Do some kayaking expeditions begin with food obsessions? Would you plan a circumnavigation to Jamaica for the love of jerk chicken? Could a trip through southeast Alaska feature the best Chinook salmon runs? Maybe island hopping through Thailand includes spicy somtam tasting on every beach? I like to think I’m not alone in pondering this. Because, I’ll admit: my desire to paddle in Taiwan was rooted in a bubble tea addiction and a love of Taiwanese food.
Growing up in Seattle, I had my first exposure to the magical beverage in middle school and was hooked ever since. Enjoyment of milk tea with squishy sweet tapioca led to a fascination with Chinese culture, then to studying Mandarin in college and, after college, two years living in China’s rural Yunnan Province. All along the way, I heard so much about Taiwan, considered the epicenter of bubble tea. Friends who had lived there or had family there regaled about its lush mountains, delicious food, and richly complex culture. I was more than curious.
After years of daydreaming about how to make a kayaking trip to Taiwan a reality, I was lucky to convince my good friend and co-instructor, the skilled Kelly Marie Henry, to be my partner in crime on this crazy Taiwanese adventure. As we applied for adventure grants and cobbled the logistics of our 6-week journey together, I couldn’t have imagined the extent of personal, pedagogical, and sometimes political exploration that awaited us thousands of miles across the Pacific.
After a few days in Taipei gathering essentials, we made our way to Nanfang’ao in Yilan County to meet the leaders of Formosa Kayak School, Jahfong Chen and Yali Hung. Our first day in Nanfang’ao, Jahfong and Yali took us to the local fish market (the 2nd largest in Taiwan) where we saw a fresh fish auction and we unwrapped our new boats (courtesy of our amazing boat sponsor, Point 65 Sweden). We paused for a delicious lunch of “crazy stupid noodles” and then launched in the afternoon to explore the local coast and test out our new boats.
That’s when I experimented with my front day hatch. I couldn’t help but notice that the size is perfect for your average bubble tea container. So instead of finishing my post-lunch bubble tea on land, I decided to drink while on the water, combining my two passions: kayaking and bubble tea.
Leading up to our arrival in Taiwan, we struggled to find relevant information on the coastline and conditions. Our partners at the FKS shared with us their most trusted resources, Google Earth and Windguru, and we gathered the waters of the East Coast would be relatively calm this time of year. However, our first day on the water defied our expectations about Taiwan’s coastline. A storm approaching typhoon status brewed 200 miles northeast in the Philippine Sea. This system cast some sporty swell and significant rain to Nanfang’ao.
With the swell and waves larger than expected, it took everything I had not to lose my bubble tea, both what I had already consumed and the remainder in my “bubble tea day hatch.” Although it was my dream to enjoy Taiwan’s token beverage while on the water, this first day taught me that sometimes bubbles and bubbles don’t quite mix. After going years without feeling sea sick in big swell, my favorite milk tea combined with sporty waves did me in.
That was the first among many other discoveries during our six weeks. We learned so much about the island and made more new friends than expected who all, without fail, showered us with generosity and incredible knowledge about Taiwan’s culture, history, landscape, and the paddling scene. Here are three of our biggest discoveries:
Everywhere around Taiwan we were amazed by how kind and generous people are. From the shopkeeper that closes their shop so they can accompany us until we find the place we need to go, to amazing students and co-instructors who insist on sharing meals with us after class, or bringing us lunches on the water. We received countless offers of support from friends and family all over Taiwan if there’s anything we ever needed on our journey. You can even get free water and warm showers at almost all of the coast guard stations on the island (of which there are hundreds).
One day we left our loaded boats on a somewhat crowded beach for longer than expected while venturing into town for fresh water. Still acclimating to the safe, welcoming environment, we were a little cautious about leaving everything on the beach for so long. Kelly asked, “Do you think it’s really okay?” To which I answered, “I mean, based on what we’ve experienced, I think we’re most likely to return to our boats with someone having picked flowers and gently laid them on top of our hatches.”
On our second night in Nanfang’ao, we met a local teacher and historian, Dawei, over a delicious seafood feast. Dawei shared with us a lot of interesting history and information about Taiwan and Nanfang’ao. One fact that was emphasized over and over both through telling and through our first-hand experience is how ecologically special the island is.
Taiwan is surrounded by three sea; the South China Sea, Philippine Sea, and the Pacific Ocean. Taiwan has both tropical and subtropical zones. It boasts 286 mountains over 9,800 feet and many of these peaks were formed by volcanoes. You know what that means - hot springs! Taiwan also has excellent diving opportunities with its deep, warm blue water - that’s right, swim with the turtles!
For decades, the Taiwanese government took a very paternalistic approach to enabling sport and recreational access to mountains and coastlines. From the 1960s until the mid-1990’s access to watersports, even swimming at most beaches, was heavily restricted. For an island nation this created or confirmed many people’s fear of the water. But new generations of Taiwanese are changing those views. Now with more and more beaches opening up to surfing, paddling, and kite boarding, Taiwanese are growing hungry to explore and learn more about their coastlines that were once off limits.
Our friend and student, Nieo explained how it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when he saw others kayaking on the coast for the first time, that he realized that you would no longer get fined or penalized for going on the water. We even experienced a vestige of this limitation on several beaches when we’d land to set camp. Often after landing, coast guard officials (always dressed in a neon orange jumpsuit) would approach and ask what we were doing. Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Do you have safety gear? Are you properly trained?
Like many adventures, we left Taiwan with a long list of additional places we want to paddle when we come back: islands like Penghu, Green Island, and Orchid Island. Equally as long is the list of night market snacks still haven’t tried. We’ll leave those for the next adventure.