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Typhoon in Taiwan

The typhoon warning came in late on a Friday afternoon. While everyone else in Taipei was stocking up on candles and instant noodles, my two companions and I were buying train tickets.

Beginning our journey from Song-Shan Station, we immediately settled into the faux-comfort of our slow-moving train. Napping is fine and chatting is dandy, but it was Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground that kept us entertained during the six-hour ride.

“I am a bitter man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver is diseased.”

For those able to see through the pantomime of misery, the story is actually hilarious. In that sense, it was suited perfectly to the atmosphere provided by the cockroaches and diesel fumes that would take turns visiting our cabin

When we arrived in Ping-Tung at about four in the morning, the typhoon’s violent winds were still slinging raindrops about with little regard for direction or gravity. With the town desolate looking and fast asleep, we were forced to get our bearings before planning our next step.

Since every town in Taiwan names its main streets after the eight Confucian virtues, we simply picked two streets at random and authoritatively told a taxi driver to take us to their intersection. Upon arrival, we selected the grimmest of the three “breakfast nooks” that were open and hunkered down to eat a traditional Taiwanese breakfast of omelettes, steamed buns and cold soymilk; something the country uses to fool you into thinking that the rest of its fare—which largely consists of inappropriate uses for both meat and vegetables—is enjoyable.

By 6:00 am, the town was still dead. Everything was closed, save for an all night pool hall. Since the kids behind the counter didn’t care that we weren’t paying customers, the three of us tried our hands at Eight Ball before dropping off to sleep on the establishment’s cheap nylon couches. I remember pressing my forehead into the synthetic material and being alternately lulled to sleep and jolted awake by the shoddy techno music playing in the background.

Once semi-conscious, we moved along to the bus station and were alerted that there would be no boats to Green Island, the destination we had chosen while still aboard the train. Nor were there any trains to the West Coast, where we would be able to observe the typhoon’s wake of destruction. Cranky from both the earliness of the hour and from being yelled at for napping atop the pachinko machines, we decided that our best choice would be Zhi Ben, a local hot spring retreat.

After being dumped off at the last possible bus stop on a nearby mountain, we wandered back down until we came to the Dragon Spring Hotel. There, I bullied the geriatric owner into giving us a lower price for a room and savoured the fortress-like appearance of our accommodations, which loomed directly over a rain-swollen river.

Once we had freshened up, we embarked on a trek up the mountain and soon reached a rocky pool buried within the jungle. Standing on the east bank, you could see two small torrents of water raining down the mountainside and hitting the face of an alcove with great force. From there, they relaxed somewhat before lurching down a rocky step into another pool. Thrilled at finding a new playground, two of us jumped into the water while the third (and wisest) member of our group changed into a swimsuit.

Once I had realized that there was no possibility of staying dry, I pursued my favourite white water hobby of fighting the current on the battleground of submerged boulders. After several agonizing minutes, I finally reached the top of the highest piece of rock and proceeded to mock the rapids with several jaunty thrusts of my pelvis. My companions had meanwhile used this time to get close to the waterfalls. Once I too had arrived, I learned through experience that they were not standing directly under the water for a simple reason: It fell fast and hurt your skull. Nevertheless, I rushed underneath the white torrent and screamed out the lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On as the water smacked me full-force in the kisser.

Upon emerging, I saw that one of my friends looked like an angry ghost as he jumped around—features just barely discernable—beneath the juggernaut of the second waterfall. All of us then took turns doing the same thing; nearly drowning ourselves, yet shouting and giggling all the while. Afterwards, I suggested that we play hide and seek. This suggestion was well received, but abandoned by the time I had finished counting, as the temperature of the water and unforgiving nature of the rocks made the game far too painful.

Personally, I was glad for my collection of contusions, as it gave me something to shout, “it was worth it!” about. It really was.

Once out of the water, we hiked for another couple of hours, marvelled at the mist-covered peaks and did idiotic things like tasting some of the horrendously bitter beetle nut that had fallen to the ground, as well as getting pinched by several sand crabs. Finally emerging from the wilderness, we traveled past a series of gift shops and forged bravely onward to the hot springs.

This is where it became very apparent to us that we were god-like in our ability to plan a vacation. While the facilities were normally packed to capacity with Speedo-clad visitors, the typhoon had emptied them of all but a handful of locals. This meant plenty of room to move about within the various pools on the first floor, which we took full advantage of. Instead of dinner, we crammed ourselves full of ice cream and Zhongzi (rice and goodies wrapped in plantain leaves). After swimming about and almost scalding ourselves by entering the mean end of the hot pool, we ventured upstairs to find a strange oasis of smaller pools and therapeutic utilities. One by one, we sampled the pink-coloured water of the “Beautiful Skin Pool,” the green water of the “Sore, Aching Pool” and the various jets and spouts of the maze-like main area.

For a person such as myself, the novelty of such obviously unhealthy quantities of sulphur and heat usually wears off after about 15 minutes. This time, however, I was content to steep and soak for over four hours. Relaxed and prune-skinned, we all returned to our hotel room. I fell asleep to the antics of Jacky Chan on television while the other two philistines read.

In the morning, we took a bus back down into the now sunny town of Ping-Tung, where we almost didn’t catch a boat out to Green Island. It seemed that everyone whose Saturday trip had been cancelled (in order to avoid death) had been rescheduled for the following day. The tour company was sold out, but we were determined to make it to our destination. As we walked along the docks searching for some sort of way to get on a boat, I became lost in thought and began to trail behind my companions. I caught up with the pair, only to find a trio of randy boatmen were making grabs at my friend Josh’s chest hair. Always tactful, I informed the group in Mandarin that touching boobies would cost them NT$500. We became friends for life. One of the guys said that it was NT$500 for a mouthful. I surveyed his beetle juice-stained teeth and displayed my disgust, becoming his mortal enemy.

Happily, after a few minutes of sweet-talking and a very minor bribe, the men let us on their boat. The waters off the south coast of Taiwan are choppy and I found myself extremely nauseous. My discomfort was further exacerbated by the number passengers—at least half—who were throwing up into the clear plastic baggies that had been handed out upon boarding. I was encouraged to get some air and slowly made my way past the vomiting minions to the top of the boat. As the rhythm of the waves fought against that of my digestive system, I fixed my gaze on the island until it became close enough to touch.

Once on land, the three of us immediately rented scooters and proceeded directly to one of the island’s beaches. While becoming tragically sunburned, we distracted ourselves by floating within the small pools pock-marking the sand, not to mention getting pinched by more sand crabs. By the time we made it to a hotel that would take us, we were bright red and beaten down by the sun. Sleep rolled over us like a monster truck.

Rising at 11:00 pm, we found a local barbecue house and roasted corn and squid on the patio as Mando-pop ballads played in the background. Once convinced that we were really very full, we purchased some fruit and headed for the hot springs. En route, we were pelted with rain from a sudden cloudburst and assuaged the pain of the stinging drops by singing Tom Waites as we rode along. Within the twenty minutes it took us to circumnavigate the tiny island, the rainfall had slowed to a pleasant tempo. Green Island boasts one of the only natural cold-water springs in the world and we made frequent jumps between its refreshing waters and those of its more fiery brethren. 

Cities like Taipei may do their best to trick you into believing that all of the stars of Taiwan’s formerly glorious night sky have been done away with, but it’s only a cheap one and shouldn’t be believed. My friends and I floated and spun, marvelling at just how bright the night sky can be. There were shooting stars and silly stories. There was mango and a great deal of splashing about.

Exceptionally satisfied with life, the three of us headed back to our room at somewhere around four in the morning. I tried reading more from “Underground,” but fell asleep after ten minutes—long after everyone else.

In the morning, we arose, gathered our things—including clothing that was still wet from the waterfalls—and headed back to the docks. Bright sun lapped at our seared backs with its white-hot tongue. Slowly, gingerly, we found our seats and formulated our plan for returning home. Our plans were thrown out the window soon enough, but that was another adventure altogether.

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