Sunday, August 23, 2009

Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond

Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond
When I got on the plane bound for Taiwan I was freaking out. I had less than one week before school started to attempt to understand a completely alien culture enough to land a job and find a place to live-- I was flying into the belly of the beast and I was almost certain I would fail. Aside from the logistical problems of my arrival, I was also worried about what I was leaving behind. What did I just begin? What did I just end? Will they be able to pronounce my last name there? It has both L and R. Will I guide in the Spring? Who will miss me? Who will I miss? Am I in love? Where should I park my motorcycle? Will I meet people over there? Who will show up to my 10 year high school reunion? Does I-5 go all the way to Mexico? Does God exist?
I had brought some illegal third world Valium in my pocket to help me calm down on the flight, and now seemed like a good time to take one, seeing as how I was temporarily unable to sort my questions into categories of "inconsequential" or "urgent." I'll wake up in 6 hours and then I can start reading the lonely planet guidebook for Taiwan. Not to be. I awoke almost 10 hours later as the asian flight attendant was announcing our impending arrival in Taipei. "Radies and gentuh-meen" the announcement began "anyone found to be in possession of ear-eagle drugs in Taiwan faces a mandatory sentence of capit-uh pun-eesh-meent." Probably something I should have known before I boarded this plane. It was time to swill down my remaining valium so as not to be decapitated upon my arrival. I was sure that this was going to slow down the job search.
I was told not to mention any ambitions regarding a job search as I passed through immigration. The immigration agent was polite but skeptical and treated me like some sort of drug addict, which is I'm sure exactly how I looked to him. He seemed upset that I had no round trip flight, but I told him I was planning on going to Hong Kong from here. He gave me a look that said "you better not fuck up my country with your hippie backpacker ways" and stamped my passport for 30 days. So I have 30 days to get my shit together here before I try the next country on my list which I guess is Canada.
The airport was extremely clean and modern. I sat down and worked on my computer for awhile because it said I could do that there. I would later find out that pretty much this entire country is wired. I can get free internet access in the cafes, on the street, at home, in the bar, or anywhere else. Only the American corporations like McDonalds and Starbucks which are (disappointingly) everywhere make you pay for it. Momentarily though I was in the airport for one very important reason. I didn't know what to do next.
I looked for hostels in the guidebook and the one that I picked came equipped with a friendly little asian woman who greeted me in the street with broken English, after the cab driver failed to find the exact address. It was then that I learned that phonetic spelling is kind of the norm. My hotel was on Zhongshan Rd but this was also spelled SengXien so the guy was understandably confused. Lin Tai Tai (I think the "Tai Tai" part means "wife of") as my new landlord was called, walked through the house at a pace that I was unable to follow in my valium saturated state. She walked me through some of the logistics of Taipei life, gave me keys, charged me too much and then made a call on my behalf to a sort of "teacher pimp" who would help to find me a job. I have an interview on Monday. I sat down on the couch for awhile underneath a handwritten sign that reads "he who has no doubt has no wisdom."
This done, I wandered down the street to the library taking my inspiration from Fitzgerald's character "Owl Eyes" who uses the sobriety of the library to help him break free of his inebriated state. I thought books would help me return to the world of the ambulatory, or at least help me to stop drooling on myself. It was here that I met my first friend in Taiwan. "Heyyyy wassssup" I lolled. He was energetic and friendly, tidy and well put together-- from Denver. We exchanged some salutations and then he offered to show me around the MRT-- Taipei's underground railway system. "Arrrr--ighhtt" I agreed, sounding like a drunken Pirate.
The metro was crowded and people flowed in an orderly fashion from one place to another, no one confused as to where they were going or what they were doing-- so lacking doubt in fact that I began to suspect their wisdom. We rode an escalator down, then across, then up, then down a longer one in a labyrinthine network of twists and turns that I was sure I could not replicate if I had to do so on my own. I just stood in the middle of the escalator, but homeboy pulled me to the side so that people who were in a bigger hurry could pass me on the left. It was easy for the unobservant and sedated American to violate minor customs.
Denver and I talked about how systematic and orderly things seemed to be in Taiwan. Nowhere did I see anyone who seemed destitute. Nowhere did I see any sign of anyone in need or anyone lacking direction or purpose. Never did I feel like I was in danger or threatened in any way. Never did I feel that sense of foreboding like when walking home from the bar late at night in Kathmandu or wandering down an unfamiliar alley in Delhi or when drunkenly passing out in my truck underneath the Alaska Way Viaduct. Denver said he thought it was because people remember the days of martial law, and have not forgotten those lessons. Despite the free society in which they find themselves today, the Taiwanese are sort of afraid and the solution is conformity. Right now I was recognizable from 100 yards, the slouching drugged out non conformist white guy who stood a head above all of the asians in the subway totally bewildered. My confusion was my wisdom.
In the interest of exploration I took the metro to the end of the line to Danshui and the edge of the city. I walked through a crowded market where all sorts of disgusting ocean dwelling critters were hawked at high volume in three or four different languages, none of which I understood at all. Through the miracle of modern english language signage I learned that this part of the island is thought to be a sleeping lady entombed inside a mountainside. The Leavenworthians have a similar legend. I toured a fort that was once placed there by the Portuguese and then overtaken by the dutch, eventually the British and finally the Chinese. On the wall inside the fort still hangs a portrait of Queen Elizabeth in the "officer's quarters." A stone man looks out at me through a porthole in the wall, a silent reminder of ancient abuses in the colonial jail cell. Briefly I wonder which side of the bars I am on as sweat pours down my back and I think of my new life on an intolerably hot 160 mile long island over which infestations of city lights crawl light a blight over a leaf.
I walk back down the hilltop where the fort stands toward the riverfront. It is Chinese Valentine's Day. According to the legend, and there are many variations, the cowherd and the weaver girl fell so deeply in love that they forgot their worldly duties. This angered the gods -- it probably angered everyone--and so the lovers were separated forever. Once a year though, magpies who took pity on the lovers would fly together to form a bridge that would enable the lovers to be together for one night. As I walked under a bridge across which was painted a depiction of the magpies, analogies surrounding my own life became all too clear.