The Weathered Backpacker You can always spot him: 36 but looks 47, sunburnt battered skin, sunken hallow face, deplorable teeth, few days beard stubble, the reek of alcohol emanating from him, still pungent from the night before, stayed up all night till 6am (what's a good night's sleep to him anyway?), but already on his next beer today, dirty dingy flip flops (when was the last time you wore shoes, sir?), dirty beat up backup that's been places, oh it's been places, seen things, the backpack itself mirroring the traveler's worn legs and weary eyes, but keep pushing, keep going, never stopping, yet never going anywhere... Do you have a home, weary backpacker? Do you even remember where home is? Go home backpacker, it's time to go HOME. Why don't you go home?
Taiwan’s Beautiful and Boring Island
by Cameron Brtnik
Penghu, September 8, 2014 – My thirty-third birthday. I’m currently sitting seaside at a port in a small city on a tiny island off the coast of Taiwan, enjoying a glass of “The distinctive flavor lager beer,” also known as Taiwan Beer, and gorging on delicious freshly caught oysters and imported salmon. I feel at peace.
I needed a vacation – Not from work overload, but because in the three years I’ve been living in Taiwan, I’ve never left the island (except for my trip back home to Canada). So I decided to take a trip, alone, to a pretty neighboring island to the west of Taiwan called Penghu (actually a cluster of islets). Warning: This is a couples’ trip, so only go alone if you want to experience cabin fever…without the cabin. Albeit a beautiful island, there’s not much to do besides visit the gorgeous local beaches – I suppose everything’s “local” in Penghu – to surf, dive, or (like me) finally get through that worn paperback you’ve been schlepping around everywhere. And that’s about it. “No matter, I’ll meet people!” I thought. Unfortunately, I came to this isle toward the end of the Moon Festival holiday when people were already returning home. Oh, not to mention the plane crash that killed 48 people (including two foreign exchange students from France) just two weeks prior to my arrival. That never helps an already flailing tourism industry.
Undeterred (I had caught wind of this news the night before, but I was drunk enough at the time that I accepted my destined, likely watery fate), I took the first flight out of Taipei – which, by the way, I caught the same night of my birthday celebrations, or should I say following morning after leaving Halo, the club we were partying at, bottle service in tow – still inebriated, but somehow functional. I had smartly packed that evening and took my luggage straight to the nightclub. The plane ride was short, just an hour, and I felt safe (which I can’t say for those unfortunate souls who got caught in the typhoon), perhaps because I was passed out the whole way.
I arrived at the small airport, where I passed out for another three hours on the uncomfortable, yet somehow comfortable seats. When I awoke it was only 10:30am, and I asked about cheap hostels. Soon a van arrived to escort me, and a lovely girl named Julia, whose family owned a local hostel called “Big Fish House,” drove me straight there. It was a very cute inn, more of a Bed and Breakfast, and wasn’t very cheap – $1500nt for the night. But it was well worth the stay, with a bright, spacious room to myself, breakfast, and a scooter (for an extra $300nt) included. I spent the next two hours sleeping (still working off that hangover, or tequila, or both) then hopped on my scooter and hit Shanshui aka “Mountain Water Beach.”
The first thing I noticed along the way was that sea smell; the salty air hitting your nostrils like it was the first fresh breath of air you’ve taken in years. I was told there’d be “lots of foreigners there.” I was optimistic, as I wanted to meet some new friends to share my adventure with. There was one – he and his Taiwanese girlfriend – and he didn’t look the sort I was interested in meeting (or vice versa). So I kept to myself and got into my book – Freakonomics, a former yet still-popular bestseller I always intended to read, but never got around to till I found myself on a lonely island.
At dusk, I jumped on my scooter and headed into town; if I were to find any action, it would be in the heart and centre of Penghu! I was wrong. I found one bar that I recognized from the Taiwan Lonely Planet called Freud. It was modelled after a fishing boat, with the same charm and décor as any Canadian seafood tavern, but it was missing that one asset I was looking for: people. I ate the mediocre “Thai-style shrimp” and enjoyed the choice Heineken beer. The mood was dark and depressing, so I left soon before it “got busy.” I went back to my commodious, Japanese-style room, and passed out for the fourth time that day..
I woke up too late for breakfast, but it was still available: dried up bread loaf and two choices of spread: Nutella and peanut butter. If you know me, you know I enjoyed the shit out of it, more so because it was included (although not served in a bed). Julia, the friendly hotel manager – she and her mother manage two locations of Big Fish House, and she plans to leave in three weeks to study English in Australia for six months – drove me in her Big Fish van to the north end of the island to catch a ferry to a smaller islet fifteen minutes away. Exotically called Chikan (or “chicken island” as I preferred to call it), it’s a little paradise get-away, punctuated by stone weirs – oddly-shaped stone walls in the water originally built as fish traps – and small beaches. I visited Aimen Beach, famous for its jet skiing and banana boating. I did neither, and instead collected coral fragments that had washed ashore, and that’s what the sand was mostly composed of. A nice way to spend the day, but I was sunburnt and happy to catch the last boat back to “civilization.”
Walking along the beach I noticed one thing: I love long walks on the beach (not a cheesy dating site description). This goes back to my cottage days of walking the shore of Georgian Bay all the way to Balm Beach, over an hour’s walk, and feeling happy as a sand boy (an expression my mother often used, but I never understood. I had to look up the etymology and discovered sand boys were actually “men who drove donkeys selling sand,” and were reportedly always happy). I also noticed something else: I felt utterly alone. It wasn’t a good feeling. I realized right there and then that life is better with friends, or family, or a significant other. That feeling faded though as I thought about how lucky I was, and started plotting world domination.
I took the ferry back across the straight, caught a cab back into town, and checked into a shitty cheap hotel. I put a generous helping of aloe on that inexorable “Brtnik Burn,” grabbed my laptop, and headed down to the port where I’m currently sitting, two tall beers in, writing this diary entry. It’s my birthday, and I’m surrounded by drunken fishermen and the feeling of loneliness. I think I’ll try and bump my return ticket to tomorrow, as another day on this beautiful and boring island may make Jack a dull boy. As of right now, I feel content, but I wish my friends were here… My friends from Taiwan. My friends from China. My friends from Toronto. My brother and sister. A stranger. But all is well, and let’s all feel lucky we’re alive and not on a plane destined for doom (God bless their souls). I’ll see everyone soon. Oh, and happy Moon Festival!
-Written by Cameron Brtnik, September 8, 2014 on his 33rd birthday
Cameron is a freelance writer living in Taiwan and part-time explorer cbrtnik.com