It all started with snails.
Back in September, we found ourselves wandering the maze of alleyways surrounding our hostel in Guilin, on the prowl for something to eat. It should tell you a lot about the state of Chinese cuisine that we were encountering that by far the most appetizing thing on offer was snails. Game for pretty much anything and greatly amused by the plastic gloves all the locals had donned (the snail equivalent of the “lobster bib”, I suppose…though we also saw people wearing them to eat pizza…) we sidled up to the counter and pointed at one of the big vats that sat on the counter, the molluscs within stewing in a broth fragrant with herbs and chillies. The girl working the counter happily obliged, ladling a huge scoop of them into a bowl. Armed with a hearty appetite and two safety pins, we sat down and got to work.
A young Asian gentleman sitting with two female companions a few stools over us regarded us with a mixture of amusement, bewilderment and admiration.
You actually like this stuff?” he asked us in impeccable English, his brow furrowing in confusion.
Oh, sure!” we replied, shrugging nonchalantly as we pried the snails from their shells with our safety pins and popped them into our mouth.
I guess the French have escargot,” he acknowledged. “Though you still don’t see very many foreigners eating snails here.”
We immediately dove into a passionate speech about our love of trying new foods and eating what the locals do wherever we travel, and he pointed out that if we really wanted to up our street cred, we’d have to stop using the safety pins and instead suck the snails straight from their shells. As if to reinforce his point, his dining companions happily gave a loud slurp. We respectfully declined.
Nevertheless, a friendship was born and we were soon discussing two of our favorite topics: travel & food. We mentioned the places we had already visited thus far and began to rattle off the list of places we were thinking of going. When we mentioned Singapore, our new friend’s eyes positively sparkled. It turns out he was originally from Singapore, and he promised us that there were few places in the world that would feed us better than his homeland. He then asked us if we were planning to head to Taiwan, and when we said we had kind of—but not really—considered it, he assured us that we simply had to go.
“The food in Taiwan is possibly as a good as Singapore! But at maybe a third of the price! Everything is so cheap in Taiwan! You can’t miss it.”
On and on he went, such that by the time we left lunch—our bellies full of invertebrates and our imaginations aglow with images of fluffy dumplings and perfectly brewed bubble tea—it was as though a timer had been set and was slowly counting down, the question now when, not if, we would tackle Taiwan…
The answer came after two months in the Philippines. I had gotten so sucked into our life in the Philippines that I was reluctant to really go anywhere at all, but Tony put down his foot and insisted that we hadn’t set out on this trip to get stuck four months in and after just three countries. He had enjoyed our months of island living, but he was itching to get back to exploring cities. I balked a bit at visiting Taiwan RIGHT NOW, as there were other countries we could visit that were a cheaper plane ride away, but Tony was determined: he argued that we had already spent so much time hopping from island to island, what was the deal with adding in one more? It turns out that I’m great at adapting to a situation when I’ve little choice in the matter, but I’m still not great at purposefully seeking out opportunities or actions that have the sole purpose of shaking things up, forcing me to redefine my current conceptualization of “normal”. Still, I had to concede that Tony was right, and in the face of his airtight logic, I conceded defeat and we booked our tickets. It was time to start anew once more.
This is how we find ourselves leaving the Philippines exactly the same way we entered the country: on one of those god forsaken late-night flights that only masochists and the criminally insane sign up for. At this point, I don’t know which camp we fall into, but if you’re anything like me—that is to say, extremely cranky when sleep-deprived— then stumbling off one of these flights is probably the worst possible circumstance under which to enter a new country. Landing in Taipei twenty minutes past midnight, my eyes may not be red, but they sure are bleary, and barely open to boot, a state that clearly mimics that of my brain. It’s a wonder I don’t get flagged at immigration, as I completely freeze when the agent asks me how long I’m planning to visit Taiwan—even though we have a departure flight already booked and are allowed in the country for 90 days, I have no idea what day it currently is, never mind what day we are leaving. The upward lilt of my voice as I stutter “Sixteen days(?)” (an unintentional lie, by the way… one that Tony loudly corrects when he hisses, “No! Eighteen!”) suggests that her guess is as good as mine. If there’s one boon to traveling at times when most sane people are otherwise sleeping, it seems to be that immigration agents are at their most merciful, likely because they are also too drowsy to muster the energy for diligence.
Even though Tony & I hate taking these horrific late-night flights, we keep doing it, for the simple reason that we are cheap and so are these tickets. We’re willing to suffer a little if it means a savings to our budget and another day on the road. But of course, these deceptively cheap flights have so many hidden costs that you rarely wind up saving the cash you thought you would. In this case, the cheapest way to central Taipei is via a public bus, the last of which departs at 1 am. After that, it’s only pricey taxis that charge a premium this late (early?) in the day.
By the time we grab our luggage off the battered carrousel and find an ATM to extract some cash, we’ve only got about 10 minutes to spare before our cheap ride vanishes. The late hour and two months in the Philippines have made our brains soft, and we search about frantically for anything in English that might enlighten us. All we see are strings of kanji, somehow more intricate than the characters we had previously encountered in China; they are just as incomprehensible as before, and they positively seem to dance before our tired eyes. Miraculously, we manage to find the ticket window and our bus, and within a minute of sitting down, we are being shuttled off into the night.
Not knowing what to expect from Taiwan, I had optimistically hoped that on the continuum between Hong Kong and China, it would lie closer to the Hong Kong end of the spectrum. As we drive deep into the bowels of the city, however, I swiftly realized that Taipei, at least, will probably not be like Hong Kong at all. For one thing, it is awfully hard to get any sense of what Taipei is like because—in juxtaposition to Hong Kong, which seemed practically iridescent—the city around me is eerily dark. As I peer out the window, the thing that I see most clearly is my own reflection bouncing back at me from the pane of glass, as dark and smooth as the surface of a lake at midnight. It seems like the city is mocking me, as even it is slumbering whereas I cannot. I squint my eyes in exhaustion and furrow my brow in frustration, determined to get some sense of the city. As my eyes adapt to the night and vague outlines began to emerge, I catch snatches of a crumbling, stagnant overpass whose construction has been left half-completed, leaving it decrepit and slightly menacing. As the bus drives past this urban dinosaur, the outline of rectangular low-rise buildings began to materialize and I feel a low tug deep in my chest. It vanishes in a heartbeat, carried of into the night before I have a chance to identify its meaning.
By the time we reach downtown Taipei, it’s nearly 2 and a light drizzle has begun; the city might not be shining like Hong Kong, but it’s definitely glistening in its own way. For the first time in months, we shiver ever-so-slightly as the slight chill in the air is amplified by the dampness. After being hot for so long, the cool air is a welcome relief and we turn our faces up to it searchingly like a child’s forehead presented for a mother’s kiss. The weather hammers home that we are well and truly somewhere new, but maybe somewhere familiar too. Now we tremble with excitement and anticipation as well.
At this time of night, the subway and trains have long since gone to bed. Four months of travel have taught us a few things, and for once we are prepared for this moment: we have booked a hotel within walking distance of the station. Despite our Singaporean friend’s claims about how cheap Taiwan is, hotels in Taipei’s downtown core are anything but; the normal price tag is much higher than what we would normally pay (see how these budget flights get you?), but luckily we cashed in some points and only had to pay $15 out of pocket. As we make our way there, our footsteps echoing in the silence that seems thickened by the mist from the rain, we praise ourselves for just this once, not being cheap. We also send up a private prayer that the hotel will be good to their word and have our room waiting for us at such a late hour. Thankfully, when we arrive, two staff members are waiting for us at the front desk; normally only one person mans reception, but they have doubled up in case there are language barriers. It is clear we are in good hands.
We are dead on our feet but when we are shown to our room, we still manage to muster up the energy for one quick happy dance, so delighted are we by the sheer decadence that greets us. We wriggle our toes in the plush carpeting beneath our feet before hurling ourselves into the downy nest of a bed, enveloping ourselves in the fluffy duvet and luxuriating in the crisp, white linens. It is quite honestly like we had never stayed in a hotel before and after months of bare-bones living, we are the Lost Boys returned from Neverland—slightly feral—and we need to be reintroduced back into civilization. Our sleep-addled minds are utterly confounded by how and why there are so many light switches on the wall, so accustomed have we become to just one naked bulb hanging from the ceiling that doesn’t even work half of the time. Here it takes us nearly five minutes to figure out how to turn off the lights, as each switch seems to activate a new light that we hadn’t even realized existed (under the desk! on top of the headboard!) and we crash about drunkenly slapping at any switch we can find until we are eventually victorious. As we sink into bed, this time for good, the pillows perfectly cradle our heads. As we drift off to sleep, we both feel like this is one of the smartest choices we had ever made. A word to the wise: if you ever find yourself on a late night flight, this is the absolute right time to splurge on a nice hotel. Trust us, you won’t regret it.
The next morning we wake naturally for the first time in ages, no incessant rooster crowing in our ears to disrupt our slumber. We are at war with ourselves, eager to head out and see Taipei properly, but also wanting to enjoy every last minute we have in our gorgeous hotel room before having to move to our hostel. The simple delights from the night before continue as we revel in our first honest-to-god hot shower in over 50 days. It is utter bliss, and as the water runs over us, we understand that as much as we have loved the Philippines, we could never turn our backs on this life for good. For the past two months, we have been living in a deliriously happy fugue state, but I feel it in my bones that this is ultimately the kind of place where we belong.
These feelings only intensify when we step outside and make our way back to Taipei’s main station. We are immediately charmed by the city, in part because Taipei is undeniably charming, but also because, at our cores, Tony & I are city mice who thrive on the energy and diversity of cities. The cosmopolitan urban environment is a real jolt to the system but the more we walk the bigger the bounce in my step becomes until I am positively bubbling over with mirth. I am delighted by how cute, clean and efficient everything is, how the sights are familiar but just slightly bent. The vendors we pass are friendly and polite, the food all smells so good, the information center overflows with useful-yet-adorable maps—for free! By the time we make it into the station proper and find ourselves surrounded by innumerable kiosks, each one selling some kind of dreamy concoction, we are enraptured.
I turn to Tony and say, “I kind of think we should just spend the next 18 days here in Taipei.”
I am only half joking.
“I do, too!” he exclaims, eyes wide with excitement and joy.
We smile the shared Cheshire cat grin of two conspirators who are plotting something slightly crazy but brilliant.
Riding the subway to our hostel, buzzing with barely restrained euphoria, I stare out the window and try to wrap my mind around Taipei. The tug from the night before has returned, intensified. So much of what I see reminds me of the city where I grew up and lived the first 21 years of my life: Toronto. Some of it is due tot that ineffable vibe that each city has, but there are vague physical resemblances as well, so that I feel like I have stumbled upon my home city’s fraternal twin. When my mind begins to drift, I catch myself unconsciously looking out for buildings and landmarks I know. I feel as though I have slid into a parallel universe where things are familiar, yet foreign, just enough of each to comfort but also intrigue. If you’ve ever been north of Toronto to Markham and spent a day at Pacific Mall, well, imagine the mall expanded into a city, and voila: you have Taipei.
When Tony & I set out on our Big Trip, we didn’t approach it like one might a speed dating session: we weren’t auditioning all the places we were visiting as potential places we might one day wish to live. At least not consciously. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned since we left, it’s that the corridor of your life is lined with more doors than you could ever walk through, each one guarding a new possibility and direction. Sometimes those doors are locked, but sometimes, somehow and somewhere along the way, you picked up the key that slides into place just perfectly. Or maybe a better analogy is that we are locks in search of keys in the form of people, places and experiences that will open us up, revealing secrets that we keep hidden even from ourselves. There’s really no other way to describe how it felt during those first 24 hours in Taipei except to say that something about the city clicked with something deep inside me and I felt immediately at ease. It felt like I had come home.