Funny that I mentioned that place between sleep and wake earlier only to find myself room phone cradled in hand from instinct, my vivid dreams scattered as I answered.
“Is this Jennifer?”
“Are you coming to the Welcome Dinner?
“Um, yes? Yes.”
“Because we are waiting for you.”
Bolt out of bed, plunder suitcase, but no time to change dresses. This one will have to keep doing. It’s great, dark-blue, flattering, comfy, but I have been wearing it for almost 48 hours straight. A loaner from my dear friend Amy, the woman who has literally given me the shift off her back. She travels to the UK regularly and delivered not only a snazzy orange travel case, but a bag of clothes to borrow — I have packed more of her clothes than of my own.
Earrings back in, necklace latched on, no time to brush teeth or dab on more make-up. Great. My first chance to make an impression and I’m frantically slipping into my sandals while simultaneously trying to brush off the white marks left by the deodorant that is not so invisible as advertised.
At least I noticed before racing out the door.
I exit the elevator.
“Jennifer?” Yes, yes, so sorry! “Did you forget?” We’re walking to the posh tour-style bus.
“No, no, the time change,” I offer this excuse soaked in apologetic tone, but no matter, we’re boarding. Maybe 10, 15 of us? Another delegate, the only other blond, says hello. He’s from Bulgaria. Ivo. We sit separately, those of us without partners, scattered throughout the bus.
We roll through downtown Taipei. Hundreds of people walk every which way. Car traffic clogs the streets. Building rise high on either side, signs pop out red, yellow, pink, orange, demarcating Mega-Bank, Rolex, Patagonia, Wholesale Treasure or, more to the point, Fashion.
McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King are included in your eating options. (Not mine!) I continue to be reminded of San Francisco — language barrier and hordes of scooters aside, Taipei is a city and therefore not toally unfamiliar. Not totally, but bigger, more crowded, more pulsating than SF.
I wonder if this is what NYC is like, then wonder if that’s strange to wonder — if when I finally visit NYC, I’ll think, “This is just like Taipei!”
After music, speeches and food, we return to the hotel. I collapse into bed, manage to read half of a Vanity Fair profile on Cher before the Tylenol PM kicks in. Around 4 a.m., the drug wears off and my mind whirs into gear. I tiptoe out to the lobby, polish my presentation even more, study my Taiwan Lonely Planet guide determined to try out a phrase or two during the bird fest.
Ni hau (“Nee how” is how you say, “hello.”)
Xiexie (“Sheshe” is how you say, “thank you.”) (I cannot make the accent marks with the laptop.)
Speaking only one language is stupid. I am the only American and thus the only one who does. This challenges me beyond the obvious practical communication needs. Without the ability to converse, how can I show them how charming and likeable I am? How will I share jokes? So used to integrating myself, I now find myself on the periphery. So it becomes a test: How will I compensate? How will I overcome the barrier? I realize how many smart people I spend time with as I try to channel them. What would Samantha do? What would Beth do? What would those smart journalo-types at the NCJ do? Not shy away into the corner, that’s for sure. I make conversation. I hold my end up, however awkwardly. I ask people about themselves, their lives. Some attempts fall flat, but others result in swapped business cards and promises to be in touch whenever I might find myself in Thailand or the Philippines.
The Taipei International Birdwatching Fair itself unfolds slowly. I join my companions for face painting and end up with a long-tailed blue bird of some sort. Clouds thicken. Water falls from the sky. The rain diminishes attendance, organizers say. In my booth, I am a curiosity, judging from the number of giggling/starry-eyed students who interview me. What are you doing? What is Ocean Conservancy? How do you like Taiwan? I explain, elaborate, try to answer without boring them. Xiexie, I say. People like the tote bags and stickers at my table, but it’s the Bird Society of Thailand’s merch next door that really excites them. T-shirts! Everyone wants T-shirts! My handler, Chen (sp?), watches my table while I cruise the other booths, buying trinkets for gifts and thinking what a lousy money columnist I am. Or rather, hypocritical. Advise much, Ms. Impulse Purchaser?
I am the first presenter. My slideshow is solid, gorgeous photos from Ron LeValley, a logical, accessible overview of seabird protection. Two people show up. I wish I’d thought to record the translator; hearing my statements turned Chinese, but with added emphasis in places I could not identify slightly thrilled me.
The day goes on and on. Performances break up the monotony. Conversation passes the time. I wander to the observation area and marvel at Taipei 101 looming in the distance. A look through giant binoculars reveals herons and some sort of little tern-like birds. By mid-afternoon, I’m fading. Mud cakes my ankles. Today is my birthday and I want to go to Taipei 101 and out dancing. Theoretically. But my energy flags and these are not party people I’m hanging with: they’re birders.
Back to the hotel at 8 p.m. Ivo, the guy I counted on to hit the town, says, “I’m exhausted” in that way people do when they mean, “I’m exhausted, please let me off the hook.”
I’m exhausted, too. We’re up at 6 a.m. for the fair again tomorrow, followed by a trip to the night market — yay! I need to purchase my high-speed rail ticket tomorrow so I can let the SurfTaiwan folks know when to pick me up in Kaosiung on Tuesday. Days of surfing, reading and writing await. Further exploration beckons. This birdwatching fair is lovely and what has occasioned me to be here; everyone is kind, but I look forward to being less beholden.
The food: I just eat what I’m given, regardless that I can’t always identify it. Some makes me happy, some underwhelms.
TMI moment: I was ushered into an open restroom stall only to find myself facing not the conventional toilet I expected, but a floor-level basin above which one pops the proverbial squat. Judging from the harsh drawing of angry potty eyes and the green text followed by red text, proper and improper ways to utilize this sort of toilet exist. I did my best.