The following is a short story from eRenlai Paul Jacob Naylor, who spent time in Taipei last year learning Chinese and researching the role of Islam in Chinese and Taiwanese history. Paul has a blog were you can read more of his short stories and journalistic pieces from his time spent in Syria.
Bright flashing lights and loud music. Neon tops, cleavages, baseball caps, muscles, hair gel, tattoos, sweat and smoke. Bottles of beer and cocktails glow under UV lights. Sticky floor. A loud voice tells us to put our hands in the air. People collapsed in corners holding their head in their hands, people making out, a sign that says 'If you need to throw up please use the bathrooms.'
It has happened. I have frozen. The night started off very well. We went for rechao, drank plenty of tai pi, went to a bar. Got talking to a film-maker who was making a documentary about an orangutan sex slave in Borneo. Then someone – was it Kirsty or was it Steve?- decided we should go to Babe 18 and now I have frozen. I have no idea how long I have been standing here but I can't seem to do anything else. I was having a good time in the line outside, making jokes, trying it on with the girls, but as soon as I walk down the shiny metal staircase and have to think about cloakroom charges and drinks tickets I just zone out, become an observer.
A table full of discarded champagne flutes, a girl wearing a hat that says 'boy', a man with spiky hair, a chewing gum wrapper on the floor. Scanning the room looking for a familiar face but when I see one I don't go over, just keep scanning, looking busy, trying not to look like I am standing in the middle of the dance floor for no reason. Nobody else is looking around. They are all in their own worlds, doing their own thing. Why can't I do my own thing? Maybe this is my thing.
I look at the dance floor, imagine there's no music and think about why all these people are crowded into this small space and why they are moving around so much. I am in a silent disco with no headphones. I try to get into the mind of each person- 'Why did you come here tonight?' 'What is it you want?' 'Why do you have a hat that says 'boy' on it?' I reproach myself for being so arrogant and superior, but I don't feel arrogant and superior standing here. I just feel confused.
A western girl with a flower in her hair comes over to me. 'Just imagine it's your living room.' She says, dancing and looking straight into my eyes. 'Do you think these people realise there are other people around them? No, they come here to look at themselves in the mirror, to wear nice clothes, to show off their bodies.' She dances off.
An old man wearing a long-sleeved silk cloak is swaying to the music, holding his walking stick in the air. As he sees me standing there, a broad smile spreads across his face. 'A reed before the wind lives on, while mighty oaks do fall.' He says, guffawing, showing the depths of his toothless mouth.
I should drink some water.
'You've gotta finish what's in your glass before I make you another one.' says the bartender.
'But I don't want this one.'
'You gotta finish it.'
'I just want some water. I don't want another drink.'
'Finish it or charge is 200NTD.'
I head to the toilets to get rid of my drink and come back with an empty glass. Easier than arguing.
'No drinks in the toilets' says the bouncer.
I walk back to the dance floor. The old man is gone. I put my half-finished drink (I think it is a gin fizz) under my jumper and walk back to the toilets, folding my arms to hide the bulge. I get to the urinal, take out the cup and quickly empty it out.
'Hey, I saw that.' The bouncer is behind me.
'I just threw up.' I say, wiping my mouth.
'Come with me, now.' I follow the bouncer, still holding my cup. We arrive at the cash desk.
'Pay 200NTD or leave'.
It's cold outside and I realise I have forgotten my coat in the cloakroom, which also has my mobile phone in it. I turn round to go back down the stairs but the bouncer is still waiting there.
'Don't let that guy back in' he says to the security guard at the door as I approach.
I back out into the square, go across to the 7/11 to get a coffee. Nobody is there, not even the attendant. I look across to Babe 18. The queue has gone, the security guard is not there, and the main doors are shut up. The whole square is deserted apart from a scooter parked up in the middle of the square with the engine running and the lights on. The lights cut across the dark of the square, making the small thin trees send out wild shadows in all directions. I wait in the 7/11 and look at the clock on the wall. If it gets to half past twelve and nobody comes back to the scooter, I will get on it. The hum of the engine is the only sound I can hear, it fills my whole head.
By 12:35 I am on the Xinyi express road heading south east. A few solitary taxis pass by, the faces of the drivers hidden in shadow. The sounds of the city are soon lost completely as I leave the highway, pass shuttered noodle shops and the dim red glow of temples. The road climbs and the shops and dwellings get sparser until they stop completely, giving way to trees and bushes and the occasional tudigong shrine.
The drone of the scooter lowers and is replaced by a whirring, then a clattering, then silence. No more fuel. I pull into the side of the road as the headlights slowly dim, leaving me in total darkness. As the cooling engine crackles, the air becomes full of cicadas, the ping of bats and the nocturnal rustlings of unknown creatures.
But among the persistent drone of the cicadas, there is a more human sound. Somebody is singing in the forest. Pushing away branches and fending off clouds of mosquitos I leave the road and climb down a steep incline, towards the noise. The forest turns into a clearing. At the end of the clearing there is a small brick house. In front of the house is a low-walled courtyard. A small naked light bulb hangs above the entrance. Sounds of the accordion and keyboard accompany an echoed gravelly voice, singing in Taiwanese. A group of old men sit outside, smoking and chewing betel nut. They cannot see me approach. In the middle of the courtyard I can see the accordion player, a blind man with a beret, sitting on a chair. The whole crowd joins in the chorus, their cans of beer raised in the air.
I leave the clearing and continue climbing down the slope. In no time at all the music has disappeared. The incessant chirping of cicadas and humming of mosquitos returns. A light breeze shakes the leaves of the trees above, faint traces of incense. At the bottom of the valley is a small temple, lit by the lights of a hundred flickering candles. Monks in red kneel before a statue, hidden in darkness, rhythmically chanting to the quick beat of a drum. I walk past them, following nothing in particular as the long night draws on.
The flat ground comes to an end and starts to rise. The other side of the valley perhaps. It seems I have been walking for ages but impossible to tell. Here there are rocks and boulders, slippery with moss. I begin to scramble up them. A snake slithers across my path, pale and ghostly in the moonlight. I stop for a minute to negotiate my way through the boulders when I hear the snap of a twig close by. I freeze. A rustling of leaves behind. Out of the forest comes a man wearing only a grass skirt. In one hand he holds a spear, in the other a dark bundle that seems to be tied with string. I breathe out too loudly. He hears me and shouts in an unknown tongue to the forest behind, gesturing in my direction. A voice replies. As he comes towards me he is lit up by the moonlight. He is carrying a bunch of human heads, knotted together by their thick black hair. Our eyes meet.
I scramble up the boulders, slip and fall several times, never looking back. The day begins to break and the top of the valley above is outlined on the pale blue sky. Breathless and covered with sweat, covered with grazes and scrapes, I pull myself up the final rock and surprise a few keen photographers. Taipei 101 blinks red in the dawn. I walk down the stone steps and reach Xiangshan MRT in time for the first train of the day.
Steve sits in the living room of our apartment in Taipower playing Fifa, a half-eaten happy meal lying on the table in front of him. 'How was your night?' says Steve. 'You disappeared.'
Photo credit: Amina88