Nothing Irregular

Anita Nair's travel lust takes her to different places in search of experiences that combine the everyday with the exotic. Here in Taiwan Anita Nair stumbles upon a phrase Irregular Entertainment which becomes the leitmotif of her times there.

I have often wondered how they do it. The legion of travel-writers from Ibn Batutta to Fa Hien to R.L. Stevenson to T.E. Lawrence to their more contemporary editions - Eric Newby, Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin…I wonder how they set about on their travels.
Does the thought come upon them one day and do they pack a little bag and their lives in one neat and precise movement, lock the doors and set upon their adventures?
Or do they dwell and ponder on should they? Or shouldn't they? Drawing little columns of figures and expenses; seeking consolation in the thought that someone would want to read the accounts of their travels and therefore the trip would justify itself; contemplating on perils to their own mortality and the ones they leave behind; making little lists of instructions for the milkman, newspaper boy and household help; leaving telephone numbers in case of an emergency on post-it notes on fridge doors and bathroom mirrors…And then in spite of everything, the pros and cons and the intrusive voice of common sense, do they go because it is easier to leave than to stay?

I have always been a wanderer of sorts. All through, the rush for me was not getting to a point but the thought that I had done something to break the monotony of everyday routine. That I had travelled to a place where I had no reason to go to.

In my twenties, travel acquired a whole new dimension. Just as hordes of foreigners descend on India equipped with little more than Lonely Planet guides and searching eyes, I set out to see a little of the world. In those days, I didn't see myself as a writer gathering experiences; every little episode to be marked and filed as grist for the mill for some future day. Instead travel became a way to still the restlessness that is part of my mental make-up. When I travelled, I discovered I could forget for the moment who I was, what I was, what my responsibilities in life were and the duties I was expected to perform. I ceased to be daughter, sister, and wife … I became this anonymous person rather like a sponge soaking in every new sensation, thought and word. I felt my senses bloom and my mind open... I came back from my peregrinations energised and quite content to stay at home. For a while. That is the other aspect to going away. You come back with a greater sense of value for what you have…

Then came a call to travel again.

"Where?" I asked.


"Sure," I said feeling that prickle down my spine that portended a journey and all the time wondering how I was going to pull it off.

Think of them, I told myself. The heroes who have populated my travelventures. Bruce Chatwin especially. He didn't worry about what happened once he left home.
And the voice of reason prodded: He wasn't a woman and didn't have a son to worry about.
In many ways, this invitation to Taiwan resembled the trip I had wanted to make for a long time. I had the name of a person I was to meet at New Delhi airport and little else. I had no agendas, no pre-conceived notions about what I was going to do or a reason, save a whim, for going. I was going I reasoned because I had never been there before.
So I packed a bag with a pair of walking shoes and some clothes and went. The romance of travel came back into my life again.

Reality bit when at the Chiang Kai Sheik airport Michael surfaced with a beaming smile and a sheaf of pamphlets and an itinerary. I was part of a group.
So began the epoch of the package tour. Fiercely planned; every little detail accounted for; itinerary schedules and advance reservations confirmed and re-confirmed, contingency plans made, our travels began to resemble military operations. Often I would look at the pile of baggage and sigh. My consolation was the thought that when Ibn Batutta had travelled, he had with him a large train of attendants and followers and also his own harem of legal wives and concubines. What was one photographer, the photographer's assistant, one model and an extra bottle of Apple Cider so chosen because the last Indian group had shown a great penchant for guzzling it down by the litre?

The trouble with being part of a group and led by our nose like a string of unruly school kids was that while it was great on companionship and laughs, it fell dismally short on excitement. We did what groups did well together - gape at gorges, go for short walks, visit Taoist-Buddhist temples and Presidential palaces…the most adventurous activity we did was to try new dishes which had already been chosen for us. There was none of that seeing a place on foot or watching the world go by for hours and hours from a pavement café. There were no encounters with the perverse and the unusual. There was neither slumming nor sleaze. Everything about our jaunts resembled packaged food - wholesome and hygienic. The writer in me cringed.

When I suggested that we try something beyond the pale, something a little more fun, something that would help me see beyond the conjured imagery of clean boulevards, shop fronts, pre-set meals and the pageantry of lantern festival, I was told, "I don't think any provision has been made for any irregular entertainment."

For a moment, I felt like when I was seven and on a school trip and had asked if I could peek into the two-headed woman's booth at the Marina Beach in Madras instead of be content with paddling in the waves. Irregular entertainment. If nothing else, this trip was worth that one phrase!

How do I tell them what it was I was looking for? That what I sought wasn't smoke ridden dark dingy bars or casinos where I could squander the family fortunes or strip bars where people took their clothes off. All I wanted was to be somewhere where I could scratch beyond the surface of the glitter. To know what made people in this country laugh and cry. What turned them on and what didn't. If grunge was in and lewd puppet shows made them giggle or turn away in disgust. Or why it is on Valentines's day I saw few real flowers and more fake flowers with chocolate hearts....

I knew then that what irregular entertainment I found would have to be sought wedged between trips hither and thither through the length and breadth of Taiwan. And then fate threw up the betel nut girls.

All along Taiwan's highways are tiny little plate glass booths with neon tubes sticking out in the air; a beckoning arc for truck drivers on the long haul. When the monotony of crunching miles deadens their senses, they pull up at a betel nut stop and revive their weariness with a betel nut. But what makes this seemingly innocuous activity seem not so innocuous is the very skimpy attire of the girls in the booths. Most of them wear few bits of lace, very high heeled boots and jaded weariness on their girlish faces.

Michael assures me that they do it only to attract custom. "These girls have body guards to protect them if a man comes on too strong," he says anxiously. I could see he was wondering if I was thinking what I was thinking about the betel nut girls and what they did.
I smiled and didn't probe any further. The poor man, I could see, was mortified. Some years ago, at Udaipur, I had drunk beer in a restaurant where it was listed Big Pepsi. Human ingenuity to couch 'irregular entertainment' only makes me want applaud!

There was nothing unorthodox about Shuimei Street. About 1.5 hour drive away from Taipei city is Sanyi. The main road in Sanyi is Jungjeng road which is a cornucopia of wood carvings. In fact Shuimei street also known at Old street or carving street is the centre of this wood carvers district. Two hundred shops stand cheek by jowl selling gewgaws and utilitarian articles, kitsch and exquisite art pieces all wrought out of wood.

And it is in a narrow back lane in Guangsheng village where the wood artisans live, the Ing Che Shi [Holy Sculpture tea house] tea house is located. Made entirely of bamboo and wood, the tea house is both open and cosy at the same time. The mistress, a lady of Hakka origin and her family run the place. There are a few groups sipping and supping at tables. The jasmine tea is fragrant but she recommends that I try the All Seasons Spring tea and as a snack, she offers a house speciality - little balls of bean curd smothered in sesame seed and something else powder. Michael is happy that we are happy despite there being nothing irregular about this little teahouse.

Ing Che Shi teahouse is also a motel and restaurant. A beautiful bamboo stair hugging an inner wall leads to rooms upstairs. I think of the first Chinese novel that I read. The Good Earth by Pearl s. Buck. In it is a teahouse which provided both tea and irregular entertainment upstairs. I wonder if I should tease Michael and then give it up deciding to do what I did best - be!

Further south, in central Taiwan is the Sun Moon Lake. It is here that the late President General Chiang Kai Shek retreated for rest and recuperation. After his death, his holiday home was made into a resort hotel which would appeal to the finickiest of sybarites. With spectacular views from each room and infinity pools and water bodies in which fish cut pathways through reeds and lotus leaves, the Lalu reveals an aspect of Taiwan that has escaped me so far. The ability for serenity and opulence to co-exist in the orient.

Back in Taipei, there is the Living mall to explore. The biggest shopping mall, it works very hard to erode the image of Taiwan being a bargain paradise or just a hot point of cheap and [and not so reliable electronics].

In contrast is the Western Gate area. This is Times Square rolled into Orchard Street rolled into Camden Town market rolled into Fashion Street rolled into the erstwhile Moore Market with its larger than life skin screens, neon lighting, teeming life and even more teeming lanes. With every step I take, every shop I enter, I realise that the Western Gate area works harder to reinstate everything that the Living mall tried to erase from my mind. Cheap cosmetics, fake Burberrys, shoes with what seemed to be one foot high heels, lanterns, hair clips, teapots, blouses, street vendors, battery operated toys, wristwatches, quilts…..this was bargain paradise no matter what anyone might say!

Perhaps the best place for serious retail therapy is the several street markets that Taipei seems to abound in. From vegetable and meat to antique and computers to jade and flowers, these markets are guaranteed to please even the most shop-a-phobic tourist.
Trapped between scenic splendours and other regular entertainment, all there is time for in the itinerary is a long ramble through the Hwashi night market. And as I stroll through the crowded night market with its plethora of food stalls, souvenirs, gifts, casual clothing and traditional handicrafts and even a pet stall, I think all one needs to be a vendor is a table, chair and some space….and yet despite its sheer kitschiness, I know I prefer this to the countless other things I have had to see as part of getting to know Taiwan.

There is real life here; an investment of real life dreams and hopes; a glimmer into the mechanisms of the mind of the people. I gather a knowledge that is born out of flesh and blood chance encounters rather than the prefabricated tourist experiences.

In the dim sum restaurant Iyachu [meaning where people change their teeth] or the Mongolian Barbecue where one puts together one's own meal, I felt that I was beginning to make a foray into the real Taiwan. But just when I was beginning to despair that I may go back without a memory that I would hold close to my heart, there was that final detour to the Wulai hot springs.

Located a 45 minute drive away from Taipei, the Wulai scenic area with its cherry trees laden with blossom, waterfalls and splendid mountains takes one's breath way. But what literally and figuratively does is the hot spring facility. In an open air room with chest high bamboo screens are natural hot springs.

There are special designated areas for men and women. In the women's section, the attendant gives out towels and a shower cap. Stumbling in, I see two old Chinese women frolicking in the waters. There is no changing room. You just swallow your modesty and go ahead…we are all sisters here bonded by our cellulite, warts, blemishes and bats wings the women seem to say with their smiles. Then they show us the ropes. Where to shower; where to keep our clothes, the cold lassi-like drink to sip from. We gleam at each other.
Neck deep in hot water, I sit feeling the waters draw out the rigours of the last few days. When the toxins spew out as perspiration, there is the cool spring water to nuzzle life and hope again………. I think of all the travel writers I have read and ponder on the fact that most of them were men. I wonder if they had been women, would it have been any different for them. Would they have been rushing to make that call every night to check on the reality of their lives? Or would they to echo that song in every traveller's heart [and Johnny Walker line now] have stared some more at the distant hills in the horizon and told themselves: Keep walking.

The tea meal that follows the hot water dip is as blessed with the munificence of nature. First of all there is the fact that every dish served at the tea meal uses tea in some form. Then there is the wide array of foods to choose from.
The chicken has been roasted using tea twigs giving it a smoky tea flavour; the freshwater shrimp has been deep fried using tea infusion, the tea cakes have a pressing of fresh tea leaves; the mountain trout poached in tea and ginger, the pork soup has plums and mountain herbs and some tea…the list is endless and when we finally rise from the table, there is an almost palpable aura of contentment.

As we troop out, I turn to Michael and can't resist saying, "Now this is what I call good irregular entertainment."

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