The rain poured down in Taipei and I shivered because it's the type of cold that goes straight to the bones. Dave, the brother of a friend of mine, and his wife, were kind enough to meet me at the airport after my flight from Vancouver and put me up for a few days in their flat in the center of the city. They were from South Africa and although I could understand Dave quite clearly, a translator wouldn't have helped me with the wife. Other than 'get me another beer'and 'I'd love another pint' I couldn't understand a word she uttered. I finally attributed her garble to the empty beer cases stacked up against the wall in the kitchen.
Taipei in January. It was too cold, too rainy, too dirty, too expensive, and too congested. I toured around the city a few times before deciding to leave. No sense getting depressed here, I can always get depressed in a sunnier climate and I also didn't want to overstay my welcome. The greasy food, the drinking, and the pretending I could understand what the wife was saying was stretching my thin veneer of patience and stability, not to mention destroying my stomach and liver. I said thank you very much with as much enthusiasm as I could muster and said goodbye and bought a train ticket for Hualien.
Hualien is a beautiful city on the mountainous east coast of Taiwan, close to the spectacular Taroko Gorge, where the most breathtaking landscape in Taiwan can be found.
It was late in the day when I checked in at the Dalian Hotel. Rain poured down in sheets when I went out to get something to eat and email friends and I shivered in my leather jacket as I searched for an internet cafe. I glanced up at the name of the street I was on. Easy enough to remember, I thought. Da-Ching. I browsed in a few shops and walked a few blocks, but I was cold and hungry so I ducked into a McDonald's, which was easier than trying to deconstruct Chinese dinner menus at a Taiwanese restaurant. No one speaks any English in Taiwan, outside of Taipei.
A word of caution before I proceed: go to McDonald's, but only if you're on the verge of imminent starvation, because it's the worst crap you'll ever eat. Don't order a hamburger in China, and don't order chop suey in Texas. I choked down my apple crisp and threw my hamburger in the garbage and walked out, still hungry. The internet would now have to wait. Once again in the cold, I looked up at the name of the street and tried to recall the name of the street where my hotel was located because the name on the sign was Da-Shing. Was it Da-Ching or Da-Shing? Holy shit. I saw that every street name was a variation on the previous and I got more confused the more names I read.
Trying not to hyperventilate after circling what seemed the same block for an hour, I finally asked a fellow who was burning yellow paper in a large iron tub if he could help me. No, correction, I didn’t ask him. I gesticulated helplessly and randomly, pointing here and there to a phantom hotel, trying to explain that I was lost, and could he help me. I waited. He didn't understand a word I had said.
He brought me inside the building to a travel agency and said something to two women sitting behind a desk, who then covered their mouths and broke into giggles. They looked at me with pity, shaking their heads as I grinned foolishly, standing in front of them drenched with water and sweat from the rain. I said the name of my silly hotel twenty times in twenty different ridiculous accents as I pointed up and down the street, but alas, they still didn't understand what the hell I was trying to say. They searched through telephone books and phoned their friends and relations in order to locate my hotel, but all to no avail. No one had ever heard of the goddammed place. I drifted to a couch and collapsed and thought of my passport and my bank cards. I'm never going to see then again.
The man brewed hot tea and they mentioned the police and as I sat dazed and sweating on the couch I couldn't believe that this was taking on the epic proportions of The Twilight Zone. Finally, when nothing more could be done and I pooh-poohed the idea of calling the police, the man offered to walk me around the town to see if I could spot the hotel. We put on our jackets and took off and I searched for landmarks as he chivalrously held an umbrella over my head and steered me around muddy potholes. After twenty minutes traipsing around the muddy streets, a storefront with mannequins dressed up in space-age clothing looked very familiar and I stopped and studied the window.
'We're close! I know this shop!' I walked quickly to the corner and gazed across the street.
'Oh my God, there it is!'
'Oh, hotel,' he said. 'That DaLIAN Hotel.'
'Dude, that's what I've been trying to say all along.'
'DaLIAN,' he said again, putting all the stress on the last syllable, spitting the name out. I thanked him profusely and went in and collapsed on my bed, hugging and kissing my passport and bank cards and clasping them to my chest and promising never to leave them alone again, or at least never to foolishly leave another hotel in Taiwan without a name card.
I stayed at the Hotel Dong Tair Spa in Chihpen just south of Taitung City on the east coast after I'd been living in Taiwan for a couple of years. As you can see we're wearing masks as we leave Tainan train station (as well as everybody around us) because we were in the middle of the SARS fiasco.
Taitung City Temple
Not all those who wander are lost. – J. R. R. Tolkien