Glasses of Water, Taiwan

Glasses of Water, Taiwan

1. The Swedish Prison

A tattered cardboard box and four red panniers circle on a conveyer belt. A whispering motor and staccato heels break vast aeronautical silence. 1am. Taiwan Taoyuan Airport. Tired. Cold. I curl up and, with one hand on the tattered bike box, try to sleep on a bench in the arrivals lounge.

Seemingly the end of the tropical chapter, two thousand and thirteen disappeared. Months in Fiji, a sail back to Australia and six weeks in the Philippines. Cold became a distant memory. A year of new experiences, seeing the world from different points of view; sailing and diving, living barefoot, sleeping under the stars. And now it’s December, I’m in Taiwan and money has run out. Shivering and unable to sleep, I stare through a veil of rain streaked windows into darkness and amber streetlights.

SatNav dictates Mandarin directions to the smartly dressed driver above tranquil Chinese music, the taxi floats serenely over the river of asphalt. Smooth grey leather squeaks beneath clothes and bites unfortunate skin. Puddles reflect neon lights of indecipherable foreign signage, red on white, yellow on black. The sun rises in pastel blues and yellows through grey skies as cold air and sharp light accompany smells of dumplings and steamed buns into the station. This numb fingered foreigner builds a bike beside a 7-11 in the waiting hall and struggles to buy a train ticket using English scrawls and sketches that nobody understands. Industrial first impressions of Taiwan smear themselves in the blur between stations on the four hour journey south from Taipei.

Arrival Tainan. From the serenity of the train to the carnage of the streets. Scooters swarm like mosquitoes, stopping only for the blood red of the traffic lights. I pedal through the chaos of white water traffic, channeled between colourful cliffs of flashing adverts and giant signs, densely populated pavements where clothes, glasses and jewellery spill into Beimen Road, caught in the flow into toxic tunnels and down side streets. Absorbing all, understanding little.

I take over the life of an English teacher gone travelling for three months. Her cat and I live in the “Swedish Prison”, a cold ground floor apartment, shadowed all day by surrounding high rise buildings, on the edge of a car park and the main rail line. Windows rattle and paint flakes onto concrete floors, dust and exhaust settle on everything but the cockroaches. A mischievous black scooter with half a brake and no suspension clatters beneath me, we learn the streets, finding sense in the chaos. Ghost money burns in roadside metal bins beside parades of gods, drums and pole dancers on the way to temples that billow sweet incense past vivid tiled dragons and manicured gardens of ancient banyan trees. Firecrackers and fireworks punch the air. Rice, noodles and dumplings, bubble teas, fresh fruits and juice. People, people, people. It’s Christmas in the West but work continues in Asia. Parties, expats, new friends. Red doors and blue floors, spiral staircases and neon paintings glowing in black light; Tin Pan and The Armory, the alcohol fuelled playgrounds that devour night time hours.

On arrival I had hoped to immerse myself in the culture of Taiwan and not to stay on the foreigner fringe, I had hoped to earn enough money in three months to leave and travel for another year. Neither expectations turned out the way I planned. By February, over pints of Stella Artois in an English theme bar on Dong Feng Road, a British friend tells me how he rates the past year with a football score.

2. The Playground

Green and red navigation lights flash through forked horizontal streaks of rain on oval windows. Orange streetlights of suburbs approach from below, undercarriage lowers, wind and wheels charge to a halt through puddles along a kilometre of asphalt. Fluorescent tubes disguise night in a timeless mist along bleached corridors. Alien hieroglyphs of neon yellow on black backgrounds direct the herds I follow to cold mechanical immigration stamps that echo beneath distant ceilings somewhere in the stratosphere. Three months had passed, the money hadn’t come in and so I landed back in Taoyuan from a visa run to Manilla. I was staying in Taiwan for a year.

The Swedish Prison went. I moved into a bright one bedroom apartment overlooking the city and the black scooter was swapped for a slightly more cooperative grey one. Expat life in Taiwan ascended to ridiculous, living outside the rules, treated to the most affluent life with little responsibility. Driving without a licence and working without a visa. Earning money to be spent in bars, surrounded by beautiful asian girls, held in high esteem by the Taiwanese. Waking up with hangovers and wondering where the scooter was abandoned in a drunken stupor last night. The party scene magnetised around us in a town where it seemed you could do and get away with anything.

Travelling on the bike I never have to deal with problems for long, it’s easy to cycle on knowing that tomorrow brings a new place and new people, the bike can constantly avoid obstacles. But outside of the night time circus of Taiwan, I had to learn a new culture, new expectations and a new language, and I couldn’t travel on, I had to overcome these new problems. With help from a Taiwanese friend, I was slowly learning Mandarin and figuring out this different lifestyle but understanding that my brain struggles with languages. With dislike for being misunderstood or feeling stupid, I avoided speaking Mandarin, in turn holding myself up and becoming frustrated. I could, and should have learnt from my students.

Working in a family run English cram school, every month or two the owner and I met for brunch to discuss work and chat about life in Taiwan. Having never taught before, I was given the job because a friend had lied, spinning stories of teaching experience in Singapore. Although the students enjoyed my lessons, I was worried that I wasn’t a particularly good teacher. One day, over a sandwich and coffee, my boss shared a metaphor for teaching which made me reevaluate what it means to be a “good teacher”… If we imagine education as a glass being filled with water, the water is the content, the stuff that we wish to pour into the glass; and the glass is the context, the student. Many teachers focus on the content of education, but if we keep pouring and pouring water into a small glass or if the glass is just a paper cup, it will soon fill up or will simply lose form. If we can create an education system which focusses on the context, making the glass bigger or stronger, then we can pour much more water into it. My classes might not fill the students with vocabulary or grammar but when they are engaged, they learn without knowing it and what they learn will stay with them. In having fun and enjoying class, the students were becoming happier and more confident, I was making bigger, stronger glasses. I was finding it difficult in Taiwan but I, too, was becoming a bigger glass.

3. Belonging

More lights flash, flaps down, wheels screech on runways, luggage hauled across asphalt and people wander placidly through sanitised cathedrals of transportation. Outside the glass walls of the airport, red double decker busses drive on the left hand side of a road painted with white English words. Signage I recognise reflects overcast skies, advertisements referencing Britishness. But it’s not home, it’s Hong Kong, another visa run. Somewhere between landing, drinking a coffee and taking off for Taiwan, I managed to find a sense of home, a feeling that hadn’t crossed my mind in a long time. A realisation that, at this point, I have been away from home for nearly four years and that maybe that is something that is missing, a sense of belonging, of knowing, of familiarity.

Six months after I arrived in Taiwan with my tattered box and panniers, the seasons have this time changed without me. Dolly sits on her balcony, rarely turning her wheels. The cold is long gone and the summer is here, shivering replaced with sweating, sweating at every moment unless surging through the humid air from air conditioned apartment to air conditioned school. With the sweat drenched clothes of the summer comes typhoon season. Warnings of typhoons come a few days prior to landfall, leaving english teachers praying for a “typhoon day” when everything is closed and we live bunkered down in our houses with emergency rations of beer and snacks. Wind and rain rearranging Tainan’s streets, dreams of continuing cycling still seem so distant and home even further.

Playing drums in a covers band and joining the open mic night on Sundays at Tin Pan, I become involved in the local music scene and the K-Town Circus. Around Tainan and Kaoshiung we play and they spin fire. Beach parties, concerts, festivals. Gogol Bordello’s “Start Wearing Purple” follows me within and without my mind. I built a life in Taiwan, the problem now is the knowledge that I will soon leave. With the thought of continuing cycling around the world, it becomes hard to invest myself fully. With a knowledge of staying I would buy a drum kit or a mountain bike, I would attend school and study Chinese but with the desire to save money to continue my journey, I find myself never fully immersed. An awareness of departure even before arrival can be a blessing and a curse on this journey.

The ride out to the beach is a favourite feeling of mine. To park the scooter down a dusty track where startled fireflies emerge from bushes as the sun sets over the ocean and the last of the two-stroke exhaust dilutes into the fresh air. Hot evening air on sweaty skin. Walking bare foot on the sand among swings and huts made from driftwood. Footprints are left where the water meets the land, salt water splashes up my legs but for now, in Taiwan, I’m not swimming.

4. Learning and Leaving

The condensation builds and runs down the outside of my beer glass as I print water circles in the shape of the olympic rings on the wooden table. In her leather jacket and tight jeans, my ex-girlfriend walks towards my table outside Tin Pan. I needed to apologise, its been months since we spoke. She shouts for a long time, asking questions of my behaviour that I still can’t answer, before saying those things we both knew but needed saying. “You want everything and in chasing everything you complicate and confuse it all, not considering others and showing them no respect, you showed me no respect. You need to realise what you want, you can’t have everything and you need to respect others.” She is not the only one to have told me these things lately.

Chinese New Year approaches, accompanying a time to leave, enough money in the bank for another year on the road. Taiwan raised many questions of myself and of how I will act when all of this is over, when the cycling is complete. On the bike I think deeply of lessons learnt, the things I have seen, people I have met and their effect on my life, of no need for money, the kindness of strangers, the beauty of nature and the vast horizons outside of our small lives. On the bike I am humbled, in the pursuit of wisdom, experience, understanding, happiness, I live in the moment and am open hearted, I share my life and expect little. But once submerged in society’s expectations and temptations, these morals are easily forgotten. I am told I need a hook, something or someone to keep me connected to that world I wish to keep within me, to keep me reminded of who I am becoming and those things I truly want.

I cycle out of Tainan with feelings reminiscent of cycling out of Perth, past the bars I have haunted and which will continue to haunt my thoughts, down roads scootered along to work, through the white water traffic, past the colourful cliffs of adverts and signs, coffee shops housing memories of Chinese lessons, through the toxic tunnel and past the Swedish Prison. I cycle through a year of memories, reading pictographic words that sixteen months before were just shapes, passing things that were so alien on arrival which I now understand and have shaped my life. Panniers packed with lessons learnt and new lessons to study.

The full time whistle blows; it’s 3-3, an action packed game, end to end.

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