03 Aug '16
Posted in Articles, Blog by Eric Shaw
Bt Eric Shaw
for the Gallup Journey
After I turned 30, I drove across the Southwest deserts with my outrageous buddy, Brian, in 1993. B’s social skills were retrograde—just as mine were. The little Mazda station-wagon that shepherded our crumbling friendship along, stuttered onward indestructibly while we quibbled over what station the radio was tuned to and whatever else flustered he and me.
Midway on the trip we arrived at an emotional oasis when we met our buddy Kurt in Gallup, New Mexico.
He glowed with good health and good feeling while he told us about his elementary-school teaching gig.
I found myself falling in love his small town and his life.
I had a job like Kurt’s back in Minneapolis, but couldn’t conceive of living outside a city.
Still, a year later, I found myself in my ever-puttering Mazda, driving south to be interviewed by Gallup’s Juan de Onate Elementary school for a job. I won the position, shot back to Minnesota, and a week later, I’d stuffed the Mazda full of a slim stack of personal effects and arrived in Gallup for four years of exciting exertions in education and desert exploration.
I found a room in a house on Mesa Ave. Its basement was the sanctuary where local writer Ernie Bulow did his famous scribbling.
As I expected, I loved imitating my friend, Kurt’s, life.
As I often told those who asked about the world of Gallup, Navajo Indian lands felt like their own world, their own small, self-styled country.
My fourth year in Gallup, I offered a class at UNM called “Christ, Krishna and Hero Twins” on things local and spiritual–and the non-local spiritual things of Christians and Asian Indians.
Only a few folks registered, so they dropped the class, but—years later—I returned to university and studied Krishna intensely. I followed my time with the Indians of Gallup with a Masters Degree in the yoga traditions—and I became a writer, imitating the life of Bulow.
Since then, I’ve gotten around the world with those skills, teaching yoga, while lecturing and writing about India’s yoga past and present. Most recently, a tour of Asia and an email interview led me to teaching job in the tiny nation of Taiwan, just off China’s coast. After I got there, my old buddy and the publisher of this magazine, Jason Arsenault, invited me to write this essay, comparing my Taiwan months to my years in the Navajo Nation.
I embraced the offer.
Travel writing gives wanderers like me an opportunity to haul out our hoard of revelations and images, backfiled among our piled-up transits and destinations year after year.
I’ve been a traveler ever since I was a kid, and my four years in Gallup were another stop where I found new ways of doing life.
Taipei—the biggest city in Taiwan, a country off the coast of China—is my newest home.
I’ve been here just three months.
In Taipei, a huge yoga studio chain invited me to join their staff. A free-lancer for 16 years, I had massive doubts about tying my life to a corporation—even a seemingly trustworthy one like this powerhouse, Pure Yoga—but—truth to tell—I was tired of wandering. I thought this might be an opportunity to settle—a chance to find a home, stability and peace.
Taipei is so quiet, so peaceful and so efficient.
It is a city without litter, homelessness, or constant fear in the streets.
It might be hard to think a metropolis like this exists outside some sci-fi flick.
It’s not paradise, and it’s not necessarily our future, but it is a very easy place to live and it does give me peace.
There, like here, there’s not a lot of white people. Taipei is almost completely made up of ethnic Chinese, and—like the Navajos—they transferred to that island not too long before white people like me came on the scene.
The Navajos are of the same ethnicity of the Chinese, and ethnologists say Navajos arrived in their current Southwest lands near 1400—200 years before Europeans stumbled toward the Four Corners.
Some say Navajos were part of a migration fleeing the hordes of Genghis Khan, the great Mongolian conqueror.
Likewise, Taipei is populated by Chinese who fled Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese civil war that finished its shooting days in 1949. The “Great White Father”—America—has been their ally and protecting power since the day they first made landfall on that island called “Formosa”—a term that meaning “Beautiful Island” that was used by the discovering Portuguese.
I fled the US myself in the days before my birthday in 2015.
I’d been living in Berkeley five years and—tired of the turbulence of cities—went to a 5000-person town in Australia to live. After that, Bali and Texas, and then Taipei. When I got to Taiwan, despite being in the city, I experienced something of the calm of the little town of Denmark that I’d settled in on Australia’s coast. Again, that might sound like sci-fi myth, but it’s true. I’ve fallen in love with Taipei’s beauty, safety and calm—and the people who mind their own business! It was much like my experience of the Dine People here.
But Taiwan is lush.
It has the heat of the desert, but the humid lushness of an equatorial jungle.
In Gallup, the non-jungle. I loved the desert. I loved the crispness of the air and the capacity to see 100 miles away.
Taipei is home to the world’s third tallest building, called Taipei 101. When I got to its 80th floor observation deck, the view was spectacular, but limited. In Gallup you see distant mountains from ground level. In Taipei, 1400 feet in the sky, you saw skyscrapers for miles, and hills in the mid-distance, but—beyond that—grey humidity swallowed up the gaze.
I moved to Taipei on March 1st—my 55th birthday.
I’d spent 4 months in Bali before that move in sweating it out in the Bali sun.
And what do you see on the streets of Taiwan? You don’t see white people, but you see people who cultivate paleness of face.
The Balinese people—and most of us ex-pat Europeans, South Americans and North Americans—were brown from the sun. Those months—and my decades in desert landscapes, on beaches and in high mountains—have given me a permanent tan, so the Taiwanese under their umbrellas on dry, hot days shunning sunlight were strange to my eye, and it was strange to my ears to hear students complain about getting tans.
I didn’t get it.
I told one of my most devoted pupils, let’s call her Jao-Ling, to dump her pasty white skin, sweat her pores our fresh in a hot yoga class, and get outdoors for some color.
Like I pushed her, another Chinese girl pushed me. She pushed me out of the Gallup sun toward the Southwest’s climactic opposite. We connected in Portland, Oregon (my home town) and I moved there to be with her after Gallup.
Her family had fled the Communist Chinese, but they didn’t go to Taiwan, they went to Los Angeles—where her Dad got a job for an aerospace company.
In Portland, the Southwest’s open sky, desert and red rocks are replaced by constant rain and thick with America’s form of jungle—pine forests. Oregon’s Willamette Valley landscape is carpeted with green.
Portland’s also got that sense of safety that is rare for an American city. It is an across-the-Pacific echo of Taipei.
If I can steal a term from local Navajo life, my “Way” has been the Beauty Way. I was a painter till I was 40, and had two art shows at Milan Sklenar’s Crashing Thunder Gallery in downtown Gallup during my years here: 1994-1998. Like President Clinton in those days, getting in trouble right and left, gorgeous women send me. Gorgeous women are compelling to humans the world over, but maybe—because of my “artistic tendencies” as one of my students in Minnesota observed—my eye is more susceptible than most.
The Chinese American girl who I met in Portland in ’98 was smokin’ hot.
Dudes would stop in traffic to approach her.
I had to compete with a former NBA superstar to get her to look at me.
Still, we hooked up—and I asked her to marry me four months after a run of Gallup-Portland dates.
On one visit, we were two-stepping at the local Cowboy Saloon. The locals thought I was lying when told them I was from Mesa Street. Mei-Mei’s California-born skin was Chinese-American brown, and they said we were both lying again when I told them she was not a Navajo. Finally, I lied, saying, “We’re from New York!” Our little circle then shouted that out to the crowd and they had a little celebration—everyone shouting back and forth in a kind of welcome—as if we’d both come from 3000 miles away.
Mei-Mei, turned out to be a nemesis. Screaming and angry and unpredictable, we parted after three years. On the other hand, Jao-Ling, my pasty-white girl from Taipei turned out to be my greatest advocate and friend.
When I left Taipei last week, she organized a final get-together with my students, where we went deep into the life of the wandering yogis, alone in the mountains, desert or jungle doing their strange practices.
That’s sort of my life . . . ish!
When I look back over my decades of traveling, those four years I wandered in the New Mexico desert remain some of the sweetest memories in my backfiles.
With all of Asia’s breadth and strangeness, it’s still has given me no landscape I’ve loved as much, nor—hard to believe as it may be—a social experience that was so culturally new to my wandering, ever-writing eye.
Gallup’s special place in my heart persists, even after these 20 years of seeing many other worlds that are new.