I was riding a scooter in a mountain in Central Taiwan. The only nearby signs of civilizations were some guest houses around an intersection. No 7-11, no neon signs, only some idle villagers peeling betel nut skins and equally idle stray dogs strolling around in sad eyes. There was a side road that led to a small summit, and an elementary school, according to Google Map. A school? Must be an abandoned ruin. Out of curiosity I decided to venture in.
20 minutes into the narrow winding turns (great fun for motorcycle ride), the school appeared and although it was no more bigger than a public hall, it was alive. A tribal motif was laced on the signpost that stood side by a wall paint of a hunter. I finally “got it”—it was a school for aboriginal people. But there was still no sign of residential area. Did they live in isolated log houses? Or literally on tree tops?
I rode further ahead to reach the summit and claim some scenery before it got dark. As I neared the top, the previously beautifully kept mountain started to show its primitive nature. Rotten branches and leaves hung over the passage. A dead snake with a smashed head laid on the ground, forming a grotesque yin/yang symbol. Parasitic ivy and golden-rod covered the surface of everything, blocking the refreshing air passage along the trees and spreading corrupt smell all over.
The path would make a very frightening courage test for teenagers, I thought as I sped up searching for an opening and fresh air. Then equally out of nowhere, a collection of zinc-roofed houses emerged. A totem pole covered in the same motif as the school showed that it was the “settlement” of the aboriginal tribe.
A big signboard at the entry of the housing block proudly presented the detailed map of this eco-village for tourists who were looking for an escape from the suffocating urban jungle. How come this place wasn’t even marked in Google Map? Yet I became excited somewhat: Probably I made it to the land of the lost.
But the village showed none of the signs of the billboard promises. The “guest house” was just one of the zinc houses, only with a “for guests” sign spray-painted on the wall. The coffee shop looked open, but with some tired villagers playing cards in a low-lit corner inside a makeshift cabin, few people would dare even to step inside. The hiking trail toward the mountain hot spring was covered in unswept half-rotten leaves, leading up to a dark corner in the mountain. I wondered if anybody ever went up, or made their way back.
I went to the “fruit farm.” The orchard was there, possibly a vineyard, but was located directly on the slope of the mountain. No, a “cliff” would have been a more appropriate way to describe what I saw—my knees instantly became jell-o. The memory of my first “expert” course experience in ski resorts came flashing back. I couldn’t believe the plants kept their roots on the soil without falling down, let alone humans tending to them. Maybe the “eco-village” was just a cheap disguise for a Ninja training school.
I saw the face of a couple of villagers walking by. The shaded bone structure and dark skin definitely showed they were aboriginal, but their eyes carried no sparkles, contrary to the depiction in fictional native tribes roaming around the forest in sync with the spirit of the nature. Just like the half-rotten bush surrounding the village, they looked dead inside.
I understood the true identity of the smell that covered the entire area: death. Everything showed decay: the cheap zinc roof, the untended wild bush, the half-abandoned hut filled with stocking materials, and sadly the villagers. Something told me that I must have left this place before it got dark. I turned my head around and on my way back, a church was there.
The church was the only element in the village that was neat, clean, and kept in order. A cross stood above the two-story building facing the entrance to the village, as if telling everybody that the village was protected by the almighty God. I imagined a priest ceremoniously telling the poor villagers that they were as blessed as any other people on the plain region, and they would live happily ever after by praying each day and working hard on their allotted piece of mountainside slope. Could someone point out his red eyes and the spiny black tail lurking behind the lobe?
I have encountered aboriginal cultures in Taiwan in the form of souvenir shops, cultural festivals, and music. But I never really got in touch with the underlying reality, until this moment. And the reality was way much heavier than I ever imagined.