After thirty six hours rocking and rolling through the East China Sea from Okinawa, Japan it was good to reach land at the port of Kaohsiung. We heaved our bikes onto a small shuttle ferry piled high with people and packages for the short boat ride to the old part of Taiwan's second largest city.
Bikes and boats are a natural combination: neither are too fast,they're ecological, sociable, and pleasingly relaxing. No need to unload the bike as you wheel it into the boat. Grab what you need, climb the stairs, and stare out at the endless blue horizon. Arriving at your destination you just untie the bike, roll down the ramp and presto - you're in the heart of the old city.
Rolling into Kaohsiung, our mouths agape by all the bustling activity and street life, a vendor offered a nut to Ange. She popped it in her mouth, chewed it and swallowed. Within seconds a body rush swept up her chest to her head and down her limbs. She began to panic, wondering what it was laced with, and how could she have been so foolish. The vendor and passersby just laughed, and we later found out that you don't eat betel nuts, you chew them and then spit out the red juice. Lesson learned.
As she regained composure, a pack of lawnmowers descended upon us, or at least that's what it sounded like. They were a horde of scooters, whizzing, belching, swarming and surrounding us. Angela wondered if she was hallucinating. By the end of the day we were covered by a thin layer of grime from the unburnt sooty fuel. Many of the locals wore masks to try to protect themselves from the dirty air. What a switch from Japan where people, including elderly people, business types, and women of all ages, used their bicycles for daily transportation.
Although we couldn't escape the noise, we found a comfortable hostel and some tasty vegetarian restaurants, and began to soak up some Chinese history. And with elections immanent we tuned into local politics.
Candidates faces peered at us from thousands of election posters, and the wind fluttered with colourful candidate flags. Cavalcades of cars and open trucks passed by full of waving, gleeful supporters sporting bright orange baseball caps. At busy intersections candidates shook hands doing "vote for Me" raps through wireless mikes. Why shouldn't elections have a festival atmosphere?
Not bad for a country which just ten years ago was under one-party martial law. In this election 35 parties vied for votes. Although the ruling Kuomintang party was widely accused of buying votes, at least issues were being discussed and differing viewpoints debated.
In the town of Chiku we visited with the candidate from the second largest party: the Democratic Progressive Party. She spoke about a critical local issue - a proposal to transform much of the nearby wetlands into an oil refinery and steel mill. If it proceeded the local fishers' livelihood (20,000 people) would be destroyed, as would much of the last remaining habitat of the black-faced spoonbill. Only 400 of these gorgeous, egret-like wading birds remain in the world, and three quarters of them winter here. The candidate assured us she would oppose the development and protect the wetlands. (We later learned that she wasn't elected - if only birds could vote.)
As we left her office we accepted a free candy but were shocked by the free cigarettes. One of the local brands are Long Life Cigarettes. Apparently some Chinese maintain that smoking is good for you: something to do with yin and yang.
Taiwan was full of cultural surprises. Napping - anytime, anywhere - seemed a national pastime, perhaps because people often work six days a week.
In a most innovative way, everyone in Taiwan plays the lottery. In many countries store owners avoid paying taxes by not ringing in sales. Taiwan avoids the tax losses by turning every sales receipt into a lottery ticket. With a top prize of $80,000 Canadian it can pay to shop!
Getting around we had to keep our wits about us as road traffic bordered on anarchy. Scooters and cars alike often slipped through red lights, or came at you from the wrong side of the street, or sped by so close that you could feel the wind brush. And at night they often drive without lights thinking it saves fuel (it doesn't).
Walking wasn't much safer: sidewalks were at irregular heights, so you had to climb up or down a step while winding your way through the maze of parked scooters blocking the pathways. Often it was easier for pedestrians to just walk on the stinking roads.
One good thing can be said about the streets of Taiwan - few people live on them. Taiwan has a low level of poverty, largely due to the successful land reform program instituted decades ago. As the island economy quickly industrializes, income levels have gone steadily up. And recently they even established a national health insurance program.