Reunited with the rest of the group, we set about pitching tents in the dirt parking lot at the edge of Wushe. That night we drank, talked and exchanged stories of out trips since meeting at Taroko Gorger earlier. L floated around, his usual gregarious self, frequently interjecting with an enthusiastic comment or embellishment. An hour or so passed this way, all of us content with sitting on the cardboard we’d carried around for our tents*
Later, I can’t remember what I was doing, but I looked up to find the others gathering around a man. He stood in the middle of the curious gaggle, a great smile etched permanently on his face, his cheeks puffy and red. I stood at the fringe of the circle and watched as he produced two Chinese apples from a blue bag. He thrust them into two unsuspecting hands, grinned even wider and said a word to L before pivoting on his heel and striding down the hill.
Our eyes followed the man until he disappeared into the building across the street. Then the group turned expectantly to our leader.
“He wants us to have dinner at his place,” L explained to those of us who didn’t understand. “He just needs to ask his wife.” Five minutes of debate on whether the invitation would lead to anything later, he returned and beckoned us over. Giddy, and somewhat amazed by our continued good fortune, we followed him. Inside we were greeted by industrial fluorescent lighting and a large table laden with a variety of food. The man, whose name I later learned was Taybo, produced a motley group of plastic stools, styrafoam bowls and a cup holder filled with chopsticks sealed individually in thin plastic.
Behind him sat his mother, looking authoritative but kind. She appraised the room from her wheel chair, clad in knit hat, gloves and jacket. One hand fiddled with the blanket in her lap, the other alternated between a bowl of sunflower seeds and her mouth. She didn’t speak much but, like her son, laughed readily at our jokes. When she did speak, it was often to chide her son for some comment. Between her bare fingers she held a cigarette, which she’d point at her son whenever he’d ask an innocent, but to her, ignorant question.
The others talked, I listened and observed the room. The room itself was wide and rectangular, bearing only two windows. The front window, if one can call it that for it looked more like an opening attached to a counter where one might order food, bore no glass. Instead, a metal covering hung over it. The heavy tables we sat at featured two small stoves. In the back corner sat two unused stoves and a small black and brown dachshund. To me the building had many of the trappings of a small restaurant– including an unfinished kitchen in the corner opposite the dachshund, where a woman stood next to a growing plume of steam. Removing a pan from the steam, she walked busily over to the table and added another large plate to it and scooped more food into each of our bowls. The plate quickly became a group favorite.
“What’s in it?” one of us asked through a mouthful. L translated and the woman, Aya, turned red before confessing her family felt bad for catching and cooking them, as there weren’t many in Taiwan. She couldn’t say what the animal was in English, and we couldn’t say in Chinese. One of us grabbed their phone from their pocket and set about trying to translate. After cycling through three potential animals on google images, we finally showed her a picture of a bat. The family, having become equally invested in the game of translation, excitedly bounced and pointed. That’s confirmation enough, I suppose.
Having had my fill, I walked over to the small dog curled up on a dirty, green apron. Plopping down on the rough concrete, I introduced myself before slowly scooping the pup into my lap. She quickly fell asleep. Reluctant to remove her, I attempted to get my groups attention from the floor.
“No, I think it’s just their home– like I think this is their living room,” L steepled his fingers on the table and tapped it twice for emphasis. I looked around again at the exposed piping, and the unused stoves and the green apron and the collection of foreigners they’d magnanimously invited into their home and wondered what this family’s story was.
*We’d decided early in the trip to carry cardboard boxes with us to line the bottom of our tents, in case of rain. Most tents in Taiwan don’t have the tarp covered bottoms I’d find at home. Naturally, I thought this was a very curious practice considering Taiwan does get quite a lot of rain. As it turns out, most people camp in build wooden structures– think a platform with a slanted roof– so don’t require any of the trappings you might find elsewhere.
Feeling lost? The story starts here.