Traveling Plein Air
"Travels in Taiwan - Exploring Ilha Formosa" is Gary Heath's cinema verite written account of his mostly solitary, six-month peripatetic journey -- broken up into six different trips -- into that entire island nation outside of Taipei, or Taibei, as it's written in the book, the concrete jungle capital city. This includes rambling by both hiking on foot and hitch-hiking through the many hills and mountains, forests, sea coasts, and even all the many far-flung islands that Taiwan incorporates into its territory, by road. The book begins with a richly descriptive prose style that reminds me of George Orwell's in 1984 though a bit tongue-in-cheek:
"The sound of a police car siren keening on Self Strengthening Street soon fades
and gives way to a steady stream of scooter vrooms, the rasp of a mechanical
circular saw, assorted voices, doors banging, dogs barking and tinny radio music
echoing in the bowels of a motorbike repair shop. A bit groggy, I crawl out of bed,
splash some water on my face, get dressed and head out of my third-floor bed-
sitter apartment. The sidewalk on the street outside is barely passable because of
piles of joss money lying about, crumpled ghost cash that will later be burnt in
temple furnaces as an offering to the next world's corrupt officials."
Once the actual traveling begins, the writer narrator's first person account becomes much more minimalist in style, as though he were sketching his travels like a watercolor painter outside in plein air brushes just enough image and color on his canvas to render the effect he wants to convey of his impression of the subject. In fact, Heath does bring along with him on his travels artist watercolor paints, canvas, easel, and brushes to spontaneously paint scenes of places that impress him:
" .....Once again, sketching
directly in paint, I quickly drew the obelisk and then worked around it, finally
painting in the characters on the stonework in red. It was another scorching hot
day, and sweat dripped off me as I painted. Seeminingly romantic, plein
air actually demands a lot of concentration and much physical and psychic effort
to get anything done. The act of painting allowed me to slow down and feel and
observe what was going on around me, and it was this process, and not the final
product that really mattered to me. ....Though I had made a mess of some
foreground details, my painting nonetheless pleased me because it
succeeded in recording a vision...." (p.152)
Never having ever visited the Far East, I was curious to see what Heath felt about the Oriental mindset vis-à-vis Westerners: "Tainan remains my favorite city in Taiwan. But had I ever known it? The concentric and exclusive nature of Taiwanese society subtly excludes the outsider, and there was in fact a great deal I did not know, and probably would not want to know, about Tainan." (p.150) His vigilant desire to conserve his money and resources leads him to camp out frequently. In one instance, it raised the ire of a Taiwanese Parks official who upbraided him for trying to persuade him to allow him to camp in a place where it was forbidden with the brutally frank retort, "This is not America!" On another occasion, John, an indigenous Saisiate cultural guide and friend, abruptly ends his festive celebration at a wedding party, because he apparently disapproved of Westerners "partying" with alcohol in front of other Saisiates and Taiwanese? Many of the descriptions of the local indigenous people, such as the Atayal, are quite engaging and charming, especially of the young females he can't help but adore. He encountesr many drivers and other fellow passengers along the way while hitchhiking who are quite interesting and even memorable. One such occasion is a young family with whom he's given a ride only to forgetfully leave behind his beloved camera in their vehicle as he departs Fortuitously, he manages to recover it in a remarkable, magic moment that proves once again the truth of the Gospel saying, "Seek and ye shall find." (For whatever reason though, Heath doesn't highlight the wonder and glory of this blessedly thankful recovery in any special or significant way.) Another driver toward the end of the odyssey, drinking while driving, compels him to get out of the vehicle and abandon the ride before they ever reach their intended destination. Raki, a remarkable pariah youth among the Saisiate, is like a young Neal Cassady who intrigues him with his resourcefulness & intelligence, yet abandoned nature and ironic disinterest of others for him.
I was also curious as to how Heath would be able to travel alone for such a period of time without it affecting him adversely, such as suffering bouts of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. He's helped in this regard through his fluency in the native language, which allows him to interact and communicate with those he meets, mitigating this potential difficulty well for the most part, it seems. There is one passage where he is in a bar, and observes German businessmen negatively commenting about a colleague, which triggers in him a sudden longing for female companionship or another like-minded soul, at least, to relate to, which, of course, was not realistically possible. Fortunately, he did have Alex, his Taiwanese girlfriend, to call up on the phone if necessary and even visit and get to accompany him on some, though brief, stages of his travels. ( Another thing that I found extraordinary about the writer was his strength, stamina, and vitality in light of the fact his travel diet seemed to lack enough daily protein for the great output of physical and emotional effort that he put into it.) In the most desperate moment of doubt he encounters on his trek, he nearly succumbs: ..."due to a misunderstanding, I got off the back of the farmer's truck at a fork in the road in the middle of nowhere. Cursing my luck, I started to walk along what was a totally isolated mountain road. If there was a moment when I regretted the whole idea of this quixotic tour, this was it. What on earth was I doing walking about the hilly byways of rural Taiwan at the height of summer carrying 23 kilograms of kit and pulling a trolley of art materials behind me? ....now starting to fall apart. It all seemed insane..." (p.162)
Though sometimes the pace of the travels does become somewhat slow at times, as one can become confused as to exactly where Heath is going in which direction for how many kilometers and why, I believe that more colorfully descriptive, even metaphorical prose as that at the beginning and that used which describes the painting would help invigorate it. As his indigenous culture visits began with the Atayals, so, after 4100 kilometers, they ended with them, as he ironically visited a successfully thriving Atayal village that belied the fact that the local Catholic Church could have been illicitly profiting from its success at their expense.
Overall, the book offers a great deal of insight into Taiwanese society, history, culture, as well as its island's scenic geography, to someone like myself who knew absolutely nothing of the place beforehand. For instance, it was very disturbing and revealing to learn about the nuclear industry and its commercial development on the island. I had no idea about the official government silence about the extent of domestic housing contamination from the widespread use of hazardous, radioactive building materials. Just as disturbing to learn was the oppression and cruelty of the majority of Taiwan's population toward the ethnic, indigenous minorities. I was amazed to learn about a rebellion led by one indigenous tribal leader that led to a massacre brought about as an emotional reaction to this abuse. Another aspect of the island's history one learns was the horrific abuse of the American prisoners of war there by their cruel Japanese captors during World War II and the efforts to commemorate their sacrifices by some of the survivors. It was also quite revealing to learn about the tragic yet inexorable loss, or at least weakening and deterioration, of indigenous language and culture there. Unlike most travel books published in the U.S. that just are basically reviews of the hotels, restaurants, and tourism destinations for every place to visit, this is a true, peripatetic, descriptive Odyssey undertaken by an adventurous and inquisitive Westerner on a very Oriental and remote island, written from the involved perspective of a plein air watercolor artist, totally immersed in the moment of the process of traveling.