Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hallelujah, It's the Day of Ashes

As we witness the dissolution of the invincible American economy, President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on Mardi Gras night, the last hurrah before the sobriety of Lent for Christians. What a fateful intersection of ideas. We are in such difficult times because of a callous, carnivale attitude toward finance on every level by greedy people who knew how to get wealth for the one, regardless of the impact on the many. Avarice is a mortal sin---the wisdom of that classification is now sadly clear. What the collective consciousness needs is to return to some sobering sanity where money is concerned. Hopefully, it will be in time to prevent further catastrophe.

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Matthew 16:26

I did not hear the President’s speech; I was at a fundraiser for the day job, at Cipriani’s 42 Street, which is an old Bowery Savings Bank built in 1921 in an Italian Renaissance-style. The soaring ceiling and marble walls bespeak a sense of worship of money. Another strange intersection of ideas.

The singer/composer Rufus Wainwright performed at the event. His distinctive, ethereal voice gracefully filled the hall, floating over the heads and sensibility of many of the businessmen gathered. He performed two songs from his album, Want One, and then came the distinctive opening chords of the Leonard Cohen masterpiece. A shiver went down my spine. I’ve seen Rufus in concert twice, but this was a more intimate setting, and he was in excellent, excellent voice for the heady top ranges of his songs.

In the Church’s liturgy, the word “hallelujah” is not uttered between Ash Wednesday and the Easter Vigil. It is a word of powerful exuberance that is not appropriate for the contemplative time of Lent. Being outside the liturgy we can read this exceptional poem of love, yearning, faith, and music today. What a gift it is.


Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Best Supporting Actress: "And the winners were. . . . "

Speaking of Edward Copeland, he is the spirit behind the annual Best/Worst polls in honor of the Academy Awards. Brooke Cloudbuster at The Performance Review is assisting with the mechanics this year.

And the poll is: Best Supporting Actress.

It’s an intriguing poll, calling into play all the ideas of what a supporting performance really means.

My 5 worst were easy. I’m not particularly articulate about the whys: either I don’t like the actress, or it’s just not an appealing performance.

5. Diane Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway. Over the top, didn’t find it charming
4. Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower. But I like her in every role since.
3. Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite. Left me cold at every turn.
2. Geena Davis, Accidental Tourist. I’m just so not a fan.
1. Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost. Don’t like her in anything she’s been in except Soapdish.

In my 5 best I find much more resonance:

5. Kim Basinger, LA Confidential. Here she embodies every cliché and desire about Old Hollywood glamour without descending into cartoon. It’s a beautiful, exquisite performance.

4. Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath. On the other side of the spectrum, Ma Joad, Earth Mother incarnate. Her reactions to the “Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there” speech along buy her the Oscar.

3. Kim Hunter, Streetcar Named Desire. STELLA. She has all the vulnerability, desire, and despair that Mrs. Kowalski needs.

2. Peggy Ashcroft, Passage to India. The consummate stage actress with a capital “A” working with David Lean. A thrill that celluloid captured the intersection of such pros.

1. Claire Trevor, Key Largo. Playing across from a young, stunning Lauren Bacall should have earned her battle pay. Singing “Moanin’ Low” as Edward G. Robinson mocks her clenches the top supporting honors for me.

There is such a wealth of talent in this category. Here’s just a short list of the other actresses who could have easily fit into the best slots: Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker; Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry; Helen Hayes, Airport; Maggie Smith, California Suite; Cloris Leachman, Last Picture Show; Ruth Gordon, Rosemary’s Baby; Wendy Hiller, Separate Tables; Eva Marie Saint, On the Waterfront

I invite you to participate! Send your selections to Deadline is Feb. 24.

First Darts

Edward Copeland has shined a recognition meme called the Premio Dardos onto my tiny corner of the sphere, and I thank him for the attention.

As he detailed on his site:

“The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web."

I have no idea what the Spanish word for “darts” has to do with the image of the old typewriter for this honor. But memes are like that.

This one requires 2 things:

# 1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
# 2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.

And so my own affection and gratitude for work goes out to:

Lance Mannion: he is the master of the long con, I mean form (I’ve been watching Leverage)

Blue Girl
: who has every right to stop blogging, but we hope she won’t.

Tom Watson
: my political touchstone, my Crosby/Springsteen confrere

Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur
: for his distinctive voice detailing films you don’t see on other sites.

The Rued Morgue
: for my Dr. Who fixes, among other things

I bounce around to many sites, but these are the ones I keep coming back to. Thanks for being there.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

It's not all candy and flowers: "Leave my loneliness unbroken"

The narrator hears a sound, then isn't sure:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping

. . .

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,

The Raven has entered:
Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before-
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said, `Nevermore.'

The narrator wants some answers:
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

The narrator is losing it . . .

“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

And descends into despair:
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

I saw U.S. stamps for Edgar Allan Poe in the Post Office the other day; it's a bicentennial birth year for him too. And that inspired a bit of the appealing macabre to counterbalance this treacly day.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln, Lincoln, I've Been Thinkin' . . .

What’s that thing that you’ve been drinking?
Looks like water, tastes like wine
Oh my gosh it’s turpentine.

This nonsense children’s rhyme is the earliest association I have of the Great Emancipator

For a review of the Steven Spielberg movie, please go here.

When I was 8 years old or so my family visited Ford’s Theater, and we went across the street to Petersen’s Boarding House. I remember seeing the room he died in, and that made an impression on me. It was so very tiny, the bed was so small. For a child it had an eerie feeling of death. My older brother had a book on the Civil War, and the front spread was a photo of the hanging of the assassin conspirators—seeing those suspended bodies with bags over their heads was very disturbing, and it was the beginning of the story of Lincoln for me.

While he was on the planet, Lincoln’s life was filled with extraordinary accomplishments and moments in history. It’s not surprising then that in death he would again be associated with Big Ideas, the Big Picture of History. The Universe timed the bicentennial of his birth with the election of the first black president. As a plotline in a movie you’d say it’s contrived, but it’s giving a welcomed relevance to the celebration of his birthday.

Where is Lincoln today? In the 1990s he was in Homicide: Life on the Street in Crosetti’s obsession with the assassination. In Almost Famous Billy Crudup sees a photo of him in a coffeehouse, after he’s lied about the article in Rolling Stone. Still the go-to symbol of honesty is our Abe.

The Lincoln of the Library

During my visit to the Lincoln Library in Springfield at Christmas I was struck by several things: how much Lincoln was despised by all sorts of constituencies, as well as the South; how complex his political maneuverings were; and the unrelenting sadness of his life, from the death of mother, to the death of three of his sons, to the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans during the war.

The Lincoln Library is an engrossing, special place. One particularly moving exhibit is called The Civil War in 4 Minutes. It’s a video of a map of the U.S. that shows the major battles of the war through the various states, as a counter registers the deaths of the Union and Confederate armies. It’s a chilling four minutes, and everyone in the room is captivated, deadly silent. I never felt more of a Northerner than in that short time, where I had heard mostly soft Southern voices around me before the film began. Were it not for Lincoln, we Northerners and Southerners might not have ever been delivered as Americans. You can't stand in front of that map of death without getting chocked up for the Nation, and for the man who bore so much of the burden.

The Better Angels of Our Writing

He is murdered on Good Friday. Just how mystical is this man? Seeing that famous last photo taken on him on Feb. 5, 1865, he looks like a man who had already given his life for the Nation, so gaunt and tired and ravaged is his face.

As a writer, it is Lincoln the writer whom I can best understand, best appreciate, best embrace. The clarity of his thought, of his profound intellect, translated into text that has distinctive, engaging cadence, part Shakespeare, part Petrarch.

If he had only written the Gettysburg Address, Dayenu.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

If he had only written the First Inaugural, Dayenu

"That there are persons in one section or another who seek to destroy the Union at all events and are glad of any pretext to do it I will neither affirm nor deny; but if there be such, I need address no word to them. To those, however, who really love the Union may I not speak?"

Happy Birthday, Abe.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Road Ends in Hong Kong

This story ends as the Ox Year New Year's Celebration comes to an end. (See the whole story here.)

Flying into Hong Kong, into the old Kai Tak airport, was one of Travel’s great thrills. (I don’t think flying into the new airport is the stuff of legends,)

From the Wiki descript: The landing approach using runway 13 Kai Tak was spectacular and world-famous. To land on runway 13, an aircraft first took a descent heading northeast, passing over the crowded harbour, and then the very densely populated areas on Western Kowloon.

Upon reaching a small hill marked with a checkerboard in red and white, used as a visual reference point on the final approach, the pilot needed to make a 47° visual right turn to line up with the runway and complete the final leg. The aircraft would be just two nautical miles from touchdown, at a height of less than 1,000 feet when the turn was made. Typically the plane would enter the final right turn at the height of about 650 feet and exit it at the height of 140 feet to line up with the runway. This maneuver has become widely known in the piloting community as the "Hong Kong Turn."

And it was a thrill. Looking out the window you saw those mountains coming up pretty fast, and then, like an amusement park ride, the plane suddenly turns, right over Kowloon, and you are flying between skyscrapers, where you can literally look into specific windows because the plane is slowing to land.

What an entrance. What a city. We are staying at the Marco Polo, around the corner from the Victoria Harbour of the Peninsula Hotel and the Red Star Ferries. It is deeply exotic to me to ride back and forth between the two halves of the city. I’m actually in the Technicolor “World of Suzie Wong”

In two days we see as much of the British colony as we can: a harbour-side dinner, with the British sterling silver place setting that includes Imperial Lion chopstick rests; a bus tour takes us up to Victoria Peak, where our Chinese guide speaks about the grim reality of the extreme overcrowding of the city; we see fireworks for the end of the New Year; I talk my way into a tour of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (well, I was working on Wall Street myself at the time) and stop into one of the English pubs nearby; we take a ride on a junk in Aberdeen Harbour and go shopping for a tailored suit.

It was a veritable whirlwind. I did not find my destiny—-with a capital D--but I was very glad to have experienced a bit of the end of colonial Hong Kong.

Then it was time to start the long journey home, flying in one stretch Hong Kong, Taipei, San Francisco, New York. In a mere twenty-six hours, I am back in my own bed, where the images from the past three weeks dance together as though they were only a dream.

Some weeks later, my three 3 boxes of marble pieces arrived, and for a moment I am quite stunned by their sheer presence and beauty, and all that they represent for me and my dear friend.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Gods Are Smiling On Us From Every Angle

A Story for the Ox New Year, part 5 (here is part 4)

From the industrial Kaoshuing we head north again to Fo Guang Shan--Light of Buddha Mountain--the center of Buddhism in southern Taiwan. The main god of worship here is Sakyamuni, who towers over the adjoining town, while statues of Amitaabha are placed on the left and right sides. More than 10,000 Kuanyin statues surround the temple.

Then on to Tainan, the seat of Buddhist scholarship and the oldest temples in the country. We zip around: The Koxinga Shrine, the Confucian Temple, the Dutch Fort Freelandia.

One memorable image was two young Englishmen right out of Merchant Ivory casting in proper linen duster coats, riding down main street on Victorian bicycles. They are laughing and smiling as they ride side by side—I imagine that they were doing research in at the Confucian center and got caught up in mystique of the old city. Taiwan has room for many fantasies.

From there we went to Taichung, the island’’s 3rd largest city—a highlight is the Bao Jue Buddhist temple, “unusual in that it is the only one in the city that also has a Shinto Shrine on its grounds (at left). It is most famous for the presence of a giant smiling Buddha that can easily be seen from the street despite the presence of a wall separating the grounds from the street"--and then headed inland to Toroko Gorge National Park, a place of stunning natural beauty.

Then on to the last leg of the motorcycle journey: Shih tou shan, Lion’s Head Mountain. Not far from the southwestern most part of Taipei’s megalopolis, it is a place of timeless isolation. The main monastery is the classic retreat on a mountaintop.

The last few days have been particularly filled with Buddhist and Shinto deities, and it feels fitting to end the trip in a deeply spiritual place.

We stay in a tatami guest room at the monastery. It is starkly authentic, while vegetarian food served in the dining hall is fabulous. At sunset we listen to the ritual beating of the drums and the clang of bells and gongs, then climb to the Moon Gazing Pavillion and to see the Evening Star in darkness that looks like a velvet painting. Later we sit in one of the pagodas listening to taped music we brought of classic forties pop songs.

And then Paramount Steps In . . .

The next day I am sitting by myself on the bottom level of the pavilion, overlooking the valley, writing postcards, when suddenly, a man appears. He’s wearing a blue Chinese quilted jacket and grey trousers, so he is not a monk. He didn’t speak English, but smiling, he takes from his pocket a Buddhist medallion necklace and gives it to me. And then he puts some Hong Kong coins into my hand.

At the time there was no exchange rate between Taiwan and Hong Kong, so unless he left the country he could not use this money.

Let’s recap: I’m in a monastery. On the top of a mountain. Outside of Taipei. And a man is giving me Hong Kong money. My destiny must lie in Hong Kong!

BFF agrees that the Universe spoke to me on the mountaintop, and so when we get back to the city, we take a day to organize, to buy plane tickets and book a hotel.

And now, without really trying, it has come true: we are in the Hope/Crosby Road picture, The Road to Hong Kong. And off we go.

Friday, February 6, 2009

We Thought Grace Kelly Had Stayed Here

A Story for the Ox New Year, Part 4 (here is part 3)

From Kenting we started the trip back north. We stumbled on a horseback riding school of some sort. It’s something I had never done, and it seemed like the right time to start.

The elderly gentleman teacher was very proud of his English, which he learned from the Japanese during the occupation.

“Now I will teach you to ‘trot’—T-R-O-A-T.”

It was a wonderful lesson, but we needed to trade the horse back in for the bike and get going. We were going to Kaoshiung, Taiwan’s second largest city and its main shipping port.

We made straight for the Ambaassador Hotel, where THE BOOK said Grace Kelly had stayed. It turns out that that was wrong-—she stayed at the one in Tapei.

No matter. I am glad to be in a major hotel, because there is something I need to take care of.

At the beginning of the trip, just outside of Taipei, we had stopped at a waterfall where Fate put a vendor selling “Golden Fur Dogs.” They are actually roots that grow in the sheer stone of cliffs that the vendors glue rolly eyes onto, and the “hair” when rubbed into a cut or laceration stops the bleeding and promotes healing. We buy 4 of these Chinese mandrakes as gifts.

Shortly after, I lost my balance for a second when we were stopped at a light. The bike fell against my leg, and the exhaust pipe, which had been heating for hours, burned into my right calf. The pain is pretty intense, and I thought the trip would be over just as it began.

But wait! We have the golden fur dogs. Faithfully we pull off some hair and apply the balm that is released around the burn. It feels a little cooling, and on we go.

But . . . by the time I peel off my motorcycle pants at the Ambassador, I can no longer ignore the festering mess that is my right calf.

“What does gangrene look like?” I ask BFF, who springs to action.

Knock, knock.
The Hotel Doctor enters, and giving me a “you look pretty healthy" look heads over to BFF, who is lying on the bed.

“No, no, not her.”

Knock, knock.
It’s the Floor Manager and a Bellboy, who are there for propriety’s sake.

“It’s my leg Doctor,” I, say, so happy that he speaks English, “a motorcycle burn.”

“I see, when did it happen? Ten days ago you say. What have you been doing for it?”

“Well, we used this Golden Fur Dog.”

The Doctor picks up the root with a huge chuckle and with the timing of Grouch Marx says, “You believe in this?”

What does he want from two crazy people on a motorcycle trip—medical sophistication?

Knock, knock. It’s the Doctor’s Assistant with neatly wrapped antibiodics and a powerful sulfur cream. And now we are officially one person away the Stateroom Scene . .

I was relieved to have the wound attended to, and now I wanted a drink. Alas, one thing the Ambassador did not do well at that time was to make a cocktail. I had such a craving for a whiskey sour-—I have no idea what combination of some sort of alcohol was served, but pouring packets of sugar into it helped a little

The journey north back to Taipei continues.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Marble and Sand, the Yin/Yang of Taiwan's East Coast

A Story for the Ox New Year, Part 3 (here is Part 2)

Hualien is a special city because of its marble industry. I was dazzled by the marble goblets, and vases, and decanter sets, and went on a bit of a spending orgy. That led to piling boxes and boxes and boxes of MARBLE onto the back of the bike. We didn’t just shop; we did the usual zipping around: at the Temple of Eastern Purity the women praying couldn’t get over how tall I am!

The plan was to ship the marble, but because it's New Years, the post office had very limited hours. So we continued south, down to Taitung, where we found one open, just as the motorcycle battery was giving out and had to be replaced. I stayed at the post office as BFF went off to talk a roadside garage guy into taking a traveler’s check for a new battery--another downside to New Year’s travel was all the banks were closed for days, and we were very low on cash.

The shipping documents had one other language than Chinese: French, which I had studied. But under the circumstances my brain was seizing, and it took me forever to fill out the forms.

Somehow we got the marble safely shipped and the battery replaced, and we were set to zip off to the Buddha by the Sea and the Cave of the Immortals, the oldest archeological site on Taiwan.

We spend 2 nights in Taitung at the Eastern Hotel-—a little bit of Europe with telephones on all the restaurant tables, mimicking the Kit Kat Club--then go further south to the mineral spa town of Jhihben. The screeching monkeys in the trees at the hotel and the festive lights keep the spirit of the new year celebration alive for us.

We then headed down to the very tip of the island, Kenting. A storm followed us most of the way down, making for a very soggy ride.

Small dangerous Children Enroute

Another attribute to New Year’s travel was the continuous explosion of firecrackers. Children in every town and lonely isolated house were intent on setting off firecrackers right in front of us. The first few times the explosions were really scary. Then we became super attuned to any sight of “small dangerous children” anywhere near the road, and we had fewer near misses.

Hail, Caesar
It’s warm in the south, and flat, both a welcomed relief after the chilled air of the mountains. The road between Jhihben and Kenting National Park is quite a stretch of straight driving with some treacherous crosswinds, which made it exhausting. And the bugs-in-teeth meter was going off the charts.

The Insight Guide talked about a new Caesar’s Park International at Kenting, when suddenly, there in the distance, we saw the distinctive Trojan helmet rising on the horizon. The roar of the motorcycle disturbs the serenity of the grand entrance of the sleek modern resort as we pull up. The doormen are dumbfounded as one grubby American woman gets of the bike and walks across the lobby to register while the other waits. “You can’t park here,” they tell BFF, the same mantra we heard at every hotel we pull up to.


It didn’t matter. In just a few moments we are in a fashionable room overlooking the South China Sea, absolutely giddy over the little amenities of a luxury hotel: the terry cloth bathrobes, the shampoos and conditioners, the sewing kit. I fall asleep listening to BFF on the phone with Wachung (ah, the days before cell phones), the sea crashing in the dark, and the sound of Spanish guitar playing drifting up over the balcony. The next day our time on the white sand beach is rejuvenating, and after a facial and a massage, we’re ready to start the long journey north.

First stop Kaoshuing

Monday, February 2, 2009

“We’re off on the Road to Taiwan; This Honda Is Tough on the Spine”

A Story for the Ox New Year, Part 2 (here is Part 1)

"The Suao-Hualian Highway was excavated from a sheer marble bluff in the Shimizu mountains, which shoot straight up to over 8080 feet. Its feet appear as if washed by the violent crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. This marvelous and unique highway leaves men dumbstruck; beyond proclaiming its grandeur, there are no words to describe it." Japanese caption to vintage photo, @1930

Looking back, what astonishes me about this cross-country motorcycle trip around Taiwan is that we had no advance reservations anywhere. We only had THE BOOK--the Insight Guide to Taiwan-—and a map. This was "travel" with a capital T. We leave Taipei and go southeast to the great Suao-Hualien highway. The plan is to go down the entire east coast to Kenting, where the South China Sea meets the Pacific, and then back up the west coast until we go inland to Takoro Gorge, then Lion's Head Mountain.

In the annals of the world’s great thoroughfares—the Apian Way, the Kyber Pass, the Alcan Highway-—the coast road from Suao to Hualien must be granted a place. It is 70 miles of asphalt precariously perched on cliffs soaring above the Pacific Ocean. The road is a series of hairpin turns and sharp embankments. Its narrowness exposes its 1920’s origin, and there is no barrier at all guarding the precipice. The collective dangers of which necessitate that the traffic is permitted in only one direction at a time for much of the road.

We know we are approaching the first traffic checkpoint when we come upon the last car in a 3-mile backup. Motorcycles can fly to the head of the line, where they naturally clump. We are the only women waiting amid the sleek Chinese men on the motorcycles, and my blond hair-—yes, we did this entire trip without wearing helmets--screams foreigner that is clarified by the American flag on the back of our gear. Lots of doubletakes from the bikers, with “thumbs up” and smiles, smiles smiles.

The gates open, and the motorcycles are allowed to go ahead of the cars. We are engulfed in the fumes of 60 bikes as we reapply lipstick and get underway. The angles of some of the embankments demand greater and greater speed for us to balance, as BFF accelerates to 70 miles an hour. It takes a steady hand and quick reflexes to drive such a road, and it takes a stout heart and a cool manner to be driven: we are a harmonious team.

Our days pass quickly, and no two hours are alike. We ride through village upon hamlet upon city, eating squid on a stick at lonely roadside stops, swimming in the healing waters of remote mineral springs, and climbing mountain trails to forgotten temples. One day our road, which was clear on the map, simply vanished where there should have been a bridge, and we were suddenly in the middle of a salt field. The old woman working the field had a completely deadpan expression on her face as we scurried to get off her property.

For all the thrill of the bike, there was one terrifying moment that should have ended everything. It was nighttime, and we were on another treacherous mountain road. The weather had snapped so cold that I could hardly work the flashlight to see the map. There were miles upon endless miles of unrelenting curves. BFF was growing tired, and to complete all the hairpin turns she was drifting over the yellow line at the crest of each curve and then drifting back. We were nearly choking in all that darkness, and then there was a car coming at us. BFF quickly swerved around the car. But right behind it, drifting into our lane, was a bus! It was too late to do anything. For an instant we knew we were going to die, right then and there.

And then, in the next second the bus was at our backs. How was that possible? We should have smashed directly into it. It was an eerie, mystical moment. There is a mysticism to the East that cannot be denied. When our hearts stopped pounding we continued on our way.

Next, some of the great cities of Taiwan.