I spent 40 days backpacking around the island of Taiwan while it was still a virus-free bubble, often completely forgetting about the pandemic’s existence as I roamed around one of the world’s “COVID success stories.” In an ironic turn of events, COVID cases “exploded” in Taiwan just a few days after I arrived back home in Taipei (note: “exploded” is relative; for reference, Taiwan is averaging ~300 cases/day for a population of ~25MM vs. Chicago’s now ~300 cases/day for a population of ~2.5MM, although we are woefully unvaccinated over here).
Taipei entered into Level 3 of COVID restrictions on the same day I scrambled to move into my new apartment. As I loaded up my shopping cart with new cleaning supplies, basic cooking goods, and ONE PACKAGE of toilet paper, I observed the empty shelves of instant noodle section and grimly acknowledged the familiar sensation of impending gloom. It was only a year ago, after all, that we were in the midst of Singapore’s Circuit Breaker, and I could feel that same anxiety in the air. “But,” I thought cheerily, “if I can make it through Circuit Breaker, I can make it through this!” I proceeded to the cash register, unnecessarily explaining to the uninterested cashier that I wasn’t hoarding, and that I just happened to be moving today, and therefore needed to buy all this stuff for my new apartment.
At that time, I hadn’t even been back in Taipei for a week, but it already felt like I had never gone on the adventure around the island. And now that it’s been nearly three weeks, and we’ve been on semi-lockdown for two, and I’ve even gotten a couple of days of the new job under my belt…it really feels like that entire time was a dream. Yet in a strange way, it feels like the trip ended up preparing me for this new period of time at home, one where I’m really feeling the weight of being alone in a new city during a lockdown. The truth is that making it through this is nothing like making it through Singapore’s Circuit Breaker: last time, I had flatmates in the apartment and friends in the city; this time, I am living alone and had barely begun to meet people before we were asked to stay home. Last time, I had at least seen my family a few months ago; this time, I am running on 18 months and counting of not having seen any family or friends from back home.
As I tried to figure out how to deal with this mentally and emotionally, I found myself drawing back on the experiences I had during my travels:
- In Taipei and Taichung, I repeatedly marveled at how quickly Taiwan felt like home to me. For a place I’ve never lived in, it sure feels nostalgic: there is so much physical and cultural history left behind that remind me of my Japanese childhood and Chinese heritage. I see it especially in the big cities here, and I’m grateful for how quickly it became comfortable to be here. It was almost instantaneous, so much so, in fact, that I’ve felt guilty a few times for barely missing Singapore, like this new, shiny home quickly replaced the one that I’d grown so fond of. The fact that Taipei already feels like home makes it that much easier to get through this time, because I don’t feel like I have to deal with the typical challenges of living in a foreign place.
- In Xiao Liuqiu, I learned, through my freediving class, to become so much more aware of my mind and my body. There’s an immense feeling of satisfaction in physically accomplishing something that mentally seemed impossible. I didn’t think I could hold my breath for two minutes within a few tries; I didn’t think I could do a 20 meter dive within a few days. And yet with the right coaching + support, I was able to up my mental game to a point where I could do both of those things, which in turn has given me confidence that my mind is a lot stronger than I think. This has been incredibly helpful in lockdown and I’m now a lot more intentional about setting apart space to mentally reset and physically stay active.
- On Green Island, I probably felt the loneliest I had felt in the entire trip. I felt tiny on this empty island of looming volcanic mountains and crashing ocean waves, devoid of tourists because of the passing typhoon. And yet as I scootered around listening to sad songs and maybe shedding a tear or two or a lot, I also allowed myself to recognize that I was actually brave. I was brave for embarking on this trip of unknowns by myself for over a month, and I am brave for embarking on this new life in Taipei. I’m proud of myself for moving to a new city where I knew no one; for signing an apartment lease in Chinese; for braving another lockdown by myself; for facing the loneliness head-on. Where it had seemed to prideful to think this way before, Green Island helped me to embrace these notions of pride and courage.
- In Miaoli and Chiayi and Kenting and Lanyu, I connected with people. I kicked off the trip with a friend-of-a-friend who drove us from Taoyuan to Miaoli, the first leg of my trip. In Kenting, I met another friend-of-a-friend, and we spent a week surfing and laughing and wondering what crazy antics our surf host was up to next. In Chiayi and Lanyu, I made connections purely by chance: a woman at a bar who had also lived in NYC; a man also at a bar who was headed to my same hostel; a pair of colleagues who helped me make my way back to the mainland; a pair of American friends who were also based in Taipei. In the first few weeks of this lockdown, despite mostly being based outside Taipei, these unexpected connections sent me news, offered to send masks, called to check in. I am impatient to begin building a community of friends here in Taipei, but these connections – despite the current restrictions – already remind me that even now, I’m not completely alone.
- In general, I adopted more flexibility. A personal challenge for this trip was to not book everything ahead of time, but to allow myself to be more unplanned; stay longer there, leave earlier here (except I didn’t actually leave anywhere earlier). On each of the three islands – Xiao Liuqiu, Green Island, and Lanyu – I extended my stay. I hitchhiked for the first time, growing comfortable with not having a planned-out way to get to where I needed to go, and maybe I didn’t even need to go there anyway. My days became unstructured (this will likely lead to a rude awakening now that I’ve started work), but all that to say: even in this time of uncertainty about when Level 3 restrictions will end, it’s easier to accept the unknown and roll with the punches. The impatience is still there, yes, but there’s no stress; annoyance, but no anxiety. Spending so much of my trip on island / beach time forced me to slow down and relax and trust that things really do tend to just work out.
Most of all, though, I’m grateful that I had this entire experience before COVID burst Taiwan’s beautiful safety bubble. Even with 40 days, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the natural wonders that Taiwan has to offer, and I loved spending so much time in the ocean – I was probably in the water for a third of the trip, with the saltiest hair and now-fading tan to show for it. I know that I’ve only had a taste of the many, many, delicious foods here on this island, and that I am in no rush to taste them all because I’ll be here for a while. And the best part of all – there will be so, so, so many good conversations to come, and with them, good people. I had a blast chatting up bartenders and coffeeshop owners and dive / surf / kayak instructors and fellow travelers and Uber drivers and B&B hosts and turtle owners and all kinds of people. I loved getting out of the world I’m so used to living in, challenging my own definitions of success as we compared notes on our life goals. For all the lonely lows I had, there were also the many, many, many highs. This was the longest time I’ve ever traveled solo, and it was more fulfilling and rejuvenating than I ever could have imagined.
Thank you again for following along on the trip! In my lonely lows, I also really appreciated the encouraging messages that reminded me that my loved ones might not be here, but they sure are out there somewhere. Below is a map of all the stops that I made – you want to see more trip details, city-by-city photos and summaries are on my Instagram!