Leaving an old self behind in Taiwan
By Darren Tobia
May 21, 2013, 12:03 am TWN
Riding on the back of a scooter is an exercise in letting go. Your ride shows up and leaves the engine idling; they hand you a spare helmet; you throw your leg over and before you can remember what you were so damn worried about ... it's happening. At some magical point of weaving through choked streets lit by illegible billboards — up and under narrow one-lane overpasses — passing chicken trucks and ever-menacing blue pickups, the secret fear of handing control over to a stranger slides away and gets left behind like an old self. Your once-unpliable grip on the back handrail loosens. In no time, you find yourself small-talking with the driver whom — despite sound obstacles of screaming wind and astronaut-sized protective headgear — you can hear with surprising clarity.
"Bobo says you've been to Tainan before?" says the driver, one of six Joshes I've met since landing — if you're white and named Josh, you're probably living in Taoyuan City.
"It's been a long time — can't say I remember much," I said. "I can't even remember this part of the city."
I once knew Taoyuan — a fast-gentrifying smokestack city southwest of Taipei — like the back of my hand having lived here six years ago: the dense, traffic-wracked avenues stacked with turreted apartment towers, noodle shops, night markets and 7-Elevens. But the familiar madness soon gave way to long stretches of rice fields straddled by under-construction highways. On the right side, hidden in the dip of a desolate valley along Fu-Guo Street we passed a temple with a billboard-sized LES light display depicting a meditating Buddha with flickering lights emanating out in spokes: enlightenment went high-tech.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"We're in Da-Jhu," he answered, a town near the station. "Haven't you ridden the High Speed Rail before?"
"No — they were finishing construction when I left."
The High Speed Rail Station is tucked away in No Man's Land, which makes it a worthwhile option only for traversing long distances. After landing just days ago in Taiwan, where I've decide to live for the second time in my life, I was headed to my old friend Bobo's hometown for a once-every-quarter-century celebration of the Bao Sheng Gong Temple, in the Yong Kang district. Tainan City is located at the southern end of the yam-shaped island country. Taiwan is often seen in maps that feature China's east coast, which can skew your perception of its size: 200 miles tip to tip. Which means for 40 bucks and a 1.5-hour travel-nap you can considerably change the climate. We were all looking forward to leaving behind a string of Prozac-y overcast days in the north.
We had no idea what to expect of the celebration, but the incoming messages we received once aboard the train were promising: strained through the raw explosions of firework militias, word came through of streets covered in disemboweled pig carcasses (food offerings to the pork-loving gods) which caused quivers of squeamish awe in not just the vegetarians in our traveling troupe. These traditions — which can seem so backwoods to Westerners — are even harder to reconcile while seated aboard such cutting-edge transportation, which arrived on the filed-down point of its scheduled departure time and goes faster than any track ever laid in the States.
Makes you wonder who's getting left behind.