Taiwan’s northern coast and a page from my travel sketchbook

On the second day of our stay in Taiwan, my aunt and uncle took us on a drive of the northern coast. (I’m not quoting from my travel journal, because I was too busy that afternoon to write about it!) First we went to Jiufen, a maze of shops and eateries that was the inspiration for the town in Spirited Away. I wish I’d known that fact before we went, instead of discovering it on Wikipedia afterward... I might have taken a break from sampling wild-grape juice and chocolate mochi to pay more attention to the architecture!

Our group at an overlook in Jiufen

Our group at an overlook in Jiufen. Photo by my uncle.

We spent several hours at Jiufen, weaving through the throngs and exhausting ourselves seeing everything there was to see. On our way down from the mountain we stopped at a few vista points, and then at Yehliu Geopark, where we saw a weird and wonderful beach of strange mushroomlike stones, including a famous one known as the Queen’s Head.

Mushroom stones at Yehliu.

Sarah, our aunt, and the mushroom stones at Yehliu. Photo taken by my uncle.

Sarah, Devin, and the "Queen's Head."

Sarah, Devin, and the "Queen's Head." Photo taken by our uncle.

It was a lovely place right on the ocean, and though it was teeming with people, the huge silvery drizzly sky made it feel expansive. I first spotted the cape from the freeway miles earlier and knew right away that I wanted to paint it.

Yehliu Cape

Yehliu Cape

Erik and I separated from the group for about half an hour, so I could make my sketch.

As we walked around looking for a good vantage point, a white girl came toward us from the opposite direction. She would have stood out in any case because of her skin (I saw very few non-Asians in Taiwan, in contrast to Hong Kong), but she was also tall, lovely, gracefully big-boned, simply dressed in a knee-length, thin-strap black sundress and flip-flops — and alone, which was even more unusual for a foreigner. Did she understand Chinese, or was she just an intrepid solo traveler? I didn’t think I’d see her again, but soon we doubled back and I saw her seated at a bench with a good view of the cape. I took the other end of the bench and began to make my drawing.

Yehliu sketch

Yehliu sketch. Took me about 15-25 minutes.

I wanted to talk to her, to find out what she was doing alone in Yehliu. But I also wanted to paint and still have time to run around the park a bit, and I was afraid conversation would hold me up. The entire time I painted, she sat at ease on the bench and looked out at the overcast sea: no photos, no book, no cell phone — just watching, and probably thinking. The girl knew we spoke English, because Erik and I were talking to each other, but we had no idea about her. I wondered very much what her story was. I could see myself too, in some foreign country where no one looked like me, finding a busy-but-serene spot by the ocean and just sitting with my thoughts. Was that what brought her here?

Families walked by, the parents telling their kids kan ta zai huahua! (“look, she’s drawing!”), the kids demonstrating eager interest and then, in the blink of an eye, declaring “I’m done now” and running off to see something else. Loved ’em. There was one moment when Erik left to go to the restroom or something, and I put down my brush and looked up. The girl caught my eye and we smiled at each other. She looked at my sketchbook and said, “That’s beautiful,” and I said, “Thanks, thanks.” I thought she had a slight accent, but couldn’t be sure. Is there a good way to ask questions without launching a full-scale conversation? I liked sharing the bench with her, peaceful amid the sightseeing hubbub. I thought she might be someone I’d enjoy traveling with, and I wanted to ask whether she was doing all right with translations and directions and all that (or perhaps her Chinese was better than mine). But I didn’t want to talk, and she was surely too polite to bother the artist with small talk (or maybe she really didn’t know much English). So we just sat together, and then I finished my painting and got up. We waved at each other, and that was that.

There are more Jiufen and Yehliu photos at flickr, if you click any of the photos above.