One thing I can say about Tainan is that it’s filled with bikes. Thousands and thousands ands thousands of them, ridden by kids, parents, and grannies, parked so thickly you can barely navigate the sidewalk and filling the streets from gutter to center line.
Unfortunately, they all have motors.
The other thing I can say about Tainan is that I love it. It’s gritty, unpretentious, and like traveling back to the Japan of the 1980’s. Our hotel, a 38-story luxury monstrosity, is plopped down in the middle of town next to a train station that hasn’t had a bath in forty years.
What’s more amazing is that all of Taiwan looks like the Utsunomiya I first experienced in 1987. The bullet train is one of the Japanese models from the 80’s but in immaculate condition. It’s exactly like the one I used to commute on, only a different color.
“Is it that bad?” I asked.
“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I’ve never heard of them.”
We boarded expecting an Aeroflot reject from the 90’s, but it was a brand new 777 with the only thing Mrs. WM cared about, which was clean toilets.
My neighbor, however, was displeased with the fare. He looked like the grumpy complaining type and I envisaged thirteen hours of complaints. “This airplane food is disgusting,” he snarled.
I looked at him. “Dude, what is it about the phrase ‘airplane food’ you don’t understand?” That shut him up.
Everything went great until 30 minutes before landing. “Captain not landing Shanghai Pudong International,” said the intercom. “Captain landing Shanghai Hongqiao.”
I turned to Mrs. WM. “At least they both have ‘Shanghai’ in the name.”
The plane erupted in angry Chinese chatter. “What are they saying?” asked Mrs. WM.
“‘Oh, fuck!’ and ‘The fuck you say!’ and such,” I guessed.
“You makin’ that up? I thought you was onna Chinese talking champion.”
“Come on, honey. I only been studying Chinese since September. I’m still on the chapter called ‘Can you use chopsticks?’ I haven’t gotten to ‘What the fuck do you mean we’re landing somewhere else I’m gonna miss my fucking connecting flight to Taipei.’ That’s still a few chapters away. Maybe Book 3.”
Everyone swarmed the waitress for info but she clammed up. When I got my chance she smiled sweetly. “Ground crew telling all information. Maybe free shuttle bus to Pudong.”
“How far is that?”
“Only 60 kilometer.”
“That’s not so bad. We have a five-hour layover. How long does it take to drive from Hongqiao to Pudong?”
“One and one half hour no traffic.”
“How long with traffic?”
“We only have five.”
“Maybe you take subway.”
“How long does that take?”
“One and one half hour if you no lost. You speak little Chinese?”
She rattled something off. I stared uncomprehendingly. “What she say?” asked Mrs. WM.
“I have no idea.”
“You better get onna refund for your Chinese book. You ain’t can’t Chinese for nothin’.”
The waitress saw I was clueless. “Maybe for you get lost in subway badly, three hours unless mistaken train Nanjing then overnight.”
“Are there no flights from Hongqiao to Taipei?”
“Ask ground crew,” she shrugged and continued along the aisle, thronged by angry passengers shouting questions.
We deplaned onto the tarmac into a pounding rain and couldn’t fit on the bus. A staffer held a broken umbrella over our heads as we got soaked waiting for the next one.
Inside the terminal it was madness, but at least it was dry, warm madness. We went through customs and immigration and towards the China Eastern Airlines counter. Mrs. WM saw a line forming and sprinted away in her white sandals with thick black wool socks dragging a giant red suitcase whose wheels began smoking from the speed.
I caught up to her, breathless. “This onna good line and we’re fourth place!” She said excitedly. “Plus Chinese onna rude and pushy inna line,” she said, elbowing her way past a pair of quiet and orderly people.
“How do you you know it’s the right line?”
She shrugged. “I know I’m Japanese.”
We waited a half hour. “I’m sorry, this is wrong line, you line over there at Counter 70.” The ground staff pointed to a tiny speck on the other side of the airport.
Mrs. WM sprinted away. I got there much later. “Honey he said Counter 70. This is Counter 17.”
We argued and I lost until we got to the front after half an hour. “This is wrong line you line Counter 70.”
I was too worn out to curse for more than about five minutes. We got to Counter 70 where we were #57 in line. Each person ahead of us had a lengthy life’s story, twelve bags, and a carry-on filled with seething rage.
The staffer would furiously pound the computer, shout into a walkie-talkie, then dash away with a clipboard. She’d then return, apologize, and tell the waiting passenger and his family to take the shuttle bus at which point they’d erupt in fury. “What they saying?” asked Mrs. WM.
“‘I’m going to miss my flight!’ and ‘Who’s gonna lug these 12 bags back through the airport?’ is my guess.”
After an hour we got to the front with only one angry family ahead of us. They, too, got shuttle-bussed. “Let’s go, honey, and take the fucking shuttle bus.”
“We ain’t waitin’ onna one hour in line to go shuttle bussin’ without talkin’ onna clerk.”
“Don’t be silly. EVERY SINGLE FUCKING PERSON HAS BEEN SENT TO THE FUCKING SHUTTLE BUS FOR FUCK’S FUCKING SAKE.”
“I waited an I’m onna get my talkingsworth,” Mrs. WM insisted.
The staffer pounded the computer, shouted into the walkie-talkie, ran off with the clipboard and never came back. Those behind us went up to AngryCon 5 as we’d apparently run off the only ticket agent in Shanghai.
After ten endless minutes which is a long time to hated by a 200-person queue she returned. “Here boarding pass leave Gate 6 ten minute.”
Mrs. WM snatched them and sprinted away. The angry mob stared in awe and envy. We made the flight and got into Tapei a half hour ahead of schedule.