I left Taipei for this solo round-the-island trip about 20 days ago, which means that tomorrow, I will have been on the road for exactly three weeks. I roughly sketched (well, Excel-ed) out a 35-day itinerary, vowing not to arrange everything upfront but to leave room for spontaneity. As such, I’ve been booking accommodation a stop or two before I head over, which has allowed me to add days where I feel like it. My planned 35-day trip will probably be something more like a 40ish day trip, which makes today halfwayish.
Some context: I moved to Taipei in March because my work visa stipulated I had to enter by March 14th. Since I don’t start my new job until the end of May, I decided to get to know Taiwan a little better (I’ve previously visited in the spring / fall of 2015 to Taipei / Kaohsiung). It’s a “thing” to do the round-the-island trip in Taiwan, although the most legit way to do it is (in my opinion) via cycling. I am neither in good enough shape nor have the mental motivation to cycle 100+km / day for two weeks, and I am not good enough at riding a scooter to do that either…so I’ve been mostly taking trains (and boats where needed) to get around.
Travelling alone gives you so much – arguably too much – time to think and to feel. I’ve been trying to be as honest as possible on my Instagram trip updates, sharing not only pretty snapshots but also the ups and downs that I’ve encountered along the way. Now that I’ve been travelling for three weeks, though, I’ve noticed some recurring emotions, and so for this post, I want to dig into some of these, rather than record a stop-by-stop description of my itinerary.
1. Fear. I’m really not used to feeling the sensation of fear. I’m not talking about these mental battles we have like fear of failure or fear of awkwardness, but rather immediate fear for my physical safety. I’m not sure if it’s because I just got out of the Singapore safety bubble, but there have been several times on this trip that I’ve felt the kind of fear where my heart races and the hairs on my neck prickle and I’m hypervigilant, relieved only after I’m out of the danger zone. I’ve been chased by aggressive stray dogs more than once; when they’re barking and sprinting after you, it is terrifying – I’ve never felt so lucky to be able to zoom away on a two-wheeled vehicle. I’ve also been scootering along on pitch-black roads, where the only light is that of my ride. As a female traveling alone, I worried that a bear or a rapist or both would jump out from the shadows, relaxing only when another vehicle came in sight, or a street lamp finally reappeared. Even though Taiwan is incredibly safe, it’s hard to shake that feeling of being scared that if something happened to me, I would be alone. I am sure that a lot of this fear is exaggerated because I’m traveling by myself; even as I marveled at a Jurassic Park-esque landscape on the volcanic Green Island (not a single other soul was around), I dryly thought to myself that if a volcano really erupted right then and there, I would die quite literally alone. I’m also more afraid of the ocean when I’m solo; even snorkeling, I became a lot more risk-averse in venturing too far out when there were no other humans around, afraid that a shark or a strong wave would pull me into the ocean nethers.
2. Loneliness. Dear God, I hate feeling lonely. Earlier this week, I actually had a moment where I considered ending this whole trip early and heading back to Taipei. The problem was, I realized, that even if I returned to Taipei, I didn’t have anyone to really go back to. I haven’t seen any family in over a year (almost 18 months), and I haven’t seen any close friends in over a month (since I left Singapore in March). I don’t mind solitude at times and have recently gotten into a hotpot + podcast habit, but around the two-week mark, I started feeling lonely more frequently. Similar to the start of the MBA, I am constantly meeting people, which is both exhilarating and exhausting. I genuinely love conversations with the food stall owners and shopkeepers, but they’re almost always one-offs. And in places I’ve stayed a bit longer, I’ve felt a surprising amount of insecurity and social anxiety – which, similar to fear, I’m quite frankly not used to feeling. Recently, I’ve left places wondering whether I was annoying or boring or both, struggling to accept that relationship-building didn’t flow quite as easily as it normally does. I’m understanding more and more why people tend to stick to similar people, and yet I refuse to accept that this is how I should operate, no matter how awkward it feels. Despite feeling utterly out of place as a goody two-shoes white-collar American hanging with carefree chain-smoking tattooed SCUBA instructors this week – exacerbated by the language barrier of local Taiwanese – I forced myself to sit with the discomfort of feeling lonely and potentially even rejected. It almost feels lonelier when you’re surrounded by people who pay you no heed. I just wanted to show that I was fun and interesting and not a weirdo lame freak, but I’m pretty sure I failed. I miss my family and my friends.
3. Awe. Everywhere I go, I keep stopping in my tracks. In fact, I annoy myself with how often I want to stop to take photos, which (unsurprisingly) never even come close to doing justice to the scenes I’ve seen. In the mainland cities, it’s been a lot of marvel at how familiar the streets feel, like the ones I used to run through as a little girl in Yokohama, Japan. I am shocked at how familiar Taiwan has felt already despite my barely having spent time here, but it makes complete sense that it does due to the island’s history. Out on Taiwan’s islands (lol islandception), I’ve been gaping at the insane scenery, both on land and underwater. Every time I’d round a corner on the islands (which is a lot, since the roads tend to wind around the mountainous islands), I would laugh out loud in disbelief at how stunning some of these sights were. Several times, I have said aloud to myself: “This place is not real.” The deep green mountains and azure ocean waters have been absolutely gorgeous, as are the rock formations. Underwater, I have been amazed by the sea turtles flapping their arms calmly, unfazed at me swimming alongside them. Same for the fish, some of whom were mean and territorial and bit me (although, to be fair, I was in their territory). And the underwater sun rays that beam in a perfectly visible crown, so clear that I kept putting my hand out to try and grab them between dives. I love feeling in awe; it feels like the world is so big and full of beauty and wonder and it is the perfect combination of surprise and pleasure, a feast for the eyes.
4. Gratitude. Last week, I was kindly reminded that “Not all of us are on a month-long vacation,” which is completely right (well, kind of. Technically, I’ve been free since like, mid-December, so this will really be almost a six-month long vacation by the time I start in May). But seriously, it is not lost on me how incredible it is that I have this swath of time to not just travel but to do whatever I feel like doing. In the first few months of this year, I finished the first draft of my book project (37,000 words!) which I have become woefully behind on editing due to my travels. Not once have I felt that I have been bored, in Singapore or here in Taiwan; instead, I try to make the most out of each day, even in the most mundane ways, knowing that this chapter will soon come to an end. I’m thankful that my new job is in a place that has handled COVID the best out of any other place in the world, which is the reason I can travel freely without guilt. I’m thankful to be in these interesting and beautiful places, meeting interesting and beautiful people. I’m thankful that I learned about investing back when I started my first job and have, for the most part, managed to avoid lifestyle creep, which is how I’m able to use savings to fund my travels. I’m thankful that I get to have all these experiences in these new locations, even the fear and the loneliness but especially the awe. Research shows that those who are happy are also those who are grateful, and I feel lucky that I’m constantly surrounded by things to be grateful for. I’m especially thankful for my family and friends whom I love enough to miss, who are quick to suggest a phone call (or, in some cases, drunkenly call), always reminding me that even if they aren’t here, there are people out there who do not think I’m a weirdo lame freak.
While all of the above emotions can be felt while traveling with others, I’m a staunch believer that it is only through moments alone that you can begin to feel the full magnitude of fear, and loneliness, and awe, and gratitude. There’s a certain gravitas that is difficult to squeeze out when you’re sharing the travel experience with others, an uninterrupted solemnness that makes life feel somehow fulfilling, wondrous, meaningful. Off course, traveling with friends comes with its own set of beautiful moments that are impossible to have when you’re alone. For example, I have also thought to myself several times that I wished I could share the beauty, or the tastes, or the smells, or the sensations of this trip with those that I love.
This is not the first time that I have travelled alone, but it is by far the longest. Next week, I’ll be meeting up with a friend, so I’m looking forward to a break from the solitude before finishing up the last leg of the trip. It’s already been an incredible ride, and I’m excited to make the most of the remainder of my solo travels – and see what else I learn on the way!