There is no such thing as quiet in Taipei. As one of the most densely populated cities on earth, you cannot help but hear and feel the noise all around you constantly. It’s on the main streets with the thousands of cars and ubiquitous scooters that seem to be the preferred mode of transportation under the age of 80. It’s on the side streets and in the little corridors that you find lining the major roads, as you listen to the shopkeepers talk to one another, shout at potential customers and taut their wares. You can butchers hacking up everything from cows to chickens, hanging the heads and necks of the latter on hooks for display. You can hear the women haggling on prices for everything from flowers to knickers. You can hear children playing in the fields of the schools all around. And you can hear it in the few parks and other green areas in the city – because with that many people, animals, cars and more, sound is everywhere.
I even noticed it in my hotel room. I had to keep the television on a lot, or I could hear the outside world constantly. True, my hotel was located on a major road, but even still, the sound – the noise – was just astonishingly constant. At night, I wore earplugs (the ones that the *really* nice Korean Air attendants kindly gave me on the flight over) to shut out some of the sound, but it was never quiet.
I really didn’t mind that level of constant sound, mind you. In fact, that was a large part of experiencing Taipei. It’s part of what makes it what it is and what drew me to it. Sound like that denotes a city that is constantly shifting and changing and if you don’t catch it now, or you blink, it will change and you will never get to see it like that again. Nor will you ever get to hear it like that again. So, I went into it knowing and enjoying that experience – albeit slightly muted when I needed to sleep.
Flash forward, though, to my final day in Taiwan. The previous day (more on that later, I am sure) I had been in the mountains nearby the city to a temple and the tea plantations and had experienced something close to quiet, but not quite. The birds sang loudly and there was a little dog that wanted to be my friend and I could hear him jingle behind me for a long while.
This final day, though, I craved quiet. I craved calm. I craved something other than deep city life – and sound. I had heard that Taiwan was well known for its hot springs and one of the few things that I had marked in my guidebook before leaving (why do I always buy them and rarely really use them?) was a listing of a nearby suburb and accompanying hotels and resorts where I could partake in a hot spring bath. Ostensibly with the locals. I had made sure to pack my bikini just for that reason and had even sent myself on a wild goose catch to find (out of season in September in Colorado, it turns out) a cheap pair of flip flops, so that I could walk around the bathing area comfortably.
However, by this point in the trip, I was a little tired, still likely jet-lagged and definitely not interested in carrying more than necessary. Couple that with the fact that when I left in the morning it was actually chilly and I had run back into the hotel not once, not twice, but three times (please tell me that I am not the only one that has done that!) to grab first my jacket, then mu umbrella and finally a pair of jeans (just in case; although I had avoided them due to the unrelenting, horrible humidity in Taiwan and Hong Kong). Did I remember the bikini? Nope. How about the flip flops? Nope. Because, see, that would have been easy, simple, smart and worthwhile. And we really can’t have that all the time, can we? Of course, I didn’t notice that until *after* i arrived (two hours later) in the suburb and was already off of the train.
Well, I still had my guide and fortunately enough, I had also accidentally run into a fluent English speaker while asking at the tourist counter at the train station where I could go for the hot springs. This kind gentleman (thank you, wherever you are) walked me in the right direction and then asked me where I wanted to go. Finally realizing that I didn’t have anything to wear and not seeing any nearby shops where I could get anything to fit me, I quickly scanned the book and saw a listing for a five-star resort offering “individual bathing rooms.” This was the answer! Great! Where is that, I asked. Well, it’s far up that hill, replied the gentleman. It was now *very* hot and humid. I had long ago given up on make-up, doing my hair or looking like anything other than something that the cat dragged in. And if I was going to just be sitting in a bath, then you know what? Who cares, let’s start walking and if I see a cab, I will take it.
Odds of find a cab in Taipei – 100%; you can’t spit without finding eight of them. Odds of finding one in this place? Well, turns out, it’s about 0%. So fine, I can walk. I love walking.
By the time that I get to the resort, it’s half an hour later, up hill all the freakin’ way, and by uphill I mean that at one point I wanted to invest in some rope and hooks to help. But, too late. I was there. The gentleman had warned me that it was expensive, but that’s all relative, isn’t it? Turns out, expensive in Taiwan is about $9 US for an hour of total peace and solitude. Yup. I can do that. Sign me up.
I walked in (I can’t even imagine what the impeccably-dressed women tending the front counter must have thought of me) and pointed to the sign that cheerfully said in English “Private Bath Rooms Here.” And that’s what I did. I paid in cash, which the woman helping me must have thought was strange, given the look on her face. But she led me back to an available room (#13, which I usually don’t find lucky and had a little trouble with at first, but at this point, why fight it?) and opened the door, reminding me that I could stay as long as I wanted and just pay the extra when I left.
Inside – wow. WOW! I mean, wow. Quiet. I had’t heard *nothing* in days! Not for a week! And in here, it was totally quiet. It was dark, with stone floors and an enormous stone bath. Green stone. Beautiful. On the side were robes, shoes, shampoo, combs – everything that you would need. In the bath, she had turned on the hot springs and then the cold water to balance the heat and set out some towels for me, telling me that it was all part of the price. I had this whole silent world all to myself. This was unbelievable.
I stripped and took a deep breath. These hot springs weren’t strong-smelling like others in the area (sulfur; eew). Instead, it smelled of nothing. And I heard only the sound of the water pouring into the tub.
Then I spent the next hour sitting. Just sitting. Soaking in the hot water, pouring it over me. Just sitting again. Not thinking, but practicing mindful meditation. The type where you concentrate solely on being in the moment. I made shapes in the water with my hands and relished the ripples that that made and the light reflecting over it and under it. I just was. For the first time in a *very* long time, I just was.
An hour later, I climbed out, changed back into my now-somewhat-dry clothes (eew, back to sweating buckets) and walked out of the hotel and back into the punishing heat and humidity of the afternoon. And I was okay with that. I was. I had just spent the best $9 of my life to just *be* and not think, not move, not work, not read, not talk. Just be.
Like hearing the sounds of the fast-changing city of Taipei or Macau or Hong Kong, I will never be able to replicate that experience. But forever, or as long as I have a memory, I will be able to relive it in my mind and have a new “happy place” whenever I need a calming moment and a time to just be.
And yes, having come back just a couple of weeks ago, I have already gone there in my head many, many times.