I apologize for being inconsistent about publishing. I’m struggling to write. So this week I’m doing something different. This is an excerpt from a novel I have been “writing”. Mostly it’s been laying on my shelf. The novel is fictional, but the event described here, did happen, more-or-less as portrayed. However, it took place at Kimpo airport in the early 1990s, not in Taiwan. I will be back to providing probing analyses of trivialities soon.
Here ya go….
I arrived in Taiwan pre-internet, so there was no prearranging local accommodation and transportation, except at a small handful of expensive Western chains. As a very broke kid with a backpack this wasn’t an option. However, it was late at night, dark, and I was confused, jet-lagged and unsure how many days it had been since I slept. So, I went to the airport hotel kiosk, to get them to arrange a hotel for me, not the international backpacker’s solution. Their most valuable skill set was the ability to roll up in a foreign land, get into town, cheaply, and then find the cheapest possible accommodation. I suppose that sounds easy—it’s not! Of course, anyone can get a cab from the airport into town, and find a hotel, but a cab is not cheap, and a hotel is usually a budget-buster. No. Before the internet the accomplished international backpacker needed to be able to land in a foreign country cold, and immediately suss out how to get a bus into an area of the city they wanted to go, and figure out the cheapest form of accommodation. In most countries this is not a hotel, in many countries it’s not even a hostel, some places have unique forms of cheap accommodation. I always looked on in wonder at those able to arrive in a country and figure this all out while miserable and exhausted from travel. [Kickin’ It Old School with GenX].
I wasn’t going that route. I wanted an evening to get my head together, before setting out to find a new life. When I rolled up on the kiosk, the staff asked me what kind of hotel I wanted. I expressed my needs succinctly, “The cheapest available room, my good man.” The head service person sniffed, looked down his nose at me, and tossed me a binder full of snapshots of hotels, ranging from expensive, at the front of the book, to relatively inexpensive at the back. I clawed my way to the back of the book and looked at the two or three hotels I could reasonably afford. Truthfully, I couldn’t afford even them, I needed to go off in search of a hostel or similar, but it was too much for jetlagged me to deal with.
I pointed to the picture of a likely looking shithole. One of the counter-staff, a warm friendly young woman, quite the counterpoint to her supervisor, helped me phone the hotel, and ascertain that they did indeed have a vacancy. She reserved the room, gave me a name card for the hotel, and sent me on my way, with a warm smile.
I got about three paces before spinning on my heels to get some follow up information. “Where can I get a taxi?”
“If you go through that door,” pointing to a nearby exit, “you’ll find plenty of taxis waiting.”
“How much should the taxi to cost?” That’s my international traveler experience coming to the fore.
“Well,” she made a face clearly showing there might be some issues, “I usually pay seven or eight hundred NT.”
Anticipating no problems, I gave Trina, according to her nametag, a winning smile, and a wave of the hotel’s name card. Trina only blanched slightly at the equine-like grin – I knew I’d like Taiwan.
As soon I walked out of the terminal, I was enfolded in Taiwan’s warm moist air. It was rather like returning to a polluted womb. I arrived March 19, 1996, and I began sweating as soon as I stepped out of the airport, little known to me, I wouldn’t stop sweating until December.
There was a long line of yellow taxis in front of the arrivals terminal. Departing passengers were forming a fairly orderly line, precariously balancing suitcases and knapsacks atop their trollies, as they tried to roll forward to where a cab would whisk them the 50 km. into Taipei. I joined the queue and patiently awaited my turn to get into a cab.
When I got to the front of the line, I poked my head in the window, gave the cabdriver the hotel card, and was surprised when he said, “Yes, yes, I know that place, 40,000 NT.”
And so the dance begins, I was glad I had the foresight to ask Trina the price of a cab into town, I gave him my best are-you-insane smile, and countered with, “No. How about 600 NT?”
He shook his head and gave a quick foreigners-are-so-amusing laugh.
“Well, let’s use the meter,” I said pointing to the dust-covered digital meter.
The cab driver just shook his head, while jerking his thumb towards the rear of the line of cabs.
I stood there, nonplussed, with my backpack hanging from my arms, like a dead albatross. I didn’t know what to do, apparently if a taxi driver waited in line until he got to the front, he expected to be compensated with a month’s pay. As I was standing there tired, confused and unsure, other equally befuddled—if less budget-minded travelers—took my cab. Others began aggressively spilling down the line jostling for cabs. There’s something about fighting to board a crowded local train, or cab, that turns even mild-mannered tourists into imps from Hell, bent on climbing over those around them, as long as it allows them the salvation of a ride.
I began to get worried. Arriving exhausted, broke, and alone to a new country, where you know nothing, is scary. It gets even more nerve-racking when things begin to unravel. Right now the ball of nervous energy that had resided in the pit of my stomach for the entire flight was being scattered all over the pavement, as though it were a ball of yarn being played with by a sabre tooth tiger, and I hadn’t even made it a hundred paces into Taiwan. Worse—I wasn’t sure how to get further into the country.
I hefted my knapsack onto my back and began trudging down the taxi line, occasionally leaning my head into taxis, asking for a reasonable price into Taipei. I just kept getting pointed to the end of the line. On the upside, the adrenaline allowed me to carry my ridiculously heavy bag like a true Sherpa.
Finally, I reached the last taxi in line. The driver did not inspire much confidence in his integrity. He was of indeterminate age, either a hard-living 25 or a well-preserved 50, with a likewise non-descript wardrobe. He wore tatty slacks, and a brown plaid shirt that had that quality of having been new-old stock left over in some dusty recess of a general store since the 1950s, no socks, and blue rubber flip-flops. The inside of the cab was infused with pollution and eau d’old man.
“How much to go here?” showing him the hotel name card. As I looked off to the side I noticed his dashboard. Never have I seen such a pile of crap blocking a driver’s view of the road. Taped or glued to the dash, he had at least fifteen statues of various gods. Hanging from the rearview mirror were prayer beads, garlands and amulets, a jingling mass of superstition and hope. With the statues rising up from the dash, and charms hanging down from the mirror, there was little actual window to peer through to get a sense of what imminent collision the gods were helping to avoid, and which god was better suited to the task.
“8,000NT,” came his reply. I nearly choked. He was the last cab in the line, and his cab could best be described as a rolling trashcan.
I hoped the utter desperation was not apparent in my voice as I countered with, “600NT.” I was beginning to have visions of spending the next week sleeping in the airport as I tried to figure out how to get into Taipei.
Well, at least there was some movement, he wasn’t just telling me to bugger-off.
“900NT,” I countered. Even at that rate, I was going to be grossly overpaying.
He sighed, grunted and moaned, acting like I was driving a real hard bargain, and countered with 4,500NT.
“Look, I know what a cab ride into Taipei is worth, I’ll give you 1,000NT, and that is nearly double what the trip is worth.”
“Look, there is no way you’re getting a cab into Taipei for that price, but I like you,” – yeah, right!!! – “so, I’ll take you for 4,000NT, and that is as low as I’m going to go.”
As I tried to get him lower, he simply stated the obvious, “All I have to do is wait a few more minutes, until I move further up the line, and then I’ll be able to get a customer for much more than 4,000NT.”
He had me there, the price may have been unfair, but I couldn’t see how to get him any lower. I was tired, bone-weary, from a combination of the adrenaline that had been coursing through my veins for the last day, jet-lag, lack of sleep, and the enforced inactivity of international flight. I needed to get someplace where I could shower, de-stress, and try to sleep, before I had to wake up and face another stress-filled day of trying to settle into a foreign country.
I finally agreed to the price, put my backpack into the trunk of the cab, crawled into the backseat, and laid my head back with a sigh.
The driver, his name was Jimmy, Jimmy Chen, as it turned out, was very chatty. Indeed, throughout the whole nearly hour long ride, he barely stopped to draw breath. I’m quiet by nature, my natural reticience was compounded by tiredness and the surety that I was being ripped-off. At most I grunted or sighed in reaction to Jimmy’s dialog. I was vaguely amazed at his English level, he was able to keep up a running monologue in English that bordered on the amazing. I supposed that with the amount of money he was pulling in, he probably had hired an entire department of foreigners to act as English support staff at Jimmy’s Taxi LTD Corporate HQ.
I occupied myself during the cab ride by lolling my head from side-to-side, looking out the window, and watching the lights and neon signs go by. If you’ve never seen an Asian city at night, it really is something to behold. Jimmy’s constant droning barely cracked my consciousness.
Finally, about fifty minutes later, and a full four hours after my flight arrived, we pulled up in front of the hotel. The Hotel Palace, belying its grandiose title, was neither grand nor palatial. Its façade was little more than a nondescript doorway that opened straight onto the sidewalk, with none of the amenities normally associated with hotels, such as a place for cabs with arriving guests to park and unload their baggage. So, Jimmy had to double-park in front of the hotel. He popped the trunk and dodged through the whir of cars and scooters to unload my bag from the trunk. Mighty kind. Traffic in Taipei is unique for the number of scooters. Each of the city’s intersections seems to buzz with dozens of motorized bikes, some holding entire families along with the family pet. Once, during Chinese New Year, I saw a family of four—mother, father, and two preteen children—along with grandma, and the family dog riding through town on a 125cc scooter. The mass of scooters whirl and circle through traffic, ignoring any known traffic rules, simply following the path of least resistance as they drive between cars, on sidewalks, along crosswalks, etc. I’m sure if you could take an aerial view, they would look like a mass of angry hornets circling the nest.
Jimmy lept, uncaring, into this swarm of traffic, and it simply flowed around him as he headed to the back of the car and gathered up my bag. As I stood on the sidewalk watching, Jimmy hefted the bag out of the trunk, to reveal a small pile of suspicious white powder that had fallen from the bag, or sifted through its porous material, to form a small mound in the trunk.
Any bonhomie that had existed between Jimmy and I rapidly evaporated as he turned on me. “Hey! What is this? Huh?” There was genuine anger and accusation in his eyes.
I was stymied. I really didn’t know what it was, but I was concerned, the anti-drug signs in the airport kept flashing through my head. I’d been saving meeting the bullet with my name for a much later date. Jimmy looked angry enough to act as judge, jury, and executioner.
“Uhmmm,…” I said, shifting my gaze left and right, looking for a way out, which probably didn’t help me to look innocent. “I really don’t know what that is.”
Of course, this did nothing to assuage Jimmy, as he scowled at me and firmly demanded that I don’t try to move. He picked up some of the powder and began rolling it around between his gloved fingers, he was wearing white work gloves, which was common among taxi drivers at the time. He was really carrying on, doing everything he had learned undoubtedly from watching re-runs of American TV cop dramas, he examined the powder closely, rolled it around some more, touched his tongue to it, took a bit and rubbed it against his gums, just like on Miami Vice.
Meanwhile, I was rapidly reaching the end of my tether. I’d about had it. I was so exhausted I could barely stand, I was still sore about being ripped-off on the cab fare, I had barely been able to tolerate being in the same cab with Jimmy on the way into Taipei. Dealing with this scene in front of a slowly gathering mob of pedestrians pushed me over the edge.
“I don’t know what that stuff is. It is not drugs! I guarantee that.” Then I reached out, grabbed my pack, threw it over my shoulder and turned around to walk away.
Jimmy shouted something I couldn’t understand.
As I turned my back, I heard Jimmy take some of the powder and snort it. Jimmy was overtaken by a violent fit of sneezing and wheezing as I walked towards the hotel’s front entrance. I could feel an evil grin spreading across my face. Whatever that powder was, I knew it didn’t belong in his sinus cavity. It served the bastard right for hosing me on the cab fare.
The mystery was solved when I got into my room, opened my bag and found all my clothes covered in white powder. The can of Desenex I was carrying had exploded. Desenex is an anti-fungal powder to combat crotch rot. Jimmy shouldn’t need to worry about contracting a case of jock-nose for the rest of his life.