Good weekend

Monday, June 26. 2006
I finally took delivery of the Cub 90 motorbike I bought for Dinna's birthday (way back in May!) this week. Unfortunately there are a few problems with brakes and other things which I had to sort before I handed it over to her. I replaced the brake pads and tighted some nuts and bolts on Friday night. The previous pads had been tightened down way beyond the limit and then sat for so long they disintegrated. The pieces looked like little toxic stones. It's not finished but it's rideable now. I gave to to her that night; we had some riding lessons around Saturday noon. She's already using it by herself - she went to the gym that evening and then to buy dinner Sunday without me or my permission, even though she cannot yet ride properly nor has a license. If I still had a camera I'd post some pictures. It's a cute bike.

Saturday night we had a band rehearsal that was definitely our best so far. The band really gelled together and I don't think we played a bad song all night. If we could iron out some bugs in other areas we'd be doing great.

Sunday I slept in a little later than I wanted but Dinna and I still made it to the beach at Baishawan. While it was pretty disappointing (lots of rocks, fairly shallow and warm water, and a fast-lowering tide, it was still better than sitting around in the city all day. I think next time we'll try Green Bay instead or go back to Fulong (we went there last weekend).

On the way back we looked at two apartments in Xinyi area of which one Dinna is pretty keen to move into very soon. I want to look at more before making a decision.

Sunday night Will and I had our weekly rehearsal. Bit disappointing because we'd hoped to workshop some of Paul's songs but he was too hungover to come. Not much of an excuse if you ask me.

My parents are going to be here Friday and staying for ten days. I don't really feel organised enough for them but I'll get it together somehow I suppose. It's complicated by the facts that Jeremy is going away again, leaving me in charge of answering the Bikefarm phone until his wife Patty gets back, and that semester is finishing at school so things are going to be busy before then.

I don't know either

Thursday, June 22. 2006
This is apparently what it takes to make yourself write on your own website. A kick in the nuts.

I've no idea what the fuck is going on. The cryptic post below is all I have. No email, no warning, no nothing. I don't know what it means or what to make of it, but I figure if no one else is going to write for this site I'd better do it myself.

Things here have changed a lot since I last wrote anything worthwhile. I'm still busy as hell. I'm coming to the end of my contract pretty soon. I've had my ARC extended in the meantime and got a whole bunch of hassle from the Tax Department in the process. Both KC and John came to visit at the same time, which was nice. I'm playing in a band that sort of isn't playing right now.

To be honest, a lot of things about my situation have been pretty depressing, though it was kinda getting better. The feeling down about stuff, feeling tired and feeling sick had a lot to do with me not posting for a long time. Now this has happened and I feel like I must post something as some kind of symbol the site isn't going to die; but I don't feel I have much else to say.

So here it is: a call to my friend. I need an explanation, and fast.

The End Of The Road

Thursday, June 22. 2006
Due to unfortunate circumstances, I will no longer be posting here. It's over. Sorry.

Sometimes, you know, you just have to go it alone and see where you end up...

Drop a line sometime. Don't be a stranger.


--KC

Soccer Meltdown Day

Tuesday, June 13. 2006
The scores speak for themselves. Let us represent the members of the Dragon here as I wind it up.

USA? I laugh at thee! Cant get it up!

Japan, I do love you, but I could not have chosen a better opponent to slay you. And slay you we did!

Just dont wait until the last ten minutes next time!

My way 04: Shanghai

Tuesday, June 13. 2006
Shanghai, Pearl of the Orient, Whore of the East. Goddamn polluted mess, more like it. I was happy to be there and even happier with the hostel I had found but the view from the bar upstairs was disconcerting. The location was a block from the Yangtze River, yet the famous skyscrapers on the other side could barely be seen for the haze that lay in the sky. Top five in the worlds most polluted list, I had no trouble believing it. That afternoon and night I wanted nothing more than to wash my clothes, eat something and take it easy. The sights could wait until the morning.

That they did. I took in the museum and the Pudong district. The museum is indeed worth a look, the collection is the usual Chinese selection of bronze and jade, with some nice displays of calligraphy and modern art to round it out. You could take half a day in there.

On my way out to hunt some lunch down, I was accosted by two overly-friendly Chinese people. They asked me where I was from, where I had been and where I was going, as if they were just being nice to the foreign tourist. Then they dropped it. There was a tea festival, they said, would I like to join them? This is the famous Shanghai Tea Festival tourist scam. The nave visitor might think, what nice people. I would like to try some tea while I am in China and goes off with his new friends to get fleeced, coerced into paying upwards of 2000 RMB for tea either without knowing how much they paid or not knowing that they are getting scammed. I had been alerted to this kind of scam earlier by a fellow traveller and I am also a sceptical bastard from the beginning, so I politely listened and told them no, before hightailing it. This would happen another four times that same day. Either the scam works just enough to net a decent living for the perpetrators or there are a lot of desperate people out there.

I took the main shopping street down the Bund, where the Germans left their mark on Shanghai back in the glory days of colonialism. The two kilometre stretch along the river is lined with European style buildings and makes quite a sight. Most of the buildings are occupied by banks and businesses or Chinese government departments, but the faade is unchanged in any great way. It is most interesting by any stretch, but the novelty is short lived once you have walked it once. The other side of the river is far more enticing.

Ten years ago, Pudong was nothing more than pig farms and lower class housing. It was earmarked as the future of money making and since then has become home to the glittering row of skyscrapers that graces almost every postcard you see coming out of Shanghai. The amount of construction that has happened there actually caused the whole area to start sinking, forcing a new way of thinking.

I found the ferry terminal across the river and walked over to where the big buildings were. Immense they were, this is no lie. I scaled the Pearl Tower and stood astonished. I could actually see something. The pollution had not yet caused zero visibility! It was a small miracle, indeed. Also since it cost 100 RMB to get up there, I was happy that I didnt find myself driven to throw myself over the edge. Mind you, most of Shanghai from up there is nothing to write home about. What you can see is messy and ugly still, the rest is not quite up to Taipei and nothing close to the cities of Japan in terms of looks. And like everything, it has nothing on Hong Kong.

Still, I can now say I have done it. I found my way back to the hostel and looked up a few places to get some eats. I ended up content with some Shanghainese food, which is well tasty if you can overlook the oil content.

Again, the deciding point in favour of the hostel was the other people there. This place seemed to have an abundance of nice folks, which was indirect contrast to the bastards in the streets. It would be possible to spend many evenings drinking in the Captains Bar trading stories, but I had to go to bed early.

The French had a big stake in Shanghai for a long time, a fact reflected in the area named the French Concession. It was the parcel of land conceded by the Chinese to the French to do business and I am told that the population was never more than a few percent French, but as with most of these places the legacy is in the architecture more than the swarthy faces. This was far enough in the past that likely all traces of European DNA have since been filtered out (unlike Macau) but not so far back that theres not much left to point to and say, hey, a Frenchman probably built that.

The streets are wide and lined with trees, the atmosphere is calm and the shops are all a little chic. The far lower part is like this, once I walked to the other end it became just another shopping area. Hidden away on little side streets are a former residence of Sun Yat Sen and the first meeting place of the Chinese Communist Party. I visited both, the former residence is a quiet little affair that shows the down to earth nature of the man. Imagining the events and meeting that took place there it is hard not to feel the swirl of history. In many ways the seeds of modern China were likely dreamed up in the study, maybe the office rooms, and they are largely untouched. The CCP museum (as it now stands) is interesting, the memorabilia is no doubt priceless to the Communists and the displays stop short of selling the partys interests today. It outlines and illustrates the early days, where revolution still meant something and is genuinely interesting. It is also one of the few places you can see an authorised reference to the KMT. Then you head out the back to see the rooms almost as they were left, the place where the beast was born. If it wasnt so homely, if it didnt look and smell like so much of China today you might almost be reviled, but it is so very normal that it brings the whole story into focus. Humble beginnings Do head over if you are ever in town.

I went back to the hostel to think about what to do next. Hurry all the way to Beijing? Take a few more stops on the way? All this freedom was going to my head. I had more Shanghainese food and went to sleep without making a decision.

My way 03: Xiamen

Tuesday, June 13. 2006
The sleeper train rolled up the coast. I had managed to get a hard sleeper ticket. This means little to the uninitiated, so here we pause to look at the Chinese train system.

Far from the realms of belief, the trains in China are punctual and reliable. Provided enough foresight is taken with procuring tickets, and care notice is given to the timetable, one can get from almost any major city to another on any given day. Most services are limited to one a day, generally the longer the route, the less often it leaves. Once a day is more than normal and the popular routes see almost hourly service.

Given the distances, most trains cover distances that mean travel time is 12 or more hours. These trains generally go overnight. The longer distances can take as long as 36 punishing hours lightweights need not apply. To make such travel a possibility, overnight trains are usually taken as sleepers. There are two categories of sleeper carriage, hard and soft. These mean nothing about the actual bed, as they are of uniform size and softness, it is actually a reference to the carriage and price. Hard tickets will buy you one of six beds in a compartment of an open carriage, soft will get you one of four in a private compartment. This means more room and a locking door, for your peace of mind, and about double what you would pay for a hard ticket.

I was crammed into the top bunk of three. This was a little strange but nothing I couldnt deal with. I massaged the luggage on the rack to fit mine in, took off my shoes and lay back. The next however many hours would not be particularly nice, I could tell, but I would make it work. So much for swearing off unreasonable hours on moving transport back in Okinawa. Seems I never learn.

The time would be punctuated by people coming and going, no-one speaking any English. The food vendors rolled back and forth all day and the toilet grew ever stinky. The lights went out and the guy across from me snored his head off. I did not sleep much. The lights came back on and I had managed to sleep somehow in the little space that seemed to shrink when I climbed into it and the snoring man had left. It would be some time before we arrived but the breakfast vendors were already rolling along and the speakers that entertained up constantly were blaring away. So much for rest.

I felt almost zombie-matic when we got to Xiamen. I chose this as my destination because it has a history as a concession port and as such features a good deal of western architecture. It is also the scene of the Chinese side of the pissing contest with Taiwan over the straights islands. On a clear day, from Gulang Yu island just off the coast you can see to Kinmen island, claimed and controlled by Taiwan. A few times over the stretched history of these parts the bombardment has been intense, usually starting on the Chinese side. Before that section of infamy, it had also been witness to Dutch invasion and repulsion. These days it is a fairly reliable tourist destination.

So I ducked out of the station, bought a ticket to Shanghai for late that day and aimed to spend the rest of the morning and afternoon looking around. I checked my bags and grabbed a cab to the ferry port (the bus system proved entirely unsolvable) and from there jumped on the ferry, all in quick time. It was raining slightly at this point but it was merely waiting, waiting until I arrived on the other side to really start bucketing down. And it did.

I did my best to walk about the place in torrential rain as my umbrella barely held up. There would be no climbing the modest peak, and certainly no view of Kinmen island to complete the cycle. There would almost be no return, such was the deluge. What crap. I had one afternoon there and all I really achieved was getting wet.

I did manage to find some local food. This pleased me. I also found a Wal-Mart, and it being my first Wal-Mart experience I was more than happy to have it in communist China.

The train to Shanghai was another overnighter, but this time it was closer to 24 hours. I choose not to go into too much detail, because if it is even half as boring to read about, it would still be close to a lethal dose of boredom. All the batteries in my electronic distractions were long dead and the lengths of time consumed by reading are limited. I amused myself by seeing how long I could hold out going to the toilet. No way was I going to drop one in that filthy room, no way in hell. So by a combination of starving myself and willpower, I made it to Shanghai intact and unsullied by the unsanitary. I was well wrecked, though.

My Way 02: Guangzhou

Tuesday, June 13. 2006
China. There is way too much to say, way too much to see and not nearly enough time to even think about it, let alone get it on paper. I have been here about four days now, as strange as it feels, because I have spent only two nights in a bed, seen three cities and travelled over two thousand kilometres already. This is nothing but a fraction of what China has to offer and I lack both the insight and tools to discern anything more than a photograph idea of what it is I see. Linguistic difficulty is the main problem, as I can trust what the books say and what my history classes taught me only so far, only so far as I can know without being able to talk with the natives. It is something amazing I have made it this far on my own, the majority of my time has been sans-other backpackers and truly in the deep end.

Mostly I have been on trains, though.

Here is a brief run down of the where and when. I flew from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. Seeing the scenery from the plane on the approach to Baiyu Airport was a reality check. Roads not paved, crumbling looking buildings. Was this going to be how it would be?

Upon landing I was the first out of the gate and I found myself waiting for the officials to get up and stamp my passport. Then again as the baggage carousel had to make its way around. Customs was a breeze, but exiting the arrivals section I had no idea where to go. I had information that the subway wound its way to the airport, but clearly this was not the case. I eventually found a bus and made it to Guangzhou station, where I fought my way through the thronging hordes to find the mystical subway. Chaos is how I thought of it then, normal is how it has become. Japan is clean and well ordered for things like that, Taiwan has its own ways but not nearly enough humanity to create such a world class mass of people. The subway was clean and efficient, I made it to Huangsha station where Shiamen Island was to be found. The island was once upon a time a foreign concession, so it is still a breezy mix of foreign architecture and green parks. From the station to the island, however, was not so clear. The construction in the way made seeing where I should go almost impossible. None of the passers by offered any help, as lost as I appeared, but I didnt want any yet. Wandering back and forth I finally stumbled on a footbridge and had a look over the other side. There it was. Luck was with me.

But not for long. The dorm rooms were all full, I was obliged to take a normal room or find somewhere else. I was not in the mood to go trouping around anymore. So I paid for a double and when I thought about how much it was, it turns out it isnt so bad. Sure, there is cheaper, but a little bit o class is ok once in a while. Especially after that room in Chungking Mansions. A decent shower is always welcome.

I dropped my stuff and went out for a look. The island is nice, real nice, no matter where you are a place like that is going to be an oasis. All green, water on almost every side. Relaxing, lots of big buildings and parks. There were a few outdoor restaurants too, so I made a mental note and headed back.

I ate at one outside and it was good. I went into the shopping area after that and had a look around the main park and the shopping street. People are everywhere, even at that time and even though I knew to be cautious about prices, it all seemed suspiciously cheap. Even the legit stuff, couldnt possibly be that price. But it was, somehow, and that is the way it is. China is possibly like the rest of the world if you approach it from a Western point of view, it looks dirty and underpriced but thats only because we come from a land of inflation and incomes that almost match and the ubiquitous over hygiene. Over hygiene? Its not like swathes of Chinese people are dying from dysentery, so it is adequate. But I would like to register a small notional complaint about the smell. And that everything smells like the toilet whenever it rains.

So I returned to the hotel and retired. The next day I would set out and see what sights Guangzhou held.

But only after moving into the dorm downstairs. At less than half the price, I was more than happy to share. Not that the rooms were overly expensive, the dorm was deathly cheap. I was beginning to like it.

I took the subway and found the big park in town. I took a few hours to walk around it all, this was huge to say the least. There were statues and monuments, museums and shops. Mostly park, though. The most striking features were the five rams statue and monument and the obligatory Sun Yat Sen memorial. Then I left and walked the streets for a while, trying to get my bearings and not really doing a great job. The lack of streets signs and legible directions were a killer to say the least. I eventually found a few more temples (and got caught in the rain) and sights around town to be able to say that I had indeed seen enough. I tracked down an internet caf and went back.

I found that the dorm had filled up. The other travellers are the payoff for staying in group accommodation because they are usually better than talking to yourself, or god forbid, the TV. As it went, we had a chat and decided to go drinking. As it always goes.

The next day was utterly forgettable. I spent it trying to find a way out of Guangzhou that involved heading up the east coast and finding that the main station and long distance bus station did not service this direction. All the while the rain came pouring down, foolishly I had brought all my luggage along with me a good deal of it got wet but thankfully nothing dire. The rest did eventually dry. In the end I went back to the hotel and used their booking desk, commission and all, to get a sleeper train ticket for that night to Xiamen. I had lunch and went to the East Guangzhou station (who would have thought?) and after the x-ray machine had broken the bottom strap on my bag, I was on the train and underway.

China had not broken me yet and I was only getting stronger. There were tests yet to come and incidents that would scar, but I would not be broken any time soon.

My Way 01: Hong Kong

Friday, June 9. 2006
The world record time for shortest run from airplane to out of the airport goes to Hong Kong International. No kidding, I dont think I had to wait at all and as soon as I got out of airplane in a line for customs, baggage, all that crap. Maybe I was lucky, because on the bus into the city (33 HK dollars, well advised over the airport express that will set you back a round hundred) I was talking to a Swede in a Milan soccer shirt who said he never had to wait so long before. Thats the luck, I guess, so I knew from that little exchange that the Hong Kong (to be herein know by its traditional name, Honkers) Gods were on my side.

Piling off the bus at Chunking Mansions, we were immediately descended upon by a crowd of dodgy looking fuckers, all trying to sell me fake watches and tailor made suits. A few of them were even trying to get me into their guest house so I took up the offer. Since that was why we were even there. He showed up a few rooms, presuming that we were friends or something. And even though we had only met on the bus, we ended up sharing a twin room for the princely sum of 70 HK a night. No complaints from me, just as long as this guys stays on his side of the bed and doesnt try to kill me. What is life without risks? He was willing to take the same chance with me, if you think about it, and he was indeed an affable Swede.

A few days in Honkers was the call and I wasted no time. I went down to the harbour to check out the skyline and I have never seen such a sight. Shoulder to shoulder the skyscrapers crowd in on each other, bright as day. The clouds float in and out and the lights reflect all across the bay. This tops anything Tokyo or Taipei offers and that is saying something.

I walked up to Temple street to check the market and was duly impressed. Nice atmosphere, even better prices. It feels like a night market in Taiwan, only less food and cheaper.

The next day I went over to Hong Kong island on the Star Ferry and spent the day wandering the streets and checking the place out. Everything is clean and tidy, well organised and all together shiny. The organised part I guess we have the British to thank for, it appears they are good for something after all. Up to the peak and the view is hazy. It turns out that no matter how clean you keep the streets, the air isnt safe. Still, it wasnt any worse than Taipei, probably not even that bad. I walked around the peak and it was like a quiet mountain path a world away from the streets not even a few minutes away in the cable car. The mountains in the middle of the island are protected, so it will probably stay that way. A world away.

Honkers is a world apart. The buildings are awesome, each of them. The whole place just feels like money, money, money. Stinking rich. Nothing Ive seen comes close. While it is entirely possible that the bad side of life is all kept across the bay in Kowloon, it is still a real wonder that just so much building has been done on the island and all that is good in life has been corralled so efficiently. Other places might match or surpass it for total worth, but no-one quite does it with the same level of style.

Despite the British gift-wrapping and handing back Honkers to the commies back in 1997 (no more an incident is required to judge just how far the worm has turned in these parts since the good old days of heady colonisation) the influence is still keenly visible, not just in the infrastructure and legal systems they left behind, but almost everywhere you look. Clean streets, named and signed. English signposting everywhere. The Governors Walk around the Peak. Residual Indian population.

I walked from one end of the commercial district to the other. Given how crowded it looks from across the water, it feels spacious and uncluttered when you are actually over there. It was back to Kowloon for the night and some shopping back in Temple street.

The next day I took the Swede to Macau. Macau was given back to the Chinese in 1999, after a long time as a Portuguese colony. The influence is clear the moment you get off the boat (one hour from either Hong Kong island or Kowloon) in the architecture and the occasional swarthy-faced local. Only one percent of the population these days is of anything approaching pure Portuguese heritage, but I would wager that a good deal more have a decent streak in them. The buildings are an embodiment of east meets west, with the noble exception of Macau Tower. This is where we went first, to check out the view. It was almost raining when we were there so clouds and mist obscured the view, but you can very literally see the whole of Macau and the mainland looming behind it. The services offered there include bungee jumping but neither the Viking nor myself had the cash or the testicles to give it a go.

Then we jumped on a bus to A-Ma Temple, where they say the goddess of the sea ascended to heaven. These days its full of incense and beggars. After that we got lost on some busses and ended up at the Chinese border. Not time to hit the mainland yet. Still, we can say that we saw Macau top to bottom.

Then, it was time to head back to Honkers and get ready for the next day. The mainland was calling.

The Next Step: part fifteen - hitting my head on a bar

Thursday, June 8. 2006
Its been raining in Taipei since Saturday. Friday was gloriously hot and flying from Naha International to Chaing Kai Shek was a plus 100% rise in humidity. Rainy season had not yet kicked in on the southern most edge of the Japanese empire and I dont know if they have one per-se here, but the air felt like it was a wet blanket and precipitation seemed only a breath of wind away.

But it held off until the next day. Friday was still good and wasted it we did not. I wound my way to the Js place of work and he had only an hour off for lunch (I presume) and it was a snatch and grab mission to get me and my luggage to his place. Its not really his place, he just lives there, but for the time being it would be the home of my luggage. I was more than contented to take a shower and chill for a while, so this I did until ragged, the J returned from the salt mine. What was to be consumed for nourishment? Let the night decide. So we went to the night market nearest and it was decreed, sausages wrapped in some rice thing was to be eaten. And it was, and the gods were pleased. Next they decreed that fresh juice should be consumed in their honour and in this we were thwarted, as the J had to see a man about a bike or something. So we went to a fried stuff vendor, chose some stuff and had it fried for our pleasure. It was an awful lot of food, but eat it we did over the next few hours, as it became fuel for the inevitable drunken ramble that the evening was destined to become.

So it goes. The details, the who where why and how arent so important, or more relevantly, so remembered; so it goes that many beers were consumed and much shit was talked. The Taipei expat community appears to be small and friendly. No-one threatened to kill me this time, which is good, but my time here had just begun. There was still a decent chance it might yet happen.

The others in the Js immediate surrounds have increased, it seems, and this is a positive step. There is no shortage of things happening when you know the right people. It was such the Friday we saw a band play and hit some bars and on Saturday we did about the same thing. Saturday when we slimed out of bed the rain had begun, in a lazy manner, to drizzle slightly. What were we to do? Lie around all day violated my spirit of adventure, so we jumped on his bike and headed for Wulai. The is a hot spring there and as well as many resorts and private enterprises the river itself is heated by the natural spring so for exactly nothing, you can lie in the river where the hot and cold water mix, vying for just the right spot to get the combination of steaming and icy to agree on a happy lukewarm medium. Usually, I am told, it is a quiet spot but word is getting around and more and more day trippers are making it out there. Given how close to Taipei this place is, I am not really surprised.

A trip up to Wulai requires that you swim across the river. A local custom, I understand. So into the icy water we jump and over we swim. It wasnt that far, or that cold, but when the kids throwing rocks manage to hurl a decent sized missile right into my shin that was pain. Right across the river, the little shits.

The nearby restaurants are all of a local flavour, the area is home to the remnants of a Taiwanese aboriginal tribe, so we hit up some of their food. It was pretty damn good.

The evening stretched ahead. The local bar of choice was our first stop, then as we stepped out to get some food and found some of the guys from the night before. We ended up festivising with them until all hours, back at one of their houses, climbing rooftops and all the rest of it. Vague plans were afoot to go here, go there, this club, that club But it never did happen and ended the way it began.

Sunday was spent lying around. It was nice to not be on a moving vehicle. It was the first day since leaving Tokyo that I hadnt spent moving or sightseeing or drinking. Not that I had done much drinking in the course of my travels the only serious partying had been the nights before. A day of getting things sorted and washed, written and rested. The J had work to do, so when it came time to procrastinate he came knocking. We went out for food and drinks a couple of times, but mostly I just sat around feeling the wondrous feeling of not moving. I did some writing, too, but not enough. The postings were getting behind, but this wasnt about to be remedied just yet.

I also bought a copy of Give It All on DVD back in Naha. The story follows five high school girls who start a girls rowing team at their school and is not particularly ground breaking, famous or all that popular, but is means an awful lot to me. The movie was shot beautifully, capturing not only the feel of 1970s Ehime (where I had just been, only in the year 2006) but that moment in your life where you land on the edge of adulthood, where the last edges of childhood begin to fall away and you begin to see what your mind and body are capable of Hopes and dreams, more than anything, real ambition and potential. I happened to watch this movie on the airplane on the way to Japan the first time I went there (it was also my first time on an airplane, the first Japanese movie I had seen other than The Weatherwoman and I was exactly the same age as the main characters) so it is not surprising that this movie means a lot to me. The way the camera captured the splash of the water is the same as the way it captured my dreaming and fear.

I felt that fear again as I watched it again in Taiwan. The road ahead, to Hong Kong and beyond, was all new, all untested and unknowing. It was the first new ground to touch my feet, it felt, since those heady days back when I was a teenager.

And when it was over, the image of a year spent in totality, the year I had floated ahead and I felt right about the upcoming days. The next step was over the time had come to do it My Way.

***

But before the next step would truly be over, I still needed to negotiate Taiwan and its treacherous beer-filled bars. I also had the twin threat of the J and our long-time reader (who we will refer to by the impenetrable screen name of John) both trying to drag me into a drunken stupor. It was not hard to see this was going to be a hard week. Nay, the hardest yet. Possibly the hardest I will face.

The first sign was the J talking me into changing my flight into Hong Kong from Friday to Monday. This means the weekend would be spent in Taipei instead And another two days to the wayside, another two days behind schedule. Well, if I had a schedule it would be behind. Either way, it will likely be more fun this way. The true certainty of the notion is drunkenness.

Which is a state I ended up in on Monday night (ah, the simple joy of a backpackers life) with John in the closest thing the J has to a local, Bobwunday. The name means something in Taiwanese but Im always drunk when I get told, so I forgot it for some reason. The J was there, acting as resident bar wench, some of the other regulars were there and later on, the enigma that is the Js girlfriend showed up. It was all happening.

But back a little bit. John had joined our adventures on Sunday night as he arrived from Hong Kong at the unusual hour of midnight. Apparently there are still busses from the airport at that hour! Still, better him than me. And he found his own way to a hotel for the night. We arranged to meet up, to do some sightseeing, and with the interloping help of the J, planned to meet at eleven thirty at exit five of Taipei main station. This all sounds foolproof, even though the J had suggested exit five simply off the top of his head and hadnt specified whether it be the MRT station or the regular train station. This is all academic, as neither station had an exit number five. The main station has east 1,2 and 3, south 1,2 and 3, and so on; while the MRT has exits numbered one, two, three, four, six, seven, eight. So it was by no small measure of luck that we found each other roaming around inside, almost forty minutes after the arranged time. Coincidence, totally, and entirely the fault of the J. We resolved instantly to give him a world of shit over the incident (not that he wasnt to know that exit five didnt exist, it was his bad luck but tough titties, you get hassled for shit like that) and thus the bonds of friendship were forged.

He had no particular destination in mind, whereas I did. The National Museum, home to all of the treasures of China, which was a part of my last visit to Taiwan, was still undergoing renovations. So the ticket I had purchased the last time which included a free return trip was enough to goad me into going again, and John was up for it. So I remembered where the bus stop was and we went there. I discerned that of the two busses that stopped there, the one with the number on the front was not the one we wanted. So onto the numberless bus we clambered and before you knew it we were in one of the many, many places that was not the museum. In fact, we had gone all the way to sunny Danshui, which was not a bad thing, because it was my backup destination for the day and somewhere that the J had himself recommended. Usually you would take the MRT there, since the Red line goes all the way, but we were sort of making it up as we went along so it was still cool and all, except it was raining. Rain was not to deter us, as the Lonely Planet was produced and we attempted to find our way.

It turns out that Danshui is, effectively, closed on Mondays. This was a bummer. All the major tourist attractions (there are a number of forts and the like) were having their day off. And it was raining, which while not a major problem, made tramping around trying to find shit all the more annoying.

Danshui, to its credit, is like a microcosm of what you find in Taipei. The sorts of shops and markets are all there as well as a few noteworthy temples. A large expanse of grass lies between the station and the river mouth. There are also a few swimming beaches, but for the weather we surely would have investigated.

Back to Taipei we went, all too soon, to ponder food and what to do with the evening. We ate at the station, then went on an epic search for a payphone that was both working and accepted coins. By this time the J had finished work and we received instruction to go to Bobwunday. Thus commenced another search and began a night of drunkenness. Leaving me to navigate the way was not the greatest decision, in hindsight, because I got us lost.

Unavoidably, once the premises had been located there was much drinking and a not unreasonable amount of carousing, with a healthy does of shit-giving directed at the increasingly belligerent J. It was an incredibly fun night. I do believe that I ended up at a guy named Charless place, he had been a figure of some note over the weekend. Much thanks to the C man for the good times, may they roll on endlessly.

The next day didnt really happen. Some people had to get up and go to work, while others lay and wished that whoever was responsible for the curse of Taiwan Beer could be dragged out into the street and shot, all from the safety of their beds. It was only Tuesday but it was still raining, still no sign of abating and even less sign of me getting a plan together. The J came home for lunch and told me he had to go to the nearest hospital to get his annual health check done, so that he might stay in employment. I had burned my leg on the exhaust pipe of his bike some days earlier and now it was the colour of bad salami. It was time to get a real health care practitioner (i.e. a doctor) to look at it. Pain I can deal with, contrary to popular belief, but infection while travelling is no laughing matter. So I ponied up and followed the J to the hospital where I was clowned on by the medical staff for my total lack of Chinese speaking ability. I had managed to get myself a first degree burn. Some ointment and bandages would see it better. I was relieved.

Other parts of Taiwan were calling, but I had to be in Taipei for the following evening, so I couldnt go too far. I decided that Longshan Temple and the night market would be the prime destination. John came with me and we stalked the streets and enjoyed a snack of Taiwanese hamburger before heading home. It turned out later that John was not feeling well he had recurring chest pains, a condition he had endured before he had set out. He went back to his hostel without telling me of this.

I had a slight problem with getting on the right train home, so I was later than I intended. I ran into the J as he was leaving. John had called him and they were off to the hospital to make sure nobody was about to drop dead. On top of this, I later found out, the Js girlfriends grandfather died that night. It was a heavy night for all concerned. I stayed up waiting for the J to come back, but I fell asleep before this happened.

It must have been a pretty hard night for the J, to go with the already stressful double of having two friends there at the same time and having to look after us (to a degree, we were both adults capable of finding our own way if we had to, but all the help you can get in a foreign land where they dont speak you language is as much a help you as it is a burden to another) and the giving him shit was dialled down after that. We had both come a long way to give him shit. His life is not in the best shape, as evidenced by his very own postings and drunken ramblings, so as his friends, we are duty bound to give him heaps about it. Duty. Bound.

But there was less of that. However, I did happened to turn him into a tourist.
The bits in-between then and Saturday are a little hazy. Maybe I left it too long before writing about it, maybe there was too much drinking done in the meantime. Probably both. Either way, not much too memorable occurred but I did a lot of little things. The little stuff. I went with John to Pinglin, south of Taipei. They love their tea up there, we went to a restaurant that serves all their food cooked somehow with tea and then went to the tea museum. There are only so many things to know about tea, and I think I now know them all.

Taipei is a great place. Bustling yet flowing, flowing in its own way, always awake and never really fading. Just waxing and waning with the daylight, all that changes is where the people go.

The J has been there long enough that he knows the streets like the back of his hand and exactly where to go. This is no mean feat. Living and breathing the city like that, the seams are very well hidden.

He plays music with a bunch of other expats on Wednesday nights at a place called Bliss. While waiting for him to show up (worse than a girl sometimes, that boy) we had a few drinks and played darts. The regular crowd were there and the atmosphere was alright. When the musicians got going it was pretty tight, not such bad tunes but something was in the way. Personalities, we will call them, too much of the self and not enough of the us.

Then we played El Scorcho together.

On Sunday we all went to Taipei 101 and for the larcenous sum of 350 NT we got to stare out at the hazy city scape. The sun set while we were up there and the elevator down was faster than falling.

Such was the Taiwan leg. It was full of half finished and non-executed plans, but for the chance to sit around and do nothing, after the weeks on the road in Japan, it was more welcome than I realise. It was very good and leaving, it is never easy., but the road was calling and I had to keep going. China was calling.

So for what it is worth, maybe I never made it as far south as I had planned. Maybe I barely got out of Taipei as much as I like the urban jungle, I wanted to leave it for at least a day or two but I think the art of the friendship requires some attention every now and then. Some friendships you get that time whenever you want, others it comes rare as a phoenix. Rebuilding, maintenance, filling in some of the holes, catching up where the other end might have gone. Tangerine dreams, purple skies, shared dreams. You can only tell me some things when I am there, I only want to tell you when I get to see your reaction. The eyes and sighs tell me more than you know, know more than I tell.

I made it to the airport with a whole half hour to spare on Monday. Three hours for an international flight my arse.

The Next Step: part fourteen - into the south, into the sun

Thursday, June 8. 2006
In the waiting room I am surrounded by the poor and the stupid. That seems to be the clientele for the ferry, and I almost may just fall into both categories. But if pushed, I will claim poor as my reasoning for choosing the twenty four hour boat ride over an air-based solution that would have taken eight hours (including bus ride to airport) at most. The price? Half. Still a daunting solution. Especially when the ferry is packed and you are sleeping on the floor of the restaurant with everyone else who didnt manage to get a real ticket. It was like a scene out of a disaster news story, people lying on blankets, staring at anything but each other. It was tight in there and no mistake. I wondered what I had done and what was I going to do, since the battery was dead on almost every distraction I had and there was no sign of a useable power point anywhere. I sighed, lay down, got up. Lay down. It was getting crowded in there and we werent leaving for another hour.

Somehow, time passed and the boat left Kagoshima. It was just past six in the evening and it would be almost seven pm the following day when we pulled into Naha port. Holy shit. That night I passed drinking shochu with a couple of big guys and felt rather unstable as the boat headed into a south wind. It bumped around and swayed as the waves buffeted it around and this didnt help the spinning in my head as I felt more and more uncertain. It was four am and I was on the toilet, or was it three and I was asleep? I dont know. I woke up an the guys had left at an earlier stop. They were moving us away and opening the restaurant, so we had to move. A lot of people had left so there was room to sit and lie elsewhere. I found a power point.

Time passes.

It is bizarre, but it hasnt been so bad. I might even have a friend to hang around with in Naha, when we get there in about an hour. But it has been long and not much fun. Just long. I guess this is a taste of what might be ahead. And I goddamn stink, too. I need a shower. I need to wash my clothes. I need to go for a swim. At least my legs dont hurt anymore.

***

On the island, I saw a lot. On the island, I dreamed a lot.

That Sunday night, it was after nine pm when we finally arrived in Naha port. It was dark, but the air was warm and humid. I had traded my shoes for sandals and had no plans to trade back. After almost 27 hours on the boat, landing at Naha was almost pure relief. But that time of night, there would be no hope of getting to a tourist information centre and finding somewhere to stay

Luckily, the dudes pimping their cheap dorm rooms were all waiting. I had indeed acquired a new friend, a Japanese guy on his way from Korea to Taiwan, so hanging out in Okinawa together was a natural conclusion. We talked to some of the guys and ended up going to a cheap place. Cheap, and you get what you pay for.

It was clean, there were showers and a free washing machine. Only trouble was, I couldnt tell who was working there and who was hanging out, who was staying there and who was just a friend of someone else. Informal? Yes. But when theres no locks on the door and lots of unaccounted people hanging around, that makes me nervous. Most of them were tough looking twenty-somethings, one even mistook my sandals for hotel slippers and walked out with them. A bunch of guys got drunk at the restaurant next door and made lots of noise. It was hot, but I slept.

The next morning, I went with my friend to the dock to enquire about getting a boat to Taiwan and found, to our dismay, that they were only a few times a week and we couldnt get on one until at least a week later. This was not good news, so planned for the contingency of staying in Naha at least that long. To do that, finding a cheaper place would be optimum. Budget wise, all that. So we did that, after hightailing it from the other place after check-out time (oops) and the new place was really close. It was worse than the first place, but you get what you pay for.

After getting settled, we went out for some sightseeing and wandered off, on foot, to Shuri Castle. The centre of the old Ryukyu Kingdom, it had been built in traditional Ryukyu style and so is nothing like any other castle in Japan. This kind of architecture may well be unique in all the world, bright and vibrant. The colours and design have a heavy Chinese influence, because the island kingdom had a long and productive history of trade with China, long before any Japanese lay claim to the land. In fact, the Ryukyu kingdom is the most detached part of Japan, not only geographically but culturally and mentality-wise, the long independent history and distance are instrumental in maintaining the buffer from the mainland. Both Taipei and Shanghai are much closer than Tokyo.

The castle is, again, a concrete reconstruction. The Battle of Okinawa at the end of the war shaped much of how modern Okinawa is and the castle is an epitome of this. Taken as the headquarters for the Japanese army, it became the target of the months of fighting and eventually was destroyed in the fighting. After standing for years of peace and calm in the Pacific, the Japanese were willing to cast it aside for the mainland ambitions. But we will see more about that vicious battle later.

The recreation of the castle is well done, the remains of the original worked in to the new structures. The attendants are all dressed in traditional Okinawan clothes, adding something in the way of authenticity.

We walked there and back, taking in much of the local Naha colour. It doesnt feel so different to the rest of Japan, while standing out in its own ways. There are Shisa statues everywhere and the chain stores that scar most of the country doesnt seem to have made their way that far. Every other restaurant sells Okinawa soba or taco rice, so you arent left struggling for local cuisine. The sole train line is the monorail that cuts through the middle of Naha, from the airport to Shuri castle, and doesnt really serve much of anything. I guess its semi-useful at best and helps people to the airport. The rest of the island relies on busses for public transport. But they busses are not exactly reliable, most of the stops have been vandalised and they rarely come on time. A car would be the ultimate solution next time, it will be rent-a-car all the way. And flying there and back, for sure.

The air was warm and the food good. If only there were more beaches I still need a swim. The dorm was a bit, well, stanky. But it was cheap and the other inhabitants were nice enough.

The next day we went to enquire about the price of airplane tickets. It turn out to only be a little more expensive (and having onward tickets to Hong Kong and China would make immigration proceedings an awful lot easier, it turns out) so airplane tickets are purchased. Oh well, this was unavoidable. At least it is settled now, the next few weeks of transport. Thats a good thing, I guess. I didnt really want to get another boat, either.

Then it was off to the south of the island to see the war monuments. The busses are tricky to say the least but we make it somehow to the Himeyuri monument. The story is that the girls studying at a nearby all-girls school were trained as nurses in anticipation of the coming battle. When the fight came to the south of the island, after the headquarters at Shuri had fallen, the Japanese started a war of attrition to drag out the fighting as long as possible. This meant hiding and sniping and fighting dirty. To extend the fighting in Okinawa meant saving the mainland just a little longer and the decision meant that Okinawa would be sacrificed for the greater good. At this time most Okinawans were still very much just that, more Okinawan than Japanese. Still, they did their duty. The girls from the school found out about the horror of war all too well and all too early as they were thrown into the war of attrition. The facilities were non-existent, mere stretchers in caves, no water, almost no equipment. The war was truly lost by this point there was nothing left to lose but pride. Maybe this is why they fought so hard and so long, but the girls who were not ready for it were dropped into the absolute horror of war. Those who survived until the disband order came didnt last much longer, as they were cast out of even the safety of the caves to the mercy of both the Japanese army and the Americans, who had no way to tell civilians from soldiers in the conditions. The battle was known afterwards for many good reasons as the Typhoon of Steel. Unimaginable, is what it is today. The greatest horror is that the number of Japanese military casualties equals the civilian deaths. That equals one in every four Okinawans, that means entire families All 270 of the girls sent out as nurses were killed. The monument and museum is not only a tribute to them and their story, but to all Okinawans who lost their lives in that battle. It is a sombre place, not at all helped by the school kids on school trips who were absolutely everywhere, all paying no attention at all. I guess if they ever want to know they can always come back later.

We walked from there to the Peace Park down the road. A grand expanse, the sort of land that probably couldnt be spared in a more populous area, there is peace hill, the waves, huge stone slabs with the names of all the dead. A museum to the war. It is in many ways a memorial to the lost Okinawans and lost freedoms, as much as a lest-we-forget monument to a foolish war.

Some bus mishaps on the way back to the dorm, and I went to sleep.

The next day it was time to find some beaches. Okinawa is famous for long sandy stretches and clean blue seas, right? Maybe not. I spent the day hopping from one man-made beach to another, each one more exasperating than the last in its flatness and blandness. All the sand, imported. All the shores, concrete. We even found one that was being fixed up. With huge trucks and stuff. This is not a beach! All of them, it just werent right. I guess the advertising has led us to believe a few things that arent quite true (and being from a country that has an almost infinite supply of natural beaches doesnt help) but I was truly disappointed. It was fun to swim, but it wasnt what I was looking for.

The busses were not the greatest way to get around, but perhaps the only way. After going about half the way up the island, we walked across from one coast to the other at the narrowest point, then went back to Naha.

The next day I had to get my shit together. Travellers Cheques, send money home, all that. Then an afternoon in the sun at Nami-no-Ue beach in Naha (closest place, good enough I guess) and a night at karaoke. I was ready to leave. Ready to leave Japan behind.

We took the monorail to the airport and waited all the requisite time. The plane lifted off about half an hour late, about twelve thirty in the afternoon. So long, see you again sometime.