Prince Roy and I set out for Taichung in the bright, cool morning on Saturday. Driving a car up the on-ramp of a highway on such a morning is inordinately refreshing. PR is a good driver, but the further south we got, the more erratic and senseless the drivers seemed to get. Also, good radio stations were hard to find, and every time we’d get a good Taiwanese Nakashi cha-cha going on, it would vanish into static minutes later.
A few hours later, we were approaching the Chungkang Rd. Exit, which led up towards Tunghai University, where PR and I first met while studying there some two decades ago. The time of day, the angle of the light, and most of the view reminded me of the first time I approached the area, on a bus full of foreigners after a week or two in Taipei after my first arrival here. Looking back, I wish I’d taken the train on that trip, as I never got to leave from the old Taipei Train Station.
We drove up to the Utopia subdivision, where Daniel had already met up with our hosts, Reinhard and Xiao Mao, at their cafe just off Art Street. They were waiting for us at a sandwich shop, so we had lunch on the veranda. The area’s become quite nice over the years, with tree-lined lanes, interesting shops and restaurants. After the meal, we walked over to the Tunghai Campus, entering from the side gate by the auditorium and walking down through the campus.
The trees were the biggest difference, followed by all the new structures. The square where students erected a sympathetic Goddess of Liberty to copy the one in Tienanmen Square at the time is now shaded by a canopy of large trees that hadn’t even been planted when we were there. We walked down the slope between the oldest parts of the campus, flanked by the old Tang Dynasty-style buildings. I felt it was odd that, in 1955, people would be interested in building what appeared to be a Japanese-style university, but there’s probably a lot more to the story than I know. PR found the bell-tower not just incongruous, but downright ugly. I was trying to restrict my picture-taking. It’s just out of hand.
We found the old language center, from which we both fled after a short time to take regular university courses. All but one wing has been completely redone, causing PR to misidentify the location of the old classrooms and offices. Daniel took our picture in front of the non-restored bit, and I reenacted my dramatic exit from the department for my friend’s entertainment. We then purposely avoided the convenient new road to the dorms, choosing instead to cross the “Female Ghost Bridge” that had been the only route to the dorms from the main campus in the old days.
The old dorms that caused me so much dismay when I first laid eyes on them are still there, and only mildly refurbished. They are still all cement-floored, six-student rooms with no a/c and wooden slats for bunk beds. PR was a bit hazy on his experiences, but I immediately found all three of the rooms I’d lived in at the time. Now, of course, much better dorms have been constructed nearby, looking more like luxury hotels than anything else. I wonder how the students choose who gets to live where these days.
As we walked over to the local cafeteria, the site of some of the worst food either of us had encountered, it occurred to me that most of the current students probably hadn’t even been born when we were there. I told PR we should have a reunion; he said that we were. True enough, I guess; I didn’t hang out with many foreigners at the time, just PR sometimes, and Boogie, who was from Washington & Lee as well.
We walked down to the school store to find some Tunghai paraphernalia, but they didn’t have much. It seems that Taiwanese students don’t really get into the whole college paraphernalia thing. PR sees a huge market in this, but I think maybe they are tired of being forced to wear school insignia throughout their childhood and don’t want anything to do with such things after they can start choosing their own clothes.
A Farming-themed expo was being held by the gymnasium, and above the doors a banner had been hung that read: “Dances With Farmers”. We walked by the tennis courts, where PR spent a lot of time playing with the women’s team. He was taking short videos of various things and introducing the sights to his camera. I find it difficult to do that when I’m with other people.
We walked down towards the farming part of the campus, stopping at a store that used to be tiny and is now a Wellcome Market. I used to walk around that area quite a bit as a student, listening to Zhao Chuan songs on my Walkman and eating O’Smile peanut cookies from the tiny store.
PR wanted to catch the sunset from Taichung Harbor, so we walked back up the campus, pausing by the still-barbed-wire-encircled Women’s Dorms, the music department where I took many classes, and Luce Chapel, which is looking rather run-down these days. We then climbed the steps in front of the library, where I, PR and another students named Mitch used to park our motorcycles before class at the night school department in the morning. “Let’s go to Bieshu for dinner,” I said. We weren’t going to do that, but I just liked to say it, as it was something we were always saying back then. We walked up the broad path by the polluted stream between the campus and the industrial area next door. I was thinking it would be an interesting movie plot to have a portal somewhere on the campus that would take us back to, say, 1989. “I’m not sure I’d like to take that portal,” PR said. I had to agree.
The back gate is just just as magical now as it was then, though, at least to me. The first time I stepped through from the quiet, empty forest into the chaos of that street, I thought it miraculous. It still seems that way. Many of the old restaurants have since been replaced by fashionable clothing shops, but the spirit is the same.
On the way back to the cafe, we passed a curious collection of large plastic fish that looked like they had been used to decorate the ceilings of seafood restaurants throughout the city. The view down the hill was largely unchanged from that viewpoint, though the campus is now surrounded by high-priced apartment buildings.
We piled into PR’s Honda and drove down the mountain towards the sea, racing to catch the setting sun. Providence University, which was bare as a desert twenty years ago, is now covered in trees. The new Highway 3 overpass surprised me. Otherwise, everything seemed the same as when I took my first ride on the new-to-me 135cc Honda motorcycle down to the harbor, where I was warned by soldiers not to take pictures.
The harbor proved elusive, however. We drove and drove, nagged by the annoying woman’s voice issuing from Daniel’s GPS device to slow down. The sun dipped behind impenetrable clouds as we pulled into the parking lot by the fishing port at Wuchi. By the time we had walked to the shore and climbed up and over the wall of sand, it was gone. We sat for a while, taking pictures of each other and ducking to avoid huge, cumbersome flying insects, before walking back to the harbor, where a loudspeaker cranked to full volume blasted the area with frenetically annoying music that gave rise to homicidal urges. Perhaps it was so loud to cover up the high-pitched squealing of the pigs behind the restaurant, but the smell was so obvious I’m pretty sure people couldn’t miss them.
We walked through the unremarkable market, and then drove back up the hill to a restaurant for dinner. The waiter serving us looked about 15 years old, and the service was a bit addled. Still, the food, particularly the soup dumplings that Reinhard recommended, was all quite good. I was eager to try their sesame baozi, but found them not up to the quality of the kind we used to eat in the army. Then again, I’m biased.
After dinner we drove down Chungkang Road into town, a trip I used to make many times on my motorcycle, to meet up with Michael Turton and Sean Reilly at a bar called Bollywood. I ordered a green apple drink that tasted exactly like a gin and tonic. Michael had to leave a bit early, and Sean divvied up some delicious brownies before he, too, had to leave. It seems Taichung closes down a lot earlier than Taipei, or maybe it was just that area.
Back at the cafe, Reinhard and Xiao Mao allocated us three places to sleep. PR got the room upstairs, and Daniel got the old traditional Chinese bed in the shop, and I slept in the back room. The a/c was very loud, but I had to have it on because the room was pretty hot. I ended up sleeping for a couple of hours at a time, waking up, and then sleeping for another couple of hours. Needless to say, I was somewhat less than rested when morning came and the singing from the church next door overpowered even the noise from the a/c. After some delicious egg-cakes Reinhard bought nearby for breakfast, I went upstairs and took a good nap. When I came downstairs, a new visitor had arrived: Carol, a pregnant British woman who lives in Beijing. We chatted for a while, occasionally diving beneath the table to take pictures of Suancai (sauerkraut), Reinhard’s and Xiao Mao’s flat-faced cat.
It was another beautiful day up on the hill, but it got a bit hot when we drove down into the city for lunch at a restaurant called Fatty’s. The kitchen smelled wonderful. We sat at a table on the sidewalk in the mugginess. I ordered the Sicily pizza, which the waitress assured me was not at all spicy. Apparently “not at all spicy” is some sort of Sicilian code for “very spicy” as I could only have a couple of slices when it came. Even PR agreed that it was pretty spicy, and he’s no lightweight. I sampled other people’s meals instead. When the waitress came back, I mentioned the level of spiciness in the allegedly non-spicy pizza, she just shrugged, as if it just hadn’t occurred to her, and really didn’t matter anyway.
We considered driving out to Miaoli to some gardens there, but it seems that they stopped allowing people in at 4pm, so instead we walked around the area a bit, looking at the old two-story houses and yards. We ended up in one such place, which has been make into a somewhat modern teahouse. We all sat on the floor upstairs, which was occasionally frequented by cats, talking about the pros and cons of having an online presence, whether we are different IRL from how we appear online, etc. It was very pleasant. Taichung is very pleasant, actually. The pace is slower, and even on a weekend afternoon it seems halfway shut down, but it is nice. The appearance of the city may have changed a lot over the past two decades, but the spirit is much the same, and I like it. It’s too bad that they don’t have an MRT system, though.
But it was time to hit the road, as we were planning on having dinner at a Mexican place in Zhongli, so PR, Daniel and I saddled up and joined the long stream of cars heading towards the highway. As we drove, I began to wish I’d bought one of those gadgets that lets you broadcast your iPod to a nearby radio, as we had the same poor choice of music stations, and every time we found a good song, it was followed by 40 minutes of blather/advertising. Traffic was terrible, and it was after 8pm before we finally reached Zhongli. The restaurant, Sabroso, was packed with students, not surprising as it’s right by Zhongyuan University. At first I was afraid the service would be bad, as it took the woefully undermanned staff, which consisted of a couple of guys, to seat us. Also, I had a migraine coming on, so I wasn’t in the best of moods. I’d spent the past half hour with my eyes closed to avoid the flashing lights in my field of vision.
The meal made things much better. First of all, it came within a reasonable amount of time, but more importantly, it was really good. I ordered beef tacos and chicken tostados. The tacos were real tacos, soft triangles with toppings, not the rigid tacos gringos most people are familiar with. The tostados were even more delicious. PR was happy with the spiciness of his meal as well as the taste. I ate too much, and am still paying for it, but I’m glad I got to sample at least a few of the dishes there.
After dinner we dropped Daniel off and made our way back to the highway, and back to Taipei. This city always seems a little different every time you leave it, so it was good to get away for a bit. Now I’m back at home, amidst the native calls of the local jackhammers. Back to work.