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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Goodbye MiD, Hello 3RR

Note: this has already been published (with pictures!) on the new site, but in case you missed it there:

Dear friends, family, and followers few,

I've decided to put an end to Mike in Daegu. It's been a nice six+ years (!), but I've now been out of Daegu for almost six months and have already embarked on the next phase of my life. From now on, you can find my writings and photos at http://www.threeruleride.com. The content will still mostly deal with my exploits in fauxboing around the world by bicycle, but will hopefully incorporate more of the environmental themes that occupy so much of my thinking and underlie just about all of my decisions.

Read below for an introduction to my new project. I'd be honored if you'd continue to follow me. Here are a few ways.

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__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________No Trace.JPG

"Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but pictures."

- Maobitou, Hengchun, Taiwan, 2012.11.31

Among many signs posted around Maobitou National Park at the southern tip of Taiwan, one in particular stood out to me. It urges visitors to be wary not of the damage that might be done to them by strong and capricious winds, jagged rocks, and relentless waves, but of the damage they themselves might do to the mighty land- and sea-scape. The park is one of only a handful of places in Taiwan where, without moving an inch, a patient observer could watch the sun rise from beneath one horizon and set behind another. No wonder the government has designated it a site worthy of preservation.

A noble goal, but in my eyes, not a particularly lofty one; for while it's hard to find fault with what the sign says, I can't help but feel a hint of dissatisfaction about what it leaves out. The sign's words imply two requests: 1) carry your trash to the nearby disposal bins, and 2) don't steal any rocks. Perhaps an effective recipe for keeping Maobitou's one square kilometer in decent shape, but what does it mean for the rest of the island?

After all, the story doesn't end when the trash makes it into the bin. Every ounce of it - including the hot dog wrappers, the water bottles, and all the rest of the refuse accompanying the concessions and souvenirs for sale down below - has to be taken away. To somewhere else. Somewhere, presumably, not as important, beautiful, or worthy of preservation as Maobitou. If there is one thing that the last eight thousand kilometers of bicycling has taught me, though, it's that beauty exists everywhere where nature is intact. Expansive plains, tangled forests, imposing mountains, twisting coastlines, humble villages: all of them can inspire draw-jopping awe, can bring a sufficiently sensitive soul to tears. To be honest, the hours I spent that day looking out from Maobitou's crowded viewpoints, mere meters from the hubbub of concession stands, were among the least satisfying of that day. I preferred coasting down the switchbacks from Dongyuan to the sea, watching monkeys flee into the thick jungle near Eluanbi, and soaking in the sun and humid ocean air over a dozen glorious kilometers of uninterrupted scrubland.

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Sign or no sign, I would never dream of throwing my trash into one of these places, of ruining their pristine beauty. None of them qualify, in my mind, as an "else" into which I'd be willing to discard my candy wrappers or soda cans. Actually, I can't think of anywhere that would qualify as such an "else," except for areas that have already been despoiled. By us. Forests razed, holes dug, trash tossed. The protection of Maobitou - or rather, protection of the kind the sign requests - unquestionably leads to the destruction of other places. Places that were at one point no less beautiful; places which were, in all likelihood, more spiritually or materially significant to their original inhabitants (be they plant, animal, or human) than Maobitou is to the hundreds or thousands of tourists who pass through it daily.

2012-11-30 to Maobitou 011.JPG

This is exactly what I do not want my travels to amount to, this giving with one hand and taking with the other. After all, is it not a sort of love that impels one to travel? A love for new sights, sounds, tastes, encounters, experiences? And does love not entail a desire for the protection and even proliferation of the things loved? I feel that I cannot honestly say I love any one part of the Earth if I knowingly engage in behavior that ruins any other part.

For this reason, I have decided to do my best to adopt three rules while I travel:

o 1) No gas - In other words, do it all via bicycle.

o 2) No meat - or other animal products.

o 3) No trash - not even recyclables.

It's possible that these rules don't seem like anything special. I think just about everybody can sympathize with my aversion to trash, and I believe most people are at least somewhat aware of the environmental effects of consuming meat and using fossil fuels. Many people make an effort to follow similar rules even when they're not on the road. Indeed, I've been doing my best to live up to them for years. So, why should this change just because I'm on vacation? I don't want to destroy my hosts' homes any more than I would want to destroy my neighbors', or my own. And aren't guests supposed to be on their best behavior? While I hope my trip gives me an increased sense of freedom, I don't want to use it as an excuse to take liberties with the well-being of others.

The number of rules is aslo admittedly arbitrary, since there are plenty of other things I could (and do) do to make my life as Earth-friendly as possible, such as forego purchasing anything new, or attempt to eat local. Further, the rules are really more aspiration than absolute. I broke rule one on day "T minus 1" when I took the boat from Korea to China; I've broken rule two many a time, generally either by accident or after tiring of struggling against a hosts' indomitable generosity; rule three, too, often falls victim to necessity, such as when water runs short or when kind strangers load me down with tea, candy, and trinkets. What's important is keeping my environmental ideals in mind at all times and maintaining a spirit of resolution: to make an honest effort to learn from each failure, to anticipate and prevent the next one.

I also aim to contribute positively where possible. Visits to organic farms; volunteering of other sorts; constant preaching of the Green Gospel through words both spoken and written; and of course; by toting a ridiculous flag.

I'm aware that this may seem like a bit of a buzzkill. Isn't the point of traveling to have fun? Why place limits on the kinds of things you will see, buy, or do? Fortunately, I don't usually experience it that way. The more I attempt to live a life in line with the values I profess, the more respect and encouragement I get from others, and the more I feel connected to them. The longer I spend trying to find peanuts not sold in a plastic bag, the more I see of the local markets. The harder I try not to buy bottles of water from 7-11, the more I wind up stopping at police stations and getting offered not only a refill but also a cool place to sit, perhaps a chance to wash up, and most importantly, a whole 'nother chance to tell my story to a group of interested listeners. Difficult goals often necessitate taking one's time and asking for help, both of which are excellent ways of getting to know people and places.

And, of course, if I weren't up for a bit of a challenge, I wouldn't have decided to cycle around the world in the first place.

Please wish me luck.

More importantly, join me, however you can.

2012-11-30 to Maobitou 031.JPG

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Tai-winding down

After a week of chilling up North, a week of chilling down South, and a week of chilling on the Farm, Mingyu and I decided we'd like to give the mountains of Taiwan a chance to kick our asses.  The plan: Taipei -> Sun Moon Lake, supposedly one of Taiwan's top sights -> Wuling Pass, the highest road in Taiwan and South East Asia at 3,250 meters -> Taroko Gorge, another top sight -> Hualian coastal highway, to which I'd already been -> back home.  One week, 600km, a total altitude gain (and loss) of 12000m. Such was the plan.  

Day 1: Cycle all day, some 100km, stopping only for lunch and dinner buffets.  In the evening, we went searching for a temple, only to run into a realtor with an unoccupied fixer-upper that he let us sleep in.  Better yet, he and his wife treated us to a trip to a hot spring sauna - just what one's posterior needs after eight-plus hours on the saddle.

The next morning, his daughter took us out for breakfast.  Turns out the guy was running for some sort of office.  He's got my vote, for sure.  

Day two: more endless riding, though not quite as much as the day before since the sauna had sapped all our energy.  In the evening we pulled up at a fire station to ask if there was a temple nearby.  Eventually, one officer coughed up that they had an empty guest room that we could stay in.  

After a bit of chatting about our journey and our planned route, "Sean" and "Sam," the self-proclaimed "friendliest firefighters" in Taiwan, popped the question..."So, do you wanna try on the suits or what?"

"Well...I mean...no...I couldn't...that wouldn't be right...I mean...taxpayer money and all...you sure it's ok?...really?  HELL YEAH!  Gimme a weapon too!"

They even treated us to a six-pack of beer and some deep-fried shrimp and anchovies.  Not to mention noodles the next morning and a trinket to remember them by.

Mingyu bought a new camera body when he got to Taiwan.  Lucky for me, it wasn't compatible with his old lens.  I bought both of them off him at a very nice discount.  In fact, all I had to do was promise to pay him via bank transfer.  Can you say...SUCKER!!!

The following day, up and over a minimountain on the way to Sun Moon Lake.  See if you can tell which pictures are mine and which are Mingyu's. 

OK, nevermind about that guessing thing.

We reached the lake, at 762m altitude, just before sunset on day 3.  Mingyu's reaction: "The one in Huangzhou was better."  My reaction: "Jesus my thighs hurt."

Off one of the main roads, we found two wooden gazebos to protect our tents from the rain. We also found this utility closet, where we stashed our stuff so we could ride around the lake unencumbered. This was actually Mingyu's idea - I think my vagabonding is wearing off on him.   

I thought the lake would be in some remote national park area.  Nope. Turns out there were several little towns around its perimeter, complete with night markets and street food.  Mercifully, no stinky tofu.  

 To my left: fried taro cakes and a shiitake dumpling.  To my right: peanuts and a few not-quite-apples. straight ahead: boardwalk. 


I retired to my tent to read, Mingyu laid outside looking up at the stars and waited for the clouds to disperse. 

An hour later, he got the shot that he wanted.  This is while I'll never be the photographer that he is.  

The part of me obsessed with measuring and logging wanted to ride the 30km loop around the lake, but trees obscured the views for most of it, so we opted for a stroll instead. Down off one of the trails we played around on some abandoned boats. 

The forest was full of all these little ferns. This one looks to me like a boxer getting ready to pummel someone with all twenty-or-so fists. 

That afternoon, we coasted back down into the town of Puli, wandered around town for an hour looking for a buffet (probably burning more calories in the process than we took in at the meal), then headed for the hills where we saw this temple sitting.


Except...surprise!  It was still under construction.  Beggars can't be choosers.  Actually we weren't the only ones sleeping there - six or seven members of the construction crew were also living at the temple, sleeping in tents or on the floor.  

On the way home the next day, I stopped at an intersection to look at a map.  Mingyu zipped by me, apparently looking for a shadier place to take a break. One minute later, I looked up and he was gone.  I rode on for about twenty minutes, cursing him for being so finicky about the dust and for being such a jerk as to not even wait for me to catch up. Then I passed a bridge, asked the cop on duty if Mingyu had passed by, and figured out that I was actually the one in front.  I then did what any good friend would do: proceeded onward to the nearest buffet and stopped for lunch.  

When Mingyu still didn't show up, I decided the next best thing was to head to the train station.  I emailed Mingyu telling him where I was (he didn't have a phone), and planned to just chill in the lobby, until a cop noticed me limping and told me there was a doctor's office.  

They day before I had taken a spill while crossing some wet, moldy, slimy, slippery cement tiles.  Luckily I had only been riding at about 1 km/h, but even so my left knee and knee-pit swelled up pretty big.  I could hardly even bend the knee.  Double-luckily, all 20km of the ride that afternoon were downhill.

So, I chilled with the nurse (named "Tako.  She gave an sigh of non-amusement when I mentioned the Mexican food..) for a few hours, relating the story of Mingyu's betrayal and the five months of bicycle travel leading up to it.  She went back and forth between talking to me and calling her friends to say "Hey, there's a foreigner here and he's speaking Chinese!" and uploading pictures of me to Facebook.  

Next door were some military officers who popped by to chat.  My inner mooch vibrations struck a cord (chord?) with one, who went to the cafeteria to bring me back a dinnerbox.  No meat, no trash!  nice!

After five hours of waiting unsuccessfully for Mingyu, I packed up and headed out.  Refused by one temple and one police station, I finally found this tiny temple and set up camp out back.  

The next day, I woke up at 6AM to a crowd of middle-aged women learning to dance to "Oppa Gangnam Style."  Unfortunately, my knee was still sore.  Not joining their lesson probably qualifies as my biggest regret of this trip. 

Thanks to the early start, I had passed the 100km mark by early afternoon.  Mingyu and I had originally planned to arrive in Taipei the following night, but I didn't particularly feel like stopping.  Weird how stopping to find a place to sleep feels like more of a nuisance than riding an extra 70 or so kilometers.

As night fell, the city lit up and the traffic got heavier.  What had been a pretty serene, even boring afternoon ride through the countryside suddenly turned into a 3.5-hour prolonged adrenaline rush.  Yeahhhh for chemicals!

Only once I was close enough to recognize the road home did I stop to take a couple of photos.  

I finally got home at about 11:30, only to find Mingyu already home and alseep on the floor.  Having bought a beer for each of us.  Having already drank his.  And having also drank half of mine.  Total distance covered: nearly 200km!  And at the end, I wasn't even wiped out!  

The next night: a nice home-cooked meal with the family.  Here again are Awi and Uncle.  There is no end to their kindness. 

Case in point: Uncle broke out the 25-year old ginseng liquor for Mingyu's goodbye dinner.  120-proof and full of herbal goodness.  

"Brother," whose name I still haven't mastered.

That evening, we packed Mingyu and Hwa-in's bicycles into big boxes, which we took the next morning to the airport.  After some minor complications, both were on their way - Hwa-in to a tiny mountain town in South Korea, temperature -25C (-13F); Mingyu to Kuala Lumpur, temperature 35C (95F).  I'm not sure who I'd rather be. Oh wait, me!  Here in Taiwan it was an oh-so-perfect 25C (77F) today.  

Nonetheless, the visa clock is ticking.  The travel itch is also in need of scratching - this feels like about the tenth time I've visited Taipei.  I know the city well enough that on the bus back from the airport, I overheard the name (in Chinese!) of one of the subway stations, pulled up a map in my head, realized that the station was between my home and the bus's final destination, popped off the bus early, hopped on the metro, and saved myself a good hour of public transit. I also know which markets are open at night, which ones are open in the morning, where to find humus, where to get my bike fixed...this can only mean one thing: it's time to get disoriented again.

So, back to China it is!  ETA 1-Week.  Next up: Guangdong (Canton) province, Hong Kong, Zuhai, Macao...with people to mooch off of already lined up.  Woohoo!   

Monday, January 14, 2013

Meet "Wanderer" (and it isn't me)

As I hope the previous post showed, we met a whole host of interesting people at Nan'ao.  AJ, the boss, who retired from his computer engineering job to start the farm.  Sam, his son, who quickly took interest and before the age of twenty has already completed a permaculture design course (one of my goals for this trip) and is now doing various cultivation experiments on his own land.  You Hsin and Hwang Yu, who gave up lucrative but unsatisfying careers in sales and chemistry, respectively, to be closer to the land and their loved ones.  Michelle, who out of concern about peak oil and environmental justice issues, decided to follow her parents into farming.  Everyone I met, whether long-term worker or short-term volunteer like myself, had story that I found moving and an outlook that I could identify with.  Rarely do I feel so in-tune with one person, let alone ten or fifteen.

Much like at Sadhana, the atmosphere was always a joyous one, filled with banter, laughter, and music.  Nonetheless, in any group of a sufficient size, there's bound to be someone that stands a little aloof.  In many cases I feel it's me, but this time, it wasn't.  

Meet Jin-Hong, English name "Wanderer."  I didn't really take much notice of him during the first few days.  First off, he lived off on his own, rather than at the farmhouse or at the volunteer dorm.  Second, only appeared irregularly, while many of the other staff showed up for every meal.  Third, he rarely spoke; or rather, in fairer terms, he was simply only about one-fifth as raucous as the rest of us.   It wasn't until Michelle's agricultural English lesson, where everyone present introduced themselves and gave a brief explanation of how they became interested in farming, that I got to hear his story.  

The same 1000km "Huandao" trip around the country that I recently finished on my bike, he did on foot.  It took him ninety-three days.  Behind him he pulled a cart with his few possessions and a trash can, into which he deposited all the of litter he came across on his way, dumping it off at 7-11s or police stations or wherever else he could.  During that time, he often asked himself "What does it mean to be an environmentalist?" and came to the conclusion that, for him, it meant living the simple life.  

Needless to say, Mingyu and I were both intrigued.  I have been trying, in the words of Thoreau, to "simplify, simplify" for years now.  Perhaps even a decade.  I gave up TV.  I gave up soda and juice.  I gave up meat.  I gave up animal products*.  I gave up cars.  I gave up new clothes.  I gave up my apartment, my job, and about 75% of my stuff.  I'm trying to give up plastic, trash, beer, anything I don't need.  Recently I heard that someone named Diogenes once said to Alexander the Great, "I am far richer than you, my lord, for I have disdained more than you will ever own."**  I nodded my head in assent.

* Then took some back, then gave them up again, and am still vacillating.
** Though extensive googling hasn't provided any confirmation. 

Though enviably without the tinge of martyrdom that (I feel) seems to color so many of my actions and so much of my writing, Mingyu leads a similar lifestyle.  Soap rather than shampoo, cold water showers, laundry by hand even when a machine is available, the fewer gadgets the better, no sense of shame about sleeping on floors or crapping in the woods.  Eventually, once he returns to Korea, he wants to build his own house and design everything in it, from the furniture to the appliances to the pottery.   

Thus, the three of us more or less hit it off immediately.  After chatting for a while after the lesson, Wanderer agreed to let us check out his house and introduce us to his "simple life."  

The next morning, Wanderer led us on a ten-minute bicycle ride from the farm volunteer dorm to the place he's currently renting.  Despite being over a hundred years old and pretty much totally barren, it gave off a sense of beauty and comfort that's hard to find elsewhere.

Upon entering, the first thing you see is the living room.  No furniture to speak of, just a floor entirely covered with rocks and pebbles (which he gathered from the beach nearby), leading seamlessly to a fireplace in the center, and some driftwood to sit on.  This is where he does almost all his cooking.  No gas and no electricity necessary, only straw from his friends' farms and downed branches from the forest immediately behind his house.  

The bedroom.  He put his bed together out of bamboo and straw.  For a pillow, he uses: more straw.

In addition to learning farming, he's been practicing his woodworking skills.  His kitchen boasted a handmade cabinet made from salvaged wood, several handwoven baskets, necklaces made out of coconut fibers, and a  bunch of "silverware." 

A bag made out of leaves from the betel nut tree.

Even the little bit of plastic that is necessary - namely, a few wires and light switches - is thoroughly obscured, wrapped with or buried under natural materials so that it need neither be seen nor touched.   

After a brief tour, we got down to business.  I chopped some veggies for a salad, throwing on some bananas for flavor and texture. 

In the meantime, Mingyu and our host put together a small fire to roast sweet potatoes.  The night before, the three of us had bonded while discussing those terrific tubers. Whether you cook them over your own fire or buy them in a market and carry them with you to your campsite, it's easy to appreciate how cheap, tasty, healthy, and satisfying they are.  

In the afternoon, the three of us and another one of Wanderer's friends talked permaculture and natural farming while using rakes, shovels, and hand-scythes to clear about fifty square meters' worth of weeds off of his driveway, leaving him space to build a tepee.  Later this year Wanderer plans to walk from southeast China up to Tibet, so he's currently taking primitive skills classes to learn everything he needs to know about sheltering and feeding himself on the journey.

(Moments after this picture, the rake fell forward, passing just inches away from smashing Mingyu's $1500 camera into smithereens.  Careful with those antics, boy!)

Then it was time for dinner again.  "Five color soup," he called it; an ancient Chinese dish where the color of each ingredient represents one of five elements of the earth. Sounds nice but, to be honest, I don't think it'd be a bad thing if Wanderer planted a little herb garden.

Mingyu took another crack at the fire but had some trouble.  Wanderer, having lived this way for six months now, got it roaring pretty quick and then built an impromptu stove out of stones.  For about an hour we sat in the dark, alternating between chatting and sitting in silence, listening to the crickets and feeding the fire.

After the meal, we stuck around a little longer, singing songs to the accompaniment of chopstick-drums and imagined ukeleles.  My awkward and tone-deaf contributions: Bright Eyes' "Bowl of Oranges," itself simple in composition but so wonderfully full of both sorrow and joy, and the folk song "500 miles," a sure staple of each and every American vagabond. Finally, Wanderer left us with brief mediation on gratitude. Through the simplicity he lives in he has come to a deeper sense of appreciation for even the most basic things - the stones, the wood, the fire, the smoke, the electricity that he uses so sparingly.  I agreed heartily; albeit more for friends and fortune than for the basic physical elements and processes that make my (and any) life possible, several times in the past months I've found myself swept away by feelings of gratitude, all of them deeper, more potent, more meaningful than any excitement or adventure I've come across.  To rephrase Dioegenes' words above: Perhaps one is rich in proportion, not to the number of things he has, but in proportion to the number of things he is truly, palpably, grateful for.

The night left me with a lot to think about.  I'm often pulled back and forth between two thoughts - that I'm not doing enough, and that I'm doing far more than is required of me.  Which one is it?  How much is enough when it comes to environmentalism?  If one frames it in terms of sacrifice, it's easy to say: that's not my duty.  But if environmentalism is about love, respect, and regard for other living beings, human and nonhuman, present and future, it seems that there should be no end to what one is willing to do.  Isn't that the case with a parent, a child, a sibling, a friend or sometimes even a pet?  What wouldn't we give up or change about our lifestyles to save a loved one?

I'm not exactly any closer to having found the answer, but seeing Wanderer happy at home in the environment and choices he made for himself did leave me with a sense of comfort and security regarding my own efforts. For one, I was once again reminded that I'm not alone - indeed, far from it - in my quest for a kinder, happier way of living.  More importantly, while I admired his way of life, I didn't quite feel jealous of it; it seemed to me that each of us has a role to play in our own way, doing  whatever it is that feels right and honest and true. Cycling seems to have chosen me - or at least my mind and habits and dispositions have come together such that out of all the choices that opened up to me over the past couple years, cycling seemed to be the best one.  All I can do is keep it up, hoping to share my thoughts, beliefs, and passions with everyone I meet.  Hoping to intrigue, inform, inspire, just like Wanderer and so many others have done for me.