Weathering Taipei's lessons

TAIPEI - The tightly guarded area around the presidential office in Taiwan was a dangerous place yesterday as projectiles rained down from the sky, forcing everyone to take cover.

For 10 spectacular minutes, after the abrupt retreat of the summery heat and sunshine, blueberry-sized pellets of hail fell from the heavens.

This being only the third time that Taipei has seen hail since records started, it was very lucky that no one was hurt, although a few rooftops were damaged.

But for me, the abrupt meteorological about-face is yet another reminder, when in Taiwan, to never leave home without consulting the weather forecast.

As a born-and-bred Singaporean, I'd never paid much attention to the weather. Theoretically, one can get struck by lightning, or be caught under a falling tree in a storm, but pretty much the worst that happens to most of us is to be stranded in a downpour without an umbrella. Or be caught up to your ankles in a rare bit of flooding on Orchard Road.

Living in Taiwan for the past three years have taught me to consult the weather forecast every day, stock emergency supplies at home, and keep my head when the sofa is swaying like a boat.

Lesson No. 1: Keep food supplies well stocked

Two months after my arrival, a typhoon was forecast to hit Taiwan. The authorities advised people to stay indoors. Long lines formed at the supermarkets as Taiwanese stocked up on food. I didn't, thinking the storm would blow over soon enough.

The typhoon came and went that Saturday, and by the afternoon, I was starving. Armed with an umbrella, I stepped out, without first getting an update from the weatherman.

Bad move. The gusts started again. I struggled to stay on my feet and ended up clinging to a lamp post for dear life, deeply envying those safely ensconced from the elements in their cars, or better still, at home.

Lesson No. 2: Keep calm

I was watching television at night when the shaking started. First, the hanging lamp in my living room swayed. Then, my sofa started rocking from side to side. For 60 very long seconds, there was nothing I could do but hug a cushion and curb the urge to rush down my block screaming.

Thankfully, I didn't make a fool of myself. Later, I asked my Taiwanese friends how they deal with such emergencies. They were disarmingly blasé.

"Well, we usually wait for the tremors to pass, then carry on eating lunch or whatever it is we are doing at that moment," one of them said.

She gave me an invaluable tip: If it's shaking laterally, relax. If it shakes vertically, run.

The magnitude 7.3 tremblor which hit central Taiwan on Sept 21, 1999 and killed some 2,500 people was powerful enough that the waves it emitted produced vertical tremors in Taipei, some 200km away.

I've yet to experience the vertical shakes, thank you very much. The dozens of lateral tremors that we get here every year are scary enough.

And it is not just during the June-September typhoon season that one needs to be vigilant about the weather. It helps to know when the rains are coming during the winter months of November-February too.

The temperature may seem mild, ranging between 9 deg C and 18 deg C, but when it rains, it feels much, much colder, especially since indoor heating is virtually non-existent here. I've heard some Americans complain that Taipei's winters are harder to bear than what they are used to at home.

But every dark cloud, as the saying goes, has a silver lining. None more true than for the operators of supermarkets, malls and cinemas because when the sky unleashes its fury, Taiwanese either stock up and bed down or escape into the malls and cinemas to shop and watch movies.

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