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taiwan diaries, part the first: kinmen
A small place ruled by Taiwan that is closer to China than to Taiwan, only accessible from Taiwan by air. The fear of flying has surfaced only in recent years, and I'm not sure if 911 has anything to do with it, but it hardly matters because it's awfully unimportant.
And I think that if I had to take another internal flight, I would have to shoot myself. Flying by Singapore Airlines already gave me a heart attack; hence, the second I walked into the plane and saw how not big it was, I wanted to bolt and never go back. I could never ever be an air stewardess...nor have I ever harboured any ambitions of becoming one, so I guess we're pretty even.
And what of the flight? The flight was horrendous. I was convinced that I would die of a heart attack faster than the plane could crash and kill me, so you could definitely imagine my relief when the plane landed after about 50 minutes and I was still (scarcely) breathing.
Oh, and how could I forget? There was this bloody gorgeous guy on the plane too, who sat behind my parents, of whom I was in front. Taiwanese guys are HOT.
Like I said before, we stayed at my grandparents' shophouse and it took me a day to adjust to the backwardness of it but when I did, it was okay. Got used to the narrow stairs that threatened to hurl me to my death whenever I ascended/descended it; got used to how dark it was when the clock strikes 5.30, as though it were 9 p.m.; got used to the cuboid that paraded as a toilet; got used to peeing in the toilet on the third floor and going down to the second to wash my hands as the toilet on the third floor has only space for the person to sit on the bowl and crap/piss; got used to the wood that the Taiwanese seem to think is a bed; and got used to it enough not to complain too much about it. See, I can be mature too, when I choose to be.
The thing about Kinmen is not just that it's out of the way; it's precisely because it's out of the way that makes it the way that it is. Instead of the familiar skylined graced by shimmering tops of high-rise buildings that one is accustomed to, over there, one tends to get the feeling that if one jumped high enough, one would be able to touch the sky. The towns resembled urbanised rural settlements than real cities like Singapore and Taipei, and you really wonder how anyone can possibly survive there without ever getting out.
I was hopeful that the four days there would alter my world outlook at least a little, but I'm afraid that it didn't. To resort to a cliche: you can take the girl out of the city, but you can never take the city out of the girl. I mean, really; I was raised in Taipei and I spent the formative years of my life in Singapore, and Orchard Road is civilisation to me, so did you honestly expect that I could've fully adjusted to the slow-paced life in Kinmen? After two days I was itching to go back to Taipei, or even Taichung, where there are real shopping centres around.
Having said that, I did genuinely like it there, though I could never live there and expect myself not to die from boredom. For one, owing to the lack of industrialisation, the air was fresh and I could go days without washing my face with soap and still keep the zits at bay (then again, maybe it was the near-winter; I don't know). For another, despite the above paragraph, the quietness of Kinmen was a nice break that I kind of needed after the hell that was the A Levels.
Still, I was surprised that there wasn't a McDonalds' sucking the life out of Kinmen there already. Driving from the airport to my grandparents' place, I kind of thought of how it is only our idealistic romanticism of the quaintness of rural life and our sentimental longings for one's childhood that has already passed that begs the necessity of preservation. It is understandable, for it keeps culture from being completely homogenised, and it also prevents one's childhood from being totally buried under the debris of wshat once was, now supplanted by an overwhelming imperative to urbanise and develop. And of course, the line between 'development' and 'westernisation' is often blurred for most, if not all, non-western developing countries, and so the 7-11 that is in operation near my grandparents' place seemed jarring and even slightly denigatory amidst a skyline dotted by treetops and cable lines and nothing more, as well as the humble film of grainy yellow-brown that seems to drift through this place, suggesting a kind of quirky, qin qie under-development. But then again, why should we have the right to enjoy a higher standard of living and not them? I could mourn the loss of traditional local liberties in the ruthless and unrelenting onslaught of globalisation/modernisation, but ultimately, I still acknowledge that it is, sadly, inevitable. Soon enough, the world would cease to have safehouses like Kinmen and everywhere would merely look the same.
I didn't do much on my first day there, merely walked to a shop selling bubble tea nearby and got myself a nice cup of red pearl milk tea for NT$20, which is approximately S$1. If you buy red pearl milk tea here for a buck, be prepared to puke the shit out in disgust because those that I've tried in Singapore were disgusting. The one I got in Kinmen, however, tasted a bit like Happy Cup, and the pearls were really nice and chewy too. So yeah, I bought from the lady almost every single day that I was there. I wanted to say bye to her before I left but I forgot, so too bad.
I also visited the 7-11, just for the hell of it. Forgot what I bought there though. Probably some foodstuff. I saw the VCD of "I Not Stupid" there, by the way, and was sufficiently amused.
Went to walk around for a bit after that with my bro and my folks. They're building new schools, and it kind of makes you wonder, who the hell for? Apparently, people are moving out of Kinmen and to Taiwan where more opportunities beckon, which is, in my humble opinion, only the logical thing to do. But, I don't know; I'm just a silly 18-year-old who worships the city.
The second day, my mom's cousin drove us around for the whole morning. We visited a few places, but the most memorable was that tunnel that was dug during the war, when antagonism between Taiwan and the PRC reached an all-time high (well, it had to reach an all-time high for a war to be fought, but yes). They opened the tunnel to the public, and as I walked through it, I was thinking that they might need it again in 2006.
More importantly, I saw something that was quite beautiful and potentially inspiring. There was a stretch of water in the tunnel that led to the sea, which was used as a channel for ships to enter the tunnel to transport food and other necessities to those stationed inside it. As you follow the way of the light, you reach the mouth of the tunnel that provided an intriguing view of the ocean. Perhaps the soldiers learned to view the ocean in gasps, too, for the vision was limited and stagnant. However hard you look, it's the same spot, the same area, the same scenery. Unchangeable. Unalterable. Forever constant. But looking out of that dark, claustrophobic tunnel alongside the eerily placid channel of water into the face of the light and that not quite palpable place where the sky is separate from the sea, way past the horizon, you begin to wonder what real freedom feels like. Did they yearn for it then? Sleeping and living in there must not have been the most fun thing to do in the world. What is true freedom then? Was it peace to them? Did they see it coming? Was the horizon always a hopeful possibility, scarcely and fearfully anticipated, somewhere in the hidden recesses of their minds? What did they think of when they looked out of their prison and into the outside world? How ironic that a limited view of the ocean might have been the only sight that spelled limitless opportunities at a better, freer, more peaceful life.
At times like that, with scenes like that, civilisation suddenly seems less important.
We also went to look at the beach, which is closed to the public due to the presence of landmines left over from the war. It reminded me of that awesome and powerful film, No Man's Land, and its heart-wrenching, haunting ending. The anti-tanks apparatus thingies were quite cool though, in a twisted sort of way. I don't know what they were made of, but there were poles erected at a certain acute angle along the shoreline that is hidden during high tides. They aimed to destroy the enemy's tanks when they landed on Kinmen soil by wrecking the tyres when the tanks roll by; and since the sticks/whatever are hidden during high tide, it would've been highly successful if PRC soldiers did invade during high tides. But I don't know though. Also saw some anti-parachutes equipment thingies in the fields when we drove through the rural areas. They attach spikes to the ends of wooden poles, so that when a parachuter (sp) unfortunately lands on the spike, he'd die.
Lovely stuff we do to each other. Lovely stuff we continue to do to each other. I love humanity.
Anyway, lunch was interesting. Apparently my mom's cousin ordered some set lunch thingy, and I was very much amazed by how much the people eat over there. Similarly, my mom's cousin was also amazed when she told him that my brother and I eat only a slice of bread for breakfast, when we eat at all; apparently they cook a bowl of vermicelli (too lazy to check the spelling but it's bloody mian xian lah) for breakfast every day.
Hello, we only do that during Chinese New Year! But my grandma made me eat a bowl of mian xian every morning while I was at Kinmen anyway, which should explain why I'm suddenly so damn fat. Ugh. And I haven't even started to exercise 'cause I'm still sick but I shan't digress.
So yeah, people eat a lot of weird stuff there. There was this strange dish with fried shrimp shells. Uh...okay. And there was this other strange dish with this sha (as in sand) chong (as in worm) thing that is supposed to be a sort of seafood. It looked really gross: it's long and thin, with a bluish tinge to its grey-white. My folks said that it's available only in Kinmen...well, fantastic, 'cause I don't ever want to see it again!
And not only do people eat weird stuff; people eat A LOT. There were about ten to twelve dishes, for like, 9 people including two toddlers and two youngsters who're extremely picky when it comes to food (ie. me bro and I), and one dish comes in this humongous plate, kind of like the plates on which they serve (horrid) roasted Peking ducks...I think. I don't eat roasted Peking ducks and it's been a while since I last saw one and I don't really like to see a dead animal roasted like that on a plate when I'm trying to eat so yeah. But my point is, the plates are huge. I don't know, I'm not fond of eating new, strange things, so I thought it was quite a waste, but that's just me.
So after lunch we went to my mom's cousin's new house. Yeah, I mentioned that before, but I'd just like to say again that it's big and nice with more rooms than my condo. Kinda sucks living in Singapore sometimes; everything is so shit expensive.
When we got back I went to wash my hair. After I got out of the toilet, with my nice, newly washed hair, I was cheerfully told that we were going to visit a temple.
I'm not a Taoist/Buddhist/etc but I kind of go along with the burning joss sticks thingy, as I see it as a tradition thing rather than a religious one. Despite that, I still have to say that the smell makes me sick. Literally. I think I'm allergic to it. And because I got burnt by some ashes that fell from a joss stick when I was 8, I have this serious phobia of joss sticks, so I get damn scared when someone points the lighted portion in my direction. And hence, you can definitely imagine my reluctance when my grandma dragged my folks, my bro and I to more temples on the next day.
I think I must've visited about 7 temples in 3 days while I was there. Like I said before in another entry, I had no idea what the hell I was doing or whom I was supposedly praying to; I just followed everyone around (I was the last as I didn't want people behind pointing joss sticks at my back) and got my folks to stick the sticks in the pots for me, as I was afraid of being burnt by fallen ashes. Ha, ha, ha. Right. Breathing was extremely tedious in the temples, especially this big one in the town, which I went to on the fourth day. And needless to say, I smelled damn smokey and gross after that.
On December 3, the third day, it rained the whole day and only stopped when I woke up the next morning. Luckily it wasn't pouring though, just light rain that didn't stop the entire day, and so we could still go out and sight-see and all. Dad rented a car and drove. Went to this war memorial but all we watched was this stupid and badly-made movie clip of the events that prompted the construction of that place. I was laughing at the bad acting throughout. I also saw some highly hilarious English when I was reading this plague-like thing that recounted the events that led to the outbreak of war. There were many funny mistakes, but this one, I can never forget: according to them, 10 crop boarded the ship at night to go someplace which I've forgotten.
10 crop?! Like, one corn, one tomato, one potato, one grain of rice? Hahahahahaha! I just stood there and laughed my arse off. The grammar was funny too but sadly, I've forgotten.
In fact, I did a lot of laughing of such nature when I was at Taiwan, but this shall be expounded in detail in another part of this 'Taiwan diaries' thingy.
Anyway, when we were driving back my parents decided to go to this little placed called Cheng Gong (literally succeed) to get some fried dumplings (guotie in Chinese). As my folks didn't really know the way and had to rely on this puny map, my dad ended up driving to the bloody airport and asking a cab driver how to get to Cheng Gong. Needless to say, I laughed my arse off at that too.
In an attempt to help my dad save some face though, Cheng Gong was quite close to the airport, so yeah.
The next day, December 4, the sun was out. Went to the town in the morning to get gong tang, and I don't know what this is called in English so yeah. I bought a light blue long-sleeved shirt with a neck thing to keep it warm for NT$100, which is S$5. I wanted the purple one on display but this bloody woman on a scooter stole it from me. Ass!
We had an early lunch (at like 11.50 a bloody m) at that great Guangdong porridge place that my mom's cousin took us to for breakfast two days ago, one of the many restaurant-home thingies that you can find there. But the point is, the oyster/clam/whatever mian xian is absolutely out of this world; in fact, I don't think I can write about it without wishing that I could eat it again. I don't eat oyster/clam/whatever so I picked the stuff out and ate the rest of the things in my bowl (asked the woman not to add meat). Still, I do have to say that the fishball in Kinmen tastes disgusting. It's not chewy like the Singapore ones, but it's soft and tastes very fishy and gross. But hey, small price to pay for a great bowl of mian xian, I think. Definitely miss that about Kinmen. And Kinmen mian xian is known to be damn nice, and it's certainly nicer than the stuff you get in Singapore. How so, I don't really know. I've forgotten how Singapore mian xian tastes like anyway.
So after lunch my folks and I went to this huge pond to look at the birds; my brother stayed behind with my grandparents 'cause he's a lazy bum. As my dad had to return the rented car by like 1 p.m. that day, we had to bloody walk. Saw a few birds; quite cool; nothing I'd really rave about 'cause I'm not a big bird person. It was nice though. Great scenery. Took a few pictures; I may scan them if I'm arsed to figure out how to use the scanner (I'd probably not be arsed though).
My dad wanted to try the tangyuan that my third aunt recommended to him, so after walking along the huge pond that was actually a lake and back again, my dad made us walk all the way to the town to look for that restaurant. It wasn't very far by normal standards; was probably a five-minute walk. But hello, I'd been walking for close to two hours by then, and I was on the verge of dying. And it didn't help that my dad forgot the name of the place and hence couldn't locate it, so we were walking all over the town (which was tiny) trying to look for it, until my dad finally decided to call back and ask for the name of the restaurant.
And yes, the tangyuan rocked. Amazing stuff. I had mine cold and I loved the soup with nice condensed milk. There was a bunch of army guys in front of us though, and they were making a lot of noise which annoyed me. One of them kept turning back to look at...whatever it was that he was looking at. There was this other army guy that was reading The Da Vinci Code in Chinese. Interesting.
And yes, I had the dinner that night with the strange people and the old people who have a penchant of slowly killing themselves with tobacco and others with their stupid second-hand smoke too, which I'd already mentioned. But I really want to talk about my dad's primary school classmate's rally that I went to on December 3, the day that didn't stop raining.
I said that he ran for mayor. I was wrong. Taiwan had a legislative election and he ran to be Kinmen's only MP. Anyway, he lost in the end; was placed third amongst four candidates. I'm not too surprised though. When I followed my dad to talk to him he came across as a real politician. It was like...all talk, many sugary words to make you feel nice but then they were empty at most. He was okay. Yeah.
I was supposed to attend the Kuomintang rally in Taipei but it just had to be on Thursday, the day that I seriously fell sick. I lead such a fulfilling life.
I think that's about it. This entry is getting really long. To wrap it up: Kinmen was a nice vacation, but I know I couldn't really live there. I wouldn't mind going back there though, but I'd have to stay at a hotel or I'd just die.
Next part: Taichung. Would probably be shorter since I only spent one day there. Will write it tomorrow. I'm tired!