“This is like being young again,” exclaimed Neal, “like back when I was in summer camp.”
A group of my good friends and I are walking down the unlit street in Shoulan Village, nestled in a river valley between high mountains in Hsinchu County. My friends range in age from their late 30′s to their 50′s. Many are together for the first time, getting to know each other during this 1-day trip. My good friend Leo, our Taiwanese host, and his friends are leading the way into the darkness. Some of them have flashlights to light our path, while others follow, uncertain of our destination. On the main village road, we walk towards the river wearing our swim trunks, flip flops, slippers and sandals. The sounds of frogs, crickets and cicadas envelop us.
I stare up into the clear night sky and marvel at the thousands of stars I can see. I thought I saw a shooting star fly across the sky. Neal’s words hit me, and I am overwhelmed by the feeling that I am a world away from my life back in Tainan, but not only that. Emotionally, I feel like I haven’t felt since I was a teenager. I feel light, carefree, and joyous, free to enjoy the experience and connection between the people I was with.
“I haven’t felt like this since I was a teenager!” I shout.
Just a short while before, our group was really getting to know each other over a dinner of indigenous food over at Watan’s restaurant. After a tour of Neiwan, which is a historic Hakka town, and a long 90-minute drive on winding mountain roads, it was good to plant our feet on solid ground. We regained our sense of balance over dinner, and had lively conversations filled with laughter. Miss Hsu recognized Gary from TV commercials. Neal impressed the group with his singing talents that didn’t miss a beat since his days performing on Broadway. When Neal found a guitar, he started singing classic American songs, impressing us with his professional singing voice. My friend Gary also sang along, sharing his talents. The energy was high when dinner ended, and we walked to our dormitory to change into swimming clothes and to relax in a natural hot spring.
The walk to the river’s edge was somewhat perilous, especially when we had to walk over stones in the dark. Many times my slippers fell off, and I fell behind putting them on again, I was fortunate to have helpers (Miss Li and Miss Hsu) to carry my towel and light the way. Often they lent me a helping hand to climb up or down the rocks. Needing and accepting help, as I stumbled into the dark unknown only heightened the sense of youthful adventure.
We located and settled into a small spring filled with warm water at around 10:00 pm. It was only knee-deep in places, and the bottom was a mixture of mud, sand and rock. We sat on large stones with our legs in the water, or sometimes we sat in the water. When we shined the flashlight into the water, we realized we weren’t imagining things when we felt our legs tickled by something.
“Leeches,” said Gary sarcastically.
“No, they’re tadpoles, ” said Neal.
So there we were, five men sitting in the hot spring, staring up into the starry sky. We talked over the sounds of the raging, cold river next to us, and the chirping crickets. Tadpoles nibbled on our toes. Each of us had a beer in hand, and a few friends standing beside us made sure our cups did not stay empty.
“This reminds me of being out by a river or lake with friends during my college days,” I think out loud. I remember how during those days, my friends and I would share our personal thoughts and secrets with each other, so I asked each of my friends in the host spring to share their past experiences during their youth. It was a bonding experience haven’t had since my college days, and I never expected to have again as a mature adult, so I cherished every moment. I decided that this must be how tribal people feel when they are out together enjoying nature very often. I believe that the experience of adults letting down their walls and being intimate and vulnerable as friends is rare in the modern world and it strengthens bonds more than anything else can. It was a priceless experience.
“Best day ever,” yelled my friend Henry over and over.
After an hour in the water, we walked back to the dormitory relaxed and peaceful. We changed clothes, and gathered in the living room. When I got there, the table was set with drinks, dried squid, boneless chicken feet, peaches, bananas, and lychees. The karaoke machine and television were on. We sang until 1 am, singing familiar Taiwanese and English songs, and admiring each other’s singing abilities.
That night I lay in bed with the windows open, and the mountain air gave me the opportunity to sleep with a blanket. I basked in the warmth of my experiences, and enjoyed getting familiar with feelings from a forgotten time. I couldn’t remember when I laughed so much and sang in harmony without inhibition. Even more important to me was knowing that I helped bring people together, which gave everyone something special to remember for their lifetimes.
Click for more photos from the experience.