On the high speed rail, waiting for the train to go. My bag weighs much more than when I left, courtesy of bird fair schwag and my own souvenir shopping. I can barely lift it over the gaps between train and platform, much less place it in the overhead storage. Having such a load to lug makes for more awkward trekking about. My preference runs toward traveling light. I packed that way, had extra room, could maneuver the bag easily. Now I am more burdened than intended – a fact, not a complaint. Just something to deal with. And I suppose I feel a bit silly with so much stuff.
To reach this train, which is now moving with no one seated beside me,yay!, I walked from the hotel to the Taipei MRT, caught a train to Taipei Main Station and transferred to the HSR (High Speed Rail). The stroll to MRT marked the second occasion I’d been on my own since arriving four days ago, as well as my split from the bird fair folks. The beginning of Part 2 of Jennifer’s Adventures in Taiwan. The world glowed with prospect.
Taking the MRT was almost exactly like taking BART. You buy a ticket – in this case, a token – and use it to pass into the paid area. Then you stand and wait, then board the train. I did ask a bystander, “Taipei Main Station?” to make sure I was catching the right train (I took the right BART line in the wrong direction once and have yet to recover from embarrassment), but the whole experience was matter-of-fact. Different language and a higher Asian-to-Caucasian ratio. Less people on iPods and cell phones, or with reading material. The teenagers rode plugged in, but the adults mostly sat stoically.
When I reached the main station, I was able to follow the signs to the HSR and actually found myself thinking, “This getting around is a breeze! ” Of course, that thought invited the universe to teach me a lesson and, sure enough, I ended up thoroughly confused about how to acquire my prepurchased ticket. But, both sadly and fortunately, being a girl standing around looking helpless tends to bring rescue quickly. (You must not actually be stupid, however, or you will end up in precarious situations.) My knight arrived in the form of Howard, a young engineer from China, in town for the hot springs. He helped me navigate through the turnstile and find the right queue, then, not satisfied that I would make the train, took my paperwork to an HSR worker and had my ticket printed out for me. I didn’t even have to wait in line. Wonderfully helpful, and yet I feel guilty about the ease in which that card is played, even when unintended.
This train is really moving! Why don’t we have high speed rail in America? Oh, because we have highways. Right. I love my car.
So I’ve been thinking about the lessons travel imparts – lessons which I am still in the thick of learning. Someone taking a journey is one of storytelling’s two major plot lines. Travel teaches us about other places, sure, but it also teaches us about ourselves. (Doesn’t that just sound so egocentric American? “Sure, I’m learning about your culture. But really, it’s about what I’m learning about me.”) So what have I learned about Taiwan so far? It’s crowded and busy and otherwise teeming with action. As cities are. The food is different, especially at the night market – oyster omelettes! – but not yet completely unfamiliar. Everything speaks robot to you: the doors, the elevators, the water dispensers. You don’t drink from the tap. Taiwanese look stoic, but break into laughter easily – is that not a universal truth? What people don’t like to laugh? At banquets, it’s bad form to drink alone, so you have to find someone to toast with if you want another gulp of wine. And people will keep refilling your tea for you, so you should do the same for them.
My Lonely Planet advised that the Taiwanese were adamant hosts with a penchant for flattery. I practiced being complementary in order to reciprocate, but truth is, everyone was perfectly nice and helpful, but they had an event to pull off. They did exactly what I would do, which is to make sure your guest’s needs are attended to, then politely duck out and get on with the organizing. And so much organizing! About 20 delegates from nine countries and the accompanying accommodations, meals and transportation, plus the logistics of the International Bird Festival itself. To which over 12,000 people came, all of whom looked to be having a good time from my vantage point. Of course, I wasn’t lacking for attention with the 11-to-20 crowd, all of whom seemed to want to take a photo with the American. (Ivo, the blonde Bulgarian, had the same effect.)
Between the jet lag and the tedium of sitting in a booth all day, I was rather exhausted Saturday and Sunday. Add to that the effort of overcoming the language barrier and getting to know people, and I felt a bit worn out under my general happiness over the novelty of this experience. But once we went to the night market on Sunday, a shift ensued. Freed from the confines of the fair, the chatter flowed more easily, was more inclusive. The Taiwanese hosts were excited to show off the famous foods of the market and I found myself, at least for moments, able to occupy the social niche in which I excel: I will make you laugh and you will like me! That reaffirmed what I already knew about myself: I like to be liked. Hopefully not in an attention-whore sort of way, but in general, I like people and I want them to like me back so we can all have good times together. That seems like an okay way to be.
But I’m also lazy and somewhat willing to let other people solve my problems as the HSR experience shows. Likewise, despite practicing some Mandarin phrases, the fact that everyone was anxious to speak English to me or find someone who could, let me off the hook. A better person would’ve at least attempted to make a stronger effort; I slipped right from my initial forays of “Ni hau” and “Xiexie” back into “Hello” and “Thank you” once it was clear everyone knew those anyway. Maybe I will try again in Kenting.
Oh, I can’t wait to go surfing! The other side of the Pacific! How amazing is that? I hope I don’t embarrass myself. I don’t think I will. I imagine warm water and new waves will taste like heaven.