Trippin': A Travelogue: November 2011 Archives

Even though it is already early evening, a gust of steamy air engulfs me as I step off the China Airlines plane at Taipei's Taoyuan Airport. Even after experiencing this same suffocating level of humidity at Hong Kong's Airport just hours before, it is still a shock to my system following the mild winter weather I've left behind in South Africa.

The airport terminal, although air conditioned, still offers little respite and I suddenly feel like a hot, sticky mess. However, I suspect that this may have as much to do with my uncontrollable nerves as it does with the heat. I can't believe that this is finally it; that we are here at last and that my adventure as a mature-in-age-yet-childlike-in-attitude-and-personality as a HomeStay participant is about to begin. I never in a million years thought that I would ever have the opportunity to experience what it is like to be a foreign exchange student of sorts, especially not as an old foagie in my mid-thirties!

Not having learned her lesson before, my editor kindly waits for me so that we can go through immigration together. For some reason, I never received the customs form to fill out on the flight over from Hong Kong (perhaps I didn't stick out like a sore thumb quite enough among all the Asian passengers?), so I have to complete it at the desk. Once again, Ms. Editor patiently waits for me while I deal with yet another immigration official. Luckily everything goes without a hitch this time and we walk into the arrival hall together.

A group of sign-wielding, beaming SayTaiwan volunteers are there to welcome us and to make us feel like total celebrities. Smiling and introducing themselves in broken English, they usher us towards a meet and greet area off to the side of the terminal. It is here that we at last meet Taiwanese Southern African and our overworked SayTaiwan coordinator, Alice. After having communicated by Facebook for the past two and a half months, it is wonderful to meet her in person at last. Accomplished and amazingly multilingual, she is so much younger than I had expected her to be, but every bit as beautiful and kind as I had imagined her.

Guided by more volunteers, we are given a goodie bag containing a Motorola cellphone loaded with 300 New Taiwan Dollar (NTD) in credit; a smart card to be loaded with money for use on Taiwan's public transit systems; and an ID badge. The latter is large and laminated and contains our full names in the front along with the fact that we're "International Guests" and the name, address and telephone number of our host families at the back in Chinese characters. I find this oddly comforting. We are instructed to wear it around our necks, and we obediently slip it over our heads. Ms. Editor runs over to get my number and promises to remain in touch, before she is off to meet her host family who has come to meet her at the airport.

After signing a release form to indicate that I've indeed received the Motorola, I quickly unzip my big suitcase to give Alice her present: the biggest box of Weetbix cereal sold in South African grocery stores. Shortly after befriending her on Facebook and learning that she is originally from my neighbouring country Namibia, I asked her if she had requests for any goodies from home that I could bring for her. "Weetbix!" was her first and almost immediate reply. She accepts it gratefully and tells me that she's not held a box of it in about three years.

"My" kind Taiwanese volunteer then leads me to the bus stop outside and kindly waits with me for the bus to arrive that would transport my luggage and I to the high speed rail station from where I will board train that would take me to Taichung City to begin my HomeStay adventure with the Hung family.

Blog Post Powered by a Sony Vaio Y courtesy of Sony South Africa.
The ceiling fan lazily twirls, playfully tugging at the tied-back net curtains framing the sliding glass doors. I'm sitting cross-legged on the legless chair, the netbook on the low coffee table/desk in front of me. This floor level chair is surprisingly comfortable - even for someone who is as stiff-limbed as I am. I'm actually amazed at how entirely at home I already feel, considering that there is at least six thousand miles between this beautiful, spacious guestroom I'm in and my own minuscule place in South Africa.

I marvel at how lucky I am to be here and think of the journey that has brought me to this amazing place. During the long trip here, the reality of where I was going only sank in after I found my seat on the South African Airways Airbus bound for Hong Kong. I was suddenly surrounded by passengers of Asian descent, many of whom spoke very little or no English at all. I quickly realised this when I located my seat only to find a young Chinese woman in it. She was cradling a tiny baby and I apologetically asked her to move. When she looked at me blankly, I flashed her what I hoped was a rueful smile and pointed at the seat number on my ticket. When realisation hit, she immediately and graciously moved over.

Not having to make small talk for once was actually welcome, because I was exhausted. I almost did not get to be on that plane, though! Due to a 30 minute flight delay in Cape Town, which had been the starting point of my trip a few hours before, there had been just a few minutes to spare to make it to the connecting flight in Johannesburg.

On that flight to Johannesburg, I actually had a bit of a surreal moment. The man a seat over from me was reading one of the Afrikaans daily newspapers, and suddenly, when he turned the page, I glanced over only to gasp with shock. Right there, on the page he had turned to, was a full-colour and way too big photograph of MY awful mug! (Luckily I'd had the foresight to camouflage my body behind my laptop when I had my mom take the picture earlier that week.) The article was about this very trip I was embarking on. Just before we landed, I summoned up the courage to ask him if I could please have that section of the paper. Without a flicker of recognition, he handed it over. So much for my newfound "fame"...

Fellow SayTaiwan delegates Dan, my editor and I had to make a mad dash through OR Tambo Airport to get from domestic arrivals to customs and security to reach our departing plane on time. My editor had kindly waited so that she could meet Dan and I at domestic arrivals, so we all sprinted (okay, so perhaps it was more like slowly limped, in my sad case) all the way to international departures.

I was so excited at seeing my editor again, and that - coupled with my usual scatter-brain and our haste - caused me to run straight through the security checkpoint at customs. I only realised that I didn't have my carry-on case with me when we were already half-way through the terminal. I was remarking on how cleverly light Dan and my editor were both travelling when it suddenly hit me that I was also carrying a much lighter load than I had been just moments before.

"My carry-on case!" With those breathless words, I turned on my heel and this time REALLY RAN back to customs, my heart in my throat and panic levels rising.

When I arrived back at the security checkpoint where I'd idiotically left my case, the officers immediately knew that I was THAT GIRL WHO RAN AWAY WITHOUT HER SUITCASE. This must've raised their suspicions, because they all regarded me with stark faces.

The offending case was - I was relieved to note - still in one piece on the pre-screening side of the checkpoint. "Why did you go without your suitcase?" the one female officer asked, accusingly pointing a white-gloved finger at me.

"Erm... I'm sorry!" I said, harried and anxious to grab it and go. "I'm very excited to be going overseas!"

"It's good that you're excited," she said. "You only live once." I almost laughed out loud at the situation, which was becoming increasingly bizarre. However, any intentions of smiling, let alone guffawing, vanished when the official refused to hand over my suitcase so that I could make a beeline for the flight.

"No," she said firmly when I tried to reach for it and gripped it even tighter. "You have a bottle in here."

"I do?" As soon as I'd said it, I realised that this was a mistake.

"You don't know that you have a bottle in here?"she asked incredulously.

"No... I mean, yes, of course I know," I stammered, my panic levels soaring once more as I see my editor anxiously waiting on the other side of the gate. "I meant to phrase it as a reply, not a question."

"Open your case, please," she sternly commanded.

I helplessly tapped my watch, and, realising that any further protestations would be futile, just surrendered at unzipped the case. She lifted everything out until she found the package that had so beautifully been wrapped by my sister.

"This one has the bottle inside," she said. I swallowed back the overwhelming urge to congratulate her on her psychic ability and just decided to resort to grovelling instead.

"Please?" I begged. "I'm going to stay with a foreign family and this is a gift for them to say thank you and to share our wonderful culture with them."

She clicked her tongue with what I mistook for sympathy and for a split second I was almost hopeful. But she was unmoved by my explanation. "You can check it in, otherwise we have to take it."

"But I'm going to miss my flight! I don't have TIME to go and check it in..." Arguing was just wasting even more time, so I simply ripped open the package and opened the box. "There, take this," I said, handing over the special edition bottle of Amarula. "But I'm keeping the glasses."

With that I was free to go. Needless to say, as soon as we reached the duty free shop, I promptly replaced the confiscated Amarula with an even larger bottle. Joining up with Dan later, I found out that he had been forced to sacrifice a bottle of wine to them. I'm still wondering whether customs and security officials at OR Tambo don't perhaps get a kickback on all the goods passengers buy at the airport's duty free shops to replace the items that had been confiscated by them.

We finally boarded the plane with just a few minutes to spare until take-off.

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Just as I had feared, I ended up breaking every etiquette rule in the book.

I blame it on the crocodile complex. As soon as you’re told that you should under no circumstances utter the word crocodile or even think about a crocodile, that is the ONLY reptile that slithers to mind, isn’t it? (Do crocodiles even slither? I know they have legs, but those are such squat little things, and... okay then, never mind...)

In case you have NO IDEA what I’m on about (as usual), I’m talking about my now-not-so-recent-anymore trip to Taiwan. At last. What can I say? I have always been known for my breathtakingly snappy, tell-it-even-before-it-has-happened style of reporting and blogging.

Oh, and yes! Hello! It’s good to see you again too after all these months of unexplained, deafening silence, my three imaginary readers!

I have begun diarising the trip in minute details elsewhere (including how I committed several cardinal sins with chopsticks), but before I either disclose the link to that site (doubtful, since it contains an unfortunate shot of my mug), or shamelessly copy and paste some of what I’ve written there onto here (more likely, since I’m notoriously lazy), I just have to tell you a few things I’ve learned about travelling to Taiwan.

I know I've titled this blog post “101 things about Taiwan” - since it has such a downright poetic ring to it and also since it has the added bonus of subtly paying homage to the towering Taipei 101 skyscraper in Taipei - but that by no means implies that I’m now actually going to dream up one hundred and one things. Because that is a LOT of things. Even someone who sucks at Mathematics as badly as I do knows THAT much.

So here then, just this one thing, for now, but it is a rather profound truth:

When you travel to Taiwan, get used to frequently hearing the following question before your departure: “So, you’re going to Thailand?” And after your return, get used to those same friends and even strangers coming up to you and asking: “So, how was your trip to Thailand?” 

For some reason, many folks tend to get those two vastly different (despite the fact that both are Asian) T(h)ais mixed up.

But instead of getting all knotted up about it (geddit? GEDDIT?) I patiently respond: “Not the land where they make  Ladyboys. The land where they make La-Z-Boys!”

TOLD you it was profound.

P.S. As for whether La-Z-Boy recliners are really manufactured in Taiwan? Google kindly confirmed it as fact. Never mind that I had to ever-so-gently manipulate the search a few times before it gave me the desired result...

is a South African girl living in South Africa. That doesn't sound very original, we know, but you might find it remotely interesting when you learn that she has only recently returned to South Africa for the first time after a nine year, one month and two week (non-stop!) stint in the United States where she accidentally became an outlawed alien (also known, especially in immigration circles, as an 'illegal immigrant.' We prefer the term 'outlawed alien' ourselves). During her reversed exile from her homeland, she kept herself occupied by winning this website (but only after shamelessly bribing the judges) and thus being unleashed on the web where she slowly, leisurely became the World's Laziest Blogger; by being a nanny and by attending sci-fi conventions in search of other aliens. In the US, she also made her sailing debut, her international acting debut, tried and failed to learn the piano, and never learned to cook. She is hopelessly addicted to coffee, dogs (especially Labrador Retrievers), how-to books (with a particular fondness for her copy of the Time/Life A - Z Medical Encyclopedia), and she tends to grossly overuse parentheses (we're not kidding) during her attempts at writing, which you may - if you really have masochistic tendencies - subject yourself to by reading the words to the right of this column. If you REALLY and truly STILL want to know more, you can read her C.V. here.
Or you can stalk her send her some love via e-mail at: redsaid[AT]gmail[DOT]com

The Wish List (Because yes, she really does need more how-to books. Honestly!)


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