March 2011 | Hualien, Taiwan
Home for the weekend in Hualien was the top of a rickety bunk bed in Amigos Hostel, a warm, convivial corner shop space that two lovely mongrel dogs took it in turns to guard.
It was a backpacker’s establishment in every sense; the row of sinks in it’s communal, unisex bathrooms perpetually lined with bottles of soap and shampoo in varying stages of depletion. Every morning I’d watch, with ill-concealed fixation, a caucasian girl clad only in lingerie blow dry her hair in the common corridor. (Much to Edwin’s consternation he never managed to catch a glimpse of her in the three days we stayed there.)
It was the last night of the Hualien trip and all of us were at various stages of our pre-bedtime rituals. I was curled up on the hostel floor at the foot of my bunk bed, slathering moisturiser onto freshly showered skin. It had been a lazy day spent at the hot springs and a ranch, and the plan was to sleep early in order to wake up and catch the 6am train back to Hsinchu.
But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Somehow we struck up a conversation with the only other traveller in our dorm, an American named Tom who was spending a year teaching English in Taiwan.
He had stumbled into our dorm the night before at a god-forsaken hour, unsteady with inebriation, trying (and failing) to slip into bed quietly and unnoticed.
I roused briefly in the relative commotion, wondering who it was in our party who was creating such a disturbance. Squinting through the darkness I realised it was an unfamiliar face. He peeled off his clothes layer by layer, stopping only when his underwear was the only thing he had on, before clambering onto the bunk above Wayne and concussing without hesitation. Then all was still again. In hindsight, it all sounds quite absurd, and I wondered briefly if I had imagined the whole incident. Perhaps it had all been a fatigue-induced dream, I thought, as I drifted back into slumber.
It would be, I decided, most impolite to bring up that incident before some degree of initial pleasantries had transpired. (Not to mention embarrassing, had it turned out that I imagined the whole thing.) So the seven of us exchanged emails and the requisite polite anecdotes about our backgrounds and home countries before he whipped out a bottle of rice wine he had procured in Hualien and offered us some.
It was a curious-looking murky yellow liquid in a glass bottle, with a label suggesting it had been made from millet and brewed in a most traditional fashion. Inquisitiveness won over lethargy, and ice decidedly broken, we trooped down the stairs to the hostel lobby to have a go at this strange new alcohol.
It was sweet, sticky, and decidedly quite forgettable. Among the seven of us, we depleted the bottle quickly, which was reason enough for half the party to retire for the night. The rest of us headed out for a liquor run at the corner 7-eleven, which would be the first of many that night.
Amidst the socially lubricating effects of alcohol, conversation flowed fast and free. We strummed a dusty guitar from a corner of the hostel and sang Lady Gaga in the dead of night. On the last liquor run, after everyone else but Tom and I had gone to bed, I had my first taste of 高粱，a potent taiwanese rice liquor that looked as clear and innocuous and vodka, but was so stiff I could only manage half a shot and then sought refuge in whisky (which I usually don’t even like) for the rest of the night.
It was 5am when we finally went upstairs, but not before he told me about how he came back drunk the night before and felt, for some reason he could not explain, a compulsion to sleep in minimal clothing. (Part of me was rather relieved I had not conjured up the whole incident in my head.)
We exchanged hugs and promises to write, and to visit each other in our respective boring cities. (His being Tainan.) As all fair-weather promises go, we never did. In hindsight, I’m not sure I had any intention to, even at that time as I was saying those things. All the same, it was a good induction into the backpacker’s life. Sleep could wait, for when I got back to Hsinchu.