Half of Taiwan is a teeming, sweaty metropolis whose energy pulses at the intersection of ancient and modern, crumbling and sterile, West and East. The other half, thankfully, is none of these things but rather a lush, tropical enclave in which the traveler can pretend, for a while, that the rest of the world does not exist. It was the latter that drew me to Beigan, one of Taiwan’s Matsu Islands and about 240 kilometers from the mainland, 65 from China. I had been living in Taiwan for close to a year by then, and with my time there quickly coming to an end, I decided to set off for an island to bookend my time abroad.
After five days of wandering, intermittent relaxation, and far too many rice noodles, I was due to depart. On the morning of my flight, I opened the window of my hostel room to a dense, gray fog. Before long, the hostel owner was at my door telling me All flights are canceled. You must wait. Since Beigan only has one airport, those coming in and leaving the island are completely at its mercy; and when there is fog, as is common in early spring, flights are often grounded for days at a time.
My immediate reaction was one of panic—how could I be stranded there? What would I do? Where would I stay? Somehow, the moment you become stuck in a place—which is, in a sense, the very same moment you stop traveling—it threatens to show its ugly face, all of its imperfections; in other words, what makes it real.
Later, still no closer to knowing when I’d be flying home, I took a walk along the foggy shore. I had to watch my step; there was rubbish scattered everywhere—sea-washed and salt-rubbed sandals, water bottles, babies’ toys. Green netting of one origin or another had settled into a miniature mountain just where the sand ended and the street began. No longer was this place the golden, shining beach it had seemed to me just the previous day; my perspective had shifted.
I was alone there with the exception of two others—a man and his son. Seeing me, they approached. They were carrying plastic bags full of snails they’d collected along the shore. Before he even said hello, the man bent over, opened his bag and had me look inside. They are alive, he said, the uneasiness with which he spoke English becoming evident. Inside, tens of tiny snails jittered against one another with little clacking sounds. What will you do with them? I asked, then looked at his son who was also holding a bag. We will cook them and eat, the man replied. You can come to our house for dinner tonight if you’d like to try them. I could feel a thousand fog droplets on my face, clouding my glasses and turning the whole world softer. What did I have to lose? I nodded happily and accepted their invitation.
I arrived to their home later that evening. The man and his son greeted me, and I followed them to a large table where the rest of their family was sitting. Heaping plates of steaming food—snails included—dotted the circular table with the precision of a mandala. Everything had been prepared beautifully. Throughout the meal, long stretches of conversation carried out in Mandarin, and though I enjoyed listening to the melodic riffs of the language, my inability to participate left me feeling as though I were merely an onlooker of the meal, a passerby. I suddenly missed my family. I felt homesick for the feeling of home rather than a place, which is to say—I craved to feel the kind of companionship that I was witnessing in front of me; the warm, timeless feeling of being surrounded by loved ones that no amount of travel can replace.
I looked back over my shoulder at the great expanse of inky, calm sea. The night sky on an island so near to the coast of China forever retains a milky brownness, the light pollution so dense and impenetrable that stars seem almost fairy-tale like—something magical that exists only far away. The snails, surprisingly, were delicious. Nut-like marvels you really had to work to get to the middle of.
After the meal, the man and his son stood and began to pack a small backpack. I looked at my watch—it was late, after ten. Before I had the chance to ask where they were going, the man told me to gather my things for an adventure.
Every year, from late spring to the end of summer, a particular species of algae called dinoflagellates teem in the waters along the coast of the Matsu archipelago—this includes Beigan Island. When the algae are crashed over by waves, they emit a surreal, blue glow—
Blue Tears, as they’re called by locals. They are supposed to be out tonight, the man told me as he hurried me out of the house. We really cannot miss it.
Then in the car, next to me in the backseat, the boy sat quietly and watched the calm, brownish night. We drove. Our first stop, a beach just next to the airport, did not have a parking lot, and so we stopped the car along the street, two wheels over the sidewalk like some botched maneuver. In the distance, a vacant runway sat beneath yellow lights, a lone plane parked at its ending. There is no one on this island tonight that wouldn’t be here tomorrow, I thought, oddly comforted by this realization. The boy pushed his way out of the car and ran excitedly towards the shore. On his way, he turned back to face me, hair salt-whipped around his eyes and he said, I love this.
At the shore, the man and his son took of their shoes and rolled up their pants. Then, the two of them dropped to their knees and feverishly began to dig at the wet sand, making little craters in the brief moments before the waves returned to fill them.
The man looked back at me over his shoulder. Are you coming?
I approached slowly, not all too comfortable with the prospect of getting wet, but then the boy grabbed my arm and pulled me down before I had the chance to consider it, and then I was wet, soaking, and laughing all the same, laughing in no language at all. The man and his son laughed along with me, and together we dug. Wave after wave, we made small holes in the sand and looked for the glimmer of Blue Tears before the water rolled back, but there was nothing. Maybe they’re at another beach, said the man after some time. We will try one more. The boy sighed in disappointment, then stood.
We drove for only five minutes before arriving at another beach, this one downhill from a secluded village where cats could be heard screeching down dark alleyways and a television was audible somewhere. There was a crowd gathered on this beach, their faces illuminated by cell phone screens.
Once more, the boy and his father ran to the shore, dropped to their knees and began to dig at the sand. Before long, the boy started screaming. A joyous, excited scream, for the shore here had begun to glow a deep, cobalt blue. The man stood up cupping a handful the illuminated, wet sand and walked over to the crowd to give them a better look of the way that it shimmered like some cinematic effect, surreal and beautiful and impossible all at once; blue then bluer, a sequined dream.
The crowd formed a circle around the man. They started taking pictures at the glinting Blue Tears but quickly realized that cameras could not capture a proper image in this light, and so they then watched with their eyes, crazed by the sight of it, full of wonder, chatting back and forth in a quickened Mandarin that I could only lose myself in. Some people hugged. They hugged as if they’d been waiting their whole lives to see this. The Tears were a masterpiece.
As I watched this all play out, I was awed but also aware of the presence of another emotion: loneliness. I realized that everyone around me was with somebody else, sharing this experience with somebody else, and that I was the one alone among them, unable to even speak. What am I doing here, I wondered. I shouldn’t be alone. I focused on the handful of sand in front of me and tried to fight off the bitter sensation of this loneliness, which, oddly enough, also retained an element joy tucked somewhere deep inside of it; to be alone in a crowd offers something incredibly unique—the chance to see things from a greater perspective.
I soon felt as though I were watching this scene like a film; the crowd, the boy and his father, the glowing, bluish sand. Here we were, twenty-odd strangers, ogling over a natural phenomenon on an island there was no way onto and no way off of. This would never happen again in this way. The boy looked at me, eyes brimming with a wonder I can only hope was contained somewhere within mine. I stuck out my hands, cupped them, and without a word he gave me some of the sand to hold; there it shimmered still.
We stood there for a while together. Eventually, the crowd dispersed. I asked the man if there was any way we could take back a little bit of the sand, if there was some way we could keep the glow of Blue Tears with us. No, he said matter-of-factly. They cannot survive away from the sea. And so, when we were ready, we delicately placed the sand back where it belonged, and watched the waves wash over.