TAIPEI - “In Taipei, if you can’t get a taxi in one minute you’re damn unlucky,” so said a Singaporean friend who has lived in the Taiwanese capital for seven years.
I couldn’t have put it better. Ok, maybe I would have said two minutes. The fact is it is ridiculously easy to hail a Xiao Huang - Taiwanese nickname for taxis - in the bustling metropolis of 6.6 million people at all hours of the day, even at peak periods like the lunch hour.
And inexpensive too. A 10km trip costs NT$245 (S$10.30), and there are no surcharges save for an extra NT$20 between 11pm and 6am.
Indeed, before June 2011 booking a cab with major cab companies like Taiwan Taxi would have helped you save - yes, save - up to 30 per cent off the fare. The perk was removed after the government banned taxi companies from passing off the cost to cabbies.
But, for all that, the best part of a cab journey in Taipei is the cabby.
Because if taxi-drivers are the window to the character of the people they serve, then Taipei’s are some of the warmest, honest, and folksiest you will ever encounter.
Just two weeks ago, I got into the car of a driver who appeared to be in his late 50s. During the 20-minute journey he pointed me to various sights in the musing, semi-monologue fashion of a kindly uncle.
“Look at the red flowers outside that house, so pretty,” he said.
“Oh, nice,” I nodded, my mind on the interview I was heading to.
We drove pass a bread shop. “Have you tried their bread before? I have, it’s quite good,” the cabby said.
I said I have and it was delicious. Then I told him the place he was driving me to was also a bread shop, called Bu Lie De, the Chinese pinyin for “bread”.
“Oh, Bu Lie De is also a man’s name in English, right?” he uncle said, perking up now that he had my full attention. “Now which name is it?”
“Brad, as in Brad Pitt, the famous Hollywood actor,” I offered, amused.
Moments later, we had arrived at my destination. I paid the fare and alighted - only to realise that the cabby had dropped me at the wrong place. It was too far to walk so I waited by the road for another cab. One came (in under two minutes) and I got in. Lo and behold, it was the same cabby!
“I discovered that something wasn’t right so I turned back again to look for you,” he said happily, visibly relieved. “Good thing you’re still there.”
And he took me to the right place this time at no extra charge.
Another time I was on my way to another assignment, and had a nice chat with the cabby on the trip. When we arrived, he said with a conspiratorial grin: “Look what I’ve got here?” and pointed to a small, black mass in the front passenger seat.
It was a pug. It had been sleeping quietly in the car and I never would have guessed it was there.
“I bring it along with me every day,” the cabby said as I patted his co-driver. “And tell only those passengers whom I think are into dogs.”
Away from densely populated Taipei, the taxis become scarcer, but the heart of the service stays the same.
Some time ago I had travelled to the south-western city of Tainan to cover a press conference. When it was over I took a cab back to the train station. During our conversation the driver discovered that I had yet to try my luck in the lotto in Taiwan.
“Seriously? You must try it then,” he said, and asked if I would mind buying a ticket for him as I would have beginner’s luck. I was happy to oblige, and he stopped outside a lottery shop while I popped into the shop to buy two computer picked numbers.
“Good luck to us,” he said when I gave him his ticket. That was my first and only shot at the Taiwan lottery so far.
Aside from these stand-out encounters, I’ve also met drivers who could wax lyrical about Taiwan politics like professors, those who told me they had visited Singapore and rattled off the names of our tourist attractions, female cabbies who decorate their cars with little pots of flowers and wore detachable sleeves to protect their arms from the sun. They are genuine, unguarded and down-to-earth to a fault.
Surveys by the Taiwan tourism bureau show that the one thing about the island that consistently leaves the deepest impression on foreign tourists is its friendly people.
Taiwanese cabbies doubtless have something to do with it.