like more formage and saucison?"
All of the
meals were at least this good. And every meal was followed by coffee and
food added a surreal quality to the trip. Jeremy, an American on our team
said. “Man, I don’t eat this well at home". I had to agree with
him. It's pretty sad when you have to go into the woods to get a good meal.
as we all enjoyed talking together, the rain drove us back to our tents
immediately after our meal. Our campsite was only inches larger than
our three tents. In fact, I could only barely squeeze between the jungle
and the opening of my tent. Next, it was a balletic feat of contortion
to get inside. Just to remove my shoes I had to twist myself into impossible
positions. I looked like something between a yoga routine, and the solo
version of the Karma Sutra, balancing, with one naked foot inside the tent,
and a filthy boot hanging outside. Next came removing wet clothing, while
sitting on my sleeping bag, it was hopeless. Perhaps if I had been more
limber I could have had a dry place to sleep.
night, there was a commotion coming from the girl's tent. One of the Taiwanese
woman, May Li, over-come by some nameless phobia, had gone insane, running
into the jungle, screaming. For some inexplicable reason, at that exact
moment, four Taiwanese guys, from another group, were coming down the trail.
May Li begged them to take her down the mountain. This was baffling for
the rest of us. Why were these guys hiking down the mountain in the dark,
and in a rainstorm? Even more, I couldn’t imagine what imaginary fear had
driven May Li to want to join these strange men in such a dangerous undertaking.
It had taken us several hours to hike in, and that was in the light, and
with favorable weather conditions. In the dark, and with this rain, they
would probably have to hike all night.
was called out of the tent to deal with the May Li situation. As much
as I thought it would have been an entertaining spectacle, I opted to remain
in the semi-comfort of my damp sleeping bag. Perhaps in better weather
I might have tried to stop her. But under these conditions, I thought.
May Li was a big girl. If she wanted to commit suicide, that was her business.
failed attempts to convince her to stay, Jean-Marc let May Li go. As he
explained to me later, he could possibly have forced her to stay that night,
but then she would have to tag along with us for the next three days, which
would possibly have been even more traumatic for her.
morning, we donned headlamps, and broke camp at 3:30 AM. The rain had
stopped, but the whole forest was dripping-wet. We were soaked to the bone
within minutes of starting out. Luckily, as the day progressed, the weather
warmed up. Eventually, the jungle broke, and gave way to rolling green
hills, bathed in sunlight. The combination of being able to see the sun
again and feeling dry and warm raised our spirits
from the hills were incredible. The whole world was green, right up
to where it met a clear sky, of the deepest blue. It could have been Thailand.
Without the jungle it could have been the Alps. It could have been anywhere.
It was hard to believe that it was Taiwan. I thought Taiwan was the smelly,
congested cities that sprawl endlessly, blocking the sun. But at that moment
I remembered that Taiwan was also a tropical island, in the Pacific Ocean.
Although the urban sprawl is what most people see, nearly the entire population
of Taiwan is centered along the West coast, which leaves the most of the
interior of the island uninhabited, natural, and breathtaking.
As much as
the scenery was pleasant, hours and hours of walking, climbing up and up
is exhausting. There were times I let a photo-op go by, simply because
I was too tired to lift my camera. Jean-Marc, who is in incredible shape,
from doing these trips for a living, would point out some natural feature
and say. “Isn’t that beautiful?” Without even looking, I would mutter
did not look.” Said Jean-Marc.
“I was too
tired to look.” I said.
will come to a special peak that I am looking forward to showing you guys.”
care.” I said. Fatigue robbed me of both enthusiasm and civility.
we will get up early and watch the sun rise on the lake.”
I was panting like a dog, climbing up in the thin air. I suspected that
someone was sneaking up behind me, and putting rocks in my backpack, because
it kept getting heavier all day.
want to see the sunrise?” He asked.
sunrises. It rises in Brooklyn too, you know.”
I had flown
five thousand miles, to Taiwan, so I could be out in the rain, sleep on
the ground, and urinate on a bush. We have people like that back in Brooklyn,
but we call them homeless.
do all of my adventure trips alone. But having so many interesting people
to talk to was nice. When we could muster the energy to talk, Jeremy and
I discussed politics. Normally. At rest, I could hold my own. But as I
mentioned, he was fifteen years younger than I was. So, when I was panting,
crawling along at a snail’s pace, he was leaping up beside me, saying things
like. “The CIA killed Kennedy.” Or, “The IMF is evil.”
enjoy the IMF argument. But this day, I was so tired I found it easier
to just agree with everything.
right.” I wheezed. “The IMF killed Kennedy. Stupid IMF.”
were also a lot of fun, never missing an opportunity to remind me how uneducated
and uncouth Americans are. Of course no one had bathed in three days,
so it was hard to take them seriously. That’s the nice thing about trekking.
It makes everyone equal. And it makes everyone smelly. That’s why communism
could never work. The only end of the spectrum where we could all find
equality is the smelly end. It’s hard to imagine, but even my imaginary-girlfriend,
Britney Spears, would smell if she walked all day and slept in her clothes.
In fact, that realization reduced my Britney obsession to unusually tolerable
levels. I may even stop stalking her.
the refuge by early afternoon. This was an aluminum hut, which would be
our lodgings for the night. Once again, we were torn. We would have liked
to continue, another two and a half kilometers up to the lake, but just
as we had decided to stay where we were, it began to pour.
alone in the refuge. A large Taiwanese group was also there. Even on
the coldest day, the Taiwanese just don’t close the door behind them when
they enter or leave a room. They just have no regard for other people.
One of them would go outside, and leave the door open, and the rain and
cold would come in. Then one of the Europeans in our party would have to
get up and close the door. Two minutes later, another Taiwanese would go
outside, leaving the door open. And once again, one of us would take it
in turn to close the door.
At one point,
an old guy came over, and announced with great authority that he was the
leader of the other group. I yawned. He then said that we had to leave
the door open or we would all die of carbon dioxide poisoning. I laughed.
When I realized he wasn’t joking, I was just getting ready to belittle
him, when Jean-Marc intervened. He had an incredible way with people, and
within minutes, he had this guy eating out of his hand. Where I wanted
to destroy the guy, Jean-Marc wanted to make friends with him. This must
be the fundamental difference between Brooklyn and France.
refuge there was a single water pipe, which dripped a slow trickle into
a large washbasin. I was refilling my bottle, by holding it under the pipe,
when the leader of the other group came over and began giving me a dressing
fill your bottle from the washbasin, not from the pipe, because it takes
been washing dishes in the washbasin all day. There was rice and pork fat
floating in it. There was no way I was drinking that water.
you crazy?” I yelled, in extremely rude Chinese, before Jean-Marc could
intervene. “That water is frigin dirty! I’m not drinking it.”
I was still
annoyed about the open door issue. Actually, it wasn’t that the guy wanted
the door open, or that he wanted me to drink someone else’s waste that
annoyed me. It was the fact that because he was a group leader, he thought
he could give me orders. I just wanted to make sure that he understood
that he couldn’t.
water is pure.” He protested. “It is spring water.”
is pure.” I asked, splashing some of it near his feet.
see all of this crap floating in it”
some yesterday.” He said, as if this somehow mattered. In my mind,
all he did was confirm that he drank dirty water, not that this water was
drinking it. It’s filthy.”
fine. You just have to boil it.” He answered, flustered.
Just a minute
ago, he was telling me the water was pure. Now he was telling me that it
had to be boiled. Not only was he contradicting himself, but boiling wasn’t
going to get that rice and pork fat out of there.
have eyes?” I asked, pointing at the rice again.
At this point,
Jean-Marc had heard enough. He stepped in and made friends with the guy.
Back in the
refuge, we staked out places for our team in the dormitory room. One of
the Taiwanese girls came to me and said. “Another, very big group is
staying here tonight. So we have to make room for them. Their leader said
that you should sleep in the utility closet.”
At first, I
thought she was kidding. Why would I want to sleep in a utility closet?
Why would I want to take orders from someone else’s group leader? But she
was serious. She was suffering from that over-obedience gene inherent in
Taiwanese people. As soon as someone has the title of “leader,”
they all bend over backwards to obey him.
out the utility closet, and found that it had a number of advantages over
the main dormitory. It had its own door, which meant it would be much
quieter. Also, it would be warmer, as the old guy wouldn’t force me to
leave the door open. The only disadvantage was that there was actually
room for two people in there. For one person it was a luxurious suite.
With two people it would be crowded. And, depending who that other person
was, it could be a nightmare. What I needed was a plan to keep anyone else
from even considering sleeping in there with me.
I put an angry
scowl on my face, and came out of the utility closet looking like I did
when the Dodgers moved to LA. I kicked a stool against the wall, and began
shouting in Chinese, so everyone would understand. “Why the hell do
I have to sleep in there? Is it because I am a foreigner? You want to give
the bad sleeping places to the foreigners? It’s not fair.”
the Taiwanese came over to placate me. They explained again that the group
leader had “requested” that I sleep in there.
some old guy said so, this means I have to sleep in the closet?” I
asked. “We got old guys in America, and yet no one has to sleep in a
The girls kept
talking to me in that soothing voice they use when explaining things to
a three year old.
many people in the refuge.” They said.
there is room for one more.”
is a group leader.” They kept explaining.
doesn’t he go sleep in there?”
It was really
hard for me not to laugh. This was one of those instances where I was
playing a joke, but I was the only one who knew about, and the only one
who thought it was funny. In the end, I conceded to the girls wishes, and
moped back into my cell, closed the door behind me, and did a victory dance.
In an over-crowded world where everyone was forced to share everything,
where the rest of my team would be sleeping side by side with strangers,
subjected to the farts, burps and nightmares of people they didn’t know,
I had a private room. I stretched out, way out, and went to sleep.
for our final day was quite ambitious. While the Europeans slept in,
Jean-Marc, Jeremy, Janet, the two remaining Taiwanese girls, and I set
out, at three in the morning, in order to reach the summit, in time to
watch the sunrise. The idea was that we would make the five kilometer,
round trip hike, and arrive back at the refuge by nine o’clock, when we
would pick up the rest of the team, and hike all the way back down to the
car. This meant, by the end of the day, our advance team would have hiked
advantage we had in the hike to the summit was that we had left our packs
in the refuge. But, even unladen, the last thousand meters of elevation
were painful. Far above the protection of the tree line, the way was steep,
exposing us to the bone-chilling mountain winds. This was the first time
in my life, other than on an airplane, that I could ever look down, and
see clouds, like a huge, rolling, white carpet of cotton stretching out
to infinity. The view reminded me of being out at sea, and not knowing
where the earth ended and the sky began.
frantic breathing, even I was able to appreciate the wonder that we witnessed.
But, it would get even better. Slowly, the most distant clouds began to
glow a dull yellow. Next, the yellow turned to orange, and the spot of
color expanded. Finally, orange gave way to bright red, as the sunrise
turned our carpet of cotton to a carpet of roses.
The sun may
rise in Brooklyn, but it never looked like this. In the golden light that
played along the fluffy clouds you could see the hand of God.
sunrise show was over, we hiked back to the refuge. We took a ten-minute
nap, and began down the mountain. You would think that hiking down would
be easier than hiking up. And, it is. But, it is much harder on your knees,
and requires more care, as you are prone to falling. The trip down reminded
me of driving in a heavy rain. You make slow progress, and are exhausted
by your careful attention and vigilance. Each step had to be thoroughly
thought out, or you would land face down.
I lost count
at three hundred times, but I know I fell a lot. Each time, luckily,
I landed on my butt, which was nice, since my feet were blistered, there
was a certain symmetry to having a bruised bottom. I took a lot of the
more difficult obstacles ape-style, using my arms as much as my legs. This
also balanced things out. Since my lower body had gotten such a good work
out, I wanted to give my arms some exercise too.
When we were
less than two hours from the bottom, we stopped for a breather, when another,
old Chinese guy attacked us. He puffed up his chest, walked over to us,
and began shouting at us rudely in English.
up your trash” He commanded.
trash? We had only been there two seconds. We hadn’t eaten anything. In
fact, we hadn’t even taken off our packs.“I am the manager of the volunteer
mountain cleaners.” He shouted, as if someone cared.
I was trying
to catch my breath, so I could straighten him out, when Jean-Marc, who
is in much better shape than I am jumped up, and made friends with the
guy. Jean-Marc commended him on the value of his work, and thanked
him for protecting the forest. They shook hands about fifty times. At one
point, I thought they were going to get a room together, or at least hug,
but the guy was late for an appointment to yell at someone else.
As he was leaving,
the old guy, inexplicably, turned around, and yelled in English. “I
am a retired school teacher.”
hell was that?” I asked, after he had gone.
you mean?” Asked Jean-Marc, as if he hadn’t seen what I had.
believe how nice you were to that guy.” I said. “I was going to
tell him to go screw himself. You know why he is a volunteer worker? It’s
because no one was willing to pay him.”
“You are funny because you are always angry. If I had a tape recorder,
then every time I was sad I could listen to you complaining or yelling
at people and it would cheer me up.”
I was nearly
the last to reach the car. And when I got there, I thought I would die.
Since we couldn’t shower, I at least wanted to change clothes, but my feet
were so swollen, that I was worried that once I took my shoes off, I wouldn’t
be able to put them back on.
In the end,
I had completed a long hike, seen yet another side of Taiwan, witnessed
the beauty of nature, and made some new friends. I had also made some
enemies, but that’s normal for me. I had suffered, but I would gladly do
it again. Next time, though, I will probably wear hiking shoes, instead
of army boots. Also, I think I will put in a few hours on the stair master,
so that when I have the opportunity, I won’t be too winded to yell at
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