Gene Griffith enjoyed donuts, early mornings, leisurely walks, church, and traveling. I took after him, in only some of these aspects. While he probably would have liked it to have been church and early mornings, I have a more decadent taste for donuts and travel. My grandpa passed away around Easter a couple of years ago, when I was living in South Korea, and I had to experience most of it through emails and one phone call, which was mostly my mom and grandma crying on the other end. Let it never be said that traveling the world is easy. A few days later, my Korean co-workers took me up a mountain on a group hike. We didn’t talk much, due to the language barrier, and I took the time to breathe in the mountain air and come to terms with the loss. It was what I needed and since then, I’ve tried my best to remember his passing with a hike.
This Easter, I was in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, a blazing hot sprawl beside the ocean. I was on my own, but determined to hike Shoushan, or as the Chinese impaired call it, Monkey Mountain. This name is not a joke. The mountain is actually crawling with Formosan Rock Maques, dog-sized monkeys with no fear of humans and well-known for swiping food from distracted tourists. I had no interest in cuddling up to a monkey. They’re like half-formed humans and it disturbs me. Yet, I wanted an island adventure for the books and the jagged mountain seemed like a good place to commune with my thoughts and remember my grandpa. God knows I wasn’t going to church.
“Just go through the tunnel to the university and then follow the coastline”, said the owner of my hostel, looking un-impresed by my presence. I attempted to get a better explanation.
“Ok, thanks. Like….just follow the ocean up?”
“Yes, yes,” she said distractedly, already doing other things on her desk, “don’t go to the left or you will go back where you came from.”
Brilliant. I followed these vague instructions and found myself walking through National Sun Yat-sen university, a peeling but strangely beautiful campus on the water. It didn’t seem like I was heading for a popular tourist trail. One, I was the only person around and two, I saw no signs for a trail. I kept walking on the road, through various dorms and then immediately stopped in my tracks. Monkey! It was perched on the guard rail overlooking the ocean, looking majestic, terrifying, and totally chilled out all at once. A dog was on the sidewalk below yipping at it. I brought my Ipad out (yes, I am a douchebag who hikes with an Ipad. I hate myself, too) and took a picture. The monkey swiveled to look straight into my eyes. It began walking on the rail towards me and I moved as fast as I could to the other side of the road, avoiding eye contact. Its attention went back to the dog and I passed them giving only a couple backwards glances, knowing full well that that monkey had its eye on me.
“What am I doing.” I literally said this out loud to myself as I tried to find something looking like a trail. I was alone and there were absolutely legit monkeys hanging around. I felt like this was a poor life choice. But just then, I saw a group of neon dressed hikers standing near a bus stop.
“Uh..hiking? Mountain?” I asked, moving my arms and legs up and down attempting to mime. They all laughed and nodded their heads so I shamelessly followed their pack as they walked right to where I’d had my doubts and passed through an unmarked fence, up a hill into the trees. I cursed the hostel woman for not telling me that the trail looked like a no trespassing zone. Awkwardly, I kept following them, as if they didn’t notice a white girl tagging along. They stopped at a large banyan tree to take funny photos and that’s when I decided to leave. People were starting to look at me strange. I walked away and was on my own again. I had no idea where I was and was unsure if I should go right or left. A large sign loomed in front of me, and no, it didn’t say where I was, instead, it showed a picture of a mouse and warned of catching diseases from it. Things were not looking up. I took a deep breath and chose a path, with absolutely no faith in myself. I had only gotten about two steps up it when a Taiwanese man with a large red fan and a blue hiking top came up behind me and started yelling in Chinese.
“Oh, do I not go this way? Should I go this way?” I questioned, feeling confused and wondering if whatever path he showed me would actually take me somewhere. There was more yelling in Chinese and he pointed downhill. Going downhill seemed counter-productive and I started to distrust him. Two other men with giant red fans had come up with him and it seemed they were friends. He talked with them in a booming voice and motioned that I should start walking. I did and when I looked back he wasn’t following. I was going into dense, darker jungle and I did not like it one bit. I could hear him still yelling to his friends and saw that they were going on without him. In my imagination, this is what he was telling them.
“Yeah guys, go on ahead. I’m just going to rape and murder this girl for a sec! No worries, she doesn’t know any Chinese!”
In reality, he was saying very different things, but I had yet to know that. I turned around trying to go uphill, feeling like a cornered animal. I did NOT like this situation. I did not want to be a in an unknown jungle with a strange man who I could not talk to. I looked around for protection, but I had none (stupid Ipad!). He came barreling down the hill, using his walking stick (a better weapon) to steady himself.
“Jiao!”, he called. I understood this. Let’s go! And so we did.
We kept moving downhill and each step away from the top of the mountain made my heart heavier. Why was I so stupid to think I could go hiking by myself? As a woman? No one even knows I’m here! As if he could hear my distress, he turned and spoke while pointing down the hill and then up, up.
“You mean we will go down and then up?” I asked hopefully. He nodded his head, although I am certain he did not understand me. Feeling close to tears, I hoped my grandpa wasn’t having to watch this stupid decision making. We walked on in silence. I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t realize we were going uphill and once I realized that, my heart felt so much lighter. He smiled at me and said something in Chinese, probably “I told you so.”
The banyan branches were close to our heads and I was alert and on the lookout for monkeys. I spotted a quivering branch a few feet ahead and started walking slower. A patch of grass caught on my ankle and I jumped in the air, then felt embarrassed as the red fan man came up behind me. But, it seemed my paranoia was not in vain because up above me a monkey walked through the leaves.
“Monkey”, I whispered to the man, who was right by my shoulder. I hugged myself out of fear and uncertainty.
It was beautiful. Zoos are disgusting things that can never take the place of seeing an animal in the wild. I may not have wanted that monkey near me, but it certainly was awe-inspiring to me. I had the thought that I should take a picture, but as soon as my hands were in my bag, the monkey looked down at me and started my way.
“Nope, ok, no picture!”
I put my hands up and continued down the path, while the man behind me shook his head. The trail was getting steeper and I was pouring sweat. The man kept fanning me, trying to keep the water from rolling down my face, and this is when I started to feel as though he was not a murderer. We got to the steepest part and there were ropes to help us up the crumbling and eroding face of the mountain. It looked beyond my ability, but I had no way to communicate that, so I pushed and I pushed and I was trying so hard that I hadn’t noticed that two other Taiwanese people had joined us, while I’d been Tarzan-ing my way up the mountain. One of them was a woman and I was extremely happy to see her. It is, perhaps, a misplaced feeling of security, but women will always feel safe when another woman is near. They looked at me like, why is this girl sweating so much, and I looked down at my red fan man and gave a look of dejectedness. I was pretty damn tired. He told me to rest (I somehow could understand words I did not know at this point), so I sat down on a rock and drank water. This man somehow reminded me of my grandpa. He obviously was caring, as he had been fanning me and forcing me to take rest breaks, but he didn’t coddle me. I was expected to go up this mountain whether I liked it or not. I seriously wondered if it was possible for my grandpa to possess the body of a Taiwanese man.
It was time to go again. My arms were killing from pulling my body weight up the mountain and my fear of heights kept screaming in my ear, “FUCK THIS FUCK THIS FUCK THIS!” I stopped at a rock and tried to show that I could go no further. I hoped he would let me go off on the side trail that I saw through the trees. He mimed five minutes and told me to go on. So I did. It was less than five minutes, when we reached the top. It wasn’t a peak with a 360 degree angle of Koahsiung and there was no miraculous wind sweeping around, as I looked down at the world. It was a simple flat space covered in banyan trees that climbed the rock walls and boulders. The large leaves of the trees covered most of the view, but I could see patches of bright blue ocean and sky peeking through. We were just beyond reaching the top of the mountain, but I think that would have needed rock climbing skills. This was our destination and I thanked my lucky stars and grandpa that I had made it. Red fan man’s friends from before showed up from another direction (why had they not come with him? I’ll never know) carrying bags of sugar cane to chew on. I had never done this and I watched the others, learning that you bit a piece off, chewed all the sweet juice out, then spit it the dry carcass into your hand. We all did this for awhile, as they chatted in Chinese and I tried to keep my emotions in check. I was thinking about my grandpa, but also trying not to. I hadn’t been there when he died and so, it still hadn’t processed. I felt guilt, sorrow, and also gratefulness at having this chance to be on a mountain, out of my element. But, my hiking friends knew none of this and they handed me another stalk of sugar cane.
Going downhill was treacherous as well, and the ropes were the only thing that kept me from falling straight on my face. The Taiwanese woman showed me the correct way to hold the rope and even offered me her gloves, so that I wouldn’t get rope burn, but I didn’t feel as though I could accept. I ignored the pain in my hands and thankfully, we soon made it to solid, flat ground. The woman and red fan man spoke to me in Chinese.
Oh yes, I knew this word. Tea! I had heard of tea stations on the mountain and I assumed we would be heading to one. They took me to a clearing where metal tables were set up, tupperwares of guava, apple, pineapple, and tomatoes were laid out, and tea was being brewed on a stove by a woman in a desert hat. This was not a tourist tea spot, it seemed this was their private area.
“How old are you?”, the woman in the desert hat asked. I was so excited to hear English!
“28”, I said and grinned at her.
“Ah, same age as my daughter! Same age!”She handed me a piece of pineapple and said seriously, “Taiwan has so many delicious fruits, so many.”
Red fan man came over and set up a plate for me and over-fed me with various fruits and cups of green tea. I wanted to cry again, not out of sadness, but because of how good they were being towards me. None of them knew me, but they were letting me share their food and drink, even though I couldn’t speak a word to them. Red fan man had left his friends to take care of me in the mountains because he could tell I was lost. The goodness of people always amazes me and I will never stop believing in it, even when my fear and suspicions try to make me think otherwise.
I decided I should be on my way and let them enjoy the rest of their afternoon together. “Do you know what Easter is?” The woman in the desert hat looked confused and shrugged her shoulders. It didn’t matter. They may have not known what Easter was or cared, but they had absolutely made mine. We all took a picture together, which they found amusing, and I walked away, hearing their laughing behind me get quieter with each step. I made it back to the road and the sun was shining brightly on my shoulders. The ocean was brilliant and full of energy. I wanted to run and so I did, all the way back to the tunnel. I have no idea where the energy came from, but I felt happy. My grandpa always believed in me and my travels and I hope he was smiling down on me that day and was proud of the person I’ve become. I bet he’s up there in heaven right now, eating a donut at the crack of dawn, and basking in all those heavenly sermons.
Happy Easter, Grandpa and thanks for a hike to remember.