Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Taiwan by Scooter

Welcome to Taiwan. Home to roughly 23 million who have chosen to cohabitate their island with roughly 23 million motorbikes. Mopeds, scooters, Vespas, motorcycles, crotch-rockets, however you want to term them, are overwhelmingly the vehicle of choice for locals and English teachers alike. Adaptation and assimilation certainly take some time in Taiwan. Daily challenges include accepting the ubiquitous aroma of "stinky tofu", appreciating karaoke booths as a continual source of entertainment, as well as embracing the ever-enjoyable squatter toilets.

Above all, the biggest hurdle one may encounter is the role of the scooter in daily living. Unless you reside in Taipei or Kaohsiung, Taiwan's two largest cities equipped with pristine and punctual transit systems, you will most likely reach the realization that said vehicle must eventually be tamed and mounted.

Undoubtedly, talking yourself into a scooter purchase is not easy. To do so, one must forgo all previously held biases against puttering around on a device that junior high school students can legally drive back home. Instead, the surprisingly numerous advantages must be considered. When attempting to live green, a newly acquired motorbike is a fresh step forward in terms of fuel efficiency. Parking is readily available while day-long excursions spent gulping mountain air and dodging stray dogs has never felt so exhilarating.

In most cases, licenses, insurance, and road tests are typically bypassed for an under the table transaction from a departing foreigner. Motorcycle virgins, myself included, often hop on their first solo ride and wait for the Che Guevara within us to take over. Even those with extensive experience must come to terms with the fantastic mess that is Taiwanese driving. Therefore, a few simple rules of the road should be taken into consideration before those wheelies start a-popping.

1. Sidewalks are fair game. Pedestrians, take note. The three meter wide stretches of cement bordering shops and kindergartens alike can only mean one thing: right hand passing lane. This acceptable activity also promotes both high speed window shopping and the possibility of nation-wide Seven Eleven drive-thrus.

2. The horn is your best pengyou. That's right, the BFF feature of your scooter turns out to be its quack or yelp (depending on your model). An essential component of a three hour trek down the coast or a two minute jaunt for some dumplings, the horn should be deployed to announce your presence when passing through all yellow and red lights, four way intersections, and one-way alleys. A quiet motorist is a crippled motorist.

3. Dress to impress. Fashion meets function when it comes to your driving wardrobe. Helmets are required by law, yet apparently so too are tinted visors, Hello Kitty face masks, elbow-length riding gloves, and the ever-popular oven mitt handle grips. These confusing pieces of attire are mainly designed to shield delicate skin from the tropical sun. Not surprisingly, these well-protected drivers can easily be mistaken for high-fashion motorized street ninjas, which unfairly further tarnishes the reputation of street ninjas worldwide.

4. Don't limit yourself. How indulgent one feels pulling up alone to a scooter standstill flanked by a scooter bearing family of four plus dog to the right and one to the left balancing morning milkman, complete with crate, bottles, and toothy grin. While arguably less mysterious, the compactibility of Taiwanese passengers demotes clown cars to a vehicular wonder of the past.

5. Respect your elders. As in most Asian countries, the senior citizens of Taiwan are held in high esteem within society, a well-deserved honor. Elder motorists apparently also hold a distinguished spot upon the roads they rule in style. Without ever so much as a temporary glance in a side-view mirror, they weave their way through standstill traffic, challenge oncoming vehicles, and basically roam wherever they please. Along with the reverent bows and honorific titles, the elders have earned these roads. A motorized grandpa should not be taken lightly.

Embrace these few peanuts of advice if you so choose. Also remember to take the road less traveled simply because you can, even if those roads happen to be windy in both the long and short vowel sense. While guardrails are not always easy to come by and reckless driving is, a slightly fortified and engined bicycle is simply the optimal way to journey across this delightful Asian isle. Giddy-up.

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