It seemed to take forever to drift down the long approach to Keelung. Even our enormous cruise ship was reduced to just one more piece of transport in a busy waterway. The Buddhist shrine, with its mile-high Guanyin statue, watched us enter its territory with a peaceful expression of mercy: on this stop, finally, we were going to be allowed off the ship. We parked right at the end of the harbour, nudging ourselves into a spot of comfort against an old pier. Crew members assured us it would be an easy 20 minute walk into downtown. We started out.
Forty minutes later, we were waved on by a resident who seemed to understand our worried expressions: he pointed down the road, saying “Keelung” in encouragement. Glad that we hadn’t by mistake taken the wrong turn, we waved our thanks. Pretty fast walkers, we couldn’t imagine even the young crew members managing it in twenty minutes. No matter – we enjoyed the ramble. It led us past an enthusiastic sidewalk garden, vines and ferns growing out of the hillside at the edge of the street, an abandoned train station, a burned-out city block in the middle of sidewalk vendors and food stalls. We reached the city center, walked the twisting alleyway markets, inspected all the remarkable raw foods waiting to be cooked. My favorite were the open baskets of dismembered claws.
We had seen as much as our limited time allowed, but hadn’t yet experienced the best of travel. We hadn’t gotten truly lost in Keelung. The walk into town had been longer than we thought it would be, but we had been always heading in the right direction. I couldn’t count it as being off-trail. I thought we’d briefly try again. We headed up a side-street towards what looked like a secondary retail area. Bright lights were strung across the street, traffic came into the intersection from five different directions, electrical wires framed every view. Motorcycles were parked on the sidewalk in front of businesses. A group of men gathered on a corner and watched our slow walk up the hillside street. We window-shopped a second-hand store. Stanley may have wanted to look at the knife with the pearly decor, and pick through the old coins, but the store was not open. We continued, crossed the street, looked through the window dust of another closed variety store.
Then we found a tiny staircase up an alley onto an entrance to apartments. Up we walked, the steps slick with humidity, old-age and grime. We reached the top of the stairs, wondering where to go next. The men had been tracking us, looking at our progress. We decided getting lost was perhaps not the best of ideas. We retraced our progress back to the business street, back toward the gathering of men and the main avenue of the harbor. As we passed the group, several pointed the long road back to the ship. “Cruise ship” they said, smiling. We once again waved our thanks, and were on our way.
I had never set my foot in Asia before the cruise, never been to Keelung. But this was to me a comfortable place, like other places I had lived outside the US. Slightly tarnished one hundred years ago, it had never been renovated. A cell phone store opened up in a burned-out building that had electricity strung in from a series of oddly connected and tangled cords. There was grit from half a century of someone living in a place I would never have given a thought to if I had just stayed home. I may not ever choose to return, but in that moment when I was there, I loved it.