Traffic

One of the joys of moving to a new place is always getting accustomed to finding one’s way around new roads – well, “joy” is the optimistic spin that I put on it as I try to find adventures when I get lost instead of frustration. I simply try to allot a little extra time for wandering astray of my destination and hope to accidentally stumble upon interesting things.

 

Some blossoms on the road near a park that I found while on a morning jog.
Some blossoms on the road near a park that I found while on a morning jog.

My first few weeks in Tainan have indeed led to some interesting navigational adventures. While Taipei streets have a lot of chaos at the fine scale, there is a grid of perpendicular streets that are pretty reliable. (A friend pointed out to me they even have systematic names based on essential virtues). After I started biking in Taipei, I only got really turned-about-lost a couple times, and usually it was more because I thought my destination was in a different location than it actually was, and not because I couldn’t figure out how to get there. When you’re navigating in Taipei, stick to the major virtues and you’re all set.

 

This is a particularly interesting pair of sculptures in a nearby park. They appear to be large, iron, anthropomorphized bulls.
This is a particularly interesting pair of sculptures in a nearby park. They appear to be large, iron, anthropomorphized bulls.

Alas, the rounds of differing growth, governance and city planning that Tainan has undergone outnumber Taipei’s – not to mention continuously changing landforms due to the alterations in the harbor. The resulting layout is understandably organic feeling by comparison to Taipei’s grid. (Compare Boston to New York.) Tainan features several roundabouts, some regions of radial streets, some regions of orthogonal, and of course a harbor and train tracks to keep things interesting. I realized that my period of “allow time for getting lost” may in fact be longer than I was expecting, considering that I keep mixing up things such as which traffic circle has which roads converging, which roads end up at a canal, which roads lead to the harbor, and which roads cross the train tracks instead of ending abruptly and turning into an impassable alleyway.

 

Yet the true adventure has been getting accustomed to the attitude of the road traffic. Years ago, when I was in Beijing, I learned a phrase in Chinese class that I’m going to whip out once more here: 亂中有序 (translation: in randomness there is order). Let me apologize in advance for anyone who is going to interact with me on a road when I first get back to the US as I am pretty sure that I am going to need an adjustment period. In southern Taiwan, there is only one true traffic rule:

 

Do not hit anything.

Everything else is treated as a “good faith” guideline.

 

This was also the case in Taipei, but to a much lesser extent. In Tainan, mopeds and bikes rule the road, instead of the omnipresent Taipei buses (which go literally everywhere). There is something personal about the way traffic moves here – and it probably has to do with the fact that the majority of people on the road can either easily reach over to shake hands or whack each other a good one, as required. The One Big Rule stipulates that as long as you’re cautious not to hit anything, and you have good reasons (ie. getting where you want to go) then everyone else on the road is fairly understanding if you need to break traffic rules. Generally one obeys red lights. Unless there isn’t anyone coming from the direction that has the green – in which case it’s okay to go. Just as it’s generally okay to go through a green light – but again as The Only Traffic Rule dictates, you should be careful because someone might be running the red and you don’t want to hit them. Left turns on a moped or a bike can be executed in whichever way doesn’t cause you to get in the way of too many other people. Lanes are suggestions of where you should be. Etc, etc, etc.

 

One of the many roundabouts of Tainan - I only have a guess at which one right now.
One of the many roundabouts of Tainan – I only have a guess at which one right now.

Of course, the result is that people are usually driving pretty slowly, and they’re always paying attention to all the people around them. Because there are only general expectations of how others will behave, the only way to know what they’re up to is by watching.  And despite the randomness – I have yet to see an accident here, while I did see at least one every couple weeks while in Taipei. (As for the number of road accidents I witness in the US, it’s hard to compare. Also I’m pretty sure that looking up “reported” accidents will not reflect anything truly meaningful as far as how many accidents and what types occur.)

 

Why doesn’t everyone just follow the rules – the way it works in other places? Personally, I think it’s partially due to the fact that there are always going to be people on the roads here that don’t know the rules because they used these roads long before these rules were invented. And there is no way to win an argument with “well, I hit your great grandfather as he was slowly and obliviously pedaling down the street on a bicycle older than I am because he wasn’t obeying the traffic rules.”

 

The moral of the story of traffic in Tainan as I have witnessed it: every street might have a shambling grandmother trying to cross – so go slow enough to keep an eye out for her. And while you’re at it, don’t hit the moped going the wrong way down the street.

This is in the building where I take classes. It cracks me up, so I figured I'd share.
This is in the building where I take classes. It cracks me up, so I figured I’d share.

Taiwan Round II

I’m back in Taiwan. A lot has happened in the interim since I last wrote, and I apologize for the long absence. Maybe sometime I’ll get around to filling in some of that missing time and writing out what has gone on, but for now I’m just going to pick up from the present.

I finally opened up the suitcases that I left in Taipei. Wow - turns out that saving these things was a good idea - I was generally excited to see everything that I had forgotten I'd owned. Like a big present to myself.
I finally opened up the suitcases that I left in Taipei. Wow – turns out that saving these things was a good idea – I was generally excited to see everything that I had forgotten I’d owned. Like a big present to myself.

When I first came to Taiwan a year ago, everything was new and therefore exciting. I’m still excited this time. Things are a little familiar now, in a way that they weren’t before. I know a little more about the passing of time and the rolling of seasons in this country now. I don’t feel exactly like an “old hand” but I also don’t feel like a totally clueless outsider.

 

It’s fall; it’s Autumn Festival (中秋節). Moon cakes pile up in peoples’ houses as they gift them to their friends, their families, their bosses, and of course, foreigners that they think need to know about Taiwanese traditions. It’s also time to eat pomelos (文旦, or 柚子). Unlike last year, I know how to eat them and am confidently ripping the thick rind and the tough membranes off, familiar with the way that the skins cause a little tingling numbness as they touch lips and tongue.

 

A pile of pomelos that have been given to the family I'm staying with
A pile of pomelos that have been given to the family I’m staying with

I cannot consciously catalog all little things that are the same and seem to be adding up to give me a little sense of comfort. The bright green and red mailboxes. The lonely roar of a moped motor in the middle of the night. Cooing of doves in the morning. Dingdong – entering and exiting a 7-11 .The smell, the glorious smell of the humid tropics when I stepped off the airplane! (you can’t really smell it any other time than those first couple minutes off the plane, after which your nose becomes accustomed).  It’s the sense of comfort that I’m not completely lost, which is not the same as the feeling of being “at home”…but a step closer.

 

Mildly poetic musing aside – I’m now living in Tainan and my resident visa is for studying at National Cheng Kung University, although I plan to learn a lot more than what is taught in classrooms. I have projects that I started last year that I still want to finish (including drinking all the good tea that I can find, obviously) and new objectives as well. Why Tainan? A big reason was to spend more time experiencing Taiwan outside of Taipei – and while I did a lot of that last year, it still seems like I spent a little too much time in the expat bubble that that modern metropolis hosts.

 

A peek out on the NCKU campus.
A peek out on the NCKU campus.

Tainan is the old capital of Taiwan (whereas Taipei is the modern one – just in case you somehow missed that memo). It’s still a moderately large city as far as the island is concerned, but it’s not on any international maps, except possibly those for tourism. There is no international airport (go to Kaohsiung for that), hardly any public transportation (oh Taipei MRT, why did I take you for granted?), no world class modern architecture (trade-off of Taipei 101 for a handful of historic temples).

 

A street near the canal in Tainan. Full size and check out that sign.
A street near the canal in Tainan. Enlarge to full size and check out that sign.

Yet I’m really enjoying the change of pace. The lack of tall buildings and the sheer density of people that they represent are both gone. Instead of buildings with stories made of floors, there are buildings with stories made from history. I bike past historical monuments as I’m simply trying to get from point A to point B. The busy streets with are messes of sign boards, yet because the buildings only go so high, they crowd together near street level. On certain main drags, the array of signboards accosts your attention so violently that each individual sign – despite how glaring the colors, pictures or lettering – still fades into a collage of general insanity.

 

And the weather? Surprisingly – thankfully – it’s not any hotter than Taipei.

 

An average street view in Tainan.
An average street view in Tainan.

I’ll share more on specific aspects of the city later. I’ll just end this with a photodump: uncaptioned pictures from my time in the US.