It was a very slow start that day, even for me.
I had managed to get out of bed at 8.30 to eat a breakfast of lukewarm rice, oily tofu and bitter greens washed down with orange juice but when I slouched back to my hotel room with its crumpled white sheets, drawn blinds and complete stillness, I couldn’t see a version of events that didn’t involve me getting back into bed.
After three hours of the kind of disturbing dreams that only seem to visit you when you try to have two sleeps instead of one, I showered and dressed. The plan had been to visit Sun Moon Lake, one of Taiwan’s best-known tourist attractions and a place easily accessed from the city of Taichung -which is where we happened to be.
Bad planning, bad advice and bus drivers’ bad attitudes led us on a merry dance all over the city, trying to find the bus that would take us to Sun Moon Lake. Eventually a dangerous ‘over it’ mentality settled over all three of us and with a confidence factor of less than half we got on the number 207 bus and got comfortable.
I find myself in this position more often than seems reasonable for an adult person supposedly in possession of a properly-functioning brain. Here I was again getting myself lost, in circumstances that were only partly accidental.
We could have gotten off the bus at any point, crossed the road and waited until the same bus passed by going in the opposite direction, the direction that would take us back to Taichung City. But that didn’t feel like the right thing to do. A decision had been made. We had committed to a journey. It felt right to see it through.
For better or worse we stayed on the bus as it moved further and further away from the city, joining a motorway that took us clean off the edge of my folded photocopy of a city map of Taichung.
Watching unfamiliar scenery whizz by has always relaxed me and I realised that I enjoy being driven way more than I like to drive. Some people always have to drive. Some people always have to be in control, unable to let go, terrified of what might happen if something new and unknown infiltrates their lives. The world might be a scary place for people who always have to drive, even a spiteful one that disappoints and defies on purpose.
I know that when I’m old I’ll probably spend a lot of time riding buses and trains for no reason other than the opportunity to look out of the window and be quiet and think. People will probably laugh, unable to understand why anybody would do that because you’ve always got to be going somewhere and doing something but I’ll just smile because I’ll know for sure by then that you don’t.
I spotted a derelict fairground at the side of the motorway and tried to take photographs but wasn’t quick enough. Nobody else got on the bus but every now and then someone gathered shopping bags with heavy vegetables in the bottom and leafy greens poking out of the top and got off. Eventually we merged onto a narrow road that stretched through miles of rice paddies and came to rest at the end of the line.
It was a flat town and all we could see from the bus stop was railway tracks, a few streets that looked like they led to a main street with shops and restaurants and a Seven-Eleven. I tried to connect to the Seven-Eleven wifi but couldn’t so started walking. What else are you going to do? After a few minutes we found ourselves standing outside a coffee shop, the kind of coffee shop that looks like a chemistry lab. Weirded out by having three random British tourists in his small pocket of coffee bean worship, the owner made our coffee then asked how we had found his shop. ‘We took a bus’, I said. Not helpful.
The coffee shop owner ended our brief flirtation with being lost by telling us the name of the place we were in – Da Jia Township- and that there were a few notable temples in the area we might like to visit. We thanked him but still chasing disorientation set off in the opposite direction to where he pointed. Staying lost is harder than you might think and despite our best efforts a few minutes of walking found us at the entrance to a temple anyway.
Taiwanese temples are usually quiet places inhabited by a few silent worshippers waving incense but here all was chaos. A man stood at the centre of a circle of news cameras in the courtyard, yelling into the many microphones about something or other. Everyone was really getting into it. There was applause and chanting and hundreds of people moving in and out of the temple. Being surrounded by people chanting in a language you don’t understand will always be disturbing and I was relieved when it was all over so I could wander freely, lurk in corners and watch people pray.
Finally we left the temple behind and found a place to eat, an empty teppanyaki restaurant where the chefs cook your meal to order on a long hot plate, like a very dangerous breakfast bar. We each chose a type of meat by pointing at the menu and guessing the English name based on how pink it looked in the picture. The chef cooked the meat about four inches from our faces and we ate it with rice and greens and the eyes of 7 or 8 men staring at us. Eventually one of the chefs said the words he seemed to have been chewing on since we arrived, ‘where are you from?’
’England’, I said and they all laughed, some shaking their heads. I wondered but never asked which country had got the best odds.
When we left the restaurant it was almost dusk and had grown chilly. That peculiar late afternoon sadness washed over me, that feeling of being between places and times and I hoped someone had considered how we would get back to Taichung because I hadn’t. We walked back to the bus stop we had arrived at and tried to decipher the timetable.
It was late but a local school had just let out and a huge line of schoolchildren, not quite teenagers, stood outside the seven-eleven. In groups they got on different buses until we were the only ones left and the streets took on the eerieness of desertion. A bus for Taichung had to turn up eventually. What was the alternative? Be stranded in Da Jia Township overnight? Impossible. You can’t get lost without being found.
Had we not got on the wrong bus and stayed on, had we not briefly and gently surrendered control we would never have gotten lost and had this unforgettable day. There’s an art to getting lost and mastering that art takes practise.
As I wrote these words in my notebook the 207 bus arrived and opened its doors. Taichung? I asked, knowing I was saying it all wrong. The driver seemed to nod so we got on board.