Hitchhiking in Taiwan; If Dudley Spoke the Queen’s

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Dudley overtakes the lorry with relish, scything through the thinnest of gaps. In the back of the battered people-carrier, caged pigeons sing uselessly defiant prisoner songs with panicked haste, though our human interpretation is merely a cacophony of squawking. In the footwells, an accumulation of snacks scramble from left to right, a wealth of dubious nutrition that could only have been amassed over countless, diligent years, as if Dudley knew things the rest of us didn’t; the apocalypse nigh.

Even in this divine knowledge, the driving style seems disproportionately urgent, and never more so than this manoeuvre. To our left, a tired aluminium barrier is the sole protector from a hundred-metre descent, at considerable, gathering speed, into the ocean and obliteration. The cliff face beyond the lorry to the right climbs high and certain. There are seconds before the lorry moves into the gap ahead, forcing us through the barrier and into oblivion. No wonder the snacks shifted right.

Backwards now, too. An onrushing car. But Dudley, sublime, serene, supreme, accelerates into the apex of the angle, removing both the lorry and the headlong car from the equation. I realise my hands are clenched in moist fists and my feet pressing hard against the opposing rise of the footwell. I try to relax, to mirror the ethereal notions Dudley radiates. The pigeons don’t. Their sounds rise towards unsynchronised crescendo. What their intended role might be in Dudley’s apocalypse is a welcome distraction.

Perhaps picking up two stray hitchhikers, a tall German, your taller narrator, was Dudley’s last act of kindness before heading to his bunker, welding shut the door, basking in his solitude and sheer righteousness while picturing the earth bereft of population, the world that soon awaits. The fallen cities. The endless barren stretches. The feral men he’ll have to protect his snack accumulation from. The snacks, after all, will outlast even mankind itself, potentially a pity should the rancid ‘plum candy’ he insisted we try be the only remnants of what thousands of years of civilisation achieved when the extra-terrestrials arrive.

Dudley has the build of a man who stands motionless on the slow-moving travellators you see in airports. His age is ambiguous, perhaps fifty, the eyes off-white orbs sunken into a wrinkled face as if recoiling from the world around. He hangs on to life by the rings around them. Still, such poise. And altruism, too, picking up the two strange Caucasian folk by the roadside as they held a cardboard sign with the Chinese script translation of ‘Kaohsiung’ poorly scribed across it. Quite the act given the impending apocalypse. I suspect he’d have been a titan of sport or war had genetics been kind enough to supply him with a body to match the mental capacity.

He doesn’t speak English. I don’t know his name; it’s almost certainly not Dudley but the moniker feels strangely appropriate, the sort he might have chosen had he attended boarding school in England, I think.

As a result, communication is limited. He’d slow down, point out a speed camera and gargle a knowing laugh. I’d enthusiastically light up with understanding, but the fleeting connection would fall away as quickly as the proximity of the speed camera. A growing frustration. Despite the schlubby, unkempt look, Dudley emits a sense of wisdom that will never be articulated between us.

On the contrary, he seems the type to have mind-boggling gaps in his knowledge base, thinking the moon is an optical illusion or pirates a myth. I’d estimate his life has been either a wild, titanic failure or a thriving, flawless success. Nowhere in between.

A catalogue of questions, an absence of answers. Dudley lights his fifth cigarette. We’ve not yet been in the car for thirty minutes. I’m impressed.

We forge on, cutting inland towards the rolling hills and mountains at the thick centre of Taiwan. They’re almost petulantly green, as if blue had sidled over that morning to question their vivacity. The population density in Taiwan takes the shape of a fried egg, I think. The green, undulating yolk uninhabited, the loose white coastline bursting with cities, towns, life.

We weave around and through the edge of said hills. More breakneck manoeuvres. Overtaken cars consigned to history. Hours slip by in a haze. Is Dudley really on an identical route to us, I ask myself? But the question barely registers, superseded by all the things I’ll never know about my chauffeur.

Has he noticed the changes here? Divided from the Taipei skate and graffiti scene, the rising east coast surf scene, too, by the simple fact of age, I suspect, but would he explain the culture of being friends before business partners, even in the simplest of transactions, the value of trust? Surely he too has noticed that Chinese New Year is being celebrated less and Christmas more as the years pass? Is it a refined collective comment on the island’s independence from China?

And what of his thoughts on the claim Chinese spies are hidden amongst the social elite of Taipei, integrated through business and marriage, positioned by nefarious Beijing officials to spread subtle ripples of chaos from within? Amidst the confusion, China thinks, it will reclaim its wayward child. Then again, maybe Dudley’s one of the spies. Recently outed, on the run. Uneasy thoughts swirl. The conspiracy briefly grows in me. He drives like an outlaw, anyway. The pigeons howl their agreement.

Hours pass. Night falls, neon ignites. Roadside diners, their names lost in scripted translation, hotels I’ll never know the name of, ambiguous-looking shrines that could be yoga retreats for all I know.

A ‘Love Motel’, at least, is signed in English, the O in ‘love’ replaced by a heart shape. I suspect it’s meant to be cute as opposed to ironic. Has Dudley ever frequented one? Driven into one of those garages with his lady riding shotgun, closed the shutter, climbed in the backseat and made the lustful music happen? If society insisted you lived with your parents until marriage, you’d probably resort to such measures, too.

But I’ll never know for sure. All I know is we’re three hours in and his cigarette count is surging towards thirty. The feeling hasn’t faded; if anything I’m even more impressed. The stamina, the pure lungmanship.

I form more theories. Concepts, beliefs, ideas. I sense he has an irrational hatred for Neapolitan ice cream, which is only irrational because it’s rational but he likes it and the contradiction confuses him as that explanation does you. Sewing is a hobby. He once submerged himself in an Aloe Vera bath, the only trace of him the tip of a snorkel poking through the surface. Does he frequent online Tourette’s forums and literally type ‘fuck’ in the text? Is that even possible in Mandarin? The notions become more and more abstract, as if in protest at the rational possibilities I’ll never be able to hear.

So many observations I can never run by him, either. The matriarchal nature of the indigenous Taiwanese population, the sheer presence of these women. When they sing, there are no lyrics, just a soaring voice howling unspecified joys and sorrows, complemented by bongos and acoustic guitar. It seems somehow grander than anything you could articulate. Beyond words. Ambiguous meaning, unmistakeable feeling.

The encounter with the Taipei businessman, too. Having seen me give a cigarette to a homeless man, he politely admonished me, says the homeless make more each day than those who work. A stretch, I thought, though I did enjoy the neat link he made in comparing the homeless man to our Queen Elizabeth after I admitted my lack of love for the monarchy. But what would Dudley think? Would he strain to underline the quiet pride here, the cultural dignity? We’ll never know. At least the pigeons have fallen into silence.

I notice his SatNav is telling him to turn off the motorway. He ignores it and asks me something in Chinese, knowing I’ll never understand. I gamble and show him the name of our destination on my phone. He nods gravely. Did I get it wrong? His intended turn off disappears in the rear view mirror.

Half an hour later, we arrive outside our destination in Kaohsiung. A four-hour drive in total. Having approached the journey expecting adventure, pleasurable strife as we negotiated at least three different cars and thrusting our makeshift sign out beside barren roads, the German and I have received an impeccable door to door service. Dudley wordlessly insists we take some tangerines and more inedible candy with us. He seems sufficiently stocked for his apocalypse anyway, so I graciously accept. He’s not smoking for once. I almost don’t recognize him without a cloudy haze to peer at him through.

And suddenly, he’s gone, lost to the traffic and the red blur of brake lights. No answers. No photographic evidence, either. The latter doesn’t concern me. Such was his mythical essence I doubt he could be captured on film, the image just my arm draped around an invisible shape.

Dudley returns to his mysterious life, I do mine. Just how far from his intended route has he diverted for these two tall strangers?

Oh, Dudley. Or whatever your real name is.

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