KEEP PADDLING! Indigenous Journeys Part 2

TRIBAL CANOE JOURNEY 2018

Last time, in Part 1: “The Man in the Atayal Hat”, I started by talking about the great long-distance sea voyages of the Pacific Islanders thousands of years ago and how they have always amazed me. How brave and skilled the sailors, but also how lonely and perilous the voyages: a bit of bad luck, like a rogue wave or unexpected storm, and you could be capsized, smashed up on a hidden reef, or blown off course. And when things do go seriously wrong, that’s when you need your buddies to haul you out of the water and help you get your canoe back in order. Then you take a deep breath, reset your course, and keep paddling!

When Tony Coolidge showed up in Taiwan in 2009 with his wife Shu-min and his first son Johan, he knew it was going to be a challenge to get things set in a country he had never lived in before. But he had his movie, Voices in the Clouds, made with filmmaker Aaron Hosé, under his belt. The film – in addition to the friends he had made in his two previous trips to Taiwan – opened a lot of doors. “I couldn’t ask for a better calling card to really let people know what I wanted to do in Taiwan,” Coolidge said.

After networking for a few years, he tried to set up a Taiwan-registered NGO that could do legal fund-raising. Registering an “association” is notoriously laborious and bureaucratic in Taiwan, and requires getting members with Taiwan ID cards from all over the island to agree to endorse the group. But after they had worked on it for months, misfortune struck: “One day we found that the copies of all the cards form members had been lost,” said Coolidge. Oops! Oh, well. Keep paddling!

Later that year he had some much better luck: “We were invited to show the film Voices in the Clouds in New Zealand in 2012.”

WELCOME TO AOTEAROA! (Photo credit Tobie Openshaw)

The event was the Wairoa Māori Film Festival, held annually on the east coast of North Island, in the country the Māori call Aotearoa. It is an amazing event, according to Taipei-based South African documentary filmmaker Tobie Openshaw, who made the trip along with Coolidge. Openshaw was blown away by the quality of the films, many of which were made by students from the Māori Development Department of Auckland University of Technology. The program is supervised by Māori “powerhouse” Professor Ella Henry. Māori artists “have really adopted filmmaking as part of their tradition of storytelling,” said Openshaw, something he says he would like to see promoted in Taiwan’s Indigenous community.

He was also impressed by the venue for the film festival, which was in a traditional wooden meeting house situated in a sacred communal space, known as a marae. “Entering it for the first time, there was a special ritual. The group had to wait outside and the leader would invite you in with a call-and response song.” Openshaw said. This hearkens back to days when visitors to the marae might not be friendly. Once inside, he admired the intricately-carved interior. It was only later that he realized what an honor it was to have been invited there.

PROFESSOR ELEN HENRY AND TONY COOLIDGE (Photo: Tobie Openshaw)

Coolidge had a great time too: Voices in the Clouds won Best International Film. He also made an important discovery, although possibly a bit late in the game. “When I brought the film to New Zealand it was the first time I connected with other Austronesian groups. Seeing them watch the film, hearing them say: ‘Hey, she looks like my auntie. She looks like my grandmother. He looks like my uncle!’. So, the Austronesian connection became a big part of our organization,” said Coolidge.

Naturally, Coolidge and ATAYAL invited the AUT film kids to come to Taiwan, and this was announced officially at the festival. In an interview recorded by Openshaw, Prof. Henry said the trip would be in part about the Austronesian connection, but even more so about the “cosmological connection” that Indigenous people have, their common connection to “the gods of creation.”

TAPPING THE AUSTRONESIAN ROOT

 “So, in 2013 I was able to keep that promise,” said Coolidge. The event was called the Tap Root Cultural Exchange Program. “We had a delegation from the Auckland University of Technology, who were the people who I was with at the film festival. It happened. They came. It was our biggest culture exchange project ever,” said Coolidge. “Nine people from New Zealand for fourteen days. We had to fund everything. For a group of volunteers who didn’t have much of a budget, it wasn’t easy.”

As is common in many organizations relying on volunteers, people let them down, promised services failed to appear, and while some planned events went well, other things went very wrong.

“We were supposed to have a bus to pick up the delegation at the airport,” Openshaw said. “But that fell through, and instead there were 4 or 5 different cars.” There was also a van for the elders (chaperones) too, but the organizers had wanted a proper bus for everyone and their baggage. Throughout the trip, the accommodation was often at places like school dorms, and the elders weren’t very happy with that, recalls Openshaw. “The students didn’t care though,” he recalled.

Then came a “rogue wave” event. Coolidge explains: “One time we had to find emergency accommodation because they [the elders] weren’t happy with where we set them up. And those emergency accommodations turned out to be a love hotel with sex toys everywhere. That was unexpected. And it was not just any love hotel. I’ve seen some but this was definitely a special one. They had like dental chairs in the middle of the room,” lamented Tony Coolidge, with a chuckle. Oops!

There was also a controversy over the central purpose of the trip. Although Prof. Henry had acknowledged the Austronesian connection and had even shown a positive attitude toward the “Out of Taiwan” theory, which says that Taiwan was the beginning-place of the Austronesian Expansion, the idea that indigenous Taiwanese are the ancestors of the Māori is not something accepted by all Māori. Their own origin story is that they came from a Polynesian island or group of islands called Hawaiki, and that Aotearoa (New Zealand)wasdiscovered by Tupe, the master navigator. Later, the seven Māori iwis (tribal groups) voyaged to the islands, and thus the lands were populated by humans for the first time.

However, in his pure enthusiasm, Coolidge had touted the “Out of Taiwan” hypothesis as the central context for the trip.  Although there is still some debate, the leading scientific theory is that Austronesian-speaking people first began their great migrations from pre-Han Taiwan about 3000 to 1500 BCE, spreading outward from there as far as Madagascar and Polynesia. Not only is it highly plausible, based on the evidence, it is also very popular with those who have some emotional connection with indigenous Taiwan. But perhaps it was not diplomatic to brand the trip accordingly, without okaying this with the visitors? Feathers were ruffled.

According to a December, 2013 Taipei Times article: “In bold lettering, the [Tap Root] Web site introduces the exchange program with a rhetorical question: ‘What if the great diaspora of 400 million Austronesian peoples from 38 countries strengthened their cultural bonds by uniting at the source of their cultural roots?’” The article also reports that one of the elders “said she had never heard of the theory that the Māori ancestral roots are in Taiwan. ‘It has been quite an experience meeting people from Taiwan but certainly we didn’t come here to look for where we came from,’ she added.’”

TRADITIONAL FACIAL EXPRESSION FOR DISDAIN IN THE MAORI HAKA DANCE (Photo Tobie Openshaw)
MAORI HAKA DANCE IN TAIWAN (Video by Tobie Openshaw)

The article’s author fails to point out that it is a bit odd that the elder hadn’t heard of the “Out of Taiwan” theory, given that it had been first proposed in 1983, and has become steadily established thereafter. The elder in question was highly educated and taught classes about Māori culture at AUT. The article goes on to say: “Indeed, the Māori group gave a performance [Haka dance – probably the first ever occurrence of this at an indigenous wedding in Taiwan, according to Openshaw] at every stop throughout the trip, though not completely voluntarily, said the elder. “In New Zealand, we don’t expect our guests to entertain; whereas we have been required to entertain,” she said.

So that’s probably the crux of the grievance, a combination of faulty planning made worse by a cross-cultural communication error. In 2012, the AUT group had shown great hospitality to the Taiwan delegation, indicating proper respect, letting them stay in the marae. No doubt the hosts also felt that giving them the best international film award was also a sign of respect. However, when the AUT delegation came over, the returned hospitality was underwhelming, causing the elders to be offended, and thus inciting one elder in particular to complain to the press.

Openshaw, however, believes that this was an overreaction, because the most important people on the trip, the students, had “a fantastic time.”  He also maintains that when Coolidge subsequently apologized for the problems with Tap Root, publicly taking full personal responsibility for everything that went wrong with the trip, that this was excessive. But the damage had been done. When Openshaw contacted AUT years later to discuss further projects, AUT declined any future cooperation. That bridge has been burnt.

What’s more, Coolidge had covered a lot of the costs out of his family funds, and had also spent many hundreds of hours preparing for Tap Root, instead of earning cash for his family. This strained his relationship with his wife to near the breaking point. Through a mix of bad luck and navigator error, the good canoe ATAYAL had been capsized. But as luck would have it, a buddy was there to help him out. “I couldn’t focus and I sort of gave the reins to Gary Smoke.”

FIRE IN THE SKY, SMOKE ON THE WATER

American Gary Smoke has spent 31 years in Taiwan, making him quite the expat old-timer. The tall, aging man-boy with an actor’s face and voice lives in a rooftop pad in Tianmu filled with books and bedecked with beer signs. He’s friendly and laid-back, but there’s a note of sadness and tension to his voice when he talks about Vietnam.

SMOKE (farthest right) AND BUDDIES IN THAILAND DURING THE VIETNAM WAR

“In 1971, I was in the US Air Force in the Vietnam War,” says Smoke. “I was in Ubon Airbase in Thailand. I worked on a computer system that was responsible for air navigation and weapons delivery for the AC-130 Spectre gunship.” These refitted Hercules transport planes are famous for delivering massive fire power from above that can take out enemy positions and vehicles, and often provide close air support for troops on the ground. Their fearsome array of cannons – abetted by sophisticated sensors and control systems – are mounted to fire from the port (left) side. The plane does a continuous circular “pylon” turn over the target, pounding the hell out of it for far longer than a conventional strafing run.

DEATH FROM ABOVE – AC 130 SPECTRE GUNSHIP

That sounds cool if you’re a gung-ho military type, but Smoke wasn’t.

“They flew around at night at around 1100 feet (335 meters) and shot up trucks and troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” said Smoke, referring to the nickname the US military gave to the shifting system of roads and trails that ran from North to South Vietnam, often through Laos, used by North Vietnamese forces to move men and materiel to support the Viet Cong.

“But the US government denied they did any missions in Laos, which shows you a lot about how they lie about what’s going on,” said Smoke.

And although Smoke never fired a shot at the enemy, figuratively, he had helped load the gun.

Does that still bother him, so many decades ago? “Yes of course,” he said, sharply. “258,000 people died and it was really for no reason whatsoever. Other than the fact that the people who made my weapon system needed some way to practice using it and developing it to its best capabilities in a real-world setting.”

“When I went back to the USA after my deployment, I thought I’d never come back to Asia,” Smoke said. Then his life followed a progression that will sound familiar to many expats. He met a Taiwanese woman in Washington State, fell in love, and sometime later ended up back in Taiwan, married to her and with a kid.

The marriage didn’t last, unfortunately, but he stayed in Taiwan while his son went through the Taipei American School. He did various jobs, working at a bar – the Wild Cherry – teaching English, TV acting, and started his own business, the English Library.

One day a guy from the US emailed him and asked if he was interested in getting some more books for his library. It was Tony Coolidge, preparing for his move to Taiwan. The deal with the books never actually happened, but Coolidge eventually came by just to meet Smoke, and the two became friends. Smoke then started to work with Coolidge at the ATAYAL Organization. “Because of my time in the military I had some remorse for some of the things that we did and I figured that this would be a good way to give back by joining up with Tony,” Smoke said.

One of his roles was being Santa Claus at ATAYAL’s annual “Christmas in Wulai” events, where they brought presents and a musical show to kids in Wulai, the Atayal community turned mixed-ethnicity tourist town where Coolidge’s mother had been born.

CHRISTMAS IN WULAI WITH THE ATAYAL ORGANIZATION (Photo Tony Coolidge)

Later, when Coolidge hit the wall after the Tap Root Cultural Exchange visit from New Zealand, Smoke got the group involved in the Tribal Canoe Journeys, a big event for the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest coast. Coming from Washington State, he had some friends in the indigenous community, and was able to make the connection.

These journeys are a big deal, with up to 30,000 people from communities from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington State, and Oregon paddling canoes to and converging on one community. Said Smoke: “It’s an opportunity for elders in the tribe to show the young people, to pass on that tradition of the ways of traveling over the water. People come from as far as Alaska and they’ll come to Vancouver Island and they’ll paddle down. If you’re from the south they’ll start on the Washington Coast. They’ll paddle around the coast, down the Straits of Juan de Fuca and then into Puget Sound. Everyone eventually ends up where the host canoe family is. You’ll go to wherever your canoe family starts from and you’ll paddle to the next destination on your way to the final powwow. At each stop you ask for permission to come ashore. They go through this ritual to show non-aggression. Then they take you to the campgrounds where you pitch your tent. They provide food for you: you don’t have to stay in a hotel. You don’t have to buy food.” He said that these coastal indigenous people are expert harvesters from the sea. “They bring out the crabs, the clams, mussels, salmon. Good food!” says Smoke. “And then you go on to the next destination and it’s the same thing over again.” At the end there’s a big gathering.

SMOKE (Second left) AND FELLOW EVENT PARTICIPANTS AT THE 2019 TRIBAL CANOE JOURNEY

A delegation from Taiwan joined the Tribal Canoe Journeys in 2017, 2018, and 2019. They were hosted by the canoe family skippered by Hanford McCloud, a Nisqually Tribal Council Member, of the Coastal Salish people. In 2019, the destination was the Lummi Nation, (also known as Lhaq’temish or People of the Sea) a Native American tribe of the Coast Salish ethnolinguistic group near Bellingham, Washington State.

Although most of the participants were Native Americans and First Nations from the Pacific coast, McCloud said in an interview with Coolidge that he liked “this vision of bringing indigenous Taiwanese into the canoe family and paddling with them. We always have a seat in our canoe.” This is because another family had offered McCloud’s group a seat in a canoe back when they were just starting out in the journeys, and he likes to pass on the generosity.

Reaching out is a family tradition, he said. “My grandma did it for us, our grandchildren. She took in delegations from other countries”. Regarding indigenous people: “We are all the same. But we all need to work together.” McCloud has been working on this for almost 15 years, and he loves it: “It’s that feeling you get. You want everybody to experience this. I want that story to continue. So, my grandmother, myself, my son my kids. That’s what I’m looking at.”

He said that a lot of indigenous youth don’t focus on tradition because they get so caught up in mainstream society. But that when you get indigenous youth together from all over the world, “the atmosphere changes. Over time the kids have become more open, relaxed, and connect better.” They also identify more with their indigenous identify, while getting to know about the songs, games, and food from other indigenous groups, says McCloud. “They are also growing together, so they do have that connection, when they get older and bigger. They’ll thank you for it.”

JOURNEYING TOGETHER

McCloud wanted to bring a delegation over to Taiwan, and Coolidge and Smoke were ready to welcome them.  It seems like a lot of these indigenous connections are about returning the hospitality. But then along came Covid-19. Not only did it prevent the Nisqually delegation from coming over, it even caused the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 Tribal Canoe Journey events in the USA. Sadly, it also took the life of Tony Alton, the well-liked British musician who handled the music at the Christmas in Wulai events.

But regardless of setbacks, you’ve got to keep paddling! The ATAYAL Organization has. They’ve learned from past mistakes and have become much more professional in their planning and execution. Their current Indigenous Bridges Youth Ambassador program is pretty slick, incorporating local partnerships with Dong Hwa University in Hualien, the National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung County, the Tao Foundation from Orchid Island, and also the Council of Indigenous Peoples – the Taiwanese government organization responsible for supporting and coordinating policy about Taiwan’s indigenous groups. Their main international partners are the Nisqually Indian Tribe, their host family for the Tribal Canoe Journeys, and the Lummi Nation, both of Washington State.

And while face-to-face has been put on hold by Covid-19, like everyone else they’ve migrated online.

“Our next step will be doing the virtual online conference,” said. This will include guest speakers on reviving indigenous tourism in post-pandemic times. But the real stars of the conference will be the students themselves. “We need more students in the USA and Taiwan,” said Coolidge. “Every tribe that participates will have some candidates who will write an essay and a video to introduce their culture. If chosen, they’ll get a scholarship and an opportunity to represent their tribe during these online conferences.”  They will also be invited to participate in the Tribal Canoe Journeys in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, having participated or intending to participate is a requirement of the program. This program will bring new people to the canoe events and keep the cultural exchanges happening for Taiwanese indigenous youth as well.

Their vision statement for the Indigenous Bridges Youth Ambassador program is: “The future of the Indigenous peoples is one where tribes of the world are connected and cooperating to develop sustainable solutions from their inherent knowledge and wisdom. It will take a future generation of empowered leaders to realize this vision.”

(LINK TO INDIGENOUS BRIDGES YOUTH AMBASSADOR PROGRAM)

https://www.indigenousbridges.org/youth.php

There’s still a long way to go, for all of us, so let’s keep paddling! There are so many different journeys in different “life canoes”: long journeys of healing for indigenous communities, dealing with multiple serious problems; a movement away from the War Machine and toward life and positivity for Gary Smoke; and the ongoing quest to promote awareness of indigenous culture for Tony Coolidge. These are all part of the new age of great indigenous journeys. And in a global society that seems increasingly divorced from nature, these voyages are important to all of us.

“Indigenous cultures are very important right now,” says Coolidge. “Because we’re in danger of losing a lot of what makes us human.”

POSITIVE DUDES: COOLIDGE AND SMOKE

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THE MAN WITH THE ATAYAL HAT

TONY COOLIDGE AND YAKI VINAI (Photo credit for right photo Aaron Hosé)

Sometimes I like to contemplate great voyages, like those of the Pacific Islanders in legendary times as they spread across vast expanses of ocean. I imagine their thousands of journeys: maybe 20 people on large, outrigger canoes, the navigators way-finding by reading the signs of nature: the birds, the stars, the swell of the water, and even the color of the sky. Then, if they don’t get hit by a rogue wave or a fierce storm, everyone arriving grateful and stiff-legged at their destination, a pristine gem of an island where they could live as their own masters.

Fast forward to the present day: With very few exceptions, the Pacific Islanders – like indigenous people worldwide – have been colonized and subjugated. Navigation is done by GPS, and you can fly from Hawaii to Taipei in 13 hours, including the stopover in Tokyo. In places like Tahiti, rich Western and Asian guests stay in luxury hotels with indigenous art decorations, served by a staff of friendly brown locals. When many Pacific Islanders make long journeys now, it is often to the USA or New Zealand, where they live as a minority under a dominant culture, in a world rediscovered and reimagined by someone else.

But the age of great indigenous journeys isn’t over. In fact, a new phase has just begun. These are voyages of the heart, of discovery of heritage, of uncovering lost links to the past, and of friendship and family that are both very personal and also global in scale.

One interesting modern journey is that of Tony Coolidge, founder of the non-profit indigenous awareness group ATAYAL.

TONY AND HIS MOTHER BEFORE THEY LEFT TAIWAN

I spoke with Tony on a video call a few weeks ago to hear his story. A guy who is very comfortable with media, he was sitting in front of a neutral green back drop, wearing a somewhat formal black hat. I guess he does a lot of calls for various professional reasons, so I had to remind him that this was an interview about ATAYAL. “Oh!” he said. “Then I’ll have to put on my indigenous hat.” He disappeared for a second, and came back with literally a Taiwan Indigenous style hat. Interesting, I thought.

Then he told me his story, which explained the different hats.

“My biological father was an American soldier who left my mother before I was born. When I was three years old, my mother met and married my adopted father, David Coolidge, a military intelligence officer in Taiwan. We moved around a lot, Japan, Germany, and the United States.” Then they settled in the USA. Being a bi-racial child wasn’t easy. “I probably resented being Taiwanese at the time, so I had no interest in knowing more about it or embracing it. Because that’s what made me different from everyone else. It made it hard for me to fit in.” Tony remembers. “They didn’t know what I was.”

But neither did Tony. Even though he was always close to his mom (his adopted dad and she had separated by this time) she had never celebrated her Taiwanese cultural identity, or encouraged it in him or his brother and two sisters. Then, just after Tony graduated from college, tragedy struck: His mother found out that she had cancer, and had only had a few months left to live.

“Her life wish was to see her family that she hadn’t seen in 20 plus years. The only thing holding us back was a few hundred bucks.” So instead, Tony took her to a theme park called “Splendid China” for Mother’s Day. It was a lovely day together, but soon after that, she passed away. The next year, he decided that he had to visit Taiwan himself, for her, and to see where she came from.

“And that’s what changed my life.”

Arriving in Taiwan, his first thought was: “Whoa! What is this place?” There were tall buildings, signs in Mandarin, and thousands of motor scooters. Then the taxi took them into the mountains of Wulai, with its green hills, waterfalls, and butterflies.

He recalls nervously approaching the door where his mother’s side of the family was waiting for him. The door burst open and there were dozens of friendly people who had come to welcome back the returning son. There was food, drink, children, and laughter. Their love for his mother poured over him in a big friendly wave.

Later, as he walked around Wulai, he noticed not only that it was a tourist place, but also the tribal motifs in the decoration in the village, which reminded him of Native American culture. His Taiwan family told him that his mother was from a tribe called “Atayal,” an indigenous group. Because of the language barrier, they couldn’t tell him much about it. But it was the first time he realized that his mother was from this background.

Back in the US, he started to do research about the Atayal people and the other indigenous groups in Taiwan, and in 1997 he wrote an article called “Village in the Clouds” (link below) about his experiences and discoveries. And he kept going from there.

https://indigenousbridges.blogspot.com/2021/01/village-in-the-clouds.html

SHU-MIN, JOHAN, AND TONY

“I never realized how much people are interested in indigenous culture. We founded the ATAYAL organization in 2001,” said Tony, who had by this time met and married a Taiwanese woman named Shu-min who had been visiting Florida on a work exchange program. She helped him with the organization. “We started humbly, with no money, lots of volunteers, sharing information in any capacity. At schools or international culture fairs, we’d do our best to represent,” Tony said. “There was a gradual evolution. Then we got the opportunity to make some documentary films. We wanted to go to film in Taiwan, but lacked the budget.”

So instead, they found a group from Taiwan and invited them to come to Florida to join their first Indigenous Heritage Festival in 2004. Luckily, Tony also got a chance to go to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May 2004, shortly before his group’s planned festival.

“It’s a big forum of all indigenous nations that happens every year – so I was there with world leaders and tribal leaders, my mind was blown, and I had the chance to tell people there about this festival.” This helped promote his Indigenous Heritage Festival. What’s more, the Taiwanese group showed up too, among groups from all over the world.

“That experience was of reaching out, of touching and connecting. The way they accepted me into their group was like being part of their family.” Tony said. “Before that, I was all about the sharing information about culture. But when I saw the interactions between all these indigenous peoples, it changed my thinking. I saw these people who were separated by thousands of miles and who had never met but they were hugging each other as if they were long lost relatives. That showed me that bringing them together would create magic. And I wanted more opportunities to see what could be created from that magic. So, our organization changed from information sharing to culture exchange.”

The head of the Taiwanese delegation to his festival, Alice Takewatan, took a shine to Tony; she liked the fact that he wanted to discover his indigenous roots and share his discoveries with the world. She invited him to come to Taiwan, and promised to help facilitate the trip. She would arrange everything. 

INDIGENOUS HERITIAGE FESTIVAL 2004, ALICE TAKEWATAN FAR LEFT, TONY COOLIDGE SECOND FROM RIGHT

So, Tony, along with his brother Steve and filmmaker Aaron Hosé, flew to Taiwan the following year.

It turned out that Alice Takewatan was the best possible guide. “She gave me access to people, places, and experiences most westerners would never get to see, and wouldn’t even know how to look for,” Tony said. He saw artists and craftspeople, working hard to keep the legacy of indigenous culture alive, and attended events with song and dance, traveling down the east coast of the island.

BUNUN GIRLS PREPARING FOR A CULTURAL EXCHANGE TRIP TO SOUTH AFRICA
(Photo credit Aaron Hosé)

Then he did a long difficult hike in Pingtung to an abandoned village, which was a sad experience. The people who had once lived there were compelled to come down and live in lowland settlements. This made Tony want to meet people who had one lived in similar villages. So, through his contacts, Tony was introduced to an Atayal woman called “Yaki Vinai” (Grandmother Vinai) who was more than 100-year-old, in the indigenous village of Wufeng in Hsinchu County. She was tiny and wrinkled, and still had her traditional face tattoos – given as a sign of respect and maturity for adult women – one of very few surviving women who did. She lived alone in a tiny house by the road. Somewhat frail but still feisty, she became quite animated and cheerful when she met Tony, touched at this man’s journey to find his roots, the journey back to being Atayal. “You are Dayan!” she said happily, using the group’s own word to describe itself.

The good old days were long gone for her. No one else around her had a face tattoo, and most of her family were long gone – the curse of living to a great age, perhaps. Although born and raised Atayal (Dayan), she had been ordered down from her carefree mountain home to an urban settlement by the Japanese.

“During her long life she had to adopt different identities,” said Tony. “First tribal, and then Japanese, language and name. And then Chinese and then Taiwanese. That’s really what her life was about. Not really knowing who she was.”

After meeting some other very elderly indigenous women who had been through a similar process of forced assimilation, he came to new understandings. Even later generations like his mother’s were stigmatized and had to deal with discrimination, on top of the social problems like hopelessness and alcoholism caused by being subjugated under a dominant, colonizing culture.

“I can really understand my mother wanting to fit it, wanting to get ahead, wanting to have a life without struggle, without harassment,” Tony said. “I could see her wanting to hide from it. I could see her running away from it. And that’s what led her to the United States. And how it led to her hiding it from her children.”

Back in the USA, Tony and his team, including producer and director Aaron Hosé, gradually edited the video footage from Taiwan with other stuff they had been shooting for years. Eventually, in 2008, they came out with the documentary film, “Voices in the Clouds”, which won many international awards. It is a beautiful story, and a must-see.

TONY AND AARON AT A SCREENING OF ‘VOICES IN THE CLOUDS”

https://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/5485/Voices-in-the-Clouds

(LINK TO WATCH ‘VOICES IN THE CLOUDS”)

Inspired and captivated by his experiences in Taiwan, and with a Taiwanese wife and child, Tony decided to move back there and continue his work as an Indigenous culture advocate. In 2009, his journey would continue. He moved back to Taiwan, where his mother had come from, the great-granddaughter of someone like Yaki Vinai perhaps, who had started life high in the mountains, and had a facial tattoo she had earned as a sign of respect.

For many indigenous voyagers, the journey back is also the journey forward into a world where their identity is reclaimed. But how to define the journey of someone like Tony? According to a DNA test he did, he’s part White, part Han, and part Austronesian. He was raised around the world and educated in America. So, is he really Atayal, or is that just a hat he puts on for public events?

I asked Tony about his identity and the answer was complicated, naturally.

“The Taiwan identity is not clear. Some people say they’re Taiwanese and some people say they’re Chinese. It’s just a matter of how you feel about yourself. And it’s about what people in other countries recognize. So, say you’re Taiwanese: a lot of people don’t know what that means in America. So, I used to call myself Asian-American, but as a mixed-race person with a White father and an Asian mother. But the Asian part is also a little cloudy because of the indigenous heritage.”

Tony said: “When you’re a mixed-race person, I used to think that it put me at a disadvantage. A lot of mixed-race people have to go through a stigma of not being accepted from one race or the other because they are different. But as you get older and more mature, it’s either a disadvantage or an advantage depending on how you choose to see it for yourself. It can be a great opportunity itself. I’ve taken on the opportunity of being a bridge between two cultures.”

Some of these new indigenous voyages are voyages of the heart, so they should be measured in terms of the heart. Tony’s quest was to find the source of his mother’s life, in order to deepen and preserve his connection to her love. In that voyage, he found her Atayal origins, and received the love of her family. He is the returning son.

Then he met a tribal elder – passed away now, sadly – a real remnant of the ancient times. She had seen him as a member of her extended family, coming from a great distance, to connect with his Atayal roots, roots that she had never forgotten in all her long life despite all the efforts of society to convince her otherwise. I guess that tattoo on her face never let her forget. This was a deep and happy meeting of two hearts connected by one line of identity that has not yet been broken. If Yaki Vinai could accept Tony as a member of her Atayal family, that has to stand for something – whatever other hats he may wear.

THIS IS PART 1 OF OF INDIGENOUS JOURNEYS. STAY TUNED FOR PART 2.

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TAIWAN LEGAL AID FOUNDATION (LAF): TOP TEN TAKEAWAYS

Established in 2004, the mission of the Taiwan Legal Aid Foundation (LAF) is to offer a comprehensive range of legal aid services for the financially disadvantaged in Taiwan. Mainly funded by an endowment from the Judicial Yuan worth just over 1.5 billion NTD (about 55 million USD), as of 2021, the LAF has 22 branch offices around Taiwan employing 300 staff members, and with 3,000 private lawyers actively connected to the foundation’s operations.

  Here are the top ten takeaways for those who wish to use or recommend the use of this organization:

1. The Taiwan Legal Aid Foundation (LAF) mainly offers services in Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and English. It is sometimes possible to access services in other languages, such as Vietnamese, Thai, or Bahasa Indonesia, but provisions for this are limited.

2.The LAF offers a range of services, including initial legal advice through online Google Meet video-conference at no cost for English-speaking foreigners currently living in Taiwan.  This service will be a one-off advice session for your case and it must be arranged by appointment beforehand. The session is up to 40 minutes maximum and a free translator will be provided throughout the video-conference. If you would like to use this service, fill in the form ( https://forms.gle/22YM9TvAQW4pREen6 ) and LAF will arrange a time for you. This advice is for actual legal situations, not for general public information. Don’t use this service if you are just curious or doing general research.

3. You can call the LAF from police or judicial custody to request assistance if you are being interrogated or interviewed by police or prosecutors, or will be soon, or just have been. Please note that in Taiwan you can legally refuse to answer questions until you have obtained legal advice. It is always better to have legal representation or advice during these procedures.

4. If you are a non-native Mandarin speaker, you have a legal right in Taiwan to a court-certified legal translator. This may be provided privately, by LAF or by the judicial system itself. So, if you don’t have one, arrange for one or politely insist on having one. Needless to say, don’t sign anything that is in Mandarin unless it has been translated for you by a court-certified legal translator.

5. After the initial advice, you can apply for a legal aid grant for full or partial legal representation for any criminal, civil, family, or administrative legal issue. This includes launching a criminal complaint, lawsuit, or other legal action as well as responding to one. You may visit the LAF website for more information about applying for legal aid.

(https://www.laf.org.tw/en/index.php?action=service&Sn=7)                                     

6. However, whether you are granted aid or not depends on a means test. For example, if you are a single-person household living in Taipei City, you may be granted full aid if your monthly income is less than 32,027 NTD. For a two-person household, the cut-off is a combined monthly income of 53,378 NTD. For partial assistance, in which the LAF services consumer would pay for a portion of their own legal costs, household income would need to be between 32,027 NTD and 38, 432 NTD for a single-person household, and between 53,378 and 64,054 NTD for a two-person household. For larger households (three-person, four-person, and so on) the cut-off level for household goes up. The cut-off level is highest in Taipei City and lower in other areas. The total amount of aid granted will not exceed 500,000 NTD for full aid and 600,000 NTD for partial aid for both one-person or two-person households, and 800,000 NTD and 960,000 NTD respectively for a four-person household, and so on, up to a family size of ten persons. The fact that some money or other assets may be unavailable due to the actual cause of your legal predicament, i.e., spousal control of a bank account, or non-payment of wages owed, etc., will be taken in to consideration by the LAF.

7. If the committee accepts your application for aid, you will be connected with either a staff lawyer or an associated private lawyer. If you are rejected, you have the right to appeal the decision. If the appeal does not rule in your favor, the LAF may not officially recommend any lawyer for you. You need to reach out to friends and other support groups or individuals who can offer you a confidential recommendation of a competent, reliable, and effective lawyer.

8. The financial means test for legal assistance may be waived in some situations. The organization is limited in resources and scope, and must follow the law, as well its own policies, and regulations. However, there is sometimes room for discretion in making decisions, so don’t give up on advance because you think they might reject your case.

9. When dealing with the police, always have a smart and mature local Taiwanese friend or relative come with you. Make sure you get correct documentation from the police for any complaint or report. Your attitude and behavior with the police may influence their treatment of your case. For example, wearing office attire such as a tie or suit, speaking whatever Mandarin you can to show cultural respect, adopting a polite and formal style of behavior, etc., may influence them to treat you and your case more seriously.

10. Last but not least, be smart with the law in Taiwan, as it is a foreign country for you. The rules and how the game is played may be very different than your home country. Become aware of the law for driving accidents, defamation, divorce, public insult, etc. Work legally, pay your taxes, and avoid all illegal activities. But don’t forget that you have rights, so become aware of any relevant labor, accident, or family laws that might protect your legitimate interests. For general information, do some online research. But if you are in a real legal situation, or think you might be, get legal counsel. DO NOT substitute posting on Facebook for getting actual legal advice. And if you are of limited means at the moment, reach out to the LAF by phone, walk in to make an appointment, or get a friend to assist you. The LAF is there to help.

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Buddy Cattva

The Righteous Threefold Path of Joe Henley

DHARMA PLAYING A SHOW

One of the noble truths of Buddhism is that suffering is an innate part of life, and I admit that when I have to listen to death metal it certainly feels that way! But I’ll make an honorary exception for one band, Dharma, possibly the only Buddhist death metal group in the world. With their face paint, robes, and trippy lighting, they look as if the classic glam-band KISS just got back from a few years in a Nepalese monastery. But Dharma’s vibe is more than just theatrics: they have a bona fide Buddhist nun with them on the stage. Their frontman is Joe Henley, a tall, gaunt, figure screaming out actual sutras. And if you can’t make out the lyrics, that’s because they’re in Sanskrit.

If you talk to Joe after the show, (once your ears stop ringing) his persona changes considerably, from otherworldly to down-to-earth, from a screamer to reserved, unpretentious and even a bit shy. But still a Buddhist. In fact, it’s the calm focus of this spiritual path that helps him keep his head together. Joe says that his inner life has had some serious downs, and that the practice of Buddhism helps him stay on an even keel. His occupation hasn’t helped. Having been a fulltime freelance writer for the past ten years, the stress of this notoriously unstable line of work have caused their wear-and-tear on the emotionally sensitive Saskatchewan native. “Sometimes I’ve had to wait months to get paid. It made me very anxious and angry.” Buddhism has caused him to quit drinking as well, which has also improved his quality of life.

VAJRAKILAY IS A BIG DHARMA FAN!

As fine as all that is, however, Buddhism is not simply about improving one’s own life. “Selfish Buddhism” is an oxymoron. The creed advocates embracing the world with compassion, actively seeking to reduce the suffering of others.  This Joe does according to his three righteous ways.

Number 1: Buddhist Death Metal

Joe has been involved in death metal since college, and got into it in Taiwan years before Dharma was formed.

“My first band was called Revilement and I was doing vocals. It’s not a band I started. It was just a bunch of Taiwanese guys. They met me at a festival called Formoz. They had just recently lost their vocalist and I had hair down to my ass and a big beard. I looked like a metal guy so they just picked me out of the crowd,” Joe recounts.

He joined Dharma in 2018, and although was unsure at the time if he could pull it off, has gone on to front the group to great effect at local music festivals.

Joe’s onstage Dharma persona is actually a feature of Buddhism, where certain demon-like deities scream and terrorize away evil spirits that plague the earth. What’s more, the intensity of the death metal sound is apparently also soothing for people with inner angst. So that’s not screaming, that’s helping!

NICE NEIGHBORHOOD EH? CEMETERY SLUM IN NORTH MANILA

Number 2: Writing for Noble Causes

With a degree in journalism and finding himself not a good fit for the local ESL teaching scene, it was not long before Joe was writing a music column for the Taipei Times.

      Then one day he got a lead that would change his life. “A woman called Jasmine Bonang Sanchez contacted me on Facebook in late 2014 or early 2015. She had been involved in the punk underground scene in the Philippines so she thought maybe we had some common ground. She said we’ve got a bunch of people and we’ve started an advocacy organization called MKT. So, I went to Taipei Main Station and she had 15 or 20 people with her,” Joe says.

     “There was one woman in particular. She’d had 3 or 4 employers and with each one she’d endured some form of sexual trauma. She wasn’t the only one who told me stories like this. But for it had happened at each and every place she had been transferred to since she’d arrived in Taiwan. It was basically her employers thinking it was OK to offer her a bonus for some sort of sexual transaction.”

This would be creepy and traumatic enough for a western expat. But it’s worse if you have the wrong passport and visa. For migrant workers in a bind, there’s not a lot they can do. “If you raise your voice, you’re probably going to lose your job, your means of income, your means of supporting your family back home. You’re talking to somebody who is probably holding your passport, your ARC, all forms of identification. You can’t go anywhere; you can’t run away without running afoul of the law. If you just leave your employer, you’re a runaway, then you’re in the country illegally and you’re facing deportation,” says Joe.

This and other encounters led to him writing a series of articles in the Taipei Times and other publications about the mistreatment of the overseas migrant workers (OMW) in Taiwan, who are overwhelmingly from Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This cohort of blue-collar expats numbers above 700,000 people – about 30 times the total number of white-collar foreign workers in Taiwan – and compose about 60% of the industrial workforce. They’re a big part of what drives Taiwan’s impressive economic engine. But according to human rights groups, these factory workers, farm laborers, fishing fleet workers, and domestic caregivers, routinely face a litany of abusive practices, including excessive brokers’ fees, dangerous working conditions, bad food, very long hours, having passports withheld, poor accommodation, being locked into dorms, as well as verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

Joe’s research on this issue took him all the way to slums of Manila, and eventually led to the publication of Migrante, (Camphor Press) a 2020 novel about the sad life journey of Rizal, a young man who grew up in a cemetery slum in Manila. Rizal’s story is based on the accounts of real people so poor that they live where no one else will – in the mausoleums of other people’s families in urban cemeteries. It’s a dangerous and unhealthy life without basic services, and with little chance of escape through education or gainful employment. 

With few prospects at home, Rizal signs up with a broker to become a “migrante”, an overseas migrant worker in Taiwan. He’s assigned to a fishing boat, where a violent and callous-hearted captain treats him and the other migrant fishermen abusively, abetted by the ever-watchful police, there to stop the migrant workers from running away. Rizal’s strange and turbulent life intertwines with other migrant workers in a story that reveals the dark underbelly of endless labor, futility, and exploitation, which is hidden beneath the bustling, brightly-lit surface world of Taiwan’s prosperous democracy.

It’s an important story that needs to be told. What’s more, Joe is dedicating 100% of his share of his book royalties to various advocacy groups that help migrant workers. But despite these chivalrous acts, he insists that he is no white savior.

“The people at the forefront of this movement are of course local people such as Lennon Wong of the Serve the People association. He’s been fighting this fight for a number of years,” says Joe. 

“Another is Allison Lee of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union based in Nanfang-ao Harbor. She’s been heading up that union for a number of years as well.  And she’s been doing so entirely selflessly and without salary. She’s been doing this because it’s something that she cares about.

“And another one who I will mention is Julia Mariano who is a young student here in Taiwan, she’s from the Philippines. She’s become the spokesperson for the Taiwan chapter of Migrante International, which is a labor rights advocacy group. She’s politically aware, incredibly intelligent, and she’s a great orator and a great leader. I think, in terms of the future of this movement, she is the future.

“These are the people who lead the charge. I’m just somebody who reports on what they do. I’m an ally. And I think that’s where my role in this should be, not a leader, but as somebody that provides background support.”

Humble words indeed. Coming from someone else I might groan and suspect them of insincerity and virtue signaling. But with Joe, I’ll buy that he means it. However, as an actual point of fact, I disagree. In my opinion Joe is a leader in terms of bringing this issue to light. Maybe he’s not a general in this fight, but he’s certainly a field officer leading the awareness mission into the world of western expats. And beyond: It will be very interesting see the reaction from some Taiwanese when the Mandarin translation is published next year. His stark critique of Taiwanese society is probably going to piss some people off and he should be ready for a possible backlash. Maybe, says Joe, but: “If it doesn’t incite people, what’s the point?”

     He would, however, like to make one thing clear: “I am not trying to make Taiwan look bad. I love Taiwan, it’s where I was able to live my dream. I just want Taiwan to be as good as it possibly can.”

CAT BURGLAR IN ACTION

Number 3: Caring for Stray Cats

Joe and his wife Jill – who he calls his “partner in crime” – are habitual cat burglars. That is, they do a process called “trap, neuter, release” (TNR) in an area on the side of Elephant Mountain where there are lots of stray and feral cats. His wife is a certified animal behaviorist specializing in cats. She has her own business where she helps pet owners out who might be having trouble with their cats it’s called Pet Buddy. Joes says that Jill’s “A cat whisperer and she’s extremely dedicated and really good at what she does.”

When they noticed the problem with feral cats in the neighborhood, they decided to intervene. After the TNR, “if the cats were friendly to people, we would get them adopted out to suitable families,” said Joe. “Or if they were just happier being where they were we would just put them back after they had surgery and had recovered. The total that we’ve helped is around 50 in the past few months.”

WAITING FOR DHARMA TO PLAY AT THE MUSIC FESTIVAL

Righteous Conclusion

In Buddhism, there is a type of enlightened being called a “Bodhisattva”. Guanyin, the “goddess of mercy” so beloved in Taiwan, is one such entity. Although there are a few subtly differing definitions of Bodhisattva, the most common one is someone who is capable of achieving true enlightenment and Buddhahood, but delays taking this final step, choosing instead to remain on the earthly plane to help those who are suffering.

Now Joe’s no Bodhisattva. But he is consciously on the path of enlightenment. What’s more, he’s a relentlessly humble do-gooder trying to alleviate suffering on the spiritual, human, and animal levels all at once. I bet Totoro would take an immediate shine to him. So let’s call him a Buddy Cattva! Joe Henley, ladies and germs: a fine Canadian fellow who through his interpretation of Buddhism in daily life, has made Taiwan his Om! away from home!

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Please buy a copy of Migrante: It’s a great book for an excellent cause.

https://www.amazon.com/Migrante-J-W-Henley/dp/1788691938

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Radioactive Blast from the Past: The Magic of Taiwan: ICRTeee!

Rick Monday, Mark Rogers, Lan Roberts, Ron Stuart.
Courtesy of SmokenFire

It starts with the calm, measured tones of US President Jimmy Carter making an announcement on December 15, 1978.

Good evening,                          

I would like to read a joint communique which is being simultaneously issued in Peking at this very moment by the leaders of the People’s Republic of China:

The United States of America recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.

The music starts: funky electro-jazz with a sharp beat. And then we hear the smooth, powerful voice of Bobby Kong.

Welcome to our Radioactive Taiwan podcast.

In this our first episode we’ll bring you back to the music and the politics of the 1980’s

And how a mixed bag of radio pros, Chinese students, and people literally plucked off the streets of Asia were able to help bring a fledgling outcast of a country into a new era of political freedom, worldwide respect, and democracy!

And so begins the fab new podcast about the Glory Days of ICRT, (International Community Radio Taipei) how it went from being Armed Forces Network Radio Taiwan, to a fully-fledged American-style commercial radio station with 3,000,000 listeners per day.

But more than that, claim the makers of this fun, slick, and even inspiring 5-part podcast series, ICRT became a force for American soft power in Asia, keeping the love for America going after the soldiers left. Not only did it allow a wide range of Taiwanese to tune in to the latest and/or greatest pop, country, rock, jazz, and classical hits, it also served as a window on the world with uncensored news 24/7, the only such public source in Taiwan, at that time under Martial Law. What’s more, it became a free source of English learning for young and old alike, encouraging many to come to America to study, and it promoted democracy, freedom, truth and the American Way of Life!

In fact ….

taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen was a regular ICRT listener

And if that seems a bit hyperbolic, shame on you! Old radio people never exaggerate; they just remember it better.

Radioactive Taiwan is the creation of a group of former (and one current) ICRTers. The writer is veteran radio-man Rick Monday, ICRT DJ and news guy at various points from 1986 to 2012.  Former ICRT DJ Bobby Kong is the silken-voiced main narrator for the show: 50+ years running as a pro DJ, said Rick, and still on the air in Tokyo. Nic Gould, a former ICRT newsman / marketing manager from 1988 to 2000, is the old guy who can still remember the most stuff, and was hence invaluable to the project. And then there’s Tito Gray, who did news and music for the Pinoy community in Taiwan on ICRT for years before retiring to the Philippines. He is still sending in his show AsiaNation that plays on Sundays. Tito’s the one-man production studio who put the show together and made it greater than the sum of its parts.

Former ICRT facilities at the American Village in Yangmingshan

This documentary series covers how when the US switched diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC on Jan. 1 1979, the armed forces had to leave. Armed Forces Network Radio Taiwan had already been a popular station, and very useful for the business expat community, who convinced the ROC government to let them take it over. In 1983 they hired an American guy from Hawaii called Craig Quick, a natural leader with broadcast experience and a bold vision for ICRT. Quick hired some talented, motivated people and they got to work up in the old fortified AFNRT studio on Yangmingshan. Leadership, talent, and teamwork – combined with having the only private radio license in Taiwan at the time – led to a huge success. ICRT became a media elephant. Not long after that, on July 14th, 1987, martial law was lifted, and the country saw a wave of openness and democratization that ICRT fit perfectly into. It was truly a golden time for the radio station.

But it was not to last: there were rough waters ahead. According to a Taipei Times article of April 16, 2014: “…in January 1993, the central government lifted its ban on new radio stations, going on to approve 46 new stations across Taiwan on Dec. 24, 1994. ICRT found itself floundering: Within the next few years, it had taken the AM channel permanently off-air and severely downsized its FM.”

It was too easy for the new Taiwanese-owned stations to simply copy ICRT’s successful format: popular western music, jingles, contests, phone-in requests, and chatty DJs. The loss of the monopoly position was a massive hit to ICRT’s advertising revenue.

But even as the station slowly started to fade through the late 1990’s and early 2000s, it still served the community. When I polled the Facebook hive-mind on favorite ICRT moments, many people talked about how Terry Engel’s morning show cheered them up on blue Mondays, or how Bill Thiessen’s jazz show chilled them out on Sunday nights. Good vibes!  Many also expressed strong appreciation for the news department’s solid coverage in the aftermath of the 9-21 Jiji Earthquake on Sep. 21st, 1999. In a similar vein, current general manager Tim Berge recalls how useful the station was to the international community when Typhoon Nari slammed into northeastern Taiwan on Sep. 16 2001. Much of Taipei was flooded and without electricity for a couple of days, but ICRT was there, back-up generator cranking away, keeping everyone up-to-date on conditions and recovery efforts.

Of course, everyone had a radio back then, whereas today probably most people don’t have one, unless they drive a car. Everything is online and on your smartphone. ICRT has tried to adapt with podcasts, live streaming, an app, and a presence on Facebook and Twitch, among other innovations. But let’s face it: in the media landscape they’ve gone (through no fault of their own) from being an elephant to a dwarf elephant; from 3,000,000 listeners a day to 500,000 per week; from number one to number 6. Tim Berge and the team, like Ron Stuart, Joseph Lin, Gavin Phipps – and many others – soldier on at their new digs in Xinzhuang, refusing to give up, keeping the legend alive. Thanks guys!

tim berge, general manager of icrt

Even Tim remembers the Yangmingshan days with fondness, how as “Captain Tim” the traffic guy, he beat his chest to simulate the sound of their non-existent traffic helicopter. Like everyone else, he was having fun and enjoying the moment, riding a big golden wave. Everyone was younger and more optimistic back then, as was Taiwan.

So if you want to uncork and experience those moments, the Radioactive Taiwan podcast is a powerful blast from the past. There’s a lot I didn’t share because you should experience if for yourself: the stories of concerts promoted, marketing triumphs, and cultural impact. There are cameo voice appearances by veteran ICRTers (including Craig Quick), notable expat personalities, famous politicians and recording artists, and more. The whole thing is not only informative, but also dynamic and fun like radio itself.

Give them a listen: I absolutely guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Here’s the link:

https://anchor.fm/radioactivetaiwan/episodes/Radioactive-Taiwan—Chapter-1—Setting-the-Stage-e134il6

If you like it as much as I do, and want to support some cool old coots preserving their glory days in a compelling way, they can use your vote at the People’s Choice Podcast Awards, a big-deal annual event.  Give them a vote! There is a brief, non-invasive registration process to make sure that people only vote once for any entry. I did it: it’s easy and didn’t lead to spam.

Go to www.podcastawards.com

Register.

Podcast’s name: Radioactive Taiwan 

Categories: Adam Curry and History 

And in these times of Covid-19, PRC saber-rattling, and squabbling on Facebook, you can still tune into the good vibes on ICRT or in this podcast.

So remember everyone: Taiwan’s More Than a Place to Live, Taiwan’s a State of Mind…

At ICRTeeeeeeee!

_________________________________________________________

I’m John Groot, the author of this blog and also Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan, the story of my walk around the shoreline of Taiwan, and also the story of the Taiwan I discovered. If you’d like to know more about my book, please check out its Facebook page here. Cheers!

https://www.facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet

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Walking Ghost

The 4th and final installment in my series of posts about the writing of my book Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan.

During my first few years in Taiwan, I used to love walking around the old neighborhoods of Taipei. On the main streets, much of community life took place on the sidewalks. Between the 7-Elevens and cafes were traditional, open-fronted temple-supply or dried-goods shops. There were also shops for tradesman filled with tools or paint, and old-fashioned clothing stores, the ageing owner serving the customers personally. Shops often had products for sale right outside, in the space between the main walkway and the road, so you actually walked through the shop while passing by. Occasionally there’d be a cluster of food stalls, with accompanying sounds and smells, and noisy banter in Taiwanese. There always seemed to be a lot of work going on in the daytime in these blue-collar neighborhoods: deliverymen parked their trucks creatively on the roadside, loading or unloading wares; men on stilt-ladders fixed electric signs, or motorcycles were repaired right in front of you. It was hectic but fun, and I would dodge and weave through this homey obstacle course.

In the early evening, I often enjoyed walking through the soft darkness of quiet side streets where, the business of the day concluded, families hung out in the front room of their small shop-homes, watching TV, or laughing with the kids. Some spaces were empty and silent, but illuminated by the red light of a small shrine to Mazu or Guanyin. I walked by outside in the dark, unobserved, peering briefly in, silently and affectionately. Then I often went to a riverside pathway and marched on for hours in a dreamy trance, seeing the lights of distant buildings across the water. Sometimes I joked to myself: “If you die in Taiwan, you might end up as a walking ghost, your restless spirit patrolling the streets forever.”

Years later, I shifted my focus to walking around the island, which was what gave me the chance to meet John Grant Ross. That fellow hadn’t been so lucky in his planned north-to-south mountain walk of the entire island, cancelled thanks to the 921 Earthquake. Instead, Ross did a series of trips around the island over the next two months – an interesting time to do so, as the island’s infrastructure was still being repaired. It was also a time when the Taiwanese really pulled together as one people, forging a greater sense of collective identity. Ross walked 30km from Fuiguijiao – the northernmost tip of Taiwan – to Tamsui. He solo hiked the Southern Cross Island Highway, closed to car traffic at the time (and now again). “I had the mountains to myself,” he told me. He has described the vista of the Pacific Ocean at the end of a descending series of ridgelines, as seen from the Central Mountains looking east, as a vision of “Taiwan before the Fall”, unbesmirched by civilization, a brief glimpse of its former wild beauty. Ross also biked around Kenting and up part of the East Coast, and did a few other trips to meet and interview some fascinating people.

In addition of course, he’d done a large amount of reading on Taiwan, alone in his room with only his beer fridge for company. Then he sat down at his desk, rolled up his sleeves, and started to write. One years later, it was done. He’d given it his best swing, and he’d knocked it out of the park. His book Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan, Past and Present frames Taiwan’s society and history through the lens of the island’s zeitgeist in that volatile period between the September 21, 1999 “921” earthquake and the March 18, 2000 election of Chen Shui-bian, the first opposition party president in Taiwan’s history.

Beyond merely capturing the excitement in Taiwan at the millennium, Formosan Odyssey gives tribute to the island’s deeper past. Interspersed between the brief sections on his own island tour are longer passages that bring to life the bold players of Taiwan’s early history, the European and Chinese colonists, the pirates and smugglers, the indigenous people and explorers. It is clearly the book of a “bruised romantic who would have been happier living in a less civilized time”, as Ross describes himself. There’s a lot of colorful stuff about various 19th-century “Wild East” characters like the Scottish-Canadian Presbyterian missionary George Leslie Mackay, who (with no medical training) pulled Taiwanese teeth in Tamsui. That is well known, but a story less commonly told is that he observed the execution and cannibalistic dismemberment of an aboriginal man by Han settlers in Yilan.

Ross also enjoys recounting tales of William Pickering, an English sailor who had been wandering the Orient until he joined the Qing government’s Imperial Maritime Customs Service in Fujian. Sent to Tainan, Pickering’s adventures in war, and peacemong the Paiwan people of what is now Kenting are as exciting as they are historically significant. They include his role as an interpreter on the ill-fated Formosa Expedition of 1867. Intended as a retaliatory raid on the Paiwan for killing 14 members of the American ship Rover that had run aground near the southern tip of Taiwan, Eluanbi, earlier the same year, the botched revenge expedition saw the death by musket fire of its leader, Lieutenant Commander Alexander Mackenzie. Ross also gleefully describes the arrival of 20 naked Europeans to Pickering’s office, after they had been stripped of all their clothes and possessions by Han Chinese pirates only a few kilometers outside of the town. They had been stripped and robbed the day before, then helped by a kind local magistrate who had given them food, a small amount of money, and rice bags for clothing. But on the way back to town they were robbed and stripped again!

William A. Pickering, 1869

Ross also brings Taiwan’s modern era to us in sections on Chiang Kai-shek, Lee Tung-hui, and Chen Shui-bian. But longer still is Ross’ account of his interview with Dr. Ko Shi-cheng, a world famous expert on foot binding, the bizarre practice that was inflicted on about three billion women over 1000 years. One fascinating detail divulged was that even in erotic prints of nude Chinese women performing sexual acts in explicit detail, the “lotus feet” are modestly covered.

Overall, Formosan Odyssey is the book of a young man happily discovering a new country. Its sense of fun is infectious, but it still treats the important aspects of Taiwan’s history and society credibly and with appropriate gravity. Hence, it’s a unique and worthy piece of literature. 

Of course, before it could be appreciated, it had first to be published. Ross sent his manuscript to one of Taiwan’s premier publishing houses, but they rejected his work.  Other publishers turned him down as well. Too much fun, perhaps? Annoyed, but undefeated, he decided to self-publish. He then had a second setback: the printing company he contracted made a mistake, and there were some creased pages in every copy. Luckily for Ross they agreed to do a full reprint for free, leaving him with about 80 hard-to-sell, but easy to gift, copies of the book in which the creasing was fairly light. He said that he believes giving out these free copies helped create a buzz for the book, ensuring its long-term success. Lemons to lemonade!

However, Ross hadn’t given up on his plans to get his book published more professionally. He bided his time, reading volumes and drinking crates of beer, waiting for “someone good” to approach him. This happened in 2012 when he was contacted by Michael “Taffy” Cannings, who had skills with computer graphics and marketing. The original plan was just to publish Ross’ work as an e-book, but their venture kept snowballing. Mark Swofford joined as an editor, and the newly minted Camphor Press was off to a good start with eight e-book titles in 2014, including a reissue of Formosan Odyssey, T.C. Lin’s Barbarian at the Gate, describing his experience as a white guy doing military service in Taiwan, Richard Saunders’ travel guide The Islands of Taiwan, and another book by Ross, You Don’t Know China: 22 Enduring Myths Debunked. Since then, Camphor Press has grown both in terms of prestige and volume, publishing over 100 titles as of the time I write this. Well done, lads!

Something else happened in 2012: This was also the time that I met John Grant Ross. Long ago when I had just started the walk, we had communicated on Forumosa.com, where the cool foreigners used to hang out online before Facebook crashed the scene. Ross had enthusiastically supported my idea, and extended a cordial invite to drop by his place in the desolate wilds of western Chiayi when my walk took me through the area. About four years later, I finally got there, and took him up on it. There was a great meeting of minds, an even greater drinking of beer, and eventually he suggested that I write a book about my travels for Camphor Press, which was still very much in the developmental stages at the time. I instantly agreed.

Two years later, I finished my walk around Taiwan, and rested, aglow with contentment, for a year. Then Ross reminded me about the book idea, so it was time for me to get to work. I painstakingly reviewed and organized my eclectic collection of old blog posts and pictures, soon realizing two things: Firstly, that my story, while interesting, didn’t contain a sufficient variety of content for an entire book. I would have to add a lot of background material about the island itself. Secondly, I also had to come up with a narrative theme that connected the story of my walk to the story of Taiwan, matching my clockwise coastal circuit with the forward-moving arc of Taiwan’s history. In about a year, these two tasks were mostly accomplished, and I set to the business of wrestling with my text. When I had beaten it into a somewhat more book-like form, John Ross began to help me with editorial comments and suggestions. Soon it was starting to really take shape.

But then I noticed something strange: while Ross was responsive and helpful, there was little official word from the other two members of the company, Michael “Taffy” Cannings and Mark Swofford. They seemed to be dragging their heels on the book, and with no explanation why. Finally, I figured it out. They didn’t like my book, not for Camphor Press anyway. Too much fun, perhaps? Ross, the heart of the company from the literary side of things, did like it. But he was stuck in the middle: he couldn’t bully his partners – it was a “Three Musketeers” type of operation – and nor could he let me down, his friend, the person he had suggested write the book in the first place. He wasn’t that sort of bloke. What to do? Then I had a brainwave. The deal, I said, should be this: the Camphor crew would help me technically produce a nicely laid out printable PDF file (the modern version of a finished manuscript), and get it up on Amazon and similar outlets as a “print on demand” (POD) book. However, it would not be listed or referred to as a Camphor Press book.

This honourable compromise was accepted. Nevertheless, things continued to be problematic. Progress was painfully slow, which drove me up the fucking wall. It was a bleak year in my life, and involved me sending more than one angry email to Taffy, often in the early hours of the morning when alcohol made my angst boil over. But, eventually, finally, in April 2020, about two years later than I thought it would, the book file was finished. My nightmare of frustration was over. It was an immense relief, and a bright transition to a new personal reality.  

Taffy, to his credit, had said back in the autumn of 2019 that I could print up some copies locally and sell them myself in Taiwan. This hadn’t been part of our compromise, and despite our differences, he did it anyway. A tip of the hat to him on that score. It turned out to be an emotional life-saver, as Covid-lockdown-related deliveries overwhelmed Amazon during the spring and summer of 2020, sending online book purchasing into chaos, just as my own work hit the market. This could have been another massive frustration for me. Instead, I had a big pile of boxes in my office – 500 shiny new books to gloat over! Now I had to sell them. Being a self-published author in Taiwan forced me to do all the promotion myself, and I did, traveling around the country and having book signings in fine venues like MTB Teabar and On Tap in Taipei, the Green Hornet, Cheers, and Dazzler’s Fish & Chips in New Taipei City, The H.O.P. in Taoyuan, Hooked on Fish and Chips in Hsinchu, the Lighthouse in Kaohsiung, Roxy’s Bar in Douliu, and ABC Deli in Taitung. Great places all! These events were quite successful in promoting the book, and were also excellent opportunities to meet people,  and expand my real social network. Lemons to lemonade once again!

Speaking of Ross: while he was helping me with my book, he was also working on another one of his own, Taiwan in 100 Books, easily his most impressive product to date. In it, Ross writes that he (mainly) aimed to share what he thinks “are the best, the most important, and the most influential books” about Taiwan. His book is divided into 12 loosely chronological chapters, including “Early Formosa”, “Frontier Taiwan: Qing Rule”, “Japanese Taiwan”, and “2-28: A Bad Beginning” – about the inept and divisive early years of Nationalist rule. Other chapters cover books about big topics such as the American military presence, the White Terror, and the development of the democracy movement, and also smaller ones like ecology, sports, music, the railways, and crime.

However, Ross being Ross, his compendium ventures into more titillating topics as well, describing works on ghost-fetus haunting, sex work, and other lurid or salty fare. In fact, the opening chapter of the book, “Mysterious Taiwan”, starts in 1957 with the tale of the American millionaire John F. Gilbey arriving in Taiwan in search of legendary kung fu practitioners, some of who could reputedly suspend a weight of 100 kilograms from their genitals!

However, although Taiwan in 100 Books contains these glints of the laddish Ross we met in Formosan Odyssey, it is actually much deeper. For one thing, the writing style is more polished and literary, while still being clear, down-to-earth, and sensitive. What’s more, each of the 100 books chosen is insightfully evaluated, and includes the personal backstory to the author, key quotes, and the relevance of the work as a whole in the canon of “Taiwan Lit”. And that’s where the true value of the book lies. Before Ross tells us about his selected 100 books about Taiwan, he first had to read several hundred books, analyzing them as someone who has lived in Taiwan for 25 years, studying the island primarily through its literature. Who better then to be our trusted guide through the Formosan literary terrain? So if in Formosan Odyssey Ross is like John F. Gilbey, the newly arrived explorer with a hunger for knowledge, in Taiwan in 100 Books, he is more like the kung fu master himself, the man who could suspend 100 kilograms from his genitals. Although in Ross’ case, it is not weights but books that he supports. (Ahem! Sorry about that. Couldn’t help myself.)

Perhaps inadvertently, Ross has also given us a mosaic view of Taiwan itself, over time. We gain a picture of Taiwan’s land, history, culture, and society that is a composite of many written stories of the people who have traveled here (like most of us) to discover it. Each writer’s experience and perspective is different, whether it is the early explorer hiking with Indigenous people in the central mountains, the diplomat’s wife dealing with cliques in 19th-century Tamsui, or the pleasure-seeking writer bouncing from drink to girl in the late 1960’s Taipei “G.I.” bar scene. Each account is infused with the unique flavor of their consciousness. The result is a sort of “crowd-sourced” vision of Taiwan that is more organic and authentic than any one person’s view.

Another reason I really like Ross’ new book is because he chose my book, Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan as one of his 100 books! It’s a real honor, and also a practical boost for my project. But that’s not why it was included, of course. I think it made it on the list because of what it represents: the enduring love so many foreign visitors come to have for Taiwan, the spirit of plunging into the mystery of this land and trying to uncover more in one’s own unique way – and to share that; and the restless sense of being at home but never at home, and somehow not really minding.

In any case, it will help keep my book and the experience it’s based on alive. I am proud to have added one facet to our collective consciousness on Taiwan. No matter what happens to me, whether I’m dead and gone, old and gray, or simply far away, I’ll always be there on the bookshelf and in the minds of readers, and also in my memories, restlessly walking the shorelines of the island, from cape to cape, cliff to cliff, beach to beach, and harbor to harbor – a travel junkie with Taiwanese feet, in search of something beautiful but elusive, something I won’t know until I find it. In spirit, I will always be a walking ghost in Taiwan. And a happy one!

If you would like more information about the book Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan, you can click here: https://www.facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet

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THE MAD ADVENTURES OF THE OTHER BIG JOHN and how they led to a brotherhood of beer and books

John Grant Ross on the river in Papua New Guinea

Part 3 In the story behind my book “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”

September 21st, 1999. In Dounan Township, Yunlin County, Taiwan, John Grant Ross (a huge, bookish, beer-guzzling Kiwi ) was starting to realize that his plan to walk the high mountains along the entire length of Taiwan – from Fuiguijiao in the north to Erluanbi in the south – was in ruins, as indeed was much of the country. There had just been a massive earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale in the early hours of the very day he had planned to set off. Reports were coming in from all over, and they didn’t sound good: Buildings had collapsed, bridges had fallen, and there were huge cracks in the earth, massive landslides, and a lot of dead bodies. It was a total mess. The “Nine-Two-One” earthquake as the Taiwanese call it, centered in Jiji township, Nantou, killed 2,415 people, injured 11,305, and caused NT$300 billion worth of damage. Ross was unharmed, but his trip was definitely off. Most of his intended mountain route was now in the emergency zone; trails had been obliterated, and in fact entire mountains had disappeared. As Big John Ross said, “My maps had suddenly become historical documents.” But not even a massive earthquake could derail the boisterous Kiwi’s enthusiasm for adventure.

Buildings devastated by the 921 earthquake

John Ross, from South Auckland, is the son of immigrants: his father was from Wales and mother from Scotland. His dad was a technical expert for Air New Zealand, so son John got cheap airfares, which suited the young book-lover very well. He had done his fair share of reading about adventures; now he could get on with having some of his own. On summer vacations from university he flew off to Argentina and Chile. Sometimes he stayed in normal accommodation in the towns, but at times was drawn to camping up in the mountains by himself. “I think of myself as a bruised romantic,” He told me, “someone who might have been happier in an earlier, less civilized time.”

Indeed, he planned to go back to South America and do a trip in the Amazon rainforest to trace the steps of lieutenant-colonel Percy Fawcett, a legendary British geographer, artillery officer, cartographer, archaeologist, and explorer, who had disappeared deep in the Brazilian jungle in 1925, trying to find the lost city of “Z”. Gradually, though, Ross’ travelers’ daydreams turned to other lands. Why fly all the way around the world to go after a lost city that had probably never existed? There was another mysterious jungle to explore much closer, in Papua New Guinea.

Percival Harrison Fawcett

In March 1989 Ross mounted a small expedition exploring the Lake Kopiago region in Papua New Guinea’s Western Central Mountain range, not far from the Indonesian border. His goal was to hike over the spine of the mountains, through what is now called the April Salome Rainforest. The travel plan was pure 19th century: go to the end of the road and just keep walking. As Percy Fawcett himself might have asked, what could possibly go wrong?

But first he had to make sure he was properly prepared: Trade goods and presents for the natives? (Some sharpening stones and metal pots) Check! Guide and porters proficient in the local tribal languages and also New Guinea Pidgin English? Check! Two pairs of hiking boots, one pair of shoes, tent, rain gear, fire making and first aid kits, flashlight, batteries, and machete? Check! Alright then, tally ho lads! 

Of course, the map is not the terrain. The lovely clear line of road on the map turned out to be “a rutted piece of shit where vehicles lurched from pothole to pothole” according to Ross. At the end of this there was a police station, and the local district officer asked him if he was sure he wanted to do it, as the last group of outsiders – some Australian officers who had entered back in 1972 – had been attacked by arrows. The answer, of course, was an emphatic yes. For Ross, that was almost like waving a red flag at a bull.

Rough map of Ross’ expedition locations: Route in ORANGE Roads are YELLOW

Off they went into the jungle. It was tough going: thick, moist rainforest on steep slopes, without anything you could call a decent trail. The jungle was interesting though, as were the social interactions. His guide, a man about 40 years old who had grown up on the outskirts of this area, soon discovered that everyone he had known locally before had since died. The locals wore grass skirts, lived in small simple settlements, and had a variety of reactions to the “white gorilla” in their midst. They knew of the existence of white people of course, but most of them had never seen one. Ross said that some of the reactions to him were surprisingly natural. Many people just seemed mildly amused, while a few others froze in terror. Overall, the native people there had a generally positive view of white people, associating them with good magic and medicine. Sick people would come up to him – something he had encountered in his earlier reconnaissance trip- so he had stocked up on painkillers and antibiotics. In this way the young explorer connected with what he called his “lost family,” his self-deprecating play on the “lost tribe” trope. There were no attacks, though. Of course Ross would not have wanted either himself or anyone in his party to be killed or wounded. But I can’t help but suspect that his experience would have been enhanced if just one or two badly aimed arrows had been shot at him and missed! Not to worry: the land itself would give him all the adversity he needed.

Ross’ local guide

They hiked over the Central Range, but the hard work and humid conditions ate through all of his footwear. Once that went, the skin on his feet started to come off, and to make matters worse, he accidentally trod on a campfire. After this, he could no longer walk. This had all happened in just under three weeks. Hiking the jungle is no joke.

Local accommodation: Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea

Progress along the route had been slower than expected. They had run out of food, so his companions were exhausted, while the chubbier Ross made due off of his body’s reserves. But with his injured feet, moving forward was the issue. His mates made a simple raft for Ross, and floated him down the stream to the April River, and thence the village of Niksek. He rested there for a week, getting some skin back on his feet. Then he continued by raft – alone through the wild jungle – to the next village downstream, where he bought a dugout canoe for a metal pot, a machete and a bit of cash. In his new conveyance, he paddled down to the broad Sepik River, almost 1km wide in places, and journeyed along that for a while until he found a riverside settlement with road access. From there, he got a lift to the coastal town of Wewak, where he called his parents to tell them he was OK, after being out of touch and in the wilds for six weeks.

While he was hanging out at Wewak, Ross met a Japanese photographer named Masao Endo. Endo found Ross’ adventure to be quite interesting, and wanted to go on the river with him. So they went to where Ross had left his dugout canoe, and together carried on down the Sepik River. It was beautiful country and they enjoyed days of travelling, with Ross listening to Endo’s traveler’s tales from war-reporting in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Masao Endo, before the river incident

The two travelers happily chatted away as they paddled along the mighty river. Then misfortune, abetted by carelessness, struck. The dugout was in the middle of the wide river when a strong wind sprung up, kicking up high waves that soon swamped the small boat, overloaded with gear and two men. In just a few minutes, it became a matter of life or death. Endo opted for flight: he took off his shoes and pants, jumped into the river; and started to swim for shore. John Ross chose fight. He stayed in the boat and vowed to get it to shore by any means necessary. He knew it would be a huge effort, as he had lost the paddle, so he got a 1kg bag of sugar, mixed it with river water, and drank the mixture to turbo-charge him for what was to come next. Furiously he bailed the canoe out, then kneeled in the boat and paddled hard with just his arms, reaching a patch of swamp land. He caught his breath and waited to flag down a passing canoe, but nobody came. He decided to take the canoe down the river to find help, setting off paddleless, steering with his arms. After a while he noticed some thatch huts on the distant shore, and racing against the current, gave it all he had to cross the huge, turbulent river. It was a maximum physical exertion, but he made it to the village, then collapsed, exhausted – but not before he had told the villagers about Endo. A group of village men went off to look for Ross’ hapless companion, who they found in his underwear, hanging on for dear life up a small tree right on the swampy bank of the river. He had been almost eaten alive by mosquitoes. One arm had 400 bites, so there must have been thousands over his whole body, and he had to be taken to the hospital. Not sure how he felt about his decision to befriend Ross back in Wewak, though!

John Ross was chuffed with himself: He felt that he had handled the situation well, hadn’t panicked, and proven that he had “huge balls”, while wryly admitting that he had kind of fucked up by getting into trouble in the first place. But he’d survived, and the big thirsty Kiwi was up for some more fun.

Some of this involved bouncing between New Zealand, and Burma in 1991 (where he got malaria) and then Thailand 1992. One night on the Thailand trip, he met some Westerner ESL teachers who were on vacation from their life in Taiwan, who told him what a great place it was for travelers. In fact, Taiwan was just starting to be a known place on the backpackers’ trail of Asia at this time. It had recently come out of Martial Law, so travel to and around the country was much freer than before. There was a big demand for ESL teachers, so living there comfortably was not an issue; money could be made for trips in the region. Interesting, he thought. The travelers had planted a seed in his mind. One day some months later, while gold prospecting in the South Island of New Zealand, Ross sat in his tent, drinking heavily of homemade wine. It was then that the idea really took hold. I can imagine him thinking to himself, in true Kiwi fashion: “Struth! I may be out in the wop wops, pissed as a chook, but moving to Taiwan would be a cracker of an idea! I’ll do it! Sweet as!”   

So in 1994, at the tender age of 26, he moved to Taiwan. Of course, like so many of us, he enjoyed the novel food, temples, culture, lovely “silken skinned” women, friendly vibe etc. Although tamer than his usual haunts, Taiwan was more of an adventure back then than it is today. It had been mapped out for the traveler, but not in detail, and there was no Google Maps or anything like it. There were a lot of unknowns and new things to discover. The society itself was also a bit wilder back, with a more cavalier approach to “rules” and “laws”, and loads more traditional spectacles happening in public, like noisy parades, exploding firecrackers, temple strippers, god pigs, betel nut beauties, and more.

And the drinking! The drinking! It was heaven. There were restaurants where you could drink, some pubs, or cheaper yet, Ross could settle his massive frame onto a park bench where and swill cans of beer all day at a very modest price. Police? No problem. It was legally and socially acceptable.

Flash forward a couple of years. Ross had started to grok that there was something more to Taiwan, something deeper and more mysterious than the convenience and easy pickings of life for the English teacher/traveler. One day he was in Mongolia, chasing down some local Yeti legend, getting stymied by Soviet-era bureaucrats telling him he lacked the necessary internal travel visa, and sullenly drinking vodka in a crappy bar in a one-yak town. Suddenly an inspired idea floated into his head. He decided to walk from north to south down the mountainous spine of the country, and then write a book about it. It was going to be his Next Epic Adventure! In love with his new plan, he got organized, did his research, and made his preparations. He would set out on September 21st, 1999. Yes, that would be an excellent date, with the weather cooling down a tad and the end of typhoon season almost here. What could possibly go wrong?

When Buddha closes the door, he opens a window. Although the 921 earthquake put the kibosh on his mountain trekking plans, he did do a tour of the island, in which met some very interesting people, and came out with his first book “Formosan Odyssey”, in 2002. The reader of travel books had become a creator of one. (Much more about this worthy book in my following post.) Despite this fine achievement, which led to more books and the eventual establishment of Camphor Press, Ross still had a bit of lingering regret at not having done that big mountain spine walk as planned. Now, married, it was no longer an option.

However, one day he spotted a thread on Forumosa.com (Taiwan’s premier expat BBS back in the Before Facebook Era) by some guy called “Big John” who planned to walk around the coastline of the entire island. Yep, that was me. So online he wished me the best and invited me to drop by for a visit when I had stomped my way around the coast to near his digs Chiayi. Six years later, I did. It turned out to be several visits actually. And on one of them, after a genuinely improbable number of beers, the other Big John suggested to me that I write a book about my adventures. It hadn’t occurred to me before that moment. But I instantly agreed, in true Canuck fashion: “Beauty! I may be out here in the boonies with you bud, so hammered after that mickey and that 2-4 that I can barely hold on to the chesterfield. But writing a book about my walk is a totally excellent idea. I’ll give’er for sure, eh!”

For more information about the book, click here:

https://www.facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet

Stay tuned for the 4th and last installment in this series on the story behind the book, coming SOON!

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Taiwan: My New Frontier

The coastline keeps going on and on, seemingly forever

Part 2 of the story behind the story of “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan.”

The captain announced that we’d be touching down soon, and we soared over the land from the flat blue ocean, overflying hectares of farm ponds dotted with white ducks, and then glided past the outer fences of Chiang Kai-shek International Airport to bump down on the big black runway. I had arrived! The airport mechanism duly ingested, processed, and ejected me with dreary efficiency, and then I was in for a bit of excitement: a Formula 1 racer wannabe type taxi driver showed me his need for speed along the highway into Taipei. Heart pounding, I peered out the windows and got my first view of the city: green hills, grey buildings and rivers, Mandarin characters everywhere. He dropped me off in Dadaocheng, one of the oldest parts of the city. I was on my own in this new land.

I had a hook-up though. I was to stay with friends of my Canadian buddy Sarah for a few nights at what turned out to be a weird old house, an elegant if somewhat faded Japanese-era mansion, invisible if you walked by because it was completely surrounded on all four sides by grubby, somewhat newer buildings. In fact, you had to enter through a small door at the back of a shop which had a roller belt for moving big bags of rice flour. The outside of the house had no number plate, I had zero Chinese, and no cell phone, so finding it the first time was an interesting challenge!

One of the oldest and most interesting streets in Taiwan

My first week in Taiwan was more than simply “a week”. It was a timeless period, present in the now and full of newness. An intense but random series of seemingly unconnected sights, sounds, and smells quickly coalesced into my first basic view of Taiwan on the ground. There was mad traffic, and funky old markets and temples that contrasted with gleaming new buildings and high-tech prosperity. There was a large variety of interesting food that was affordable, often delicious, and sometimes weird. Public spaces were crowded, and often very noisy with touts, announcements, or just people speaking loudly. Everywhere you went there were lots of people, the vast majority of them East Asian. There was not too much obvious ethnic diversity, so foreigners like me stuck out like sore thumbs, and I got lots of curious looks. But most people were very friendly and helpful.

The Goddess Mazu at Bangka Lungshan Temple

After a few days I got my first basic idea of how to function in Taiwan. It was quite a bit harder back then, as there was no Facebook or Google Maps. I soon moved into the cheap-ass “Taipei Hostel” near the main train station, where I shared a room, bathroom, and a common area with various other international travelers. They were mostly new Western arrivals like myself, looking to teach, but also a few older teachers hard up on their luck, drunk most of the time, as well as a group of traders from India. They were OK.

My first priority was making money, as I’d only arrived about $1200 Canadian. One of Sarah’s friends in the mansion hooked me up with a job at a private English-language kindergarten for Taiwanese kids. The work scene of the newbie foreign teacher here was a bit of a zoo: there was a high demand for teachers but low regard for quality. Those without real training or experience were usually relegated to “singing, dancing clown” types of jobs where Teacher Funny Foreigner makes the kids giggle. My first gig was no exception. There were 12 preschool kids to look after, who were very sweet but extremely exhausting. Controlling the kids, having to use the required educational materials – some of them way too tough for the level – and learning how to deal with local managers and teaching assistants, was a tough challenge at first. The days seemed to last forever. Then, somewhat worse for wear, I’d make my way through the crowded streets or subways to find food, and then back to the hostel lounge to swat mosquitos, watch HBO, and chat with my fellow residents.

The cows of Yangmingshan (some of them)

The deal was to work during the week, but live it up on the weekends! After a few attempts, getting around turned out to be quite easy. There were many attractions in and around Taipei: lush mountains covered in forest or tea farms, hot springs, temples, lovely rivers, museums, beaches, fishing harbors, night markets, quaint little towns and neighborhoods; it was a day-tripper’s paradise. Downtown, there was a lively party scene, with many bar and dating options. Us new arrivals soon became dandies, strutting about town with our white skin, high-bridged noses and “double fold” eyelids, all considered attractive by many of the local lasses. Once we got a few paychecks in, we found apartments, and then we could have house parties. During holidays we’d go down with our girlfriends to the south or east coast of the island, where the beaches were better, and things a bit more laid back. It was also an amazing blast to explore the wider region: Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia were all a short hop away. Life was good! Not only was my urge to travel being well satisfied by all the new sights and activities, but I was living in a safe, friendly society with universal health care, and I could easily find well-paying jobs. It seemed like the best of both worlds, traveling in a foreign country while living a stable lifestyle at the same time. Kind of like my dad used to do.

Teafields of Maokong

Flash forward five years: I was working at a much better teaching job with greatly improved confidence, and living with my new Taiwanese wife in a nice apartment. I’d visited all the special sites around Taipei, and many around the island. I had a posse of friends, and knew most of the major streets, subways, buses, restaurants, pubs, and markets. Taipei had become familiar and comfortable, and life had started to become something of a routine, albeit a generally pleasant one. But wait….Uh-oh! Was that a flashing yellow light on my dashboard? Had real life finally caught up with my endless escape?

If I’d had kids or a job that had room for real growth in scope and complexity, I might have invested my energies there. But I didn’t. Something else had to be done. The idea to walk around the island just seemed to float into my brain one day. I instantly fell in love with it, although it came as a complete surprise to my wife and friends. The usual response was a confused silence followed by some version of “You aren’t serious!” Of course, they probably hadn’t read the same books I had. When I still living back in Canada, and dreaming of traveling the world, I had become very interested in a certain sub-genre of travel literature you could call “adventurous expedition stories”. These were stories of people who skied across Antarctica (Shadows on the Wasteland), rode a motorbike around the world (Jupiter’s Travels), paddled a canoe from Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon river (Paddle to the Amazon), walked from the mouth of the Orinoco to the mouth of the Amazon (Mad White Giant), or walked across the island of Borneo (Stranger in the Forest). I even remembered something from some other foreigner in Taiwan who had started his book talking of his plan to walk the mountainous spine of Taiwan, before his dream was dashed by the 921 Earthquake. Why not do my own little adventure, I thought? Why not walk around the entire island in stages, following the coast as much as possible?

Lai Lai wave-cut platform

It would also help me in another way too. I was starting to realize that there was an invisible barrier separating me from the Taiwanese, a force field that they were unconsciously projecting from deep in their minds. I was not and could never be Taiwanese. I was a foreigner, just as I was human and male. In time, people I was close to would come to see me as just “John”. But to the wider society, I would always be “a foreigner”. If I were to feel part of the island, I would have to do it on my own terms.

Good times with Jerry

One fine day, I set out on my merry adventure. I was once more moving forward into the new. The first few days felt a bit weird, but I was still excited. I soon settled into a rhythm, and did my coast walking thing on nice days, so there was just endless blue sky, blue sea, and coastal greenery. It was cool as well because I was seeing the stuff you usually whiz past as you’re going from one tourist attraction to another. Now I was walking past quiet “nothing special” beaches with a group of old guys fishing, a few scruffy dogs for an entourage, or simple houses by the sea, a lady sweeping up a courtyard, a small fishing boat coming into a tiny little harbor. At times the only coastal route was the highway, and I’d face down trucks, buses, cars, and motorcycles as they zoomed by. Then I’d arrive at a proper town, and because sometimes the side streets were closer to the water, I’d take them instead of the main drag. I often cut through the back areas of fishing harbors where the Southeast Asian fishermen were working, sometimes directed by short, tough, gnarly-looking middle-aged Taiwanese men: captains or senior crew members. When I did chance upon the main tourist areas, I was sweatier than anyone else, and felt more like the cowboy who had ridden his horse across the dusty plains than the rich folk who took the train or stagecoach. So I’d keep moving on.

I was in it for the long haul. As I followed the coast, there was always the new view around each bend, and then the next outcrop or promontory in the distance, the new farthest point along my route I could see. And always I was getting farther and farther away from “home” in a strange land. I had been through most of this area by bus or train before, but it felt like a different place when I walked it. The experience was intimate, laborious, lonely, strange, and addictive. And then one day I met another traveler, who suggested I take the journey to another level. He said, “Why not write a book about your trip? I’ll help you.” He turned out to have a lot of interesting stories of his own. And shit did he like to drink beer!

To be continued …

Coming soon! Part 3 of The story behind “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”

Interested in the book? Check us out on Facebook. https://Facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet/

Or look for us on Amazon

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TRAVEL JUNKIE

Part 1 of The story behind “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”

Finally! After 83 days of walking spread out over eight years, I finished my walk around the entire coastline of Taiwan. Day after day, I marched along beaches, trails, roads, seawalls, or rocky shorelines. I got broiled by the sun, buffeted by the wind, attacked by dogs, and almost hit by flying rocks. At various times I felt exhausted, bored, sad and lonely, or amused and fascinated, and was inspired again and again by the beauty of the island. I got to know the coastline extremely well, forged a deeper personal bond with Taiwan, and enjoyed a confidence boost from the achievement.

Then came the next part of my journey, spanning another six years: turning my original blog record of the trip into a readable book. This took hundreds of hours of online research to get deeper background knowledge of the natural, geological, and human history of the island, as well as further hundreds of hours of writing, rewriting, and editing on my own – not easy, as this was my first book. On top of this were endless emails and phone calls with the book team, discussing the editing, layout, and graphics, followed by me, with no artistic training, hand-drawing four maps. Then, at long last, my self-published travelogue “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan” was finally born. Oh yes, it felt good, and still does!

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So there were two journeys, each one difficult yet fascinating in its own way. But it was contemplating the relationship between the two that gave me the deepest insight into my own life. By actually writing an adventure story, after having read so many over my lifetime, I realized how closely this behavior we call travel is linked to storytelling. It’s not the only source of infection, but travel literature – as well as traveler’s tales in other forms – is a carrier of the contagious travel bug, for which there is no known cure. The first symptom is the escapist pleasure of consuming the tale, which seems more interesting than the mundane life around you. This then progresses to day-dreaming, in moments of boredom, of exploring distant, exotic lands. In the final stages you get unbearably itchy feet, and there’s only one form of relief: off you go. That’s what happened to my dad, who grew up reading stories from around the British Empire as a boy, and then traveled all over the world when he grew up, taking his family with him. This got most of us infected (two of five kids were immune), and set me on my own life of travel, aided and abetted by the literature that constantly fueled the fire in my imagination to see The World. Somehow books were better for that than TV or movies; I don’t know why. Much later it became my turn to write about my own adventures. And if one person decides to travel because they have read my stories, I’ll have come full circle.

This chain of realizations was the end of the process. Now here’s the story of the beginning, of how my walk around Taiwan and the book about it – Taiwanese Feet – came to be. As it turns out, both of these journeys started the day I decided to come to Taiwan.  

September 22nd, 1999: I was living in Montreal, Canada, and seeing TV news reports about Taiwan’s massive 9 21 “Jiji” Earthquake, I called my good friend Sarah, who had been living in Taiwan for several years. Fortunately, she was fine: rattled by the quake, but unharmed. I had seen her just a few weeks earlier, when she came home for a visit during her summer break from teaching at the Taipei European School. She told me then that she thought I would love Taiwan. Her obvious happiness with life there was a strong recommendation, but it was her stories and descriptions that intrigued me. I wasn’t ready to jump just then, but the seed had been planted.  

Of course, I wasn’t exactly a tough sell. Before I arrived here in the early days of the 21st century, I had been ready for another foreign adventure for some time. It was in my blood. By my mid-30’s I had accumulated more travel experience than most of my friends, largely thanks to my dad, who had a bad case of wanderlust. He had done quite a bit of traveling as a young man, first to Karachi (then India, now Pakistan) with the RAF just after the end of World War II. Naturally, as an Englishman, he went over to do his bit for the Empire, although he joined up during the sunset of that great and terrible thing. But I am certain he would have been very curious to see it. I can imagine him as a teenager, hungrily reading accounts of Captain James Cook meeting Polynesians in the South Pacific, Stanley and Livingstone in the jungle, or battles between Shaka Zulu and the red-coated British regiments. And perhaps he’d read boys’ stories of tigers, jewels, and suttee in the Raj, tea and opium traders braving typhoons and pirates in the South China Sea, or fur traders killing bears and bargaining with the Iroquois in Canada. Such was the literary legacy of the British Empire, and my father, an avid reader, was always a sucker for “a rattling good yarn”.

My dad was taking the picture, so he’s not in this one! (Lol ; )

After he came back from Karachi, he never stopped traveling. First there were the motorcycle trips to southern France with his mates from university. Then, work as an engineer in Scotland, and later still emigrating from England to Canada with his Scottish wife – my mom – to start a family. But this stone (and my dad was as steady as a rock in most ways) kept on rolling. In 1975, when I was 10 years old, he took the whole gang off to Lesotho – a small mountainous land-locked nation enclaved in South Africa – where he had gotten a job working as an engineer for a Canadian government “Third World” development project. His own parents and his older sister had also emigrated from the UK, but instead of going to cold-ass Canada, they’d opted for warm South Africa during the apartheid era. From my dad’s perspective, the job in Lesotho meant a stable way to have a travel adventure, as well as a chance for the two branches of his family to interact.

The barren beauty of Lesotho

It was pretty exciting for all of us. I remember hiking the barren Lesotho hills with my dad and brothers, going to a very stiff British-style middle school, and then after class, running wild with my squad of multicultural mates, executing pigeons and mambas with our pellet rifles. There was also tennis and swimming – or occasionally sneaking into the movies – at the posh Maseru Club. At Christmas, our family would pile into the Kombi and do the all-day road trip to Durban, first through earth-toned rangeland, then next to the stunning Drakensberg Mountains, and finally, at night, winding down the long slope into the lush, humid, coastal belt with its smell of the sea and multitude of flowering trees and bushes. There lived my Aunt Mary, her husband, and their kids, as well as my grandparents. These were my best Christmases ever: Meeting new family, braaing by the pool, checking out the Indian markets of Durban, and playing in the waves on the white sand beaches of Zululand. But we all definitely felt the apartheid energy too, a kind of precise racial segregation that was clinical and surreal.

Segregated beach in Durban in the 70’s

We went to other fascinating places as well. In South Africa, we visited Kruger National Park, one of the world’s best game reserves. I was totally dazzled by the incredible variety of antelopes around every curve in the road. Then one day, it was time to go back to Canada. But the trip wasn’t over yet: On the way home we stopped off in Kenya for a turf and surf holiday: first Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya, an amazing place. I recall one timeless moment there. From a hilltop, early in the morning, I could see Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance, and all around me were dozens of dust-covered elephants, like huge red marbles with ears, moving through the bright green brush. I also saw lions mating next to a zebra carcass, which was quite an impressive spectacle. Then the surf: happy family beach life at the Two Fishes Hotel on the stunning Indian Ocean coast near Mombasa. For dessert, we saw Israel and, after that, a few days with my mom’s side of the family in Glasgow and Inverness. Finally, we landed in Ottawa, at that time a stodgy government town, where I was treated to reverse culture shock, being a newcomer at school, and a cold, cold winter. Ooph!

Ottawa’s Rideau Canal in winter

My next Groot Escape came about 10 years later. I spent six months in India, where my parents had moved. With the kids grown up, my dad had taken a job there. I traveled with parents, or more often solo, around this incredible place, thoroughly enjoying the carnival of intense sensations and impressions: riding in madly honking 3-wheeled motorcycle taxis through chaotic streets, being wowed by the Taj Mahal, tripping out on the fantastical religious multifariousness of Varanasi, sipping sundowners on the beach in Goa with free-spirited European travelerettes, and checking out the old market streets and colonial bling of Delhi and Calcutta. And of course, there was the quintessential travelers’ experience in India, taking the train: hours of relaxed people-watching, gazing out at ever-changing landscapes, and then the rude but amusing confrontation with the madness of an Indian railway station. On the other hand, there was certainly a very dark side to India: homeless families, squalid slums, public defecation, horrible air and water pollution, and incessant beggars. These all took quite some getting used to. But throughout my journey in these strange lands, (before the invention of the World Wide Web) the Lonely Planet guide became my Bible. I always brought the Good Book with me!

Varanasi, India: Possibly the most interesting city on Earth

At the end of this, skinny, tanned, and ready for some “normal”, I arrived back in Canada in the dead of winter. It was back to the grind for a while, and then a few years later I was off to Venezuela for three months, where my sister had moved and started a family. I made full use of my time, hiking the misty Andes, riding up the Orinoco in a motorboat to visit indigenous communities in the rainforest, relaxing on the beaches of the Caribbean coast, and enjoying my first taste of Latin American culture: the spontaneity and warmth of the people, the passionate backbeat to life, and the interesting new food – all set against the crime, inequality, and corruption that plagues this beautiful country. Again, the Lonely Planet was my faithful guide.

“The Jungle Toboggan” near Puerto Ayacucho, Amazonas, Venezuela

And then back to Canada again, all grown up now. I moved around a bit between east and west, trying to find myself. Although I had some exciting projects and wonderful human relationships, I was more turned on by my adventures away than by my normal life. I loved Canada, but often felt uninspired there. I had to face facts: I was a travel junkie. And in confronting that, I did find myself, in part at least.

So, what to do about it? By then I had started to become very curious about the “Far East”, i.e. East Asia and Southeast Asia. I hadn’t been there for one thing, and it seemed like a very important region not to miss out on, if one wanted to see The World. I’d read a fair amount about China and Japan, a mix of academic stuff and historical novels by James Clavell. I had heard stories about English teachers living the good life in Japan, but also reports that the scene was in decline. China still hadn’t quite fully opened up at that time, but Taiwan was newly on my radar thanks to Sarah, and sounded like a solid choice. The final push came when I got a copy of the 1998 Lonely Planet guide to Taiwan by Robert Storey. His lively and vivid descriptions of the island really appealed to me, and gave me a sense of where I would be heading. Considering my past experiences with Lonely Planet, it was a good omen. So, on to Taiwan! This time there were no family or friends waiting for me; Sarah had moved on, and so had my dad, permanently. This trip would be solo, like so many I had read about. I just made my basic plans, got onto the plane, and soared off into the night over the wide Pacific Ocean, toward my new life, whatever that would be.

To be continued …

Coming soon! Part 2 of The story behind “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”

Interested in the book? Check us out on Facebook. https://Facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet/

Or look for us on Amazon

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Dancing Dragons, Running Bulls

Last year (2018) I attended some fascinating traditional festivals in Taiwan and Spain, worlds apart in physical and cultural space, but both wild and compelling. Mixed in among the noise, smoke, laughter, animals –real or magical – and general craziness, I learned a few things about myself. Travel can do that for you, at its best.

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In April, I went to the Luohanmen Welcoming Buddha Event in rural Neimen Township, Kaohsiung City, southern Taiwan. It’s a temple procession in honor of Guanyin – “the Goddess of Compassion” – a Buddhist Bodhisattva that plays a major role in Taiwanese religion.

Early on a fine spring morning, me, the wife, and her “temple-granny” mom from the neighborhood, elbowed our way through the throng outside the Neimen Purple Bamboo Temple, a venerable community institution. The wide plaza in front of the building was punctuated by pools, pagodas, and big brick ghost money burners. The far end of the square was skirted by a narrow lane, dominated to our left by noisy puppet-show trucks. (These maniacally squawking entities are so ridiculously loud they could plausibly be used by the residents of that Russian arctic town Belushya Guba to fend off invading polar bears. However, perhaps the locals would think it a poor bargain.) On the right there was a row of traditional shops selling stuff like beverages, noodles, steamed buns, and peanut candy.

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Directly in front of the temple doors, where the crowd was thickest, an open space was cordoned of by men in Qing dynasty garb. We went there to take a look, and soon the spectacle began, starting with some acrobat shows and campy old musical folk plays. But soon it was time for the main act: the palanquins emerged, carried forward out from the dark, incense-fumed temple interior. The crowd parted to let them pass, although some of the devout chose instead to lie face down in a single-file line along the path so that the palanquinned deities would be carried above their bodies. Thousands of people marched along behind: locals and their families, tourists, and various traditional groups that played a major role in the event. These included Dragon Dancers – my personal favorite – Lion Dancers, spirit mediums, and the stars of the show, troupes of Song Jiang Battle Array performers.

Off we went, our procession continuing for hours on a carefully planned “divine inspection tour” of the countryside, following winding lanes through fields, small villages, and hamlets. As we passed, locals set off huge chains of firecrackers, and presented food and drink offerings to the gods – and to us marchers as well.

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From time to time, the parade stopped at key temples, where tables groaned under the weight of dozens of freshly slaughtered pigs, beautifully presented fruit, and many other foods. Out front, the Song Jiang Battle Array performers displayed their martial arts moves, weaving, bobbing, jumping, twirling, thrusting and parrying with swords and spears, as the drums beat on and on and on, and massive explosions of firecrackers rent the air, creating clouds of grey smoke. Boo ya!

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The tradition of the Song Jiang Battle Array troupes dates back to the time when settlers from China during the Qing dynasty had to band together and form militias to defend themselves from bandits and irate Formosan Aborgines. Song Jiang is the name of the legendary leader of 108 righteous men whose lives were ruined by corrupt Song Dynasty officials, forcing them to become the heroic outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh in Shandong, China. The legend is depicted in the brilliant novel Water Margin, written by Shi Nai’an during the Ming Dynasty. Song Jiang is a symbol of integrity, military success, and resistance to a corrupt regime.

Song Jiang

When the Empire of Japan occupied Taiwan in 1895, it imposed strict law and order. The militia that had safeguarded villagers from real threats were no longer as necessary for security. However, they were encouraged by the Japanese to carry on practicing and performing their Song Jiang Battle Arrays as a folk art. This they have done to this day: Neimen Township has a population of just 20,000 people, but boasts over 30 Song Jiang troupes of around 40 members each. Maybe one household in three has a member in one of the troupes, which add color and fun to temple events, promote local pride in a healthy way, and attract money-spending tourists.

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I had a great day marching with the procession, positioned just behind a long, colorful, undulating dragon figure. But the event was more than just fun: it was also a window into the fascinating diversity of legends, deities, numerology, geomancy, and superstitions that make up Chinese folk religion. This is a colorful alternative universe of the imagination to explore, and one which is preserved better in Taiwan than anywhere else.

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My main connection to that universe has always been my wife’s “temple granny” mother, who loyally follows all the customs of her creed and temple. One of these is the bai-bai, or ritual obeisance to the gods, performed with incense. Every Lunar New Year I go with her and my wife to the Neimen Purple Bamboo Temple. We wave the burning sticks first in one direction, then another, then put them into the brazier. I go along just to make her happy. After all, everyone else is doing the same thing. It is kind of an interesting process, and the artwork in the temple is quite impressive, so I do it. It makes me wonder how popular religion would be if the acts of worship were solitary and dull!

I doubt that most of the people at the Luohanmen Welcoming Buddha Event under 60 years old really believed in the gods. Probably the majority of attendees were there for a bit of fun or to appreciate the traditional culture as an art form. The event was about remembering the past, yes, but was also in tune with the modern world.

THE BLOOD ALSO RISES

Bull run

In stark contrast, the Running of the Bulls at the Festival of San Fermin, Pamplona, Spain, is in no way in tune with the modern world. Although the outer skin resembles a modern tourist event, the core is a bloody taurine ruckus bubbling up from deep in the past. Six Spanish Fighting Bulls and six oxen run an 825-meter course along narrow, twisting, cobblestone streets in Pamplona’s medieval town center, through a throng of thousands of idiots brave men dressed in white and red. The men wait for the bulls, the bulls come, and the men run with them. Every year people are injured; since the beginning of record keeping in 1922, 15 men have died in the run, usually gored by a bull’s horns. Most injuries are not very serious, such as bruises or contusions, but one year a guy actually got gored up the ass. I’m not sure how macho he would feel telling that story, although it doubtless came as some consolation to him that Spain has the finest bull-related-trauma surgeons in the world!

The encierro originated 700 years ago, when young herders taking the bulls through the streets from their corrals to the bullring danced around them to show off their bravery. Today’s runners are still known as mozos – lads.

For hundreds of years this local tradition would be virtually unknown to the English-speaking world, until a young Ernest Hemmingway popularized it in his classic modernist novel “The Sun Also Rises.”

Soon, macho dreamers from all over the world were traveling to Pamplona from July 6 to 14. They became mozos, wore the white pants, white shirt, and red cap, neckerchief and waist bandana, and ran with the bulls like locals.

I hadn’t even read that book until after I came back, but I had seen some YouTube videos of the encierro that touched a chord in me I hadn’t even known was there, one that Hemingway had mentioned.

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I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided to participate in the “encierro de Sanfermines”, but once I had announced that I would, I had to go through with it. It was that kind of thing. Hem would have agreed.

So, when the time came, I got on a plane. Twenty-one hours later, stiff-legged and jet-lagged, I landed in the Spanish capital. I took the metro downtown, emerged into the streets, and then fell in love – with Madrid. The warm morning sunlight illuminated elegant old sand-colored buildings. In little café-bakeries, men stood at the counter reading newspapers over their breakfast of churros, orange juice, and coffee. A real reading culture it was indeed. People chatted at newsstands, and I even saw even people reading books as they walked by! I cut through Parque El Retiro; full of fountains and statues, its verdant trees shimmering in the sun, then crossed the flamboyant avenue Paseo del Prado near the Fountain of Neptune. As I walked into the Centro Historico, striking architecture delighted the eye. It was a testament to Spain’s many layers of history.

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Modern waves of change were also evident: there was a big LGBTQ festival in town, and many prominent buildings displayed the rainbow flag. There were also a lot of African migrants illegally selling stuff like cheap bags on the street. These guys had a tough, wary, dried-up look in their eyes, the mark, I thought, of real hardship. In the old public square called Puerta del Sol, there was a peaceful demonstration by FEMEN, a radical feminist group based in Paris. Spain’s old right vs. left divide, which dates from before their civil war, is still very much alive. In Pamplona, I was definitely going to be interacting with the older, conservative side of the culture. Bullfighting and running with the bulls was something “the Left” would ban if they could.

After a brief stay in stunning Madrid, I took a bus north to San Sebastian (Donostia) in the Basque country. It was a fantastic day by the window, gazing out at endless dry grassy plans and shrub-forested mountains. As if for foreboding, several times I saw bulls grazing on the slopes. We got into the coastal mountains, and the forests grew lusher. A rainstorm hit while we were switchbacking down toward the Atlantic Ocean. Finally the bus let us out in San Sebastian, and I fell in love again: “Donostia” as the locals call it, is a hauntingly beautiful place with a picture-postcard beach and delightful Napoleonic era buildings. The cool fresh soul of the Atlantic permeated the city. I happily tramped about, enjoying its amazing food and views for a couple of days.

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Then, early on the morning of July 6, I took the one-hour bus ride to Pamplona. Festivities were well underway! The city was awash in citizens bedecked in the traditional white and red of San Fermin. Even grannies and little babies in strollers were dressed up in the colors! As I walked through town, drunk youth were shouting and running about, and were empty beer bottles and cans were everywhere.

I checked into my hostel, and then got my first surprise. As I was having lunch in a little café-bar next door, live on TV they were showing the opening ceremony for San Fermin, meaning of course that I wasn’t actually there! A small rocket called the chupinazo was set off from a balcony in Pamplona’s city hall, formally starting the festival. An official shouted: “Viva San Fermin! Gora San Fermin!” and the crowd cheered wildly and threw wine all over each other – while I sat in a café eating a damn sandwich! How had I missed that? Anyway, I wasn’t going to miss the bull-run encierro. No way!

I walked back into the old town. It was full of really cool old medieval buildings, albeit on a smaller and quainter scale than Madrid. You could picture a drunk guy riding a donkey through these streets, singing in the moonlight, in the time of Don Quixote. But today the narrow alleys were absolutely jammed with partygoers, thousands and thousands of people guzzling booze: calimocho – half wine and half coca cola – proper wine from wineskins, and one-liter bottles of San Miguel beer. It was totally nuts, but quite merry and unaggressive, and here and there small bands played traditional music.

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Google Maps helped me trace the route that the bulls would follow the next day, and I gently barged through the fiesta madness, walking each part of the course. That done, I relaxed and chatted with other festival-goers over a few drinks – but not too many! Tomorrow was the big day.

The next morning, I woke up at 5 a.m. Time to face the music. I had hatched this crazy plan, day-dreamed about it, and now it was today, not tomorrow. I strode through the streets at dawn, in awe at the evidence of truly massive drinking from the day before: an army of garbage trucks and men were getting rid of hundreds of thousands of booze containers; people were sleeping it off in parks or simply passed out on the sidewalk, and others were still at it.

On the encierro route, crews of workmen were quickly and expertly putting up the stout wooden barrier fences that would contain the beasts and protect the spectators. The spaces between the slats were wide enough for a runner in danger to slither through, but not a bull.

I arrived at the rallying point, the Plaza Consistorial, in front of the town hall, a lovely building from 1760. Other beautiful structures framed the small square, with people out on little balconies looking down at the gathering crowd. My fellow mozos were a mixed bunch: drunk young backpackers trying to sneak wineskins in past the sharp-eyed cops; groups of Spanish men in their 20s and 30s; and gringos like me. Excited, I chatted with people standing next to me. Some had done this before, others seemed not even to have done much homework on the run. Outside the fence, it was the modern world, with TV cameras, ambulances on stand-by, and people using their smartphones; inside the fence was something far more primitive.

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Excitement was building. By 7:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the release of the bulls from their corrals, the square had become much more crowded, and there was a sense of heightened expectation. Disturbingly, however, I noticed that a line of policemen had formed a cordon around the group of about 50 guys I was in at one corner of the square. The cops suddenly extended their arms and shoved, compressing and jamming our group together. It was scary and totally unexpected, and none of us knew what was going on. After a couple of minutes of this, it was becoming hard to breathe. Suddenly a wooden barrier was thrown open nearby and we were unceremoniously ejected! Later on I figured out that we had been standing in a dangerous turn where the bulls might careen into us. I get the cops’ logic, but not why they were so rough. It seems that is a local tradition too:

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What a letdown! But I still wanted to see the bulls. I ran around to one of the wooden fence areas where people could watch the run. It was jammed with onlookers, police, and TV cameras. I ran to the next one, which was much less crowded, and told a young Spanish couple standing there: “I wanted to run with the bulls but the police kicked me out!” The woman said: “Just go back in! There are no police here right now.” Aha! I slipped through the slats on to the street, and was back in the game.

I jogged down to “Dead Man’s Corner”, a sharp turn at the bottom of a hill which has proven particularly deadly over the years, and turned right on to Calle de la Estafeta, a long straight lane where the bulls don’t have to deal with tight corners on slippery cobblestones. I had read that this was the easiest and safest place for newb runners like me. After going along Estafeta for about 30 meters, I turned around and waited for the bull herd. The crowd roared at the sound of the two rockets signaling that the bulls were on their way. Soon they arrived.

The YouTube videos I’d seen of the encierro were always from an elevated angle, with a clear view of the approaching bulls. But bulls are shorter than men, so as runners on the ground we couldn’t actually see them coming until they were right on us. What we did see and hear was an approaching shockwave of panicked people shouting and jumping out of the way. When that wave got close, the bulls shot out, black and scary as hell. Those animals were as juiced up as anything I have seen: fierce as tigers, glossy and beautiful, lively beyond belief. Mixed in with them were the brown steers there to guide them. The herd ran by much faster than I had expected, at about the sprinting speed of a college athlete. Transfixed and without a programmed reaction, I watched them gallop by from the other side of the lane. One bull slowed down for a second, cast me an angry eye, then carried on. Another bull and a steer ran by. Was that the last of them? I looked back warily, and saw a strange thing, three oxen joined by a belled wooden yoke, followed by a bull herder. It was the sweeper team. I ran behind them all the way to the entrance to the Plaza de Toros, but immediately after the oxen entered, a line of security guards blocked the path, and the door to the arena was shut. My run was over!

Later that night all six bulls would be killed at a corrida, or bullfight. I had seen one before in Mexico City, a brutal, graceful, and bloody spectacle. But here in Pamplona, at San Fermin, which has more than 1,000,000 visitors from around the world, the bullfights had been sold out long ago; getting in would have been impossible.

Feeling happy about the entire experience, I had a few drinks with some other mozos and foreign travelers, then finally walked back to my hostel.

It was only in retrospect that I realized what I should have done, and felt some regret and disappointment. In addition to having missed the chupinazo, I had also missed the San Fermin procession on the morning of July 6, when thousands of people follow a 15th century statue of the saint that gets carried around the old part of town. (Funny the similarity to Taiwanese religion.) I also should have actually run with the bulls instead of just watching them go by and chasing them. Why hadn’t I? The bulls went by so fast I hardly had time to react, so I just went on instinct. Believe me, if you were there you would not have instinctively run toward those bulls! But the bottom line was that I had not programmed myself with the correct response for the occasion once I was actually next to the bulls. I hadn’t imagined the moment.

Despite that fact, I don’t feel that my performance was a failure. I did it! But it was only Act One. I must go back to Pamplona and finish it right. I’m going to do it. Next time, I will wait in exactly the same place, and when the bulls appear, I’ll start running as fast as I can. I know they will catch up with me! When they do, I’ll do my best to run with them all the way into the Plaza de Toros. And then my mission will be accomplished. Ole! New program uploaded.

How about the bulls’ point of view? Many people feel that the encierro and subsequent bullfights are brutal and unethical. I agree. However, they are far less unethical than the routine slaughter of meat animals. Spanish Fighting Bulls – Toros Bravos– live wonderful lives until their moment of truth, an average of five years under almost ideal conditions, grazing peacefully in open fields. That’s far better than the slaughtered pigs I saw in Neimen, which had lived for a maximum of one year in a crowded barn reeking of feces and urine. Think of battery chickens, veal calves, the slaughter of lambs: the list of meat cruelties is a long one, and on a scale millions of times greater than blood sports with bulls. But that’s old news. Enjoy your pork chop!

Looking back on the whole thing, it was very interesting to learn first-hand how programming can affect behavior under stress. I guess we are all behaviorally programmed to a large extent, so if we learn how to program ourselves, that’s a step forward then, isn’t it?

Other than that, I can only share the clichéd observation that as societies with long histories move forward into an increasingly weird future, it is emotionally important for them to maintain their connections with the past. Taiwan and Spain both do so in a lively and enjoyable way, and outsiders like you and me – travelers for life –-are welcome to join in. So I’ll end with a very sincere xie xie damas y caballeros! Nimen de cultura antigue zhen de hen hao!

Hemplona

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