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Street-Legal in Taiwan

When I first arrived in Tainan I had very little money. For six weeks my living room furniture consisted of a table, a chair, and some wires. Sure there was some plaster on the floor, but you can only pay attention to that for so long. Yet slowly, and with some innovation, a home was built. It is amazing how much an upturned box, stuffed with empty water bottles, can look like a table if covered with some Japanese cloth originally used as gift wrapping for ornamental chopsticks. I guess the old saying is true.

So the idea of a buying a scooter was right out the window for a bit. I made do the first day by grabbing a cab to my new university and then, after class, walking around the student district. I had made a note during previous trips up from Kaohsiung that the area had a few bicycle shops. It wasn’t going to be pretty, but I’d have to change my motorized ways until I got some cash. I figured that since most of the students rode bikes of horrible quality, I would fit right in by paying 1400NT ($40.00) for a bike that seemed entirely made of plastic. In a sense I was relieved a few days later when, after a minor shower, the entire gear system rusted. My Taiwanese friend thought this was my fault for keeping a bike outside during the rain.

When I snapped the pedal off a few weeks later by applying slight pressure to it (also known as “pedaling”) I was about ready to breakdown myself. It wasn’t the heat, or the dogs that could now catch me; it was the loss of a freedom. After having a scooter in Taiwan, especially in a town with as limited public transportation as Tainan, it’s very hard to stay slightly over walking speed. It was also the guilt when a friend called and wanted to go somewhere. There’s really no choice except to dub the other person. Taxis were too expensive and public buses were as omnipresent as a Sasquatch.

So when my friend Joe called from Kaohsiung to offer me his 125cc scooter for a cool ten thousand ($300.00), I thought briefly about how I would pay for tuition the next month, then immediately went into the desk drawer to grab the money. Tuition would most likely take care of itself, but there was no way I was about to find a 125cc from a trusted source for that kind of money. Joe had decided enough was enough in Taiwan, and was heading back to South Africa in three days. He had no time to put posters up or negotiate with people. This bike was in good condition and would sell quickly. Though there was a minor problem.

There are many things you can do with a scooter in Taiwan that might seem odd at first to the newcomer. You can drive on the sidewalk, you can drive down the wrong side of the road, or you can combine the two. You can also drive at a good pace with a full sized ladder balanced midway on your shoulders, leaning slightly on the front of your scooter. If you don’t believe me, hang around Sanduo 3rd Road in Kaohsiung around one in the afternoon.

While all these things are probably not entirely legal, they won’t really merit much more than a cursory glance from the local police. And that’s really only if there’s not much on TV. Now if you were to hit an elderly lady with that ladder or fly a Chinese flag, then you have yourself some trouble. A friend of mine actually saw policemen force a man to the ground to beg for forgiveness from a very old woman after he had driven into and killed her husband. They seemed to encourage her to rain blows down on him.

But the one thing that the Taiwanese will usually not abide by…will never ever abide by….will be so utterly inflexible over that you want to scream and pistol-whip them with a bicycle pedal…is their iron-clad bureaucracy. I was actually almost kicked out of the country because my temporary visa was to expire before my resident visa was given. This despite the signed letter from the Taiwanese trade-office I possessed and presented at the office in Kaohsiung that welcomed me as a scholarship student.

All scooters in Taiwan require several essential things. They require registration, insurance, and a driver possessing a license. I pondered these things as I drove the ninety minutes back from Kaohsiung after seeing Joe off on his bicycle (I heard the pedal snap when he got to the end of the street). While my favorite game of “How many brothels can I see tonight?” (Tuesday….only about seventy) didn’t fail to amuse, I was a little worried. I didn’t want to lose my scholarship over a scooter, but I’d already paid for it and left my bike on a street.

After checking with some friends, it seemed that insurance was the least important of the required documents. Registration and license were pretty much tied. The police will often conduct road checks and I felt they would be pretty happy with a foreigner who could speak Chinese, especially if that foreigner had a license. Without a license, I could very well be arrested. However, on the off chance my scooter was ever towed, without registration I would never be able to reclaim it. Plus the cops might check the license plate during a routine inspection and impound both the vehicle and myself. Both cases were somewhat grim. So, after class, I made my way to the first police station I saw and started to inquire about the situation.

I hit the first cop with a bike pedal and demanded some answers! No wait, that was another day. Actually, the police were very helpful. Before I had even finished my first sentence I was pulled behind the counter and given some tea. Most of the officers were torn between watching the foreigner/suspect (me) talk, and following the Korea-Chinese Taipei baseball game. I got a good couple of smiles and nods when I said Han Guo bu hao! (“Korea is bad!”), and the interrogation was off to a rollicking start. With the exception of mentioning the scooter was a block away, I was completely honest in stating my case. The cop seemed to think everything was going to work out as long as the numbers on the license plate matched those on the engine block. Then they’d just run the plate through the computer and see what came up. As long as I didn’t come back every week with some new numbers there wouldn’t be much of a problem.

So the first problem was finding the engine block number. It wasn’t there. Which was not necessarily a bad thing, but not really a good one either; it could mean that there was a new engine. It could also mean that I just couldn’t see the number, and the cuffs would be on the second that the cops realized I had effectively thrown ten Gs into Kaohsiung’s Love River (which is about as lovely as a dead monkey…which do sometimes turn up there.)

So, for the kids who might be reading this, I’d really like to say I returned to the police station. I’d like to say I returned and registered the scooter in a legal and forthright manner. And while it could be argued that is exactly what I did, it could be also more accurately argued that I went home, threw my keys next to by upturned box, and sat down to stare at my wires for a few hours.

David Bolster has been driving his scooter in Tainan without judicial incident for far too long.

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