One part of life in a city that I had not really experienced before coming to Taiwan was using public transport frequently. Apart from a few trips on the Gautrain in Johannesburg, I’d never used South Africa’s pretty limited buses or trains. Now, I catch the bus daily between Changhua and Hemei township, and it has been a crash course in the highs and lows of commuting by public transport.
Any public transport system can be daunting to the unititated, with an overwhelming number of obscurely-numbered buses and colour-coded train lines. How much more so, when all of this is in a language and writing system so different to what you’re used to. I found my first few weeks using the bus to be a stressful time, hoping desperately that I’d got on the right bus, and wondering where the myriad other buses that seemed to go on the same route were actually going.
Since then, I’ve got much better at the whole thing. Partly, it’s through familiarity with the names of the stops, and learning to recognize a few key characters has made all the difference in spotting which bus is going where, and for knowing when to get off the bus! I’ve also found that my phone has made things so much easier.
At first, I relied on Google Maps, because the directions it gives include the number and frequency of buses that you could catch to reach wherever you are heading to. But the real help has been an app called Bustracker Taiwan – a comprehensive guide to each and every bus route, with live updates of where buses are along any given route. Not only has it helped me to learn the stops, and the variety of other buses that go past my stops, but it’s helped me to never miss the bus with its alarms and live tracking.
However, when I got the app, it was only in traditional Chinese characters, with no option to switch to English! After a while, I resigned myself to using the basics and figuring out slowly but surely what everything did and meant through guesswork and bugging the teaching assistants at my school with translation questions. But a couple of weeks ago the app updated and, marvelously, I could switch to English. What I discovered was that I had actually grown quite good at spotting the characters for my stop, and many landmarks along the way as well, and now that I was reading the pinyin (the characters written in Roman letters) I was a little lost again!
Now that the stress of figuring out the bus system has passed, and technology has equipped me for the daily commute, I have become quite happy on my journey to Hemei. Podcasts and audiobooks help to pass the time, although the bus drivers sometimes have particular and peculiar tastes in music that blares throughout the journey, so a good set of earphones is a must have!
Having started this post by saying how much of a novelty public transport was at first, I can safely say the charm wears off quite quickly. From bus drivers who completely ignore the bell for the next stop to one who, despite still being parked at the bus stop in heavy traffic refused to open his door because I was 15 seconds late, public transport can be a frustration. However, the convenience of Changhua’s buses to the surrounding towns and visitor spots is hard to complain about, and, after a long day’s teaching it is so relaxing to watch the dark rice paddies flit past between Changhua’s outskirts and Hemei.