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Fond Memories of Isla Formosa – The Beautiful Island

Taiwan is on everyone’s mind these days. People the world over know about this island off the coast of China with its own model democratic government and vibrant free society. The fraught cross-Strait situation is the topic of conversation in coffee houses, bars, living rooms, schools, and businesses around the world. But this island remains a secret jewel with relatively few people actually visiting and seeing its stunning beauty and experiencing its remarkable diversity.

I lived in Taipei from 2004 to 2008 with my family. My husband was Political Counselor at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). Our children attended Taipei American School (TAS) where I served on the Board of Directors. I also volunteered as a Docent at the renowned National Palace Museum, where I learned about the rich history of Chinese art and culture, and wrote for Centered on Taipei (COT). This gave me the unique opportunity to discover new parts of this amazing island and meet so many people. I relished the opportunity to discover new facets of Taiwan and used every chance I got to turn my explorations into stories.

While living in Taiwan, United Airlines’ Hemispheres Magazine asked me to write the article “Three Perfect Days in Taipei” for the series that greets you in the pocket of your airline seat every time you travel United.

They dispatched a photographer from National Geographic to photograph the places that I included in my article. I escorted him to the hot spots of Taipei – the night markets, Taipei 101, the Grand Hotel, we ate jiaozi at Din Tai Fung, sipped tea at several high end tea houses, and visited Buddhist temples. But it was in the mountains around Taipei, where he said to me, “This is the best kept secret in all of Asia! Why doesn’t anyone know about it?”

So let me tell you some of my discoveries, which hopefully you have already uncovered yourselves, but if not, it is time to start! Let’s begin with the basics. The people of Taiwan are its treasure.

In all of my travels (and I have lived in eight countries and visited dozens more), the Taiwanese people are the most courteous, welcoming, generous people I have ever met. There is a strong traditional Chinese culture from both the earlier cross-Strait and the post Civil War China-wide migrations, modulated by vestiges of indigenous aboriginal and Japanese colonial cultures into the unique cultural blend that is today’s highly cosmopolitan Taiwan. Taiwan people are both polite, respectful, and welcoming, which is quite unique these days. They tend to be somewhat conservative in their lifestyles, hard working, and honest. My husband and I found Taiwan a wonderful place to raise teenagers because the island is so safe. The kids could roam quite freely without us worrying all the time. They came home on their first day at TAS exclaiming, “Mom, you won’t believe it, but it is cool to be smart here!” The tradition of working hard and honoring ancestors is alive and well here.

I wrote one article for COT entitled, “Only in Taiwan” about the many times people in Taiwan went out of their way to be kind and helpful. It seemed to happen daily. Like the taxi driver who drove back to TAS and delivered my son’s mislaid shoes to his classroom. Or the complete stranger across a crowded street who saw me getting drenched and ran across to offer me shelter under her umbrella. Or the shopkeeper who ran to catch me and give me the correct change that I had left at her register. Or the neighbors who invited us for beautiful Chinese dinners on our arrival. Or the taxi driver who helped me find a wild boar to photograph for our Year-of-the-Pig family Christmas photo. These acts of kindness were legendary and made living in Taiwan a delight.

I wrote about the hot sulfur springs and wonderful spas in the hills and mountains around Taipei. Taiwan’s spa culture grew out of the Japanese communal “au naturelle” bath tradition, though in Taiwan this is done separately for men and women. This can be a bit awkward for westerners at first, but the Taiwanese people are welcoming and make it easy to acclimatize, with their relaxed communal attitude, I explored every type of spa and hot spring, from fancy high-end spas with multiple baths, lounging areas, tea served on the side, fountains and steam baths; to natural pools of every temperature set in valleys or on mountainsides with steaming waterfalls flowing down. Most people know about the spas in Beitou, but there are many, many others to find. If you haven’t tried it, you are really missing a special treat of living in Taiwan.

One of many beautiful water features on Yangmingshan

Another treasure of Taiwan is the mountains themselves. Towering over Taipei is, of course, the magical mountain Yangmingshan with its myriad of walking trails and spectacular views. My favorite spot was Qingtiangang, where I would begin by honoring my ancestors at the small Buddhist temple at the trail entrance, then walk with my little cocker spaniel to the peak of the mountain and peer down at the city of Taipei on one side, then jog to the other side and sit and gaze meditatively out over the ocean. Many days, I was the only person there. I have found few places as magical as that.

Beyond these, the options for exploration and adventure are limitless: go to the quaint village of Zhuzihu in the springtime with its rolling fields of white calla lilies; or to Xiaoyoukeng where steaming sulfur water flows from the mountain; or climb Qixingshan (Seven Star Mountain) with its expansive views, or drive over the mountain to the lovely beach town of Jinshan where you can surf the waves, or to Yehliu with its strange rock formations. Further afield you can visit the historic mining village of Jiufen with its pottery shops; or travel South to the towering mountains of Yushan and Alishan, where you might think you are in Austria; or visit the beautiful Sun Moon Lake with its crystal clear waters. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The options are literally endless in Taiwan.

My husband and I discovered remarkable tea houses scattered all through the mountains around Taipei, some exotic, some traditional, some hanging off cliffs, others in terraced rice paddies, but all mesmerizingly wonderful! My family and I remember Taiwan with such fondness. Taiwan is a unique place in this world, truly a “beautiful island.” The world prays for its safety. There is so much there to protect. I am grateful for the years I spent roaming the island of Taiwan, which I will always hold dear in my heart

By Joanne Huskey with Photos by Susie Brand

Joanne Huxley

Joanne Grady Huskey is co-founder of Global Adjustments, Inc. (India); American International School of Chennai (India); I LIVE 2 LEAD Young Women’s International Leadership Program.  International Director of VSA Arts at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  Her books include The Unofficial Diplomat, Make It In India, iCAN:  A Young Woman’s Guide to Taking the Lead, Growing Up Grady, and her first children’s book, Christopher & Caroline in Kenya.

Ms. Huskey has been published in the Washington Post, Newsweek, Foreign Service Journal, State Magazine, Hemispheres Magazine, and Centered on Taipei.   For her work in women’s leadership, Ms. Huskey was honored as 2014 Purpose Prize Fellow by Encore.org and was awarded the “Points of Light Award” by Secretary of State James Baker for her work in the Asia-Pacific region.  As part of the US Diplomatic Service, she lived in China, India, Kenya, and Taiwan. She has a Masters degree from Harvard University.

She lived in Taiwan from 2004-2008 and served on the TAS School Board, and was a docent at the National Palace Museu

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