I found myself recently in a place where I understood no one. In this place there were tables, piled high with luscious fruits and sweets. People were walking around with incense sticks and praying, there was chanting and singing , and people throwing wooden blocks in what appeared to be a complex game to tell their fortunes. I walked around completely mesmerized and wondering what it was all about. As I followed the merry singing, I found myself standing before a very elaborate set of doors, a golden altar behind it. There sat several monks playing instruments and vocalizing. Nervously approaching, Devon and I gave a respectful bow and were greeted by a beaming smile from a toothless monk playing an ancient looking drum. In that moment I felt completely connected , completely welcomed and completely loved as a human being. All it took was a smile.
Our recent trip to Taiwan was filled with such moments of harmony. If Thailand is the land of 1.000 smile’s I’d have to say that Taiwan might be the land of 1,000 voices. Everyone wanted to speak to us and to know where we had traveled from. And most of the time they wanted to speak to us in their native tongue, which is a form of Mandarin. A language of which I have ZERO knowledge of. They had no problem expressing themselves on and on as I smiled and tried to say that I had no idea what they were saying. But, the sincerity of their desire and the smile that accompanied it made it hard to walk away.
It began our first night there, as we arrived in the dark to a small inn in the middle of a bunch of rice paddies. As we approached the door, a tiny fireball of a woman came bounding out asking us to remove our shoes. The top of her head barely came up to my arm pit. She was probably in her 70’s but it was hard to tell, she may have also been 90. She spoke not a word of English. She pulled out her phone, chuckling, and began to frantically type with her arthritic fingers. Her other hand reached around me, in a hug type gesture as she giggled away. Google pumped out some awkward translations and before we knew it, she had us settled in our room, and had given us directions on where to find some food before turning in.
In the morning, we repeated the process, while she scurried back and forth with the most delicious breakfast on the planet. I watched her proudly make delicious hot coffee with soy milk , in something I can only liken to my high school chemistry lab. By the time we left she was hugging me and she was just delighted to have been so successful with her translator. She admitted that since our reservation was from Japan she expected a Japanese family and was flustered to see these giants walk in (she left out the giant part). We parted from her with lots of pats and smiles and the sentiment that she hopes we will return again one day and we drove off to find the nearest hot spring.
Before we knew it we were lurking outside the fence of the Jiaoxi hot springs, staring at the locals through a fence and awkwardly wondering if we should go in. We had no towels. After some very painful and goofy gesturing, we managed to pay the 150 Taiwanese Dollar ( about five bucks) each and bought the required bathing caps. As I wandered into the pool, waiting for my guys to come out of the changing room, it was almost as if someone had scratched a needle across a record. You know that “eeeeeeart” sound where everyone stops and stares? Within minutes, Devon and I were surrounded by a group of chattering Taiwanese ladies who were frantically asking us questions and gesturing away. In Chinese, of course.
In Japan, I have at least learned to say, “Sumimasen, Wakirimasen ” Which means “sorry, I don’t understand” and then the person will either walk away , increase their gestures, or start speaking English. But no such luck here. They could not be deterred or discouraged. Finally, a man came by who spoke English, plopped himself down and began a conversation with us. He was there with his wife and two children and explained to us that we were very lucky to have found this place and also that it was a special day, since the springs would be closing the next day for several months for repairs and maintenance. He definitely seemed a little surprised to see us there.
He began to tell us a little about his job, his family, and how they liked to come to the springs once a month or so and go hiking. Our two families chatted for a while, while steam rose around us and the mountains lurked in the back ground. Finally, after a while I had to wander off to rescue Devon, who had been auditorilly accosted by some ladies. After a few moments, I decided to ask my new friend “Su” to come translate for us. He was more than happy to do so and I learned that they thought my son was “extremely handsome”
Su and his family seemed so warm and so lovely that I decided to attach myself like a barnacle to their proverbial ship. I invited myself and my family to go to lunch with them after the springs. At first he looked slightly alarmed, as in , “Why is this strange woman asking us to take her to lunch”. I explained that we did not read Chinese and that it would be really nice to have a local guide help us if only for a few hours, that lunch would be our treat, and the kids seemed to really like each other too. They heartily agreed and before we knew it they were sharing their clean towels with us and we were all packing into their car to be driven to the nearby city.
They took us to a “fast food” restaurant that serves a typical Taiwanese lunch and much to my dismay, they insisted on both ordering and paying for it. We all ate upstairs in a rickety room, sharing each others food and passing things around to each other. Su’s wife, “Sunny” was incredibly sweet and though she was shy at first about her limited English, she soon began to communicate freely with us too. It was a very special day for all of us and we parted ways hoping we would see them again on our trip, if not in the future. We found one another on Facebook, and I laughed since their names can only be typed in Chinese Characters and realized I now had friends that I could not read or write their names at all.
But alas, it was time to ride off into the sunset toward the South of Taiwan along the coast to our next destination, which was near Taroko National Park. The New Year was looming over us and we would be spending it in a sleepy little town at a small bed and breakfast near the ocean. The drive was spectacular as we climbed and climbed the sea cliffs along the coast. Suddenly a waterfall, hundreds of feet high would appear out of no where in the distance. There were rocks skidding down the cliffs sometimes and the ride seems a bit precarious. It was some of the most stunning scenery we’ve seen.
I could tell you many things about the area we stayed in, the unparalleled beauty of the national park, the wild nature and the rough sea, but I find the experiences we had with people was far more interesting. For example, there was the man we passed on the street holding a long string of fireworks that looked like tiny dynamite. We stopped in a slight panic, and my husband said, “I think there’s going to be a wedding”. I thought he had lost his mind and that this was a completely bizarre statement until I saw a car pull up and out popped a bride. Sure enough “BOOM” went the fireworks, scaring the bejesus out of Devon and I. Apparently in some Asian cultures, they do this to ward off bad spirits. I stood by snapping photos and sure enough, the one person in the wedding party who spoke English spotted me and came over to invite me in to watch the ceremony. We respectfully declined, but had a good laugh at the fact that we’ve been invited into more weddings since moving to Asia than we’ve probably been to weddings of our own kin.
There was the waiter, who served us our dinner on New Years eve. He spoke not a single word of English. We ate at an aboriginal restaurant by the side of a railroad track in a corrugated tin building. This man brought plate after plate after plate of delicious food to our table. Each one described in great detail, none of which we understood. But the enthusiasm was palpable. And it all looked delicious. . “Hey, there’s some pork, wait….no…that’s a yam.”, “Do you think this is quail wings? Bat wings? What is this?”. “How do we get this rice out of this bamboo tube?”. Let’s just say this was a dining experience NONE of us will ever forget.
And you know what, whatever it was we ate, it was incredibly delicious. After we finished we realized that as well as having no menu, this place had no prices. In a moment’s panic we wondered how much this New Years Eve meal was going to set us back. We took a guess at what 10 dishes of locally sourced delicious , elaborately spiced and well presented food should cost. We figured about 150 to 200 dollars. When the check arrived we laughed ourselves silly, as it was equal to about 28 bucks. We were then invited along with a bunch of other guests to try out the bow and arrow they had ….
Since it was New Years eve, and we just did not want not turn in at 8:00. But in a town with perhaps a temple , 5 restaurants, and a few shops, what is one to do? So, we decided to stroll the main street (which literally consisted of the aforementioned and was three blocks long). Lo and Behold, there was a blinding light and music pumping from behind the temple. We assumed it was a New Years Eve festival so we headed over. Before we knew it , we were being given wedding favors, and asked to come on in to the same wedding we had witnessed that morning. It looked like the entire village had been invited. There was a huge iridescent stage with flashing lights. People were doing karaoke, there were huge vats of food and people dancing and milling around wearing the most casual clothes. It took everything in my power not to run in and start dancing, but I did restrain myself for my husband and kids’ sake. We stayed for a few minutes, thanked them politely and went back to our lovely Inn to have a dance party of our own.
Every day in Taiwan was a spectacular new day. Every day brought new jaw dropping scenery, mouth-watering food, and smiles that warmed our hearts. I could spend pages writing about each experience. But, I think I will end this blog by telling you about meeting up again with our new friends in Taipei.
“Patti” , you ask, “Do you know how nuts you are?”. Well, I will admit I definitely don’t shy away from trying new things, meeting new people, and putting myself in the most strange situations. So, I took the courage to notify my new friend Sunny we would be in her city, and asked her to show us around. She was very happy to do so. We were blessed to meet at her local temple(Longshem Temple) , where the great celebration I described earlier was happening. She came with her eldest son. She was able to explain all the rituals and the nuances of the temple. I admired her greatly for trudging on in English even when she did not know a word. Then they took us to a wonderful night market. We all feasted on delicious sea food, scallion pancakes, shaved ice with strange toppings. We ate and walked, and talked and ate, and sat and talked , and played and talked. And then we ate more.
It was one of my favourite traveling experiences thus far. And you know what, they admitted to me that people thought they were both “strange and brave” for having spontaneously decided to spend some time with this “foreign ” family. We were the first foriegners they have befriended. I know some of my friends probably thought, “There she goes again, attaching herself to random strangers like the nut she is”. I have to laugh, because you know the definition f the word “foreign” is “something we are not familiar with”. And once you are brave enough to cross over that border, to open up your heart , your mind, and your ears, that person or thing is no longer “foreign”.
I’d like to say thank you Taiwan, you are a beautiful country, full of beautiful people, delicious food, and breath-taking scenery. You have a lot to be proud of. Thank you to our new friends, for opening our horizons and I hope our path’s cross again on this crazy ride.
Today, they day after I began writing this blog, Taiwan had a terrible earth quake very close to where we awoke at the beginning of this New Year. Several people were killed and many more injured. I was able to connect with our new friends who are safe. We had a brief talk about how scary life can be sometimes , but also that we are lucky to be living it fully and with such abandon. I will be thinking of them and of all the lovely people who crossed out path on this wonderful journey. I am humbled. I am blessed. And I am so happy to be able to continue on such an exciting journey.