Travel Writing Awards Finalist

By Lee Royston

I have pictured myself places in the world, but I never imagined a dingy industrial area and a Taiwanese taxi driver hurling verbal abuse at me as lay in a sober heap beside his vehicle. The survival Chinese phrasebook is only a survival tool if you study past the introductions through to ‘H’ for ‘help’ and ‘hospital’. On this adventure I had bargained on temples, overcrowded streets and a mix of west clashing with east, but the Taiwan guidebook failed to mention this one.

A journey to this overpopulated country, off the coast of mainland China is not on most people’s travel hit list, but everyone has a connection to the place simply because we all own something that was ‘made in Taiwan’. Not an inspiration to visit the place, but a fact none the less. My stay on the outskirts of the capital, on the northern tip of the island meant this enchantingly grungy place revealed something new to me daily. For example, it’s possible to stand in Taipei central station at rush hour and truly comprehend what it means to be one of 6 billion people on the planet. You can also step back in time down a captivating alley and watch rabbits fed to snakes, snakes slaughtered and for 5 quid you can top the food chain with a snake blood shooter. This can all be accomplished within close proximity to the tallest building in the world, Taipei 101. I came to expect the unexpected from the place, it was part of its travel charm and my most memorable travel experience was most certainly ‘made in Taiwan’…

On that memorable day I had negotiated my way through the clinically sterile MRT subway system: where you can’t even chew gum for fear of City Police swooping down to smack you with a 4500NT dollar fine (£75). Navigating the subway is refreshingly simple with colour coding and English. Getting a taxi to the station is a little trickier however and I quickly discovered that a ‘chuck-a-chuck-a-toot-toot’ train impression with accompanying arm circles at your sides is utterly useless. In the face of the driver’s confusion you realize it isn’t a 1920’s steam train and you could just use your book of tourist friendly Chinese symbols to get to the station.

It always proved mind blowing to emerge from the cleanliness of the subway underworld, into the chaos of Jiangzicui night market. Scooter lining every inch of available pavement, beetle nut spit stains marking the streets and people bustling everywhere. I felt slightly more confident that day because I knew to expect pigs’ heads on cardboard boxes next to the lady’s stall selling psychedelic bras and value pack socks. My confidence dwindled however, when I was bamboozled into a Chinese foot massage by a persistent sales woman. Quite unexpectedly I randomly found the perfect husband that evening. With a shy smile he brought me tea without me having to ask, delivered a killer foot massage and said yes to everything I said because he didn’t speak English. My man was working his magic with a painful prodding stick and strong hands when suddenly I squealed! In pain I gestured at the reflexology poster on the wall hoping to decipher the corresponding part of my body. He blushed, looked panicked and shyly said ‘The Baby’. I laughed so hard, he may never actually propose.

Thankfully after a cup of traditional Chinese tea I could surprisingly walk well enough to carry on with the evening’s itinerary. I was meeting friends at an Italian restaurant in the heart of the city to indulge in an overpriced western food fix. I had diligently endured a vast array of local food, including chicken testicles and coagulate pig’s blood cakes so felt I could justify a cheesy pizza.

It was traumatizing top see that overpriced dinner get washed into the gutter after I had left dinner early. I was no longer able to ignore the escalating pain in my side. Had I been kicked by a horse or was I having contractions? In the taxi I tried the foetal position. No relief. I stretched to my side. No relief. The memory blurs into a haze of neon lights flashing past the window as the taxi weaved through the chaos of Saturday night traffic in Taipei. Charades proved fruitless and only when I was sick into my jacket did we have an understanding. Disgruntled and cursing he pulled off the highway into a dreary industrial area. In that definitive moment, I had been judged as a drunken foreign girl and lacked the words or will to defend myself.

As I heaved and watched, the rain pattered on my absurd situation. I was alone in a foreign country at the mercy of this taxi diver with no phone, and a pathetic command of the Chinese language. My one Chinese phrase only proved useful when I finally got home and meekly said ‘thank you’, overpaid him for not leaving me on the side of the road and stumbled to the empty third floor apartment. Deliriously I justified swallowing four pain killers because I would be dead or asleep but either way the pain in my side would stop.

I was woken the morning after the taxi ordeal by the arrival of friends. The pain had eased, buy X-rays and a very pleasant English speaking doctor diagnosed me with a kidney stone: a result of self induced dehydration whilst adapting to the inconvenience of undrinkable tap water. My massage man had almost been accurate, but apparently I would be facing a birth of a different kind! I was truly touched by the care and sympathy of my Taiwanese hosts in the days following my diagnosis. I grew accustomed to the frustrations of the language barrier, but extended my limited survival Chinese to include ‘hospital’ and ‘handsome’. I still had some time to woo my magic massage man into a proposal.