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Travel firm offers chance to experience life as a street vendor

TAIPEI--Visiting landmarks like Taipei 101 is a great way to explore the bustling metropolis of Taipei, but a new travel company is now promoting a more authentic way of getting to know the city — living a day in the life of a street vendor.

“We came up with the idea simply because we wanted foreigners to know more about the island and people living on it,” said Peter Lin, the founder of Topology Travel, a four-person company established just last year.

Free of charge, the 30-year-old and his team of recent graduates escort interested foreigners to meet local vendors and help them understand how less fortunate people struggle to make a living in the city.

“The visitors are not the only ones who benefit from the program,” said Lin. “The vendors do as well because they rarely have the chance to interact with foreigners.”

“Sweet Potato Mama for a Day,” one of Lin's blockbuster tours, for example, brings together visitors and single Taiwanese mothers who have not had much chance to travel yet still yearn to see the world.

Years ago, a dozen single mothers started selling baked sweet potatoes on Taipei's streets with the help of a social welfare foundation that promotes independent living.

All day, the women push a portable oven around, often bringing their children along.

“The moms' faces light up whenever they see people visiting. They just love companionship,” Lin said, noting that the language barrier has never been a problem because smiles always get the message through.

“I am Canadian and Miss Wong is Taiwanese. My Chinese was as bad as her English, but it didn't seem to interfere with our connection,” a retired teacher by the name of Dana wrote on Trip Advisor, a website that posts opinions about tourism-related issues from globetrotters.

“We laughed a lot and tried to teach each other some language, and I shared her hope,” said Dana, who is also a single mother.

“My experience involved so much more than just eating a healthy snack cooked in a traditional way. I got a taste of a life I would never have known and will never forget.”

A 24-year-old Indonesian who has been studying at a Taiwanese university for two years said he did not know this side of Taiwan until he signed up for the tour.

Besides learning how to bake delicious sweet potatoes, Citra Satria Ongkowijoyo said he became more aware of the concept that “teaching people how to fish is better than giving them fish.”

Nguyen Tuan Anh, president of National Taiwan University's Vietnamese Student Association, said: “I would suggest the tour to Westerners more.”

Many people from Vietnam, like other countries in Southeast Asia, already know what it is like to lead a difficult and challenging life, so the tour would probably be more attractive to those from developed countries, he said.

“The beauty of travel lies in the people you meet and not the sights you see,” said Lin, whose travel experiences in the U.S. as a foreign exchange student and as a volunteer in Nepal inspired him to promote such tours.

Showing postcards and emails from customers in the past year, Lin stressed that Taiwan has much to offer.

“Taiwan's biggest assets are not its infrastructure or geo-political position, but the kindness and vitality of its people.”

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