Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”
I tend to think of the periodic table as populated either by elements I can only dream of acquiring, like gold and silver, or cannot pronounce, like ytterbium and roentgenium. It could be the election’s recent influence, but the table itself reminds me of an oddly-shaped U.S. electoral college map where all states are equal and more parties are at play.
Sulfur, however, is an element that, due to its deplorable pungency, I can’t help but be familiar with. You know the rotten-egg smell I’m talking about. It comes from hydrogen sulfide and is noticeable in the taste of well water or when passing an industrial zone on the highway. The latter situation typically elicits an awkward scenario wherein car passengers cast accusing glances at one another or cry “it wasn’t me!” The stench is simply all too similar to that certain foul, gaseous smell that originates from us humans.
As delightful as those smells are, though, to be truly enveloped by sulfur’s suffocating presence, nothing surpasses visiting a sulfur-rich natural hot spring. This my wife and I did last year on a hot, sultry summer day in Taiwan when we visited Beitou’s thermal valley, also known as “hell valley,” and its public hot springs.
I should note that I don’t particularly recommend visiting Taiwan during the summer. Place yourself into the hottest, most humid Michigan summer day, then multiply the size and intensity of the sun by three and step into a greenhouse while dressed like a wrestler trying to make weight. That is summer in Taiwan.
The temperature that day in hell valley—I’ll presume to call it so—reached a sweltering 100 degrees Fahrenheit, not factoring in the humidity. The waters of the sulfuric pool, which hover near 200 degrees, produced dense clouds of warm steam that accosted our senses as they emanated from the crescent-bent, ovular pool. Fueled by water from the depths of the now-dormant volcanic Yangmingshan mountains, the pool was like a giant witch’s cauldron of bubbling, green water. If it is possible to feel enclosed in an open space, this was it, as the sulfuric fumes combined with the heavy, moisture-laden air to create an aerial glob that pressed against our bodies. The spring itself is unsafe to bathe in for obvious reasons—though a historical landmark sign told us that people used to cook boiled eggs in it (isn’t that fitting?)—so we spent the rest of the afternoon at the public hot spring bathing pools nearby.
When we arrived at the entrance to the pools, my lined bathing suit did not pass the gate person’s inspection, so I was forced to buy a liner-free, skin-tight, boxer-brief style suit to gain admittance. I looked like a sad, failed attempt at resembling one of the many Kardashians, but instead of neutral, bodycon co-ords, I was wearing a biker short-esque black bathing suit with red stripes that made me feel body-conscious, and not in a good way. As sheepish as I felt wearing it, I couldn’t help but laugh at the phrase embroidered prominently across the suit: “Lucky of the Hot Springs.” This clumsy branding likely originated from a poor Chinese-to-English translation and should probably read as “Auspicious Hot Springs” or “Hot Springs of Fortune,” assuming the original phrase was xìngyùn zhī wēnquán (幸运之温泉). Neither of these corrections, though, eclipse the sense of mysterious frivolity—or the implication of a steamy hot spring rendezvous—evoked by the mistranslated version printed vertically up my left thigh.
In fact, the act of donning this ridiculous suit enabled me to let go of the remaining hesitations I harbored about the questionable hot-weather hot-spring endeavor we had gotten ourselves into. The outdoor facility had three main pools, each one increasing in temperature, the hottest nearly an unbearable 110 degrees.
In Chinese, the verb form pào (泡) means “to steep,” and it’s often used when making tea or coffee. In a derived way, it also means to bathe in a hot spring, though it can be applied even more creatively. For instance, a student can “steep” in the library late into the night studying for an exam. In all senses of the word, then, we steeped in those pools like a couple of shriveled-up tea bags for a few hours, relaxing in the restorative, sulfate-rich waters, surrounded by the elderly Taiwanese regulars who frequented the spring. Mercifully, the public hot spring also had a cold pool, which, perhaps not surprisingly given the weather, was my favorite.
Despite overpowering odors, blistering heat, and an absurd bathing suit, the day did turn out to be an auspicious end to my summer in Taiwan. That evening, we celebrated Nainai’s 90th birthday with my homestay family. The next day, we boarded a plane for our return trip home to Michigan. Since that day, I haven’t steeped in any hot springs, but I still wear the suit from time to time.