Saturday, May 07, 2005

Hot Springs Eternal

Blant, a South African playboy who had more girls on his arm than I had dark orangutanial hairs on mine, nagged me for three weeks until I agreed to go with him to the hot springs in Beitou, north of Taipei.

A hot spring is a series of little pools filled with tap water (in Taiwan tap water is sometimes called 'volcanic spring water').  Some pools are heated, some are chilled. Hot spring resorts are carved into mountains, and fenced in with wood, and a minute spinster charges you sixty dollars to get in. Sixty Taiwanese dollars takes eight minutes to earn. It cost as much to travel to the springs as to get into the springs. I pointed this out to Blant.  "Ah," he said, sagely, "But the spring doesn't have to travel."

Blant told me about a hot springs game he had invented called 'White Lobster'. The game sounded simple. "You go into the hot pool for 3 minutes, then go into the freezing pool for 3 minutes, then repeat 2 more times. If you're lucky your body will go into shock and one of the elderly women in the hot spring will give you mouth-to-mouth. The game is simple but addictive." "Why is it called White Lobster?" I asked him. "Because," he said, "when you get out of the hot pool you are red and when you get out of the cold pool you are white again." "The game would be more accurately called 'Alternately White and Red Lobster'," I said.

Blant warned me as we went to Beitou that a trip to the hot spring is a zen-like experience and that I should behave accordingly. "Don't move too quickly in the water for the waves will disturb the concentration of the other bathers. Don't speak too loudly; control your breathing; try to place yourself at one with nature; be silent and watchful." Blant had also invited Paul Mastiff, a fellow Brit. When we arrived Paul was already in the hot pool. I got changed and ready and dipped a toe into the hot pool, then another, and another, until I felt confident enough to put in my whole foot. By the time I got to my neck, six minutes had passed and it was time for Paul to get out. He charged like a water buffalo attacking a hippo, and bellowed, "HEY I'M GEDDIN OUT NOW ANYONE WANNA COME TO THE COLD POOL MAN ITS HOT HERE HEY YOU SPEAK ENGLISH HOW ARE YOU?"

With Paul attacking other pools, and Taiwanese people taking flight like startled pigeons, I tried to find my Zen. I looked around and saw that the hot spring was carved into the side of a leafy mountain. Hot water trickled along bamboo half-pipes into the hot pool, creating marvellous swish and splash sounds that made me think of the ocean. "Pretty nice," I thought to myself. The place was small and popular but not crowded. The day was a sizzling one, but although the hot spring was outdoors, the air was pleasantly cool. "Very nice," I thought, and closed my eyes.

When I opened them, an American had appeared to my left, and his Taiwanese wife, and her mother and sister were getting in to my right. "Don't talk to me," I said with my eyes. "Hey!" shouted the wife, "We hear you're single!" "What? Who-" I began. "So we thought maybe you'd like to date my sister. Let's all go to lunch!" I glanced at the smiling girl to my right, and, assuming her to be the sister in question, played my get-out-of-jail-free card. "Right, that's.... yeah, but I'm leaving Taiwan in 2 months, so.... you know." They didn't know. "So there's no point," I clarified. "Oh, okay! We just thought you might like to date my sister because she lived in England before and you look kind of cute," said the wife. "Yes, I do," I said, then changed the subject. "So don't you realise it's rude to try to set me up with your sister, who is not a model and doesn't even have long hair, when I'm trying to become one with the universe?" She didn't hear me and I didn't repeat myself. “And how the blazes did you know I’m from England?”

"How did you guys meet?" I asked. She spoke rapidly for thirty seconds. I could only pick out the phrases 'South Carolina', 'MBA' and 'met on the internet'. Then she said, "I'm a financial analyst. I love money. Anything to do with money gets me excited." She quivered as she said the word 'money'. I said, "Well, in that case, I find you reprehensible." I turned to the man. "You said you're from Ohio? What's that, loads of farms?" He didn't understand the word 'farms'. "What? Lots of bombs? No, we don't have many bombs in Ohio."
The wife said, "Have you been to the States?" "No," I said. She said, "By the look on your face I can tell you don't want to go. But you know, they have McDonalds and KFC everywhere". "That's not a good thing," I said. "I know," she said, "I was being sarcastical." The man said, "Yeah, I agree with you, but you can get a burger anytime!" With incredible chivalry I spoke to the sister, who was sitting next to me like we were already married. "So where did you stay in England?" "Bath... and Scotland," she said, "and Boston. Because in England there is a city called Boston, too."

I left the hot springs zenless. Blant walked with me to the metro. He asked me to go with him again the next week. “Paul’s going to bring that girl you hate, Christina.” As much as I hated Christina, she had a great body, perfectly apposite to emerge from a cold pool and the perfect playmate for White Lobster. "Yeah, I'll go," I said. “Hot springs are a great place to meet your next girlfriend.”


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