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.

The creative doldrums

I’m not exactly on the clock. No TPS report due anytime soon. No boss man breathing down my neck. Just my own inner literary agent needling me like a mosquito: Hey bub, this mythological novel of yours, anyone ever gonna see it? 

I admit, words haven’t been forthcoming. Too many distractions, too many little, practical demands, all of which take me away from the difficult task of sitting in a room in silence, long enough for words to flow.

We are still occupied with settling in, doing the million-odd things that need to be done before one can feel settled. In our basic division of labor, this is my area of expertise responsibility.

I have two duties: 1) Figure out how to do things; and 2) Get things done. I’ve met with  limited success. We have a car now and a bank account. Yippee!

But everything takes longer in another country. Simple tasks defy simplicity. And, as ever, I am obstructed by the Great Wall of Chinese.

It is to be expected; this is how it goes; you have been here before, Dahlia reminds me almost daily, and I tamp down expectations and redouble my efforts.

Given the context, a weekend away seems an extravagance, an unconscionable waste of a nonrenewable resource—time. But perhaps a jaunt is exactly what is needed, the very thing to rescue the writer from the creative doldrums.

We shall see.

Notes on a train wreck

Watching from afar. A grand, sweeping vista. It’s an ugly view. Brett Kavanaugh, sorry excuse for a life-time appointment, confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States. I am aghast. I am angry. I am thoroughly disgusted. I am resigned.

I refuse to call America “my country” just now. I am American by birth, American by passport, American by default, but no longer American by consent.

What I see:

America, the spoiled rich kid, ignorant of the world, insistent on unearned privilege, squandering—callously so—its inheritance, the accumulated wealth of generations.

America, shouting, foot-stomping, carrying on.

America, fingers in its ears, shouting “Nah nah nah, I’m not listening. Not to you, not to anyone.”

America, hopelessly, recklessly, stupidly arrogant.

America, the drunken frat bro who just wants to do keg stands and bang unconscious chicks without your judgment.

America, the land of “Me first” and “Go fuck yourself.”

America, the Empire of Liberty (not at all ironic), where of course the sun never sets on bigotry, violence, and hate.

America, the shining beacon of toothless, gun-toting, backwater morons.

America, the fantasy island of God-fearing, Dirty Harry wannabes, with their dead eyes and their cold dead hands and their praise Jesus amens.

America, the darkened shore of the retched, huddled masses, the teeming, ragged refuse, the brain-washed, tired, and weary.

America, from sea to shining sea, a colossal cluster fuck, no longer anyone’s land of milk and honey.

America, a hulking, sagging wreck washed up and broken up on the shoals of what might have been.

And yet, and yet…

Somehow, I remain a patriot—of self-evident truth and inalienable rights, of equality before men and women, and any other category of human—ideals that a vocal and benighted quorum of star-spangled idiots seem so intent to discard, so casually, in the name of what exactly? Tell me what kind of better world.It isn’t at all apparent from here.

On expat friends

This is the expat life: you never know when someone you see every day is going to disappear forever, instantly transmogrifying into a phantom. Before long you won’t be able to remember her last name, the color of her eyes, the grades that her children were in. You can’t imagine not seeing her tomorrow. You can’t imagine you yourself being one of those people, someone who one day just vanishes. But you are.

—From the novel The Expats by Chris Pavone

Paths do diverge, and friendships do fade. But…

I don’t think anyone just vanishes, not in this digital age, not in this interconnected world, not unless it is a willful act, and not even then.

Maybe in the age of the steamboat and the telegram, but we have this thing called “social media” now.

And expats can and do build meaningful and lasting friendships. These friendships do conquer distance, and paths do cross again, more often than you might expect (speaking from personal experience here).

Distance is not the formidable barrier it once was, and expat friendships are often made of stronger stuff.

But then again, what the hell do I know?

Chasing waterfalls

Eagles’ God Waterfall, about an hour east of Kaohsiung.

Took a couple of wrong times, finally found the place. There wasn’t a sign, only a couple of parked cars and the sound of rushing water. We ambled down a forest path to the water’s edge. We swam. We splashed. We floated. Downstream, perched on a slippery rock, I squinted through a viewfinder. A shaft of light broke through the forest canopy for a few brief seconds. I captured what I could of the moment. The rain came soon after. Stranded under a leaking pagoda, we laughed and ate a make-shift meal. Then we splashed our way back to the car and headed home. It was our first Sunday in Taiwan.

The water situation

Conversation with Dahlia via text:

Me: What about water situation?

Dahlia: Emailed about it.

ME: And?

Dahlia: Waiting to hear back.

Me: By the way, can’t flush toilet. No water left in tank.

Dahlia: Did you put water in the bucket and do a firm swooshing motion?

Me: Swooshing? No idea what you mean. What bucket?

Dahlia: Have you done this before?

Me: How hard can it be?

Dahlia: You trying to manually flush a toilet? Don’t see it going well.

Me: Seems easy enough.

Dahlia: But things have a way of defying your expectations.

Me: Point taken.

Maslov’s hierarchy of needs. I remember learning about it in some course I took way back when. There’s this pyramid, at the top of which sits “self-actualization,” which has to do with reaching one’s full potential. If and only if every other need has been met (I think) can a person hope to achieve his full potential.

If so, I’m fucked. At least for the foreseeable future. At the very least until someone turns the fucking water back on.

A quick assessment of current conditions has me situated far below the pinnacle of self-actualization. I’m stumbling around in the basement of Maslow’s stupid pyramid looking for a light switch. Good luck chasing the next great American novel when you can’t wash you hands after you take a shit, can’t flush the toilet either. (Too much information, I know.)

The problem began last night, right around the time I turned on a faucet and… Nothing, not a drop of water issued forth. That’s funny, I thought. I checked the washing machine, saw a strange symbol flashing. I opened the lid to see what was happening, and wouldn’t you know it? The clothes were still dry.

A sinking feeling. Well, this isn’t good, I thought. Then I went to the bathroom and turned on the shower, hoping against hope… A trickle, nothing more.

“Well shit,” I muttered. “Wonder what that’s about.” Then I yelled to Dahlia in the next room, “Hope you weren’t planning on taking a shower tonight.”

“Why? Whats’s going on?”

“Just a little problem with the water?”

“What’s the problem?”

“We have none.”

“Wait. We have no problem or no water?”

“No water. We have no water. That’s what I’m trying to say.”

“Well that sucks.”

Does this happen often? I wonder. Is this a thing in Taiwan? How long exactly is it going to last? And who do I call to find out? I ask myself these questions and many others. I’m nothing if not inquisitive.

But it’s morning now, and I have no answers. And I still have no water. Safe to say someone somewhere turned off the tap for some odd reason. That’s all I got.

This is a grave matter, one of basic hygiene. Skipping a shower or two in this climate is inadvisable. I inhabit a body poorly conditioned to the tropics. No amount of cologne will conceal that fact for long. Vanity makes this my first concern, above other trivial concerns like washing dishes, flushing toilets, and doing the laundry.

But what to do? [He shrugs.] Add it to the growing list of things I haven’t a clue what to do about.

The basic problem is that I don’t speak Chinese. Not yet anyway, and not anytime soon. It will, in all likelihood, be months before I can utter a basic sentence, and many months more before I can actually make myself understood—and that may prove to be blindly optimistic.

So for the time-being, the language problem is solved by asking myself this question: Who can we find to help solve this? Dahlia’s working on that, which is the best I hope for. The second best is to wait it out with my fingers crossed.

In the meantime, I’m trying to put aside the headaches and hassles, trying to take it all in stride, reminding myself this is all part of it. This is what happens when you move to an unfamiliar place, especially one where you find yourself linguistically and culturally illiterate, decidedly so.

And in the grand scheme this teensy tiny infinitesimal problem of ours is hardly worth the mention. I can hardly justify the expense of emotion. It would be nice to take a shower though.

Hanging out with Eddie on a weekday—Notes

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.

“Oh yeah?”

“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.”

“Me too.”

We linger there for a moment, dreaming in late afternoon sun.