August 16, 2009

Life, Death, and Scooter Punx

Day number two begins late, as the Saturday calls for sleeping in all around. Connie has still left relatively early to help prepare the school for the new year, but David and I don't roll out of bed until almost 11:00. Last night I figured out how to work the air-conditioning unit in my guest room, and this new skill has exponentially increased the comfort of my sleep as my well my ability to hibernate through the early sunrise (which occurs at about 5:00 a.m. - no daylight savings time) and the subsequent heating of the air in my tiny guest room to sauna-like temperatures. I lay around for a few minutes to shake off my overdose of sleep, then slowly get dressed and ready myself for the day. Why the deliberate stalling? Well, today Connie has graciously agreed to ride her bicycle to work, thus leaving her girlie 50cc scooter all to me. Jesus. I feel like Sean Penn in "Dead Man Walking" as I move in slow-motion to delay the inevitable loss of life that is sure to follow once I climb on the back of Connie's one passenger pink death machine. Helmet? YEAH! Like that's going to help when my shattered body is wedged between a double-decker bus and I light post! Downstairs we go, out into the intolerable heat (its even hotter today than yesterday), and to the row of scooters where my fate calmly resides. "Well, this is it", I say to the scooter, "just please kill me quickly. I don't want to burden my family with quadriplegia or something equally as awful". David is already on his scooter with the engine running. Funny, I always thought I'd die in a tornado or a tragic skiing accident. I guess it just goes to show you, you never really know....

Out of the gate and into the flow of traffic, the scooter accelerates faster than I expect as I push the throttle and mentally pry my eyelids open. The last time I rode a scooter was during spring break 2006, which was not nearly as scary because A) I was slightly inebriated and thus fearless and B) I was not contending with 7000 other scooters all with a complete disregard for traffic laws, not to mention cars being driven almost exclusively by Asian women (forgive my stereotyping) and pedestrians that all seem to be on some suicide mission to fling their bodies directly in the path of every aforementioned motorized vehicle that comes their way. On top of all this, many of the roads have no logical order to them and appear to weave in and out of each other randomly switching directional signs, speed limits (all in kilometers), and often turning into freeways, sidewalks, school playgrounds, etc. The scene, therefore, feels like an M.C. Escher drawing meets Excite Bike; I don't even think the TAIWANESE know what they're doing or where they are going half the time, but they are going there at about 45 m.p.h. with no airbags and while making a distinctively whiny "RRRRRREHHHHH!!!" sound.

Suffice to say, I am alive to tell the tale, so one can assume that on this day I did not actually die. However, I will try and describe some of the things that are commonplace while driving a scooter around Hsinchu, thus giving the reader a taste of the experience, as well as giving my family time to arrange burial services and tell me they love me one more time:

1. Lanes, in general, seem to viewed as completely arbitrary by scooterists. (I can't believe this is actually a word, but my computer did not correct it - amazing). This is not true for cars, which generally try and stay within one lane unless they are turning, stopping, driving, or parking. Thus, because the scooters are not hindered by this lane annoyance, they actually weave in and out of cars to get into better positions. At stoplights, scooters will fly up BETWEEN the stopped cars, sometimes even sliding between bumpers, to get to the front of the line. Going across the double yellow line into oncoming traffic is encouraged while doing this. I'm not kidding. The reason for this is because at every stoplight, after the solid white line that cars are required to stop behind, is the "Scooter Box" - an area designed specifically for scooters to stop in and wait for the light to change. Scooters LOVE to be in the front, and Taiwanese traffic laws seem happy to appease them.

2. Red lights are optional. There is no such thing as a "No Right On Red" or even a "No LEFT On Red". If the coast is clear, you can bet some scooterized (not a word, unfortunately) maniac is going to be busting ass across the intersection, obviously with no respect for the fragility of life. Also, the stoplights in Hsinchu have a giant digital countdown, conveniently letting those waiting at the traffic light know how much longer they will have to wait until they can launch their respective vehicles back into harm's way. Loving to get a jump start, scooter drivers usually take off when the giant digital countdown is at about "6", meaning that the traffic lights for the cross street is still green for another SIX SECONDS! So, for these six seconds, each intersection looks like a scene from a Star Wars aerial space battle, with scooters and cars swerving in every direction to avoid colliding. Apparently all Asians are born with Jedi reflexes.

3. The faster the better. Scooter drivers love to go as fast as possible, all the time, no matter what the circumstances. Red light? Speed up to beat the cross traffic. Crosswalk full of pedestrian? Viewed by scooterists as "power boost zones". Most scooters can go at least 50 m.p.h., while some go up to 80 or 90 m.p.h. In Taiwan, you are not a man unless you can make your over-sized Rascal blast down the crowded street doing 60 m.p.h. while missing various stationary objects by fractions of an inch. How the streets do not run red with rivers of blood is beyond my comprehension.

So yes, as I follow David I participate in ALL of these activities, using tunnel vision to keep my eyes affixed, horrified, to David's scooter, keeping unwaveringly on his six. My jaw aches from having my teeth clenched, my knuckles glowing white against the black rubber handles, my fingers blistering from maintaining a Cliffhanger grip on the throttle and the brakes. I learn quickly, as I suppose one must when thrust into a life-and-death situation (this is only truly humorous in retrospect). I learn that hesitation is dangerous, that accelerating through small gaps is essential to keep from getting run over. I learn that driving in a straight line is as important as not breathing underwater, because often, without warning, another scooter will fly up beside you, literally INCHES from your scooter. I learn that EVERYONE has the right of way, so the skilled scooter driver must exude confidence that THEIR right of way is actually the right right of way. I learn that screaming like a girl is not an effective way of dealing with stress.

We finally reach our destination, which seems as if it is 20 miles from the apartment. In actuality, it is about two miles, and the trip only takes about five minutes. I now know that time slows down the closer one is to their own death. As we park our scooters outside of the Miro School, I am beyond relieved and actually do the "pat myself down to make sure all my parts are intact" thing like in the cartoons. But what's this other emotion that is creeping up into my consciousness? Could it be...disappointment? Am I actually UPSET that the ride is over? I have never figured myself for an adrenaline junkie, but something about the harrowing experience was extremely enjoyable. I just may want to do this again someday. As we stow our helmets, David tells me about the "Scooter Punx", which are a bunch of guys who trick out their scooters and ride around looking for fights, like an Asian, metrosexual version of Hell's Angels. I start to wonder if someday, when I become less terrified and get a little more proficient on my motorized manslaughter machine, I could join the gang. I'll break out my skinny jeans, start carrying a blade....

I want to save the day, get the girl and ride of into the Hsinchu sunset to the sound of 50cc of pure pink scooterized power: "RRRRREEHHHHHH!!!" I am a hopeless romantic.


  1. I decided to visit your blog, after reading on your facebook page that you had left the states. I must say that I am very impressed with your writing. Please keep writing, it is a very enjoyable read. Good luck!!

  2. Sorry I haven't written before. Just got back from a 3 day camping trip and was out of internet contact (that's still possible if you work hard at it). Your travelog reads like a very well written mystery novel. Your writing skills are superb. I am very proud of you for doing this. It seems like it's become a right of passage for males in our family that you are not truly a man until you have suffered in a foreign country. I could not help thinking that I could have written a very similar story
    30 years ago from the Dominican Republic also at age 25. I am eagerly awaiting your next installation. Have a fish head on me!