The Minor Glories of Constant Motion
Travel Stories: What do all the hiccups and surprises and kindnesses and connections of travel add up to? On a trip to the airport in Taipei, Matt Gross finds out.
12.03.09 | 9:55 AM ET
This trip began like any other—pretty much. At 5:30 a.m., I dragged my suitcase to the ground floor of my in-laws’ home in Taipei, opened the metal security grate and hailed a taxi outside. My wife, Jean, followed, our daughter Sasha in her arms, and negotiated a lower price with the cab driver. For some reason, her outfit—sweatpants with pointy white-leather shoes—struck me as amusing.
“Your wife is very clever,” the cab driver said in Mandarin as we drove off. “The usual price is 1,100 or 1,200 Taiwanese dollars, but she knew to ask for 900.” That’s about $30. “Which terminal are you going to?”
Panic. I always forget to look this up, and in Taiwan they don’t post the airlines and terminals on highway billboards as you approach the airport. I fiddled with my iPhone for a few minutes and finally reported back, “Terminal 2.”
The drive to Taoyuan International Airport takes about 35 minutes that early in the morning, and I’ve done it so often I’ve mostly stopped noticing the scenery. There’s a part of the highway that cuts through high green hills, I remember, and as you pass by the town of Taoyuan you can see some tall, ugly apartment buildings crowned with faux-Italianate cupolas. This time, I noticed that the driver kept shifting in his seat and making small grunting noises. Maybe, I thought, he has hemorrhoids. Then I started dozing off.
Five minutes from Terminal 2, there was a terrifying thud, and a grinding sound came from the front of the car. My first thought was that the driver had, like me, dozed off and hit one of the concrete Jersey barriers on the median. But no: He pulled over, leapt out and inspected the front end.
“Explosion,” he explained. I knew the Chinese word—bao cha—because a few years ago, when Jean and I were getting engaged in Taipei, my family had flown over for the ceremony and, one night at dinner, my younger brother had asked Jean’s family how to say “explode.” At the time I rolled my eyes at his silliness; now I was glad he’d asked.
The taxi driver set up a triangular orange warning sign and started changing the tire, attaching a wrench to the nuts and standing on it to loosen them. I could wait. The flight wouldn’t leave till 8:45 a.m., and it was only 6. The sun was coming up, and one by one the streetlights were going out, though they glowed a black-orange for minutes afterward. I rolled the spare tire over to the driver and leaned against the Jersey barrier. It was slick, maybe from oil.
Another cab pulled up in front of us and offered me a lift. I waved it off, but my original driver insisted I get in. “Nine hundred dollars,” he reminded me before I left, and I handed the cash over, even though he hadn’t quite gotten me to the airport.
Inside the new cab, the other passengers—two Taiwanese women—were quiet. I thanked them. I wanted to ask them which terminal they were going to, but I didn’t know the word for “terminal.” Then, when we got closer to the airport and passed under a billboard that mentioned the terminals, I asked, “Are you going to number one or number two?”
Number one, they said.
“Oh, I’m going to number two,” I said. They dropped me off at Terminal 2, which actually comes before Terminal 1, and I gave the driver 100 Taiwanese dollars.
I checked in. I walked through immigration and security without a problem. I plugged my laptop into a power outlet near my gate, but the Wi-Fi didn’t work. I moved to another gate, where there was a non-working replica of a rural Taiwanese mountain train, and then it worked. After I checked my email, I returned to gate D10 and heard my name over the P.A.: “Gross Matt.”
“I’m sorry,” a flight attendant told me at the desk. “It’s a full flight, so we’ve upgraded you to business class.”
I sat back down and waited for boarding to begin. And then I felt a strangely happy feeling come over me. It wasn’t just the upgrade, though I appreciated that I’d be flying comfortably to Tokyo. It was that I’d had a full morning, eventful but undramatic, with all the hiccups and surprises and kindnesses and connections that I hope for every time I travel. This day had begun like any other, it was as normal as my life ever is, but it reminded me in a gentle way of why I do it again and again. Grand epiphanies are as nice as they are rare, but a life of constant movement provides plenty of small ones. For me, that’s enough.
It was 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, and my day had only just begun.