Entering a dragon’s throat and coming out of a tiger’s mouth symbolizes turning bad luck into good fortune.
The Dragon and Tiger Pagodas at the southern shore of man-made Lotus Lake in Kaohsiung came with that written instruction. It was simple enough yet so fierce: Enter the Dragon and exit just below the Eye of the Tiger. I carbon-dated myself with those retro references, but I couldn’t help it. As products of their time, the pair of pagodas evoked the technicolor 1970s when they were built.
Was it an art museum? A grand cathedral? An alien starship? Ki and I collected our jaws off the floor when we emerged from the subway platform. A dome of stained glass backlit to dramatic effect encompassed the lobby of Formosa Boulevard Station. Kaohsiung supposedly had nothing going for it if I were to go by my former students’ opinion of their hometown, but the city went all out to impress us in our first hour upon arrival. And we had yet to step out of the train station.
Superstition had it that whatever you did on New Year’s Day predicted how the next 364 days would go. Nothing could be farther than the truth. The first day of 2020 was our last day in Taiwan and, as it turned out, on the road. Unbeknownst to us, a new coronavirus strain was starting to make the rounds in Wuhan, China. In just a couple of months, global travel would completely be paralyzed and then altered by the new normal.
Soggy weather greeted us as we emerged from our windowless room in Taichung. We hopped awning to awning until we took shelter at Gao-Bei Milk King. The promise of their specialty papaya milk beckoned us in as much as its warm and dry interior. The cold December rain had no plans of letting up. Our yellow plastic raincoats were drenched and dripping all over Taichung Railway Station. Rain poured on Ki’s birthday.
I wasn’t home for Christmas – for the first time in my life. Of all holidays, Christmas had exclusively been a family affair. In my 50 years, I celebrated 45 Christmases with my parents. Becoming an orphan four years before was a game changer. What could be the loneliest holiday proved to be less so with fellow orphan Ki. We had already decided to ring in the new year at Taipei 101; I figured we might as well leave earlier to spend Christmas at our port of entry, Kaohsiung.
It was a case of CNN brainwashing. Images of worldwide New Year’s fireworks displays featured by the news network year in and year out inspired us to cap our Taiwan cross-country trip with an explosive climax – at Taipei 101, which had hosted the firework event since 2005. While Hong Kong was nearer to Manila, its skyline was not as distinctive and iconic as Taiwan’s pagoda-shaped skyscraper.
By some twist of historical fate, the repository of thousands of artifacts and relics from the world’s longest continuous civilization – 5,000 years as the Chinese proudly claimed – could be found in Taiwan, not in China. For this reason, I received marching orders from my sister via Facebook to visit the National Palace Museum in Taipei. “All the cultural heritage of China under one roof,” was her pitch, echoed by my Taiwanese friend, Sam, who offered to take me there.
It rained on our parade. Early November was well within typhoon season in Taiwan; Frances, J9, and I learned the wet way. Nevertheless, no inclement weather could dampen our spirit. Armed with a sunny disposition and a warm smile, our driver-cum-guide Kevin Xie (or Hsieh) drove away the rainy day blues on top of his other duties and English skill, uncommon among the Taiwanese.
Friendship didn’t always have to be linear. Frances, J9, and I had not been in the same room for 18 years after losing touch during pre-soc med era. A chance meeting and a surprise phone call a few months prior reconnected us, which called for a special reunion – at the airport! It was the first time we were together again since 2001. I suggested we travel to a neighboring country we all had not visited. Consensus leaned in favor of Taiwan, a perfect venue for our get-together: near, affordable, and largely unfamiliar to all of us.