Friday, July 16, 2010

Top Ten Greatest Love Songs of the 80's

“Lying beside you here in the dark
Feeling your heart beat with mine
Softly you whisper, you’re so sincere
How could our love be so blind.” - Open Arms, Journey

Lovely breakfast of stale bread, salted eggs in a hard shell, and soggy cucumber salad stuffed into my mouth outside a 7-11 in the pre-dawn in the city of Haulien. Today I joined the all Taiwanese sightseeing group to Taroko Gorge leaving on a massive tour bus that resembled an overstuffed sausage. My traveling companions consisted of young paunchy men with tripods taking endless pictures of girlfriends in sun hats and frilly gowns, old couples in matching designer hiking gear, young mothers in high heels, and pot bellied men in golf shirts chain smoking.
Yes, Dorothy. You are still in Asia.
The whole bus trip up the mountain the driver spoke through a microphone in non-stop Chinese, and my fellow travelers are very curious about my comings and goings, what I carry in my knapsack, why am I writing in the margins of my Lonely Planet book, and certainly most of all, why I am traveling alone.
“Mumble. Mumble. Chinese mumble.”
“Wo ting bu dong.” I answer. “Wo ting bu dong. I don’t know.”
“Mumble. Mumble. Chinese mumble. Ha. Ha. Ha.”
Immediately I am the center of attention. Sometimes, the better my Chinese becomes, the more problems I have. Now everyone won’t stop chattering away at me. They could be trying to sell me Amway pyramid schemes or be an escaped political dissident or a wanted axe murderer or just have returned from summiting Everest, and my response would be the same.
“Mumble. Mumble. Chinese mumble.”
I stick my nose in the margins of my book and quickly sketch a mountain scene out the window. The tour is meant to last from sun-up to just before sun-down. I have the next ten hours with these people.
“Tian-ah.” Oh, heavens.
“Oceans apart
Day after day
And I slowly go insane
I hear your voice
On the line
But it doesn’t stop the pain
If I see you next to never
How can we say forever?” -Right Here Waiting, Richard Marx

The tour bus winds upward through the mountains and makes pit stops at the Taroko Welcome Center, the Buluowan trail heads, and the Ami Aboriginal Cultural Village. Each time we stop, there are group pictures beneath the gates and beside the rock carvings and in front of the totems and next to the traditional huts. There are bamboo grove trails and upper terraces with bridges and stone ponds. It’s majestic, but stifling.
Everywhere I travel, I am constantly being strategically placed within the photos of my fellow travelers. It’s sort of eerie at first and after a while gets under my skin. I feel we should exchange emails or something, but rather seek a bit of solitude toward the river. I begin sketching ferns and flowers in the margins of my Lonely Planet, gathering four leaf clovers and fallen yellow leaves I stick inside the book and wrap with a thick rubber band. The bus driver is honking the horn and when I arrive he scolds me for being late. We’re on a very tight schedule and he is in charge. He shows me his whistle and clipboard and I nod.
“Dway!” I answer. Yes. “Dubuqi.” I’m sorry.
“It’s forgiven,” he grunts. “Now let’s go.”
“How can I just let you walk away
Just let you leave without a trace
When I stand here taking every breath with you, ooh
You're the only one who really knew me at all.” -Against All Odds, Phil Collins

I will always be a Colton farm boy at heart. I know trees and flowers, the sounds different birds make and where to look for the tracks of animals in the snow and what paw prints mean. I keep these things locked away inside, little poems of a solitary life. Yet here in Asia, true reflection is often difficult to find. There is never a place where you are completely alone. You are always surrounded by others, and when you are discovered, you’re put under a microscope. What is the foreigner doing? Why is he standing that way? What is he reading? Should I be taking a picture of that too? Where is he going? I will follow.
It takes its toll.
A great deal of my daily attention is in getting away. I hide in empty classrooms. I sneak off to sit behind trees. I climb onto the roof of the school and look out over the city. Anything to just escape for a few moments before life kicks back in, and I am expected to stand on the dotted line and perform. I know everyone’s life is stressful, but here my stress is in just taking a moment for myself, shutting out the world, and finding my smile.
“Lost in Love and I don't know much,
Was I thinking aloud and fell out of touch?
But I'm back on my feet, and eager to be what you wanted.” -Air Supply, Lost in Love

The Taroko Gorge is a split crack of sheer seaside cliffs and beautiful inland peaks inside the Taroko National Park stretching about 20 km with marble walls that soar several hundred meters above the Liwu River and plunging rock faces that rise into the unreachable sky. Snaking my way along the Swallow Tail’s Ridge and staring down into the plummeting rocky balcony, I am reminded how even rocks over time change. There are signs posted everywhere that one should not linger as boulders tend to fall, and hikers should not try to climb the rocks as it is incredibly dangers.
If there is anything these cliffs teach you, it is not to walk along the edge of life, and instead, stay along the well worn path. Who needs to live dangerously? It’s best to hide yourself away, take no chances. No use getting hurt or hurting others.
That’s the Asian way.
Live predictably.
“No. No. No. No.”
I turn to see a mountain guard in uniform jerking his thumb at me and barking orders. I have strayed off the path and gotten too close to the cliff. Of course, there is a rail there, and I’m in no real danger, but I have broken conformity for just a moment, and now I am about to pay.
“No. No. No. Very danger!” The man yells at me again. He is wearing a pea-green uni-pant/shirt outfit with yellow arm band, side holster for his whistle, and an official looking hat with badge. Seriously, you’re a mountain guard? His face is very bursting, his body flatulent and bloated. He seems like a man not to be trifled with.
These men are all over Asia. The parking lot attendant that will blow his whistle and not allow you to park in the nearest most logical spot, but rather the one farthest away because he can’t have empty spaces. The movie theater usher who insists you sit in your assigned seat even when the cinema is empty and will make you move a seat over if one person comes into the empty theater and wants to sit in the precise chair that you are vacating. The waiter who brings over the head waiter who brings over the hostess who calls for the maitre’d who explains to you that you are in fact NOT able to order from the menu on Tuesdays between 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. but must in fact order from the “set menu” that is available at extra charge.
It’s madness.
So I turn to Mr. Mountain Guard and smile. “Okay. Okay. Dubuqi. Dubuqi.” And head through the tunnel into the light.
“I’m never gonna dance again
Guilty feet have got no rhythm
Though it’s easy to pretend
I know you’re not a fool.” -Careless Whispers, Wham

Back on the bus the driver is playing a series of music videos on the TV bolted to the ceiling. It is a mix of 1980’s love songs he sets on repeat over and over all day long. I know them as well as I know my own siblings. This is my era. My coming of age. High school dances after football games with the smell of the locker room and the day’s cafeteria food still hanging in the air along with pubescent sweat and cheap perfume. Slow dancing with Tina Johnson in which she whispered, “Brian, say you, say me,” into my ear and having no idea what she meant, then trying to fast dance to Juke Box Hero and realizing it was pointless.
Yet there is nothing like the sappy, syrupy sweetness of love ballads from the 1980’s. Everyone knows this, whether they deny it or not. And Asians love them to death. They are tranquil and the English is easy to follow. Asians are suckers for romance too. First kisses. Puppy love crushes that are never forgotten. Sweet melodies that make the outside world seem soft and knowable.
The passengers on the bus know many of the choruses, and smile when they appear, pointing to the speakers and trying to hum along unintelligibly in grunts and moans. It’s almost as if they want me to sing out loud, to entertain them, but I will not. Instead I put my head down and study the map. We are nearing the village of Tiansiang and the food vendors. It is time for lunch.
After the long hike I have earned a Spartan’s meal. Simple rice, fried pork, and noodles atop a stone slab table on a rock beneath a thick brown cedar steadily dropping yellow leaves all around me. I have stumbled upon a catholic mission high in the hills and it feels so good to pray before I eat with such certainty that this is a place of God.
I’ve always sought moments like this, looking for poetry first before money or power or glory, and though I have few lavish possessions to show for it, the search for poetry has never betrayed my soul.
I am a Colton farm boy after all. I have memories of 7th grade boys carrying rifles to school for Hunter / Safety courses and grew up wearing acid wash jeans and rocking my head back and forth to Bon Jovi. I can’t escape who I am, no matter how much it makes me cringe.
A yellow leaf slowly falls at me feet which I scoop up and lay inside my book to be found months later when it is dried and perfect for sending in a letter home. For a moment it feels like home. Just for a moment, and then it is gone.
“Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time
I don’t know what to do and I’m always in the dark
We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks
I really need you tonight
Forever’s gonna start tonight.” -Total Eclipse of the Heart, Bonnie Tyler

The workers in Tiansiang lay in the shade after lunch and nap while I chat with a Japanese man and his daughter about how apricots and peaches taste different in other countries. He finds it curious and so do I as we sip coffee in the shade beside the sleeping men who have kicked off their shoes and rubbed holes in their heels. I snap pictures of the lazy men as they doze off and snore and for the rest of the afternoon I am jealous I did not lay down beside them for a light snooze.
At the head of the Nine Tunnel Trail the hike becomes serious. We are instructed to put on helmets as every year falling rocks kill a hiker or two. One of the men and I scoff at how silly we look. I see them snapping pictures of me and discussing how I stand or where I am going. The funny thing was, not ten seconds after I put on my hat, a softball size rock landed about ten feet from me after dropping from hundreds of feet above. It would have killed me. After that, no one was laughing about our helmets anymore.
“Baby you’re all that I want
When you’re lyin’ here in my arms
I’m findin’ it hard to believe
We’re in heaven.” -Bryan Adams, Heaven

At the trail’s end there is a tourist shop and I look like a complete tool after buying a t-shirt of the ten aboriginal tribes of Taiwan, but I’d sweated through my first shirt and didn’t have a choice. The weather is muggy and steamy sticky hot, and I am just bathed in sweat as we hit the last few spots on the tour. There is a mandatory health food store stop in which women in traditional robes sell dried mushrooms and salted kelp and the driver orders me off the bus even though I have no intention of buying anything. There is air-conditioning inside but even after a half an hour he won’t let me back on the bus, motioning with his hands for me to buy something.
But what?
I stonewall him angrily and wait outside in the heat while the women grumble. He won’t let me onto the bus until the very end. Imagine, keeping me off the bus? All because I wouldn’t buy preserved prunes. The driver hands me a brochure which explains everything in English. I am expected to buy things on this tour. It is bad cultural practice to enter someone shop and not purchase anything, the brochure explains. This caption is right above the final line, which reads, “It is necessary to tip the driver for his excellent service upon reaching your final destination.”
Sure man. You got it.
“I long to see the sunlight in your hair
And tell you time and time again, how much I care
Sometimes I feel my heart will overflow
Hello, I’ve just got to let you know.” -Lionel Richie, Hello

Next stop is a fish hatchery by the ocean. Again, I have no interest in going here, but I am booted off the bus and told to march inside. Again, the entire tour is in Chinese, but I signed up for it and need to see it through to the end. It is almost too hot to think, and I sit down in a little corner and rest my head in my hands as I am encircled by a noisy family with shrieking baby as they gobble their food.
Again, the tour bus driver won’t let me back on the bus and motions for me to go back inside and join the tour which is just standing around looking at an aquarium of eels. Angrily, I bang my fist on the door and he has not recourse but to let me inside.
Most of my tour companions follow and we plop down into our seats exhausted after the long day’s hike. The bus pulls out and hits traffic, stopping and starting as we plod along home. It doesn’t take much before tempers spill over and disagreements break out. Two men begin belly slapping one another and have to be separated by their wives. A child won’t stop crying, his face covered in melted chocolate while his mother scolds him. The air-conditioning breaks mid-way home and the bus just idles at a traffic stop while the last of the 80’s songs rolls through. A series of Air Supply ballads stuck on repeat. Heavy piano solos. Sweeping emotive choruses.
The people on the bus settle down momentarily subdued by the nauseating awesomeness of the music. It is then I strike.
“Lost, I get so lost, sometimes
Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart
When I want to run away
I drive off in my car
But whichever way I go
I come back to the place you are.” -In Your Eyes, Peter Gabriel

I have no idea what came over me. I was sitting in the middle of the bus surrounded by sticky, sweaty bodies and this is the fifth time I’d heard this song today. But I just closed my eyes tight and clenched my fists. My blood was boiling and my mind exploding and I just started to belt it out. Voice cracking. Totally off-key. I didn’t care. At the top of my lungs, I just started singing “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.”
“And I know the night is fading, and I know that time's gonna fly;
and I'm never gonna tell you everything I've got to tell you,
but I know I've got to give it a try.” -Making Love Out of Nothing At All, Air Supply

I know. It’s crazy. But in a very organized world, sometimes crazy needs to be done. I know every word of that song by heart. Don’t ask me how. In the same way I know what an oak tree is or how to bale hay or throw a spiral football, I just know that song. I dared not open my eyes until it was finished, moving chorus and all, but when I did, I saw that everyone on the entire bus was staring at me with wide eyes. We sat there for an awkward moment before each person burst out into applause. It was unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable, and I closed my eyes, felt completely at home, and laughed to myself.

1 comment:

  1. You should be flogged for the glaring omission of "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and "I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight."