Musings are thoughts, the thoughtful kind. For the purpose of these articles, a-musings are thoughts that might amuse, entertain and even enlighten.
There in a Flash
Taiwan, as wonderful as it is, has a problem: its education system is as good as any other in the region, perhaps in the world, but the teaching of English has failed abysmally. The country is a miracle. It has suffered decades of abuse, threats and boycotts initiated by its powerful neighbouring “family member” yet the country has succeeded in transforming its economy from an agrarian based one to an impressive high-tech wonder machine.
Take the High Speed Railway, for example. It blows the mind, but first a few details: Taiwan HSR runs approximately 345 km along the west coast of Taiwan from the capital Taipei in the very north of the country to the southernmost city of Kaohsiung. The total cost of the project was US$18 billion. The line opened for service in January 2007, with trains running at a top speed of 300 km/hr from Taipei to Zuoying, the name of the station outside Kaohsiung, in as little as 96 minutes, reaching almost 90% of Taiwan’s population.
Most intermediate stations on the line lie outside the cities served; however, a variety of transfer options, such as free shuttle buses, conventional rail, and metros have been constructed to facilitate transport connections. Ridership grew from fewer than 40,000 passengers per day in the first few months of operation to over 129,000 passengers per day in June 2013. Over 200 million passengers had ridden the system by December 2012.
It is perfectly possible to commute the length of Taiwan using the train. The fastest ones, two stops, leave on the half hour; the others, I think 4 or 5 stops, take half an hour longer, but I never used those, only the fastest ones.
For a while I was able to take the 7.30 train to the far end of the island, arrive at my desk just after 9, work all day and be back home between 6.30 and 7 in the evening. The train ride – they have a business class that costs a handful of dollars more than the regular class, includes coffee and snacks and the seating is a little better – is incredibly fast, punctual, silent and smooth. Business conversations can easily be conducted in the train, especially if they are in English because, believe me, nobody else will know what you’re saying – just as you will have no idea what they are saying.
Think about what I just said: I made a regular round trip of some 690 kilometers, about 420 miles, every day to and from work. Now that might sound crazy but the travel time from Taipei to Kaohsiung is one and a half hours, more or less the same time that it takes me to travel from Cap Estate to Hewanorra International Airport! So really, it was just like living on Cap and working in Vieux Fort and having to commute every day to and from work. The journey was stress free, comfortable and timely – we left and arrived exactly on time each day.
And the price? Now I am sure you are thinking in fairly large numbers, but you’d be wrong, just over 100 EC dollars. Price, by the way, is an interesting topic. I would think that a person could live in Taiwan for half the cost of living in St Lucia. Taipei is more expensive than Kaohsiung, but the prices are still reasonable. Another difference is quality; you get value for money in Taiwan. Long gone are the days when ‘Made in Taiwan’ was a guarantee of shoddy workmanship and poor quality.
As I mentioned earlier, almost the whole population lives along the west coast leaving the rest of the island mainly free from human intrusion. I have not travelled extensively by road, but from the air there appear to be very few large cities other than those on the west coast; this heavily populated island seems to be remarkably pristine and unspoiled.
But when it comes to English – forget it! Taxi drivers (and let’s face it: taxi drivers the world over recognise a tourist or foreigner) cannot even ask: Taxi? And as for telling them where you want to go, well, if you don’t have the name and address on a piece of paper, you are lost. A photo of your hotel with its name prominently displayed can be a great help.
I have made my mind up to take private lessons in Mandarin. There’s no way I can justifiably grumble about their bad English if I don’t make the effort to learn enough of their language to handle everyday events. Watch this space – I may be writing in Chinese before you know it! Dream on, baby!