October 15th is the Truku holiday Mgay Bari. The teachers at my school described this day as a time of Thanksgiving for the Truku Peoples when they give thanks for the crops and harvest that they were granted during the year. After a week of some of the highest and lowest moments of my time in Taiwan, I have begun to reflect on the many ways I am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity I’ve been given through the Fulbright program and my school to become part of a community and that has welcomed me with open arms. Furthermore, I am thankful to be safe and taken care of and heartbroken thinking about the individuals deeply impacted by the train crash on 10/21.
10/15 Mgay Bari
The week started on a high note with the celebration of Mgay Bari. All of my students traveled by bus to the location of the festival before I even arrived at school. I learned that the festival had began at 4 am that day and was going to continue well into the night. By the time I arrived, people had already been dancing and singing for hours and hours. Witnessing this event as a foreigner was privilege. My students were very excited to have me there at the event and eagerly tugged me around to different vendors and performances. I happily obliged, but the sight of me definitely caused some amused stares. However, people were so kind! One of my colleagues introduced me to some of her family members and shared many different types of food with me. I ate a sweet potato, some sticky rice in a bamboo stick, and a small cake.
There was also a small hut that was a traditional style community building at the festival, similar to the one at our school. There was a small fire burning when we went in and one of my colleagues and I sat around the fire and ate some smoked meat. There was a woman weaving a scarf in the corner that looked absolutely beautiful. Afterwords, we went outside and started to dance. One of the first grade students grabbed my hand on one side and together we all danced around in a circle. After we cleared out, students from all different schools filled the area and began to play the drums. They were playing the same songs that I knew and I was so proud to see my students all dressed up and performing together. The fifth and sixth graders stayed through the day but I went back with the third graders to teach an English class. Overall the celebration of Thanksgiving gave me the opportunity to reflect upon the community I’ve been lucky enough to join and contribute to here at Fu Shi Elementary School. The fact that my colleagues and students were willing share a very special cultural day is very heartwarming and I will continue to work hard to learn from them and share my own life and story.
The rest of the week continued in a rather uneventful manner. Throughout the week, I was communicating with my Dad’s colleague and friend Vivian from work. She had invited me to visit her family in Chaiyi for the weekend. This was perhaps the farthest place in all of Taiwan from Hualien, about a 4.5 hour trip. But I was very excited to see them. Vivian had planned every moment of the weekend with great detail. She had even sent me a full power-point itinerary with pictures and descriptions for every activity. I left for Chaiyi on Friday evening, first taking a high speed train to Taipei, and then an even higher-speed train to Chaiyi. It is somewhat miraculous that you can travel halfway around Taiwan by train in just 4.5 hours, and that it is impossible to just cut across Taiwan from Hualien to Chiayi.
When I arrived in Chaiyi, I was met at the train station by Vivian’s son David. He had a sign that said “Ms. Becca” and easily found me in the sea of travelers. I quickly realized that he had impeccable English and it was so easy to talk to him! He introduced me to his grandparents and together they took me to the night market in Chaiyi. We ate some delicious bbq on the street and I also tried a famous sweet soybean and peanut dessert.
10/20 DIY Day
The next day Vivian met me at 10:30 am and picked me up for a jam packed day of adventuring. She brought her sister and her sister’s daughter along as well and our first stop of the day was a DIY wooden chopsticks place. It was called 愛木村 which translates in English to something like the “love wood village” and it is a very famous spot in Chaiyi. There was a whole game room that was designed from carved wood. There was also a place to hang wishes for good luck, and a variety of beautifully carved wooden stamps that I added to my stamp journal (side note, in many destination locations in Taiwan there are stamps and ink pads for tourists. I started keeping a small journal were I stamp these and write a small reflection so I can remember certain places). After walking through the building, we got to go to a DIY class where we carved our own chopsticks! It was harder than I had anticipated but thankfully I figured it out and now I have my very own pair of chopsticks. We also stopped at a very famous fruit juice place called 御香屋for a drink. 御香屋 had a loooong line but I believe the tea was definitely worth the wait because it was quite delicious.
After 愛木村 we traveled to a Korean restaurant where we met up with the rest of Vivian’s family. We had bibimbap (one of my favorites) and Korean bbq! I found out that David hadn’t come earlier that day because he had been busy with homework and a morning class to study science (yuck school on the weekend)! He was whisked off again in the afternoon for more class and homework so Vivian, her sister, her niece and I traveled up into the mountains of Chaiyi county to visit the Taiping Suspension Bridge. It was quite long and stretched across a valley between a few mountains. The road to get there was quite precarious and I was rather carsick by the time we arrived. But what an incredible view!
Our next stop was even further up into the mountains and the road seemed to be nearly impassible. But we made it! We stopped at a place called Amber coffee, a DIY coffee shop and farm were coffee beans and leaves were growing. We learned how coffee beans are processed and we even got to peel, roast, and grind the beans for a delicious cup of coffee. It was amazing! I never knew that coffee plants turn red before they are harvested, and that inside a shell are two beans that are then held with another shell. We roasted them over a small stove until they turned brown. When they were roasted to the right temperature, we ground them up and packaged them to bring back home. In the meantime, they made us a cup of coffee from the beans that they had already ground and processed. It was delicious! We also got a waffle to share.
After the drive back it was nearly dinner time. We went to a place that had famous seafood and I ate some delicious fish. After dinner Vivian and her son took me to a different night market that was famous for its games. We played this one game where we tried to catch fish with nets that were made out of paper. I ended up catching about three but of course I didn’t bring them home. We also rode on some bumper cars, tried to knock over cans, and tried to throw a ring on a bottle. I ate some squid which has really grown on me and might be one of my new favorite foods. After a little while, we headed back to get some sleep before the next day at Alishan!
10/21 Alishan and the Train
Alishan is one of the top tourist destinations in Taiwan. It is a beautiful National Park that is fairly difficult to access because it is far up in the mountains. A while ago there was a logging industry in the area that was accessed by a train that stretched through the mountains. However, when the land was put aside as a National Park, the logging ended and the train was converted into a mode of transportation for tourists. Its very difficult to get tickets on this train because it is so popular so Vivian was lucky to snag some last minute for me, herself, and David. The other way to access the park is by taking a bus or driving on a very windy road.
Our train left at 9:00, and we were sure to take many pictures of the train pulling into the station (a must photo opportunity in Taiwan). Over the course of 2.5 hours, we went through 30 tunnels and went around the mountains many many times. It was quite the adventure. I sat alone because Vivian was only able to get separate tickets so I didn’t understand much of the narration but I enjoyed the sweeping views of mountains and valleys on the way around the mountain.
When we arrived at the last stop, Vivian guided us to a taxi that she had reserved for the day. The driver had ordered us boxed lunch so we wouldn’t waste any time eating because we had a short time frame (I had to be back in time for a 5 pm train and it took two hours to get to the train station). The actual park barred visitors from driving so we took a bus once we were inside the park to a trail-head. Alishan is most famous for a few hikes that take you into the mountains were visitors can go to see the sunrise. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do the sunrise hike but we did go to see the old growth forest and some of the lakes. It was surprisingly cold up in the mountain and I was thankful I had packed my sweatshirt. The vegetation in the park was unlike any other place I’ve been to in Taiwan and this was very cool to see. It reminded me of Redwood National Park back in the US and the trip made me a bit nostalgic for non-tropical climates.
We headed back later that afternoon and I sadly said goodbye to Vivian and her family. They were so kind and generous and I hope I will have the chance to see them again soon! The taxi driver dropped me off at the train station just in time for my train and I began my 4.5 hour journey back to Hualien. As I was drifting in and out of sleep, I got a phone call from Vivian. She started to explain that a train was down in between Yilan and Hualien and she wasn’t sure if my train would still be going. I tried to look up more information but I couldn’t find anything so I decided to wait until I got to the train station to sort things out. I was shocked by the chaos that was unfolding in the train station when I arrived. I tried to go to the help desk and in the meantime accidentally walked through a live broadcast. I couldn’t tell what was happening because there was no information in English. There was a line a mile long for tickets, and when I went to the information desk they told me that the only thing they could do was exchange or refund my ticket (and they didn’t speak English very well). I had no idea when the next train would be moving again or what had happened. My phone was on 5% battery and I couldn’t find an outlet anywhere.
At this point I was in a small state of panic. I had no idea when/how I could get home because there were no more flights out of Taipei to Hualien for the night, and the road is nearly impassible between Yilan and Hulien (regardless, I didn’t have a car). Finally, I found an outlet and some of the other ETAs back in Hualien shared a news article and I got in contact with Gill. There was a horrific accident on a train bound for Hualien in which a train had derailed, and they where still trying to help injured and trapped passengers. I learned that at least 10 people had died but they were unable to get an accurate number at the time.
No one thought that the trains would be up and running again for at least the night, if not the next few days. I planned to stay in Yilan for the night but after talking to Gill she told me to stay in Taipei in case the only way back was by plane from Taipei. I got ahold of an ETA in Taipei City who very generously offered me a place at her apartment for the night. Meanwhile, I tried to find any way to get back to Hualien. It was no use, all of flights were booked, there were no trains running so I couldn’t plan anything. My co-teacher contacted me to make sure I was okay because she was afraid I might have been traveling back on the train that crashed. I told her that I was safe and she told me that the government had allowed an emergency day for all people who were trapped in Taipei or other places because of the accident. Knowing that it was okay to miss school on Monday put me at ease, and after a little while I decided the best option was to wake up early and get an update on the situation. However, I couldn’t stop reading articles about the accident and thinking about the poor people injured and the family members of those killed in the accident. The few hours I did sleep I had nightmares about trains crashing.
More information about the train accident
10/22 Back to Hualien
The next day I woke up early and began the journey back. I ran into a man on the way to the train station that told me some trains were up and running, but the best option was to take a bus to Yilan and then catch a train from there to Taipei because the train station was packed with the numerous people stranded in Taipei. I read a news report that estimated 10,000 people were forced to seek alternative travel options because of the train accident. I decided this was the best option because I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea of taking a train, especially because they still had not determined the cause of the accident. The man showed me the station and helped me get tickets to Yilan. When I got to Yilan, I was surprised to find that I could easily get a train ticket back to Hualien so I got on a train from the station. We drove right by the accident on our way back and it was a horrifying sight. The train cars were tangled with the wires beside the track and many were completely upside down. The whole way back I clutched my seat trying not to think about the accident. When I finally got home later that afternoon, I collapsed into bed and took a much needed nap.
I couldn’t help but think how thankful I was to be safe and to have a community of people who were there to support and help me when I had nowhere to go and no idea what to do. My classmates, my coworkers, other ETAs, and Vivian and her family were all doing everything they could to help me get home safe and sound. Although I lost some faith in public transportation, I gained some valuable insight and learned that even on the other side of the world, there’s a community of people who are there for me no matter what.