Well damn. I’m allergic to pineapples. The one food my generally non-discriminating stomach can’t stomach. But my taste buds love it. What they really love is not just any ol’ pineapple; but fresh, colourful, unbelievably flavourful and juicy, locally grown pineapple. The type of pineapple that does not (cannot) exist as an import, but that comes from a nearby field, and is recently harvested. This oval-orb-with-a-spiky-hairdo-of-a-beauty, basks in tropical sunlight and awaits an almost mind blowing experience of consumption.
Today, I took a scooter ride into the mountains on a much-needed escape from (reemergence into?) reality. I was reminded of how just one microelement of a human diet, in this case, how one fruit, can contribute to one’s happiness. Even if you physically can’t consume it, you can still find a fulfilling appreciation from it.
I’ve been in a bit of a foreigner’s funk lately, magnified since a highly inconvenient typhoon decided to spoil my weekend plans rather than my work week. I’m in need of a social life. I thrive only when I have a healthy balance of me time and we time. My original instinct to move to Changhua really stemmed from reading about the giant Buddha overlooking the small city. I mean, how could any city be less than perfect if giant Buddha is watching over things? But while I was taking care of my spiritual self, I neglected to realize that my (important) social self would be taking a backseat on this part of my journey.
Don’t get me wrong. I think internal reflection is incredibly important, and with a heavy dose of yoga lately, I’ve been rocking some pretty positive vibes. I love my job, and I really love the kids I teach. I can easily say I love Taiwan and the people here. The challenge for me rests almost completely in the language. While I am surrounded by people on a daily basis, I still feel a sense of isolation because the language is so difficult to wrap my head around, and because my city (while lovely) isn’t offering much for my age demographic. Thankfully work does keep me very busy, so I normally don’t have enough time to wallow in this—other than when a typhoon decides to wait for the least perfect moment when I have weekend plans, to make its descent. Which brings me back to pineapples.
To stamp out my self-pitying sorrow for missing what was probably an epic party (and hippie-fest… my goodness I love hippies…), I decided to take my scooter into the mountains to shake things off. I took a detour to see Buddha and to have a snack. I indulged with a sausage within a sausage. Seriously, Taiwan has it right. Why have just one sausage, when you can have two? I’m talking meat and rice here people. Come on now. You can ask for your meat sausage to be grilled next to a rice sausage. This rice sausage is then sliced, and stuffed with garlic (that you peeled while waiting), and is then stuffed with the meat sausage. BOOM. You have a sausage within a sausage. BOOM. It is amazing.
I have only just recognized the irony of eating such a thing in front of the Buddha. Clearly my many vegan and veggie friends will be raising more than a quizzical eyebrow at me, and yet I can only say that as I walked past the various vendors selling their foods and meats at Bagua Mountain, in the moment, this seemed the perfect treat to find my inner peace and to start me on my journey for the day.
So with my fill, I set off on my scooter with the intent that I would expand my internal map of the land/people-scape. I took a route that I’d begun a month ago, but where I’d been paused and distracted by some really delicious chicken. This time, I pushed past the chicken place (knowing full well I’d stop by on my way back), to explore what lay beyond. There is something very profound to be said for what goes on in one’s mind when in unknown territory. For me, it’s probably what makes me revel in any traveling experience. It’s the excitement in the heart, the rush of adrenaline, and the acute awareness to tiny details that might make or break the journey. It’s also the appreciation for the wonderment of life that is sadly too easily forgotten when we remain too long in a familiar place.
I swear this has to do with pineapples. As I pushed past the familiar, and drove beyond the delicious chicken place (which at one point had its own story of adventure for me not just a few months ago when I first found it), I wondered what I would find on this road in the mountains in central Taiwan. I was all too aware of my fellow passengers on this road.Primarily, these included some really admirable cyclists. My god. You could bounce 10NT coins (like a quarter) off of their chiseled thighs if it wouldn’t endanger their trajectory. And there are So. Many. Of. Them… Everytime I scooted past a very frequent cyclist, I would feel a little more guilty about using a motorized vehicle rather than my own legs. Wow, I’m lazy. Why am I not climbing this mountain with my bare hands or at least using a bicycle? And yet, seriously, who am I kidding? Scoot scoot scoot! I like to think I’m in pretty good shape lately, but there’s no way I’m making it this far on a bicycle. The hills and weaving turns would be enough to make me want to drive my bike off a far too tempting and frequent cliff.
Which leads me to my other fellow passengers. The hard-core-scooter-crew. These folks don their motorcycle jackets, head gear, boots, and bad bad bad ass bikes with souped up engines. I think they’re the reason the road often has herds of people lined up with massive cameras waiting to take pictures (at first I entertained the fantasy that these photographers were taking my picture, but I’m pretty sure it was the hard-core-scooter-crew they were waiting for… to be determined…). Anyway, these motorists that share the road are extremely noisy, and are incredibly intimidating. My heart jumps into my mouth when I hear their engines behind me on my little scooter, and as they zoom past my clearly under the speed limit speed, I silently curse them for scaring the beejeezis out of me. Every. Time. Though I probably can’t blame them. If I had the guts and the right bike, I’d probably haul ass around the corners and up and down the hills too. Maybe. Hmm… Maybe not. I digress. Pineapples.
The more I ventured into unknown territory, the more I became aware of the prevalence of spiky pineapple fields and roadside stalls with pineapple vendors. My goodness I love pineapple, but I have to remind myself of the fact that when I eat it, my stomach turns into a burning cauldron of froth, best left unaffected. Yet as each vendor passed, I reminisced about one of my first days in Taiwan when I had a friendly encounter with a toothless, kind, old soul. He was hauling a wagon adorned with a sun umbrella and a multitude of pineapples. I stopped him because, well, despite knowing I shouldn’t eat his product, I have a magnetism toward such friendly, foodie folk.
In one of my first successful encounters of using only Chinese and (just a little?) sign language, I proudly walked away with my bag of pineapple that he expertly skinned with a machete before my eyes. I think he even did it with just one hand. And the other was tied behind his back. And he was blindfolded. And he was juggling the knife and the pineapple at the same time. I swear. I think. It was incredible, and the pineapple was delicious. I do this every time I visit a new tropical locale. I tell myself, maybe by now I’ve developed an immunity to pineapple, or that the pineapple HERE will be okay for my stomach. Well so far I’m still wrong about my stomach’s confusion over such a delicious fruit, but I maintain it’s still worth trying out every few years.
As I passed field upon field and vendor upon vendor, I started to get excited. I realized, I’m stumbling across something pretty special here. These people are all about the pineapple. This is great. It’s everywhere! I don’t even care that I can’t eat it. I love it, and I love them, and I love Taiwan, and I love the world, and I can’t believe I was upset earlier today, and how could I be so selfish when a whole world of magnificent fruit exists just a couple of hours from my new home? These were my thoughts as I kept driving, entering deeper and deeper into pineapple territory.
I started to wonder, it’s going to get dark soon and I should probably head back, but I just can’t think of turning around yet… I’m going to keep going. And suddenly the road started to get busier and busier, to the point my scooter was stopped by a crowd. So I parked next to a friendly pair having a chat, and I started to walk toward the heart of the action. Having no idea what I was headed toward, I took in the row of vendors all selling pineapples and other food and wares along the street. The crowd seemed to converge along a path to my left, and I instinctively followed it. I was about to keep walking forward, when I noticed the crowd seemed to be in a queue that would turn around a corner toward some destination unseen. So, curiously, I stayed in the line and waited. Of course I could’ve tried asking someone around me what the line was for, but a bout of shyness and a lack of wanting to express how badly my Chinese skills have developed, kept me silent, and I waited. It wasn’t long for the line to push forward, and I realized we were about to enter a place called “Sunny Hills” – What the heck is this? I wondered, and as we got closer to the front of the line I thought, Oh dear, there is an admission table or something… Should I pay money to enter when I have no idea what it is? Should I risk my pride and ask someone around me if they speak English? Should I duck out of line and head back to my scooter? Or should I just keep going forward in the line and find out whatever awkwardness awaits me? I opted for the latter, and as it turned out, there was no admission fee, but rather the queue was for a table where generous people were handing out free pineapple cakes (YUM! I think I can eat them?). As I accepted my cake, I then proceeded to a nearby table where there was free tea waiting for me and the multitude of other visitors at this mysterious Sunny Hills.
I wandered around a little more, taking in an overall sense of euphoria and contentment at the joys of travel and adventure, and I followed another crowd headed further into this mysterious space. I’m so glad I did! I happened upon a sample area, where a band played some lovely music, and I walked around sampling different fruits, sorbets, and teas.
This seemed like the perfect moment to turn back toward the familiar. I had clearly reached the climax of the trip when I found this gem of a spot, and I know when to take my cue. It was also threatening to get dark soon, and a big cloud was lurking overhead, so I set out toward my scooter. Of course it started to rain right at this time. What sort of genius sets out on a scooter roadtrip without a raincoat? This one, right here (finger point in my direction). Mine was conveniently drying off in my bathroom from the typhoon. “Well, this will be interesting,” I thought. Only miles of pineapple fields and no chance of buying a new raincoat before I reach home. I’m going to be soaked. And yet, while I did get soaked, I also couldn’t have been more elated with the day. I took a reprieve from the rain to get my chicken from my favourite place, and made a quick stop to pick up some mango from my local fruit market—since I had limited myself to one tiny pineapple sampling, I thought I should at least indulge in some of this country’s beautiful fruit this evening. My goodness, the fruit in this country is incredible. Near indescribable, in fact.
The thing is, even if you are so-called allergic to something, you can still find appreciation in the wonder and the beauty of the thing and the things that surround it. This is true in the case of pineapple. Livelihoods depend on it. Landscapes are shaped by it. Entertainment comes from gathering around its juices, it’s aromas, and it’s basic form as a joyous fruit. Though I may be technically allergic to it, I certainly won’t let that stop me from wanting to appreciate the joys it can add not just to the lives of others, but by proxy, to my life as well. While I probably won’t consume a whole pineapple in one sitting again anytime soon (as I tried after my encounter with the toothless machete wielding old man with the pineapple wagon), I certainly won’t let that stop me from appreciating the joys this fruit brings to the world, and to this tiny part of the world in particular.