THERE is always something inviting when it involves the unknown.
My sister and I went to Taiwan last July, each having a different agenda. She was there for the night markets and the food. I was there because I wanted to see Jiufen, the town that inspired the landscape of Miyazaki Hayao’s “Spirited Away.”
I wanted then to literally be spirited away to the exact same place where Chihiro/Sen found herself to be in; this is one of those inevitable childhood fantasies for those who practically grew up on a steady diet of Studio Ghibli films.
One thing that I found remarkable is how alone one can still feel despite being surrounded by the youthful energy that Taiwan has to offer.
Jiufen is a charming place, an odd but well-cultivated mix of the old and the new. It was fun navigating the cramped alleys taking in all the strange aromas and imagining myself as Chihiro, alone and afraid. My sister and I spent the better half of the afternoon looking at the wares from the various stalls and having and actually enjoying tea. Drinking tea requires a part of you to be fully present—you have to be there, from guesstimating the amount of tea leaves to put into the pot to inhaling the floral scent of the brew to feeling the warmth of the cups and the pulsating skin on your fingertips after having touched hot teacups.
I went on an almost four-hour trip to Taichung to visit the Rainbow Village, a quaint and somewhat unlikely attraction smack dab in the middle of development projects. I had just about enough time to catch the bus back to Taipei. Lesson learned: do not pre-book your return ticket, as the bus service from Taichung reportedly runs for 24 hours.
I am beginning to appreciate the sheer amount of thinking that can be done during day trips. Hour after hour with no one to talk to and you’re left to stare at the view outside, craning your neck until all you are left with is a raw soreness, and some interesting snapshots of a huge Ferris wheel amidst an almost barren landscape or of a delivery truck with a Hello Kitty figure on top.
It has become a habit of mine, more of a reflex rather when in a foreign country, to communicate in an almost pidgin language of gestures and mouthing of words. I find this refreshing as this yanks me out of my comfort zone, this pidginization. So, I point at the map, show random strangers photos of the landmarks, grunt, try to look convincingly helpless, and hope for the best. The people that I have encountered have been more than gracious, and for that, I am thankful.
Being in a different country gives you a sense of anonymity. No one knows who you are. Heck, even when within your immediate environs, only a handful of people actually know you even exist. But being vulnerably alone though is not necessarily being lonely. I’ve been alone in New Taipei, walking under the pouring rain from Fuzhong Station to my hostel and I’ve never felt happier, seeing this old- new city being made new once again by the rain. There is something so tender, so magical in the way that the raindrops touch your skin that I cannot help but become giddy and hopeful.
As with any other trip, you don’t leave without having a few regrets weighing you down as you maneuver your way towards the boarding gate. I have two principal regrets: 1) not climbing the Elephant Mountain, and 2) not eating blood pudding and/or the infamous penis waffle (yes, it’s just a waffle, but we sure don’t have penis-shaped waffles here so let’s stop fooling ourselves).
But I think that regrets are bittersweet in that they hold within them a promise that you can still go back and actually do what you set out to do, not now, but sometime in the future maybe. And this, I think is one way in which the promise of a hope for something new from the unknown is given birth to.