It was midnight when I arrived in Taipei. Cities are stunning under a dark sky and this town was no exception. I was getting my second (or third) wind by this point as I breathed in air that was filled with Saturday night excitement. After catching a cab, the driver found his way to our street, or rather what looked to me to be an alley. So wait, an alley? Oh yes people! Lane 428, Alley 30 is where I now live. David didn’t mention to me that we lived down an alley! I was intrigued by this dark, winding alley of mine so I followed behind David with a kick in my step fueled by the rush from this new experience.
A series of twists and turns led to the front door of our apartment building. Up 5 flights of stairs and I was home. I decided I would never find my way back out of that alley, but I did.
In Taipei, these alleys are everywhere! Everyone lives in them! These skinny little streets are where it is at! Kids gather in the alleys after school, people run small businesses out of teeny little storefronts, scooters wiz by. Now I understand how a city smaller than Portland in square miles (Taipei= 105, Portland= 134) fits in over 2,600,000 people (compared with Portland’s aprox. 580,000). The alleys! So compact! A little claustrophobic as I suspect many Americans would say, but it works! Most of the buildings could stand to see a good power wash, but generally speaking the alleys are quite clean. The occasional dog poop (so far it seems the biggest dangers in this city are either stepping in dog poop or death by scooter so I promise to watch out for both) does keep me on my toes though. While I can’t say for sure, these alleys just may be the kind of place where everybody knows everybody (I know people are beginning to notice me anyway, I kind of stick out like a sore thumb).
So how do these crowded little alleys maintain cleanliness? City employees sweep during the day and people don’t seem to litter. And there is no garbage pile up in the alleys. Why? The answer is thrilling! Imagine with me- five nights per week, at exactly the same time (David has it all figured out), a truck, playing a now familiar tune (think ice cream truck, or if you’re lucky, Beethoven) chimes through the alleyways. As the tune grows closer it indicates to one and all that it is time to take out the garbage.
When that time comes, you gather up your garbage, recycling and food scraps and head out. Down 5 flights of stairs, hang a right and join a gathering of garbage disposal. People pour out every nook and cranny from all directions to throw their garbage into the truck. I suspect we may make a friend or two simply by taking out the garbage!
So once you exit these alleys (if you can figure out how to get out) you usually find yourself on a major road filled with shops, 7-11s, Starbucks, English schools, herb shops, health clinics, Chinese medicine clinics and TONS of restaurants. I can’t believe how many restaurants there are and they all look and smell so yummy (perhaps my foodie Portland friends will more inclined to visit if I frequently mention eating).
One striking feature in Taipei is that all sidewalks are covered. Smart thinking for a town that sees a lot of rain (Portland could benefit from this system). So it can be pouring out and as you walk along the main roads you won’t get wet at all. Everyone here carries an umbrella though because there are streets to cross or gaps in between buildings. It seems an unspoken rule that you open your umbrella whenever the smallest drop of rain threatens to strike and then close it back up as soon as you are back under cover. There is an interesting rhythmical order to observe in this process (David, who sometimes lacks rhythm, often forgets to close his umbrella back up and goes about walking down the crowed sidewalk with it still open). Order seems to exist throughout the city in both large and small ways.
Take for instance a ride on the MRT(Taipei’s subway). As everyone piles onto the escalators that take you to and from the underground, organization rules. Stand on the right or walk up the escalator on the left. When waiting at the train platform, there are directions on the ground showing where to form lines. Everyone lines up, waits until people exit the MRT and then boards. Maybe this isn’t surprising to many of you who have been to other parts of Asia, but the systematic way in which things are done is quite interesting to me. I tend towards structure myself so seeing these things (that just make sense people!) really puts me at ease. Yes, I will be just fine here in Taipei (especially since acupuncture is like, 5 bucks and only a couple blocks away!).
But alas, I am off to Chengdu on the first plane tomorrow morning. Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine here I come! While in Chengdu, I also plan to sing karaoke every night, drink loads of tea, eat Chinese herbs for breakfast and avoid digestive drama. Wish me luck!