Journey To The West– Day 1 In Tai O

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page. 

Saint Augustine

For many times I heard of the alluring images and delicacies in Tai O– now is the time to see the renowned village for myself.

My insides turned upside down as the No.11 bus made its way through the gnarly, convoluted paths atop the hills, surrounded by nothing but darkness. The unforgiving journey drained my last bits of willpower to regret the decision of boarding as it rambled towards Tai O– the Far West of Hong Kong.

After what appears to be forever, the bus steadily stopped next to a sign saying “Tai O Bus terminus”. Finally! Heaving a huge sigh of relief, I took a while to recollect myself before standing up and making a beeline for the exit. Stumbling down the stairs, I looked around–all the other passengers who sardined the bus were already nowhere to be seen. Aside from the sparse street lights, I was but all alone.

Making my way into the village. I was taken aback by how quiet it is– to the extent I can almost hear my own sweat dripping on the ground. Clearly, all the owners of the shops have already called it a day. Greeted by nothing more than steel curtains and hollow alleys, there was a moment I thought the bus has taken me to a ghost town, leading me on a path of no return; until a stray cat walked past me with its eyes staring straight into my soul, as if assuring me I was on the right track.

Joining the program hosted by VolTra, little did I know what awaited me in the upcoming weekend, except for the fact that Douglas, the staff in charge of the camp, informed me it was way more of a “real workcamp” than the one I previously engaged in overseas. So, at 9pm, with a fully-packed backpack about to burst open at the seams, a weighty sleeping bag on my left hand, drenched in perspiration, curiosity, and agitation, I finally arrived at the destination: the renowned Solo Cafe.

“What are you doing with all your stuff? Are you a refugee?” The rest of the campers sneered at me in unison for bringing too much stuff along– I have endeared myself to this lament I receive whenever I go on trips so their laughter is nothing to me. Turns out I know around half of them from a previous leadership training program hosted by VolTra. Not bad for a start.  

Piles of finished paper lanterns and decorations had already stacked up on the table next to them by the time I arrived late, and I wasted no time delving into work, quickly acquainting myself with the procedures.  Measuring precisely 16 cm and 12 cm on the long and short sides of the recycled plastic files, I cut the recycled files into diamond shapes, before cutting open the sides and rearranging them into rolls. They were then stuck together with tape into similar parts, finally to be pieced into an enormous decoration.

As we were firing on all cylinders, torrential rain lashed down abruptly outside without prior noticing. Alicia, the camp leader, suggested we bring umbrellas over to other volunteers working across the street. Walking beneath the downpour, crossing the street seems a dangerous expedition into the unknown. Narrowly escaping a slip at the stairs in front of Meow, a cafe well-known for its cats, I am greeted by the rest of our crew and a couple of amiable locals (don’t forget its cute residents, of course). Carefully avoiding the plastic scraps, empty bottles, and ink markers, the locals explained the bottles would be cut up, colored and forged into scales of a bamboo fish they’re concomitantly making. I recalled the gigantic structure resting in darkness in a restricted area as I entered the village–so that’s what it’s all about.

The bottles crafted in hard plastic put up a respectable fight when I tried cutting them into designated shapes. As disgruntled as I was after dissecting all of them, watching the then cut-up bottles receive renewed life as the scales of a fish following a coat of coloring was a pleasant sight to see, not to mention how the cats running around and jumping all over the place has made the moment all the better.

The local residents had no reservations when we tossed all sorts of questions at them. From what restaurants are delicious, to how often they go fishing, they seem to have hours of stories to tell for every topic we bring up. Drawn into the captivating tales, their enthralling voices are all that I hear, and all of a sudden the rain striking the windows seem to make no noise at all. Well, if the rain outside means we’re stuck here for the rest of the night because of the rain, I wouldn’t mind at all.

It was 11pm when Alicia decided it is time we have a good rest. Since it was still raining cats and dogs outside, my trousers looked like they’ve come out fresh from the washing machine even if it was just a 30-meter walk back to Solo Cafe. The two upper levels of Solo Cafe are the residential area, the place where we’d call home for the next few days. Earnestly shocked was I upon opening the door– I dare say it seems larger and cozier than I expected. Surely this was as close as it can get to my own home. Finally, a good night sleep!

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