I’d thought that the Muddy Basin Ramblers were meeting up at the Red House Theater in the West Gate District at 1:30 in the afternoon before our 2:05 show at a benefit concert for Japanese tsunami orphans, and I therefore proceeded to enjoy a leisurely morning at home, slowly getting my things together, before realizing that we’d actually arranged to meet at 12:30. One mad dash and a NT$300 taxi ride later, I was behind the theater going through a quick practice with the band, minus Conor who was already on stage with another band.
The show went well, but it was over too quickly. It seemed like we’d barely started before we were playing our last song as the hosts came up on stage. I was taking apart the washtub bass when one of the hosts, a woman, grabbed the tub and held it up for the audience to see. “This is what he’s been playing, if you didn’t notice!” she said. She then asked for a quick demonstration. Now there’s a sentence to boost my search ratings.
We were going out to celebrate David’s birthday that night, so I hung around and listened to the other bands, which included a Japanese family of ukulele players who performed some hits from Miyazaki movie themes like Spirited Away and Totoro. Adorable, if somewhat out of tune. One of the younger kids lost the beat halfway through one song, and within two measures the rest of the family switched to accommodate him. We had planned to find a spot near the Chungshan Hall for a little street performance, but Sandy and Thumper bailed early. A South American group got on stage and played such wonderful mariachi-style tunes I wanted to jump on stage and play along, but I refrained.
Eventually I tired of the booming sound, however, and walked out to the square where the old roundabout and park used to be before they made a boring intersection out of it, and stood in the same spot for about half an hour, just looking at people and things. Everyone had a camera, everyone was taking photos except me. The Golden Melody Awards, which I attended with Chalaw a few years ago (we didn’t win, but he won the next year), were taking place that evening, and one of my favorite bands as well as a friend, Matzka, was up for several awards. I knew from previous experience that he and his band were probably walking down the red carpet at the venue as I stood watching people in the square. Matzka would win the best group award that night. Not bad.
Night fell over the Red House Theater as all the bars and clubs fired up and filled with bears and other demographics. We walked over to the Calcutta. Slim was sloshedly vociferous the whole way. The food wasn’t bad, better than Tandoor, I felt, though I’m not a particular connoisseur of Indian food. David and Robin told tales of their recent honeymoon in Paris, of all the wonderful sights and sounds I missed when I was there, such as Belleville and the bars where Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grapelli played. The Leica Forum is going on there at the moment, attended by many a wealthy photographer (and probably some good ones, too, he said, trying not to sound too bitter).
The others were heading to Bobwundaye after dinner for some jamming, but I had an early start coming up on Sunday, so I reluctantly declined even though I was itching to play some more.
I was awake at 7:20 a.m. the next morning, grabbing the Invincible Rabbit and heading out into the already-brilliant sunshine, across the bridge and onto the subway to Taipei Train Station, where I met up with Chenbl, Terry, Lulu, Sean, his girlfriend Lily and her cousin, who were visiting from Hong Kong. Sean just got his master’s degree from Qinghua University in Disney Studies.
We caught the train to Keelung, traveling along the various construction sites and through the industry, through the mountain range and into the port city in about 40 minutes. Chenbl just failed to catch the bus out to Peace Island, so we waited in the hot sun, shooting irritated-looking passengers. Terry had an even more formidable beast than the Rabbit, a 1Ds, while Lulu, I think, had a 50D. A new liner was docked in the harbor, the Star Aquarius, bigger and nicer than the Star Libra I took to Okinawa. I wondered where it was bound for..Singapore? Hong Kong? Across from it was the Cosco Star that we took to Xiamen a few months ago. It looked small and dirty next to the Aquarius.
We caught the next bus out to Peace Island, which is located across a short bridge up near the mouth of the river. The area by the entrance is still under construction, as it was this time last year when I last saw it. The sun was glaring off the newly laid concrete, and a guard languished deep inside the shade of his shelter at the gate of a military base. We walked out to the rocky coast, where some messy picnickers were lighting fires and consuming bottles of tea. I climbed up on the rocks to get close to the sea, delighted to hear the wonderful sound of the water sluicing through the various crevices.
We walked up the coast and inland to a small group of houses whose occupants no doubt rely on hot, sweaty tourists for their livelihood. A group of aboriginal children surrounded us, trying and failing to guess who among us was Taiwanese and who wasn’t. “You’re the only real Taiwanese here,” I told them. The kids were apparently big fans of the hit TV show Rookie’s Diary, and weren’t entirely convinced that I knew Ye Da-tong, Lai Hu, Luo Gang, and Yang Hai-sheng, and I thought it was a shame that my friend Fu Zi-cun, who played Yang Hai-sheng and who is not a bad photographer himself, didn’t come along this time. He’s busy filming a new series down south though, and couldn’t make it.
The kids were playing around on a laundry rack comprised of a bamboo stick on two poles as we talked to them, and suddenly the bamboo stick, which was obviously quite old and moldy, broke. Almost immediately an old man in a white shirt came rushing up, yelling at this travesty, and the kids scattered. The old man took off his shoe and threw it at the kids several times, cursing them. At one point he actually got his hand on one of them and raised a heavy club to hit him with, but Terry stopped him, saying, “There’s no need for that.” I wondered if we would see that old man in the Apple Daily some day.
We walked down to the nearest bus stop and, 15 sweaty minutes later, caught a bus back to the train station, where we’d arranged to meet up with the Taiwan Photo Club, or at least part of it. Craig and Selina were there, of course, as well as Josh Ellis, Gillian Benjamin and a few others. They were waiting at the Starbucks on the harbor, and we had a quick lunch at the Burger King next door, enticed by the free ice cream sundaes, before boarding another bus out to the Fairy Cave.
I don’t think I’d ever been to the Fairy Cave before. Flocks of birds swarmed around the cliff face above the cave’s entrance, which was accompanied by ever-shy monks and a great deal of religious paraphernalia as the cave contains several temples. It was cool and misty inside, and several side caves branched out from the main one. One of the side branches became quite narrow, and some people came back claiming it was impossible to get through. I tried it, and though I had to crouch over and turn sideways, both the rabbit and I managed to get through fairly unscathed, though my shoulders were scrapped and muddy. Inside was another altar enveloped in a heavy mix of mist and incense that an ancient fan in the corner failed to alleviate.
We explored the neighborhood around the cave, waking up dogs and cats and a strange kind of wasp that attacked Josh because it really didn’t want to be on Facebook. Then Chenbl led us on a long trek across the valley and up another hill to a nice view of the sea right next to a power plant. As we recovered from the climb, which included the toxic fumes of a house painted entirely in tar the owner probably won in a game of majhong and didn’t want to waste, a lone paraglider sailed over the smokestacks of the powerplant, his shadow flitting across the field overlooking the sea.
The walk back down was much easier, and we luxuriated in the air conditioning of the rickety bus back downtown. Terry, Lulu, Sean, Lily and Lily’s cousin had to leave; the rest of us crossed the bridge over the other side of the tracks. A couple of aesthetic homeless men populated the bridge, lit by the late-afternoon sun in a way that even I couldn’t resist taking a shot, though I generally don’t like to take too many such shots. Craig was taking phone pictures the whole time, unburdened by a heavy DSLR. Probably a smart move considering the heat and all the hills we were climbing that day.
We wound our way through the steep alleys and stairs, passing and occasionally photographing the local residents. One man sitting on his scooter smoking glared at me as I took his shot. “Sorry,” he said, pointing to his cigarette. I refrained from pointing out that he would look just as thuggish without the cigarette, and walked on.
The whole of Keelung was laid out in the light of the approaching sunset as we reached the big KEELUNG sign, whereupon the mosquitoes decided that Chenbl was the only really delicious person on the site. Everyone except Craig and Selina climbed up to the top of the hill for an even better view. Josh and I stood atop the summit, on a circle of an old structure, noting the approaching clouds and thunder that meant it was surely raining in Taipei. The Aquarius had departed, off to wherever it was headed, a voyage of good food, swimming pools and gambling. The Cosco Star would be heading out later that evening.
Rain began to fall as we descended the hill, often going in circles as Chenbl tried to make the walk more interesting. We recrossed the bridge, noting that the homeless men had changed positions, and walked over to the Miaokou Night Market, which was mostly closed due to construction work. I didn’t see anything I liked. The harbor city was taking on its nocturnal form, its nights darker than those of other cities, its streets and alleys closer, wetter. I was game for more exploration, but I could feel the group’s gravitation towards the train station and our comfortable homes, so I went along, telling myself, another time: Keelung will still be there.