Part 2 of the story behind the story of “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan.”
The captain announced that we’d be touching down soon, and we soared over the land from the flat blue ocean, overflying hectares of farm ponds dotted with white ducks, and then glided past the outer fences of Chiang Kai-shek International Airport to bump down on the big black runway. I had arrived! The airport mechanism duly ingested, processed, and ejected me with dreary efficiency, and then I was in for a bit of excitement: a Formula 1 racer wannabe type taxi driver showed me his need for speed along the highway into Taipei. Heart pounding, I peered out the windows and got my first view of the city: green hills, grey buildings and rivers, Mandarin characters everywhere. He dropped me off in Dadaocheng, one of the oldest parts of the city. I was on my own in this new land.
I had a hook-up though. I was to stay with friends of my Canadian buddy Sarah for a few nights at what turned out to be a weird old house, an elegant if somewhat faded Japanese-era mansion, invisible if you walked by because it was completely surrounded on all four sides by grubby, somewhat newer buildings. In fact, you had to enter through a small door at the back of a shop which had a roller belt for moving big bags of rice flour. The outside of the house had no number plate, I had zero Chinese, and no cell phone, so finding it the first time was an interesting challenge!
My first week in Taiwan was more than simply “a week”. It was a timeless period, present in the now and full of newness. An intense but random series of seemingly unconnected sights, sounds, and smells quickly coalesced into my first basic view of Taiwan on the ground. There was mad traffic, and funky old markets and temples that contrasted with gleaming new buildings and high-tech prosperity. There was a large variety of interesting food that was affordable, often delicious, and sometimes weird. Public spaces were crowded, and often very noisy with touts, announcements, or just people speaking loudly. Everywhere you went there were lots of people, the vast majority of them East Asian. There was not too much obvious ethnic diversity, so foreigners like me stuck out like sore thumbs, and I got lots of curious looks. But most people were very friendly and helpful.
After a few days I got my first basic idea of how to function in Taiwan. It was quite a bit harder back then, as there was no Facebook or Google Maps. I soon moved into the cheap-ass “Taipei Hostel” near the main train station, where I shared a room, bathroom, and a common area with various other international travelers. They were mostly new Western arrivals like myself, looking to teach, but also a few older teachers hard up on their luck, drunk most of the time, as well as a group of traders from India. They were OK.
My first priority was making money, as I’d only arrived about $1200 Canadian. One of Sarah’s friends in the mansion hooked me up with a job at a private English-language kindergarten for Taiwanese kids. The work scene of the newbie foreign teacher here was a bit of a zoo: there was a high demand for teachers but low regard for quality. Those without real training or experience were usually relegated to “singing, dancing clown” types of jobs where Teacher Funny Foreigner makes the kids giggle. My first gig was no exception. There were 12 preschool kids to look after, who were very sweet but extremely exhausting. Controlling the kids, having to use the required educational materials – some of them way too tough for the level – and learning how to deal with local managers and teaching assistants, was a tough challenge at first. The days seemed to last forever. Then, somewhat worse for wear, I’d make my way through the crowded streets or subways to find food, and then back to the hostel lounge to swat mosquitos, watch HBO, and chat with my fellow residents.
The deal was to work during the week, but live it up on the weekends! After a few attempts, getting around turned out to be quite easy. There were many attractions in and around Taipei: lush mountains covered in forest or tea farms, hot springs, temples, lovely rivers, museums, beaches, fishing harbors, night markets, quaint little towns and neighborhoods; it was a day-tripper’s paradise. Downtown, there was a lively party scene, with many bar and dating options. Us new arrivals soon became dandies, strutting about town with our white skin, high-bridged noses and “double fold” eyelids, all considered attractive by many of the local lasses. Once we got a few paychecks in, we found apartments, and then we could have house parties. During holidays we’d go down with our girlfriends to the south or east coast of the island, where the beaches were better, and things a bit more laid back. It was also an amazing blast to explore the wider region: Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia were all a short hop away. Life was good! Not only was my urge to travel being well satisfied by all the new sights and activities, but I was living in a safe, friendly society with universal health care, and I could easily find well-paying jobs. It seemed like the best of both worlds, traveling in a foreign country while living a stable lifestyle at the same time. Kind of like my dad used to do.
Flash forward five years: I was working at a much better teaching job with greatly improved confidence, and living with my new Taiwanese wife in a nice apartment. I’d visited all the special sites around Taipei, and many around the island. I had a posse of friends, and knew most of the major streets, subways, buses, restaurants, pubs, and markets. Taipei had become familiar and comfortable, and life had started to become something of a routine, albeit a generally pleasant one. But wait….Uh-oh! Was that a flashing yellow light on my dashboard? Had real life finally caught up with my endless escape?
If I’d had kids or a job that had room for real growth in scope and complexity, I might have invested my energies there. But I didn’t. Something else had to be done. The idea to walk around the island just seemed to float into my brain one day. I instantly fell in love with it, although it came as a complete surprise to my wife and friends. The usual response was a confused silence followed by some version of “You aren’t serious!” Of course, they probably hadn’t read the same books I had. When I still living back in Canada, and dreaming of traveling the world, I had become very interested in a certain sub-genre of travel literature you could call “adventurous expedition stories”. These were stories of people who skied across Antarctica (Shadows on the Wasteland), rode a motorbike around the world (Jupiter’s Travels), paddled a canoe from Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon river (Paddle to the Amazon), walked from the mouth of the Orinoco to the mouth of the Amazon (Mad White Giant), or walked across the island of Borneo (Stranger in the Forest). I even remembered something from some other foreigner in Taiwan who had started his book talking of his plan to walk the mountainous spine of Taiwan, before his dream was dashed by the 921 Earthquake. Why not do my own little adventure, I thought? Why not walk around the entire island in stages, following the coast as much as possible?
It would also help me in another way too. I was starting to realize that there was an invisible barrier separating me from the Taiwanese, a force field that they were unconsciously projecting from deep in their minds. I was not and could never be Taiwanese. I was a foreigner, just as I was human and male. In time, people I was close to would come to see me as just “John”. But to the wider society, I would always be “a foreigner”. If I were to feel part of the island, I would have to do it on my own terms.
One fine day, I set out on my merry adventure. I was once more moving forward into the new. The first few days felt a bit weird, but I was still excited. I soon settled into a rhythm, and did my coast walking thing on nice days, so there was just endless blue sky, blue sea, and coastal greenery. It was cool as well because I was seeing the stuff you usually whiz past as you’re going from one tourist attraction to another. Now I was walking past quiet “nothing special” beaches with a group of old guys fishing, a few scruffy dogs for an entourage, or simple houses by the sea, a lady sweeping up a courtyard, a small fishing boat coming into a tiny little harbor. At times the only coastal route was the highway, and I’d face down trucks, buses, cars, and motorcycles as they zoomed by. Then I’d arrive at a proper town, and because sometimes the side streets were closer to the water, I’d take them instead of the main drag. I often cut through the back areas of fishing harbors where the Southeast Asian fishermen were working, sometimes directed by short, tough, gnarly-looking middle-aged Taiwanese men: captains or senior crew members. When I did chance upon the main tourist areas, I was sweatier than anyone else, and felt more like the cowboy who had ridden his horse across the dusty plains than the rich folk who took the train or stagecoach. So I’d keep moving on.
I was in it for the long haul. As I followed the coast, there was always the new view around each bend, and then the next outcrop or promontory in the distance, the new farthest point along my route I could see. And always I was getting farther and farther away from “home” in a strange land. I had been through most of this area by bus or train before, but it felt like a different place when I walked it. The experience was intimate, laborious, lonely, strange, and addictive. And then one day I met another traveler, who suggested I take the journey to another level. He said, “Why not write a book about your trip? I’ll help you.” He turned out to have a lot of interesting stories of his own. And shit did he like to drink beer!
To be continued …
Coming soon! Part 3 of The story behind “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”
Interested in the book? Check us out on Facebook. https://Facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet/
Or look for us on Amazon