When I booked my flight to Taiwan, I knew nothing about the country. I didn’t know that they spoke Mandarin or that they liked to eat eggs soaked in Oolong tea. I didn’t know that they had night markets or delicious bubble tea around every corner. So, when I landed in Taoyuan Airport in Taipei over two weeks ago and I found myself surrounded by smiling faces with dumpling noses, I was a bit out of my comfort zone.
My first mistake upon flying to Taiwan was not flying. Not at first, at least. My ticket stated that my flight left at 0:45, so I arrived at the airport around 10 PM on the day it stated… rather than the day earlier, which it was supposed to be. You see, that’s how clocks works. Midnight is the NEXT day.
Yes, my friends, I had a flight to Asia and I was 24 hours late for it.
Therein comes the panic. The tears building in my eyes, the anger at myself, the airline, and the world – which had clearly had it out for me.
Fortunately, it only took about 40 minutes of dismay to then arrange a ticket for the same flight to Shanghai and then Taiwan that very night. Boy, was I in luck! I said “deuces!” to JFK airport and I was on my way…. $400 out and emotionally drained, but I was still back on track and ecstatic. Don’t worry, this wasn’t my only airport mishap.
Once I finally made it to Taiwan, I didn’t care if they threw squids at me, I was just so relieved to have made my connecting flight and survived the 13 hour journey! No one threw squids at me.
Admittedly, I didn’t really have any solid plans for my trip. I had 18 days to see, do, and try everything this little Island had to offer. That should be easy, right? It’s not like it’s China or Japan or anything. How much could there be?
My first CouchSurfing host was named Red. He was a little slow to respond to my WhatsApp message, so I was getting a little nervous. I had a bunch of housing offers, so I started contacting all of them. I didn’t know these people, nor where they were located, but I really did not want to live in the airport for 2.5 weeks. However, I quickly learned that Taiwanese people don’t really rush things. They take their time, enjoy themselves, and take it pretty easy. I am speaking generally, of course, but most of the people I met were quite laid back despite being engineers and computer geniuses for some of the world’s biggest tech companies. No biggie, I thought. I’m studying mental health, I’ll fit right in… or something.
When I heard from Red, he apologized because his car broke down, so I’d have to take the bus to his stop and then meet him there. This wasn’t ideal, especially considering no one spoke English and I hadn’t brought much cash. Just about $1200 NT (which is about $40 USD) and my credit card. Note to travelers: unless you plan on only eating at restaurants and shopping at malls, be sure to bring cash. You don’t need a ton, but have at least $400-$600 USD. Somehow or another, I made it to Red’s home. He lived sort of in the middle of nowhere. It was about a 30 minute walk to get to his home. If you have a decent sense of direction, it would take much less. For me, it took a long, long time to find it. But then he brought me to my first Taiwanese meal and insisted on paying for it. He also bought me oranges and peanuts, so I was a happy little monkey.
First we stopped off at his quaint and adorable little apartment, then we got some vegan food at a local spot! He figured I would be hungry, so he really didn’t go easy on me. Noodles with macadamia nuts and veggies, tofu, rice bowl… the works. This tofu was stinky, but it wasn’t the infamous “Stinky Tofu”. You’ll know it when you smell it. Now I like to say, “The stinkier, the better” and it’s true!
Now I will begin telling you about Taiwan. Things you should know, things I wish I had known, and so much more! There is a lot I want to talk about, so I will probably do this in four installations covering different topics. If I get lazy, I’ll try to do it in two. I’m aiming for four, though, to make sure you get ALL the important details.
In this post, I’d like to focus on people and traveling around the country. Specifically, my experience with hitchhiking/Couchsurfing the entire country of Taiwan. Hopefully, this will help you if you would like to experience free travel, as well, and you’re a little nervous. Let me start by saying, you’ll be fine!
The first person I met in Taipei was Sir Han. That’s his real name. How cool is he? He was a traveler from Singapore and was utilizing Couchsurfing, as well. Everyone kept assuming he knew the language and the country, but he was just as much a tourist as me. His English was better than his Mandarin. As you can see here, just because he is Asian doesn’t mean he didn’t get lost. And when we came across a Couchsurfer named Ching-Chang Cheng, he pointed him out to me and laughed. It wasn’t me, I swear!
We got along immediately. Mostly because we were both lost and not ashamed of it. But we had a great couple days just wandering and trying all the free samples that Taipei has to offer… and they have a LOT of free samples. Come hungry!
When I booked my flight to Taiwan, I didn’t plan on hitch hiking. When I got to Taipei, I didn’t plan on hitch hiking. It was when I met Martina, an Italian girl without a country that it all came together. Martina has been calling Australia home for the last year, but that won’t last long. She’s a nomad looking for something. I don’t think she’ll know what it is until she finds it, or it finds her. Martina was staying at a hostel in Taipei called TaipeiTaipei – or Tipsy Taipei Cafe & Bar . A hostel and bar where you can store your luggage, drink, or stay the night for super cheap. A great alternative option if Couchsurfing isn’t your thing.
Martina didn’t waste any time meeting the local Italians. Most of whom, like other Westerners, had moved to Taiwan to teach English. As you can see, it didn’t take long for us to hit it off. We all went for a night-cap at Café Dalida. It’s a gay bar in Taipei with the most fabulous waitresses. I had some tea, like the classy gal I am. Unfortunately, the MRT (subway) stops running at midnight, so if you plan to go out every night until 6 AM, be sure to have a new Italian friend with an extra couch you can sleep on for the night. He doesn’t have to be Italian, but he should live in the country. This is because Taiwanese people (either by birth or visa) are the most polite and trustworthy people I have ever met. They won’t harass or disturb you, nor expect anything in return for their good deeds!
That night, it may have been the tea talking, but Martina and I decided we were going to hitch hike our way around the entire Southern portion of Taiwan. Neither of us had done it before, but the interwebs said it was common, acceptable, and completely safe. Two out of three of these claims were true- everyone thought we were crazy!
Before we left Taipei I met a few other wonderful people who really made my experience memorable. After a couple of nights in Red’s home, I realized that I’d never get around the city if I was living so far from it. That’s when I was lucky enough to find Oz on Couchsurfing.
Oz is an Israeli who lived in Los Angeles and then moved to Taipei to teach young children English. He also rents a tattoo parlour in the magnificent Ximen city. The best way to describe Ximen is East Village meets West Village and becomes a busy, confusing, brightly lit area with street food, shops, and whatever else for which you may be seeking. Oz has hosted over 200 travelers! While I was there, there was an Israeli girl named Nitsan staying and a friend of Oz’s from Los Angeles named Kai.
Nitsan and I went to Tamsui together. It’s a bit of a long ride on the subway, but the views of the mountains make it really nice. When we got there, we enjoyed looking out at the ocean and exploring the area’s stores and busy markets. She is also vegan, so together we found what vegan options we could. Although there are vegetarian buffets all around, specifically for the Buddhist monks, vegan food was a bit more of a challenge. Most of my meals consisted of a bag of peanuts and an apple from 7-11. You can find a 7-11 or Family Mart nearly anywhere you go. Apparently, they’re really cheap to open in Taiwan.
Meeting Oz was practically a tourist attraction in itself. He is an amazing friend to have in this bustling city. For a couple of beers he’s willing to let you stay in his cozy home for a night or two. Don’t let this “cool guy” fool you, though, he has a huge soft spot for the children he teaches, he’s extremely passionate about his job, and is a complete sweetheart towards his guests.
I left Ximen with a little sadness, but also excitement for the adventure to come! The next 7 days were a blur of amazing people, places, sights, sounds, and smells. There is very little I can teach anyone about hitchhiking Taiwan, though. It just happens! The thing is, people will help you. Pedestrians will guide you, offer you free food and water, make sure that your sign is correct, and that you’re in the best spot to pick up a ride. Of course, just make sure you are near a major highway and heading in the right direction. People will smile at you and give you thumbs up, they will think you’re super cool. Next thing you know, you’ll be in a car with someone who you can trust implicitly. I say this with certainty, but do take precautions, because the exceptions do exist. Nearly everyone we met told us a story about themselves, took us somewhere interesting, and insisted on feeding us!
Along with the politeness, don’t be surprised to find that Taiwanese men are NOT huggers. They’ll do it, and they know what’s up, but it’s going to be a short and very light hug. If you’re a squeezer, please do take heed. You’re not getting a heart-to-heart bear snuggle. Despite the lack of hug, they will give and give until they can’t give anymore. Everyone in these photos either housed us or drove us voluntarily. Special shout out to Cafe Teller in Tainan. Our arrival was unexpected, but our host was extremely kind and took us to a party and a night market where he bought us all the delicious treats they had to offer! If you’re ever in Tainan, definitely check this place out!
The final destination for our trip was Kenting, Taiwan. A town for the beach folk, a food and drink stop for the tourist, and a beautiful beach for all! Although most of our trip was a little chilly (it was January, after all) the beach was no less incredible. Martina and I walked along the rocks and pathways admiring weird little crabs, hermit crabs, starfish, squishy things, and gorgeous shells…. It was paradise for a nature lover!
As much as we loved the beach, we ended up staying the night in Hengchun, a city about 30 minutes away. Most people would think it’s not worth a second glance, but this city is the one that really stole my heart. Since this area is known for its beauty in the summer, things were pretty slow, I won’t lie. Most of the shops were closed for the season; not much surfing or partying.
What we found instead were real people living their lives. We met Ming here, and two different girls named Grace. Ming made tea with ginger, goji berries, and some other root that tasted nice and healthy! If he likes you, he’ll also give you a gift of a sage cigarette. He claims it’ll give you weird dreams. I don’t smoke, but if you’re into that, it could be a weird night.
We went to the eternal flames at night and saw the pigs being butchered at 5 AM. Hengchun is the kind of town where you can open a cafe business and not know how to make coffee. You can wake up at 10 AM and no one else will be awake. You can go to a restaurant at noon and find out that the owner is still sleeping, so you have to call them to pick a time to meet. It’s the city that officially gets the title of “Dude”.
We were having trouble finding a host in Hengchun, though! It seemed like people here were too chill to even bother with Couchsurfing. We did find Rainbow Wave Hostel. A super fun place with wonderful hosts, including the soft-spoken and gorgeous little person named Lido. We ended up falling asleep in the lobby, though. Sorry, guys! We’ll pay you for that next time we’re in town! To go back to my statement earlier about having trouble finding food, that could have also just been me! There were veggie buffets, but I was having so much fun eating all the small snacks at the food carts, that I didn’t eat many full meals. My new rule quickly became “If it’s vegan and in a bowl, I’ll eat it.”
This is because all the most delicious things I ate were in bowls! Their sticky rice with pretty much anything poured on top, shaved ice, noodles, barley, matcha ice cream…. It was all so yummy! Though, I also used a plate and chopsticks now and then, too! I used so much chili sauce that I think I turned into a chili pepper. Yum!
I will end this first posting with one more fun Taiwan tip:
You may have heard of the Betel Nut, yes? The thing all the blue-collar workers chew in the morning…. They turn their teeth, tongues, and lips red, then spit it out all over the place. They claim it gives you a little high and energy to get through the day. It’s the little, naughty secret that’s not all that secret.
First of all, yes, it’s everywhere. However, it won’t make you “high”, it’s not seen as bad, and no one will know what you mean if you call it a betel nut. They won’t get it unless you put the word into a translator, then someone will point it out to you, and you will notice them everywhere. Of course, we had to try it!
We chewed. We spat. We chewed. We spat. Worth a try just to say we did it, but we weren’t impressed. As for the effect? We didn’t experience anything aside from red drool staining our chins. I think we’ll pass on this one next time.
All in all, Taiwan has won me over. I left the country feeling a renewed sense of enthusiasm for people and the world. Hope, lightness, joy, and a love for a country that I previously barely knew existed. Sometimes the world will surprise you, you just have to be open to experiencing it!
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