2018年4月19日 星期四

Taitung as a Religious Experience

I. In Which "Bob" Makes a Bad Decision... or Does He?

Bob - let's call him "Bob" - was freshly arrived in town from scenic Kaohsiung.  He was six or seven beers into a pretty good night out, and he was - as people in such situations usually are - looking for something MORE.

He was at at Oklahoma Flo's when a kindly stranger offered him a little white pill.  "This is ketamine," said the kindly stranger, "And if you take this pill, your pretty good night out will soon be a pretty great night out... or even a really great night out."

"I don't know," replied Bob, "I do Special K a lot, and my family physician warned me about brain damage."

"Don't worry," said the kindly stranger, "This is special Special K, and after you take it, only good things will happen.  No brain damage.  No side effects.  Only a pleasant, almost spiritual experience, guaranteed to turn that frown upside down."

Bob thought over the proposition.  He was, after all, in a strange part of Taiwan, and even though his hotel (the Orange Hotel) was only a short distance away, he worried that somehow things might go awry.  Things often did when he partook of ketamine, no matter how safe the circumstances.

But it was indeed a cool and enjoyable evening in Taitung.  And the kindly stranger was offering the pill gratis, without attaching any sort of obligation to the exchange.  Why NOT swallow the "special" pill?  Why not make a pretty good evening pretty great?

"Come on, don't be such a pussy," said the kindly stranger - and with that the matter was decided.  Bob lifted the ketamine from the kindly stranger's hand and washed the pill down with his last gulp of beer.

"Oh God," he said, "This Special K really is special!"

II. The Journey Begins

After a few minutes, Oklahoma Flo's was transformed into a cartoon version of itself.  The lights were brighter, the colors were stronger, and it felt like every person in the bar - nay, in the world - wanted desperately to be Bob's friend and companion.

"Jesus," said Bob, "What was that pill?  That sure isn't like any K I ever had!"

"As I said," the kindly stranger answered, "It's a special kind of Special K.  And don't call me Jesus."

"Then who are you?" asked Bob, "I mean, what's your name, dude?"  

As a floating sensation seized him, he studied the kindly stranger more closely.  Only then did he notice the stranger's flowing red robes.  He was a much older man - much older all of a sudden - and in his long black hair and beard Bob could see streaks of gray.

The kindly stranger took another sip of the whiskey sour he was drinking.  "Why I'm Zoroaster," he said, "Prophet of Ahura Mazda.  And I have given you the key to the first door.  You only need walk a little way further, and after three tests you'll arrive at that which you seek."

But Bob hadn't been listening.  "What's a Zoroaster?" he added, "...and I saw you drive up in a Zace, man.  That ain't no Mazda."

The kindly stranger grinned from ear to ear.  "Zoroaster is my name," he explained patiently.  "I am also known as Zarathustra.  I am a prophet of the one true God, whose name is Ahura Mazda, Lord of Light, the Undiluted One."

"Cool, dude," answered Bob, "But what was that door you were talking about?"

"....it is the pill you just took." continued Zoroaster.  "It opens a door in the mind.  Once you pass through this door, you are in this world, the second world, between the Earth and heaven.  

You have begun to leave your earthly body behind.  After you overcome three trials, you will leave it entirely, and enter into the glory of Ahura Mazda's presence."

"Shit," said Bob, "And where's this guy who drives the Mazda?"

"In Dulan." stated Zoroaster.

"In Dulan?" asked Bob.

"Yes, in Dulan," said Zoroaster, "You know where that is?"

"Yeah," said Bob, "About a half hour north of here."

"...by car," added Zoroaster.

"Yeah, by car." affirmed Bob.

"...but we'll be walking there." said Zoroaster.

"What?" asked Bob.

"I said we'll be walking there." Zoroaster said.

"Isn't it too far to walk?" asked Bob.

"Not too far for those who believe," said Zoroaster.  "No distance is too far, if one were to find paradise after traversing it.  No ordeal is too daunting for those who would discover heaven.  Follow me, place your trust in Ahura Mazda, and soon we'll stand at His right hand."

"Fuck," replied Bob, "Heaven sounds like a cool place.  You said it's near here?  A few minutes north, right?  On Dulan... Road?  Shit, I don't even know where that is.  But anyway let me, like, get another beer for the road.  You lead the way, man!"

III. The Three Trials

Bob and Zoroaster (who rapidly became "Z" in Bob's parlance) walked out of Oklahoma Flo's and down the road beside the Tai Ping River.  After 15 minutes or so they came to Highway 11, where they turned left and headed north up the coast.  

The highway was practically deserted, and between the buzz of passing scooters they could hear the crash of waves on the other side of the Seashore Park.

"There will be three tests," said Zoroaster, "But for the faithful these will be little more than distractions.  The first of these tests will take place in Shan Yuan, an hour's walk from here."

Again, Bob hadn't been listening.  He'd been staring down at his phone the whole time, wondering if there were any girls in Taitung he could hook up with.  Line and Messenger were proving disappointing.  His phone messages offered a small spark of hope, but that girl wouldn't be free for several hours.

"Do you understand?" said Zoroaster, "Have you purified yourself?"

"Yeah, Z," said Bob, "But, like, how much farther is it, man?  Let's get some more beers at that betel nut stand over there.  Shit, you sure you don't want to just go into a KTV?  I got money."

Zoroaster said nothing, and Bob turned his attention back to various forms of social media.  Why were girls always so "busy" when he'd just scored some K?  Was it that obvious?  Or had he earned some kind of reputation?

IV. The First Trial

After a long walk they were far north of Taitung City, and Bob was still tripping hard.  At one point he stopped to have a conversation on German existentialism with some cows that lived next to the road.  But this conversation was cut short by Zoroaster's desire to make haste for the first of his three tests.  It was really too bad, because one of the younger cows made some excellent points with regard to Kant's influence over later existentialists.

Minutes later, they were following a set of sandy steps down to a beach, and they had to raise their voices over the roar of the waves.  "You must be brave," said Zoroaster, and keep the image of Ahura Mazda in your heart.  "Here," he said, stopping, "Fill your pockets with the stones.  They will be your weapons.  As David slew Goliath with a stone, so you too will defeat a still greater aggressor."

"Huh?" said Bob as he placed several stones in his jacket pockets.  "Aggressor?  Are we about to get jumped or something?  Is this private land?  Dude, some of these local guys have guns, you know!"

Zoroaster laughed.  "Local guys?  No, my friend, your adversary is far more formidable than any 'local guy' - armed or not.  Turn, and behold!"

Bob turned, and opposite the ocean he saw a monster made of sand and metal, poised as if to strike them both.  It had hundreds of eyes and large metal arms, and these arms whipped back and forth across the beach.  "Oh shit!" said Bob, "Goddamn extra-special K!  What the hell did you give me, man?"

"Fear not!" shouted Zoroaster above the monster's roaring and clacking, "Use the stones you have collected!  Strike the beast down!"

Zoroaster hurled a stone at their terrifying foe.  It struck the beast with a great crash, and the monster screamed.  "Now!" said Bob's guide, "Strike it down!"

After collecting himself a little, Bob joined in the throwing of stones.  Each stone hit its target with a deafening roar, and after they had exhausted their supply of missiles they scrambled for more, all the while trying to stay out of reach as the many-eyed beast attempted to strike them.  "Keep going!" yelled Zoroaster, "Don't give up!"

They threw stones until their arms ached, and after a long battle the monster was defeated.  Pieces of its skeleton began to fall off, and all but a few of its eyes had been blinded.  Zoroaster and Bob stood before it on the beach, panting with exhaustion.

"A great feat," said Zoroaster, "But we cannot tarry here longer.  "Our next foe is even stronger, and we will need to steel ourselves against him."

"What?" said Bob, "We're going?  But I'm tired man, can't we rest here for a bit?"

Zoroaster shook his head in response, and Bob followed Zoroaster reluctantly down the beach past the monster's corpse.  Part of him wondered at what he'd just taken part in.  Part of him also regretted not following through on a certain argument he'd posed to one of the older cows.  

What a night! he thought.  And what's that wailing sound, somewhere far away?

V. The Second Trial

Bob blacked out or nodded off at some point in their journey.  When he opened his eyes he was lying on grass, on a piece of land high above the road.  They were much further away from the ocean.  Had he walked there?  Or had Zoroaster somehow carried him?

His phone buzzed in his pocket.  As he pulled out the phone the light from the screen sent a beam across the darkness surrounding them.  It was just a girl he had texted earlier, teasing him and telling him to go to bed.

As he placed the phone back in his pocket, he saw Zoroaster sitting on the grass to his right.  There were mosquitoes everywhere, and somewhere in the blackness he heard water running.  It was a river, or maybe just a stream.

"You have awoken" said the prophet of Ahura Mazda, "And now it is time for your second test.  We will begin chanting part of the holy book, the Zend Avesta, and as we chant, our faith in The Illuminated One will reverse the waters, sending them backwards toward their source."

The older man began chanting in a language Bob had never heard before.  Bob could only gawk at the seated figure.  He was almost overcome by a desire to vomit.

"Concentrate!" roared Zoroaster.  His hand whipped through the darkness to slap Bob in the back of the head.  "Put the cares of the flesh from your mind!"

"Ow, fuck!" said Bob, rubbing the back of his skull.  The old man was surprisingly fast, and surprisingly strong.  What the hell had he gotten himself into?

"Concentrate!" Zoroaster roared again.  Fearing another blow, Bob joined in the chanting.

And as they chanted, Bob could just make out a sliver of water, ahead of them in the mosquito-filled recesses of the night.  It was some kind of channel cut into the earth.  The gurgling waters within the channel reflected the stars above, with only the sound of their voices to compete with its playful gurgling.

"Concentrate!" Zoroaster said a third time, raising the urgency of his chant.  Bob accommodated the prophet as best he could, attempting to mouth a slew of unfamiliar words.

He looked at the water once more, and as he looked it seemed to reverse direction, just as the older man had promised.  Was it really happening?  Had their chanting done the trick?  It was difficult to make out the motions of the water from where they were sitting in the grass, and part of him protested that it might just be an optical illusion.  Hadn't he seen some other such trick?  In some other part of Taiwan?

"It is done!" said Zoroaster, rising.  "Witness the power of Ahura Mazda!"

"But---" interjected Bob.

"Shut up!" said the prophet, "Our faith has done it!  There remains only the third and final challenge, which is but a short distance away!"

Bob wanted to argue, but Zoroaster was already pulling him toward a path at their left.  His phone buzzed again in his pocket, and he mournfully reflected on the fact that cavorting with young Taiwanese women - however given to teasing they might be - was always better than following old dudes down strange roads in the dark.

Somewhere far away Bob heard that wailing sound again.  It was getting closer.

VI. The Challenge

Along the way Bob had to stop and puke into a canal next to the road.  Zoroaster kept urging him on, but he was so very sick, so very terribly sick.

When the scenery had stopped spinning around him, they continued up the highway.  Before long they arrived in Dulan, a small town north of Taitung City.  To their left they saw the old Dulan sugar factory, and a little bit farther ahead they saw a small bar set into a row of other businesses.  Several tables and chairs were set out in front of the bar, and the place looked very crowded.  Bob had a vague memory of the bar, and thought he might have visited it before.

A few minutes later, Zoroaster was leading Bob into the bar.  "Ready yourself," the older man said into Bob's ear, "For the final test is at hand!"

Bob wobbled onto a nearby stool and sat right in front of the wooden bar, where a young woman was serving beer from a tap.  "Beer," he said to her, "And a shot of-- actually, just the beer."

A second later Zoroaster clapped him on the back and erupted into forced laughter.  Everyone in the place turned to look at the two men.  "What the fuck, man?" said Bob, trying to clear his thoughts.


Bob spit his beer across the bar.  What was Zoroaster talking about?  What was going on now?


Bob barely had time to collect himself before three patrons sitting at a nearby table began arguing among themselves.  "Sit down, Clark!  He's not worth it!" said one of the patrons.  "No, Antonio," said Clark, "You and Jim better back me up!"

The next thing Bob knew, Clark and his two friends were standing in front of him and Zoroaster, pointing directly at Bob.  "What did you say?" said Clark, "You think you're such hot shit?"

"No -- I," started Bob.

"Yeah," interrupted Zoroaster, "He does.  And if you homos aren't too scared, I say we go down to Rob's Reef and see who the better surfer really is.  Longest ride wins.  I've got 1000 NT that says my bro here can make all you guys look weak!"

"Wait--" said Bob, "But I don't know how to--"

...but by then it was already decided.  Zoroaster was discussing terms with the three men, and they were already on their way to a set of cars parked on the other side of the street.

"This will be a sure victory for you," said Zoroaster.  "To the beach, and the final test!"

VII. The Final Test

"Hey, wake up," said one of the surfers from the bar, lightly slapping Bob's face.  The four other men were standing above where Bob was lying in the sand.  Two of the surfers were holding surfboards.

"You're a wild man!" said one of the surfers, "Didn't you say you wanted to come out here?  It's almost sunup, man.  Time to get it on!"

Bob did his best to stand up, unsure of what was happening.  Images of the night's exploits flashed in and out of his consciousness, filling him with both confusion and a sense of dread.  He inwardly vowed never to take strange pills from strangers in bars ever again.  Unless, perhaps, there was really nothing else going on that night.

One of the surfers handed Bob a surfboard, apparently an extra from the bar they'd been in.  They were at the ocean, though Bob couldn't remember them driving there.  There was sand all through his clothes.  This sand poured out of his pockets as he stood up and then followed them, half delirious, to the water.  Zoroaster followed just behind Bob, patting him on the shoulder.

"You have done well," said the older man.  "There only remains this, the final test, wherein you challenge the champions of this realm.  If you prove your worth here, you will be worthy to see the face of Ahura Mazda soon after.  The Lord of Light be praised!  All things fall within His plan!  He purifies the faithful!"

"Yeah whatever," replied Bob.  "What... what was all that in the bar, man?  I can't surf to save my life.  Are we really doing this?"

"Indeed we are!" laughed Zoroaster, "And your level of skill is not important.  Place yourself upon the right wave, and Ahura Mazda will guide you."

Bob would have questioned the prophet further, but he saw by the other man's expression that it wouldn't be any use.  The sun was just then coming up over the rim of the ocean, and it was a tranquil scene, if nothing else.  "Just hold my phone," said Bob.  "Shit."

"LET THE CONTEST BEGIN!" yelled Zoroaster as Bob paddled meekly out to sea.  "TWO WAVES EACH, AND HE WHO RIDES LONGEST, WINS!!!"

As Bob continued paddling, he saw the first of the three surfers catch a wave and slide past him toward shore.  A minute, perhaps.  Then the second surfer caught another wave, and lost his balance.  The third surfer caught the largest wave yet, and lasted longer than the other two.  Then all three went out a second time, and Bob was left floating alone beyond the shore, watching them from a point behind where the waves were breaking.

"Fuck me," he said, watching the three surfers assemble on the shore, near Zoroaster.  "What have I gotten myself into?"

Fear mounting within him, he looked back, and it was as if the whole ocean was rising into a single wave, converging at a point just behind where he was floating.  He panicked, but then quickly regained his composure, and stood up on the board.  The wave rose and rose, and almost before he knew it he found himself surfing through a barrel that went on and on, to emerge on the other side, just up the beach from where the four men where cheering.  He managed to surf all the way back to the shore, right to where two police officers were waiting to greet him.

The cheers from down the beach died out, and as Bob looked into the faces of the policemen he knew that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.

VII. A Quest Interrupted

Hours later, Bob found himself in a police station.  He was exhausted and had a powerful thirst, but unlike Zoroaster he hadn't been handcuffed to the bench where they were sitting.  He was free to make trips to the water dispenser across the room.  After the two officers had escorted both himself and Zoroaster to the squad car, he had nodded off in the back of the vehicle, only struggling back to consciousness after he was led into the station lobby.

His phone buzzed on the bench next to him.  It was a local girl he kind of sort of knew, asking him if he wanted to have lunch.  He almost texted her his location, but then thought better of it.

Besides himself and Zoroaster, there were three police officers milling around the room.  The officers were all speaking Chinese, and Bob had no idea what they were talking about.  They looked back to Zoroaster often, but seemed not to notice Bob during his trips to the water dispenser.  Had he wished to, Bob could have run straight through the front door and out into the parking lot.

"Be of good courage," said Zoroaster.  "You have completed all three tasks, and proven your faith in Ahura Mazda.  You will be standing before Him soon, and He will reveal the truth of your quest."

"Great," sighed Bob, at once realizing that he was, after so many hours of deliriously following this other man around, finally sober.  The "extra-special K" was out of his system at last.

After another hour of waiting, one of the police officers, a pretty young woman in her 20s, brought over a form for him to sign in several places.  Bob had no idea what purpose the form served, but the policewoman smiled ingratiatingly, and it seemed that whatever trouble he'd gotten himself into would soon be over.  She spoke to him in a halting sort of English, and he understood little of what she said.

After he signed the last of the forms, another officer said, "OK, you go now," and gestured toward the front door.  Bob was thoroughly confused by the command, especially since he didn't know why he'd been arrested in the first place.  He stood up hesitantly, and walked in the direction indicated.

"But, wait," he said slowly as he opened the door and stepped into the blinding sunlight, "Why did you bring me here?  What about my friend?"

The officer, an man in his 40s, had a much better understanding of English.

"You don't know?" said the police officer, "Wa!  I think you have very many beer last night.  We catch you at beach.  You and you friend cause much trouble."

"Much trouble?" Bob asked, "What kind of trouble?  I don't remember so well..."

The police officer chuckled.  "You break windows at Shan Yuan Hotel last night.  Then you break inside Water Running Up.  Then we need pull you out of ocean when we find you.  I think you don't go surfing again.  Not safe for you.  Our clothes still wet."

Bob thought this over.  The monster with many eyes.  The stream that had reversed course.  The surfing challenge.  What had really happened the night before?  Could he trust his memory?

"You go now," the officer affirmed, "We keep your friend."

"Uh, he's not really my..." Bob stuttered, "But... why keep him?  What did he do?"

The police officer chuckled again.  "He's not like you.  He live around here.  We know him.  Mr. Joe Astor - he's very tricky.  We know he sells drug around here.  He's in BIG trouble.  You don't have friends like him, OK?"

"OK," Bob said, turning to look at Zoroaster (Joe Astor?).  The prophet failed to return his gaze.  All of the majesty had gone from his presence, and he looked defeated.  He looked very old and very worn out.  His robes were also gone, replaced by a red tie-dyed shirt and a pair of loose-fitting red pants. 

"Bye bye," said the police officer, urging Bob outside, "You have a good day."

"Uh, sure," Bob said, perplexed by the recent turn of events.  He stumbled down the stairs, blinking at the brightness outside.  He had to find a place to think things through.  He had to find a quiet place to collect himself.  A nearby 7-11, perhaps, or...

VIII. A Revelation

...but then he looked up into the sky, and instead of the sun he saw a regal figure, sitting upon a throne, surrounded by angels made of fire.  The angels circled around the throne as the figure, clad in flame, extended a scepter toward Bob, who stood transfixed in the parking lot.  Bob, overcome with the terrible magnificence of the enthroned figure in the sky, didn't know whether to shout for joy or start crying.

"I am Ahura Mazda," boomed a thunderous voice across the blue skies.  "Do you know me?"

"No, I... yes!" moaned Bob in a kind of ecstasy.  "I mean, you look just like... just like... Zoroaster..."

"Yes," thundered the celestial presence, "You do know me.  Zoroaster, which means 'Undiluted Star.'  That star is Me.  I am He who has led you here, and I am He who you were seeking.  The prophet and the message, the seeker and the one who is sought, all of these I am."

"Yes!" said Bob, "Yes!  Yes!"

"...and now that you have found me, I will be with you always." said the man in the sky.  "Welcome to paradise."

And then the figure vanished.  Bob blinked, and it was only the sun he was staring at, blindingly bright.  He fell to his knees in the parking lot, panting with exertion on the hot bricks.  There were people outside the confines of the police station, all staring at him from the road beyond a short wall.  In between tormented gasps, he tried to blink away the sunspots that danced between him and the passerby who were studying him so intently.  

They had not seen what he had, it was clear.  They were only staring at the crazy foreigner, the man who had been talking to the sun.

IX. A Discovery

After collecting himself Bob wobbled back into the police station.  Tears were running down his face, and his mind reeled with the implications of what he'd just seen.  "God..." he kept repeating, "God..."

All he could think to do was to return to the bench where Zoroaster was handcuffed, and to ask the older man what had happened.  He desperately needed some kind of confirmation.  He desperately needed to have what he'd just seen explained to him.  The regal nature of that enthroned figure had shaken him to his very core, and his heart told him that he had just looked upon the creator and sustainer of the universe, the Lord of Light, Ahura Mazda.

The policeman who escorted him from the station was waiting just inside the doors.  He had apparently been standing there the whole time.

"Why you shouting at the sky?" said the officer, "You crazy?"

"I don't know," sobbed Bob, "But I need to see my friend in there.  Is it OK?"

The policeman thought this over.  "OK," he said, stepping aside as Bob reentered the lobby, "He's not going anywhere."

But as Bob and the policeman reentered the station, they saw that Zoroaster was gone.  There was only a pair of handcuffs left as evidence of his presence, still fastened to the bench where the prophet had been, just moments before.  The two other officers in the station were staring, silently, at the place where Zoroaster had been.

"Where your friend?" said the policeman, "Where he go?"

Bob could not answer the question.  He could only wonder if what he was seeing was what he was really seeing, or if the special special K had yet to wear off.

Related Entries:

An Almost Completely Random Selection of Pictures 一些隨機的照片
Hello Taitung Person 台東人你好 1
Taitung in the Year 2030 (2030年的台東)
Looking Down from Up High 從頂樓往下看

Note 1: "The Undiluted One."  Nobody actually knows what "Zoroaster" or "Zarathustra" really mean.  "The undiluted one" is the most impressive translation I could find on Wikipedia.  There are much less impressive translations, many of them having to do with camels.

Note 2: I'm aware of the Don Quixote similarities, but I'm still not sure if this story came from a half-remembered encounter with Cervantes' novel or if it was inspired by the quixotic character of certain foreigners living in Dulan.