Eye to Eye with a Water Buffalo
Letter from Taipei! Nora Lessing travels south toward the tropics
Feb 24, 2016
A friend of mine has been claiming for weeks that it was just a matter of time until the weather in Taipei would become a nuisance (“You just wait, it’s going to be so, so horrible!”). Up until now, I can’t say it’s quite as apocalyptic as he predicted. However, for the last couple of weeks, there has been a lot of rain. Gray is the dominant color these days, and air quality has worsened considerably. Every now and again, Taipei is murky with smog. People then hurry past in surgical masks, and I have to reconsider getting to university by bicycle. The tropical south of the island, therefore, is very tempting right now. I decide to go away for a couple of days, exchanging Taipei’s busyness for the peace, quiet, and sunshine of Kenting National Park, a nature reserve in the very South of Taiwan.
The bus from Kaohsiung to Kenting takes around three hours. We are slowly making our way through the dark, passing through villages. School girls are greeting me politely; every second stop seems to be named after an elementary school. I’m staring out into the dark, sighing with relief as I realize that the stops are also announced in English. My hostel is located on a backstreet. In front of the fifteen-story building, there’s a group of older men with booze and a card game on the table.
On my map, there’s a path marked down that cuts through the mountains, heading to the sea. Soon, the street noise is barely audible anymore. I come across a flustered herd of goats that storms off, disappearing behind the neighboring hill. The landscape’s beauty is moving me in a very subtle fashion. There’s nothing to be heard but the rustling leaves. Every now and again, there’s a bird cry or the goats’ bells ringing from afar.
Which way is it to the sea, please?
The sea, however, is nowhere to be found. In a valley, I cut through the shrubbery and find myself face to face with a water buffalo. It follows me around for a while, curious about the intrusion. On a hill, I come across an information board. This hill is called “Menmalou,” it reads, a name that apparently sounds like someone saying “can’t find the way” in Mandarin. In twilight, I start making my way back to Hengchun.
Trading English for Mandarin
I’ve got about two more hours of walking ahead of me when a car stops. Its load platform is filled up with cabbage. The old couple in the driver’s cabin struggles to make space for me. We’re exchanging vocabulary, meanwhile driving through the dark. English for Mandarin. The engine roars. It’s pitch-black outside. I come to understand that they are driving to Kenting to sell cabbage. They gather that I am a student from Germany. We ask each other questions, and it’s like trying to solve riddles. We shrug. We laugh. We laugh a lot.