Wednesday, June 07, 2006

How To Acquire a Taste for Grapefruit

I never did like grapefruit. I found it bitter and far from refreshing, much to the incredulity of pretty much everyone everywhere. Most people, it seems, like grapefruit. This is the story of how I finally became a huge fan of the humble grapefruit.

As regular readers will know, my good friend Nate and I had planned a weekend of hiking and camping in the Ishizuchi Quasi National Park in neighbouring Ehime Prefecture this weekend past. We planned to take in Ishizuchi-san herself, plus another couple of smaller peaks, kipping halfway through at a designated, but isolated, camping spot.
We were joined unexpectedly by Nate’s friend Roger, a massive Swiss fellow Nate had met over the Christmas vacation in Cambodia. Roger arrived in Japan last Wednesday and had decided to come to Shikoku to see Nate. Since our plans had been set pretty solidly for a number of weeks, Nate asked Roger to come with us, and he happily agreed.

On Saturday, we set off bright and early from the car park at the base of Mount Ishizuchi. Because we are young, beautiful and incredibly stupid, we decided to forego the ropeway lift that takes people halfway up the mountain in the name of mountaineering purity. So we slogged our way all the way up the mountain. It was a hot hot day, and water went fast. Nevertheless, we felt fit and good, the banter was rolling, and we were having ourselves a damn good time.

Nearer the top of the mountain, we ran into my friend James, who had started the hike from Ishizuchi’s south side in order to meet us on our way up.
After another couple of hot hours, myself, Nate and James gained the airy summit of Ishizuchi-san, having left Roger resting a painful hip at our lunch spot. We played around on the summit a little, enjoying the vertiginous feelings it inspired, before going back to Roger, and descending the southern side of the mountain.

Another three or so hours later, we finally got ourselves to the camp ground, and made a great little base. After a bath (my first mixed onsen!) at a nearby lodge, the three boys and I joined the lodge caretaker and his one guest for some dinner and drinks that the guest insisted on paying for. He was an incredibly nice fellow who had come to Ishizuchi for sentimental reasons. His wife and him had enjoyed climbing the mountain together, but sadly, his wife died five years ago. He had come back for her.
We soon called it a night, the three original members of my party heading to our tents, leaving James merrily chugging sho-chu with the guest and the lodge caretaker (who is a friend of James’).

Sunday dawned bright and clear. Roger complained that his hip and knee were hurting badly after so much climbing the day before. Nate and I were also pretty wiped out, so we made the decision to avoid climbing another mountain by taking a path which, on the map, looked to skirt round the base of the mountain, yet still put us in the same end point as if we had taken our original route. We consulted the caretaker who said he’d never heard of anyone using that path before, and that it may be bad. We decided to try it anyway (Fools? Us?).

We found the path after one false start, and jauntily walked down it, chewing the fat, and marveling at the good weather. Or some such crap equally as cheerful. The path started to get overgrown, but was still visible, and looked to be following a river. On we went. Eventually, the path became completely overgrown but by the time we realized this little fact, we had already clambered down or around several waterfalls and other bothersome geographical entities. We stopped and debated. I think my exact words were “Well, I’m up for an adventure”, and this seemed to be the general consensus of the group, so we went on (Fools? Us? Yeah, ok.)

The going got stupidly difficult, but we knew (or so we thought) where we were, and since the path on the map was only two-three kilometers long, we were convinced that, as long as we followed the river, we’d hit our road sooner or later.
It came to one o’clock, and the landscape kept forcing us higher into the surrounding mountain. This was not in the plan, and so Nate left us on a foray to try to find a way down to the river. He came back some time later to report a huge waterfall ahead of us, and that our only way past it was to climb up the mountain around it. We thrashed our way through the forest climbing higher and higher. Eventually, we got to a high point. The head of the mountain ridge. Here, we were able to see our valley and the one next it, and hear the river in the other valley. If the valleys merged into one, then so did the rivers. And that was a major feature on our map! Mild concern gave way to relief as we realized that we were indeed on the right track, that the compass had been right, and that the map wasn’t totally awry. We decided, since the drop down to the river was so steep in our valley, to cross over into the other valley, and follow that river instead.

Lo and behold, the same geographical boundaries stood in our way. A big waterfall forced us high up into the neighbouring mountain in order to avoid it. By this time, it had reached 5pm. It was clear that we were not going to get to our intended destination by nightfall. Rather than try to follow the blasted river any further, we decided to hack up to the top of the ridge we were on in order to find flat ground in order to pitch a tent on. We had been attacked by various biting insects all day, and staying a night out in the open on a slope with no protection would have made a meal of us. A desperate hour of serious uphill work later, we gained to top of the ridge. Or at least a flat part of it. On the way up, we heard the shrine drums on Ishizuchi-san, and were sure we could hear the cable car, and this reinforced in us the idea that we were in the right area. For my part, half of me felt scared and worried and disbelieving that I was about to spend an unscheduled night on a mountain, the other part felt like I was in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ or an Enid Blyton adventure, and looked forward to missing school the next day in order to get myself out of a pickle.

We cleared enough space to pitch my little 1.5 man tent (big enough for one, two is getting cosy). Got out the sleeping gear and crammed ourselves inside. It was a long, hot, uncomfortable night. Thankfully it didn’t rain. Three of us in there. A well-built American on one side, a massive Swiss bloke on the other and wee me in the middle. By the time my alarm went off at 5am, we were all suffering with cramps and lack of sleep. We were also all partially dehydrated. Water had become a problem around the same time as we decided to camp out, and Roger even suggested we conserve our wee in the empty water bottles just in case. We didn’t. What we did do was split the one and only grapefruit we had brought with us. As I said, I don’t like grapefruit. But that night, parched, worried and hungry, it was the best thing that had ever passed my lips. It was sweet enough to stop my tummy gurgling, it had bite enough to refresh, and it had juice enough to trick my tongue into peeling itself off the roof of my mouth. I haven’t eaten another grapefruit yet, but I bought one today, and am planning on eating it when I next want a drink. So, before I reach the end of my story, here is its message: if you want to start liking a particular food, get yourself lost in the woods with some of it, and I guarantee, it’ll be your new favourite by the time you get out.

The next morning, we set off around 5.45am. Not the way we came, and I can’t for the life of me remember why we didn’t. There was a logical reason for not going back down the same ridge we came up, I know there was, but it escapes me now. Anyway, we decided to head down the side of the mountain rather than the ridge, and the going was tough. We had to use long reedy grass as ‘rope’, lowering ourselves down backwards much of the time. The mountain was really steep, and if we fell, it could have been pretty bad.

We found a stream high enough up to fill our water bottles with, and that was a massive relief. The low water had been gnawing away at us all, and although we didn’t voice our thoughts to each other, it had become a major concern.
Once again, the valley floor hid behind impossibly high or steep cliffs, and wouldn’t let us down. I suppose I had thought it before this point, but I think I first remember the water stop being a point where I worried about dying. Everyone, from the moment they are aware of death, has had the thought or uttered worries about possibility of death. But how many people have uttered them without the slightest hint of flippancy? For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that it was very possible I might die in that place. It wasn’t a huge jolt, it wasn’t ever at the front of my brain, it was just a quiet voice in some part of my head whispering a memento mori to me.

We turned to climb away from the river, since it was about to go over another waterfall, and we couldn’t follow it. After a little while, we stopped for a break. Exhausted. We looked at each other. The boys said we should phone for help. I wanted to keep going. The idea that we actually needed help to get us out of this situation was still a little far-fetched to me, and I wanted to keep going til midday. The boys, though, were firm, and I relented.
Nate and I had our cell phones with us (stroke of luck number one), but the signal was patchy, so we had to climb higher to use them. I contacted Claire, the Tokushima PA, Nate contacted Sean, the artist living in H.Iya. And that was it. The ball was rolling.

What we had to do now was climb to as high as we could, find a spot with as few trees as possible and wait.
It took another two hours to do this, and I don’t think I have ever felt so utterly defeated. The enormity of the situation we were in hit me, and I grunted and moaned and whimpered my up the mountainside. The vegetation was so thick, we could barely see 10 feet in front of us. We had to use our arms to fight our way through, and today I consequently look like I’ve been self harming. When we finally got to a semi-clear point, and could go on no further (neither our bodies nor the mountain would allow it), I sat down and cried. I was totally exhausted, hope of us getting out without help was gone, people were worrying about us, and we were now at the mercy of nature and the police. I guess we had always been at the mercy of nature; one fall could have broken someone’s ankle, and the whole thing could have gone differently. A snakebite. Rain. No river with which to refill our water bottles. But as long as we believed we were walking out by ourselves, it felt like we were in control. As soon as we called for help, it was like we relinquished that control to other parties, and that, I think, is what broke me.

After I pulled myself together, we dug out my tent fly sheet and strung it up in the trees. We had some calls from the police trying to ascertain our position. We waited. We didn’t say much. Eventually, we heard the sound of the helicopter approaching. When it came into view, we went mad, shouting (like they’d be able to hear us), waving the tent sheet, using my mirror to reflect the sunlight. Thankfully, they saw us. The helicopter swooped over us, looking at our position and waving to us (we must have looked like we were totally mental, jumping up and down and waving like crazy). They started speaking to us through a loud speaker, telling us not to move from our position, and saying that another chopper would be back in three hours to pick us up. It flew around some more, I guess documenting our exact location before it moved away.

It was intense. I can’t describe the feeling we got from seeing this helicopter seeing us. We hugged, and laughed, and knew that we’d be ok. We were all totally blown away.
In the time we were waiting, we were pretty quiet. I don’t remember much about it, apart from saying that I was going to email the girl who sold me the tent we strung up in the trees, an ex-JET called Alison. We got some more emails from the people who’d been involved in finding us. We called and emailed various people to let them know we were found. We basked in the feeling. We laughed. We marveled, and shook our heads a million times. We wondered how much it’d all cost, and whether we’d need to pay for it. Still, to me at least, it didn’t feel like it was actually happening.

Some two hours later, we got the call saying the helicopter was coming early, and we were to get ready. We packed up all our stuff, and set about straining our ears for the slightest sound. There it was. A big white chopper, with winching equipment attached to it flew into view. It was on the wrong side of the valley to start, but we did our crazy dance again, and when it turned round, it saw us. Now it started to feel real. We were about to be WINCHED off a mountain into a HELICOPTER. Isn’t that the maddest thing ever? My tummy was up somewhere near my throat at the realisation that I, as the only female in the group, would be first to go. Two men in orange jump suits came whizzing down the wire, and sure enough, clipped me in first.
Then I was off the ground, with an orange-clad dude clipped in underneath me, flying high above the green abyss. If my nerves hadn’t been so totally shredded, then I think it’s an experience I would have enjoyed. Said nerves, however, were in tatters, so I simply held on tight, and kept my eyes mostly shut. I looked round long enough to ascertain that we were, indeed, in the arsehole of beyond; nothing to see apart from trees and sky, and a distinctive looking landslide we had spied, which probably did a better job of getting us found than our ‘directions’.

Our rescue crew was wonderful, very kind men who didn’t look at us like we were the stupid kids we were, but simply asked us if we were ok, and kept grinning at us, giving us thumbs up. At one point, as we were waiting for Nate to be winched in, they said they wanted to leave our bags behind. I must have looked pretty stricken (that would have really been bad; the amount of borrowed equipment that we had, not to mention the loss of all the important gubbins in our wallets, plus our cameras) because they decided to bring them up as well. Kagawa Air Rescue, I bow down to you.

A short, bumpy ride later, we were back on the ground in Saijo city, where we were met by a fire crew (?) and three supremely kind police officers, two of whom spoke English. After they took our statements, we got into the car, and were dropped off at Saijo bus station to take a bus back to where we had left the car. The whole thing was over so quickly… from being picked up off the mountain to being dropped off at the station took less than an hour. I felt sure we would have been taken to hospital for a once-over, or at the very least taken to the police station to give proper statements. Nope.
After a 45 minute bus ride, we were back at the car, and met by Nate’s Board of Education Supervisor. That’s when the enormity of what we had done hit us. We were going to have to bow down low, make lots of apologies, eat lots of humble pie.

I didn’t think that the experienced had had a hugely negative effect on my mind… however, without the slightest trace of melodrama, on the way home in the car, I was looking at trees in a very different light. I had trouble dropping off to sleep, my mind kept on floating back to the forest, and I had the oddest sensation of fighting my way through trees again, of feeling rotten wood cracking under my feet, threatening to send me bouncing back down the mountainside. I think I still feel a bit unsettled, but as time goes on, it feels like it was a dream.

I spent yesterday (Tuesday) morning being frog marched around various offices at the Board of Education by my Kocho-sensei, making many apologies to the people I’d worried (the entire BoE, it would seem). I had to stand up and apologise to the staff of the school in the morning meeting (who I swear had vicariously enjoyed my adventure). Kocho drove all the way to Matsuyama to talk to the police there (not sure why he had to go all that way, the operation was based out of Saijo). It wasn’t a fun day. I spoke to Dad on MSN, he laughed at me, I just cried a bit. I cancelled eikaiwa last night, washed my clothes, started writing this.

Not sure how to wrap the story up. Yes I am. I made a playlist for our car trips to and from the moutain. It’s a pretty generic playlist. But one of the songs was one I discovered about a month ago, and it has been crying out for some sort of context to attach it firmly to my soul. Well, now it has one. It’s called ‘Teen Angst’ and it’s by M83. Another song on the list is called ‘Oh My Corazon’ by Tim Burgess. We listened to this one the way home, Nate commenting that it seemed very appropriate for the situation. I couldn’t agree more.
The picture is us after the first chopper found us.

1 comment:

Fletcher said...

That's an adventure and a half that would be hard to top!
But if there was any time to have an experience like that, it was now, just before your time in Japan is up. While I couldn't say that I actually want that experience, I must say I'm a little envious of you for the adventure. That's a story you can tell again and again for the rest of your life.