I will remember many things about Taiwan.
I will remember being wet, a feeling that characterized much of the first half of our trip. Walking around Taipei in raincoats every day for a week. Waking up at Fulong Beach to the sound of rain on canvas, enjoying the sound, then slowly coming to realize that the reason my head was cool was because our tent's waterproofing had failed under the relentless downpour. Waiting for the rain to stop, only to have it start again as we hiked through the jungle; making covers for our packs out of garbage bags. Being happy to finally make it to a Buddhist temple where we could spend the night and take refuge under a solid roof.
I will remember Taiwan's beautiful and remote east coast. Hiking the historic Caoling Trail and not minding the rain, because the climb made us hot, and because our surroundings were gorgeous… being surprised at the drastic change in vegetation as we gained altitude. Seeing a truly giant spider outside a small trail-side shrine, dedicated to one of Taiwan's host of Taoist deities. Spending the night on the beach at a small lighthouse village; waking up to the sight of seaside cliffs, and our first sunny day. Hitching a ride later that day in the back of a pickup and thinking there was nothing better than the breeze in my hair, the sun on my face, and the ocean view beside me. Watching monkeys leap through the trees at Taroko, and being surprised that the famous gorge actually managed to live up to its hyped reputation.
I will remember the hot springs. The feeling of hiking around Taipei for days on end, then finally letting my body drop into the hot water of Beitou, an outdoor bath where we watched the sun set along with locals who went there every day. Sitting in the splendid wooden baths at Jiaoshi that exuded feng shui; baths which a Taiwanese man informed me were so nice "because the Japanese built them." Getting off the train at Rueisuei and walking for miles through farmland in an attempt to track down Taiwan's only naturally carbonated springs; thinking we were lost, then finally making it to the Rueisuei Hot Spring Hotel, where we were the only guests of an eclectic Taiwanese family that loves Harley Davidson. Showering in iron-rich spring water that turned our hair orange.
I will remember Taiwan's myriad temples and shrines, Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian; the Taoist temples overflowing with color and ornamentation, gaudy yet earnest… their Confucian counterparts stark and simple by contrast, manifesting the teachings of old Master Kong. Everywhere we went, no matter how remote, or how busy, somewhere close by incense was burning, somewhere close by someone was bowing in prayer. On the hiking trail, next to a tree: there was a shrine; in Taroko under a bridge: there was a deity waiting; across from a farmer working the fields in Hualien county: there was Matsu, face black from decades of incense.
The temples are tactile places: rough wood pillars sprout up from rough stone floors, large iron pots for incense are cool to the touch, giant wax candles are smooth and shiny to look at; smoke rises in puffs, chants float on the wind, and inside a doorway, through the haze of the incense, you can make out the shapes of fruits and candies which gods like to eat. To your right a woman cleans cubic feet of wax from cubic feet of candles; to your left, a man gives incense to his three year old daughter and tries in vain to guide her in its use. And that is why I love the temples: they are so old, so alive, and there's so much going on; they are places where sitting and waiting, watching and listening, waiting and touching are greatly rewarded—there's nothing quite like running your hand across a stone that ten thousand people have stood on to pray, that served as ballast on a ship bringing immigrants from China 300 years ago, in a country that's made up of ethnic Chinese who don't consider themselves part of the Mainland.
I will remember so many "little" things (if one is heartless enough to give memories sizes): more scooters than I've ever seen before, more dogs per capita than I've ever seen before, more dogs on scooters per capita than I've ever seen before. More bubble tea, cheaper bubble tea, better bubble tea, and more kinds of bubble tea than I have ever drunk before. More monkeys jumping in my lap than have ever been in my lap before. More stinky tofu than I've ever smelled before. More helpings of chicken feet than I've ever eaten before, and also of New Zealand oatmeal (oatmeal making a cheap breakfast, being very popular in Taiwan, and much of it imported from New Zealand).
I will remember the food.
And I could go on. But of all the memories, the ones that I will recall most fondly are of all the times that people helped us; all the times that strangers were kind to us without reason. In Taipei, getting lost, and a woman offering to help us as soon as my map was halfway out of my pocket. In Nanao, a man giving us directions to the local hot springs, then coming after us half an hour later on his scooter, because he had remembered that the springs were closed for construction. Later, going down the wrong remote road on the way to a train station, and having a mother and daughter stop and offer to drive us wherever we needed to go; offer to take us to an alternate hot spring, to an alternate town, to an alternate train station (because the one we were headed to wouldn't take us Town X); offer to host us in their aboriginal village. In Hualien, stopping for dinner at a street-side restaurant where no-one spoke English, only to have a passerby stop his scooter to have a conversation and help us out (a Los Angeleno who was back in Taiwan for military service); turned out to be a Buddhist restaurant with excellent vegetarian cuisine.
The next day, waiting for a taxi to the train station, a passerby introducing himself, asking where we needed to go, and informing us that taxis were rare, but he'd be happy to drive us to the station (or the next town, if we wanted—they have a great beach there, he said). In Taroko, monks under a pagoda insisting on sharing their lunch with us, delicious honey-bread dessert included… they were returning to their monastery after visiting a friend, and had plenty, they said. Never having to wait for more than one or two vehicles to pass before getting picked up for a hitched ride. Having one older man who hitched us and spoke little English take us back to his home and his family, where he insisted on serving us lunch; "so young," he said, when we told him our age… how I wished I could ask him what he had been doing at twenty-five—what his dreams had been, what he laughed at, what he thought of how life had turned out… but all I could do was touch my beer can to his, and drink.
Then there were the Mao-Maos and the Changs, Taiwanese families who hosted us for three nights in Tainan and Taichung, respectively, and treated us like long-lost family members—despite knowing nothing about us except what I'd posted on CouchSurfing.org. For our arrival the Mao-Maos prepared a special meal of chicken-feet and ginger rice, and in the morning Mrs. Mao-Mao wouldn't let us leave the house until we had been properly filled with rice balls and milk tea. On our second night with them, Mr. Mao-Mao insisted on taking us to an area of Tainan which we hadn't managed to get to, treating us to "special food," and attempting to show us his favorite sights (despite the fact that it was unfortunately late on a weeknight, and most places were sadly closed). Two days later we stayed with the Changs, and despite having only twenty-four hours with them, they managed to take us to more than half a dozen locations in Taichung and Yanli and stuff us to overflowing with delicious Cantonese and Hakka foods and deserts—absolutely refusing to let us pay for anything, they went so far as to give us presents for Marisa's parents (whom we were soon to meet in Vietnam), and when we left wouldn't let us get on the train without a packed dinner—and hugs all around.
As our train chugged towards Taipei and I ate of my packed dinner bounty, my mind wouldn't stop spinning: who were these strangers, and why were they so kind to us? Who were these people who took us, sight unseen, into their homes, and treated us like family—who let us sleep next to their laptop computers and digital SLRs, and lavished food and gifts on us? As our train pulled into Taipei Station—a place that felt strangely like home, because we spent our first days in Taiwan there—I had no real answer. As I sit here at my parents-in-law's home, having just arrived in Vietnam, I still have no real answer. But what answer am I looking for? Part of me seems to believe that these kind folk we visited must have secret identities: that they are the Batmen and the X-Men of doing good—kind people who have planted themselves in wait for us, to achieve some special purpose. But I know that is not true—I have had too many encounters with too many kind people in too many countries, and I don't believe in Batman. No, these people are just ordinary people, and that reality is a large part of why I travel: because for every terrible story my grandmothers have related to me from newspapers or television, of physical violence, or kidnapping, or theft… for every one of those, there are two, or three, or four stories of someone in the world who's been unreasonably kind to a stranger… and it gives me hope to be part of those stories—now on the receiving side, but I hope, throughout my life, to be on the giving side as well.
"Kindness begets kindness, trust begets trust, hope begets hope"; It's one thing to see that as a nice, clichéd sentiment, but another thing entirely to experience the reality personally in a way that I can't deny. Have I experienced kindness from strangers before? Have I offered it to them? Certainly. But one forgets, I forget. Not that it happened, but the way it felt, the way it changed me… and so the sentiment becomes a sentiment once again, becomes cliché once again, and I distance myself from the most important things in life. The vulnerability of extended travel, and the encounters that come out of it, force me back to the center.
Taiwan's official tourism motto is ridiculous, but after our experience there I can't help but like it, can't help but feel that it's exactly what it should be.