On a snowy evening in late November of last year, Gaila and Gary Olsen, two snowbirds from Wisconsin, took to the skies to escape the harsh, cold winter of the north.
Though their original destination remains unclear, reports suggest it may have been Florida, Texas, or Southern California. What we do know is that this high-flying couple hit violent turbulence somewhere in the skies just above Chicago, which immediately knocked out all of their navigational equipment – radar, radio, GPS, even their Spider-Sense.
After hours spent adrift in the tumultuous skies, just as the last desperate threads of hope were about to slip free of their grasp, this pair of snowbirds finally caught sight of land on the horizon. Eager to end their arduous journey, Gaila and Gary touched down at the first airport they found, which just so happened to be Kaohsiung International Airport, located a Jeremy Lin-size leap from the southern tip of Taiwan.
Unsure what to expect in this new and strange land, Gaila and Gary were pleasantly surprised to discover that the island was very hospitable, indeed. Ultimately they stayed in Taiwan for three weeks, enjoying the melange of sights and sounds.
Despite the intense media interest in their stay, I was fortunate enough to receive an exclusive opportunity to interview this peculiar pair.
What did Gaila and Gary have to say about Taiwan? Read their illuminating answers to all of my burning questions below.
What were the four most memorable places or things you saw in Taiwan?
- Taroko National Park – Hard to believe the Liwu River could slice its way thru that much solid marble. Taroko is not nearly as large as US National Parks, but every bit as spectacular.
- Kinmen Island, which lies just a few kilometers off mainland China’s coast, is a treasure trove of Nationalist Chinese history and a reminder of how vivid WWII and its aftermath are in the memories of some countries of the world.
- Fo Guang Shan Buddha Memorial Center – We thought we would see yet another beautiful, lovingly maintained, but predictable Buddhist temple. We were astounded by the scope of the complex with its pedestrian mall, multiple pagodas, extensive informational displays, bold architecture, and dramatic art.
- Taipei 101 – I’m always impressed by the effrontery of constructing a building of this scale. Views from the top are breathtaking.
- Taroko National Park by far. I have seen the Taj Mahal by moonlight, hiked in the Himalayas, and backpacked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon but this place was equally stunning as anything I have ever seen.
- Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall – Great history lesson and fun to see his Cadillacs. The building was stunning, and so were the two national theaters on the marble parkway in front of the memorial.
- Fo Guang Shan Buddha Memorial Center was totally unexpected. A huge, elegantly built complex that is visually just awesome, especially at night when the lights of the eight pagodas were lit along the quarter-mile walkway.
- The Kenting Youth Activity Center, a multi-purpose facility built as if it were an ancient Formosan village. It was located right on the ocean, away from the nighttime chaos of Kenting Street. The rooms were clean, the breakfast buffet huge, and the architecture was wonderful. We felt as if we were stepping back in time. A big plus was that they rented bikes and we were able to bike down to the Eluanbi Lighthouse at the southern tip of Taiwan and to the Kenting National Park Headquarters.
- (A bonus location!) I must say that I was fascinated by the Pine Garden retreat in Hualien, where Japanese WWII kamikaze pilots would go for their last meal before they flew off the next day to complete their mission. It was a sad place but also very beautiful, with its lovely old buildings and huge trees.
While we were there they were having a cultural music event. On one side of the garden under some huge trees was an opera singer serenading us with a variety of musical styles, followed by a Taiwanese folk group of young people in aboriginal dress singing indigenous songs. And on the other side of the path was an orchestra (about 30 people) playing traditional Chinese stringed instruments, percussion, and wind instruments. All of this was going on while we sat under the spreading banyan tree which overlooked the river’s mouth as it entered into the ocean.
I also purchased a handmade bracelet from a vendor who makes woven bracelets with her own glass beads. I took a picture of the two of us standing behind her wares and I just sent it to her a few days ago.
What were the three most interesting foods you sampled in Taiwan?
- Stinky tofu – The smell was sort of yechy but the flavor and texture were good. Even when I couldn’t see the stinky tofu stand, I could always smell it.
- In Hualien, the night market was known for its “steamed” pork buns. What made the buns so unusual was that the vendor used less water when steaming them so they came out almost baked.
- Another favorite of mine, coffin bread, was also at the night market in Hualien. To make coffin bread, the vendor took a very thick piece of French toast, sliced it on top, then pulled back the flap and filled the inside with delicious meat and/or vegetables . There were about 20 different filling choices. They would put the fully-loaded toast back on the grill to heat it up before serving it to you in a paper sack. It was delicious.
- Wonton noodles – (Sorry this is not very exotic, but I’m not an adventuresome eater).
- Hot pot with Taiwanese veggies and meats.
- Night market food – Great variety and steaming hot. This is the stuff the Taiwanese love.
What are two things you learned about Taiwan that you didn’t know before?
- Like South Korea, which we visited in 2012, Taiwan has very modern, very efficient transportation infrastructure. We tried it all – metro (subway), local train, bullet train, bus, taxi, bicycle. Everything, that is, except for the scooters. They were ubiquitous – by far the most popular method of travel. To rent scooters you need a international driver’s licenses (which we didn’t have).
- Taiwan is inhabited by a huge population tucked into a tiny area. The island is 1/5 the size of Wisconsin but has a population of 23,000,000 (4 times larger than Wisconsin’s). Almost all the populace lives on the coasts since the interior is extremely mountainous. Taiwan is a very prosperous country with a thriving democracy.
- Not many European or American tourists visit Taiwan. They don’t know what they are missing!
- Mainland China considers Taiwan to be part of China, but one that just happens to have a different governing body. I always thought that Taiwan was super independent of China and that they didn’t interact much, but the mainland Chinese that I ran into seemed to think of Taiwan as being their own.
What was the most eye-opening cross-cultural experience you had in Taiwan?
- I was pleasantly surprised by the honesty of the citizens. We weren’t able to speak Mandarin but were able to buy food in the markets, etc. They always gave us the correct price and the correct change. If I gave too much money they always returned the extra. If I didn’t buy enough fruit for the money I gave, they would make sure that I got the correct amount. This is just one example, but this type of honesty occurred many times throughout our trip. Having been robbed in Southeast Asia, stolen from in Central America, and price gouged in markets during my travels throughout the world, I am a cautious traveler, and Taiwan was a very safe and friendly country to travel in.
- There was no street crime in Taiwan. You could walk anywhere at any time of day or night and feel safe. The people are scrupulously honest. While shopping you can hold out a handful of coins and trust the merchant (street vendor or store owner) to take only what an item costs.
And that’s a wrap! I’d like to extend a big thanks to Gary and Gaila for taking the time to answer my questions and allowing me to share them with you.
I hope to see you back here often in 2015. It’s shaping up to be a very active and exciting year at Simply Unbound!