Trudging along Taipei's tiled sidewalks for the first time, heartburn gnawing under my rib-cage, ankles swollen from forty hours in planes and airports, I found myself counting the days we had to survive to make it home alive. The heat was oppressive, and I dreaded the end of each block, where we'd have to cross the street. Imagine taking two million people, throwing them into a pot with two million motorcycles, and turning up the heat. That's Taipei.
The main streets here are too wide and traffic-stricken to be picturesque; the side streets are fascinating, seething with lives I can't begin to imagine, nor can they imagine mine. Snake Alley is the epitome of things exotic, that's where Eli took us tonight. A chimpanzee tortures a turtle to entertain passers-by. Hawkers kill pythons and god-knows-what other snakes, and men drink the blood to increase potency. They drink snake blood, then visit the back streets, the narrow, winding back streets that stun the eyes with a burst of light and activity, wide doorways dazzling with red fluorescence, not really doorways but wide, doorless openings exposing small anterooms and lithe bodies in filmy dresses.
Sarah and I were the only females there besides the whores. Women, young and old but mostly very young, waited, smiled, grabbed at the throngs of unsavory men. A teenage girl slapped the back of my hand, angrily. Did she hate me for not having to sell myself? I rubbed the touched spot against my blue jeans.
Adolph and I walked the Taipei streets at dawn, intimidated at first since all signs are written with Chinese characters. We memorized every turn, picking out landmarks. We each had a card with the address of the "Y" where were staying written in Chinese.
We found the perfect spot not too far away, a lovely park with trees and ponds and bandstands; an arched white footbridge spanned a lagoon filled with fish and turtles and rimmed by weeping willows. People of all ages, though mainly middle-aged and older, were stretching, twisting, bending, under every tree, behind every bush, out in the open and in every isolated cranny. A deep voice with no visible source boomed out instructions in Chinese, yi, er, san, ci, one, two, three, four. I lay my purse in the grass and joined in, rolled my head slowly from side to side, then my torso, down, around, and up. Plies, twists, every muscle did its share before we ended with some slow deep breaths and a universal grunt that resounded like the bark of a pack of dogs.
It's hard to figure out what to have for breakfast, a cold and greasy fried egg on a slice of white bread, doughy dumplings, oil-soaked vegetables, pastries with inlaid frankfurters and chives. On our first morning we bought soup from a street vendor who set up tables and stools on the sidewalk, a tasty soup with spaghetti noodles, pork-filled wantons, scallions and other greens. But what are we doing to ourselves, eating at delightful spots that common sense tells us to avoid?
Eli wishes he had learned more Chinese. Still, what he does know makes a difference. It's a dream, hearing my son speak in sounds and tones I can't even imitate. Everything here is a dream. In ASIA, that's where we are, in Taipei, a twentieth-century city gone haywire, inhabited by motorcycles with human appendages and by Japanese cars that move as if they were operated by remote-control buttons.
With its tumult of traffic and humans, with its foul air and sooty buildings, Taipei sometimes reminds me of Mexico City. The people though seem very different, gentler, perhaps more passive, we feel safer here. Mexico is a macho society. What is this one?
I'm not learning enough, walking the streets which are fascinating but only streets, talking mainly to my family and to those who approach me to practice their English.
Today we wandered through a more prosperous area; we could have been anywhere in the world. Modern shops selling dresses, shoes, luggage, cameras, affluence is the great homogenizer. So, I guess, is poverty.
Main streets, side streets, little shops, vendors, then we unexpectedly come upon crowded courtyards with ornate columns, carved dragons, and seated Buddhas under pagoda-style roofs. Worshippers wave bouquets of burning incense sticks; the smell permeates the air. Coils of incense spiral from the ceilings; believers kneel, bow, leave offerings of fruit. Robed monks watch, write, pray, perhaps wondering about my life as intensely as I wonder about theirs.
Wherever I happen to be, I'm always intrigued by the little vignettes that have no nationality. Like the tall slim woman in high heels and lipstick carrying a box which I'm sure contained a large birthday cake. She'd rush past me, propelled by the weight of the cake, the excited birthday boy trying hard to keep up. Then she'd stop and gasp and rest her burden, and I at my snail's pace would pass her by. Then she'd whisk past me, then I'd shuffle past her. She never let on that she noticed me.
What I enjoy most is the calisthenics. This morning Sarah, Adolph, and I arrived at 5:55. People were loitering, glancing at their watches. At exactly six a whistle blew, and we all faced east, hundreds of us, most standing exactly where we stood yesterday, hints of recognition in our smiles and glances.
Perhaps the insects that are making so much noise overhead are cicadas rubbing their wings together. At first I thought they were flocks of birds. I can't see them anywhere, yet wherever there are trees, there's an irritating racket.
The smells of this city are mainly exhaust fumes, overlaid with garbage, sewage, urine, and cooking oil. The street sounds are those cicadas scraping, motors, horns, and screeching brakes, voices shouting in Chinese, music blaring. Today I heard Cat Stevens in a clothing stall.
Fastened onto most buildings are brightly-colored vertical signs several stories high with large Chinese characters. Below these are small shops, bakeries, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, food cooked outside in woks, fancy coffeehouses featuring exotic grinds, vendors on walks and curbs selling shoes, glasses, hats, shirts, newspapers, dumplings, soups, fruits. Still, the sidewalks are predominantly parking lots for motorcycles. Motorcycles and scooters outnumber cars four to one in Taiwan. And in Taipei the cyclists drive, as well as park, on the walks, weaving through crowds of pedestrians. They ride the wrong way on one-way streets, sneak through red lights, and cut in front of buses and cars. Many wear white surgical masks to filter the air, a few wear helmets as they swarm along the thoroughfares and side streets. Eli has seen several accidents.
All the traffic's crazy. Drivers make left turns on red; there are through lanes that don't require a stop on red. Cars, cycles, scooters, bikes, everyone surges ahead about thirty seconds before the light turns green. People tell me in low voices that the Kuomintang controls every aspect of their lives, no freedom of press nor of speech. They do seem to have freedom to drive however they see fit. A driver who injures a pedestrian has to make payments to him till he dies; supposedly some drivers back up and run over their victims again to make sure they're dead.
I love my early morning routine. When I leave the hotel before 6 A. M., the streets are free of the usual chaos. The men who vend or deliver newspapers sit on the sidewalks and sort their wares, then pile the papers onto bikes or motor scooters, dozens of newspapermen, mainly old, some reading the news before they start out. Food peddlers pound dough for dumplings, heating oil in their woks. Men wash themselves, basins right out on the sidewalk.
There's this center of awareness traveling about five feet above the ground through Taipei streets, through tunnels under the busier thoroughfares; a center of awareness that could be wiped out at any time, leaving behind a pile of shorthand notes; an awareness that could sit for weeks in this city and describe every hole in the wall with its unique pulsation.
Part of travel is the imagining of what each observed life must be: Five men squeezed into a kitchen that could fit only five, chopping, washing, boiling, sweltering, preparing the midday meal for anyone willing to pay. A lady scrubbing other ladies' hair in a two-chair salon, a man trimming other men's hair, another ironing, hour after hour, other people's sheets. A woman standing midst suspended blouses, skirts, and slacks, telephone receiver pressed against her ear. A fruit vendor slicing chunks of pineapple and watermelon.
Every one of us is inhaling air that shouldn't be inhaled, eating pesticide-laden produce, coping with anarchic traffic. The twentieth century is here without the pesky rules and regulations that save people's lives.