Today is the beginning of Proper Work, after the Chinese New Year and 2/28 Holidays. I spent the break with the flu, drunk on medicine, half in a dream state. I spent last night battling desperate nightmares, the kind that last until you’re convinced they are real, more real than the life you’re actually living. Now it’s cold and windy, and the streets are deserted, as though nobody’s really in the mood to start up again. I know I’m not.
Friday morning, however, the sun was out, and I thought it would be a good idea to take the crazy bike out for a spin, though the wind was taking things seriously. I went down to the basement, took the dust covers off the seat, and hauled my red ride up to street level to pump the tires before setting off, north as always (there are no paths south, not really). Riding was nice, though tinged with an eerie feeling that comes when the wind is at one’s back; I was pedaling but I didn’t feel any real motion. The riverside parks were crowded with holiday-makers enjoying the fine weather, so I wasn’t going that fast anyway.
At one point I swerved onto a divergent path to avoid crashing into another bicycle, and found myself looking at a massive array of men with cameras sporting huge lenses, spread out in a u-shape in front of an oddly shaped log and a bunch of grass. There must have been 50 or 100 of them, all staring intently through their finders, their motors whirring away at dizzying frames-per-second speeds. Many were decked out in full camouflage, including their huge 600mm lenses. It was quite the spectacle, and I really wanted a photo of them all, but when I edged towards the front of them on the side, several of them waved me off, even though I was dozens of meters away from the log they were photographing. I crept behind the trees behind the log, and even more of them shouted at me to get the hell out of their shots, even though there was no physically possible way I could have been in any of their shots.
“Didn’t you see the bird?” One of them asked me as I returned to the group, most of whom were glaring at me with the utmost distaste, this yokel who was RUINING THEIR WORK. I managed not to wonder aloud how, after spending untold fortunes on equipment, anyone could possibly remain so ignorant of the concept of depth of focus. Instead I managed to grin like an idiot and ask them about the bird. What kind of bird was it? “It’s an Angry Bird!” I was told, i.e. one of those little red birds made famous by the game.
“But how did it get here?” I asked.
“It, uh…escaped!” one of the photographers said.
“Really.” I stared at him. He looked nervous.
“It just ‘escaped’ on its own, eh?” Without having its wings clipped and tossed out onto a log in the park so that all of these frauds could “discover” it in a “natural state” so they could sell the prints to magazines for vast sums they could use to buy even longer lenses, no doubt. Amazing, but not surprising.
I left them to their fun and continued riding up the river, eventually passing the “Water Taxi” docks that proclaimed that the three times the boats left were all in the late afternoon due to the holidays, and up to the Dahan River, where I explored the new Crescent Moon pedestrian bridge, which is very nice, providing access to the old street and temples near Xinzhuang MRT station, a historic area that has witnessed a great deal of inter-tribal strife over the years.
I’d forgotten to bring lights for the crazy bike for night-time riding, so I decided to head back, against the wind to the comfort of home. I’d also forgotten sunscreen, which was unbeknownst to me etching a tan line where I wore my do-rag across my forehead. The wind and clouds made the trip back a low-key affair. The crowds of photographers were still snapping away at their “prize”, several hours later when I passed them on my way home.
Back at the Water Curtain Cave, I quailed at the idea of another night at home. So I called up Chenbl, who was spending the day in Gongguan, to meet up for dinner at the steak house on the second floor of Taipei train station. We’ve gone there many times, and while the service level goes up and down, the streak’s usually good. Also, they have the best creme brule this side of Paris. People staring (more than usual) at me on the subway alerted me to the dual-toned nature of my face after the day’s riding in the sun.
That was Friday. On Saturday, I met up with Xiao Guo and Chenbl at Dapinglin to take the bus to Longtan, the town where Chenbl’s mother grew up. Traffic was bad, as a cold front was threatening the last day of the holiday, and everyone was on the road trying to take advantage of the remaining hours of sun. But eventually we disembarked in downtown Longtan, which Chenbl says looks nothing like it did when he was little and the place was an idyllic farming town with potable water and buildings still not covered with billboards. One of these building’s outrageously awful design was apparently despite the billboards. When I wondered what the hell was up with it, Chenbl said, “Oh, that was designed by children on a whim.”
“Really? Isn’t that somewhat…irresponsible?” I said.
“I mean, aren’t there construction regulations, safety…uh, things?”
“Oh, well…that was a long time ago.”
We walked over and noted the awful construction techniques, the rotting wooden beams encased in concrete, the purposeless minarets and turrets, the trees growing through the structure. It was amazing it hadn’t collapsed yet. Nobody officially lived there, though there were signs of a previous restaurant and some farmers still using it.
We walked through abandoned fields and up old streets, Chenbl talking about How Things Used To Be when he was a little kid exploring the alleys four decades ago. As he told the tragic story of one of his neighbors being hit by a train, a man walked up who turned out to be the unfortunate neighbor’s father. “Geez, I hope he didn’t hear me talking about his son,” Chenbl whispered after we escaped the awkward conversation.
We ended up buying lottery tickets next door to the temple, which is now protected from the elements by a giant white sail contraption that looks as if the whole thing is about to take flight. The old parts of the town looked like they might have been nice places to live back in the day, or at least they did in my drug-addled imagination.
A very good lunch was had at a traditional Hakka restaurant while the staff gossiped about us at the next table. We then made our way out to the park surrounding the town’s eponymous water feature, where Chenbl’s aunt sings for passersby as a professional street performer. She’s very good. Chenbl is a very good singer himself, but his aunt is in another league altogether. We sat and listened for a bit as the sun warmed the lake and everyone around it. Chenbl’s aunt kept trying to get us to come down and sing something, and eventually Chenbl got me on stage to sing a Taiwanese song, Hai-bo-long, in a duo with his aunt. It was a lot of fun.
The weather had other plans, however, wiping the sun away just as we decided to take a walk around the lake. The sun vanished, the temperature dropping several degrees. By the time we arrived back at the stage, a lovely summer day had become dark and cold. Chenbl’s aunt bravely kept the crowd warm with music, and even got Chenbl up to sing. She also got a couple to come up and perform, the woman singing and the man playing a copper-colored trumpet with some decent amount of skill considering the plummeting temperatures. But rain was falling now, and we abandoned the show to board a bus to Xinpu. Chenbl and Xiao Guo had going on all day about getting some bantiao noodles there, but we were too late; everyone was trying to get back home now that the good weather was gone. The bus driver informed us that traffic was backed up to an incredible degree; we’d never make Xinpu. He let us off in Guanxi, where we were turned away from one popular restaurant before we managed to have some decent noodles (“Though not as good as Xinpu,” Chenbl kept saying). Mist was falling, and most of the stores were resolutely closed. Aided by friendly Hakka residents who let us dash into their bathroom for a quick piss, we managed to board another bus back to Taipei. Fortunately by that time traffic wasn’t too bad, with only a few red streaks on Google Traffic marring the route on my iPad, and in only a couple of hours we were marveling once again at the towering high-rises of New Taipei City (I still can’t stand that name; it is the cause of endless confusion in headlines to this day). Xiao Guo jumped off in the middle of Banqiao for some reason, and we caught the subway from the West Gate.
The trip made me feel I should spend more time exploring the area around Guanxi and Xinpu. Some other time, I suppose. There’s nothing like exploring a new place to jump start flagging dream states.