Pingshi 003 – The Formosan Magpie Coffee Shop
March 29, 2010
When we got to the end of the train ride from the Coal Mining Museum, I heard someone speaking English. It was a young software Engineer from New York visiting Taiwan on a long leave of absence. He was of Chinese heritage, so it wasn’t until I heard him speak that I knew he was Canadian or American. He was part of a large group of train buffs that had signed up for a special trip that began all the way back in Taipei. He, and the four friends he was with (plus the hundreds of other members of his group), wore name tags. I glanced at his and learned his name was Sean Su. I walked with Sean and chatted with him as we made our way on foot back to Shifen proper. He and his friends stopped at a stall to get a snack. I was looking at something else and wasn’t paying attention, so I didn’t know what they were getting. It was only later as we kept walking that I realized it was ice cream inside fried bread. It looked delicious, and later on, I went to this stall and got my own fried ice cream. I had never had fried ice cream before, and it was a revelation. I had heard the name before, but I never knew what it was. It always puzzled me. How do you fry ice cream without melting it? It sounded disgusting anyway. I didn’t know that the ice cream was inside a dough covering. The dough was deep-fried in thirty or forty seconds making a crispy hot coating. And the ice cream was still inside – cold and delicious. I almost went back for three or four more, but I contented myself with a bowl of noodles.
It was a relatively simple matter to get the train back to Pingshi. I got off at Lingjiao as I had planned and walked the last kilometer. I couldn’t figure out how to get right to the river, but the path I followed went through the villages along the way and was quite pleasant. Back in Pingshi, I took a shower and rested for a while before heading out for dinner. Mr. Wang had told me that everything in Pingshi closed at 7:00 p.m. and I had to eat by then if I didn’t want to go hungry. I was out by 6:00, and already the town was nearly empty of its daily influx of visitors. A few had stayed behind to light lanterns and watch them rise into the dark night sky. There was always at least one lantern visible in the sky somewhere and usually as many as four or five. During the weekend of the Lantern Festival there are hundreds in the sky at one time. But even three or four, burning and glowing in the sky, was a beautiful sight. The tradition is to write wishes on the lantern. You could wish for success or wealth or health. People often fill all sides of the paper lantern with Chinese characters. The lanterns are roughly four feet high and two or three feet across when inflated with warm air.
When the lantern is ready to be launched, the people carry it to the middle of the street or sidewalk. At least two people are required to hold it by its corners and pull it open a little bit. At the base of the lantern is a small platform or clamp containing a bunch of paper soaked in flammable liquid. Someone from the lantern shop will guide people through the process, lighting the paper and then watching the balloon fill with hot air. When it is ready, he tells them to let go and the balloon floats up. The more daring purchase a lantern with a long string of firecrackers attached. These bang and flash as the lantern rises. It’s a risky business. Let go of the lantern too soon, and it doesn’t have enough lift to raise it fast enough before the wind catches it and pushes it against a nearby building. Hold on too long, or if one person holds on while the other person lets go, and the lantern might tilt and the flames will lick the paper sides. In a split second, the lantern is a mass of flames and everyone scatters. I saw that happen once while I had my bowl of noodles, and I wondered what this meant to the Taiwanese. Beliefs like these cut both ways. It’s one thing to write your wish for health and happiness on a lantern that rises into the heavens. What does it mean when that lantern doesn’t rise, but bursts into flame on lift-off? Would they feel cursed?
I felt in the mood for another bowl of noodles, and I found an interesting little spot in a back alley. After the noodles, I was still hungry, though, and I topped off with snacks from various street stalls. I had a pancake made from some kind of vegetable. Then I had two sausages on a stick. The place that sold the sausages, like many, many places in Taiwan, was “famous.” They had been featured in magazine and newspaper articles – articles which were proudly displayed. Being famous, they received ten times the customers that nearby sausage stalls received. People were more than willing to wait a long time in line for one of these famous sausages rather than get an unknown sausage in ten seconds from another stall. At that time of night, only two people were in line, and I got my sausages there. They came in three varieties: two of them with garlic slices pushed into slits in the sausage, and one with just a sauce. I knew this from the photographs on display. Photographs always make things much easier. I asked for the sausages with the sauce, and soon wished I hadn’t. I thought it was a kind of harmless mayonnaise, but it had a powerful flavor that got up my nose and into my throat and everywhere. I tasted that sauce for hours afterwards. I couldn’t put my finger on the flavor. All I knew was that it was strong – even overpowering.
It had been a long and busy day, and after a stroll around the town watching the lanterns in the sky, I went back to my homestay. Being away from “home” and in a homestay, I felt no guilt at turning off the lights and crawling into bed even though it was only nine at night.
I didn’t get quite the fantastic night of sleep I had hoped for. It was extremely cold inside the room, and the comforter was not quite enough to keep me warm. I put on T-shirts and socks, but even that wasn’t enough. I slept, but only fitfully, and I woke up with blood-shot eyes. Coffee with Mr. Wang was a pleasure the next morning. He made a good cup of coffee, and he sat with me and chatted while his guests slowly trickled down from his 8 rooms and checked out. Mr. Wang was a member of a local business society that tried to improve things in Pingshi and the other towns. He told me some stories about the history of Pingshi, and we talked about ways the region could be improved. The only serious problem I saw was one that Pingshi shared with nearly every town in Taiwan – the crazy traffic that raced through the main street, and the lack of space for pedestrians. It would be ideal if through-traffic could be diverted around the town (at least for the weekends) and the main street blocked off and reserved for pedestrians. As it is now, cars blast through at high speed with very little room on either side. The motorcycle and scooter clubs are worse. They get used to driving at high-speed through the curves – the only reason they’re out driving on this road – and it goes against their instincts to slow down. It gives the town a frantic and noisy atmosphere along the main drag. The old street and the rest of the town including the train station is on the other side of the river, so it is very pedestrian-friendly over there at least. It’s only on the main drag where Mr. Wang’s café is located that there is this problem.
It’s astonishing, really, how quickly a foreigner like me can find an entrée into local society. Mr. Wang made me feel like I was a long-term resident though I was there just for two days and one night. While I spent time with him, many other business owners dropped in to talk and compare notes. He introduced me to some other men that came in, all of them men in their sixties. They were Mr. Wang’s classmates. Being classmates in Taiwan is much more important than it would be in the west. It is often a life-long relationship in Taiwan. One such classmate chatted with me for a while and told me about another classmate of theirs who owned a coffee shop on a side road about 2 kilometers from Pingshi. He gave me directions and told me to look for a sign with a beautiful blue bird with a long tail. This is the national bird of Taiwan, he said, and in the morning or evening, you can see this bird flying over this coffee shop.
I can never resist a coffee shop and, not even bothering with breakfast, I got my backpack from the homestay, and went in search of this place. As I walked to my homestay, one of the scooter clubs I mentioned came through town. There were fifty tricked-out scooters in this group and they raced through the street at a reckless speed. I caught up with them outside Pingshi where one of their number had wiped out. It looked to be a young woman. An ambulance was already there and the injured woman was being carefully maneuvered onto a hard stretcher. Members of the club had deputized themselves as traffic monitors, and they were directing traffic around the accident site.
I found the coffee shop without a problem. I had actually seen the sign with this bird on it many times before, but I didn’t know what it was. The road was #43, and I had never gone down it before. The coffee shop was located just a kilometer or two up #43 on the left. The driveway was very steep and as I carefully rode my scooter down it, two chained-up beagles went insane barking and snarling at me. I think if they were free of the chains, they would have come up to me as friendly as can be. However, with the chains and with their owner holding them back, they just kept barking and snarling – their tails wagging like crazy the whole time. I wanted to tell the woman to just leave them alone and they’d probably be friendly, but I didn’t know how to get that message across.
The coffee shop was located right on a river with steep hills on both sides – hills covered in thick jungle. It was a beautiful place. I was glad to have discovered it. It will be nice to return there on a sunny day and perhaps see one of these national birds. It was the middle of the day, however, and the birds were not out. The owners of the restaurant showed me a room whose walls were covered with large photographs of the bird. It was a brilliant blue with a long tail dotted with white circles. It was called the Formosan Magpie.
It was something of a cold and windy day, but a few other people and I still sat outside, hunched against the wind, to enjoy the views of the river and the jungle-covered hills. The waitress called me to the edge of the cliff at one point. She took a piece of bread and spun it out into the air like a Frizbee. It floated down and landed in the river below. Within seconds, the fish had found it and a feeding frenzy began. The slice of bread took on a life of its own and raced around on the surface of the water as the fish attacked it from below.
Road 43 continued deep into the mountains, and after I finished my coffee, I followed this road to see where it would go. I was soon lost in a maze of narrow country roads twisting and turning at steep angles to the tops of hills and then snaking their way back down again. At the top, there would often be a temple. I passed houses and other buildings, wondering all the while who lived there, what their lives were like, and what they did out here in these mountains. Some roads were so unused that a thin green moss had grown on the pavement. This moss was as slippery as ice, and I nearly lost control of the scooter a couple of times before I realized what was going on. Then I drove more carefully and kept my eye out for that telltale green.
I was, in a sense, totally lost. I had no idea where I was going. However, it didn’t matter. I’d been out in these mountains riding my bicycle or driving my scooter on a number of occasions, and though I never seemed to run out of new roads to follow and new places to discover, I never stayed permanently lost. The tiny roads would eventually meet up with slightly larger ones, which in turn would meet even larger ones till I reached a road that I recognized. Then I could make a decision on which direction to take and whether it was time to turn my front wheel back to Taipei.
After two or three hours of this exploration, I reached a road that I knew very well. If I turned left, I would go south to Pinglin – another beautiful little town, one famous for its tea. A right turn would take me to Shirding – another interesting, old mining town – and then to an intersection with the road that had started this magical weekend. There I could choose to go right and back to Pingshi or left and back to Taipei. An hour later, I was driving back up Fushing, past the gas station, and then down Nanjing to my apartment. I parked my scooter where I had picked it up just the previous morning. As always with these short trips, it seemed like my departure was long ago and not just a mere 36 hours in the past.