Unambitious travel: learning how to stop when things are “good enough”

A few days ago I decided to go to Yangmingshan National Park, northeast of Taipei and Beitou, where I was staying. It is a beautiful and lush subtropical volcanic mountain ecosystem with geothermal activity. I visited many years ago as a young adult and wanted to return with my new interest in birds and ecology, thanks to inspiration from my 10-year-old kid. 

I caught the Yangmingshan public minibus from downtown Beitou. Yes, success! But oh, was it crowded. We packed in like sardines, standing room only. I clung onto one of the seats for dear life as the minibus sped through the curvy mountain roads like a vomit comet. 

I was painfully aware of the mix of maskless tourists and local elders onboard as well as the lack of ventilation. The same tourists were sitting in seats glued to their phones while there was an elderly woman without a seat was dramatically swaying and losing balance with each turn. I wondered how people live in the simulacra of their phones, even while on a trip to the decidedly analog mountain. Eventually a seat next to me freed up, and I gestured to the elderly woman. I was happy that the other middle-aged person standing also welcomed her to sit. She plopped down with a huge, audible sigh of relief and thanked us. 

I got off at the visitors’ center stop, thinking that it would be a helpful place to ask a ranger for suggested hikes. The “visitors’ center” was not what I expected. It was a tiny building with a small counter and one person dressed in a skirt and dress shoes sitting behind it. There were no informational displays about hiking trails or Yangmingshan. I wish I had heeded these red flags and figured out my own path, but I was there, so I asked. 

I mentioned a waterfall hike I read about. The visitor center lady told me Datun falls were nearby. So far so good. I asked about Qiantiangang, which I heard had good hikes. Instead of helping me figure out how to access those hikes, she convinced me that I “had to” see the seasonal flower fields, and I could get there by hiking from the waterfalls. Perhaps I lost something in translation (my non-medical and non-food Mandarin is limited). I thought it was odd that calla lilies and hydrangea grow in Yangmingshan. But I’m just a visitor; what do I know? I should check it out because she (the local “expert”) told me to, right? I wanted to trust her. So I did.  

As I made my way through the park center, I came across numerous small groups of Taiwanese elders hanging out, chatting, listening to music, playing mah jong and other games, reading the newspaper, taking walks, and generally having a fun, chill time. I caught some of that relaxed vibe and hung out for a while, watching the butterflies, caterpillars, dragonflies and birds. A Taiwanese magpie flew right above my head, its long tail feathers brushing my hair. 

I went to the flower clock that the visitor center lady also said was a “must-see.” Another red flag. The flower clock is an artificially planted and controlled European-style flower garden configured in a circle with huge clock hands in the center telling the wrong time. Cheesy and weird. Not why I came to Yangmingshan. I should have heeded my inner skeptical voice saying, “if she thought this thing was cool, I don’t think we should go see the calla lily thing.” But I ignored it and trucked on. I had a lot of things to see and do.   

I made my way to Datun falls. It was like walking into a Miyazaki forest world. The air was misty and fresh. Sunlight filtered through dense forest trees. A clear, cool stream came tumbling down the mountain. The wet rocks glistened with bright green moss. Butterflies flitted noiselessly like super-slo-mo confetti celebrating how beautiful and wonderful the whole place was.  

I climbed the stone steps and crossed old stone bridges to get to the falls. Along the way, I saw more elders, some alone and some in groups, hanging out, reading, chatting and eating. Enjoying life. 

I slowed down and spent an hour wandering around the waterfall area. It was magical. I loved it. 

Then a voice piped up. “You’d better get going. You have a lot of things to see and places to hike!” I couldn’t find the hiking trail the visitor center lady told me to take to see the flower show at Zuzhihu. I asked one of the groups that looked like locals. One woman laughed when I told them where I was trying to hike to. “You can’t walk there, it’s way too far and too dangerous! Take the bus!” 

At this point, I could have decided to forego the flowers and the journey to Qiantiangang. There were now multiple signs that the flowers would not be worth the effort. Why not just hang out and eat lunch with all the old folks at the waterfalls? 

But old habits die hard. One of those habits is that I compulsively follow-through with what I say I’m going to do, so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m busy and important. Onward. 

What unfolded over the next 3 hours was a comedy. I made it on the bus which took 15 minutes on steep uphill roads to get to the flower fields. I definitely would have gotten lost (or worse) attempting to hike through a long, dark and steep mountain path. Then I discovered that the “spectacular flower show” were farms of browning calla lilies and hydrangeas. The lilies and hydrangeas that grow in our neighborhood in Oakland looked healthier than these. No offense to the farmers, who have an end-of-season uphill battle. The hordes of people arriving on tour buses spent a few minutes looking and taking pictures at the flower fields and then went shopping and eating on the adjacent road. It was a tourist trap.

I realized at that point (and too late) that the visitor center lady had probably never done the hikes she suggested to me. And I had fallen for the tourist trap. She may have genuinely felt that the flower clock and flower fields were truly spectacular. We just had different values, priorities and perspectives. 

On the bright side, I found an empty gazebo in the middle of the flower fields, away from the crowds, where I could rest and eat lunch. I contemplated how I didn’t get to do any of the hikes at Qiantiangang I originally planned to do. I was determined to make it there. After all, it was still early afternoon. 

I asked a local man how to get to Qiantiangang. He said I’d have to take a bus and then another bus. It was going to be a journey. But I was determined. And stubborn. I got into another mini-bus crammed with people, and then another, thinking I was finally going to make it. But instead, the bus driver pulled into the bus depot and stopped. He went on break, and he didn’t know when the next bus was leaving for Qiantiangang. The bus depot was hot, with no seats, no shade, and surrounded by construction with the awful smell of molten asphalt everywhere. That was the last straw. I gave up on going to Qiantiangang. I waited another 30 minutes to get on the next bus back to Beitou.   

On the way back, I was happily seated in an uncrowded bus with relaxed elders who had just spent a good day hanging out in the mountains. I contemplated what my day would have looked like if I trusted myself and went directly to Qiantiangang to the hikes I was interested in. Or if I listened to my intuition and decided to find a place at Datun waterfalls to sit, write, listen, chat and eat with the elders.   

So, how do I let go of my ambitious travel plans? How do I listen to my intuition when it tells me that things are good enough? 

The bus stopped near an ice cream shop. North Pole Soft Serve in Beitou is a tiny family-owned joint that has been serving the same peanut soft-ice (kind of between a slushee and a sorbet) with mung beans and vanilla+chocolate swirl soft serve for the past 30+ years. I listened to myself and jumped off the bus. I couldn’t pass up an interesting and unique Taiwanese treat. I got my soft serve from the super-friendly guy at the shop. This time I let go of my ambitious itinerary to stop and savor the experience, hanging out with all the elders relaxing at the local park. It was better than good. It was great. 

2 thoughts on “Unambitious travel: learning how to stop when things are “good enough””

  1. Hi Sophy, I’m so glad you stopped for soft serve, what a treat. Thanks for sharing this reflection. There is something interesting here about listening to our intuition. But how can we discern intuition from anxiety or the trauma responses of having to over adult when we were younger?

    1. Hi Ly, interesting question! Indeed, I agree that it can be difficult to tell the difference between intuition, anxiety and trauma responses, especially when fear is involved. Intuitive (Self-led) responses feel more confident and clear to me than anxious and trauma responses. I’d love to hear if you have more insights on this discernment!

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