Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Monday, April 15, 2002

I love walking. In my opinion the best way to get to know and see a city is by walking. I have spent a good amount of time walking around every major city that I’ve visited. It can give you a good feel for the local culture. But if you’re like me and don’t have a good sense of direction, it might mean taking the “long way” there or getting lost, but you will quickly get a feeling for where different neighborhoods are in relation to each other. Maybe it’s a habit I picked up from being a “real” New Yorker- which I’m entitled to be called, having lived in Manhattan for almost seven years, worked in almost every neighborhood of Manhattan, never owning a car during that time. As a true New Yorker I traveled by subway, bus, taxi or foot. Certainly there are privileged New Yorkers who have cars and rent parking spots that cost as much as another person’s rent in some parts of the country. But I think that to get the true New York experience- that you must travel by one of these four means of transportation.

Currently, I’m living in Taiwan and I originally set out to write about my impressions of Taiwan, but in the process I’ve managed to get rather nostalgic about New York. New York’s on my mind lately- since I just returned to Kaohsiung from a week long visit in Taipei- where there are more and more ex-New Yorkers moving into town.

Back to walking… The weather in Kaohsiung is just lovely this time of year. It’s been sunny and comfortable with temperatures averaging in the mid- 20’s degrees Celsius. I’ve been enjoying my walks around Kaohsiung lately- I think it’s a sign that I’m growing more accustomed to this city. As I walk along the street as I do everyday, I am constantly reminded of what a chore it is to do so. Walking down the street in Taiwan in it of itself is an adventure. As I begin walking, I am first assaulted by the smells of incense, burning paper and exhaust fumes that infiltrate the air for blocks on end. Streetside altars have been set up by devout neighbors who are using the incense to “bai bai”, in other words, worship their ancestors and/or various gods. Some are simply burning incense in a large urn, others have set up elaborate, gaudy alters covered in bright red fabrics with bright red lights, and an assortment of fruit and food as their worship offerings. On the sidewalks, fake paper money is burned in large metal canisters almost daily to send money up to the heavens for the use of dearly departed relatives. But I’m not sure why someone would need money if they were in heaven or what one would do with it if they were in heaven. Isn’t heaven supposed to be a beautiful peaceful place of no worries and eternal happiness? It seems to me that someone in hell would probably be more in need of money to make a deal with the devil or to seek ways to make life in hell more comfortable. Maybe that’s just it- we’re not sure where our relatives have ended up and figure that some of them need all the help that they can get in the afterlife, especially if they are caught somewhere in limbo.That’s my take on it. I’m probably grossly uninformed of these customs anyhow.

Scooters and motorcycles or “autobai” as they are known collectively in Taiwan- rule the streets. They are the transportation of choice among the Taiwanese. There are separately designated driving lanes and waiting boxes at intersection corners just for the autobai. It’s not uncommon to see entire families riding together on a scooter. Standing on the corner waiting for the light to turn- a mother with baby in lap, and toddler standing at the helm of the scoter drives by… a father, mother and child are seen all sharing a single scooter to get from place to place.

The autobai have even overrun the sidewalks leaving the pedestrians no where to run, literally. Sidewalks are littered with scooters lined up like dominoes, frequently trapping unsuspecting pedestrians at the corners of busy intersections or smack dab in front of walking victims in the middle of a sidewalk.

The sidewalks are uneven- they seem to have been constructed haphazardly. It’s not that they have not been paved smoothly, but it seems as though the local government hasn’t been responsible for enforcing any standardization or upkeep of the sidewalks. There are different sections of sidewalks constructed of varying types of stone/concrete; each section of sidewalk seems to change without rhyme or reason as one walks by various storefronts. Perhaps it’s because (I can only assume that) the local government hasn’t properly maintained the sidewalks, or perhaps, as businesses opened, each privately replaced, or patched the respective piece of sidewalk in front of their building. It’s not uncommon for sections of the sidewalk to dip and rise drastically by half a foot to a foot in height. It’s surprising that more people are not seen tripping and injuring themselves as they walk along. Actually, a sure fire way to know that someone is from out of town, is to observe how many times they trip over the sidewalks as they walk about in Taiwan.

Pedestrians are relegated to walking on the street, maneuvering around the parked masses of autobai, parked cars, burning money canisters, and burning incense. Pedestrians can’t take anything for granted. They must continually look for obstacles in all directions around them- what lies ahead in their path, what vehicles are racing about on the streets, where they should be stepping as the sidewalk rises and falls. Pedestrians have no right of way. This is why no one ever walks from place to place in Taiwan. It is highly unusual for someone to walk farther than 2 blocks or 5 minutes. People are usually walking to get to their autobai, to a corner to hail a taxi or take a bus, or a nearby store. I think nothing of walking 5 or more blocks or walking 15-20 minute distances. I refuse to give up my preference to walk despite all of these obstacles and air pollution. As I walk against odds, I am accosted by the honking of taxis that drive by every few minutes, because I couldn’t possibly be planning on walking very far, so I probably need a taxi to take me where I’m going. Such are the joys of walking in Taiwan...

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