April 17th 1984

posted in: The way back | 1

Peter, Val + I were all up early – early for us at any rate – to have some breakfast before popping over to Taiwan.  When we arrived at Lion’s, however, it seemed that Peter wasn’t required yet, since now he would be going on a later flight.  It seemed odd, I must say, but far be it from me to comment.  Just prawns in the game, that’s us.  Lion was a cat on hot bricks, pacing up + down, because our tickets hadn’t arrived from the travel agents.  So he spent much of the time pacing up + down, + then going over instructions for the day.  It all seems moderately foolproof, I must say.  We go to one particular gate, where the guys will whisk us thro’ with only a show of inspecting the bags.  And in the event of something unforeseen – the arrival of a big boss, or being instructed to go to a different gate, we have a list in our pockets of all the stuff we’re carrying, + so put it into bond.  The list was quite remarkable – we each were taking something like 30 Walkmans, 80 watches, 40 teapots…  Not surprisingly, the bags were enormously heavy.  We had 3 each – 2 to check in, one to carry aboard.  Fortunately, it didn’t look as tho’ we would be carrying them very much.

As soon as the tickets arrived, we were off, Val + I + another fellow heaving the gear to the lift, then out to the street, + into a taxi – quite an exercise in logistics, believe me.  At the airport, Val + I checked in at different counters – we were both fantastically overweight, + one gets more, apparently, for one’s allowance if one travels alone.  I still had to shell out a couple of hundred HK$ as excess baggage – not, you understand, out of my own money.  I got myself into a bit of a flap when they wanted to x-ray one of the cases – I wanted to take out my camera to keep it safe, + couldn’t find the bloody thing.  I gave up in the end, figuring it was better to lose a film than display countless Walkmans to all + sundry.  More problems when I went thro’ immigration + security myself tho’.  This time it was my hand-luggage that was x-rayed, but obviously there was something in it which didn’t please them.  They opened it up but what was sitting there on top of it but my camera.  Worse, they started pulling things out, heavily wrapped in bubble wrap, + asking what they were.  I wasn’t in any danger, since it’s not illegal to take stuff out of Hong Kong, but it was highly embarrassing all the same, especially when I had to confess I didn’t know what they were.  It was with a good deal of relief that I finally passed into the departure lounge + could, finally, relax.

The flight itself was nothing more than so-so; naturally Val + I sat apart, so I had a couple of elderly Kiwis as neighbours.  We were with Cathay Pacific, about which I had heard good things, but really the meal was very odd – virtually just a plateful of various cold meats, with 2 sticks of asparagus, one quarter of a tomato, and one bread roll.  Very odd.  I thought that I was reasonably relaxed about the whole thing, but found, about 20 mins before we landed, that I was being seized by cramps in my stomach, + reaching up my whole back.  Very painful, + worse, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to appear relaxed + casual.  However, there was not very much I could do about the whole thing, apart from trying to untense.

Lugging my hand-luggage from the plane to customs was mighty hard work – Taipei turned out to have an enormous airport, so it was quite a walk.  Fortunately, they had a couple of moving walkways, but these were sluggish things – I think both Val + I wanted to get the whole thing over.  At the baggage collection, we’d been told to get a luggage trolley each, still maintaining the air of independence from each other.  So it had to be as a concerned passer-by that I told Val  she was waiting at the wrong baggage delivery ramp.

My own faux pas was considerably more serious.  Having collected my 2 bags (avoiding the pitfall which had struck a girl last week of forgetting what her bags looked like) I managed to shove the overladen trolley thro’ the crowd to the right counter.  The place was absolutely packed – it looked like 3 Jumbos had all arrived at once – + to make things worse I had a wonky trolley which refused to go straight, but somehow I made kit.  Val was in the adjacent queue – we’d been given strict instructions to go to opposite sides of the same customs counter.  It seems paid-off customs officials operate on a piecework basis, + in order not to upset the apple-cart, we had to make sure that both the guys on the counter received an equal share of the action.  We were close to being done when with a jolt I recognised I didn’t have my piece of hand-luggage.  Oh fuck, what an inept smuggler, losing one of the bags.  I shoved my trolley out of the queue towards Val + raced over to the baggage collection place, shoving my way thro’ the crowds, +, no doubt, attracting all sorts of unwelcome attention.  But what was I to do if it wasn’t there?  Complain?  Walk out anyway?  Shoot myself?  I had to take a huge breath to calm myself when I spotted the thing, sitting by the revolving tray, looking forlorn + abandoned.

I walked back to customs, consciously forcing relaxation upon myself.  I’d lost my place of course, but didn’t care in the slightest.  I’d worn my big jumper to convey an air of smartness, but with the heat + the pressure I was now dripping sweat, so peeled the thing off.  But of course, customs was a breeze.  Our guys seemed to have a supervisor peering suspiciously at them form a couple of yds away, but they just opened a case, ruffled thro’ the clothes on the most superficial way – naturally, for they already knew better than we did what was inside – all the while shielding the case from the supervisor with the lid, + then waved us thro’; Val’s guy even told her to hurry up.  This job is bad on the nerves for us; it must be ten times worse for these guys.  And that was that – a piece of cake really – it just didn’t seem so at the time.

We wheeled our trolleys thro’ the gate + over to the coffee bar, where, we’d been told, we would be contacted.  And so we were, after 5 mins or so, then out to a taxi + off into Taipei, a 40 min ride away.  We were taken first to a tiny flat where we dropped the bags, just collecting the tiny amount of stuff we had brought ourselves, + then onto a hotel.  We were very surprised – one girl told us she had just been given the name of a hotel + dumped, + so were half-expecting to have to fight to get anything out of them, but the hotel was very nice indeed – colour TV, hot bath, and all paid in advance – + Mr Ng, our contact, told us he’d pick us up at 5.30 to take us to dinner.  Not at all bad, we reckoned.

We relaxed for half an hour or so – as much to collect our breath as anything else – then went out for a walk.  We didn’t have a map or anything, + didn’t even know what there was to see in the place; we just wandered, + quite by chance happened upon one of the place’s few attractions.  (I should say now that we weren’t wonderfully struck by the place.)  We met a policeman as we were ambling around, + he chatted for a while.  His English was appalling (tho’ miles better than our Chinese) so we caught about 10% of what he said.  We were slightly worried that he might latch onto us unshakeably, since I didn’t know what Mr Ng would say if we turned up at the hotel with a policeman in tow, but in fact he was very useful, + pointed us in the direction of the Chaing Kai-Shek memorial.  This is a remarkable building, a vast white structure housing an enormous statue of the man himself, at the top of a great stretch of steps, rather in the style, not that I’ve seen it, of the Lincoln Memorial.  This dominates one end of a great paved avenue – at the other is a huge white Chinese arch.  This complex also houses a museum dedicated to CKS, elaborate gardens, +, in the early stages of construction, 2 matching buildings – one is to be an opera house, the other I don’t recall.  We looked around for a while, sent a couple of post-cards from the Post Office located in the museum, + then strolled back to the hotel for a quick bath before dinner, pausing on the way to buy some stuff for breakfast in a supermarket.  We eventually settled on cracker biscuits + cream cheese – there was nothing like the level of choice in the Hong Kong places.

We had  no idea what to expect for our meal in the evening, but it turned out to be an absolutely splendid affair.  Mr Ng turned up with a colleague called Tony, + we walked from the hotel just around the corner to a restaurant.  All of the tables had a gas-ring in the centre – we were to be treated to a Korean/Taiwanese barbecue.  And what a feast.  A large wok half-full of oil was set to heat up on the ring, + then, when it was hot enough, various meats, veg etc were dropped in.  There was an almighty sizzle , of course, but there was a metal shield placed around the pot at this stage to shield clothes, eyeballs, etc.  We were encouraged to go select our own goodies to be cooked from the refrigerated display, but there were already mountains of food, so just grabbed a plate of mushrooms for the sake of appearances.  A wise choice, however – they were delicious.  Once the stuff had been flash-fried (a waiter took care of all of this, so everything was given the right amount of time) water was added, the screens were taken away, + it was every man for himself, armed with a trusty pair of chopsticks.  It was a real banquet, so much better than we had expected, complete even with beer + orange juice.  Tony spoke excellent English, + treated us very well, seemingly grateful for our contribution.  It was all rather embarrassing, seeing as our motives were purely mercenary.  Tony was also, we discovered, able to supply us with Taiwanese Rolex watches – cheap, yet virtually indistinguishable copies of the real thing, at $25 each, so we put in an order for one each.  Purely for profit, you understand, for re-sale, one hopes in India.

Tony drove us down to the night-market after the meal, stopping off to collect the watches on the way, + dropped us there.  After such a meal, we figured a short stroll would be good for the digestion.  I’m glad we did, since it was the most memorable night-market we have ever seen, more like a fair, and a mediaeval one at that, with demonstrations, displays, and exotic wares.  One stall had a Chinese weight-lifter (no puny oriental this) proclaiming the virtues of a particular potion, + from time to time demonstrating its remarkable powers.  Another stall had snakes, live ones, which a woman was using like a whip, bashing their heads on the ground – understandably, they didn’t seem too pleased with this treatment.  After which we strolled home.  It had been quite a day.

And so our career has begun. And ultimately both successful and enjoyable, despite my ineptness during the actual transfer. So all in all, we were both feeling most satisfied with the enterprise.

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