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Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

Day 365 and Epilogue (One Long Interminable Day)

In Hash Runs, Taipei, Traveling on August 23, 2011 at 2:20 am

What you can do is wake up in the morning and go to work without stopping at home, the hope that your boss will not say anything about your facial hair flashing in and out between pages on the train and steps outside it. You can teach. You can begin to understand that there will be very few minutes in which you be able to pack your things before you leave on your very long trip. You can eat teppanyaki with Inma and she can stay over and you can listen to Mano Negra while you organize items.

In the morning you can teach again.

After which you can hurry to the far west of the city and enjoy fresh tomatoes and basil in sauce on spaghetti and wine, and then beer, in the company of friends whose friendship you only now are getting at the depth of, another reason to regret you are leaving that you have to push out of your mind, positive feelings coming out as gratitude and giving and wine mix at the door at the end of the night.

In the morning you can teach again. For the last time.

Following which you can hurry to the train station and buy a ticket to the beach, and your train can get canceled, and you can sit reading The Savage Detectives fussily until it comes, and read fussily until you walk out into the night and down the boardwalk in the wrong direction, only to make a U-turn back to where the drinking is, and a plate of fried rice, and bottles of Taiwan beer. You can eat the rice and you can drink the beer and listen to the hash legends and when they turn off the air conditioning you can make your way into the night and sit under a useless awning on the north end of the boardwalk down from some kids barbecuing and look out on a moon that is yellow and half, tilted as if hung from a nail, huge above the ocean that is huge, too, and you can keep drinking in the shadow of the crash of the waves against the rocks until the beer runs out.

You can wake up in the morning in the white bed in your hotel to a sort of half-awareness that you should be helping Joe sort out the trail, which is probably what he is doing at this hour, and you can fall back asleep.

You can wake up again two hours later and Joe can tell you that he has done it and you can feel bad and he can tell you you don’t have to and you can all order Chinese breakfast, the four of you, with eggs and bacon and cheese and a square of peanut-buttered toast that you don’t know how it ended up there. You can go to the beach.

In the water you can play until the stern lifeguard tells you no swimming and to keep your area of body-surfing below the thigh, which you can heed only to a nominal extent, catching the waves with your momentum for nanoseconds that hardly seem authentic but yet exist, too, in some corner of your perception with which you are not well-acquainted. You can leave the water only when you and the rest of the swimmers seem to have arrived at the last reasonable moment and you can begin to sort out things for the run. You can buy hot dogs. You can get the flour ready and take a cab to the run start, flouring all the way, and put on your gear to run for the first time in a week.

You can do the run, with Joe, without Joe, conscious that possibly this is not the path you were supposed to take and then relieved and exhilarated when Joe tears around the corner behind you from his section and you are back on and taking care of business. It can occur to you that this is your last China Hash run for a long time. That you are here. That, ok.

You can slow as you get back to the run start and keep dropping flour, compulsively, until the run becomes beers and the beers become crackers and the crackers become sand and a frisbee and the sand becomes a line of people who were lost and more beer and your sunburn aches under the first intimations of dusk and you end up walking back from the rocks splashed by the ocean waves to Arthur’s truck, eating dinner in Toucheng, drinking beer, saying goodbye, trying to give Arthur’s shirt back to him and him giving it to you once again, saying goodbye again, and getting in Arthur’s truck again for the long ride home, during which you have to pee, you have to sleep, you have to push off the urge to want to vomit, twelve kilometers in the longest tunnel in the world, and he drops you off in Nangang and you get back home on the MRT which somehow, at this point in your life, operates, business as usual.

In the morning you can wake up early and start to pack your life into boxes and monetary transactions. You can feel not nearly as bad as you think you ought to feel. You can go to work, say goodbyes there as you pick up your paycheck. You can let the day’s sun disturb your sunburn. You can pack boxes, speak with bank personnel, ride the train, walk on sidewalks, go to Shida. As this series of events occurs you can feel physical withdraw from the alcohol you have been on the last three or however many days, your muscles inversely carbonated, energy sucked from them from the inside, and you can see the days drift together and present themselves as one long continuous one, and they can accordion for you, and you can see that all that is left for you before you leave the country is the continuation of this day, the steady stream of mental force into an investment in a clean cut with the universe you have created for yourself, or, what, the one you have walked into, and stood in for so long.

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Day 364 (The Things You Forget About)

In Taipei on August 17, 2011 at 9:40 pm

Before I came to Taiwan I was nervous about how I would find books and I did some research into where I could find books and the internet reported that there was a book trade every Sunday at Grandma Nitti’s although it seemed debatable whether it still existed and it was never confirmed by anything associated with the place itself. When I arrived I found a few other places that sold books, Inma signed me up with the library, and I more or less forgot about it.

It is a year later. We search for a Greek place and we see the awning on a street in Shida that I do not recall ever having been down before, even though I have been to Shida countless times. It says: Grandma Nitti’s. On it is the bespectacled face of a grandma. This is it.

I think how one year ago I was trying to envision what this place looked like, what sort of street it was on, what its books were like, who Grandma Nitti was.

I thought it must be on a sidestreet somewhere have a yellow awning and be musty and closed-feeling inside, with a big table near the entrance where people would spread their books. I thought Grandma Nitti was a middle-aged man.

I know now that there are no sidestreets, that the awning is off-white, that it is open and Greek-feeling within, and that the books, at least now, are on a single set of shelves when you walk into the restaurant. Grandma Nitti is a Taiwanese woman named Rainbow.

They have Granta 90. It is NT$50. Needless to say, after we eat our nachos and spinach-eggplant lasagna and our breakfast burrito, I buy it.

Day 363 (The Uselessness of a Suit of Armor)

In Taipei on August 17, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Goodbyes are never representative of what you are saying goodbye to. They are never fitting. They are always trolling through a military paraphernalia shop eying the camouflage clothes and ninja swords while whoever you are saying goodbye to tries to find pepper spray for her mom so she can repel unwanted visitors while her daughter is away. Or suggesting that her mom could sleep in the suit of armor the shop has for sale and then she wouldn’t have to worry about a thing. Or poring over Craig’s List in order to confirm that she is using it correctly despite the inattention landlords have paid to her emails so far. Or walking down the street casually, anticipating your own rest after a long day of work.

In other words, goodbyes are tests of what came before. You can’t concentrate all the good intentions you had into the final few moments. Goodbyes are grasping this and looking back and seeing if you contributed what you meant to contribute. They are judging if you created the relational piece of art you would have liked to created. They are understanding that there is no such thing as a representative moment because the representative moment would have to encompass all the moments you had with a person and thereby looking back and judging for yourself, each of you, whether those moments were sufficient on their own.

So were they? Huh? Were they?

Day 362 (Shifen)

In Hash Runs on August 17, 2011 at 7:32 pm

We stand outside the restaurant with the remaining bottles of beer distributed among six or seven hands. It should have run dry by now but it does not, miraculously filled, it seems, by the Jesus-like vibrations we’re awash in, spurring us from a haphazard drunkenness to an absorption in the scene we have become a part of: the glow of closing shops and restaurants, the spread-out offerings to the gods that soar about during ghost month in front of every establishment, the noodling of a Chinese horn from the miniature parade that passed minutes ago, the uneven stones of the sidewalk, the train tracks that run down its middle, the tourists that stand on the tracks to light ghost money soaked in lighter fluid beneath their Chinese lanterns, red, yellow, blue, even rainbow-colored.

By which point we have bought our own Chinese lantern, somebody has, and permanent marker is passed around so that each of us can write our wishes on the paper stretched between the lantern’s frame. The tradition makes a person want to be silly but the air of sacredness persists and there is a certain respect and hope invested in the lantern that will represent the drunken wishes of our small but boisterous gang. When every side is covered in black ink, in Chinese, English, and hieroglyphs, whoever is spearheading the initiative sends the money into tongues of flame and lets the lantern inflate with air and fly off into the sky. It flies at a surprising rate, we notice, and eyes that danced with humor and companionship seconds before are slowly gathered into a cluster of solitary rapture, following the lantern in its dance toward the clouds next to three other lanterns set off at the same time, and not straying from it, despite cricks in necks, tiredness, the presence of distractions, levels of intoxication.

Were you to look back at this moment, in fact, you would be bowled over by the number of eyes trained upward at the lantern, not wanting to lose it in its uneven trajectory, the collective absorption in the spot of light that floats up and up. Bowled over too by the investment in the light, the utterances of joy, the declarations that our lantern is doing the best, damnit, look at the thing, it’s going higher than all the others, the fun of it, but also the undercurrent of serious happiness that we have been in a way chosen for a further heightening of our rapture, a further extension of the night, not only forward in time but upward in space, a chance to lose some part of ourselves in the sky and crash down unseen into the mountains somewhere, sowing a patch of our non-biodegradable essence in skyward hills we know nothing about.

Day 361 (The Goats Leave for the Trans-Siberian Railroad)

In Taipei on August 17, 2011 at 6:52 pm

We sit on the curb and hanging in the air above us, only four vertical feet from the pavement of the street, is the ritual of the immediate future: the handshakes or hugs, the wishes for good travel, the expressions of gladness that one party met the other and of sadness that all good things must come to an end. These elements are like swollen rainclouds, and we are like goats whose physical ability to glance upward allows at best an intuition of the coming violent, if short, storm.

Dry goats for a little while longer.

The whole horizontal line of us trades words back and forth, a late-night homage to the words that won’t be spoken so much more when the first of a succession of goats trot achingly away from the prickly grass of the farm.

Then we rise and our heads are in the humid clouds.

We say the goodbyes that we have to say and then the goats that are staying and the goats that are leaving stand and look at one another while goats on down the line proceed in the au revoir. Somehow this second part, the silent staring after the goodbyes have been said, is the real goodbye. It is a sort of test, a trial separation, the seconds when the boat has set off from the harbor and unexpectedly, amazingly, visual contact can still be made, and both sets of goats feel they must wave until they settle into their seats for the emotional repercussions they expected to encounter alone.

Day 360 (Finishing with Panache)

In Traveling on August 16, 2011 at 3:59 pm

The farmer starts up the engine, a rusty old loud engine, and the cables begin to crank across the gorge. Attached to the cable is a broad cart of woven strips of steel with sheet metal welded to the bottom. In the cart are us, our backpacks, and a bouquet of lychee that the farmer and his wife insisted we take with us, as they said, for the ride.

At first that sounds silly, for the ride, because we are so overcome with awe that this kind farmer who took us in and spoke with us, whose wife is from Macao and has a Portuguese passport, is sending us from his farm we found ourselves on all the way over to the town of Huanshan. It is some thrilling dream of kindness and adventure, and you cannot eat while you are having a dream.

But soon it becomes clear that the ride is actually somewhat long, the machine being as makeshift as it is, and that we won’t miss the view of the river valley or of the past landslides or of the farms creeping their way into the town’s hills if we take a moment to peel a lychee and pop its translucent fruit into our mouths.

And in seconds we understand that once we have peeled the fruit, and once we have sucked the fruit from around its pit, we can cast both peel and pit from the side of the cart and be one with its random trajectory down scary sections of nothing into the broad idea of below.

The longer it takes the realer the whole thing gets. We could dine up here, camp up here, live if we wanted, high above the rush of the river and the slow ripening of pears like the ones the farmer also gave us.

Day 359 (Shelter)

In Traveling on August 16, 2011 at 3:31 pm

It is raining and everything in our bags is soaked and our backpack covers are soaked and our backpacks are soaked and our rain jackets are soaked and our pants are soaked and our rain jackets don’t work and the bamboo grass we walk through is higher than our heads and soaked and when it rubs against us it soaks us in the ways that the rain cannot and our feet are soaked like swimming pools and our jackets are covered in pieces of plant from the bamboo grass which you cannot even see the trail though.

So that when we see the fabled Piaodan Hut, we rejoice and duck into it as quickly as we can. This is the human need for shelter.

The hut is two giant sheets of corrugated metal perched on rusty beams planted in the ground. The floor is covered in an uneven patchwork of two or three dirty tarps and a discarded, wet sleeping bag. A bag of old food hangs from one of the strings tied between the hut’s supports. There are wet spots on the topmost tarps; the roof leaks.

We stand at the door with our muddy boots and wet clothes. We need to take them off and get in our sleeping bags to warm up. We hesitate. It is barely the afternoon. If we stop for the day it means stopping here. Sleeping here. Spending the next sixteen hours in this shelter the size of a pitcher’s mound.

We look at the dirty hut. We look at the rain.

We begin to take our boots off and hang up our clothes and expose our bodies to the seeping cold.

Dinner at four. Sleep at five-thirty. Breakfast at three in the morning.

Day 358 (The Toughest Girl in the World)

In Traveling on August 16, 2011 at 11:07 am

Five o’clock.

So our options are.

So our options are you stay here and I go get cell phone reception and call someone and we come back here and get you out of here somehow.

So our options are we have to set up a tent and make sure you are dry and warm while I do this, I know you don’t want to be left alone, but if you can’t walk anywhere that is the only thing we can do.

So the problem is we can’t set up a tent here. We can but you don’t want to set up a tent here, you don’t want to be here for a half of a day, for a day, a rocky slope in a tent. Can you walk to the campsite? I think it is close. But there are no other options. Do you think you can?

Six o’clock.

You are the toughest girl in the world. The pain you must be in and the scariness of creeping along these wet rocks, the same as the ones you slipped from, on this slope that never seems to stop going down. To take the small moments of from higher rock to lower rock gingerly but to take them, get down them whatever way you can, avoiding in every motion falling again, but moving forward along the trail, if that is what they call it, the goddamn thing.

You made it. We are here. This is good. Now. Now. Get in the tent, get in the sleeping bag, get warm. Rub your feet together, rub them against mine. We should eat dinner, I know we should. We can’t. We shouldn’t leave our clothes in a wet bundle at the foot of the tent. We have to. There is nothing else we can do. You made it. You made it. Here we are, warm, or sort of, dry, for the night, and we will see what happens tomorrow.

Day 357 (The Most Beautiful Sunrise I Have Ever Seen)

In Traveling on August 16, 2011 at 10:48 am

The teenage hikers next to us chatter like idiots in the stark silence of the freezing morning. The clouds block the mountain peaks and are shaped like camels, bearded writers, phoenixes, dragons, turtles. Near the horizon, the sky is beginning to reach the lighter blue that precedes the arrival of the sun. If you look straight up, the stars are still in the sky, free of clouds, clusters closer than you ever see in the city because the light of so many more burning balls of gas reaches the unlit cabin before the peak of Snow Mountain.

The stars will go away. As they do, the light will become bluer and a bright orange. The horizon behind the clouds will then turn green for a few minutes before streaks of pink break upward from the orange and sliver high into the blueness. The colors will be brilliant for about fifteen minutes. Then, the sun having done the tough aesthetic work of rising, the colors will fade a little not enough so you can tell at first, yet enough that in another fifteen minutes you will feel that they are not quite as spectacular anymore, wondering if your cold feet are to blame or actual absence of further splendor, and go to bed.

Day 356 (Frogs/Guide)

In Traveling on August 16, 2011 at 10:18 am

If I may draw a comparison, the family of frogs (a big, a medium, and a little-tiny) are like the man who ran out from the ranger station to offer us a ride to the trailhead. The man was small and compact. He wore a green shirt. When we set off down the road with our packs he came out of the station with his girlfriend saying that if we can wait by the river fifteen minutes he can take us to the trail in his sedan. We said yes, although it could not have been far.

— I had to pick you up, he said. Otherwise you would get to Qika Hut at three o’clock in the morning.

We wound up 8 or 9 kilometers of road to the trailhead. We told him we were coming down the Zhijiayang trail. He asked if we had enough food. He did not doubt us. But he knew much more than we did.

Like the frogs, hiding under our backpacks and trying for what must be the hundredth time to scale the wall of the cabin. They crawl like cat burglars along the concrete under the bench where we make dinner. They stop when we shine our headlamps on them. They seem so silly, their bodies out of proportion to the big world around them where concepts cohere that they can never imagine. But they know what they are doing. They live here, under the moon and sun alternately, waiting for the bugs that campers draw and the scraps they drop, sucking the coolness from the man-made ground.

We don’t know how to be grateful to the man that saved the beginning of our trip because we don’t know how to respond to this sort of kindness. We don’t even know that we should be grateful to the frogs for populating our big world and exercising a calming and comical influence on the flames under our noodles and beans in the dark.