Ahia. Brother. Family. Sometimes, a complete stranger.
Towards the end of June, I went with my brother’s family and a friend to Taiwan with the main end in mind— to fill our urge for travel, to enjoy the time away from work and to see what beautiful places awaits us there for us to roam.
The preconceived idea about Taiwan was that, it would be more like Hong Kong in terms of the culture, the lifestyle, the food, the overall vibe and the people— mainly because both countries are heavily influenced by the Chinese. Surprisingly enough, it was far from Hong Kong in many ways.
The places had been nothing short of fantastic and other-wordly. The vibe, I would say, is more South Korean than Hong Kong. But what I personally did not expect, was the people. While South Koreans were very friendly during a trip there on my birthday last year, the Taiwanese we happened to met were tenfold kinder, more thoughtful and more friendly. More loving, in general.
Tonight, I’ll talk about the Ates and the Kuyas we met during the short vacation we had. But most notably, I will recall to you this short encounter we had with the Ahias of Taiwan— Kuya Bemboy, Kuya An-an and the cab driver whose name we never got to know. So I’ll just call him, Ahia— the chinese word for older brother.
Our trip started with a few delays on the first day, when Ed, our family friend who came with us was held for an hour and half at the immigration, to being lost in the massive Taipei Main station, to arriving at destinations where we later found out was temporarily closed for maintenance works.
The first day just didn’t sail well. We were tired but laughed our hearts out for an epic failure. Kuya An-an or Anton— Myra’s selfless uncle who had been working in Taiwan for seven years, had to skip work just to pick us up at Taoyuan airport and eventually led us to accidentally get lost in Taipei. I met Kuya An-an about a decade ago when we visited Leyte, a few years before Yolanda ravaged Tacloban, the rest of the island and its neighboring provinces, including Cebu. He was always the generous type— he was never selfish with his time and often goes out of his way to help you. Currently, he works in Chaiyi, a ginormous county 300 kms from Taipei and where we had spent most of our time during the weeklong vacation.
It was Kuya An-an who assured us a place to stay in Chaiyi, at his boss’s house. We were hesitant about the offer and the arrangement, but we gave it a go, anyway.
After getting lost in Taipei earlier that day, we rode on a bullet train to Chaiyi, arrived almost a couple of hours later and was picked-up at the train station by a massive, smiling, Chinese-looking man.
My first thought upon seeing the big man was, “Why are we being picked up by a Taiwanese and who could he be”? As soon as he started talking, we were relieved, me especially, because he spoke Waray, although I couldn’t understand even a little bit of the dialect. That was our first encounter with Kuya Bemboy— our generous and thoughtful, Taiwanese-Filipino host.
Later that night, Kuya Bemboy, his lovely, wife Ate Marlyn, Yanyan and Bembem prepared us the first sumptuous dinner, among the many breakfasts and dinners that followed. Ate Marlyn is the best cook there is, hands down.
The Yaos took us in their home, provided us a place to stay for 5 days, fed us graciously until our stomachs were painfully full, went out of their way to accompany us to some of the tourist destinations around Chaiyi, cared for us as if we were their own, provided us the best human experience a tourist can have while in a foreign land… in exchange for nothing.
How would you feel if you are being accepted into a stranger’s home like you are part of the family? I’m telling you it makes one truly humble. We didn’t know a thing about the Yaos prior the trip nor do we know where we will be staying because it was Kuya An-an who arranged everything.
With the Yaos, we didn’t feel like tourists. We felt as if we were visiting family members. We also had the chance to met fellow Filipinos as we were invited to the Sunday service before we head back to Taipei. There, we got to see how OFWs lived and thrived working in a foreign land just so they could support their families back home. They’ve shared their struggles; we know their stories like all the happy-sad stories we hear about Filipinos working abroad, far from the families waiting back home who have always hoped for a better future.
What made it a bit difficult when travelling Taiwan is the language barrier. Only a few people can speak and understand English, so having the Yaos, especially our nine year old guide, Yanyan, made it easier for us to go around. Yanyan, is the youngest child of the Yaos and she can speak English and Mandarin and can understand Waray and Bisaya. Just a year older than Francois, she is one smart, reserved and a very independent kid who, just like my nephews, also loves Pikachu.
On the 1st of July— Jorge’s 6th birthday, we woke up early, had our last sumptuous breakfast, said our goodbyes to Ate Marlyn and Yanyan, before Kuya Bemboy and Kuya An-an drove us to the bus station. I was sad that we were leaving. The night before, I had to chose to stay in my room than went out with the rest of the family just so I can take all the emotions in. As I said, I am a little cucumber with over-sensitive emotions so don’t be surprised if I suddenly had to disconnect to recuperate when I’m dealing with something.
Before we reached the station, we were surprised that Kuya Bemboy and An-an took the effort to surprise Jorge with a birthday cake. Just sweet and enough gesture to melt our hearts, all the more so.
We left Chaiyi, the Yaos, Kuya Anton, the rest of the family and everyone we met during the stay. Four hours later, we reached Taipei and went straight to the San Want Hotel, which is located a few blocks from the Taipei Dome, Taipei 101, Sun Yat Sen Memorial, the haunted Grand Hyatt hotel, Taipei Capitol, the famed Elite bookstore and Tao Zhu Yin Yuan garden. Out of the countryside now and into the urban jungle that is called, Taipei.
Since it was still very early when we reached the hotel, we roamed around to look for interesting places to get lost at again. And we were never disappointed. We really got lost after lunch. But then, always, we found uber drivers who came to our rescue and who were very accommodating and friendly, despite the lack of communication due to non of them can speak English.
The last day was spent travelling to far-off tourist spots, so we decided to get a cab, rent it for a day and have the driver led us to the destinations we’ve agreed the night before.
Ahia. We never knew what his real name was. The bell captain was the one who arranged the cab for us on our last day in Taipei. The cab driver was around forty years old, slightly chubby and doesn’t know a word in English. Ah wait, besides, thank you.
As you all know, I dread the excessive use of technology nowadays but at that time, I was grateful we have Google translate and we could use our phones to talk to Ahia.
Our first request that day was for him to take us somewhere for breakfast where we can eat nice Taiwanese food at an affordable price. He didn’t disappoint. If you want to have a real and raw experience of a place when you’re travelling, go with a local. He knows where to take you.
Ahia is a very shy man. He didn’t take the food we bought him during breakfast, even the water. But thanked us graciously. He always looked after the kids when we’re walking, he took us to places that were not part of the itinerary thinking we would miss our chance to enjoy Taiwan if he didn’t, he took our bags and other stuff we bought to the cab and returned to us after. He did this again and again, without tiring. He acted as our chaperone when all we want was a guide and a friend. Ahia is like an older brother watching after his younger siblings— making sure they are safe, comfortable and enjoying their day.
I very much enjoyed the places we went to but apart from all of these, I was more overwhelmed by the attention and care our cab driver had shown us. When Ahia took us to this mall where we had our dinner and a little shopping, it was obvious that he was not familiar of the place. He would approached locals to ask for directions and some of them were not too receptive. And then he would go and ask another, while clinching his worn-out and oversized jeans.
I would silently stay in a corner and observed Ahia and when I did, a part of me just wants to hug him and tell him that we are okay, that we can handle ourselves and that he doesn’t need to do all of this— that he can go back to the cab and rest while we are away. But my phone had already died and so did Google translate and when I attempted to communicate through hand gestures, it was obvious that I failed. I could not talk to him.
We even got lost finding the basement where we parked the cab because everyone went on the opposite direction while I insisted we were in the wrong way. They didn’t listen. We reached a dead end and everyone was laughing hard and just followed me. I sensed Ahia was a bit embarrassed.
Our flight to Cebu was at ten in the evening and from where we were, Taoyuan airport was almost a three-hour travel. It was already raining so hard when we took our early dinner. We intentionally had to take Ahia inside the restaurant so he wouldn’t have any excuse not to eat. What he was probably thinking was that, we took him in just so he can help us in ordering our food. He was very wrong. We ordered our food and his. He made every effort to tell us that he was going to have his dinner at home, wherever that home was and which was now very impossible to happen because it was almost 5PM, and as Ate Marlyn mentioned, in Taiwan, the normal time for dinner is 5PM. Beyond that, Taiwanese will only have light snacks. We were four persistent adults and two stubborn kids, so he relented. He took his dinner with us while partly-amazed watching after our Jorge, as our youngest companion independently devoured his food, all by himself. Perhaps, Ahia also has a kid waiting for him back home.
We reached the airport 3 hours before the flight despite fearing we would miss it due to the very bad weather, but Ahia safely took us to our destination on time. He took our things out of the cab, placed it on the trolley, inspected everything; we got a few stuffs and food that he can take home. He hugged my Kuya and gave him a handshake, almost teary-eyed. He gave me a handshake and I patted him on the back. I was teary-eyed. We all thanked him for his genuine love and care. He was waving at us as we got inside.
God knows I wanted to cry at that moment.
What did Ahia do exactly? And why do I feel this way about the trip?
The Ahias, as with everyone we met, gave me hope that goodness is inherent in all of us. It doesn’t have a distinct face because it takes the form of many— it could be a shobe, an achi or in the many instances we encountered, in the form of a caring stranger.
From the loving Yaos, to the Uber drivers, to the food shop employee who gave us additional take-away food (much to our surprise and bewilderment), to the friendly shopkeepers who patiently waited until our cards were accepted, to the cab driver who rescued us at midnight because no other taxi would want to take us, to our hardworking and very funny guide during the night photowalk tour, Leslie, to the bell captain of our hotel, to the store assistant who smilingly went to my rescue as to where to appropriately dispose our rubbish, to our cab driver on our last day, Taiwan is beautiful, foremost, because of its people.
We went to Taiwan as strangers looking for adventure. And we went home humbled by an experience we will never forget.
This is an experience that will always remind me to keep myself grounded and to see the good in every people and situation. For sure, Ahia may have lacked many material things but he sure is very rich in the more essential things in life.
Who says you can’t be good when you are lacking? Who says you can’t give even when you don’t have anything to give? Ahia will prove you wrong.