Paths of Desire (part 15)

Small gray monkeys were a favorite pet of the Taiwanese people, although many of the little creatures passed their days in cages, mostly neglected, and some in misery. One such unfortunate monkey was owned by my neighbors in Luku. They kept him in a cage in the open lot that separated our property and theirs. Occasionally, he was let out and tied to a tether which allowed him more room to move about; but it was difficult to see his loneliness and sorrow spending most days sitting alone in his cage.

It was especially sad to see him out there in bad weather and at night; so one day, I couldn’t take it anymore and I asked the neighbors if I could take care of him for them. They were surprised but agreed to let me look after him. They stressed to me that they weren’t giving him to me, and they expected him to be there when they wanted him, but I could interact with him and care for him as well. The first thing I noticed was that he was incredibly dirty and needed a good washing. Having never washed a monkey before, I decided the easiest thing to do was bring him with me into the shower. I had no idea how difficult this project would be and how much little gray monkeys hate the shower. In my host family’s home the shower was a concrete stall at the end of an outside walkway, nestled against a corner of the house. It had a door and was fully self-contained, which turned out to be a good, because things became very lively for the two of us behind that closed door.

All was well as I carried my little friend into the stall with me and shut the door but once the water was turned on, it was as if I had been lowered into a blender. He exploded and went berserk, flying round and round the little stall, up and down my body, and finally perching himself atop my head. His little hands and feet clutched savagely at my hair and scalp and he refused to let go or be coaxed down from his lofty promontory. As I attempted to pry him off my head he sunk his teeth into my finger; sharp little teeth which drew blood, and I immediately began to imagine what new, strange and unknown disease I might have just contracted. Hadn’t AIDS come from a monkey? Well, nothing to be done now but clean my finger, which I did, while he remained nervously attached to my scalp like an exotic, living, fascinator. While he was up there I was able to bring him into the shower stream several times and at least give him a quick rubdown before finally giving up the venture.

We dried off and then I brought him into my room, which he loved. I closed the bedroom door and let him down onto the floor and he was elated to be free to roam and jump, without a tether, and free of the tiny confines of his cage. If he could have spoken to me I wouldn’t have understood his joy as clearly as he communicated it by his running and jumping and playing. He leaped up onto my bed and used the mattress as a springboard to launch himself up onto the wall above my pillow where he immediately pushed off and then did a somersault in the air before landing on the mattress again. This became his favorite thing, which he repeated over and over again as I watched with a smile. Occasionally he stopped and looked over at me to make sure I was watching him and I voiced approval which was his cue to begin his acrobatics again.  Eventually he tired himself out and we both laid down for the night. I climbed under the sheets, and he lay down on my chest, with his little arms extended across my shoulders, his tiny head nestled against my neck, and went to sleep. For the remaining few weeks of my stay in Luku I brought my little friend in for the night; and we both enjoyed the warmth and shelter of my room, and also the warmth of our newfound friendship; but I never again tried to give him another shower.

At the conclusion of the semester in Taiwan, our group spent the last few days together debriefing at a rustic site in the mountains within Taroko National Park.  There, we discussed what we had learned and how the trip had changed us. Among other things, I found that this trip exposed and called into question some deeply held assumptions I had about the superiority of individualism. I come from a culture that places great value on the individual: the self-made man, the person who climbs up out of obscurity and makes a name for him or herself, one who overcomes and wins and does all of this in the face of the mediocre crowds, rising above mediocrity, finding victory in personal accomplishment. I came to Taiwan with all of this deeply ingrained in me and was certain of its veracity, but it wasn’t long before I realized that I was looked on with pity by the Taiwanese for these very traits. They saw in my individualism something sad and to be avoided. Instead, they believe that how one fits into the larger society, the group, is the important thing, and one’s value is found as a part of the whole, with the others, not apart or alone. Of course this is a generalization, and in the twenty five years that have elapsed since my time on the island I suspect they are now much more like the west, but at the time I was there, and of those I met, this was the belief and the philosophy that guided their lives.

St Paul admonished the church to be of one mind and one spirit, to flee from a competition of ideas, to find resolution to differences, and to foster harmony within the whole. St Paul went on to tell us that, though we may have diverse and individual gifts, they are for the benefit of the entire body, and we, as parts of the body, should find our value in how we benefit and enhance the other members of the body. In so many ways the beliefs of my culture are at odds with Christian ones, and have been at odds with them for many centuries.

After our group debriefing we all went our separate ways. I had booked a flight through Seoul, with a layover for a couple days to see that city, and then on to Tokyo to visit a friend, and travel for two weeks in Japan before heading back home again. My flight didn’t leave Taiwan for another day or two so I spent some time hiking in the area. It appears there have been many slides, renovations and changes to the trails since I was there in 1990, but at that time, the trailhead I took was at a cave entrance on the side of the highway, and one began by walking for a very long way through the mountain.

There is something strange and claustrophobia inducing about walking alone straight through a mountain by way of a small tunnel. In this particular case the light at the other end of the tunnel appeared very far away and looked as if someone was holding a single LED bulb very far in the distance. I began walking through the tunnel towards the light but it never seemed to get any closer. After a while of walking I turned and looked behind me and the entrance now looked just about as far as my destination; I calculated that I must be about mid-way through the mountain. The air was cool and damp and deathly silent. I could see nothing except these pin-lights at my two poles. I imagined the mass of earth and rock above me and thought how impossible it would be to reach me in a slide or collapse. Besides, nobody knew I had climbed into this tunnel, so they wouldn’t even know to look for me. But it was peaceful and so very silent and exciting too. I continued walking through the mountain and after a while the light on the other side did begin to look larger. My imaginations about a collapse provoked me to begin a faster pace and this stimulated my anxiety which in turn prompted me to break into a trot, and then a run in hopes of getting out of the mountain before something calamitous might happen.

The tunnel opened out onto a beautiful gorge and stream, and the trail continued up alongside the waterway and into the mountains. I had heard there were many more caves and tunnels up ahead, although most were short; and up to twenty-eight waterfalls on the trail, with some cascading down onto the trail inside the caves. I had brought an umbrella and light raincoat with me for the day, and a banana or two and a water bottle. I encountered a few other hikers at the beginning and again near the end but other than this the trail was mine. The solitude gave me time to reflect as I hiked alongside the stream, crossed the gorge on several footbridges, and walked through shallow streams, in the darkness of the caves, while water rained down upon me.

Opening an umbrella underground is an incongruous activity and leaves one feeling odd; finding oneself in a torrential downpour while walking through a cave strains our ideas of normalcy. I enjoyed this immensely. I felt alive and free again, as the stream poured down over me through the myriad fissures in the rock overhead; the Year of the female was behind me, and I felt I could breathe once more. I liked nearly all of the women I had travelled to Taiwan with, and all of those I had called my family the past six months, but at the same time I was glad to be alone now, without anyone to answer to, and immersed in beauty.

I emerged from the cave and back into the sunlight, wet and happy. My shoes and socks were soaked through, as were my shorts, but I didn’t mind. All I could see ahead was a wide open freedom calling to me, coaxing me through the next tunnel, across the next foot-bridge, further up into the clouds; and no petty annoyance could keep me grounded here and now. My body was wet and worn, but my spirit was taking flight; I could see beyond this trail into a bright, though unknown future. I had South Korea to visit, then Japan and then the rest of my life to unfold.

(to be continued)


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