit and dove right in. The waves were scary so I didn’t stray too far from the beach’s sand.
Our next driver would be an older Taiwanese man who could speak Japanese. He and Pan chatted while I gazed out the window at the breathtaking scenery. The sky and ocean on the East Coast are endless. Where they meet I’ll never know. The cliffs were daring as they plummeted right to the bottom of the abyss.
This man insisted on making a pit stop to pick us up some nuts and root beer. He also served as tour guide and took us to see the many shrines at the Cave of the Eight Immortals. When we finally ended up in Hualien and our driver let us off at the tip of the city, Pan explained to me that he had driven two hours out of his way and was turning around to drive the two hours back to his home and family. I hoped he had enjoyed himself as well, and that we weren’t too much a burden or inconvenience to him.
I spent five days in Hualien tagging along with tourists to the various sites and sitting in coffee shops, reading. Pan headed over to the West Coast to spend some time at a fishing village I had never heard of and can’t remember the name. It was a nice bit of down time and reflection for me before heading back to the city. When I got back to the concrete jungle that is Taipei, I felt much better about my place in this new foreign country.
There is no way my trip around the Island could have gone better if I’d had planned it. Everything works out perfectly when you have no expectations. My trip had made me feel so much better about living far away from home. The Taiwanese people had shown me an unbiased human kindness and compassion that I had never experienced before from strangers. I could call this country home, at least for a little while.