I hate waking up exhausted, especially with a busy day ahead of me. Groggily though I wiped the sleep from my eyes, packed up my gear and prepared myself for another busy day in Taiwan. I was there on a project with AFAR Magazine and the schedule was busy, which is fine. This was work, great work no doubt, but work nonetheless. Long days, late nights and early mornings meant that by the end of the trip I was running on fumes. But the experiences and moments of joy were well worth it especially on that morning when I awoke so very tired, a day that reminded me why it is that I love, even depend on, travel as much as I do.
I was in the southern Taiwan city of Chishang, known around the country for its rice production. Chishang sits in the Eastern Rift Valley, a long, fertile plain flanked by the Central Mountain Range to the west and the Coastal Mountain Range to the east. Taking a coffee on the balcony of the hotel, the fog rose against the mountains creating an auspicious and even mysterious start to my day. I was a little apprehensive though, I was scheduled to go on a bike ride that morning and I wasn’t exactly sure what was in store for me.
Bike rides can be great, and I’ve discovered some great places best seen on two wheels over the last few years, but rides can also be a bear. It all depends on the location, and looking around at the flat valley I felt encouraged for the outing.
Chishang has created a series of bike paths around town and through the rice paddies; established roads and sites of interest designed to bring the visitor closer to nature. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before and by the end of the 10 kilometer ride, it became one of the best travel experiences of my life.
I quickly broke away from the small group, eager to explore on my own and to experience some rare moments of peace and quiet. The path was well marked, so I wasn’t afraid of getting lost. No, my biggest problem was stopping too often to snap photos. That early morning fog lingered into the mid-morning, creating a thin veil of mist over the impossibly green rice paddies. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the color green in such vivid, almost neon brightness before. I never knew verdancy of that level could exist naturally and it shocked and awed me at every corner.
Rice has been an important crop in Chishang for a long time, and remnants of older, more traditional harvesting methods were strewn about fields, long forgotten in lieu of more modern equipment. But there were still people in the fields, inspecting the crops and making sure that the harvest would be bountiful.
The rice paddy path, as I came to call it, took me out of the fields and through a park bordering a large lake that doubled as a home to a lotus farm. There they grew these beautiful flowers, full of metaphor and meaning, to adorn the plates of happy diners around the country. Thoughtfully they had placed a path even here, knowing full well that the beauty of the lotus against the backdrop of farms and mountains would be too much for any sane person to resist. I know I fell pray to the imagery right away. I think it’s as close as I’ve ever felt to falling into a postcard, in a way that Lewis Carroll would fully appreciate. This was my Wonderland and I didn’t want to wake up from the dream.
Towards the end of the bike ride I picked up a friend, a stray dog who had spent his morning befriending several bike riders around the fields. As a dog lover I instantly imagined a strong bond between us as we dashed through the fields, the pup waiting for me to catch up as he rounded the next bend. When I couldn’t see anyone else around I stopped in front of yet another paddy, got off the bike and just stared around me, breathing in the heady aroma of fresh grass and water as my canine companion panted happily at my side. I was happy, really damn happy and felt connected to the country in a way that can’t be manufactured or contrived. Those feelings of contentment, serenity and exploration, they all combined into a singular emotion, what I call travel umami, a perfection in the travel experience that is hard to find, even harder to quantify but immediately recognizable.
The rest of the day was travel perfection, meals that satisfied and conversations that expanded my knowledge of this beautiful part of the world. But I wonder if it was that bike ride, that singular moment of travel joy that made the rest of the day so perfect. Its tendrils spreading through the experience, coloring everything else in the same happy colors I found that morning in Chishang.
Have you had moments of travel perfection? What were they?