Hengchun, Taiwan

 The Campsule

We walked up the stairs behind them, unsure what to expect. At the top, we found one large, spread-out room. It housed the framework of a unique project. Nine individual sleeping pods were marked out with boards and a circle of poles. Dozens of stacked pallets sat waiting to be used, dusty from construction work. Near the far wall, our eyes immediately picked out a finished prototype.

 

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The model showcased the designers’ genius and goals. A custom-made teepee tent, like those of the American Indians, snuggly clothed the skeleton of boards and poles, complete with pockets of mesh ventilation and a zipper door.

 

Peeking into the cone-shaped tent revealed a rectangular space for a bed, a lantern hanging from the top and every electronic outlet imaginable.

 

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While the first floor sported a cafe, the owner was turning the second floor into a capsule, or a hostel with individual sleeping pods.

 

A hostel dorm room typically offers bunk beds of some sort, ranging from 4-24 beds in one room. Pod or capsule hostels are considered upscale, as each bed in the dorm provides privacy on all sides. Usually the privacy factor is achieved with walls or curtains around the bed.

 

The designers here had taken the simple hostel dorm concept and gone ultra creative. They ditched bunk beds and curtains in lieu of something totally new: teepees. This wasn’t just a capsule hostel, it was a campsule.

 

We loved the idea.

 

“This is your room,” they told us.

 

“How cool,” my mom said, “We get to be the first ones to sleep in your hostel!”

 

“Well, actually Ricky stayed here during the typhoon,” Elsie replied.

 

“Ah, but he’s the owner. We’re the first guests!” she insisted.

 

Above our heads, just over the stairs, was a spacious loft area. Although no more than wood and metal scaffolding at that moment, I could imagine it becoming a cozy space to read and research.

 

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Potential seeped out of every aspect of the place. Not many things are more exciting than seeing well-thought out plans progressively bud into reality. And the ideas in store for that place were brilliant.

 

Although there was only one bed from the mockup tent, my mom, sister and I had everything necessary for camping in our backpacks. Only, this time, we had the luxury of camping indoors. The owner Ricky and his designer friend Monica thoughtfully got us all the pillows they had and made sure we were comfortable.

 

My family and I spent the previous night in a hostel room with a snorer who was so loud that restful sleep became elusive.

 

Since it was night and we were already tired from travel and lack of sleep the night prior, we all said goodnight to each other.

 

Ricky gave us the key to his entire hostel and café building, then left, Monica and Elsie with him. Three strangers, whom we had just met, left us to enjoy an entire hostel, free of snorers, to ourselves. Getting into bed, I thought, Taiwan is such a cool place.

 

Meeting Elsie

 

Earlier that day we had decided to skip all the way down to the southern coast of Taiwan. Our morning of exploring the big city Taichung taught us we were ready to trade in concrete buildings and convenience for nature. We wanted the hiking, beaches, and tropical scenery of Taiwan’s southern provinces.

 

Since Kenting National Park at the southern tip had often come up as a “don’t-miss-it” destination in our research on Taiwan, we headed there. Kenting has a reputation for being just as expensive as Taipei, but we hoped to camp and get good weather.

 

We left Taichung by train in the afternoon. But our budget, local (read: slow) train got us to our stop after dark.

 

The train tracks in Taiwan don’t stretch all the way south, so we had to cover the last 2 hours or so by bus. The local bus that would have brought us there, however, had stopped running a mere 20 minutes before our arrival at the bus stop. Without the local bus, we would have to cough up some extra cash to take a private bus or stay the night in the nearby city. We opted to take the private bus.

 

Before we were able to get over to the private bus drivers, a woman greeted us in perfect English. She explained that she needed to get to Kenting and already had a taxi waiting, but the taxi was large and able to take a handful of people. If we would like to split the taxi with her, we could pay the same price that the regular bus would have been.

 

It sounded good to us, so we agreed. After finding one more traveler to join our taxi ride, we were off.

 

During the ride we learned that the lady’s name was Elsie. She was born and raised in Taiwan, but lived in Canada many years, accounting for her flawless English. As they talked, Elsie and my mom quickly discovered that they had many unique values in common. They both loved farm life, had worked with cows, held similar views about governments, war, the value of money, or lack there of, etc. The taxi was filled with their deep, excited conversation the whole way.

 

Nearing Kenting, Elsie asked where we wanted to get dropped off. We explained that, per usual, we hadn’t made any plans or reservations. We were just showing up.

 

At that, Elsie asked if we enjoyed camping and whether or not we might like to try indoor camping. She was on her way to visit a friend who was in the process of creating a hostel and wanted people to try it out.

 

Needless to say, we accepted the invitation.

 

Elsie called up her friend Ricky and he breezily agreed to host three strangers with half an hour’s notice.

 

Cafe 1918

 

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The next morning, awakened from a snore and noise-free sleep, Ricky, Monica, and Elsie came back with breakfast.

 

The hostel renovation had been going on for a year and a half, but with a push, it would be ready to open in only a month.

 

If you’ve ever done a renovation of your own, you know that construction spaces can easily become chaotic. This renovation was no different.

 

We teamed together to clean both floors of the building that day.

 

But first, Ricky supplied us all with a necessary jump start mug of coffee. I had never before been so fascinated by the processes and variations of coffee.

 

The espresso machine still hid beneath a sheet until construction was finished. But the simple drip coffee Ricky offered us was flavorful and fruity, nothing like the robust, bitter espresso I was accustomed to. To me, this coffee was closer to an herbal tea. An experienced and knowledgable barista, he explained to us the delicate flavors that can be extracted from certain beans using the drip method.

 

Taiwan has an energetic tea and coffee culture. Seeing as bubble tea was invented here, the tradition holds strong. I was glad to see someone passionate enough to bring coffee drinking into a realm of excellence.

 

Elsie decided that our first task would be finding the table somewhere beneath the mess and setting up a work station. We organized and cleaned until lunchtime, much pleased with the progress made. We could all finally see the floor. My mom even decided that the floor design was her favorite aspect of the entire building.

 

The restored building we were in was referred to as the Credit Union Base, because, back when it opened in 1918, that’s what it was, a Credit Union. Although modernized, it still held its old school feel. A door from the café led to a small brick courtyard whose centerpiece was a bucket-drawn well.

 

While electricians and welders were needed, much of the grease work behind setting up the hostel was accomplished directly by Ricky and Monica. Boards that would serve as desks in the sleeping pods were brought down. Monica in an elegant dress, typical of her style, held the sandpaper, a juxposition that made us laugh. Ricky and some friends sanded; Monica painted.

 

Later on, tvs were ordered and screwed into each teepee pod. Although a hostel, the campsule provided the convenience and comfort of a modern hotel. Guests would even be able to connect their phone or ipad and display its screen on the tv.

 

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Spreading the Dream: Helping Future Entrepreneurs

 

Most impressive were the plans to help potential entrepreneurs. Ricky’s kitchen for the cafe was designed by an incredible chef friend of his. Everything was stainless steel and of great quality.

 

Entrepreneurs by definition fill a gap or need in a local or global economy. But  starting out, entrepreneurs face high risks of uncertainty and failure.

 

With his resource of a kitchen, Ricky hatched a plan to get entrepreneurs closer to their goals with hardly any investment or risk.

 

His kitchen will be open to use by any person who has the desire to try out a business idea. For a very low rental fee, an entrepreneur can come to Ricky’s cafe, say twice a week, and try out a restaurant, or any, idea.

 

It gives creatives a space to test their plans without needing to invest significant time and money into a startup business. With Ricky’s kitchen for experimentation, one can devise whether or not their business plan would thrive or fail or find the remedies needed to make it better.

 

English Exchange?

 

There’s also the possibility of using the building space as a free meeting place for locals and foreigners to gather and practice English.

 

My mom and I participated in such a gathering in Luang Prabang, Laos. As many European or foreign visitors speak English fluently or natively, they were able to spend an hour or two of their day simply conversing or helping locals with English homework.

 

Anyone who was motivated to learn could come free of charge. For foreigners, like ourselves, it was an excellent way to interact, hear stories and learn the culture of a place straight from locals. In fact, it was through this program that my mom and I met a Lao Christian and learned about the history of animism and subsequent spread of the gospel through French missionaries.

 

What do you think? Would you participate in an English speaking gathering just for fun?

 

Come Visit!

 

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We had a superb time getting know the brilliant woman that is Elsie. Even after she left to go back home, Monica and Ricky continued to be as generous and helpful to us as the first night we met them. They even provided a room for us to rent in a local Taiwanese neighborhood for a month. We stayed the full time, making Hengchun the longest place we have lived anywhere since leaving the USA.

 

As they took us places in their car, my mom joked that she felt like a kid being brought around by two good parents. Both Ricky and Monica spoke great English and helped us immensely when needing a translator, as our Chinese knowledge was restricted to just a few words and badly pronounced phrases.

 

I’m not writing this post at the request of Ricky, Monica or Elsie. I’d love anyone living or visiting Hengchun to know about these great people who so specially impacted our lives and time in Taiwan.

 

I hope you visit them, relax with a spectacular, slow-dripped cup of 1918’s coffee or check out and get inspired by their creative lives and designs in the hostel. And I mean, come on, who doesn’t want to stay in a teepee? It’s by far the coolest hostel I’ve seen.

 

You can find the Campsule Hostel and Café 1918 on facebook by clicking here.

 

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