Two days before Christmas Eve, we flew into Xiamen, a small resortish island of just 3.5 million people on the southeast coast of China. Owing to a stunning bit of bad luck, our driver suffered a bout of AIzheimers just fifty yards outside the airport. Imagine the odds, inside the airport he was born on the island and knew it like the back of his hand, outside he couldn’t find the ferry landing even with the map we waved in his face. That’s far, 50 rmb at least.

“It’s really close. Here let me help you,” my husband said, flipping on the taxi meter the driver had accidentally forgotten to turn on, darn Alzheimers.

“Tell me exactly where to go, or It will be 50 rmb.”

There was a good bit of yelling in English and Chinese, and some pouty pulling over to the side of the road in a last ditch effort to run the meter and keep up the pretense, but a couple of miles later we arrived at the ferry to the tune of 16 rmb, plus a 4 rmb tip because the driver never broke character.

The ferry took us to Kinmen, a plucky little island controlled by Taiwan, which in the past has been such a hotly contested scrap of real estate it gave birth to the Kinmen Knife Company, that for many years produced high quality knives from spent shell casings gathered from the ground. The company claims to be doing so even to this day, though I suspect that may be along the lines of 50 rmb to the ferry dock. Kinmen only boasts 40,000 people, nearly desserted compared to China with its heavy smog and ubiquitous high rise apartment complexes. The island is mostly rural farmland worked with rakes and hoes by small men and women in big straw hats, surrounded by goats and chickens

On Kinmen our driver spoke Mandarin with such a heavy Taiwanese accent that we barely understood her. But she understood us when we told her we were hungry, and took us to the best restaurant in town, which sadly proved to be closed. Western faces are rare enough in Kinmen that we caused a bit of a stir. When we started to shoehorn back into our cab, the fruit seller next door ran off to alert the family that customers were escaping, open up quick! For the first time in months, we ate Chinese food we recognized. Odd we had to leave China to get it.

We stayed in the Kinmen Guest House, and the next morning the owner showed us around, telling us all about the Wong family who came to Kinmen 900 years ago, and liked each other so much that they all lived together in a crowded little dwelling. Luckily, in the 19th century, the Great Wong made a fortune in Japan and came home to take pity on his relatives, building the bed and breakfast we stayed in, as well as a school, the main hall, and eighteen houses which are still privately occupied. To keep everything harmonious, the whole complex was designed to satisfy the exacting demands of feng shui. For luck the main hall was built behind a natural rock in the vague shape of a dragon head, said to bring riches to anyone who touches it. The building was built over the rock representing the dragons tail, to keep the dragon from flying off. Our guide also pointed out the thin terracotta tiles set on end to form a series of delicate flowers running along the roofs of the houses. “This is a thief alarm,” she said. “If a thief steps on it, the tiles will break, waking everyone in the house.”

We also walked by a door set in a hill that she passed without comment.

“Is that where you keep your janitor supplies?” Porter asked.

“Well, uh, during the war, uh . . .”

“It’s a bomb shelter, Porter.”

“Over here is the oldest palm tree in southern Asia,” our guide said quickly.

There’s also a machine gun tower in the center of the roundabout, the grass neatly clipped and weeded, the camo paint curiously clear and unfaded, though the war is long over. There are spikes set into the beach, and concrete barriers in the ocean, loads of pillboxes too, all over the island, in good working order, cement hidey holes perfect for automatic weapons. I wasn’t all that impressed by the camo fort surrounded by howiters, until I realized I was looking at the restroom and meeting complex. The actual fort is underground, tunnels blasted through solid rock, wide and long enough that at the entrance they asked if we wanted to drive our car. They let us walk right in without even checking lDs, happy to let us explore their benign memorial, especially the room with the huge gun pointed at China and the camo-clad soldier busy cleaning the firing mechanism. We toured the water tunnel too, the ingenious u-shaped sea tunnel where they could dock their ships even during heavy shelling. There’s a list of instructions out front. The third item says “Stay on the paths,” the fourth is “Avoid the minefields in the forests.” This is a great path, let’s stay on this path, I love this path. I wonder what mothers in Kinmen tell their children—Be careful crossing the street, Stay on the paths, Avoid the minefields in the forests.

In the past Kinmen has served as Taiwan’s first line of defense against China, and there are still many soldiers stationed there. Though nowadays we can kill each other so much more efficiently, I have no idea whether it still maintains its strategic importance. It’s a pretty little island, rural and sweet, a series of delicate terracotta flowers running along the edge of Taiwan. The trouble with terracotta tiles is that once shattered, they cannot be repaired, they can only be replaced. What do Kinmen mothers tell their children?

When we returned to Xiamen’s Chinese soil with all its smoggy high rises, we got in a taxi and asked the driver to take us to a nearby mall so we could finish our Christmas shopping before returning home to Suzhou. He smiled big and pleasant, looping us all over the island, quadrupling our fare.

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