Sunset Sunset People waiting in anticipation For something so natural, so primitive Mother Nature must laugh at our pettiness A game of hide and seek Trying to inconspicuously dip away Not trying to draw attention to itself Doing a poor job of it Trying to run away from sky Trying to escape from civilization Away from world Away from people Unaware that it will return again tomorrow Repeating the same process Again and again For eternity The definition of craziness Reflecting off the surfaces of the water Reflecting the human experience Sunset -Bali, Jan 11/2017
Taiwan’s Beautiful and Boring Island
by Cameron Brtnik
Penghu, September 8, 2014 – My thirty-third birthday. I’m currently sitting seaside at a port in a small city on a tiny island off the coast of Taiwan, enjoying a glass of “The distinctive flavor lager beer,” also known as Taiwan Beer, and gorging on delicious freshly caught oysters and imported salmon. I feel at peace.
I needed a vacation – Not from work overload, but because in the three years I’ve been living in Taiwan, I’ve never left the island (except for my trip back home to Canada). So I decided to take a trip, alone, to a pretty neighboring island to the west of Taiwan called Penghu (actually a cluster of islets). Warning: This is a couples’ trip, so only go alone if you want to experience cabin fever…without the cabin. Albeit a beautiful island, there’s not much to do besides visit the gorgeous local beaches – I suppose everything’s “local” in Penghu – to surf, dive, or (like me) finally get through that worn paperback you’ve been schlepping around everywhere. And that’s about it. “No matter, I’ll meet people!” I thought. Unfortunately, I came to this isle toward the end of the Moon Festival holiday when people were already returning home. Oh, not to mention the plane crash that killed 48 people (including two foreign exchange students from France) just two weeks prior to my arrival. That never helps an already flailing tourism industry.
Undeterred (I had caught wind of this news the night before, but I was drunk enough at the time that I accepted my destined, likely watery fate), I took the first flight out of Taipei – which, by the way, I caught the same night of my birthday celebrations, or should I say following morning after leaving Halo, the club we were partying at, bottle service in tow – still inebriated, but somehow functional. I had smartly packed that evening and took my luggage straight to the nightclub. The plane ride was short, just an hour, and I felt safe (which I can’t say for those unfortunate souls who got caught in the typhoon), perhaps because I was passed out the whole way.
I arrived at the small airport, where I passed out for another three hours on the uncomfortable, yet somehow comfortable seats. When I awoke it was only 10:30am, and I asked about cheap hostels. Soon a van arrived to escort me, and a lovely girl named Julia, whose family owned a local hostel called “Big Fish House,” drove me straight there. It was a very cute inn, more of a Bed and Breakfast, and wasn’t very cheap – $1500nt for the night. But it was well worth the stay, with a bright, spacious room to myself, breakfast, and a scooter (for an extra $300nt) included. I spent the next two hours sleeping (still working off that hangover, or tequila, or both) then hopped on my scooter and hit Shanshui aka “Mountain Water Beach.”
The first thing I noticed along the way was that sea smell; the salty air hitting your nostrils like it was the first fresh breath of air you’ve taken in years. I was told there’d be “lots of foreigners there.” I was optimistic, as I wanted to meet some new friends to share my adventure with. There was one – he and his Taiwanese girlfriend – and he didn’t look the sort I was interested in meeting (or vice versa). So I kept to myself and got into my book – Freakonomics, a former yet still-popular bestseller I always intended to read, but never got around to till I found myself on a lonely island.
At dusk, I jumped on my scooter and headed into town; if I were to find any action, it would be in the heart and centre of Penghu! I was wrong. I found one bar that I recognized from the Taiwan Lonely Planet called Freud. It was modelled after a fishing boat, with the same charm and décor as any Canadian seafood tavern, but it was missing that one asset I was looking for: people. I ate the mediocre “Thai-style shrimp” and enjoyed the choice Heineken beer. The mood was dark and depressing, so I left soon before it “got busy.” I went back to my commodious, Japanese-style room, and passed out for the fourth time that day..
I woke up too late for breakfast, but it was still available: dried up bread loaf and two choices of spread: Nutella and peanut butter. If you know me, you know I enjoyed the shit out of it, more so because it was included (although not served in a bed). Julia, the friendly hotel manager – she and her mother manage two locations of Big Fish House, and she plans to leave in three weeks to study English in Australia for six months – drove me in her Big Fish van to the north end of the island to catch a ferry to a smaller islet fifteen minutes away. Exotically called Chikan (or “chicken island” as I preferred to call it), it’s a little paradise get-away, punctuated by stone weirs – oddly-shaped stone walls in the water originally built as fish traps – and small beaches. I visited Aimen Beach, famous for its jet skiing and banana boating. I did neither, and instead collected coral fragments that had washed ashore, and that’s what the sand was mostly composed of. A nice way to spend the day, but I was sunburnt and happy to catch the last boat back to “civilization.”
Walking along the beach I noticed one thing: I love long walks on the beach (not a cheesy dating site description). This goes back to my cottage days of walking the shore of Georgian Bay all the way to Balm Beach, over an hour’s walk, and feeling happy as a sand boy (an expression my mother often used, but I never understood. I had to look up the etymology and discovered sand boys were actually “men who drove donkeys selling sand,” and were reportedly always happy). I also noticed something else: I felt utterly alone. It wasn’t a good feeling. I realized right there and then that life is better with friends, or family, or a significant other. That feeling faded though as I thought about how lucky I was, and started plotting world domination.
I took the ferry back across the straight, caught a cab back into town, and checked into a shitty cheap hotel. I put a generous helping of aloe on that inexorable “Brtnik Burn,” grabbed my laptop, and headed down to the port where I’m currently sitting, two tall beers in, writing this diary entry. It’s my birthday, and I’m surrounded by drunken fishermen and the feeling of loneliness. I think I’ll try and bump my return ticket to tomorrow, as another day on this beautiful and boring island may make Jack a dull boy. As of right now, I feel content, but I wish my friends were here… My friends from Taiwan. My friends from China. My friends from Toronto. My brother and sister. A stranger. But all is well, and let’s all feel lucky we’re alive and not on a plane destined for doom (God bless their souls). I’ll see everyone soon. Oh, and happy Moon Festival!
-Written by Cameron Brtnik, September 8, 2014 on his 33rd birthday
Cameron is a freelance writer living in Taiwan and part-time explorer cbrtnik.com
Memories of Germany
Remembering Edith & Wolfgang
by Cameron Brtnik
June, 2014 – We’ve lost someone dearly beloved to us. Edith Herzog, 1932-2014. She lived a long, full life, then lost a battle with cancer. Otto, her brother, and my dad, spoke with her on the phone in the weeks prior to her death and said she sounded well, in good spirits. He was able to talk to his only sister before her passing, and I am grateful for that.
I always wished we – my younger brother, sister, and I – were closer with our family in Germany: Aunt Edith and Uncle Wolfgang, cousins Roby and Bepsi, her husband Helmut and their kids, our dear cousins Eva and Kati, and of course, our Omi. Not close in the sense of family, but in terms of distance – we saw them very infrequently as kids, but made trips whenever we could visit. Sometimes Otto would take all three of us. I went alone once, and Adam and Meghan went on other occasions. They were all memorable trips, in no small part due to the generosity and hospitality we felt as soon as we arrived.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of visiting my wonderful family in Stuttgart, Germany. Our Aunt Edith – sweating and slaving in the kitchen, our uncle Wolfgang – yelling Edith’s name from another floor high above, perhaps about the laundry or maybe looking for his glasses. Taking a short car ride into town to pick up some sparkling water (which I hated. They never drank spring water so I just had to get used to the unpleasant fizzy taste) in Wolfgang’s Mercedes Benz – never the “top of the line model with leather interior,” but a beautiful automobile nonetheless (as a retired engineer at Mercedes he would receive a new Benz every two years, not a bad retirement package!) or to pick up fresh pretzels in the morning (I still have an unhealthy love of those warm, squishy pretzels). And watching Walker: Texas Ranger (which was unusually popular in Germany) starring, yep, Chuck Noris, on TV with my auntie Edith.
Eating is a considerable part of German culture and I can remember Edith working in the kitchen all morning to prepare lunch (in American culture dinner is the biggest meal whereas in Germany lunch is – In Taiwan EVERY meal is the big meal), which was always hearty and delicious. We would then make our way into town to shop, or travel outside of Holzeim (the quaint, hillside town where they lived) to go sightseeing, visit picturesque towns, gothic churches and modern museums (my favourite was always the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart).
They generally made sure we were always busy during our visit. There were also neighbours who had kids our age, so we were never bored, even if there was a language barrier – isn’t it funny that these things don’t matter as a kid? My favourite way to pass the time would be to wander beyond their backyard, cross over the train tracks, pass through the poison ivy, and into the rolling green hills just beyond their home. It was a beautiful, picturesque landscape, and I can remember feeling quite at peace, riding a bike or just hiking through the hills.
One of my fondest memories of my aunt Edith was when I was about 15, and had met a German girl at the local gym. This girl had particularly long fangs that masqueraded as teeth. We went on a date and I ended up with a painfully visible hickey on my neck. Edith nicknamed her “Vampire Girl” from then on. We never had a second date. (If you’re reading this, add me to Facebook! Or should I say Fangbook?)
I’ll really miss Edith and Wolfgang – I never got to say bye to them, and I haven’t visited in almost ten years. But every visit I had was so momentous it never felt that long between visits. I wish I could sit down and have a chat with them now…. Edith’s laugh filling the room (she always did have a great sense of humour), Wolfgang, serious, stern, but generous and always joining in on the joke. They were more than just great but amazing people that I’ll always hold close to my heart.
I remember always looking up to my cousin Roby as a mentor – a fashion expert, music buff, and ladies man (though he’s now engaged with children), he had a big impact on me as a kid. We still have lots of great family in Germany, and we should all make efforts to see each other whenever possible. In fact, Meghan and JP will travel to Germany next week. I wish I could join you guys! I know you’ll have an incredible trip, and make even more lasting memories. And if you happen to see Vampire Girl, tell her…that she left a “lasting impression” on me.
Dedicated to Omi, Edith & Wolfgang
Written by Cameron, September 10, 2014