There were suspicious dark shadows darting around the far corner of the pool.
Everyone loves a good soak in an outdoor hot spring. The entire east coast of Taiwan is geo-thermally active, with hot springs popping up everywhere in towns, hotels, resorts and forests. In the little village of Yilan on the east coast lucky townsfolk revel in a hot spring on the mountain that has been captured and channelled as a creek that runs right through the middle of town, where shoppers can roll up their pants and enjoy a soothing foot soak. The town is so geo-thermally active that hot water even bubbles up through sewer grates on the main street.
My guide understood my mission entirely. I wanted to experience the “real Taiwan” and not just tourist sites and the fabulous food. Taiwan may be the only place on the planet where you can feast on regional Chinese cuisine from Hakka to hot pot, along with Japanese, Korean, Thai, European and American food, but no journey to Taiwan is complete without an intensive hot spring experience.
“She say these special hot springs fish,” my guide translated. “Doctor fish.”
I eyed the dark swarm of shadows swirling around in the far corner of the pool carefully, then dipped my hand into the pool. The water was warm, all right, but nowhere near as hot as the hot creek that ran through the park down to the main street. But then I felt something bite.
“What the heck is that?” An electric jolt ran up and down my arm. I tore my hand out of the pool and held it up to look for blood. “Something bit me.”
“You are supposed to roll your pants above knee, sit on the side of pool, and put your legs into the water,” said my guide. “It will feel very good.”
I looked at the other customers. They smiled back at me and pointed to my feet. I summoned up my courage, rolled up my pants and dipped my feet into the pool. An electric tingle shot up to my knees. I jumped right out of the pool.
“What the heck?” I asked. “Are these piranhas?”
My guide translated and the pool attendant laughed. “She say garra rufa. These fish trained to live in hot pool. Doctor fish. They eat your feet.”
“What!” I cried out in alarm. “They eat your feet?”
“Not really,” said my guide, questioning the attendant. “She say they just nibble your toes. They eat dead skin for food.”
There did not appear any blood in the water that I could see. I sat on the edge of the pool again and took off both my shoes. A small crowd gathered. It appeared that the great white foreigner had become the tourist attraction, not the doctor fish. There was silence except for the merry burble of the hot creek tumbling down the hill, and the chatter of shoppers soaking their feet in the creek.
I jammed both feet into the water simultaneously just beneath the surface, gripping the edge of the pool with both hands in grim anticipation. Immediately a distinct tingling began between my toes, and then the feeling spread to the tender baby-soft bottoms of my feet, as if they were being stroked by the sharpest of straight razors or fondled by the softest of all feathers. Either way, the effect was electrifying. I yanked my feet out of the water again, almost falling face first into the pool.
“Holy cow! What the heck IS that?”
Peering as closely as I could without falling in, I noted that, unlike piranhas, the garra rufa didn’t seem to have any teeth. They were black, and only about an inch or two long. The sensation of their nibbling was bizarre. None of it actually hurt, physically; the overall affect was psychological fear based on the utter weirdness of the experience.
I put my feet back in again for a minute. It was too weirdFinally I could stand the nibbling no longer and pulled my legs out of the pool. The crowd burst into applause. The pool attendant smiled, pointed to her watch and gave me a thumbs-up sign with her fingers. I nodded and bowed, and reached for my shoes.
“So,” I said to my guide, “very interesting experience indeed. What do you have in mind for dinner?”
“Ah, special restaurant,” she cried. “Do you like fish?”
If you go
There are over 100 hot springs in Taiwan. For more info log on to Taiwan Tourism at http://eng.taiwan.net.tw/m1.aspx?sNO=0002035. For hotels and guides, phone Taiwan Tourism at +886-2-2349-1500 or the 24-Hour Toll-Free Taiwan Travel Information Hotline at 0800-011765.