There are moments, moments when you know you are in the right place with the right people at the right moment in time. New Years in Taipei was one of these moments. It all happened like a storybook.
Steady and with eyes wide-open like flying saucers, Henry walked into the crowded bus terminal. White-tiled and gray-walled, the terminal was simple and understandable, yet the place was as foreign to him as a forgotten yesterday. Numbers and people stood in heaps, orderly and with meaning, he understood the way groups had formed and individual outliers waited for their called destination. He understood the way people moved and the way the coin rolled upon the floor when dropped by the elderly woman. He understood the father holding his son's hand as they walked towards their bus, departing home after a long day. He understood the smiles and the laughter contained in the room. It was the other things that confused him, the undefinable slashes, dots, and curvy waved boxes of the written language on the walls, the tonal mess of random sounds coming from the mouths of everyone. He was in a place similar yet totally unlike anything he's ever experienced. Small and big, lost and discovered, he found himself, standing in the middle of the terminal. Waiting. Patiently. For who knows what, but the waiting felt good. So he did it. Finally, after moments of simply observing, he took a deep breath, his lungs filling with a belly-full of readiness, as if it was an element like oxygen and headed toward his destination. He was off towards Guting by way of metro, a college-aged portion of town where a Heather, friend of a friend, was ready to greet him and show him around Taipei.
The sky was deep shades of purple, lights and signs attempting to grab attention from it. It was a deep, cosmic battle, that between the sky and the signs. The sky would always claim victory, despite the efforts of chemically-infused neon lights and flashing LEDs. Henry continued in twilight over towards the train station. It was an easy venture, he saw it by way of bus as he entered the terminal. From one station to the next he ventured, mazed by the people that stood in his path.
Guting station provided a safe conclusion that Henry's navigation skills weren't completely shot. He called Heather upon exiting the platform, figuring out his next move. "Hey Heather" he said in a slow, understandable voice. "Hey Henry" Heather answered. "I'm here". "Oh okay, now go to the street behind the station and follow it until you reach the second intersection. Then wait for Michael to pick you up." "Oh, ok, great. Thanks Heather. See you later." he stammered, unsure who Michael was, or whether an intersection could be considered an intersection if the streets were made up of just alleyways. He walked with uncertainty for the first time tonight down TongAn Street. The street was conquered by gray, greens pouring themselves over cement fences and street signs, trying to get a piece of the sky. Henry reached the intersection and waited, observing the foreign place around him. A woman and her two-or-three year old son came within four meters of him. The boy stood there, looking up with huge crescent eyes, struck with a sort of disbelief. 'A foreigner!' he must be thinking, Henry thought. He gets this all the time. He feels almost stupid being the center of attention for no reason other than the untalentless form he had taken in life, but still, he supposes what's given is given, so he accepts the unwanted attention nonetheless. The mother shouted forcefully at the boy, then grabbed his hand and they moved on into the labyrinth of alley ways.
Henry was greeted by a man on scooter. "Hello my name is Michael, you must be Henry," he sputtered. "Hi MIchael" Henry replied with a shake of the hand. "Why don't you get on the back of my scooter and I'll give you a ride to the hostel". "Alright". And with that, Henry was off towards the hostel in which he would be staying. It wasn't a long ride, literally just a right and then a left turn and they were there, faced with a large gate with prayer flags and a small cardboard sign reading "The Eight Elephant Hostel".
Heather, the friend of a friend, was still on her way towards the Hostel to meet Henry. Currently she was with her grandmother, helping her from the dentist. Awaiting to meet up with her, Henry headed towards the direction of a local hangout, the Shida night market. The Hostel had become awkward as Michael, the boy who had helped him enter the facility, had brought over a lady friend that seemed to want Henry out, and ASAP. So, off Henry went, wandering aimlessly at first, trying to maneuver through the streets by himself, as if a GPS was hotwired into his temporal lobe. You see, Henry was a stubborn man, and had yet to realize the simplification of a situation when simple human-contact was handy. Instead, he enamored himself with attempting to memorize street names in order to ensure bypassing them only once, thinking if he wasn't going towards places visited, he'd have to be going in some sort of direction worthy of getting somewhere worth seeing. But alas, he found himself following his same footsteps, those street names memorized became secondly memorized as he marked his path on them once again. He finally had enough and asked a young lady on bicycle, "Uh...qǐng wèn (excuse me?), where?" as he pointed on a hand-drawn map towards the location marked 'Shida night market'. The woman pointed down the street, trying to explain in English the best she could, "go down this street and take a left, but there is two lefts". "...I'll just show you," she told him after giving up in the extensive effort to explain in a language not spoken in her home. She brought Henry towards the intersection and pointed to the second left and off Henry strolled, thanking the young women for the assistance.
The night market filled Henry's every five senses. If his body were a bowl and if five-senses was a liquid, Henry imagining it to be the consistency of liquid laundry soap, it would be spilling over his edges onto the asphalt, strings of liquid sticking to the sides. Henry was experiencing deep-entrenched smells, as if time itself had carried over the pungent (yet nutty!) smell of a dish called 'stinky tofu' from its frying dish and gingerly into his nostrils. He was crushed by the hoards of people present. Youthful college culture surrounded him. Shops of newly manufactured textiles and the merchants trying to sell them, different types of smoothie restaurants, people humming and hawing lined the streets. Henry made himself comfortable among the food stand marked 'Puff Pastries!' and stayed there a while, content with the temporary wait.
Henry received a phone call. "Henry, where are you?". It was Heather on the line. "Uh...I made my way over to the Shida Night Market." he responded. "Ok, cool, I'll be there in 5 minutes." "Great. See you soon." The call ended and Henry was stuck again, by the food stand marked for pastries. He decided to get a pastry. It was filled with a starchy, beige-colored cream, as if the batter was whisked for too long. The outer layer was flakey and good. He enjoyed the fulfillment it brought to him as he sat, watching the street. A girl maybe 16 or 17 was 10 meters away from him giving her possible boyfriend a kiss on the cheek. A couple beside him just ordered a similar shaped pastry, although this one was filled with red and pasty inside.
The sky was still purple. It was barely visible above the encroaching buildings bordering the streets. The buildings seemed to have already taken over the sidewalks and were now working their way into swallowing bits of street. Henry got another call, "Ok, I'll meet you by the Seven Eleven, do you see it?" Heather, again. "Yep, I'm on the way." Henry headed toward the Seven Eleven, which he technically couldn't see, but knew it was just around the corner from his point of view. Heather stood waiting, the adventure of the night finally taking form.
*PART TWO to be posted soon