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Taiwan Part 1
Pros: nice experience
Cons: chaotic and uproarious traffic

Kaohsiung, Taiwan
Monday, Aug 09, 2004 01:02

The defining experience of my trip to Taiwan was roaring around Kaohsiung on the back of a scooter. Few things could have prepared me for, or compared to, the exhilaration of riding a scooter, and the choking reality of traffic in South East Asia.

I arrived in the city by bus from the capital, Taipei. My first impression of Kaohsiung was being dropped off on the edge of the most chaotic and uproarious traffic I have ever experienced. It wasn't the cars or buses but the mass of scooters, dozens and dozens of them, ripping by in a cacophony more like angry hornets than motorized vehicles.

My head reeled as I marvelled at how unfamiliar my surroundings were. So different from Seoul, where it's not hard to get your bearings straight, and where even on a Friday night the chaos is relatively controlled.

But then, it was inevitable that my trip would be a study in contrasts between Korea and Taiwan. I went as much for a taste-test of living there, as for a vacation. And I wasn't disappointed. I would work there in a heartbeat.

And not just because I could ride a scooter, though this would be a plus. In fact, it's a necessity in a city like Kaohsiung--commonly pronounced "Gow-Shung." Public transport is almost non-existent for foreigners, who would find it next to impossible to get around by bus with no English translation or even bus maps. A subway is under construction, but probably won't make it much easier to get around, or ease congestion on the streets.

In Taipei, public transportation seems more in line with what foreigners are used to, with swift buses and a reputable subway system. But in Kaohsiung, the scooter rules. It's not even practical to walk in Kaohsiung.

Despite being a proficient walker, I had trouble getting around on foot. Sidewalks are used for either scooter parking or as extensions of street-level commerce, and walking becomes an exercise in squeezing past fruit stands, and trying not to knock over bikes. Most people simply walk on the road.

Another reason for the scooter madness is that they are relatively cheap and very efficient. Even with the rise in fuel prices, it doesn't cost much to fill one up, and cost only one or two hundred dollars for a decent used bike.

They're fun, and relatively safe to ride if you're smart about it. Almost everyone wears a helmet, and there are all kinds of scooter-only lanes and areas that keep them separate from larger vehicles.

If I sound like a scooter salesman it's because I've seen the light. I don't have a license to drive. I've never even learned how--aside for a spin or two around rural Ontario--and I haven't found it a great impediment to my life.

Surely it would be nice to have the knowledge and use of driving skills, for example, to rent a car for a road trip. But after all this time, being a non-driver is just something I'm used to.

Riding the scooter in Kaoshiung, then, was an awakening. I didn't ride through the streets and heavy traffic, but it was exhilarating nonetheless. For the first time in ten years, I commanded control of a motor vehicle, and it felt damn fine.