September 29, 2009

Exploring Part I: Not All Who Wander Are Lost

As I ride the elevator down to street level, it occurs to me that I really have no idea where I am going. I have brought $1000 NT with me in the hope that I find the downtown area and can buy some athletic shorts, but I will not be overly disappointed if I don't. I suppose my primary objective is just to walk around the neighborhood and try to get some sense of direction, or at least mentally pinpoint my residence in the city in relation to everything else. As of now I only know the location of my school, which is somewhere East of my apartment, but other than that, I am completely lost. It might have been wise to draw a map - or at least LOOK at one - before embarking on my journey. However, I do not yet have the internet, and because I did not have the presence of mind to print out a map of the city before I left the school, I have no choice but to go without, wandering aimless and directionlessly around the unfamiliar streets. Reaching the ground floor, I decide that I prefer it this way; ignorance makes my discoveries seem more authentic, and makes my campaign seem less cautious and thus more deserving of admiration. "Besides", I reason, "if somehow I get lost and something terrible happens to me, it will make a GREAT story later...I mean, assuming I live to tell it".

My walk to school has me take a right out of my building, walking down Zi You and across the bridge, over the train tracks, and in the direction of the RT Mart. Not wanting to retread familiar steps, I now turn LEFT, turning my back on the sights that are starting to become unnoticed as my memory now expects their existence and is thus fading their importance into the background of my sensory perception. I walk about a hundred yards, past a hair salon, several shops, and a large corporate bank. Here, Zi You Road ends at a "T" with Jinguo Rd (pronounced "Jing" as in "Jingle Bells" and "gwa" as in guava, the fruit), and I stand at the corner trying to see far down in either direction, wondering which path will lead me somewhere interesting. The sun is weakening slightly from its afternoon supremacy, but its light is still fierce as it reflects off of the metal buildings and catches my eyes, causing me to squint hard as I examine my options. Judging by the traffic and the number of businesses lining the street, I deduce that Jinguo is a major thoroughfare, which seems promising. Maybe this will take me somewhere that has shorts. At last, I decide to go left, which is done arbitrarily but with conviction. Hey, when you don't know where you're going, there are no wrong directions.

I walk down Jinguo, which is difficult because there is absolutely no sidewalk for the first fifteen minutes of my hike, relegating me to either the street or the gutter. I pass many large stores and nice looking restaurants, all with glass picture windows and colorful signs, some in English, most in Chinese. Eventually I come to a familiar sight: The Golden Arches. And only about a ten minute walk from my house, as well. Although it is across the four lanes of busy traffic, I can clearly see the writing on the window says "Open 24 Hours", which means that I must always have food stocked in my apartment so that I resist the urge of making a 4 a.m. McDonalds run when my self-control is at its lowest due to alcohol consumption. I continue walking, trying to forget that I ever saw its generic, soulless corporate facade. No one should ever eat at McDonalds. Ever.

I continue walking. And walking. And walking. Eventually, the road gives way to a narrow roadside park, which (thankfully) has a sidewalk running through it. The park has trees and playgrounds and exercise equipment, and although it is only about as wide as the four-lane road it parallels, it extends for several blocks and gives refuge from the concrete, glass, and asphalt. Walking through the park, I see a small collection of restaurants to my left, the sparse grass of the park coming between their quaint storefronts and the roar of the busy Jinguo traffic. I go to investigate, and discover that there are three separate restaurants which all seem to be Italian themed. Out front they have signs or boards announcing the specials, and I see familiar dishes like "pasta con broccoli" and "meatballs marinara". Wow. Looks like I sound Hsinchu's version of Little Italy. I make a mental note to try these restaurants sometime in the future (because I will undoubtedly get tired of Asian food at some point in the next twelve months here) and keep moving through the park, toward an unknown goal.

After a few more blocks, I take a short break. Although I know I have been walking for less than an hour, the heat and the sun have left me sticky and thirsty, but I will refrain from buying something to drink until I feel I can no longer live without it. I stand in the shade of an old, gnarled tree with wispy branches and watch four old men sit around a small card table and drink tea. They do not appear to have anywhere to be, and they smile and laugh and I imagine that they do this every single day. They do not wonder what else they could be doing or what other places they could be. They are living fully in this single moment in time, their wrinkled hands slowly bringing their brown mugs to their thin lips, their trousers rolled to show leather sandals that have seen years of sun and rain, miles and miles. I stand silently and watch them, and secretly want to know everything they know; I want their wisdom, their contentment, their happiness. But I know they have earned this place in the sun drinking tea at a flimsy card table. They have already lived and seen and loved and told. I could not join them even if I wanted to, because this is not the place for me. I move on, their laughter following me like a song.

I reach a major intersection and decide that I should change direction. The stores are becoming less impressive on Jinguo now, and I assume this is either because the road is heading somewhere more residential or out of town completely. Both cases sound less than desirable, so I turn left at the intersection, failing to see the name of the busy road that is leading me toward my new destination. In my head, I say "Jinguo Jinguo Jinguo" over and over, knowing that if I get lost, at LEAST I know how to get home from Jinguo. This new road takes me past several more shops, restaurants, and a large park. Seeing nothing of interest on this road, I turn left once again, heading down a crowded street that seems to be lined with miniature casinos. As I walk past these brightly advertised establishments, I vaguely remember something David said about these places - something about gambling being illegal, so these venues allow you to buy tokens and play various slot machines and card games. This, to me, seems even LESS productive than gambling for money, where at least you have a CHANCE of winning some money back. I keep walking, the shadows of the buildings becoming longer and providing some relief from the heat.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I am not certain how many times I turn left or right, or for how many miles I walk. The sun is low now, and the stores and restaurants have begun to turn on their lights. The bright colors from their neon signs mixed with the cooling air sends a shock to my tired body and rejuvenates me, pushing me forward. Suddenly, I think I see a sign I recognize in my memory, an advertisement from the other day when David and I walked down to the center of the city. No, maybe not. Wait! Another sign! And a building! I KNOW I have seen that building before! The stores are becoming more dense, the people seem to be hurried. It feel like I am getting close to something now. This could be....

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