Through Taipei streets I cycle erratically, in between guidebook gigs and en route to an interview for a writing gig for which I am vastly overqualified. The trip gives me time for some high speed meditation, my mind awash with delusions of petulant grandiosity basted lightly with thoughts of goat milk.
I got hooked on goat milk last year while researching a travel guide to Singapore, which is not a city normally associated with farm animals. Intestinal difficulties drew me to the milk. The culprits, in no particular order:
Fish head curry,
Roti stuffed with hot pepper, and
Various and sundry street foods from around the region.
Singapore is a food city, and if you’ve ever visited those sweltering hawker courts with their endless aisles of jelly-fire curries you understand why deferred pain might be considered a work-related expense for the intrepid guidebook writer.
One Saturday I found myself researching the city’s rustic side, a few patches of bucolic jungle park and well-tended organic farms on the island’s outer edge. It was here that I came upon a farm that raised goats and distributed their milk citywide. On a whim, I bought and consumed a bottle, and my gastronomic troubles evaporated immediately. For the remainder of my stay I had three bottles delivered weekly.
I assumed that getting goat milk in Taiwan was possible, organic foods being all the rage in those days on my adopted island. I asked around for months, but couldn’t locate a source. I settled instead for wishful thinking.
Which brings us to the present moment.
Were you watching me from some office window on Ren Ai Road, you’d see a man of indeterminate adulthood looking around for a secure pole on which to lock his bike, his actions offering no outward indication of the convoluted flight of pique currently unfolding inside his mind.
A vision of myself, seated atop a throne made of travel guides, all written by me.
From my imaginary throne I am holding court on matters not to be taken lightly. Beneath me, standing with heads bowed are two Asian heads of state, both waiting for me to answer a question of monumental importance.
“Which place, Mr. Samuel, of the many upon which your candied words have graced, heads your top ten list?”
The question is delivered with equal parts gravitas and obsequiousness by Lee Kuan-yew, former prime minister of Singapore, who, though technically a private citizen only, is still referred to with the honorific title Minister Mentor.
Wise indeed is MM Lee to curry my favor with flattery, for my declaration, when issued, will make restaurants, hotels, and even theme parks seem more (or less) attractive to business travelers and backpackers alike.
The second head of state standing before me with bowed head on the long red carpet leading up to my throne (which doubles as my writing desk, if I didn’t mention this before) is Ma Ying-jeou, President of Taiwan.
“Taiwan is your favorite place in the world, is it not, Mr. Samuel?” says Ma, with great elocution. (He is, after all, a Harvard Man.) “You have called our country your adopted homeland more than once in your writings. This has made us all very, very proud.”
This last statement is emphasized with a unique mixture of pomp and humility, causing me to arrange my hands in the pretentious pyramid favored by academics and executives alike, a stance conveying two messages:
I hold the cards
Further flattery may benefit your cause
To drive these points home, I produce a noncommittal hmmm sound.
“You have lived in Taiwan for nearly a decade,” continues the famously coiffed president of the state-that-dare-not-mention-its-statehood. “Why, we should have offered you honorary citizenship long ago!”
I quickly arch my left eyebrow and allow the corners of my mouth to turn slightly downward, conveying to all assembled that President Ma has touched a raw nerve. Sensing an opening, the Minister Mentor, renowned for his political savvy, lunges in for the rhetorical kill.
“Ah,” says the wily Lee Kuan-yew, inching closer to my throne, eyes shining knowingly.
“But in all those years, Mr. Samuel, did Taiwan ever offer you a road to citizenship? No. Why, in Singapore you lived only seven weeks, yet by the third we were already delivering fresh goat milk to your door!”
My smile returns; I radiate confidence, grace and power.
“The Minister Mentor is correct,” I say.
Ma Ying-jeou’s starchy lacquered hair droops.
I raise my right palm, and the assembled subjects of my fantasy world tremble in anticipation of my words. In my mind’s eye I envision the cheering millions, the beating of breasts, the ticker-tape parades, the bitter tears of recrimination.
“You want goat milk?”
My fantasy of power and grandiosity is rudely shattered. Before me stands a woman (or perhaps a specter dredged from my subconscious) holding a woven basket. In her right hand, a small plastic cup.
“Goat milk. You want to try?”
So simpatico is the core subject of my outlandish fantasy and what appears to be actual reality that I am gobsmacked into silence.
The woman reaches a hand into her basket and pulls out a kindergarten-sized milk carton bearing on its label a drawing of a goat.
“Goat milk is better than cow milk, containing more vitamins and less cholesterol than cow milk…”
She pours a shot of milk into the white plastic cup.
Surely some cosmic joke is in progress. The woman continues her pitch concerning the health benefits of goat milk, unaware of the amazing lattice of coincidence our chance encounter represents.
I drain the plastic cup in one long sip.
“Our goat milk is both healthy and tasty, available in five flavors: Chocolate, vanilla, peach, strawberry and original…”
The word honey is displayed ostentatiously across the buttocks of her purple sweatpants, but other than this she has the demeanor of a simple farm girl.
Could she possibly understand the fact that the person to whom she is currently making a cold call sidewalk sales pitch had been, at the exact moment of contact, sunk brainpan deep into a manic fantasy of delusional grandeur, one in which the exact product that she is offering to have delivered to my doorstep daily is a major component?
Or would she just interpret my tale — if I could even manage to translate the phrase “lattice of coincidence” into Mandarin — as proof that I am of that class known in sales-speak as a motivated customer. From the point of view of a wandering goat milk salesperson, this could be considered the only reasonable assumption.
Perhaps our meeting is more than mere chance. What if the woman had been weaving magic of her own?
As she continues her pitch, it all becomes crystal clear to me.
Business has been slow these last few months, a result of the economic slowdown, combined with the overall indifference among the citizenry of Taipei to goat-related products. These factors have come close to crushing this goat milk salesgirl’s spirit.
It was this morning’s pep talk — delivered by an overbearing hatchet man sent to increase productivity among the goat milk sales force-that had finally driven the salesgirl to mysticism.
“We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest,” the well-dressed executive had roared arrogantly at the assembled roaming sales team. “First prize is a three day trip to Macau, all expenses paid. Second prize is a set of steak knives. And third prize…” (and at this he looked directly at my unlucky salesgirl with particular malice)
“…Third prize is you’re fired!”
The humiliating scene drove my poor, farm born salesgirl to flee the goat milk headquarters the very second the meeting had ended. With tears rolling down her apple cheeks she ran to the shrine of Shen Nong-shi, Chinese god of agriculture, where she’d spent her last few dollars on incense, lucky totems and various sacred items, all of which she’d burned, along with perhaps small locks of her own hair, before the statue of the deity, chanting feverishly all the while:
“Please, Shen Nong-shi, please…this humble goat milk salesgirl begs you…oh Shen Nong-shi, hear my prayers…send a customer to me this day, so that I can return to the farm with steak knives instead of shame.”
While she chanted she visualized the perfect customer-the one that would break her losing streak, allowing her to hold her head high among her peers in the goat milk sales industry at last.
The woman has long finished her pitch and is now fiddling with her clipboard. She looks at me expectantly, and a wave of compassion so profound that I nearly burst into tears washes over me. It hits me all at once in perfect, blinding epiphany — I am the one.
“Yes! Yes!” I cry, resisting the urge to kiss the woman full on the mouth after consuming the contents of her sample basket. “I want your goat milk!”
“You’ll need to fill out this form. How many cartons do you want a week?”
“Two a day, every day! Random flavors!”
“We only deliver on weekdays.”
She fills out the sales sheet and hands me my carbon copy.
“Thank you. Delivery will begin next Monday.”
As quickly as she’d arrived in my world the salesgirl is off, leaving me ensconced snugly in a warm blanket of delusion, dreaming of the goat milk filled days to come.
The Milky Teat of Serendipity is one of 19 tales of new journalism and exotic hallucination from the book How Not to Avoid Jet Lag & other tales of travel madness
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How Not to Avoid Jet Lag Nineteen stories from the increasingly deranged mind of travel Writer Joshua Samuel Brown, with illustrations by David Lee Ingersoll.
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