Most people will tell you that smuggling human cargo is wrong, but ask any of them if they’ve ever tried it, and I guarantee they will say “no”. How can you be opposed to something you know nothing about? People have a tendency to fear and hate what they don’t understand; that is the nature of man. However, I myself have been smuggled, and I’m here today to tell you that all in all, it was a pretty good time.
In the case of Chickenboy and his friends, we were smuggled by truck into an aboriginal village in the mountains of eastern Taiwan. You are probably wondering, Chickenboy, how did you even get yourself into this situation? Well I’ll explain that if you would just shut the fuck up for a second. Why do you have to ask so many questions?
My apologies - I didn’t mean for this post to take such a dark turn. Anyway, ever since moving to Japan I’ve visited Taiwan at least once a year; it’s easy to get there, the food is fantastic, and the warm, relaxed culture is a welcome change from the rigid social structure of Japanese life. In fact, one of my favorite things about Japan is Taiwan.
Being a social creature, I’ve made a few close friends among the locals over the years, all of whom I’ve kept in contact with since we first met. Most of them are city folk from Taipei, but one guy, who will henceforth be referred to as John, is a real-deal-Holyfield Taiwanese aboriginal. John’s family and tribe live in a small mountain village not far from Hualien, arguably the most famous tourist location on the island. When we met up with John in Hualien for the first time in over two years, he had planned to take all eight of us to his family’s side of the mountain – but there was a problem.
Because of the area’s increase in tourism over the years, several roads and villages have been closed off to the general public in order to protect and preserve the local residents’ way of life. This may come as a shock, but not everyone is interested in turning their hometown into an amusement park for loudmouth tourists in baseball caps and cargo shorts to use as a backdrop for Instagram selfies. I know, I was surprised too.
Of course, it is legal to enter the village, but not before registering with a guard who takes down a head count along with everyone’s names. Each village accepts a limited amount of visitors per day, and considering that there were eight of us plus John and his ladyfriend (a Chinese mainlander about 12 years his junior), we had a slim chance of being granted permission to land. Luckily, John had planned ahead by building a makeshift tarp cover around the bed of his truck; the eight of us would climb inside, keep our stupid mouths shut and wait until we had made it past the guards.
After we all piled into the truck, we drove out of the city center and began our mountain ascent. I knew we were getting close when the guardrails disappeared and the road kept getting thinner; luckily John was a skilled driver because one false move and all ten of us would have suffered the same fate as the O’Doyles:
John banged on the window separating him from us and shouted something in Chinese. I only know four words in Chinese (hello, thank you, delicious, and masturbate – the most used words in my vocabulary), but I believe what he said could be translated roughly to “everybody back there shut the fuck up”, because that’s what everyone did. We pulled the truck over and John killed the engine while the eight of just sat there in dead silence, making nervous eye contact and then staring down at the truck bed. This moment couldn’t have lasted more than two or three seconds, but it certainly felt longer than that. Then an unfamiliar voice broke the silence – in Chinese, of course.
Whenever I hear two people speak in a language I don’t understand, I have a tendency to assume everything they’re saying is more significant than it actually is. If I’m not mistaken, this is a common experience. I suppose the element of exoticism has something to do with it; when I was a student in Boston I met a gorgeous Russian girl who could barely speak English, and everything she did was interesting to me. A year and a half later her English had become good enough for us to carry on a decent conversation, and as it turns out, she was boring as shit and a bit of a spoiled brat as well. But to be honest, I say that about pretty much every hot girl who doesn’t sleep with me.
Anyway, back to the smuggling. John and the guard went back and forth for a minute or so, and since they weren’t talking about or food or masturbation, I couldn’t understand a word. Whatever John said must have impressed the guard because nobody came to inspect the truck bed and soon after the engine started up again and off we went, way up into the mountains of Hualien. After about five minutes, we pulled over again and John got out of the truck and yanked the tarp off the truck bed. Sunlight! We had made it through.
My first impression of Taiwanese mountain villages was damn, people start singing karaoke really early here. It was only noon, and several of John’s elderly relatives had gathered in what appeared to be a barn-turned-restaurant complete with a karaoke machine from the 80’s, located in the center of the village. They were all red in the face and it was clear that the liquor had already been flowing for quite some time. My kind of people. “These are my aunts and uncles,” explained John. “They live out back. They’re retired and they just do this all day. You can have a look around if you want, they have a garden out back.” I walked around the side of the barn and saw a very old, very drunk man peeing in the garden.
“Living the dream” is an expression that gets tossed around with relative ease nowadays, but when I tell you these old folks were living my dream, I mean it. Every day they wake up, eat from their garden, pour a drink, fire up the karaoke machine and urinate publicly. Is there anything more to life than that? I really don’t think so.
I have always been fond of wine, women and song, and so I gladly accepted their offer to join in the festivities. Soon we found ourselves eating fresh mountain vegetables and washing everything down with cheap, local rice wine while the old folks sang Chinese pop hits from the 70’s and 80’s. Not a bad way to start a trip. None of us were allowed to leave without singing at least one song, so when the mic came my way, I took a big gulp of wine and did my best rendition of California Dreamin’. This experience was far more positive than the last time I tried to drink and sing karaoke in broad daylight because it didn’t end with me getting kicked out of Best Buy.
Next on the agenda was a short hike out of the village and higher up into the mountains. Every ten minutes or so we would come across a street vendor or food cart offering various local products; everything was grown, farmed, hunted or made in that village. It was a farmer’s market hipster’s wet dream. My personal favorites were the sausage stand (Who can say no to meat on a stick?), and the knife maker who fashioned his knives out of steel and animal bones. And in case you doubted the authenticity of his wares, he kept beside him a barrel filled with the skulls and bones of various creatures which (I assume) he hunted himself. Do not start an argument with this man.
It was beginning to get dark and we would have to turn back if we were to make it back to the truck before sundown. But the day wasn’t over yet; John’s sister, who lived in another village nearby, was hosting a barbecue for their cousin’s birthday - and everyone was invited. Twenty minutes later I found myself sitting around a plastic table beside a chicken coop (b’Gawk!). We were three Americans, five Taiwanese, and a rotating cast of aborigines, all of whom were related to John in one way or another. One of his cousins arrived with two cases of Taiwan beer, handed each of us a big green bottle and shouted, “Happy birthday!”
And it was. We ate, drank and, in spite of the language barrier, understood one another just fine.
“Do you like the fish?” John asked me.
“I do. So good”
“I caught it in the river. The only seasoning I used is salt. How about the pork?”
“So good. Everything here is amazing.”
“It’s wild boar from this mountain. I hunted it.”
“So you killed everything on this table right now?”
“Yes I did. With this,” and he held up a beast of a blade that looked oddly familiar to me. Have you ever noticed how any meal, however simple, tastes better when you know exactly where it came from? Well I got to hold the blade that killed my dinner.
Soon the hour was getting late and we were running out of boar and beer; it was time to bid farewell. We exchanged goodbyes, took a few photos and piled our drunken asses into the back of the truck for the last time. The ride back was a quiet one, as none of us were quite ready to leave the town for the city just yet, but still we knew how lucky we were to have lived this day.
So the next time you are approached with an offer that sounds a little too shady for comfort, at least hear the guy out first, because who knows, you might get a free dinner out of it.