Taipei - December 17: The Christmas hype is everywhere in South Africa when I leave for Taiwan, the “heart of southeast Asia”.
And, as if to dispel any lingering doubts it is summer, the sun is out.
Thirteen hours later, I find myself sitting at a bustling Hong Kong airport, waiting for a connecting flight to Taipei.
Hong Kong is wet and cold. It’s the opposite of what I found when I last set foot here in 1997 during a brief visit just before the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the UK to China.
Earlier, a short while before this brief respite at the airport, as I pass through customs, a man who looks as if he may be in his 20s points me politely towards a sign on the airport building wall and confiscates the bottled water I have just carried off my flight.
He obviously hasn’t heard of padkos, or if he has, he doesn’t care.
Hong Kong is on high alert after reports of H7N9 (or bird flu) in mainland China.
Periodically, an announcement on the PA system informs travellers to take seriously flulike symptoms such as shortness of breath and tightness of chest.
I hasten towards my next boarding gate with the voice from somewhere above droning on, switching from Mandarin to English, with short pauses.
Moments later, I flinch instinctively and my hand tenses as another announcement from the same voice assures travellers that the escalators are disinfected periodically.
There are people rushing everywhere. I watch as two airport employees mop and scrub the floor.
I can’t help but notice that quite a few of those employed to perform various functions at the airport and some of the pilgrims and travellers passing through are wearing surgical masks.
During my wait at the airport, I can’t help turning away when someone coughs.
I arrive in Taipei the same morning and go to bed for about three hours.
In the early afternoon, just after 2pm, I am whisked off to the National Palace Museum to see its art treasures. Situated in Taipei City’s Shilin District, it’s home to a wide collection of Chinese artworks and is considered a mustsee.
My guide for the week is Peter Sun (pronounced “Soon”).
Peter’s colleague looks at his watch and seems to suggest that we will not have enough time at the museum before it closes for the afternoon.
“We must see it,” says Peter.
There is no doubt. His voice is gentle and low, and it is clear to me it would be a tragedy if I were to lose out on this cultural experience.
I count 20 galleries showcasing collections of paintings, calligraphy, furniture and a host of other artefacts.
The tour is an eyeopener because the artwork traces China’s development and the changing art, aesthetics and sensibilities that characterised the many and different dynasties.
The exhibition showcases some of the production processes used in moulding clay into pottery and ceramics, the chiselling and etching of precious stone carvings, and the firing and beating into shape of cast bronzes.
There are also explanations and more examples of bamboo, aloe wood, ivory and other objets d’art are hewn and worked into implements for everyday use.
Lest we forget, the Chinese developed porcelain, hence we speak of “china” today.
In the evening, I stagger back to my room at the Palais de Chine in the heart of the city centre, my feet sore and my mind mush. But I go to bed with a song in my heart.
It is my second day in Taipei and it has been raining – pouring – since my arrival.
The early morning gig is no mean feat for me, a nocturnal.
At 9.30am I arrive at the ministry of wealth and welfare building. It administers Taiwan’s national health insurance (NHI) scheme.
When I arrive with Peter, Dr Cheng-hua Lee, the deputy director-general of NHI administration, welcomes me warmly.
I am offered tea, something of a ritual I am to learn later. It makes me feel sophisticated, cultured. The ritual also gives the event, this meeting, a sense of occasion. I think.
I perk up (is it excitement, or the caffeine?) when my education on Taiwan and its adoption of its version of a NHI scheme begins.
The experience begins with a short DVD sketching Taiwan’s global search for a system it thought would work well to give its population almost complete health insurance cover.
In a nutshell, an investigation and a look at the pros and cons of similar systems in other countries – mainly in the West – reaches its end in 1995, when the government consolidates the medical components of all the social insurance programmes in the country.
Before this, Taiwan had several social insurance programmes, such as labour insurance (40.1 percent), government employee insurance (8.5 percent), and farmers’ insurance (8.2 percent), that provided medical care to specific groups. But only 57 percent of the population was covered by these insurance plans.
After 16 years, the NHI had worked so well in Taiwan that a second-generation NHI (99 percent), an important revamp of the first generation, was implemented last year.
Among the main characteristics of the insurance are that: it is compulsory for all legal residents and Taiwanese citizens to sign up; the programme is financed mainly by basic and supplementary premiums that are contributed by employees, employers and the government; those covered by the programme receive a comprehensive benefits package, but they need to make a copayment when receiving medical care; the premiums and copayments of the disadvantaged are subsidised by the government.
It is optional for medical providers to participate in the programme, yet about 92 percent of providers nationwide have signed contracts with the bureau within the ministry that administers the NHI.
The video ends.
I get to see the system in action with visits to the Taichung Hospital and, later, the Pingtung Christian Hospital further south. The uptake is quite phenomenal.
But I am running ahead of myself.
About 90 minutes after the health ministry excursion, I am off to the Institute of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at the College of Public Health at the National Taiwan University, where I meet with Dr Mei Shu Lai.
Then Peter takes me to lunch at Su Hung Restaurant.
I have heard people talk about ubuntu as if it is specifically African and a southern, if not South African, trait. Obviously they have not visited Taiwan.
Again, there is a sense of occasion about how Peter approaches the cuisine.
The Chinese way is to serve you different courses of food and Peter gives a running commentary on what is in each of the dishes and its benefits to the body, skin and bones.
My two other excursions in the afternoon are to manufacturing establishments – the Teco Electric & Machinery Company, and the Neo Solar Power Corporation. These are deceptively small companies, but they have global reach.
I find they are emblematic of Taiwan’s spirit of entrepreneurship. They appear small, but punch far above their size.
I cannot help but feel sad when I see the extent of these companies’ manufacturing and reach, and compare them with my homeland’s.
In his book Architects of Poverty, political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki explores the reasons why South Africa and the continent have gone the other way.
I am envious when I am confronted by the amazing achievements of a country that has almost no nonrenewable resources to boast of.
It is my third day in the country and my hectic schedule includes travelling the length of the country from north to south through several cities, including Taichung and Tainan City, with meetings crammed in between.
Fortunately, its length is no further than the distance between Bloemfontein and Joburg.
A large part of Taiwan is mountainous and although it is winter, the land is verdant.
Connecting the north and the south like a spine is a highspeed railway line that props its rear on the island’s western coastline.
The highlights during this crossing include a lunch meeting with Dr Charles CheeJen Chen – an inventor, a scientist and an agriculturalist who has developed a unique method of growing exotic mushrooms.
The meeting is at the IZU Japanese Restaurant and it’s a templestyle affair, which means we take off our shoes before we enter to dine.
I find the tables small. The weight of the stand presses down on my thighs and my legs do not have enough room to spread out and relax.
The experience takes me back to my childhood and the martial arts movies that were all the rage in the 1970s and the early 1980s, when I outgrew them.
The climaxes of these movies often started with the clan or a huge group of people meeting and dining in a similarly arranged pagoda.
I am introduced to sasami, seaweed and a host of other Japanese foods.
Let me confess that I had sworn never to eat sushi in my life, a resolution that became a conviction after the crass and vulgar frolics of Kenny “Sushi King” Kunene and his gang. But never say never.
Professor Chen tells me he is working with a partner in the Free State. With his method, farmers are able to harvest the mushrooms once a week. One does not need much capital or space.
The professor says he is coming to South Africa to live when he retires in a few years.
When Peter and I arrive at Kaohsiung City – our final stop for the day – he takes me for another templestyle experience at the Miyamaru Japanese Restaurant later in the evening.
I am thoroughly worn out by this time – the day’s programme has taken its toll. When they open the doors to the temple restaurant, I am on autopilot, and I step in, shoes and all.
Peter’s gasp jolts me back. I see something like a shadow flit across the hostess’s face. But it’s gone in a flash – probably because my front foot has barely touched the wooden floor when Peter, my guard, yanks me back.
The most delicious food is served and it is as if the faux pas never happened.
The hostess’s offspring are women, all seven of them. Peter chortles in delight when my Mandarin sends one of them running.
“Ni hen piao liang,” I remark when she comes in to serve us, “You are really beautiful.”
The words have an electric effect. The comment always elicits a reaction that is a mixture of delight and bashfulness.
Two days later, on a visit to the King Car Kavalan Whisky Distillery, the establishment’s marketing manager, Joanie Tseng, expresses surprise when I use several Mandarin phrases.
She’s not alone. Several people tell me they had expected me – like many from the West – to struggle with the language.
I am puzzled. But I think this has much to do with the fact that my mother tongue is also a tonal language. Obviously, I don’t offer this explanation since I am not sure about my little theory. Also, I want to preserve the mystique of being able to learn quickly.
Excuse the adjectives, but by this time, I have fallen completely, totally and utterly in love with the country. I have drunk deeply from its wells and I’m giddy. My palate has flowered with the variety of food and flavours.
Every time I step out into the streets of Taipei, I look in fascination at the nervous energy of the place. And it seems to me the motorcycle is at the centre of it. I am convinced that this ubiquitous steel mule has played a huge part in firing up the Taiwanese economy.
I can barely hide my amazement each time I see a motorcycle refusing to yield to a motor car and be intimidated.
These pervasive machines give no warning. They emerge out of nowhere, zinging past cars, weaving (sometimes dangerously) in and out of traffic, tailgating the heavier sedans and hatchbacks and the lumbering trucks.
I even spot a couple of the riders with kids in the spaces between rider and handlebar, most definitely an outrageous contravention of K53 driving rules. But the delinquent riders do not seem to be too concerned that they will happen upon a traffic officer or other representative of the law.
Later, in the sedan, I am cautioned to put on my seatbelt, although I am in the back seat.
“The traffic officers in this country are strict,” Peter says, “we’ll be fined.”
His voice is gentle, but serious.
Evidently, they are not stringent with regard to motorcyclists, I tell myself.
I see many couples, their bodies joined together from head to hip, whizzing past at speed – in the rain.
I think back to the etolls whose effect in South Africa has been to close public space. A new form of influx control, almost.
A visit to Taiwan would be incomplete without a visit to the Maokong tea farm on the outskirts of Taipei, and its exhibitions illustrating the culture and history of the plantation’s tea.
In the government’s tea promotion centre, every aspect of tea – from its cultivation to its preparation and consumption – is explained.
I spend hours listening to a master telling me about the history of the place, the different kinds of tea.
He dazzles me with stories of light oolong teas bao zhong, green teas, black teas, and others, and how and what to use to make the best tea.
I listen enthralled.
Later in the evening, we withdraw to one of the many teahouses nearby for a meal – my last supper in the country, if you will.
The area has a lively, thriving nightlife. It is bustling, even though it is wet and cold on the night of our visit.
Although it is a Sunday, my schedule is not reduced. There is so much to see, so much to do.
When finally I bid zai jian (goodbye) to Taiwan, it does not take long for me to sink into a deep sleep on the flight back.
I will be back. - Bonile Ngqiyaza, The Star