(Late) Disorganized Thoughts on Taiwan

By Emily

It wasn’t until college that I had Taiwan recommended to me as a destination. Honestly, I barely knew its political status related to China, let alone its location on a map. But Christopher (my good friend and former roommate) talked about how amazing it was, how much he enjoyed traveling there. So when we were booking flights through East Asia and added Taiwan to the mix, I had positive associations with it already.

During the four months traveling through Japan, Hong Kong, and southern China, we met dozens of travelers who had been to Taiwan already – and every single one of them LOVED it. We heard almost nothing negative about the entire island, which was a first (every destination has lovers and haters) and I began to pay closer attention. What about Taiwan makes it a place that all kinds of people enjoy?

We’re now in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, looking back at six weeks spent exploring Taiwan’s cities, coasts, and national parks. Here are some thoughts (in no particular order of importance) on the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name).

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In every city we visited, we found museums and cultural centers dedicated to promoting the cultures of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Exhibits on history, lifestyles, and practices filled huge buildings; we saw shows on traditional dancing and singing. At every tourist stop, mentions of the tribes local to the area were included in pamphlets and gift shops.

While I appreciate my elementary’s school’s lessons about the Chumash Indians, it’s pretty well-known that native peoples in the United States rarely get their history included in the education system or in local museums. Seeing Taiwan’s determination to share the lives and stories of indigenous tribes was a breath of fresh air, but brought up some difficult questions.

By promoting these cultures in museums and shops, there was a heavily commercialized aspect to it: “Buy these recreations of traditional clothes!” “Take your picture with an attractive female dancer!” “Join us on a tour through a ‘real village’!” It felt very uncomfortable and exotify-ing, as if this was just another tourist trap rather than a way of life for thousands.

I recognize that travel is often like this – going to another country to see how “others” live, and commenting on it as if your own way of life is superior/natural/default. So perhaps I’m not the most qualified individual to talk about the commercialization of a group of which I’m not a member. At least it’s made me a bit more aware of my actions as a foreigner in another country, and how best I can respect/appreciate other ways of life while avoiding fetishizing them.

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Within an hour of arriving in Taipei, I turned to Ethan and accused him of tricking me into coming back to Japan. The basic similarities were striking – the prevalence of convenience stores, the cleanliness compared to mainland China, the amount of shopping everywhere – and I noticed it immediately. Through traveling the island, I learned a lot more about Taiwan’s history and relationship with Japan, and just why the Republic of China felt so Japanese.

One comment quite a few travelers made about Taiwan was as follows: “It’s like the best of both China and Japan in one place.” That did feel true a lot of the time. The organization, infrastructure, and ease of travel felt like the streamlined experience of Japan, while the delicious food, diversity of people (in terms of race/class/clothing) and the language, of course, was thoroughly Chinese. But there also developed a distinctly Taiwanese feeling after spending a few weeks meeting people and studying the island. There’s a sense of pride in being Taiwanese, excitement about their own history and struggles, and a friendliness in wanting to share the love of their country with visitors. There seemed to be a greater feeling of community that I hadn’t experienced in either Japan or China, though, a kind of camaraderie that felt refreshing and unique. It certainly made me miss my fellow Californians.

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How to talk about the night markets… They were another aspect of Taiwan I was told about by many travelers. Similar to other open-air markets I’ve experienced – lots of people, mix of games, food and shopping, in a specific neighborhood in the evenings – but there were dozens of them throughout the island. I tried to find out more about what makes them so popular in Taiwan specifically, but haven’t found too much online. If you have an answer tell me in the comments?

My favorite dishes were barbecued corn (coated with four layers of sauces and spices, yum), giant pieces of fried chicken (as big as my head, and I have a large head), xiao long bao (I could eat ten dumplings a day for the rest of my life), and spiced beef skewers (returning to a primarily vegetarian lifestyle in California is going to be next to impossible). I realize I’m courting heresy with this next comment, but I don’t like boba tea. Feel free to yell at me about this controversial opinion when you see me next.

And maybe this is because I am a weak Westerner, but I cannot stand the smell of “stinky tofu” (臭豆腐) and I do not understand its popularity. Why? For what reason? How is this a thing?

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I’ve always been drawn to the water – pools, lakes, hot springs – and being in east and southeast Asia has certainly been a treat. (There’s water everywhere!!! As a Californian, I can’t figure out where it all comes from??? Why don’t these regions run out???) Taiwan was particularly lovely for this reason.

At Taroko Gorge (north of Hualien), we scootered through the winding roads of the mountains, along the route of the Liwu River. At one point, we parked and hiked off the main road, climbing around a fence to get to a natural hot spring area. We found a couple of other travelers and a few Taiwanese locals there, sitting in the hot water along the edge of the roaring river. Stripping down to our underwear, Ethan and I jumped right in (while Nancy soaked her feet like a lady) and climbed around the calmer points of the river. The color of the water was a beautiful blue-grey, and being surrounded by marble cliff faces was awesome.

In Taichung, we stayed at a hostel that offered a trip to the “Double Dragon” waterfall, closer to the interior of the island (Taichung is on the west coast). After hiking a ways through thick forest on a tiny trail, we reached Taiwan’s largest suspension bridge – which had pretty much no solid railing. With our Taiwanese leader and four Malaysian travelers, Ethan, Nancy and I traversed the bridge, stopping to take pictures and/or swear. (Nancy helped a particularly fearful teenager conquer his fear of the bridge, while the rest of us pretended not to be frightened as all hell). When we reached the end of the bridge, we found the Double Dragon falls right above us, crashing down the cliff face. One pool nearby was deep enough to jump in off a boulder, and we were able to wade all the way in under the waterfall, an exhilarating experience.

South of Taipei, Ethan and I took a rickety bus all the way up to Wu Lai, a small village with a mining history, and now a tourist attraction for its beautiful waterfall and natural hot springs. Similar to Taroko, we shimmied down to the hot spring area where a ton of locals had set up their own spa, piping water from the hillside to fill large plastic tubs and cement pools. They even hung blankets above and around a rocky area to make an indoor sauna! While Ethan enjoyed the hot water, I took it upon myself to explore the river. The current was incredibly strong, but a rope was set up on one edge to allow you to swim while still connected to the bank. After playing around with that, Ethan and I both followed the “footsteps” of the locals and jumped in upstream to swim to a calmer spot downstream, allowing the current to push us quickly along the edge of the village. Relaxing at the end of a long day, I laid on the bank with my feet in the river, and was treated to an impromptu pedicure by some tiny fish, who enjoyed nibbling the dead skin off my feet (free spa treatment!) Definitely my favorite part of the trip.

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On one of our last days in Taipei, Ethan and I went to two museums dedicated to the 2/28 Movement, as well as the 2/28 Memorial Park. For those who don’t know, this commemorates a huge protest in 1947 by the Taiwanese people against oppressive censorship measures of their government, which resulted in the death and imprisonment of thousands. In the past few decades, the government has begun to recognize the tragedy of this time in history, and have begun working with activists to set up museums and memorials to educate the public.

It’s something that greatly impressed me about this place, that the leaders were willing to admit past political wrongdoing and take steps to apologize to the public and make sure the tragedy isn’t swept under the rug. I wish the United States were better about admitting mistakes/errors of judgement/etc in their past, and were willing to make reparations to the groups wronged. To be proud of your country is one thing, but to refuse to admit that your country has ever hurt its own people is another. For me, the only reason to be proud of a place is to see it progress over time, to see it continually get better for all of its citizens. Otherwise, it’s like a stagnant pond that keeps filling up with mosquito larva and pond scum (see our current state of affairs).

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That’s all I got for now. Message me to chat about Taiwan 🙂

Taiwan 2k17, the “We Are So Behind on Photos” Edition

Howdy folks! We’ve been in Vietnam for 3 weeks, but here’s hundreds of photos from Taiwan. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Hualien! Taitung! Kaohsiung! Taichung! Sun Moon Lake! Taipei (again)! It’s all here and more, plus plenty of pics of Emily’s lovely mother Nancy, who joined us for 3 abso-scooterly wonderful weeks.

Part 1: Hualien-Taitung-Kaohsiung

Part 2: Taichung and Sun Moon Lake

Part 3: Taipei – Round 2

Vietnam photos are coming soon (we survived)! Leaving for Bangkok in just two days; the trip goes ever onward.

Love,

E&E

Eat Pray Love Laugh Netflix Fatigue Travel

While Skyping with my sister yesterday, she jokingly asked me, “So are you all ‘enlightened’ now that you’ve traveled around the world?” My initial response was an eye roll and immediate assurance that I have not changed all that much; the only changes that I could think of at the time are that I’m more open to eating other types of foods (which is actually a milestone for this incredibly picky eater) and I’m more used to living each day with fewer material objects. But her question stuck in my head after the conversation ended, for a few reasons.

The backpacker life comes with quite a few cliches, both the ones that are projected upon us and the ones we create for ourselves. In the former category, there are the assumptions that we’re all trust fund kids with superiority complexes who don’t actually care about the places we’re visiting as long as they provide good backdrops for Instagram photos. In the latter category, there is a culture of self-righteousness about our amazing journeys that allow us to discover our life’s true purpose through learning from “other” (non-white or non-Western) peoples. While I have met two or three individuals who match up to these stereotypes, they are few and far between. Yes, a few of us have read Eat Pray Love (guilty) or wear loose elephant-print pants (you know who you are) or wax poetic about “life on the road,” but the majority of people I’ve met have been… normal, for lack of a better term.

Some travelers have saved money for their trip, others work on the road to keep themselves afloat. Some wear makeup daily, others have quit looking in mirrors altogether. Some haven’t talked with a friend back home in weeks, others Skype their families every day. Backpackers of all kinds spend a lot of time watching their favorite shows online, complaining about the foods they miss, chattering about their pets, comparing prices of items at convenience stores, asking for tips about their destinations ahead; there’s no singular type of traveler I’ve come across, really. Occasionally I’ve talked to others about the “reason” why they travel, but somehow it’s assumed as a given among the group – if you have the means and time, why not?

Ethan and I went into this trip with similar feelings – we both want to see more of the world, this is a good point in our lives to do it, our financial situations are stable enough for awhile. Very quickly into this trip, Ethan brought up the quote: “Wherever you go, there you are.” We’re the same individuals who left Berkeley 5-6 months ago, just with a higher tolerance for mosquito bites and snoring roommates. I don’t think either of us expected an epiphany while climbing a mountain or a realization of some subconscious goal while eating a dumpling.

Still, there’s always a nagging feeling that we’re not doing/seeing/learning/experiencing enough, that somehow we’re traveling incorrectly. If my previous statement is true, that we’re traveling not for enlightenment but because we can, wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to stay at home and study these places? I could glean more about Chinese history in a week at a desk than I could schlepping a backpack through Sichuan for two months. An immersion program at a Japanese school in San Francisco would teach me more language skills than what I picked up at a hostel in Tokyo. Removing the physical activity, social stress, and money-spending inherent in travel would certainly make learning about these cultures much easier and arguably more amusing.

When I look back on this trip – about 100 days until its end, just a bit past the midway point – I don’t think about all of the history I’ve learned or the museums I’ve seen or the souvenirs I bought. I think of it in terms of moments: watching my mother successfully coax a frightened Malaysian teenager across Taiwan’s largest suspension bridge; singing Eagles karaoke at a Family Guy-themed bar until 4:00 am in Osaka; sitting in an alleyway in Kyoto with my boyfriend at midnight, frustrated after a stressful day of switching trains and climbing stairs. I think of all of the people who I became close with because we were in the same city at the same time and spoke the same language, people who I’d love to see every week for the rest of my life, but can’t because the world is too big.

I guess I don’t travel to become more enlightened; I travel to fit more “life” into my life. And really, one doesn’t need to be in a foreign country to try new foods or meet new friends or have more fun – it’s just that travel reminds you how to do those things when your life at home feels ordinary. The most challenging part of this trip, for me, will be learning to make new adventures without a backpack on, to extend the exhilaration of novelty into a place I already know. So, little sister, get ready to get enlightened right along with me when I come home next year. We’re gonna have some fun.

Top of the Sweet Potato – Taipei Photos

Howdy folks. Ethan here.

TL;DR – Long live Taipei! Long live stinky tofu! Photos here.

If you look at a map of Taiwan, the whole island looks a bit like a sweet potato. At the northern end of that delicious green root vegetable is a big, beautiful city called Taipei.

Em and I had been told a lot of things about Taiwan before we arrived – literally all of them positive. The capital city is wonderful, the mountains are gorgeous, the eastern coast breathtaking, the food to die for…you name it. I had personally gotten a rushed glimpse of Taipei during a long layover back in 2016 and all I had were good memories. Suffice it to say, we arrived with high expectations.

Right off the bat, Taipei started to fulfill them.

Our first week in Taiwan was spent visiting museums, sweating our brains out, eating at night markets, and marveling at the curious mix of China and Japan that Taiwan represents. We also got to welcome the lovely Nancy (Emily’s mom) on our trip for a 3-week jaunt around the island.

And as always, lucky reader, you get to follow along with us! Until our next batch of photos. ❤

Love,

E&E