“Fifty-five.” She answered after quickly examined one package of crispy almonds and chocolate covered bread I picked from the shelves. I reached my pocket and found two NTD (New Taiwan Dollar) coins, each 50 and 5. She quickly placed the sweets into a pink plastic bag and handed it to me. Inside, I found what looked like a triangle-shaped strawberry bread.
I looked at her, puzzled. Must be some kind of mistake.
“I did not buy this.”
She shook her head, smiling. “Free.”
I love looking into people’s eyes. I never have to search for something because eyes show everything. You can look at someone’s eyes and find things you need to know about them. Well, most of the time.
One thing that impresses me most about Taiwan, surprisingly, is the beauty of the people. To be real honest, I did not have high expectations about Taiwan, except for the nice cool weather as an attempt to escape scorching hot Jakarta, where I had been spending the last months of 2014. Don’t get me wrong. I have never heard bad things about Taiwan, but that’s exactly why. I have never heard a thing about the country, and yet here I was packing a suitcase for one-month trip. Better not to expect anything.
So when my traveling partner announced that he lost his phone on the second day, my first reaction was, “Oh shit.” We tried to track it to no avail. Both of us don’t speak Chinese. We went to a restaurant where we were supposed to meet some friends for lunch—some of them speak perfect Chinese and English, thank God!—and asked for help. They called his phone. A police picked up. Someone found the phone and delivered it to the nearest police station. In less than 30 minutes my friend got his phone back.
During my stay in Taiwan at least three times it happened to different persons, either someone lost his phone or simply left it somewhere for hours and the phones always, always, returned. We joked about it, though, “Bet a brand-new iPhone 6 would make a whole different story!”
It was one fine albeit cold afternoon. I decided to give vegetarian restaurant a shot after many days of alcohol and greasy meals. I chose four dishes that looked the most delicious from the long buffet table and paid NTD45 (around $1.4). Not bad at all. I sat on a table, devouring my meal with sticky chili oil and soy sauce. My friend came in. He was eating bread he bought from a minimarket nearby, so he didn’t get any vegetarian meal. We were sharing a can of beer when a lady, the restaurant owner, approached us with two bowls full of steaming, clear golden liquid. Carefully putting the bowls on the table right in front of us. We must looked so puzzled because she started grinning and pointing at the bowls, then at us.
“Good for body!” She lifted her thumbs.
We took a sip. It was quite tasty. Vegetable broth, I think. I accidentally dropped my chopsticks when sipping it, and the lady rushed to give me another pair. She didn’t have to—there were bunch of new ones on the table. My friend emptied his bowl as I finished my meal. When the lady saw the empty bowl, she came to pick it, filled it with second helping of broth and gave it to my friend. We did not pay a dime for three bowls of delicious nutritious broth.
I could not help but felt so impressed and touched by these simple gestures.
Then there was this clerk at a 7-Eleven store near MRT station who showed me a cute black and white bookmark when I dropped my purchase on the counter. He said something that looked like trying to sell it and I shook my head. (If only I had a penny for every time someone speaks to me in Chinese!) I asked him to put everything in a paper bag, and that’s when I noticed the bookmark among my purchase.
“I didn’t buy this,” I gave it back to him.
He blurted something in Chinese. I threw my best smile while trying to remember how to say “Wo bu hui shuo zhongguo hua” (I don’t speak Chinese). Truth is, I needed to pee. Badly.
He spoke few more words in Chinese. Smiled and shook his head at the same time, then pointed at me.
“For me?” I was confused. He nodded. His smile grew wider.
I stepped out and paused to examine the bookmark — the instant warmth that enveloped my heart. I have fallen for this country, the food, the remarkably good transportation system and the sparkling clean toilets, but it’s the locals that captured my heart. The smiles on their faces that made me feel as if we could relate to each other despite the language barrier and all the difference between us.
It wasn’t about the gifts. It was something about their smiles, the sincerity, the warmth that follows.
Those eyes don’t lie.