In the morning sun, the deep green water of the China Sea turns golden, bronze. I am standing on the deck outside of the wheelhouse as the captain and the Taiwanese pilot bring the ship into Tai Pei harbor. This involves an amazing maneuver in which by some mixture of skill and alchemy, they turn the ship - about 85,000 tons lightly loaded as we are - a complete 180 degrees in a narrow channel with ships and docks all around. And they are so louche while doing it!
But just in case I need more proof that I am now in a completely different world, there are the fishing boats we have been sighting - and trying not to run over since dawn, an Asian topography I recognize from films and pictures, and a smell in the air, fuel oil, grit, some mixture my mind doesn't recognize and tries to reject as alien...within a couple of hours, my lips, tongue and mouth and nose will all become irritated and sore... but still, bliss!
We will only be in Tai Pei for a few hours so I am the only one who will get shore leave here. It has been arranged for the port agent to bring a shore pass and also, a taxi driver. It is a little eerie, they meet me on the ship and the agent offers to translate my destination to the driver who speaks no English. I am about to leave for my first excursion into Asia, alone, with someone who speaks no English. I know! What did I think would happen if I ran off to the other side of the earth? But the reality is somehow so much more.....real....
And I also have a small window in which to negotiate. The ship leaves again at 9. It is now about 3:30 and I must be back at least an hour before if I don't want to be left behind. This business of container ships involves huge money and the scheduling does not account for small incidental details like passengers who go astray, although Captain Milewsky assures me that it is his intention to put me ashore safely in Hong Kong....he doesn't want the paperwork involved in accounting for my whereabouts if I should go missing...
So I gather myself and give the agent my destination: Tower 101 in central Tai Pei. It is the tallest building in the city so I can't lose my bearings, and it is also in the designer shopping district... This terrain I can negotiate in any country.
We descend that rickety stairway into a maelstrom of containers, trucks and cranes and I climb into the back of the taxi where I promptly discover there is no seatbelt connection...the driver haas fastened his so this makes me a little nervous. I accept his invitation to sit in the front. Now I feel safer...I think.
As we make the forty-minute drive, we discover that he speaks Italian fluently, some Spanish and very little broken English. More importantly, the reason he speaks Italian is because he is an opera singer trained in Milan and Turin. We discover that we both speak opera, which can be understood in any language. In a few minutes, we are friends, listening to and discussing our favorites.
Best part of my day: driving through the streets of Tai Pei while the Taiwanese taxi driver sings to me in Italian.... And believe me, he is amazing!