It was on a cold early April morning that I found myself in southern Taiwan, arriving by a red eyed chartered flight from Singapore. There was still a 100 kilometre journey to make, and sitting on the back of a long opened 13 ton truck wouldn’t have been the means most of us would have chosen to do it with had we realised that discomfort that the two hour journey would bring. But there wasn’t much of a choice for us, being part of a support group for a military exercise that lay some 2 months ahead. And so, at the break of dawn, having been kept wide awake by the continuous stream of the more than chilly April air perched on the back of the speeding 13 tonner, we were relieved to see the truck make the turn into the dirt track that served as the roadway into the army camp that was reserved for our use. In the half light of dawn, the sound of teeth chattering was broken by the excited howl of one of my companions announcing that he had spotted a horse. A few chuckles quickly followed as a quick scan of the open field that lay to the left of the track revealed a couple of cows and nothing much else.
Having been used to the relative comfort of the army bunks we had in Singapore, where at its worst, the creaky springs of the beds would sag at anything that weighed a little more than a feather, seeing where we were to spend the next few months came as a rude shock. What I saw reminded me of the scenes of the prisoner of war camps on the Burma railway that I had seen in the movies. Lined up against the opposite sides of the walls in the long bunk were two rows of double decked wooden platforms which served as beds. On this we were to be allocated a one metre wide space on which to sleep on and store our belongings. This didn’t seem so bad when I got to see the state that the toilets were in! We had a few weeks before the stores we were sent to maintain were to arrive by ship, giving us some time to get the place set up.
With nothing much to keep us occupied, with civilisation nowhere in sight as well as being confined to camp seven days a week with only an evening out, the “gift shop” which seemed worth visiting for the two beauties – the fair skinned local girls who manned the shop, became a focal point. In reality, there wasn’t really much on offer, save the instant noodles, Taiwanese style, sealed in a styrofoam bowl which were displayed in the glass counter, which could be filled at the hot water dispenser at the end of the counter. This was a novelty to many of us then – it wasn’t until later that the idea caught on in Singapore.
We were allowed a three hours out once a week on Thursday evenings, when the night market came to town. Town we were to discover was Hengchun (恆春), which serves as the gateway to what must be one of the prettiest parts of Taiwan – the Kenting National Park. A walled town, Hengchun has most of its walls and gates still intact, and the area we often ended up in was close to the south gate. Apart from the night market, the town wasn’t notable for much except for the delicious street food and refreshing chilled red tea. The first evening I was there, I managed to get the essential sleeping bag which made the wooden platform I slept on a little more comfortable, visit to a mantou (steamed bun) shop, and fill my stomach with a hearty bowl of spicy beef noodles.
The night market always provided the locals as well as us with some form of entertainment. What would almost always greet the visitor was the pungent smell of fermented beancurd being toasted over the fire, and the greasy smell of Taiwanese sausages being grilled. There were always lots of stalls with nothing that seemed worth buying. Entertainment could usually be found at the corners of the market area – medicine and ointment vendors would always be ready to provide a show in an attempt to convince an eager audience of the positive effects of the medicines they were attempting to sell. There were those that placed red hot pieces of metal bare skin on various parts of the body and those that would attempt to inflict wounds using knives and chains to prove the protective benefits of their ointments. There were of course those that tried to draw the attention of a mainly male audience with skimpily dressed women who sometimes showed little bits of flesh that would make a gentleman blush!