“An escalator can never break: it can only become stairs. You would never see an Escalator Temporarily Out Of Order sign, just Escalator Temporarily Stairs. Sorry for the convenience.” -Mitch Hedberg
Hedberg was a funny guy, but he had clearly never been to Taiwan. Around here an escalator is never stairs. It’s a ride.
Taiwanese folks will almost break into a sprint to get on a completely empty escalator ahead of you. As soon as their feet hit those grated metal steps they stop, put down anything they happen to be carrying and stretch out for the trip.
Barren stainless steel all the way up (or down)…nothing preventing you from continuing to utilize your legs to save some time…except for the fact that someone has settled into the step in front of you for the duration. And let me tell you, nothing makes an escalator move more slowly (especially when you are in a hurry) than someone leisurely enjoying the trip.
Temporarily stairs? Nope. Somewhere in Taiwan at this very moment an escalator has blown a fuse leaving some locals trapped between floors. They are panicking – hollering for food, water…a crane and a safety harness to get them off this immobilized death trap before they expire from hunger or thirst.
It is also apparent that most Taiwanese folks don’t have the foggiest idea why they’re going up (or down) to the next floor to begin with. This is evidenced by the fact that immediately upon reaching the end of the ride – the very moment their feet are back on the tiles at the very mouth of the escalator – they stop. They stand there looking around, seemingly stunned to find themselves on a different floor and wondering where to go now. The shock of their new environs is sufficient to make them entirely forget about you – the person they broke into a full trot to stand in front of. It seems not to occur to them that you are still right behind them, now walking backwards on moving stairs in order not to slam into them. Having not been able to get past them on the escalator, you must now either squeeze past, knock them over or cause a pile up with those trapped behind you. I wish my Chinese were good enough to manage, “What? Did someone tell you it was a round trip ticket?”
In most places, when two people climb aboard an escalator, they follow the same rules that apply on the highway. If they’re lazy – the escalator equivalent of a slow driver – they know to keep to the right. One in front, the other behind so that the left lane – the passing lane – is available to those in a hurry. But this is Taiwan. Here, when two people are shopping together, they will commonly each take one handle of the plastic bag and carry it between them. When they board the escalator, one stands on the right, the other on the left and the shopping sits on the step between them. I think it must be related to their habit of walking to school three abreast in the center of the scooter lane.
I have very clear memories of my childhood. One in particular is my mother’s hand gripping my upper arm to yank me out of the way of other people and her voice saying, “Watch where you’re going. Stay out of the way. Keep your eyes open.”
It would seem certain that this is a lesson that is not given to Taiwanese children…or adults.
The location of the escalators is another interesting difference. I had come to expect that such conveyances would be obviously located within sight of the main entryway. Not in Taiwan. Enter any department store and look around. Where are the escalators? Hidden in some back corner flush up against a wall, behind racks of tissue paper and potato chips. You are forced to walk through an entire floor of merchandise in order to get to it and you’ll probably have to ask someone which way to go.
Once you get up (or down) to the next floor and obtain that which you need you will have to cross the entire store again to find the other escalator to go back down (or up), where you will have to walk across THAT entire floor as well in order to pay for your goods.
I understand the idea of impulse purchases – I know that’s why they stick racks of candy bars and batteries right next to the checkout, but I think making me walk past every single thing in the store on two floors TWICE is pushing it a bit past reason.
Especially when there’s a roving mob of Taiwanese who have obviously been paid to keep their eye on me, race me to the escalator, and force me to stand still as the steps glide slowly past racks of tissues, batteries and potato chips.
There’s another thing I can’t figure out about escalators and this has nothing to do with Taiwan – it’s a global mystery.
In fact, this quality of the device has confounded me for years to the point where, when I’m not in a hurry, I’ll take a few minutes to just watch an escalator in an effort to consider the hows and whys.
It would appear to the eye and seem reasonable to assume that the handrail and the steps move together, at the same speed and in synch with one another. Yet (and I invite you to conduct your own experiment) whenever I step onto the escalator and grip the handrail my hand slowly but surely gets dragged along faster than my feet. Inch by inch, I am slowly pulled into a leaning position which, if I don’t make adjustments along the route, will find me stretched out like some sort of gymnast by the time the thing reaches the exit point. I’m sure there’s an explanation for this, and equally sure it makes no sense.