08. A Free Country

  1. 01. A Breath of Fresh Air
  2. 02. Traincatching
  3. 03. Dutch Retreat
  4. 04. The Deep South
  5. 05. Dust in Time
  6. 06. Fire in the Sky
  7. 07. Kaboom with a View
  8. 08. A Free Country
  9. 09. Recycled

The midnight fireworks display was over in five minutes. After hours of waiting, a half-million smiling Taiwanese arose from blankets laid on the hard city streets, and headed for the subway, en masse. I knew this was going to happen.

Earlier we had purchased daily tickets for the ride home to avoid needing to buy more tickets after the firewoimg_5262rks, when the stations were sure to be mobbed beyond capacity. Realizing that “daily” tickets might be just that, expiring at midnight, I had asked the ticket lady.

“They expire at midnight.” she confirmed. She also said she couldn’t sell us tomorrow’s daily tickets until tomorrow. I was incredulous.

img_5151“Really? Everybody taking the subway home after the fireworks will have to buy tickets in the station? There’s going to be tens, if not hundreds of thousands of us.”


She got my point, a crinkle of worry marring her otherwise lineless face. “Unless they have a weekly or monthly pass…” her voice faded. She picked up the phone, asking the powers that be. After some gesticulating accompanied by skeptical grunts and groans, she hung up the phone. A pause, a deep breath, she turned her attention back to me, eyes wide and apologetic. “They expire at midnight”, she repeated, this time in a high tone, suggesting her own disgust and disbelief.

Frank, Liza, Vincent and I caucused on the issue, concluding it was simply unbelievable. We were right. When we arrived at the station at 12:15 am, the turnstiles were wide open, aloof guards looking the other way as hundreds of fare evaders, including us, fed the machines expired tickets, causing them to buzz disapprovingly. The subway itself was a model of efficiency, trains arriving, filling and leaving faster than the platform could fill. We were back across town, asleep at the hotel by one.

A new day, a new year. Sunday came a beautiful morning, a rare New Year’s Day I was not hungover.img_5221 The previous morning when we had gathered for breakfast – something not offered by our hotel — we found very little open in the neighborhood. We ended up in a awful chain restaurant serving microwaved eggs and instant coffee with plastic utensils, Formica tables and florescent lighting. Yuk. This morning, even that place was closed, not that we would have returned.

img_5209Our objective was the Botanical Gardens, so we headed off in that general direction. We poked into two different hotels to ask the front desk staff where we could get a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. Both times we got a blank stare followed by directions convoluted enough to ensure we would not return. Hungry and without morning coffee, the conversation was turning snarky when a Carrefour supermarket, open 24/7, appeared before us.  “Picnic!” we all shouted.

The four of us scattered into the store, reconvening twenty minutes later at the checkout, each with enough food for a picnic breakfast for eight. We spent about a hundred bucks, and then picked up coffee at McDonald’s — even that an improvement on the previous day’s coffee. A few minutes later, we spread out on a bench in the Botanical Garden, eating very well that morning. Indeed, except for in Taipei, we ate well every morning in Taiwan. Taipei is supposed to be something of a foodie town these days, so I have to think we missed something. Such is life.

img_5106Although on the small side, the Botanical Garden was lush and green and airy and pleasant. It was also very busy, I thought, for a Sunday morning. Hundreds of locals power-walked here and tai-chied there. Flocks of photographers with expensive equipment sought the perfect photo, some positioning dead worms as bait to entice birds perched in the trees to swoop; others positioning infants, probably not as prey. Many well-preserved elderly folk sat yelling at each other on benches around us.

At one adjacent bench, two men between the age of seventy and death barked with a level of hostility that suggested they were reciting the script of “Twelve Angry Men”, six each. True to the story, the epilogue had them shake hands and part the better for it.

To this western observer, such is the normal tone of conversation in Taiwan, and especially Taipei: harsh. Listening to a customer ask the store clerk for a packet of cigarettes at the omnipresent 7-Eleven is enough to make me wince and duck. Yet unlike, say, the Germans or the Swiss, their imperious and threatening demeanor evaporates when they address foreigners. Suddenly they become grandma offering a cookie; even the men, even the children. I’ll take it, thanks!

Next we attended the Chieng Kai Shek memorial, a monument dedicated to the man who deluded the world into believing his Nationalists would oust the Communists from China from 1949 until any minute now.img_5289The memorial holds pride of place, with a massive statue of Shekkie himself lording over a massive landscaped mall and garden, like Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial times ten.img_5260img_5276The place with crawling with couples posing for wedding photography.

Beneath the statue a museum recounts the man’s greatness, mostly with pictures of him shaking hands with various US presidents and generals, demonstrating that political puppets can be cute and cuddly as well as useful.img_5265img_5266 They also had two of his Head of State edition Cadillac limousines, designed to withstand bullets or small nuclear warheads.img_5270Most entertaining was his collection of medals from South American Dictators of the fifties and sixties, including those from Paraguay, Ecuador, Argentina and Nicaragua. Those South American Dictators know their bling.
Ironically, walking back to the hotel we stumbled across what appeared to be a pro-China unification rally. Chieng Kai Shek would not have been pleased. But it is a free country, for the time being, anyway.img_5308

Liza and Vincent left that afternoon, back to work, back to Korea, where people work harder than they should. We made vague plans of future travel together, some of which may actually occur. Easing-going people with funny stories make good travel companions. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much or so hard.

Freed from the shackles inherent in the company of a heterosexual married couple, Frank and I hit the streets of the Ximen district determined to participate in the gay nightlife for which it has become renowned. There were a few difficulties.

First, it was six o’clock on a Sunday evening, a time that is not exactly the height of social activity anywhere (with the possible exception of the Boatslip in Provincetown during July and August, 1991). Second, as a couple in their mid-fifties who have been together over thirty years, to the club crowd, at best we represent a cute and honorable distraction for about twenty seconds, at which point social pressures suggest it is better to avoid being painted by our brush. Last, we cannot converse with lots of background noise, I don’t like to dance, we were both hungry, and tend to fall asleep at 9:35pm regardless of location.

On the walk to the Botanical Gardens we had wandered past the Red House, a theater and market complex that gets a lot of buzz hyping it as the epicenter of an “active artists’ community”.  As suspected, this was code for “gay”. It was dead as could be that New Year’s Day morning, with everything closed. But several bars and café’s proudly displayed the rainbow flag, many billboards pushed stylish clothing worn a little too tight by models with spectacular pecs, and there was more than one shop pushing skin moisturizers and facial creams.

When we returned in the early evening, everything was open, doing a regular trade, although not very busy. We immediately found a reasonably priced café with a diverse menu and decent wine list. A flamboyant host greeted us with a decidedly un-Taiwanese “Hello, boys! Two?”, and led us to an outdoor table. There we sat surrounded by quaffed, fit young men, mostly educated and professional looking, mostly in two’s or four’s. At one table a dozen gents were recovering from the previous night’s exploits, howling the local harsh dialect with a camp twang. I am fairly certain one word we heard often was Mandarin for “FAB-ulous!”

It was all something of a throwback to the American gay ghettos of the twentieth century, when being gay was edgy and guys still went to bars to find sex partners. Of course, here being gay is still edgy. I had never experienced such high spirits and pleasant atmospherics in the gay bars of any other Asian city, having visited them in Shanghai, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Seoul.  There, gay bars are more likely to collect a depressing blend of foreign ex-pats, lonely soldiers and prostitutes. Notably, Taiwan is currently considering legalizing gay marriage. Should it, it would be the first place in Asia to do so.

Best of all, the second bottle of wine was free. That’s my kind of free country.

SK img_5263