Photograph: Preeti Verma Lal
The girls looked all the rage in lavender, the man a tad gauche in burgundy. But on way to Taiwan it was Miss Pettigrew who had me rapt – she a little cockamamie in a frumpy frock, dropping tartlets on Joe’s shiny shoes and grimacing gawkily. The girls were real and gracious as stewardess of China Airlines, Miss Pettigrew fictional and fidgety within the palm-sized television screen. She had me so captivated that at 41,000 ft in the sky I forgot to peep out for the angels. However, on land when a man in pin-stripes held my name placard at the Taipei airport, a shiny black Mercedes drove up for me and Beethoven repeated his Fifth Symphony on a glossy CD player, on the sleek highway to downtown Taipei I got a year older.
It was my birthday and I was in Taipei where naked trees were clad in gig lamps, the neon lights shimmied on the streets, the birthday song came translated in Mandarin and I fumbled with the chopsticks. All blessings got muddled in calligraphed script, but next morning when the sun gaped from behind the diaphanous curtain of Sheraton’s 10th floor, I hopped across the Feng Sui fountain and the red Love sign to the world’s tallest built skyscraper. I could have huffed 2,046 steps up the Taipei 101, instead I took the world’s fastest elevator. Whoosh! In one minute it does 1,010 metres! If I took that elevator to Mt Everest, I could have hoisted the tricolour on the peak in eight minutes flat. But in 39 seconds I reached the 88th floor observatory from where not only could I see the city sprawled in the Taipei Basin, I could even send a quick email to the angels - for Taipei has the highest wireless penetration in the world.
I was so close to the clouds but where were the angels? Jaded after the birthday bash? I missed seeing them but in the haze below I could identify the yellow roof of the memorial of Dr Sun Yat Sen, the Father of the Nation. On the 88th floor more colours fell my way – natural corals in burnished orange and emerald green stringed as pendants and crafted as dainty rosettes, stalactites perched on veneered oak frames and pebbles flaunting their hand-painted squiggles. The corals were stunning, I wish I could barter a kingdom for them!
I have no kingdom, but in Taipei I stepped into a palace. In National Palace Museum, I met Santa who wore a golden cap. He came not in a sleigh, neither was he carrying a goodie bag with a fur trim, the chubby Santa had a microphone strapped and spewed information about the thousands of artifacts tidily arranged in the Museum – the gold of the porcelain urns still glinting after thousands of years, the white cabbage chiselled by a craftsman from a jade monolith, the carved meat loaf that looks real enough to dig a fork at dinner, a plump concubine arrogant with arched eyebrows, the horse neighing about its pricking shoes. “The most exquisite of the 750,000 artifacts are stashed away in the mountains and it takes seven keys to open a vault,” the golden Santa added mystery to the museum. Even Santas are not allowed in the secret treasure trove, I certainly wasn’t.
“Trying to bribe the angels to let you in?” a fellow traveller smirked. “But you will not find them here, their neighbourhood is in Hualien, Taiwan’s second largest county and for all superlatives the paradise. THE Paradise,” another one chirped and rolled the T for emphasis. Plonked on the blue seat of the high-speed train that chugged to the east of Taiwan, I imagined a paradise - perhaps river blue as jade, spring water sweet enough to dip a tea bag, balsams for flooring and fog sneaking in through the window sill. Would Hualien match my canvas? In Toroko National Park, nature trod on my imagination. I walked through the tunnel with nine turns and all around I could see creativity - marble crafted diligently by river and wind, purple balsams for carpet, swallows in their grottos and the 38 tunnels for which millions laboured for 3 years 9 months and 18 days.
They say, in Toroko, nature does not wait for seasons to wear a new colour, it fancies a makeover every day, the fog and the sun taking turns to turn the gorge into a mystical land. In the mornings, the mist fades and the warblers twit by, in the evening the sun dips down the lofty mountains and the landscape turns into a theatre with the croaking of the toads, the flutter of the bats and the glow of the moths. And yes, by the shrine to the workers who perished during the tunnel construction, there gurgled a spring so pure that all one needed was a tumbler and a tea bag for that morning cuppa!
In Hualien live the aboriginal tribes where the men counted fallen heads to display their prowess and women hunched over looms to make the best hemp fabric. In the national park, I saw an old woman running her cragged hands through colourful yarn to weave a jacket. From her wicker basket I picked a bracelet with bells stitched on it. It was beautiful but I was not carrying money. I held it in hand, hurriedly dropped it back in the basket and turned away. Then I heard a hushed squeal, the old lady was beckoning me. She took the bracelet, tied it around my wrist and smiled beatifically.
Nearly 40 years ago Master Cheng Yen founded the Tzu Chi Merits Society in Hualien with 30 housewives who everyday put aside 50 Taiwanese cents to create a charity fund to help the elderly and the sick. Standing near the grey stone lion, I remembered what Master Yen had said: Know your blessings, cherish them, sow more blessings. Just then a white plum blossom fell on my palm. I picked it up and started counting my blessings – I began with that day in Hualien and the handwoven bracelet that the wrinkled 78-year old aboriginal woman gifted me…
I am home, I am wearing that bracelet and still counting my blessings.
in The Economic Times, 2009