In my next life, I think I would like to return as a travel writer, gallivanting all over the globe, checking out and reporting on exotic locales for various publications. I didn't have to wait that long, it turned out, because my fantasy became a reality.
It all began in January when I unexpectedly received an invitation from the Taiwan Tourism Bureau to cover that country's Lantern Festival to be held on March 4. Out of curiosity, I accepted the invitation as I had never been to Taiwan and, besides, the offer was for all expenses to be covered by the Taiwan government, a price I could live with.
So before I knew it, there I was on a 14-hour EVA Air flight toTaipei, arriving on March 3, meeting with our tourism hosts at the Grand Hyatt Hotel where I was billeted along with nine other travel writers from Europe, Canada and the United States. A Chinese-Canadian editor from Toronto and I were the only non-Caucasians in the select group.
After our welcome lunch, we were brought to Shihlin, north of Taipei, to the fabled Palace Museum which boasts 6,000 works of art culled from 5,000 years of Chinese history. My personal favorite was the incredibly intricate Jade Cabbage - carved during the Qing Dynasty. The art and artifacts on display were only a fraction of the 700,000 pieces of precious art objects stored in 4,000 crates in tunnels behind the museum, smuggled from China to Taiwan in 1948 just before Mao's Communists defeated the fleeing Kuomintang army of Chiang Kai-Shek.
The next day, Sunday, was easily our longest day. We boarded a bullet train on the Taiwan High Speed Rail early in the morning it zipped us to Chayi, 250 kilometers in just 50 minutes, in an impressively smooth ride.
After visiting a cultural park at Chayi, we had lunch at the provincial magistrate's home where I met a Filipina housemaid who worked there. According to her, in Taiwan, a Filipina housemaid is a redundancy as almost all Pinays there are domestic helpers. In The Taiwan News, an English language daily, I saw a full page of photos and articles about Filipinos in Taiwan.
Later in the afternoon, we were bussed to Taibao City for the big event, the Taiwan Lantern Festival which was attended by over 100,000 people, with Taiwan's president as the main speaker. The prime minister and other officials spoke before the president and although I couldn't understand a word the politicians said, I could imagine their content because they had the same cadence and bombast as their Philippine counterparts.
That was not the only similarity. Taiwan's martial law ended in 1987, just a year after it ended in the Philippines. But Taiwan's version of People Power occurred earlier in 1979 in Kaohsiung when over 150,000 democracy activists rallied to demand an end to martial law. Eight of the rally's organizers, including Annette Lu, were arrested and charged with sedition. They were defended by a panel of distinguished lawyers led by Chen Shui-bian.
Although the organizers were found guilty and sentenced to long jail terms, the rally galvanized public opinion against martial law which led to its end and to the eventual pardon of the Kaohsiung 8. The democracy activists later formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to challenge the one-party hegemony of the Kuomintang. In 2000, the DPP slate of Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu won the presidency and vice-presidency of Taiwan, "the first democratic change of power in 3400 years of recorded Chinese history". Both were re-elected to second terms in 2004.
After the lantern festival extravaganza that evening, we went by bus to Yanshuei for the Beehive Rockets Festival. This is an audience participation event unlike any other in the world where thousands of firecrackers are fired directly into and around the tens of thousands of people attending the festival. Like the bulls at Pamplona, there are casualties. In 2006, we were told, 19 participants required serious medical attention although hundreds more were singed or burned, a badge of distinction to many.
Our brave group was equipped by our hosts with motorcycle helmets, gloves and yellow raincoats as we waded into the crowds to get as close to the fireworks stage as we could. Unfortunately, try as we might, not one of us was able to write a first-hand account of what it's like to be struck by fireworks. Maybe next time.
We don't exactly remember where we slept that night as we were all zonked out in the bus when we got there. But wherever it was, we were off and running early the next morning for a long bus ride to the Haomeiliao Nature Preserve. There we boarded a raft that took us to oyster beds in the lake and shown how they're grown, a relatively simple process. Fascinating. Later during lunch, we observed two horseshoe crabs actively having sex in a fish tank. We asked the owner how long the pair had been at it and he said he doesn't remember when they started but he thought they would be finished sometime in April. Now that's a crab mentality to root for.
After lunch, we visited a salt drying field where two colorfully-dressed workers were busy plowing salt back and forth as we took photos of their labor. There used to be hundreds of such salt fields in that area, we were told, but now there is just that one, along with a salt history museum to show students and tourists what used to be. The labor and administrative costs were too prohibitive, it was explained. It's cheaper to import salt from Australia than to grow them here, our guide candidly disclosed.
After checking out the endangered Black-Faced Spoonbill bird at a nature preserve, we then drove up the steep mountain to the Guanzihling Hot Springs. We checked into our hotel and rushed to get to the hot springs known, according to the brochure, for its mud quality, which was therapeutic for skin allergy and "tiredness elimination".
As we soaked ourselves in mud like carabaos, we started to share past experiences with each other. One talked of his nightmare in Zambia, another of finding her eden in Marrakech, while yet another recalled being awakened by monkeys in his hotel room in the Amazon jungles of Brazil. The oldest member of our group, Dominic, told me that he has been to the Philippines on at least six occasions since the Marcos era.
"The Philippine islands are among the most beautiful that I have ever seen and I have traveled all over the globe," he assured me. "But it's just too dangerous over there," he said. "The conditions of poverty there are appalling," he said. "It's just not safe in many areas, especially at night."
While we were chatting in the mud bath, a photographer took dirty photos of us. Yup, he got the dirt on us. The photographer was Mark Edward Harris, whose fantastic photos from over 60 countries are featured in the photo books (Wanderlust, The Way of the Japanese Bath, Inside North Korea) he shared with us in the bus.
I didn't have much to share with the other journalists ("I remember when I was shopping at Walgreens in San Francisco one night" is somehow not as exotic as the Zambian escapade) so I mostly listened. After all, they were professional travel writers who did this work full time, all year round. I was just an accidental one, along for the ride.
The next morning, we were off to Kaohsiung for tours of more temples, more museums and more parks. What stood out was a men's room in a Confucious park which featured a breathtaking view of a lake which you could only see if you were disposing of a pressing bladder problem.
As we wound our way through the streets of the city, we noticed the presence everywhere of scooters, the predominant mode of transportation in Taiwan. They are everywhere, filling every intersection and every sidewalk, driven by old and young alike, a practical solution to traffic congestion and rising gas prices.
Later in the day, I flew back to Taipei from Kaohsiung and later that night, I flew 14 hours back to San Francisco, back to my everyday reality. But at least for a few days, my next life came early.