I took a life-changing trip this month through S.E. Asia. I know it sounds like a posh brat taking a gap year before I start my degree at a Russell Group University, but unfortunately that stereotype has some truth to support it. The aim of the trip was to photograph local life, avoiding all major tourist spots. To do this, I needed the aid of locals and that’s where Couchsurfing came to the rescue. I was a Couchsurfing virgin until this month, and now my surfing desire has grown. Though the avoidance could not always be accomplished, I definitely feel that I have done what I aimed to do in my trip, with great thanks and appreciation to all that helped me throughout the three weeks I was abroad.
I had stayed at a friends’ apartment the night before in Osaka, Japan. Thankfully they lived one station away from the airport so I could make my early flight at 7am. I arrived at the airport a little flustered having finished work late the day before and leaving without much sleep. I planned to sleep on the plane, but that plan never follows through. Everything from there on was smooth and before I knew it, I was on the Peach Aviation flight to Taipei, Taiwan; arriving at 9:15am. I had contacted the Couchsurfer I was staying with the night before, and she had given me an address in Keelung, so the first step was to get to Keelung one way or another. My research into arriving at that station did not go to plan since I went to the THSR (Taiwan High Speed Rail) station by accident. The ticket officer told me that the only destination remotely close to where I was intending to go was Taipei. With much hesitation, I bought the ticket and figured there must be a way to Keelung from Taipei.
The city of Keelung should be pronounced Jīlóng according to current Mandarin pronunciation, and yet it is spelt in western letters as Keelung. No wonder the immigration officer had no idea where it was while I constantly repeated the name phonetically and told her it was just next to Taipei. It is a relatively large port town. The harbour was constructed when Taiwan was under Japanese rule in the early 1900s. Heavy bombing during the Pacific war destroyed the area but the city redeveloped quickly and now boasts as one of the biggest container harbour in the world.
I made it to Taipei and found that one could take a local train to my destination. I bought the ticket instantly and then proceeded to the platform where it took about 20 minutes before the train arrived. This must have been one of the most excruciating train journeys I have ever encountered, with speed being the main culprit. Cars were whizzing by; drivers barely touching their accelerators. Later that day, I actually learnt that buses were a lot quicker – a first I’m sure in any country I have been to. After what appeared to be tomorrow, the train rolled into the station like a ball being kicked by a foetus. I quickly exited the station in search for the 103 bus to the address I had written in Chinese. However, without a clear idea of where to get off the bus, I opted in for the taxi option – a rare personality trait of mine. I asked the driver how much it would cost to get to that address, and he replied “meter”. I understood this fact as most reputable taxis come with a meter but with the worry of him charging me extra, I proceeded again to ask how much it would cost roughly. He again replied “meter” twice, finger jabbing at his meter. I replied with a faint “OK” and started to close the door when this mere sight of rejection prompted the driver to start shouting “Around 200, 200!” He had understood me, the cheeky bastard! He got lost though, and kept asking people where the flats were. I’m sure this was a cheeky stunt to raise the fare a little and eventually he pointed at a tall building and said something in Chinese. Judging by the situation, I’m sure he meant that whatever he was pointing at was probably where the Couchsurfer lived so I went in that direction. Miraculously, with help from an elderly gentleman with a lift key, I had found the door. After a few rings, a girl appeared at the door having clearly just woken up.
Though I understood that people, including myself, could look different from their normal self after waking up, she looked considerably different to the pictures on the Couchsurfer’s profile. Either I had got the wrong door or this is exactly what people feel like after meeting the real person behind their online dating profiles. Nevertheless, I went with the only name I had. Thankfully, she knew who I was talking about and eventually I realised it was her roommate. Embarrassment averted, I sat down in her living room. Not only ten minutes later did the actual person behind the profile showed up, a little confused as to how I got in. Once we all settled down and I had some cornflakes, we decided on the next course of action. The roommate was going to take me on her death trap (scooter) and take me to the University and for a hike up a mountain. Having never ridden on a death trap before, I asked to go slowly. Bumps and turns were difficult to get used to, but I made it to the University in one piece. The hike was relatively short, and I got some half-decent photographs. The next step was to meet some of the roommate’s Taiwanese friends for a death trap ride up a mountain to a wonderful market. The views were absolutely stunning, but unfortunately I didn’t ask to stop to take pictures. I just wanted to take in the view and appreciate what I had in front of me. I forgot about the death trap and just stared into the beautiful nature before me. The colour green was the greenest green I have ever witnessed on mountains before. The rolling shapes of the mountains were beautiful thanks to nature herself. There is only one word to describe them and it has been used already: stunning. They made me try a variety of foods, and I tried to be open to them all. Everything I had was delicious, and it would have been unlikely for me to have consumed any of what I ate without meeting the Couchsurfer. I had to say no to the stinky tofu. I’m not a fan of tofu in it’s normal smell, but to have the word stinky added to it sounded like a vomiting nightmare lay ahead of it so I had to decline.
Soon after we arrived, night fell and we had to return to surprise a friend of theirs for her birthday. We did, but when I tried to explain that I flew all the way from England to surprise her, the birthday girl didn’t believe me. After a few drinks, and a score of 2,000,000 on the Xbox for dancing to Gangnam Style, it was time for bed.
Everbody I knew in Taiwan so far had to go to church as it was a Sunday, so I borrowed the Couchsurfer’s boyfriend’s missionary bicycle and set out to do a little touring of my own. I first went to the National Taiwan Democracy Hall and the surrounding areas. This was the first time I got into trouble with the police on this holiday. An officer of the law was shouting at me and waving his hands manically in one particular direction. I thought this to be rather strange, perhaps a mental disorder at most but then I realised that the direction probably meant that I was to move the bike off the premises or face getting arrested. This assumption was very likely to be correct too as I did not get arrested and he stopped shouting at me when I moved the bike. The area was large, and the building quite impressive. I took a few photos of the building and the National Theatre nearby, and set off.
I visited Da’an Forest Park and cycled around the area. It’s a nice park, somewhat alike to Central Park in New York. It’s an easy place to relax and wind down, which is exactly what I did. During my long sit at the park, staring at old people, I decided to look up and into the distance. I saw the 101 tower in the distance so I figured as long as I cycled in that direction, I would be able to make it. It was a lot easier than I had originally thought in terms of the direction I took; just a straight road. What was difficult was doing the cycling itself. Though it was not as difficult as the death trap, I had a hard time braking constantly due to people and cars coming out of nowhere. What should have been a straight shot turned into a lot of stopping and manoeuvering. The Chinese writing on the bike stating that I was a missionary combined with my slight Asian appearance must have helped me blend in a little, as one person began to talk in Chinese at a speed faster than the train. I assumed she was asking for directions, and I was tempted to just point to a vague area but the honest side of me left me with a slight shrug and a faint “sorry”. The look of shock and disgust could not have been more apparent in her face, and she walked off muttering what was probably a curse under her breath.
Taipei 101 is just a tall building to me and thus a little disappointing when I arrived. There are tall buildings in the UK, Japan and almost every other country I have been to so I decided to make a quick departure back to the park. It was nice to sit there for a while and relax in the shade, and soon enough it was 2pm. We all re-grouped and headed for lunch with some newbies I had yet to meet. We had some incredible pancake looking things and then a lot of ice cream at the end. During this talk, the girl I had just met suggested I visit the place where she lives; a romantic location for lovers all over Taipei. I couldn’t say no.
Tamsui (formerly Danshui) is a sea-side district in New Taipei City, easily accessible by the MTR. It is the home to three different Universities so the place must be filled with very clever people indeed. Though it was very close to the heart of Taipei, it was an incredibly cold place. We had to wait a long time for the city bus to take us to the romantic location, which somewhat relieved me as I thought the station was hardly that romantic. Though another person was to join us, she decided to cancel, leaving just the two of us. The bus journey took a long time, taking us through some run down areas and industrial places. I asked whether this was going in the right direction, wondering whether Taiwanese people thought rubbish and concrete were considered romantic but she assured me that we were going in the right direction and that I should just be patient. Eventually, I saw a bridge aptly named Lovers Bridge. We tried to cross the bridge in an orderly manner but the wind got the better of us. She guided me like any other tour guide would by telling me that we would be going to a walkway. It was dimly lit, possibly to create a sensual mood though it was just hard to see. Waves were crashing against the walkway, and the water combined with the wind was making us cold so we decided that walking in a different direction was appropriate. She had promised me romantic music and fireworks, and to be honest it is exactly what I got. Somewhat anyway. While we were walking, a man with a coloured disco ball started playing the saxophone to a midi CD recording. The music was cheesy enough to be romantic, and the disco ball did its best to mimic fireworks in the night sky. All of this was too romantic for the both of us and so we decided to get less romantic by heading to Starbucks, a very Taiwanese place indeed. What a romantic evening.
The following morning was time to say my goodbyes and head to the airport. I was flying to Manila, Philippines that day. My gift for every Couchsurfer during this trip was a handmade postcard sporting a photograph I took in Japan with a message on it, and the plan was to leave it for the Couchsurfer to discover once I had left. I put it on the bed I was sleeping on, closed the door and said goodbye.
Next – The Philippines.