The container yard stretched out into the distance as far as the eye could see. Next to the ship, three giant cranes worked at a feverish pace, plucking the 40 foot long containers from their racks, lifting them high into the air and depositing them onto one of an endless stream of flat-bed trucks below at a rate of around one every minute. The loaded trucks raced their engines and sped off into the yard where they were met by other machines, immense forklifts, that removed the containers and piled them in stacks six or seven units high. The stacks, numbering in the tens of thousands, merged with one another to form great flat topped mesas of multicolored steel cut by valleys of cement and the industrial landscape rivaled anything that nature could create with stone and water. It was a scene I had looked upon many times and it could have been a container port anywhere in the world. Only the stench of told me it was Kaohsiung Taiwan.
Given the weight of the cargo filled containers, the scale of the equipment and the frenetic pace of the activity below, the opportunity for death at the bottom of the gangway was obvious. But after crossing the Central Pacific by way of Hawaii and Guam, and with a 12 day return run to Seattle looming ahead, there was no way that I, or any other self-respecting sailor, was going to stay aboard ship. If necessary, I would have walked out to the front gate and tried to flag down a ride, but fortunately, the port authority in Kaohsiung understood the situation and allowed a number of taxis into the yard. Sure enough, there at the foot of the gangway waited a battered green taxi owned by a driver we knew as Fong.
Normally there were several taxis on the pier and while each of us had our personal favorite we were united in our disdain for Fong. In retrospect, Fong had to have been smarter than he let on. He spoke fairly fluent English and probably made a good living, but he always seemed like a huckster and a ride with him was an opportunity for him to bombard you with unwanted advice about where you should drink and with whom you should meet. Of course, every driver was in cahoots with one or more of the establishments along Kao-Suing’s version of skid row but when you rode with Fong, no matter where you asked to be dropped, you always found yourself deposited directly in front of his chosen establishment.
I was anxious to get uptown and with no other options in sight, I reluctantly climbed into the passenger seat of the much abused Toyota. We haggled for a minute about the cost of the ride but with the exchange rate firmly on my side I honestly didn’t try too hard. The deal struck, he mashed the gas and we roared off into the night while I was still fumbling around for a seat belt.
Fong handled the car with careless ease, one hand on the column mounted stick shift and the other grabbing a wheel mounted suicide knob. We slowed just barely at the port gate and then rolled out onto a wide, four lane road that ran around the perimeter of the yard and towards the town proper. As we neared the city limits the traffic became a mix of large trucks, cars and small motor scooters all moving along without regard for one another. The sheer number of two wheeled machines on the road was stunning and they flitted about going every which way without any rhyme or reason, their operators seemingly indifferent to their own survival. Fong treated them like obstacles, whipping the wheel as he changed lanes to avoid them and once even ducking into the lane reserved specifically for them to pass a car on the right. I stared in awe at an entire family rolling along on a tired Honda scooter, the father at the controls with a young child between his knees, mother behind him with a baby in her arms and grandmother behind her, facing backwards holding a frightened chicken in a wire cage.
At a major intersection, in violation of a red light, Fong made an abrupt right turn without using any brakes and seamlessly merged into the cross traffic. Without checking his mirrors, he guided the car into the fast lane and then, as we approached another red light, suddenly swerved into the oncoming lanes to pass cars slowing for the light. The oncoming cars moved over to facilitate his passage without so much as a honking horn and we shot through the gap along the centerline and drove towards the intersection when the worst happened – two semi trucks moving side by side rounded the corner and headed straight for us. With a line of stopped traffic on our right blocking our escape, Fong shifted the car left and straddled the line in the middle of the two oncoming lanes. The truckers both hit their horns and parted just enough to allow us to shoot down the middle with inches to spare.
Compared to that, the rest of the ride was anticlimactic. Five minutes later we rolled to a stop in front of Fong’s chosen bar and sat there in stunned as I dug out my wallet. “You’re crazy!” I shouted at him. “If you drove like that in America,You would go to jail.”
Fong looked at me incredulously, “That’s not true!” he said earnestly. “I know all about America, we watch American TV.”
I stared back, unbelieving as I paid the fare and climbed out of the car. “It’s true!” He shouted after me as I fled into the night. “I know all about American drivers, I watch The Dukes of Hazzard on TV!”
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.