Taipei

I have been reluctant to write about my trip to Taipei. Not because there is anything to hide, or because it was boring – far from it. I have been reluctant to write about Taipei because my experience was so ludicrous that I worried written words wouldn’t do it justice, or it wouldn’t seem real. However, as I have told the story more, the more people have told me I have to write about it. This probably still won’t do it justice, but I’ll give it a shot. And I promise it is real. Here we go. 

The day is Saturday, June 30, 2019. I’m back at my parents’ place for the long weekend. Not only is Sunday Canada Day it’s also my parents’ anniversary (the running joke is that every year the city is kind enough to put on a fireworks display for their anniversary). This year isn’t just any anniversary though, it is their 25th anniversary. My sister, brother and I have a quiet evening planned at their place for Sunday – dinner, gifts, card games. Their speed. This year I had a special gift planned too. I had reached out to old friends, family, new friends, basically anyone who has had a close relationship with my parents at some point through their 25 years, and got everyone to send me a written note sharing what they love most about my parents and congratulating them on 25 years. Fortunately for my parents (unfortunate for me) there’s a lot of people – but it all came together. I had a book with 30+ written notes ready to go and I was quite excited to give it to them on Sunday. 

But, that Saturday morning I woke up to a WeChat message from a guy who was organizing one of the biggest blockchain/crypto conferences in the world. It was a 2 day conference in Taipei on July 2 and 3 and was going to have a lot of the biggest names on stage for a crowd of a few thousand +. Apparently one of the speakers had a visa issue and couldn’t get into the country so they needed to fill a speaking slot. One of the other speakers had heard me at another event the year prior and suggested I would be a good replacement. So this guy messages me and asks if I could be on stage in 3 days in Taipei. My first response: no problem. I’ve done more than enough shotgun trips – this should be fun. Then I remembered my parents’ anniversary the next day, I couldn’t miss that. Taipei is not exactly a quick jaunt from Toronto. Not only are there no direct flights, they’re 12 hours ahead. So my speaking slot wasn’t actually three days from then, it was two and a half. 

When I looked at the available flights there was only one that would allow me to see my parents on their anniversary and make it to Taipei in time. A 15 hour, 11:55pm departing flight from Toronto that landed in Manila at 3am on July 3, followed by a 5:45am departing flight to Taipei that landed at 8am – two hours before I was due on stage. It was tight, but I figured I could swing it. Flight booked. 

Dinner with the parents was nice. Laughs, tears – the usual. Shortly after dinner I took off for the airport to make my flight. But soon after boarding, things started to go wrong. I’m sitting in a window seat just ahead of the right wing of the plane. We’re approaching 11:55, our scheduled departure time, and I’m looking out to see a congregation of people crowded around the wing staring at a hose that looks stuck in the wing. The clock is ticking by. 12:05, 12:25, 12:45 – we still haven’t taken off. I’m looking at my window for connection in Manila shrinking as I grow increasingly concerned. Finally two guys in short sleeve dress shirts, like Dilbert, come burning down the tarmac in a truck with an extendable crane. Hopefully we’re going to get out of here soon. But these guys clearly had never done this before. I’m watching these guys park the truck about 100 feet from the wing, clearly too far based on the length of the extendable arm and the height they have to reach. I’m sitting there thinking: “there’s no way that’s where they’re going to set up”. Way! They start securing the truck to the pavement with the large feet you see on a crane. This process takes about 20 minutes. 20 minutes of me watching in dismay as I know this is a dead end. Finally these two guys hop in the crane and start extending up. It’s a slow process and I can see, along with the now larger than 20 person crowd on the tarmac they aren’t going to reach it. They get the arm fully extended and are about 50 feet away – not even close, as predicted. These guys begin the slow descent back down. As I watch them I’m also looking at the clock. It’s now 1:10am. My window for connection is small. As they reach the bottom they start lifting up the legs one by one so that they can drive forward, but now there’s another problem. One of the legs won’t lift. I see them all crowd around, prying, trying everything, but it won’t lift. Our two friends in the white dress shirts jumped on a golf cart and took off. At this point I’m wondering if they’ve given up. But two minutes later I see another truck burning down the tarmac, this one without a crane. It spins in behind the truck with the crane. Out jumps one of the guys in the white dress shirt who jumps in the crane truck. He fires it up and starts trying to drive – it’s not budging though. The tires are spinning, kicking up smoke. It doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere, that is, until his comrade drives the other truck into the back of the crane and starts revving as well. Now we have a smoke cloud from two trucks starting to engulf the right side of the plane, but then I start to see movement. Slowly but surely the crane is moving. Ever so slightly, but consistently, until the crane is now underneath the wing – where it should have been from the start. Out jump the two guys who jump in the basket. Feet down, arm up, now they’re moving with a sense of urgency. A few minutes later the hose is unhooked, finally. The right side of the plane claps (the only acceptable time to clap on a plane). We are finally on our way. At 2am. My margin for error is effectively slashed. But at least we’re in the air, at this point I figured the most eventful part of my trip was behind me. Oh was I wrong. Next stop Manila. 

After a book, a nap, and another book the captain comes on to let us know we’re about to begin our descent. We made up an hour in the air so I had a bit more flexibility for the connecting flight but it was still going to be tight. One of the stewardesses, Anna, came to me to let me know they were going to expedite me off the plane to make it (what a saint). As soon as we touched down Anna came to grab me. Seatbelt sign on I was escorted to the front of the plane – people probably assuming I am either a criminal or a celebrity (probably the former, given the beard and all black outfit). Regardless, with the doors about to open I’m getting a briefing from Anna on what to do next. “You’re going to have to get to terminal 2, so you’re going to come off the jet bridge, turn right, and go down the hall. You’ll get to a bigger room and there’s a transfer desk there – they will take care of you.”. Simple enough, I’m ready to roll. 

The door opens and I am off. I’ve never missed a flight, and I’m going to start today. I’ve come this far, I can’t not make the speaking slot. 

I come off the bridge, turn right, and take off down the hall. It’s 4am so there’s almost no one to be seen, and there’s minimal lighting – it feels like I’m running through an abandoned hospital (a story for another time). I turn the corner and then see the big room Anna was talking about. My mental image of a hospital quickly shifts to a prison. Off white walls, flickering fluorescent lighting, and armed guards everywhere. The barron halls were a sharp contrast to the sea of people in this room. It was chaos. Children screaming, people arguing in Filipino. I was a long way from Kansas. The “transfer desk” Anna was talking about was actually a folding table you’d find in a community center basement. There was a crowd of people around and about 10 Filipino ladies seemingly taking people in ad-hoc – no line, just a bunch of people doing what they have to do. I was not about to miss the flight so I grabbed the attention of one of the ladies crowded around the desk, Tallullah. I showed her my ticket, she signalled for my passport – no words exchanged. Next thing I knew Tallullah disappeared down a hallway, ticket and passport in hand. I tried to follow her but was immediately met by two members of the overstaffed security team over equipped with semi-automatic rifles. They pointed to a corner of the room where a bunch of people seemed to be standing around. Ok, no problem, I’ll go wait over there.

I’m standing around, watching the clock tick by, waiting, waiting. All I want is to get on this flight and be on my way. I tried to ask questions but was met with the same resistance again. As I look around I realize that of the hundreds of people I am one of two white guys. We spot each other and make a move – like Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey making their way to each other across a crowded dancefloor (I’m obviously Patrick). Jennifer’s actual name was Sean, he was en route to Singapore from Boston, and he too had his passport taken. We speculated that we might be in the midst of a government sponsored kidnapping. Blake looked like he would probably fetch a higher ransom tag though, so at least I had that going for me. 

Finally Tallullah returned with a stack of passports and tickets. Apparently everyone in this corner of the room has their’s taken. At least it wasn’t just me and Blake. Tallullah starts reading names off one by one, but she was clearly shy, and the crowd of people were loud and restless, so this was not going very fast. At this point, with about 30 minutes to make my connecting flight, I took charge. I stood behind Tallullah and started yelling out the names. She still wasn’t giving people their documents though, she was seemingly rounding us all up. Regardless, we now had our battalion. About 20 strong, with our fearless leader, Tallullah. She took us down another narrow hallway until we reached a single security line. Your standard metal detector and conveyor belt for our bags, except this looked like it was the original model. It also stood in the middle of the room with no barricade on either side. With us all in a rush, I looked around, saw no guards paying attention and simply walked around it to the other side. No one said a word. This was my first of many obfuscations of security. 

Finally with everyone through, we made off down another hallways and down some stairs until we came to what looked like a shipping bay. At this point my theory of a government sponsored kidnapping was back on the table. 

Tallullah crowded us all around a table, the lone table in this room, and without any instruction or warning, throws the pile of passports and tickets down, signalling for us to grab ours. The lone Canadian passport I assume could fetch a good price on the black market, so I was quick to grab it (a few sharp elbows may have been delivered). WIth passport in hand, we are guided one by one out the door into the literal shipping bay area to board what appears to be a 40 year old city bus. I spot another lady on the bus, Rose, who works for the airport and ask if she speaks English – much to my delight she does. I tell Rose my situation and that my flight is supposed to be taking off any minute. She talks to Tallullah in Filipino and then lets me know that the plane is waiting for me. I asked her if she’s sure (I was skeptical) but she told me she was sure. 

The bus takes off down the tarmac, weaving across take off and landing strips until a few minutes later we pull up to another shipping bay. The driver honks a few times and a few seconds later, what looks like a fire exit – a single steel door with no window – flings open. Rose tells me this is terminal 2 and to get off. This is terminal 2? I jump off the bus, half expecting to be walking into a hostage situation, but as I make it through I see I am in fact in another terminal. Albeit small. 

At this point my anxiety has reached a crescendo. I am running. Like, really running. I see the security checkpoint in the middle of the hallways. This time there are barricades so running around is not an option.

Now, I don’t know what I was thinking, but I made a decision – a decision in hindsight could have turned out very badly – to not even break stride and run right through the metal detector, backpack still perched on my back. As I ran through, at a full clip, the alarm went off. The gentleman behind the computer (I didn’t get a chance to get his name) started yelling at me. And yet, I just kept running. I think I yelled something to the effect of: “I have a flight to catch”. I don’t even know. I just know that I was acting irrationally. In hindsight I am half surprised that no one put a bullet in my back. But at that moment I was concerned about one thing, making that flight. That’s called living in the moment. 

I showed up at the gate, panting, and handed the lady behind the desk, Susanna, my ticket. As she scans the ticket I scan the outside windows and see there is no plane connected to the bridge. Before I had a chance to ask she let me know that the plane had apparently taken off thirty minutes prior. I wasn’t even close. Rose lied to me. Tallullah lied to me. I was devastated. After all of this I was going to miss the speaking slot.

I asked what I could do and Susanna told me to head to customer service. Back down through security. Now that was one place I did not want to go. I had run my luck once, I did not want to face those people again. I started walking down past other gates and saw another flight to Taipei about to take off. It was a different airline, but I was desperate. I decided to make another bold move. I scratched up the ink on the ticket that showed the flight number, tucked it in my passport, and ran to the desk. The woman scanned the ticket and got an error (as expected), but with the gates about to close, she told me to go ahead. I could not believe it. I got on. I got to the end of the bridge and there was no stewardess to greet me. I thought: “if someone was going to sneak onto a plane, where would they sit?”. The answer is probably somewhere near the back. I then thought: “where is the least likely place someone would sit?”. Probably front, first class. So that is where I sat. Seat 1A. Right at the window. The service head, Javier, mentioned that I wasn’t on his chart – but I let him know I got the ticket last minute. He looked at me, paused, and asked one question: “Do you want an omelette or pancakes for breakfast?”. 

That is the story of how I made it to Taipei. 

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