Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Taiwan time out 

It has been a week or two since I’ve written for my blog, and there’s no excuse, except to say that I was lazy and caught up in day-to-day life.

Meanwhile, chapter one of my excellent adventure is rapidly coming to a close. The good news is that there will be a chapter two! I wound up my first contract at the end of last week, but there were no sad goodbyes, just au revoirs. I will be signing another contract through December, so I’ll have more time to explore both Hong Kong and Asia. It has been such a nice experience that I’m delighted to be staying a bit longer. 

At present, I’m enjoying the fruits of my labor: a trip to Taiwan with my cousins from New York City. In June, we decided that we’d rendezvous once my contract was finished. It sounded like great fun, but it also seemed like a dream. Now, it’s real.

We met Sunday in Keelung, a port just outside Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, the Republic of China – NOT to be confused with the People’s Republic of China, the behemoth across the Strait of Taiwan. Taiwan is a democratic island nation with 23 million people -- the entire country’s population is  almost equal to that of China’s largest city, Chongqing.

I flew into Taipei and stayed overnight. At the hotel’s breakfast buffet the next morning, I was wearing my Martin Brodeur/Team Canada hockey T-shirt and whom do I encounter but a businessman from L.A. who plays rec hockey with retired players from the L.A. Kings?! Quite entertaining!

I met my cousins and we connected with our guide, who has turned out to be an Irishman from Northern Ireland who settled in Taiwan 21 years ago and speaks Chinese fluently. He packed us into his SUV and off we went.

Our first destination was Taroko Gorge National Park, home to an impressive gorge that cuts through its renowned marble walls. It is full of waterfalls and is also home to dozens of varieties of butterflies, including 14 types of swallowtails (the U.S. has one species, by comparison). Iridescent blues, stark black and white, surprising yellow: there were butterflies dancing all along our trails.

The park is full of suspension bridges – luckily, they are short and fairly sturdy. (I still have nightmares about the swinging Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver.) It also has a smattering of temples and pagodas, as well as caves carved into the rock. We enjoyed a walk through one that required us to put on plastic raincoats, the type they hand out in Niagara Falls for Maid of the Mist cruises on the Niagara River. We walked along and icy water rained from the rocks: a lovely counterpoint to a warm day. 
I also saw my first monkeys in the wild! They were small Taiwanese macaques, watching us curiously with big eyes  from the trees as they chewed on bark. I was thrilled.

We spent a couple of nights in a homestay, the equivalent of a B&B without fancy trimmings. Our host, Mr. Su, had a house in the country near the park, and we had breakfast on his porch each morning after the neighborhood rooster crowed to wake us. At night, the air resonated with the beat of cicadas and the clack-clack of local frogs.

Yesterday, in one of the rural towns in Hualien County on Taiwan’s east coast, we spotted dozens of baskets outside a temple and stopped to investigate. It turned out to be the beginning of the birthday celebration for the local Daoist temple’s god. What a thrill to see it firsthand!. The men from the temple brought out  the god’s statue and placed  it on a palanquin so it could be carried. Apparently, on a birthday, a god is taken to visit neighboring gods.

As we wandered, a sextet played traditional Chinese instruments, and congregation members prepared for the celebration’s opening parade. The women wore the traditional basket-like hats that come to a point on top, but they tied matching colored scarves around them for a festive air and extra protection from the hot sun. They prepared to carry two small baskets apiece, each tied to the ends of bamboo poles and filled with food offerings for the gods.

As they lined two sides of the walkway leading to the temple, a religious leader in traditional black shirt and pants did a divination ceremony to ensure the god found the day propitious for a celebration. With the assent, another man waved a long, flowering bamboo pole over the gathering for good fortune: bamboo, with its jointed stem, represents the stages of life, our guide tells me. 

A series of popping firecrackers and the parade was off, with the appointed men carrying the god on his platform, followed by the parade of women marching two by two with their baskets, all of the marchers accompanied by a huge drum beaten rhythmically and a gong sounding periodically  from a trailing truck. 

Tomorrow, there will be more festivities, a feast and some performances. We’re invited, but other adventures beckon.

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