Village in the Clouds
by Tony Coolidge



I spent most of my stay exploring the countryside away from the McDonalds, where I found life more peaceful and less disagreeable to my stomach. Taiwan is over ninety percent mountainous, so the landscape is dominated by steep terrain. I explored the peaceful forests and waterfalls near Wulai and fell in love with its steep, green mountains. The mountains of Wulai, however, seemed like molehills when I took a trip to the central mountain range of the island. We began with the majesty of Sun-Moon Lake, a famous alpine resort near Taichung. We felt adventurous and took the central highway from Taichung to Hualien, and I use the word 'highway' loosely. This roller-coaster road hugged steep passes, spanned impressive gorges, and cut through at least a hundred tunnels. In many places, the two-lane marvel of engineering was reduced to one lane or less because of the rock slides. Luckily, we were in the skilled hands of an experienced Taipei city taxi driver. Every blind turn through the clouds revealed wondrous surprises, sometimes another car or truck and, occasionally, a blaring bus. There was always a thousand-foot drop just a few feet away. My life must have passed before my eyes at least a dozen times during the drive. During one stretch, the road snaked over chilly peaks that were over ten thousand feet high. On the last leg of our trek, we toured the immense beauty of Taroka Gorge, nature's own masterpiece of marble.

Finally, our journey ended at the cliffs of Hualien, a popular seaside resort. This one-hundred mile trip 'above the clouds' took us nearly seven hours and was the most exhilerating drive of my life.

I must have met hundreds of people during my stay, each with their own interesting story to tell. I learned some interesting things about the Taiwanese people. I was surprised to find such a low crime rate on this island of twenty-six million people. Anti-crime measures are extremely tough, and guns are banned. I believe the traditional values and strong family systems that still exist in Taiwan are largely responsible. Elders are treated with respect, and families usually live together or nearby. Meals are enjoyed as a social event, and family discussions are a part of every day life. Most of these people work long, hard hours and, usually, six days a week. So Sundays are especially important to the Taiwanese, who relish what little leisure time they have. I was surprised to find so much hope and prosperity from people living so precariously with their 'big brother' next door. All males are required to serve in the military, as the shadow of China has always shaped the lives of these people. It was hard for me, as an American, to imagine living with my freedoms threatened daily.

I spent most of my time with my Santijen relatives, so I became most familiar with these people and their culture. The Taiwanese people generally consider the aborigines lower in social status because of their different background and primitive social history. With round Polynesian eyes and faces, the beauty of the Santijen is widely revered.

The Santijen are simple people with a colorful past similar to that of our own native American Indians. They lived off the land, worshipping it for all it had to offer. They farmed the hillsides and hunted on the mountaintops for monkey, snake and other game. (I only had the nerve to try a few aborigine delicacies like flying squirrel and wild mountain pig.) It was a peaceful co-existence with nature. The natives performed rituals in colorful native costumes, perhaps inspired by the colors of the butterflies and flowers around them. Headhunting was a tradition of some tribes until the 1930s. Close-knit aborigine tribes valued fertility and were often polygamous resulting in large clans. With the settlement of Formosa by Portuguese and Chinese, large populations of Santijen have disappeared, and most of their culture along with it. Nine aborigine tribes now share the island, each with its own dialect. There are only about 250,000 left and all have been 'modernized' by explorers, missionaries, occupying Japanese troops, and Chinese settlers. Some aborigine culture has been preserved, however, in aborigine villages as tourist attractions.

My relatives did not have more than one wife nor did they try to make off with my head. Those days were long over. They had become adapted to their new society, becoming business leaders, government officials and teachers, all finding a place on the social ladder. My relatives were closely tied to their traditional values, with large families, kinship and worship still prominent in their lives. Their customs, generosity and beauty were inspiring to me. But on one occasion, it did catch me off guard. At a festive family gathering, they summoned a young local girl I had just met. They had definite opinion about my being single and who was right for me. It was an awkward moment for us as they sat her next to me and bombarded her with questions. She was obviously very shy but respectfully answered. I found it hard to believe when they told me that if her parents did not have a good background, she would be no good for me. Nevertheless, they discovered the identity of her parents and were pleased. They were thrilled when they found out she was still a virgin. I was pulled aside by the family patriarch who suggested I give her a gift of 1000 NT (about $40). He said it was a traditional gesture of affection, but I refused on the grounds that I was an American and could not accept the idea. We spent the rest of that uncomfortable evening smiling and having our glasses filled for us as my relatives celebrated. The local girl and I did become friends and helped each other with our language differences.

By the time I left, I had finally become comfortable with speaking Mandarin. After being treated like a king, I had collected my priceless memories and was ready to return home. There were memories of my newfound family. There were memories of a home on the other side of the world. And there were memories of generous people working hard on their tiny island, nurturing their nation to grow and prosper.

Taiwan was truly a paradise, with people as colorful as the butterflies in the bamboo forest. I brought back with me something more valuable than new business clients, the knowledge that I was a part of something as rare and beautiful as the Santijen.

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