A PERSONAL JOURNEY: PART 1
23.05.2010 - 31.05.2010
Drug trafficking is punishable by death in R.O.C, read the sign. OK, that set the tone straight from the blocks as I navigated my way towards arrivals in Taoyuan airport. I was on a side-trip to Taiwan, and having landed from Hong Kong via China Airlines, I was meeting a special person from a memory four months old. On the backwaters of Kerala, Southern India, Yishan had become one of those people that you insist will not escape your embracing friendship due to their uniqueness and intriguing personality. And somehow, I had been lucky enough to capture her interest sufficiently for her to enthusiastically plan a two-week trip around her home country for the both of us. Since us meeting in Kerala, Yishan continued her adventures through the rest of India and now lived modestly with her parents, calmly in search of her calling and quietly dreaming of more unfettered travel.
I walked out into arrivals. My eyes scanned the small crowd; I saw someone that vaguely matched my recollection of Yishan's face. At that moment- several people behind- a call and a wave caught my eye; it was her. I first noticed the wide-eyes, eyes that didn't seem to belong to someone of Chinese origin. Then the top, the same faux crocodile-skin patterned top she had worn on that day in Kerala. A length of string used as a bandanna across her forehead to keep her hair back, and lastly the shorts. Slim, shapely, beautifully toned legs stretched down from the frayed hem of her small denim shorts and immediately I knew I'd have to put on my mature-face so as not to stare like a gawking animal in need of castration. I could see she was with someone, but expecting to see her Father I was confused that the person she was accompanied by was female. I doubted myself against all reasonable comprehension that the person was not just a very feminine man. With that thought, I walked the anxious walk between making first eye contact and navigating the crowds for first physical contact; conscious of myself, I embraced her in a friendly hug. When I heard her voice again, I realised it had lost none of its charm. Her high-pitched yet soft vocal, blended with an off-beat rhythm of speech that was both cute and familiar made me smile. Every tone in that voice was a representation of the polite, the pacifistic, the appeasing. Her eyes were gentle, her white-toothed smile welcoming and her body language with its hint of the initially unsure was alluring and hugely mesmeric. 'I thought I'd lost you, I was worried. This is my friend,' she said pointing to the stranger, 'err, we just met now at the airport.' I smiled and shook her hand slightly awkwardly; you're not going in for a hug are you? I thought, detecting the slightest lean forward. The luggage strapped to my front and back was a sufficient exemption from the obligation. You see, in usual Yishan style, while asking around about my flight's arrival time, she had made a friend with the stranger, in much the same way my eldest Sister would bring home a stray dog. Now, we three would be taking a lift with her Father, who was waiting ten minutes away for the call. 'Thank you for coming to Taiwan,' Yishan said with a smile that resonated sweet gestures; her eyes gleaming with anticipation. 'Thank you for meeting me and planning everything for us, I'm happy to be here.' I replied.
Outside, we waited for the car to arrive, and while looking out for her Father, Yishan's in-built politeness ensured she asked about my well-being as she scanned the darkness for first sight of her Dad's Honda. The fact she didn't know the make of her own Father's car was a clue to how far from materialistic she was- something I would later learn and learn to love about her as a pure soul. She offered to take my large backpack several times and placed a hand on it out of sympathy for my back, looking at me wide-eyed in a caring show of compassion. I appreciated her concern for me and while welcoming her attention, I assured her I was fine with the load. Consideration was a strong plus-point for me; I was pleased to see that Yishan was not just a façade of care and attention.
The car pulled-up and we scrambled our luggage into the Honda saloon, I exchanged polite nods with Mr. Lee and with a shuffle and a moment of unshared language we were on our way.
'Thank you Mr. Lee,' I said, with a raised hand, slightly conscious that I was leaving with his daughter as Yishan and I walked off towards the train station entrance. We weren't wasting any time getting this trip under way, heading South on the overnight train to Chishang on the East coast of Taiwan. There, we would spend a night at Yishan's Grandparent's. We slumped our bags down on the platform and waited on the silent night for the arrival of our carriage. As we sat and smiled at each other, I felt positive about our trip and all I wanted to do was disappear over the horizon. A couple of sleeping pills later and we were both dozy on the train, and under the cover of my hoodie, we fell asleep to the gentle rock of the train's path.
We arrived minutes after full sunrise. Chishang station's open design showed off its flanking hill views; the distant peaks faded in morning sunlight and complete with low-slung clouds. Inhaling a lung-full of crisp country air Yishan lifted her face towards the sky, 'I love the air here, it's so fresh.' I strained my eyes to adjust to the new day. 'So where do your Grandparents live?'
'It's close, not far from here.'
'OK.' After roughly ten seconds of walking from the small station exit, Yishan spoke up. 'It's my Mum.' And leaning from the front gate entrance of a house not thirty yards from the station was a woman, tall and white-skinned. 'Wow, the house really isn't far from the station.' If you wanted tickets you could probably shout for them from here. Yishan's Mother was smartly dressed. She wore her hair in a bob, inside a hair net, her fringe sprayed up like a wave above attentive eyes; she smiled and spoke only in Mandarin or Taiwanese, a language I didn't even know existed. The house was modest. It had light wood-framed sliding doors with mosquito mesh; the many structural gaps and off-balance lines spoke of a simple construction method. I was however very grateful for the free stay and the hospitality which would keep us fed and comfortable. I set my things down in my room, perched on the side of the bed and breathed a preparatory sigh to take in the days ahead. Not wanting to appear rude, but instead polite and agreeable, was a little difficult at first, such was the thickness in the air, thickness of expectation. I could say hello and thank you, that was it. So Yishan acted as translator. 'Do you want to rest for a while?' asked Yishan. It was still early. 'Yeah, maybe, is that OK?'
Minutes later- 'There's food, we're going to eat. Are you hungry?'
'Not really, it's still early. Do you want me to come out and join you?'
'Would be good.'
'OK.' I left my things in the room and sat at the round table in the kitchen where Mrs. Lee had laid out various bowls of food for us to serve ourselves. Yishan fetched me some rice, placing it in the small bowl and making sure I had some chopsticks to eat with. Serving me with rice was one of the meek gestures that came to represent Yishan's grace and sense of correctness towards me and I appreciated it humbly.
Chishang itself was a small town, but as with many of Taiwan's towns it had impossibly long streets, heading dead-straight for the horizon. Yishan had planned for us to see some of this region, so we jumped aboard her Grandfather's burbling motorbike and made for Sansiantai, the terrace of the three immortals. The fresh air and coastal scenery, approached by high and winding roads in Taitung county promised much of Taiwan on only my second day. We parked the bike and walked across the eight-arch bridge, which was decorated to resemble the body of a dragon, and led out to a large rocky outcrop with a high peak and waves crashing on its jagged outer rim. Yishan was the type of person who strayed from the normal path in life; unconventional, adventurous and positive. We walked over the sharp ground and climbed rocks to get to the lighthouse steps on the other side, and after the long climb we sat on the top, staring out onto the blue Pacific, breathing the breezy air and doing our best to avoid the hoard of flying beetles that made camp on this island. I was glad to be sharing the sense of freedom with someone. I found the importance of travelling alone was fading slightly as the end of my trip neared. Two months left and I'd probably be home. The satisfaction of accomplishing what I set out to accomplish was hanging like a carrot on a thread and I could smell the familiarity of home to a degree that told me I was nearing the conclusion to a chapter of my life; in the meantime I was happy to be on a rocky hill overlooking the Pacific with great company.
The next day, after taking the train from Chishan to Taitung, Yishan and I hired another motorbike and set out in the pouring rain for Kenting on Taiwan's South coast. By the time we'd arrived, half a day later, we were significantly wetted from head to toe, despite the plastic raincoats. Yishan showed herself to be a surprisingly good little driver of that motorbike, I felt safe with her, as she did with me as I took my turn in riding the way; it was a significant compliment for both parties considering the thrashing rain and wind that hit us during those hours.
For a small island, Taiwan felt lengthy due to its indomitable highways that careered into the distance for hours on end. If it wasn't for the winding cliff roads and my sense of looking out for Yishan I may have been tempted to have a little snooze.
Kenting was a coastal town like any other, it had streets lined with shops and at night a market selling local food, which unfortunately for me consisted largely of seafood and some strange Taiwanese cuisine that neither stoked my appetite or smelled particularly good. There was a selection of good food to be had, but the ambitious diet of the Taiwanese was going to present a challenge for my relatively choosy stomach. When asked what I'd like to eat, I came up against a brick wall. I'd been eating Asian food now for more than four months, but the variety was such that what existed in one country wouldn't necessarily exist in another. Either that, or the dish would have extra ingredients like prawns, squid, stomach or some such detestable add-on. This made it very difficult to give an answer to that very simple question, consequently I tended to look like I wasn't bothered or was weak at making decisions. It was all foreign food to me and I would have eaten anything that didn't contain seafood or weird animal parts, but naming a dish was near impossible. I didn't want to skim the outside of involvement and appear frustratingly nonchalant. Yishan was an adventurous eater. I regretted that I wasn't, and could only hope she wouldn't resent me for it. I never ate those things as a child: chicken's feet, squid's tentacles, kidneys, black jelly eggs or blood cakes. I wanted to please Yishan, but I thought it unnecessary to dig into a plate of chicken's feet to do so, and to be fair, she wouldn't have expected me to, but I knew she'd have been proud of me for trying.
We woke in the empty dorm room of Afei Surf hostel much later than planned. Determined to see as much as possible in this region of Taiwan, we set out in sporadic rain, visiting cliff top viewpoints, deserted stretches of solidly-packed sandy beaches and areas of wind-blasted sandstone rocks that had been moulded by nature into...yes you guessed it: vague animal shapes. The one that slightly resembled a dead pig on its back amused Yishan best of all, and that in itself made the little tour worth it. She saw the positives in everything, but to see her tickled like that made me genuinely happy, and of course the Hong Kong tourists behind us took pictures of everything, whether it looked like a bear, a map of Taiwan or a smiley face or not.
Yishan began the journey riding back to Taitung; I took over for the majority of the route. The sky was dark. Where there were no street lights- and this was often- the road was sublimely blackened also. More than three hours of concentrated riding settled down in my brain, writing the tempo: accelerate out of the corner, keep right, full beam on, spot the apex, brake smoothly, turn in, accelerate out, dipped lights, allow cars to pass. On it went, steady and sure, scooter vs. dark mountain road, light rain and tiredness. I knew the vast drop offs and ocean expanses were there like a looming ghost in a Medieval room, I just couldn't see them.
Happily, we made it back to Taitung on fumes. 'You are a good driver, I feel safe with you,' said Yishan, hugging me from the pillion seat. 'Thank you, you too.' Yen had said the same to me in Dalat, but I never took road safety for granted. Eight years ago, I came off a bike in Thailand. As I slid across the gravel and the other guy's oncoming bike hit me in the face, I was sure I'd suffered a bad facial injury; but by some miracle, it was unscathed. The cuts and grazes on my limbs were a reminder of how easily it could have been so much worse.
In the morning we caught the train back to Chishang and I felt glad to be bringing Yishan back in one piece for her Mother. She didn't know we hired a motorbike for that journey and would have disapproved via bursts of angry Taiwanese in Yishan's direction had she found out we covered so many kilometres on two wheels in torrential rain. Yishan had a way of dealing with her Mother, mostly by switching off, sometimes by responding softly and sometimes by waving limp wrists and hypnotic fingertips of both hands in front of her Mother's face to make light of the situation. I deeply admired all three.
'Hello nice to meet you,' I said, shaking the hand of a new character. Meli- Yishan's friend, had come to the house with her boyfriend Garrett to join Yishan and myself on a two-day road trip. Meli was from Borneo- one of the islands in the Indian Ocean, half of which belonged to Malaysia and the other half to Indonesia. Meli was Indonesian and her dark skin, exotic eyes and fine features lent her an appearance that was clearly not of this island. Garrett was Canadian and had been in Taiwan for ten years; he struck me as the epitome of the term stocky, further accentuated by the denim waistcoat and thick limbs protruding out from all corners. I felt glad to have another native English speaker in the group, and to better that, Garrett taught English in Taipei, was a literature graduate and had a terrific sense of humour to round off his agreeable character. Yishan did make me laugh more than I expected; one of the first things to suffer between two people whose mother tongue is not the same, is an ability to use language in humour. Yishan's English was well enough, but it was her quirky and unpredictable combination of metaphor and philosophy that made her special and held us in conversation beyond its apparent limits.
A void of time passed. The type of void which allows for all the formalities involved in making sure everyone is ready, and that all accoutrements are packed in an appropriately-sized bag. Finally, we set off for a day trip around Chishang and Eastern Taiwan in Uncle Douglas' white BMW. Yishan's Uncle Doug offered to show us around parts of Taiwan that were East of the mountains and smiled a big smile while introducing himself. His tactile shoulder-slapping and cool Uncle demeanour made the day easy and enjoyable. For the first time, I got to see some actual aborigine minorities in Taiwan. My knowledge of Taiwan was shocking, so not only did I not realise they had their own language, I was also surprised to learn that Taiwan had fourteen official minority groups that have a long history on the island. I was encouraged however as Doug spoke with a group of craft-making women on the street side, that he seemed to be learning as much as I was about their lifestyle and language. But if we're talking about amusement, well, that came at the magic road- so named because of the water which runs uphill in a stone gutter, seeming to defy gravity. A group of Japanese tourists disembarked from their time machine and gazed at the freak occurrence. Shutter-clicks and gasping ensued as they questioned the very nature of science from beneath their nondescript, white baseball caps. In reality however, the channel just looks like it is pointing uphill because the whole road is sloping in the other direction. The channel is actually sloping downhill, but to a far lesser degree than the road it is on. I'll never know if they figured that out, but it was fun watching them question life in those few moments. Click-click.
After another civilised Taiwanese train journey, the four of us disembarked at Hualien and picked up a couple of scooters. Yishan and I headed for Hostel Formosa, a comfortable place with characterful, personalised décor and creaky metal bunk-beds, and Meli and Garrett went for a more up-market hotel. If it wasn't for the fact that I met Yishan under the same budget backpacker circumstances in India then I'd have been a little embarrassed. Yishan beamed with glee as she found every detail of the modest and worn décor to be wildly exciting. 'If I had a house I'd like that hanging lamp, and that chair, and that...' One of our little silences ensued as I racked my brains to decode what she was referring to. 'Books?'
'Yeah books, I like those books.' She continued to look around. 'And I like that mat, what about the table, do you like the table?' she asked me. It was a small wooden rectangular coffee table with a painted but worn and scraped surface. 'Yeah, sure, I like the old and sometimes the new as well.' She was so positive about everything, it was easy to objectify how she could be so complimentary about my writing skills; it was an endearing quality.
Out on the open road, one of those endlessly long Taiwanese roads with continually flashing amber lights and dedicated motorcycle lanes, we headed for Taroko National Park, a series of deep gorges and high mountain passes which belied the size of this small island by the enormity of its topographical features. Inside the national park, the visitor centre provided us with all the free maps we could ever wish to decipher. I walked back to the bike in the car park and after a moment or two I heard a revving engine and caught sight of Meli surging forward on the scooter, legs splayed-out as she clung to the handlebars in total desperation, revving the engine even harder and knocking over three scooters one-by-one like dominoes. The three of us looked in utter disbelief as she seemed to be speeding up, heading straight for an oncoming coach, which had just begun to pull out of a parking space. Even worse, she was also heading for the crest of a hill which we could not see over the top of. Time slowed down. I was sure I was about to witness an actual death play out in front of me. 'Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,' burst from my mouth as Garrett initially froze on the spot and spoke out of desperation, 'No Meli, stop, stop, stop!' The coach stopped, Meli didn't, and she avoided it by a whisker. Time slowed further. We all hoped she would either jump or fall off as she continued to tear toward the hill crest at full-speed, the kerb was the only thing in her way now. Having seen the height of some of these peaks, I knew how big a drop it could have been and I felt I couldn't bear to look, but look on I did. Wobbling from side to side she hit the kerb and crumpled into a pile on the grassy pathway. We all breathed an almighty sigh of relief. Garrett ran to her, Yishan followed and simultaneously pointed at our things for me to guard while they checked on her condition. Thank God for the high kerb, thank God for the vision of the coach driver because aside from a few grazes and bruises, she was OK. I had visions of looking over the edge of a cliff and seeing a circular plume of smoke at the bottom like Wile E. Coyote; only not in a funny way. I picked up the panels and helmets belonging to the other machines, placing them back so that no one would notice. 'Is she OK?' I asked Yishan as she came back straight-faced, 'Yeah, she doesn't know how to ride, she just wanted to go round in a circle and then panicked.' After knocking over three scooters and not falling off, I'd say she wasn't at all bad. Once we'd all gotten to the stage where we could laugh at the events that just unfolded, and our heart rates dropped to normal figures, we pressed on.
The spectacular gorge rose up all around us as we rode the mountain twists carved by the Japanese during their fifty-year occupation of Taiwan in the first part of the last century. The national park was enjoyably drivable because of this spectacular effort. The headlights on the scooter however, were no more powerful than the illuminator on a ten dollar Casio watch, and unfortunately the many black tunnels that forge a path through the national park provided only the feint glimmer of worn cats' eyes and the odd reflective sign to help you pass through their cold interior and back out into the cloud-veiled sun. It was always a relief to come through the other side in one piece, and it made the ride that much more interesting when you did. Stopping to take in one of the beautiful views, Yishan sat next to me and asked me one of the many questions she had about the English language, which I was only too happy to answer.
'Can I say piss?'
'Well, you can but it's a rude word.'
'Is it? What about leave me alone?'
'That's better, it depends in what context you're talking though, it's a bit dramatic if you just want some privacy for a minute.'
'What about please leave me alone?' After assuring myself from the smile on her face that the subject of conversation wasn't about me, I continued. 'Well, again, it could be either dramatic or polite depending on the context. You can say I'd like to be alone.'
She thought for a moment.
'Can I say, I'd like to be piss off?'
'Erm, no,' I said through fits of laughter. 'Why not?' she asked innocently and with a smirk. 'Because it just doesn't make sense.' I don't know how she came up with this stuff, but it was killing me like a thousand tiny arrows tipped in adoration.
Eventually those burgeoning low-slung clouds let go and drowned our long ride back to the accommodation. 'Poor chicken!' I yelled at Garrett and Meli at one set of lights. Apparently this was an expression to describe a rain-soaked person in the street being synonymous with a boiled chicken in a stew. Rather random, and I never saw the parallel myself, but it felt good to mix in with the locals now an then.
Yishan and I made our way back to Hostel Formosa, and with Yishan in the shower, I decided to hang out some washing in the rear garden. As I slid the patio door to a close, the tiny bolt at the bottom fell into the locked position. Oh shit. There wasn't another soul in the dorm to let me back in. For the entire time it took Yishan to have a hot shower-and she enjoyed long, hot showers- I was stuck outside with no top on, bare feet and more than a hundred hungry mosquitoes buzzing around me. I grabbed my towel, wrapped it around my upper-half and paced briskly around the patio table. I circled that table several hundred times to keep the mossies from biting my feet and ankles, banging loudly on the dorm window on the way round for someone to let me in. One, two- bang, one, two- bang, one, two- bang, and on it went. Each bang was getting nearer an nearer to breaking the glass as I was still getting ravaged by God's worst creation. What was he thinking? Everybody hates mosquitoes. Seconds before Yishan reappeared from the bathroom, one of the hostel employees entered the dorm to let me in, realising what had happened. Twenty minutes and half a dozen big bites was enough to put me in a bad mood for a time. Some female sympathy and a tin of tiger balm was enough to bring me out of it.
The next day, the four of us visited a sea-view restaurant at Hualien's treacherously wavy coastline. The bare-wood floors and strange mix of colour scheme stood out as wonderfully odd: pink, mauve, green an orange. A piano rendition of Let it be came out across the sound system. Then, You were always on my mind by Elvis. I sang quietly to myself at the table, 'I just never took the ti-i-ime...' A few moments passed. 'You wanna go then?' asked Yishan. 'What?'
'Toilet. You said you wanted to go to the toilet.'
'No, I said I just never took the time,' I replied, bemused at the misunderstanding. 'You know...it's the lyrics to this song, Elvis Presley.' I recognised the puzzled look and so repeated myself, 'You know Elvis Presley don't you?... Elvis.' Yishan shook her head. 'Hold the phone, you're telling me you've never heard of Elvis?' Before she could answer, Garrett interjected, 'Mao Wang, the Cat King,' he said. Garrett spoke Mandarin and knew a lot about Chinese culture. 'Oh, yeah. I know him,' said Yishan.
'In Taiwan he's called the Cat King.' repeated Garrett.
'Ah, really? Why? Why not just The King?
'I have no idea.' It was one of those little differences, a little snippet of information along with a million others that made travelling mildly amusing and randomly smirkable.
A wet ride back and a few Taiwan Beers back at Formosa Hostel summarised two prominent stalwarts of my jaunt to this little island. Almost every day it poured from the heavens, and almost every day I craved the crisp taste of Taiwan Beer. Along with Pilsen of the Czech Republic and Beerlao of Laos, Taiwan Beer was one of the best.
In the hostel later that evening, Yishan had gotten talking to a couple of characters who'd checked-in that day. The first, Harrison, was an awkwardly tall and squinty-faced Taiwanese-American maths geek, who, credit where credit's due, was cycling around Taiwan in discovery of his lost cultural roots and testing a prototype folding-bicycle which his uncle had designed and manufactured; pretty cool stuff. The second was a Ukrainian-born, Jewish New Yorker with unfortunate, thinly-sliced facial features which made him look rather evil when he smiled through narrow, spectacled eyes. Also a geek of epic proportions, but of the computer game-designer ilk, he and the lofty Asian made none-too-interesting conversation. 'Want to join us for dinner at the night market?' asked Yishan. No, no, no went the machine gun in my head, don't say yes boys. 'Uhm, OK, yeah, great,' replied the Jew Yorker. I suspected they'd never been asked for anything by a pretty girl such as Yishan. Despite my unspoken objection, I couldn't help but venerate her even more after that one for being so indiscriminately inclusive. Hell, among these two, I felt like the Fonze.
Time to leave Kenting. Outside, the sound of the Taiwanese air force bounded in thunderous shrieks across the sky. As a dormant threat, the idea that China will one day breach this island's self-governing borders and reunite Taiwan with China, is strong enough that the Taiwanese feel the need to defend any such occurrence via the financial and military support of the USA, whom have donated equipment to the air force and have effectively said they will play a protective role in the event of this happening.
At the train station, Yishan and I sat in the main hall and waited for the clock to tick round and match the time on our tickets. I amused myself with a section of my book which told of the peculiarities of procuring a Taiwanese drivers' license. Harking back to my first time in paradise nine years ago, the Cook Island officials declared it a necessity for all foreigners to take a Rarotongan driving test before taking to the roads on a hired scooter. The idea was simple, mount your bike, pull away from the kerb, go round the roundabout and pull up at the same spot you left from thirty seconds prior. If you didn't fall off or crash, or both, congratulations- you've passed. In the case of Taiwan, it was only slightly more involved. 'You have to go backwards in an S-shape manoeuvre?' I laughed. 'Don't you have that?' replied Yishan. 'No,' I said simply.
'So how do you get your license?'
'We drive on the road.'
'We have to drive around a car park first, then once you demonstrate that you have control of the bike, you go out onto the road under the observation of an instructor who's on another bike with a headset and mic.'
'We do have to do a paper test if you want to ride a bike that's more than 50cc, you know, a heavy one,' she replied, making a 125 sound like a tank on two wheels.'We also drive in a car park.'
'So are you telling me,' I said with an amused sparkle, 'that you can get a full-license without once driving on the road?'
'Wow, why don't they make you drive on the road?'
'That would be more dangerous,' she replied, abandoning any rational logic. 'Haha, so you can get your license, go home, get on your 900cc monster and go out on your own for the first time in traffic?'
'If you believe in yourself,' she replied with her hand placed firmly on her chest, and an iced-coffee in the other. 'That's why there are so many accidents; like Meli.'
I neither maximised nor documented all the curiosities that cropped up in conversation with Yishan, but I embraced them with a smile for life and for experience, often reflecting on my fortune to be in a good place.
Plus, the journey was not yet over.