Weather or Not: Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Nice Place
Nice Place

Back on schedule, we made for our second stop in Taiwan – Kaohsiung.  Entering the harbour, we passed an impressive selection of modern buildings, businesses, seafaring traffic. We would be docking near the older section of the city, in easy walking distance to several notable temples, neighborhoods and markets.

Hot Dancers
Hot Dancers

Outside, I noticed the swelter. It wasn’t enough that the air was thick with moisture, there was also no breeze and the sun’s intense glare promised the day would be hotter than any day should be. Greeting our ship were four dancers wearing eight-foot tall costumes that, while bright and cheerful-looking, must have weighed a great deal. I pitied the dancers, and worried that they would sweat themselves into an ambulance. Then I pitied myself. I was going to wade into the heaviness of that heat in the middle of day to try to see as much as I could of this city. I filled my pack with water bottles and begged from Stanley one of his practical moisture-wicking shirts.

Hot Walk
Hot Walk

Temples, birds in cages, TinPan Alley, a garment district, old re-purposed warehouses now art galleries, cartoon-like sculptures, a fisherman’s wharf with no fish or men: these are what I saw. Sometimes, the weather removes opportunity from a place, and the visitor simply can’t see a new location with a favorable eye.

On this day, I learned that no 61-year old woman should be walking about in the heat, trying to fit in two weeks of experiences into a half-day jaunt. The local women who I judged to be roughly my age were wisely sitting on up-turned crates in the shade of an alleyway. Whatever cross-breeze was available came to them and never reached me struggling on the sidewalk. I was sure they would stay put until the relative cool of the evening, but I didn’t have that luxury.

I had the luxury of air conditioning on the ship, and went back gratefully to use it.

Keelung, Taiwan

Goddess of Mercy
Goddess of Mercy

It seemed to take forever to drift down the long approach to Keelung. Even our enormous cruise ship was reduced to just one more piece of transport in a busy waterway. The Buddhist shrine, with its mile-high Guanyin statue, watched us enter its territory with a peaceful expression of mercy: on this stop, finally, we were going to be allowed off the ship. We parked right at the end of the harbour, nudging ourselves into a spot of comfort against an old pier. Crew members assured us it would be an easy 20 minute walk into downtown. We started out.

Forty minutes later, we were waved on by a resident who seemed to understand our worried expressions: he pointed down the road, saying “Keelung” in encouragement. Glad that we hadn’t by mistake taken the wrong turn, we waved our thanks. Pretty fast walkers, we couldn’t imagine even the young crew members managing it in twenty minutes. No matter – we enjoyed the ramble. It led us past an enthusiastic sidewalk garden, vines and ferns growing out of the hillside at the edge of the street, an abandoned train station, a burned-out city block in the middle of sidewalk vendors and food stalls. We reached the city center, walked the twisting alleyway markets, inspected all the remarkable raw foods waiting to be cooked. My favorite were the open baskets of dismembered claws.

simple sidewalk garden
simple sidewalk garden

 

We had seen as much as our limited time allowed, but hadn’t yet experienced the best of travel. We hadn’t gotten truly lost in Keelung. The walk into town had been longer than we thought it would be, but we had been always heading in the right direction. I couldn’t count it as being off-trail. I thought we’d briefly try again. We headed up a side-street towards what looked like a secondary retail area. Bright lights were strung across the street, traffic came into the intersection from five different directions, electrical wires framed every view. Motorcycles were parked on the sidewalk in front of businesses. A group of men gathered on a corner and watched our slow walk up the hillside street. We window-shopped a second-hand store. Stanley may have wanted to look at the knife with the pearly decor, and pick through the old coins, but the store was not open. We continued, crossed the street, looked through the window dust of another closed variety store.

nicely off the beaten path
nicely off the beaten path

Then we found a tiny staircase up an alley onto an entrance to apartments. Up we walked, the steps slick with humidity, old-age and grime. We reached the top of the stairs, wondering where to go next. The men had been tracking us, looking at our progress. We decided getting lost was perhaps not the best of ideas. We retraced our progress back to the business street, back toward the gathering of men and the main avenue of the harbor. As we passed the group, several pointed the long road back to the ship. “Cruise ship” they said, smiling. We once again waved our thanks, and were on our way.

The real deal
The real deal

 

I had never set my foot in Asia before the cruise, never been to Keelung. But this was to me a comfortable place, like other places I had lived outside the US. Slightly tarnished one hundred years ago, it had never been renovated. A cell phone store opened up in a burned-out building that had electricity strung in from a series of oddly connected and tangled cords. There was grit from half a century of someone living in a place I would never have given a thought to if I had just stayed home. I may not ever choose to return, but in that moment when I was there, I loved it.