There in a Flash

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Michael Walker

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!

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