Adventure 1/12: A Stroll Through the Neighbourhood
Around the time I began planning my first adventure of the year, I stumbled upon this video: A Mile with May: Backyard Adventuring With My Daughter by Beau Miles. In it, Beau (an Australian builder, writer, and all-around legend) plops his one-year-old daughter down in a wheelbarrow armed with snacks and a few tools, and proceeds to walk a lap of the block, a journey exactly one mile long. The walk takes about an hour, and as they go about their journey they take a few detours: to clear out some blackberry weeds, talk to the cows, and pick a few plums to replenish their energy in the shade of some gum trees.
There’s this one part of the video that I had to pause and rewatch a few times. In it, Beau explains the following: “This block to May right now is as big as a continent - it is full of wondrous places”. The map he marks out shows what he means. This one mile block is everything that May knows exists. For her,“broken letterbox #1”, or the “big trucks” that turn off at the far corner, are significant parts of her world, just by virtue of the fact that her world is so small.
While I don’t think we should all try and revert back to our one-year-old selves, I think there is something really valuable here. With the right perspective, anything can become a source of wonder. The very street you walk down everyday could be lined with plants and people and broken letterboxes begging for your attention. All it takes is the right perspective — in the case of May, the perspective of a one-year old who doesn’t know that the universe is so, so much bigger than the block she lives on — to craft it into a world teeming and alive with wonders.
With May in mind, I decided to create my first adventure of the year on a small scale. No jumping out of helicopters or hitchhiking through the mountains just yet. The brief was simple: turn my neighbourhood, the few streets that make up my local block, into a source of adventure. The plan was as follows: open Google Maps and define an area that constitutes “my neighbourhood”. Spend a few hours on foot, without leaving this area. Just walk. A few hours is enough time to do at least a hundred laps of the block, so I figured it would be ample time to find a few things I don’t normally notice in my daily life. No music, no podcasts, no company. As simple as it gets.
I set out on a rainy, humid Saturday morning. Exactly my least favourite kind of weather. It also happened to be the weekend in the middle of the Lunar New Year holiday, so most shops and restaurants were locked up. A drizzly, hot, ghost town. Perfect.
After sourcing a classic coffee and milky bread combo from 7–11 for breakfast, I started making my way around the block. I decided the best way to go about it would be to do a lap of the perimeter first and then work my way in, thinking that by the time I’d explored all of the streets it’d have been a few hours and I’d be good to head home. Very quickly I found out that this area looks a lot bigger on Google Maps than it is in real life. About half an hour in and I’d walked every street in the zone. Some twice. Two and a half hours to go, still raining, all the streets already covered. Again, perfect.
As I sat on the side of a playground wondering why I was sitting in the rain walking in circles early on a Saturday morning rather than snoozing in bed - as is oft the case when you’re feeling down on your luck - my fortune changed. A huge, shaggy, mess of a dog came galloping towards me. This guy was the exact dog I’m hoping to adopt when I’m settled back home — a golden retriever crossed with a Bernese Mountain dog. A golden mountain dog. A big ol’ heap of joy. He stayed around for a good pat before his owner caught up with him. If there’s one thing that will always serve as a pick-me-up, it’s an overly-friendly, under-trained dog. Stoke restored, I picked myself up and ventured onwards, this time walking much, much slower. Over the following two and a half hours, these are some of the things I found:
- There were 4 rubbish bins, 37 park benches, and (on a Saturday morning) 3 Teslas within my neighbourhood block. Why did I keep this tally of strange objects you may ask? Rubbish bins: I’m forever looking for a rubbish bin near my apartment(last week I biked with an empty takeaway box on my handle bar for half an hour trying to throw it out on my way to a cafe). For a clean city, there are incredibly few public rubbish bins. I now have four starred on my Google Map and have eliminated my rubbish problem. Park benches: if the city lacks in rubbish bins, it more than makes up in greens spaces and place to put your feet up. Perfect for a quick 7–11 lunch pitstop. Teslas: I live directly above a fairly flash barbershop and without fail there is always a Tesla parked out front. It’s not just the owners car either, it’s a new Tesla every day. I wanted to figure out if all the Tesla owners in Taipei have some kind of barbershop pact, or if there are just a lot of Teslas in the city. My tally didn’t really help me figure this out.
- Early on a rainy Saturday morning, the demographic of people walking the streets is roughly 90% elderly people. Many of them offered up big smiles when I said good morning, while others who too focused on their Tai chi to notice my greeting. There was also one woman who was singing at the top of her lungs in the middle of a small park? Not just humming a morning tune, but full-on belting out a musical number. I was both impressed and confused.
- The neighbourhood looks very, very different when everything is closed! Not just because it’s quiet, but because almost all of the shop fronts have elaborate graffiti on the roller doors. Strangely, the block was a lot more colourful on a grey Saturday morning than it is during the middle of a busy weekday.
- There is truly no division between old and new in Taipei. In my favourite example, there’s a cafe in my neighbourhood called Tzulai that serves $6 lattes and sells bamboo coffee mugs. One shop down the road is a breakfast joint where you can get a bacon & egg sandwich and a cup of tea for less than $2. Both are busy everyday.
- In the biggest green space in my neighbourhood — YongKang park — I got so bored that I read all of the little information plaques littered amongst the trees. On one of these plaques I found the answer to an ongoing question I’d had — why are there so many parks and green spaces in a city that is so densely populated? The answer is about as lovely as it gets. In 2003 the Taipei City Government passed a law that prohibits the destruction of trees that are more than 15 metres tall or 50 years old. If a tree is assessed as meeting this criteria (an assessment done by specialist Japanese tree doctors), then it is marked as protected and can not be chopped down. Many of the green spaces that seem odd in their placement — wedged between busy streets, or lodged amongst high rise buildings — are actually protected land, guarded by a particularly old, or particularly tall tree. Since learning about this and diving too deep into the Taiwan tree conservation rabbit hole (apparently there are hundreds of tree poachers in Taiwan known as shan laoshu or “mountain rats”), I’ve started to keep an eye out for these old, protected trees. Which tree is keeping this space open and green? Who’s the protector of this piece of land? It’s a pretty lovely way to look at the city.
So, am I glad I decide to turn my neighbourhood into a Saturday morning adventure? Absolutely. It wasn’t adrenaline-pumping, and didn’t make for anything Instagram-worthy, but it changed the way I relate to the streets I walk along every day. I got a glimpse of what it would be like to be May, and treat a small section of alleyways and buildings as the entire universe. I hope it means I’m not on autopilot quite so much as I make my way to and from my little apartment. Paying close attention is a skill, one that accrues huge dividends in small quantities. The closer you look, the more details you notice, and the more you notice, the more chance you have of stumbling upon little pieces of wonder.