While travelling, you often get some random acts of kindness. Maybe because you’re more up to it, more open to it, and also more dependent on it. Here, I would like to share some of those encounters with strangers, some of those random acts of kindness, some of those great surprises I had with strangers, and therefore what I learned from it. I’ve got plenty of little stories that I’d like to share and write about. I hope this little saga will have the advantage of bringing a different, yet optimistic glance upon our world.
I’m telling you, folks. You can talk to strangers. That’s pure happiness. As crazy as it seems, last May, that day I got hammered right on my heart, I also found a family. And a place that I had already added to my list of ‘homes’ around the world. I opened the door of the World Inn hostel, soaked because of the rain and those tears on my cheeks, about to start my two weeks Workaway mission. Except that I ended up staying there for more than three months.
Since I started travelling over 2 years ago, I rarely stayed more than 1 month in the same place (except when I was working as a Banana Girl in New Zealand, or when I came back to France to work at the University Library in Strasbourg). I always get really itchy feet when I stay too long in one place, I get impatient and restless to explore more. But that was before I ended up in Hualien County, on the east coast of Taiwan. That was before my best Workaway mission ever. In World Inn, I was warmly welcomed by Una, the owner, and her husband, Aga, who’s a tourist guide for Taiwanese who’re eager to visit Europe. Una’s sister, Nicole, is living with them as well, helping from time to time with the laundry, and Hugo, the neighbour, used to come really often to taste my dishes and share beers and stories with us.
This hostel often resonated with laughter, Finnish music, ‘Bal de Bamako’, or Aga singing Chinese hits. There was also Emma, this young Finnish girl on a 4 months internship at the hostel, and Vincent, this Quebecois guy who was using the opportunity of volunteering to enhance his Chinese speaking. Between the three of us, we were a long-term bad ass team and bonded really quickly.
Like a family, we took care of each other. We cooked together after our shift. Emma used to help me to separate the white and the yolk to bake chocolate mousses. Vincent helped me getting train tickets out of the Family Mart’s vending machine where everything was written in Chinese. I used to go swimming with Emma at Our Beach. I used to sleep with Vincent at the 7/11 convenient store before watching some hot air balloons in Luye.
Our team would grow bigger from time to time with new short-term volunteers, Masumi from Japan, Sasha from Philippines/South Africa, Joy from Taiwan, Dnyan from India who was travelling around the world with his bicycle. We would build strong ties with some guests as well, so much that we created a secret notebook with a chart of our best guests (and also the most annoying ones, the dirtiest ones, the hottest ones and obviously the best Workawayers ever – yeah, I’m hoping to be on this list by now!).
Our little family was surely motley, yet beautiful and full of humour indeed.This hostel, World Inn, it’s like Una and Aga’s little baby, their dream come true. When Aga told me how he decided to own a hostel, I couldn’t help but smiling: the idea hit him while in New Zealand when he stayed in the BBH hostels chain. Those hostels are kind of cheap homestays: not that many beds in the dorms, and a friendly homely atmosphere that makes all the difference for backpackers.
In fact, every little thing in World Inn is dedicated to travel. Each bed is matching a country where they would love to go travelling together one day. This is how I spent some nights in Argentina, then in Egypt, New Zealand and finally in South Africa. A world map is displayed on the first floor which allows the guests to choose their country beds by putting on a magnet with their home country flag on it. Una is actually very excited every time a new guest has to draw a new flag – it’s another flag for their big collection. The big wooden table on the first floor is in shape of Taiwan and there are here and there some knickknacks Aga brought back from his trips. A little kiwi, an African statue, some miniatures of European cathedrals are scattered in the common area.
Una and Aga want to provide travelers with the opportunity of “living like a local” and they’re clearly not greedy with tips, advice, nights out to watch the sunset and the city lights from the Maple Trail or star gazing in Qixingtan. They also promote local craftsmen and organic farms, where you get to know more about Taiwanese art or indigenous vegetables and herbs.
Una was often taking us to her favourite spots, where Emma and I used to teach her how to swim in the ocean. Thanks to her, we discovered Taiwanese traditional food, we learned a bit of Chinese on the way and we got used to local traditions. We even had the chance to meet the County mayor and the Hualien city mayor – and yeah I even have selfies to prove it.
WORKING ON HOUSEKEEPING, YES, BUT ALSO ON MY TALENTS
Working implies salary, and in our subconscious, it often implies some pain. You should kill yourself working hard to be acceptable, and I often heard the expressions “real jobs” as if it could be possible to get a false one. It’s a little bit like the “real life” that you’re supposed to live as if the life I’m living in Taiwan was just an illusion. And when it comes to “real” life, “real” job, it needs to be painful, it needs to be difficult to be valid from a societal perspective.
Except that there are many other ways to “work” if you’re still into quotation marks. HelpX, Workaway, Woofing, volunteering, there are many names, but the concept is about the same, offering your services in exchange for a place to sleep and eat. In Taiwan, it’s more common to help with housekeeping duties in hostels in exchange for a bed in a dorm. I did it a few times in New Zealand and in Taiwan, and I cope with it more than fine. In fact, it gives me a lot of free time on afternoons to explore one place’s surroundings, get to know new people and finally take time to rest in between two trips.
What made a huge difference in World Inn, was that besides my daily cleaning tasks, I was encouraged to develop my talents. Talents I wasn’t even fully aware I had, actually.
FROM THE MAGIC OF A SIMPLE CHOCOLATE MOUSSE…
When I got there, I did what I always do best indeed: a chocolate mousse. If I think about it, each volunteering job I did has had its own personal chocolate mousse – you can ask my former co-workers, there was a Christmas one on Stewart Island, and some others made without any electric whisk in Hahei (and believe me, it takes time when you don’t have any electric whisk…!)
And honestly baking a chocolate mousse is like the simplest thing in the world. It’s the first recipe I learned when I was a kid: I used to assist my mother who got her recipe from her own mother. After filling my mouth and my fingers, I used to let my dog licking the cooking bowls. I even used to think back then that was the reason why my dog was black: obviously it was eating too much chocolate with me. For my birthdays, I seldom had cakes, for all I wanted was to let the mousse melt on my tongue and moan with pleasure.
And right there, something magic happened: every little dish that I cooked, whether it was an apple tart, a tofu quiche, an apple crumble, a lemon cake, a chocolate fondant, and even a simple salad served with a mustard dressing, well my hosts got all crazy with ecstasy. In a matter of a few days, I moved from being a simple helper to the official hostel’s cook. We went grocery shopping in Carrefour now and then, all so excited thinking of what we could cook for our next meals.
You should know that in Taiwan, locals don’t cook that much. There are restaurants everywhere (trust me, EVERYWHERE), in which you can take out any kind of food and most of all: it’s really cheap. It’s just so easy and so convenient to get food at any time and any day, that many housings don’t even have kitchens. So, obviously, as I walked there with loads of recipes on my One Drive, success was fairly guaranteed. I tried to explain to them that back home in France, it’s considered ordinary to cook, and even though everybody could appreciate my desserts, no one ever showed that much enthusiasm while eating my food.
… TO THE WORLD INN DINNERS’ TABLE
How fortunate was this chocolate mousse story, for Una was actually organizing her first World Inn Dinner event just before I arrived: an event which would take place all summer, every other week, where she would invite Taiwanese chefs to come cooking local and traditional ingredients for the hostel’s guests and the Hualien inhabitants who wanted to discover an original kind of cuisine. She ended up asking Emma and me to think of Finnish and French recipes a chef could cook with local ingredients. I obviously thought of the chocolate mousse and a traditional quiche, and Emma made us discover the Voileipäkakku – a Finnish sandwich cake.
As I needed to explain how to bake the mousse, I thought it would be easier to draw my grandmother’s recipe instead of translating everything into English for Una and the chef. Drawings are always a good way to understand simple things. I applied myself, rediscovering the sensation of lines, colours on my fingers, and my mind focused on the one and only task which had never ever bothered me.
Una liked my drawings immediately – again the enthusiasm was there, frank and honest – and she asked me if I could draw the two other recipes to include them on the World Inn Dinner menu. That’s how I got myself drawing all the World Inn Dinner’s recipes all summer long. Surprise even took my breath away when Una and Aga offered me to pay me for my work. The dinners were funded by Hualien County –most probably a way to promote this beautiful region – and they were willing to share a small part of this funding with me! I was actually paid to draw! It wasn’t that much but significantly way enough for my ego.
I mean, I would have never EVER thought that someone was willing to pay me for my little doodles.
As I was drawing those recipes, I discovered indigenous herbs with exotic names, edible flowers, and unknown vegetables. I was erasing a lot sometimes, for I couldn’t capture the appropriate lines of some other ingredient: how the hell was I supposed to draw a dead fish or a chicken filet? How to draw egg whites? No matter which solution I’d find, enthusiasm was always here in return and I even got to sign (that’s crazy) some menus for guests who loved my drawings.
Thanks to those World Inn dinners, I also got to be part of some awesome guided tours in some farms around Hualien, partners of Hugo’s brand (花東菜市集 brand, which could be translated by « Flower East Market », and are selling some local, ethical and organic products which taste deliciously good) and provided their ingredients for the menus the chefs had imagined. I smelled tons of strange herbs (while trying to remember their names – an obviously lost cause), I ate some corn right from the field (and the taste was so sweet), I learnt some fishing techniques which are less aggressive (where the fish are kind of “guided” into the nests and not scraping everything at the bottom), and I even got the chance to dig up my own sweet potatoes (and I was the one with the biggest bag..!)
THE AIR IS DEFINITELY SWEETER FOR DREAMING ON THE EAST COAST
Besides drawing and cooking, I settled myself in Hualien in a kind of routine of pleasures. I can see some of you in the back, frowning, because for sure that’s not what “real life” is, treating yourself is clearly not supposed to be a hobby. And yet, I was working. Beside my daily two or three hours cleaning tasks, I spent some afternoons drawing, sometimes tutoring English for those two adorable Taiwanese kids. I was helping in the kitchen or waitressing during those World Inn Dinner, playing to be the event photographer and updated the website afterwards. But for sure that’s clearly what my new president would call a ‘slacker way of life’.
I don’t really care actually. While in Hualien, I looking for satisfaction in the tiny simple things as bicycle rides, swimming in the ocean or the river almost every day, buying a sesame bao (a kind of stuffed white bread) in the tiny shop across the street for lunch, getting up almost two hours before starting my shift in order to read a book, learn a bit of Chinese or have a yoga session with my co-worker Sasha on the hostel’s rooftop. I was writing a lot as well, published a few posts on my blog, on Medium, and one of them even got shared by a pretty famous online magazine from Strasbourg. I still have about 5 drafts of writings dear to my heart.
I realized that I was a bit exhausted of my never-ending itchy legs, that I was exhausted from running away as well, of asking myself about 42 million questions about Life, the Universe and Everything. I missed reading a whole book in one sitting or going up really early to catch another sunrise. Because waking up at 4 a.m for sunrise wasn’t going to kill me, and it didn’t really matter if I was about to be a sleepy zombie the rest of the day. For I was a happy zombie indeed on those days, those days which started which pink waves in the sky.
We surely win at living slowly sometimes. Taking time for all those little things we tend to put off to tomorrow: drawing, writing, learning a new language, bicycling, stargazing or watching the sunrise.
Baking a chocolate mousse for the people you love.
In the best hostel ever.