I picked up my first copy of TRIPS magazine at a “safari & travel” Banana Republic store of yesteryear. I was a kid, it was the late 1980s, and I can say – as oddball as this might sound – that I’ve spun the globe with it ever since. Its mantra of what travel can (and should) look and feel and taste like, open-mindedness-wise, sense-of-curiosity-wise, and being-alive-wise – “to get as deep inside a culture as constraints of language and understanding will allow” – has helped form my take, my very own spin on this world.
There was only ever one issue produced – so the Spring 1988 edition serves as both the debut and finale edition. I lost my original copy a long time back and have since given away many more, so I try to snag one every chance I get (thanks eBay). I like to think of TRIPS as a bible of adventure, a relic of expedition, and an unadulterated view into the “safari & travel” vision of Mel & Patricia Ziegler, founders of the long-abandoned (original) Banana Republic.
The Zieglers, both retired journalists with the San Francisco Chronicle, hired their friends, established ink-slingers to write the magazine’s copy. It was clearly a labor of love.
Flip the pages, and the articles will transport you in search of the soul of Hawaii with National Geographic journalist Marguerite Del Giudice; hurl you into Apartheid-era South Africa with Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and Esquire writer Mark Jacobson; bike alongside His Majesty, the King of Tonga with screenwriter, actor and novelist Charlie Haas; and Ride to the Back of Beyond (of Australia) with photographs by Hakan Ludwigsson and text by Newsweek’s Tony Clifton.
The magazine was likely the first to introduce The Thorn Tree Forum into print, an idea picked up and popularized by Lonely Planet eight years later in 1996. “…It was, effectively, Kenya’s first postal system,” explains the Zieglers, referring to an old thorn tree in the courtyard of the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi where travelers used to pin their urgent, cryptic messages. “We borrowed the name for this column. Items will be culled from letters, news clippings, documents, anything concise and interesting that crosses our desk. Travelers’ tales, tips, observations, complaints, and cultural artifacts are welcome.”
To get the oddball rolling, first-hand travel tips from veteran travelers were offered – from “How to turn a golf ball into a drain plug for overseas bathtub,” to “Create a travel journal as you go: Mail postcards to yourself!”
I love them all – the sketches, the travelogues, the photos, the irony, the off-the-beaten-track discoveries. One of my favorite travel tales, penned by Sports Illustrated/human interest writer Gary Smith, whisks the reader onto a Portugal-bound train chockablock with banana and fish smugglers.
I’ve hiked with TRIPS across Tigray, Ethiopia, adventured with it into the dusty dorps of the Klein and Groot Karoo of Southern Africa, listened to the call to prayer through wooden shutters with it in Islamic West Luxor, and gotten lost with it in the back alleys of Bangkok, Hong Kong and Taipei — some of the places I’ve called home. These days, I find myself canoeing with this tried and trusty and true companion across America, most days carefully stowed away in my dry bags, and on days like today, taken out to peruse and inspire.
After all this time, the magazine remains a jolt to the system. It hurls one back to a now-bygone era when travel was fun – to the late 1980s, to be precise, before Banana Republic was taken over by the Gap – when the company had a climate desk “so that no matter which way the wind blows, you’ll arrive becalmed,” along with a travel bookstore, “to attract the ambitious adventurer – with or without armchair.”
Fourteen months ago in Astoria, Oregon, Neal Moore shoved off in his 16-foot Old Town canoe, bound for the Statue of Liberty, some two years and 7,500 miles ahead. The 49-year-old had come home after nearly 30 years abroad to rediscover America and share the stories of its people in a style of journalism all his own, “slow and low down from the view of a canoe.” …
One year on the water and I find myself in New Orleans, the end of the second leg of my “22 Rivers Expedition” across these United States. It’s been a wild year for one and all, and for me, there’s been no exception. Weeks into my cross country paddle the Covid-19 pandemic hit. After discussing with trusted friends and colleagues, I determined that with the canoe as my only home, sheltering in place meant continuing the journey. New Orleans represents 4,400 river and portage miles behind me, leaving another 3,100 to go next year to make NYC. Cheers for everybody’s encouragement, friendship, and support. It absolutely means the world.
As we reported last week, Neal Moore is now over halfway through his 12,000km odyssey across the United States. He plans to paddle 22 rivers, portaging his fully laden canoe on a cart where necessary, and finishing in New York with a celebratory spin round the Statue of Liberty. ExWeb spoke to Moore about his journey.
Back in 2018, you made about 3,000km before stopping. Did you repeat the same route on this expedition? How did it differ this time around?
Two years ago, in 2018, I paddled and portaged against a rip-roaring flood on the Columbia and Spokane Rivers. The dozen-plus dams, including the Grand Coulee, were nearly fully spilling. This required a 16 to 32km portage around each one -– harness strapped to my limbs, wheels tied under the canoe and all my gear inside, pulling my craft like a mule on the side of the road. Soon after, I tipped in the St. Regis River in western Montana. After I got my canoe and some gear back, I missed out on paddling up the Clark Fork because of a 100-year flood. I eventually hung up my paddles in Watford City, N.D.
This year, I launched at Astoria, Oregon three weeks earlier, on Feb. 9, 2020. I was determined to paddle up the Columbia farther than last time, to just above the Canadian border, where I could catch the mouth of the Pend Oreille River and paddle to Lake Pend Oreille. Here, I’d follow the Clark Fork to Garrison, Montana, sticking to a waterway all the way to the Continental Divide.
But COVID-19 hit weeks into my expedition. Although I cleared the state of Oregon the day before it officially shut down, by the time I got to eastern Washington on March 23, the Washington governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order and the U.S.-Canada border closed down. So instead of progressing further into Washington along the Columbia as intended, I went the Snake River [a federal waterway].
I was in Lewiston, Idaho nine days later. From here, I hiked 160km north along the Idaho border, paddled 100km across Lake Coeur d’Alene and portaged an additional 65km north to Lake Pend Oreille. I made my way to Garrison, Montana, where I repeated my portage up and over McDonald Pass and down the Missouri to the Mississippi, where I find myself now.
Which parts have been the most challenging?
The Columbia River Bar at the mouth of the Columbia River is known as the graveyard of the Pacific, the most dangerous stretch of water in the world. You have to come prepared with the right gear, a clear forecast and a lot of luck. Paddling the mouth of this river is an adrenalin rush, but once you make it around Tongue Point and into the “old-man sloughs,” you’re relatively okay.
There’s a stretch of the Columbia River Gorge just above Bonneville Dam that’s problematic when a strong wind gets behind you. New Englanders Pete Macridis, 25, and Timothy Black, 23, vanished on this stretch of river in 1978. Two years ago, I had a rough time here, but conditions got even worse for me farther upriver.
It’d taken a full day to portage the dam, and the next morning, winds were forecast for 17mph. I made a mental note to not paddle that day, but when the day looked pleasant, I made a too-rash decision and launched out. Following the Columbia River up along the jagged shore on the Washington side, I had a refreshing, gentle push of wind behind me at first, but this was soon followed by a gale. The waves pushing upriver chop into you unlike any other place I have paddled, propelling the craft quickly forward as you watch for obstacles –- boulders, submerged trees, anything that can capsize you. I managed to get into a cove an hour later, sitting on the slippery, jagged boulders as I held onto the canoe. The canoe was smashing up and down onto the rocks with each progressively larger wave, and if I didn’t get it out, it would be destroyed.
When the wind and the waves picked up even more, I called for assistance in case it got even worse, which it did. The waves soon swamped the canoe, and I lost some gear. The Corp of Engineers sent out a couple of young rangers. The fresh-faced kid, who looked like a teenager, was giving orders to the other kid with a beard. They loaded up my canoe, my gear and myself onto their craft, and halfway across the river, both of their boat’s motors gave out. All other boats had got off the river by this stage, and as the waves propelled us upriver, I thought to myself, Who rescues the rescuers? And if anything happens to these kids, it’ll be my fault.
It was tense, and one ranger was asking the other if we were going to smash on the rocks. A dozen minutes later, the engines started back up and we made it out safely.
Any other major difficulties or close calls?
What stood out this time was both the ruggedness and remoteness of the Snake River. In the nine days I paddled her, I didn’t see any other boats, and not one fisherman. I experienced sleet, snow, a torrent of rain, and wind pushing me forward, backward and side to side.
The tricky part of all this remoteness is that if you tip into the cold water, it’s on you to save yourself. I had a wetsuit, a fire starter kit and a cell phone in a waterproof case (although no reception) on my person at all times. Once I thought I’d have to jump for it, because the wind and rollicking waves pushed me hard against a riverbank filled with obstacles. I pulled alongside a log and was bailing hard, because the waves kept breaking into my open canoe, but this log soon disappeared, and then I was grasping onto willows.
A half hour later, when I felt I couldn’t hold on any longer and was ready to jump in and swim for shore, the wind changed on a dime, and it blew the canoe back out into the river.
Another close call came as I paddled six days up the Mississippi from its confluence with the Missouri, just above St. Louis. I would have liked to have made camp on the bigger islands here, but they were inhabited by people who did not want visitors. I was told later that they make meth along here and to stay away from these folks.
On my fourth night on the Mississippi, I was straddling one of these islands as the sun was setting. I was determined to get past these people and set myself up on a sandbar just under the dam at Clarksville, Missouri.
But it was nearly dark as I approached, and I realized that there were a whole lot of pelicans on the spot I’d wanted to call home for the night — over 1,000 of them and more incoming. They were nervous, so I gave them space, but then the wind picked up directly against me. The rain fell sideways and I was pushed out into the channel. I was fighting like hell for at least a half an hour to make the shore.
But as I struggled to get around the pelicans, a spotlight beamed directly through me and the pelicans. And they flew, all in one motion, up they went. A thousand-plus pairs of wings in one frantic motion, all lit up by the spotlight. The beam came from a tow pushing a load of dark barges. It had snuck up on me, and I was far too close to the flashing red light on the lead barge. I paddled for all I was worth to get out of the way, thankfully making another sandbar in time.
You have said you hoped to be able to talk to people and tell their stories. How has COVID changed this mission?
Talking to folks in a story-minded setting has been extensively curtailed this year. Instead, I’m mainly documenting the people I meet by chance along the way. I’m listening, learning, absorbing the ties that bind –- the threads that make us Americans. I’m looking to underscore our common humanity, but especially bringing into focus the immigrant narrative, the Black experience, along with what we can learn from Indigenous American wisdom.
What challenges do your big portage sections present?
Hiking the Continental Divide was a challenge this second time, as I hit a late-May snow blast. It’d been forecast as rain the day before, but it snowed all day, for the hardest part of that climb. But I had the right gear, and when I got to the top of the pass at 6,312 feet, I was the only camper. There was a foot of snow and soon I had my tent set up. I was out of my wet clothes and into the warm.
Moore portages down after a snowfall. Photo: Gary Marshall, BMGphotos.com
The following day was brilliant sun with no wind, and it was an easy portage down to Helena. The local paper’s photographer came to snap some shots of me portaging my belongings down the mountain. The moment he got his shots and headed back to town, a grizzly showed up. He came over the divider, his back hump prevalent, and ambled across the road 50 feet in front of me. I was harnessed from behind, attached to the canoe and wheels and gear, and by the time I got my gloves off to try to snap a picture, he was out of sight.
Where are you now and what are your plans for the second half of the journey to New York?
I’m in Memphis and will be back on the water in a few days. I’ll continue down the Mississippi to New Orleans, which I hope to reach in mid- to late-December. From there, I’ll skirt the Gulf Coast and along the Intracoastal Waterway, then up the Mobile, Tombigbee and Tennessee rivers, down the New River, the Cumberland, the Dix and the Kentucky rivers. Up the Ohio, up and down the Kanawha, and up the Allegheny River. From Lake Chautauqua, it’ll be uphill and downhill for days over Portage Road to Lake Erie. Then it’s the Erie Canal, the Mohawk, and down the Hudson by December 2021 to see what has always made America great!
GRAND TOWER — Neal Moore has packed a lot of adventure into his 49 years, beginning with a Mormon mission trip to South Africa as that country was emerging from apartheid. Moore has spent most of his adult life in Africa and Asia, but has longed to return to his American roots.
The California native is currently in the middle of a 7,500-mile trip in which he hopes to reconnect to his native country in an incredibly personal way. He is essentially retracing the steps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s epic Voyage of Discovery.
He will travel 22 rivers over 22 months while making his way from the Columbia River in Oregon to Ellis Island in New York. Moore recently spent the night in Grand Tower where he provisioned himself, just in time, for colder weather.
An author and freelance journalist, Moore’s goal is to gain insight into the soul of America, to dissect what Lewis and Clark have wrought, there is another side to the trip that Moore had to take into consideration while planning. Twenty-two months in a canoe, making your way through some of the biggest, as well as most treacherous water in the United States takes a toll – mentally and physically.
The reality of paddling nearly 7,500 miles is one of the reasons Moore is doing the trip from west to east … he’ll spend a lot more time traveling downstream.
“I’ve been planning and planning this for quite some time,” Moore said. “I was looking at initially going from east-to-west, naturally to tell of the progression. I was given a contact of Norm Miller, he runs the Missouri Paddlers page. He paddled a canoe in 2004 from St. Louis, up the Missouri River and over the divide. Talking to him what he said was it’s not the physical part, the struggle.
“I looked at the map, I knew there’d be 200 miles from Cairo to St. Louis, to come up the Mississippi, then up the Missouri, but what he said was psychologically, for hundreds and hundreds of miles on the Missouri to paddle up, it’s wild up to Yankton, knowing you could walk faster … So, looking at the map I got excited thinking, ‘What if I could do the whole thing in reverse?’”
That’s not a small consideration when you begin a 7,500-mile journey will some back issues. To compensate he outfitted the canoe with a back rest and steeled his mind.
“You’re forced to be strong,” he said. “Your body becomes strong, but also, mentally, you have to see that goal. It goes back to being an Eagle Scout where I wanted to give up and dad said, ‘You can’t give up. You started something, you have to finish it.’”
He began a similar trip a couple years ago, but flooding forced him off the water.
“Two years ago, I was against a 20-year flood on the Columbia River,” Moore said. “It’s really heave ho, I really like the idea of the open canoe. You’re experiencing the same hardships they (Lewis and Clark) would have encountered as well. You’re opening yourself up to hell or high water quite literally.
“But, you’re also open to all of the good. You are going to meet people who aren’t so nice. You’re going to meet people who might wish you ill. You’re going to meet a lot of people who are there to support you and encourage you that you can learn from as well. That also goes hand-in-hand with their experience as well.”
That’s where the psychology kicks in. For 22 months, Moore will basically be isolated on the river, except for the people he meets along the way. There is no room for a support group in his [16-foot canoe].
During the course of the journey, he will spend most of the time with his own thoughts.
“You have to will yourself forward,” Moore said. “You fight and you fight. This is a part of life as well. You have to have a goal and you have to sort of struggle. And, part of the beauty is the struggle. There are days where you just whistle and you just laugh at the beauty, the beauty of this river. You also have the other days where you are fighting for your life.”
He said his early life featured frequent moves, forcing him to make new friends on a regular basis. That experience is coming in handy on the trip, although there are still some difficult times.
“The psychological part, I don’t like big crowds too much,” Moore said. “I really like the idea of being out there. At the same time, I’ve moved for the majority of my life. When I was a kid we lived in eight different houses in Los Angeles.
“Especially doing these stories, you have these intense kinds of friendships that are short, then you have to get back on the water. That, for me, I think is the hardest part. As my mom tried to teach me, by leaving you’re opening yourself up to the possibility of the realization of more friends and stories down the road.”
You can follow Moore’s progress and chart his new friendships at www.22rivers.com.
Along the Snake River at Nisqually John Landing, Wash.
Brian Bensen is a minimalist, a fisherman, a hunter, and a survivor. He lives along the banks of this river, of multiple rivers, out of a 7’ x 12’ motorcycle toy-hauler he lovingly calls his house. Attached are a quartet of solar panels, a trio of car batteries, an AC/DC converter, a drop-down bed, an air conditioner, a TV and DVD player, pots and pans and knives and forks, a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, a tarp, and a blanket hanging off of his higgledy-piggledy back shower featuring Marilyn Monroe. Bensen has spent the last three years shifting this home, along with a Kawasaki 650 off-road motorcycle that clamps down inside, an aluminum jet boat, and a GMC truck to pull them from camp to camp, Gypsy-style. “If you look, especially in the Northwest, in the twelve Western states,” he says, “there are campgrounds that are beautiful where you can spend 14 days, no money involved.” He laughed at the thought, at all the memories of Lolo Pass in the summers and this very spot on the Snake piled with snow come the winter. “And that’s about as long as I want to be in one place anyway.” Bensen is sixty-two and he’s been on the move for all of them. Civilization calls his elemental lifestyle homeless, but he calls it sweet freedom.
“I consider myself the king of campin’ because I’m off the grid,” he says. “I’ve been at it three years, perfected a lot of things. Literally, if I have to, I can survive. With nothin’. No help from nobody.” Although there are contradictions to being labeled a minimalist when you have a Kawasaki 650, he might be forgiven because he wants to trade it in for an electric scooter. But either way, he is still a minimalist. And that’s part and parcel of Spartan.
When folks less fortunate come around, Bensen is happy to share. “Just heat up the coffee if you want,” he told his neighbors, a homeless couple from the neighboring trailer at Nisqually John Landing here in Whitman County. “The heater is right there. The creamer and honey, it’s on the shelf.”
The world around Bensen, around us all, finds itself in a gut punch of a downward spiral and we don’t yet know what bottom will look like. When asked what advice he might have for others, for people that will soon find themselves, not by choice, but by necessity, out of doors, he thought and then raised his head and his voice like a preacher. “My advice to you if you find yourself in that situation, first off, it’s one day at a time. Think of nothin’ but base survival. And then modify it. That’s what I did. I started out with one panel and one battery – so I could afford about two hundred bucks. And then once I got to know the system, I continued to learn, to graduate farther and farther.”
Bensen bought most of his hardware at Home Depot in the 75% off rack. The solar panels, each twenty-five watts, came from Harbor Freight. The solar system is capable of 14.4 volts. The whole setup with the control module and lights, because he’s a preferred member and he had a coupon, was $149. On top of the trailer are coils that go back and forth in plastic garden tubing which Bensen reckons can handle between eleven and thirteen gallons of water. It’s mounted on a 30-gauge galvanized steel sheeting roof. It gets hot in the summer. So hot, he had to add a cold-water line to mix it. “So, the whole setup you’re looking at – I probably don’t have 2 grand into it, including the power and the trailer – the whole nine yards.”
It’s easy to glorify, but difficult to understand a truly Spartan lifestyle. The Spartans of ancient Greece lived with their armaments. They were warriors. They lived with physical emphasis. The emphasis was on combat. Bensen, who was born into the Home of Truth satanic cult in Moab, Utah, was raised up with the group’s, and later his family’s strict and simple ways. He is missing his left eye, and he told me his step-father, who he says he could never please, once yelled at him: “An eye for an eye? No! Somebody takes one eye, you gotta take both.” Bensen has been fighting for as long as he can remember, he’s been scrapping his way to happiness and freedom since he left home, his family and the commune at age thirteen. He admits to an “illustrious life,” including stints on the oil rigs, cowboying like a vaquero, raising his family as a single parent rough and on the road with a child in one arm and a “Will Work for Food” sign in the other, along with stretches in multiple county jails.
The road forward for Bensen and his menagerie of vehicles is fraught with Covid-19-related closures. His favorite camping spot, Heller Bar, surrounded by semi-arid mountain peaks and an entry point for power boats into Hells Canyon, recently denied him entry. Soon after we met, all free camps in Idaho closed their swinging gates. While I was here at Nisqually John Landing, state park rangers came by to cordon off the bathroom, and there are rumors of this camp, of all free camps in Washington following suit.
“I never go hungry because I’ve always got food around. Once the snow melts, and it gets warm, I get up into the mountains. If they block off the roads, I’ll take my Kawasaki – they can’t stop me. Man, there’s wild berries and wild lettuce. It’s a paradise. I eat a lot of fish because I am ‘the master of disaster spin-caster’.”
Bensen’s got itchy feet by nature, and you never know what’s coming next. When his wheels and his boat and his trailer are not in motion, his mind is. “I can literally go wherever I want, whenever I want, for however long I want,” he told me. “My goal for this winter is – I’m headin’ down to Yuma. And wanderin’ around the desert lookin’ for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. For somethin’ to do. To entertain myself.”
Hi, my name is Neal, and in these polarized times, I’m going to re-attempt to paddle from sea to shining sea, taking journalism slow and low down from the view of a canoe, to listen, curate, and re-discover the threads that bind Americans together.
The re-launch will take place this Sunday, February 9th, 2020 along the storied banks of the Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon. And the journey to New York – encompassing 22 rivers, 22 states, and 7,500 miles – will take two years.
Together, we’ll go behind the stereotypes and observe and absorb and question. To take up the fight for the sacred Columbia River salmon, step in stride with an ex-offender upon release from the big house, and crouch down low with a hobo on the tracks, train in sight, that whistle bell a’blowin’.
In 2018, I attempted a similar sojourn, making it from Astoria, Oregon on the Pacific to Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River, North Dakota – about 1,800 miles in total.
This time around, from early 2020 until New Year’s Day, 2022, I intend to go the distance in a continuous storytelling expedition from Astoria, Oregon, to New York City.
Part One: To the Great Divide: We’re heading for the Continental Divide (yet again) during a time when our nation is truly divided. It’s up the Columbia all the way to British Columbia, up the Pend Oreille, and the Clark Fork to MacDonald Pass in Montana – all upstream and uphill, 1,111 miles. It’s going to be a struggle, but I hope to do it 5 months.
Part Two: To the Big Easy: It’s likely to take at least a week to haul that canoe (plus 300 pounds of gear) over the Continental Divide for 55 miles, but it’ll be worth it to get to Helena, to get back in the water again. Once there, it’s 3,249 river miles down the Missouri and the Mississippi, dodging acres of barges, 1,000 foot tankers, swirling eddies, and the Chain of Rocks to the French Quarter, New Orleans. I believe I can do this stretch in 8 months, partly because I can’t wait to get back to the Preservation Jazz Club in New Orleans.
Part Three: To Lady Liberty: It’s a long, tortuous route of 3,127 river and portage miles to Lady Liberty at the edge of the Atlantic, which I reckon will take 12 months. We’ve got to skirt the Gulf Coast in open, often treacherous water, paddle up the Mobile, Tombigbee, Tombigbee-Tennessee and Tennessee rivers, down the New River, the Cumberland, the Dix and the Kentucky rivers. Up the Ohio, up and down the Kanawha, and up the Allegheny rivers. From Lake Chautauqua, it’ll be uphill and downhill for days over Portage Road to Lake Erie. Then from Buffalo, it’s the Erie Canal, the Mohawk, and down the Hudson to see and know what has always made America great[!]
More than ever, we need to highlight, understand, and celebrate America’s incredible diversity, to tap into her collective experience.
So, let’s get to it – roll up our sleeves, get our feet wet, and in the spirit of Mark Twain, Light out for the territory.
Note: As I’m taking a respite from the rivers, a dispatch from the Far East…
By Neal Moore
TAINAN – Li JiaBao wasn’t born when automatic weapons fire rang out on Tiananmen Square in 1989, when “Tank Man” brought a convoy of People’s Liberation Army tanks to a halt on the street of Beijing, or even when the Brits handed Hong Kong to Mainland China nearly a decade later. A post-’97 youth, Li, a twenty-year-old who hails from Shandong, is a pharmacy student in Taiwan who calls Xi Jinping “Emperor Xi” in a startling pro-democracy video entitled “I Oppose!”
As the world pauses to remember the students lost at Tiananmen thirty years ago June 4, we can see the unquestionable resolve of those they’ve inspired, like young Chinese exchange student Li JiaBao, and veteran dissident-in-exile Cai Lujun.
Cai, now age 50, was one of China’s first cyber-dissidents. He was a curious and sympathetic bystander at the protest at Tiananmen Square before the massacre. Only later, when a friend, a young lady, was detained for penning an essay critical of the state, did he find his own voice of dissent. The government gave him every out possible: “Just sign this confession,” they said. The secret police visited his parents and his wife. His family pleaded for him to sign. But he would not.
Cai went to prison in his home province of Hebei in 2003 for “incitement to subvert state power”, serving a three-year sentence for an online Radio Free Asia essay, in which he argued “all of us are people” … “we should do our best to get our freedom, our human rights.”
Soon after his release in 2006, Cai smuggled his way onto a Chinese fishing boat headed for Taiwan. Ten years later, safe with Taiwan ID card and passport, Cai looks out for his fellow Chinese dissidents here on Taiwan. He claims rightly that most desperately want to stay, but the Taiwan authorities are likely to send most of them back to China.
“What does that feel like? What fate awaits them?” I asked in a joint interview with Li and Cai on Li’s campus of Chia Nan University of Pharmacy and Science in Tainan.
“I know about thirty people that the Taiwan government sent back to China,” Cai said. “They call me on the way out when I couldn’t help them.” Cai explained this with a nervous laugh, fighting back tears. Li, the student dissident by his side, looked on in shock. “Nobody knows what will happen.”
Li is not a child of wealth. But both his parents are teachers back in his hometown of ZiBo City, a small city by Chinese standards, in Shandong’s ZiChuan District. His dad teaches English and Math. His mother teaches English.
Although Li says he knows full well what he’s up against, Cai understands the reality of “the hard road”. Cai gave forceful advice. “You need to speak loud, loud and loud, let more people know those things.”
IT FEELS LIKE STANDING IN FRONT OF A TANK
In his essay “I Oppose!” live streamed on Periscope back in March, Li says, “I have the courage to declare that I am prepared to stand up, just like … those fellow students who were crushed under the tanks and massacred in their youth by the bullets of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on Tiananmen Square that June 4th night. Those fellow students never got to go home.”
But Li seems likely to be forced to face that regime, certainly not by choice. He’s a vocal critic of China’s decision to scrap presidential term limits, railing against President Xi, and the direction he’s taking the country.
The denouement will come when his exchange student status ends on July 2. Although he applied for political asylum in Taiwan on April 28, he most likely will be forced to board a plane returning him to face Chinese retribution.
“After you did the livestream, what did you think would happen when you go back to China?” Cai asked Li.
Li replied, “Nobody will know what will happen the next second. But the only thing I’m sure of is your life will start changing the moment you stand up.”
“Li is on the road from which he cannot return,” Cai told us. “I think China is predictable. Nothing will change. Because most Chinese people don’t change. Also, the Chinese Communist Party won’t change. Like I said, if you give China 5,000 more years, will they change? I’m not sure.”
Li interjected, “I have to say, as a Chinese student, that everyone got brainwashed when they were very young. But when you graduate from school and enter society, you will discover the real world is totally different from what the Communist Party told you. Everybody, so everybody, don’t just listen to the teachers. Don’t listen to your parents. And don’t listen to the Communist Party. Walk boldly. Walk bravely. Be yourself boldly. Just be yourself.”
Cai smiled at Li, and with his fist in the air, he saluted “jiā yóu, jiā yóu,” keep going. To which Li pumped his own fist, and smiled right back, responding, “jiā yóu.”
A TICKING CLOCK
Unless he’s awarded asylum in Taiwan, or can find another government willing to help him, Li will be forced to fly back to China when his visa runs out on July 2. He probably will be charged with the same crime as Cai, “incitement to subvert state power.”
“If I’m able to stay in Taiwan, to continue my studies, I’d like to finish,” Li said. “And devote myself to the democracy and freedom movement. But I’m really worried that the Taiwan government will … not let me stay in Taiwan. I hope other countries can help. America and Europe.”
When Li self-recorded his speech denouncing Xi back in March, all communication with his family was cut off within three hours.
“He doesn’t know it,” Cai told me in confidence, “but the police would have visited his home directly after. They would have definitely shut down all communication between him and his family,” including (as it turned out) his parents’ financial assistance.
As a result, when Li ran out of money a short time later, friends in Taiwan assisted. To help him stay on as a student, even as the date of a forced departure looms.
True to Cai’s prediction, Li has not heard from his parents since.
When asked if he’ll have the courage to board the plane, to pay the consequences for speaking out against the most powerful man in China, Li said, “I think I’ll have courage to face anything that happens but when that day arrives, I will feel sadness.”
And then Li linked his personal struggle to his homeland. “We still need somebody, the young people, to speak out. When the seed of the revolution is snuffed out, I think that will be a sad ending.”
ECHOES OF TIANANMEN
Thirty years ago this week, the crackdown on civilian and student protestors at Tiananmen Square, also known as the June 4 Massacre, would leave hundreds, if not thousands dead. The government’s response against unarmed activists was beyond brutal, and it played out on television screens and newspaper front pages worldwide.
Wang Dan was the most visible leader of the Tiananmen Square protest. You might remember him. He was the one with the big glasses, slight build, and the bullhorn. After the massacre, Wang was No. 1 on the Chinese government’s “most wanted” student list. He was captured, and served four years in jail before going into exile – first in America, where he earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, and then to Taiwan, where he taught cross-strait history at National Chengchi University and National Tsing Hua University.
I caught up with Wang Dan for the twenty-fifth anniversary, and asked if he could remind people of the message he was trying to deliver to the Chinese Communist Party at Tiananmen Square.
“We had two appeals,” Wang told me. “No. 1: Dialogue directly with the government, and No. 2: To modify the April 26 editorial of the People’s Daily.”
The April 26 editorial, titled “The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil,” was broadcast on national radio and television in China, and appeared on the front page of the People’s Daily, a Beijing-based mouthpiece of the Communist Party. The editorial, penned by deputy chief of propaganda Zeng Jianhui on behalf of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, deemed the protestors part of “a well-planned plot … to confuse the people and throw the country into turmoil.” The piece effectively changed the party’s attitude toward the protestors, based on misinformation. The students had not called on the government to step down, as alleged in Jianhui’s editorial, but for a dialogue of reform and openness first initiated by Deng in 1978.
Tiananmen Square remains a pivotal, game-changing event in the history of modern-day China. Although the students lost their bid for freedom, their argument for a voice carried weight with the rest of the world, and shaped how the world would view China, as well as themselves, in the foreseeable future.
In retrospect, I asked Wang what lessons he believes China, and the world, have taken away from the Tiananmen Square protest?
“The world needs to believe that from 1989, even Chinese people look forward to democratization,” he explained. “Anytime they think they have a chance, like in 1989, they will not hesitate to stand up.”
My final question was what he would like to say to the leadership in Beijing today, and his answer, I believe, could apply to himself, to all those who stood up at Tiananmen, along with the next generation of dissent, like Li JiaBao.
“Think about the party’s future,” Wang replied. “There will be only two choices: Democracy, or die.”