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.

Shihtiping

Shihtiping sunrise.

We spent a weekend camping in Shihtiping, also spelled “Shitiping” (I shit you not).

Shihtiping translates as “stone terrance.” It is an arresting stretch of coastline—stepped volcanic rock carved by the wind and the waves. We delighted exploring the whimsical landscape.

We almost didn’t go. It was raining. It was a long drive from Kaohsiung at the end of a long week. But we said the hell with it and went anyway. Glad we did. The campsite books up weeks in advance. Because of the rain, we almost had the place to ourselves. By Saturday it was clear skies. And this (above) was the view that greeted us Sunday morning.

Getting my shawarma on

Went to Ruifeng Night Market recently. Bypassed the grilled chicken feet and stinky tofu, headed straight for the doner kebab. Actual Turks working the stand. Love, love me some shawarma, or dürme, as the Turks call it.

Get to chatting with the guy slicing my chicken from the rotisserie. Mentioned that I’d been to Turkey several times. He asked me where exactly. I told him. Then, I mentioned I had a Turkish in-law. Now we were practically related.

And he’s asking me all the standard questions, including, Where you from?

New York, I say. America? he asks. Yep.

Then, he arches a formidable eyebrow, scrunching up his forehead, like he’s choosing his words carefully, and says, Your president’s a crazy man.

It was somewhere between a question and a declarative statement.

Don’t I know it, I thought. And I would add: an imbecile and a tyrant, and, quite possibly, an agent of a foreign government. But look who’s talking. You guys have that Gollum-like creature you call Erdogan running the country.

But for once I don’t say the quiet part out loud. Instead I tell him, Yeah, but don’t judge me by my president. Good one, I thought. He did too.

He laughed and clapped me on the back, like he knew exactly where I was coming from.

To be an other

I met Kenzie at a party. We were standing amidst of group of people engaged in small-talk, which is, admittedly, not an area of competence for me.

Kenzie said she felt liberated living in Taiwan. As a woman, as an African-American. Well, good. I’m glad, I thought. And I meant it.

The conversation carried on. I kept a toehold in it, while the rest of me went off somewhere. I took a booth at the back corner of my mind. There I carried on a separate conversation, albeit a related one.

And still, I nodded my head like a metronome, keeping time with the rhythm of the conversation. The guy feigning to listen was the amiable, somewhat socially competent part of me. That guy, unfortunately, decided to tuck in for the night. The old curmudgeon punched in for the late shift. He immediately decided Kenzie was a bonafide, card-carrying optimist—the curmudgeon suffered optimists like he suffered fools.

I bulldozed back into the conversation, no idea how long I’d stood there in absentia.

“But back to what Kenzie was saying, doesn’t our experience here have more to do with the fact we’re strangers? It’s not that there isn’t discrimination in Taiwan. It’s not like Taiwan has somehow eliminated prejudice, or that we won’t ever have to deal with it as foreigners living here.”

“We are still an other,” I said. “We are still outsiders. Maybe they (I meant Taiwanese people) just don’t know how to categorize us (I meant the expats in the room). We don’t fit into their daily experience. We aren’t easily placed within the established hierarchy. That isn’t to say there isn’t one. That isn’t to say we’re going to somehow avoid unfair treatment that has something to do with who are or how we look. Being an expat may work to our advantage sometimes, sometimes but…”

Dahlia put her hand on my arm, squeezed it gently. It was my curtain call, more subtle than a vaudeville hook, but it had desired effect.

That was weeks ago. But as I sat at the kitchen table this morning, I thought about that conversation, thought about what I might have said had Dahlia allowed me to carry on.

…we’re still foreigners. We will always be laowai. Because of the way we look. Because of our accent. Because culture leaves its mark. We will never quite belong, and for that, we’re always be made to pay the foreigner tax in one form or another.

I think that’s where I was going.

I might have hastened to add: This has nothing to do with Taiwanese culture. It has everything to do with the human condition. We are hard-wired to discriminate. We organize our world into competing tribes, us and them. It is baked into our DNA. 

This isn’t, of course, any kind of excuse. Our biology does not justify our prejudice. (I think I would have made that point clear.) We aren’t automatons after all. We have a will. We have a fucking choice, and we can choose to be better than that.

Have SUV, will travel

Silver grass (Miscanthus Sinensis) growing the banks of the Zhuokou River in Maolin.

Bought an old SUV, which meant we could finally get out of the city. We could get in the car and simply go. Anywhere, anytime we felt like it. This weekend Dahlia didn’t care about particulars as long we went somewhere.

We escaped the smog dome of Kaohsiung and headed east. Windows down, the Dog of Destiny’s ears flapping in the crisp morning air.

Our destination: Maolin National Scenic Area, home of the Purple Butterfly Valley, one of only two places in the world were butterflies are known to migrate en masse (the other being Monarch Valley in Northern Mexico).

Millions of purple crow butterflies with iridescent, purple-spotted wings fly south and congregate in a handful of valleys at the base of Dawu Mountain. This happens in November. So I read.

Purple crow butterflies (Euploea tulliolus) fluttering on tropical milkweed. With the camera equipment I had on hand, it was difficult to be a good shot.

It was, if nothing else, a worthy pretext for a weekend expedition.

Onward. Over bridged byway. Across low-lying tropical land. Past rice paddies and roadside temples and barking dogs, stands of palm fronds and banana trees and dragon fruit. Onward to the mountain hinterland, mist-shrouded and verdant.

We traced the course of the Gaoping River, then its tributary, the Zhuokou River. We followed winding path up a mountain valley on a road built on stilts, which became a road carved into cliffside. We went all the way Duona (an indigenous village) and back again.

We took our time. We stopped at various points of interest. We hiked a mountain trail a to a waterfall. We traversed suspension bridge over a vertigo-inducing ravine. We clambered up and over an elevated boardwalk built atop a ridge line. And we admired the view from several panoramic lookouts. We made an entire weekend of it—Dahlia and I with the Dog of Destiny in tow.

And all the while before us, dancing on the wind like Autumn snow flakes, were butterflies, butterflies of various shapes and sizes and colors, far too numerous to count.