Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Taiwan Chainsaw Massacre

I spent Monday and most of Tuesday this week in the mountains near Hsinchu with my friend Laling. He is Tayan (an aboriginal group in Taiwan), and he lives in the mountains where he harvests bamboo and other trees for a living (he is also my boxing coach). On Sunday afternoon he invited me to go cut wood with him.

Actually he said, “What are you doing on the weekdays?”

Since I’m on summer break from school, and I only work two days per week, I said, “Nothing. Watching TV.”

He then invited me to work with him playing lumberjack on Monday and Tuesday. I thought about it for a second. This was sure to be dangerous. Logging is even dangerous in the US where there are all kinds of safety regulations. I was also sure to take place on a steep mountain slope, and I have a bit of a fear of heights. Still, I really had nothing better to do, and I always like to take advantage of opportunities for non-urban experiences here in Taiwan.

So I said, “Sure. I’ll go.”

Laling wanted to be at work on the mountain by eight o’clock the next morning, which meant he had to pick me up at six (we were in Hsinchu Sunday night). I, wanting to make sure I had everything packed and ready, got up at five. I wasn’t really sure what to bring, or even what I should wear on a logging expedition. I expected it to be hot, so I ended up wearing cut-off Levis (which was a mistake) and a T-shirt. I brought my rain gear, my rubber boots, and a flash light. There were a few things I forgot to pack, but I’ll get to those later.

When Laling came to pick me up, I could hear his van coming from a block away. It is the squeakiest, creakiest, most rattley vehicle I’ve ever ridden in. I ran down the stairs and jumped in the van. Laling looked very groggy, as did his two little boys, Mona and Neisa. We grunted a good morning to each other, and I realized I probably looked pretty groggy as well.

Traffic was light at this hour, and we traveled wordlessly under the overcast sky. The only sounds were the cacophony of squeaks and rattles, and the labor of the engine as Laling changed gears.

We were soon in Zhudong, where we made our first stop for some breakfast. The boys had dan-bing, and Laling and I ate some kind of fried dumpling I haven’t seen before. They were in the shape of shuijiao, but fried more like guotie, but not simultaneously friend and steamed. Anyway, they were crispy and good, with the usual filling of pork and stuff.

A little further down the road we made our second stop for binlan (betel nut). Back on the road we each lit a smoke and started chewing. I don’t chew binlan very often—usually only when I visit Laling in the mountains, or am out drinking with him—so I don’t have the best spitting technique. I don’t like using the little plastic cup with a napkin in it that they give you at some of the stands. I mean, if you spit in the cup, then you have a plastic cup full of red saliva to carry around. So I usually just spit on the ground, if I can in an inconspicuous spot. Spitting from a moving vehicle is a whole other thing. The first few times I did it, I ended up with the red spray—so familiar to those of us who ride scooters without face shields—blowing back into my face. A couple of other times I didn’t completely clear the side of the van, which even now is adorned with a few streaks of my betel nut stained dribble.

It wasn’t long before the road got narrower and windier as we headed up highway 122 towards WuFeng. I didn’t say much because I didn’t want to distract Laling from keeping an eye on the road. I’ve ridden up 122 a number of times on my scooter, and it always makes me nervous the way people speed around the hairpin turns directly into oncoming cars and motorcycles. Of course Laling has made this trip hundreds of times ever since he was a kid, so he could drive it with his eyes closed. The problem is, I was afraid that’s just what he would do, considering how tired he looked.

One of my favorite parts of the trip is when you come to a tunnel that is only wide enough for one car. It is a fairly long tunnel, and there are few lights (before there were no lights, which made it very exciting). There is a wide spot in the middle so vehicles can get out of each others’ way, but it is still kind of scary entering that long, dark hole not knowing what might be coming the other way.

Not long after passing through the tunnel, we came to the place where the road forks, with Wufeng to the right and Cingcyuan (I’ll have to check on that spelling) to the left. At the fork, there is a restaurant where I usually stop when I go out that way. That morning we stopped there to get some food for lunch. We dropped off the boys, bought four rice rolls, then headed down into Cingcyuan where we stopped again to chat with a local shop owner and have a few drinks of Paolyta, a sweet, cough-syrupy drink full of vitamins and other stuff, as well as some alcohol (a lot of laborers drink it as a pick-me-up, as well as a cocktail, sometimes mixed with other things). Then we bought some gas for the chainsaws, and some soup for lunch.

Laling looked at my feet (I was wearing sandals) and asked me if I had socks. I said yes, remembering that I’d specifically chosen two pair that I could afford to ruin and laying them out to pack the night before. I’d worn my rubber boots once before when Laling and I went fishing. In fact, I bought them at the same little shop where we were when he asked me about socks. The boots were pretty uncomfortable, but I thought that with socks they’d be bearable. They are really more like high-top galoshes than boots, but a lot of laborers wear them in all kinds of different situations.

We smoked and chewed again, then hopped into the van for the last leg of our journey. This is where things always get a bit uncomfortable for me, because the road up to where we were going to cut trees is not truly a road by any civilized standard. First of all, it is barely wide enough for a car to fit. Somehow they get giant logging trucks up there, but I don’t know how they even fit around some of those hairpin corners. Also, there are many places that have been washed away or collapsed by landslides. When I rode up there on my scooter, I was in constant fear of going off the road. Another problem is that there are always falling rocks, which could squash you flat, but more often they just block the road. Finally, and this is mostly and issue for me, the road goes right up to the edge of a cliff that is hundreds of feet high on one side, and up to the edge of a sheer cliff on the other side. From the van, it often looks like we are suspended in mid air, which naturally scares the dickens out of me.

We finally got to the foot of the slope we were going to work on. A large part of it was covered with felled bamboo, which Laling had cut earlier. What was left was the substandard stuff that just gets left behind.

While Laling sharpened the chainsaws and made sure they were filled with gas and oil, I sat down to put on my socks and boots. I dug through my pack looking for my socks, and finally came to the conclusion that I’d forgotten to pack them. I was a little disgusted with myself, because I knew I’d probably left them sitting on the sofa or something. Also, it was embarrassing to have to admit to Laling that I actually didn’t have socks, after telling him that I did. When I told him, he gave me a handful of napkins to put in my shoes, which I did, but later found I’d have been better off not to have.

As Laling continued preparing the saws, I surveyed the area. I couldn’t see how we were going to get up the slope. It came down to the roadway almost vertically, and it was covered with fallen trees and bamboo. I figured Laling had some path or trail we would follow. I was wrong.

When the saws were ready, Laling handed me the small one and said, “Let’s go.” Then he headed straight toward the side of the road and started climbing, holding the chainsaw in one hand. I was horrified. He climbed like a monkey, quickly ascending to the tree line about forty or fifty yards up. I slowly approached the side of the slope and started searching for handholds. I had to heave the chainsaw up to a place above my head, then climb hand over hand until I was above the saw, then reach down and heave it up above my head again. It was slow going, and by the time I reached Laling, I was sweating and trembling from the exertion, as well as from the anxiety. Laling looked at me and said, “I really hate climbing the mountain.” I replied, “You have no idea.”

For me, an acrophobic, climbing anything over my own height is almost impossible to do. My body just refuses to move. I can’t even get in line for most amusement park rides, much less go on them. I think it was just the fear of humiliation that made it possible for me to climb up there. That and not looking either up or down more than three feet the whole way. Once I got to the top, I realized that I was going to have to climb down the same way, and the thought gnawed at me the entire day.

After resting a bit, and having a smoke and a chew. Laling explained what we’d be doing. Earlier he had gone over the area and cut out most of the bamboo. They’d picked out the best of it, and hauled it away for sale. Now what was left standing was mostly what looked like cedar, and a few trees that looked like alder. We were going to cut these trees. For the most part, I just watched Laling work with the chain saw. Every few trees I had to push on the trunk to make sure it fell in the right direction. We weren’t using any kind of safety gear at all—no goggles, gloves, hard hats, or anything. I did my best to stay out of range of the chainsaw, and quickly got as far away as possible from each tree as it fell. I probably looked like a mincing ninny, squirming and dancing away from falling trees, the chainsaw blade, and various insects.

One thing that made cutting these trees particularly dangerous was that many of them were joined near the top by thick vines. When we cut a tree, it often would fall in an unexpected direction, or not at all, as the vines kept them attached to still-standing nearby trees. Even if the tree fell in the right direction, as it pulled away from the trees and vines, it often caused a lot of branches and leaves to fall down on us. Luckily nothing very big landed on either of us.

We worked pretty steadily, taking a short break or two to catch our breath. As I said, Laling did most of the work, so I had plenty of time to look around. It was really quite beautiful up on that mountain, other than the place where we were killing all the trees. It was also quiet, and the sky had cleared up and was pure blue. Because we were at a fairly high elevation, it wasn’t hot unless you got out into the sun, but we were mostly in the shade of the trees we were working on cutting down.

It was really quite a nice setting there in the shade of the remaining forest. The few times we stopped and sat down for a break, I noticed all kinds of tiny life. There were some really beautiful spiders like daddy long-legs, but bigger and with blue and green iridescent bodies. I also saw some little brown frogs with markings like raccoon masks around their eyes. Then there was the lizard running up the trunk of a tiny tree. The tree was only about seven or eight feet tall, and I saw a black lizard with multi-colored patches on his back running up it. As Laling worked on a nearby tree, I kept track of the lizard’s progress. As he made his way around the tree, I saw that his underside was white. He was aware of my watching him, but I kept my distance so as not to disturb him too much, which is funny in a way because about four yards away there was a buzzing chainsaw. Suddenly the tree Laling was cutting fell, and he walked towards me clearing some of the little stuff out of the way with the chainsaw. I tried to warn him not to cut the tree with the lizard, but before I could it went crashing down the side of the mountain. “Goodbye, Mr. Lizard,” I said, wondering if he could have survived the fall.

That was when I really started thinking about what we were doing. I mean, so what if that one lizard survives. We were wiping out a whole hillside, not only of trees, but of all kinds of life. I looked down at the fallen trees below and wondered how much this wood could really be worth anyway. None of the trees were very big compared to what we have in the Pacific Northwest. What would they be used for? Pulp for making paper? Then I looked at the entire hillside covered with discarded bamboo. What a huge waste it was. And no wonder so much of the road up there is washed away. With all the roots that hold the soil together gone, I’m sure the hillside we cut will wash down in the next heavy rain.

I say it was quiet up there on the mountain, but that isn’t really true. The place was alive with insects and birds. There is one insect, I think it might be a cicada, that is particularly noisy. It’s sound is like that produced when you stretch a blade of grass between your thumbs and blow on it. It is high, reedy, and it goes on for hours at a time so that eventually you hardly notice it until it suddenly stops. There was also the intermittent droning of various insects as they buzzed around my head, not to mention the roar of the chainsaw.

Soon I noticed a number of places where, despite a generous application of insect repellent, I had been bitten and was starting to itch. Also, my legs were covered in scratches from the climb up, and the sweat from working was making them sting. Despite this, I was actually pretty comfortable and I felt at peace.

Then at about eleven thirty, Laling handed me the basket (which could be worn like a backpack) and told me to climb down and get lunch from the van. Damn! The last thing I wanted to do was to climb back down that cliff covered with deadfall, not to mention climbing back up with a bunch of soup strapped to my back. Still, it wasn’t too long before we were sitting in the shade having lunch. I have to admit I fairly gobbled mine, as all the exercise had made me really hungry. Unfortunately my hands were trembling from the climb, so I spilled some of my soup. As we sat there, I noticed a large and very furry caterpillar on a nearby tree. I pointed it out to Laling, and he said not to touch them, as they are poisonous. Great, I thought, poisonous caterpillars. Then, after another chew and a smoke, we were back to work.

This time Laling asked me if I could use the chainsaw. I’ve used a small electric one before, so I told him I thought I could. He pointed about thirty or forty yards away to some solitary clumps of trees that were still standing amidst the wreckage of the discarded bamboo. “You go cut those trees,” he said. “If you can’t do it, just come back.” It is funny that with Laling, he can say something like that and it doesn’t seem like a challenge or a putdown. It is just a simple statement with no judgment attached to it.

He showed me the rudiments of chainsaw operation, and I started over to the trees. This proved to be a lot more difficult than I thought. The felled bamboo stalks are very long, maybe fifty or more feet, and they are scattered across the mountainside like pickup sticks. Just finding a place to step is a challenge, and it is impossible not to be continuously barking one’s shins and getting caught on all kinds of vines and thorns. By the time I got to the trees, I was pretty beat up, but I felt fortunate that I hadn’t been buried in an avalanche of bamboo or bitten by a snake. After a few moments’ rest, I fired up the saw. It felt pretty cool whirring away in my hands. That is, it did until I started cutting into my first tree. The things seemed to do whatever it wanted to, and it didn’t seem to actually be doing all that much cutting. Finally my first tree fell. I cut a few more, then the chain stopped moving on the saw. I yelled to Laling, and he told me to come back, so I started slogging back across the bamboo.

About halfway back, I noticed that Laling was cutting a pretty big tree. It was one of the biggest we cut. I decided it would be best to wait out of range until he was finished. Eventually the tree started to fall, and then to my horror I realized that instead of falling down the mountain, it was falling right towards me, and, contrary to what I thought, I wasn’t out of range. Laling started yelling my name in a panicked voice and I struggled to move out of the path of the falling tree. Then, just as I moved, the tree changed direction and started falling right towards where I was moving. Laling continued yelling, and my heart jumped up into my throat as I threw myself back the way I had come from. The tree landed with a huge crash, and I watched as it settled into place, just a few yards from me. I remained frozen in place for a few seconds, waiting to see if it would keep sliding down the bamboo and crush me, but it didn’t. Then I looked up at Laling and laughed, saying, “What are you, trying to kill me?” We both laughed at that.

It wasn’t long after that that we ran out of gas and had to quit. We hauled the saws back down the mountain, and dusted ourselves off. After a smoke and a chew, we got back in the van and started back down towards the village.

At the same shop we’d stopped at in the morning, we stopped again and had a couple beers, standing in the street while the locals stared at me in wonder as Laling told them I had been cutting wood. In the morning when he told people where we were going, they had all laughed at the idea of a foreigner cutting wood. Now they were still amused, but also seemed to think it was pretty cool that a white man was capable of an honest day’s work.

We went back to where Laling’s house is and had a few more beers. Soon I found myself sitting around the street with a bunch of men drinking rice wine and beers and chewing betel nut. I was pretty loaded, and was fitting right in. Then we went to the house and had some food, then Laling built a fire in the water heater and I had a chance to wash off some of the mud. We slept in a bamboo hut that Laling and his brother had built for Laling’s wedding. He’s divorced now, so it serves as a kind of guest room. I slept like a baby under a thick comforter. The hut is basically open air, and it gets cold in the mountains at night, but the air is fresh and I was exhausted from the work and the beers.

We got up at about seven the next morning for more of the same, but maybe I’ll write about that later.

I'll also have some photos to add soon.

In the meantime, you can see the few photos I took before my battery died here: Logging, Pimping, and Your Pal Laling.

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