We take a left from the love hotel and find Taipai station without a glitch. Now comes the challenge of making it to the other side of the country, to Wai-ao, to a cheeky surf beach with ice cold beer.
First thing we do is find a map with both cities. Two trains. The first heads toward Quidu, and the second to Jioxi. We’ll need to get off three stops before Jioxi. Now for tickets.
The ticket machine is a waste of time because the language is in Chinese characters. And since there are five different tones to every sound in Mandarin, there are twenty-four wrong ways to say Wai-ao to an attendant. Momo takes the initiative and writes Wai-ao in Chinese characters REALLY BIG and shows it to the lady at the ticket window. Without saying a word (or smiling) she takes our $226 Taiwan dollars and prints out two paper magnetic strips.
Tickets in hand, the next obstacle is finding which train out of two-hundred, in a four tier main station, would get us to Wai-ao.
Walking away from the window, I see a monitor with English writing and catch “Quidu” and, before it changes to Chinese characters, I read “Platform 4A” and “Leaving in Six Minutes.” Unaware of the monitor, Momo nonchalantly asks what I want to do next, but I don’t hear a word because I fall into a Zen trance looking at every sign in the hall simultaneously. The signs read MRT, HSR, TRA, MS, MT, A4-16, and M4-16. Ummm….
Catching site of a 7Eleven leading to a ramp in a different direction than everyone else in the hall, I remember the police officer who threated to fine us for eating in this area and also on the MRT we caught the day before. Without saying a word I grab Momo’s hand and head toward the 7Eleven ramp because there’s a good chance you can eat on a cross country train.
As we pass the ramp the signs narrow down to TRA, HSR and A4-16, M4-16. I suddenly notice a symbol on the wall panels heading toward the TRA, HSR that is exactly like the one on the ticket window. We follow the symbols right and, after three-hundred meters, find ourselves on tier three from four. Three minutes to go. Momo is starting to look confused because I haven’t said a word since we bought the tickets.**
The signs break off and I lead her toward the TRA on a hunch and shortly after the signs start to say “Platform” and I remember the monitor and head toward 4A.
As eager as a school boys first hand job, I jump up and down and point to the sign that does nothing to cure Momo’s confusion. Quickly we insert our tickets and the turnstile swings us in. The train is waiting and we hop through the door to take a seat out of breath and excited. The door closes behind us with a kayash-ka! and the train starts moving. With a big silly grin I kiss Momo and snap my fingers to say that’s how you catch a fucking train.
Ten satisfied minutes pass as we make our way on a express train toward Quidu. Ten minutes before Momo leans over and asks if this train takes us all the way to the beach. I say no and that we need to transfer. Calmly, she asks, where is that?
Slowly the taste of accomplishment fades as I realize I know where this train ends but have no idea where to transfer. For some reason this amuses us and we’re swept away into a small cloud of childish amazement realizing we ran and jumped onto a random train taking us some place we’ve never been in a rare and foreign country reeking of dumplings and salt water.
At the height of our contentment, a Taiwanese lady beside us can’t help but offer her help. She speaks good English and finds our stop on her phone as we pull into a quiet platform. The silence is interrupted by her concerned look as she almost yells, get off now! This is your changing place. Shocked and already running, we offer our best shay- shays (mandarin for thank you) and don’t think twice whether or not she is right. As the train pulls away we go to the window to say goodbye, and she rushes over to tell us one last thing, maybe the departure time, but we can’t hear or understand and instead choose to bow and smile harmoniously.
Off the train we are greeted by a small tropical town in the mountains with thick green peaks, steep tea gardens, and well-crafted rice patties. The kind of picture you see titled, “Fall in Love with Asia” in an airplane magazine. A quiet breath ensues, and another, and another until some mark of time disappears….
After a few minutes we look at each other and agree it is definitely time for coffee. We are allowed to leave the station and come back by showing the ladies our tickets. Meaning, we hope, we have time to spare. We find a coffee stand and watch the young girl spend five minutes making our coffee like a dog watches every kibble and bit fall into its food bowl. The coffee is… interesting, definitely missing the mark of a caramel latte, but it does the trick none the less.
Coming back through the gate we point to our tickets again and a lady walks us to a bench and sits us down looking at the correct platform. She begins pointing with a big smile at the track, as if we hadn’t put one and two and three and four together, she bows slowly and leaves. Quiet and once again content, we drink our coffee with the sun outlining the tropical green landscape.
Another minute passes and we are tapped on the shoulder by a young Taiwanese girl who speaks no English. She hands us the last piece of the puzzle.
It was a small cut of recycled paper and read, 10:53 Yes.
** I found out an hour later the symbol I was looking at was the general icon used on all public transportation systems across the entire country. It was on every bus, every train, every ticket window, and every bus and train stop sign. In other words, it was a lucky guess.