When the ship approaches land the water turns from dark blue to blue-green. It is brown when we dock in Kaohsiung. We stand out on the E Deck stretching our last minutes aboard. We watch as flats of tools are lifted from ship to shore and men in mismatched hard hats climb aboard with specialty tools and lunch pails. We watch a fish jump onto the dock and we watch the man who catches it, so surprised that he shouts out loud. We head inside. The door is locked. We head down the exterior staircase, trying the door of the Tween deck, we climb up, and then down again, and then up. All the doors are locked. It’s a hot day and a long climb and we feel like idiots. After about twenty minutes we run into a man in a blue jumpsuit who knocks on a window, and a man out of uniform emerges sleepily behind an opening door. In the ship’s office the Captain is talking to a short man in a cheap uniform. The captain gives him five cartons of Brooklyn cigarettes.
You don’t, it turns out, just get off a ship. It’s not like an airline. There’s no line to stand in made for people like you. The customs officers have already checked the box marked weirdo. The man in the cheap uniform asks us how we will be leaving Taiwan. He wants to know where we will be spending the night. I am prepared for this. I have the receipt for our airline tickets. I have a piece of paper with the address and phone number of Kaohsiung’s youth hostel, the exchange rate (100NTD = 3.07USD), tipping customs (No) and the phone number of Mister Chen’s aunt, because believing we may contact relatives makes Mister Chen’s father happy. I hand our paper to the customs man.
We have nothing. The customs man needs to know which flight we are taking out and what airline it is on and what time it leaves, the kind of information you would write down if you were planning on taking your flight. This information is somewhere in the bowels of Expedia, but it is not on our receipt. The customs man needs us to leave the ship and our bags and passports to use the internet at the customs office by the dock, an eight by eight foot room of four chain smoking men, some promotional calendars, one computer and a pink, ineffectual fan. The internet gets to Yahoo! before putting down its bags and refusing to go any further. The chain-smoking customs man gets on his scooter and motions us to a golf cart. The driver of the golf cart follows the scooter deeper into the port, away from the ship and our bags and passports. For the first time on our trip Mister Chen is convinced he is going to die.
We are taken to the third floor of a larger customs office. The warehouse of cubicles is reassuring. Pecking uncertainly at the keyboard of another character set, I get our flight information. The customs man calls the youth hostel, which he says is full. The customs man calls Mister Chen’s aunt and hands the phone off to Mister Chen, who apologizes to her, and then Mister Chen’s aunt invites us to dinner. Then back to the ship on the golf cart we go. We go back to our cabin, zip up our bags, and sit down.
Two hours later the customs man returns. He leads us off the boat. He leads us to his car. No thank you, we try say. He motions to us to get in his car. No, we will find a taxi. But won’t we get in the car? The customs man is as frustrated as we are absolutely terrified. We have no money and we don’t understand the street signs but please, just let us wander lost. We do not want to get into your car. He calls Mister Chen’s aunt. “There, you see? You are scared? I call your Auntie, she know I am driving you. You call her again when we get there.” So we get in his car. He turns on his stereo and Carly Simon joins us. Loudly. We drive outside the port, past jerry-rigged homes of plastic siding. “I’ve been to paradise,” she sings. “But I’ve never been to me.”
When you arrive in Kaohsiung, tell the customs official you are taking the next train to Taipei. When you get to the train station get in the line for day-of tickets. Present your ticket at the checkpoint and keep it with you until you have exited the train station in Taipei.
We have asked the customs man to drive us to the youth hostel. The customs man drives us to the youth hostel. It’s closed. We dither. The customs man calls Mister Chen’s aunt. She will meet us in front of the back of train station. The customs man drives us to the train station.
The trains are neat and comfortable, with large windows. There are convenience stores at the train station, and there are certified railroad employees who wander the aisles of the train selling food at appropriate mealtimes and snacks at all others. Between the tile and neon cities are mountains and windmills, rice paddies and statues of large red gods.
TAIWAN RAILWAY’S MOUNTAIN LINE
ONE WAY TICKET CHU KUANG TRAIN NT544 (ABOUT $16.52US) (YOUR PRICE) OR NT1045 (ABOUT $31.73US) (YOUR PRICE IF YOU MISS THE FASTER TRAIN, AND THE MAN AT THE TICKET BOOTH TAKES PITY ON YOU AND SELLS YOU TICKETS FOR THE NEXT TRAIN AT CHILDREN’S PRICES)
DEPARTS KAOHSIUNG, TAIWAN REGULARLY
ARRIVES TAIPEI, TAIWAN, FOUR TO SEVEN HOURS LATER