Friday, August 3, 2012

Deep, Dark Asia

When Lauren’s visit to Taiwan put too much awesome on one small island and caused a typhoon, we had to rearrange our travel plans.  While we had a great time and unexpected adventures of our own, I had my heart set on seeing sunny beaches and ocean views.
Lucky for me, I had another week off work coming, and more friends willing to travel!  So I packed my bag and whisked away to Kenting with Megan.  After a 2-hour bus ride from Kaohsiung to Hengchun, we arrived at our hostel, the Surf Shack Bar and Grill (and hostel).  The owner, Ee, was great -- she had tons of tips for us, and she makes a mean veggie burrito.
Our first stop was Baisha Wan.  There were approximately 7,000 people at this “secluded” beach, but it was still beautiful.  The water was clean and a perfect temperature for taking a refreshing dip.  The sun was even shining.  Well, for a couple hours.  As a dark cloud started to roll in, I started to have PTSD flashbacks of my previous attempt to relax on the beach in Kenting (remember the typhoon??).  But, once again, I flipped out for no reason.  The rain did fall, but only for a few minutes.  I think the gods were just reminding me who was in charge and that I’d better appreciate every ray of sunshine for the next week.

Baisha Bay Beach 

Blue skies, blue water, so many people

Storm cloud rollin in

Taking cover from the rain at the snack stand 

The next day, we braved the scorching temperatures and quickly ran for cover under a beach umbrella at Xiao Wan.  The water was SO BLUE.  And, since it was too hot to move, we posted ourselves up in the shade with SPF500, beer from 7-11, a few books, and some Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me podcasts, and felt no guilt in laying like sloths for an entire day.


Xiao Wan -- Little Bay Beach

No reason to move

Xiao Wan

When it was time to head north out of Kenting on Monday, the hostel owner Ee arranged a taxi for us, for the same price as the stinky bus!  Had I known that these were some of the last precious moments I would enjoy with Megan before she ran off to New York City, I wouldn’t have spent them sleeping.  Sorry, Megan.  :(  Sad face.
While Megan journeyed north to Taipei to go back to work, I headed east to Taitung to meet up with Ellen for more adventures.
I want to preface the next part of this blog with the strong statement that I had a WONDERFUL time on Green Island, and I would recommend any and all people to explore the island.  It’s a beautiful place full of history and delicious seafood.  However, there is one fly in the ointment, and that is the owner/operator of Green Island Adventures.  He’s a South African expat.  His name is Eddie, and I feel that it is my professional duty as a blogger to inform the masses that you SHOULD NOT use his services.  First of all, you don’t need them.  You can see Green Island without his tour package.  Second, you can get a better deal (just ask a Chinese-speaker to help you look online).  Third, he is more than a little rude. 
I had arranged with Eddie to be picked up at the Taitung train station at 10pm.  Ellen was arriving from Taipei at 9:50, and I arrived at 8:30 or so.  At 8:45, my phone rang.  It was Eddie:
“What time are you getting to Taitung?”
“I just arrived.  My friend will be here at 9:50.”
“Because I was looking online at the train schedule, and there are no trains arriving at 10pm.  You told me you would be at the station at 10pm.”
“Oh, well, my friend’s train comes at 9:50, so I told you we’d be here at 10.”
“Well, Samanthaaaaa, I can’t change the time now.  I told my driver 10pm, so you’ll just have to wait.”
“Uh, ok.  It’s just 10 minutes later, so it will be fine....”
“Well maybe you don’t understand this, but my driver has a family to get home to, so it would have been nice if you had told me the correct time of arrival.”
“Uhhhhh. Ok.  Sorry?”
“Hhhhhhhhhhh, goodbye.”
I’m sorry.  What?  Really?  Ten minutes.  Ten minutes!  Why would you call me and ream me out over that?  Whatever.
Anyways, the driver arrived at 9:55, and (surprise!) we waited about three more minutes for Ellen to collect her bags, get off the train, and make her way from the platform.  Pretty dang close to 10pm.
The cab driver was delightful and told Ellen that she’d be back to the hostel at 7am to take us to the ferry to ride out to Green Island.  Eddie had told me the cab would come at 9am, so I called him to verify.  He was the owner, after all.
“What?  Who is this?”
“Hi, Eddie.  It’s Samantha.  I’m in the cab on the way to the hostel, and the driver says she will come pick us up at 7am tomorrow.  You told me 9am in your email, so I wanted to check with you.”
“Look, Samantha, I don’t think you’re understanding the Chinese language.  The cab will come at 9am.  Why would you believe the cab driver?  I’ve been running this tour business for NINE YEARS, and we’ve been taking people to Green Island all that time.  If I said 9am, it’s 9am.”
“Well, actually, Eddie, my friend is Taiwanese and is talking to the cab driver, so the language barrier isn’t an issue.  I know you’re the owner.  That’s why I called to check with you.  Would you like to talk to the cab driver to clear this up?”
“No.  Maybe it won’t even be the same driver who picks you up.  This is MY business, so maybe I’ll send another driver.  Or maybe I will come pick you up.  Be ready at 9am.”
“Ok, so -----”
He hung up.
Not kidding.  Like a pissed off middle school girl fighting with her BFF.  Maybe you’re thinking: Samantha, calm down. You must be exaggerating this story.  If only.  But wait; it gets better.
Not even 30 seconds later, my phone rings.  It’s Eddie:
“THE CAB WILL PICK YOU UP AT 7AM. BE READY AT 7AM.”  No apology, just more yelling.
“So, the driver was correct?”
“Listen, Samanthaaaaaaaaaaa.  I’m on pain killers.  I was stung ALL OVER MY BODY by jellyfish.  So, I’m in a lot of pain here.  The cab will come at 7am to pick you up, and--”
“You know, Eddie, I’m a paying customer, and there really is no reason for you to be talking to me this way.  All I wanted to do was make sure we knew what time the cab was coming so we don’t miss the ONLY ferry to Green Island tomorrow.”
“Yeah, you’re right.  There is no reason for YOU to be talking to ME this way --”
“No, that’s not what I said.”
“--I’m an expat; I’m not Taiwanese.  So be ready for the cab at 7am.  And put your money for the hostel in the jar on top of the refrigerator.”
“Just put it in the --”
Hung up again.
Jesus.  I only wish I could type in “angry/unbalanced South African accent” font so that you could enjoy the full glory of Eddie.
The hostel was a crap hole.  We had to change the sheets on the beds because no one had been there to take care of the hostel since the last 6 guests had stayed.  The toilet ran constantly and had to be jerry-rigged in order to flush.  Let’s not even talk about the cockroaches.
I was still upset about him hanging up on me.  I mean, I’m paying for his services.  It was after 11pm, so I didn’t want to call him back, but I just had to say something.  So I texted:
“I don’t appreciate being hung up on.  That’s not ok.  I hope you feel better tomorrow and we can avoid any further confusion.  We’ll be on the 7:30 ferry.”
His response:
“Thanks for waking me up again....”
Ah, well.
Anyways, we got some sleep, took a video of ourselves “putting the money in the jar on top of the refrigerator” (I was worried he’d say we didn’t pay), swallowed some seasickness pills, and headed off to the ferry.
Ellen and I are on a boat!

People were puking their guts out in the seats around me.  Pretty gross, but I managed to hold down my breakfast.  And I saw a dolphin!
We finally arrived on Green Island, and we were greeted by a man holding a sign with my name.  He led us over to a pick-up truck and told us to “get in.”  
“Uh... get in the back?”  I asked.
“Yeah, it’s Green Island style.”
I looked around.  Many other people were boarding hotel vans.  Vans with seats.  And doors.
“Really?  Just hop right in?”
“Yes.  Get in.”  He tossed our bags into the truck.  “Don’t worry.  Those boxes I put down are new.  It’s clean.”
Now, I’ve ridden in my fair share of pick-up trucks.  But I was surprised to be picked up by an organized tour and told to climb into the bed of a truck and sit on cardboard boxes.  Especially when all the other Green Island guests were NOT riding in the back like the family dog.  
Needless to say, we got to feel the ocean breeze and be one with nature while we rode to the hotel.  Also we got a lesson in how to hang on for dear life as we flew around twists and turns on the narrow, edge-of-the-cliff mountain roads.  But the view was beautiful!
Green Island

Practicing solid sun safety

Soon we were at the hotel, and the driver gave the keys for our rental scooter to Ellen.  I reminded her to check the gas tank.  Of course, there was no gas in it.  The driver made us pay for him to fill it up.  Really?  We already paid for the scooter.  Why would we rent a scooter with no gas?  There’s ONE (ok, maybe two) gas station on the island.  
We watched in shock as he went into his little shed, came back with a gallon jug full of gas, and proceeded to poor the gas into the tank.  And all down the side of the scooter.  When we pointed out the possible safety hazard there, he grabbed a rag and wiped at the spill.
“There.  Ready.”
Green Island style, I guess.
The next fiasco followed close behind.  I asked the driver when we could go on our snorkeling excursion.
“Oh, you don’t get to go snorkeling.  Eddie said you didn’t pay for that.”
“Eddie’s wrong.  It’s part of the package.”
“I’ll call him.”
Dear god.  
I could hear the driver telling Eddie the situation and asking what to do.  He handed me the phone, and I said:
Long silence.  “Hellooooo?  This is Eddie.  Who is this?”
Uh, you idiot.  Who do you think it is?  “This is Samantha.”
“What do you want?”
Uh, you idiot.  I just heard the driver tell you what I want.  “Oh, there seems to be some confusion.  The driver says we don’t get to go snorkeling.”
“You don’t.  You didn’t paaaaaaay for snorkeling.  Your package doesn’t incluuuuuuuude snorkeling.”
Like hell, it doesn’t.  “Oh, I’m pretty sure it does.  That’s one of the main attractions at Green Island.”
“What? What are you saying?  I can’t hear you.  I’m in the basement of the hospital.  I’M IN HOSPITAL!  I have jellyfish stings.  I’m in pain.  I can barely hear you.  I don’t have time for this.  I’M IN HOSPITAL.”
Wow.  “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.  But I’m sure we can go snorkeling.”
“You DON’T get to go.  You didn’t paaay for that.  But you know what?  You know what, Samanthaaaaaa?  I’m a really nice guy and I love for people to go to the sea, so how about I just pay for you to go?  Out of my OWN pocket?  How would you like that?”
Such a martyr.  “Oh, wow.  Thanks so much, Eddie.  I’ll let you tell the driver.  Ok bye.”
My patience and fake calm paid off.
On the ride to the beach (again in the back of the pick-up truck), we met five British girls on vacation from college.  They also booked with Green Island Adventures.  But they got to MEET Eddie.  He picked them up from the train station.  I don’t want to report too much second-hand information, but let me just give you the highlights of their interaction with Eddie.
He started by threatening to leave them at the only ATM in town if they couldn’t withdraw enough money to pay for the tour.  He called them “stupid little girls” and screamed that they “have to be prepaaaaaaared” when they travel.  Then he attempted to put the fear of god in them by telling them that people don’t speak English on Green Island, and that they had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into, traveling in “deep, dark Asia.”
Uhhhhh, this is Taiwan, man.  Get it together.  Pretty much the safest place on earth.  Also, you can’t call grown women “stupid little girls.”  Bad form.
The snorkeling was nice, but there were a lot of people and everyone was just walking all over the coral.  Not what I expected.  However, the driver gave us bread to feed to the fish, which made tons of fish swim up to us.  The colors were vibrant and water was cool and refreshing!
When we got back to the dive center, the driver handed me a folded up piece of printer paper.  It was a fax from Eddie.
I want to repeat that:  It was a FAX from Eddie.  A fax.  On an island.  From a man who was “too busy” and “in pain” in the basement of a hospital.  But he had the time and resources to send me a fax.  Ahhhh, comedy gold.
The fax was two pages.  The first was a print out from his website with a passage circled and a note that said, “See???  No snorkeling!”  The second was a personal message for me:
“Samantha -- 'integrity' is an important word where I come from.  --Eddie”
I have the strong suspicion that he went on to his website, changed the package details, and then printed that page out.  I truly doubt I would have overlooked the snorkeling when I booked.  But even if I did, and it was my mistake, there is no reason for him to react that way.  Remember when he told me the wrong time for the taxi to the ferry?  He didn’t even apologize for that.  I really wasn’t trying to scam him for free snorkeling.  No need to question my integrity.  Geez.
Ellen and I carried on about our day, exploring the island and soaking in the sun.  We scooted the entire perimeter of the island in the course of the day. 

Dabaisha Beach

People walking on water

Crab Crossing

Green Island is known for seaweed and sea mushrooms, and Ellen and I made sure to eat some of each at every opportunity.
Sea mushrooms (left) and deer with vegetables

We visited the old prison on the island.  The prison once held dissidents of the KMT’s reign during the White Terror era in Taiwan.  The prison is now a museum of sorts, and we walked around, even entering the cells.
Ludao Prison

Worst part about prison?  Sleeping next to the squatter toilet.  Ew.

And since no one was watching, I climbed up in the guard tower to have a little look-see.
Guard tower

View from the top

Later we made our way to the Little Great Wall.  I have big plans to go see the real Great Wall, so I guess this was a good warm-up.  It’s actually the ridge of the volcanic crater that formed Taiwan, but they’ve made it resemble the Great Wall pretty well.  
Little Great Wall

From there, we could see a couple of the rock formations famous on the island.  One is called Pekingese Dog, which I can almost make out.  The other is Sleeping Beauty Rock, which is more obvious.

Pekingese Dog.  Not sure which end is the head.

Sleeping Beauty Rock

That evening, after a dinner of goat stew, we went on a nighttime excursion to look for deer.  Yeah.  Deer.  Apparently, the island is home to a growing population of endangered Sika deer.  Deer are no big thing to me.  Being from Wisconsin, I see tons of deer every year.  Like, at least ten.  Most of them dead on the side of the road.
But Ellen was super stoked to see the deer.  Every time the guide pulled over near a field or clearing, Ellen jumped off the scooter, grabbed my hand, and elbowed people out of the way so we could be first to spot the animals.  After four or five such occurrences, I had to ask:
“Why are you so excited to see the deer?  I mean... they’re just deer.”
“There are not many of these deer.  They're endangered in Taiwan, and Green Island protects them, so there are more here.”
“Ah, I see.”
“Also, I’ve never seen a deer before.”
“Even in the zoo?!?”
Man, I need to start appreciating life more!  It was really sweet that she wanted to share her first deer sighting with me.  It’s funny how such a common animal to me is an exciting rarity to her.   I guess seeing a deer is to Ellen what seeing a panda might be to me.  Except pandas are cooler.
The next morning, we woke before sunrise and made our way to the Zhaori hot springs.  It’s one of only three salt water hot springs on earth!  When we arrived, it was still dark out, and we found a hot pool to soak in and watch the sun rise.  
Just before sunrise

Sunrise saltwater soak

Zhaori Hot Springs

It was so relaxing that I was literally falling asleep in the water.  Not the safest idea, but I couldn’t help it.  It was so early, and the siren-song combination of the hot salt water and the jet streams massaging my back were just too powerful.  
After a couple hours more sleep back at the hotel, we showered and scooted into town for some shopping and lunch.  Here’s what I ordered:
Shaved ice with mango, banana, pineapple, and dragon fruit.  Fairly certain it's the best food ever.

We got a ride back to the ferry from our trusty driver (in a van with no license plate -- is this a legitimate business?!?) and said goodbye to Green Island.
Perfect weather

Island girls

Hopefully my next trip will be just as amazing.  Preferably requiring a little less goosfraba.

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