Startled by the sound of my alarm, I squinted one eye open to check the time. Saturday, 9 AM. Both eyes shut with ease as they refused to acknowledge the morning rays illuminating my room. Then a moment of clarity: “I want to go to the beach.” I rolled over and whispered to Peter, “let’s go to the beach.”
We lounged in bed for another 30 minutes Googling “nearby beaches” and decided to venture to Zhu-Wei beach for proximity’s sake. The idle route is a low-stress environment to test ride Peter’s new 150 CC scooter.
With a trepid heart, I sat behind Peter and tightly squeezed his torso for the entire 14 km (8 mile) ride. Until that moment, I haven’t ridden a scooter since my accident in 2013. My left knee and hip still pain me from the collison.
We puttered past farms, tattered buildings, and brightly decorated bus stops, and my grip relaxed. A grin cemented on my face while the light breeze played with my hair and the sun kissed my cheeks. A giddy sense of adventure and spontaneity radiated within as I held on to Peter and watched the gentle clouds painted on the light blue sky slide by.
The joy and excitement shadowed my navigational duties. We missed a few turns and parked in a dilapidated lot. In the end, we found where sky meets sea; proof of a job well done.
A range of emotions flowed through me as we walked onto the chocolate shore. At first glance the quaint and sleepy cove seemed an idyll place. Dogs played in the sea water quietly lapping onto shore. Parents watched their children dig holes in the sand from the comforting shade of rainbow umbrellas.
A few steps closer to shore, the sun reflected off a variety of plastic washed ashore from the Taiwan Strait. In lieu of seashells and rocks, plastic glittered along the shore — bottle caps, microwaveable containers, water bottles, and squeezed Coco cups.
The beauty and tranquility that beaches offer is why they’re revered in my eyes. Wind gliding over sand and waves gently greeting the land have a lulling effect which clears my mind. I’m instantly transported to an reflective state – uncluttered by anxiety and responsibilities.
This time the connection was disrupted by a grim reminder of human waste surrounding me.
I looked around and thought about every time I sipped on an iced latte from Starbucks, purchased carry out fried rice, chugged water from a plastic bottle, and used plastic utensils because I was too lazy to find a metal fork.
Looking at the forgotten waste, I resolved to significantly reduce my consumption. It will be challenging considering I have limited vocabulary. I don’t even know the Chinese translation of “plastic” or how to politely say “I don’t need a straw.” It’s motivation to learn more Chinese phrases and simultaneously reduce.
The time evaporated as we raced and sprinted a few yards, threw a tennis ball while the water splashed our calves, and photographed the cloudy scenery.
Before we departed, I dipped my sandy feet in the water and a playful border collie greeted me with a purple Frisbee in mouth. She dropped the foam toy by my foot and with expectant eyes waited. (Only 10 minutes before this moment, Peter and I agreed that border collies are smart and fun because they can successfully play fetch.) Amazed that she can read minds, or she can understand English, I scooped up the Frisbee and hurled it into the wind.
Peter and I rolled over in laughter as she kept returning the toy to me, and only me, for 15 minutes.
Hunger and Peter’s sunburn forced us to say goodbye to our new friend and find a shaded meal. A mile down the dusty road, we happened upon a Thai restaurant seated on the bed of a river along the outskirts of the fish market. We shared three spicy seafood dishes.
Peter swallowed a spoonful of soup into the wrong pipe, which left him coughing and teary-eyed the entire meal. I watched him with a grimace and asked myself “Do I help? … Can I help?” I refilled his water and avoided questions that could not be answered with yes or no.
Our delicious yet taciturn lunch marked the end of an endearing afternoon in Zhu-Wei. I can’t wait to see where Peter’s scooter will take us next.
To celebrate Peter’s 27th birthday, which coincides with Taiwan’s Lantern Festival, we traveled to Pingxi District in hopes of watching the lantern parade. We heard from locals that Pingxi is a must as it is the only place to legally release sky lanterns. Despite the hype, the information on the Internet about the logistics was hard to come by. Without realizing it until we arrived, we were a day late. Though we missed the main event, this short trip left a lasting impression.
The trip from Linkou to Pingxi – using public transportation – totaled approximately three hours. According to Google Maps, it should have taken an hour and a half. We spent quite a bit of time lolling in Taipei Main Station uncertain where or how to buy a ticket to Pingxi. It was our first time navigating the maze that is TRA (Taiwan Railways Administration). After what felt like walking in circles for hours, we happened across the single TRA ticketing machine.
The train from Taipei to Pingxi felt anachronistic compared to the modern amenities in Taipei. For starters, the ticketing machine was essentially an old-fashioned “ Coca Cola Freestyle machine from 1940” that worked by inserting a handful of coins, pressing dingy yellow buttons, and watching a paper clip sized ticket print. With the one-use ticket in hand we boarded a rickety train that sped through open-aired stations, each decorated with local motifs (Unlike Taipei where each station is underground and uniform with current designs).
Shortly after sunset, we exited at Riufung station and waited for our final train. During our layover, an energizing and familiar wave hit me. The warmth of the day hung thickly around, which left a comforting sheen on our foreheads. While I couldn’t see beyond the dim station, I could hear the wind blowing through the leaves of the surrounding forest and frogs croaking in unison. I was transported back to summer nights in Georgia where the lull of insects chiming and the residing heat tuck you to sleep. I had to remind myself a few times that I’m not in Georgia. But it felt like home.
The next train we boarded carried few people, but those in attendance were diverse. Individuals spoke in unknown tongues but emoted the universal: laughter, snores, and lost-in-thought stares fixed outside the window. I knew we arrived when a small boy leapt up and ran into the train conductor’s box waving at the upcoming crowd. I looked to my left and was greeted by hundreds of smiling faces and waving hands.
Alighting the train, we immediately joined the welcoming crowd. Amid the mass, lantern vendors shouted deals and pushed large-print menus into focus. They scattered along either side of the tracks illuminated by the surrounding food stands, flash of cameras, and lamp posts.
Once the incoming train departed, people flooded the freshly unoccupied tracks. People walked, photographed themselves and scenery, and released hanzi adorned lanterns.
Within 10 minutes of arriving, Peter and I purchased a four-colored lantern and were ushered into a tight fluorescent room. Here, using calligraphy brushes we decorated our lantern with a combination of well wishes and nonsensical jokes related to health, friendship, love, and happiness. I even spilled black ink on Peter’s shirt, whoops!
With our four-foot lantern in hand, we stood on the tracks and posed for photographs. Much to my surprise, there was no single group release. Groups released their lanterns sporadically leaving a disconnected trail of lanterns in the sky. Watching our little light join the lingering trail was a tender moment.
Afterwards, Peter and I ambled along the main street, packed with vendors and visitors. We snacked on a corn onion pancake (rough translation) while we walked towards a waterfall – the rumored main event of the festival – located outside of city center. We walked under a full moon along a secluded road listening to the distant rambling of a river and unknown insects chirping. The moonlight, the gentle breeze, the calming river, and home-inducing scents was enrapturing. I jolted awake when we entered a pitch-black park. My paranoia of panthers and venomous snakes smashed any curiosity to join a party by a waterfall.
We entered the town for a second time by 7pm, but this time it was dead. The once packed strip was now empty and lights reflected off the steel shutters of closed shops. Given there was nothing to buy nor people to talk to, we decided to make our way back to Taipei. Easier said than done.
No employees manned the train booth. There were no visible bus stops. We waited by a Taxi Zone for 15 minutes but only a pack of 20-year olds in all black Adidas swag were leaning on a single taxi smoking cigarettes. At wit’s end, we asked the single taxi driver remaining – smoking by his 10-seat van – to take us back to Taipei. He agreed and asked us to wait 15 minutes. We waited 20. Seated inside the taxi I released the second sigh of relief which vanished as soon as he requested $1,400 NT ($40 USD). Me and Peter’s eyes met with a simultaneous droop; we had no other choice. An hour and $40 later, we were walking on Taipei sidewalks surrounded by six-story malls and greeted by the stream of cars propelling through traffic.
Looking at the photos, even today, Peter and I agree that it was worth the confusion, expensive taxi, and quick turn around. It was truly magical to watch lantern after lantern float towards the distant mountains.
Peter and I bicycled 20 minutes to enjoy the rare and beautiful view of Sakura trees in full blossom. En route, we encountered two brothers shooting fireworks in the distance and shouting ‘hello’. They shared one bicycle to formally greet us, but none of us could mutter a sentence that the other could understand.
The following are images from a delightful day!