Meditations of a Commuter - Stories

Even though the sweltering afternoon heat has passed into the heavy mugginess of early evening, the downtown streets are still a sea of crazed drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, teeming in every direction. The traffic cop on the busy corner of Kao-feng Street gyrates, waves, commands and cajoles, though with a little less intensity and energy than a few hours earlier at the peak of the rush hour.

Sleek Japanese cars with tinted glass windows purr impatiently at the lights, their condescending drivers ready to thunder off and escape at the first cue. Young guys on motorbikes are still revving their engines and speeding around slower moving scooters and bikes at every opportunity.

Never-ending waves of bicycles continue to appear and disappear, their riders wearing masks to protect them from the pollution and fumes. The taxis navigate skillfully and aggressively, no doubt protected by the statuettes and religious slogans that adorn the dashboards. Food vendors are everywhere on the treeless streets in some of the most unlikely places, hawking their merchandise at high decibels as if to compete with the constant roar of the traffic.

Hungry or thirsty cyclists stop deftly and quickly by the food carts to buy a can of coke or green tea or perhaps a bite of some homemade fish balls, spicy chicken wings or a steamed bun, to be eaten hurriedly as they race onward.

Every apartment at street level seems to be a small family store with at least one family member hanging out of an open window or over a counter facing the street, selling something or other, as the extended family watches television in the back part of the storeroom, seemingly oblivious to the din going on just outside on the streets.

Every manner of pedestrian is on the pavements: frail but determined old ladies haul their plastic bags stuffed with fresh greens for the evening meal, groups of giddy teenage girls giggle as they walk arm in arm and young mothers, eager to get home, pull their small children along, occasionally shouting out admonitions and directions.

Fashion-conscious twenty-somethings stop at department store windows to gaze and fantasize, while little old men trudge along tiredly, longing to be back in the quiet serenity of home. Innumerable neon signs on the taller buildings and larger stores are starting to come on, brightening the streets below and hiding the drab concrete exteriors of the older buildings.

Countless small restaurants dot the streetscape with their enticing aromas, blending in with the smell of exhaust from the endless traffic, their daily menus written out quickly and hung with obvious haste on front windows and doors. In the windows of a few small establishments whole roast ducks hang limply above pans of recently cooked sausages and chicken feet.

Every alley has little businesses and shops, in one a husband and wife make small fixtures for electric lights, their eyes fixated on their work as a television blares unwatched above on a shelf. In another small shop an older woman watches television, while her husband assembles electronic alarm clocks.

They rarely speak. Everyone seems extremely focused, intense, purposeful, energetic and committed. The little shops, restaurants and stores have no regular closing times, the doors are finally closed when the owner is too tired to keep going and is ready for bed.

The tired, scrawny, abandoned street dogs, slink warily and unnoticed, looking none too hopeful for even a scrap of food amid the garbage left on an unclaimed stretch of street.

Occasionally the strong smell of thick incense rises out from an old temple wedged among apartment buildings and stores—a strange contrast between the modern and the ancient. The temples are extremely ornate, filled with bright colors, countless religious images and carvings, inside the smell of incense is overwhelming and smoke hangs heavily in the air.

Altars are decorated with gold and laden with fresh flowers and seasonal fruit put there as offerings to the numerous gods. Some of the statues depict fierce-looking gods, like angry, frozen figures about to come to life.

Middle-aged and elderly ladies often dot the temples, praying intently with small gestures to Matsu, Kuanyin or a beloved relative. Each temple has at least a few small stores nearby in which old shopkeepers watch television quietly in the rear with neighbors or friends, waiting to sell their supplies of fake ‘ghost’ money, incense, candles, statues, carvings and assorted religious souvenirs and paraphernalia. Once in a while the Mandarin emanating from the television is intertwined by the shopkeepers weary comments in Taiwanese.

On quiet outlying streets, the recognizable click of Mah Jongg tiles can sometimes be heard in the evening air. Occasionally, a bicyclist whooshes by silently, a happy escapee from the congestion in the center of town. Young couples snuggle around small circular tables in The White House, sipping fruit tea in English cups in the cool air-conditioned air.

In some of the more outlying boulevards closer to the highways the leggy gum girls (betel nut beauties) sit seductively in glass booths. Dressed with more flesh than clothes, as they chat up their mostly male customers, doing a brisk business in gum, cigarettes and candy.

Later at night the sound of the nearby rushing stream dominates the campus’ aural environment, the clamor of city life has diminished and become a very faint murmur. Light breezes waft gently over the walls and through the many trees, making a subtle rustling sound and providing some relief from the heavy humidity and the day’s leftover heat.

The lights above the footpath are dim, almost like dull stars just out of reach.

Black shadows all around form a welcome blanket of cool relief for the thirsty grass and shrubs. Most real stars are hidden behind the low-lying clouds that droop with nascent rain waiting to fall down onto the thirsty earth.

I sense my gate is become slower as I unconsciously become a part of the rhythm and texture of the scene. Now and then delicate, tiny bats flitter nervously from tree to tree as I disturb their uneasy sense of tranquility with deliberate yet light steps.

A white dog sits by the footpath in front of the girl’s dormitory, looking up hopefully for a caressing hand. There are still a few lights on in the music building so I turn left to go back over the bridge. The night is too peaceful to be interrupted by more musical explanations in my broken Mandarin.

I pause at the highest point over the hastening waters and stand absolutely still to enjoy the best view of the aerial acrobatics of the bats, somehow emboldened by the presence of the moving water. I turn left again after the bridge and head down to the unused basketball court, my nightly refuge and sanctuary.

I sometimes practice counting my steps in Mandarin as I walk around the court, but most often, however, I am simply drawn to this spot to be alone to think, ponder, listen, hope, pray and remember.

On this night I look back over the past and find that my old enemies of disappointment, regret and sorrow have mellowed into bittersweet memories and a comforting sense of thankfulness and contentment.

I look out over the walls and Hsinchu is finally at rest. I too should be thinking about going to bed, but even though I must be up early for another energetic day of teaching, the serenity and clarity of the moment entices me to walk on.

I will be flying out in a few days. Whenever I am about to leave a faraway place, I always feel like I am standing on the edge of a precipice just before I jump off and magically take flight. My imminent departure gives me the most delicious sense of nostalgia and detachment.

Tomorrow I will again have the privilege to be connected with so many people here during the course of the day, people who now seem familiar.

So many people to still reach out to, so many things to still see, so many wonderful things to still taste, so many new words to still learn and understand, so precious little time.

I walk on peacefully, however, closing my eyes occasionally for a few steps to feel the invisible and lasting presence within and open my eyes to observe and be thankful for the ephemeral beauties that surround me. Commuting, as always, reminds me again that I must live each day gratefully like it is my last and dance joyfully onward, guided by my inner song.

I eventually turn off the court and head back to my room as a cat moves noiselessly into the dark bushes across from the footpath.

Various Mandarin words and musical expressions keep popping into my mind as I open the heavy metal door to the apartment.

Sleep comes quickly, but I fight it as long as I can. I don’t want to loose the moment or forget the feeling.