Madalyn and I decided to go out after work to see what Taoyuan had to offer on a Friday night. We went down to the train station, where the night markets and malls and stores and people congregate, and wandered around. We found a door with a sign that said “coffee” that looked promising and went inside to find a bar. All eyes were on us as we walked past the line of men sitting on bar stools, nursing warm beer. The owner of the bar, an older gentleman with an unlit cigarrette handing from his mouth and his broken arm limply protruding from underneath his button up shirt, gruffly showed us to a table. The bar fit nicely into my definition of a “dive” – dim lighting, deflated christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling, the reek of cigarettes hanging in the air like ghosts. The waitress scurried over, a cute tomboyish girl with her hair in a bob and the air of someone who works with a lot of intoxicated men. She spoke a little English and seemd delighted that we were there. She explained that later there was going to be a band, and thrust a menu of beer and whiskey at us. We told her we needed to eat first, but that we would be back in time for the band to start. Her enthusiasm dissapated, and she asked us not to leave because her boss would be mad. We assured and reassured her that we’d be back.
For dinner we found a great little grill where the chef cooks your meal right in front of you and places it on a little strip of tin foil. We got shrimp stirfry, a green onion omlete and loads of bean sprouts and cabbage. I could have watched our chef cook all day.
As promised, we returned to the “coffee” bar, much to our waitress’ delight (“I knew you’d be back!”). We ordered Taiwan beer and she brought a bucket of ice, as most Taiwanese seem to understand and appreciate that foreigners don’t share their affinitiy for lukewarm beverages. She sat with us and chatted, took down our information in order to add us to facebook and decided that we were now friends and we’d have to return next weekend, and presumably the next one after that.
The band started to set up shortly after 11. There was a guy on keyboard, and a girl who sang covers of standard karaoke songs. She had a great voice though, so it was much less painful than karaoke tends to be. She was also thrilled to have two foreigners in attendance, and spent a lot of time singing directly to me, and talking either to or about us in between songs. At one point, she was singing Happy Birthday to another patron and dragged me up to sing with her. After a few more songs, people started to bring up little pieces of paper with requests written on them and the deal was that you got to sing your chosen song with the band. One guy – the first Taiwanese guy to talk to either of us out of his own volition – came to our table before his song was to start, and spent the entire time telling us how he’s a captain in the army, a weaponry aficianado and has different girlfriends all over the place. And then he got on stage and sang the song from Armageddon, “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing”. Just awesome.
Saturday, after an inadvertant but much appreciated sleep-in, we made our way to the mountain in Shitoushan where Lonely Planet tells us there is a temple where tourists can spend the night. We had been asking around at school how to get there, and everyone seemed to think we were crazy for guessing our way to a place with no concrete plan and really no idea where we were going. And I suppose that is a little crazy, but how else are you going to get to a place you’ve never been before?
It was actually pretty straightforward to get there, if time consuming. A train to Hsinchu, and a couple of buses from there to the base of the hiking trail on the mountain. We enlisted the help of the ever altruistic Taiwanese along the way, to make sure we got on the right buses. One guy we met while grabbing lunch, took us to the bus station, and then bought our tickets for us and said “Welcome to Taiwan”. Madalyn said that when she gets home, she’s going to make a point of being extra helpful to travelers.
While waiting for one of our connections in Jhedong, we went for a wander to kill the time. We found a pet shop with overcrowded cages of painfully mangy birds, including two baby african greys looking malnourished and like they’d peck your eyes out for a chance at freedom. We carried on through what looked like a shortcut to a park. Here, we found a maze of tiny rooms with scantily dressed women lounging on the beds inside, watching TV and wilting in the heat. It looked like a bee hive. There were red lights on, and a man sitting outside on a stool, folding napkins and looking at us suspciously. Madalyn whispered, “Is this a brothel?”. We looked closer at the women, and figured that yes, it probably was. And we went back to the bus station.
By the time we started our ascent of the mountain, it was about an hour before nightfall. No matter, Lonely Planet said the hike was only an half hour. As it turned out – and I should’ve anticipated this after all the Lonely Planet related shenanigans I experienced in South America – it was more than a half hour and according to the signs along the way, there was no such temple on our route. There were all kinds of small shrines tucked into alcoves and pavillons and aside from the spiders the size of my head, it was all very lovely. Amidst the bedlam of jungle sounds, including a somewhat disturbing creature that made a sound like a cell phone in a blender, we could hear chanting floating from unseen crevices in the mountain. It was getting dark fast, and large bats were flying at our heads. It was time to either find somewhere to stay or get off of this mountain. Fortunately, over the next hill, there was temple – not the one we intended to visit, of course, but a temple nevertheless. It was a nunnery, and the nuns were in the process of locking the doors for the night. They stopped us and asked where we were headed. We explained as best we could our vague plans. They insisted we stay with them and ushered us into the main hall for supper.
Of the 14 nuns in residence, a couple of them had a pretty decent grasp of English, luckily for us. One of them, Jean, took us under her wing. She stuffed us full of vegetarian dumplings, let us use the showers, and gave us a room to sleep in. The room was just like you’d expect a nun’s room to be – austere with only thin mattresses to sleep on and a fan in the corner.
The next morning, Jean woke us at 5 am to join her for meditation. We followed her into the classroom where she showed us how to do walking meditation. The idea is to keep your mind focused on your feet. Left foot rises, moves forward, is placed down; right foot up, over and down. And so on. All that can be heard is the shuffling of feet on the concrete floor. After about ten minutes or so of mindful pacing, we stopped and sat crosslegged on the mats, closed our eyes and tried to focus on our breathing. Jean described this as rising-falling, rising-falling. When pain arises, as it will, she said to focus on the pain-pain-pain, and then bring your mind back to rising-falling, rising-falling. This proves difficult when my leg fell asleep and every twitch brought a shooting pain up and down my body. Pain, I thought, painpainIwanttomovemyleg, painpain, moveit, justmoveit, ow-ow-ow, okay – rising-falling-pain-howlonghavewebeendoingthisforowowowowow. Just when I thought I’d burst, Jean announced that we were finished. It had been an half hour. I nearly fell over when I stood up, as my legs were ovetaken by a wave of that awful pins and needles sensation. Madalyn asked Jean how she handles the numbness. She said she likes it; pain is good.
We then ate breakfast with the rest of nuns. Breakfast was prefaced by twenty minutes of chanting. Afterwards, when the eating begins, the nuns kept bringing us more food. Here, have a moon cake, have a banana, how about a mango, please, have more rice. I joked with them about how they must have been trying to fatten me up, like a Buddhist version of Hansel and Gretel. We finished eating and helped out with the clean up, and then Jean took us on a walk to the other nearby temples. There are temples tucked into caves all over these mountains. Chanting wound through the air like cigarette smoke. We came across a cluster of traditional Chinese temples. They’re ornate and colorful, with intricate dragons curled on the rooftops, guarding the devoted, and there are large pots in the front of the three large buddha statues where you place sticks of incense to take your prayers up to the gods. On a pavillion there was a traditional chinese band playing. And down below, we saw the temple we were meant to stay at – evidently there was another hiking trail that lead directly to it. It appears to be more of a tourist hotel. I’m happier with the way our night turned out.
On the way back, Jean pointed out a falling leaf and commented on how beautiful impermanence is. Somehow the conversation turned to the arthritis in my hands and I showed Jean my deformed pinky finger. She said that Sunday is the day the doctor comes to do acupuncture for them and she will have him take a look. I expressed my gratitude and she responded that because I have a good heart, I will encounter good people.
The doctor, an unassuming middle aged man wearing jeans and a tshirt, grabbed my hand brusquely, and turned it over in his. He straightened my arm and pressed, hard, on the underside near my armpit. It felt like he was stabbing me with his thumb, but I tried not to squirm too much. Pain is good, right? He yanked on my finger a few times, and explained, through Jean, that there is a blockage in there and if I keep it flat for 8-10 days, it should straighten out. Just that easy? The good doctor wrapped up my finger so it lay flat and instructs me to get sturdier tape and keep it that way.
Jean asked if we’ll stay another night and whether or not we can read through some of her books with her, so she can practice English and we can discuss Buddhism. We agreed. First, she said, we nap. And then we study.
At dusk, we met with Jean in the classroom and began our tutelage. Jean hadgiven us a little trove of all the books on Buddhism in English that she could find. Madalyn reads a page from the Burmese Dhammapada:
Little though he recites the sacred texts, but puts the Teaching into practice, forsaking lust, hatred and delusion, with true wisdom and emancipated mind clinging to nothing of this or any other world-he indeed partakes of the blessings of a holy life.
We discussed what this means. Reading the texts, in Buddhism, means very little unless you actually live the teaching. This means no killing, stealing, irresponsible sexuality (can mean anything from fidelity to celibacy), lying/speaking maliciously or drinking alcohol, and not attaching to the physical world. Jean asked us why Americans and Canadians drink so much alcohol. We weren’t really sure how to respond, so we said, it’s a form of entertainment and escape. She reasoned that we’d be better off meditating.
The next morning we return to Taoyuan. Jean saw us off and invited us to come back any time, whether just to stay another weekend or to come and live and study Buddhism with her. We thanked her everything and headed back down the mountain.