By Wale Okediran
Taipei. Midnight. I am in the middle of the Shihlin Night Market, one of the most famous and largest night markets in Taiwan. The street long market is packed full of tourists like me as well as some locals who have come with family and friends to eat, browse and look for great bargains. All around me are people with cameras, snapping photographs amidst the crowd while intermittently haggling with vendors laden with all sorts of merchandise from wrist watches, clothes to electronic material for a good price. Once in a while, some vendors with wares on wheelbarrows would make a dash for it at the sight of policemen whom I was told, were out to arrest illegal traders. In addition to food, night markets in Taiwan feature various forms of entertainment and a lot of shopping. Numerous products for sale include clothes, bags, shoes, trinkets, kitchen items, among other commodities.
I had arrived Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport the previous week to a freezing 10 Celsius degree temperature after a 15 hour flight from Abuja via Dubai, via Hong Kong. So exhausting was the trip that I slept right through my first night and day at the Monarch Plaza Hotel in Taoyuan thus missing both breakfast and Lunch. The following day, thoroughly refreshed and rearing to go, I was moved by my hosts to Taipei where I joined other members of my group at the Cosmos Hotel. Set on a bustling city street next to Taipei Railway Station, the upscale hotel with an industrial-style facade is 1 km from the Ximending pedestrian shopping district. Although my hotel room was cramped due to its small size, the room was clean and well kept. Furthermore, the hotel’s nearness to the railway station made it easy for me to access the downtown area for sightseeing, shopping and food whenever the need arose.
The drive from Taoyuan to Taipei took about 40 minutes and on the way, my guide filled me up on the island’s details. As he put it; ‘’The Republic Of China (ROC), popularly known as Taiwan, is a sovereign state in East Asia. It is situated in the West Pacific with Japan to the east and northeast, the Philippines to the south and the People’s Republic of China (PRC- Mainland China) to the west. Taiwan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world with a population of 23 million and a population density of 648 people per km2 in July 2015. Taipei is the seat of the central government, and together with the surrounding cities of New Taipei and Keelung forms the largest metropolitan area on the island’’.
My visit to Taiwan which was on the invitation of Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF) was to attend a two week Workshop on Health Management. The decision to attend the Course was predicated on Taiwan’s excellent Health Facilities and professional Management skills which are reflected in the country’s impressive health indices. For example, current WHO statistics put the country’s infant mortality rate at 3.9 per 1,000 live births (Nigeria; 96) with 18.77 physicians and 67.79 hospital beds per 10,000 people (Nigeria; 4.1 and 5) and an average life expectancy at 79.98 compared to Nigeria’s 54.
And so it was that together with 20 other Health Professionals (Doctors, Nurses, Hospital Administrators, etc ) drawn from diverse countries such as Bahrain, Czech Republic, Sao Tome and Principe, Kiribati, St Lucia, Russia, Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia, Gambia, Burkina Faso and Vietnam among others, I was hauled back to the classroom after a long gap. Mercifully, the course was a mixture of lectures, group seminars, culture tours and field trips all interspaced with numerous mouth- watering and exotic lunches and dinners. With no time for my daily exercises, I watched with alarm as I gradually put on about 5 kg weight during the two weeks trip!
All in all, we had about ten lectures which were based on Taiwan’s experience in the areas of Healthcare System, Health Insurance, Public Health and Nursing Care among others. The lectures took place at the Diplomat Training Institute, Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taipei while the eight Field Trips took us to different health facilities in Taipei, Taipei City as well as the Hualien County. I was particularly impressed with the Taipei Medical University Hospital, Wang Fang Hospital in Taipei City as well as the Hualien Buddhist Tzu Chi General Hospital in Hualien County.
The hallmark of the lectures as far as I am concerned was the one on Taiwan’s National Health Insurance (NHI) a universal health coverage scheme that provides comprehensive health insurance to Taiwan’s 23.4 million citizens and foreign residents. Insurance benefits include outpatient visits, inpatient care, dental care, traditional Chinese medicine, renal dialysis, and prescription drugs. There are no financial barriers to needed medical care, and no ambiguity as to who receives what benefits. With a national coverage of over75% (Nigeria; < 10%) Taiwan’s 20 year old NHI may be said to be a high performing health care system compared with many other health care systems around the world including the US.
Another critical lesson I learnt from the lectures was that Taiwan, currently faces an unusually rapid demographic transition—its people are living longer, but fewer children are being born. Taiwan’s fertility rate per woman of 0.9 compared to Nigeria’s 5.4 is said to be the world’s lowest. With a 75% upper age bracket, Taiwan is seriously worried about its future supply of manpower and brain power. Although the country believes that by importing foreign work force, it could ameliorate this imminent problem, it is obvious that the attendant influx of foreigners with diverse cultural and religious beliefs which could pollute the country’s culture is an additional worry.
Expectedly, with just a few days into the program, members of the group despite their different nationalities had started bonding thus creating a conducive atmosphere for a good working relationship. In addition, certain characteristics interestingly defined by ethnic backgrounds seemed to play out. Thus while the obviously rich and dollar laden participants from the Gulf states were the heaviest spenders, the Africans with their lean pockets were the most conservative shoppers, always on the look- out for cheap bargains which were mostly found in the night markets which we frequented. We also had the heavy drinking but very friendly Europeans, the garrulous but witty South Americans (the land of revolutions and revolts, as someone explained), the shy Asians and the introspective participants from the Caribbean and South Pacific Islands. All in all, it was a very matured, friendly and hardworking group.
In a bid to expose us to Taiwan’s rich cultural life, my group had three cultural visits to the National Palace Museum, the Taipei 101 as well as the Taroko National Park in Hualien County. And so it was that after lunch one sunlit Saturday afternoon, we were whisked away to see Taiwan’s tallest building- Taipei 101. The Taipei 101 formerly known as the Taipei World Financial Center – is a landmark super tall skyscraper in Xinyi District, Taipei. The building was officially classified as the world’s tallest in 2004, and remained such until the completion of Burj Khalifa in Dubai in 2009. And as we sauntered out of our bus, we were all pleasantly overawed by the jade- green colored skyscraper standing at a whopping 508 metres and stretching toward the heavens like a giant bamboo stalk. According to our guide, the structure and façade of Taipei 101 are steeped with symbolism. The main tower is made up of eight trapezoids each containing eight floors. In Chinese numerology, the number 8 is considered lucky, symbolizing prosperity and good fortune. In addition, each of the eight trapezoids resembles an ancient Chinese gold ingot while the circular protrusions at the top of the base resemble ancient Chinese coins. Finally, the building’s total of 101 floors represents going one better than the best. We were all exhilarated as we went up to the dome of the tower in elevators and took photographs with one another.
Our second cultural visit was to the National Palace Museum, an antique museum in Shilin, Taipei. It is one of the national museums of the Republic of China and has a permanent collection of more than 696,000 pieces of ancient Chinese imperial artefacts and artworks, making it one of the largest in the world.
After about 7 days of staying in Taipei, we boarded a big air-conditioned bus one early morning for our first trip outside Taipei. Our destination was the Taroko National Park in Hualien County, a place where our guide referred to as ‘a powerful place where nature is master and man, a mere spectator’.
Framed by sheer seaside cliffs and majestic inland mountain peaks, Taroko National Park is Taiwan’s most diverse national park and one of the island’s top tourist destinations. Just before our departure from Taipei, we were all handed anti- nausea tablets because of the winding elevation which we would traverse which may cause some people to throw up. A few hours after departing Taiwan, we were soon surrounded by soaring mountains as we traversed the iconic Taroko Gorge said to be Taiwan’s most spectacular natural attraction.
Situated as part of the Taroko National Park, the Gorge is about 20km long, with marble walls that soar several hundred metres above the Liwu River. And as we travelled through the narrow mountain road that had been hedged into the mountain side, the powerful diesel engine bus grunted up the steep incline as the elevation became dizzy and some participants who had forgotten to take their anti-nausea tablets started throwing up. We could see far below us, the stunningly picturesque scene of towering peaks, azure skies, vast seas, scenic valleys that could take the breath away.
We completed our visit to the Taroko National Park with a lunch and a visit to the Gift Shop where we bought souvenirs mostly traditional art work and pottery.
Before long, two weeks had passed and our program gradually came to an end. At the farewell ceremony and dinner which took place at Su Hang Restaurant in Taipei a day before our final departure from Taiwan, I had a surprise waiting for me as I was given the award for the Best Participant. Unknown to the group, each participant had been secretly scored for performance in categories such as punctuality, comportment and quality participation at all events among other criteria during the two weeks duration. And what better place for me to celebrate the award than the ubiquitous Taiwanese night market, the haven of the bargain seeking tourist and the rendezvous of a troubadour in search of a story ?
As always, Shihlin night market was waiting for me. The market was packed full as I edged my way past other camera touting tourists, vendors, both legal and illegal, pickpockets and police as I did my last sightseeing and shopping. Two hours later, well after midnight, I was still roaming the market when I discovered that I was hungry. Near- by were a row of restaurants offering various Taiwanese cuisine such as ‘sugar cane shoots with red pepper’ ‘beef stew sea cream with tofu and fried noodles’ and ‘grilled wild boar and chicken on a bed of rice’ among others. I settled for the grilled wild boar. As I tucked into the succulent and well garnished dish, the pulsating beats of that Michael Jackson’s iconic piece; ‘’Beat It’ wafted to me from a nearby pavilion where a group of Taiwanese youths were having a reverie. Stirred by the persistent rumble of the percussions, I tapped my feet to the rhythm of the music my mouth full of good food in the midst of a happy throng of good people. Suddenly, it seemed that Abuja with all its allure and opportunities could do without me!
Dr Okediran, is a former Member, House Of Representatives, Abuja and former National President, Association Of Nigerian Authors.