Sunday, May 01, 2005

Huddling near the entrance

When tourists visit "nature" destinations, ninety percent of them walk a short distance down the path, stop for a rest, and head straight back toward their vehicles. Many is the roadside waterfall that, though it's second-best to another one just minutes up the trail, seems to satisfy all the nature urges of day-trippers and tour-bus travelers.

For this, I am unendingly grateful.

Taiwanese people have a worse-than-average case of huddling near the entrance. Often, when arriving at destinations I've taken considerable trouble to reach, I've encountered such crowds of jabbering gawkers and strollers that I've almost wished I hadn't left the city. But the disappointment is always unwarranted. After a short piece of vigorous walking, it's just me and my friends and the wide-open sky.

Why is Taiwan so huddle-happy? I can think of two reasons. First, Taiwanese people tend to highly value being around other people. They enjoy company and conversation, and lots of to-ing and fro-ing, plus loud music and firecrackers if possible. To a person like me, steeped in the Western tradition of intellectual alienation, this sort of behavior is unnatural, if moderately charming. I acknowledge that it's good social glue. But how are you to appreciate the extent of your earthly misery if you never go off alone to fully feel it?

Reason number two -- Taiwanese old folks like to get out and about. They're busy, these seniors, and good for them. But one can't expect them to go charging up mountain trails like rams. Well, some of them do go charging up mountain trails like rams. But they tend to charge up a few well-known trails, so they're huddlers in a sense after all.

Today, on as perfect a summer day as has ever existed, my girlfriend and I decided to go to a water park. It was an hour's drive or not much more; we'd gotten an early start; we were looking forward to a long afternoon of good clean fun. But it turned out that the park doesn't open till May 15, temperatures in excess of 33C (about 85F) being far too cold to justify jumping into water.

Eventually we formed a Plan B -- we'd get some charcoal and a few cold beers and have a cookout by a stream on Yangmingshan.

We arrived at the stream to find the huddle taking place in a spot so nasty that we wouldn't have wanted to be there even if we'd had it to ourselves. So we struck out through the streambed for a nicer stretch of water. I'll admit that the going wasn't easy -- at one point I slipped on an algae-covered slope and nearly tumbled into the water, food and charcoal and all. But when we got where we were going, it was a dandy pool with a tiny waterfall, and the slopes around us were steep and green and high, and there were butterflies and silvery fish and tiny crabs handling pebbles twice their size. It was all we'd wished, a lyrical afternoon, a moment that rewards you.

At sunset we picked our way back down the streambed. A hundred meters at most had separated us from the huddlers. They'd spent their afternoon alongside mud and stink, contending with shouting children and junk-food litterers, the many hazards of one another. I repeat that I'm unendingly grateful.

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