Surfing makes me a little anxious. Swimming, snorkeling, wake boarding, kayaking, whitewater river rafting: they’re all fine. But there’s something about getting pummeled by wave after wave as you try to get out past the breaks, only to fail miserably at catching even one wave, that isn’t really my cup of tea.
Growing up in Seattle, there isn’t a huge opportunity for surfing, but I jumped at the chance when I visited a friend in Florida a few years ago. Let’s just say my “lessons” didn’t go very well. The waves were extremely choppy, inconsistent, and large, with little to no time in between them. When the surfboard rental shop learned it was my first time out, a sarcastic “good luck” was their response. I had never practiced floating on a surfboard, so it was pretty much impossible to even get my board out far enough to attempt to surf. Every time I tried to jump on the board, I was smacked with a huge wave and fell right off. I decided I’d had enough when I got hit in the face with my surfboard. Thankfully, a few people saw it happen and a woman made me a makeshift icepack out a plastic bag and ice from her cooler. If there’s one thing I have to say about Floridians, it’s that they’re unusually friendly.
I eventually switched to a boogie board and had a great time with all the twelve-year-olds.
I knew there must be something about surfing that I was missing. I’ve heard from many surfers that catching the right wave is “the best high there is”. I thought that if I just had the right teacher in the right conditions, I might change my mind. If so many people are in love with surfing, there has to be something to it right?
Orchid Island (Lanyu Dao)
Orchid Island, or Lanyu Dao, was at the top of my list for places I wanted to visit in Taiwan. A traditional aboriginal island, Lanyu is pretty hard to get to. There are two ways to get there: plane or ferry. The 40-something seater plane sells out months in advance and the ferry can be pretty fickle depending on water conditions. Both the plane and ferry only leave from Taidong (Taitung), a beach town on the east coast of Taiwan. I booked one night in Taidong, planning to leave for Lanyu the next morning.
In Taipei and Tainan, I was constantly asking everyone about Lanyu, but I couldn’t find anyone who had been there. The people I asked seemed pretty impressed that I would even attempt planning a trip to the island, and a few suggested I go with Green Island Adventures, to make my life easier. From everything, I could find online, planes, ferries and guest houses sell out quickly in the summer and must be booked in advance. I decided to take the ferry to save money, but there were absolutely no English websites that would let me book the ferry or any guesthouses. I attempted calling the few guest houses listed in the Taiwan Lonely Planet Book, which didn’t go over very well. One guest house even told me to post my reservation request on their Facebook page (what??). Eventually, I found an open guest house and made a reservation. As for the ferry, most blogs and websites told me to just show up in the morning and get a ticket from the office.
Dulan, Taidong (Taitung)
Using Taidong as a stopover, I didn’t plan much time to enjoy the city. I found a hostel in the village of Dulan, and hoped it was kind of near the ferry. What I didn’t realize is that Taidong consists of the “city center” near the airport, and a long stretch of villages along the ocean. Most hostels and hotels are in the villages, so that travelers and tourists can swim, surf and hike in the mountains nearby.
When I arrived I realized that Taidong is a surfer town. My hostel owners were two South African guys, both married to local Taiwanese girls. The hostel even sold and rented surf boards and offered surfing lessons!
Thankfully, the girls working in my hostel had some experience with booking guest houses and ferry tickets to Lanyu, and decided to call the ferry company to reserve me a seat. A few minutes later they had bad news: the entire ferry was sold out for the next morning. While in the past I may have had a full-on panic attack, I took a look at my schedule and decided to sacrifice a day in Hualien and leave for Lanyu a day later than scheduled.
The only problem? I had nowhere to stay my third night in Lanyu! I called my guest house and was informed they didn’t have space on the last night (and then rudely hung up on me as I was in the middle of asking them a question). Unfortunately, there’s no online booking websites for Lanyu, so we had to individually call each guest house to ask if they had room. On our 6th try we finally got a place! Relived to not be homeless, I settled down to a BBQ dinner prepared by my hostel.
Now with a full day to kill in Taidong, there was only one thing to do; fate was telling me to face my fears and finally learn to surf. I made an appointment to meet at 6am with a surfing instructor and went to bed nice and early. Unfortunately, I only got about two hours of sleep. Why, you ask? Three words: No. Air. Conditioning.
While I’m used to not having air-conditioning at home in Seattle, Taiwan is really, really hot and humid in the summer, and my hostel room was like a sauna. With four of us in a room the size of a closet, one fan and a tiny window, I felt like I was literally boiling from the inside. Eventually I walked to the bathroom and dunked my head under the sink, hoping wet hair would help me sleep. It didn’t. So I grabbed a water bottle and poured the entire thing all over my face and body while laying in bed. I thought being wet might help me cool down, so I laid in the puddle and tried to sleep. I was dry in about 15 minutes. It was a long night.
The next morning I packed all of my things, and woke up one of the girls working at the hostel, informing her that I couldn’t stay there any longer. There was no way I was suffering through that again. She told me to put my stuff in the lobby and we’d work it out later. It turns out my surf instructor was one of the owners, and after hearing I wanted to move out, he agreed to move me and my roommates into a private room with air conditioning for the same price as our dorm room if we agreed to stay there together. The others readily agreed, although I had a hard time finding one of my roommates. I eventually found her sleeping on the floor of one of the private rooms.
Attempting to Surf
After settling my hostel issues, the owner and I drove to the beach for my private surf lesson. After a warm-up and land lesson it was time to hit the waves. The water was pretty good for learning since the waves were small and evenly spaced, although they were a little too close to shore. The lack of constant waves made it a bit easier for me to practice paddling, balancing on my board and scoping out a good wave. While I didn’t quite stand up, I did get in a few good rides on my knees! Mainly, the issue was that there were large stretches with no waves at all, and the waves were very close to shore, not giving me a lot of time to get up before I hit land. Overall it was pretty fun, and I made a plan with a group of girls to come back in the afternoon when the sun was less intense.
Right before I left, a group of girls and I were standing in the water, when I felt something touch my leg. I immediately screamed out in pain as an electric sensation ran up my leg, through the rest of my body. While I was trying to figure out what happened, one of the other girls screamed too. It turns out we were both stung by jellyfish! Fortunately, it wasn’t that bad but it hurt like hell!
My afternoon session went a little less well than the morning. The waves were extremely choppy, inconsistent, and large. I experienced the same anxiety I felt in Florida, trying to get out past the breaks. I guess getting pummeled in the face by wave after wave isn’t really my cup of tea. While I eventually managed to get out far enough to catch waves, I couldn’t manage to catch any of them! I had to take a few breaks because I was just so frustrated and exhausted. I guess that’s where getting more than two hours of sleep comes in handy.
Eventually I decided it was time to stop. I normally hate being a quitter, but getting tossed around by giant waves was ruining my fun memories of the morning. I did leave with some nice souvenirs though: jellyfish stings, no skin on my knees, a body full of bruises and a nasty sunburn.
On a cultural note, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of Taiwanese surfer girls in Dulan. Normally in east Asia, most women go through great lengths to keep their skin white, and will wear long clothes at the beach, and avoid going in the water. It was refreshing to see tanned, muscular surfer girls laughing with their friends, having a great time at the beach. Most of the girls were “normal” or “athletic” by western standards, and didn’t seem to care about showing off their tanned bodies in a bikini. It was really refreshing to see girls that accept their bodies and have fun at the beach. While I may judge the Asian girls who refuse to go in the water, sometimes it’s hard not to be affected by America’s obsession with having the perfect “beach body”.
Surprisingly Amazing International Food
One very pleasant surprise in Dulan is the amazing international restaurants in the area! Down the road from my hostel on the way to the beach is a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant. It took me a solid 10 minutes just to decide what I wanted from the menu since there were so many options! The family that owns and operates the restaurant are Vietnamese and the food is pretty much on par with what I had in Vietnam!
In addition to the Vietnamese place, there’s also an awesome pizza place on the main road. While most pizza in Asia tends to be sub-par at best, this place is run by a real Sicilian! My friends and I ordered multiple pizzas off the menu, all of which were absolutely fantastic. One of the most interesting slices I ate was the restaurant’s version of a Hawaiian pizza. I normally don’t like pineapple on pizza, but this pineapple was very thinly sliced and the pizza was topped with a few spoonfuls of fresh Taiwanese mountain honey. When we were still hungry after splitting a few pizzas, we told the chef to “surprise us”, and he came back with a pizza topped with eggplant and capers! I never would have thought to put eggplant on pizza but it was so incredibly good! I guess if you can do eggplant parmesan, you can make eggplant pizza.
Who would have thought the best pizza I’d ever eat would be in a surfer village in Taiwan?! I guess surfing attracts all types.
After eating way too many pizzas, the owner invited us to the kitchen to try his Sicilian liquor (I forgot the name, sorry). It was really good and very strong! He also showed us a book of Sicilian landscape photography. Sicily wasn’t originally on my list but it is now!
Overall, I’d say I had a pretty good experience attempting to surf. I pushed myself to try something I said I didn’t enjoy, and I had a great time challenging myself. I think I’ll definitely try again the next time I go to a surfing spot. I want to be able to say I can stand up on a surfboard! While large waves still aren’t really my favorite, and will always make me a little anxious, the feeling of being lifted up by them is really cool. There’s also a big surge of accomplishment when you master something you claim to be horrible at. At least I can say I learned to surf in Taiwan!
For those of you that are experienced surfers, winter seems to be the best time for surfing on Taiwan’s east coast, although there was a very large swell coming in the weekend after I left!
Where’s the coolest place you’ve surfed? Has anyone braved the great white sharks and tried surfing in South Africa?