Tag Archives: travel

Shockingly Shockless

Seven planes, thousands of dollars, countless bowls of beef noodles, two anti-diarrhea tablets and one Great Wall later, I made it back to the US Sunday night after my three week journey through China (and three days of saying my goodbyes in Taiwan).  My mom picked me up from the airport and returned me home.  Waiting for me, courtesy of my sister, was a grilled chicken sandwich with fries. 

The last week has been a nonstop binge of all the foods I missed so much while abroad: pizza, bagels, waffles, Arizona iced green tea (not kidding), cold cut sandwiches, unsweetened bread.  Some meals, like a Greek omelet with home fries and an orange juice, I hadn’t realized I missed.  Only when I looked around at my companion’s plates did I recognize how greedily I had finished my diner brunch.

Between delirious bouts of ingestion, I’ve spent time catching up with friends and family members.  Most notably, my sister convinced me to go to two very strange events: the U.S. Air Guitar championships and “Walking with Dinosaurs.”  Not a bad way to readjust to the absurdity, grandiosity and enormousness of American-style entertainment.

There’s no way to adjust to the spectacle of an air guitar tournament, but adjusting to life stateside hasn’t proved difficult.  The biggest shock to me upon returning has been how infrequently I’ve felt shocked.  For example, unlike most of my peers, I haven’t been struck by how big everyone is (although how much food we eat in one sitting did catch my eye).  Perhaps this is because I returned home for two weeks in November.  Perhaps it’s because I’m pretty big myself (it was shocking a little over an hour ago when I walked into a restaurant and a little American boy assessed my height and gasped much like little Taiwanese kids would).

What has stood out? First, how much we Americans waste.  Taiwan, as my loyal readership knows, enforces strict recycling laws.  Not only do most American cities and states not penalize households for poor waste management, most American fast food restaurants don’t even provide a recycling bin. 

A correlate to this is how much food restaurants and consumers waste.  As consumers, we certainly eat more than Taiwanese.  But restaurants now provide us with impossibly large portions.  I see a lot more food going to waste than I did in Taiwan.

Second, the size of the coins.  American money is in general smaller than Taiwanese money.  Coins are no exception.  On top of the confusion of dealing with smaller coins, a year in Taiwan eliminated my ability to feel in my pockets for the right coin.  New Yorkers aren’t known for their patience, and they haven’t enjoyed waiting behind me on line as I take all the coins out of my pocket to select correct change.

Third, how safe the roads are.  Without consulting statistics, it’s surely fair to say that scooters make roads more dangerous for pedestrians.  For the first time in my life, I returned to New York City and felt relatively safe crossing the street. 

Fourth, the wealth.  Taiwan is a developed place.  If you count it as separate from China, it’s one of the thirty most affluent ‘countries’ on Earth.  Yet the yearly income is less than half of America’s.  This is reflected in the clothing and food quality the citizenry experiences every day.  There’s not a massive, stupendous difference, but the disparity is noticeable.  This is not to say that life in Taiwan is a struggle or there’s no good reason to prefer life in Taiwan over life in the US.

Some of the differences listed above caught me offguard, or at least I hadn’t fully wrapped my head around them even if I expected them.  Others, like walking around Barnes & Noble, were pleasant without being at all surprising.  Now that I can get along stress free, the temptation to forgo studying Chinese will be strong.  I must resist!

In the coming days I will chronicle my three week China trip.  There are many fun stories to share.  If nothing else, writing them down will let me relive the experience years hence.  Any enjoyment you, my dear reader, take from them is gravy. 

This blog (in its Taiwan-focused form) will come to an end after I finish writing about China.  I gave myself a week’s rest after arriving home, promising to write again today.  During my self-granted vacation, I realized that I don’t feel compelled to add much to what I’ve already written about my year in Taiwan.  Chalk it up to a combination of feeling as though I’ve said much of what I have to say and simple tiredness.  If any young, intrepid future Fulbrighters or Kaohsiung expats read this, please feel free to send me any questions at floatyourboat23@gmail.com.

Before we get all teary-eyed, don’t forget more blog posts are forthcoming soon.  Please stop by again to read about my time in China.  There were some interesting parallels between China and Taiwan, as well as some even more interesting disconnects.  T.S. Eliot was right when he wrote that schpiel about returning to a place and knowing it for the first time. 

China is a fascinating subject all by itself, comparisons be damned.  I’ll do my best to relay to you what it’s like to walk the streets throughout different parts of the world’s fastest growing country.

Go Northwest, Young Man!

Visiting Hualien reminded me how much of Taiwan I miss by living in a large city.  Taiwan’s a developed country, but a large percentage of the population still lives in small, rural towns on or around mountains.  Both the average standard of living and the tempo of daily life is very different a mile (or a few miles) high.  In search of broader understanding, I jumped on Taiwanese Katherine’s suggestion to visit a few scenic towns in Taiwan’s mountainous northwest. 

Our first stop was Sanyi, a town famous for its hot springs high up one of the mountains.  The journey there is worth comment by itself.  We took a train to Sanyi and then rented a scooter.  We stopped by a ‘famous’ noodle place (for non-consistent readers, I use quotations marks because Taiwanese are far too quick to describe a place as ‘famous’) and then drove off in the dark.  Katherine isn’t very comfortable driving up and down inclines, so I eventually took over all driving responsibilities.

Concentration was paramount during the drive.  Once we began our ascent up the mountain, all we had was a comically windy two lane road.  No shoulder, no street lights.  It looked like something out of a Lexus commercial touting anti-lock breaks.

I still can’t say I enjoyed driving for two hours up a windy road in the pitch black, but one part of the drive impressed me.  All of a sudden, after about an hour of altitude climbing, we descended down a huge hill.  We drove speedily down a sharp decline for at least a full twenty five seconds.  I realized about fifteen seconds into our descent that we must’ve been driving into a remarkably deep valley.  Sure enough, after the road leveled for about a minute, we started on an equally steep incline. 

Other than the small portion of the road illuminated by our headlights, we could see precisely none of the valley.  Not even the outlines of a mountain or a tree.  Katherine, raised to appreciate very different ancient cultural reference points, couldn’t connect with my feeling that we had just dipped into the Inferno, both Dantes driven along by our trusty scooter, Virgil.  Another memory I won’t soon forget.

Taiwan is famous for its hot springs.  A volcanic island, Taiwan is blessed with a number of rejuvenating hot springs locations throughout the island.  Some hot springs’ waters are known for specific benefits. Sanyi is specifically known for the epidermal benefits of its hot, soothing waters.  After a few hours guiding a scooter up a gigantic mountain, I was in the mood for something soothing.

Katherine is a master hotel shopper.  For a very low price, she found us a room that included a large, en suite wooden hot springs tub.  The hot springs relaxed my cramped shoulder muscles and left my skin feeling silky smooth.  I’m often skeptical of Chinese medicine and health clichés, but I can no longer deny the skin benefits of hot springs.  My skin felt wonderful.

A G-rated reenactment of my hot springs bath. This is the fruit of much Katherine cajoling.

If the theme of the first night was epidermal pleasure, the next day was all about culinary pleasure.  Our first stop was Tofu Street (dofu jie), a two-hundred yard single lane road lined with tofu shops and restaurants.  Tofu is a staple of the Taiwanese diet.  Nutritionists consider it a ‘super food’ because of all its health benefits (e.g. it’s a rich source of protein without any of the negative effects of eating meat).  Tofu street was a one-stop-shopping emporium for every conceivable variety of tofu.

Of course, Tofu Street had its very own ‘famous’ restaurant.  I scoffed.  This time around, however, I think maybe Taiwanese were on to something.  The restaurant was one of the best cheap restaurants I’ve ever visited in Asia.  We each had a bowl of noodles and split some fried tofu.  The tofu was the main attraction, but everything was delicious.

By ‘cheap’ restaurant I don’t mean low-brow.  Only recently have I started to realize that, in Taiwan and China at least, there’s a certain type of restaurant that doesn’t exist in the U.S.  Like the U.S., Taiwan has your run of the mill Western-style sit down restaurant.  It also has food stands. 

What the U.S. lacks are the cheap, informal ‘restaurants’ that predominate in Taiwan.   What do they look like?  The owner buys a small kitchen on a part of the first floor of a building.  He or she then buys a bunch of foldable chairs and plastic stools and scatters them around the interior space and out on to the sidewalk.  Customers place their orders at the kitchen, stop by a chopstick/soy sauce stand to gather what they need, and sit and wait at their tables for their food.   Western-style sit down restaurants with wooden tables, table cloths or placemats, prelaid utensils etc. are very popular here, but they’re more expensive and less well attended than the cheap restaurants.    

So as not to sound too repetitive over the next few days of writing about trips to mountains, I'm not going to delve into every beautiful moment touring the natural landscape. I'll let pictures speak their thousands of words.

A fresh water stream from the melting snows atop Yushan Mountain, Taiwan's tallest peak. I wanted to cool down my feet after a little hike.

Anyway, back to the narrative.  Our second culinary stop was quite different than Tofu Street.  “Shokolate” is an upscale chocolate shop built in English manor style in the middle of wide, trimmed green lawns and flower garden paths.  An appealing testament to upper-middle class Taiwanese folks’ wish to experience European culture.  I thanked the heavens for my many paid tutoring jobs, bought five gourmet chocolate pieces and sampled them with Katherine in the middle of one of the lawns.  It felt really strange to eat gourmet chocolate (in Western flavors like ‘Earl Grey’) on a manicured lawn set on the side of a Taiwanese mountain.  

One of Shokolate's display cases. This set would not be out of place anywhere in Paris or Trieste.

Next up was the town of Dahu.  Dahu revolves around the Dahu Strawberry Farmer’s Association.  The farmers run a large market selling hundreds of varieties of strawberry products.   I ate strawberry-flavored sausage, made by brushing strawberry preserve on grilled sausages.  Delicious.  We tried puff pastry filled with strawberry custard.  Delicious.  I drank a tall glass of iced strawberry milk tea.  Ibid.  We rested a bit and waited out a rain storm in the market’s café, marveling at the strawberry splendor.

Katherine making out with her strawberry puff? She enjoyed it a little too much.

You know you're in Taiwan when there's a line to take one's photo with this giant strawberry.

Our final culinary stop of the day was at the awesomely-named ‘Mile High Café.’  Guess how high in the sky it is.  It’s a family-run restaurant built on the side of a cliff.  If you jumped over the railing at the far end of the restaurant, you’d fall pretty far.  A legitimate cliff, with a beautiful view of the mountains and valleys extending as far as the eye can see.  The restaurant churned out high quality Taiwanese foods like hot pot and tofu with tomato.  Another excellent meal.

A view from the Mile High Cafe

The Mile High Cafe is in the same town as ginger farms. The snowman's body is made of ginger. I can't get over how truly absurd this is.

The aesthetic inside the Mile High Cafe was a microcosm of Taiwan’s cultural hodgepodge approach to upper-middle class dining.  The really elite places are always faithful representations of Eastern or Western culture and cuisine.  My favorite places are the upper-middle range restaurants, the kinds of places where you can sit on nice chairs yet eat on disposable table cloths (traditionally, Taiwanese meat consumed at restaurant will still have some bones, so you’re expected to take the bones from your mouth with your chopsticks and just leave them to the side of your rice bowl), where the service is excellent yet you’re still expected to get up and go to the rice cooker to scoop yourself some rice, where the speakers play a steady stream of Louis Armstrong yet the owner’s mother sits by the door selling freshly picked Taiwanese plums.  A delightful mélange. 

Our hotel for the night was priced at the upper-middle range, but its cultural representation was spot-on.  ‘Maison Philo’ (French for “The Philosophy Home”) is a European-themed hotel run by a native Taiwanese woman.  It was one of the most charming hotels I’ve ever visited. 

Initially, one is struck by the strange shape of the hotel.  I couldn’t really see it, but the owner told Katherine she modeled the shape of her hotel to represent an owl’s head.  All I saw was a circular white building with large windows. 

The exterior of the Maison Philo

If there’s anything to nitpick about the hotel’s fidelity to its cultural model, it’s how over the top (yet consistently accurate) it is in trumpeting the owner’s understanding of European culture.  You walk through the large oak doors and are immediately confronted by a mural of Raphael’s “Academy.”  Probably not what you’d find at your average French B&B, but who can argue with the “Academy” as a choice? 

How can you argue with this?

The philosophy major in me deeply appreciated the way the hotel owner ordered the rooms.  No numbers.  Names.  Specifically, the names of famous philosophers.  Each of the four rooms on the second floor was named after a famous philosopher, and then decorated according to the national style of the philosopher’s home.  Katherine chose Bertrand Russell because she liked the English style, but one could choose Aristotle, Descartes or some Arab philosopher I couldn’t discern because I can’t read Arabic (heck, I was impressed I could read enough Ancient Greek to read “Aristotle”).  Each room includes a few translated, dog-eared copies of the resident philosopher’s works.  Was I swooning almost as much as Katherine?  You bet.

One of Bertrand's walls

Katherine’s full swoon set in when we visited what to me was hands down the oddest part of the trip: a castle in the middle of a Taiwanese mountain range.  Before you rush to your Encyclopedia Britannica (or—who are we kidding?—Wikipedia), note that this ‘castle’ is not what most Westerners take to mean castle, viz. a large residence which long ago housed aristocrats.  Instead, the ‘castle’ is a recently constructed, modernly furnished restaurant/giant photo op with a really pretty view of a nearby valley.  If Shokolate and its gardens was faithful enough to its ideal to simply confuse, the castle was so off the mark it was just hilarious.  I try hard not to snicker at the enthusiasm of Taiwanese for Western treasures, but I couldn’t help myself at the castle.  In its own right it’s quite pretty and it has a drop-dead gorgeous view from its restaurant, but it’s a far, far cry from a legitimate castle.

Just like the Tudors used to make!

A castle it may not be, but the food was good. Even these chips.

I bet this mean tiramisu eclipses anything concocted in the court of the Sun King!

I wound up spending most of the weekend at tourist spots, removed from the small rural towns.  The indelible images of the weekend were the beautiful views of the mountain ranges, the Inferno’esque descent into a pitch black valley, the soothing texture of my post-hot springs skin, and the strange castles and chocolatiers dropped in the middle of nowhere. 

Yet I continue to be drawn to the small towns.  I’m a city kid, through and through.  By the time I register that I’m driving through a small town, the town is halfway behind me.  I can’t really imagine how I’d get on two miles from sea level, living with one hundred other people two hours drive away from the market.  I’m always enchanted by the image of the old Taiwanese farmer sitting on a plastic chair outside his small, corrugated metal roofed house.  It’s such a mystery to me.  It may not sound like it when I write about it, but that guy in his blue chair remains with me just as much as the taste of Earl Grey gourmet chocolate or strawberry sausage. 

The man in the chair also represents another significant fact: Taiwan is a developed country, one of the thirty most affluent “places” in the world (note the word “places,” State Department lawyers!).  But the average income here is only slightly more than half of America’s.  This place often strikes me as a pretty poor country, mostly when I venture out of Kaohsiung.  Taiwan doesn’t need your charity, but an accurate mental representation of Ille Formosa requires an awareness of how far Taiwan has yet to grow.

Fulbright Knew What He Was Talking About

With the exception of sports, it’s been pretty easy for me to keep in touch with the U.S.  I have wireless, high speed Internet in my apartment, an iTouch and a laptop, and plenty of time to kill.  Taiwan’s a free land, so the Internet is my oyster.  Nytimes.com is my bread and butter.  WSJ.com editorials are the lima beans I force myself to eat for the sake of a (politically) balanced diet.  The experience of reading a newspaper article about the Supreme Court doesn’t change much if you’re reading it in Richmond or Kaohsiung.

My reading habits have changed a little bit.  I’m reading more blogs now because I have more time on my hands.  Not all blogs are repositories for poorly reasoned, instant reaction rants.  Marginalrevolution.com, gregmankiw.blogspot.com and theatlantic.com/business are some of my favorites.  They help me understand developments in economics and finance.  I usually check them once a day.

Sometimes I have the good fortune of stumbling on a new, interesting blog.  Recently I found “The Frontal Cortex,” a blog by Jonah Lehrer.  Lehrer’s a gifted writer, trained neuroscientist, and a smart cookie (a former Rhodes Scholar). 

Lehrer adds a new post every few days.  The post that really hooked me to “The Frontal Cortex” discusses recent research into the long-term psychological benefits of travel.  Many of the conclusions gibe with what I’ve long thought about travel’s positive effects on the brain, but it’s very interesting to observe these effects measured in the lab.  Here are the main points:

“Why do we travel? . . . Several new science papers suggest that getting away—and it doesn’t even matter where you’re going–is an essential habit of effective thinking.  . . .

The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel “close”–and the closeness can be physical, temporal, or even emotional–get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful–it allows us to focus on the facts at hand–it also inhibits our imagination. Consider a field of corn. When you’re standing in the middle of the field . . . your mind is automatically drawn to thoughts that revolve around the primary meaning of corn, which is that it’s a plant, a cereal, a staple of Midwestern farming.

But now imagine that same field of corn from a different perspective. Instead of standing on a farm, you’re now in the midst of a crowded city street, dense with taxis and pedestrians. . . The plant will no longer just be a plant: instead, your vast neural network will pump out all sorts of associations. You’ll think about high-fructose corn syrup, obesity [and so on]. . . The noun is now a web of tangents, a loom of remote connections.

What does this have to do with travel? When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d previously suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities–corn can fuel cars!–that never would have occurred to us if we’d stayed back on the farm. Furthermore, this more relaxed sort of cognition comes with practical advantages, especially when we’re trying to solve difficult problems. Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University. He randomly divided a few dozen undergrads into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. . . One group of students was told that the task was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece, while the other group was told that the task was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana.  At first glance, it’s hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant difference would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was conceived?

Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: when students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn’t just list buses, trains, and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles, and even Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn’t just think about getting around in Indiana, they thought about getting around all over the world, and even in deep space.

In a second study, Jia found that people were much better at solving a series of insight puzzles when told that the puzzles came all the way from California, and not from down the hall. These subjects considered a far wider range of alternatives, which made them more likely to solve the challenging brain teasers. There is something intellectually liberating about distance. . . .

The larger lesson, though, is that our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. The brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. A bit of distance, however, helps loosen the chains of cognition, making it easier to see some-thing new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective. As T. S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” . . . .

According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows us with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings. Consider the act of leaving food on the plate: in China, this is often seen as accomplishment, a signal that the host has provided enough to eat.  But in America the same act is a subtle insult, an indication that the food wasn’t good enough to finish.

Such cultural contrasts mean that seasoned travelers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realize that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world. This, in turn, allows them to expand the circumference of their “cognitive inputs,” as they refuse to settle for their first answers and initial guesses. . . .

Of course, this mental flexibility doesn’t come from mere distance. It’s not enough to just change time zones, or to schlep across the world only to eat Le Big Mac instead of a Quarter-Pounder with cheese. Instead, this increased creativity appears to be a side-effect of difference: we need to change cultures, to experience the disorienting diversity of human traditions. The same details that make foreign travel so confusing–Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me?–turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we’re less insular. We’re reminded of all that we don’t know, which is nearly everything; we’re surprised by the constant stream of surprises. . . . When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.”

I should forward this article to the Fulbright Foundation.  Fulbright’s primary mission is to foster international understanding, but one of its ancillary goals is to create a more enlightened and innovative generation of U.S. leaders.  If you agree this research supports its conclusions, Fulbright probably succeeds in meeting its ancillary goal.

Fulbrighters are, in general, a smart bunch.  I think Lehrer’s being perhaps a shade too egalitarian when he implies that all travelers stand to benefit.  Not everyone on your next transoceanic flight is destined for revelation.  Travel probably won’t make everyone more creative, or at the very least won’t do so equally for every traveller.  As Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson loved observing, not everyone makes hay of foreign travel. If you don’t seek out and think about new experiences, odds are travel won’t make you a more expansive thinker.

I think my experience in Taiwan confirms Lehrer and Professor Jia’s conclusions.  My “travel” this year—a one year residency in what was for me at first a very strange culture—is much more extensive than the two weeks in France that Lehrer’s talking about.  Therefore, I’m not basing my claim upon personal brilliance.  Even your average American would start to think a bit differently after ten months.

There are concrete changes in my thinking to which I can refer.  One of the most eye-opening differences between East Asian and Western culture involves the individual’s position within society.  As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn note in their excellent book, China Wakes: “When Western artists were producing masterpieces like the Mona Lisa or The Night Watch, Chinese artists were painting magnificent scrolls in which the humans were just specks, like a tiny monk observing a huge waterfall.”  Chinese look at themselves in terms of how they contribute to society.  Westerners tend to embrace individualism, looking at society in terms of what it offers the individual. 

Talking about the pros and cons of each perspective is really interesting but outside the scope of this blog post.  All I want to note is how a year in Taiwan has altered how I approach thinking about social problems, and how I think about my future. 

For example, I’m often surprised nowadays about how often I want to challenge a friend who tells me the most important thing in planning your future is if you’re happy.  I don’t think that’s true.  You should think about what your society needs from you. 

I’m not saying I’ve resolved to be a high school math teacher or a G.P. doctor because America needs those professionals the most.  What I mean is that the question of how I can best contribute to society is more important to my decision-making than it was in the past.  It remains one element among others, but it’s more weighty to me than ever before.

My immersion in Chinese culture has also altered how I approach solving problems in groups.  I wrote in September about my afternoon working at Kaohsiung City Hall for typhoon relief.  Tons of boxes filled with provisions sat in the large atrium.  My American friends and I walked over to a bunch of boxes and started to carry one or two at a time to a nearby truck. 

The Taiwanese volunteers watched us curiously for a few minutes.  They only stopped staring when a bell rang and a few volunteers walked to the front of the group with clipboards and started speaking in Chinese through a blow horn.  The head volunteers spoke for a few minutes and then dispersed the group.

All of the volunteers broke up into long, interconnected lines.  They passed each box along a line of volunteers, linking up at different points with other lines of volunteers.  It was the most efficient distribution method I’d ever seen.  A human, philanthropic assembly line.

I’ve caught myself approaching problems the same way, whether or not they involve heavy lifting.  The power of a well harnessed group is exponentially greater than the collected power of many individual efforts.  Whether it be putting together a presentation, throwing a successful party or writing and producing a good teaching video, I spend much more time thinking about how to organize the group as I do thinking about how to do my part well.  There are implications for this at all levels of my thinking.

I won’t bore you by going on.  I’m sure you, dear reader, can think of your own examples.  You don’t need to travel far to encounter new objects, opinions and expectations.  There’s also the important caveat that traveling to New Jersey noticeably reduces your cognitive abilities!

Next time you catch yourself stressing over a cancelled flight or a, say, hostel owner who forgot to reserve your 3 AM cab thereby forcing you to walk two miles through Budapest in freezing weather (no, I’m not bitter anymore!), remember the benefits of travel.  Little by little, you’re becoming a more well rounded, insightful and creative person.  Even European countries can’t tax such benefits.

Seurat Goes to Taroko

As I emerged from the dark mountain tunnel, all I could hear was the muffled firing of my scooter’s engine.  Kevin drove forty yards ahead of me.  I hugged the yellow line dividing the narrow, two-lane road.  Suddenly, I heard a loud, high-pitched squawking.  I glanced to my right.  A flock of white geese flew together in the distance.  They swerved upwards and disappeared into the clouds.

Taroko Gorge in Taroko National Park is the most famous natural landmark in Taiwan.  You can’t talk to a Taiwanese about domestic travel without him coercing a solemn pledge from you that you’ll eventually see Taroko Gorge.  The gorge is so beautiful that its name, Taroko, means “beautiful” in the aboriginal Taroko tribe’s language. 

To honor the spirits that the Taroko believe inhabit the gorge, I accidentally dropped my camera into the running river at the gorge’s base.  Therefore, I can’t fill in the descriptive gaps with pictures.  This post is a few days behind schedule because I couldn’t figure out the best way to represent my trip in writing.  Resolution: I’ll capture the breadth and depth of the gorge like Seurat captures his subjects: a bunch of little strokes that, I hope, add up to a satisfying general picture.

Kevin Connors (an Yilan ETA) and I decided last month to check out Taroko and the nearby city, Hualian.  Taroko is a place of great pride for Taiwanese.  Every Taiwanese I ever talked to about travel told me I needed to see the gorge.  Every ETA who came back from a weekend in Taroko brought home beautiful memories along with their trinkets.  I needed to go.

The weather stood in our way.  Although we resolved to go in early April, we postponed weekend after weekend.  Hualian and Taroko are on the eastern coast of Taiwan.  The east coast is notoriously wet and rainy.  I didn’t want to risk traveling all five hours to Hualian only to be rained out.

Last week, Kevin put his foot down.  His friends from the U.S. would soon start visiting every weekend.  He might not have a chance to go later on.  We decided to take our chances.

Mother Nature did us a favor.  Despite precipitation estimates in the seventy-to-eight percent range, not a drop of rain fell all weekend.  In fact, the weather was positively excellent.  Cool, a bit cloudy—perfect weather for hiking and exploring.

The cool, cloudy weather added a lot to the aesthetic thrill of the gorge.  Winding our way along the park’s narrow, two-lane highway, we marveled at how the high, steep walls of the gorge disappeared into the clouds.  The gorge itself is high up in the mountains of eastern Taiwan.  It was amazing to be so close to the lowest hanging clouds in the atmosphere.  With the clouds masking the top of the gorge and the cerulean blue river running over the boulders at the gorge’s basin, Taroko looked like the vestibule to heaven. 

The weather’s usual dreariness, and some unpromising projections from the National Weather Service, also worked in our favor.  Taroko is usually mobbed by tourists.  Yet last weekend there weren’t too many gawkers.  The same climate calculation that had us repeatedly postpone out trip seemed to deter the crowds.  Save for some large gatherings at rest stops or one of the more easy accessible photo scenic spots, we didn’t encounter many other people.  We certainly didn’t deal with any of the legendary Taroko traffic jams.   I always get more from an experience with nature when I’m not surrounded by a bunch of noise. 

Although we did a lot of driving along the small, scenic road, we stopped for occasional hikes.  One memory from our list hike of the day stands out in my mind.  Forty minutes in, we arrived at a bend in the gorge that straightened out for a few thousand yards.  Huge boulders sat in the middle of the river, some piled on top of others.  All of the rocks in the river were so large, we felt like Lilliputians.   Kevin joked that it wouldn’t seem strange if all of a sudden a giant, Gulliver foot stomped down in the middle of the gorge.  A giant’s rivulet, complete with tiny pebbles.

Another favorite view from the gorge was the Eternal Spring Shrine.  The shrine is inside a red and yellow temple that is set in the middle of one of the mountains ringing the gorge.  From the road, one looks out at the shrine in the far distance, surrounded by lush greenery and the long, steep gorge beneath.  A little river runs under the shrine and dropped down the face of the gorge, creating a thin, elegant waterfall.  It was the first of the four or five stunning visuals of the weekend.  It made me want to travel someday to Venezuela to see Angel Falls.

I left Taroko unsurprised that it’s so popular.  I’d take Angkor over Taroko any day, but it’d been a while since I’d seen something so naturally impressive.  Makes sense that Taroko is the second most popular tourist destination in Taiwan after Taipei. 

My own running survey of the tourists present alongside us confirmed Taroko’s popularity.  Folks seemed to come from all over the world to marvel at what nature hath wrought.  At one point Kevin and I hung over a railing with Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Australian, British and Kazakh tourists.  Recall: this was a very light tourism weekend.

The prices in the nearby city of Hualian also testify to Taroko’s popularity.  Hualian is famous in its own right, but much of its tourism business comes from people going to Taroko.   I’ve spent a year in Taiwan.  I know how much different things should cost.  Kevin and I more than once were a bit offended by the nonnegotiable prices quoted to us for scooters or food.  Nevertheless, we didn’t have a choice.  The free market did its thing.

Looking for a little rest after a day of hiking, Kevin and I decided to drive to Rueshuei on Sunday for its famous hot springs.  Unfortunately, the Lonely Planet guidebook dramatically understated the distance between Hualian and Rueshuei.  We drove south along Highway 9 for two hours before encountering some rain.  We turned around and gave up.

Initially I was pretty pissed and saw the four hours of driving as a draining waste of time.  My retrospective judgment is rosier.  One aspect of Taiwan I miss by living in the second largest city is the beautiful, dense, impossibly lush greenery of rural Taiwan.  Driving along mostly empty highways along Taiwan’s east coast let me see the huge mountains, low-hanging clouds and open fields that characterize a large portion of this developed country.  It was, for lack of a less cliché word, majestic. 

One of my favorite images of eastern Taiwan came to me during my train ride home.  I sat on the floor at the back of my train car because there were no regular seats left.  Looking to stretch my legs, I stood up and looked out the window.  I saw what looked like tens of thousands of larvae feasting on the sides of dozens of green hills. 

In fact, the hills were the mountains of eastern Taiwan’s long, continuous mountain range.  The green were mango trees.  The white larvae were mango fruit bags—bags that farmers put around mangos and then tape to tree stems to make sure the mangos don’t fall to the ground and spoil when they ripen.  It was impossible not to chuckle a bit at my naivete, but I enjoyed that I could look at such a quotidian sight for most Taiwanese and envision it to be something so strange and different.  Sometimes the tourists, and the city boys, have it best.

The Stimulating and The Relaxing

A few weekends ago, Taiwanese Katherine and I went to Xiao Liu Chiu (小琉球), a small island off the southwest coast of Taiwan, for some rest and relaxation.   Although we had hoped to go to the more beautiful Green Island, travel accommodations were difficult to arrange at the last minute.  Like their Chinese and Japanese neighbors, Taiwanese love to travel.  Even domestic tourist spots are booked up every nice weekend.  Xiao Liu Chiu would have to do.  And do it did.

We were picked up by a van service affiliated with our hotel.  The driver picked up a few others and drove us the one hour to Donggan, a port town in Pingtung County.  The town seems to serve two functions: unloading endless tonnage of fish and loading up regular ferries to Xiao Liu Chiu. 

Looking at the giant fish market infrastructure, I was reminded of how much I take for granted the massive, complicated industries (plural) that keep my supermarkets and restaurants stocked.  It’s easy to forget how much work goes into the clean, plastic-wrapped boneless chicken breast with the Perdue label, or the banana display in the fruit aisle. 

American consumers are further removed from the farmers and fishermen than Taiwanese consumers.  Taiwan grows a lot more of its own food locally, so if you live in rural Taiwan you probably know the guy who prepares the food for you, or at least the guy who sells it to you knows the guy who sold it to him (I sound like the narrator of A Bronx Tale: “I know a guy…”).   Furthermore, Taiwanese shoppers want to see the unbutchered corpse when they buy meat.  There’s little trust here for foam-packaged, far-from-the-farm, sterile-looking chops.  Who knows how long it’s been sitting around? 

There’s a definite irony here given that an animal hanging from a hook in an open air night market for eight hours isn’t likely to be any more sanitary than prepackaged chicken breast (it’s less sanitary).  Taiwanese eateries, by and large, are not as clean as American eateries.  Nonetheless, I’d wager Taiwanese shoppers know more about how the food they buy is produced than American shoppers.  There’s good in that: Taiwanese take less for granted.

The problem with taking things for granted was highlighted by the ‘ferry’ ride Katherine and I took to Xiao Liu Chiu.  Like most other people, I associate ‘ferry’ with a slow-moving sea vessel.  A big horn honks and everyone takes pictures from the sides of the boat.  Kids hang over the railing as mothers shout at them to be careful.

The Xiao Liu Chiu “ferry” was a gigantic speedboat.  We were moving ridiculously quickly.  I half-expected the captain to pound down the stairs holding a broke-in-half throttle in his hand, screaming “We’re gonna’ die!” (in Chinese).  I did not know that “ferry” just denotes any sort of commercial vehicle that performs the action of “ferrying” people across a relatively small body of water. 

One other little funny detail of the ferry trip that will be of special interest to the 20-somethings in the audience: I’ve noticed, and the ferry ride confirmed, that the latest fashion for young, upper-middle class Taiwanese kids is to wear layered pastel polo shirts with the collars proudly popped.  It’s high comedy to me.  I feel very lucky that this particular fashion trend took its sweet time crossing the Pacific.  If only Justin Bieber’s music had moved as slowly.

We arrived in Xiao Liu Chiu twenty minutes after take-off (yes, take-off).  Katherine was overjoyed because we moved too quickly for her to get sea sick.  Our hotel picked us up at the pier, gave us a scooter and led us to our home for the night: Di Zhong Hai Hotel.

The most striking thing about our hotel was how out of place it seemed.  The architecture comes straight out of Greece, with white and blue stucco walls, big, airy rooms and a blue dome atop the building.  In case any lesser traveled visitors don’t get the reference, there’s a big Greek flag in the backyard.  I was reminded of the glorious, unforgettable hours I spent sitting on a wall with a few of my old Oxford classmates watching the sunset in the middle of a small village in Santorini that was built into the side of a mountain. 

Di Zhong Hai's Greek-inspired facade, plus the courtyard (the fountain is out of the frame)

Gesturing to Taiwanese tastes, there are stuffed animals everywhere, including three that were in our room.  This was one of the weirder manifestations I’ve yet seen of the East Asian idealization of youth (for others see: Hello Kitty, or my long post about how Asian men love Asian women who do things to make themselves look fourteen).  In our room there were two bodiless, pink heads called “Melody” and a black and white cat.  In the restaurant there were about eight different stuffed things, including a giant teddy bear and an ice cream cone.  The fountain/garden area was filled with stuffed animals, some of which lived in their own little wooden house (painted white and blue). 

Katherine and Melody

Taiwanese men’s idealization of youth may come with some pedophilic undertones, but Taiwanese women, Katherine included, just think stuffed animals are adorable.  Nothing objectionable about that.  As a good-will gesture, I sat for a mini-photo shoot with the many stuffed animals on campus.  I will let you see one, maybe two of said photos.  Don’t even bother requesting more.

Part of my multiyear series that a friend once dubbed something like "John's Misguided Love for Nose Picking Joke Pictures"

I served a brief stint as Baron of the Stuffed Animal Court. I was deposed by a fluffy rabbit.

The hotel staff provided a lot more than just abundant stuffing.  Our room was beautiful and it had an excellent balcony view of the Taiwan Strait. In addition, there was an afternoon tour of a nearby coral inlet, a nice dinner and a night tour of, among other places, a legendary cave.

Sitting down to dinner at our hotel. The only thing missing: something to keep the mosquitoes away.

I’ll touch on the afternoon tour and the dinner in the picture comments, but the cave we visited deserves lengthier comment.  To both avoid ticket prices and heighten the drama, our guide took us to the cave at night, in the pitch black Xiao Liu Chiu night (there are maybe thirty street lamps in Xiao Liu Chiu).  We walked down some steps before he cheerfully told us we’d have to crawl the rest of the way through a very small, very rocky, very uneven tunnel.

When I hear a Taiwanese man tell Taiwanese women “it’s a very small tunnel, be careful,” I go into crisis mode.  I define most doorways in Taiwan as “very small.”  Would I be able to make it through this?  To make matters worse, I wound up at the end of the line and had to navigate the tunnel without a flashlight.

A few challenging minutes later, I made it out of the tunnel thanks to some truly yogic body contortions.  The guide looked mildly surprised when I made it out alive, which didn’t really endear him to me. 

The cave he took us to had the same amount of floor space as my apartment’s medium-sized living room, and the ceilings were maybe five feet from the ground.  The guide sat us down and shared some boring geological facts before getting to the juicy history.

In the seventeenth century, dozens of aboriginals lived in the tiny cave.  None of us could imagine how so many folks fit into such a tiny place, even given the news that they were dwarves.  The aboriginals resented the encroachment of Dutch traders on Xiao Liu Chiu.  They attacked and murdered a few Dutchmen.  The Dutch, full of enlightened clemency, decided to throw fire into the cave and block the exits.  Roasted aboriginal.  Obviously the Dutch were not yet apprised of proper counterinsurgency strategy.

I was tempted to repeat the Dutch technique on the guide when the guide informed us that in order to exit the cave we’d have to crawl for thirty minutes through an even smaller tunnel.  Muttering some pretty vile things under my breath, I ducked down and steeled myself for a miserable trip down what I already had dubbed the Tunnel of Tears.

Fifteen seconds later I emerged into open air.  Jerk.

After we returned to the hotel, Katherine and I greeted our three, stuffed roommates, showered and settled in.  Then the Macy’s fireworks display began. 

To put it mildly, Taiwan has lax fireworks laws.  Pretty much any person of moderate maturity can buy whatever fireworks they please.  A band of merrymakers staying at the hotel next door must have spent thousands of USD buying an entire silo of fireworks.  I’m not talking dorky sparklers.  I’m talking big, three hundred feet high, huge, bright explosion fireworks. 

Katherine and I watched the show fifty yards away on our balcony as the producers stood silently, smoking cigarettes, admiring their work.  I almost always enjoy fireworks.  I find it funny that all human beings, some more than others (Chinese more than any others), like to watch bright things blow up.  We’re a much more empathetic, cooperative species than we were ten thousand years ago, but we can’t get over the allure of bright, shiny, controlled explosions.  The odds are slim I’ll ever again be so close to a fireworks spectacular.

The next day Katherine and I drove around Xiao Liu Chiu checking out the sites.  My favorite stop was a three-quarter of a mile walking path carved out of one of the island’s tropical forests.  Taiwanese like Katherine are accustomed to the beautiful, furious growth of the predatory banyan tree, but my American ecological expectations are always wonderfully overturned by the banyan.  Katherine gamely followed me on every little silly side path I wanted to walk in order to see more than what the short path allowed.  My knowledge of tropical plant growth is too slim to make much hay of this, but my enthusiasm is great.  I look forward to bringing my much more knowledgeable sister along on a tropical forest walk.  Maybe I can blog about it intelligently, or even have her guest blog it, after that experience (which I’ve already planned and will try to pass off to her as something she’s free to decide!).

Our last morning and afternoon in Xiao Liu Chiu were spent at the beach.  I reconnected with my inner nine-year-old and built a sand castle, complete with a moat.  The most memorable part of the day was when a stupid girl accidentally threw a rock into my jaw.  She was trying to hurl it into the ocean yet released the rock ninety degrees too late.  I know it sounds misogynistic, but I think ‘stupid girl’ is the appropriate term.  How many young men misfire so egregiously?  On a related note, I’d like to thank all the mouthy friends I’ve had in the Bronx for dragging me into enough fist fights that my jaw was conditioned to tolerate such a blow.  I shrugged it off, cleaned the cut and enjoyed the rest of my stay.

My weekend in Xiao Liu Chiu confirmed what an old boss once told me.  Every year he would spend half of his vacation at his summer house on the East coast, and the other half he would spend exploring a new, foreign city.  Traveling to a vibrant, interesting city is fun, but it’s not restful.  Traveling to the same old place may not titillate, but it’s very restful.  My boss planned to experience the best of both types of travel: the stimulating and the relaxing.  He believes such balance is perfect.  I agree.  I hope someday I’ll have the resources to emulate him.