Without hard work, nothing grows but weeds.
Gordon B. Hinckley
I never had the time to slow down and slowly enjoy the beauty of Tai O. Just a few quick glances, however, are enough leave one mesmerized.
My body remains affixed to the bed despite my calls for it to move. Slowly regretting whether I should have stayed up late, rays of sunlight forcefully making its way into my eyes cruelly broke my train of thought, propelling me beyond the critical point of “reaction”—a jolt of newfound energy filled my veins, and in a zoom I was downstairs, munching through slightly burnt bread smeared in peanut butter.
Timmy So, the owner of Solo Cafe, kindly granted us unrestricted access to both of the kitchen of the restaurants. Having made it clear the only dish I can cook without getting the kitchen upside down is cup noodles, I was allocated, if not coerced, to do all the dishes for the 13 people.
Disfigured fingertips and fatigued arms after tackling the dishes were merely the wake-up call of the day, as the first highlight of the trip was waiting round the bend. Navigating the narrow alleyways through a mix of dilapidated ramshackle and brand-new mansions, the first sight of FishPlant was nothing remarkable– yet stepping into the greenhouse-shaped structure, we can’t help but gaze in awe at the biodiversity: at least six to seven species of plants and fish reside in this space slightly larger than Cafe Solo. Timmy slowly explained, uncovering the fish tanks beneath the elevated plantations, that the ammonia being produced by the fish could, in fact, help the plants grow better.
Outdoors, right next to the greenhouse, lies a vacant pool filled with light-green leaves growing in bunches. The Mexican mint is the main character of our afternoon- teaching the elders in Tai O show to produce natural mosquito repellents at the YWCA office. But first, before we can pick them and carry them to the office, we each grabbed a pair of gardening scissors after putting on some working gloves– it is our duty to weed the entire outdoor zone of the FishPlant while sunshine is in full force. The mosquitoes made sure we remembered what we’re doing later today, welcoming us with a couple of bite marks on each of our hands or legs. I never regretted not having put on mosquito repellent, since it attracts bees, and the former is no doubt the lesser evil.
As we dragged our worn-out bodies back to cafe Solo after 2 hours of struggle with nature, delicious dishes laid on the table, enticing us with their irresistible aroma. The cooks, or half of our team who spent the morning designing the recipe and doing all the cooking, ended up no less tired than us. Chicken wings, veggies– everything tastes extra nice after hard work!
Time is of the essence– Josie, one of the local YWCA volunteers, reminded us we have to arrive half an hour before the workshop begins for the final preparation. Quickly gathering piles of Mexican mint, we rushed to the YWCA office, only to find several elders waiting for us upon our arrival. We were stuck in a conundrum, knowing we cannot leave them hanging around, yet it takes time and a lot of people to set up the area properly for the workshop to commence. Fortunately, under the active leadership of Keith, who has a number of experiences dealing with the elderly, we had the elders thoroughly entertained all the while we set up the tables and prepared instructions on the portions of ingredients to add. The afternoon was a mixture of laughter as we watched the old ladies guess our age, mostly missing by a mile but some strikingly accurate as they embarrassed us by picking out the leaves at twice our speed this morning.
Several media caught wind of the opening ceremony of the Tai O Festival of Light. While chatting happily with the elders, Albert and I were both invited by Douglas to give a sharing to a news reporter who was anxious to know more about Tai O and the work of volunteers under VolTra. It had been a pleasure to receive the interview, as it’s vital such traditional practices in Tai O receive their rightful attention and recognition. After the half-hour long interview, we returned, only to find the workshop having wrapped up and the rest of my team gathering my stuff.
Staring at my watch, the fact there being only an hour and a half away from the opening ceremony for the Tai O Festival of Light meant our day still has yet to reach its end. Returning to the city center, a lot of lanterns designed by local families lay scattered across the ground. We wasted no time springing into action, helping the local villagers attach them to the overhead electrical wires and light bulbs.
As the lanterns made its way into mid-air one by one, we still had one final task– to bring out the fish we’ve been helping out with last night, letting it make its grand entrance. Carrying such a gigantic structure would take way more than one or two of us. So, the 13 of us, along with the members of Tai O Fei Mao Li, the group which initiated the event, jointly carried the fish all the way from the workshop adjacent to Solo Cafe to the city center. It is hard to imagine a walk taking me no more than a minute normally would become a ten- minute march grabbing the attention of all the nearby citizens and tourists. We made our way slowly through the crowd as if the fish was wriggling through a sea of people.
Having affixed it to two metal poles firmly, the sun disappeared timely beneath the sea-level. This is it! With the flick of a switch, the lights hanging on the streets and wrapped around the fish were illuminated! At a synchronized instant, the air permeated with an unforeseen festive atmosphere, as if Mid-Autumn Festival itself can wait no longer, rushing to demonstrate its staggering beauty in front of the gathering crowd. What a moment it is!
It’s a wrap! To celebrate the success and validate our work, the courteous Tai O people treated us for dinner at what they call the “best local restaurant”– surely I cannot dispute the tastes of Tai O people since really have a knack for food. As all the dishes went down our stomachs, we can, at long last, finally call it a day. I made up my mind to carry on with my daily dosage of jogging. So, at 9pm, when all the rest of the campers laid beyond spent on their beds, I decide to consume the last of my remaining energy.
Having hurried in on the first day since I was late to the game, I got my second chance to slowly appreciate the silence and tranquility of Tai O at night. The contrasting atmosphere really makes one question whether this is really the same Tai O I’m in two hours ago.
As the view of Tai O at night slowly unfolded in front of me, I started to recall the dialogue I had with several other campers today: several of us were already thinking of returning here several weeks here for holiday. One even told me she wants to live here after she retires. As I was busily mulling over the possibility of such an idea, a gentle breeze stroked my face, sweeping away the drops of perspiration on my forehead as if consoling me for the hard work today. Hey, maybe retiring here isn’t a bad idea at all!
Links for reference:
大澳佳燈會 燃亮夢想社區, 2018-09-23, 大紀元
大澳非茂里 Tai O Fei Mao Li, the artisan organization we worked with