A few years ago I was living and working as a teacher in the Penghu islands, a small archipelago off the coast of Taiwan. As part of my teaching contract, I had an apartment on the first floor of the school, it was small, yet it offered a great view of the surrounding area from my bedroom window.
From this spot I was able to voyeuristically take in the daily rituals of many. Yet it was the nightly garbage collection that had me perched at the window every night.
I shall explain.
Firstly, garbage collection is a weekly ritual in Australia and somewhat straightforward and boring. In the early hours of a council appointed day, a garbage truck noisily makes its way along the street, emptying the contents of each wheelie bin into its large bowels. There is nothing interesting about the process it is simply what it is – a garbage collection.
In Penghu, it’s different, entertaining and occurs every night around 9pm.
With a similar sound to that of an ice-cream truck, the garbage trucks of Penghu fill the night air with upbeat, happy music to herald their impending arrival.
On hearing the familiar tune, residents rush out of their homes laden with bags, boxes and a variety of other vessels containing their daily waste.
At certain points it stops, and as residents know these points, they uniformly wait in line for the trucks impending arrival, then in a very orderly fashion they deposit their rubbish into the back where it is then churned, crushed or devoured.
From my vantage point, it appears to be a beautifully choreographed show with all players performing their roles with the utmost precision and patience.
And as the music fades and the truck’s lights disappear from view, I watch as some residents return to their homes, whilst others linger: perhaps taking this moment to re-connect and socialise.
This seemingly simple, nightly garbage collection encapsulates what I love about travelling: experiencing a city’s unique and quirky rituals and how they shape the way of life for those who live there.
Until recently I was living in Penghu, an island of the coast of Taiwan. As one of only a handful of foreigners, I mainly had only my ‘self’ for company, which meant if I wanted to be in an image, it had to be a selfie.
I did a status update on Facebook recently that read, ‘Sometimes in life, we find ourselves in places we never thought we’d be, but we when have to leave, we find ourselves wanting to stay’.
In early November I moved to Penghu, an island off the coast of Taiwan, to take on a teaching position. When I arrived I found my new home somewhat daunting and foreign. I felt a little lost, a little alone and a long way from those I loved most. But this new life soon began to feel comfortable, and metaphorically, somewhat akin to buying a new dress. Initially, wearing that dress is exciting for it feels new and fresh, but it also feels strange as it doesn’t quite fit the contours of your body. Yet after a while, it begins to feel comfortable and before long, it fits perfectly.
That is how I felt following my first few weeks in Penghu. I had eased comfortably into my teaching role, created my space in a small apartment and fell a little in love with a few of my beautiful students, whose enchanting smiles and infectious giggles enriched my day. I knew I had found what I wanted to do and I was happy.
In those first weeks, I also heard about a place called The Beach Break 衝浪店, a funky little bar run by South African expat, Ted and his wife Shao Mai. It was apparently the place where the handful of Penghu foreigners (roughly 20 in total) gathered on Sunday afternoons to play music whilst enjoying cold beers and good company.
One afternoon I headed out to Shanshui, the quiet beachside village where the bar is located. After a 15 minute ride I arrived, and soon found the ramshackle bar tucked on the corner of the main street. It exuded character and charm.
Waxed surfboards stood against a graffiti covered wall and inside, a scattering of wooden stools and a well-worn leather couch created the space in which I imagined, many travel tales were shared.
At the bar, two men stood talking, obviously comfortable in each other’s presence and on seeing me, welcomed my presence with warmth and enthusiasm. That afternoon, in a little bar on a remote island, new friendships were formed and ones that filled my remaining weeks in Penghu with fun, laughter and true companionship. That dress had truly begun to fit, I loved my teaching role, I had formed new friendships and I was very comfortable living in this unique part of the world.
However, there was one element missing. My sons and my dogs. I missed them terribly and they missed me, yet we managed that ‘missing’ with regular Skype calls and messages and accepted that my plan to stay in Penghu for 12 months would remain in place.
But plans change. And change they did. Certain changes occurred at home and it meant my presence in Australia was needed and as a result, a decision had to be made. It was difficult, for I felt a strong sense of obligation to fulfill my contract in Penghu, yet as a mother my children’s needs were of paramount importance and therefore naturally overrode my needs and the needs of others.
Within days, hurried travel arrangements were made amid mixed emotions and tearful farewells to my beautiful students and a group of people who had quickly become my Penghu ‘family’. The kindness and care from Wednesday, Lisa and the lovable Bamboo had touched my heart and saying goodbye was not something I wanted to do so soon after meeting. And bidding farewell to Vivien, who I met quite by chance one day at another friends house, was particularly difficult. A beautiful woman of Taiwanese heritage, who had lived in Germany for many years and as a consequence, spoke with an accent that was a wonderful mix of Chinese and German.
Shortly before I decided to leave Penghu, I was at Viv’s house sharing a good bottle of French red and great conversation. Asking her advice relating to my need to head home she offered these words: ‘Jen, does it make sense’, at that moment I knew staying in Penghu didn’t make sense and I had to go home despite my strong desire to fulfil my commitments in Penghu. Adding to my distress, I now had my ‘Penghu kids’ who were depending on me and the thought of disappointing them tug at my heart. But Viv’s 5 words put everything into perspective and I thank her for that and also thank fate for allowing our paths to cross.
I am now home and happy. My 3 months in Penghu changed my life in many ways. That unique little island gave me direction and my wonderful children who I had the pleasure to teach, fuelled my desire to take my teaching to another level and as such, I am about to commence Graduate Diploma in Teaching. And my wonderful new friends? We will meet again, maybe in Penghu or maybe elsewhere.
Sometimes we do find ourselves in a place we never thought we’d be and if you happen to find yourself there, embrace it for it may shape the rest of your life, as Penghu has for me.
Living and teaching in Penghu, Taiwan brings many photo opportunities. The other day my kids celebrated the American Thanksgiving holiday. Parents shared moments with their children, children shared moments with each other. And in those moments, light filtered into the rooms bathing those beautiful people in the warm, afternoon light.
As of today, I have been living in Penghu for 3 weeks. Notice that on has changed to in, that’s because I have a habit of getting it all a little wrong sometimes, so when it comes to whether one lives in or on Penghu, apparently it’s in. So I stand corrected, I live in Penghu.
And whilst we’re on the subject of habits, I have another: a habit of naming inanimate objects. Trust me, this information is relevant. There have been suitcases named Boris and Gwen, a camera called Colin and an automatic pool cleaner named Bill, to name a few. Those who know me personally will attest to this little idiosyncrasy without protest, yes I know it’s strange, but hey that’s me.
With that done, I shall get down to the business of life in Penghu 3 weeks on.
First order of the day is Francine. Remember I said I name inanimate objects? Well Francine is a rather flash, 100cc Kimco moped, or maybe I should say motorcycle (let’s not have another on or in Penghu moment) that I purchased a week ago. Our relationship didn’t get off to a good start, not that Francine did anything wrong, it was all about me. You see I have always had a fear of two-wheeled motorised transportation that I would have to control, but put me on the back and it’s okay. I know, weird. On many overseas adventures, my wonderful ex husband, (yes he’s still wonderful despite being the ex) and I would often hire a bike, and I would willingly jump on the back and enjoy the ride. Yet the thought of being in control was something that sent shivers through my body. So as much as Francine looked quite lovely and she behaved brilliantly when Asha (fellow teacher) took her for a spin, I was still somewhat reluctant to take control.
Frightened would be an understatement, mortally terrified would be a more apt description of how I felt when the time came to mount Francine. Adding to my fear, I had to ride through the centre of town on my first foray into two-wheeled motorised ownership as Asha and I had arrived together on her bike to collect Francine. As a result we had two bikes, so someone had to ride Francine home didn’t they?
A solution to my dilemma was thankfully at hand. Asha decided we would ride together on Francine to a nearby car park and have a quick lesson. Once I felt confident (cough, splutter) we would return to collect her bike, then we would ride home separately.
Sounds simple hey? And as much as I would love to relay some hilarious mishap relating to my lesson, I can’t, as much to my surprise, it actually went smoothly. After about 15 minutes of scooting around the car park I felt quite comfortable. Francine behaved beautifully and we began to bond.
One week later we have definitely bonded and I’m left to wonder why I had never addressed my fear of riding a motorbike previously. I really enjoy it. I can mix it up with the locals, even manoeuvering Francine through the mix of humanity and motorbikes that descend upon the daily market. A challenging, yet highly exhilarating experience.
Buying Francine has also given me the opportunity to head out-of-town, along narrow roads with only cows and the odd villager for company. It heralds a different kind of exhilaration and the kind that comes with being at one with myself: no expectations, no destination and open to discovery. Francine and I did that very thing yesterday. We rode along quiet roads, through remote villages to find stunning beaches and small harbours where aging fishing boats rocked gently upon azure waters.
My three weeks in Penghu have definitely allowed me to make many discoveries and many changes. Not just about this interesting island I now call home, more importantly, I’ve made them about myself. It’s a good feeling.
On a final note though, some things will never change, my need to name inanimate objects. And with that being said, my computer and constant companion here in Penghu (apart from Francine of course) is without a name.
p.s. She is a white MacBook 😉
A collection of shoes in the carpark, yet there was not a soul on the beach?
I’ve been living on Penghu for just over a week now and interestingly enough I feel like I’m starting to fit. Contrary to what I wrote in an earlier post about it probably taking a while to feel like it’s home, the last few days it’s starting to feel exactly that, like home. And like any home, it has its good, bad and ugly.
Here’s my list so far. I’m sure it will change, which is the exact reason I wanted to compile this list, so here it is, in no particular order.
1. The incredible kindness of the Taiwanese people.
2. Hearing my kids chant, ‘Good afternoon Teacher Jen’.
3. Being told about a bakery that bakes REAL baguettes, then tasting them. (You would understand this simple pleasure if you had been subjected to the bread here).
4. Inventing a recipe of sweet potato, garlic and rice (seriously delicious).
5. The kindness of my fellow teacher, Asha: thank you from the bottom of my heart.
6. Buying Francine, my 100 cc scooter and then having the wonderful Asha teach me to ride.
7. Not having to wear RED lipstick to work. (Or any make-up for that matter: oh the joy).
8. Having a 5 min walk to work, or a 1 minute ride on Francine.
9. Playing the dancing game with my kids and dancing like there’s no-one watching.
10. The simplicity of life on Penghu that is totally free of negativity.
11. The musical garbage truck, my nightly entertainment, ah life is full of such simple pleasures when one does not have a television or books. (A post featuring this is in the works, stay tuned).
12. Simply being free to be ME…
13. Learning and confidently saying thank you, hello, how much and I don’t understand in Chinese. (No easy feat, so I’m very proud of myself).
14. Being recognised by the Vegetarian vendor at the market. (Ahh, I’m finally unforgettable in someone’s eyes!)
15. The Everything Shop. (Seriously that’s its name and it literally has everything).
1. My rock hard bed. (My mother would LOVE it).
2. My crushed rock pillows. (A visit to The Everything Shop might soon be in order).
3. The relentless howling winds that are unforgiving to the unsuspecting. (Thankfully they die down in February, hmmmf only 2 months to go!).
Not too much on the Bad list and as for the Ugly, well I’ve yet to find that one…
The beautiful people…
The beautiful Petty….
More of my kids…
Dancing like no one is watching…
A little of the old…
Juxtaposition of old and new…
Yes, it looks comfy, lurking beneath is a rock hard bed and crushed rock pillows…