Sweet Nothings: around the island

Standard

I recently read NPR’s show This American Life is the most listened to radio show on the air in the United States. Consequently, I believe at least a few people have heard the show about having someone’s back and what it means to have a support network.

Last weekend celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival in Taiwan, known as 中秋節 or Moon Festival. If you are Taiwanese this three-day weekend  means traveling back to celebrate eating with your family, and if you are an English teacher it means going on a longer trip that wouldn’t be possible on a normal two-day weekend.

I loved Moon Festival last year. I was invited to a Taiwanese BBQ by a new friend and spent the afternoon and evening eating myself silly on all sorts of grilled delicacies with her family. The night was spent staring at the full moon from the road, and playing with fireworks that were purchased in the general store down the road.

My Chinese teacher told me the Taiwanese tradition of barbecuing over this festival is based upon the success of a soy sauce advertising campaign in the 1980s. I found it fascinating that over the past thirty years a brand of soy sauce could change the way a population celebrates a traditional Chinese holiday.

This year, since I had experienced the family celebrations of Taiwanese Moon Festival I thought I would head out of town and go camping as an homage to the classic American Labor Day camping trip. I wanted my two closest friends to accompany me in this venture, the idea was to take a train to an ecological park near mountains and scooter around to find the best camping spot.

As you may have guessed this didn’t happen, my friends didn’t have my back in this case. One told me reticently she had already agreed to go with her yoga group and invited me along. The other made plans weeks in advance with me looking at train time tables and hostels, and then on the Friday night we were supposed to leave town unexpectedly backed out. 

I was surprised how much that hurt. As Barry Schwartz from TED talks will tell you, “The key to happiness is low expectations.” But these are my best friends I am talking about, my inner circle so maybe I am doing this friendship thing wrong. I understand it was mostly logistical misunderstandings, but it stung because I got this impression I had been overlooked in favor of a better offer.

It is one thing to be stood up by a prospective love interest, it is another thing to be stood up by close friends. My point being, if I can’t have expectations of close friends then I can’t have expectations of anyone. I can only expect them to act selfishly, which is a saddening thought. I don’t expect everyone to be there all the time; I do expect someone to be there sometimes.

image_1

Beidawu Shan (北大武山) and lots of rain on all our scooters, my sleeping bag was soaked!

So, what did I do after my dear friends left me for dead? I joined another group of friends of course, a group that planned to climb a mountain with only a few acquaintances and many strangers. It was an interesting mix of crazy Eastern European men and Taiwanese women cram school teachers. We set off late to the mountain on Sunday morning and as soon as we arrived it started pouring rain, this continued for another two hours as we huddled in an aboriginal village near the trailhead.

The good news was my biking friend who had invited me to bike to Beidawu Shan 北大武山 was also discovered huddling in the same village so I got to spend a few hours catching up with him about his impending trip to Brazil. As the rain thundered down monsoon-style, the aboriginal lady at the open air restaurant offered to let us sit in her living room until the rain stopped and we spent some time talking and looking at wedding photos in her home. A touching example of Taiwanese hospitality, not only towards foreigners but to each other. (See photo at the top.)

It was getting dark and it was looking unpromising as a damp destination to spend the night, so the travel group improvised by heading to a nearby Sihjhongsi Hot Springs. We ate a banquet of food in town and then camped out in a park near the public pools. The next morning after very little sleep, the group was looking a bit ragged and we had to pick between visiting a waterfall or the beaches of Kenting that were not far from the hot springs.

image_2

Celebrating at the hot springs with a few sparklers, who knew they would still light after being soaked.

 

So we once more got on our scooters and rode to the beach to relax for the afternoon. On the way home Monday evening we stopped by a Buddhist restaurant and were served seven courses of delicious vegetarian food while overlooking the water during the sunset. It was an ideal ending to a weekend of improvisation.

Bike holiday: Kaohsiung to Kenting

Standard

The southern most tip of Taiwan is the most tropical on the island. For my Chinese New Year break from work I decided to take a bike trip south, instead of a hiking trip north into the rain. Like many of my trips since arriving in Kaohsiung, this trip was last minute and minimally planned. We decided two days before that we would bike, my friend K found a Giant bike store that would rent us bikes for 100 NTD per a day, 50 NTD overnight. (That is about $18 USD to rent four days.)

IMG_3439

Day One – Dawning of an Adventure on Wheels

On Thursday we rented the bikes, still sodden with last nights beverage and conversation, bought a quick breakfast and headed south at the crack of one in the afternoon. Meandering through the industrial southern edge of the city we cleared city limits into Pingtung County and bought several coconut water refreshments from roadside stands.

beginning

The loosely hatched plan involved us biking a few hours and then camping on the beach in a one person tent using one sleeping bag. In retrospect it may have been a bit too minimalist, but hey no camping reservations necessary.

At one of the fruit stands selling coconut water and wax apples we met a Taiwanese teacher who spoke English and invited us for dinner and a place to sleep in the school library outside the city limits on the top of a mountain 10 km away. As the sun was setting, it sounded like a valid option so we hopped on our bikes and followed his car into the mountain.

As dark set in it became apparent that Philip was not a bicyclist or very reliable when it came to judging distance. I later checked the distance with google maps to discover it was 10 miles and not 10 km away and a very steep grade. After traveling 9 miles we couldn’t climb with our bikes anymore and told him we would walk or get a ride with him, at which point he tried to guilt trip us into continuing so he could tell the story of us “not giving up” to his students who didn’t exercise.

We arrived in the Shiwhen village around 8 at night and were introduced to some of the students and locals. Later, Philip offered us dried dates and almonds instead of the noodles and fish promised roadside. Philip must have been a pathological liar or uninformed about his surroundings to lie to our face and misrepresent the situation the way he did. He said he wanted to inspire his students to speak English when really he just wanted the social attention of visitors.IMG_3453

Also it gave him an excuse to interrupt his students’ vacation by asking them to go on a hike with us the next day and give himself more leverage to lecture his students.

After denying the delights of a cold shower, K and I went to the small family shop to purchase an adult beverage and find the karaoke shop if only to watch the wailing. We never made it to karaoke however because we sat with a family and K used all the Mandarin she learned the past four months to have a discussion with a Hualien man who was back in town for the new year. Happy New Year from Shìwén Rd, Chunri Township, Pingtung County, Taiwan!

IMG_3446

Day Two – A Mountain Hike and a daring escape

We were expected to be in attendance for a three-hour hike at 9 a.m. Later we were to find the hike was closer to five hours long even being driven to the trailhead. Luckily another family from Dongang who spoke English had shown up to hike the trail and only one student could be ‘kidnapped’ to go on the hike with us.

IMG_3456

The student, whom we dubbed Mowgli, might have gotten in the car when commanded but soon after reaching the hike tried to hide in the bushes and be left behind. Unluckily for him he was discovered and we all made the ascent together, the family was obviously more prepared than our ragtag group and offered us snacks and encouragement modeling good behavior in a way Mowgli might actually learn and replicate instead of Phillip’s Confucian verbal shaming model of teaching.IMG_3468

The hike was beautiful, complete with dappled sunlight, fresh air and butterflies. Yet when you are hungry and dehydrated and slept a few hours on a library floor the mountain air does little to add glamour to the situation at hand. After the hike, having only been offered a salty boiled egg, a banana and nuts for breakfast we knew there would be no noodles and promptly asked to be returned to our bikes to try and make a few hours of biking before sunset.

The Philip conundrum was unique for me because of the  implied generosity that was in fact a power play of ambition on the part of the host. The teacher may have understood how hospitality works, but his ambition to take photos and use our presence to sway his students to his way of thinking seemed conniving, cheap and inhospitable. In contrast the fruit stand owner gave us a large bag of wax apple and free corn to eat without strings attached.

Mowgli, our aboriginal hiking student became our friend despite the underhanded intentions of Philip. We chatted and hiked with him and only he could understand the way Phillip misrepresented  his prominence in the village by sending photos to a school newsletter.

IMG_3507

After biking down the mountain we continued down the coast to a small village where we stopped for Taiwanese noodles and vegetables. It was the perfect dinner to a day of physical overexertion and soon after we found a beach to pitch our tent and made a fire before falling asleep to the sound of waves in a warm, abet cramped tent

.IMG_3521

Day Three – White Sand Beaches and old friends

I love waking up and seeing the location you pitched the tent in the dark. Soon after sunrise we emerged from our shelter and had a yoga session on the beach before starting our journey towards the beach. We ate as many mangos as we could so we wouldn’t have to carry as much weight.

On the road again we stopped at a Family Mart for a quick water break and found ourselves in a crowd that was celebrating some kind of festival in the town we had slept. On the road we rode into the hills and finally turned off highway 17 on our way to Baisha, “White Sand” beach on of the nicest near Kenting.

Arriving at the beach near noon we settled in for a nap, a swim and a lunch of fried tofu. More napping and we awoke to discover a whole new group of people had arrived including some acquaintances from Kaohsiung that had come down to their ancestral home for the holiday. After arranging to meet later we lounged a few more hours before heading toward the city of Kenting for dinner at the hotpot restaurant that serves some excellent mapo dofu and sauteed lotus root.IMG_3525

We toured the packed night market and bought more fruit and green papaya salad for a midnight snack. Then biked towards the beach and stopped just off the road in a field.

Day Four – The Return

IMG_3531

Our tent was pitched on a bit of a slope and as a result the sides of the tent were attacking us during the night. I was ready to head back and sleep in my own bed before the Superbowl game on Monday. So I rolled out of the tent and started laughing because two huge cows were grazing in the same field we had pitched the tent. I set off for home solo, leaving my backpack for K to take home on the bus. As it turned out she kept biking back over two days and mailed my bag via 7-ELEVEN. I left Kenting at 8:00 and arrived home six hours later at the bike shop at 14:00. I stopped every hour or two to chug water and eat a banana at the many 7-ELEVENs along the way.IMG_3534