The summer between my junior and senior year of high school (two summers ago), I had the amazing opportunity to volunteer abroad as an English teacher in Taiwan. I was assigned to teach at Ren Ai Elementary School in Taitung. I, along with 7 other high school and college students, taught 5 days a week for 2 weeks. We stayed with host families and had free time to explore during the evenings. During the weekends, we were taken on tours. The friendly teachers, administrators and volunteers shared with us the wonders of Taitung county in extensively planned out tours of all of the most popular attractions. During the first day, we saw everything from the ocean to mountains, fish to monkeys. Despite the fact that I'm not the outdoorsy type and I can't stand the smell of fish, it was a truly cultural experience and a warm welcome to the beautiful rural Taiwan.
We start our day early and eat breakfast as we board our private tour bus. The bus is full of school teachers, administrators, host families and friends. Our first stop is a scenic area called Xiaoyeliu. It's the best of both worlds. Early enough where the heat hasn't quite hit yet, but already sunny and beautiful. We wandered through the paved pathways through the trees to the rocky coast. It seems like in Taiwan, they make a point to label all of the plants, whether at a park or a garden or a farm, there is often little signs next to each plant and the characteristics of each plant almost seems like common knowledge. There were many times when the tour guide was not the only person knowledgeable about these random plants.
There is no better start to the day than seeing the beautiful Pacific. Xiaoyeliu is known for their characteristically shaped rocks. There's the "tofu" rocks and the "bone" rocks, shaped over the years by the ocean. In the early morning, we were almost the only people there. The atmosphere was so serene and the layers of landscape--water, rocks, greenery, mountains--absolutely breathtaking. I've been visiting Taiwan since I was one month old, but this was so different from anywhere I've ever been. I began to see a whole new world that the island had to offer, one that I would have never appreciated until I was thrown into it.
And then things get a little weird. We stop at the side of a road and go up a path. Behind a large moss covered mass is...a fertility shrine of sorts. The line of penis columns culminate in a giant penis rock. Oh yes. Believe me, I felt ten times more surprised and shocked than you are staring at the photo below. The weirdest part is the face engraved on it. Let's just move on.
One iconic tourist spot is Sanxiantai, which features at eight-humped bridge to a little island off the shore. The pebbled beach is full of children playing and on the larger rocks sit recreational fishermen. Three large rocks on the islands tell the legend of three saints. The cultural stories, historical architecture and gorgeous scenery come together in the most crowded spot we visited, but was well worth it (even if we only made it halfway across the bridge.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we walked over to a nearby aquarium that seemed to specialize in clownfish. It was small but pretty empty and also had a sort of petting zoo for various marine animals and multiple DIY projects for kids.
Somewhat disturbingly, right behind the aquarium was a small dock and fresh fish market. Definitely not my favorite place (it reeked of fish blood), but I have a gained respect for fishermen and the process of auctioning off the fish was pretty fascinating.
Our next stop was a riddle and optical illusion where the water seemingly defies gravity and flows upwards. Interesting, but crowded (and I am not sure why). Afterwards, we stop by a European style bakery for fresh bread (to think that European culture has penetrated even the rural Taitung!). Later, we continue to the Duli Cultural Center.
The center contains a bunch of tourist information, galleries with information about the surrounding nature and history, and a play area for the kids. Two of us decide to go out and explore the surrounding park, following the paths through the park and taking in the luscious scenery. We stumble upon an interesting teepee-looking contraption. We found the aboriginal cultural center and dragged the rest of the group over.
It turns out the teepee was a giant swing. Visitors can pay a small price to fly on the teepee swing. The center also sold traditional foods and crafts. An outdoor stage had free periodic live performances. The various aboriginal groups in Taiwan have historically faced adversity, much like the Native Americans in North America. In recent years, many programs have been implemented to preserve their rich culture, educate the public, and integrate these groups into the Taiwanese society. These cultural centers, museums, and villages are found all over Taiwan and the people are extremely friendly and welcoming to share with visitors their culture through clothing, dance, music, crafts, and more.
I can't say I've interacted with very many monkeys in my life, but I can fairly certainly assert that this was an unfriendly monkey. Up in the mountains live a wide variety of wildlife, nurtured by the tropical climate and vegetation. These monkeys attract hundreds of visitors every day and if they were shy before, that has long been lost as visitors blatantly ignore the "no feeding" signs and offer bananas and bread to the (ungrateful) monkeys. This particular monkey, shortly after this photo was taken, proceeded to throw the bread on the ground and aggressively lunge at the person who offered it to him. I've never been a fan of monkeys, but this solidifies my dislike. Mean monkey.
Our final stop of the day was closer to the city. Along the shore was a park full of large recycled sculptures. Very interesting interactive art decorated the area, perfect for photos and strolling along the beach.
After a long day out and about, I was exhausted and happy to retire back to the hotel. Our day gave a good taste of what Taitung had to offer and our lovely hosts had three more agenda filled tour days planned for us. From teaching the children to discovering Taitung, this trip has had a huge impact on my life and perspective and these memories will stick to me for a very long time.