Get on your bike, take a deep breath, pedal and as a good friend of mine said on my first bike ride in Taipei, “don’t look back, never look back.” She is right.
Traffic here in Taipei is a chaotic dance, a tango for those in the know, but for the uninitiated oh man is it a baptism of flying taxi’s and screeching brakes.
First off, a red light doesn’t appear to always mean stop, it may mean go faster, duck and dive past that bus, quickly quickly!! (I’m not sure yet going on evidential proof).Secondly, a pedestrian crossing is not necessarily a safe place to cross the road, be you a cyclist or pedestrian. And near a free turn corner -KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED – or you may end up as someone’s hood ornament. It is not that Taiwanese drivers don’t care about driving safely it is just there is this highly competitive edge to outdo one another, to be the best by beating the light changes from red to green and vice versa. It is a small daily achievement that assuages the Taiwanese ego. “I bet that bus through the lights, HUZZAH” – well not huzzah obviously but something similar in Mandarin.
As a new cyclist, I love my bike “Dolly”, she’s gray, a bit shiny and has a basket – a very useful implement – which carries everything from my shopping to school gear but not as I found out yesterday a clothes drying rack. (Yes,that may have been an optimism to far.) But Dolly unfortunately is not the most agile of creatures, she has lacksidazical steering and temperamental brakes which on a wet surface a couple of weeks ago lead to a rather spectacular sideways flying head and ribs crashing against pavement experience.
This experience apart from being painful for a week or so was interesting culturally. I lay stunned on the pavement for a good five to ten minutes in shock, pain and a with a serious case of shakes and not one person stopped to offer assistance. Scores of scooters passed me, and drivers stopped and stared in the peak hour traffic but I was left to my own devices. Friends here have suggested people didn’t want to help as they were worried about being sued or knew they couldn’t speak English to me so kept on driving. I’m not sure what it is and luckily I wasn’t badly injured but watching scooter after scooter by the dozen and car after car drive by when I was having a good ole cry and obviously in distress was far more disturbing than the unexpected pavement greeting.
I don’t have a good feeling about this aspect of Taiwanese culture, what happens to a foreigner that is seriously hurt? Since I’ve been here one foreigner was killed in a hit and run with a taxi and another was found near a flight of stairs and now his family is fundraising to pay for his on-going care.
To counter point this darker aspect, it must be said I have met some wonderful Taiwanese who I am sure would help anyone they saw in need.
I do love my daily bike to and from work though. Dolly and I leave home about 7.30am and then pedal our way through the university campus and down what can be a frighteningly busy Keelung Road. Half way to my school I stop, get a coffee, and sit and read my book for a good half an hour or so before going to teach my class of little ones.
A local hotel doorman always yells “good morning” to me, the Big Issue guy waves and smiles, the lotus blossom seller always gives me extra blossoms (they make my apartment smell delicious) as I furiously ring my bike bell and avoid hitting pedestrians. (People in iPod bubbles are a problem!)
I am grateful for my bike and my daily cycle of 16 km or so, though the pollution can be full on and the traffic confronting physically and culturally, exercise is helping me stay centered in a country I find tough going.
Image and text copyright Alexandra (Neesha) Bremner 2011.