Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Trading in the Monastic Life for the Road

Here's a trip summary so far with some updated pics for something else...I'll try to get back to your comments soon. Sorry for the delay.

It's 4:10am, and we have to go pray. I'm not cut out for monastery life.

For the past two nights, my longtime friend and I have been sleeping at a Buddhist monastery on the East Coast of Taiwan, eating vegetarian, shoveling cement, making chocolate candies, and mopping the temple floor.

I'm here on a self-administered project I've decided to call A Walk on my Ethnic Lines. This exploration of my ethnic identity has been bubbling around in the depths of my gut for some years now, and the opportunity came for me to fly to Taiwan this winter, so I took it.

It's not the first time I've been here, but it is the first time I've been here with a critical eye on the half of me who is formed on this island. My other half, I would argue, is something along the lines of White American.

I started walking a week ago more than a hundred kilometers north of where I am now. My travel plans were to walk south and meet people. I've hitched a couple of rides and taken a short train ride, but they were all either tangential to meeting people or for the sake of convenience to some of my hosts. I've slept by train tracks and staked a tent near waterfalls. Today is the start of the second segment of our walk -- 150km to Taitung, a comparitavely larger city than what we've seen so far.

The start of the trip was just like any beginning to anything that isn't well planned: different. After a coffee at a cafe on the cliffside coast above Dali, we headed South. The weather was cool, but our walking subdued most of the cold.

We headed down to the train tracks to follow the rails, but were hurried back up to the road, when a speedy freight train honked and roared by us. We hit the ground and let our feet swing off the ledge that offered a 15 foot drop into a muck of a garden and various degrees of trash.
We'd been walking on a coastal road that most cars abandoned once a faster route opened. It's mostly tractor trailors now. Sometimes even tractor trailors towing tractor trailors.

The thing about walking is that it's accessible to most people across the world and it really helps you understand the land. People take note of what you're doing and ask questions. Questions turn into conversations, and then there's an exchange of cultural information that's priceless. For the world to meet one another is an endless opportunity of both inner and outer exploration. It's that simple.

We met some folks from I-lan, a city that's known for its winter mosquitoes. The folks told us to take a dip in the hot springs in the town above. Unfortunately, we lost our camera, and in a big ordeal involving the local police and a karaoke bar for truck drivers, we didn't go to the hot springs. Instead, we went to the cold springs the next town over.

In I-lan, we stayed with my mother's friend's mother's sister for a night. We were getting ready to leave town, but day was turning to night fast. A kid we met helped us ask his middle school if we could spend the night in the school yard. After a welcoming "yes" from an English teacher, the Assistant Principal turned us away. No worries. I understand.

But as we were leaving, it began to rain. Bummer. We dawned our goofy ponchos for the first time and searched for the local university. The security guard told us to stake out in the basement of their student union. In the morning, we awoke to an elderly crowd exercising to their favorite tunes. The mosquitoes kept me awake, so I wandered around. The floor above the exercise troupe was partner dancing to tango music. It was like a nightclub, except in the morning, and with old people. The elderly here are far more active than those I've seen elsewhere. Our second wake-up call was students milling around from class to class.

Eight kilometers later, we met a man that had seen us down the road. He bought us "bin-lang," an addictive nut that's chewed in Taiwan. We gave it a shot, and decided to save the rest for later. After meeting some of his friends, we stepped into their abandoned house, had tea, and watched them gamble amongst paper bills and dominoes. Some things might be better left unexplained. All I know is that they were kind to us, and at the moment, that's all that mattered. Later, we had coffee at a Mazda dealership and chatted with a salesman.
After a short evening train ride and a sloppy night market meal, we went back to the train station to sleep under a covering that seemed to overlook just the tracks. In the morning, we would find a spectacular view of the mountains. A kind station worker gave us a lift closer to Taroko National Park, and said that travelers can always use a helping hand.

I got more than my share of worldly wisdom after sleeping under the roar of four waterfalls in the park. We hit the road again in the morning, keeping in mind that we needed to get to this charity organization by nightfall. We stopped at a 7-11 for an afternoon snack. As we were leaving, I saw a sign that pointed to the Tzu-Chi Academy. Our afternoon hunger landed us exactly where we needed to be. We walked to the monastery, dropped our packs in front of the temple, and went in for an evening prayer, as directed by the man who greeted us at the entrance.

There we spent two nights of 3:50am wake-ups, 2-hour prayers, chores throughout the morning, and a visit to an even larger temple boasting a mosaic of Buddha holding the Earth. After living in monastic order, we're on the road again, now with no order to our travels except a road going South.


At January 8, 2008 at 9:44 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff - I am happy to know that you are on your journey. If it were me, I'd probably never leave the monastery! But, that's just me. Interested to see what's next. Be well. Holly

At January 27, 2008 at 8:50 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

Holly, thanks for the comment. The trip's gone spectacularly. Thanks for all your help and support. You're Awesome!


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