A Man with a Mission

7 01 2011

Atimbon Ku (left), the first friend I made on my journey to the Hengchun Peninsula.

There is such a thing as planning a vacation to death. With everything carefully arranged in advance, you are almost assured to have the same cookie cutter vacation as the next person. I know, because I’ve done that many times before. But I’ve also seen a DOA vacation revived by a beautiful mishap – a missed flight, a torrential rain storm, an unexpected person sitting down next to you at a beef noodle soup restaurant.

The beautiful mishap in my Pingtung vacation proves to be the oft-mentioned “downhill winds” that sweep across the Hengchun Peninsula in winter. They blow in a serendipity that throws my beach vacation off course. The mist and clouds turn me away from the southern shoreline and send me in search of a hot spring village nestled in the foothills north of Hengchun.

The first of many chance encounters introduces me to a church elder named Atimbon Ku in a Paiwan tribe village in Mudan Township. And thus, I find myself back in the familiar territory of indigenous life which has provided a backdrop for much of the last 15 years of my Taiwan experience. My friends back in Taipei are amused to hear that I’ve found myself in an aboriginal village on my first day in Pingtung. After all, don’t most normal visitors to the Hengchun Peninsula at least dip their toes in the surf before heading inland?

Atimbon comes out to meet me in casual wear and a pair of rubber boots; he’d just been preparing to go for a hike. At first glance I can tell that this tall, dark featured man is of great importance not only to his church, but also to the Paiwan tribe. He speaks to me in Mandarin, but most of his phone conversations with other people are in the Paiwan language, which like all of Taiwan’s indigenous languages, is similar to other island-bound Austronesian languages like Indonesian and Tagalog.

“Without language, you have no culture,” he says, explaining why it is so important for the people in his village to learn to speak their ancestral tongue.

He guides me into a labyrinthine restaurant at the back of the bed and breakfast he runs with his wife. The semi-open air seating area is populated with wooden carvings, driftwood sculptures, aboriginal canoes, buoys, fishing nets, and stacks of rocks. I sit on a makeshift loveseat that Atimbon had constructed by welding an old car seat and two tires. (He was a construction worker before becoming a protector of Paiwan culture.) Atimbon serves up tea and watermelon seeds to accompany stories of the Mudan Incident, which occurred at a mountain pass not far from his village.

Later, he leads me across the street to a new building where men from the village are busy sharpening knives, tie-dying fabric, and finishing the interior of a promotional center for the village. It’s part of Atimbon’s master plan which also involves training people to offer tours of the region and the local culture and ecology. The workers gather around a fire pit at the store’s entrance to share a few beers, and encourage their visitor to sing a song. I offer a song I learned from some friends in the Puyuma Tribe before yielding the floor to a woman who the men praised as being one of the best singers in the village.

You’ll find information about accommodations in Mudan as well as tours of the local heritage and ecology along route 199, on their internet portal: www.tw199.com

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