In the city center of Hualien the same cottage industries and wind rocked palms line the main streets as the alleys and lanes of Taipei.
Following the scent of salt in the air you’ll end up staring down a horizon at the edge of the land mass. Aboriginal islanders host their own night markets on boardwalks next to the ocean and a woman from our hostel serves as a personal tour guide to just three of us for the night.
The laid back nighttime heat of Hualien feels like a sort of sino-California. It’s hard to picture this place gets cold.
Native islander’s food makes the brain fire from every synapse. Dragon juice, sweet and sour cuttlefish, sweet black bean gua boa, noodle stuffed peanut popiah rolls, thick purple taro tea – it’s like a rave in my mouth with all kinds of illicit research chemicals.
As the birthplace of bubble tea, Taiwan has some seriously interesting liquids. For sale among the hot food stalls and carnival games and koji pottery displays are fortune boxes from coin operated snack machines.
Life is all about contrasts. Two weeks ago I was balancing a laptop on my chest, relaxing my throat to swallow a fourth knifeful of peanut butter. Somewhere in all this, between the intoxication of warm ocean air, alcohol and good qi lies a feeling I can’t articulate. It’s crazy where you can take you.
After a trying day up in the Jiufen mountains (the geographical basis of Spirited Away), I’m back for one last taste of Taipei, staying in a 7th floor apartment complex overlooking the Shilin markets. Taipei 101, the Acropolis of the capital can be seen from our balcony stabbing into the clouds, still filling the skyline of two states.
The nights of Shilin are lit up like Las Vegas. From Jihe Road to Xiaobei Street makes the senses swing like a door with no latch. We walk around, stockpiling xiaochi (little eats), letting the scents wash over. Everything is perfectly weird; surprise and satisfaction in equal measure – stuff like xiaolongbao, shaved ice doused in wintermelon syrup, tian bu lu, iron eggs and pepper cakes in lantern soy sauce. Hotplate tofu causes headspins. I ate oyster vermicelli in a shop on the corner of Jiantan and the sum total of sadness in the world was less than it otherwise might have been.
As time slips away my Hualien homies leave; back to New York and Hong Kong. One last hurrah: dumplings, and with 12 hours left it’s back to surveying the collective backpacker toxicology of the hostel common room. I met a woman from Shenzen who’d never eaten a bagel. Her name is something like Do Re Mi. She doesn’t have much to say, but she looks like someone with a lot to think about.
As this trip spanning Chuseok slash Thanksgiving wraps up, I’m gonna take a REAL QUICK sec to be thankful, because being thankful is important in life.
•I’m thankful I’m not a repatriated North Korean refugee.
•I’m thankful for Taiwan. It is an Eden for backpackers and an orgasm for ecology lovers.
•I’m thankful for the internet and dank memes.
•For the quiet of living alone
•For the lack of understanding, being repeatedly bombarded with strange glyphs left only to imagination. At the best of times the Hanzi tells stories, of short fat dudes wielding menorahs, pitchforks and pagodas, a lone flugle horn and stick character martial artists. Hangul is a scientific alphabet, angular and blunt. Hanzi seems to say, hunker down and listen.
•This life here, in Taiwan, in Korea, wherever. This going to an airport and getting on a plane, this being part of anything anywhere. These intoxicated conversations. This scoping out a possible foothold for the future.
•In nearly a year of Korea I’ve realized all the good things I had growing up. I had sandwiches. These fucking kids, bless their hearts, don’t have sandwiches.
•For avoiding the omnistrain of a soul crushing job.
•There’s a lot of invaluable info to take away from moving someplace without first reading its Wikipedia page, of throwing a dart at a map and ending up like this. I will never forget these times.
My last 8 hours is stuff of insomniac conversation, waiting for daylight to hit the MRT so I can hit the airport. At a certain point things get pretty cracky. A guy on holiday with plans to drink beers and lie on a beach has just been inexorably convinced, in about three minutes, he must go to North Korea. On the street below Für Elise leaks out of the tinny speakers of a garbage truck. I love this place, but everything so real is now just a ripple on the pond.
As always with somewhere new — between the approximation of an idea and the precision of reality, something is generally lost, and something greater gained. It’s an old feeling that’s been resurrected. These experiences take me back to my first trip, where I could just sit on a window ledge of Asia and watch life drift by.