01 November 2005

Things I Meant to Write about Part 2: The Recreation Habits of the Host Culture

This is the type of stuff I see every day

Several weekends ago, some of the national teachers (read: Taiwanese) and the CELA teachers celebrated Ten-Ten holiday (Tenth of October) by camping at Sun Moon Lake, ambling through the made-for-tourists paradise of the Bamboo Culture Park, and joining the rest of Taiwan's 23 million citizens on the island's limited thoroughfares.

First stop: bamboo culture park. The most thematic theme park I've ever been to. No rides. Tons of varieties of bamboo. The man in the picture gave us a complete tour including every piece of information you'd ever want to know about bamboo.

Unfortunately it was all in Chinese and translations were spotty at best.

After singing about bamboo, dancing with bamboo, drinking water purified through bamboo, sitting in houses of bamboo on bamboo furniture, eating bamboo, internally repeating the word "bamboo" until no longer able to distinguish meaning from syllables, pledging unfailing devotion to bamboo, making a kitschy bamboo craft, and peacefully reflecting upon the meaning of bamboo, the whole company loaded back into vehicles and braved the mighty hairpin turns leading us to one of Taiwan three wonders (or so I've been told): Sun Moon Lake.

The camping here is said to be outstanding. I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but it certainly had very little to do with broken down boats, about a dozen stray-and-barking dogs, a Catholic Priest from Minnesota as proprieter and owner of said stray-and-barking dogs, tents of complete strangers' pitched almost on top of mine, and a surprise fireworks display from the opposite shore. Amidst these revelations, I grew suddenly aware of the fact that I was pretty grumpy, understandibly due to traipsing around in close quarters with the same set of folks for nigh on twenty-four hours now. When I went on a walk I found tadpoles! Hundreds of them! Squirming right there in the water by the handfuls! In fact, it was a little strange to pick them up. They felt like a bunch of squirming little beans.
Even though there was no campfire that night, we busted out the guitar and sang some songs. This activity quickly attracted the attention of every child in the campsite. They came to stand and watch. It was clear from the expressions on their faces that they didn't know what they had come for; only that in their purest of curiosity the music had drawn them and they had not denied its pull. We grown-up Americans, not satisfied with this, taught them all the kiddie songs and motions their little heads could hold and sent them back to their families' tents reciting incomprehensible jumbles of consonants paired with catchy tunes.

The next morning, still, none of our hosts bat an eye at the uneven balance between activity and leisure, so we broke camp and packed all equipment up the tropical jungle path in one big sweat and settled back into the cars for a sleep until our final stop at the paper factory. Our centripitally-pitched sleep was interrupted, however, about an hour and a half in, by a screech. Both cars pulled onto a narrow shoulder. Everyone's frantic search through every piece of luggage slowly reached through the haze of sleep: one of our company had lost his wallet.

The initial search brought us no closer to credit cards or identification so the two vehicles made for a safer roadside harbor. Noticing a house sitting at the end of the driveway, I wondered aloud whether they might let me use their bathroom. No sooner had the words escaped my lips than I found myself being led by the wrist to the front door of a stranger's house in a foreign land and presented to its inhabitants. Who can deny the feebly grinning redhead with the full bladder on the doorstep? And so while my little wish was granted, the Lord granted a bigger wish at the bottom of a bag, credit cards, identification and cash all intact, and we climbed back into the cars again

We arrived at the paper factory about a half an hour before it was set to close which, meant no lingering by the Mulberry Papyrus tree for that photo-op. According to sources, we were about to witness the highest quality of paper production on the island. I think that's kind of a big thing in a culture with a historical claim to the invention of paper.

It comes from the bark of the finest groves of trees, (don't ask me which species anymore, I only know Mulberry Papyrus) which is cut, boiled, and then blended. We saw and even got to touch a big vat of this blend after the water had drained out of it. It looked like a big white pulpcake. Mom, next birthday, keep it in mind: Pulpcake! Mmmmmm!

Mixed with water again, a man pours exactly the right amount over his big, flat bamboo sieve (and you thought bamboo was good for nothing) and let the water drain out. If the man touches the wet paper, it will be ruined. So he carefully attaches a sticky piece of string to the paper, lifts the flexible sieve and deposits the wet sheet on his growing stack of hundreds of wet sheets of paper.

From here, the stack is pressed and heated for awhile, maybe a couple days but don't take my word for it. If you make paper based on this recipe, I'm not resposible for what kind of muck you turn out with. I can, however, give you a solid set of instructions for pulpcake.

Finally, a lady takes one sheet from the stack at a time and puts it on her hot steel counter to brush it out with a little water. As soon as all the water cooks away, the paper is done and ready to be packaged and sent to all the foremost calligraphers in the nation and probably all over the occidental world.

So if this weren't enough, if we hadn't had enough of one another yet, we load back into the vehicles to join just about everyone in Taiwan--again--on the roads in search of an obscure little food stand we just had to visit. Of course by this time I had completely lost my bearings (okay let's be real. I didn't know where the heck we were the entire time) but my efforts to find out whether this joint was out of the way or not were onconclusive, mostly because, conveniently, no one answered me. It was about 2 and a half hours and several wrong turns before we finally decided, or discovered, that our little destination was closed (and why not? Everything is closed in Sunday night so why should this be an exception) and we'd have to opt for a little hot pot which just happened to be serving. After consuming a meal mostly in silence, we finally reloaded the cars for the last time and on the other side of stop-and-go-sleep ended up at the Practice Hotel.

All in all a satisfying, if enraging and exhausting, weekend. New entry in my internal dictionary of things that, even when translated, have different meanings in Chinese and English: vacation.