I don’t know how many island prisons there on on this earth, but somehow I manage to find them when I’m traveling. First Robben Island, then Alcatraz and now Green Island. It’s amazing how much history you absorb just by visiting a country. In Taiwan we discovered that the ROC didn’t treat their citizens any better than the PRC during the immediate aftermath of the Chinese civil war. The commies and the nationalists were equally shitty. In China you were beaten, your possessions were taken away and your house was repurposed. In Taiwan people suspected of political dissidence were sent to a labor camp on what is now a beautiful tourist island off the east coast of Taiwan.
In the winter there is only one ferry a day that scuttles between Taitung and Green Island. The guide book author warned us that the hour-long ocean ferry to Green Island would make even the most sea-worthy passenger deathly ill, particularly in winter. That guide book author is a pussy. We survived the waves with our lunch intact, only to discover that it wasn’t throwing up that we should worry about. It was eating. You see, there are two ATM’s on Green Island, and neither of them take foreign cards. After renting scooters for $9 and paying $30 for a hotel, we had exactly 3 American dollars remaining – and needed to buy gas for the scooters!
Thank god it doesn’t take much to power a scooter, so for $2.50 we were able buy just enough petrol to scoot around the island three times, leaving us with just enough for a bag of dinner Doritos.
Most American’s expect some level of comfort when they’re on vacation. On Green Island the hotels are pretty basic, and you shouldn’t expect much in the way of fancy tropical vacation atmosphere or posh restaurants. Comfort comes in the form of a salt water hot spring – one of two in the entire world.
On the tiny eastern corner of this tiny island lie the most deliciously indulgent bathing experience I have ever had the luck to enjoy.
Being the off season, we were on our own, faced with an entire coast of warm sea water all to ourselves. We floated, we flounced, god damn, we frolicked. As the sunset we watched a heard of goats wander by on their way to the hillside. And when the wind turned colder, we worked our way up to the 50 degree water and soaked. And soaked. And soaked.
Six hours after our toes turned wrinkly and dead skin began to float away, we decided to head back to the hotel. But I didn’t want to, memories of this hot spring will fuel my travel fantasies forever.
Unlike mainland Chinese under Mao, Taiwanese people were able to continue to practice their religious beliefs under Kuomintang. Everywhere you turn in Taiwan there is a shrine or a temple. People are incredibly spiritual. They consult with God by throwing tiny wooden blocks and reading fortune sticks. I’m not talking about elderly people, everyone does this – young and old, professional, student or retiree. Green Island is no different.
One of the oddest shrines I saw in Taiwan was in a cave that once protected a lost sailor in a storm. The sailor believed that a stalagmite in the cave was the incarnation of the Goddess of Mercy who guided him to the safety, and now it is a popular place for pilgrams. As you approach the underground opening there is slightly creepy, tinny music playing from a speaker. Peering down into the cave, you see a rock covered in a red cape and a tiny underground alter where people can light incense, throw their divining blocks or chose their fortune sticks.
I didn’t feel in touch with any spirits while I poked around the Guanyin Cave cave, but walking past the grounds of the crumbling prisons sure gave me the creeps.
I’m fully aware that the planet is old and people have been tortured on all corners of the world, but standing on the grounds where people were held captive and tortured for transparent political motives gave me the heebee-jeebees. And I couldn’t help but think that my own country currently has it’s own island prison where innocent people continue to be held for the same political transparent motives.
We should all learn from our combined past mistakes and concentrate on building more salt water hot springs, not island prisons.