The engine rumbled below us, drowning out her voice. Flashes of color blazed in my peripheral vision. Red, blue, white, green…in a gust of wind they were gone, leaving the sweet aroma of spent fuel behind in the air.
Once again, I grabbed my sunglasses, stopping them from falling off my face. The helmet was uncomfortable – at least one size too small and forever needing readjustment, yet simply having it was a comfort in itself.
I trusted her though, trusted her with my life. Quite literally as we sped along the road, nipping past cars. This was her bike and her hometown. I wouldn’t have a clue where I was going and so I was happy enough to hang on as we coasted down the freeway.
Complete trust indeed, in her. The others on this road, I wasn’t so sure. Taiwanese people have a sterling reputation for kindness, but I knew little of their driving ability. China has notoriously bad drivers, beyond bad in fact. I wondered did that trait extend to the people here on the beautiful island known as the Republic of China. All the same, there wasn’t much to be gained from worrying.
The traffic lights stood still on red and the bike slowed to a stop.
Taking the moment to rest my feet on the road, I wrapped my arms around her midriff and squeezed her tight, listening to her giggle.
“What did you say back there?” I asked.
“I said I’m surprised Polly Pooper hasn’t pooped out yet”
The lights flashed green before I had a chance to respond. Holding on, I agreed in silence below the growls of engines around us.
When Diana told me she had purchased a very old scooter I was a little concerned. I just hoped it would last until she was ready to leave in September. When I arrived and clamped eyes on Polly Pooper for the first time, I just hoped it would last until my vacation was over.
Last night, the rush of closing time beat our haphazard search for the fabled Decathlon store and so we found ourselves taking Polly on the trek to Taichung City once more. No doubt we were putting the old gal to the test.
Nestling my helmeted noggin behind her back, I closed my eyes again. Her long hair danced in the wind and I felt its gentle flicker against my face as we drove.
Before long, we found Decathlon and soon after the mission was complete.
High on the joy of buying new camping gear, we lunched at a busy restaurant, sacrificing concerns of money or waiting time in the name of hunger.
I had said little about my ravenous urges throughout the morning but when my stone-baked pizza arrived, the art of conversation escaped me.
A running theme of my vacation in Taiwan was the lack of a fully-charged phone. Hovering around 40% most days was the norm and this day was no different. It had barely survived the morning. Pocketing my dead cell, I queried the time. She had work that afternoon and the road home stretched forty minutes at a minimum.
Diana checked her phone. It was time to go. No sooner would home greet us than she would bid me farewell.
Before I knew it, the wild, golden strands of her windswept mane caressed my face once more. The addition of the camping gear left little room for maneuver as I shuffled for comfort on the back of the bike.
I sat up straight. tensing my back to counter the added weight and puffed my cheeks at the thought of the long-journey ahead. Empathizing with the common pack-mule, I braced in a position as comfortable as could possibly be achieved, closed my eyes and settled in for the long haul.
The sun was at its zenith and I basked in the heat; a welcome contrast to the cool wind we cut through as Polly motored along the road. A daydream led me astray and I soon forgot about the weight of my charge as the slumbering desires of a full belly enticed me to drift off.
Suddenly, I felt the bike wobble beneath me. A little at first.
We steadied, then it happened again, considerably more this time.
A strong crosswind caught my full attention and I opened my eyes in time to see a large truck blaze past to our left. The driver beeped the horn. It was not in a friendly way. It was a warning, the first of a few that quickly followed as a line of traffic thundered alongside us.
The crosswinds wobbled the bike a little more and we moved to the far right. I was wide awake now. Enough to realize we were the only motorbike on this freeway.
Leaning over Diana’s shoulder, I shouted into her ear.
“Are we supposed to be on this road?”
“No!” she shouted back. An abrupt answer, laced with stress.
There was little need for any more words. Shuffling on the seat once more, I held on tight as we made our way along the freeway. Trucks and cars continued to beep their horns at us, yelling through open windows as they tore past at high speed. Helpless to heed their warning, we rode forward, close to the wall, parallel to the traffic and all of their threatening size.
Finally, an exit materialized and we escaped the frightening crosswinds and returned to the roads below the overpass. Disorientated now, we cruised around a little, waiting for the GPS to find a new route home for us.
Diana was saying something now and I leaned in close to hear her worried mutterings about the bike. A red light ahead gave us a breather and a chance to talk.
“Did you not hear that?” she asked, “the bike is making weird noises.”
I shook my head. I hadn’t heard anything concerning and certainly didn’t want to worry about it.
A dual carriageway opened up before us. On we went.
Suddenly, we were slowing down.
I groaned, wishing I hadn’t heard her this time.
Rolling to a standstill, we pulled over and jumped off.
The hope for an immediate restart faded quickly. Polly was really dead, failing to give so much as a squeak on attempts of revival.
My shallow pool of knowledge on motorbikes and engines was scooped clean as I surmised to an overheated engine. My gut pined as Diana confirmed this had never happened before.
I really should have used the bathroom before leaving that restaurant.
“We’ll have to ditch her”, she said.
“Really?” I gaped.
It seemed extreme and yet I knew it made sense. Taiwan has strict regulations on owning motorbikes and most foreigners here acquire one by means best not discussed with officers of the law. As a member of said silent majority, Diana cared not to wait long enough for the inevitable to come down the road.
Polly was pushed to the side, left on her stand. We hovered roadside, our hands outstretched, thumbs skyward.
Two foreign faces with hopeful smiles masking their worries. Our considerable belongings piled high upon the grass no doubt made us an unattractive prospect to Taiwanese people.
Traffic flowed past, intermittent and without stopping. Time marched on, relentless and uncaring.
She was on the phone now. Contacting busy friends in the hope of finding a hero. Next up would be a phone call to her boss; time for damage control.
I returned to Polly, fresh hope simmering as I prepared to kick-start her again. Perhaps a breather was all she needed.
The kick was sloppy and yet there was something there. A growl. No, a purr, some semblance of hope.
I tried again. This time she growled. Diana heard it.
Her side of the phone call drifted to my ears. It seemed the plea for help was a lost cause.
We needed Polly back.
I kicked again. Back to a purr. Another kick. A false hope, flickering now and fading fast.
My gut groaned. That spicy pepperoni pizza was testing my metabolism. I cast my eyes beyond the grassy roadside.
Suddenly, a horn beeped from behind. I turned to see a crane truck slow on approach. Diana began to wrap up the phone call as I ceased my attempts at resurrection.
The truck stopped with a exhalation and the driver emerged. A young man stood before us with an affable smile.
Introducing himself as Chris, he got the first laugh early as I told him I’m also called Chris.
His English was good and his cheerful demeanor wasted little time in infiltrating the stressful mood. Kind eyes considered our plight from behind his spectacles as we brought him up-to-speed.
Within minutes, he had made a phone call to his friend; a mechanic in Taichung. He would be here soon to collect the bike and take it to his garage. Chris was no expert but from what he relayed to his friend on the phone, it seemed the estimated price would be very reasonable.
The conundrum of how to retrieve the bike loomed, dwarfed only by Diana’s pressing need to be at work immediately.
An obvious solution presented itself. Taiwanese Chris made another phone call to his boss.
Hanging up, he smiled again.
“It’s okay, I can help you”, he chirped.
The mechanic would arrive soon, I would accompany him to the garage. Once Polly was brought back to life, I would drive to Diana’s home. I could then collect her from work later that evening.
Meanwhile, our savior would go above and beyond by taking Diana to work now.
“Are you sure it’s okay?” we said, “your boss doesn’t mind?”
“It’s fine”, he laughed, “my boss is my dad”
“Ah, one of the perks of working for family”, I quipped.
We chatted a little as Diana made contact with her boss to update her on the situation. Chris told me how he saw us from the other side of the carriageway. He had been driving the opposite direction when he caught sight of the two stranded foreigners. The worried-looking woman and the confused man hopefully trying to kick-start what appeared to be a relic of the 1970s.
The mechanic arrived soon after and the plan took shape, panning out as intended. Another dying phone battery and some confusing GPS tested the patience of yours truly on the ride home, but otherwise it was mission success.
Sadly, I didn’t get another chance to genuinely thank Taiwanese Chris for his actions. An evening at the local bar with a bottle of wine seemed fitting but the opportunity never came as our travels took us elsewhere that week. The memory will endure though, made all the more golden by Diana’s tale of her ride to work.
Her early days in Taiwan served up a catalog of misfortune, enough to defeat weaker souls.
Sitting in the passenger side of the truck, she was somewhat overwhelmed with the latest kick to the gut.
Fighting back the tears she cursed her frustration at yet another blow, questioning when her luck would change.
The hero of the hour sat in the driver seat, casually guiding his rusty truck along the road.
Oblivious to her throes, Chris stared forward through the window-screen, peering from behind his glasses to admire the red glow of the early evening sunshine.
Flashing that trademark, gleaming smile, he remarked cheerfully,
“What a beautiful day, to make new friends!”
Has a local went above and beyond for you when you were abroad? Let me know in the comments below!