Monday, January 22, 2007

The Currents of Life

“A Bittersweet Goodbye”

Shijian guo de hao kuai…” I say softly – sadly – as I look down at my feet. “Time goes by so quickly.” I immediately decide this was a stupid thing to say and simultaneously tighten my grip on the carry-on luggage I’m holding and shift my weight awkwardly from one foot to the other. My hands are clammy, and my head feels like it’s half-full of helium. I haven’t slept in three days, and I’m still wondering how I managed to pack my entire life as I’ve known it for the past four months into one backpack, one suitcase, and one – albeit enormous – surfboard bag. But as happy as I am to have made it past the check-in counter without being accosted by any power-tripping, tape-measure-toting agents with a hatred for surfers, I’m awash in melancholy. Memories are flashing across the little movie screen in my head, one after another, and I feel myself withdrawing from everything around me and becoming transfixed by my subconscious’ latest creation.

I see myself exiting an airport in the middle of the night, greeting an old friend, and speaking timidly in a language that is not my own. I see myself stumbling across a busy downtown intersection with my friends after class, unable to walk straight I’m laughing so hard. I see myself grinning madly and screaming unintelligible elongated vowel sounds like a chimpanzee in the front seat of a roller coaster while I watch a surfer go flying by me, perched precariously on the nose of his longboard… Then the screen goes black for a moment before slowly fading in, and I lean forward with anticipation in my intra-cranial armchair. I see myself on an almost-deserted beach under a beautiful, star-lit night-sky. A gust of wind born miles away, somewhere out over the dark ocean at which I now stare, sweeps across vast expanses of water as if propelled by fate. Under the cover of darkness, it creeps up on me, tip-toeing weightlessly across the soft white sand. At last, the film begins to zoom in, gradually and deliberately, and I see what I already knew was going to happen. I shiver. It lasts for but a split-second, this shiver – gone in the blink of an eye. But she notices it. Slowly, carefully, she unravels my rolled-up shirtsleeves, one at a time, and rebuttons them around my wrists. I shiver again, but this time not because I’m cold. I seem to be debating whether I’m still staring up at the stars or if they’re staring down at me, having somehow danced their way down from the heavens and into her eyes. Her hand is warm in mine…

Suddenly my movie screen goes black. I blink and look down at my hand. Hers is still there. “Shijian guo de hao kuai,” I think again. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to say good-bye. Then I remember something she had once written – she, the poet, who could capture a lifetime in just a line: “Gei wo yi ge wen / bu yao zaijian.” “Give me a kiss / not a good-bye.” I turn from her and do not look back. I’m swallowed up by the crowd. I know she can no longer see me. It’s not until I’m taking that final and most irreversible step, until I’m crossing that most consequential threshold which separates airport from airplane – one heart from another – that I realize she is still with me. Two stories above the concrete of the runway, straddling a dream-like abyss – my feet in two vastly different worlds – I close my eyes, and time screeches to a halt. I can still taste her bittersweet good-bye.

“Cerulean Dreams”

I’m curled up in the fetal position and gasping for air. As I claw at the dirt in anguish, tiny pebbles trickle off the two-mile vertical cliff in front of me. I need to stand and work-out my cramps, but I don’t dare lift my head above the small bushes that conceal me from the trail. My half-erect tent which looks ready to heave itself off the mountain and the sound of boiling water on my miniature stove both call my attention, but the thought of attending to either sends me into a frenzy of coughing and wheezing. Steam is rising from the stove, though, so I get to my hands and knees and manage to crawl my way over and turn off the gas, cursing my stupidity all the while. “I might as well have shot off a flare!” I think to myself as I peek through the bushes and listen for approaching footsteps. Nothing. I exhale a sigh of relief and refocus my attention. The smell of food alone is making me gag, but I haven’t refueled all day; I need to eat. I can’t spend more than five or ten seconds working on my tent without collapsing in exhaustion, but I need shelter; I need sleep. And as clouds roll into the valley below, I can’t help but cast an apprehensive eye on the ten-foot-tall lightning-rod which towers over me. “What the **** am I doing?” I ask myself. But then I look out at the distant horizon – at the sharp, foreboding mountain peaks all around me – and I feel a jolt of energy. I glance back at the lightning-rod and grin, wondering if it could possibly conduct the kind of electricity powering me now. I’m over 12,000 feet above sea level on the tallest mountain in Northeast Asia, I’ve managed to evade police and park rangers for two days, and I’m just hours from reaching one of the most remote summits in the world. This is life as I love it most. This is what drives me.

I wake up sweating and breathing heavily. “Wow, what a dream,” I think to myself. “Climbing Yushan, the tallest mountain in Asia outside the greater Himalayas…the fourth tallest island peak in the world… and doing it solo no less – without the required guide or permits! How insane!” As I fluff my pillow and roll over in my comfortable bed, I think to myself that maybe – just maybe – my blog readers would enjoy this dream, too. “You can’t be prosecuted for doing something illegal if it’s all just a dream!” I realize triumphantly just before drifting off again…

“God, I hate bureaucracy,” I think to myself. “We’re sorry, but we’re unable to process your request for a permit in time,” they told me. I clench my fists with frustration. “And, even worse, they want to require me to hire a guide!” I think. “As if we need the government to dictate what risks we should and should not take. Do we not have the right to lead our lives as we choose provided we don’t hurt others?!” I ask myself fervently. The answer seems so clear to me; I just can’t understand why people sacrifice their freedom. Then I smile and wonder if Taiwan’s bureaucracy just might prove to be the impetus for one of my greatest and most outlandish adventures. I glace up at the luggage rack above me and mentally catalog all the gear I’ve brought with me. The latest weather reports are calling for freezing temperatures and a chance of ice and snow; I think back to Aorai and reassure myself that I learned my lesson: mountaineering on tropical islands does not necessarily mean warm weather. I pull out my map and guidebook and review my plan for the nth time. I connect the dots of the circle I’ve mentally drawn from my home in northern Taiwan, down the west coast, up into the mountains, and finally back to the North. It’s a wild shot, sure, but I’ve poured over the details for the past week, and I know it’s my only hope for climbing this peak.

The conductor comes by to clip my ticket, and I cringe as he glances – suspiciously, it seems to me – at my backpack and the mountaineering gear hanging off it. I’m barely out of Taipei, and I’m already expecting my cover to be blown at any minute! As he continues down the aisle, I review my modus operandi for at least the tenth time of the morning. No conversations. No talk of Yushan. Minimal Chinese… Low profile, low profile, low profile, I say over and over to myself. I go over the details of my cover story yet again. Just a quick trip up to the mountains… maybe take in a sunrise if it’s possible. I think over my Plan B and Plan C strategies. And I run a few lines of French and Spanish through my head just in case it comes to that. If I really find myself in a jam – cornered by someone with good English, say – I can always pretend I’m from Europe and don’t understand. I stare at my reflection in the train window as the scenery outside flies by with a blur, and I can’t help but chuckle; life is everything it’s cracked up to be and more.

Someone is tapping my shoulder gently and speaking to me. A flashing alert light goes off somewhere in my brain, but my senses are still numb and I can’t think clearly. It’s dark and cold, and I desperately want the shoulder-tapping to stop so I can go back to sleep. At last, I begin to come-to, and I realize that I’ve made a careless mistake. I think back on the day’s events and try to remember how I wound up like this… After riding the train out of Taipei and down the west coast for several hours to Jiayi, the jumping-off-point for almost any excursion into the mountains, I had deboarded and changed trains. I had managed to keep my cool as I waited for the train with all my gear in front of the police station – the police station I knew to be the official overseer of permit applications for Yushan. If anyone knew the rules and regulations for climbing Yushan, it would be the officers inside that station, so I had been on high alert and in no mood for conversation. Fortunately, the xiao huoche had soon arrived, and I was able to embark on the next leg of my journey. This particular xiao huoche – or “little train” – is a technological marvel which uses a highly sophisticated series of switchbacks and hydraulics to ascend the steepest stretch of narrow-gauge train tracks in the world. Originally designed for the Alps, this technology had somehow found its way to Taiwan, and I had been intrigued since I first learned of it. It’s on this xiao huoche that I have made my careless mistake.

I played it cool at first, pretending not to understand much Chinese and listening to my ipod to ensure I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone. As the train made its way out of town, the scenery changed rapidly from coastal to mountainous. Soon, cliffs dropped vertically downwards just feet from the edge of the tracks, and dark, winding tunnels led us through massive granite outcroppings. It wasn’t long before we encountered our first switchback, though, and it proved to be a surprise worth waiting for. The grade of the tracks had been increasing steadily as we traversed steeper and steeper terrain, and I wondered how we could possibly go on. At last, we came to a gradual but complete stop, and, then…we began rolling backwards. First, slowly; then faster; and faster, and faster, and faster. Glancing frantically at the exit door, I did some quick calculations in my head to estimate my chance of survival were I to jump; I had read about this special switchback system, but I just hadn’t expected anything quite like what I was now experiencing. Could this really be safe?! I was careening through a dark, overgrown, seemingly enchanted forest littered with hidden cliffs and precipices on a train better suited for an antique museum than the steepest train tracks in the world…and I was doing it in reverse! I felt as if I were stuck in some wild fantasy novel! Just when I had decided a premature deboarding from this possessed train might be my only option, I realized we were rolling uphill again. Still in reverse, but definitely uphill. The next thing I knew, we had stopped and were moving forward once more. The train was using gravity to propel itself up the mountain, taking one step back for every two steps forward, yet nevertheless making progress! Having been a train enthusiast since I was a little kid, I was pretty impressed and spent the next few minutes thinking about how cool this whole switchback experience was going to be. Gradually, though, I realized I wasn’t feeling so great from all the wild careening through the woods, and I determined that if this most recent bit of insanity were indeed the first switchback and if my guidebook were correct in asserting that there would be over thirty switchbacks altogether…well, by the end of the journey I might not be the same train enthusiast I once had been. So, with this thought, I dug through my med-kit and popped a Dramamine in my mouth…and effectively severed my ties with the conscious world.

I’m finally beginning to feel alert as the Dramamine wears off and I regain my senses. I’m on the back of a motorcycle, riding through a freezing-cold rain in the small mountain village of Alishan. I can’t remember what exactly I said to the people who awakened me at the end of the train journey from Jiayi, but I feel fairly confident I didn’t give away any details about my plans. I’m in the vicinity of Yushan now, and I don’t want to draw attention to myself (“Nice job passing out from a tiny anti-motion sickness pill,” I think to myself). The driver of the motorcycle owns a local inn, and she has agreed to take me there without forcing me to commit to a room. She doesn’t speak English, so I’m forced to play my hand and use Chinese. The inn is quaint and cozy with hardwood floors and ceilings, and I’m happy to see an electric blanket on the bed. There’s no sense in drawing even more attention to myself in this tiny village, so I pay her for a room and settle in with my gear. It’s late in the evening, though, and I still haven’t arranged the most crucial part of my trip. “This could be interesting…” I think to myself.

A somewhat quirky yet nevertheless important component of Chinese culture is a reverence for mountain sunrises. Most likely as the result of Buddhist influences, the number-one priority of almost every Chinese or Taiwanese person who ventures to the mountains is to watch a beautiful sunrise. Because of this, a number of locals in the Alishan area run “sunrise-tour” vans every morning to nearby scenic overlooks. I had done my research long before journeying to Alishan, and I knew that at least one of these overlooks was at the mountain pass of Tatajia, not far from the base of Yushan. The road between Alishan and Tatajia is the highest in Taiwan and often is made impassible due to snow, ice, and landslides; there is no bus service. Therefore, just reaching the trailhead for Yushan is a nearly insurmountable obstacle for the solo mountaineer without an SUV. But I had a plan… “I’d like to watch the sunrise tomorrow morning,” I say to the inn-keeper. “Oh, I can help you arrange that. There is a nice overlook just outside of Alishan,” she responds. “Umm…actually, I was hoping to go to Tatajia to watch the sunrise…would that be possible?” I ask with an all-too-mischievous smile.

“I think our American friend wants to climb Yushan,” the van-driver says in Chinese to everyone. I sink down in my seat and feel my pulse quicken. “Why can’t he just drive and not talk so much?” I mumble to myself. It’s 4:30 AM, and I’m sitting in the front of the sunrise-tour van I had lined up the previous night; seven or eight Taiwanese are sitting in the rows behind me. I’ve told the driver only that I want to get out in Tatajia, but he’s suspicious and suspects my real motive. I was forced to speak Chinese to arrange the early-morning pick-up, so he knows I understand his questions, and I can’t easily deflect them. He has already warned me about the dangers of the mountain, the possibility of snow, and the fact that park rangers inspect climbers’ permits. Until now, my only responses have been a chuckle and a “You’re crazy, man,” but I realize I’m in need of local beta, and I admit to myself that my cover is just about blown anyway. So, at last, I confess, “Yea, I might try to climb Yushan…got any advice?” The back of the van suddenly bursts into life and I’m floored by a symphony of “Yi ge ren?! Yi ge ren?! Yi ge ren?!” “By yourself?! By yourself?! By yourself?!” This phrase will prove to be a recurring leitmotif throughout the climb. I manage to calm the Taiwanese – who, although slightly more independent-minded than the mainland Chinese, rarely do anything more dangerous than tying their shoes without the supervision of a professional and the support of at least fifteen friends – and ask the driver if he can drop me off at the trailhead instead of the scenic overlook. “You don’t care about the sunrise?” he asks with a grin. “Ehh, not really,” I stammer. To my dismay, he tells me his van can’t make it all the way to the trailhead but that he will drop me off as close to it as possible; unfortunately, my DZ happens to be directly in front of the Tatajia police station.

“Hellooo!” the policeman shouts to me for the second time. “Just keep walking. Just keep walking,” I command myself. The van driver had given me little warning before dumping me off in front of the police station. Anxiously watching a nearby group of guides and park rangers in his rear-view mirror, he had urged me to hurry, explaining that I needed to make it past the police station and to the trailhead before the rangers or I’d be in trouble. I’d barely had time to put on my pack – much less stretch or take a drink of water – and I’m already out of breath as the policeman calls to me. I’m wearing sunglasses and a hat pulled down low around my eyes, but I know I’m still recognizable as a foreigner, and the policeman’s greeting confirms this. I fight a sudden urge to dash from the officer at full-speed and focus on controlling my breathing instead. After he calls to me for the second time, I give a quick wave and nod politely, but I make no attempt at conversation. I remind myself that being able to pretend I speak neither Chinese nor English may eventually be my only way of avoiding jail. I can feel his eyes boring into my back as I pass slowly by and continue up the road and towards the peak which calls me.

“Ahhh…” I exhale contentedly as I set my overstuffed backpack against a tree and curl up next to it for a bit of rest. I’ve been hiking for several hours now, and this is the first break I’ve taken. The covert nature of my adventure is taking a toll on me, and I feel physically and mentally drained. I think back to the hike from the police station to the trailhead and shake my head with dismay. Not once, not twice, but three times I had been forced to dive off the road and into the woods! Three separate expedition teams – complete with rangers and guides – had passed me in their SUVs as I was hiking the steep mountain road which connects the police station with the trailhead. By the third time, I was beginning to go delusional. “They’re on to me…they’re out looking for me…they’re gonna find me!” is all I could think. But I kept trudging onwards, knowing full and well I may never even have a chance to step on the trail to Yushan, much less its summit.

Eventually, though, I do find myself at the start of the trail. The sun is just beginning to rise, and the world is awash in a beautiful orange glow. I notice that the climbers and guides who had passed me in the vans are standing around stretching and making final preparations before heading out. A few rangers are on hand, checking permits it appears. I know this is it. I have to act quickly and decisively. I approach the trailhead with my back to the others, pretending to be admiring the sunrise. No one notices me at first, and I move slowly closer. Suddenly, a head turns – no, two! – and I hear someone whisper something about “foreigner.” I can see someone pointing at me in my peripheral vision. My heart is pounding. I know I have to make my move. I think of the possible repercussions of what I’m about to do. A hefty fine. Jail-time. No chance of ever being given a job at the State Department. I tighten the shoulder-straps on my pack, take a deep breath, and set off at a half-jog down the trail. If they want to stop me, they’re going to have to come and get me…

Footsteps. Voices. I curse my bad luck. I’m still sitting against my pack – taking my first break of the day – and someone is coming. I didn’t even get two minutes to relax. I quickly repack my things and prepare for trouble. It’s a large group with a ranger. I realize they must have already summitted; they’re on day two of the climb and are heading down. They don’t notice me, of course, until long after I’ve spotted them, so I think I might be able to squeeze by without having to answer any questions. The ranger is at the back of the group, though, and he seems especially surprised to see me. He at first appears more concerned than suspicious, however, so I explain with simple Chinese that I’m fine and that I was just resting for a moment. This, needless to say, is a mistake. The rest of the group, upon hearing my Chinese, screeches to a stop and begins spewing forth a deafening barrage of questions. Everyone seems to know the question of the day – “Yi ge ren?!” – and everyone desperately wants to know if I’m trying to climb Yushan by myself. I’m watching the ranger carefully, and I can see the gears in his head beginning to grind. I know once again that I must act decisively. I quickly buckle the straps of my pack, mumble some unintelligible Chinese with a big smile, and set off down the trail once more. “I really hope he doesn’t have a radio,” I say aloud a few minutes later, suddenly glancing nervously over my shoulder. But the only reply is a bird’s cackle and the soft rustling of the wind in the trees.

I roll over and take a sip of water from the bottle on my nightstand. “This is an intense dream!” I think. “Some of my readers might even think it’s real. I could get into trouble!” But the more I ponder my dilemma, the more convinced I become that no one could possibly confuse this dream with reality. I mean… camping underneath a lightning-rod?! Please…I’m just not that type… As sleep overtakes me once more, I’m swept away on a wispy mountain cloud, and I find myself floating higher and higher and higher…

“Higher. It’s time to go higher,” I tell myself. It’s 1:30 AM on Day 3, and I’m standing outside my tent a few feet from the two-mile-high cliff that I’ve called my front doorstep for the past eleven hours. I take a deep breath of mountain air and look up at the imposing face of Yushan, silhouetted by the night sky. I feel stronger. My nausea seems to be gone. My legs feel reenergized. The air still seems thin, but at least I can breathe now. I’ve made it through the night without being detected, and I feel thankful for small miracles. My mistake from the previous afternoon is still fresh in my mind, and I think back to how it played out… I found a rhythm after my first ranger encounter and hiked fast, not giving passing hikers (who, having just finished climbing the mountain, were not especially predisposed to talk anyway) much of a chance to ask questions. I began making frequent use of the phrase “Jia you! Jia you!” – a friendly cheer of encouragement which literally translates to “Add fuel! Add fuel!” This phrase falls under one of those categories of quirky Taiwanese behavioral norms I discussed in my last post, and it’s expected that the person being told to “Add fuel” will smile and then reply with the same words of encouragement. Realizing this, I became remarkably polite all of a sudden. If I were passing a group of eight climbers, for instance, I would typically say “Add fuel” sixteen times. They would then say “Add fuel” sixteen times, everyone would exchange big smiles, and by the time the ritual was over, I was out of sight! And you thought that the cultural analysis section of my last post was pointless…

Ah, but my dream digresses (dreams are difficult to control, after all). I’m about to survive my closest call yet. I’m at the end of Yushan’s approach trail, where it leaves the woods and rises above treeline; a steep cirque of cliffs presents a brilliant panorama, and Yushan’s rocky summit soars magnificently above it all. To continue along the trail, however, I’ll have to pass through a bottleneck at this spot, and I’m worried there may be rangers. A Taiwanese flag comes into view, then a ranger cabin and a small shelter I know to be Paiyun Hut. I’ve been dreading this spot since I set out from Taipei, and I don’t know how I’m going to get through undetected. What I see next, though, triggers more cerebral panic alarms than I knew I possessed: “WELCOME TO PAIYUN HUT. PLEASE PRESENT YOUR PERMITS IMMEDIATELY UPON ARRIVAL FOR INSPECTION.” No, that’s not translated. This was in English. And it was printed in huge letters on a giant sign that would be impossible to miss. “Not good…this is not good,” I think as I make my way towards the bottleneck. Another climber is sitting outside the hut when I arrive, and he – like everyone – seems surprised to see a solo mountaineer climbing Yushan. I’m still brainstorming for ideas about how to get through the bottleneck as he tries to start a conversation with me, and I don’t pay him much attention. I’m lost in my thoughts as he rambles on about his climb, and I respond a few times without really thinking. At last, I jolt back to reality and realize with horror that I’ve been talking to this climber in Chinese for several minutes. I’ve told him that I’m climbing alone! I’ve blown it this time for sure! I tune back in and realize he wants to know whether my permit allows me to spend the night in the hut or whether I will have to camp outside next to it with the majority of the other climbers. Suddenly, I realize what I have to do. I think for a moment and then respond in Chinese, “Actually, I hear this hut can get pretty crowded. Maybe I’ll go find somewhere a little more quiet.” He immediately tells me that this is the only bit of flat ground on the upper mountain and that there’s nowhere else to go. I glance around and decide he may be right, but I know I can’t stay here. While trekking through a 15,000-foot-deep gorge near Tibet I had once been forced to sleep on a seven-foot-long by two-and-a-half-foot-wide rectangle of dirt miles above the raging river below. If I could find flat ground there, I could certainly find it here. “Oh, I’m sure I can find something,” I assure him as I shuffle off into the woods before anyone else sees me.

“Man, I’m lucky,” I think to myself as I take one last look at the lightening-rod above me. This had been the spot. My only alternative to camping with the rangers. It was small, it was uncomfortable, and it was definitely high-voltage, but I had grown fond of it over the past day. I’d grown accustomed to moving around on my hands and knees, always staying concealed behind the bushes as if I were playing some elaborate game of hide-and-seek. And I’d dug out a little spot in the dirt where I would curl up in a ball and gasp for air each time my altitude sickness spiked; I would miss that. Most of all, I would miss that crazy lightning-rod, which watched over me like a sentinel throughout the night and resisted what surely must have been a mighty temptation to make me famous: “American Climber Killed While Camping Illegally Beneath Lightning-Rod on Northeast Asia’s Tallest Peak.” “But enough of this,” I tell myself. “It’s time to climb. It’s time to climb higher.”

I’ve loaded the majority of my gear into a trashbag, which I’m planning to stash somewhere near the trail bottleneck at Paiyun Hut. It’s still not even 2 AM, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to pass by the hut under the cover of darkness without being stopped. If all goes as planned, without my heavy gear I’ll be able to move fast and bag the summit before anyone knows what’s going on. Then, provided I make it back into the woods without being caught, I’ll retrieve the trashbag and head for freedom. I finish loading my summit pack and wave goodbye to my friend the lightning rod, bushwacking my way back to Paiyun Hut and the trail. Despite the early hour, people are already up and about; in fact, a number of summit teams appear to be making final preparations before setting out. “I guess alpine starts aren’t just a Western mountaineering strategy,” I think to myself. I’m using the lowest beam on my headlamp to avoid drawing attention to myself as I clamber through the trees with my gear. My adrenaline is pumping, but I feel confident that I can slide past everyone without being noticed. I’m just a hundred feet from the hut now, and everything is coming into view. Suddenly, a terrible ripping sound. I look down and see that my gear-laden trash bag has burst open; the contents are scattered all over the place. An expletive drifts through the still night air like a shooting star. I have no time to lose. I quickly pick my gear up off the ground – praying that I haven’t missed anything I’ll later need – and stash it in some bushes. I don’t care if they find it. I don’t even care if I get caught any more. I just want to reach that summit. After that, they can do with me what they will. Carrying just my lightweight summit pack now, I try to regain my composure. There’s more activity than I had expected at the hut; in fact, it looks like almost everyone is awake and active. Guides are urging climbers to find their groups, headlamps are flashing everywhere, and chaos seems to be reigning supreme. I make a spur-of-the-moment decision to change my strategy. Rather than trying to sneak by, I’ll simply blend in. I’ll go right past the rangers with one of the organized groups. I quickly pick out a group that appears ready to depart and deftly maneuver my way over, falling into line three spots back of the guide. We begin marching towards the bottleneck, and I’m flooded with excitement. Smooth, oh how smooth! Suddenly, the guide tells us to stop, and he turns around. He’s forgotten to do a roll call. The person at the front of the line shouts “Yi!” and the next person follows with “Er!” I realize I may be in trouble now. “Oh, it’s worth a try,” I decide. “San!” I shout out in unison with the person behind me. I feel a half-dozen sets of eyes focus on me at once. “Ughh…nimen hao,” I stammer. “When in doubt, don’t look back,” I think. I take off for the bottleneck. No one stops me. I climb quickly into the woods and am soon hidden in darkness. I feel strong. I feel fast. I’m heading for the summit.

I’m flying. I’m falling. I’m being swallowed up by the beautiful blue which surrounds me. That beautiful blue hue of the stratosphere, of the air which so few people ever have a chance to breathe. Suspended above the masses – suspended above the world – untouched and pure. It’s like a drug to climbers. We risk our lives for just a taste of it. And, now, that same blue surrounds me again – soothing and comforting – and easing my pain. Yushan is but a distant memory; I’m in a new world now. I hover weightless in the blue. I can still see the sun rising out of the ocean, I can still hear the earth’s pre-dawn sigh. I reach out and part the blue with hardly any effort at all; it seems to take shape around my outstretched hand. Life is a dream, and I have control of it. I propel myself upwards through the blue. I breathe. Yushan is but a distant memory. It’s over. It’s finished. I climb back into the small rowboat. She’s been watching me. We stretch out on the bottom of the boat and allow the currents to determine our destiny. Everything seems bathed in blue – even the mountains, bounded by blue sky and bluer water. The Taiwanese call this place Sun Moon Lake, and for good reason; earth and sky meet here, beneath the planets, amidst the cosmos. Yushan is but a distant memory. I stretch out my arm and dip my hand into the icy water. The liquid blue molds around my fingers as we drift along. “Streams and torrents flow into rivers and oceans, just as the world flows into the Way,” I quote to myself.

“But what about mountains?” I suddenly wonder. Such tenacity, such perseverance they exhibit. Such contempt they hold for time – for mortality! They persist for centuries in the face of wind and water, wearing down slowly, never giving in. They defy gravity by their very nature, towering over the earth with pride! Testaments to our spirit – that’s what they are. They invite us to dance, to dance on their highest reaches. They invite us to fulfill our potential as humans, to grasp the power of the human spirit. They lead us to the realization that limits are what we make of them. The world is boundless; it’s ours for the taking. Our own fear is the only thing which holds us down. Free yourself from it. Tear off your shackles. Reach for the heavens!

She strokes my arm, and I awaken abruptly. We’re still drifting in this celestial cerulean lake. The mountains appear even bluer than before. I stare into the hills and remember how my journey ended…

Once past the bottleneck at Paiyun Hut, I began climbing – truly climbing. I was leading the early morning charge on Yushan, and I was out front and on my own. I moved fast, steadily pulling away from the hordes of climbers plodding through the darkness below me. I emerged from the cover of the forest to find myself alone in an extra-terrestrial landscape. No trees, no noise, no life. A vertical world of rock and ice. Foreboding and ominous. And silently drawing me in… I jam my hands into a crack in the cliff and pull myself upwards. I’m no longer on the trail, which detours around this steep and dangerous pitch. The wind is howling at my back, and the straps on my pack whip against me mercilessly. My body is flooded with adrenaline, and I’m riding on a cloud of euphoria. I doublecheck my foothold before committing any more weight to it. I know that if it doesn’t hold me – if I lose my grip on the rock – I’ll plunge to my death. I revel in this simple thought. My existence is so pure in this moment – so liberated from pretense, so free of artificiality. I can feel the ice-coated rocks through my gloves, and I draw pleasure from this connection. The mountain has invited me to dance, and I have accepted. I’m waltzing in the stratosphere, I’m foxtrotting with the stars. I don’t notice the cold. I don’t feel the pull of gravity. I don’t fear what could happen. I climb higher.

I turn off my headlamp and cast my ear to the wind. I hear it once more – a sigh. A soft, sleepy sigh as the earth turns on her axis. A faint orange glow radiates above the horizon; the world is awakening. I tread carefully across a small patch of snow and clamber over a rocky ledge 12,966 feet above sea level. Epochs unfold beneath me. I see mountain after mountain after mountain rising from the earth in grandeur. The Pacific Ocean glistens in the early-morning light a hundred miles away. I can go no higher. I can go no further. I’m on top of the world.

“A blur. This life is but a blur,” I think to myself as I soak in the last rays of daylight. I’m still stretched out at the bottom of the rowboat; she’s still by my side. I try to replay the rest of the day’s events in my mind but can’t see through the blur. I remember turning my back on the sunrise – that brilliant mountain sunrise – as more and more climbers arrived at the summit. For the first time in three days, I had been alone and free and able to take in the beauty of the mountain without fear of persecution. But my reprieve was short-lived, and I’d been forced to take flight once more. I flew by them on the descent, reenergized by the beauty of the morning and feeling more alive with every passing moment. I reached Paiyun Hut and scampered by unnoticed. I felt so light, so fast, as I quickly repacked my gear and left the upper mountain behind. I had climbed this peak like a ghost, dancing in and out of people’s vision but never staying for long… I find a secluded spot down the trail where I cook my breakfast and plan my escape. A static-filled phone call to the number on a business card. A driver willing to meet me at the base of the mountain by lunchtime, willing to drive me across the mountains and away from this place. A remote bus-stop in the alpine village of Dongpu. A dirty downtown bus station in the distant city of Shuili. The pieces of the puzzle fall into place; my plan is working. With each leg of my descent – my descent from the pinnacle of Formosa – the air grows richer in oxygen. I can breathe more easily with every passing minute. I’m nearly there. I’m nearly safe…

At last, I’ve reached it. I’ve reached her. I dive into the blue once more, and the last of my worries vanishes with a sapphire splash. We have just the weekend to spend here together at this heavenly lake. The grays and browns of the real world will soon reclaim us. But for now I’m lost in the dream, and the future does not scare me. I’m lost in the beauty, I’m adrift in time. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I disappear into the blue.

“Let Me Count the Ways I’ll Miss You, Taiwan”

I’ll miss your garbage trucks, Taiwan. Oh, how empty life seems in the world of twice-a-week pick-up, how lonely it is! And how silent, too! Beethoven’s Für Elise will never sound the same again; your garbage trucks play it so beautifully – with such emotion – never tiring of the melody, not even after four straight months of playing it on repeat while moving slowly and methodically around my apartment building. 2:40 PM will find me forever at my window, straining to hear their beautiful cry, though I know in my heart they will not come. I’ll miss your garbage trucks, Taiwan.

I’ll miss your cat-ladies, Taiwan. Those delightful damsels selling lemonade in the nightmarkets, calling out to passing pedestrians with feline grace: “Meee-owww.” Nevermind that they may actually be saying “Ni-hao.” They think they sound feminine by speaking that way – by squeaking out greetings two octaves higher than normal. But my friends and I – we know the truth. We even renamed one of their streets: “Mao Mi Jie” – “Cat Alley.” I still hold the all-time purr record – five meow’s in one trip down Cat Alley. I’ll miss your cat-ladies, Taiwan.

I’ll miss your girls on motorbikes, Taiwan. My, oh my, how I longed to have a girl ride on the back of my motorbike when I first arrived. Everywhere I looked there were girls on motorbikes. My seat felt so empty. My extra helmet hung off the handlebars with dejection. I was so lonely. At last, I convinced a girl to ride on the back of my motorbike. “Just for ten minutes!” I had pleaded. I pulled up to the first red light and slowly lowered my shades, looking left and then right at the drivers around me. “Oh yea…” I had said to myself while revving the engine and flexing my biceps. I’ll miss your girls on motorbikes, Taiwan.

I’ll miss your trashcan raiders, Taiwan. Those sneaky buggers who stand around the train station pretending to be reading the newspaper when they’re really watching you. Oh, how sneaky they are! They converge the minute you drop that little plastic bag of garbage into the trashcan. If you look carefully out of the corner of your eye, you’ll see them digging and searching for their treasure; but the instant you turn around, of course, they’re reading their newspapers. I never did ask them what makes plastic trashbags so special. But I played along with their game, sometimes depositing my garbage in the bin only to remove it quickly and move on to another location. I’ll miss your trashcan raiders, Taiwan.

I’ll miss your stoplights, Taiwan. Those ingenious devices which seem to bring traffic to a standstill every time the waves are good and I’m in a hurry to beat high tide. Particularly the rural ones, which, for some reason, are always spaced less than a hundred feet apart. My favorites are the stoplights which only stop cars in two directions because there’s not actually an intersecting street. Safety first – I understand. But what I’ll really miss is plowing through those red lights without the slightest bit of guilt. Your own drivers tend to slink by, pretending they’re just pulling off the road (even though everyone knows they’re not) before speeding away at the last moment. I, on the other hand, have always just gone straight through your red lights at full speed. I’ll miss your stoplights, Taiwan.

I’ll miss your manners, Taiwan. Smiling at someone you’d love to punch in the face. Telling the driver who just ran over your foot “No problem – it’s really nothing.” Pretending you want to pay a dinner bill that you couldn’t afford in a million years. What will I do without your manners? I like it when people present things to me ceremoniously, using both hands. I enjoy being treated like royalty in restaurants, not having to pump my own gas at the service station. I need people to bow to me, dagnabbit! I’ll miss your manners, Taiwan.

“Golden Dragon + Little Tiger = Big Trouble”

The following is told from the point of my view of my little brother Harrison, a sixteen-year-old shaggy-haired, pink polo-wearing hooligan who agreed to visit me in Taiwan so he could miss a week of school. It is based on both my recollection of his visit and his personal account, recorded in a journal which he has graciously decided to share after making me wait for a number of weeks. But better late than never, I suppose, particularly in the case of slackers of his stature. The excerpts from his journal included in this narrative were all translated into intelligible English (by myself), though hopefully his voice still comes through.

Day 1:

I’m on the plane somewhere between Detroit and Japan. We have been flying forever! I just ate some chicken. I want to go to sleep, but Dad said I have to write this stupid journal, so I’d better write some more. Nah, I’ll do it later.

Day 1, Later:

I took a nap, and when I woke up they brought me some more chicken. It wasn’t as good as the first time. Then, I watched three movies in a row. I figured we must be getting close, so I just asked the stewardess how much longer. She said we’re only halfway there!! I can’t believe nobody told me Taiwan was so far away, man!

Day 2:

Man, I didn’t think that flight would ever end! Finally, we arrived in Japan, and I changed planes there. I tried to find some food in the airport, but all they had was rice. And chicken. The next flight was shorter, but it was weird because I was like the only white person on it. [I wonder if my brother will tell me that I should say Caucasian instead of white. Oh well, who cares.] I was sitting next to a hot Chinese girl – or Taiwanese, or whatever – and I tried to talk to her but didn’t have much luck. I did impress her by saying hello in Chinese. But I couldn’t think of much else to say after that since she didn’t speak English. Anyway, now I’m in Taiwan with Alex, and it’s late at night. Alex and Jackson, our friend, picked me up at the airport even though I got in pretty late. I was tired, but everything was so crazy and different that I felt really awake. There are scooters and motorcycles everywhere… I mean everywhere – like, I mean, it is seriously crazy. I’m at Alex’s apartment now, in some city called Danshui or something. It’s pretty cool and you can see the mountains lit up with lights across the river. But unfortunately he only has one bed and I have to sleep on the floor tonight. We’ve agreed to take turns sleeping in the bed. He’ll probably try to trick me somehow, but he knows I can take him, so I’m not worried.

Day 3:

Man, we did a bunch of stuff today. First, we got dressed and went out to a little café near Alex’s apartment. I think he usually eats breakfast there. Anyway, he ordered these awesome little dumpling things called xiao long bao or something, and they were amazing! I want to eat those like everyday! After that, he showed me around town and drove me on his motorcycle to the boardwalk area, which is pretty cool. It’s on the river and has lots of shops and restaurants and stuff. I bought an ice cream cone that was seriously like 2 feet tall, no joke. About half of it fell out of the cone, though, and Alex got really mad at me because I didn’t want to clean it up. I mean, yea, it was a pretty big mess right in the middle of the boardwalk, but it’s not like it never rains in Taiwan, right? I found some cool shops that sold really big knives and stuff like that, but Alex wouldn’t let me buy anything dangerous. I’ll probably sneak back later and get something. After we looked around for awhile, Alex took me to a foot-massage place. Apparently, foot massages are really popular in China and Taiwan. Alex said he’d heard it was kind of painful, but this was his first time too, so he didn’t really know. I was like “I dunno, man” but he said I had to try it because it’s a part of the culture, you know. Man, it was crazy! These dudes with canes (Alex told me afterwards they were all blind, I never really thought about it) made me sit down in a big chair and prop up my feet. Then they started pushing on all these pressure points in my feet and asking me stuff in Chinese. Alex was busy talking to a bunch of other people in Chinese and I was just like “Ahhhh, not so hard!” But of course no one understood me so I just sat there squirming around in pain and not really knowing what was going on. Finally, it ended and I got out of that place asap. Next, Alex drove me up to some really sweet mountain roads that didn’t have much traffic. They’re real narrow and weave through rice paddies that are way up above the river. The cool part is that I got to drive! Of course, Alex was afraid to ride with me, but it was still pretty chill and I got going pretty fast a few times. I went back and forth on the same little stretch of road a bunch of times, and the farmers were all just like staring at me. I’d like to drive the motorcycle in town, but I don’t really want to die – it’s definitely scarier than I expected. This evening, Alex and I rode the MRT subway into Taipei, where we met Jackson and his family. Today is Thanksgiving in America, and they wanted to take us out for a nice dinner. We went to this awesome restaurant that had everything from a complete assortment of sushi and sashimi to pasta and steaks. It was like an endless buffet. Plus they had this sweet little chocolate fountain that you could dip fruit into. I really liked that.

Day 4:

We got up pretty early today so we could go surfing. That is, of course, after eating more of those xiao long bao things at the breakfast place. Anyway, the waves were frickin’ huge! Alex took me to one of his favorite reef breaks, and it was just nuts. It was my first time surfing over a reef, and, well… yea, I was pretty scared. I only ended up taking a couple waves, but hopefully next time I’ll feel more comfortable. A couple times I got caught inside and was pretty freaked out. There’s a huge cliff that the waves eventually break against, so if you keep getting pushed in, there’s nowhere to go. You’d just like, get hammered against the cliff and drown. I did watch Alex surf for a long time from the top of the cliff. He’s gotten a lot better since the last time I surfed with him. I wish I could take 8 months off to surf some of the best waves in the world. I mean, give me a break, he’d better be pretty good after all this. What a chump. Anyway, after surfing we went home and changed and then met up with Alex’s girlfriend – Quan –and her twin sister – Xiao Tao – for dinner. That’s right, Alex has a girlfriend, can you believe that? Nope, I couldn’t either, but I think it’s for real. Anyway, she’s hot as [salami] (edited). When I heard she had a twin sister, I was like, “What!? You gotta hook me up man.” So we had dinner together – Alex ordered 50 dumplings just for the two of us – he’s frickin’ crazy – and then we all went down to the boardwalk together. Quan doesn’t speak that much English and Xiao Tao is afraid to try (even though I think she can), so it was a little awkward, but Alex tried to keep a conversation going using Chinese and a little English. They call me Xiao Hu – which means “Little Tiger” – and always giggle and tell me how “ke’ai” I am, which I think means “cute.” There’s some deal about the Little Tiger and the Golden Dragon (my brother), but I don’t really get it – some Chinese thing. Oh, and apparently Quan’s name means “doughnut,” and her sister’s means “peach” or something, but, again, I don’t really understand.

Day 5:

We had to wake up early again today because Jackson and his mom were coming to pick us up and take us to a village in the mountains. I was running late, and Alex got kind of mad, but I think everything calmed down after we bought some xiao long bao for breakfast. The village was called Yingge I think, and it’s famous for its pottery. So, one of the first things we did was make our own pottery, which was pretty fun. I made a vase, and Alex helped me write the Chinese character for “Love” on it. I’m going to give it to Xiao Tao and see if I have any luck. We also did a lot of shopping and played this really fun mini-basketball game. It’s cool because all over Taiwan they have the same exact mini-basketball game with the same rules. So you can keep practicing no matter where you are. I’m hoping to make it to Round 3 by the end of the trip. Anyway, we had a great lunch with the Changs in Yingge and then they took us back to Taipei this evening. They were so nice that they even took us out to dinner. It was my first time eating a real traditional Chinese meal, so I felt kind of weird just sharing all the food with everyone and reaching across the table with my chopsticks. Alex seemed pretty used to it, so I guess it just takes time. After that, Alex and I went to a theatre, where we watched a Chinese puppet show and a Beijing Opera. Chinese puppet shows have been around for like hundreds or thousands of years or something, so I guess it’s kind of a big deal. But it actually was pretty cool; the performers did some really amazing stuff like making the puppets blow fire and have swordfights and bounce things on their heads and stuff. I mean, you’ve gotta remember that the performer is doing like five different, really complicated things with just one hand. After the puppet show there was an intermission, and we got to meet the performers and take pictures with some hot girls all dressed up in costumes who were going to be in the opera. The opera itself was cool too with a bunch of swordfighting and stuff. Beijing Opera is really famous, and the performers have to start training when they’re only like 13 or 14 just to have a chance to be in a show one day. I hadn’t really been looking forward to the shows – I mean, I wouldn’t have to think very hard to come up with something I’d rather be doing – but, in the end, it was actually pretty cool.

Day 6:

We slept in today, which was nice, and then went out to the beach for some more surfing. This time, we surfed a beach break instead of the reef break, so I was a lot more comfortable. The waves were perfect – like head-high and really playful – and I surfed practically all day. There was a surf competition going on too, so that was pretty cool. Alex was a little annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to compete (they told him it was only for amateurs and that he’d been surfing for too long) because there were some really nice prizes, but I’m pretty sure he enjoyed just surfing for fun. Plus, he hurt himself pretty bad on the way out to the beach. We were trying to carry both of our boards at the same time on his motorcycle, and one of them got wedged between the handlebars. Alex couldn’t turn, and we went into a slide. Fortunately, I was able to jump off the back (so I was fine), but he went down with the bike pretty hard and slid along the road. It was kind of funny afterwards, because he was bleeding everywhere and I told him he needed to go in and get some help, but he got real mad and said he was going to go check the waves at the next break (where we’d been heading) no matter what and he didn’t care whether he was hurt. So he drove off really fast, trailing blood all over the road, to look at the waves. Apparently, there weren’t any because he came back pretty soon after that and started washing out the cut in his foot with water. The cut was really deep, like almost to the bone, and it had little pieces of asphalt all in it, but he had his first aid kit and has taken lots of medical classes and stuff, so he knew what to do. We surfed until it was dark and then went to the surf contest awards banquet, which was being held at a nearby seafood restaurant. There was a bunch of mystery food on the table, but it was all pretty good. I learned how to suck the juice out of shrimp heads, too. Once the banquet got going, I didn’t know what was going on (Chinese is such a crazy language!), but Alex’s friend ended up winning first place and everyone was pretty happy. Then, I snuck off and got Alex’s friend to drive me home in his car because it was raining ridiculously hard – I mean, you couldn’t see more than like 10 feet – and I didn’t really feel like riding home on the back of Alex’s motorcycle. I was laughing so hard as I watched him put on his poncho and walk out into the downpour from the inside of the car.

Day 7:

It was still raining today, so we didn’t do as much. We had a hotpot lunch with the girls, which was pretty fun. Hotpot is this crazy style of food where you choose different meats and vegetables and stuff and then cook them yourself in a boiling pot of soup with lots of spices. They also had free ice cream, so I was really happy. We spent the rest of the day with girls, just hanging out and having fun in town. I also tried duck blood and stinky tofu (which smells even worse than it sounds – it literally has to rot for like 3 days before it’s “ready”). It was good to rest a bit after all the surfing.

Day 8:

Alex was still tired, so I got up by myself and managed to take a bus from a nearby stop to the bus station. There, I met Quan and we rode a second bus out to the beach. I surfed the beach break for awhile with one of Alex’s friends, but the waves were really big and choppy, and I got worked pretty hard. Then, someone ran in and said the reef break down the road was starting to go off, so we got ready to leave. Alex came about this time on his motorcycle, and we all surfed the reef break together. The waves were huge and overhead again but perfectly glassy with offshore winds. I was feeling a little less scared this time and definitely got the biggest rides of my life. I also got banged up, though, and now have a bunch of cuts and bruises on my arms and legs. Surfing over reefs is so crazy – I mean, there’s rocks everywhere! Alex had a really close call, too, when he took off on one of the biggest waves of the day. There was someone paddling out in front of him as he went down the line, so he tried to do an air over the guy but lost his balance when he got above the lip. He was probably like 10 or 15 feet right above this guy – with rocks everywhere – and just hanging upside down it seemed. Somehow he came down on his head right next to the guy but nobody got hurt. For dinner tonight, we went with Xiao Tao and Quan to the Shilin Nightmarket, which is like the biggest nightmarket in Taiwan I think. They had everything you could possibly imagine, and there were so many people. I’m still working on Xiao Tao, but she’s a tough egg to crack…

Day 9:

Today was “Cultural Day.” At least, that’s what Alex called it. The waves were gonna be perfect – like double-overhead and glassy – but he said I had to see all this cultural stuff, and today was our last chance. So we got up early and took the subway towards Taipei. First, we took a taxi to the National Palace Museum, which contains the most famous collection of Chinese art in the world. When Chiang Kai Shek and the KMT party fled the communists and moved to Taiwan, they basically stole all the famous artwork and stuff, which is pretty funny actually. They put thousands of pieces of pottery and stuff on ships and brought it over here to Taiwan, and, amazingly, not a single piece was damaged. I’m not really an art buff, of course, but I have to say that it was kind of cool to be looking at stuff that was like thousands of years old. I mean, America is just a little baby compared to China if you’re talking about history. Next we stopped by Alex’s school – the national university – and he showed me the campus. He also took me to see Howard, a security guard at a nearby apartment complex. Over the years, Howard has managed to teach himself English, and Alex says he now regularly quotes Winston Churchill and other people I’ve never heard of. Even crazier, this guy is in the process of writing his own book! Every single day, he sits in his little cubicle and works on his book, which is for Chinese-speakers who want to learn English. Alex edited a section of the book for him, and they became close friends. Alex says this guy represents the spirit of the Taiwanese people or something, and I have to admit that Howard seemed like one of the nicest, most hard-working people I’ve ever met. Our next stop was the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, a huge structure built to honor Taiwan’s most important historical figure. The memorial takes up several city blocks and is located next to the National Theatre, too. Lots of artists and writers and musicians come to this area to do their work, so it was a nice, relaxing place. At this point, I was getting tired, but Alex said we still had a lot to do. He had a stupid little checklist that he kept pulling out of his pocket to make sure we didn’t forget anything. Ahh, he can be weird sometimes. Anyway, the next thing we did was visit some of his friends from school at a KTV place, which is where you sing karaoke. They were all singing in Chinese, so I felt a little weird, but his friends were nice. We stuck around for a little while and then left to go to our next cultural attraction. Quan met us about this time, and we all went together to Longshan Temple, one of Taiwan’s most famous temples. The temple is built for Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism (wow, I feel really smart; Alex keeps quizzing me on this stuff, and I think I might actually remember some of it), and it’s gigantic. There were lots of candles and people praying and stuff; it was actually a really memorable experience. After that, we went to Snake Alley, a nearby nightmarket where you can watch people tame and play with snakes. After they’re finished, of course, you can eat the snakes if you want. We didn’t eat any snakes, but we did see a lot of them. And Alex made some restaurant owner mad when he asked what the little bunny rabbits were for. I think he may have called her a bunny-killer or something, but I’m not sure. After that, Alex and Quan left in a cab to go to some concert downtown. I took a combination of several trains and busses (yea, I’m starting to figure this whole Taiwan thing out, you know) to get back to Danshui, where I met up with Xiao Tao. This was my big opportunity, of course, but unfortunately nothing much happened. We did have a really good time, though, mainly because she likes to play video games almost as much as I do, and Alex’s friend is letting him borrow an X-Box and about 100 different games. I was in heaven…

Day 10:

Alex slept in again since he was out so late last night, and I got up and went surfing on my own. It was kind of rainy, so I didn’t surf that much and spent more time hanging out with one of Alex’s friends, who owns a surfshop at the beach. After that, I went back to Danshui and had a hotpot lunch with Alex and the girls. We spent the afternoon bowling and playing pool at a really cool place near Alex’s apartment, and then we all drove to Fisherman’s Wharf [at least, I think that’s what it’s called – I originally thought it was “Dwarf,” but Alex laughed at me, so I don’t think that was right] for dinner. This is about 10 minutes from Danshui, and, as opposed to being on the river like the boardwalk area, it’s on the ocean – right where the river meets the ocean. There’s this really pretty bridge called the Bridge of Love and lots of good restaurants. We ate at a fancy place with live music and everything, and I had a wonderful roasted duck. We were all pretty sad and spent a few hours just strolling along the water and looking out at the sea. It was hard to believe how fast the trip had gone by. I honestly didn’t want to leave. I don’t say it often, but Alex was right: Taiwan really is a special place. I’m going to miss it so much.

Day 11:

Jackson volunteered to drive me to the airport today, even though we had to leave at 4:00 in the morning. He is just ridiculously nice. And Xiao Tao and Quan even decided to go with me, which I couldn’t believe. They’ve got to be like the nicest girls ever. They even gave me some gifts this morning before I left. Alex is really lucky to know them. Anyway, not much happened I guess, other than that I got to eat at Burger King at the airport, which was the first time I’d eaten American food in a while. Alex made me promise I wouldn’t turn my hat sideways and listen to my ipod while walking through customs like I’d done when I arrived in Taiwan. I don’t really see the big deal, but maybe that’s just me. I’m on the plane now, and I think I’m gonna go crazy this flight is sooooo long! I ate chicken again. I’m pretty sure I’m already tired of airplane food. Oh, and there’s another hot Taiwanese chick sitting next to me. I’ve actually picked up a good bit of Chinese in the last week, so I’ve got my hopes up. Oh snap, she just woke up! I think I’m gonna make my move now. This is Xiao Hu – Little Tiger – signing out.

“A Farewell to the Crew”

Seasons change. Swells come and go. Good times must eventually end. But friendships formed in the water…friendships formed on surfboards – they’re like set waves on an offshore day. They don’t last forever; they too eventually spit you out with amusement… or maybe slam you on the reef if you pulled in too deep. There are no eternal tube-rides. But they’re so special – so extraordinary – that the impact they make on you is indelible in the fullest sense of the word…and it’s most definitely waterproof.

We may surf in different seas. We may ride different waves. But one man’s hurricane is another man’s typhoon, and no matter which way you look at it, you’re going to have waves. So, with this in mind, I raise my glass (of coke) to you guys and say, “To the good times. To the endless ride. To the Baishawan Crew… and may its memory never fade…”

to the CROW: Because of your antics, half the surfing community in Northern Taiwan thinks I’m your son. Little “Junior.” The resemblance is striking, sure, but do you really look that old? Maybe so. Tell a story or two (or three) in my honor, and try to avoid dancing shirtless in the street too often – it frightens the old ladies driving by. Thanks for loaning me your longboard and expanding my surfing experience to include the realm of the “glide” – I never did fix that ding, but I don’t think anyone will notice. Be careful on the reef, and don’t corrupt your kindergarten students with dirty vocab words. I’ll be back one day, and you’d better be ready. I might even buy you a coke if you promise not to drive.

to the CRANE: Eric the Red with a nipple ring. This was one of my very first thoughts upon arriving in Taiwan, thanks to meeting you so quickly. You introduced me to the Crew, you showed me the ropes. You even took me to a “secret spot” …although, with fifty surfers in the water, I suppose it wasn’t really so secret at that point. But regardless, you were always there – offering advice, doing your crane dance, walking the board with style. Best of luck with all your dreams – spread your wings and fly.

to the RHINO: You knew all along I was using you, yet you still treated me like a VIP fan. The way I’d drop your name with a casual shrug in the presence of attractive women – “Yea, we’re pretty tight. I just had dinner with the band the other night…” – it was so wrong. But you always looked down from your star of fame and smiled. Man, it was cool knowing a legend. I’ve still got your autographed, sweat-stained concert towel – I’m never going to wash that thing. You’re on Wikipedia, dude – how hot is that?

“The Currents of Life”

We’re sitting side-by-side on a deserted beach once more, absorbed by the moment, lost in our thoughts. The ocean has become our outlet, a sort of conduit between us that renders speaking unnecessary. The water simultaneously energizes and calms us, and we both feel intensely connected to it – she being a swimmer and I, of course, a surfer. A full moon casts us into a dream-world – suspended between night and day, its future uncertain. Trailing plumes of spray in the wind, waves rear like snow-white stallions taking their final breath and crash down upon the shore with finality. Our tent sits tucked away in a moonlit cove, reminding us that this life is but a sojourn and tomorrow we’ll be gone…

My eyes follow a sparkling river of moonlight to the horizon, and I remember a star-lit night from long ago. I remember a gust of wind, unforeseen. I remember a shiver that changed the world…

Suddenly, I feel the weight of time. I feel the burden of space. We’re lifetimes removed from that little beach in the North, from that star-lit night of ages past. We’ve fled our fate, if only for now. By train, by bus, by foot we escaped. And here on Taiwan’s southernmost tip we’ve found refuge for a week – nearly surrounded by water, hidden in an aquamarine world. Kenting – its name alone conjures images of paradise. Of a palm-fringed planet with turquoise seas. Sultry, sunshine-filled days. Waves that define perfection. I don’t want any of it to end.

“This is the burden I bear. This is the life I’ve chosen,” I tell myself. My eyes focus on the horizon once more as the sparkling river of moonlight in front of me again draws me in. I can feel its pull. I can feel its power. I’m paddling furiously against its current, trying to stay in place, though I know I’ll soon be swept away. “Alas, it is the Romantic’s destiny to feel the pain and ecstasy of an enchambered soul, a blessed curse that separates him from this world yet allows him to explore, to imagine, to dream.” I know I can’t stay. I know I must leave her.

My life has become a voyage with many new beginnings yet without any end – a journey with rest stops yet without a final destination. To see, to experience, to learn – this is my fuel… this is what drives me. This is what keeps me going, even when it hurts. With every stop on my journey, I lose a part of myself – I leave something behind. The beauty tears at me; there’s simply too much of it to remain unscathed. A mountain-peak soaring upwards into wispy clouds. A glassy wave curling upon itself over an offshore reef. A starry-eyed girl with wind-swept hair taking my hand in hers and offering her heart in return. But it’s my own heart which I suddenly take note of. I can feel it being torn – torn to pieces by the beauty. My burden has grown heavy before, but never like this. I’ll be leaving behind a piece of my heart this time, heaving it into the sea with abandon – with catharsis. Where the currents of life shall take it I do not know.


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