Saying Goodbye: Part 1

(5/3) Fulbright Taiwan

Back in the beginning of May, I said the first of many goodbyes that would come to consume my last few months in Taiwan. Fulbright Taiwan was hosting a farewell dinner for all of the ETAs and scholars on the first weekend in May. It felt impossibly early to be contemplating saying goodbye because we still had almost two full months left of our grant. But nonetheless, I had begun receiving emails from next years ETAs asking questions about Hualien and the pros and cons of the county. I was slowly starting to open my mind to the fact that I only had 1/5 of my grant period left and before I knew it the time would come to say goodbye to my school, friends, and all of Taiwan. This realization started to hit me hard as the ETAs from other counties began to discuss their post-grant plans. I realized that most of these people would be heading to completely different states, countries, and jobs. We would be embarking on completely different adventures and I was very unprepared to admit to myself that I probably wouldn’t see most of these people again.

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Despite these sad reflections, I had a great time. There was a live band and we all enjoyed the large buffet of food and the delicious desserts. There was wine and although we finished it off quickly it was enough release some of the inhibitions of the ETAs, leading to a large Fulbright dance party. Dr. Volke, the president of Fulbright, even made his way to the dance floor with his wife. We all stayed until the band left and then together made our way back to the hotel. Feeling slightly sad, we decided to go out together to celebrate the many wonderful times that we’d had together in Hualien. Although Sarah had returned home for sports day and Emma stayed back, the majority of us were together and we reminisced about the great times we’d had so far and would still have in the coming weeks.

(5/26) Tongmen

The next and more painful goodbye was leaving the Tongmen community where I’d done community service with another Hualien ETA for the duration of the year. Although I wrote about this in a previous post, it’s an important step of saying goodbye to Taiwan because I was leaving something that I had become a part of in Taiwan that I knew I could not recreate anywhere else in the world. My students, my friends, and the church that had welcomed me into their home had in turn become an integral part of my ETA experience and defined many of my more joyful and challenging times throughout the year. Although I was happy to see that Gina and my time at Tongmen had meant so much to the people there, it didn’t make saying goodbye any easier. However, I will hold the memory of these people and their community close to my heart and when I return to the US, I will remember to be open, generous, and welcoming to others in the same way that these people were to me. IMG-3893

(6/5 and 6/12) English Camps

Since September, every Wednesday afternoon Karina, Emma, and I went to either Fengbin Elementary School or Zhi Xue Elementary School to teach English. Instead of classes strictly structured around a textbook, we were given more freedom to create our own creative lessons teaching themes provided by the English teachers at these respective schools. After two semesters of time traveling to these places, it was time to teach our last classes and close this chapter of our Fulbright grant. We prepared a short game of jeopardy reviewing the topics we covered in the last semester and collected all the assignments, worksheets, and projects that we had completed throughout the year. Then we made a book of progress. Each of the students wrote a short letter of reflection and covered their book with stickers. When the bell rang, we gave them each a piece of candy as we often do, placed three star stickers in their camp book, and waved goodbye. Several students lingered to ask us for our signature and say a few last words, but most kids were out the door like any regular Wednesday.

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a letter written by Rachel

Although I felt very sad in that moment, I realized that these students would continue on with their lives. Perhaps we’d been able to teach them a few words in English or open their eyes to a larger world outside of their classroom. Maybe one or two students would find inspiration in our lessons and continue to study English diligently. Or perhaps not. But regardless, we had put in our best efforts and I had really enjoyed the challenges and opportunities that came with teaching in a school with three other ETAs and no Chinese-speaking co-teacher. I learned a lot about myself and I pushed my limits of patience, teamwork, and Chinese to new levels that I didn’t know were possible.

A few weeks later Karina and I were at the Dragon Boat Festival Races at Li Yu Lake when we spotted Candy, one of our students from Fengbin running up to us. She was beaming from ear to ear when she saw Karina and I and she was so excited to introduce us to her mother. The excitement she exhibited made me realize that we had managed to build a connection in this short year and I hope this carries her and our other students on to have positive memories of English as they continue on with their studies and lives.

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(6/19) 6th Grade Graduation

My saddest goodbye to date has been my 6th grade class at their graduation ceremony last Wednesday. Leading up to the event, all of my students had been approaching me asking, “Teacher, will you cry?!” “Definitely,” I responded. They reassured me that there was no need to cry and gave me a hug to make me feel better. But I knew I would. My sixth grade class is only seven students and over the year I’d gotten quite close to them. I teach them four classes a week and sometimes six if I help with Demi’s art class. I eat lunch with them regularly and out of all of my students, I can communicate best with them because their English is quite good.

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Four of my sixth graders and my co-teacher Demi!

Since the start of the second semester, we’ve been preparing for graduation. In music class we have been rehearsing their graduation song and my music and English classes were occasionally cancelled for various graduation preparations. All of the grades had been preparing graduation posters and cards for the 6th grade and Demi and I were teaching a send-off song to that all of the younger students would sing to the 6th grade. It felt so far away for so long until the week finally arrived. The day before graduation, we had a rehearsal. The sixth graders dressed in their Toroko ceremony clothing and the entire school performed the dance they’d been rehearsing in the courtyard all year. The school presented awards and diplomas and finally the time came to sing. Before I knew what was happening I was crying! The students were surprised to see me crying and after the rehearsal was over, they ran up to find and hug me. By the next period the entire school knew that I had cried and it was rather embarrassing.

The day of graduation, I had the chance to say goodbye to my sixth graders early in the morning as they got ready for their ceremony. They too reminded me not to cry but I reminded them that I wasn’t just saying goodbye to them as the other students were, I was also saying goodbye to all the other students at the school, the teachers, Hualien, and all of Taiwan. All of these sad emotions were culminating in this one event and I was so sad. I did my best not to cry but before I knew it, I was already feeling emotional as I watched my students perform their dance. When it was time to sing, I was trying my best to hold back my tears. I was sitting with the third grade class and they kept glancing back to see if I would start crying. But then before I knew what was happening, suddenly the entire class was crying, which of course made me cry. It seemed that the whole school was in tears.

Even though they’ve already graduated, the sixth graders have returned to school several times since then to hang out. They added me on social media and promised to stay in touch. I’m grateful to have gotten to know them so well and I hope that they continue to study hard. Perhaps one day they’ll make their way to the US! With the first of the goodbyes behind me, I’m finally accepting the reality that I’ve only got one week left here in Taiwan. I’m far from ready to leave but I’m also frantically in the midst of packing, closing my bank account, cleaning my apartment, and tying up all of the lose ends. The undeniable reality is that many more goodbyes are just around the corner and ready or not, it’s time to leave Taiwan.

(6/9) Dragons and the Walami Trail

The Dragon Boat Festival

Although the Dragon Boat Festival is a joyous occasion and is celebrated with Zongzi, boat races, and satchels, the history behind the holiday is actually quite sad. The holiday commemorates a man who drowned himself in the river after being accused of crimes he didn’t commit and although his body was never found, the races remind people of the search to find this man. Zongzi, or rice wrapped in leaves, is a traditional food eaten on this holiday. People started eating this because after the man died, people threw rice wrapped in leaves into the river in hopes to occupy the fish and keep them from eating his body. You can read more about it here.

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Vegetarian Zongzi given to me at a restaurant in Hualien

However, the mood that I observed on this holiday (Friday 6/7) was anything but somber. In each county in Taiwan, dragon boat races are held. Two teams of 12 or more people compete in a race and the first team to capture the flag wins. In Hualien the races were held at Liyu Lake. A few of my students and friends from Tongmen were competing too so I gathered together a crew of people from Hualien and we headed there to cheer them on. It was a huge celebration! Vendors were selling food and drinks, and tents were set up for each team while they were waiting for their competition time. I wasn’t sure what time my students were competing but I was able to meet up with a friend Taku. He told me he was racing in the early afternoon so we waited for his time.

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My friend Taku from Tongmen!

According to Taku, each team raced twice and if they won one of the races they continued on to round 2 on Saturday. He had already lost one race but he still had one more to go. We went down to the lakeside to watch the races. In the boat racers sat two by two facing backwards. In the front of the boat was someone who was leaning over the dragon head to snatch the flag and one person who was drumming to keep a consistent beat that the rowers could follow. We saw several boats capsize! I cheered for one of the teams that I though was one of my students, but it turned out to be my coworker instead. It was an incredibly hot day so we got some frozen drinks and continued to cheer on the teams. When it was time for Taku to race we cheered loudly, but unfortunately he was overtaken by another team. Some teams clearly had practiced may times and were very well organized and took the racing seriously. Others were much more disorganized, but nonetheless looked like they were having a great time.

We ran into one of my students from Fengbin English camp and it was the first time I had ever seen my students outside of school. It was exciting to see her again because we had already had our last Fengbin day and we hadn’t expected to run into her again. We got the opportunity to share with her mother all the hard work that she had done too!

Around noon, we headed home because an ETA from Changhua was coming to hike the Walami Trail with me. It was a really cool experience to see the races and I am grateful to have had to chance to witness this important Taiwanese holiday!

The Walami Trail

Back in December, an ETA told me that one of the most beautiful trails in Taiwan is the Walami Trail in southern Hualien. Unlike the hikes I did in Toroko, this hike was not up in the mountains. It was a trail along a gorge that passed over several suspension bridges and by many impressive waterfalls. So when another ETA from Changhua messaged me and asked if I wanted to go hiking or biking with her in Hualien, I immediately began planning a trip to the Walami Trail.

Like several other famous trails in Hualien, it is quite difficult to acquire a permit if you plan to spend the night on the Walami Trail. We had to make a reservation about a month in advance, especially because we were also planning to use the long weekend of dragon boat festival to hike. Luckily, I was able to secure two of the last camping permits so we were good to go. My friend Rachel would bring her own tent because mine was quite small. I would do my best to find and borrow a camping stove in Hualien so we could have plenty of food to eat.

When the time came for our trip, I admitted to Rachel that I had been unable to find a stove. In turn she told me that the only tent she could find was for 6 people so we both had failed at our missions. Nevertheless, we were still determined to hike and found some food that didn’t need to be cooked. We decided to share my tent and I borrowed a pack from my roommate. Because Rachel didn’t have a backpacking bag, we shared mine and decided to switch off throughout the hike between the larger and smaller bag.

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Pre-hiking shopping adventures… finding Bates in Taiwan!

We made our way to Yuli early Saturday morning, and from there took a taxi to the trailhead. Our driver was extremely amused by the size comparison between our bags and even when I insisted that both of our things were in the bigger pack, he still couldn’t stop laughing. It was a beautiful but hot day and before we had even started hiking we were already beginning to sweat. Within the first mile, we crossed a suspension bridge that overlooked a large gorge between the mountains. It was stunning! Clouds speckled the sky but for the most part it was clear and bright blue. We stopped several times to appreciate the views and take pictures. Before too long, we passed a large group on their way up to the midway point of the trail. We began talking to them and when they found out Rachel was from Changhua like them, they suddenly became out new best friends. They gave us 饅頭 (mantou) bread and insisted on taking a group picture. Then, they cheered us on as we continued up the trail.

Before too long we reached the first large stop, a cabin about halfway between the trailhead and the final cabin. There we stopped to refill water and eat a quick lunch. There were many people there and I discovered that this was the turn-around point for people that were just hiking for half a day. While we were there, we saw a weasel running through the woods! When we began hiking again we were in the restricted area of the trail that you could only hike with a permit. From here it was less crowded and we didn’t encounter any other groups until we were close to the cabin. In the last mile or so, we passed a large group of hikers following a guide with an absolutely massive backpack. He started taking photos of us as we passed by but we quickly walked on.

62247794_853323145023566_4443343701518843904_nWhen we arrived to the top, we chose our tent platform and set up the tent. It was sooooo much smaller than I remembered. It was practically a coffin! We both brainstormed ways to fit in the tent and finally determined that the best option was to sleep head to feet and spoon because it was quite tiny. While we were setting up other groups arrived. There was only one other tent group that set up on the platform beside us and everyone else was sleeping in the cabin. We soon discovered that this was not so much camping as it was glamping. There were FLUSHING toilets and a SHOWER (even if it was a hose secured to the edge of the bathroom). We showered and washed off our clothes that were soaked through with sweat, and headed back out to the picnic tables for a relaxing evening.

While we were hanging out at the cabins, the group leader of the large group began preparing their food. Giant bowls and food were emerging from his pack, it was no wonder that the pack was absolutely enormous. Suddenly, the entire group came over to the table. They began asking us a million questions and I struggled to keep up, but my main takeaway was that they were demanding that we eat dinner with them. We assured them that we had our own dinner (some very smushed PB&J sandwiches) but they insisted and so finally we accepted their invitation (because fresh veggies, tofu, fruit, pork, and chicken sure beats the PB&J sandwiches we had planned on eating). The food was delicious and the group graciously encouraged us to eat more. We definitely had not expected to eat this well and we were quite grateful.

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While we were eating, the topic of our tent came up in conversation. I overheard snippets of conversation including “It is way too small for two people” and “No way they will be able to sleep!” and finally “They will have to hug all night!” The group was not satisfied with this situation and when they came upon an agreement the group leader turned to us and insisted, “You will sleep in the cabin.” I told him that I knew the cabin was full and it was no problem, we would make it work. My answer seemed to dissatisfy him greatly and he frowned and said, “no, I will sleep outside.” I fervently tried to explain our sleeping plans to him but he was not having it and instead informed me that regardless, he would sleep outside and if one of us didn’t sleep in the cabin there would be an empty spot. When I realized there was no budging this guy, I told Rachel what he had said. She moved her things to the cabin and we thanked our new friend profusely.

We stayed up until 9 watching the stars before heading to sleep. The evening was cool and I slept extremely well in the tent all cuddled in my sleeping bag. I awoke at 3 am to the sound of voices. Confused for a second, I realized it was the guide starting to make breakfast. At 3 am!!! Shocked, I rolled over an fell asleep, only to be woken up a few hours later by the entire cabin noisily eating their breakfast. I overheard our friend talking to Rachel. “Where’s your foreign friend?” he asked. “She’s still sleeping.” “Well go wake her up!” Then, a slight tapping on my tent. I sleepily poked my head out and Rachel told me that it was time for breakfast. I groggily rolled out of bed and made my way to the table. Breakfast was congee and some sweet pickles and it was too early to contemplate eating. It was only 5:30 but already most of the groups were ready to go. We waited another half hour until the last group left the camp. Then, we headed back to bed. A few seconds after I had settled back in the tent, I heard a knock. Rachel told me that the cabin had already been shut down for the morning! She asked if she could sneak into my tent so we got to cuddle for a few hours (for the record, it really wasn’t so bad and we didn’t even have to spoon! Everyone was just overreacting).

We got up around 8:30 and made some cereal with powdered milk for breakfast. Then we were on our way. The hike down went by much more quickly than the hike up. We hadn’t realized how much we had been going up on the way! We reached the halfway point just before noon and waited for some Hualien ETAs where were planning to meet us there. The timing was near perfect and they showed up just a few minutes later with an incredible spread of cheese, bread, cookies, and fruit. After lunch, we headed back down across the bridges and back to the trailhead. It was once again a beautiful day and we spent the rest of the hike sharing stories of our separate hiking adventures and snapping photos. When we got back I called us a cab and we headed to the train station. Since it was dragon boat festival weekend the tickets were sold out and we only had standing room, which is usually fine, But this time the train was absolutely packed and we barely squished into the cabin with many other seatless travelers. Although the ride was only about an hour it felt much longer and it didn’t help that we were next to the bathrooms that reeked.img_4059

Despite the uncomfortable ride, we made it back in one piece. I had to say goodby to Rachel knowing  probably wouldn’t see her again in Taiwan, but made plans to meet up in Japan because we would both be in Tokyo at the same time. Dragon Boat Festival Weekend did not disappoint and once again I enjoyed an adventurous weekend in Taiwan with great friends, beautiful views, and friendly strangers, several of the things I will miss most about Taiwan when I leave in the next few weeks.

(6/2) River Tracing and Biking to Yilan

River Tracing (Saturday)

Hualien is quite famous for its incredible scenery that includes mountains, beaches, rocks, and rivers but one thing that Hualien is also famous for is the sport “river tracing”. This is an activity that many people travel to Hualien to partake in because it is so stunningly beautiful and a great way to cool off on a hot day. I had tried very hard to partake in this sport several times but weather or last minute cancelling of plans had barred me from trying river tracing. As time began ticking down, I knew I had to make one final attempt to go river tracing. Thankfully, my friend Jenna was on top of it and helped us to arrange a time and place. When our guide requested a change to our original date because it was his son’s graduation, we panicked but luckily the day he rescheduled our trip to ended up working for us all. And… coincidentally was also the same day and trip that a group of ETAs from Taitung had chosen!

Our guides met us in Hualien city and drove us first to breakfast, and then to the start of our hike. When we arrived I was surprised to see that we were at none other than instagram falls (the place that I had visited in my previous blog post)! But we didn’t stop at the falls and instead headed further upstream. There, we jumped into the water in our life jackets, helmets, and shoes. Our guides told us that this was going to be the practice section so we slowly began to walk up and tried to get used to our shoes. It was pretty difficult to walk on slippery rocks in rushing water and we struggled a bit at first. But the shoes that the company had given us were amazing! They material on the bottom was felt-like and gripped the rocks well.

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All the girls getting ready for our adventure

After a trial run, we made our way back to the path to avoid a large group of people who were also doing their training run. After passing them we came out at a large pool with a rock jump. We were the first people there but our guide informed us that shortly it would be mobbed with groups. In the meantime, we should enjoy the peaceful break. We had a blast jumping off the rock and splashing into the large pool below. However, our guides weren’t wrong about the crowds and before we knew what was happening, people began spilling out of the river and into the pool. We took this as our cue to keep moving and headed up the path a bit more before we climbed out into the river.

From here we were the only group. We took several pictures in a cavernous area of the river and then began our ascent. It was tough going but we were a strong and determined group of women and we made good time. Several times I banged by knees on the rocks in the river because it was difficult to see them under the frothing water. One time, I banged my knee so hard that in shock I let go of the rocks I was holding onto and fell backwards, off of a small waterfall cliff. I completely submerged in the water and although I was slightly overwhelmed by the fall I was luckily fine!

We hiked upstream for a while until we reached a waterfall. Here our guides told us we would stop for lunch. There was a smaller waterfall we could climb and jump off so we did that too. While we were swimming, our guides layed out bread, cheese, pineapple, mango, hard boiled eggs, and some dessert bread for lunch. It was delicious!

After lunch, we hiked back down the trail. Our guides told us that this area was previously settled by the Toroko peoples and showed us the remains of some of their houses. He explained that many of the surrounding trees were also unique to the area because they were planted for by the Toroko peoples for harvest. I know that this is still the homeland of the Toroko people that live in the Tongmen community.

My overall take on river tracing is that it is a really fun sport that can be a great way to cool off in the summer and see some pretty incredible places off of the beaten path. Although I know I won’t have time to go again while I’m in Taiwan, I hope to come back one day and explore a different river!

Biking to Taitung (Sunday)

A popular activity in Taiwan is biking around the island. Although I wanted to do this, I knew it was not feasible during my time at school and in the summer it would be too hot and uncomfortable for me to ride. However, an ETA from Changhua came up with an incredible plan to create an ETA around-the-island relay. An ETA (or several) would travel from one county to another and transport a small postcard. Since there are ETAs in most counties, we figured it would be possible to carry out this adventure! Taipei was supposed to be the first leg but they took so long to figure out a time that we eventually decided to start elsewhere. I volunteered to complete the first leg from Hualien to Taitung.

The route from Hualien to Taitung is one of the most beautiful sections of the route. There are two options, to go along the coast or to travel in the valley between the mountains. I decided to travel the inside route because it was easier (less elevation and more stores to stop at) and I had planned to complete the trip in one day. I considered taking my bike on the adventure but I decided that it would be best to rent one. Giant bikes has a special arrangement that allows people to rent a bike from either Hualien or from Taitung and return the bike in the opposite city. The bikes are nice road bikes with large side bags to store things in.

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When I went to pick up a bike, they practically laughed off my idea. They told me that I needed to reserve my bike at least two weeks in advance and that I wouldn’t be able to do the ride in one day. I was frustrated by this, but thankfully after checking inventory they found a bike that would work for me. The setup was a bit short but the seat was high and it worked out well. They were still quite skeptical that I could make it in one day but I assured them otherwise. Besides, I would only need to bike about 75 miles. I figured this wouldn’t be too difficult given that I was already in pretty decent shape.

I tried to convince my friends to join me on the adventure but they laughed me off and told me I was somewhat crazy. Nevertheless, I was determined. I took off early Sunday morning and I was on my way. The first section of the ride I was quite familiar with because I had rode this route several times before to Zhi Xue. After about an hour I strayed from the route I had traveled before and I was off on my own adventure.

After about 15 miles, I stopped at a 711 for a quick bathroom break and snack. There were several 711s on the route and this was just the first of many stops!  I vowed that my next stop wouldn’t be until the tropic of cancer landmark which was about 45 miles into my journey. The day would just get hotter and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t waste these last few cool morning hours. The route to the landmark was rather unremarkable. There was road construction for most of the way. Just as I was starting to get quite hot and thirsty (I as I had already finished one water bottle) I arrived at a steep ascent. I knew I was only about 3 km from the landmark, but it was a tough climb. When I arrived I hopped off my bike and headed to the store to grab a bottle of water. Then I settled for a quick snack, admiring the landmark. Thankfully there was also a public restroom and I took some time to wash my face and attempted to cool down a bit.

Before too long I was back in the saddle, heading to the next stop which I decided would be the Yufu bike path. When an old railroad track went out of service, the town of Yuli converted the route into a 10 km biking path. I pushed on and arrived there around 11:30. The path was stunningly beautiful. I stopped for a bit to enjoy some views and passed many bikers leisurely making their way down the route. When I got off my bike to take photos, I realized just how exhausted and hungry I was. I decided it would be best to take a lunch break at the next 711 and mapped it out. Even though it was only about 10 km away from the bike path, it felt like a long journey. The route was gradually ascending the entire way there and the midday sun was beating down on me.

IMG-3442When I finally rolled up, I was soaked in sweat and exhausted. The people working at the 711 looked at me with concern, but didn’t say anything. I grabbed some snacks and settled down in the air-conditioned seating area. While I was there, I started to map out the rest of my route. To my dismay, I realized that when I first calculated the distance, I had made a mistake and had only mapped to a Giant Bike shop in Guanshan near the border of Taitung and Hualien. I needed to return the bike to Taitung City which was at least another 30 miles! I calculated out the time and realized if I kept a good pace I could arrive by 4 pm so time wasn’t a problem. However, the longest distance I had ever biked before this adventure was 50 miles. I was more than doubling this distance and I hoped that  I would be able to make it.

After cooling down, I bought a few snacks and drank another bottle of water. Then I left 711 and headed on for the next leg of my journey. Leaving the air-conditioned 711 was painful and I was instantly blasted with the heat of the day. It was at least 90 degrees and very high humidity. But I was refueled and ready to roll. The route to Guanshan was a nice, gradual decent and I peeled off the miles quickly. In Guanshan, I took a slight detour for Brown Boulevard, a famous bike path and “the most scenic road in Taiwan” according to google maps. It was pretty amazing. The green fields led straight up to the mountains and the light clouds and blue skies created one of the most picturesque scenes I’ve ever seen.

I hopped on my bike with a plan to take no more breaks before arriving in Taitung. It was already 1:30 and I still had several miles to go before I arrived in the city and I wanted to get there by 4 pm. My butt was feeling pretty tender at this point and I was pretty sure I was starting to develop a sunburn despite reapplying sunscreen many times (unfortunately it all kept sweating off!) I started off at a comfortable pace, pleased with how quickly I was traveling. I felt that I was descending and wondered if I would just coast all the way back to the city. However, upon further inspection, I discovered that I was completely surrounded by mountains. I began to fear that a steep ascent was coming up soon.

I was not wrong… I soon found myself at a steep uphill climb. The was the steepest part so far and I quickly switched to granny gear. As I crawled up I contemplated hitchhiking. Perhaps a kind soul would take pity on me when they saw my beet red face and the sweat dripping from every pore of my body. But I was determined to carry on. As I rounded the corner I saw to my dismay that the road just continued to climb. The next corner revealed more uphill until I was convinced that I would be going up forever. Luckily, the road finally finished climbing. Since Taitung City is at sea level, I was relieved to find myself on a looooong, gradual decent. I practically flew into the city, grateful for the rush of breeze in my face. I stopped at a 711 near the city to wipe of the grime, sweat, and the thousands of bugs glued to my skin and grab one last bottle of water. I had arranged to meet Peter and Michael, two Taitung ETAs, in the city at a smoothie shop. When I arrived they cheered for me and I happily cruised up to the shop. They too had spent the weekend biking from Hualien to Taitung, but they took the coastal route and spent 2 days traveling. We swapped stories and stopped for some delicious spring rolls. They showed me a beautiful outlook of the city and walked me back to the train station. I was so grateful for their company and I passed along the Hualien postcards to them. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to meet up with them again!

After saying goodbye, I jumped on a train back home. I instantly fell asleep and had to be woken up by someone who had bought a ticket for the seat I had been squatting in. I was exhausted but proud of myself and happy for the adventure. In total, I biked 112 miles in 8.5 hours. I passed many cities, saw some incredible views, and swallowed too many bugs to think about. It was a rather spontaneous and fun adventure and I’m happy to have had the opportunity and encouragement from other ETAs!

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(5/26) Tongmen

Since last September, I have been going to a Toroko Aboriginal community in Tongmen to teach English through music with another Hualien ETA Gina. A former Fulbright researcher had a connection to the community because he had previously worked at Tongmen and attended the Presbyterian Church throughout his grant period, which finished in September of 2018. I met with him right before he left and invited Gina who said she’d be interested in the project. We’ve been going to the church at least twice a month since then. Throughout the year we probably spent over 200 hours with the community and I am very grateful for this opportunity to get to know so many wonderful people, especially the students that we work with.

Gina and I wanted the opportunity to perform the song we’d been rehearsing for the past several weeks at the church. In order to do that, we needed some extra time to practice and a final goodbye date. We talked to our students and arranged that on Sunday, May 26th, we would say our final goodbyes. Our students told us they would arrange a fun day for us so we anticipated spending the entire day with our Tongmen friends and students.

On Saturday night, we headed to the church for an evening practice. When we arrived we discovered that our students wanted us to dance and sing with them! This was exciting for us, so we quickly tried to learn the dance. Luckily, Ubing was standing in the front so I could follow her moves because man I had NO idea what to do for most of the song. We had a great and productive evening to prepare for the final day.

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Ubing, our contact and the leader of the youth group

The next morning, we met at 9 am for one final practice. The students came wearing white dress shirts and black pants. There were so many of them that had come to this final event! When the time came to perform, we got up and sang and dance. After we finished, we bowed and the whole congregation gave us a huge round of applause. Then, they brought us to the front of the church to thank us and I said a few words telling the congregation how thankful I was for allowing us to become part of their family for the year. It was probably the first time I ever spoke to so many people in Chinese at once and I was terrified.

After the service was over, we joined the youth group while they practiced a few Chinese songs. Right at the end of their rehearsal, they pulled out two beautifully hand drawn envelopes with portraits of Gina and I. Two of the students had drawn them for us! Then, we opened the envelope and found a beautifully hand-written card with cut out pictures, and signatures from all of our students. They had each written about a paragraph in English, it was so sweet. We gave little cards that we had made to all of the students.

They next adventure of the day was hiking up to “instagram” falls. It is a beautiful waterfall with a pool that you can swim in right across the river from the Tongmen village. The whole way there, we sang songs in English and in Chinese together. We stayed in the water for a while playing games that involved catching a shoe (although I didn’t totally understand the directions I still tried my best to follow along). When it started to rain, we headed back through the pitch black tunnel filled with bats and back to the church. We took a quick nap and shower before dinner in the choir room of the church.

Around 6, all of the students returned and we got ready to head out for a dinner that the students had planned for us. As we were about to leave, a lady who was a member of the congregation came out of her home with a package wrapped with newspaper and tied with twine. She told us to open it, and we discovered a beautiful skirt and jacket set. The minister of the church had come out at this point and explained that the woman didn’t have much to give, but she wanted to find a way to thank us for teaching the students English. It was such a beautiful and meaningful gift and it made me realize how the teaching and connection we had formed with the students had extended to the larger community. It made me so sad to realize that this would probably be the last time I would ever see this woman again and I started tearing up.IMG-3132

Thankfully I was saved by the van arriving for dinner. We got into the van (we fit about 20 people in a 10 passenger van?!) and headed to a cute restaurant in Zhi Xue where we each got meal sets. The food was delicious but the company was better. It was a wonderful evening and although we were sad to say goodbye to our friends, I enjoyed chatting with Jay and helping him practice his English and seeing Taku, a man around Gina and my age who had great English and had joined us for dinner several times.

As we traveled back to the church, we stopped at the various houses of our students and slowly said goodbye. Realizing I’d probably never see this kids again was really heartbreaking. I also recognized that this was the first of many painful goodbyes that I would soon be facing in Taiwan and I was unprepared for this reality. At least I knew that next year Gina would be coming back and she would be able to continue to be a part of this community next year. Overall, I am incredibly grateful for all that the Tongmen community has given to me. Although it was supposed to be my way to give back to my community in Hualien, I feel that these people have given me so much and I will never forget them.

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Top left: the last dinner, a singing practice where the students began to dance, a delicious meal prepared in the Aboriginal food preparation style, dancing during Christmas, Taku and Gina on Easter, the majority of the youth at the church. 

(5/5) Broken Earth

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Sad Heart

Whenever I eat lunch with my first graders, they like to play a game with me that they invented which I like to call, “Sad Heart”. They make a heart with both of their hands and shout, “Teacher Becca!” When they catch my attention, they slowly break the heart in half by pulling their hands apart. Then I am supposed to make a really sad face and whimper. The first graders think it is the funniest thing and they practically fall on the floor because they are laughing so hard. I’m not so sure when this game started and why it is so amusing to them but it’s been going on for a while now.

One day in the middle of playing this game, one of the girls made a circle instead of a heart with her hands and shouted, “Teacher Becca!” Confused how to react because she was going off script, I did a little whimper and shouted, “Oh no!” But this time she didn’t laugh. I asked her in Chinese why she made a circle instead of a heart and she responded, “It’s the Earth.” When I asked her why she was breaking the Earth in half she said, “Because we waste the water and electricity and there is trash everywhere.” Shocked by this simple yet intelligent description from a first grader of how our society is ‘breaking’ our Earth, I probed her for more information. I asked her if she thought it was important to protect the Earth and why. She said it was very important because then her family, friends, and community would have a clean home. I asked her how she thought she could help and she said, “I need to remember to turn of the lights, use less water, and recycle.” At this point several of the other students who had been busy eating their food became interested in our conversation so I asked them too what they thought they could do to protect the Earth. We talked about reusing cups and riding bikes and wasting less food.

Although our conversation quickly ended when their favorite song “小星星” or “Small Star” came on and they wanted to sing and dance, I was overwhelmed by the earnest and intelligent answers coming from these first graders. Without even prompting her, a seven year-old girl had conveyed one of the most serious concerns that we are facing right now, the degradation of our planet at the hands of our society. And even more importantly, she had conveyed in the simplest terms why this mattered to her; because she wanted to have a clean home for her family, peers and community. She had effectively communicated something to me that politicians, professors, teachers, and many other leaders in our world can’t always seem to find the words to express. It hit me particularly hard because although my college degree is Environmental Studies and I fully recognize the importance of addressing environmental concerns for the sake of future generations who will live through the problems we create today, I had never heard a seven year old articulate these concerns to me with such clarity.

Fengbin Earth Day

A different day a few weeks ago I was teaching an Earth Day lesson to some third and fourth graders at Fengbin Elementary School. Two other English teachers and I designed an activity where we used pieces of cardboard to create posters that said “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” (the vocabulary we were teaching that day). A few students asked if they could write other words on the sign. When we granted them permission, a storm of creativity emerged. The students started drawing pictures and one student began writing several characters in Chinese. Suddenly every student in the class wanted to write the same characters on their poster. I went over to see what he was writing but I couldn’t understand. Based on the level of excitement, I assumed it must be some kind of swear or the students were trying to pull one over on the foreign teachers. We sent a picture to the English teacher at the school but she informed us it wasn’t a swear. In fact, she said it was the characters for someone’s name but she wasn’t sure whose name and what it had to do with what we were teaching. The bell rang for the end of class before we had the chance to figure out what the sign said.

 

I showed a picture of it to a few of my colleagues at Fu Shi the next day in hopes that they could help me to decipher the meaning. The dean of my school looked at the picture and immediately said, “This is about an Indigenous land rights movement in Taiwan. This is the name of an Indigenous person (a Toroko person from my understanding) who was protesting his land being taken away. Many people tried to help him get his land back.” When I got home I tried to do more research but found that my lack of Chinese was hindering me from finding information. I did learn that the man was a poor farmer and although I’m not sure who was taking away his land of for what purpose, I learned that this story started a protest and movement to protect this man’s livelihood. I also don’t know the outcome.

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However, I found it very interesting that these third and fourth grade students (all members of the Amis Indigenous group) connected this Indigenous land rights issue to the concept of Earth Day. Perhaps they completely lost track of the assignment and wanted to make a poster that showcased what they knew protest to be in their community. This is very likely. However, I think that they somehow intuitively connected protesting Indigenous land rights to protesting for the protection of the environment. In college, I studied the connection between Indigenous land rights movements and the Environmental Movement and I find it very meaningful that these students perhaps made this connection. Regardless as to whether or not this was their intention, they had something important to say and they wanted to share it with us via their poster.

Youth Voices

Both of these examples reveal to me that we need to listen to the voices of youth and recognize how they are impacted by our actions. Clearly they have something to say and it is important that we both listen and consider how much more their lives will be impacted by the problems we create today. They need to be at the center of the Environmental movement and part of important conversations about the future. Additionally, Indigenous peoples are more often not “frontline communities” or “those communities likely to experience climate impacts first and worst” so it is particularly important that we listen to the voices of Indigenous youth. 

On a somewhat separate but related note, I believe that it is the responsibility of teachers and communities to reinforce good sustainable values into the minds of children. I see good values instilled in my students at school in Taiwan that I don’t often see in the US. They are in charge of turning off the lights and fans when they leave the classroom and bring their own bowls to school for lunch which they wash after every meal. They use reusable water bottles and they are in charge of organizing the recycling at the school. They are told to reduce food waste and anything that they don’t consume they compost and bring out of the classrooms for the local farmer to take. I hope that the US can teach students this level of responsibility because I think it is really important for the future of our planet.

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Although this post seems to have turned into a rant about how we need to take some serious measures to address the current environmental crisis, I hope these stories and the lessons I’ve learned from my students at least makes anyone who happens to read this post think again about the stakes here. We need to take responsibility and work towards addressing these environmental concerns, and we need to include the youth and allow them to be leaders in this process. 

 

(4/28) English Singing Competition

The Dreaded “English Day”

For months, my friends who were ETAs at other schools had been complaining about the dreaded “English Day” on April 27th. At nearly every school in Hualien, students were given the opportunity to compete in three separate competitions all held on this day. These included the English Singing Competition, the Reader’s Theater Competition, and the English Speech Competition. Schools prepare for these competitions for months. They even have rehearsals on the weekends and take students out of their regular classes to participate. Other ETAs had been practicing practically since the start of the year and were frustrated by the insane pressure their students had to undergo to prepare for these events. There was also pressure on them as ETAs to deliver a winning performance. My roommate informed me that her for her students’ Readers Theater performance, they had to actually rehearse the page turns because the students had completely memorized the script, but they would lose points if they didn’t turn pages. I for one was grateful that I didn’t need to worry about preparing my students for these… or so I thought.

About a month before the competition, my co-teacher Demi came to my desk with the sheet music for two English songs. She told me that our school had decided to participate and she was wondering which one to choose. We opted to pick the song “Somewhere Out There” from the film “An American Tail”. I was a bit apprehensive about the plan because we only had a month to prepare but she assured me that everything would be okay and we would make it work. We would teach the song to the entire 5th grade class and then choose the top eight students to perform in the competition.

Preparation Begins

During our first class, we took the time to teach the students how to pronounce the lyrics to the song. Thankfully there aren’t too many difficult words in “Somewhere Out There” and it is fairly repetitive so after about three class periods, there student’s more or less had the lyrics down. Although I helped with pronunciation, the song was taught to the students  primarily by an outside teacher who came to my elementary school once a week to teach the fifth grade class Toroko music.

As the date approached, I began to feel nervous.  The song wasn’t fully memorized, several of the eight students consistently mispronounced words, and we didn’t have any choreography. At this time the only thing we had going for us was the singing. My students have really beautiful voices and although their pronunciation may have been off, they still sounded good. I had heard from my friends that they had intricate choreography prepared by the dance teachers at their school and costumes lined up already, and we still were on the first few steps! After talking to Demi, we decided to take things faster and use our lunch break to practice and reinforce the lyrics. At this point Demi and the outside music teacher had taken control and I saw my role as a support and occasional pronunciation expert for my students. I sometimes had the opportunity to work one-on-one with the students during lunch to practice pronunciation.

One day I came to class and the singing teacher informed the students in Chinese, “Great news everyone! Teacher Becca will be in charge of all of the choreography.” I looked up in horror. Not only had I not been warned about this, choreography was not my forte. Sure, I’m an expert at English simply because I’m a native speaker and I have training in music, but my dance expertise stops with middle school tap classes. Before I knew what was happening I opened my mouth and said, “Sure!” Yikes, now I was stuck with it. Thankfully Demi and I got together that afternoon and she agreed to help me. Together we came up with simple choreography that didn’t interfere with the singing, and perhaps most importantly, could be taught in our remaining week.

As the last week arrived, things started to come together. Demi worked to help the students develop power behind their voice, I helped sort out some last-minute pronunciation challenges, and the singing teacher came in a few times to help us add piano. Oh, and we taught the choreography in one week. Thankfully these kids are much quicker learners than I was at that age and figured it out in no time. The last challenge was finding some article of clothing that all the students had at home in addition to their Toroko cultural clothing (we ended up having them wear black pants or jeans due to the fact that there was no consensus).

The Day Arrives

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The morning of the competition, I met my students at the elementary school in Meilun where the competition was held. For them this was a huge day because they had to drive about half an hour outside of their homes and into the city. Several other teachers also tagged along as chaperones, or just to witness the students singing. Even the principal came! This was the first time I had seen my students outside of school hours and they were excited to see me. We headed into the building and began to get ready. There were several other groups that were already there, fully decked out in costumes. One group of girls had gloves, beads, dresses, and each student had a full face of makeup and their hair done. Another group came in with army outfits, a flag, drums, and once again hair and makeup. I could see my students beginning to shrink behind the table so I did my best to encourage them. We got changed and one of the teachers brought out some lipstick for the students. They were so excited!

We practiced a few times in the lobby, and then it was go time. Demi and I left the group at the stage door so we could head into the auditorium and watch. Before we left I gave them all high fives to pump them up. Then, we slipped off to find a seat. As they read my school’s name, I started to feel emotional. My students had worked so hard and it was so incredible to see them up there all on their own, singing and dancing in English! Their performance is recorded on YouTube here 🙂 I teared up watching them hold hands and sway back and forth.

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Before I knew it the performance was over. I ran into Lauren and Isabelle, ETAs who’s students also performed in the English Singing Competition, and we congratulated each other on making it through “English Day”. I said goodbye to my students and headed home.

The Results

My students didn’t win, and placed in the bottom half of the performances. Was I disappointed? Not in the slightest. I was so incredibly proud that they had performed well. We hadn’t had much time to prepare but despite this, they managed to pull everything together and put on a stellar show. We didn’t have the same resources as other schools but that didn’t matter, and at the end of the day the most important thing was that my students had fun! Sometimes I’m afraid this fact gets lost in the competitive nature of education here in Taiwan, and I’m glad my students, school, and coworkers weren’t caught up in this. We’re all here for the same reason, to support and teach our students and that’s all that matters.

 

(4/14) Nanhu Mountain

Hey wanna hike Nanhu?

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In the beginning of March, I set a message to Taiwanese friend Daniel who I knew from the climbing gym and asked him if he’d hike Nanhu Mountain with me during our four day weekend in April. Although I didn’t know Daniel super well at this point, I knew we both shared an interest in hiking and luckily, I convinced him to come with me. Ben and Hannah had brought all my backpacking gear (minus a bag unfortunately but luckily my roommate had one that I could borrow) and I hadn’t done any camping yet in Taiwan. I was all geared up and ready to go! I applied for our permit and even though I was a few days past the deadline it still got approved. The only thing left to do now was pack!

Packing List

Although I’ve done several longterm backpacking trips, I hadn’t done anything at this elevation before. Nanhu Mountain is 3,740 meters tall, the fifth tallest mountain in Taiwan. Unlike the more famous Yushan Mountain, the tallest mountain in Taiwan at 3,952 meters, Nanhu is more remote and therefore more difficult to summit. However it is renowned for its beauty and incredible terrain. I needed to make sure that I had all the right equipment before I took off. Below is a list of what a brought along…

Clothes: Rain gear (jacket and pants), fleece pants, two pairs of leggings, one pair of shorts, three shirts (one thermal layer) four pairs of underwear, two sports bras, baseball cap, warm hat, two pairs of socks, and gloves

Gear: Headlamp, small cooking pot, pocket knife, spoon, tent, sleeping pad, silk liner, sleeping bag, SteriPen, toiletries, small med kit, hiking poles, and a canister of fuel for Daniel’s stove

I borrowed a few things that I didn’t have from a friend at work who had hiked Nanhu before. Daniel and I went to the mall together to get food for the trip. I already had some Annie’s Mac and Cheese from Carter that I’d been saving, but I wasn’t sure what else to bring. After shopping for a bit this is what I ended up with…

Food: Oatmeal and brown sugar, dried fruit, bread, cheese, PB, dried beef, two boxes of Annies, a packet of raman, four cliff bars, two bags of M&Ms, trail mix, and some PB cups.

Daniel was a bit skeptical of some of my food choices but the real surprise was what he brought along. In addition to other snack food, he brought a dozen eggs and four fish! I was quite intrigued how he was planning to keep the fish fresh and the eggs in one piece but he promised me he had a system.

The Hike Begins

Day 0 4/3: Off to Luodong

The first night Daniel and I met in Luodong, Yilan and spent one night at a hostel called Yilan Inspiration about 15 minutes from the train station. Daniel was mad about my hostel choice because he told me it was 太麻煩, too inconvenient. According to him Taiwanese people do not like to walk more than 5 minutes to their accommodation from the train station. The hostel was so cute, every room had a theme and the one we were in was themed camping (so we actually camped for four nights!) Each bed was placed in a little tent which was quite private. I went out to explore the night market but found it extremely overwhelming so headed back to get some rest before the next day.

Day 1 4/4: Entrance 登山口 to Yunleng cabin 雲稜山莊 (12.1 km)

The first day Daniel and I got up early and caught the public bus 1764 (Luodong Station to Yilan) and got off at Siyuan. However, the bus ride was EXTREMELY windy and I started to feel quite sick about an hour in. It just continued to get worse until finally I felt so sick that I grabbed a bag out of my pack and puked! Not the best way to start the day… Thankfully the bus driver stopped at a 7-11 soon after so I was able to use the bathroom and dispose of my bag (much to the dismay of the workers at 7-11). By the time we got there it was already almost 10 am. The side of the road was crowded with cars already and one group started at the same time as us.

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Hike to Entrance 登山口 6.7 km

The first step was to hike to the trail entrance (because apparently the “official” entrance was an additional 7 km away). This section of the hike consisted of first hiking through farm land and then heading up through the forest into the forest via a somewhat steep, narrow, and poorly marked trail. Thankfully I had Daniel with me because throughout this section I was convinced that we had lost the trail but he assured me that this was the right section. After we hiked up for a while, we came out on a flat road that traversed deeper into the woods. We came to an intersection with another trail head, and finally after about 2.5 hours of hiking found the entrance to Mt. Nanhu. There were many people here who were just finishing up lunch, so we stopped and joined them for a bit.

Tuochiatun 多加屯山 1.7 km

After eating, we headed up a very steep trail section. It was quite hot and so we took our time with this section, but we did pass a larger tour group on the way. Most people tended to hike in very large groups with companies and had people carry their tent and food for them, but I was happy to have more freedom and hike with Daniel. After a steep and exhausting climb, we arrived at large clearing with many people. We stopped for a quick snack. Shortly after, we encountered a small stone marker that was for 多加屯山, a 2,827 meter peak along the way.

Muchien Saddle 木杆鞍部 to Yunleng Cabin 雲稜山莊 3.7 km

We hiked up some more and entered the Muchien Saddle section. At some point during this section we broke out of the trees and began to see spectacular views of the Nanhu peak. It look unimaginably far away but we knew that in just a couple of days we’d be up there too! After about two more hours we arrived at the cabin. It was nestled in a small valley surrounded by trees with a small window overlooking some neighboring mountains with a steep pointy peak. Even though we arrived before 5 pm, the site was already packed. There was hardly room to pitch our tents and we were lucky to find a spot that wasn’t too uncomfortable. It was quite chilly so I had to layer up soon after arriving.

While we were making dinner, we met several other hikers and had a chance to talk to them. There were a few big tour groups that were having their dinner prepared by the people they had hired to carry their gear and food up to the cabin. Most of these workers were Indigenous and we enjoyed talking to them. They offered us some Baijiu 白酒, the  disgusting (to my palette) Asian equivalent of vodka but even stronger which I firmly declined. In addition to us, there were probably at least 80 people staying at the site in the tents and the cabin. The capacity of the cabin is 55 and there were more than 10 tents crammed into the small field. We talked to a group of students from a university, a group of men who were from all over Taiwan but did hiking trips together frequently, and a guy named Cash and two women who he was hiking with. By 7 pm I was already in my tent and ready to check out for the night. It was cold and everyone else hit the hay very early.

Day 2 4/5: Yunleng cabin 雲稜山莊 to Nanhu cabin 南湖山莊 (10.4 km)

While I knew hitting the hay early meant that other hikers would be on the road quite early in the morning, I was unprepared for the extremely early wakeup. People were moving around, packing their tents, and making breakfast at 3 am! I was less than thrilled. It was cold and I just wanted to cozy up in my sleeping bag. But by 5:30 I was up and out, only to discover that most everyone had already hit the road. Daniel and I packed up our tents, made breakfast, and we were out before 7. It was probably the earliest I’ve ever gotten up on a hiking trip and I was less than thrilled about it.

Shenmachen Mountain 審馬陣山 3.2 km

After hiking for a couple of kilometers, we came upon a large open field with several other groups. We had discovered for the most part that we were walking at a much faster pace than everyone else, which meant that we didn’t need to start as early and had the luxury of longer breaks. In the field there was a guy flying a drone, and another hiker generously offered us some grapes. A few kilometers later, we arrived at the first peak of the day. 審馬陣山 (Shenmachen Mountain) is 3,141 meters high and was mostly surrounded by trees. But it was still exciting to have reached a new peak! It was Ben’s birthday and I had a bar of service so I facetimed him from this peak. I wished that he and Hannah were there to hike with me, but after talking to several people I decided we made the right decision in hiking Hehuan instead of Nanhu back in the beginning of March because the weather would have been quite cold and there was still a bit of snow at this time.

Nanhu North Peak 南湖北山 2.2 km

We started hiking again, this time out mostly above treeline. The path snaked along a wide ridge, and we could see the valley that lead to Nanhu cabin towards the end. It was midmorning at this time and clouds were rolling in, beginning to constrict our views of nearby mountains. By lunchtime we had reached the North Peak. This one was at 3,536 meters and we were a bit tired and hungry when we made it to the top. There were no views at this point due to the clouds covering all nearby peaks. It was also rather chilly so Daniel made some raman for lunch while I stuck with my bread and cheese. We ran into our friends at this peak who shared some snacks from none other than… Trader Joes?! Apparently there is a store in Taipei! It was a chocolate covered nut cluster and man it tasted good.

Nanhu cabin 南湖山莊 2 km

It was about 12:30 when we started out on the next section of the trail. Although it was only about 2 more kilometers to the cabin, this was by far the most excited section of the trail. It was still very cloudy and we couldn’t see many views which perhaps put me at ease because after traversing through a short forested section of the trail, the path began to quickly narrow. Suddenly, a rocky ledge appeared in front of us that was covered with ropes firmly bolted into the rock. The trail was impossibly narrow and appeared to disappear on the other side of the ledge. I went first with Daniel close behind, clinging for dear life to the ropes secured to the rock. Thankfully the trail was maintained quite well and I never felt unsafe during this section, but my heart was beating quite fast throughout most of it. The closest comparison I have to this section is the Knife’s Edge on Mt. Katadin in the US, except on steroids.

After about half an hour we were past the ledge section and about to descend into the valley that contained the cabin. The slope down was extremely steep. Though I am no geologist, this section of the trail was traversing over rock that easily crumbled into smaller pieces. I would guess it was shale, but it made it difficult to hike without sliding down the trail. Daniel and I took many pictures of Nanhu from this area because the view was spectacular. It was still cloudy but clearing up a bit so we could see our ultimate destination not too far off in the distance. When we made it to the base, we immediately pitched our tents to secure a spot. This time there were even more tents, but the valley was very large and had plenty of space. However, we wanted to find a spot that was both sheltered and comfortable to sleep on so we nailed down our spot quickly.

Nanhu East Peak 3 km

It was only about 2 pm when we arrived so we decided to go ahead and hike the East Peak while we still had daylight. It was still cloudy but we felt significantly lighter without our packs weighing us down. We somehow got off track and lost the trail early on in the hike. Like the rest of the valley, the hike up to Nanhu East Peak was also crumbling shale? rock. We scrambled up, searching for tracks of other hikers on the way. When we got to the top ledge, we peered over into the cloud filled valley below. Daniel did some sleuthing and found a narrow trail that led to the summit. Although we had been off track, it seemed that this route is often confused for the main route based on the fact that this route was well traversed, but not the main trail.

After a few photos, we headed back down to the cabin. Daniel made me dinner this time, raman with some cabbage and a poached egg. I must say that I may need to start bringing eggs on my hiking trips, it was delicious! Many hikers carried them along, strapped to the outside of their packs, wrapped in paper towels in their bowls, etc. Only one of Daniel’s eggs broke so I’ll have to try it out! We enjoyed the sunset and talked with some of the other campers. We were camping near our Trader Joes friends and so I shared my M&Ms and they gave me some tea they had made. We got lucky and the clouds had cleared just in time to catch some spectacular views. As we settled in for the night, I put on all my clothes because it was quite cold. I had a bit of a fitful sleep because I was cold most of the night and it was pretty windy.

Day 3 4/6: Nanhu Main Peak 南湖主峰 to Yunleng cabin 雲稜山莊 (11.4 km)

Although many people got up extremely early again, Daniel and I decided to hold off until 6 this morning. Neither one of us has slept especially well and we were both quite tired. When we got up, we noticed that the camp was mostly empty. Several others had planned to hike to further peaks, extending their hike to upwards of 7 days. Daniel and I were unable to do this because we just had the long weekend, but I’ve heard from several Taiwanese people that the peaks beyond Nanhu are some of the more beautiful and less traversed routes. The campsite was absolutely stunning in the early morning hours. The light only touched the upper parts of the mountain, making the views from the shaded valley unbeatable.

Nanhu Main Peak 南湖主峰 4 km

Around 7 am, Daniel and I started hiking up to the Main peak. We were both feeling tired so we took it a bit slow. On the way, Daniel’s pole broke and he lost half of it! Even though we looked for a while we were unable to find it, which was definitely a loss. At least he still had one functioning pole for the way down! On our way up, we passed one of the tour groups hiking down the mountain. They had woken up in time to see the sunrise. Although I admired their determination I was not able to muster this kind of energy. It was also very chilly. We were blessed with a really beautiful and sunny day (again!) and one of the most incredible parts about the morning hike was the sea of clouds. It was extremely beautiful and spread between the mountains, forming a blanket over the trees.

When we got to the top, we could see the entirety of the The Holy Ridge or 雪山聖稜線 a mountain range that connects Snow Mountain 雪山 all the way to Mt. Dabajian 大霸尖山. Daniel told me it was rare to have the opportunity to see this whole range uncovered so I felt lucky to be up at the top on such a beautiful day! It had definitely been quite a climb to summit Nanhu Main Peak, but it was so worth the effort because of the incredible views. Nanhu sits at 3,740 meters, meaning that from the start of our hike we had climbed over 2,000 meters, not including the descents and ascents. That’s more than 6,500 feet!

Nanhu North Peak 南湖北山 2 km

After hiking back down, we stopped for a quick hot breakfast and packed up our tents. We were not looking forward to the climb back up to the ridge as it was quite steep and easy to slip on the shale-like rocks. We passed a large hiking troupe on our way up, but made the mistake of stopping to put on a layer at the top and getting trapped behind them during the extremely narrow ridge section. I thought that Daniel and I were taking it slow the time before but man oh man this group was reallllyyyy taking their time. Finally, much to our relief, they decided to let us pass by. We still took our time in the remainder of the ridge section, especially during a tricky pass for a few hikers heading up. I wonder what the tour group did when they passed by these solo hikers on their way up…

Unlike last time, the sky was perfectly clear and we could see beautiful mountains stretching for miles. However, we were also able to see just how far we would fall if we slipped and lost footing on the ridge section. This was both a blessing and a curse for us. When we reached the North peak, we stopped for a brief lunch. While we were waiting we ran into the tiniest little girl hiking with her parents. I couldn’t imagine taking an elementary-aged child on this hike but kudos to her for making it work!

Shenmachen Mountain 審馬陣山 2.2 km and Yunleng cabin 雲稜山莊 3.2 km

The hike down toward Shenmachen Mountain 審馬陣山 was beautiful and much faster than the hike up had been. We were really flying and had plenty of time to spare. Before we knew it we were passing the summit. We didn’t need to stop this time and continued on the trail. We stopped to take a break at the big field and ate a few snacks. The sun was very strong and I was thankful that I had brought along my buff and baseball cap. Although I had been careful with sun protection, Daniel had not and ended up with a bit of a red nose.

Again, we arrived at the cabin quite early. There were far fewer tents this time so we were able to find ample space to set up for the evening. We cooked our final dinner (Annie’s Mac and Cheese for me!) and headed to bed.

Day 4 4/7: Yunleng Cabin 雲稜山莊 to the Bus Stop (12.1 km)

I slept the best overall the last night. I think I was mostly just exhausted at this point and my body needed rest. We woke up after most everyone had left and made our food. We were the last people out (including the hired workers) so we closed up the cabin and hit the road.

Muchien Saddle 木杆鞍部 2.7 km

Although Daniel promised me that there were no more large elevation gains, I think he lied. There were several more and although I was still in good shape, I wanted to just gradually descend to the bus stop. Because we didn’t have too far to go, Daniel and I decided to take our time with the hike back down.

Tuochiatun 多加屯山 1 km

Despite this however, in no time we found ourselves back at the small stone marking for the mountain. Daniel was better at pacing than I am because I enjoy feeling the rush of moving quickly down the mountain, and despite the fact that we had plenty of time and didn’t need to catch the bus until 3, I still have a constant fear of being late.

The Entrance 登山口 1.7 km and the Bus Stop 6.7 km

We stopped at the clearing again a little further down from多加屯山 for a snack. Here we ran into Cash again, our friend from the trail. We took some pictures and exchanged facebook information before heading down the trail to the entrance. The way back was so much quicker than the way there. I was surprised to arrive to the bus stop so soon after we left.

Back to Hualien

We arrived close to 12:30, leaving us with a looooong wait for the bus. After contemplating whether or not we should wait, Daniel and I decided the best option was to hitchhike. We stuck out our thumbs. I was expecting no one to respond to us but people pulled over and waved, honked their horn in recognition, or apologized because there was no space. After only about 10 minutes of waiting, a family that had driven by because they had no space came back up the road. The mother and her son in the backseat had consolidated to share one seat, making room for Daniel and I in the back. I was shocked to see such willingness to help an absolute stranger! Although they were stopping to meet a friend for lunch, they insisted that we take down their phone number and call them back if we were unable to find a ride back. They dropped us off at the 7-11 (the fateful puke 7-11) and headed on to their friends.

After grabbing some snacks and drinks, Daniel and I headed out to the road to look for a ride. Although there were many cars, none of them seemed to have any space. Finally we found one that had two extra seats. The girls in the car told us to wait a moment, they needed to ask their friend… Cash! I hadn’t recognized the girls because I hadn’t had the chance to talk to them but when they mentioned Cash I remembered. Cash readjusted the seats to make room for us and told us to wait a moment while the girls showered (apparently in Taiwan you can pay shop owners and use their showers? That was pretty cool). While Cash was readjusting the seats, we ran into the family from before. They had finished eating and pulled over to make sure we had a ride. We told them we did and they continued on their way, but I was amazed to find someone so willing to help out a complete stranger.

The car ride back down was uneventful and Cash drove at a much more enjoyable pace than the previous driver and the bus driver which made my stomach feel a lot better. Cash drove us all the way back to our hostel where Daniel had left a bag and we parted ways. The hostel had been kind enough to allow us to come back and shower, so we cleaned up and headed to the train station. Feeling fresh and hungry, we stopped to buy tickets and then some yummy gan mian 乾麵 or dried noodles. We stopped for some milk tea and then we were on the road! 

Summary

After four days of hiking, Daniel and I had traveled a total of 46 km (28.5 miles), climbed up and then back down over 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), and spent four days hiking through the most beautiful range of mountains that I have ever encountered. The weather was absolutely perfect despite the fact that it almost always rains in Yilan, and we both stayed in great physical condition for the most part, with the exception of several blisters on my feet. I can summarize my feelings and lessons I learned from this adventure in this short list:

  1. Bring eggs backpacking! Really?! Why?! They make an excellent and flavorful addition to any raman packet and can easily be poached in hot water. This is easier in Taiwan where eggs do not need to be refrigerated but fresh eggs backpacking? DELICIOUS.
  2. Always bring many warm clothes. Even with perfect weather I was quite chilly and grateful for my extra layers. I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed the hike so much if it had rained.
  3. When hiking in Taiwan, plan wayyyy ahead. Permits go quick and although there is a translated version of the permit website, it is still quite difficult to get a spot unless you plan months ahead. What was funny for me was although I had orchestrated the entire permit process, everyone on the hike expected that Daniel applied for the permits and was bringing his “foreign friend” along for a hike when in reality it was the other way around!
  4. Talk to strangers. The people that we met on the trail were so kind and offered food, stories, pictures, and just good company. Thankfully my Chinese has improved enough to talk to them but even so many people had quite fluent English and I enjoyed talking to them. I did not encounter any other foreigners the entire time and people were interested to learn more about me and how I had found this hike. It made for a good conversation starter!
  5. Hitching in Taiwan is cool. Taiwan is a safe place and people are very willing to help out a hiker in need. Although I wouldn’t recommend letting your guard down because it is always important to be aware of any possible dangers, it is fairly normal to hitchhike and families will open their doors for you.  I would normally feel very nervous to hitchhike as a woman in the US, but in Taiwan I felt very safe.

Hiking Nanhu was an amazing experience. I know I won’t have any other long weekends ahead of me to undertake hikes like this, so I’m glad I jumped at the opportunity. Daniel was a great companion and I really enjoyed getting to know his sense of humor and share stories while hiking. Maybe several years down the line, we can have a reunion hike! However, I’ve still got plenty of time left before heading back to the US to explore the mountains of Taiwan that have been largely untapped by me. Maybe one day I can explore the Baiyue (百岳) or 100 famous peaks of Taiwan and complete the 挑戰百岳, the 100 peaks challenge, I’ve already got six (南湖大山 Nanhu Mountain,南湖北山 Nanhu North Peak,南湖東山 Nanhu East Peak,合歡北山 Huhuan North Peak,合歡南山 Hehuan South Peak,審馬陣山 Shimachen Peak) so I’m on my way!

(3/24) New Taipei City Wan Jin Shi Marathon

 The First Mistake

Back in October, my friend and fellow Hualien ETA James came up to me when I was disarmed and somehow managed to convince me to run a marathon with him. At this time I was already signed up to run the Toroko Gorge Half Marathon and I figured, why the heck not? I’ll already be training I’ll just add the extra miles after the half marathon. Additionally, this was the most famous marathon in Taiwan because it is the first and only IAAF Silver Label Road Race in Taiwan. The route also follows the sea in New Taipei City, a gorgeous part of Taiwan. However, finding time to train was quite difficult given the constraints of my schedule (school and commute Monday-Friday 7:30-5:30; Chinese classes Tuesday and Thursday 6-7:30) which meant that I trained far less than I had hoped to. Perhaps this was a blessing and a curse because although I felt less prepared than I had for the first marathon I ran, I had not over-trained and despite some minor plantar fasciitis I was in pretty good shape.

The Second Mistake

When I initially signed up for the marathon, I was unsure if I would stay in Taipei overnight or try to stay closer to the start of the race out in New Taipei City. A month or so later I realized that there were very few places to stay closer to the start of the race so I called the race coordinators to try to book a seat on the shuttle. Much to my dismay, they were no longer selling shuttle tickets. WHAAAAT the race was still four months away how could that be? I looked for public transportation to the race start from Taipei City but couldn’t find any. Frantic, I did the best thing I could think of and ranted to my roommate about the absurdity of refusing to sell more shuttle tickets. However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to convince myself that perhaps this was the easy way out of running the marathon… then I remembered Airbnb. In a stroke of luck I found one of the last available rooms about three miles from the start of the race and quickly booked it.

The Third Mistake

Relieved that I had a place to stay, I neglected to consider that walking three miles before running 26.2 miles was not the best option. I asked the host of the Airbnb if I’d be able to get a taxi that early in the morning and he told me probably not in this area of the city. Frustrated I decided that I would stubbornly walk there because nothing was going to stop me from running this race now that I had a place to stay.

The Fourth Mistake

About two weeks before the marathon, I messaged James and told him I had already bought my train tickets and I was so excited. “Great! Did you get them to Banqiao?” he asked. “Uhhhh no, Taipei Main.” Well, it turns out that the place we had to get our packets and bibs was actually not at Taipei Main Station but instead near Banqiao. Oops. So, at this point I had a place to stay but got the wrong tickets to get my race packet, had no plan to get to New Taipei City and had no plan to get to the start of the race. I was banking on some good luck coming my way.

Race Weekend Arrives

James and I met at the train station and headed to Taipei together on March 16th. I decided to stay on the train past Taipei Main Station and hope that no one noticed when I got of at Banqiao to get my packet. Somehow, the ticket machine was down so they were checking tickets by hand and they just glanced at mine so I walked right through! After picking up our packets, James and I headed back to the city. He was staying in a hotel in Taipei so he checked in and then we headed to a cafe. I got a chocolate fluff milkshake that was probably a ton of calories but I figured I’d run it all off the next day. Afterwords we carbo-loaded at an Italian restaurant. I messaged my host for the Airbnb, Alan, and told him I was already in Taipei and would be making my way over soon. He replied and told me which bus to catch and told me that he’d pick me up at the station in New Taipei City! The best part of all was that he told me he would drop me off at the race start the next morning! What a generous, kind, and amazing guy.

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Will a marathon be enough to burn off these calories? 

I said goodbye to James and bought my bus tickets. It was a pretty full bus and I looked around for other marathon runners but didn’t see many. When I arrived at the station, Alan was waiting for me in his car. Even though his house was only about a kilometer from the stop he had insisted on picking me up because he lived on a steep hill. Another guy from Italy was also staying at the Airbnb and running the marathon so he told me in the morning he would drop us both off. I called home to say hi to my family and they wished me luck! I went to bed early and thankfully slept quite well.

Race Day!

4:30

At 4:30 am the next morning, I ate a quick breakfast of bread and peanut butter and a couple handfuls of granola. I went downstairs and met the man from Italy and his Taiwanese wife. Alan insisted that after the race I should call him and he would pick me up so I could come back to the Airbnb to change and shower. Honestly this was my first time ever using Airbnb and I clearly have been spoiled with the most fantastic host. If anyone is looking for a place to stay in New Taipei City, hit me up and I will give you all the details for Alan’s home because wow I was so blown away by his willingness to go out of the way to help. He even said if I come back he’ll teach me to surf! Alan brought us all just a few blocks from the race start and dropped us there because it was faster to walk through the traffic than drive.

5:15

When I arrived at the venue, James had already been there for quite a while because his shuttle had left the city at 3 am. It turned out that I was extremely lucky to have missed the deadline to register for the shuttle after all because it saved me two hours of sleep! James and I checked our bags in and waited for the lineup. Looking around, I noticed very few women which surprised me. This proved to be a blessing when I went to the porta potty line because they were divided by gender and the line for the mens room was absurdly long (poor James). The weather was just a bit drizzly but overall good. Many people in Hualien had warned me that it almost always rains for this marathon so I should prepare for the worst. Luckily, the forecast didn’t look too bad, which also meant that I was able to see the scenery!

6:00

As we made our way to the starting line, I discovered that people were lining up in sections. A section was for elite runners, B section was for the top of the normal class followed by C and D. James was placed in D because it was his first marathon but somehow I had ended up in section B? This was alarming because my fastest marathon time before this hadn’t been all that fast, just under 4:11. I got in my section and looked around for other women. Nope, not one in sight. I was getting nervous but I put in my headphones and started listening to my Taipei MARATHON playlist that I had created especially for the race to pump myself up. As it got closer to the starting time, I looked around relieved to find a few other women around.

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6:30

The gun went off at 6:30 sharp. I started running with the people in my grouping, quickly realizing that they were wayyyyy faster than I was. I nearly got trampled as people tried to get to their ideal starting place. One of the best parts about this marathon was that there were pacers! These runners were clothed in blue and wearing ballons attached to their hats. They had a bib on their back that said what time they intended to finished the race. They were placed at each hour and half hour. My goal time was anything under 4:10 so I decided to stick with the 4 hour pacer. The first few kilometers of the race where all inside a tunnel which was quite stuffy and hot. Thankfully when the tunnel ended the air felt cool and I got my first real look at the sea scenery! At this point the Italian guy caught up to me and I ran with him for about 5 miles. During this time several people asked him if I was his daughter to which we both awkwardly replied no. The first 8 miles I was running with a group following the 4 hour pacer but I lost track of them after I realized I was running a bit faster than I should. However, at mile 9 another 4 hour pacer appeared! He passed with his hoard of people and then another pacer came behind him! This was the last 4 hour pacer and he had by far the biggest pack of runners following him (all men I might add… all of the pacers were men as well).

8:28

I kept up with them through the halfway point when I realized that I had been running faster than I had trained so I slowed down. I had a few stomach cramps and was feeling not so hot after the halfway point but after slowing down I started to feel better. A head wind was starting to build which was quite strong and this also made me slow down a bit. Around mile 15 I started working my way through a goo which I ate through mile 20. One of the coolest (haha literally) parts of the race was that at every other water station there were sponges filled with cold water! You could use them to dump water on your head and cool down your face, and then you returned them in a bin a bit further down. Not sure if they were sanitized before they were refilled for the next runner but I try not to think too much about that.

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Some views of the racecourse from a drone! 

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10:00

Sometime around 10:00 I noticed that many people were starting to lag. For some odd reason I was feeling rejuvenated and was jamming to my music as a made my way to the finish. The weather had held up perfectly with no rain and clouds blocking the sun, and the scenery was stunning. Lucky for me this stretch happened to be the area with the most elevation gain before the finish so I hardly noticed the hills. However, this burst of energy didn’t last too long and the last few miles were the slowest, and pretty grueling.

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Only 1 km to go, not looking so hot

10:37

At 10:37 I looked up and the finish line was in sight! Excitedly I ran across the line, coming to a time of 4:07.48. A new PR! Although I hadn’t managed to keep up with the pacer, I still felt that overall I had run well. The staff gave me a towel, a metal and a bottle of water. As I was making my way to the score sheet station, I ran into the wife of the Italian runner. She was so excited I had finished and insisted on snapping a photo of my that I could sent to my family. I told her that her husband wasn’t too far behind and she thanked me. When they handed me my form, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had placed first in my age division! Granted, there were only about 30 people in the age group 18-24 but it still felt like a big accomplishment. The staff told me to head over to the stage later to receive my award.

“Look Mom I’m on Stage!”

I quickly facetimed my mom and Will to tell them the exciting news. They were so happy and insisted that I call them back when it was time for the awards ceremony. After hanging up, I got my bag and sat down with a random group of runners. One of them asked to take a photo with me so I happily obliged. I kept a lookout for James, and then I saw him walk into the area! He looked a bit haggard (as I imagined I did) and he went to go change and grab his bag. This was his first marathon however! I waited by the stage for the awards. When it was time to go up, I facetimed my mom and Will they handed me my trophy and then interviewed me over the intercom! It was quite exciting. The best part of all however was when I realized that as part of my prize I received 5,000 NTD (160 USD).img_1749

After getting off stage I looked around to find James. He was coming out of the bag storage but not looking so good. A combination of not enough water or calories had made him pretty dizzy so the staff made him wait in the medical tent. While I was waiting for him, I got some people to take my photo in the booth with my trophy. The people at the medical tent were so excited that they asked to take a photo with me and my trophy. After James was released, we walked to the road together. He had a shuttle bus back to Taipei and I called the Amazing Alan who quickly came to pick me up. On the way back he told me this story about his “fat friend” who had signed up to run the marathon but called Alan after five miles and begged him to come him up. Alan refused and so his friend walked to the nearest bus station and caught a public bus home. Alan was practically in hysterics. After I told him that I had won a trophy he insisted that we take a picture together to send to his friend who hadn’t completed the marathon. After I showered, Alan dropped me off at the bus station. The bus was quite full when I arrived and of course, the only seat available was near the back of the bus! I slowly and painfully made my way back.

The Aftermath

When my bus arrived, I met James in Taipei and we grabbed dinner together at a burger restaurant. Walking was extremely painful, but not because of soreness. The chafe was definitely the worst pain at this point. James and I traded stories, and I headed back to Taipei around 5 pm. I crashed on the train and woke up in Hualien. The walk back to my apartment was somewhat excruciating, especially because I had to lug a million pound trophy back with me. When I got home, I stretched and immediately collapsed into bed.

The next day at school my coworkers were abuzz with questions about the race. They were so excited and wanted to see all my pictures. I figured I’d get the same reaction from my students so at lunch time when one of my sixth graders asked what I did over the weekend, I proudly said. “I ran a marathon, and I WON.” She looked back at me, raised her eyebrows, took a bite of lunch and with her mouth full said, “Cool.” Clearly she was not as excited as I was so I quickly remembered to be a humble person and stopped bragging. However, I must say that I’m pretty happy with the race, happy that I did well and happy to be done! No more marathons here in Taiwan, we will see what next year brings in the US!

 

(3/9) Benannah take Taiwan

Sometime in December I got a call from my brother and sister in law, Hannah. I was in the midst of creating an itinerary for my family’s visit to Taiwan in December and I was feeling a bit down because I knew that Ben and Hannah would be unable to accompany them on this adventure. I figured it would be almost a year and half before I had the opportunity to see Ben again because he had left to hike the PCT back in April of 2018 and although he had finished hiking, I was already in Taiwan by the time he was back on the east coast. Much to my delight, over the phone they told me that they were planning to come visit me in Taiwan and that they were in the midst of searching for tickets. The best part was that they were planning to come over my birthday weekend which also happened to be a long weekend!

Pre-departure Planning

We brainstormed what to do for a while and decided on a big hike for the long weekend. After some research, we settled on a four day hiking trip up Nanhu Mountain in Toroko park. Although it would take the entire four day weekend to hike, we decided that it was the most exciting and adventurous option and many of my friends at the climbing gym assured me that it was one of the most spectacular hikes in all of Taiwan. When the time came to apply for our permit, I was in  Japan but I logged into the system to submit the application. It required a winter equipment checklist and gear like crampons, a pickax, climbing rope, carabiners… etc. I was feeling a bit apprehensive about the adventure when I discovered that some people had been able to access the application portal early! This was because they were starting the hike a day earlier and as a result got to submit their entire application early. This was both frustrating and somewhat unfair because these applications already filled all of the spots in the cabins, leaving us with no options but to camp. Even though our application got approved, due to the fact that there was snow on the ground up in the mountains and it was below freezing every night, we decided against camping and brainstormed a new plan.

The Arrival and Taipei (February 27th)

Hannah and Ben arrived on February 27th and I met them at Taipei Main Station. From there we headed to the hostel “Come Inn” for the night, my favorite hostel in all of Taipei. It was late when we arrived so we walked to Mos Burger for a quick dinner and headed back around midnight for bed. The next morning we slept in a bit and then headed to out to explore Taipei City. Our first stop was the 228 Peace Park. Although I knew that the reason for the long weekend was to commemorate those who lost their lives during the White Terror in Taiwan that had started on February 28th 1947, I  hadn’t put together that the 228 Peace Park was created to commemorate the same event. As we walked through the park, we stumbled into an outdoor concert and remembrance ceremony. The museum was free of charge because of the holiday so we walked through to learn more about the story of those who lived in Taiwan during the White Terror. I was reminded of my visit to Green Island and the stories of political prisoners who were held and tortured there.

228 Peace Park (February 28th)

A brief explanation of the history of the 2/28 holiday is that on February 27, agents from the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau confiscated the illegal cigarettes of an older female vendor as well as her money and then beat her over the head with a pistol. A large crowd surrounded the woman and the agents opened fire on the crowd, killing one person. This incident led to mass protests the next day—February 28 (for a more detailed story you can check out this article). These protests continued for a few days until Chiang Kai Shek called reinforcements from mainland China and began killing citizens at random and imprisoning them. This began the period of martial law in Taiwan that did not end until 1987. Thousands of people were imprisoned and died during this horrific period of time in Taiwanese history. Thus, 2/28 is a holiday for all Taiwanese people to commemorate those who were deeply affected by this tragedy.

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial

Our next stop was the Chiang Kai Shek memorial. I had planned to show Hannah and Ben how despite the terrible history of the White Terror and martial law in Taiwan the memorial upheld Chiang Kai Shek as an upstanding leader in Taiwanese history and hardly mentioned the horrors that occurred under his leadership. However, when we arrived we found that the hall was closed! This was unexpected because the visitation hours said it was open. There were police cars stationed all around the building and there were barricades blocking people from approaching both the flagpole and the structure.

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One of the gates of the memorial

Elephant Mountain and Taipei 101

Our next stop for the morning was Elephant Mountain. Despite the clouds we were still able to get some good views of Taipei 101 which we visited promptly after! We grabbed some snacks including some adorable Hello Kitty egg cakes and some bubble tea (and of course we had to take the obligatory tourist pictures at the LOVE statue). Our last stop before heading out for the day was the Sun Yat-Sen memorial where we actually got to witness the changing of the guard, something I hadn’t had the opportunity to see before. Along the way, we collected as many stamps as we could before heading back to Taipei Main station to catch a train to Taichung.

Taichung and Din Tai Feng!

When we arrived in Taichung, we got a taxi to our hostel Stray Birds. It was a lovely place with a common area and bed cubbies covered by a curtain. After quickly changing, we met my host dad Stephen in the car and he took us to meet the rest of the family at Din Tai Feng, the delicious and famous soup dumpling restaurant in Taiwan! We chatted and I learned that Elsa is heading to the US next year for college, and the whole family will be moving there in just two years! After dinner they dropped us back off at the hotel where we met Shelly to plan for the next day.

 苗栗火炎山, The Mini-Grand Canyon (March 1st)

The next morning, we met Shelly at the train station in Taichung and headed to Miaoli. It was the MOST CROWDED train that I have EVER been on. More and more people were piling on and we discovered that they were all heading to the botanical gardens expo a few stops before ours. In addition to Shelly, Ben, Hannah and I, Shelly’s friends Josep, Victoria, and Samia were joining us on the hike. When we finally exited the train we could breathe again. We took a taxi to the trailhead and began the somewhat treacherous hike. Though it was short, the trail was quite steep and quite crowded. Shelly explained that many people called this area the “grand canyon” of Taiwan and I could understand why. It was a pretty impressive view from the top of the hike. As we were just about to reach the summit, disaster struck. Samia rolled her ankle and it quickly swelled up. She could hardly walk down the trail! Luckily Josep came to the rescue and carried her down the rest of the way on a shortcut trail that was much less steep. We split with the group early to make sure we could catch the train in time to pick up our rental car in Taichung.

After and equally crowded trip back to Taichung city, we grabbed our bags at the hostel and made our way to the rental station. My host dad Stephen insisted on driving us there, once again reminding me of the kindness and generosity of my Taiwanese host family. He even helped us sort out the details of the car rental and showed us to the road that we needed to take to begin our next adventure! It was sad to say goodbye to him because I wasn’t so sure if I would have the chance to see my host family again before leaving Taiwan. But it was time to continue on with the next leg of the adventure… Hehuan Mountain! Instead of Nanhu Mountain, we had decided to rent a car in Taichung and drive through the Hehuan Mountains, staying overnight and hiking for a day. Then, we planned to continue across the mountains all the way to Hualien and return the car there.

The Hehuan Mountains

There are several hiking options in the Huhuan Mountains, but most of the trails are quite short and require only a few hours at most. We were looking for something a bit longer so we decided to bag two peaks, Hehuan North and West peak. I had read many blogs from others who had attempted this hike so I knew that the whole hike was about 13 kilometers and was rated as a difficult hike by many individuals. Ben, Hannah, and I were all in fairly good shape so I wasn’t too worried. I had read in several places that I needed to acquire a permit to hike this peak at the police station so I had planned to stop in the morning before the hike started. We had reserved a place for the night at a cute hotel called 挪威森林民宿. The drive up to the hotel was very treacherous! I was glad that I wasn’t driving as we wound switchbacks and avoided other cars and scooters in the middle of the road. We accidentally passed the turnoff for our hotel and attempted to turn around on a side road. This was almost a disaster because the roads are so narrow! But luckily we managed to turn around and arrived at our hotel in one piece. When I tried to check in, they informed me… “sorry, no space!” I panicked for a second before re-explaining that we had a reservation and showing her our confirmation email. Thankfully she found our name and showed us to our room. There were even little slippers for us to use! After eating some ramen for dinner, we headed to bed early so we wouldn’t be tired the next day.

Birthday Morning (March 2nd)

The next morning (my birthday!) we were blessed with the most amazing clear weather. We looked out from our balcony to see mountain peaks stretching for miles!!! It was incredible. We headed downstairs for breakfast which was the first real Taiwanese breakfast Ben and Hannah had tasted. It included anchovies, toast, congee, noodles, and so many other interesting things. Then we made our way to the police station next door for a permit. Although I didn’t quite understand what the officer was saying, I gathered we were in the wrong place. I looked at our map and realized that there was a later station on the road up so we continued our drive to the trailhead. We stopped at the next station and I was confused when they said we couldn’t get a permit their either. They explained that the place where we should have stopped was actually wayyyy back near the bottom of the windy road… oops. We decided to continue on without a permit hoping that no one stopped us.

Hehuan North Peak

When we reached the trail head, there were already many cars and hikers making their way up the mountain. We stopped at the visitor’s center for a map and some stamps and then we were on our way. The North Peak was only about 2 km from where we parked our car but it was a steep ascent. We started the hike at about 9:15 am, a bit later than we had planned but still with plenty of time for an exciting day. Many hikers were slowly making their way up. The thin air didn’t help much as we trudged up and we were quite out of breath by the time we got up the first false summit. It was a beautiful clear day and the views were stunning. We made it to the first peak after about an hour of hiking at a fairly quick pace.

Hehuan South Peak

After snapping some photos, we headed on to the West peak. While the trail was well-maintained, it was evident that most hikers turned around after reaching the North Peak and continued back down the trail. We encountered far fewer hikers in this section which was nice because before leaving the North Peak trail it was quite crowded. After about a km of hiking, we suddenly stumbled upon a section of the trail that looked like a cliff. It just dropped right off the edge of the mountain! There were twisted ropes hanging down to assist hikers as they slid down a steep dirt path. We looked at each other, and then began the slide down. It was very exciting and the main thought in our minds was… how the heck are we going to get back up this thing? Nevertheless, we continued on.

After another km we reached a forest between several camel hump peaks. We began rapidly descending through the forest, using several ropes so that we didn’t tumble down. We emerged in a valley-like area that looked fairly open all the way to the summit? Nope, a false summit again. We climbed up, down, up, and then finally we saw what looked like a sign for the top? We were a bit confused because the “peak” was actually located at a lower elevation than the vast majority of the hike. However, it was very beautiful and views stretched as far as the eye could see. We decided that the South Peak marked the end of the range as opposed to one of the taller points on the hike. We didn’t stay for too long as it was already a bit after noon and we knew we had some steep climbing and a long drive home ahead of us.

On our way back, we ran into another hiker while climbing up the forest looking for a lunch spot, and he must have sensed that we were hungry. He told us to wait and reached into his bag. He pulled out three oranges that he gave to us, and three pieces of caramel candy! It felt like a bit of trail magic, but I have found that this is pretty typical Taiwanese hiking culture. Taiwanese hikers are so friendly! Just a little further along, we stopped at 1 for a quick picnic just outside of the forest climb, about halfway back to the North Peak. Then we trudged through the last section and hauled ourselves up the cliff. We were quite exhausted at this point and feeling lightheaded from thirst and elevation.

Back to the Visitor’s Center

We were a relieved to see the crowds of people at the North Peak because it meant we were almost back! Our hike from the North to South Peak and back took 5 hours total. After snapping some photos, we headed down the trail to the car. Ben and Hannah discovered some pretty nasty sunburns but luckily I had remembered to put on sunscreen and wore long sleeves (the sun is quite strong in Taiwan I have unfortunately discovered through previous sunburns). In total, we hiked 13.4 km and hiked two of the top 100 peaks in Taiwan; Hehuan North Peak (3422 m) and Hehuan South Peak (3,145 m). The entire hike took us a total of 7 hours at a fairly rapid pace. We were tired and quite hungry by the time we reached the car and bought some snacks before heading out.

Hualien!

Although we left the Hehuan Mountains around 4 pm, the drive down took us about three hours due to the winding nature of the roads. We did stop twice to take photos of the old growth forest and the sea of clouds on the way. When we got back we were ravenous but lucky for us, my favorite Korean restaurant still had tables available! We got food there and then walked around for a bit. After we stopped at Home Bakery near my apartment and Ben and Hannah got me a cake because it was my birthday 🙂 After opening some presents (including so much granola… oh how I’ve missed granola) we tumbled into bed for the night exhausted.

Liyu Lake (March 3rd)

For our first day in Hualien, Ben and Hannah and I decided to take a trip to Liyu Lake, one of my favorite places to go near the city. The weather was beautiful and quite hot, so after walking around the lake we decided to rent a swan boat with pedals to travel around on the water. While we were riding, the wind picked up and we were pedaling with all our might to make it back to the dock in time! Thankfully, we managed to do it but it was not the nicest thing to do to our already tired legs.

Zuocang Trail

Around lunch time, we decided to head over to the Zuocang trail for some hiking and in hopes of catching a glimpse of a monkey or two. Because we were tired we hiked to the waterfall and back instead of up the mountain which only took about 45 minutes. We caught sight of a few monkeys on the way! We even witnessed a full monkey fight which was quite exciting, it sounded like an angry child shrieking.

花蓮港天宮

On our way back to the city, we realized that although Ben and Hannah had been in Taiwan for a bit already, they still hadn’t seen a temple! So we stopped at the 花蓮港天宮 (Gang Tian Gong Temple), one right up the street from my house. I actually hadn’t been there before so it was nice to see it. It is an absolutely huge temple filled with many different worship statues. While we were there, we ran into a man who was attending the school there. He happily showed us around the temple and introduced us to all the gods. He even let us drink from the sacred water in the center of the temple!

Nguchus Cat Cafe

In order to show Ben and Hannah all of my favorite places in Hualien, the Nguchus Cat Cafe was a must. We stopped there in the evening and got some coffee and cake. It was quite delicious and we had a great time playing with the cats. The owners were excited to see that I had brought another friend along to see their cafe and when they realized that they had actually met my whole family now, they were so excited!

Night Market

As any good tourist would do, we stopped at the night market for a snack dinner. We got stinky tofu, meat on a stick, squid, chocolate, and all the good snacks. It was a feast! I ate so much, I was absolutely stuffed by the end of the night. Watch the video to see just how much Ben and Hannah enjoyed trying the stinky tofu!

Fu Shi and Toroko (March 4th)

Qi Xing Tan

The next day we split up because I had to go to school so Ben and Hannah went on a solo adventure in Toroko Gorge. They had a blast and visited many spectacular sites. Unfortunately I was unable to join them but I had a great and busy day with my students, psyching them up for Ben and Hannah’s visit the next day. After school, they picked me up and we drove to Qi Xing Tan to see one of the most famous beaches in Taiwan. The views were beautiful as the sun started to go down in over the mountains. We finished the day with a walk around the smaller night market and some packing, because sadly they next day Ben and Hannah were heading back to Taipei 😦

Fu Shi and Shakadang Trail (March 5th)

However, before they left there was one more thing left to do, perhaps the most exciting thing of all. I was bringing Ben and Hannah to my school to meet my students! They were going to come to my 6th and 3rd grade English classes and my 5th grade music class. I planned a lesson that was about Starburst (Ben and Hannah’s Cat) adventuring through the seasons which my sixth graders absolutely loved and Hannah and Ben enjoyed experiencing. I even gave them the link to Starburst’s Instagram page… you can follow it here if you’d like! They even got to help me teach part of my third grade class! Our lesson was parts of the body so my students started by showing Ben and Hannah the dance they knew to head, shoulders, knees and toes. Little Will was so excited that he practically danced his pants off (although that is par course because his pants are always falling off). Afterwords, I sent the students over to Ben and Hannah one-by-one and they quizzed them by saying “touch your ears!” It was so much fun to see them interacting with my students despite the language barrier and I guarantee that my students had a great time.

Because I didn’t have any afternoon classes, the dean let me leave early for the day and we decided to head to the Shakadang Trail for an afternoon hike. It was muggy and hot again with just a bit of rain but the river still looked as bright as ever. The crowds weren’t even too bad because of the time of day!

Goodbyes

After returning the rental car, we had time for some dinner so we stopped for 35$ noodles (only 1 usd!) at one of my favorite places and some apple cider vinegar drink (my new favorite addiction and constant craving). It was a good but bittersweet last meal and I felt really sad having to say goodbye for four more months. We got some last stop bubble tea on the way to the train station and gave some sad hugs while they waited for their train. I waited until they had walked out of sight before I headed back home to my apartment.

It had been an amazing and memorable adventure for me, and I’m sure for Ben and Hannah too. I loved having the chance to be their tour guide and show them all my favorite sights, tastes, and people. Though it was a short trip, I won’t be forgetting our adventures anytime soon 🙂

 

 

(2/16) Philippines and Singapore

Day 1: Mt. Batulao and the Philippine Sea

My dad and I arrived in Manilla on February 4th and because of the Chinese New Year, the next day was a vacation day for my dad’s company. We got up early the next morning and after a delicious and filling breakfast headed out to meet our driver for the day, Juan. Juan is a wonderful human being and as you will see, he became much more than just our driver. He became our tour guide and companion for the rest of the trip.

Our plan for the morning was to head to a mountain about an hour away and hike, and do one more hike on our way back to the hotel for the evening. However, when we arrived at the first “jumpsite” as Juan liked to say, we discovered that the path was closed for restoration. Unsure what to do, we got back in the car and brainstormed a new plan. Juan decided to take us to his sister’s house on the beach because her husband owned a boat and then take us out to an island just off the shore. However, he warned us that this was the local spot and we might not be allowed to go to the beach because we were foreigners. When we arrived, we were greeted by curious Filipinos who were confused why we were on the local beach but after Juan explained to them in Tagaytay that we wanted to go to the island, they happily let us in.

Half an hour later, we found ourselves flying across the ocean on a very cool boat constructed out of an old car engine and some pretty legit engineering. The weather was hot but absolutely beautiful and the sea spray felt amazing. When we arrived, we were greeted by a large group of Filipinos who brought our boat to shore. We jumped out and hopped into the water for a quick swim. It was one of the first times I’ve been able to swim since being out of the US and the water was a beautiful crystal clear color. After a refreshing swim, we wandered the island exploring the nooks and crannies and searching for shells. I was surprised by the vast quantity of trash thrown all over the island. Although I was only in the Philippines for a few days, I noticed that trash disposal seems to be a common problem which is rather unfortunate.

After heading back to shore, Juan took us to his home! He showed us his garden and we met his son. We tried to convince his son to come hiking with us but he had other plans for the afternoon. Juan is growing cashews and several other fruits and nuts. After a quick tour, he took us to Mt. Batulao, a beautiful mountain close to our hotel. Although it was late, a guide was still willing to take us up to the top (one of the requirements for this hike was to have a guide). Juan hiked with us too in his sandals. On the way he told us that his older brother, who had sadly passed away a year ago, had always encouraged him to hike but he never had the chance to before because we was so busy working. He was so happy to join us and he was a positive and wonderful companion to have on the trail. The hike was quite steep but thankfully the evening was approaching and the weather had cooled down a bit. We climbed up for about an hour and a half over several peaks marked by signs. It was an exhausting but rewarding hike, and the views stretched for miles. We made it back to the bottom just as the sun was setting and enjoyed a peaceful dinner out on the patio overlooking Taal Volcano.

Day 2: Taal Volcano

The next morning my dad had to head out early for work but Juan still came and picked me up for another adventure. Today he was going to take me down to Lake Taal to hike the island mountain. We had been admiring this volcano for several days because our hotel was situated on the edge of the lake and during breakfast and dinner we could see the volcano clearly. The drive down was steep but we slowly made our way to a place Juan knew were we could charter a boat to take us out to the island. The boats again were just like the one we had been in the day before and the lake breeze and waves splashing against the poles of the boat felt wonderful.

When we arrived on the island, we were met by our guide for the day. We decided not to ride horses up and instead opted to hike the volcano. The hike was steep, dusty, and hot but we made it in good time and stopped at the top to admire that views of the lake. Unlike the island we had visited the day before, this site was quite crowded with foreign tourists speaking English, Chinese, and all sorts of other languages. I met a group of Jehovah witnesses from the US who had been living in Taiwan for 11 years, and they shared some sweet pomelo with me as we rested in the shade. I also learned that our guide had lived in Taiwan for several years working in Taoyuan at some kind of a cloth  factory. She spoke some Chinese too! While we hiked, she pointed out several locations were steam was coming out of the rocks or water and the lake was boiling because the volcano was still active. She told us that in 1977 the volcano had erupted, causing several people to die because it happened during the night.

After heading back to the boat and back to shore, Juan took me up to a very high scenic area where I could see all across Manilla. He pointed out Mt. Batulao, the island we had been to, and his home. We ran into several school groups and a few people asked to take photos with me at the top.

Afterwords, we headed back to the hotel so I could change for dinner. My dad’s coworkers were taking him out to dinner at a fancy restaurant and they had invited me along. Juan dropped me off and I waited for the rest of the group to arrive. The restaurant was unlike any other place I had eaten at before. There was a beautiful cocktail garden with glowing orbs where we started before heading to the main table. The food was delicious and my dad’s coworkers were very sweet. I even tried raw meat! Juan drove us home after for the evening, and we packed our stuff because it was our last night in the Philippines.

The next morning we woke up at the crack of dawn to make it to the airport in time. We were lucky to catch the sunrise and the beautiful Taal Lake was glowing in the early morning sun. It was sad to say goodbye to Juan, our newfound friend and guide. He promised that if we came back we could meet him again. He also told us that we had inspired him to hike more, and the next weekend he would take his son to Mt. Batulao!

Singapore

Day 1: Botanical Gardens and Hawker Stalls

My only knowledge of Singapore before traveling to the country was from reading the book crazy rich Asians. Though I really enjoyed reading this book, it did not give the most well rounded perspective of what Singapore is like so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When we arrived, my dad had to go to the office first thing so our taxi dropped me off at the hotel and I checked us in. It is SO HOT in Singapore. It felt strange after being in Japan but I quickly tried to readjust my internal thermometer.

After checking in, I decided to walk to the botanical gardens that were right near the hotel. Although it was only about 15 minutes of walking, by the time I arrived I was dripping sweat. I only had about an hour so I headed directly to the orchid exhibit. I didn’t know this before but apparently Singapore is very famous for their orchid cultivating techniques! They make many different types of hybrids and name them after celebrities that come to visit Taiwan. There is even one named after the Obamas!

After walking through the gardens for a while, I headed back to the hotel and met up with my dad. We went to the Newton Hawker Center to get some food from the stalls. It was so crowded and there were giant lobsters, Indian food stalls, Chinese food stalls, craft brewed beer, and everything in between. We settled on some Indian food and some beer and I ate until I was completely stuffed. After dinner, we headed down to the waterfront promenade in hopes of catching some fireworks but just missed them. Thankfully there were fireworks all week because of the Chinese New Year so we had plenty more opportunities to see them. We wandered along the shore and gawked at the incredible architecture along the way.

Day 2: Gardens by the Bay

The next day we headed to the gardens by the bay first thing in the morning. Although it was crowded, we were able to sneak by many of the crowds. We started off the morning on the Skytree walk. Again, what an architectural marvel like most things in Singapore! Next we walked through the gardens and stopped at sculptures to take many pictures. We finished the morning by walking through the two large glass showcase areas called the cloud forest and the and the flower dome. So many incredible flower arrangements!

After we finished up at the gardens, we walked through the waterfront to see the famous merlion statue that is the official mascot of Singapore. On the way we passed through a spiraling Helix metal bridge, past the art and science museum shaped like a lotus flower, and of course the Marina Bay Sands Hotel with the giant boat deck that seems to be precariously resting on top of the building. We stopped and bought some coconut ice cream, and headed to see the battlebox after for a tour. This was probably my dad’s favorite part of the whole trip, I could see how excited he was about the history. The battlebox or the Fort Canning Bunker is a bomb proof structure built right near the waterfront district in Singapore. During WWII, this was the British underground command centre. It was in this structure that the British army made the heartbreaking decision to surrender to the Japanese army and allow them to take over Singapore and Malaysia. It marks “the darkest” period in Singaporean history according to our tour guide. It wasn’t until recently that the battlebox was rediscovered and tours were brought through the area. In the beginning of the tour our guide promised us that whoever answered a trivia question correctly would win a prize, so of course my dad won!

After the tour we headed back to the hotel and drove to find some chicken rice for dinner. My friend from Singapore had recommended a place so we went there even though it was quite far away! The chicken rice was quite good and a famous Singaporean dish. We caught a taxi and headed to the Marina Bay Sands hotel because we were determined to catch the fireworks. We decided to get tickets to the top observation deck and view the fireworks from overhead as they lit up the waterfront area below. Although we had to wait for a while, we got drinks and enjoyed the views and the water show and laser show. Finally it was time for the fireworks. They were spectacular! It was worth the wait and thanks to some strategic planning, we even beat the crowds home.

Day 3: Little India and Chinatown

My dad’s coworker met us in the morning to take us to the famous Budda Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore. Although the actual temple was build fairly recently, it is still quite famous because the entire casing for the relic is made out of gold. When we arrived, I was wearing a dress and had to put on a cloth to cover my legs. My dad’s colleague is Buddhist so the tour he gave us was very in depth and personal. While we were walking through the museum, there was a chanting ritual happening on the first floor that went on for the whole day!

After we finished touring the temple, we traveled through Chinatown stopping to look in shops and buy some sugarcane juice. Singapore is a very unique country because it has a large population of people that speak Chinese, English, and Hindi. There is a intersection of many different cultures in this tiny and unique country, which meant that within a 15 minute drive we could travel from Chinatown to Little India and see a completely different culture. Little India was filled with color and bustling crowds. I’ve never been to India before so I was excited to see this part of Singapore. We tried to visit a Hindu Temple but it was closed so we walked around the outside admiring the architecture.

That evening we headed to the Botanical Gardens again because my dad hadn’t had the chance yet to see it. We saw some black swans and admired the beautiful flowers. For dinner, we decided to eat on the garden grounds in a restaurant outside, overlooking the gardens. The food was prepared so beautifully!

Our last stop of the night was the Singapore zoo for the night safari. This was one of the top tourist destinations in Singapore because there are very few zoos in the world that provide visitors to see nocturnal animals active at night. There were soooo many people once again speaking a variety of languages. Although we showed up about an hour late for our ticket time, we still got into the line just fine and made it. It was rather difficult to see some of the animals in the dark lighting but it was overall a very cool experience!

After our safari we headed home to bed. After enjoying some herbal tea in the VIP room at the top of the hotel, we packed our bags and headed to bed a bit early because it was our last night and were leaving the hotel at 4:30 the next morning.

Day 4: Back to Taiwan

We rose too early and made our way to the airport. As we got closer I felt a wave of sadness, realizing the next time I’d see my dad would probably be back in the US in the middle of July after my Fulbright grant was complete. I still had about half a year ahead of me away from my family and away from home and although I was excited to get back to my students and teaching, I was a bit homesick.

After a sad farewell, I made my way to my gate. I sat for a while feeling lonely but distracted myself by beginning to plan some of my class projects for the second semester. I missed my students and I was ready to get back to school. Chinese New Year vacation was an incredible adventure filled with new foods, good friends, beautiful sights, crazy adventures, and the best visit from my dad 🙂 There are enough memories from this adventure to carry me through the second half of my Fulbright teaching adventure, and I am refreshed and ready to start the next half of my position as a teaching assistant!