Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Primal Wilderness Rambling From Taiwan

My trip to Taiwan several years ago stands as an example of how random events can set off chain reactions that lead to completely unpredictable results. A memorable link in such a chain took shape one evening at an outdoor table high in the mountains of central Taiwan. I was with half-frozen vacationers, huddled gratefully around a steaming pot of shabu-shabu, when a lanky Taiwanese guy named Ah-Li joined us.

Ah-Li was acquainted with Ming, a friend whose persistent invitations had convinced me and my wife Judy to travel there from our home. He took a seat across the table from me, nodded in greeting, and silently poured half of his large bottle of Taiwan Beer into a glass for me. We saluted each other with our drinks. In the Hakka dialect (of which I understood not a syllable), he commented that I looked chilly. Ming translated as Ah-Li produced a snack bag then handed me a green, pecan-shaped object.

“He says this will warm you up,” Ming related. I noticed that Ah-Li seemed comfortable wearing just a sleeveless undershirt, whereas my coat felt completely inadequate. The forested mountains around us rose to 10,000 feet and this was January.

I turned the mysterious thing around in my fingers. “What is it?” I asked.

“Betel-nut,” said Ming's husband Kai. “You don't eat it. Just chew like gum.”

Kai added that he and Ming didn't partake. I felt no desire to put it in my mouth but figured acceptance of the offer would be the only polite course. In the week we'd been on the island, Judy and I had committed a few minor faux pas, due to our ignorance of Asian values. For example, we'd scolded our son in public for touching strangers, assuming they'd object to a kid invading their space with potentially grubby hands. We didn't know the degree to which children are accepted there. Pulling our boy away from them sent an unfriendly message.

So, I popped the nut into my mouth. At first, it was tough and chewy like soft wood. I wondered how soon I could politely get rid of it. Then, my face suddenly felt warm. This warmth ran down the backs of my arms and a sensation of well-being spread over my body.

“Whoa!” I said with surprise. “This is something completely different.” I laughed in realizing I sounded like the guy from Monty Python. “They don't sell these in the US, do they?”

“Nope,” Kai said. “Illegal there. It's a mild narcotic.”

“Oh, now you tell me!” I smiled at my companions. The rush had already dissipated. I wasn't particularly excited about the drug and refrained from taking another. However, I thanked Ah-Li as earnestly as possible, given the language barrier. That little nut had taken my mind off the cold and refocused my attention on the exotic surroundings.

Our adventures around Taiwan tended to follow that template: Judy and I carried our worries into novel situations, then the country surprised and delighted us, making those issues evaporate. The time we spent in Alishan National Park was the highlight.

Alishan resembles America's Great Smoky Mountains, but with a distinctly Asian flavor. Wispy clouds called dragon's breath hang between steep, densely-wooded peaks. Narrow trails wind among the exposed roots and gnarled trunks of massive old trees. Seeing the sun rise is an obligatory part of everyone's trip there, so we ventured forth one morning before 5 am to find a suitable vantage point. We were the first to arrive, thus our spot was extremely quiet and peaceful. As the sky brightened, birds chirped overhead.

Another family drove up and joined us. Then, several vans appeared, from which issued a crowd of fifty or more tourists. Their guide leaped onto a retaining wall and started shouting excitedly at them in Japanese with a bullhorn! So much for peace and quiet. I didn't know what he was saying, but it sounded as if he were narrating the approach of the sun like a sports announcer at a football game. Astonished, I stopped focusing my camera on the skyline and snapped photos of the people around me.

On our last day, we drove back down from the mountains at a leisurely pace, stopping frequently at overlooks. At one point, we found a suspension footbridge crossing a dramatic gorge, where I had the strange feeling I’d been there before. I realized that I'd dreamed about the place, more than once! Very eerie. On the other side of the bridge was a small Taoist shrine, piled high with offerings of fruit and redolent with the smell of incense. A rocky path continued past it, which I followed to a dense bamboo grove. I couldn't shake the sense of having wandered into a magical place. Without friends waiting back at the car, I'd have lingered indefinitely.

Before going to Taiwan, I knew very little about Asia. I certainly never expected to go there. The first link in that remarkable chain of events was a doctor's appointment back in San Diego. Judy was writing a check at the counter when Ming's little boy rolled onto her foot. Conversation between mothers ensued. We became friends with Ming and Kai, who lived near us. Later, when they moved back to Ming's hometown in Taiwan, they urged us to visit—and wouldn't take no for an answer.

After our Taiwan trip, I began studying Chinese, believing the experience had lifted me too far out of my previous insular groove to ever fit comfortably back into it. I've made four trips across the Pacific since, acquiring friends and even relatives there. Visiting Taiwan became a defining event in my life—and it all started when a child rolled across the floor of a doctor's waiting room.

Stephen Gallup has a master's degree in English from the University of Virginia. He is the author of the memoir What About the Boy? and blogs at


  1. The picture there does have something of a Great Smokies feel to it, actually... sounds like a fascinating place!

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