This second semester of my study abroad year was the second time that I participated in the ICL program. The school that I was assigned to was RenAi Elementary School on Matsu Island, which is a small island off the coast of China. I had eight students in my group and it was really cool to share about Chinese-American culture with them. Originally we had a two-day trip to the island, but the flight was cancelled due to dense fog. So, the trip was moved to the weekend of the Dragon Boat Festival. Twelve students went on this trip, along with the ICL coordinators and a few guides.We flew over to the island in the morning and met the students at the school. We exchanged gifts and played a little name game, and my students sang a traditional song in Matsu language to us. I’ve heard often that the island is very beautiful, and I can attest to that; the weather was warm and sunny with blue skies and a small, cool breeze. The island life is much quieter than life in Taipei; the roads are scenic and there aren’t any traffic lights on the island!
We ate lunch at the school, which consisted of veggies, tofu, melons carrots, chicken, and watermelon. To my surprise, the students are usually not allowed to converse during lunch; teachers sit with the students to make sure that they finish their food quickly and quietly. When I took a selfie with my students during lunch, a teacher even reprimanded me! The students are very well-behaved; they are responsible for wiping down the tables after eating, composting leftovers properly, and rinsing the dishes before the lunch ladies wash them.
After lunch, we we on a cultural tour around the island. We first went to the 88 Tunnel, which is so named after Chiang Kai-Shek’s 88th birthday. The tunnel was originally used for storing weapons and then for telephone wires, but because the moisture levels inside the tunnel weren’t suitable for either purpose, it was then used to store alcohol for the ageing process. The first tunnel at the entrance is filled with 酒瓦 (traditional wine jars) for storing red wine; 4000L vats of white wine are stored in a second tunnel, and at the end of that tunnel there is a small, stone well- apparently the water there is natural and clean enough to drink, although I don’t think it tastes very good. Fun fact: If the tunnel had been dug all the way through, it would have reached the airport!
After visiting the tunnel, we had a chance to taste one of the most well-known exported products from Matsu Island- Kaolian liquor! It’s a daunting 58% alcohol, that burns while it slides down your throat. IMO, it tasted like what bleach cleaner might be like.
After all the alcohol, we explored other areas of the island. Since Matsu used to be a military island (50,000 soldiers used to live on this island; now there is only about 5,000 soldiers), there are still lots of bunkers and tunnels throughout the island. There is even a tunnel leading up to the Statue of the Goddess Mazu, after whom the island is named. She was originally carved from one huge block of marble, but because she was too heavy to transport from Mainland China, she was cut into 365 pieces and transported piece by piece to Matsu Island. I believe she is supposed to bring peace and blessings to the island.
My favorite part of the cultural tour was going to see the Blue Tears! They are a famous environmental phenomenon in Taiwan. We didn’t have a translator to explain how the Blue Tears are formed, but I think it has something to do with a type of algae that glows when disturbed. I wasn’t let down by the experience, but it wasn’t quite like what I expected from the pictures online. I thought that the algae would glow a bright blue by themselves, but you actually need to stir the water. The glowing looks more like fireflies at night; it takes LOT of stirring to see any semblance of a blue glow. All the photos online are taken with long exposure in order to get the correct lighting and the bright blue color. Nonetheless, the excursion was worth the NT$250.
Our trip was only for one day, so the next day we took the 8-hour ferry ride back to Keelung Harbor. Let me tell you, that is the WORST idea ever. We left at 9:40AM and arrived in the Harbor around 7:15PM, but we didn’t debark the ferry until 8:00PM. I normally get motion sickness on transportation: cars, plans, cruise ships, the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland- you name it! I had to take two Dramamine for this ride and I still got seasick. One of my friends almost never gets motion sickness and she threw up for an hour in the bathroom, crawled out to the stairs, and threw up for another hour on the stairs.
Needless to say, once we arrived in Keelung, we all walked to Keelung Night Market because none of us were ready to hop on the bus back to Taipei just yet. Keelung Night Market is not my favorite market. It’s similar to Raohe, except larger (more stalls, and the streets are wider) and there are more people. It’s like everyone in Taiwan and their mom is here. After a little snack, we took Bus #1550 from Keelung back to Gongguan, which is about a half hour ride.
Even though I didn’t feel like I developed a good relationship with my students, I think meeting them in person helped. Their island is beautiful and although it is small, it is still possible to explore the area. I would love to go back to Matsu, but only if I can take a plane both ways. I am never sitting on another ferry again.