I’m not going to lie. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Taiwan.
When I think of the places I’d like to travel to in Asia, a National Geographic spread opens in my mind: the beaches of Thailand, the hills of Sri Lanka, the chaos of India, the rivers of Vietnam.
Yeah, I’ll admit it: I’m not particularly groundbreaking, here.
When it came time to plan for winter vacation, I knew I wanted to visit somewhere I wouldn’t normally get to on a typical Southeast Asia backpacking trip – somewhere I could check off my list, someplace interesting that would occupy me for the time being before I got to the places that I really wanted to go. I looked at a map, I poked around Kayak, and I impulsively cobbled together a few tickets to Taiwan and Hong Kong, with the mental note to catch a ferry to Macau at some point. I did have interest in all of these places, but none of them had particularly called out to me before. It was effectively as though I had spun a globe and jabbed my finger on it.
This is exactly why Taiwan knocked me on my ass.
I barely planned a thing; I had a couchsurfing host for the first few nights in Taipei, a guidebook I’d thieved off of a friend, and a vague scheme to, I don’t know, maybe find out more about the aboriginal cultures by visiting a museum or some villages or something. I was so lax about the trip that I didn’t start packing until midnight the night before, and just around 1 AM remembered that I should probably call my banks and find out my flight numbers.
It’s because I had no expectations. I had no expectations and no preconcieved notions, no idea of what the country would look like; I’d never seen pictures of the temples or countryside, I didn’t really know what to expect from the food, I had but a few survival Mandarin phrases crammed in my head. I came thinking that this was just something to do, a way to bide my time before I got to the places I really wanted to see.
So, Taiwan, I confess: I’ve done you wrong. And damn, did you get me back.
I didn’t expect everything you threw at me, every experience that left me feeling bowled over, everything that blindsided me.
I didn’t expect the fervour and energy of your temples, the sting of incense in our eyes, the swell of the pressing and powerful in the chanting of monks, the quiet and shaking calls of your pilgrims, the spill of tombs over hillsides.
I didn’t expect to see a jungle taking over a city, the waves of green tendrils hanging over balconies and doorways, the forests of flowers at all altars, the sight of banyans engulfing houses.
I didn’t expect the blinding neon of your nightmarkets, the absolutely unbelievable vegetarian food, the sudden whir and roar of a crowd of scooters barrelling through the city streets.
And most of all, I didn’t expect the people I met: all the open and unassuming smiles of those curious about a foreigner, the kindness with which people approached me, and above everything – above absolutely everything – the hospitality of those I stayed with. I didn’t expect to be invited to step into the path of live fireworks to celebrate the New Year, to spend days biking to the sea in perfect summer weather, to ride on the back of scooters, to sing at the top of our lungs in the car, to party until dawn and watch markets open in the rain on the ride home.
I didn’t expect anything from you, Taiwan, but you certainly didn’t take this as an excuse to not shock me to my core.
So, Taiwan, I’ll take this as a lesson: sometimes you don’t need to plan, to obsess, to dream, to get the most out of the world around you. Sometimes you don’t need to expect anything from a place to be awed, knocked over sideways, and witness the incredible beauty and electricity and intense, intense seduction of the foreign.
Sometimes you just need to spin a globe, and jab your finger down.