To be a gentleman

A friend gave me an old leather-bound book before I left for Taiwan. Said he’d found it in a rummage sale and thought of me. The Joy Of Words it’s called. The book contains “selections of literature expressing beauty, history, humor, inspiration or wisdom… which are a joy to read and read again.” I picked it up this morning and began perusing. Stumbled unto the following passage by a —Hare (No first name. Google Books tells me it written by Julius and Augustus Hare and included in a book titled Guesses at Truth by Two Brothers).

“A gentleman, in the vulgar, superficial way of understanding the word, is the devil’s christian. But to throw aside these polished and too current counterfeits for something valuable and sterling, the real gentleman should be gentle in everything, at least in everything that depends on himself; in carriage, temper, constructions, aims, desires. He ought, therefore, to be mild, calm, quiet, even temperate; not hasty in judgment, not exorbitant in ambition, not overbearing, not proud, not rapacious, not oppressive; for these things are contrary to gentleness Many such gentlemen, I trust, are to be found; and many more would be were the true meaning of the name borne in mind, and duly inculcated.”

To be a gentleman, according to the Hare brothers, I must be gentle—in everything. Do I wish to be a gentleman? In this day and age? The word carries baggage. In any event, this blogger can’t characterize his overall disposition as gentle. Though I can be quiet, I am rarely calm. And I admit, I can be a tad intemperate as well as “hasty in judgment.” I’m not too proud. Not at all rapacious. Nor oppressive. Though there are times when I have been overbearing (Dahlia will testify to that). I am ambitious, in a sense. But exorbitantly so? I was once gainfully employed in a stable career. I gave it up to pursue writing. Does this show a degree of ambition exceeding appropriate limits? No. Maybe. Hmm… In any event I like this list of qualities. What kind of world would it be, if men, women, all genders endeavored to be gentle?

Selfie Beach

Qixingtan Beach in Hualien, Taiwan. Many people posing for photos on an overcast day.
Qixingtan Beach, Hualien.

Look closely. How many people are engaged in the process of taking a photo, either holding a camera or posing for one on this unInstagram-worthy day at Qixingtan Beach in Hualien? I counted 37, out of 92 people. And this is only the people I could be sure about. I don’t know if this is a lot. It struck me as a lot.

Anywhere you go in Taiwan, any “insta-worthy” scene, everyone has their camera out. Everyone seems to have their own signature pose, which leads me to wonder, How exactly does that come about? I’d love to see “Evolution of the Pose”—a photo essay comprised of discarded photos never intended to be seen, building to the creation of that perfect pose. Someone get on that.

That may sound like a critique, but it is far superior to anything I do. When someone shouts “Cheese” I stand there with an idiot grin, like I just got hit on the head with a brick. I have no idea what to do with my arms. They dangle, or I fold them across my chest. My feet remain firmly planted, knees straight, eyes forward, like I was standing for review on a military parade ground. I see a camera pointed at me, I react the way a vampire reacts to his own reflection. I wish I had the same verve the Taiwanese have before the camera.

Fact: More than a trillion photos are taken worldwide every year. Do a quick back of the napkin calculation, we get 173 photos for every living, breathing human on Planet Earth.

It’s safe to say infants aren’t taking photos (yet). Nor the Amish, nor hunter-gatherers retaining the old ways and living in remote places beyond the reach of civilization. There are people, in other words, who have never taken a photo, never posed for one, and never felt like they are missing out. And there are many more who have bigger things to worry about. All of this is to say, some of us take more photos than others. Some of us contribute more, much more, to the photographic record (blogger raises his hand; guilty as charged).

A trillion photos per year. I wonder what the Taiwanese contribute? I doubt anyone knows (or cares), but my feeling is they take more than the average. If you were to map photos taken across the world and color code the map for photographic density (a term I just made up denoting photos taken per square mile/km), if this were possible, and if bright red represented the highest photographic density, I daresay Taiwan would be glowing like an Instagram sunset.

Gold in them thar hills

Golden Falls is located in the hills above Jinguashi, a historic mining town and a proposed World Heritage Site.

The waterfall is striking, but you don’t want to drink the water. It is acidic and fortified with heavy metals, which may or may not be a byproduct of intensive mining in the area.

Gold was first discovered in northern Taiwan in 1892 by workers constructing a railroad from Taipei to Keelung. The result was thousands of prospectors panning for gold in the Keelung River. Then gold deposits were discovered in Jinguashi. Cue the gold rush; Jinguashi became a boom town.

Japan annexed Taiwan in 1895. Mining operations were expanded at Jinguashi. Copper deposits were discovered. Jinguashi eventually became one of the largest mines in Asia. The gold ran out in the 1970s. The mine officially closed in 1987.

According to the garbled English on the Gold Museum’s website, Golden Falls is man-made. After the mines closed, “clogged tunnels” blocked the flow of groundwater, redirecting it over a hillside (I hope I got that right).

The water tumbling over Golden Falls becomes Jinguashi Creek. The creek empties into a bay called the Yin and Yang Sea. The acidic, yellow water of the creek contrasts sharply with the cobalt blue of the Pacific, which can be seen in the photos above.

It is claimed that the unusual color of the water is the result of natural chemical processes caused by an unusually high concentration of pyrite (fool’s gold) in the area, not the result of pollution caused by decades of heavy mining. I’ve read this claim on websites touting Taiwanese tourism. What to make of it?

I’m inclined to be skeptical. I am not a chemist, or a geologist or a hydrologist or a mining engineer for that matter, but it seems at least possible that the environmental impact of decades of heavy mining may endure long after mining operations have ceased.

Either way, no one recommends splashing in the water emanating from Jinguashi. They are indisputably hazardous to one’s health.

Ilha Formosa: An apocryphal tale

1596 map included in a book by Dutchman Jan Huygen van Linschoten. Early depiction of Taiwan, labeled I. Formosa
Early map depicting Taiwan (red box, labeled I. Formosa). Included in a 1596 book by Dutchman Jan Huygen van Linschoten. Linschoten popularized the name “Formosa.” (Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, p. 23).

A 16th century mariner spotted a verdant, uncharted island and was so overcome by its natural beauty that he exclaimed, “Ilha formosa!” (beautiful island in Portuguese). Thus the island of acquired a name. Thus it would be known for the next 400 years.

You will encounter some version of this story should you pick up a guidebook on Taiwan.

To illustrate:

In the 16th century, Portuguese explorers were so impressed by the towering, green mountainous island they saw from the decks of their ships that they called the placed Ilha Formosa, meaning “beautiful island.”

National Geographic Traveler Guide to Taiwan (p. 14)

1544: Passing Portuguese sailors became the first European to lay eyes on Taiwan; they are so enchanted they name the island Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island).

From a timeline in The Lonely Planet’s Guide to Taiwan (p. 325)

In 1517, the Portuguese Admiral Andrade sailed to Taiwan and became so enchanted by the place he named it Ilha Formosa, or the ‘Beautiful Island’. The Portuguese established a small but important trading presence there.

Culture Shock: Taiwan (p. 14)

It is not just guidebooks. Here is story as told a trusted by Britannica, an online encyclopedia:

In 1517 a Portuguese ship sailed through the Taiwan Strait, and the ship’s log recorded the words “Ilha Formosa,” meaning “Beautiful Island” in Portuguese. Formosa subsequently became the Western term for Taiwan. But the ship did not stop, and the Portuguese did not lay claim to Taiwan.

Under a section on Taiwanese history found here.

Here’s an account I copied from an online exhibit titled “Ilha Formosa: The Emergence of Taiwan on the World Scene” found on Taiwan’s National Palace Museum website:

In 1542, Portuguese sailors on their way to Japan came across an island not identified on their maps. Amazed at the forest-cloaked land, they shouted, “Ihla Formosa,” meaning “Beautiful Island.” The island had thus come to be known as Formosa, which was to become what we know today as Taiwan.

You’ll have to trust me on the sourcing. The webpage is no longer available.

By now, you might see what I was seeing.

  1. There are different dates for when this sighting supposedly occurred. Is it 1517, 1542, 1544, or some other date?
  2. Was it an anonymous Portuguese sailor who exclaimed those famous words, or was it the “Portuguese Admiral Andrade”? (I’m assuming the reference is to Fernão Pires de Andrade, who led a trade mission to China in 1517.)
  3. Were they passing by the island, or were they standing on it? Did the Portuguese claim the island at the time or not?

Other questions I have: When and how was this event first recorded? Was it written in a ship’s log? How do we know these words were spoken aloud? Is it possible that different people were inspired to say more or less the same thing on different occasions?

Or is it a tall-tale repeated so often it has acquired a veneer of truth, a irresistible anecdote too good not to be true, or at least not to include a guidebook?

Jonathan Manthorpe, author of Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, had this to say: “…it is a pleasant story, but it may be no more than that.” That’s a nice, tempered way to put it.

Let me be more intemperate: I call bullshit on this story.

The ‘Thomsons from Sunderland’

Stupidity is something immovable; you can’t try to attack it without being broken by it … In Alexandria [Egypt], a certain Thompson from Sunderland has inscribed his name in letters six feet high on Pompey’s Pillar. You can read it from a quarter of a mile away. You can’t see the Pillar without seeing the name of Thompson, and consequently without thinking of Thompson. This cretin has become part of the monument and perpetuates himself along with it. What am I saying? He overwhelms it by the splendor of his gigantic lettering … All imbeciles are more or less Thompsons from Sunderland. How many one comes across in life in the most beautiful places and in front of the finest views.

Gustave Flaubert, quoted in The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

I came across my own version of Flaubert’s “Thompson from Sunderland.” These particular imbeciles—Flaubert’s pejorative feels entirely appropriate—were not scrawling names in big bold letters across some archeological treasure. It was a different sort of debasement, inflicted on a different sort of treasure, no less precious.

Laomei Green Reef is located on the north coast of Taiwan, east of the Fugui Cape.

Fugui Lighthouse

Every year, beginning in April, Laomei Green Reef attracts throngs of camera-wielding humans.

Laomei Green Reef seen at a distance from a nearby hill.

Limestone-producing algae grows over a shelf of volcanic rock. The limestone remains after the organism dies. Successive layers of limestone build up forming the reef.

Laomei Green Reef close up

Water erosion carves meandering channels in the reef. How to describe it? Said to Dahlia, “It looks like a shaky hand ran a giant comb through the rock when it was cooling.” Well, I took a stab at it, anyway.

Laomei Green Reef, pattern of erosion

Along the reef water shoots up through fissures in the reef. Note the fishermen standing on the reef in the background.

Laomei Green Reef, water shoots up through a fissure.

Note the clearly marked sign by the entrance.

Laomei Green Reef, clear signage posted. Stay off the reef.

Note this asshole standing on the reef.

Laomei Green Reef, asshole standing on the reef.

So anxious to capture the beauty of Laomei, all the while trampling it beneath their feet.

Laomei Green Reef, assholes standing on the reef.

We saw a lot of that.

Laomei Green Reef, yet more assholes standing on the reef.

It make us angry. Dahlia had finally had enough. She confronted a man walking across the reef. “Don’t you know you ruining it?” He should have known better.

Laomei Green Reef, another asshole standing on the reef.

This is what reef looked like closer to the parking lot, well-within range of the selfie-obsessed hordes.

Laomei Green Reef, damage done?

If you walked to the other end of the reef, away from the morons standing on it, this is what Laomei Green Reef looks like. Note: It is possible to take a decent photo standing a safe distance away away from the reef (evidence below).

Laomei Green Reef, close up of water shooting up through a fissure.

The Dog of Destiny

The Dog of Destiny, amongst the rice paddies.
The Dog of Destiny (named by our niece)

The Dog of Destiny was found wandering the streets of Georgia. She was taken to a “kill-shelter” with a less-than-inspired approach to animal welfare. She and her unborn pups were slated for destruction (what passes for humane treatment in the Redneck Belt). Thankfully, a volunteer from an animal rescue found her in time.

I imagine the Dog of Destiny in that moment, panting behind chain-link, white-dappled paws on cold concrete. Her tail wagging in spite of it all. Pregnant belly swaying. Those gentle, brown eyes pleading in their unassuming way. Can I come with you?

She was placed in a foster home and nurtured back to health. She was house-broken and socialized. She was given love and affection, perhaps for the very first time in her life. Then she was driven by a volunteer to an animal rescue in New Jersey, where she gave birth to eight healthy puppies.

Her puppies found homes one by one. The Dog of Destiny patiently waited her turn.

Dahlia and I wanted another dog. It took three years until we were ready. Three years for the pain of loss to fade. Our beloved boxer Gracie had been stricken with a mysterious illness while we were living in Egypt. We tried to save her, but in the end we had to let her go. I was heart-broken, still am. That’s pretty much all I want to say about it.

I saw a photo of The Dog of Destiny on an animal rescue website. I let them know we were interested in adopting her.

We filled out an application. We were interviewed. We provided personal references. They actually called and asked about us. It was quite the process.

Then I was driving down to meet her. I knew as soon as I met The Dog of Destiny that I would be bringing her home. She was such a sweet, gentle girl. Playful and full of spirit. She had this beautiful brindle coat with a patch of white on her chest. When she wagged her tail, she wagged her whole body. I noted she was still a bit saggy from nursing—okay, more than a bit—but that didn’t matter. I signed the paperwork, paid the fee, and we drove home together.

Home has always been a fluid concept for me. At the time, it was an old house with a gabled roof at the end of a quiet street, a couple of blocks from the elementary school I attended as a child. We’d only lived there a couple of months by the time The Dog of Destiny came along.

Springtime in Central NY. The Dog of Destiny lounging by her favorite tree.
Springtime in Central NY. The Dog of Destiny lounging by her favorite tree.

We spent two years living back in the quaint village beside the lake, where I grew up. Everyone in the neighborhood got to know The Dog of Destiny. She had a yard to romp and roam. She had her favorite hiking trail, the remnant of an old railroad line that ran along a creek. But, as ever, we had one foot out the door, and eventually it was time to go.

Dahlia took a job in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. It was a good opportunity, the next step up in her career. And I was writing. I was prepared to do that anywhere, preferably somewhere where I wasn’t shoveling snow in the dreary twilight for months on end.

We always knew our time in the States was limited. We bought a house knowing we would rent it someday. We adopted The Dog of Destiny knowing she was going with us, wherever in the world we decided to go.

Of course we were going to take her to Taiwan. It wasn’t a question. Though there was a long flight across an ocean. There was a quarantine. There was paperwork and various bureaucratic mountains to climb. There was considerable cost involved between the airline fees, the permits, the vet appointments, and the pet relocation service we employed to help us make it all happen.

And there was no small amount of worry and guilt.

It’s not like we could explain to her what was about to happen or where it was we were going, though I might have tried a time or two. We were asking a lot. We didn’t give her a vote. Though she likely would have voted to go with us wherever we went. I liked to think that anyway.

Dahlia and The Dog of Destiny, Cuesta Rock. Shitiping, Taiwan.
Dahlia and The Dog of Destiny, Cuesta Rock. Shitiping, Taiwan.

A week after we arrived in Taiwan, I picked up The Dog of Destiny from animal quarantine. She was happy and healthy and safe. It seemed like she had made friends with the people who worked there. They all came out say goodbye.

We’re getting to know the neighborhood where we live. We’re going for daily walks. The Dog of Destiny is making new friends in the park. She goes hiking and camping with us on weekends. She basically goes wherever we go. We only stay in dog-friendly hotels. Thankfully, there are quite a few here in Taiwan.

The Dog of Destiny is now an expatriate and a world traveller. She has already seen more of the world than most of the people I grew up with. More important, she’s with us. Our little family, that’s home wherever it is we happen to be in the world.

10,000 hours of failure, I’ll be an expert

So I’ve been working on a novel for the better part of two years. (Who am I kidding? It’s been longer than that!) I’m still not finished. There is no end in sight. What am I doing? Rumbling, tumbling, stumbling headlong in the direction of failure. Seems like I picked that direction at random one day and stuck with it. I’m bushwhacking in the goddamn jungle. I’m Percy Fawcett, the guy famous for getting lost in the Amazon looking for El Dorado. He was never heard from again. Years and years of searching, they never found the guy. For all we know he’s still out there, wandering in circles, chasing a story about fame and fortune.

Mr. Brown Boulevard

Chishang, Taiwan. Early morning.

Mr. Brown Boulevard is a narrow, elevated road that zigzags through a patchwork of rice paddies in Chishang, Taiwan.

Chishang is located in Taiwan’s East Rift Valley. It’s famous for growing rice (the best in Taiwan, apparently). Dahlia and I booked a room in Chishang by accident. We thought we were booking a room in Taitung. It was a happy accident.

I stumbled onto Mr. Brown Boulevard while hastily revising our travel plans. The eponymous road—so I read—was named after Mr. Brown Coffee, a coffee company, a sort of Taiwanese Folgers. Mr. Brown Coffee shot a commercial along the road years back. It had since become a tourist attraction.

During the day, Mr. Brown Boulevard was a parade of tourists—trains of quad-bike enthusiasts, schools of children running and playing, couples holding hands, umbrella-welding women in bright, flowing dresses sauntering, stopping to strike the occasional pose—the selfie sticks out were out in force that day. Everyone was headed toward the same tree, a lonely tree with bad posture. It was leaning into the road, as if fatigued by all the attention.

Perhaps the tree had had a starring role in that coffee commercial (I never saw the commercial). In any event, I wasn’t going near it. To risk a broad generation, Taiwanese see a crowd and think, Ooh, there must something good over there. I see a crowd, and I think, Far far too many people. Whatever it is, not worth it. And then I walk swiftly in the opposite direction.

Dawn. We got up early to walk the length of Mr. Brown Boulevard. Dahlia was reluctant to get up so early on a weekend. I promised her there would be coffee—and a beautiful sunrise over the mountains, with streaks of orange and red, a blazing fire lit over purple mountains, all reflected on the tranquil waters of a rice paddy. It would be awesome, in the true sense of the word. Fingers crossed. I may have oversold it a bit.

It was cloudy that morning. A thin mist rose from the valley. It was quiet. No tourist buses, no tourists. Almost no traffic of any kind—the occasional bicycle, a scooter or two. A elderly woman tending her garden. I let The Dog of Destiny off leash. She scampered about while Dahlia and I strolled hand-in-hand.

For a brief minute, we did catch a glimpse of the rising sun. We stood watching as light painted the clouds and a nearby mountain peak. We looked out over the water with the Dog of Destiny huddled between us, our little family. It wasn’t exactly what I had promised. It was close enough.

We shared the glimpse of sunrise with an elderly Taiwanese couple. They were riding tandem on a one-person bike. The man peddled, the woman sat behind him, feet dangling just above the pavement. She smiled and waved.

“Beautiful,” I said, pointing to the red glow. The elderly man nodded and said something in Italian. I had no idea what he actually said, not that it mattered. His kindly smile said enough.

I said to Dahlia, “I hope some day when we’re old and gray we’ll be riding together on a bike just like that, with the sun rising, somewhere in the world, somewhere just as quiet and beautiful as this.”

Dahlia cuddled up next to me. I put my arm around her. She put her head on my shoulder. She sighed and said, “Yeah, but you’re going to be the one riding on back.”

Temple of the dog

The “New” Temple of the Eighteen Lords (that is 17 humans, one dog)

The legend goes: Over a hundred years ago, a boat containing the bodies of 17 fisherman washed ashore after a storm. In the boat was a dog, who somehow survived. The dog guarded the remains of the fisherman until people a nearby village arrived. Funeral rites were performed and the fishermen were buried. The dog was offered food, but refused to eat it. Instead he jumped into the open grave “committing suicide,” i.e. was buried alive with the fisherman. In this way, the dog showed his undying loyalty to his masters (ironic word choice deliberate).

I couldn’t resist a temple dedicated to the memory of a faithful dog. And there was this intriguing sentence in the Lonely Planet guidebook: “[The temple is] associated with Taiwan’s underworld and it’s not uncommon to see tattooed gangsters and prostitutes about at night.”

The Dog of Destiny posing, sort of

We didn’t see any gangsters or prostitutes lurking about. We didn’t see anyone other than a couple of construction workers taking a nap during their lunch break.

The temple was dingy, dark, and spare, more or less deserted. There wasn’t much there, other than a 30ft dog statue in the parking lot (which was worth seeing).

It turns out we visited the “new” Temple of the Eighteen Lords, which was built to capitalize on the popularity of the original (making it a sort of copycat or counterfeit). We passed right by the old one without even knowing it. It was sandwiched between the wall of a nuclear power plant and the main highway. I’m not even sure it was open.

The original temple has an interesting history. It began as a shrine built atop the resting place of the fishermen, and their dog. In the early 1970s, the shrine faced an existential threat when the Taiwan Power Company built a nuclear reactor next door. Rather than be bulldozed, the spirits of the shrine fought back. Rumors circulated that construction equipment mysteriously failed whenever it came near the shrine. The builders were ultimately forced to change their original plans. The shrine was left untouched, and a what was a local tradition suddenly went viral. Soon busloads of tourists were visiting the shrine, which was upgraded to a temple in 1975.

The Temple of the Eighteen Lords was a popular pilgrimage site in the 80s and early 90s, attracting large crowds late at night, allegedly when the spirits are at the height of their powers. The temple had a reputation of attracting gamblers, gangsters, and prostitutes—and other marginal peoples. The temple spirits purportedly granted any wish—they were apparently unbound by moral conviction, unlike the traditional gods of Taiwanese folk religion. Interestingly, the spirits of the fishermen accepted lit cigarettes as offerings, rather than incense. (But what about the dog spirit, I wonder. He was one of the eighteen lords, after all. Was he a smoker too?)

Not many people go to the original temple anymore. So I read. Reasons are given, but they seem (to me) inadequate to explain the temple’s decline. Then again, why was the temple so popular in the first place? It attracted busloads of tourists, caused traffic jams late in the evening. The temple legend inspired a TV serial and a movie. Why exactly? What unseen, dark forces conspired to produce this cultural phenomenon?

I’d like to see it the Temple of the Eighteen Lords, the real one, in the wee hours of the morning this time. I’d like to know whether it still attracts tattooed gangsters and other archetypes of the criminal underworld. Does any remnant of that seedy, carnival funhouse atmosphere still exist? Regardless, I would like to offer the temple spirits a cigarette, if they still smoke. I will bring some kibble or a dog bone for their faithful companion.

Cuesta Rock

Cuesta Rock, Shihtiping

A “cuesta” is a geological term describing a hill or ridge with a gentle slope on one side and a cliff the other.

This particular cuesta is located on the East Coast of Taiwan, just south of where the Xiuguluan River empties into the Pacific.

Cuesta Rock is testament to Taiwan’s volcanic history. The light gray rock is made up of “tuff,” ash deposited from a volcanic eruption. The ash compacted and hardened into stone. Thousands of years of wind and wave erosion has carved the rock into a dreamscape. The rock seems to ooze and run and drip. The ripples in the rock are reminiscent of flowing water.