第二天的時候好多了，那天我們到了海拔 3,310 公尺，臺灣第二高的湖泊 – 嘉明湖。她的顏色就像個藍寶石，絲毫不辜負她的綽號 – 「天使的眼淚」。注視著湖水每分每秒的顏色變換，我感受到前所未有地平靜。
但就在要開始下降的今天早上，我的胃還是打結了。在等待隊友們從另個山頭回來的時候，清晨 7 點 30 分的柔和陽光下，我已經開始因為反胃而出汗。為了對抗在肚子裡翻騰著的早餐，我決定將視線定著在遠方。在背包旁坐下後，拿出素描本，一面深呼吸，一面將山巒畫下。
「有看到這邊嗎？這是新康山。妳把它畫得比新仙山低，很好笑捏。而且它對連理山那邊應該比妳畫得陡 – 我每天都走那條路所以我知道啊！」
接下來的半個小時，我在新朋友 – 阿米的幫助下重新描繪了幾個山頭，同時聽著他述說這些山有關的故事。對他而言，畫紙上微小的不規則曲線，代表的是家鄉的地標。阿米談話的口吻，好像這些山是他的朋友，各自有不同的面貌跟個性。這也使我終於開始體會到什麼叫作尊敬山靈。
“You go on ahead — I’m going to sit here and rest a little,” I said as I flung my hiking backpack onto a large stone and gave a sign of relief. My teammates hesitated, but our guide nodded. “Okay, we’ll be back in an hour for you,” she said. “Don’t wander off now!”
I smiled weakly at her words as she led the rest of the group up a path that takes them to another peak. As if I could wander off anywhere, in my condition! It was the third day of my altitude sickness. The first day, when we made our ascent up the mountain, was the worst. For the last couple hours of the climb I threw up nonstop, and thought it was a miracle I reached the shelter at all. The altitude sickness came as a surprise for me, as I had considered myself very healthy and physically fit prior to the trip. Our guide, Little Flower, suggested that I had angered the mountain spirits in some way. With my luck, I had probably kicked the wrong tree and swore at the beginning of the climb.
I felt much better on the second day, when we hiked through clouds to reach Jiaminghu, Taiwan’s second highest lake at 3310 meters above sea level. The lake itself, brilliantly blue like sapphire, lived up to its nickname — the “Teardrop of the Angel”. Watching the waters gradually change colours every minute, I felt calmer and more at peace than I can ever remember.
My stomach was in knots again though this morning, the day of our descent. It was only 7:30am as I waited for my team to return from their side excursion, and though the sun was still soft in the sky, I was already sweating from nausea. My breakfast threatened to make its way back out of my mouth, and I decided to anchor my sight to the far distance. I sat down beside my backpack, took out my sketchbook and began to sketch the mountain range while taking deep breaths.
I had only been sketching a few minutes when a very tanned and tall young man appeared, a couple of bags piled high on his back. It was one of the Taiwanese Indigenous who makes a living carrying the luggages of other tourists up and down the mountains. They make the hike multiple times a day, and can probably do it in their sleep. Suddenly I’m very glad I was sketching instead of throwing up.
“Hello!” He waved, and before I could reply he was already beside me, looking at my sketchbook. “Oh, you’re an artist!” He immediately put down his bags and sat down next to me with an easy smile.
“Not really,” I said, returning his smile. “I just sketch what I see.”
“Well, you’re not doing a very good job here,” he frowns, pointing to my drawing. I look to where he is pointing, feeling a little peeved and ready to defend myself. How dare he critique my work, this stranger? And then I see that he is pointing to some tiny squiggles on one of the mountains. “What do you mean?” I asked curiously.
“See here? This is Xin Kang. You have it lower than Xin Xian, which is just ridiculous. Then there’s a bigger dip to Lian Li — I know because I make that trek everyday!”
For the next half hour, I redrew the mountain peaks with the help of my new friend, Ami, and listened to him tell stories about each of the peaks. To him, they are not tiny squiggles on a page, but landmarks of his home. Ami talked of the mountains as if they were his friends, each with a distinct face and personality. And it was there that I finally began to understand what it means to have respect for the mountain spirits.
“Much better,” Ami said, looking at my new drawing, with each peak drawn to the correct proportion. “Now they look like themselves!” He stood up, and with a grunt hoisted his bags back onto his back. “Well, goodbye. I’m glad to have met you!”
I watched Ami disappear into the clouds and looked back at the mountains. What an entirely different world it is here, a different side to this island that I had not seen before. I felt my altitude sickness dissipate — and in its place, wonder, love, and gratitude.