Monday, September 28, 2009

Crusty Asian Crustaceans

As they sat there getting stupid, it seemed like Nate was Gump and John was his Bubba. But that was a film for other times. Times long gone. These were different days, hungrier days. They had not eaten in a long while, and they sat there fishing. John cut small slices of the chicken's heart and put them on the hook. He threw the line in the water and watched the float move up and down in the current of the mechanical bubbles. He sipped his Taiwan beer and thought again of the woman so far away.

"Are the shrimp biting?"

"The shrimp are not biting. It has been a long time."

"Maybe more heart of the chicken. Put fresh chicken heart on the hook."

"that's what she said."

"Yes that is what she said indeed."

He pulled the dripping flesh out of the green water. The shrimp were moving in the water beneath the surface of the pond and he could see them moving in the sand of the bottom. He could feel them there at the end of the line, wanting the bait but not taking it. This reminded him of a photo he had of himself and Abe in the Himalayas. But that was not something he could help now. That was a long time ago in the Himalayas. Abe was a good climbing partner. He liked coconut crunchies with milk tea. No one could eat coconut crunchies with milk tea like Abe King could. He had a girl from South America and they used to joke that Abe did not deserve a girl like that if he liked coconut crunchies so much. Abe was a good friend. In his photo it was cloudy and Lindsay could be seen in the background as the Tibetan herders walked by, but that was a long time ago-- a long time ago in the Himalayas.

He felt a steady pull on the end of the line and then the line jerked and went taut all at once. He felt the old feeling again. In the pit of his gut he knew that there was food on the end of the line and that if he could get the shrimp out of the water he would have enough once again. All he wanted was to have enough. When things were clear, really clear in his mind, he knew on some level that this was all he needed. He was better off without her, he thought. This was all he needed and that was clear. Nothing had been more clear for him ever than the pull of that crustacean on the end of the line.

"not too hard."

"He's on the line and I have him."

"Don't pull too hard."

"That's what she said."

Author's Note: Fishing for shrimp in Taiwan is more than enough to make anyone feel like a Hemingway hero.

You walk in and there's a woman with teeth stained with betel nut juice who gives you a small toy-like fishing pole and a gooey organ of some kind on a cardboard platter next to a rusty razor blade. This is the bait. You are a shrimp fisherman. There is beer for sale, and you pay for the hourly privilege of dangling your stick into the murky depths of several man made pools of green toxic bubbling liquid which theoretically contain shrimp. You can't see them but you will trust that they are there just as you trust that the sustenance your catch will provide will be more than enough to cancel the effects of the beer you're drinking. Wrong on both counts. You're paying for an entertainment experience, not for food. Periodically the girl with the betel nut teeth will slosh a bucket of shrimp into the pond so that there will be at least some possibility of you catching something.
Rain will hammer down on the tin roof as the Chinese elevator music singer croons in the background from an old PA that that echoes the raindrops on tin, and together the sounds will form music. The other fishermen will be reticent but will offer advice from time to time on basic technique. There are men who have the fixed stare of someone who might have spent years of their life staring out to sea, were it not for the fact that they are currently indoors pondering the green muck.

You will feel a peculiar sensation in the pit of your stomach-- it's that childhood feeling of wonder in sensing once again your ancestral excitement in the hunt-- or maybe it's just hunger.
Quoth Nate on the experience:
We all respond to death in different ways... Some cool Canadians (blame Canada!) we met in Fulong invited us shrimp fishing. Who were we to say no? John and I proved to be lousy at it and, in a pinch, would have never fed the Donner Party off our shrimping skills, not that we'd go hungry- English majors can always eat their words.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Leave Taiwan? Not for all the tea in China!

Taiwan kicked me out, so I have to go to China. Real China. Hong Kong to be exact. As I type these words, I am one of many Anglo looking schmoes going to China for the same reason and watching the same incredibly irritating 4 year old jump up and down, peer aimlessly at foreigners, spill his grape juice, and anger his nearby mother who stares vacantly at the Chinese television announcement about the H1N1 influenza virus, worried, or perhaps hoping, that she is infected, her most noticeable symptom being obviously a pounding headache. The kid has learned the world "uh-oh" alongside other childhood vernacular perhaps learned in expensive private schools called "Cornell American school" or "Uncle Sam American Language Institute" or something even more ridiculous. "Uh-oh" seems useful to him I suppose. If I sound bitter to you, it is because I have spent the mornings for the past week arriving an hour early to work so that I may perform my one week a month duty of playing the part of Barny the purple dinosaur in front of 200 Kindergarten kids shouting in Chinese, as If I needed an exercise in patience. I don't have a Barny costume, so I have to make do with just a stupid voice so that I may entertain and subdue this small army of spoiled children. They have given me a repertoire of songs to teach them which includes the redneck classic "Cotton Fields" and the morbid "Jack and Jill"-- one of the many beloved childhood snuff songs of the glorious USA. I wonder whether these Taiwanese parents want their kids to be using expressions like "them old cotton fields back home" and "little bitty baby" alongside the already familiar "uh oh." I glance at the suffering mom to find that she's not there, my assumption being that she has boldly leaving her child unattended to see what nearby object he can break while she pauses to sob privately in the in flight restroom before returning to her seat with an artificial smile . He climbs yells and points and jumps around and then comes and sits on my lap. I melt. It's so easy to love kids, when you're not hating them.

I get off the plane and file through a line of truly asian magnitude through customs and into another line to exchange money and discover that Taiwanese currency, the currency in which I'm paid, is worth nothing here. I buy a 25 dollar ticket on the airport train into the city and take a seat alongside well dressed businessmen who are not chagrined or surprised at the sound of my computer keys clacking in the darkness of the train which speeds at 80 mph through dizzying lights of skyscrapers mirrored against the ocean, the views broken by the glaring lights of the occasional tunnel. The suits beside me do not ask in surprise, as the Taiwanese would "you half a lopp-topp?" but rather they recline into their spacious chairs content with a break from what must be a relentless schedule of conference calls in both Chinese and English. They probably do not notice the modern flatscreen tvs in the train that alight on the walls and offer bilingual advertisements for diamonds, picturing expensive people having "furnished souls" and dashing around brightly lit cities around the world, sporting bling all the way.

In order to save money (I have none) I have opted for some advance planning, which is very out of character for me. I went on the couchsurfing website and found a free couch to "surf" for the weekend. To those unacquainted with this marvelous resource, it is a way for desperadoes and ne'erdowells and workaday joes alike to experience the joys of travel, hopefully through someone that knows their way around town. The ne'erdowells are the ones crashing on the floor while travelling and the workin joes are the ones paying the rent and wishing they were travelling instead, living vicariously through their acceptance of a random traveller into their home. I take a taxi to the home of my gracious internet host, a Canadian educated asian guy who works in banking and lives on the really pricey part of Hong Kong island, a short distance separating him from the downtown area. He shows me onto the 40th floor of his building and to the flat where he lives. His place overlooks Hong Kong Harbor and is easily one of the nicest views I've seen of any city anywhere. In his living room is a 6 foot tall black and white print of New York City. I ask him about it and we talk about our respective visits to NYC, mine involving the time I led a high school field trip there and participated in a cruel prank to trick the religious kid into going to see "Brokeback Mountain." I told him I thought the city was expensive and "I miss New York prices" was his response. He said this before sharing that the rent for his apartment is 25,000 Hong Kong Dollars per month. Divide that by 7, and you'd have the price in USD, which is more than the monthly salary for my job entertaining 5 year olds.

In the morning I wake up and catch a cab downtown to a giant skyscraper where it is my task to secure a visa to Taiwan. Unaware of the costs associated and advised against disclosing the true reason for my presence there, I enter the world of a very carefully planned deception, which resembles the life I have dreamed of. Under "occupation" I am careful to omit the fact that I am a teacher, scribbling instead that I am a "writer" and instantly my mind swims in a fantasy world in which, though broke at the moment which my bank records will show, I am being paid to write an article on circumnavigating the island of Taiwan by bicycle. The trip will take me 50 days and my employer will deposit money in my bank account as soon as my visa is granted and the trip is underway. This will explain the many questions they must have on how I plan to support myself on a mere 100 American dollars for the next 2 months. I could tell them the real story which is that I plan on begging my boss at the school for an advance on my salary so that I may deal with my numerous expenses, but I don't expect them to grant me the visa once they realize I have illegally obtained employment in Taiwan, plus I prefer my fantasy life. I am dragged home from my reveries by the sound of a screaming child in the visa office as I wait for my number to be called. Another poor mother cradles her screaming baby while her older progeny pulls the tickets out of the "please take a number" ticket holder thing scattering the string of paper on the floor like discarded animal intestine at a night market. The mother looks exasperated, and try as I might I cannot regain my fantasy world because even now, as I sit in a comfortable chair in a high rise building in an expensive city, I am surrounded by out of control young people, evidence of mankind's stubborn insistence on preserving its endless folly.

They tell me I have to wait for my visa to be processed so I go to another floor of the huge building and order some sushi from a conveyor belt. I sit on a tiny uncomfortable stool and watch various pieces of raw fish scoot past as if they were still propelled by those tiny fins that ornament the platter, and when I see one that looks interesting I grab it and douse it in wasabi. I do this for about an hour while I sit there and read to kill some time, occasionally spooning little powdered teas into my small cup which holds hot water dispensed from a spout at the bar within arms reach of where I am sitting and reading. Since the hot water is within arms reach and since the teas are interesting and new to me, I drink about 5 or 6 cups before I tire of the raw fish conveyor belt restaurant experience and go to pay my bill, which is determined by counting the number of plates at my table and adding up the color of each plate-- each colored plate had a different kind of sushi and each sushi a different price. What I wasn't expecting though, was for someone to be counting the number of spoonfuls of tea I consumed, which shows up on the bill and adds up to a significant amount. "For tea?" I exclaim. The waiter gives me a look that says "what do you expect out of a former British colony in China? Yeah, tea is important here." There are many things I must learn and the price of tea in China is clearly one of those things.

For the sake of the adventure, which is my reason for doing many of the things I have chosen,I board a double decker bus. I have no idea where the bus is headed, but I am hoping I will recognize some landmarks and see some cool things on the way. I am not disappointed as the double decker view allows me to people watch from above, an enlightened stance, or so it seemed. I imagine it as an out of body experience, my being soaring above the tiny people below, hustling through their daily chores, going to work at the high-rise building. My out of body self is only vaguely concerned with the fact that I have no documentation to prove that I belong in Taiwan. My bank account printouts prove I have no money. My out of body self watches the little ants crawling around on the sidewalk stopped at a traffic light under an overpass and I simply don't care. This life is very short, and try as I might to learn what I can from suffering, I cannot suffer deeply. Even with no money in my account I can be fairly certain that I will always eat. I may even have money and time with which to get drunk. So many things to be thankful for, my out of body self notices as I pass the enviable forms of fashion models three stories high stretched out against the high rise office buildings.

I go back into the visa office once more to wait in line and abstractly hope that it will all work out. They call me to the window and I approach, printed website bank statement in hand. The printout is just confusing enough to potentially mystify the government clerk, so I am hoping that will work. I point to the largest number on the paper a number which represents how much I spent last month, hoping he will gloss over the part about the balance being 110$. I circle it and point and say "that's a lot of money!" and he seems to like this. He smiles, perhaps sympathetically, perhaps knowingly. He stamps my thing, and the visa application is done. I won't know until I try to enter Taiwan whether or not it will be accepted, but at least the rest of the weekend is mine, to worry or not.

I go back to the apartment of my couchsurfer host, and I watch the DVD of "no country for old men." I feel like rehearsing Texas diction and syntax will help for next time I have to sing "them old cotton fields." I wait for couchsurfer guy to get home and help me figure out what to do with my time here. He eventually arrives and we go to the bar. It is in that hip area of town marked by the long line of well dressed metrosexuals waiting to get in to see the women inside each bar, who probably are in there somewhere judging by the number of men clamoring for a spot in line, waiting to bribe the doorman. Some of his friends show up and I'm introduced around and I spend half the night yelling over the music trying to make conversation with these people who I have just met. We say things like "WHAT DO YOU DO?" at the top of our voices. They reply "I'M AN INVESTMENT BANKER!" and this eliminates the need for a response from me. What do you say to that? So tell me, do you like money? Everyone wants to buy me a drink anyway, and I drink them which leads to an awkward situation later on the couch. It is clear that I have had too much to drink, because when I lie down, the room no longer seems stationary and secure. Although I am lying in one spot, the objects in the room seem to be vibrating with some mysterious energy. It's clear that I am going to vomit sooner or later. I may go to sleep and then wake up and vomit. I may vomit and then sleep; I may choke on my vomit in my sleep. The bathroom is occupied. I go up to the roof where I ponder leaning my head over the side and looking down the sheer drop of 40 stories, which I'm sure will cause me to puke. Puke at that velocity from the top of a 40 story building could do some real damage though, and I think I had better think of something else. Cleaning up roadside trash in Denver one time I came across a one liter bottle with the cap screwed on, filled with something that was not cola. Curiosity in combination with an already too heavy sack or recycling I was carrying made me unscrew the bottle. I poured it out onto the ground. Vomit. Someone had found a way to puke inside a narrow mouth one liter bottle like the kind you would drink mountain dew out of. Now that's ingenuity. I was that resourceful! In the manner consistent with the never ceasing construction in Hong Kong, there was a pile of sand over in the corner on the rooftop. Someone was using it for spackle or for making pottery or for for their children to play in. There was a shovel protruding from the sand pile. I shoveled myself a nice neat little hole and proceeded to muster an exorcist worthy stream or projectile vomit from the deepest recesses of my abdomen. By the time I was done, there was a little pool of puke floating in the hole of sand I had dug. I shoveled some sand over it and went back downstairs, the only evidence of this deed being the sand on my shoes, and of course the hangover the next day, but I can't say that waking up disoriented on a strange couch is a new experience entirely.

My good friend Matt from Taipei was also exercising his need to leave town for visa purposes, and he and I had agreed to meet that afternoon and go do some touristy stuff like ride around in a double decker bus. I had a key to his hotel room and I went downtown at the appointed rendezvous time of 12pm, fearing that he would be mad if I was later than what had been discussed as our cell phones didn't work in Hong Kong. I entered the room to find what would definitely pass for a housekeeper's worst nightmare. Clothes strewn all over the floor, sheets ruffled, and a half naked man lying face down on the bed. He didn't even wake up when I left the note to say that I was going to get something to eat. He had apparently found the best thing about Hong Kong, which is a thriving bar scene. The next few days were like this.

I woke up from the days long haze of intoxication to find myself on a motherfuckin' boat! I had been invited by one of the couchsurfer host guys, and this is how Matt and I learned to wakeboard. "Where did you learn to wakeboard?" I envisioned people saying years from now when I got really awesome at wakeboarding. "Oh" I'd say non-chalantly " I got into it when I was in Hong Kong. So what if I suck at it? What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?" With this I would have proven myself worldly and having sanded down all of those rough provincial edges in my personality, I would finally be able to tell you, among other things, what it's like to wakeboard past an old Chinese junk off the coast of Hong Kong.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Climb On! Long Dong (no pun intended, people)

Before I left for Taiwan, my brother gave me some advice. He's famous for dishing out little tidbits of wisdom. When I was having girl troubles he told me a lengthy anecdote about a girl he dated who worked at some kind of Disney based entertainment venue and was remembered in his mind for having worn her "squirrel suit" for my brother's entertainment. "That's the type of chick you need" he said. "A chick in a squirrel suit." It was good advice, and I remembered these words every time things got a little too serious with a particular girl. When I left for Taiwan, he offered more wisdom which I underestimated at first, but then came to appreciate. "Watch out for typhoons!" was his solemn warning.

This last weekend I went over to a climbing area on the northeastern coast of Taiwan for some oceanside climbing. I rode the train for several hours, and because of the effort required in reaching this distant destination, I brought some camping accoutrement(s), including a hammock, a sleeping bag and a thermarest. I made my way out to the steep cliffs of the Longdong "rock yard" and looked around before deciding that it was time to find a place to make camp. In exploring the cliffs I found a cam that was stuck inside a crack at waist level, far too close to the ground to be of use as pro, and it occurred to me that someone had the same idea I did. Use a nut and a cam to set up a hammock for the night. Though I noticed that everyone else was going home as dusk settled in, I found it reassuring to note that someone had tried this method before me, just as I would be happy to find a wand sticking out of the snow in a whiteout-- a familiar sign that someone had passed this way before.

As I set up my kit for sleep amongst the sandstone towers, I remembered that this hammock had been given to me by my former girlfriend as a Christmas present because she didn't want me sleeping on the ground in Costa Rica. The way that she had supported my desire to travel over Christmas rather than spend time consuming was very romantic to me at the time, and as I watched the sun set over the crashing waves to the east, I grew a little melancholy. If it's true, as Kalil Gabrain once noticed that "much of your pain is self-chosen" I bolstered my loneliness with a memory of camping at Big Sur with Anna and Henzi. We were in a tent right on the beach in the winter and the waves collided onto the beach making a sound which Matt described as "not exactly soothing" and to which Anna reacted by panicking all night long, depriving us both of sleep. The worst part was, she would not allow me to do anything about it. Do you want me to move the tent? I would ask, and she would say no, but then she would again refuse to go to sleep and she would wake me every so often to ask what we should do to stay safe. I know it should be obvious, as it is for many, but the meaning of this incident totally eluded me as I tried vainly for sleep in the hammock given to me by my former girlfriend that night. At least I'll eventually sleep tonight, I thought.

I tossed and turned and further pondered my life when I decided that I was thirsty. This would prove to be a problem as I had run out of water earlier. However, I had spotted among the flotsam, a few half empty two liter bottles of water at the base of the crag left there by some climber who probably makes the trip out every weekend and doesn't want to hump gallons of water in to the crag each time. I grabbed a headlamp and set out in search of the aforementioned bottle, hopping boulders across the rocky moonscape. I jumped from one rock to the next until one tumbled from underneath me and I fell. When I came to rest, I was atop a pile of soft material. Upon closer examination it was a pile of styrofoam washed over from China. The last boulder was nothing but a giant piece of plastic which looked like a rock in the moonlight. I eventually found the water after having discovered all sorts of peculiar odds and ends gathered by the waves in the last big storm. I made my way back to the bivy more carefully this time.

I was hydrated and worry free when the old familiar ear ringing noise commenced. It was a swarm of mosquitoes, as could have been foreseen. My mosquito repellent was no match for the fierce Taiwanese insects that appeared suddenly and in full force. For some reason insects here are about 5 times the normal size. While surfing the previous weekend, I took photos of a six inch long grasshopper and some palm sized spiders. Mosquitoes were no exception, and to make matters worse they were louder than normal. A gust of wind blew suddenly and the mosquitoes were gone as mysteriously as they had appeared.

It was then that I felt the first raindrop.

At camp we play this game where the kids simulate a thunderstorm by rubbing their palms together then snapping their fingers to imitate the sound of the first drops, then they move to the more deluge-like hand clapping and knee slapping, and finally they stomp their feet as if a real flood was upon them. This storm moved from snapping of fingers to stomping of feet in twice the normal time and I found myself soaked to the bone with no shelter and no escape. I dumped my water out, seeing as how I was now getting hydrated through osmosis, cut off the top of the bottle with my pocket knife, shoved my camera and phone in there and turned the bottle upside down so that my only valuables would be protected from the torrent. I stripped off all of my clothes and cradled myself wrapped into the folds of the hammock, and lay there shivering in my own private puddle of despair. I went to sleep when it stopped around 4 am and I woke around 6 am when the sun hit my face and felt like it would burn through my eyelids as I lay there.

I packed my stuff to leave when I ran into a guy with rock shoes clipped to his pack. He stopped and asked me the time. Time to make the best of it and do a toprope or two, we decided. I told him I had camped there in a hammock and he looked shocked and told me that he had done the same but that he lost a cam that way. There we were, the only two guys bold enough to climb rock on a rainy day.

My brother once said something else which looking at the Chinese fisherman on the shore made me think about. We were out fishing somewhere near Pine Lake where we grew up. We just dangled our poles in the water silently for a very long time before Matty said "happiness is a fish that's very difficult to catch." Some people catch it I suppose, while others have to ponder it lying in fetal position in a puddle of rainwater on a small rock overlooking the South China Sea.