Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Playa del Hombre lay a bit less than halfway between Gran Canaria’s airport and its main city, Las Palmas. So I decided to go there straight from the airport before continuing on to the city.
Doing so, however, meant carrying my luggage on my shoulders while marching under the blinding Canarian sun. From the nearest bus stop on the main road, it was a good 25 minutes on foot to Playa del Hombre. An elderly man with a cane tried to point me in the right direction. A desultory cafe in the corner stood empty and yawning. The roads here weren’t particularly built for pedestrians, and cars whizzed by me angrily. A trio of teenage girls tried to waylay me after I’d barely started. When I pretended that I didn’t understand them, they switched to broken English: “One money,” they cried, “one Euro.”
Playa del Hombre was not a noted destination on Gran Canaria, the most populated of the Canary Islands. It was but a small settlement by the sea of a few streets tracing semi-circles around its eponymous beach of volcanic black sand, populated by low houses painted in warm colors to correspond with the sun. But I was not the first one to come here. Instead I followed a trickle of others who looked much like me, Chinese or Taiwanese visitors who came to see the former home of the famous Chinese/Taiwanese writer Sanmao.
If it was pilgrimage, I told myself, then the added weight that I was carrying was appropriate. Pilgrimages aren’t supposed to be easy.
But I’d only ever read one of her books, and only fairly recently. When I was a young boy in Taiwan, Sanmao was someone whom some of my elementary school teachers, particularly the young women, would speak of in hushed tones of admiration. My family moved away before I got around to discovering why they were so bowled over. And I wouldn’t discover it until many years later.
Sanmao was a pen name meaning “three dimes,” which was what she said her own writings were worth. Her real name was Chen Ping, though she went by “Echo” in English. Born in China before the outcome of the Chinese civil war forced her family to relocate to Taiwan, she dropped out of school after a math teacher insisted that she cheated on exams and humiliated her publicly (in fact, young Echo had figured out where the teacher got questions from and simply memorized the answers). She was homeschooled after that, and predisposed to melancholy. Later, very exceptionally for a young Taiwanese of her time, she got the opportunity to go abroad to study. She spent time in America, Germany, and Spain, where she met a high school boy eight years younger named José. When they met again a few years later, José was all grown up and in a hurry to declare his love for her.
The one book of Sanmao’s that I read, Sahara Stories, tells of how they wound up getting married.
As Sanmao told it, they were sitting on a park bench in Madrid on a frigid winter’s morning, and José wanted to know what she planned to do the following year.
“Not much,” she said. “Going to Africa after Easter.” By Africa, she meant the Sahara Desert.
“How long are you going to be in the Sahara?” José asked.
“At least six months or a year. I want to get to know the desert.”
Without saying much more, José began looking for and eventually found a job working at a mining operation in Spanish Sahara (what is now Western Sahara) so that he could be with her. They wound up getting married before a Spanish magistrate in Laayoune.
One day in late March, I discovered to my surprise that that day’s Google Doodle was a cartoon of Sanmao scribbling in the desert. I wasn’t the only one who was surprised, and delighted. When you come from a non-dominant culture, there is always a particular warmth of affirmation when you find the Western world talking about something you always thought was of your province only and not shared universally. A number of Chinese and Chinese-American voices on social media talked about her influence on them.
Eileen Chow, visiting professor at Duke, tweeted, “When I was younger, San Mao both enthralled and discomfited me — her wanderlust, her lyricism, her emotionality, her unabashed love for her Spanish husband — she was the very embodiment of Too Much-ness.... She offered up the possibility of living an unprescribed life.” Another voice said that before Sanmao, she didn’t know that we Chinese had bohemian types, too.
Thinking back to the tales in Sahara Stories, I feel I can just about put my finger on the quality that makes her so memorable. In one story, too late one afternoon, she and José decided to drive into the desert to look for fossils, only to have José fall into quicksand. When she waved down a passing vehicle for help, the men in the car decided to try to rape her, so that she had to lead them on a chase among the sand dunes until they lost her. When she finally evaded the men and circled back to José, he had almost frozen to death in the cold desert night. As they headed to a doctor in Laayoune, he asked her, “Do you still want to see fossils?”
“Yes,” she said. “You?”
“Even more so.”
“When do we come back?”
In another story, Sanmao and José drive all the way to the African coast to fish and then bring the catch back to Laayoune to sell. Fresh fish in the desert was supposed to fetch a good price. Except neither of them had thought much about how much they would charge for the fish, so they were selling them far too cheaply. And they sold a good portion to the Hotel Nacional, the state-owned establishment that was the center of Laayoune social life. By the time they got home, they were so hungry and exhausted that they decided to eat out. Where? The Hotel Nacional of course, where the people who just bought the fish from them served it back to them on a plate for twelve times the price.
Much has been said about the Sanmao-José love story as forming the core of the Sanmao mythos. It is also true that Sanmao’s choice of a peripatetic life captured the romantic imagination of her readers, at a time when it actually was hard to imagine a Chinese woman living as a bohemian. It is also surely true that, in the 1970s, when the Taiwanese were generally unable to visit foreign countries, her descriptions of faraway lands seemed impossibly exotic, a factor that seems unlikely today.
But to my mind, it is this zest for life that’s the most romantic thing about Sanmao. This way of saying we go back “tomorrow afternoon” right after one of them almost died and the other was almost raped. This way of relishing the fish that they bought back from the people they just sold it to. This way of loving, of embracing, of being alive, even when, or especially when, everything seems to go wrong.
And a great deal went wrong in Sanmao’s life. In 1975, Morocco and Mauritania moved into Spanish Sahara as international pressure built for Spain to decolonize. Sanmao and José moved to the Canary Islands, to Playa del Hombre. There in the Canaries, José died in a diving accident at the age of 27. After that Sanmao moved back to Taiwan, where she eventually hanged herself while in the hospital — though there is some dispute as to whether she did so intentionally.
Echo, the nymph, was a tragic figure as well. In maturity, Sanmao criticized her own early works as narcissistic. In Greek mythology, Echo had to watch the man she loved, Narcissus, fall in love with himself.
I found the house she once shared with José, its walls painted salmon, with a palm tree rising straight and tall from the center of its yard. Another family lived there now. But a plaque outside let me know that this was in fact her house.
Then I went down to the beach. When she wasn’t writing, Sanmao often went to the beach just a stone’s throw away.
But the instant I got there, I heard a snap. One of the plastic clasps on my backpack, after nearly four years of constant use, had finally given out and broken in half.
Normally, this sort of mishap would annoy me a fair amount and cause me to swear under my breath. After all, I still had to carry the bag back uphill to the bus stop.
But this time I smiled instead. How appropriate, how very Sanmao. Everything goes wrong, and yet you embrace life for what it is, for all the romance that it makes possible.
All the romance, and all the tragedies.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."