Taiwan, Republic of China, 1999
people believe they'll live out their lives ‘til old age but it doesn't always
work out that way. I was diagnosed with a disease that was both untreatable and
fatal. Not much I could do. I knew the symptoms and had a good doctor, so I
accepted it as my fate and then reviewed my life and made some changes. First
was my job. Hadn't liked it for years and needed an excuse to leave. Figured
this would be a good enough excuse. I had only told my mother about it but no
one else. (The only symptom others would notice was my swollen hands). Didn't
want the pity or the burden to carry on with that hanging over my head. It was
my business and that was the end of it. What was most revealing was how I felt
about my life. I didn't like work and had grown tired of Toronto and routines.
There were so many things I wanted to do before my time was up there was no way
in hell I was going to stay at my job. So I put my stuff in storage and bought
a ticket to Taipei to see my brother. Actually, truth be told, he's my
identical twin brother.
reader might wonder why I hadn't told him about my immanent death but that was
one of the reasons I went to Taipei: to tell Edward van Normann about my
situation. Of all people in the world, my death would affect him the most.
I might want to begin by
establishing the reasons for this document. Firstly, I wanted to capture my
emotional journey with my brother during our time together to try to find
solace from my life in light of my early demise. As emotional as it was for me,
it was just as turbulent for him. The other reason is to record the main points
of a book Doppel (as I called him) had written and published himself. He said
it was a summation of his journal entries that he titled The Viking-Poet
Handbook. I read it all in one night and dismissed it as mad hyperbole, but
somehow and for some reason I didn't know, it lingered in my mind and pried
into my thoughts. It upset me at first; causing me to be more forceful in my
dealings with others.
Like me he had been a
philosophy major at university, but unlike me he had kept on with it, reading
the big names and applying their ideas to life to see if they valid or not. In
the process he developed his own life philosophy he called Zeitqualia.
When I informed him he would be having a visitor he immediately send me a copy
of the book he titled The Viking-Poet Handbook.
The book was never meant to be published. It was
Doppel's personal effort to come to grips with who he was and what he believed.
It was the supreme distillation of hard-earned conclusions that began when he
was studying philosophy at university. He had always been a bit of a maniac so
I wasn't that surprised that it was an extreme attempt at being a disciple of
Friedrich Nietzsche. But I would also say it was Pirsigian - an effort to
establish a system of morality (like Robert Pirsig) that bites holes in the traditional
moral commandments of our era. Most of all, the handbook was brave and honest,
and that's why I liked it.
Of course he had sent it to
me so I would read it and discuss it with him, which was all right with me
since I did want to understand it. I also wanted to know how he had come to
believe in it. I wanted to hold a mirror up in front of me and see my own true
thoughts on the matter.
The Viking-Poet Handbook has a narrative story as
well as interspersed poems and aphorisms, and was about fifty pages. He warns
in the Forward about the content of the handbook:
Distanced from academic argument, I labored ahead
and discarded all that was unneeded, digesting all that fit into my own web of
belief. Truth expressed herein is seen and understood and adopted for the
betterment of self despite the currents of injustice and delayed fruition in
When I first read these
words, I could tell he had been reading Nietzsche. We both took an
existentialism course at university so I knew the language and could sense it
in the undercurrent of his tone.
Wisdom is the main theme in
the opening chapter, but there is a ruthless undercurrent to the sharpness of
his words. It's like an "enter at your own risk" feeling that makes you go on
carefully, making sure you don't miss a step. It starts out with these lines:
An artificial handle holds
until you splash literate,
instinct shoves the fruit of spent skepticism aside,
from the overseer reminds the soul of empowerment,
all of life's conundrums land into an open palm.
understand but don't do,
want to do but are unable,
begin with an open field,
loose balance from the middle.
comes from fullness,
springs from balance,
dictates endurable perspective,
talent wins all wars.
Maybe my twin brother had
found Taiwan a fit for him, and this book was his song of celebration of that
discovery. Maybe Taiwan had given him the space to become who he is. My feeling
was that having that YAMAHA 135cc motorcycle of his had something to do with
it. After seven years in the melee of Taipei, if you read some of Nietzsche's
more empowering work you can end up in a pretty extreme corner with a severe
need for expression.
He had changed. I could see
it in the strength of his person but I couldn't tell what it was that had
changed. I hadn't seen my brother since he left for Asia but I could sense a
new aspect to him, and since I was his identical twin it bothered me that I
wasn't able to identify what it was that had changed. I found out soon enough
but that was near the end of this story.
was certainly in character that he didn't meet me at the airport. Just wasn't
his thing. Think he said he was teaching. But I found his apartment up in the
mountains just on the outskirts of Taipei, a penthouse with balcony.
Long time bro." Brotherly hug. "Look at you, all clean shaven and clean cut."
Doppel had long hair and a goatee, almost a hippie. They must be pretty
desperate for English teachers if he has a job. Or he's a damn fine teacher.
it's all relative. Never seen your hair so long. Look, you have some white in
your beard." He seemed taller somehow, bigger. Had more gravitas.
be thirsty after that always-lovely twelve-hour flight. How many movies did you
get to watch?" Shook my head.
I suppose. Read instead and then slept. Those earphones hurt my ears."
Gotta toughen ya up a bit, non? Taiwan is full of earphones that hurt your
ears. Lots of things are barely functional, just part of life here."
seen so many scooters and motorbikes in my life. Seriously, I saw a family of
five on a scooter."
so it went that night during our visit, but after a number of beers and
talking, I was preparing for bed when an earthquake hit.
is there a subway going under us?" I said.
"It's an earthquake. They
happen all the time here. No big deal." Casual. But I was riveted to the couch
amazed at what an earthquake feels like. After about ten seconds the shaking
gained momentum and sent the fear of death in me.
we..." I ran to the doorway at the balcony but was convinced the apartment was
about to buckle. I grabbed the threshold but went back to the couch.
a long one. Wo!" The shaking lasted twenty seconds, the last ten seconds really
saying that was normal?"
enjoy the earth shaking under my feet." Hardly rattled from what I was to learn
the next day, one of the world's worst earthquakes of the year. "It wasn't
until it had been going on over 15 seconds that I thought the house might cave
from the plane ride I slept in the next morning. Doppel had gone to work but
was back within the hour.
Schöngait, everything is shut down because of the earthquake," he said.
"No work today or tomorrow for me. Schools are closed because the city has lost
power, so there's only one thing to do." Using my nickname for the first time
in years, I knew he was up to mischief.
take a road trip."
trip, what are you talking about? Are you sure there's no work?"
"With the schools closed and
no one out on the streets, it's a chance to ride into the mountains and try to
help out with the rescue effort in Puli. That was the epicenter of the
earthquake, about 200 kilometers south in the middle of the island."
I looked outside noticed a
complete lack of traffic. In fact there was an eerie silence that was out of
you're talking about motorbikes right? Well I don't have one."
you're in luck. I have my old one sitting out there that I haven't sold yet.
Works fine. Front shocks are a bit stiff but it runs well and it's comfy." Like
Doppel I rode motorcycles but I hadn't been on one in ten years.
it have valid papers and a license plate?"
think they'll be any cops out there ‘cause the streets are closed. The highways
are closed. Besides, they don't pull over foreigners here. I've been pulled
over maybe five times in the time I've been here and every time when they see
I'm a foreigner they've let me go."
they can't speak English and don't want to lose face. Besides, it's too much
paperwork for them."
I wondered how long it would
be before power was restored, but it didn't matter. Doppel was one of those
guys who didn't think about tomorrow. He was a man who saw only the day in
front of him formulating a way of making the most of it.
must say I would like to take a trip on the bikes together."
"We'd probably take the
Central Mountain Highway right through the mountains. Could be some
We could help the international rescue crew that is supposed to be landing
today in Taichung. Most of the crew is from Europe so it would be fun to see
some Europeans for a change. It could be a good adventure. What else are we
going to do?" I knew he was more interested in riding the highways as the
aftershocks hit rather than rescuing anyone trapped in buildings in Puli.
can't think of any reason why we shouldn't," I finally said. "Any idea of the
severity of the quake?"
heard it measured 7.6 on the Richter scale. Not small. Apparently there have
been over a thousand deaths reported."
"7.6!" It was only then that
I realized the seriousness of this Act of God. It may take a couple of days
before things were up and running again.
"Yes, count me in." What
else am I going to do, wait to die?
"Bring warm clothes. It
could be a few days, this trip. You never know. Bring that book I gave you so
we can talk about it during the trip, but by all means make sure you bring
enough warm clothes. Mountain riding can be chilly." September in Taiwan is
hot. More hyperbole. "Do you have sunglasses?"
Crucial piece of equipment. And I think I have some gloves." Doppel packed all
that we required for the road trip: compass, sleeping bags, gloves, bungee
cords, water bottle, map, wool sweaters and other items. Motorcycling in Taiwan
had taught him what he needs. Packed the items neatly into his knapsack.
"I heard that the body count
is higher than a thousand. It's something like 1500 dead." Just then, as we
both stood on the bridge, an aftershock hit. It lasted for four or five
creepy," I said.
"There may be a lot more of
those before the trip is through. Should make the riding more of a challenge."
Doppel had just purchased a
second-hand YAMAHA DT 175, and on/off road motorbike with knobbies and big
it for a steal. This American teacher left the school and gave me the bike to
sell but I kept it ‘cause it's so much fun to ride. I shot him some cash but he
didn't care. But seriously, that bike you're on is great. I've ridden it for
seven years. Very reliable." It was a full-size bike but it was only 135cc. But
it fit well.
interruptions have happened before from past earthquakes and typhoons, and they
tend to take a few days to get back online, so my intuition tells me that it
could be the rest of the week before I have to return to work."
good bro. I'll be following you."
"I'm glad you're here my
brother," he said. "Ready to push off?"
"Yes, all set."
We rode through the empty
streets of the capital. Market stalls desolate except for skinny dogs nibbling
at leftovers from the previous day. Streetlights were without power and stores
closed. It was surreal. Finding a gas station open, we filled up and then left
for Highway 112. In minutes we were outside of the city, forest patches
thickened that spread out over the growing steepness of the mountain steppes.
Rocks and broken branches littered the road. Doppel stopped at the end of a
bridge and waved me over.
there will be lots of fallen branches and debris on the road so take it easy.
Stay well behind me so you can see what's coming up, okay?"
do." Swift current below the bridge could be heard above the engines.
road leads to the Central Mountain Highway which should be closed so the
traffic will be non-existent. So let's relax and cruise baby!" The sun was
reaching its midday arc.
I need to take my sweater off." I put it into my knapsack that I had bungeed to
my back seat. I then glanced at my watch. "Yes, it's time."
"There are people trapped
under fallen buildings in Puli and they need our help!" We set out on the
highway south for the epicenter.