Singapore Adventure

Monday, November 21, 2005

by venitha

Outside the windows on our right, the Pacific Ocean glitters beneath the rising sun; to our left tower verdant mountains, their tops lost in feathery clouds.

It isn't long, however, before the train, whisking us efficiently back to reality after two days in the paradise of Taiwan's Taroko Gorge, replaces these breathtaking views with less spectacular panoramas of farmland and meager villages. These new sights, however, captivate us, and we stare mesmerized out our window at rural Taiwan flying by.

Pristine white storks wade majestically through muddy rice paddies. Fisherman wearing conical hats stand thigh-deep in sedate streams. We laugh to spot a scarecrow wearing this same cone-shaped hat, and we debate the legitimacy of the word scarecrow here.

Small patches of palm trees stand at stark attention, and strangely, on a small rise at the edge of a scanty community, a mass of small shrines, hundreds of them, all different. A shrine store? They must come from somewhere. Or a very sacred place? A sacred place, I decide when I spot a worshipper. I can almost catch a whiff of smoky incense from her joss sticks.

Do you smell that?

It wasn't me.

No, I mean...

Lulled into calm by the train's rhythm, our fellow passengers sleep or read the Sunday paper. A distinct lack of the English language left us news free at the Hua Lien train station, and our early morning purchases were limited to the necessities: milk tea and Mr. Brown coffee. Superbly caffeinated, Mr. Brown and I do not sleep. Instead, we write postcards and read our Lonely Planet's brief Taiwan history. Our tour guide yesterday astonished us with her account of the 50-year-long Japanese rule of Taiwan, and we are ashamed of our arrogant lack of knowledge.

I look out the window in contemplation of yet more infuriating US foreign policy and am rewarded by an ornate Buddhist temple entrance adorning an otherwise abandoned landscape. Then our train plunges into the blackness of a tunnel, to emerge just minutes later into a setting decidedly suburban.

Tiny backyard garden plots bulge with crops of lettuce, cabbage, and other vegetables I cannot name, in spite of a childhood rich with 4-H membership and chop suey consumption. The woman across the aisle pulls a persimmon from her bag, while her companion checks her handphone messages.

Without notice, all green is gone, and we are indisputably in Taipei. My window is darkened by the shade of buildings taller than I can crane my neck to see above. Laundry hangs in windows and from balconies, and the eerie, deserted clothing ushers a hollow feeling into my heart, an ache into the pit of my stomach. Emptiness and silence envelop us. I lean back and sigh, and Jim takes my hand.

I don't want to go back to Singapore. Jim doesn't want to go back to Hsinchu. Yet every clack of the train's wheels, every rhythmic rock and sway, brings us just a little bit closer.