Can you believe 2018 is already one month old?
I write here from the refuge of my Cheongju flat, protected from the hungry winter winds that largely have kept me inside the last few days, save for a “beer day” I had around the 충대 area of Cheongju. It’s safe to say that the beer did a decent job of shielding my thermally-fragile body, but the weather here is much more biting than back in the States at the moment – I’ve heard. The reason for my recent blog silence, assuming I need to provide one and you’re willing to except my excuses, can be summed with one simple word: 방학 – banghak – school vacation. For the past month or so, I have been relieved of teaching duties (mostly) and had free reign to travel and enjoy life to the fullest. I have survived both of my international vacations and now find myself having time for my storytelling. Here begins trip one (with some excess rambling): Taiwan.
The turn-around after my final day of school and accompanying teacher “field trip” was ridiculously fast. After a brief night’s rest, hurried packing and a meager breakfast, I was on the bus headed to the airport and my first venture out of the country since arriving in July. When originally parceling out my vacation time into vacations, it was difficult to choose between so many tempting travel destinations. I decided upon Taiwan, where two of my close friends from the U.S. are currently completing their own Fulbright ETA grants, Maddie and Wenbo. I am always of the opinion that travel is most fulfilling when you can use someone’s local knowledge to enhance what might otherwise be aimless wandering or too many visits to the most tourist-heavy spots. On the eve of New Year’s Eve, I arrived at the Taipei airport late. My fellow Korea ETA Sarah was to arrive on an even later flight, so I headed to meet Wenbo and Maddie near our AirBnb location.
The month of December was extremely busy and beyond what was necessary, Sarah and I did not conduct much prior planning for the trip. I am not the wired traveler type who sprints from museum to museum, leaving a trail of gift shop receipts in my wake, nor the guy who tries to hit up every top ten site over a two-day visit. Vacation, to me, is a chance to explore new places and meet people there, all while learning about yourself and how you adapt. If you stick too much to the tourist track, it’s barely scratching the surface, like missing out on the toy at the bottom of the cereal box. Since high school I haven’t revisited learning Mandarin much, but being in Taiwan and surrounded by it brought back a lot of words and characters that were gradually replaced by Spanish, Korean, and other useless information stored in my brain.
The one part of trip planning that I regret not considering was how wet it tends to be in Taiwan. Rain comes often and without warning, so silly me should’ve brought an umbrella. As I waited outside the subway for my friends, the little drops of rain didn’t bother me much. Korea had already been a frozen tundra for weeks, so light warm rains couldn’t phase this guy right here.
After some minutes of waiting and observing, I looked over to see Wenbo and Maddie rising slowly from the depths of the subway station (of course on an escalator). I hadn’t seen familiar faces in months and I was so happy to be there in that moment, visiting old friends and celebrating the new year together. Back at the AirBnb, there was no delay in sharing some of our crazy stories from six months of life abroad. Crazy roommates, funny school stories, questionable foods, and language barrier moments were all brought up. At first glance, Taiwan seemed extremely different from Korea (just 3 hours away) and I really found my friends’ stories fascinating.
Though a little late already, we decided to go catch up out on the town, still waiting for Sarah to arrive. The Ximen area (one subway station away from our place) had a lively nightlife and rows of street vendors selling baozi, dumplings, fruit, and sweets. We didn’t want to overdo it with New Year’s Eve being the next night, so we enjoyed a couple beverages and hustled back home after Sarah made her way safely to our table in the crowded outdoor bar area.
The night is dark and full of terrors, according to Game of Thrones. I never believed this until that first night together at the AirBnb. Wenbo, bless her heart, had set some crazy early alarms for the previous day, having to wake up to make the train to Taipei from her isolated city down south. So, in the middle of the night, maybe 4am, we were all surprised to hear an alarm going off. Who sets alarms during vacation?! The room consisted of a double bed below, and a double bed lofted above, requiring you to climb a sturdy metal ladder to get there. Of course, Wenbo was sleeping up on the lofted mattress, yet her phone was down below by our bags and the door. Despite the alarm going off (it might have been a Backstreet Boys song…), I wasn’t conscious enough to move or sensibly shut it off. Wenbo, knowing that it was her alarm and all the while guiltily trying to silence it to preserve our sleep, frantically rushed to the ladder. At this point, I heard a crash and happened to wake up enough to look over, seeing a dark form crumble to her demise at the hands of the ladder. Missing a wrung or two or three, Wenbo made it to the bottom and turned off the alarm, at the expense of her body. The next morning, she had big dark bruises almost like burn marks; I switched to the lofted bed the next night. The night is indeed dark and full of terror.
After this little blip, the exploration of Taiwan truly began. Our first meal was a typical Taiwanese breakfast, street food consisting of fried dough, egg, and a peanut-flavored drink. Manufacturing good ideas is always easier on a full stomach; from breakfast, we decided to check out the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. If you know nothing about Taiwan (I didn’t for sure), this is the building that appears in all the Google searches and on most Taiwan travel guides. We climbed the steps and admired the view from above, showcasing a grand open space and little tourists scurrying like ants. The day continued as we alternated brief cultural site visits with food breaks. Our lunch consisted of delicious hot pot, followed by green tea ice cream. From there we headed to a culture park, normally housing short-term art exhibits, sculptures, street art, street performers, and shops and cafés. We ended up relaxing at the AirBnb for a couple hours to recharge and then set out for the Taipei 101 area for dinner. Being New Year’s Eve, there were massive crowds and a growing energy.
Taipei 101 is the world’s second tallest building and hosts one of the largest New Year’s Eve fireworks shows. We wanted to see the setup, the massive collective of people, and eat dinner nearby, but then escape back to our neighborhood for the actual midnight celebration. We located a nice bohemian café and delightful meal, ordered some beers, and explored the area briefly before swimming against the current of people to take the subway home and celebrate our hopes for 2018.
For the first morning of 2018, we unanimously decided on brunch as a good idea before Maddie had to return home to Yilan City. As we said goodbye to Maddie for a few days, we moved all of our bags to the next AirBnb before further exploring the city and later having my first experience seeing a Chinese Opera. It was quite acrobatic and I was quite impressed by the actors’ movements, effortless and athletic. The next morning, we took a cable car up to Maokong. The morning was sunny and brilliant, giving us an open view of the cityscape, Taipei 101 always dominating the smaller structures surrounding it. That afternoon, Sarah and I split up for a day. I traveled with Wenbo to her city of Taitung, planning to visit her schools, see her apartment, and experience her way of life. The ride was a little over four hours by train and I dozed off, probably dreaming, but unable to conjure those vivid images again after waking up.
Taitung has a much slower pace of life than Taipei, something Wenbo and her friends were constantly reminding me. After disembarking the train, our first mission was to locate Wenbo’s scooter (not a Razor, but an actual motorized scooter) among the massive sea of vehicles parked at the station. Unlike Korea where everyone drives cars or takes public buses, the majority of people in Taiwan commute to work, buy groceries, or go on a Sunday joyride on scooters. This was my first time riding on one and I was simultaneously thrilled by the sensation (similar to my first time on a jet ski, but more like Frogger in the number of near-collisions) and panicked that I would somehow topple off the bike.
The next day, I woke up early with Wenbo to accompany her to school. I was already on my winter vacation, but the Taiwan ETA’s were still in school until the end of January. I was so excited to see how ETA’s were working in a different country and to meet the kids (despite my pitifully limited Mandarin skills). Wenbo’s classes were vastly different from my own, but I was impressed by her command of the class, Chinese ability (how much it’s improved!), and loved meeting her students. Just after lunch we went to a regional Fulbright meeting, meeting all the ETA’s in her region and mooching the meeting snacks. After “networking” (doodling during their meeting), we took one last scooter ride to the coast, ate a traditional Taiwanese beef noodle dinner, and I headed back to the train station to head to Hualien and reunite with Sarah.
Overall, Hualien was a strange city, the strangest of our trip. It was overly touristic, but we never quite understood why. The city does not have that many interesting attractions, but it’s extremely commercial and we saw a lot of foreigners wandering about. The Hualien experience was fairly lackluster, but we had a good reason for going. About an hour from the city is a beautiful national park called Taroko Gorge. We spent an entire day there, hiking, trying to figure out where the bus stops were, and even saw our first wild monkey! Some questionable joint decision-making led to a 1.5 hour walk down through the gorge along the highway. Not along a foot path or anything sensible. We had inadvertently become those people you see walking on the side of the road, unsure if they are stranded or just crazy. We thought it was a good idea at the time, but eventually started to doubt the efficacy of the decision.
Nevertheless, we emerged from the gorge unscathed and ready for uninterrupted slumber. The next day, we took yet another train; this time our destination was Yilan City (for those attentive readers, where Maddie is living). After settling into our newest AirBnb (despite some communication problems with the host), we again met Maddie and explored the nearby night market. There was no shortage of fried foods to try, dumplings, corn, candied fruits, and other unidentifiable delights. That night, one of Maddie’s closest friends was celebrating his birthday. We met a group of about 12 people for a bowling excursion (bowling in Taiwan felt just as strange as one could imagine) and then headed to the only bar around for warm conversation and some light bar karaoke. Somehow, I always get roped into that, this time singing “Shape of You” for a group of random Taiwanese guys, the bartenders, a French couple, and our birthday party.
By the next morning, the trip for Sarah had all but come to an end. She had to return a day earlier than I did, so we woke up and scurried to catch a train back to Taipei. I mentioned before that we’re both lax travelers, almost too much so. Having not purchased train tickets in advance, Sarah almost missed her flight home, but luckily made it on time. I made sure of it :D. So, I found myself back in Taipei, this time alone. My last stop was to visit the National Palace Museum and its regarded jade collection, highly touted by an old family friend of mine. That day was the first day that I truly regretted being umbrella-less, and my pride prevented me from buying one just for the last day of the trip. Long story short, I made it to the museum and back, enjoyed a friendly evening with some other travelers at the hostel, and the next day headed back to Korea.
Coming back into Korea for the first time also felt strange. Korea feels like home after living here for so long and I didn’t realize I missed the sound of Korean among other things. After arriving home, I didn’t have much time to myself before heading back to “work”. For just one week I had a winter English camp with 10 students for an hour-and-a-half each day. We talked about different themes relating to music and I even brought some homemade goodies for them the last day. I really enjoyed getting to know these students better and it further inspired me to connect with students in the coming year.
Stay tuned for vacation stories part two: the land down under. Coming soon to a computer near you.
All the best. Stay warm and do things that make you happy.