Travels in Asia

...Taiwan Blog...

Taiwan, Republic of China

When I first arrived in Taiwan in August 1999, I encountered a society still coming to grips with it's history and political and cultural identity. It was a country under threat of invasion from a beligerant neighbour, a pawn in the political games of more powerful players. Folks back in NZ said "You're going to Taiwan? They're about to have a war!!! It is though, a cold war which has simmered for over 50 years without ever really boiling over. In the 1970s continuous shelling between the Communist Mainland and Chinese Nationalist (KMT) held offshire islands (Kinmen, Matzu) led to a compromise whereby each side would shell the other on alternate days with both sides taking a break on Sundays. After a year of this farcical arrangement firing ceased. The occasional rattling of sabres by China doesn't really affect the man in the street. For him money talks and it's business as usual. With a population density less only than Bangladesh, Taiwan is a place which never really shuts down and it's a place where things happen. In my time there I experienced a killer earthquake, cracked three ribs mixing it up with the traffic, there were typhoons, plane crashes, a political assassination attempt and an exploding whale. Just when you think things are settling down something comes out of left field.

I had only been in Taiwan for 6 weeks when the earthquake hit.

9/21 Earthquake

In keeping with the Chinese fascination with numbers the killer quake was quickly dubbed the "9/21 Earthquake" reflecting the date, 21st of September. It destroyed buildings and lives. Nationwide the death toll approached 3,000 people. In Tainan where I lived the damage was minimal though seven fatalities were reported, largely a consequence of falling debris. The central region of Nantou and Taichung county were worst hit with buildings toppled and some destroyed completely. In rural areas entire villages were wiped out due to landslides. As the days passed The media reported on survival tales such as the one about two brothers trapped in the rubble drinking each other's urine though many were not so lucky. Aftershocks persisted daily contributing to a general climate of nervousness across the whole island, particularly as many of us were working or living in high rise buildings in the city. I began taking a motorcycle helmet to bed with me to throw on in case of emergency. Rescue teams would have been astounded I'm sure to pull a naked foreigner out of the rubble wearing nothing but a helmet. Experts had stated in the media that while it was a once in 100 years event, it wasn't the "big one" they had been expecting. A few days later that view was retracted leading me to wonder if the government had asked them to pull their heads in and stop freaking out an already rattled populace.

Taipei Times - 9-21 Earthquake

As life returned to normal following the 9/21 earthquake I found myself adjusting to a society always on the go, late night bars, 24hour convenience stores and traffic that takes no prisoners. Within the first year on the island I had already savoured the joys of "road rash" and a year later I cracked three ribs in altercations with the traffic.

Roadtrips in Taiwan

When Chinese New Year rolled around I embarked on the first of several motorcycle trips around the island accompanied by a Scottish girl by the name of Jo, and a small dog whose name escapes me. We did a southern loop traversing the Southern Cross Island Highway (Nan He) to Taitung on the east coast, up to Hualien and down to Kenting in the South before heading back north to Tainan, surviving rock falls, smelly socks, mechanical mishaps and our own volatile personalities.

Road Trip One: - Cross Island Highway to Taitung, Hualien, Chihpen, Kenting.

Road Trip Two: - Alishan, Puli, Central Cross Island Highway to Hualien, Taitung, Kenting, Tainan.

Road Trip Three: - Southern Cross Island Highway to Taitung, ferry to Green Island and south to Kenting.

Road Trip Four: - Alishan - Hsinchu - GuangShi

Other notable excursions undertaken with a greater degree of comfort include visits to Orchid Island (Lanyu) and the Pescadores (Penghu) I would bewilder my students with tales of visits to the far flung corners of Taiwan while never having set foot in the capital, Taipei I got there finally after six years on the island.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome

Undoubtedly 2003 will be remembered most in Taiwan for the SARS epidemic. A year in which the surgical mask became a fashion accessory across much of Asia. We had heard about this strange new disease that had surfaced in Guangdong, spreading to Hong Kong. After a period of media inspired complacency it finally hit Taiwan. It quickly escalated underlining some serious deficiencies in hospital management and was accompanied by the obligatory bureaucratic bungling on thge parts of the various authorities. Further adding to the problems was the WHO's reluctance to involve themselves with Taiwan's problems, prefering instead to kowtow to Beijing which claimed to be "taking care" of Taiwan's medical needs. Indeed it took 7 weeks after the first case was reported in Taiwan for the WHO to send a representative. As the epidemic seemed to be raging out of control and the media hype started to kick in many of us wondered if this was in fact the end. We would all succumb to this mysterious new disease with no known cure. Was it time to jump on a plane and spread the disease to our respective homelands? As the hype subsided a bit many of us had revised our estimates of the final death toll to only about 50% of the population.

It was certainly an interesting time to be in Taiwan. A simple innocent cough would generate fear and hostility on faces of those passing by. "O.M.G! He's got the SARS!" Pretty soon everyone was wearing surgical masks. I must confess I didn't buy into this latest trend. The WHO guidelines suggested that the masks were most effective at stopping he spread of the disease by those who already had it, not those who didn't have it! Regardless, in the cram schools all the healthy kids were wearing SARS masks while the sick kids continued to cough all over everybody and everything. Taiwanese seemed to cling to the magic SARS mask as their salvation and ultimate protection from the scourge. The thing is they were not being very hygienic in the application of the masks. They are supposed to be placed on the face and not touched again but you would often see people pulling them down for a bit of a gossip or a ciggy. In the high school where I worked some of those masks were getting pretty grubby with all the putting them on and pulling them off. The younger kids in the bishibans would be wearing them like hats or dangling off one ear.

Every time you went to the bank or Post Office or in fact just about anywhere you would get a thermometer rammed in your earhole or passed across your forehead. The readings were often wildly inaccurate. It was hard to keep a straight face at times when some cretin is telling you reassuringly, "Oh, only 31 degrees. That's really good you know?" As ever ironies abounded.

Bird Flu

They had warned that SARS was set to make a return the following winter but it never really manifested to the same degree. A timely substitute was bird flu though it never really amounted to much in Taiwan. There were a few ducks executed for having mild strain of the disease but by and large chicken remained on the menu. The disease is spread from contact with the faeces so if the meat is well cooked it's not a danger. It is also not transferable from human to human (so far). If someone contracts the bird flu who also has another kind of flu, the two strains could exchange material and mutate into another form, which I understand is the way in which these viruses develop. Hmmm....SARS + Bird flu = ?????

Exploding Whale

While on holiday in the Philippines I read in the local papers of a whale exploding in my city, Tainan. See what happens when you go on holiday! Apparently the poor creature had beached and expired on the beach. Some local academics loaded it onto a truck to take it away for research and exploded en route. Al-qaida involvement was quickly ruled out as a cause, it seems that gasses produced by the process of decomposition caused it to go off as it was bounced around on the back of a trailer. By all accounts it was a bit of a mess. A number of Taiwanese went down to check out the animal's penis, which at around 5 feet in size was considered quite impressive around these parts. The technical term is "dork" (the penis that is, not the spectators).

BBC: Exploding Whale

Trips Abroad

During my time in Taiwan I took several extended trips abroad starting with Indonesia in 2001, China and Tibet in 2002, an overland journey from Hanoi to Bangkok in 2004 passing through Laos and Cambodia and several trips to Malaysia and The Philippines I also got over to Hong Kong for one of the world's premiere sproting events, the HK Rugby Sevens

To be continued.....