Sunday, January 22, 2012

Float Like A Butterfly And Sting Like A Typhoon

Once I passed the the southern tip of Taiwan I was back in the western plain with its towns and cities that merge into each other. Kaohsiung is the island's second city and main port. If there was anywhere I was going to find a boat out of here it would be there. I wasn't feeling too hopeful though after contacting a shipping agent who specialises freighter travel who told me that due to the corruption and bribery that is endemic in the Philippines freighter companies refuse to take passengers: "in 18 years of Freighter Travel – we have NEVER been able to handle passengers to or from ports in the Philippines." The container port is vast and sprawling and impossible to get into, and there didn't seem to be a recognisable yacht harbour either (the concept of owning your own boat and sailing around, either to neighbouring countries or just within Taiwan, is not one that is much accepted in society and certainly not by the authorities). Instead I went to the customs office, and although the man I talked to was genuinely kind and wanted to help, it was not a situation that they are used to handling and could only give me the numbers of a couple of local yacht manufacturers in the off chance that they may be delivering vessels to the Philippines.

One of my favourite types of street food in Taiwan. The stall has all the ingredients set out in portions. You go around with a little basket and tongs (kindly modelled here by Adele), picking out whatever grabs your fancy (sausage, duck eggs, chicken ass, tofu, fish balls, chicken hearts, noodles, etc.) and then paying per item as they boil it up into a soup for you. Nice!

I had to accept a setback to my travelling dreams, but that's the way I suppose. I do have principles, but I'm not going to sit around forever to stick to them when there is a simple work-around, and so I've bought myself a plane ticket to Manila which only cost me a tenth of what I was willing to spend to go by boat. It's a mad world indeed. But it's also a shame that there is no boat connection between the two countries as there are many Filipinos who live and work in Taiwan (along with sizeable numbers of Indonesians, Thais and Vietnamese), but there is no competing with the convenience of air travel.

Whilst in Kaohsiung I met and spent some time with Adele, a mainland Chinese girl who was studying in Taiwan and was using her last days to visit the country before going back for Chinese New Year. For mainlanders (except for those from Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen) the only way to visit Taiwan is with an organised tour, and since she was from neither, this was her last chance to see the island independently. The experience of spending time in the "renegade province", and comparing reality to propaganda had a profound impact on her and it was fascinating to be able to talk to her about it (luckily her English was impeccable too) as it is rare to witness the collision of two conflicting world-views within a person and to be able to talk to them about it.

Equally compelling was talking about how she, and "Easterners" in general, view us "Westerners". Each of us is brought up within a social paradigm, where some things are considered obvious and taken for granted, whereas others are scorned or ridiculed, for little other reason than "that is the way things are and have always been". When you travel widely you learn to see past your social conditioning and accept things that may go against it, accepting practices that would instinctively shock less cosmopolitan compatriots, such as thinking nothing of eating grasshoppers and spiders, sharing a communal, mixed-sex, naked sauna, or even using your hand to wipe your backside after going for a number two. Nevertheless the conditioning is there at some level, and no matter how much you break down the walls, it still shapes the way you think and perceive the world. This blog is littered with little local quirks and foibles that I find eccentric, amusing or just plain weird. Yet there must also be things that I, and we Westerners in general, do that will seem equally eccentric, amusing or weird to people from other cultures. What are they? Talking to this student revealed another couple to me that I would like to share.

Another difference between "East" and "West": karaoke. In the West we generally go out to a pub or club with our friends, whereas here it's KTV (karaoke) joints that reign supreme for communal entertainment. This middle-aged guy was belting out songs and busting moves to his heart's content in a pavilion in a Kaohsiung park. Tom Jones he certainly was not!

One of the most innocuous, yet pervasive, is the difference between East Asians and Westerners in how we drink water. In the West we like it cold, preferably with ice, although when backed into a corner we may accept it at room temperature. For the Chinese this is unfathomable. They would never drink cold water (except on a really hot day) but instead prefer it hot, or at least tepid. Why there should be either preference is strange as each is as arbitrary as the other. Other idiosyncrasies that baffle Easterners is that we have to pay to go to the toilet, one of their pet peeves when they travel to Europe. And I have to agree. Here, and even in parts of China that are not that developed, there are numerous clean (OK, not super clean in the poorer parts of China, but that would be asking too much), free public toilets.

One of the few physical remains of the original Dutch colony in Tainan - the walls of Zeelandia fort are now overgrown with banyan trees.

But back to sightseeing. From Kaohsiung it was a short hop to Tainan, the island's oldest town and erstwhile capital. Oddly enough it wasn't the Chinese who founded it but the Dutch, who found Taiwan to be a handy base between their colonies in Malacca and Batavia and their trading posts in Japan. The Chinese only gained control of Taiwan when the pro-Ming general Koxinga realised he couldn't beat the new Qing dynasty and so turned his sights on the weaker Dutch forces that were controlling Taiwan. There are a few old remains here and there and the town has a more laid-back vibe to it than bustling Taipei. In fact the more relaxed attitude and greater appreciation of leisure time is probably the defining feature of Taiwan that sets it apart from its local peers: China, South Korea and Japan. Proof of this lies in the many expats I have met who are long-term migrants to Taiwan, and who without exception cite the mix of East Asian efficiency and the generally unhurried pace of life. I personally took advantage of it by joining my host and some other Tainan locals in joining their local ultimate frisbee practice. I used to play a lot whilst at university but had not really thrown a disc in over seven years, so I was glad to see it (more or less) coming back to me and managing to hold my own with them (afterwards I learnt that several are on the national team). Although communication wasn't straightforward sport is a universal leveller and I had a great time, vowing to myself to take it up again when I finally settle down again.

One of the migrating purple spotted crow butterflies of Maolin (little blighter refused to open up his/her wings so that I could take a picture of the beautiful, iridescent forewings, so you'll just have to imagine them).

Before heading back to Taipei for Chinese New Year I stopped in the southwestern foothills of the central mountains to investigate the purple crow butterflies that migrate from the north of the island in winter, much like the monarchs in North America to whom they are closely related. Their numbers do not rival their illustrious cousins, but it was joyous to walk along the paths in the early morning sun and see hundreds of fluttering lepidoptera drop out of the trees, seemingly materialising out of thin air. The area around Maolin is seeing a lot of construction work and it was only after I got picked up by a civil engineer who is building a bridge up the valley that I learnt that it was due to typhoon Morakot that struck the island over two years ago, but whose effects are still evident. Taiwan suffers a handful of typhoons every year, but Morakot was the most destructive in recorded history, killing over 600 and causing over $3 billion of damage. Roads and bridges are still being repaired and some houses could still be seen half-buried by the mudslides brought on by the heavy rains. Taiwan and southeast Asia may be tropical island paradises, but I'm glad that such extreme weather is all but non-existent.

The sword of Damocles hangs above Taiwan in the form of its annual typhoons that can devastate whole communities.

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