It was pouring rain. The three of us and our backpacks were crammed under a tiny roof, stuck and waiting. A deluge worthy of a flood pounded down. Although at a campsite, we wouldn’t be camping that night.
We had traveled to the east coast of Taiwan to see the famed limestone cliffs lining the ocean, to hike, and soak in one of the many hot springs.
But the weather had other ideas. According to the forecast, the rain would keep up for the foreseeable future.
Usually we avoid it, but we had taken a chance on a taxi earlier that afternoon, when it became clear no buses were coming to our bus stop. I showed the taxi driver my map, marked with the campsite we wanted to go to.
He didn’t speak English. I don’t speak Chinese. But we took a chance.
The taxi driver did bring us to a campsite, only it wasn’t the one I had marked on my map.
Since we travel by the seat of our pants anyway, we decided to see if we could stay at the campsite we were dropped at. But as we were asking, the sky opened and drooled across our plans. We ran for shelter under the ticketing booth in front of the campground parking lot.
What now? we wondered. The taxi ride hadn’t been too long, so we could retrace our steps to the train station where we were picked up. Then we’d take a train south, wherever it would go, to escape the wet. But the rain was still going strong. We waited for it to die down.
If it would die down.
That afternoon we had arrived fresh off the train from another city further north called Yilan, unwilling to stay because it was pouring rain there also. We had been warned the east coast was like this.
We waited and wondered where we would end up that night. As often as our trips change with unpredictable twists, I like to wonder how the day will end up. What city will we be in? Where will we sleep? Will we be in a hotel, hostel, or on an overnight train? The sun was going down without the slightest surrender from the onslaught of rain.
We used the free wifi from little ticket booth office near the campground. It’s amazing, in Taiwan, free wifi is everywhere!
We searched for easy-to-reach, budget accommodation in case the rain would prevent us from getting back to the train.
A car started up in the camp parking lot and pulled up under our little ticket booth.
The window rolled down, “Do you need any help?”
Someone who spoke English!
My mom explained that we were trying to either get back to the train station or find accommodation.
The two Taiwanese men eyed our big bags. “We can drive you to Yilan, from there it will be easy to get to the west coast, where it isn’t raining. We are going to Yilan now, but all your bags won’t fit. I’ll call my boss and she will bring her van.”
In the meantime, the men drove over to the only budget hotel nearby. They checked it out for us, but didn’t recommend we stay there.
As promised, a few minutes later, a large van appeared and a tall, smiling woman jumped out. Exuding confidence and authority, she energetically introduced herself to us as Stacey and immediately began organizing how to best fit us all between the two cars. The van was already significantly packed with gear and people.
It was decided that my mom and Grace would take the last two seats in the van. The backpacks and I would take the smaller car.
This is how life should be, I thought, people helping other people, even when they are strangers.
In less than a month, Taiwan had been fulfilling my expectations of how life should be more closely than anywhere we had traveled. While other countries more often crushed my Utopian ideals of life, Taiwan was proving that kindness existed in people, that strong community and morality in society was realizable, attainable.
Sitting in the passenger seat of a stranger’s car, I smiled and clutched my ideals a little closer.
While the driver seemed as comfortable with silence as I, we made small talk along the 40 minute ride.
He pulled up a picture on his phone and held it up for me to see. “Today my colleagues and I went to the campground to do team building. See, we had to army crawl through this mud pit together!” He laughed robustly as he pointed out his teammates in the mud.
He was manager of the five star Hot and Cold Spring Hotel, the one we had seen online and, as budgeting backpackers, hadn’t even considered looking at.
I asked about Taiwan’s strange relationship with China to get an insider view. He explained that most Taiwanese want to be independent from China, but 45% of Taiwan’s exports go there. China bullies Taiwan into doing what it wants by threatening to close trade between the two. Stopping such a large vein of cash inflow would deeply damage Taiwan’s economy.
He answered a call on his phone. He laughed and “hao”-ed a lot (mandarin for “good,” a standard reply and somewhat the equivalent to the English okay), hung up, smiled and glanced at me. “My boss just called and has invited you and your family to dinner with my colleagues and I.”
* * *
We arrived at a glamorous hotel with high ceilings and glistening floors. Turning out of the elevator, numerous counters held overflowing rows of food. Dishes from Japan, Italy, and mixtures straight from Taiwan sat with spoons, ready to be dished out. “What would you call this in English?” my driver asked me, “A buffet or all-you-can-eat?”
“Both; either one,” I replied.
“Ah, okay! Well, please, help yourself.”
As my mom and I took up plates and circled around the gourmet buffet, we tried to guess what such a dinner would cost in a restaurant.
For drinks, we went all natural. From an array of tropical fruits and vegetables, a glass of pure health was squeezed out of a fruit press machine.
We were given our own table, and although the dinner was for hotel employees, and although we were clearly not employees, I was impressed to find that no one stared at us.
My mom was first to discover Haagandaaz ice cream in the dessert section. She excitedly returned to tell me.
“That’s nice, but I’m not impressed unless they have mint,” I joked. I feigned apathy, but in truth missed mint like something crazy.
“I don’t think Haagandaaz makes mint, but they do have my favorite! Chocolate chip!”
She tasted it.
“Ah! This is mint!”
She frowned; I jumped up and got a bowl. 😀
Using free wifi again, I found a hostel near the Yilan train station as it was too late to move to the west coast that night. We were thoughtfully driven directly to our hostel and snapped this picture before saying goodbye.
* * *
My mom emailed Stacey a thank you for the incredible kindness, generosity, and hospitality she and her co-workers gifted us. Her reply was the greatest compliment we could receive. Meeting us, she wrote, had increased her faith in God.