Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Good Ol' Taiwanese Adventure

I've been stuck in Taipei for a long time, and so my girlfriend Jeannie and I decided to try to have an adventure. We perused a guide book and asked some of our friends and decided to try to go to Green Island (from all reports a tropical snorkeling paradise). We made this decision on Wednesday, and on Thursday Jeannie went to book us train tickets down to Taidong. The first boat out to Green Island left at 8 am, so we were going to have to take the 3 am train so we could make it down in time for the boat (its about a four hour train ride). While Jeannie was going to book train tickets I called a couple hotels on the island to try to reserve a room. The first hotel was booked, and at the second one the woman who answered just kept yelling '喂' (Hello in Chinese), so, after doing some yelling of my own, I gave up on that. I got in touch with Jeannie and found out that, somehow, the 3 am train was completely sold out. We were both confused at this turn of events, but took it as a sign that we shouldn't go to Green Island. Apparently it wasn't meant to be.

Further perusing of the guidebook revealed that there was a waterfall not to far south of Yilan, so we decided to head there on Saturday. The train station we needed to get to was so small that only a few trains went through it a day. The first one left Yilan at 10 am, so we decided to take that (it was, after all, a marked improvement over 3 am). We made it to the train station with plenty of time, and were sitting waiting on the platform with our tickets at 9:55. Somehow, we were having such a jolly time waiting on the train that we managed to miss it completely. It stopped, people got off and on, and then it pulled away. As it was leaving Jeannie stood up and said, "I hope that isn't our train", which I think was really just a nice way of saying "Damn it. How did we miss our train? We were right here!" To be fair, the train did pull up to the side of the platform that we weren't facing, but on the other hand, ITS A TRAIN! It was too early in the day to give up, so we decided to go to the next nearest station and walk the rest of the way.

There was a train to Nan Ao in about 25 minutes so we went back to the platform and waited. A few minutes before it was scheduled to arrive we decided to go ahead and stand up, just to be able to keep a better eye on our surroundings, and lessen any chance that we might miss this train too. The train arrived on time, we got on, and then double checked with the conductor, just to make sure. Our original plan was to walk to a "Recreation Farm" (just like a National Park or Forest campground in the states) where we could rent bikes, then ride them to the waterfall. We figured out that we could get to the same farm by walking from Nan Ao, though it might take a little longer. However, we were in good company, and the scenery was spectacular. Nan Ao is a costal town where about three or four mountain valleys all converge onto a small plain and beautiful beach. Not only were we in sight of awesome mountains, but we were walking 'through' (we were on roads, but the only traffic was the occasional old person on a bike wearing an Asian style straw hat) fields and the weather was beautiful. And it was quiet, an incredibly pleasant change from Taipei. We had no map and only a vague idea of the direction we needed to go, however, we did see a bridge that looked promising and decided to head for it. This meant stepping off of the main road and actually walking through the fields. I was worried for a moment about encountering someone with a shotgun yelling at us for trespassing, but who are we kidding, this is Taiwan. No one except the police (and maybe a few hunters) have guns and people are just more mellow about everything anyway. And we were still on a small path, so it didn't seem like we were hurting anything.

After following the path to its end, we found out that it didn't actually go to the bridge. It got us close, but we would have had to wade through a field and maybe a stream too. It wasn't worth it, so we turned around and re-traced our steps. It turned out that the road we had been on led us straight to the bridge too, and, once we got to the bridge we found signs for the 'Recreation Farm' so we knew we were on the right track. It only took us about 30 more minutes to get to the place, however, once there we had a little trouble renting bikes. We saw a group of guys sitting in the shade and as we walked up, one of them got up and approached us. I asked about renting bikes. He said no. Well dog my cats. I laughed (trying to be friendly) and asked again. "There are really no bikes?" Apparently there were bikes, loads of bikes in fact, but they were all broken. I kept pressing to get him to rent us some bikes and he kept resisting, but letting in slowly. After a little he took us back to a shed, and sure enough, he had about a room and half of bikes, all in sub-par shape. I had hoped that there might be one that fit me, but I that dream was destined to dye. It seemed like we were going to be lucky to get a bike at all. The guy we were talking to started poking around in the rows of bikes, checking to see if the tires had air and whether or not the brakes worked. He found one after a while, not only did it have air in the tires, but both brakes worked, or at least were passable (though we would find out later that it pulled pretty hard to the right). He said there was another bike out front for me, which was in good shape, except that only the back brake worked.

By this time, the guy had really warmed up to us (I think he just didn't want to give us bikes at first because he was partly worried about us getting lost and partly worried about the bikes getting stolen and/or broken), and inquired where we were going. We told him the waterfall we were going to and he was somewhat surprised and somewhat pleased. He got out an old map that looked like it had been drawn out, then photocopied about a dozen times so that not much was distinguishable, and began to give us directions to the waterfall. We got ready to leave, and I was somewhat hesitant because I had assumed that we would have to fill out some paperwork or put down a deposit or something, but after a moment the waiting got awkward and he was giving no sign of asking for anything, so we rode off. We went back the way we had come, and decided to stop off at the beach along the way. After a short detour we got into the meat of the trip, heading straight into the mountains.

As we got closer to the mountains the jungle began to surround us, and the clouds dropped down to meet us. And everything got noisier. Apparently it is some sort of frog, but whatever animal it is, it sounds almost exactly like a fire alarm. A loud whining noise of varying volume that goes for quite sometime, but finally seems to fizzle out, presumably as the frog runs out of breath. It is sort of a creepy noise at first, but after a while you sort of get used to it.

On our ride up the valley we had only been passed by one car, so we didn't think there were many people around. And it was starting to rain, so we hoped that would scare other people away. Alas, it was all to no avail. We came upon a shed with a small plaque that said "Jinyue Waterfall", so we parked our bikes there and kept on walking up (the road was dirt and gravel now). We passed a group of 6-7 people coming out, and met about the same number hanging around near some pools below the waterfall. We were greeted in English (as per usual despite the fact that we live in a Chinese speaking country) and they immediately layed in, asking where we were from, and what we did in Taiwan. They were having a good old fashioned BBQ too, and asked if we wanted any food. I was somewhat disgruntled that there were hordes of people around the waterfall and I can't seem to get spoken to in Chinese despite the fact that I'm in Taiwan. AND, I was sweaty as hell and wanted to go swimming, so ... I wasn't as nice as I could have been, and just brushed them off. The water did feel great though. I loitered around in some of the pools at the bottom before deciding to head up to check out the higher waterfall. As I was slowly making my way up a new Taiwanese guy came up and asked if I was going to the upper pool. I said I was, and he said he'd take me up to see it. So I stood up and followed him from rock to rock to the pool immediately at the base of the waterfall. It was gorgeous. The water wasn't actually falling, 'rolling' would be more accurate, but it was still pretty to look at. The waterfall itself wasn't very long, only maybe 20-25' but the pool at the base was large, a dark turquoise-ish color, and completely empty.

Swimming towards the waterfall was like swimming in one of those little rectangular pools that people get in their houses, with an electric current. I kept swimming toward the waterfall and kept never getting there. The water was cold though, and felt refreshing after the bike ride up. After a moment my guide asked me if I wanted to jump in. I had seen a rope swing a little higher up and made a mental note to myself on how sketchy it was, so I asked once to confirm there was no real danger. The guy, naturally, denied any, so I got out and followed him up to the next higher rock. It turned out we weren't using the rope swing anyway, just climbing up and jumping in. He went first, jumping straight towards the base of waterfall, and I followed suit. It was fun. And I didn't get hurt. I didn't even touch the bottom. I decided to quit while I was ahead and headed back down to Jeannie. It turned out to be a good time to leave because, despite the fact that it was starting to rain, more and more people were showing up and any hopes of solitude we'd hoped of having were being destroyed.

The ride back down was enjoyable, though on some of the steeper hills I had to get off and walk, what with only having one brake and all. The ride back to the 'Recreation Farm' was uneventful except for once, when I had to ride my bike into the grass to get it to slow down, and not thinking that she had two working brakes, I yelled to Jeannie to pull off too, which proved to be a stupid decision on my part, because then she was stopped in the exact place I had wanted to cruise through on my way to the stop. I managed to narrowly avoid tragedy by taking a sharper angle into the grass and heading partway up a hill. My bike came off worst and it really only got a twig caught up in the spokes. Once we got back to the farm we both parked the bikes in front. I was expecting this would be when we had to pay, but after loitering for a second, the guy hadn't asked for money, and I damn sure wasn't going to volunteer, so we smiled, thanked him graciously, and walked away.

Jeannie is a vegetarian too (major score) and within minutes, we had already planned out a good all you can eat vege buffet to go to and gorge ourselves when we got back to Yilan. Jeannie had scoped out the train times for the ride back, and knew we could make it to one just after it opened for dinner and get to the food before it had been sitting for too long. Then, before we were out the gate, the guy we'd gotten the bikes from pulled up on a motorcycle and offered us a ride. I was at first confused about how we'd all fit on, but he scooted really far forward, Jeannie squeezed in behind him, and I got on the back. There nothing for me to put my feet on except the exhaust pipe, and not only would that only have worked only for one foot, but it just seemed like a bad idea anyway. I also almost bottomed the shocks out, just by sitting on it (and did bottom them out a number of times before the end) which created and contributed to the general atmosphere of precarious-itude. It seemed like the only thing I could do was hold my feet up, hold on to the sides of the seat, and cross any fingers that weren't holding on. The turns were the scariest part, but the whole thing was also kind of hilarious, and we did end up making it without trouble. He dropped us right below the bridge that the train tracks ran across, so we headed under them, and towards the train station. Jeannie got checked the train times she had written down, and we found out that we had about 45 seconds before the train left. We started running, but the train was leaving as we got onto the platform, so we gave up and stopped to catch our breath. The next train actually came in about an hour, so missing that one wasn't too big of a deal. We decided to go get a couple beers to make the wait easier and make fantasizing about all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffets less part of our conversation. We did finally make it to the buffet, and it was glorious. All in all it was an amazing day.

A Taiwanese Baseball Game

I went to a Taiwanese baseball game the other day. It was the Whales (pink and green uniforms) versus the Elephants (yellow uniforms). However, they were all wearing pink hats, and they even used pink bats at some points. The best reasons for the pink accessories we came up with were, it was mother's day weekend, and they were just trying to show some motherly affection? We got there a little late but the game was just starting, and it really got of to a thrilling start. No one scored until the fifth inning. Apparently they were pretty evenly matched teams.

For a little background of the game, they were both corporate teams, one played for China Telecom, and I don't remember the other one. I know Taiwan is really stoked off of baseball, to the point of having a picture of a celebrating little league team on the 500 NT bill, but, just judging from how much people follow the corporate league, I don't think there is an actual professional league.

Anyway, one of the main differences I noticed about the game was the approach to encouraging players, and the appropriate noise level. At all the baseball games I can remember going to in the states, the announcers played the cavalry charge and aggressive music and the crowd got rilled up, but all before the batter stepped up to the plate. Then the batter was given a courteous silence, so he could concentrate on hitting the ball. However, there were no announcers here, and the Taiwanese fans didn't start making noise until the batter was about to swing. I can only assume that their motivations were the same (wanting the batter to do well), but it was interesting to see different implementation strategies. The music (or noise) used to encourage the players also highlighted differences between cultures. I think Americans are pretty big fans of the cavalry charge, but the Taiwanese people had a drummer. And not like some 15 year old rapping out a peppy beat you could jig to. No, there was a drum large enough to boil small farm animals in, and a dude with two hammers sounding out the call to battle. It was impressive and motivating, but alas, the weren't too creative with the beat, and after the second hour it got pretty old.

It was the Elephants who finally scored in the fifth inning, and from there the game was over. They scored again in the sixth inning and the poor whales never had a chance to come back.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

My Bicycle

My bicycle and I are beginning to have a long, and some might say sordid, relationship together. I got it for 1500 NT (New Taiwan Dollars), or about $50, which I thought was a good deal. When I first got it I was very excited about it, despite how small it was (while riding my knees came to within about 3 inches of the ends of the handle bars). It had a bell and stickers with pink flowers, and it was such a vast improvement over walking everywhere. However, it didn't take it long to loose the bell (I think the bike got hit by a car while it was parked), the flower stickers started to fade, the basket got messed up, the hubs started to rust, the breaks started to get sketchy, and the wheels started to get more dented than the outside of a pineapple.

One day while I was riding to class the chain broke, so I grabbed it and put in my basket, then sat down on my bike and pushed it, just like the Flintstones, the rest of the way to class. It was a little demoralizing, but also hilarious, so I think it worked out OK. After class I went to get the chain fixed, and it was 200 NT for a new one.

My next bike breaking while I'm riding it adventure happened one Saturday night when I was riding to meet Luke at the subway. We had just had dinner, and I had ridden it home as quickly as possible, which involves standing up and wrenching back on the handle bars, in order to put maximum force on the pedals. I was only at home for a little bit, then Luke texted me and told me to meet him at the metro. So I rushed out, grabbed my bike, and proceeded to sprint away on it. I think I made it to my metro station in under a minute, which is really good time. However, while I was riding I started to notice that the bike handle bars were a little loose. I assumed the nuts were loosening a little bit, and that I could sort it out later. After I got to the metro station, I realized I didn't have my pass with me so I decided to rush one station further up to meet Luke before he got on, and borrow his pass. I jumped back on my bike and sprinted away again. The handle bars seemed a little looser, but I didn't think anything about it. I had to stop for a crosswalk, and as soon as my light turned green, I started wrenching on the handlebars to try to get up to speed again. I guess I wrenched a little too hard because I tore the handle bars off. I could no longer steer and, fortunately I hadn't gotten up too much speed, so the bike quickly fell over. I ended up standing and unhurt because while I'm riding my feet are only about 6 inches away from the ground. I looked around to see if anyone had seen me, which, of course, people had. Then I went to pick up my bike and see what had happened. I had indeed torn the handle bars free from the frame, but they were still bolted into the front stem. So while they were attached to the bike, they were completely useless for their main purpose of guiding the bicycle. So I stashed it and ran on to meet Luke. It was 300 NT for a new handle bar, raising the overall amount of money I'd put into fixing the bike up to 1/3 of its original value.

After I tore off the handle bars I thought the worst was over. However, as you may guess, I was wrong. Alonzo got here about 2 weeks ago, and last Friday I gave him a ride on the back of my bike. All bikes either have a rear rack or pegs, and most people take full advantage of these tools to ferry their friends around. I wanted to be able to ferry my friends around too, so when I bought my bike I asked if the back stand was strong enough to hold a friend. Naturally the salesman said it was, and I believed him. To make a long story short, Alonzo was sitting on the back, and we hit a curb wrong and the back tire bent up like a taco. Neither of us were hurt, and the situation was initially very funny, though possibly more so to Alonzo than to me. Alonzo carried the back end, I steered the front, and we headed off for the bike shop. When I'd bought my bike they told me I got free labor there, so always to bring my bike back to them if anything happened. Ben had also bought his bike here, and he had had a very poor experience with the owner, so I was a little dubious about the place, however, aside from the chain breaking, I had taken my bike there for a couple other small things, and they'd always been helpful to me, so I decided to take my bike there. Apparently it was going to be 600 NT for a new wheel. That seemed a little steep, and I wasn't ready to fork over that much money without a fight, so I went back on campus and stole another bike.

Now, I want to say, that although I did steal the bike, I'm pretty sure no one was using it. I get to school at 7:00 am everyday, so I pretty much have my choice of parking spots, and I park my bike in the same place everyday. This bike is always there and, a few days before, it had fallen over. I noticed there was not even any air in the back tire, so I just kind of pushed up against the bike rack, and left it there. It had not been touched since then. Aside from there being no air in the tires, I feel like the strongest piece of evidence that it was abandoned was that the sticker allowing it to be parked on campus was from last year. Also, not every morning, but on some mornings I see big flat bed trucks carrying away old abandoned bikes, so I figured if I didn't take it away, they would. So, overall I didn't feel to bad about taking it.

It turned out not to matter because the wheels were a different size, and not compatible anyway. This led to another decision, could the bike I'd stolen somehow be made to work, or could they somehow be combined to make one workable bike. No parts could be salvaged off of my bike to make the other bike whole, and making it whole without parts from my bike was too expensive, so I was basically in the same situation. At this point, the shop owner offered to sell me a used bike. I rode it around the block once, but it was pretty sketchy. Only one of the breaks was good, and the peddles were plastic and brittle and I was afraid they were going to break off (which was what had happened to the bike Ben bought here).

I haggled with the guy some, but could only talk him down to 800 NT (from 1000 NT) with the trade in of the two bikes, which I wasn't willing to pay. So Alonzo grabbed the stolen bike, and I grabbed my old bike and we walked away. While I was haggling with the guy, I ran into one of my classmates, and she recommended I go to the bike on campus. Apparently it was cheaper there, and they weren't as devious and cheating as this guy. So Alonzo and I headed there. Because Alonzo and I each had to steer our own bikes now, it was more difficult to walk along and steer with one hand, while holding the back tire off the ground with the other, so I (only sometimes) just pushed my bike along, while the back tire dragged. After I'd been doing this for only about 150 yards at most, Alonzo and I heard a loud hissing sound, and looked down to see the air rushing out of my back tire. Apparently dragging the bike for about 3 minutes was enough to wear through the tire and tube. After that I didn't drag it anymore.

After we got to the bike shop on campus I found out it was going to be 450 NT for a new wheel. Score. That was significantly cheaper than the other place, and these guys were nice. Then, they turned my bike over and found out that I'd need a new tire and tube also, which immediately doubled the price. Learning this was a lot like a slap in the face. 3 minutes of weakness was going to cost me about $15. IT WAS GOING TO COST ME FIFTEEN US DOLLARS FOR PUSHING MY BIKE ACROSS A WIDE STREET.

I asked if they had any used bikes. Nope. It was a hot day my backpack was heavy, and I was sweating just standing there. I decided to stash both bikes on campus, and go home. After we stashed the bikes Alonzo and I went to the Welcome, where Alonzo got a pint of ice cream and I got a beer. Then we went to a near by park, and consumed our rewards for a moderate lenght afternoon of mild stress and discomfort. I'd never drank beer in this park before, and it was actually really nice. For one thing, because I got beer from an actual grocery store instead of a convenience store, like normal, I had more options, so I got something I don't normally drink. And it was good. The park was also full of little kids playing and it was really enjoyable to watch them. They didn't have to worry about paying 15 dollars for not carrying their bike, and them not worrying helped me not to relax. After I finished my beer and Alonzo finished his ice cream, we went home and I took a nap.

I had a sort of vague plan of leaving the bikes there over the weekend and then sorting it out Monday morning. However, things sort of piled up, and I ended up leaving them there for a whole week. During that time, I decided I was just going to have to man up, and pay the 900NT. It was cheaper than buying a new bike, and it was the environmentally sustainable thing to do. So I went back today grabbed my bike, and carried it over to the bike shop. The guy said again it was going to be 900NT and asked if I could pick it up tomorrow. I said that was alright, and then, for good measure, asked if he had any second hand bikes. Apparently there was one, and after a little searching (in large clumps of standing bikes), he found it. And then I decided to buy it. It was on 700NT and was an environmentally sustainable option. And I think its bigger than my old one, and the seat is certainly more comfortable, so I think I actually came out on top of the whole deal. Everything went perfectly. And I'm going to put the bike I stole back in its place tomorrow morning, so I won't even have stolen a bike, just borrowed it for a couple days.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

THE CRAZY TRAIN. Part II

Well, It was 2 in the morning, we were kind of drunk, and had just gotten kicked out of a temple. Fortunately the festival was still going on, so we didn't feel to forlorn. Since the elementary school was our fall back option for a place to sleep, and this seemed like an excellent time to go for the fall back option, we started to move towards the elementary school. We weren't walking for long before we ran into a large group of people, and another temple. We stopped at the temple, with some vague hopes of being able to sleep there, and ended up talking to some more Taiwanese high schoolers. We again broached our problem of having now where to sleep, and the kids threw out some options. One even pointed at himself, but I think he was just doing it as a joke, or to make himself look better in front of his friends, because it never went anywhere. Some of the kids were chewing betel nut, and offered us some. Ben took one, and started chewing, and I refused at first, but after a while a kid came up and shoved one in my face, so I accepted. We kept chatting and chewing betel nut for a while, when suddenly we realized fireworks were about to go off behind us. People around us (mainly the high schoolers) didn't seem to concerned, and weren't weaning full protection, so we didn't panic too much, though we did turn our backs, while carefully looking over our shoulders.

After the fireworks were done, the high schoolers started to move on, and we moved in to check out the temple in slightly more detail. It turned out to be small, and given our record of success, we decided not to ask if we could sleep there. We started moving back towards the elementary school, chewing on betel nut (which causes incredibly heavy salivation), and spitting out huge red globs of spit (I know its disgusting, and I know this doesn't make it OK, but, all the native Taiwanese people do the same thing, so overall, I don't feel too bad about it.) It didn't take to long for the betel nut to get old, and we spit it out before we made it to the school. Once we got there, we did another perfunctory search to find someone to tell/ask to sleep there, but to no avail. We scouted around for a good place to sleep, and decided on a patch of ground near the track. We stashed out stuff here, and deciding it might be hard to fall asleep on the cold ground, headed off to the nearest convenience store (fortunately less than 100 yards away) for a nightcap. It was cold, and we were worried about not being warm while sleeping, so we jogged to the store. As Ben was buying his beer, in the spirit of trying to be warm, I decided we should get some chocolate, and eat that too. To my good fortune, they had Milo bars for only 8 kuai (a screamin' deal) so we got two of those, to help wash the beers down. Then we headed outside, and sat down near the elementary school to have our last, hopefully very conducive to sleep, 'meal'. After it was over, as per our instructions earlier, we left our beer bottles on the ground, and jogged back to our piece of ground. Just as we were putting on our moped helmets for sleep, we realized someone was walking around the track, and for a moment we were worried it was a security guard, coming to try to kick us off of the school grounds, but the person paid us little heed. It must have just been someone out for some late night exercise, and they ended up not being alone. Due to a number of factors such as: being cold, having my camera in my right pocket so that every time I laid on my side it was jabbing me in the thigh, sleeping on some rocks, and having my backpack laying on top of me, I didn't sleep very well. Because I didn't sleep very well (and also possibly contributing to this) I noticed that there were people exercising almost all night long. The first person was there when we went to bed (at close to 3), and when we got up at 6, there was a whole group of people out running or walking or exercising in some way. I've gotten up early to exercise before too, but I was still surprised to see people out all night long.

As we started stretching and moving to try to warm up, one of the exercisers made his way towards us. As he passed us he said something in Taiwanese, and I responded by telling him (in Chinese) we didn't understand Taiwanese. He smiled and (what appeared to be) a look of comprehension spread across his face. Then he said something else in Taiwanese. We just smiled and nodded, and he went on his way. After dusting ourselves off, we decided to head to the nearest 7-11 to get something warm to drink. We went back to the same one we'd bought beer from the night before, and not only did they have warm things to drink, this particular 7-11 was equipped with a short bar and a few stools, so we decided to stay a while. Interestingly enough, the same guy was working now, as had been working when we came in the night before, and I think a quick recap from his point of view is in order.

Two foreigners run excitedly into his store at 2:30 am and grab beers. One buys his beer, while the other peruses the candy selection, then yells excitedly (because I found the good deal on the Milo bars), and buys his beer and two candy bars. Then they leave. 3 hours later they return (not running and maybe even shivering a little) with dirty clothes and blood shot eyes, buy coffee, then slump down on some stools for about 30 minutes before leaving, looking only mildly more energized.

I bet that store clerk has an interesting opinion of foreigners.

We stayed in the 7-11 for a while, and we hoped that by the time we'd left, it would have warmed up some outside, but we were disappointed. After we left we began searching for someplace to eat breakfast. Before to long we found a Danbing (sort of thin pancakes with onions in it, and an egg place fried on top) store, so we stopped there. As a sort of reflection of the group mentality of Taiwanese people, I think the vast majority of them only ever order two danbings. I almost always order three, and whenever I do, it is almost certain to cause a stir. Not only does the cook as one or two more times to make sure I know what I'm doing, but I also frequently get stares from other customers. This danbing place was no different, the cook asked twice if I actually wanted 3 danbings, and a couple old women who were waiting on their food to be cooked, cast shocked and curios sidelong glances at me. The danbings were good though, and we got some soymilk to accompany them.

During breakfast we made some priorities for the day. 1: Secure some form of transportation (preferably leaving at 2 am ish) back to Taipei. 2: Fritter away time until crazy fireworks, preferably by napping. After we finished breakfast we set out to accomplish priority one, so we headed back to where we'd gotten dropped of last night. The bus stop had a sign projecting from the building and, right underneath that sign was a booth. So we approached the booth, and only after a minute of so of looking at the menu for the booth did we realize it was a stand selling waffles, and that all the bus stop was made of was the sign. So we started looking at the sign. While we were discussing our options I saw another sign a little further down the street that pointed to the harbor. I thought it would be neat to see the harbor, so I interrupted Ben in mid-sentence, and broached the idea to him. He seemed excited about it, and we set off immediately, talking about our surprise that we were actually that close to the ocean. After walking for about 15 minutes, we realized we had no idea where we were or even where we were going. We had only seen one sign, and it was pretty vague. It felt sort of like, what I think being ADD would feel like. We just saw a sign to the ocean, thereupon we immediately dropped all plans and departed (without even realizing we'd dropped any other plans) for the ocean.

We began to realize that the combination of: being exhausted, hopped up on caffeine, having no difficult goals for the day, no where to go to accomplish these goals, and no where to go when we weren't accomplishing these goals, led to a very interesting state of mind. This mindset in turn let to various feelings of exhaustion, hilarity, and complete satisfaction with where our lives were at at that point in time.

Back to the story, we didn't know where we were or where we were going, so we decided to ask for directions. Normally this isn't a difficult process, but we do hem and haw a little to find someone friendly looking to ask, or we have to think about how to phrase the question, but now there was no beating around the bush. We turned to the person nearest to our physical position when, which happened to be some guy on an old motorcycle. He said we were about 20 km from the ocean, so we immediately dropped all thoughts of going there, and headed back the way we had come. On the way (we were getting back on track with 'our priorities') we decided to take a bus back to the larger town with the train station, and try to secure transportation from there. A woman was waiting at the bus station when we got back, and she told us it was just a few minutes until the next bus, so we got in line. After a short bus ride back to Xinying we headed to the train station to look for the tourist information center. The train station and bus station were on opposite sides of a traffic roundabout and both stations had their own set of taxi drivers, who, despite having seen us a number of times, took every opportunity of us walking past, to avidly sell their wares (a taxi ride to the fireworks festival). Their approach was to communication involved a lot of yelling, or just loud noises indicating fireworks, accompanied by gestures of explosions and soaring rockets. It was interesting at first, then it got old, then it got interesting again because they were so dedicated and oblivious to our apathy in their taxi rides.

At the train station, the tourist information center didn't open for 30 more minutes, so we were at a slight loss. However, we took this opportunity to go to the bathroom, and clean up a little, and Ben called his landlady to tell her he wasn't going to be in Taipei that day (something had gone wrong in his apartment, and they needed him to be there while they fixed it). It turned out that Ben's landlady was coming to the festival, and was driving down as he talked to her. We wondered if we might be able to get a ride back with her, Ben had said she was nice.

After getting cleaned up we decided to move on to goal 2 for the day, so we asked the station manager where the nearest park was (our plan was to go there to nap for a while). The station manager was happy to tell us that there was one, just right outside of the station. We walked out, only to discover that the 'park' he was talking about was just a monument inside the roundabout. As soon as we found this 'park' we were stoked. It was perfect. Not only were the marble benches around the monument not covered in dirt, but they would warm up with the sunlight, hopefully creating some sort of oven in which we could warmly bake ourselves. And if that got too crazy, there were a couple patches of scraggly grass (actual grass, not just dirt that looked like grass, like where we slept the night before) underneath trees, so we could seek refuge. We really were really excited about this 'park' for about 45 seconds until we realized IT WAS A 20 FOOT BY 20 FOOT CIRCLE IN THE CENTER OF A ROUNDABOUT. We still liked it, but we decided to keep looking for another place, and to hold this as a fall back option. So we headed off down the road. We explored a couple groups of trees in hopes of finding a little park somewhere, but they were just houses with gardens. After walking for a little bit, we saw a sign for the local 'Cultural Center'. We got excited about that, and were about to run off towards it (it seemed like we might be able to sleep at a 'Cultural Center'), when we remembered the dangers of following random signs, so we stayed the course. We did get off track a little bit when we ran into an internet cafe, and stopped to check our emails. It was kind of an intense place because all of the computers had huge chairs in front of them. They were obviously the sort of chairs made for 15 hour stretches playing the same video game. We almost passed out here, but Ben was in favor of finding a park, so as we were leaving we asked directions to the nearest park. Apparently it was just through a couple stop lights, then take a right and we were there. So with these hopeful directions, we set of again. On the way we came upon a truck parked by the side of the road, and right after we passed it we saw another copse of trees of to the right, so we went to check it out. The benches in this park were too short, and there was no grass in between the bamboo, so we decided to move on. Because of circling around a little in the park we ended up behind the truck, so we had to walk past it again, and as we walked back towards the road, we picked back up the same conversation we'd been having before spotting the park. It all worked out so that, as we were passing the truck for the second time, Ben was saying almost exactly the same thing he had said the last time we passed the truck. It was sort of like deja-vous, except that the same thing had just happened, I didn't just think it had just happened. It was a little creepy and funny, and probably made more so by the mental state we had going.

Shortly after that we finally made it to the 'Cultural Center' (even though for a while we hadn't know that it was our goal, we made it there anyways). It was truly amazing. It had a lake, and two or maybe two and a half football fields worth of open grass fields, and trees, and a hill, and a lake, and an island, and nice modern art glass structures, and small elk looking statues. Truly unbelievable. My skin still tingles thinking about how awesome it was.

We decided to go to the hill for our nap. It was actually a very small hill, only 10-12 feet tall, and also pretty small in circumference, but it gave us the illusion of having some privacy while we slept. So, the glorious moment had finally arrived. The sun was out, and it was warm, and the day was truly beautiful. I didn't sleep with my moped helmet on at first, but instead used my jacket as a pillow. However, our hill was right next to the lake, which had a fountain in it, and when the wind shifted, we got sprayed with the mist off of the fountain. In the end, I put the helmet on, and now, not only was it an amazing pillow, I put the face mask down, and it kept me from getting awoken by fountain spray hitting me in the face.

After 2 hours of glorious relaxation and napping, we woke up. We hung out on our hilltop for a little longer, but it was a little after noon, and we were both hungry so we left. On the way back to the train station we passed a dried noodles store, and stopped there for lunch. As a testament to our mental state, and the slowness of my mental capacities, I grabbed a bottle of spice to flavor my curry soup a little, and as I was grabbing it, I thought I saw a fly on the wall. It took me 20 seconds of staring at the wall to figure out that it was just a discoloration in the fake wood grain finish. Ben and I never lacked for something to talk about, but this meal was more characterized by slow eating, and slowly ranging thoughts. After lunch we walked back to the train station. We were walking in the road, going against traffic, and at one point a middle aged man driving a moped, went for about40 seconds without looking at the road in front of him. He was just staring off to the side, presumable looking at someone he knew, but because he wasn't looking, he was slowly swerving towards Ben. He finally looked back to the road and straightened his course, but at no point in the whole process did he ever seem to be worried about the consequences of driving one direction and looking another.

We made it back to the train station OK, and went straight into the tourist info office. The woman was very helpful, and found a bus that we could take back to Taipei. She called a couple people to check schedules, and then she asked us if we wanted to make reservations over the phone. We did, and so she made another call, and then handed the phone over. I was surprised, and not ready, but it was already ringing so I didn't have much of a choice. I made the reservation OK, and then woman on the phone asked me what my last name was. Without thinking I gave her my Chinese last name, and she scoffed a little. At the time, I thought she scoffed because my name is maybe a little less common, but shortly there after I came upon a much more likely situation. She knew full well I was white, and wanted me to give her my English last name. It all worked out though. After the phone call, the tourist information woman wrote down the name of the company we had just reserved tickets with, and then we took our leave. We decided to go in search of a second lunch (hopefully we'd be really full, thus aiding in an afternoon nap). We found a place that had vegetarian lunch boxes for pretty cheap, so we got a couple of those, and tried to head back to the paradise we'd found in the morning. We got lost immediately. Because we wanted to find a different restaurant for our second lunch, we went a different way back (to see new restaurants). We did indeed see new restaurants, but we also got lost. We struggled with admitting how lost we were before finally asking at 7-11 how to get to the 'Cultural Center'. While Ben was asking directions, I walked down a different alley, to see what I could see, and I actually ended up seeing some very interesting things. After Ben got out of the 7-11, I brought him back to the same place, and asked what he saw. He confirmed what I'd seen. We were in the background of the view we'd seen earlier from our hilltop at the 'Cultural Center'. We were seeing now, the backs of buildings we'd seen the fronts of earlier. This matched up with the directions Ben had gotten, so we headed off, and got to the park in no time.

Because we were approaching the park from a different direction, we had cause to check out some of the glass structures. Apparently they were also solar heaters, not only heating water, but also exporting electricity. The 'Cultural Center' was already badass, but this pushed it to a whole new level, which I didn't even really know existed before. After checking out the solar structures for a little while, we went over to some picnic tables by the lake to eat our lunch. The lunch was actually really delicious, but things started to go a little bad at this point. It was just singing really, but it was incredibly terrible singing. There was an amphitheater in another corner of the park, and there were a couple of people who were belting out some old Chinese opera. I will admit, I can't sing myself, and I recently had to have it explained to me what an octave was, so I'm generally not much of a reliable musical critic. However, Ben is, so I'll just use the analogy he made to explain the situation. This singing sounded like: Someone had gotten really drunk. They were so drunk they passed out. Then one of their friends poked them with a stick until they woke up, handed them a microphone, and told them to start singing. It was a song they were familiar with, so they knew the words, but they were pass-out drunk, so their singing ability was in the toilet. Basically, no rhythm, pitch, or tone, and far too much random quavering. And someone was playing with the echo machine, randomly adding in an echo affect.

Mostly we just laughed at the music, and our lunch was good enough to almost make up for it. There was one tough thing about the lunch though. The soup. It was in a little cup, so it needed to have a tough lid, or else it would spill out, but this lid was a little too tough. At least for us right then. And the reward of getting the lid off (the soup) was disappointing, but in a really amusing way. The soup was just, clear liquid, a piece of carrot, an unidentified white vegetable, and a date. I guess they were just trying to keep it simple.

After lunch, it was nap time again, but this time we decided to sleep on the back side of the hill, to keep out of the wind, which not only changed the temperature and made it hard to get comfortable, but also sprayed water on us. And we could prop ourselves up against the side of the hill, for a little change of position. We ended up having noticeably less privacy here (we heard a number of people comment on us as they walked past) but it was a dynamite place for sleeping. Somehow we still got a little bit of spray from the lake, but much less, and leaning up against the hill was also dynamite. It was more comfortable at first, and then when I finally decided to lay down, it made laying down much more enjoyable. We woke up at about 5:00 pm, about 30 or so minutes before sunset, and decided we'd better get going. Although we had reserved tickets, we still needed to pick up the paper copies, and we also had to make it back to the Yanshui (the town that had the actual festival). So we packed up our stuff (and by 'packed up our stuff, I mean, we put on our shoes, and grabbed our moped helmets), and left our beautiful park. On the way back we stopped to buy a couple of towels, because, although, we already had some, it seemed like a good idea to grab a couple more.

At the bus station, we tried communicate that we only needed to get to the other bus station (the one with the bus back to Taipei, it was half way in between Xinying and Yanshui). We'd hoped that if we could communicate this, we could get discounted tickets, because we really only needed to get half way, but we had a hard time with the communication, and in the end they said they knew where we wanted to go, but we still had to pay full price for the tickets. As we were boarding the bus the ticket cashier made a point of telling the bus driver where we needed to get off, which made things simpler for us. Sure enough, when we were about half-way there, the bus driver stopped and yelled something unintelligible, which we assumed was for us. Normally when you get off the bus, you have to give the driver your ticket, but we'd hoped this time, we wouldn't have to, because we weren't actually at our destination yet. If we didn't give him our tickets, we might be able to flag down another bus (they were pretty common between the two cities) and ride the rest of the way, thus getting the full value out of our tickets. (In hindsight, this seems like we made a huge deal out of this, because we would have only been saving about 25 cents, but I guess it is the principle of the matter.) Anyway, somehow, while we were getting our tickets out to give to the driver, the driver said something, and we became the but of a joke for the whole bus. I have no idea what it was, because he said it in Taiwanese, but whatever it was, the whole bus thought it was funny.

So we were a little disgruntled when we got off the bus, and we didn't find the bus station immediately, which made us a little more disgruntled. When we did find the bus, we went inside, and I told the cashier we had reserved a pair of tickets, and my last name was 葛. She said they didn't have a system where you could reserve tickets. I was confused, and looked over at Ben, who seemed just as confused. We decided to abandon the reserved tickets, so I asked the woman if she had any buses going back to Taipei in the early morning. She did, and so we bought the tickets. Major Score. At this point in the day, we had accomplished both of our priorities. The previous day, we had been a little worried about how to get transport back, but mostly we were worried about how to fritter away an entire day without getting bored. The first goal was easy, and we had made light work of 'frittering away our time'. Now all we had to do was eat something, get a little drunk, and get shot at by fireworks.

We still had to make it to Yanshui, so asked the cashier if there was a bus station near by where we could catch a bus to Yanshui. There was no such station, and she told us that we would have to take a cab. We were pretty strongly against this option, but in the interests of being open-minded, we went outside, found a taxi driver, and asked how much it would be to get to Yanshui. The answer was, about 6 times as expensive as the bus. We haggled a little but the driver was having none of it, so we started walking. At first it was a haggling strategy, but the taxi driver didn't call after us, lowering his prices, so we kept walking. We also had vague hopes of flagging down a bus to Yanshui, but after not too long, we decided it was only about 2 km, and we should just get a beer and walk. So we did, and it was amazing. The moon was out, and beautiful, and fortunately the traffic wasn't to heavy, so we felt like walking along the road/highway wasn't too dangerous. Another benefit was that we got to walk through the outskirts of the festival, instead of being dropped off right at the center of it.

We really got to see everyone doing there own thing. Most people were just shooting off fireworks in the middle of the street (which was still cool to see, cause fireworks are pretty), but we passed a couple guys swinging a string of fireworks around their heads, as the fireworks were going off. Which was also neat to see. At one point, on the walk in, Ben stopped to find somewhere to pee, and gave me his beer. So I was left standing beside the road, watching the traffic go past. I stand out enough already, but standing by the side of the road, double-fisting beers got me more than the normal amount of stares, and covert looks. But when Ben got back, we decided to roll with it. We decided to purposefully make ourselves the butt of the jokes, and smile and laugh right back. So we stood there for a while, drinking and smiling at people, but we soon realized that the traffic wasn't really that thick there, and so we moved on. Before we got shot at by fireworks, we still needed to check the local bus schedule, to make sure we could make it to the other bus station in the morning to catch our bus. The sign at the 'stop' wasn't clear, so we decided to ask the women at the waffle store.

By this time, Ben and I were a little drunk, and this could prove to be a hindrance to the conversation, but in the end, it proved to be a huge advantage. It was one of the most fluent conversations I've ever had in Chinese. We ended up finding out that the buses quit running at 8 or 9 at night, so we'd have to find another mode of transport back (either walking or a cab), but we ended up talking to the women at the waffle stand for a long time. We talked about the festival, and mine and Ben's schools, and I was making jokes with some words that people don't really say anymore (cause a couple of my textbooks are from the 50's), and everyone was laughing. It was great and proved a fortuitous omen for the whole evening.

After we finally left the waffle place, we went to eat a big dinner before continued drinking. After dinner, it really was go time. We knew the fireworks started at 10, and somehow we had frittered away most of the time since we'd awoken in the park, and now it was about 9. We only had one hour, and we had lots of things on our do list, so we set off to the nearest 7-11 to make a run at the first of our objectives. We were both pretty full from dinner, but given our time frame, we had to start chugging liquids. First, we both chugged about half a liter of water (not only to mitigate the after effects of drinking, but also because we were about to put on multiple layers of clothing, and it would probably be hot in the press of the crowd), and were going to keep going, when we realized it wouldn't hurt to have some for later. Next, we each pounded a can of coffee, nicknamed 'Double Dregs' last year because it is loaded with 2 times the normal caffeine amount. Our last beverage of the evening was beer, but before we moved on to it, we made clear what had to be done during the rest of the night. Not Die. So we made sure that before we got into the actual fireworks danger zone, we would throughly protect our throats and eyes. And with these precautionary statements out of the way, we walked back towards our old trusty Elementary School, drinking our beers on the way. When we got to the Elementary School, we changed clothes, and got on our protective gear. In addition to the towels we'd picked up in Xinying, we also each got a pair of cotton gloves, while we were walking from the bus station. On the bottom, I had on hiking boots and a really old pair of Carhartt jeans. I had brought one towel from home, and I tucked this down the front of my jeans, so it made a sort of loin cloth (but only in the front) to protect my crotch. On the top, I had my old black jacket, and over that I was wearing a sweater (I had planned on wearing the jacket on top, but last night someone had advised me that the nylon was not a good material for resisting fireworks, so I wore the sweater on top). Our moped helmets were full-face helmets, but they didn't have a chin guard, so I taped the other towel along the bottom of the face mask, for neck protection, though I was also wearing a scarf. When things got really serious, I also pulled my hood up over the top of the helmet, so the back of my neck was also protected. Ben was also wearing Carhartts, in addition to a pair of cargo shorts (on underneath). He was also wearing two layers on top, with a scarf, and towel taped to the moped helmet. We felt like we'd accomplished our goals of making sure that both throat and eyes were protected, so we stashed the rest of our stuff under a tree, and took off.

It was really hot and steamy to wear the helmets with the face masks down, so on the walk back to where we thought the show was getting started, we carried our helmets underneath our arms. It was the most empowering thing either of us had ever done. Our excitement for this event had been building up for weeks (even longer for Ben, because he'd heard about it the previous year, where as I had only heard about it a few weeks earlier). We had gotten our hopes up on the way down, and the previous night, they were at first disappointed (to find out the real ho down wasn't until tonight) and then bolstered (because we got a preview of the awesomeness to come). Now we where here, the excitement was beginning to come to a peak, and we were fully, completely, 100%, WELL PREPARED. Carrying our helmets underneath our arms not only highlighted this fact, but seemed to make the occasion that much more amazing. We both felt like we should be carrying swords at our waist's, as we walked into battle.

As we neared the area where there had been the concert the night before, and where we assumed the events would kick off tonight, we found it empty. This was a little confusing, but we pressed on and quickly found what we were looking for, a huge field, overflowing with people, and a stage with someone talking. We found out from people outside the field, that this was indeed where the event was about to get kicked off, and that they were going to start as soon as the person finished talking. We decided we had enough time, so we sprinted away (still carrying our helmets under our arms) to the nearest 7-11 for one more beer (only the kid sized one) before things got started. We ended up missing part of the opening fireworks, but they were magnificent enough that we could still appreciate them from outside the 7-11. As the were finishing, we ran back over to the field, only to find people streaming out of it. We asked one middle aged man where everyone was going, and he said he was going home. Interesting. We asked someone else what was going on with the festival (we had heard it went until 3-4 in the morning), and they said just to follow the flow of people, and we'd find it. A lot of people seemed to be heading into an alleyway, so we ran that way. We soon found out that all of those people were going to their cars, and going home, so we turned right, to swing back around. We passed a fire truck, with a few fire-fighters hanging around chatting, so we stopped to talk to them. They were very friendly and told us again, just to follow the stream of people, and that they didn't know exactly where the festival would be or when. So with vague ideas of following streams of people, we sprinted off again. This time, however, we weren't disappointed and we found the right stream of people to follow. Pretty quickly we meet up with a group of college students, and start hanging out with them. The conversation is great, and we chat it up, as we slowly move along with the procession.

OK, I think a breakdown of the main attraction is in order. The whole scheme of the festival is, basically to get shot at by fireworks. Everyone who is interested gets suited up, and makes a sort of parade out of it. Everyone who isn't interested stays the hell out of the way, so they don't get hit by stray fireworks. There are 4 or 5 carts, sort of rectangular cubes, maybe 7 feet tall, but only 3 feet by 3 feet square. They are on wheels, with one pole mounted on each side, making a handle in the front and back. Inside the rectangle is an alter, with a Buddha or some other sort of religious idol. Everyone follows these carts around, and every so often the carts stop. When the carts stop, another cart is rolled out from a store in the area. These don't have much in the way of handles, and are much larger. Still about 7 feet tall, but maybe 8 feet long by 3 or 4 feet wide. The sides of the cart are covered with red paper, upon which Chinese is written. The red paper is then torn off, and burned in a pile in the street, revealing racks of fireworks pointing into the crowd. At this point, the people tending the carts with idols in them, start to shake them, which is sort of creepy, and also makes an odd creaking noise. The shaking combined with the creaky noise take the amount of ambient intensity to the whole next level, which is really saying something because having racks of fireworks pointed into the crowd made things pretty intense already. Then everyone starts to push in, and sort of jump up and down, and move side to side. At this point, we become part of the group mentality, and jump and move ourselves. Vaguely moving in this way makes the whole thing seem less dangerous, and we sort of don't have a choice anyway because the crowd is so tight. At some points, I am unable to move, which makes things scary again, because I don't feel like I have any retreat. Then the fireworks start to go off. At first they go off the top of the cart, but then the sides start to go to, and the carts are shaking, and everyone is jumping around a little, and fireworks are screaming around in all different directions, and I bet if we'd looked up it would have been beautiful, but I think we had other things on our minds. Then the fireworks are over, and everyone gives thumbs up and high fives all around, and maybe even a hug or two. Then someone comes and takes the cart away and the procession moves on.
video
We hang out with the college kids for a while, but then we get separated from them in the crowd, so we move on. However, there is no shortage of people to talk to, and in the press of the crowd, there is always a fresh face. People just stare at us because we're tall and white, and because we're so close to them, and a little drunk, it is really easy to say "Hey, is this your first time coming to the festival?", and then we're off in conversation. I don't remember how many carts full of fireworks they rolled out to shoot into the crowd, but I'm pretty sure it was more than five. Ben, somehow, caught a firework to the leg (it left a mark, but no burn) and I got hit in the face mask once (which, interestingly enough, was sort of my goal or expectation for the evening). Aside from the carts and everyone doing there own thing (which was still going on, even with the parade), there were a couple of other types of fireworks. One was strings of fireworks that just exploded brightly, powerfully, and noisily, and upon which some people thought it was a good idea to dance (as they were exploding). Ben and I did abstain from this particular brand of tom-foolery. The other type was not dangerous at all (at least compared with dancing on top of exploding fireworks), and was actually very pretty. Long strings of sparkler like things were pulled up into the air, creating a beautiful waterfall of sparks.

So, once we found the parade the evening consisted of, talking to people, getting shot at by fireworks, watching people dance on fireworks, actually enjoying the beauty of the fireworks, and drinking the occasional beer. Although the excitement for the festival had built up to an impressive high, the festival itself had fully, completely, 100%, LIVED UP TO ANY AND ALL EXPECTATIONS. Everything had gone entirely perfectly. There were many opportunities for Ben and I to turn the experience in to a crappy one, but our mentalities were so similar, that any difficulties we encountered we rolled with. We honed the 'go-with-the-flow' mentality to the point of being willing to sleep on marble benches in the middle of a roundabout. The bus driver made fun of us, and at first we were disgruntled, but later we opened ourselves up to ridicule, and tried to use it to open up conversation with strangers. The number and quality of conversations we did have with strangers, who, if we hadn't spoken Chinese, would have had no way to talk with us, and the incredibly rewarding feeling this gives. The sheer randomness of the majority of the things that happened (such as: the possibly drunk stranger who didn't kick us out of the temple, but seemed genuinely sorry for it having happened; the random security guard who almost forced us to drive his moped after we'd been drinking, and who wanted us to pick him up some special bowling ball the next time we where in the states; the random old couple who decided it would be a good idea to go sing some old Chinese opera style karaoke in the park; the cornfield in the middle of the city; or the random guy at the temple asking if I was Dutch, then upon finding I wasn't, leaving the area; or the wild pack of family dogs, see above photo), but how everything still seemed to come together perfectly. The festival would have been amazing by itself, but all these things combined to make the experiences in either Ben's or my life. And it wasn't even over yet.

Our bus left at 1:50, so as the time neared 1, we began to separate ourselves from the parade. Things were starting to wind down anyways, and we ran into some Australian girls on the outskirts of the danger zone, so we stopped and talked to them for a while. We'd taken our helmets off, but this turned out not to be the best decision because, in some ways, the outskirts were more dangerous. The stray fireworks were a little more crazy, and there were still some people doing the crazy firework dance. We realized time was getting short, so we ran off in the direction of the bus stop. Somehow we had gotten on the wrong side of the procession, and we had to press back through the crowd to get where we needed to go. The carts were starting to shake again, so we knew things were about to get serious. We donned our helmets as quickly as possible, and pushed through the edge of the crowd. Once to the other side, we took our helmets off, and started to jog. The Australian girls had pressed some betel nut on us, so as we ran, we spat out huge globs of red spit, and tried not to choke on what we didn't spit out, while we panted for breath. It was still a nice run though (we were carrying our helmets under our arms again), and we grinned at each other as we jogged along. We contemplated, only very briefly, jogging all the way to the bus station, but it was already 1:30, so we got a cab. We told the driver the name of the bus company the woman at the tourist info place had given us, and he drove off. When he stopped the car, we found out that we were at the wrong place, though we were very close to the station we'd bought our tickets from. We told the driver to pull over to the other place, but at the same time, we realized that the place we'd just stopped was where we had made phone reservations. Apparently, we'd been dropped off at the wrong place earlier, but since we didn't pay for the reservation, it didn't seem to matter. At the correct bus stop, we shed our layers, and had a victory beer. Our bus came, and we got on it, but there weren't two empty seats, so Ben had to sit in the front of the bus (where he chatted it up with the driver), and I sat in the back. I was staring around, dazed and tired, and realized that we weren't supposed to have beer on the bus. Oh well. The bus was moving now, and no one had told us, either because no one really cares, or because we're white foreigners. On the ride back they played 2 movies on the bus, "The Constant Gardener" about aid work in Africa, and some Lindsay Lohan move. Both seemed very out of place. I made a mental note to add them to the list of random things that had happened. About half way back the bus made a stop, and Ben came back and sat next to me. We had a little pep talk, then the bus started moving again, and he went back to the front.

At about 5:30, we got into Taipei. We were worried about the subway not being open because it was so early, but by the time we made it there it was 6, and the trains were running. We had a little touching parting company moment as we each went to our separate train lines. As I ate breakfast, I watched the morning news, and saw reports on the festival. Apparently only 18 people had been injured. They had some random coverage of mostly nude people (just wearing helmets and bathing suits) standing on carts getting dragged around and shot at by fireworks. I wondered where it had taken place. They even had a couple token interviews with white people, one heavyset guy with inch thick foam padding taped all over his body, and another random guy. After breakfast I rode my bike to school. It was the same that it always is, just a regular ride. I wondered if any of the festival had even happened. It all seemed so different with the two familiar cross-walks and the short on campus bike ride to get to school. The sun was shining and during my first class, I stared out the window, and thought about calling Ben in the afternoon, to see if he didn't want to grab his moped helmet, and find a park in the city to nap in. Or better yet, find another festival somewhere in Taiwan, grab our moped helmets and a little money and head there. We could sleep later. Ben and I had talked about this some, and I fantasized about it in class. A whole new style of traveling. Just money, the clothes on your body, a moped helmet, and an open mind. Maybe a towel too. Then you just go, and everything else would sort itself out. I haven't yet had a chance to implement this new strategy, but I do know that the results the first time were unbelievable.

I feel like we really lived.

Friday, February 22, 2008

THE CRAZY TRAIN. Part I

I met Ben at the train station at 1:45 on Wednesday. We got the important stuff taken care of first, and Ben gave me my new full-face moped helmet. I strapped mine onto one of the straps of my backpack, under one of my arms, while Ben just carried his. Why were we at the train station in the early afternoon with full-face moped helmets? Fortunately not to go riding mopeds. There is a festival in southern Taiwan called "YanShui Beehive of Fireworks". Ben heard about it last year (one of my teachers had also brought it up in class once), and apparently its just a huge fireworks festival, except not all of the time the fireworks are pointed upwards. We'd found websites with clear pictures of how much protective gear was necessary, and a full face helmet seemed like a must, along with at least two jackets, and probably some gloves for good measure. Most of the other pictures of the event were crappy and unclear, but showed people dancing crazily, backlit by fireworks. We had also read, in the guidebook on Taiwan, that about 100,000 people showed up last year, and they also set off the longest string of fireworks in the world (something like 6-8 kilometers long, and it took 40 minutes to go off, or something absurd like that, I forget exactly). So we had our hopes pretty high for the festival, and I want to say up front, the were not disappointed. This was one of the most incredible experiences of my whole life, and while the fireworks were only a part of it, they provided a build up and the reason to do everything else we did.

With that many people going to the festival we were worried about all the public transportation being taken already, so we had bought train tickets the day before. On the ride down we napped a little (I was already tired from my classes, which are getting really intense), and I did a little homework (in my original plan, I would leave after class on Wednesday, and get back before class on Thursday, and aside from being tired, I would be well prepared and in class). As we got closer to our stop we began to be a little worried about the lack of people. We had found one website that said the dates for the festival were "20th-21st", so were were pretty sure it was tonight, but the train had empty seats. If 100,000 people were coming to a festival starting in a couple of hours, we expected that not only would all of the seats be taken, but that there would be no standing room. We hoped that a bunch of people would get off at our stop, to give us a little confidence about being in the right spot, but we the time came, we got off with not more than 20 other people. One of my teachers said she'd heard there was a free bus shuttle service so we asked about the ticket taker about this. He laughed at us and told us to go with the taxi drivers, who were in the background making gestures and noises that clearly indicated 'Fireworks Festival'. I'm not that big of a fan of taxi drivers, and so I asked where the bus station was. There was a round-about right outside the station with a monument in the middle (remember the monument, it'll be important later) and right on the other side of the round-about we found the bus station. From the woman at the ticket counter we found out conclusively that indeed, part of the festival was today, but the bigger part was tomorrow. I had mis-interpreted the calender. I thought it meant that the festival started on the night of the 20th, and went until the early hours of the 21st, but really it indicated that the festival was on 2 days. We were now presented with a decision. Whether or not to stay until tomorrow. While we were thinking we got tickets to Yanshui, where the festival would actually take place, and sat down to wait. We were chatting a little, and wondering (as usual) how we would know which bus was ours. So, I didn't notice immediately when a woman snuck up behind me to look at my ticket. I was a little creeped out (she never really said anything) but apparently she had taken pity on us, and was just looking to see where we were going, so she could tell us which bus would be ours. Even if the woman went about it differently that I would have expected, that was one problem solved. After a couple minutes a bus pulled up and the woman (who had stepped away to wait by the gate) began waving excitedly, so we walked over and boarded the bus. There were only about 10 other people on the bus, which, again, made it seem like tonight's celebrations were going to be a lot less packed that we had expected. While the bus ride was short, it built up further anxiety about the size of the festival we were going to. The bus was riding through small towns for the most part, but there were no people out at all. Even as we got closer, all of the streets remained disappointingly empty.In the afternoon the idea had occurred to me 'What if the need for moped helmets is all a big ruse?' Taiwanese are really big into the group mentality, and I started to wonder if we weren't encountering a situation where one person wore a helmet once, and even though they weren't really necessary, everyone started to wear one, and it would never occur to anyone that they might not actually need to wear a helmet, which would be pretty disappointing.

We had hoped that if we just got ourselves to the town, everything else would sort itself out, and I guess in the end it did. We were only at a loss for what do for a shot period, because the woman had taken a Taiwanese couple under her wing, and was leading them away talking about the fireworks festival, so we just decided to keep following her. After a while we got to somewhere with a stage and a bunch of stalls that was looked distinctly more like a festival, the Taiwanese couple broke off from her, and Ben and I moved in to try to figure out what was going on. In short: the big crazy event where fireworks get shot at you wasn't until Thursday night, and there were no hotels in the area (this seemed unlikely, and I've since come to find out that I might have asked for the wrong type of hotel, for example, there might have been motels, but no hotels), but there was a temple we could try sleeping in. Also, from teaching English last year, Ben knew that any English teachers can sleep at any public school in Taiwan, so if it came down to it, we could say we were English teachers and sleep at an elementary school. We felt like we ought to decide pretty soon if we should stay for the real deal the next night. Ben didn't really have anything to do the next day, and I felt like I would never have an opportunity even remotely similar to this one again in my entire life, so skipping school for one day didn't seem like a high cost to pay. So we decided to stay and do what we had come to do, get shot at by crazy fireworks.

After deciding we were going to stay our only goal was to find a place to sleep, so we headed off to find an elementary school. The nice woman had given us directions, and following those, we headed off through the night market. On the way we had an opportunity to try new foods, and I got something which most strongly resembled fried coleslaw. They shaped it into big rectangles on the griddle, then put corn and spices on top of it to serve it, and overall it was actually pretty good. We finally made it to the elementary school, so we looked around for someone to ask if we could sleep there, and if we could stash our stuff there (aside from our helmets, Ben only had his helmet and an extra jacket, but I had some food and a textbook too.) We didn't find anyone to ask, so we headed back to the main area. There was a stage set up for the event, and a band playing when we got back, so we went over to listen. Most music in Taiwan is a unique sort of pop, which I'm not a big fan of, but this band was actually playing legitimate music (and it was an all girl band), so we moved closer to the stage. Almost everything about the concert from the stage back, seemed pretty American. The band had American style, movement, volume, and they played at least one American song. But everything in front of the stage was distinctly Taiwanese. 1st of all, there was a 10-15 foot gap between the stage and the audience, the group in front of the audience looked like they had been brought out of the retirement home to enjoy some activities other than bingo, and mostly everyone else just looked sullen and bored. Ben and I were standing near the front, but off to the side, out of the way of the old people. A separate announcer came up between bands, and immediately announced that there were 2 foreigners standing off to the left. Then he pointed at us. I was taken a little aback, but Ben threw his hand into the air, and rolled with it. Everyone applauded for us and, interestingly enough, we got generated more excitement and applause than the band had. The announcer then asked us (in broken English) where we were from, and I was about to answer in Chinese, but Ben was on the ball again, and happily returned (in good English) that we were Americans. At this point, the announcer translated what had happened into Chinese and Taiwanese. The announcer asked us a couple more questions, but then the next band came on, and we became a regular part of the crowd again. As the band came down off stage, we decided to go talk to them, but things got off to a bad start when Ben asked if they could speak Chinese and instead of an emphatic 'Yes', the girl he'd asked only responded with 'A little'. I had heard that people preferred to speak Taiwanese in southern Taiwan (because there is more anti-China sentiment, and they want to be more independent and different), but we would come to find out this isn't entirely true. We talked to the band for a little while, but never managed to get away from the awkward start. The temple we were hoping to be able to sleep in was only a few feet away, so right before we parted company, we told the girls we were thinking about sleeping in the temple, and asked what they thought. This was the first time in the evening when we told strange Taiwanese people about our lack of a good place to sleep, and then hoped they would invited us back to their house to sleep, or somehow arrange something more comfortable than the cold ground at an elementary school. Every time our hopes skyrocketed, and almost every time they crashed back to Earth. So, the girl band set the trend for the evening by nicely sidestepping the issue, and Ben and I were left to go check out the temple to see if we really could sleep there.

The whole thing turned out to be a lot less like a temple than I had imagined. The nice woman had told us we might be able to find a place to sleep on the second floor, so we went straight up there first. I had expected a large empty room with an alter at one end, some carpets on the floor, ornately decorated pillars, incense, and a flat piece of marble where we could sleep. What we actually found was a hallway with closed doorways on either side, just like you would expect at any regular hotel (except that the floor was marble, and the outside looked what a temple should look like). We walked to the end of the hallway, and ran into a sign pointing towards (as far as I could tell) county cultural records. So we went downstairs to find someone who might be able to help us get this sorted out. Downstairs we found a large history exhibit, and after a moment, we found a security guard. We told him our problem and, after pondering for a moment, he just left. We were a little confused, and we felt a little abandoned, but we sat down to wait for someone else to come. About 5 seconds later the security guard came back in. Apparently we were supposed to follow him. This time we followed him out, where he pushed us off onto someone else, who quickly gestured us over to another, older, set of people and pushed us off onto them. It didn't take us long to figure out that there were no rooms in the temple, but the told us that, indeed there was a hotel down the road a little way, so we decided to go check it out. Although the town we were in was a lot smaller than Taipei, it was still obviously a town, and I wouldn't have even called it rural. So I was surprised when we passed a cornfield on the way out to the hotel. It seemed really out of place.

It turned out to be a hotsprings hotel, and it would have been about 30USD a night for each of us. As soon as we found out how much it was, there was never any option of staying there, and we talked about it later, and we don't really even know why we asked. It would have had to be a pretty cheap hotel room to be able to compete with a free piece of ground at the elementary school.

After we got back to the main plaza, we went and picked up a schedule to try to figure out what fireworks were happening, and when. While I was reading the schedule, Ben got ogled by some high-school kids, and beckoned them over. We asked them what was happening and when but they had no more idea than we did. We also broached the problem of not having anywhere to sleep and we came to find out that there was a college somewhere around, and we might be able to find a place to sleep there. We broke off from the kids, and started walking through the night market, towards the college. On the way some a little girl offered us a free sample of some orange juice. We drank it and it was delicious, and afterward we went to hand the little paper cups back to the little girl. She just stared at us, so I asked her what we should do with the cups. She said "Just throw them on the ground, then it'll be alright." I looked at Ben and he looked at me. Then we both threw our cups on the ground, and I'll be damned if it wasn't one of the easiest things I've ever done. No wonder people litter.

After going a little farther we stopped off to pick up a beer, and ask for directions. Apparently the college was only about 20 feet from the 7-11 we bought booze from. We walked on and quickly found the front gate of the college. We approached the security booth, trying to hold our beers as discretely as possible, to ask if they had a place we could sleep for the night. Things got a little crazy right away because as the security guard saw us, he immediately stood up and saluted (which might have been more reasonable from someone in the military, but this guy clearly wasn't). The security guard was short, with short black hair, and a easily noticeable paunch. He was also chewing betel nut, which holds chewing tobaccoe's place in Taiwanese society. Betel nut looks like a peeled acorn might. They're small, white skinned, and they usually come wrapped in a small leaf. You bite off one end, then just chew on the other end. It gives you a tiny little buzz, and (in my opinion) tastes a little like meat. It also turns your entire mouth, all your visible teeth, and your spit ... a pretty bright color red (and if you keep your eyes open you can see big red spit spots all over the streets).

We were beginning to notice that betel nut is a lot more common in southern Taiwan and especially in rural areas. This security guard confirmed the stereotype and had a mouth full of red stained teeth. After saluting us, the guard walked over to the window and we started to talk. Things got carried away pretty quickly. The guard right away asked if we'd come back to study (they're in between semester break was about over), and something else I didn't understand. I started to explain what we were doing, but then the guard started rolling with his own train of thoughts. He asked us when the last time we'd been back to the states was and when we'd be going again. Then he started telling us about bowling. Apparently he's pretty good at it, and had been to the states to compete, but he didn't do well because in America they spin the ball, so the path from hand to pins is curved (or something like that, I also thought he might have said that American lanes are slanted), so he didn't do as well. Then he got to the real point of his story. Apparently he was in love with a certain bowling ball that you could only get in the states (now you see why he was so intent to know our America related travel plans). We were never able to get out of him if it was one particular ball, or a whole series of balls, but apperently they (or it) were 40 years old, and incredibly important to this guy. We were trying to be friendly but this was getting a little out of hand, so we drew the conversation back to whether or not we could sleep in a building somewhere on campus.

As soon as he found out we were there to watch the fireworks, and not to study he immediately tried to loan us his scooter. Just for a quick recap here, we are 2 strangers, not even students at this University, both drinking beer, and not even asking for a scooter. So we follow him as he rushes out of the security booth and over to his scooter, which he proceeds to start. It is a kick start, and after stomping on the lever the first time (without getting it to start) he looks up to tell us that it's easy to start and only takes one kick. After the fourth or fifth kick he gets it started. We realize that this is a bad idea, and again emphasize that all we want is a place to sleep, so the guard rushes back to his booth. In the interim a stranger (I assume his friend) has taken a spot in the guard house. He's definitely not a security guard and actually looks like he's done a lot of drugs in the last 20 minutes. He is also chewing betel nut. As we come in the guard kick this guy out of his seat, and points to 2 chairs we could sleep in. We politely demur, saying they are too small, and so he heads back outside. We follow dubiously as he goes over to a van and lays down the seats for us to sleep in. The van is parked right beside a building, so we ask if there is somewhere in there we can sleep. Apparently there is some sort of pack of wild dogs that roams around inside the building, and it wouldn't be safe for us to sleep there.

Creepiness alarm bells go off all over the inside of my head, and we start to extricate ourselves from the situation. I tell him, this looks OK, but that we still want to see some fireworks so we don't want to sleep now. We figure out what time he gets off work too, to give the story some more semblance of truth and reality. Then we take off (on foot, with no moped). We thought we might be able to get to the fireworks (we could see them going off in the distance) by going through campus, but the guard told us it wasn't' so, and we had to keep heading down the road. So, following his advice, we headed on down the road. We weren't really near very many buildings now, but there were still a fair amount of traffic on the road. After a few minutes we came to another road and took it right, towards the fireworks. After a couple more minutes we finally made it somewhere, though it did seem a little dubious. Basically it was a sketchy couple groups of loitering guys chewing betel nut and looking surly, but we figured we're a lot bigger than they are, and we were drinking (which I feel gave us good street cred.)

As a side note here, one of the beautiful things about Taiwanese fireworks is that everyone does there own thing, usually in addition to publicly funded displays. While we were walking in the streets this sometimes made things more intense because fireworks could be getting shot off from all around you, but right now it was just nice because there were two separate areas of the sky that were regularly filled with beautiful fireworks. We chose one group and headed that way, finally making it to another temple, and a little rural town square. There were a lot of people loitering, but here there seemed to be more of a family crowd, or at least the sketchier looking people were just teenagers, so we decided to hang out here for a while. After a while Ben noticed that, where as before we had been surrounded by people in normal street dress, now the only people in our vicinity were wearing thick clothes and helmets. We hurriedly put on our helmets, and just in time too because fireworks started going off right beside us. We weren't prepared, but I turned my back and wrapped my arms around my neck to try to shield the important parts. Fortunately, it didn't last very long, and there were a lot of better prepared people shielding us from most of the intensity.

After hanging out there for a while we got approached by a 20 something Taiwanese girl, dressed up in full protective gear, and asked if we wanted to chat a little. Ben and I didn't hesitate before whole-heartedly agreeing. We both thought she just wanted to talk to us, but we were soon mistaken as she beckoned on the camera crew. I had see a guy walking around earlier with a firework-proof camera, but now he was accompanied by: a guy with a light, a interviewer, and some sort of all around guy who wrote down our names at the end of the interview. The guy talking didn't have any super specific questions so we just chatted a little bit. I asked where he was from, and when he said 'Japan' I jumped at the opportunity to ask someone, who, for all I can tell is a native speaker, how his Chinese got so good (apparently he also lived or lives in Taiwan). He didn't think it was quite as funny as I did, but we kept on chatting. They were with a news channel in Taipei, but I didn't ask which one. After a little bit the girl who had first talked to us gave the interviewer a couple of other questions to ask, but the interview was still pretty short overall.

We decided to go check out the temple and see if we couldn't sleep in this one, or they might be able to recommend somewhere for us to sleep. There was a large string of fireworks laid out on the patio in front of the temple, and we stopped to ask a guy standing there what time they were going to be set off. Our communications problems became apparent right away when he told us they hadn't been set off yet. We tried again, but the conversation only went downhill from there, though we finally did figure out that the fireworks were going to be set off shortly. There were a few people sitting in the temple looking out at the fireworks so we grabbed a couple chairs and joined them. After a moment one of the women started talking to us, and it soon became apparent that we were looking for a place to sleep. We talked a little more, and told here really all we needed was a place to lay down. She told us we could lay down there. Major Score. We chatted with her for a little while longer, then stashed out stuff there, and went back out to enjoy the fireworks.

Pretty soon a truck pulled up, and we chatted with the driver for a while. Each side of the back of the truck had a large board attached to it that looked like it had previously been used for advertising, but now it was old and worn. There was also a ladder in the back that you could use to get on top of the bus, and there was someone up there but I don't know what they were doing.
Anyway, for whatever reason, the guy parked the truck there for a while and so we chit-chatted. While we were chatting they set off another one of the 'beehives of fireworks' and it definitely increased excitement for the next night. It looked like a solid sheet of sparks (from the fireworks flying into the crowd) were coming off of the cart. Just after that we talked with a couple random people who were participating in tonight's beehive of fireworks, and one guy showed us where a hole had been burned in in the finger of his gloves. Although the gloves weren't that thick, seeing that only further increased anticipation of the next night.

We kept chatting it up with people and watching fireworks (although somehow we missed the really long one that was laid out in front of the temple) until about 1:30, when we decided we ought to further finalize our floor space in the temple. I went back in, in search of the woman who'd previously authorized us, but she was no where to be found. One of the same guys from earlier was sitting in the temple, so I thought he might work there, and asked him if we could sleep there. He, indeed, was just enjoying the fireworks like everyone else, but he did say that the woman in charge was around somewhere so I kept hanging out, awaiting her return. While I was waiting a Taiwanese man came up and asked if I was Dutch. I understood him the first time, but the question was so unexpected that I had to ask him to say it again. Sure enough, he wanted to know if I was Dutch and, after I told him I was American, he seemed satisfied and left. The woman never did show up again, and by this time, Ben and I were starting to get a little tired, and ready for bed. So, we started to get ready. Earlier we had devised an incredible, ingenious strategy for making our sleeping circumstances more comfortable. Wear our moped helmets to sleep. Not only would they provide further insulation, but they would serve as a sort of built in pillow. Whichever direction we turned our head, it would still be propped up by the moped helmet. So, because we were sleeping in our clothes, and hadn't brought tooth brushing materials, all we really had to do to get ready for sleep was put on our helmets.

We sitting around, wearing our moped helmets, and decided to try to talk to the last guy in the temple, to see how OK it was for us to sleep there, but we ran into problems right away. His Taiwanese was a lot better than his Chinese, and though he could understand what we were saying, and make coherent sentences of his own, he had a hard time doing it. He asked us a few times if we spoke Taiwanese, but I guess he finally believed our assurances that we couldn't. We did manage to make clear to him that we wanted to sleep there, and he continually assured us that we could. He was telling us it was no problem, right until the moment we got kicked out. The guy we had had communications problems with earlier (we asked him when the fireworks were going to go off, and he told us they hadn't yet) came in and told us we had to leave. We told him that we had been assured earlier in the evening that we could stay there, but he just kept repeating that they were closing, and so we had to leave. We argued a little bit, but it didn't seem like we really had any ground to stand on, so we got our stuff and left. The other guy followed us out, and seemed genuinely helpful and sorry that we had to leave. We walked out into the street, and found that the street crews were already at work cleaning up the leftover from the fireworks. It was pretty much a crew of somewhat old women with brooms, who swept all the paper rubbish into one pile and then let it on fire. Because it was made from fireworks leftovers, it became a sort of exploding bonfire as the fireworks that hadn't gone off earlier went off in the fire. I was a little cold and went to warm myself by the bonfire, but the nice stranger pulled me away, and went back to trying to think somewhere for us to sleep or a way for us to sleep in the temple, or something. He had seemed in complete control of his faculties when we were sitting in the temple talking, but now he seemed really drunk. He just kept saying "Hold on, let me think", and stumbling around. We were hoping to get invited back to his house, so we could have a warm piece of floor to sleep on, but after a while he just kept stumbling so we thanked him for his help and took off.