THE ANTIPODES 3
EL ESPINILLO ANTIPODE OF NEW TAIPEI CITY
When I reach El Espinillo I need to use the toilet. I park the car in front of the square. An SUV is parked by the City Hall. There must be someone inside the building. I open the door that creaks begging for oil. I use my loud voice to say “Good afternoon” and ask if there is anyone home, but I don’t hear any answer. To my left, I see a closed door with a sign that says “Knock and wait to be served”. I knock. I wait. I wait a bit longer but no one answers. I want to go to the toilet so bad. I see that there is one at the end of the hallway, but I don’t dare go. I am afraid that the person who is in the building will decide to leave, lock it up and keep me inside until the next day. I insist but nobody answers. I decide to knock on the door that has a sign that reads “Mayor’s Office”. A male voice invites me to go in. The man is pouring hot water from a huge thermos placed on his desk. Those that you only need to press the top for the water to pour directly on the mate cup. It saves you from having to lift it each time you need a mate. My first question is direct, without hesitation: “Is it there any toilet nearby?” He replies: “There are public toilets at the square just across the street, but what brings you here?”. I quickly explain the reason then he asks me more questions and I ask him other things and he offers to tell me, and he invites me to take a seat, but I can’t take it anymore. I tell him I’m going to the toilet across the road but he tells me the answer that I was begging to hear: “Don’t worry, you can use our toilets”.
The mayor tells me something I could not have imagined. When I had seen El Espinillo on a map, it looked like a very small town, with few streets and fewer inhabitants. I don’t remember how many he told me, but Wikipedia tells me that according to 2010 census there were between 17,000 and 22,000 inhabitants. The mayor tells me that around the city of El Espinillo there are many acres to grow crops and that there is also an area for raising cattle. I don’t remember how many either, but when he showed me the map it seemed like a lot of acres. People usually live in communities. There are quite a few communities around El Espinillo, or just plain Espinillo, as they call it there. The paiperos* live in those communities to whom the provincial government provides the seeds to sow. The municipality of Espinillo is in charge of helping them with their tractors to prepare the land for arable farming. The city that has a village feel has many schools, a church, a large sports center and a square with public toilets that I found always closed.
While he tells me about the area he is also interested about my project. I ask him if he knows someone who can tell me a story of the town or some unknown hero. He immediately picks up the phone and asks the person on the other side to come “now” to the municipality, but “now, as soon as you can, please, it’s urgent”. Ten minutes later, a handsome and very polite young man arrives. He’s tall, well dressed, well groomed. Ramiro greets me with a deep but shy voice and sits on the available chair to my right. He turns on his laptop while the mayor continues telling me about his city and its people. I found out that Ramiro is in charge of the cultural department of the municipality, that apart from studying language and literature, he is a musician. Ramiro Maza’s father is Domingo Maza Girón, a famous musician from Formosa, a writer of chacareras, local folk music. Ramiro grew up in Colonia Apayeré, a community like most in the area that was mainly to grow cotton.
Ramiro tries to convince me to visit a tourist park. I explain my project to him and then he realizes what I really need. He gives me a few suggestions and he puts me in contact with Vidal Palacios.
Days later, I meet Vidal in front of the municipality. Vidal, a young man in his thirties, is married and he has children. Vidal is tall and has stooped shoulders. The fierce storm that had fallen a few days before made the access to the farms almost impossible. We get into my car. I take the steering wheel but, on the first muddy road, I ask him to take over because I feel he has more experience to drive on that kind of slippery surface. He agrees, but when I see how close his nose is from the windshield and the unconfident way of holding the steering wheel, it makes me doubt whether I had made the right decision.
After the car slides smoothly on the mud for a few kilometres we arrive at a farm. Leonardo’s farm, a paipero. The farm has a humble house where he and his wife have lived for many years, several plantations, some horses and a chicken coop that is, for me, the most remarkable thing about the place and, without doubt, the most beautiful chicken coop I have seen in my life. The laying hens seem happy. The coop is like a small house with gable roof. The sun’s rays enter through the fence on this afternoon with clear skies with unusually mild temperature a few days after the big storm. The chicken coop has a modern playground. Chickens walk around, go up, go down, climb up. They play like children in a park.
In the background, many birds are singing, while next to me, Leonardo in a slow pace with clear voice, stretches out some letters when he wants to emphasize something. “We live life slowwwwwwwly”.
“I used to grow cotton, it was profitable at first, but then it wasn’t as much. But between 2005 and 2007, the government helped us to try something different. So now we cope with this. With the animals, with the garden. The provincial government helps us in many ways.”
I ask him what cotton farming was like and he tells me: “It didn’t seem so hard to us because it was what we liked to do. We knew how to do it. We were born with it. My grandparents did that. My parents, too. They died doing that. It was sowed once a year, harvested six months later. The money we got from the cotton could last the other six months and it was enough to go by until we sowed again. But now everything changed. Maybe other countries are now growing cotton. We don’t do that anymore. During the year my whole family worked on the farm and during harvest, the whole town came to work. Even the teachers came to harvest. We used to make a lot of money those days. But then it all ended. And now we are surviving with this. I’m not going to stop fighting. And this is what we like. Beauuuuuuuutiful, for those who like it.”
It is getting dark. Leonardo gets his horse ready to get back the cows that are grazing. I see them disappear on the horizon.
November 14, 2019.
Paiperos*: from the PAIPPA program (Comprehensive Action Program for Small Agricultural Producers).
NEW TAIPEI CITY
The heavy downpour hitting the windows of my hotel room wakes me up earlier than I would have liked. I try to go back to sleep but the high intake of caffeine in my system from the previous night keeps me awake.
I leave the hotel to go to Keelung station to catch the train to return to Taipei. It’s still raining. The only positive thing of walking fifteen minutes under the rain that hasn’t stopped for four days, dragging two suitcases, with a backpack on my back and a camera around my neck, both under a raincoat and a hooded cape tightly attached to my chin so it doesn’t slip off, is that looking at my reflection in a window and seeing this image that emulates a combination of Hunchback of Notre Dame, young Frankenstein and Little Red Riding Hood, is that there is no possibility of bumping into someone I know.
The express train only takes fifty minutes to reach Taipei Central Station. The station is a city in itself. Lines that go to the airport and to other areas of Taiwan converge there and there are connections with different subway lines. Practically you need a PHD to be able to know which exit to choose from the many existing. Despite being well indicated and signposted, even the most experienced traveler takes a long time to know which one to take. The station is so big that you can wander half an hour through these labyrinths and still be inside. However, the two times that I found myself in front of the map to see which exit to choose, it didn’t take more than two minutes before some kind soul came to help me and clearly explained which one I should take.
When I reach Taipei it doesn’t rain anymore. After several days of continuous rain it is a relief to walk the streets without getting wet. It gives me a pleasant feeling, as if I had regained my freedom. I go to the same hotel where I had stayed a few days earlier and I am given the same room. I look at a map to see which is the antipodal point of Taipei and I see that it is El Espinillo, Formosa, precisely in New Taipei City, near the subway station called Meishan. There I go.
I walk and I see a park with many people doing sports. It’s actually a big running track with most of them walking around it. People on their own, people accompanied by friends or by dogs. People dressed in sportswear and people dressed in street clothes. Everyone walking around like someone just told them it’s healthy to walk. They walk counterclockwise. I hear the lively voices of children like the ones I hear in every country when I am near a school. I look over a wall to prove I am right. The children are in the school yard in physical education class.
I leave the sports center to walk the streets of that neighbourhood when I hear, in the distance, that music so typical of Taiwan, the music of the garbage trucks. At a street corner, I see a very elegant lady standing still. She wears a floral print shirt, a yellow cap, and she is holding a tiny red bag tightly with her two hands, her arms extended in front of a long purple skirt. You might think she’s waiting for a date, but the two pink plastic bags at her feet give me a hint. She is waiting for the garbage truck to arrive.
Garbage collection in Taiwan deserves to be told, as I did after my first visit to Taipei in November 2016.
No one had anticipated me for the amazing experience that is garbage collection. There are no community trash cans in Taiwan. Every resident is responsible to carry their waste to the truck when it passes by. Every afternoon, at a certain time depending on the neighbourhood, a distinctive music begins to be heard. It comes from the garbage trucks. It should be noted that each truck has a different melody so that each user can recognize the arrival of theirs. Common garbage bags are purchased at specific places and the money collected is a tax fee. In these bags goes only the garbage that is not recyclable nor organic. The collection of recyclable and organic items do not pay a tax fee. It is a way of encouraging people to throw almost nothing to the common garbage. It is not a bad idea.
When the music is heard in the distance, the neighbours begin to leave their houses with their garbage bags. As they walk and get together to wait for the truck to arrive, they take the opportunity to greet each other and to chat. When the truck gets closer, everything becomes a surreal experience. You have to decide very fast which bag to dispose of first and in which truck. The bags of common garbage are thrown onto the trailer of the first truck; those of organic waste can be delivered by hand to the person on the truck and those with recyclables are delivered to the last truck where a couple of people wearing white plastic aprons separate the cardboard, glass, cans and plastics. The relationship with the collectors is very respectful and pleasant. Neighbours greet them and encourage them. The trucks disappear. The music begins to be heard more and more distant and the neighbours return to their homes, happy and satisfied of having deposited the waste at the right place.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the street, I stand alone looking at the horizon, stunned by what I have just experienced.
November 21, 2017
Heartfelt thanks to:
The mayor of El Espinillo. To Ramiro, Vidal and Leonardo. To the kind souls who help me find the right exit from Taipei Central Station. To the garbage collectors of Taiwan and their musical trucks.
To Alfre, for reading my Spanish versions.
In memory of Alf, my biggest and irreplaceable fan.