Most travel blogs offer up splendid narratives of perfect trips to exotic locales.
We edit our memories and photoshop our pictures, to offer curated, professional presentations, free of embarrassments and blemishes.
Maybe a dash of Conde Nast pretense mixed with TripAdvisor exactness. Dissect the grass-fed gastro-pub where you ate a fabulous, instagram-worthy meal. Use the word “artisanal.” Stay somewhere unique and picturesque. A boutique hotel in a re-purposed nuclear cooling tower. A treehouse over a Kirghiz goat abattoir.
Or a hipster heaven, with fantastic hallway art and organic hemp matting, known only to the cognoscenti.
Learn to pronounce cognoscenti, and make sure it means what you think, and isn’t some sort of pasta.
Model the llama wool & gum wrapper serape you discovered at a haute couture shop, with unique designs-for-the-skeletal.
This story is not like that.
This is a tale of misadventure, confusion, poor planning, and random wandering . Two regular schmoes who really shouldn’t be allowed to go around the block on their own. And a weird non-place that turned out to be not-quite-Taichung.
In the old days, they’d call it “A Cautionary Tale.”
Wikipedia lists three elements to such a tale:
> A taboo, prohibition, or danger is stated.
> A narrative of someone disregarding the warning.
> And finally, the good part, the payback, comeuppance, karma-is-a… well, you get the idea. “An unpleasant fate…frequently related in expansive and grisly detail.“
OK, expansive I can do, but in fact, I kind of had a pretty good time, and nothing grisly to report, other than sometimes the chicken soup.
Both of us in the story are from New York, so by birth we’re pretty comfortable with chaos, snafus, fubars, foul-ups, and general weirdness. Kind of bummed there’s no “gruesome or disgusting imagery” to reinforce the taboos, but I’ll work on that in my next story. Maybe visit New Jersey.
But let’s get this ramblin’ wreck on the road…
While spending a semester at a university in Hong Kong, I impulsively booked a last-minute trip to Taiwan with my new friend Elliot, a fellow New Yorker, also in HK for a semester.
I hadn’t really planned on visiting Taiwan. But as I had no money to fly further afield, didn’t have the right papers to get into the Mainland, and had a busy school workload, it seemed like a decent idea for a 3-day weekend. It was only an hour-and-a-half flight.
[ Violation of Taboo/Warning “Be Prepared”]
We didn’t do too much research, just saw that it had some cool attractions, found a cheap flight & cheaper hostel, which looked ok on the website, and off we went, with only the slightest grasp of Cantonese, even less Mandarin, no Lonely Planet guide, etc. that’s for wimps.
In the thinking part of my brain, otherwise not involved in this trip, Taiwan also attracted me as sort of a political enigma, a country no longer recognized by the U.N. since 1971 — a strange entity, which is sure of itself and its independence, but which the rest of the world isn’t sure how to categorize. A complex history of colonialism, mixed cultures, authoritarianism, and democracy.
Taipei is the bustling and touristy capitol, home to one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, a thriving food scene, and a huge international destination for tourists starting their Asian grand tour.
So we didn’t go there.
We picked the third-largest city, in the island’s center, called Taichung.
So. As far as our plans to see stuff, this trip was…not great. In fact, as far as seeing the stuff we wanted to see, that part, totally crapped out.
[Narrative of the Doomed & Clueless Wanderers]
No problem finding a taxi at the airport. But getting the driver to understand where we were heading was tough. Cantonese was useless, and Elliott repeated the basic phrases he knew in Mandarin, to no avail. The taxi driver, a very patient man, finally pulled out a list of all the hotels/hostels in Taichung with their English translations. We looked the list over and over three times each, and our hostel wasn’t on the list. Already a bad sign.
I kept showing the driver a paper copy of the reservation, with the name and address, until he finally, vaguely, seemed to grasp that (1) we wanted to go there, and (2) we wanted him, specifically, to drive us there.
So then, we drove, for what seemed like a very long time. And finally arrived, we supposed, at the address on the reservation.
We had a minor problem.
The hostel was gone.
Not in the sense of a business changing hands and becoming a new sort of enterprise, but in the sense that this location was burned to the ground. Gone, baby, gone.
The three of us looked at the charred remains, and to his credit, the taxi driver seemed hesitant about leaving us, but finally seem to decide that he’d taken us to the address he’d been given, cabbie honor was satisfied, and he took off.
Elliot and I, having decided, or at least, decided to hope, that the hostel still existed, somehow, un-burnt, somewhere near, since we’d just been emailing back & forth with a manager, so we walked around a bit, thinking that it wouldn’t be too hard to find out where it was.
Actually, we walked around a lot. Surprisingly, the hostel did not appear in front of us, like Brigadoon, at any time. After calling the hostel several times, with no answer, I began to think that perhaps the building, and its phone, had in fact burned to the ground.
We found a bus station, and thought that might be a likely place to find some information. After wandering around the building for fifteen minutes, we realized it was, actually, empty. Completely un-staffed. No one behind the desk, the bathrooms were empty, and the whole building was vacant. Except for one corner, where we found a small family was watching TV, and very determinedly ignoring us.
Elliot’s smartphone could only be used with wi-fi, and then we realized something far worse. Even with a wi-fi connection, we simply could not pull up a useful map of the city, either GPS or digital.
Our theory: the city is perpetually prepared for Mainland China to land paratroops and commandos at any moment, and so, like WWII Britain after Dunkirk, the locals had erased any directional aids. Which made getting around nearly impossible.
I don’t know if this is true or not, but it is the most elegant excuse we’ve come up with, and I’ve grown fond of it, and intend to keep repeating it. At this point, I realize, I, for one, believe it. Cool.
With this newly acquired skill, someday I can run for office.
(Maybe the idea of an information void, as part of a defense posture, is not such a crazy idea. Even in an urban area, we passed countless fortified buildings surrounded by barbed wire, towers with guards, German Shepherds, glimpses of helmeted soldiers in barracks, and what looked like an antiaircraft missile battery.)
Postcard “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here, where am I?”
So, we ended up walking the first day, for about eight hours, lugging around our backpacks, increasingly disoriented. We could handle Hong Kong with its signs, lights, and generally English-speaking population. Here, we saw no other Americans or Europeans, no one seemed to speak any English at all, and all the maps and signs seemed wrong to us, perhaps deliberately misleading.
Hong Kong was eighty degrees (Fahrenheit),but this was a much colder city. The polluted air, full of exhaust fumes, began to chill us. Seeking refuge from the cold and our endless walking, we wandered into what we discovered to be a “teddy bear” cafe.
Which might sound cute.
But it was not. It was freaking terrifying.
Instead of a uniform, the staff wore giant teddy bear costumes.
Meant to look friendly, I guess, but they looked demented and I didn’t want them serving me, or watching me eat with their huge glassy eyes.
The food was excellent and reasonably priced. But we elected to eat outside in the cold.
To avoid the large and terrifying teddy bears.
So after fleeing the teddy bears (looking over our shoulders for blocks, to make sure they didn’t follow) and more wandering around, we were actually happy to see something familiar, and stopped in a Starbucks.
Three things struck us:
1. They spoke English, but only enough to ask for money.
2. It was the first time we saw people who looked like us, except they were Russian tourists and claimed to speak no English (though I swear I heard them speaking it, as we walked away)
3. Starbucks had WiFi, warmth, and coffee.
So, it sounds dumb, but things turned around once we reached the bastion of overpriced western culture. We were able to reach the hostel on a the phone, finally. Elliot, speaking a mixture of English and bad Mandarin, while gesticulating wildly (which they couldn’t see, of course, as this was a phone call) was able to reach Eddie.
That was great. Except, I wondered, who the heck was Eddie?
I had a confirmation from Charlie, the owner of the hostel. No one mentioned Eddie.
Eddie told us to walk back to the old hostel (he didn’t know where the Starbucks was it seemed) where we would be picked up.
Following Eddie’s directions, we make it to the dark burned-out shell of the old hostel. An all-black car pulls up. A black-tinted window rolls down (it was 10 pm and dimly lit) and a man with a black leather jacket and a wicked scar across his face, chain smoking acrid-smelling cigarettes, leans out to us. He tells us he is going to take us to the hostel, and I begin to wonder if this hostel is a mob-controlled front. I’m hesitant to get in, but Elliot, who’s from Staten Island and used to stuff like that, has already trundled inside with his backpack, and I felt my odds of survival were better with the two of us.
Reluctantly I jumped in, and we were off. The car pulled up to a 7-11 store and parked. I thought perhaps the driver was stopping to grab something to drink, or a pack of cigarettes, or more ammo, but instead he tells us to get out. I looked at him and tried to explain that I wanted to go to the hostel, not to some grab-and-go store. He kept insisting we come with him.
Another chain-smoking, black leather jacket guy was waiting by the door. He followed us as we walked into the store, where the driver peeled off and disappeared. I had assumed that perhaps we would end up sleeping in the 7-11, because my attempts to explain what I wanted had taken me nowhere.
Instead the other guy walked us through the back of the 7/11 and into an unlit corridor. I stayed back, holding the door, assuming that this dark hallway was going to be the place where this gang liked to rob and murder tourists. Instead, he turned on the light and the corridor turned out to be a courtyard full of about a dozen mopeds.
There was no alley or gate, so apparently the mopeds went in and out through the 7-11.
(These bikes were everywhere during our visit, being driven badly, including zooming by us on the sidewalks going in both directions — it was insane. The traffic cops must have a life expectancy of weeks – they’d yell, and wave their red batons, and no one gave them a glance. It was like an out-of-control rehearsal for a budget version of The Wild One, that Marlon Brando motorcycle flick. And apparently scooters are allowed in 7-11’s, too. When they say Express Lane, they’re not kidding around.)
I still felt this was odd and began to protest that we were trying to get to our hostel, not a used moped lot, when he showed us an elevator. Elliot marched into it, and I decided, again, that it was better if I went along, so we didn’t get separated.
15 floors up, and there we were, at the hostel.
More surprises were inside. One, neither Eddie or Charlie was there, but instead, an old lady. I believe she was their Mandarin-only-speaking mother. She was friendly, but refused to give us the key to the private room, the room I had paid significantly extra for. Instead, we got a shared room, and despite showing the reservation to her, she just handed me the key without a word. We opened the door to find a large group of tourists. They turned out to be pleasant folks from Taipei, and they volunteered to join their friends in another room. So, in a sense, we got our private room. For one night, anyway.
The next two nights, to our horror, we were stuck with another American, who was also seemingly lost, some former-Marine-turned-unemployed-English-tutor, who was dejected and pretty drunk for two days running. He kept us up all night with his hiccups and his frequent trips to the bathroom.
So the hostel wasn’t all that great, and finding it had wasted almost a full day. But, we figured, the rest of the trip should be enjoyable.
In may ways, it was. Everyone was extremely friendly. And we ate very well. Everywhere we turned, there were places with delicious food.
In terms of everything else we’d expected to see (planned is just not the right word), not at all.
Always lost, and unable to find anyone to help us, we couldn’t find the museums, temples, I. M. Pei-designed chapel, or even the city center. We basically wandered for hours and hours, among high-end malls and some of the most beautiful apartment highrises I’ve ever seen, dodging the damn motorbikes, and eventually gave up hope of seeing anything the city is known for. We followed the signs and yet never reached the destinations we headed towards. We marched on and were led in circles, being stared at and photographed endlessly the entire day.
People did double-takes, pulled out cameras, or held up their cellphones and peeked over them. An old man watched us fixedly over his newspaper, but yanked it up in front of his face, whenever we turned his way. When we’d look back, some would turn and watch our reflections in shop windows, like an old detective movie.
An old, old Nissan, maybe the original model, passed by, hit its brakes, and crawled by us. Five times.
Finally we decided, late in the day, to go to the famous Feng Chia Night Market, the largest in the country, actually found it, and enjoyed it a lot. Especially since it involved more eating, including authentic Western food, which we’d been missing for a long time. We had fantastic Italian food, which we’d both been missing; the waitress could recite the menu in flawless English, but when we asked a question, we found she had simply memorized it, without any understanding of the language.
The next day we decided to try to see something, in the vast nothingness we had wandered through, and so we ended up at a local pastry and coffee shop, where we were again photographed by the locals. But we saw nothing else we’d hoped to see.
[Comeuppance, Kismet, Fate, etc. ]
Back in Hong Kong, back in the world of Information, we researched to figure out what the heck had happened — and discovered the secret to this whole weekend.
We actually never reached the city proper. We’d been wandering in a huge suburb.
This isn’t quite as dumb as it sounds. Because it was so densely developed, chock-full of high-rise apartments, shops, and parks, etc., we just assumed we were in the city itself. The zone we wandered was a large as all of Hong Kong.
A fiasco, right? Terrible. Dumb. I don’t even have a big punchline – – nothing horrible happened. Everyone was friendly.
We returned to Hong Kong, foot-sore, well-fed, bewildered. But in some bizarre way, almost happy that we had done this trip this way. It became a bit of a joke. An unscripted adventure into a strange confusing place. Kind of the opposite of relaxing, and far removed from the great photo-sharing trips that people often force upon their hapless acquaintances, but it was such a strange place to us, it was interesting, we had a few laughs, enjoyed a lot of great food, stayed friends, and that’s worth something, too.