Monday, July 27, 2015

Mountains, MTR and a motorcar

It takes courage to push yourself to places that you never have been before, to test your limits, 
to break through barriers…(Anais Nin) 

I’m coming up to my fourth week mark in Taiwan, and already I have a sensation of time speeding up with only 8 or so weeks to go. Apparently this is the arts residency dance where you begin with the notion that you have heaps of time, and with a ‘longish’ list of potentially achievable goals. Then as time rolls along those goal posts begin to shift, you adapt and change, seek out and follow new and different directions, all the while adjusting your expectations and reconsidering your project outcomes. Certainly for me each week is bumper full and is its own unique adventure.  

This week it is the week of the M’s!!  
Meetings and greetings with more artists and potential collaborators along with some serious solo hiking and a road trip exploring some of the mountain regions of Taiwan. The latter also involved a motorcar, and as the only artist with an International Driver's permit, purchased before I left Oz, I self-nominated for the role. A day or so later, as I sat in the driver’s seat indicating and about to turn onto a main artery of Taipei, I am definitely having second thoughts…..but more about that later...

By now there are aspects of Taipei you have begun to admire and love, including these M’s:
  • A model public transport system that is one of the best I have experienced anywhere. The Taipei MTR is cheap, efficient, super clean, and seems to always take you close to where you want to go. I have not waited longer than about three minutes for ANY train and the line connections are equally as smooth with all entry and exit directions in both English and Mandarin. Win!
  • The range and variety of food available at all hours is extraordinary. Fresh and inexpensive meal options abound; superb seafood (Shilin Night Market is especially fab), Noodles, Tofu every which way, and just about anything on a stick. Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese, Korean, and all some of the best food I have eaten for the least amount of $$$. Night markets, basement food halls, vegetarian buffets, lane way street stalls along with a raft of restaurants make selection a real challenge. In addition there is dessert; sweets, cake stalls and various pastry delicacies, all to be tried and tested (I love the way there are small samples so that there is always a smorgasboard of tasty treats) A pineapple sort of biscuit cake is a particular local specialty, and there is a fruit icecream pancake combination with shaved peanut brittle and coriander that has a unusually delicious texture and flavour. This along with a myriad of iced teas on offer in every form and fruity combination. Just don't forget the Taiwanese love their sugar, it’s added into everything including bread, so be sure to ask for your drinks without. The coffee is also amazing, best I have had in Asia, and again options are plentiful. Food here is pretty important, it is central to family and social life, and is a keen topic of conversation with locals and the artists!  I have also never in my life seen more 7-11’s, Family Marts, etc. they are on every street and sell practically everything at all hours. Also, food is the essential thing, while the alcohol is not. At meals everyone definitely drinks substantially less than in Australia, and appears less interested generally in drinking. Selecting where one is going out for a coffee? Well, that’s another thing altogether..!
Shilin Night Market
Hyangro & Helene from TAV, Shilin Night Market
Choose your combo

Dumpling heaven

        • And Mountains…for a woman from the wild west of Oz I am instantly dreamy at the sight of cotton-balled invisible summits leading to hidden heavens. On the weekend I head out solo to Yangmingshan National Park (about 30 mins or so out of Taipei ) for my first major trek. An MTR ride, then a bus trip takes you up into the park where there is a free shuttle that will drop you at various key points for some serious trail blazing. I end up near hot bubbling smoking sulphur pits, and begin what turns out to be a two-hour trek up to the main summit of the park. I am glad I started early as it is a grade 13-14 climb and it feels like I am sweating pints in minutes. The humidity thickens the air and the climb is vertical, so its one foot after the other following the pathway ever upwards. I am also glad for the water bottle, and the change of T/shirt I brought, which proves a necessity for the return bus trip. The Taiwanese take their hiking pretty seriously and everyone is decked out in full body skins, flapped hats with trekking poles to go. I feel somewhat skimpy in my shorts however my cap is a life-saver. This is because I unfortunately don’t have the obligatory face cloth, (that those better prepared have on hand) so as I drip, my cap collects. The experience and the views are amazing, and the elated feeling lingers as I dip my weary feet in a warm sulphur pool down in the valley on the other side.

          I was up there!
          Oh, and did I mention Massage? Again a kaleidoscope of options. From inexpensive shopfront foot massages & reflexology at around $10-15AUD, through to the full spa hot spring experience in the mountains and then everything in between. You can get a two-hour Thai massage from around $40AUD, but for the best value and experience? In the basement of Taipei City bus station the society for the blind give massages from about $8AUD, and they are superb.

          The creative week begins on Sunday with a bus and taxi ride to Banqiao to attend the open studio of the 435 Art Studio residency space. (see side page) I'm with another TAV artist Helene Juillet and it’s great to meet some local artists, see their work, and we happily chat away an afternoon.
          My project is now getting underway and I am beginning to explore physical ideas and music in the studio. I research and read about Chinese birth, death and marriage rituals, ghost stories and Taiwanese poetry along with various articles I uncover around my subject and themes. I meet artist/performer Li Hui Huang, recently returned from post-graduate studies in Chicago, who will join the project as my translator.  I also coffee with experienced dancer/ creators Hsiao-Tzu Tien and Yiching Liao along with my colleague Hsu Yen-Ting. I am hopeful the dancers can join me in a few weeks time as things begin to take shape.
          In my various meetings I am having some fascinating discussions with these women about their professional practice and what life is like for them here as practicing contemporary Taiwanese artists. They are curious too to hear my initial perceptions of Taiwan. I reflect on my curiosity about the obvious street presence of the ‘dream-factory’ Taiwanese bridal industry, and we talk about the pressures for Taiwanese women to marry and traditional familial expectations. I am intrigued by the sheer number and variety of wedding boutiques, their array of rainbow fantasy gowns often worn by faceless, head-less and arm-less mannequins, complete with chandelier or grand piano or both!  I learn that the structure, formalities and ritual of the ‘modern’ Taiwanese wedding are very elaborate performances and a significant rite of passage for many young couples…This fuels my thoughts as my research turns up myths and stories of ‘ghost’ brides, and of unmarried women who are ‘hungry’ ghosts (make that malevolent and angry in some way)..its very intriguing…there will be more on this in future posts.

          Back to the motorcar and those mountains…
          There are many challenges we face as we push ourselves in new directions, reach out to total strangers and attempt to interpret and understand signs and signals we cannot read. It’s all part of the experience of being an Asialink arts resident, and yet there is an added deliciousness when you do make that new it practical, personal, cultural or creative. You are pushing at your own edges as well as learning about the environment you are in and the people that you meet. 
          TAV resident Yoni Lefevre (from the Netherlands) is completing her residency at the end of the week, so we make rough plans for a road trip to the not to be missed iconic Taroko National Park. With the assistance of her Taiwanese friend Hui-Chun Chen we book a car (note: at a much cheaper rate than the advertised English price) while another resident Helene books us a B & B....and it is this that sees me a day or so later negotiating a brand new Lexus out into that evening traffic. The face of the woman who rents it to us is hilarious, as she instructs me for the tenth time in Chinese how to use the brake. She is far more anxious than me, but I do feel slightly unnerved, what have I taken on? As I sit on the wrong side of the car, and head out onto the wrong side of the road, the GPS has become my new best friend?  Moments later 'she' is my worst enemy as 'she' instructs me to make a left turn straight into a packed night market…it is a VERY close shave although we make it through to the other side with no broken bones..(just)
          On the road
          We depart at 6.30am the next day, aiming to avoid the morning rush of 1000’s of scooters and cars, and slowly over the next 48 hours my driving skills and confidence will improve. I am ably coached by my awesome 'artistic' team who are all providing instructions as we tunnel it, hair-pin bend it and rally drive around the mountains…Its often a heart-stopping close encounter, and yes, perhaps just a little bit of what I came here for.
          Taroko Gorge
          The Baiyang Trail

          View from Chandong temple

          We spend the next two days visiting the seriously beautiful East Coast region of Taiwan (see side page for more info)There is the marble cliffs, deep gullies, rushing rivers and sheer mountainsides of the eye-popping Taroko Gorge. Getting lost down tight one-way lanes and then finding our B& B internet surprise. Deeply bedded down in the countryside in amongst the rice paddies it proves a total winner with superb local hosts, startlingly good amenities, and postcard views of those lush mountains from the bed through an enormous window. After a night street eating in down town Hualien we begin the day trekking through bamboo to a hidden rock pool near Xincheng (lead by our B& B owner, who is one unforgettably generous host) Here we swim, dive and snorkle at the foot of the mountains, later moving onto a wide picturesque beach with turquoise water and a dark pebbled shore. 
          Mountains meet the ocean
          A secret spot!
          We drive on to Suao and a seafood lunch in a port village at one of the largest restaurants I have ever been to (it’s three floors and a zillion tables). We taste, we try, we eat, we wander the streets, witnessing the weekly ‘blessing of the fleet’ at the local temple, before we drive again, drop off the car and then sleep….and trust me, I won’t quickly forget the relief I felt handing back that brand new ‘unscratched’ white Lexus, it was a high five moment all round!! 
          Pretty happy!
          The most important aspect of being a resident artist has been to be removed from what is familiar. In that sense, it is less about what is gained, but more so what you are relieved of - comforts, familiarity, the social structure of your little world, and so on. When away from these things, it is easier to be self- reflective, to start again with nothing. Old truths fall away, and you are allowed to discover new pathways in life and art. (Antony Hamilton, Choreographer)

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