Eddie hands me a card as we approach the ferry terminal. He just so happens to have two cards in his wallet charged with the necessary fare. We wave them in front of a scanner. The attendant waves us through.
“Hey, where do you get one of those cards?” I ask.
“7-Eleven. You get everything at 7-Eleven,” Eddie replies. Come to find out, he’s not kidding.
Eddie the tour guide. Eddie the fixer. Eddie the guy who knows all the angles. Eddie the waiguoren—who can practically order his spicy noodles in Chinese, doesn’t even have to point at the pictures on the special foreigner menu. Eddie, who completely understood the immediacy of the situation, drove me all the Taipei and back (from Kaohsiung)—all in a day, all so I could liberate the Dog of Destiny from quarantine. Helluva guy, Eddie. We go way back.
Eddie’s an old friend from Colorado. We lived in the same apartment building. Our dogs were best friends. We went to the dog park on weekends.
Then one fine day Dahlia and I announced we were moving to Brazil. (This was years ago).
Reactions were mixed—sincere congratulations muddled with bemusement and genuine concern for our welfare. Eddie was unguarded in his enthusiasm. He understood our need to go.
A year he was visiting us in Rio de Janeiro. It was his first trip overseas. It opened something in him. He went home and made plans to see the world. Then he sold his house, offloaded his worldly possessions, and headed East across the Pacific.
I like to think we nudged him in that direction.
Eddie ended up in Taiwan teaching English. We ended up visiting him. It was to be last stop on our way back to the U.S. for what was to become a two-year hiatus from international life.
At some point during that trip, I remember saying to Dahlia, “You know, I think we could be live here.”
Two years later Dahlia and I moved to Taiwan.
Cijin Island—a sand bar 8.5 km long, 400 meters wide—forms the western boundary of Kaohsiung Harbor, Taiwan’s busiest port. It’s a bustling tourist area.
It was discovered in the 17th century by a Chinese fisherman, who took shelter there during a storm. He came back with a group of settlers and a statue of Matsu (a sea goddess of Chinese folk religion). So the story goes.
Cijin Island is a five minute ride on the Gushan-Cijin ferry.
We’re on a some street, some dive a block or so from the beach. A handful of empty tables parked outside. A stack of empty bottles tossed into a bin just inside the door. Flies buzzing about. There is a fogged up cooler in the back stocked with Taiwan Beer—our
initial only attraction to the place.
The barkeep was a weathered wisp of a man, sun-baked, beach bum hair streaked with gray. He was wearing board shorts and flip-flops.
I thought the place was empty, then saw him lounging in a back corner. But maybe he wasn’t the barkeep at all, I thought. Maybe he was just hanging out, a sodden patron squatting there for the long haul. He served us drinks because, why the hell not?
(Oh the writer’s imagination! How it leaps to invent. How it flows into the gaps that exist between demonstrable fact.)
We sit at table overlooking a vacant lot sipping our cold beers. The table’s painted in rastafarian colors.
It’s hot. I watch the sweat bead on my forearm and try to make out the shoreline through a stand of trees. I notice a hill, some kind of overlook. People taking pictures, silhouettes like shadow puppets against the sky. A photographer coaching his model. She poses; he snaps away.
“Must be a view up there,” I say. “Bet you get a sweep of the whole island.”
“There’s this cliff you can jump off into the water over that way,” Eddie informs me.
“Think it used to be military land,” he says. “There’s a trail, and you climb through a fence…”
“…and tiptoe around the old landmines,” I interject.
Eddie laughs. “Wanted to take you guys sometime. Maybe next time we come out here.”
“Yeah, OK. Sure. Why not?” Not at all convinced.
I’d spent the previous morning hunting for books in English. I visited several bookstores and came away empty-handed. I hit the jackpot at Mollie Used Books.
I walked away with as many books as I could carry—among other treasures: The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton.
I mention the book Eddie. Then I trying to relate what I’d just been reading There is some point I wanted to make about travel, about life overseas, but I’d too much sun and one too many beers.
De Botton writes about the anticipation of travel. He relates an anecdote about a fictional character, a misanthropic Frenchman who rarely ventures outside his own home, but who nevertheless dreams about traveling to London after reading a Charles Dickens novel.
In the end, the Frenchman decides not to go. He concludes the real thing could never live up the London that exists in his imagination. “What could he expect to find over there except fresh disappointments? the Frenchman asks.”
What De Botton was getting at: We revel in the anticipation of the journey, and we relish the memory of the journey upon our return, but we fail to fully appreciate the experience of travel in real time, so worried are we about the lives we left behind, lives we are never able to fully disengage from.
What is left of the journey in the end: a handful of Polaroid memories fading in the mind’s eye.
I get a little philosophical after a couple of beers. Eddie knows this about me.
“Here we are,” I say, “sipping beers in the hot sun. In the middle of the day. In the middle of the week. At some dive bar. On a little island off the coast of another little island. Far far from home—whatever than means.“
Eddie looks at me as if to say, “And…”
And what? The point, if I ever had one, was lost.
Eddie says he wants to show me something on our way back to the ferry. It’s an old catamaran marooned in a vacant lot. It’s clearly been there for some time.
“I thought about buying a boat, sailing around the world after I sold my house in Colorado,” Eddie says.
“Sure there’s a story here with this one,” I say, and then after a beat: “Wonder how it ended up here.”
Eddie shrugs. “It clearly needs a lot of work. Imagine coming over here on weekends, slowly fixing it up.”
“I thought about sailing,” I confess. “I like the idea of it. Just packing up and setting sail.”
“Yeah.” Eddie says.
“Though I have no idea how to sail,” I say.
Eddie laughs. “Me neither, but I always wanted to learn.”
We linger there for a moment, dreaming in late afternoon sun.