The Moonwalk & The Fish That Got Away

 | 

I just watched an aquatic episode of Monster Quest on the History Channel. It reminded me of how I, like 600 or 700 million Chinese, missed the first walk on the moon. Yes, “Monster Quest.” Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone! And, yes, I know, that show has painted itself into a corner. It will pretty much have to produce a live sasquatch, or at least the carcass of one soon, or go off the air. But, don't worry, eventually this, my story, is going to turn into a fishing story, and also into a sex story.

The documentary examined a possible giant grouper attack on a child in Florida. It included good underwater footage of several Goliath groupers at close range. In the old days, some Goliath groupers were weighed in at over 500 pounds. Big fish! No need to lie if you hooked one of those.

I was about 26 and I was spending a whole summer on a small Mexican island off the Caribbean coast. I had only one purpose: to enact repeatedly a typical, recurrent fantasy of my French youth. I was there to spear sea creatures during the day and to cook and eat them during the warm tropical night. That was it. France is far to the north of most of North America, if you look at a map attentively. Paris, where I was raised, is even north of Montreal. It's also far from the ocean, but city people in France have deeply-anchored thalassotropism, an unreasoned attraction to the sea. Many spend summer at the seaside, where they learn to swim well. Even way back then, some people, like me, learned in their early teens to be comfortable underwater and to spear fish. French boys especially fantasized about tropical seas in the days when travel was expensive and it seemed there was little chance you would ever go there. Their dreams were purposeful and competent. They wanted to do something about them if the occasion arose, by some miracle. Well, the miracle happened for me. I emigrated to California, next door to Mexico.

In Mexico, I spent most daylight hours in the clear, clear sea, free-diving. That means up and down and up and down, holding your breath — no effeminate breathing apparatus (no scuba). With good training, under favorable conditions, if you are in shape, you can do that for hours on end. I never got bored, because I wasn't there for the sights; I was spearing fish right and left and I was also catching rock lobsters. (That's the red lobster with small claws, also called “spiny lobster.”) I don't wish to explain how I was catching the lobsters; I have a persistent fear of the Mexican constabulary, and I don't know what's the statute of limitation. The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the English Channel, where I had learned, that it was almost like moving to another planet.

For French spear-fishermen of that era, one kind of fish had legendary and mythical status: groupers. There were none in the Channel, and none in the Atlantic at those latitudes. There were only a few in the Mediterranean. Groupers were said to be elusive, secretive, and almost impossible to spear. Diving magazines reproduced endlessly the same photograph of the same champion of France posing with the same two foot-long grouper. I could not imagine, then, any change in my life's circumstances that would bring me within distance of such a trophy. To complete the picture, groupers were said to be excellent eating fish — not a small detail for the French, then or now.

The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the Channel that it was almost like moving to another planet.

Fast-forwarding my life story: that summer, I was right there on prime grouper territory. Once I had caught my three rock lobsters or my small barracuda for dinner, I would explore the reef cavities slowly, deliberately. I discovered that there were many groupers around but that they hid inside deep holes in the daytime. I devised a method to draw some of them out (the stupid ones, no doubt) where I could take a clear shot at them with my modest-sized rubber band spear gun. (I am sorry but I will not reveal the method until I am on my deathbed; it's like my secret chanterelles patch.)

Well, fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it. So I caught groupers worth catching several times and early on in my stay. And yes, the flesh was delicious, surprisingly refined in flavor and with a firm texture.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming American expedition to the moon had been the subject of a barrage of news, quasi-news, and speculations even in that remote part of Mexico. The night before the event, the locals were buying beer, and the few gringo tourists were right behind them. Some old women were even preparing Christmas tamales, way out of season. It was obvious there was not going to be any work done the next day, the planned date for the moonwalk.

We did not have access to a TV but my American girlfriend and I were going to join the festivities around a transistor radio with several other Americans. We were going to listen to commentators give the blow-by-blow. Incidentally, Mexican commentators of anything are better, more lively, more animated than their American counterparts. But grouper was on my mind. So, earlier than usual on the morning of the landing, I went into the water, close to town, with the modest objective of just doing a little exploration for later. Almost right away, I spotted a flat reef of old, smooth coral, shaped like a table, with many good-size perforations on its top.

Fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it.

Soon, the sun was at such an angle that I could see inside each hole right from the surface. I noticed something moving inside a hole and thought it might be a darting lobster. I dived down to investigate and immediately realized I was looking at the marbled skin of a large grouper with its head right under the opening. The atavistic assassin's reflex took over. Coolly, I told myself I would never have a better chance to shoot a large grouper in the head, where it counts, and at close range. One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

I shot as planned, right in the skull, and pulled on the line connecting the gun to the shaft in the fish, to bring it to the surface. There was resistance. I went down to investigate and found that the grouper was not dead, that it had inflated its body and braced itself inside the hole with its spiny dorsal fin. I dived about 15 or 20 times, and I was unable to budge it at all. Finally, I located a horizontal hole under the flat surface of the reef from which I could gain access to the struggling fish from a different angle.

I wrestled with the grouper for more than two hours, becoming prey to what economists know as the “sunk cost fallacy.” I had already invested so much time in that fish, I couldn't really let it go. In addition, one of my precious few shafts was embedded in its head and I would have to abandon it too.

Finally, the fish gave up or expired; it stopped resisting. I reached into the hole and grabbed it by the eye cavities, thumb in one eye, index finger in the other. I floated the fish up to the surface with no trouble and walked to town in the hot sun carrying on my shoulder a grouper the size of which I would not have even dared imagine ten years earlier, when I was still only a French spear-fisherman. I cannot tell you exactly how big that fish was, because there was no opportunity to weigh it, or even to measure it. Besides, fishermen are routinely accused of lying about measurements — because so many do, in fact, lie. I can say, however, that the next day, it fed eight young adults easily.

One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

By the time I arrived, the lunar show was over, the two guys had taken their little walk on the moon, everyone assured me, and the celebration was well under way. My girlfriend was miffed, but when she saw the grouper, she kind of understood my glee, although she was not a diver, and not even a woman of the sea. (She was just intelligent, and very hot!) At any rate, the moonwalk has always had a slight sense of unreality for me, because I did not watch it or even hear a description of the event in real time. As I mentioned, I am a little like the red Chinese who found out for sure only many years later. You might say, I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

There is a sequel to this story. The brain learns things it does not even know it knows. Every good fisherman will tell you he does not understand all his successes. So, the moonwalk fish subtly encouraged me to keep looking for grouper.

I explored a big pile of boulders, in shallow water, right across the narrow beach from the concrete cubicle where I lived. The top boulders almost broke the surface at low tide; the white sand on which they rested may have been 25 feet down, not much for an experienced free-diver with good, recent local training. Soon, I found a narrow space at the base of the boulders. With lots of air in my lungs, I did not hesitate to crawl inside. I ended up underneath the pile of rocks with just the tips of my flippers emerging.

I wasn't worried about wounding myself against the rocks, because I was wearing a light wetsuit. (I always wear a wetsuit when diving, even and especially in warm water. Warm water has coral. Any contact with most corals will inflict a thousand small cuts that will not heal if you submerge yourself in the salty sea repeatedly. And if you perspire even a little in the tropical night, the cuts hurt like hell.) I let my eyes become accustomed to the darkness and discovered a black, glistening surface a couple of feet away from my face that did not look like rock.

I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

I came up for air and went down again to the same spot, through the narrow passage, which gave me exactly the same orientation to the light. The mysterious surface had changed color. After a dozen times going up and down and into the hole, my face suddenly confronted another face, right at the bottom. The other face had big thick lips and globular eyes. In spite of that striking description, it took my brain a few seconds to register what I was seeing, because of its sheer size. The face was several times larger than mine. The hole was nearly filled by a giant grouper.

That the fish did not scoot at my approach was not surprising. First, the narrow passage in which I had crawled may have been the only exit route. Second, large groupers have few predators. They are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

When I understood what was so close to me, my heart did not beat faster. I felt very calm and collected. I dived repeatedly to reassure myself that I was not dreaming. Several times I saw the characteristic lips and the round eyes; I observed that the dark skin was shiny; I saw parts of fins bigger than my legs.

Grouper are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

Remember that I had my little spear gun with me. Spearing the giant point-blank would have been child's play. Yet, I did not press the trigger. I wasn't afraid just then but something in my unconscious mind stopped me. I can't begin to say how big the grouper was because I never saw the whole thing. It was bigger than me. It might have been the biggest grouper anyone had ever speared. Certainly, it would have been the biggest grouper a French-born person had ever caught free-diving — or at any rate, any Parisian.

I went up and down for an hour, thinking, calculating from what angle to shoot, and then how to retrieve it out of its hole. As I was in shallow water, it seemed feasible. There was a very good chance I would be able to drag the fish out swimming backward in the narrow passage, if it were dead.

Soon, it became like solving an engineering problem. I got out of the water and walked back to my place to have lunch and do some more thinking. I was confident the giant would be there when I returned. I thought the boulders were its permanent dwelling.

But back at the grouper's cave, after 45 minutes or so, my disposition had changed slightly. I took yet another look at the fish. It dawned on me then that there was some real danger in attacking at close quarters, from a narrow space where I could not turn around, an animal bigger than myself, with sharp teeth, that could breathe in water. Then, another part of my brain began to feel that something was wrong about eating such a magnificent and, no doubt, old creature. Then, I told myself that having spent so much time in such close proximity with such a big grouper was enough of a trophy for a Paris boy. Besides, my hot girlfriend had been waiting for me with her imagination running on high rpm. She had, torrid, unspeakable plans for the rest of my afternoon. I abandoned the endeavor and went home with a light heart.

Many years later, the giant grouper that I spared, not speared, visits me in my dreams, but only when I am in a good mood, or when I am subconsciously plotting a small vacation to an exotic place. Fishermen will want to know if I ever felt fisherman's regrets over that huge catch I did not catch. The answer is that I do feel regrets, but I am sure I would have felt fisherman's remorse if I had taken the giant grouper and butchered it in the sun. There is a subtle issue of choice between two unequal ills here. Remorse will follow you forever although you can pretend you have forgotten its cause or causes. Regrets are, in principle, temporary. The goal you did not reach, the apple you did not pick may fall in your lap at any time before you check out for good; you never know. Even the one with whom you were pointlessly in lust when you were a junior in high school might go for you at the 20-year reunion. It's not what it could have been but still!

Postscript: Yes, I was diving alone. It's supposed to be dangerous. I am not recommending that divers who use scuba do the same. I am not even recommending the practice to other free-divers. It was just the right thing for me, at that time. The safe alternative is to have a diving companion who is a short fat woman who thrashes noisily in the water and swims too clumsily to escape anything.




Share This


Critics Rave — Audience Stays Home

 | 

“Thrilling!” “Magnificent!” “Dazzling!” “Spectacular!” “Off the Scale Brilliant!” “Epic!” “Landmark!” “A Tour de Force Performance!”

Advance critics are falling all over themselves in praise of All Is Lost, Robert Redford’s new film about a man lost at sea who must battle the elements in a lifeboat for a few days after his 39-foot sailing yacht collides with a shipping container (just the container, not the ship) in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

“Our Man,” as Redford is called in the credits, assesses the situation, repairs the hole with some fiberglass and epoxy, and then settles in for a meal of pasta and scotch. (That Redford — he chews better than anyone I know, whether he’s munching a hot dog on his way to a speech in The Candidate, dining al fresco with Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park, or scraping beans out of a can in Jeremiah Johnson, Butch Cassidy, or All Is Lost. In fact, scraping the beans seems to be what he does best — such a fine contrast between what his character does and who his character is. His chewing manners have always been impeccable.) And that smile — the face has become craggy and lined, but those teeth are still gorgeous. His character wants to maintain what’s left of those good looks too: when Our Man is facing a thunderous storm, he lathers up and shaves! And when his boat is sinking and he’s up to his armpits in water, he takes the time to tidy up a gash on his forehead with some well placed butterfly bandages.

Yes, the boat does eventually sink. After the hole is patched, Our Man encounters a storm described by critics as “Scarier than anything in A Perfect Storm!” And Our Man does indeed get tossed around as his ship rolls completely upside down and rights itself again. And again. (Kudos to Fred Astaire for coming up with the rolling room trick for his “Dancing on the Ceiling” routine in — when was that? 1951? Not exactly “landmark” cinematography.) It is rather thrilling when he is swept overboard and has to fight has way back to the boat (good thing he remembered to tie a rope around himself), but the underwater scenes of Naomi Watts nearly drowning during a tsunami in The Impossible were more stunning and realistic. Landmark? Hardly.

He’s probably smart, since he reads and drinks scotch and eats with impeccable chewing. But the movie doesn’t give the audience much to chew on.

Eventually Redford abandons ship and enters a lifeboat, where he battles the elements and discouragements for a few more days. Don’t get me wrong — being adrift in a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean for even one day would be enough to make me panic. But the film is entirely too Zen for me. The problem is that Our Man never panics. He just methodically faces whatever comes. He’s resourceful and hardworking, and he has forearms the size of Popeye’s. He never gives up. Yet we know none of his backstory. He’s probably wealthy (who else could afford to sail around the world in a 39-foot yacht?) and he probably has a family, since he is writing a farewell note to someone as the film begins. He’s probably smart, since he reads and drinks scotch and eats with impeccable chewing. But the movie doesn’t give the audience much to chew on — because the hero never says anything.

It’s almost as though he took a vow of silence along with that Zen-like patience. He doesn’t shout as he is flung overboard; he doesn’t curse when he sees that his boat has been rammed; he doesn’t talk to himself the way most people do when they are trying not to panic while they are figuring out what to do. The only apprehension we ever feel occurs when he is inside the hull of his boat, gathering supplies just before it goes down. The boat creaks and shudders, and the music strikes a spooky tone. Our Man glances forebodingly over his shoulder. But even that seems out of place. He looks as though he were expecting to see a bogeyman jump out of the closet.

With a moniker like “Our Man” for the film’s only character, we have to assume that the director was going for a deep philosophical connection of some sort. We are supposed to understand that Our Man represents our culture, awash in a sea of — what? Storms that wipe out our savings? Sharks that eat the food right out of our hands? Blatant consumerism (the shipping container contained athletic shoes) that rams our peaceful dreams? Corporations (two gigantic ships glide past Our Man without seeing him) that ignore the needs of the little guy? OK. I always appreciate a good metaphor, and the sea is a good place to find one. But Our Man Stephen Cox says it much more succinctly and clearly in a recent article for Liberty: “The realm of intelligent discourse is an island of sanity, washed by hot seas of nonsense.”

If anything in this film is “landmark,” it is the idea of filming an entire movie without dialogue. It’s almost like watching the old Name That Tune television show: “I can name that tune in one note!” All Is Lost gets away with the laconic approach because it stars Robert Redford, but Redford isn’t the kind of actor who can pull off a stunt like this. Moreover, All Is Lost is awash in a sea of “spectacular” survival films, and it just doesn’t measure up to such truly “magnificent” films as The Life of Pi, with its “dazzling” cinematography and storytelling; Gravity, with its “landmark” special effects; and Captain Phillips, with Tom Hanks’s “tour de force performance.” All Is Lost is “off the scale,” all right, but it’s sliding in the wrong direction. And with an opening-weekend box office of just $93,000, “all is lost” could be an oh-too-appropriate metaphor for this film after all.

rdquo; as Redford is called in the credits, assesses the situation, repairs the hole with some fiberglass and epoxy, and then settles in for a meal of pasta and scotch. (That Redford rdquo; All Is Lost

rdquo; All Is Lost


Editor's Note: Review of "All Is Lost," directed by J.C. Chandor. Lionsgate, 2013; 106 dopey minutes.



Share This


R.O.C. On!

 | 

We were nearly out of money.

Taiwan, a small country, controls its foreign exchange. Not for nefarious purposes (think Venezuela and Zimbabwe), but because — when it comes to monetary policy — size has consequences. Though fiscally and economically sound, Taiwan is vulnerable to currency manipulation from a multitude of sources.

Our guidebooks recommended changing money at the airport kiosks. But George, our Taiwanese contact in Taipei, told us not to fret — ATMs were everywhere and banks exchanged currency at will without a commission. Since we’d arrived at midnight, were thoroughly jet-lagged, and still faced an hour’s ride into Taipei, we followed George’s advice.

The following day, with George translating and easing the procedure at his bank, we changed only a portion of our funds — mostly because of my innate conservatism and the ease of the transaction. However, we weren’t run-of-the-mill tourists or business visitors to Formosa, as the Taiwanese still proudly, and often, refer to their country.

Tina, my wife, and I were planning to bicycle Taiwan’s perimeter — about 850 miles — eating at street stalls and night markets, and sleeping in modest lodgings such as B&Bs. But what we hadn’t foreseen caught up with us. Taiwan’s banks stick to the big cities and, while ATMs are everywhere, they rejected our US cards like an organ transplant gone bad. Moreover, only big hotels and fancy restaurants accepted credit cards.

Riding through Neipu, two-thirds through the trip, I spotted a bank and yelled to Tina to pull over. We carved out a parking space between the road and the wall-to-wall buildings, among the throng of cars, scooters, bikes, pedestrians, and dogs milling about or settled. It was the kind of place that in the US usually contains official parking spaces, a sidewalk, driveways, and front set-backs in the form of lawns, patios, porches, or business foyers, but in Taiwan is a chaotic jumble of all of the above, along a narrow strip — with the addition of street vendors and wall-less, brick-and-mortar businesses fully exposed to the hubbub. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, the bank closed at 4:00, and we were still 20 kilometers from Pingtung, our day’s destination. So we had plenty of time.

The bank’s door guard welcomed me and asked my business.

Now, Mandarin is so radically different from the Indo-European languages that the Taiwanese compensate for the difficulties with acutely tuned inferential antennae and artfully adept sign language. It’s not that Chinese has a difficult grammar (like German); it has none that seems like grammar to us. Simply string words together and you can make sense. It’s the tones, four in most instances, that to someone who is tone-deaf are impossible. And the pronunciation of some of the consonants. The differences betweent’s and d’s; b’s and p’s; ch’s, zh’s, q’s, s’s, ts’s, x’s,and jh’s, plus others — in Roman pronunciation transcriptions — are so subtle that it was like trying to speak French with a mouthful of pebbles.

On the island, Chinese culture continued uninterruptedly — more or less — while on the mainland, much of it was brutally obliterated by Mao’s insistence on reconfiguring human nature.

If I want to ask a question in an unfamiliar language when traveling abroad, I’ll enunciate the key word with a rising tone to indicate a question. That’s nearly impossible in China. Once the tone of a word is fiddled with, the meaning changes unpredictably. In China, one must use a complete phrase so that, if one’s tone isn’t just right, the listener can infer the gist of one’s query from its context.

I hesitate to try to explain written Chinese with its 8,000 or so characters. Memorizing the key characters in important words such as “men” and “women” — for going #1 and #2 — or “hotel” on a sign — for going #3 — was a distraction that we turned into a game. It’s a very unpretentious language, almost prosaic, with — mostly — descriptions instead of actual names. “China” in Chinese literally means “Middle Country”, a reference to its central location between India and Japan, and Russia and the Malay Archipelago. The character for “middle” is a rectangle with a vertical line through its middle. Months don’t have “names”; their “names” are “First Month”, “Second Month”, etc.

So I asked George how my name, Bob Miller, would be rendered in script. “Bob”becomes bo, or ‘knowledgeable’; “Mi”is ‘rice’; and “ller” becomes lo, meaning ‘joy’ — a propitious rendering, according to my friends.

Everyone in the bank turned to look at the westerner with the biking helmet. In response to the door guard’s inquiry, I pulled out a US $100 bill to indicate I wanted to change currency. The entire staff rolled their eyes and threw up their arms — not in an off-putting manner, but rather in an inclusive “we’re-all-going-to-share-a-root-canal-at-closing-time-and-we’re-going-to-pull-together-and-actually-have-fun.”

A teller ushered me to a seat, placed a cup of tea in my hands, and indicated that I should wait. Two minutes later the manager brought me a snack and tried to engage me. Placing my fists close to each other, I rotated them to duplicate the motion of pedaling a bike, uttered “Taiwan”, and signed an oval in the air to say that I was biking around Taiwan. The staff erupted in smiles, hung haos(very good), and thumbs up. More tea, more snacks, more encouraging glances, more waiting.

Twenty minutes later, only the foreign exchange teller was engaged — with what looked like an Indonesian lady. When she stood up, he motioned me over. I handed him my passport and counted out $400 US in $50 and $100 bills. He scrutinized the passport, including the tourist visa stamped in the back, and then the US money, first separating the denominations, then collating the bills. He rejected three $50 bills: two that were well-worn and one that was brand new, saying in English, “too old.” So I gave him one more $100 bill, which he accepted. He counted the money — twice — wrote down the amount, and asked for my confirmation. Then he stood up and approached the vault.

I got the impression that this bank branch had little experience with US money and had never seen a US $50 bill. While waiting for his return, various tellers brought more tea, more snacks, and more friendly attempts to communicate. One snack consisted of dry, pickled prunes, the pits of which I needed to spit out. The attractive teller who’d offered them to me was well aware that she might be pushing the limits of a westerner’s tastes, and so was expectantly attentive to my reaction. She pulled a handkerchief from her purse, put it on her palm and indicated that I should spit the pit onto it. Apprehensive that spitting into her hand might cross some sort of intimacy line, I hesitated. She understood perfectly well and reassured me by repeating “is OK, OK.”

The foreign exchange teller’s cubicle had a small poster touting remittances to Vietnam and Indonesia, thus serving two populations — along with Filipinos — that regularly seek work in Taiwan. Another laminated, placemat-sized poster portrayed various denominations of Renmimbi, the currency of the mainland (People’s Republic of China, or PRC; as opposed to ROC, Republic of China, or Taiwan), with highlights and closeups showcasing what to look for in counterfeit Yuan (Renmimbi notes).

In 2008 President Ma Ying-jeou (reelected in 2012) negotiated a liberalized trade deal with the PRC that included an easing of travel restrictions for mainlanders, the first time since the Communist victory that they would be allowed to travel to Taiwan. The island was seeking an economic boost, while China was hoping that contact between travelers and locals would help lead to eventual political unification with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. Mainlanders refer to Taiwan as “Treasure Island”: for its fabled beauty (as did the Portuguese: Formosa means “beautiful”); its trove of historical treasures brought over by Chiang Kai-shek in 1949; its democracy; and, most importantly, its shopping.

Anti-Communist demonstrations, often spear-headed by the Falun Gong, nearly always greet the mainlander tour buses at their scheduled stops.

The demand is overwhelming. If every mainlander who wanted to visit Taiwan were allowed in, the island would sink. So the numbers are strictly controlled and relegated to organized tour groups. In many respects Taiwan is considered more Chinese than China. On the island, Chinese culture continued uninterruptedly — more or less — while on the mainland, much of it was brutally obliterated by Mao’s insistence on reconfiguring human nature.

And there are other restrictions, lately further liberalized in 2011 (such as allowing a small number of mainlanders to travel by themselves). Though the mainlanders are indeed an economic boost, the social disruption they cause would be catastrophic, were they given free range. We were advised to visit popular tourist sites early in the morning, before mainlanders’ tour buses arrived. Taiwanese scuttlebutt is that they’re uncouth slobs who litter, spit and urinate willy-nilly; foul the bathrooms; are rude and unwilling to queue; and dress inappropriately — either like hillbillies or like ne’er-do-wells. So they’re limited to two-week visits. Roadside rest stops for their tour buses have temporary, purpose-placed bathrooms (Taiwanese bathrooms, both public and private, are spotless). Anti-Communist demonstrations, often spear-headed by the Falun Gong (a religious sect outlawed on the mainland), nearly always greet the tour buses at their scheduled stops. Most Taiwanese doubt the efficacy of the placard exhibits and displays in making conversions; but the mainlanders never fail to gaze in wonder at the mere fact that such demonstrations occur at all.

At 4 PM the door guard closed the bank. No one got up to leave. My teller returned with my passport, two photocopies of it, and a form to fill out. He was stumped by my name. In Chinese, the first name is the family name; the following two, hyphenated, names are given names. So I wrote out “Chiang Kai-shek” and “Miller Robert Howard” and drew arrows between the equivalents. He smiled, and then asked for my phone number by pointing to his cell phone. I responded bushi dianhua (no phone).

The whole staff turned to look at me, amazed and incredulous. Taiwan is the Silicon Valley of Asia. The Taiwanese can no more conceive of an individual without a cell phone than they can imagine a meal without rice. My teller grimaced and looked lost. I started to sense that the lack of a phone could be a dealbreaker. Then I remembered that Tina had one, loaned to us by Jorie, George’s wife. It had proved useless, however, because all the displays were in Chinese script. I motioned the teller to wait and went to fetch Tina outside where she’d been babysitting the bikes.

Her wait hadn’t been boring. The next-door juice stand had refused payment for the smoothie she’d ordered. A nearby resident had let his house-broken pet piglet out for a pee, after which the pig nuzzled the man’s ankle with overwhelming affection, which the man returned with scratches to its head as they both ambled back inside. Passers-by stopped to ask her about us and our trip. Tina dug out the cell phone, brought it inside, and handed it to the teller, who quickly retrieved its number. Another teller brought her a cup of tea and snacks while the door guard indicated that he’d keep an eye on the bikes.

Passing the snake restaurant, where delicacies included snake semen and blood dishes, Tina and I demurred.

My teller then began writing the serial numbers from each of the US bills on the form. When he was finished, he asked me to check his work and initial it. I did, and he wrote down the exchange rate for me: NT$28.60=$1.00 US (later confirmed independently). My 2011 Lonely Planet guidebook reported an exchange rate of NT$32.20 to the US dollar and stated that rates were very stable, because of Taiwan’s fiscal probity. Nonetheless, this was either an 11% devaluation of the US dollar or an equivalent appreciation of the Taiwan dollar, in one year. Guess which one.

He went back to the vault and came back quickly with my New Taiwan Dollars (NT$), placed them in a bill counter, and then hand counted them twice. Finally, he wrote their serial numbers on the form and placed the wad in front of me without counting it, along with a copy of the completed form. He looked at me, awaiting my counter-count of the NT$s. It was 4:30 PM.

I picked up the wad, waved my other palm in front of me, and said in English, “I trust you.” The whole staff broke out laughing; my teller smiled — broadly. The reasons for the laughter were both ironic and post-ironic.

The Taiwanese are honest to a degree that beggars credulity. Bikes are parked outside without locks; street vendors leave their stalls out overnight, fully stocked, with only a blue tarp to keep rain off. We saw two separate instances of million (US) dollar jewelry displayed in regular glass cases without added security or guards; one instance of a lost Malaysian’s wallet full of cash returned whole; and two instances of returned tips, one from a woman who was both cook and waitress. She was so proud of her dish and our appreciation of it that she insistently pressed the gratuity back into my hands. In Beipu, Tina got into a gesture argument with a street vendor, which soon drew a crowd of adjacent vendors. Apparently, she’d inadvertently paid too much for her purchase and the vendor was attempting to return her overpayment. Tina adamantly refused. The vendor won. To top it off, we saw no beggars or homeless people; no graffiti or evidence of vandalism; and we were never warned away from any neighborhood, anywhere on the island.

After 20 days of uniformly guileless and transparent interactions and transactions, I instinctively trusted the teller. The irony is that his superiors took a formalprecautionary approach — doubtless necessary to the banking business — that required an assumption of no trust. My teller had to perform tasks associated with my transaction that — other than running a grease pen across a bill — we usually find unnecessary in the US. I understood why they laughed.

It was nearly 4:45 PM when we mounted our bikes and headed for Pingtung. The bank’s staff wrapped things up, gathered at the door to wish us a good trip, waved us goodbye, and headed home.

Taiwhat?!

The Taiwan Tourism Board’s ad in The Economist had caught my eye because ittouted the island’s biking opportunities. Biking in Taiwan? That overcrowded and industrial corner of Asia that not long ago inherited Japan’s post-war reputation for mass-producing cheap and tacky stuff? I read on: “gorgeous scenery . . . dense forests . . . 22 National Parks & Scenic Areas . . . hundreds of kilometers of bike trails . . . more than 500 species of birds . . . a food-lover’s paradise . . .” Further research revealed that the heaviest population density is concentrated along the flat plains of the west coast, with the rest of the country resembling Vancouver Island, but with even taller peaks.

As to biking, with Taiwan manufacturing the world’s share of decent-end bicycles — Giant, Merida, Surly, Schwinn, Cannondale, et alia — a biking craze had grabbed the country about seven years ago and never let go. In cities, bike rental and loaner kiosks are ubiquitous. Nearly every road hosts a bike lane, and politicians run on campaigns to build even more bike paths. Some sections of the highway along the precipitous east coast offer more bike paths than car lanes. On days off, entire families from two-year-olds to grannies in coolie hats, take to their bikes. Police stations provide bikers with air, water, tools, flat-repair kits, and free camping (an indication that Taiwan is as crime-free as it gets). There are even plans to build a dedicated, circum-Taiwan bike trail.

I’d always wanted to visit Asia, where the real 99% live. However, Japan is too expensive, mainland China is a health hazard, the Philippines are crime-ridden, and Indochina is too third world. Taiwan, fully first world yet affordable, seemed perfect, especially for the sort of adventure tourism my wife and I have become addicted to: crossing or circling a country by human power alone, either biking, walking or paddling a boat. These methods provide for an intensive immersion into the country, people, and culture. Still, communication in a strange, tonal language with an ideographic written form seemed an insuperable obstacle. Until I remembered George Yen.

Our acquaintance replied that anyone could camp out anywhere and wouldn’t be troubled. Hard to imagine the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker resonating in Taiwan.

George, one of my dormmates in college, was Taiwanese. Though he’d only been an acquaintance and at that, 45 years ago, I decided to look him up in a not-so-old alumni directory. There he was with a Taipei address and a “.tw” email postfix. I wrote him hoping he remembered me, and asked for his thoughts on biking around Taiwan.

Not only did he answer that, yes, he remembered me, but that he was an avid biker, would put us up, lend us a cellphone for on-the-spot translation, and even ride a few days with us to ease our transition into the Taiwanese milieu.

In the 45 years since I’d seen him last, George had done well. He is President of Toastmasters International — what he calls his real passion — and has done the “Taiwanese Big Four”: climbed Mt. Yushan, at 12,966 ft, Taiwan’s highest peak; circled the island on a bike; swum across Sun Moon Lake; and climbed Taipei 101, the world’s third tallest building. But his day job is Chairman of the Board of Great Sequoia Corporation, an international trading company based in Taipei, and he’s managed three international joint ventures. He speaks four languages and holds an MA ininternational relationsfrom the Wharton School, along with having spent a night in a Texas jail during the ’70s (but that’s another story).

George and his wife Jorie threw out the plushest red carpet I’d ever curled my toes in. He owns the nine-story building where he lives, in one of Taipei’s nicest districts. Two stories are underground parking, accessed by a rotating car elevator. The first ground floor is his mother’s home (at 91, she still works); the second floor he rents out; the third floor is their Filipino housemaid’s digs; and he and Jorie inhabit the fifth and sixth floors (there is no fourth floor for reasons similar to Americans’ not having a thirteenth floor). The seventh floor is the family shrine and the family pug’s hangout. The eighth is a patio. Tina and I got the fifth floor.

Our first day of biking was a warmup along the Tamsui River and its tributaries’ (and distributaries’) many bike paths through Taipei to its old downtown. To rephrase the old saw, we were hippies in a head shop. Our first rest stop was next to an imposing standing stone inscribed with careful red calligraphy in a small manicured garden. When we asked its meaning, George took a Platonic approach, giving us hints about the characters in hopes we’d infer the full meaning. We could recognize the script for “two,” and he pointed out the script for “water”. While Tina and I were thinking along profound and contemplative lines, George smiled and said it was the sign for the Taipei Water District’s second water pump. We all had a good laugh.

The next stop was Taipei’s night market — not quite as bustling during the day. We were looking for lunch. Passing the snake restaurant, where delicacies included snake semen and blood dishes, Tina and I demurred, opting instead for fresh coconut water and deep-fried, ground pork dumplings at another stall.

On the way back we stopped at a large Taoist temple, the first of many temples and shrines we would pass, whose contrast with Christian churches in the west was almost too much to absorb, much less digest on a first encounter. While the baroque architectural elaboration — including gargoyles — riot of color, intricate carving and painting, main and subsidiary altars, candles and incense, icons and statues of cathedrals all had analogues — albeit radically different — it was the gestalt of the place that was striking.

There was no overarching atmosphere of awe and human insignificance, no hushed solemnity. Real or ritualized forms of abasement such as silence, a dress code, the donning or removing of head coverings or shoes, or “donations” were not required, and cameras were not prohibited. Functionaries such as monks or nuns — when present — didn’t stand out; nor did they exude an air of authority or officious sanctimoniousness so much as recede into the background like lowly maintenance staff. Individualism ruled: while some visitors performed obeisance, knelt quietly in prayer, left offerings on tables, or threw divining blocks, others conducted business, visited with acquaintances, ambled aimlessly, photographed, or just hung out. Some laughed, some sobbed, and some were inscrutable.

Taiwanese temples are not only spiritual centers; they’re community centers, marketplaces, recreation centers, parks, and museums. There are over 15,000 registered temples in Taiwan, or about one for every 1,500 people, not counting unregistered temples and roadside shrines. And the number is growing. Mosques, synagogues, and Christian churches, on the other hand, serve less than 5% of the population, with the latter catering mostly to aboriginal tribes along the east coast and up in the mountains.

Cash My-check

We headed out on our rideabout on a clear, warm day along the Tansui River bike path toward the northwest coast. George had arranged to have his cousin, Dr. Yang, a family practice M.D. and an avid biker, accompany us on the first day. Dr. Yang gave us a map of Taiwan labeled in English and Chinese script: in case we needed to ask directions, it would be legible to a local. In Tansui town we lunched on tuna hot dogs, BBQ’d squid, and sugar cane juice. An hour later George stopped at a convenience store, saying this was the last likely bathroom stop for a stretch, since we’d be heading into a more rural area. Recalling the American custom of declaring that “restrooms are for customers only,” I asked him if it was alright to use a business’s facilities without patronizing it. He answered that Taiwanese can’t conceive of refusing a bathroom to someone who needs it; in fact, we later experienced that all businesses’ bathrooms are hospitably available to anyone.

The Taiwanese are strong free marketers and proponents of private property, but they’re neither defensive nor insecure about it. In a recent poll by The Economist, people from various countries were asked whether they agreed with the statement, “Capitalism is a system that works well and should be preserved”. Only 13% of French respondents agreed, and only 52% of Americans. While 65% of mainland Chinese agreed, no separate figures for Taiwan were reported. Given the mainlanders’ responses, Taiwanese figures were doubtlessly much higher.

We saw no “No Trespassing” signs. When we were asked whether we were camping out during our ride, we answered no, because there were few campgrounds on the island, and decent lodging, in many cases, was actually cheaper than Canadian campgrounds. Our acquaintance replied — rather glibly, I thought, but echoing attitudes about bathrooms — that anyone could camp out anywhere and wouldn’t be troubled. Hard to imagine the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker resonating in Taiwan.

Our first night’s lodging was at the Chinshan Youth Activity Center, an over-the-top, towering, Fascist-architecture edifice built on splendid grounds in 1960. The accommodations were Japanese style: impeccable and tasteful, with shoji screens demarcating space, an elevated bedroom floor supplied with tatami mats, hard pillows and a comforter. Not accustomed to sleeping on the floor, Tina piled as many mats as the cupboard supplied to make us a bed.

Taiwan was ruled by the Japanese from 1895 to 1945 as an integral part of Japan. Though forcibly imposed, the occupation wasn’t brutal, except towards those who resisted — in particular the aboriginal tribes, who held out against the Imperial Army for seven years to retain their independence. The Japanese built roads and railways, modernized the bureaucracy, developed an industrial base, and treated the rest of the population as fellow citizens. Though many Taiwanese were drafted into a losing cause during WWII, today perceptions of the occupation remain mixed, with many Japanese customs surviving.

The Youth Activity Center was built by Chiang Ching-kuo (brother of Chiang Wei-kuo, and Chiang Kai-shek’s elder son) when he ran the Youth Activity Corps, long before he followed his father as president of Taiwan. Chiang pere had a yin-yang relationship with his two sons: Ching-kuo was to be taught; Wei-kuo — the adopted one — was to be loved. The Chiangs were Machiavellian, stubborn but practical, misunderstood and polarizing — while being polarized among themselves — and, ultimately, survivors all at the same time: a bit like China itself.

Until 1911, China had endured centuries of more-or-less stable, dynastic Imperial rule, the preceding 40 years or so under the Empress Dowager Cixi, a vain but cultivated woman. She was an obstinate reactionary and murderous despot who amassed a fortune in Swiss banks. History had dealt her a bad hand, which she tried to make the best of; but in the end, her malfeasance provoked insurrection.

The inspiration and intellectual catalyst for the upheaval was Sun Yat Sen, an American-educated medical doctor. Dogged, but impractically idealistic and politically naïve, Dr. Sun failed a dozen times to ignite the spark of revolution before the blaze finally caught in 1911 — ironically while he was in exile.

Back in China, he tried to guide unfolding events by founding the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, in 1912. But he was thwarted by remnants of the old order, provincial sectarianism, and internal factionalism. He rolled with the punches. When he sought help from abroad but was rebuffed by the democracies’ noninterventionist policies, the newly established Soviet Union came to the rescue, sending money, advisors and materiel. This aid and Sun’s declared belief in “government ownership of the means of production” fired up his leftwing base, composed of students and peasants who, with some professional help, founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1923, but alienated landlords and business, who hadn’t yet organized themselves. Enter Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang had studied military science in Japan — which he admired — and in the Soviet Union — which he didn’t, except for its strongarm methods. After once risking his neck to save Dr. Sun’s life, he first became the doctor’s right-hand man, then leader of the Kuomintang upon Sun’s death in 1925.

Chiang covered his cards well. Not only did he manage to raise funds from opposing interests (he would acquire the nickname “Cash My-check”) — internationally from Stalin, the US, and Hitler, and internally from the moneyed classes (including China’s mafias) — but he artfully turned up the heat on the Communist frog, boiling it out of the Kuomintang in two years’ time. Afterward he embarked on a 22-year effort to annihilate the Reds, preferring to muster his resources against Mao Zedong while appeasing Japanese aggression in the belief that the Japanese would overstretch themselves in the immensity of China and finally collapse. Moreover, to Chiang the “rebels were a disease of China’s vitals, the barbarians an affliction only of the limbs.”

Disenchanted with (or perhaps not understanding) his father’s policies, Chiang Ching-kuo, left revolutionary China in 1925 to study in Moscow, a move his father did not approve, but accepted. One of his classmates there was Deng Xiaoping, the future Chinese Communist Party leader. Both would, much later, reform each of their Chinas.

Chiang Ching-kuo had the unfortunate but transformative experience of becoming a Trotskyist just before Trotsky was purged, and being in Stalin’s grasp during his father’s purge of the Chinese Communists. Nonetheless, he was allowed to marry a Russian and remained in the USSR for 12 years. Some speculate that Stalin kept him as a hostage. However, Chiang Kai-shek had absolutely no intention of stopping the war against the Communists, declaring, "I would rather have no offspring than sacrifice our nation's interests."

Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-shek sent his other son, Chiang Wei-Kuo, to study at the Munich Military Academy. There he distinguished himself and rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Wehrmacht. He commanded a Panzer unit during the Austrian Anschluss in 1938 but was recalled to China just before Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

After WWII Taiwan was returned to China. On the mainland, the balance of the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists was tilting towards the Reds. The increasingly beleaguered Nationalist government, acting like a jealous husband, treated the island like a violated woman who had “enjoyed” the experience of Japan’s occupation, by unleashing a bloody crackdown that took at least 28,000 lives and initiated 40 years of martial law known as the “White Terror.” With massive aid from the Soviet Union, Mao finally defeated Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 and drove the remnants of the Kuomintang army and anti-Communist refugees — two million in all — across the Formosa Strait to refuge in Taiwan.

Years ago, a correspondent for The Economist traveled the countryside. His starkest observation was the conspicuous absence of bugs and birds — free food obviously.

In 1978, following Chiang Kai-shek’s death in 1975, Chiang Ching-kuo assumed the presidency of the ROC at the ripe age of 68. His character having been forged in a cauldron of extremes, Ching-kuo’s wisdom had reached Confucian and Taoist proportions. In power, he undertook a series of radical changes, including lifting martial law and tolerating opposition, reforming land tenure, and — most importantly — laying the groundwork for the Taiwan Miracle with free market policies. His hand-picked successor and vice-president, Lee Teng-hui, fully democratized Taiwan during his 1988-2000 tenure.

Chiang Wei-kuo, on the other hand, commanded a tank battalion against the Japanese and Chinese Communists during WWII and the Chinese Civil War. In Taiwan, he continued to hold senior positions in the R.O.C. Armed Forces. He was promoted to Major General in 1975, and served as president of the Armed Forces University. In 1980, he became joint logistics commander in chief; then in 1986, he retired from the army, and became National Security Council secretary-General.

Christmas in Kenting

We rose at 6 AM and breakfasted on a buffet of steamed buns, scrambled eggs with corn, pork and noodle soup, salad, hard tea-boiled eggs, cabbage with extra-fatty bacon, rice gruel, green beans, and fried rice — with sesame oil, vinegar, scallions, peanuts, chili paste, and dried pork shavings for toppings (no soy sauce). The Chinese don’t care for salty food: neither salt nor soy sauce was available as a condiment; this was a bit problematic during hard, sweat-inducing exercise. Rice is consumed at every meal, though the portions are tiny. Chicken and fish are seldom boned or skinned, while meats are served with their full complement of untrimmed fat and gristle.

With its fish heads, chicken feet, whole miniature crabs, snake semen, scorpions, and countless other gag-inducing (to a westerner) ingredients, Chinese cuisine is a consequence of centuries of poverty and famine. During times of want everything remotely edible was tried and consumed. Years ago, after the People’s Republic cracked open the door to foreigners, a correspondent for The Economist traveled the countryside. His starkest observation was the conspicuous absence of bugs and birds — free food obviously. But like the trend in utilitarian clothing fashions, survival food moved upmarket, becoming — like bird’s nest soup and hundred-year-old eggs — expensive delicacies of the elite. It is all, however, impeccably prepared.

We rounded the top of the island in two days, once stopping to visit the preserved Kinkaseki forced-labor prisoner-of-war camp, where British and American servicemen mined copper for the Japanese. Before us lay the wild and precipitous east coast, home to Taiwan’s 14 aboriginal tribes, and traversed by a narrow and tunnel-studded road subject to landslides. One of them had occurred just a few days previously, closing a 15 km section. Luckily, it had not affected the railroad, which at that point ran through a long tunnel. Before leaving us, George gave instruction on using the train, and a pep talk reassuring us that we’d be all right without him. It didn’t bode well that winter’s winds and rains had returned in force and that we got lost on our first day without him.

On our fifth day we reached Taroko National Park, Taiwan’s crowning natural beauty and most visited park. In the Taroko Gorge the Liwu River has cut an extremely deep, narrow fissure through the limestone bedrock. Most of the road that traverses it has been bored through sheer rock faces like a tunnel but with one side missing, making for a spectacular ride. Picturesque shrines, waterfalls, and hanging gardens dot the wide spots and tributaries. High up in the mountains, the Taroko aboriginal tribe runs top-notch lodgings modeled on its traditional villages and serves traditional Taroko food. No way were we going to pass that up.

The ranger at the National Park information desk referred us to another ranger whose English was better. After answering our questions, she befriended us, engaging us in discussing just about everything imaginable. After an hour of conversation, she gave us gifts — DVDs, books, and souvenirs — finally hugging us and thanking us for visiting and letting her be of service to us. She was about to invite us to lunch but hesitated — I sensed — so as not to make us feel obliged.

She wasn’t unique. The rangers at Kenting National Park and the Maolin National Recreation Area were cut from the same mold, with the ranger at Maolin even bidding us goodbye with a kiss — all this from a people otherwise reputed to be shy in the display of physical affection. Can you imagine that at Yosemite?

Taiwan, as its branding logo says, had already “touched our heart.” We found somewhat wanting the otherwise misanthropic WWII US Military Attaché “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell’s description of the Chinese as “the smartest, in many ways the most civilized, in general the most charming, and certainly on the average, the best looking people in the world,” and his assistant David Barnett’s dittos to their “innate dignity and self-respect, humor, stamina, quickness of mind, and lovely women with exquisite figures.” To that list we’d add ”generosity, forbearance, patience, tolerance, hospitality, and industriousness.”

These traits are not limited to the adult population. Teenagers, sometimes edgy in the best of places, are not just polite in Taiwan; they’re warm and deferential, as well as industrious. We were mobbed by high schoolers on a field trip who wanted to practice their English. Convenience store staff — all teens and twenty-somethings — greet customers, microwave purchases, constantly scrub the floors and the use-surfaces, provide free cups, and bend over backwards to ensure a pleasant experience. In one instance they even requested a photo with us. One attendant, who’d worked at a hotel in Canada, praised his Canadian coworkers’ personalities but bemoaned their slacker work ethic.

The run down to Kenting at the southern tip of the island was relaxed, lightly populated, and brushed by Pacific winds. Near the end we were again blocked by a landslide. But this time, an alternate and very comely single-lane road, crossing over Taiwan’s central mountains through aboriginal villages, provided a welcome change of pace.

Halfway through the trip and with Christmas the following day, we took three days off to rest and see the sights in Kenting. No problem finding lodging: an enterprising B&B owner on a scooter led us to her nicely apportioned digs — only $20 per night. On Christmas day we toured the National Park with Beatriz, a 29-year-old soccer and swimming coach from Galicia. With Spanish unemployment at record levels, she’d moved to Shanghai, where wages were adequate, to work as a teacher. She was on a short holiday break, had had a bellyful of the mainland, and was hungry to speak Spanish.

Up the backside

Our strategy for the return ride up the west side of the island was to avoid the densely populated and industrial western plains by hugging the foothills of the central massif. Though the riding would be a tiring, up-and-down, rollercoaster ride across high ridges and deep river valleys, it would meander through quiet villages, medium-sized towns, tidy agricultural areas, and forest preserves — and minimize traffic.

Not that traffic was much of a problem. Stilwell’s observations applied equally to Taiwanese drivers. On the face of it, Taiwan traffic is congested and anarchic — a bicyclist’s nightmare — with vehicles sometimes going up on sidewalks or even going against the designated flow. But look deeper, and another pattern emerges. Traffic conventions are followed as rules-of-thumb, not immutable laws. In general, only speeding and turning-on-red-light violations are enforced. Accidents are usually negotiated on-the-spot, without police. Traffic is aggressive yet polite and very sensitive, giving way once you nose or step out into it. Drivers don’t honk petulantly but gently, often adding a thumbs up and a hen hao (very good). Most amazing of all was that bicyclists are not only respected but actually liked!

Weddings and funeral services — for those who can’t afford to rent a purpose-built venue — appropriate a portion of the road under elaborately tented blue tarps. In consideration of traffic, most are held on weekends. But it was the garbage collection system that really touched our hearts. Garbage trucks make their rounds in the evening, announcing their approach with a distinctive ice cream van tune. Folks hand over their bags to the collector, exchanging a few pleasantries; or he picks them up off the curb.

After restocking our wallets in Neipu we headed up into the mountains. Riding through the Maolin National Recreation Area and aboriginal preserve on a particularly long, cold, hard, rainy day we decided to rest the following day in Jia-xian. A picturesque provincial village nestled in a high river valley, Jia-xian proclaims itself the taro capital of Taiwan. Taro is a root starch one eats sautéed, fried, and even as ice cream.

We got in late, shivering and wet, and approached a group of ladies. Tina performed her where-can-we-sleep pantomime by joining her hands as if in prayer at the side of her head and angling both. One old lady motioned us to follow her. Two blocks and one turn later we arrived at a nondescript building. Tina checked out the $18 rooms but — never picking the first option — decided to look for others. The old lady who’d led us there suddenly looked disappointed and agitated. Thinking, we soon realized, that an $18 room was too expensive for us, she invited us to stay at her home — a kind offer we turned down, unable to explain.

Word soon got around of our presence at the other hotel, and we were joined for breakfast by our innkeeper’s niece, Ma Jo-shan, a local artist married to Josh, an American. They’d moved to Jia-xian to live with her elderly parents above the small grocery store they owned and ran, so her parents could share the joy of raising their grandkids. Jo invited us to tour the temples and mountaintops with her.

Mazu is my beacon, I shall not shipwreck . . .

Jia-xian’s old temple is dedicated to Mazu, Taiwan’s patroness, saint, or deity, depending on one’s outlook. While Christianity has traditionally been organized from the top down, with an authority (such as the pope) declaring who is beatified, sanctified or deified (from a non-believer’s point of view), most Eastern religions are ground-up, based on “ancestor worship,” animist traditions, and the teachings of Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius (the three sages dating from about 500 BC). With no central planning, many strains of thought evolved, and are still evolving, ranging from the highly superstitious (non-empirical) to the merely respectful; and from schools of “pure tradition” to custom-built, individualized beliefs.

Eastern spiritual thought is hard to grasp from Western reports. Having first been described to the west by Christians, in often patronizing — even derogatory — terms that ignore translation difficulties and missed the depths and subtleties and the complex relationships between philosophy and religion; dogma and opinion; or worship and reverence, it’s understandable. It helps, as Lao Tzu in the Tao advised (and I paraphrase), “to have no dog in the fight.” Unlike Middle Eastern religions, which are often intolerant of one another, Eastern believers are not only tolerant of others; they also respect and even admire them, resulting in much syncretism. China has fought many wars, but they have very seldom had a religious tendency.

The garbage collection system really touched our hearts. Garbage trucks make their rounds in the evening, announcing their approach with a distinctive ice cream van tune.

Even the term “ancestor worship” is too glibly bestowed as it is not a religion but rather a practice, one that is a part of nearly all religious traditions. A better term is “ancestor veneration,” a more accurate description of what practitioners actually do, which is to cultivate kinship values such as filial piety, family loyalty, and family continuity, with rituals such as visiting graves, offering flowers and grave decorations, burning candles or incense, reciting genealogies, or simply displaying photographs in special locations. Prayer, actual worship, belief in the transformation of dead relatives into deities, or communication with them may or may not be present.

Likewise, animism is commonly misunderstood. The word literally refers to a belief thateverything — living or inanimate — has an essence: a soul, or anima, if you will; that soul need not be a spirit or ghost-like being with a potentially independent existence. Animism usually regards human beings as on a roughly equal footing with other animals, plants, natural forces and even objects — all deserving respect. Humans are considered a part of nature, not superior or separate from it. However, it is not a type of religion in itself but rather a constituent belief or virtue — analogous to polytheism, monotheism, or even filial piety — that is found in many belief systems.It is Aristotle’s elaborated version of animism that according to some scholars was appropriated by the early Christian church into the modern “soul” most of us are familiar with.

Taoism and Confucianism are often mentioned in the same breath as if they were complementary beliefs, while in reality their philosophical differences are as marked as Plato’s and Aristotle’s. Living at a time in China when Neolithic egalitarian tribes were evolving into hierarchical kingdoms, Lao Tzu and Confucius were exposed to dynamic change, the pace of which varied considerably geographically. Lao Tzu (the older of the two) came from a rural, conservative area. Confucius, on the other hand, was swept up in the new order. While Lao Tzu’s philosophy centered on preserving the old ways, Confucius embraced change. His philosophy stressed acceptance and adaptation to changing times through universal education in science and the classics. Lao Tzu advocated passivity; Confucius advocated wise action — Lao Tzu’s Ned Ludd to Confucius’ John Dewey.

Of the two, Lao Tzu was the more esoteric and metaphysical. In contrast, Confucius, fearing he might be deified after his death, ordered his disciples to burn his writings. They reluctantly did so, but then compiled what they remembered in The Analects. Today Taoism in Taiwan is a very big tent, incorporating many sages, saints, gods; beliefs, practices and ceremonies. On the other hand, Taipei’s Confucian Temple is a memorial to a man and his thought, with ceremonies held to commemorate him, not worship him or anyone.

Taiwanese Buddhism is not as ascetic, martial, or world rejecting as its Indian, Tibetan and Mongolian antecedents. It is personified by the “Happy Buddha”, a fat, smiling and goodie-laden effigy popular on vehicle dashboards and family shrines. Known as Tzu Chi or Renjian Fojiao (this-worldly) Buddhism, it encourages socially active involvement, stress reduction, and even fun. With its de-emphasis on ritual and superstition, the strain took off in the 1960’s and is now the religion of choice for middle-class urbanites and professionals. Taiwan's Buddhist population grew from 800,000 in 1983 to 4.9 million in 1995, a 600 percent increase and still growing.

As Taiwan’s patroness, Mazu is the closest thing to a pan-Taiwanese deity and gets the lioness’ share of festivals and celebrations. She is loosely lumped into the Taoist or Folk Religion pantheons, and is widely worshiped on the mainland and in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and the Chinese diaspora. It’s interesting to compare and contrast her life and legend with one of the west’s preeminent deities, Jesus Christ.

Born Lin Mo-niang in 960 in Fujian province, she died at the young age of 28 (JC at 33) — in one version — while attempting to save fishermen, including her father and brothers, from shipwreck after a typhoon (JC died attempting to save mankind from original sin — an alleged transgression by our legendary ancestors). Many stories, and later miracles, of seafaring rescues are attributed to her. Of exceptional intelligence, she was a sponge for knowledge, mastering Taoist and Buddhist texts at an early age and gaining repute as a female priest (though little is known about Jesus’ education, he sought what I would summarize as enlightenment through fasting and isolation in the desert for 40 days — a transcendent approach — in contrast to Mazu’s world-immersion education). She never claimed to be divine, as Jesus did. Nonetheless, she is — mostly — worshiped as the Goddess of the Sea and Empress of Heaven; in addition to being the patroness of childbirth, because she didn’t cry at birth (Jesus was, reputedly, virginally conceived).

Today she’s even become a political soccer ball, with the PRC getting her inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible heritage list in order to win hearts in the ROC.

Closing the circle

North of Jia-xian we passed through soursop and wax apple orchards; coconut groves, pineapple fields, and rice paddies; shrimp farms, and kowtowed papaya trees bent short to ease picking and to allow the entire grove to be covered by protective netting. A couple of days from Taipei a young biker caught up to us. Taking a break between high school and college, she was on the first day of a solo ride around the island, and was bursting at the seams with enthusiasm tinged with just a touch of apprehension. Feeding the former, we allayed the latter.

Taiwan’s school system is hard to fathom, and I still haven’t quite worked out its incentives. Generally, the better performing kids go to public schools, while the remainder attend private ones. Huh? Yes, public schools are free, but there’s a catch — they have high admission and retention standards. Private schools accept all comers, but they charge. Individual tutors — outside the formal education system — are ubiquitous, affordable or not.

Riding into Taipei, we were again joined by a lone biker, this time a fit elderly gentleman, who, spotting our kit, assumed we were circumnavigating the island. We confirmed his suspicion. To celebrate, he invited us out to dinner, an invitation that took us by surprise but that Tina immediately accepted. He was 73, just retired (opining that Asians work too much), and had just graduated his youngest from college. Free at last from parental obligations, he was ready to bike the world and wanted to plumb our experience. Kung Gung-ho, besides his good English, spoke French: he had his eyes on the Atlantic coast of France. He’d already rounded Taiwan. His dream was to do one big bike trip a year for the next five years.

Over dessert, it was my turn to pick his brain. I asked him about Taiwan’s health care system. Surprised at my interest in something so mundane, he accommodatingly switched gears.

Taiwan has a compulsory, government-run, single-payer National Health Insurance scheme established in 1995, modeled — according to Dr. Michael Chen, CFO of the NHI — on America’s Medicare system. Public and private providers coexist, and the system covers traditional Chinese medicine. At 2%, the NHI has the lowest administrative costs in the world. Private insurance is available alongside the NHI for greater freedom of choice. There is a 70% patient satisfaction rate. Nevertheless, the NHI is unsustainable and going broke.

The government is not taking in enough money to cover the services it provides, so it is borrowing money from banks. Because the revenue base is capped, the plan does not keep pace with the increase in national income, or increased costs. Premiums are regulated by politicianswho are afraid to raise premiums because of the voters. Price controls are beginning to rear their ugly heads.

Office visits are as low as $5 US. Gung-ho (literally, work together) blamed his own age group for abusing the system. Believing they’ve paid up front for a service, the elderly set out with a vengeance to get their money’s worth by visiting doctors regularly and often, and getting prescriptions they didn’t intend to use.

Gung-ho ordered a round of green tea ice cream, paid the bill, and parted with this “ancestor worship” blessing:

Around me I wear an invisible coat of many colors, fabrics and texture. It is made of friends and family, here and no longer here, far and not so far. They are all part of my coat which keeps me warm wherever I go. It is a coat that is always in style and never wears out. You are now part of my coat.

George and Jorie welcomed us back in typical Taiwanese fashion: by taking us out to a traditional banquet. Over one too many sakes, Tina and I embarrassed ourselves with superlatives: about the dinner, the trip, our hosts, the country, the people, their religious and philosophical views, the infrastructure, even EVA Airlines our carrier — you name it.

So I asked them what the overall Taiwanese tax burden was. After a little reflection, doubtlessly influenced by the conviviality, George answered, “25%”, adding a rant about the cost and red tape of doing business in New York. If true, a light bulb flashed in my head.

Reflecting back to countless times when my leftwing friends had threatened to emigrate to Canada (or France, or wherever) if such-or-such rightwing politician got elected president of the United States, I realized that my rightwing friends had no such prospective refuge. Well, I can now offer them one: Taiwan — a destination that ought to be equally attractive to my other friends as well.




Share This


Tiger's Eye

 | 

Life of Pi is a magical adventure story whose narrator claims it will “make you believe in God.” “Impossible!” you might say. “That’s utterly irrational!” Right? Well — just you wait. The main character’s name is Pi, after all . . .

The film is framed as a story within a story within a story. The external frame involves a Canadian author with writer’s block who has come to India looking for a story. The middle story involves a young Indian boy (Suraj Sharma) with the unlikely name of “Piscine” (“swimming pool”). Piscine endures the taunts of schoolmates who pronounce the name as “pissing” until he proactively redefines himself as “Pi” through a series of remarkable classroom calisthenics. Pi, of course, is the irrational number, and that is significant for a boy who is going to defy rationality by making you believe in God.

Pi’s parents own a zoo, and when they decide to move from India to Canada, they secure passage on a cargo boat and take the animals with them. This introduces the central story, which involves Pi’s adventures when the ship sinks during a storm. Pi ends up sharing a lifeboat with the zoo’s tiger. How Pi manages to do this without becoming the tiger’s dinner is pretty astounding. His resourcefulness, imagination, and determination to survive dominate this part of the film.

Even more astounding than Pi’s relationship with the tiger is the film’s cinematography. With a vast ocean as his canvas, director Ang Lee paints gorgeous pictures on film. Reflection and illusion are important both artistically and metaphorically, and Lee takes full advantage of both. It is often difficult to see where the water ends and the sky begins, as stars, clouds and sunsets are reflected off the sea. Often we discover that we are viewing the story through water — water so clear that we don’t even see it until something moves and creates ripples that distort our view. Significantly, it is the real view that seems distorted, and the illusion that seems real. Pi’s internal reflection about his plight is just as powerful, and the metaphors in this film give it a satisfying gravitas beyond the simple plot.

The film begins with long, languorous shots of beautiful exotic animals in vivid jungle scenes; Lee is in no hurry to get to the crux of the story. He has all the time in the world for storytelling — as, of course, does the shipwrecked Pi. In fact, “singing songs and telling stories” is one of the “guidelines for survival” that Pi finds in the lifeboat’s survival kit. And so he creates his story during more than three months adrift in the ocean. He creates a system for gathering dew that he and the tiger drink during the day. He devises a net for catching fish, and when he isn’t able to catch enough to satisfy the tiger’s hunger, flying fish appear like manna from heaven.

The storm and shipwreck scenes are so astounding that I literally starting feeling seasick as I watched it. (Maybe the 3D version wasn’t such a good choice . . .) As Pi struggles to come to the surface of the water, he is surrounded by sharks that he apparently does not see. That seems to be a metaphor as well. Even the “clear water” and the idea that one can believe in many religions at once seemed like a veiled reference to Hollywood’s favorite religion, Scientology. In short, the film is fairly dripping with metaphor, illusion, and allusion.

Although this is a film that purports to make you believe in God, it is not a religious film. Only the first few minutes are devoted to Pi’s religious awakening. Pi is a Hindu who discovers Christianity at the age of 12 when a priest gives him water for his thirst. (Yes, this is another allusion to water.) He says that he “found God’s love through Christ.” But he also earnestly embraces Islam and says that “the sound and feel of the words of the prayers to Allah gave peace and serenity.” Pi’s father tells him, “Believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing.” But his mother counters with “Science can teach us more about what is out there, but not about what is in here,” touching her chest. Pi concludes that “faith is a house with many rooms” and that “you cannot know the strength of your faith without its being tested.”

If this sounds like a bunch of religious mumbo-jumbo to you, don’t let it keep you from seeing this film. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate a Renaissance painting, and you don’t have to be looking for proof of God’s existence to enjoy this film. Life of Pi is a stunning work of art, whether you buy the premise of believing in God or not.

Ultimately, faith is a choice. Evidence is all around us, but we choose whether to see the reality or the distortion. We choose how to write our own stories. If there is any message to this film, that’s it. And it’s a pretty satisfying message.


Editor's Note: Review of "Life of Pi," directed by Ang Lee. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2012, 127 minutes.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.