My first love, like how it was for anyone else, was messy and had happened by pure chance.
It was in early December 2014 and I was planning a hiking trip to Mt Rinjani at the end of the month but being the highly spontaneous and impromptu individual that I am, it was almost impossible to get anyone on board the trip at the very last minute. I would have still gone ahead with my plans only if the local agency had accepted solo hikers in the first place. So, left with less than a week to go and no concrete plans anywhere near in sight, I started feeling befuddled in my head. And it was in such a state of mind that I decided to just book a one-way flight ticket to Taiwan, a country that did not even cross my mind until five minutes before I made the payment. And there you go; unexpected, uninitiated and what the hell, my first proper solo trip which turned out to be my first love too.
You thought you were going to read about how I fell in love with a girl so beautiful inside out, didn't you? I am sorry, your feelings had just got cheated on.
This is my story about how I truly fell in love with an experience that was only the beginning of an amazing chapter in my life. So, sit tight and ride out this journey with me.
To give you a sense of how hastily this trip was prepared, I was actually queueing up to get my passport stamped at the Taipei's Taoyuan International Airport when I suddenly remembered that I didn't check the visa requirements. So, there I was, standing in the line waiting for my turn while my heart was pounding really hard. "Holy shit, this must be the most epic travel failure if I am forced to turn back because I didn't get a visa," I thought to myself as I handed over my glossy red passport to the customs officer. Then almost instantly, she hit the passport, smiled and greeted me, "Welcome to Taiwan, Sir, and have a pleasant stay with us." I was grinning from ear to ear like a 5 year old as I made my way through the baggage clearance.
Lesson number one that I had learned from this trip is to break away from the rigidity of a fixed itinerary. I admit that I didn't have a single clue on what to do, see or eat in Taiwan before I flew in. So, I paid for a bed for ten nights in Taipei alone and that was the start of a series of bad decision making. I thought to myself that maybe after I got a place to stay, I could build an itinerary around it. But on the second night, I came back to the apartment feeling a little bit at loss. I had already traveled all over the city and seen everything that needed to be seen in a single day. So what was I going to do for the remaining nine days? I slumped onto the couch feeling defeated in the empty hallway. Then a fellow Taiwanese guy came through the door, saw me in that state I was in and sat down next to me. We chatted for awhile before I told him what was bothering me. I felt like I was tied down by the accommodation booking that I had already paid for, which prevented me from altering my itinerary. But instead of being sympathetic, he actually laughed so hard for a good full minute leaving me bewildered as ever. Then, with a single pat on my back, he dropped all last signs of humour on his face, looked at me seriously and said, "I advise you to just screw your itinerary away now and get out of Taipei. You will lose some money but that's okay because you can experience more outside of the city which will compensate for your loss."
That was the start of a new lesson for me, one that I will hold onto until today whenever I go for any trips. You can have a basic skeleton plan if you must but the best experience only comes when you allow yourself to go where the trip brings you to.
And just like John Steinback said, "... people don’t take trips—trips take people."
The following Sunday morning, as I was leaving the apartment with my backpack, I came across this small eatery at the back of a quiet alley that would have otherwise been very busy in the evening. I looked at the menu that was all written in Mandarin but I could still figure out that they were selling these Chinese soft buns with fillings in it. The lady behind the counter was actually rather patient with me as I tried to make sense of the menu but the drunk Caucasian guy behind me was starting to get really agitated. And here is my lesson number two. Sensing that I was really clueless about what to get, the Caucasian guy then came up right next to me, wrap his hands around my shoulder and said, "Just be fucking ready for it, be fucking ready for anything you get. Don't think twice. Go for it."
So, who would have thought that a drunkard man, who reeks of alcohol in his breath, could give you a good travel advice? When I think back about his words, he actually had a point that resonated with me. I was away from home alone, in a land that speaks a foreign language with no sense of familiarity at all. The only way I could experience the best out of the situation was to have an open mind about everything, which was essentially what the drunkard man had told me. You got to let go of all your reservations and fear in order for you to get the best out of your time anywhere.
Or to put it more aptly, you cannot have a good meal without allowing yourself to have a bad one.
Fast forward to the eve of Christmas, I just reached the city of Hualien on the east coast of Taiwan. By this stage of the trip, my itinerary was more or less "Get a room in a random hostel, checked in and settle down then ask the hostel staff for what to do in the area." Simple and fuss-free. I was glad that I had picked Hualien among all the other places because this was where I discovered my love for nature and this coastal area has plenty to offer. So, the next day, I rented a bike to scoot off to the famous Taroko gorge at the edge of the city. Funny thing was that I made two very good friends, Cor from the Netherlands and Claudius from Germany, at the bike rental shop. All of us were strangers but we could still recognize each other from the same hostel. The conversation starting something like this, "Hey, you're going up to the gorge as well? Yeah, me too. Let's ride together then." And that was it. We rode for about an hour before reaching the entrance of the unbelievably huge nature park and then riding for another couple more around the gorge. But it was not the majestic beauty of the gorge that really left an impression, rather it was the time spent with the lads that I would always remember from that day. We had lunch by a waterfall in complete silence, far different from how chatty we were elsewhere. It was one of the best experience I had on the trip; from a shaky start to the day then to making great friends and then to having lunch by a beautiful waterfall. Who would have thought that the day will end up that way?
So, lesson number three is to always be open to other people as well. Don't travel in your own world. Open up to others, mix around and be friendly because you will never know where that friendship will take you to.
The highlight of the trip came along on that same night. After riding along the cliffs facing the Pacific Ocean, we were finally greeted by a steamboat dinner to celebrate Christmas with the other hostel guests. There were no more than 15 of us in total, including the staff members. So the setting was rather intimate; different people from all walks of life coming together to two huge dining tables for a nice meal. There were Indonesian guys, Dutch, German, American, Spanish, English, Chinese, and French. It was like a small melting pot in many ways. And I remember thinking to myself on that night that for these people, they have decided to travel far away from home at a time when they should be close to it, close to their loved ones. But instead, they let their young spirited mind take on a journey to the east and now, here they are, bound by the same fate as mine, even if it is for a single night. So we ate, we talked and we laughed the night away. I cannot even begin to describe how pleasant that feeling was; to be at home away from home. And for the first time on this trip, I didn't feel alone.
When I went to bed at three in the morning, knowing that I have to catch an early train to the next city, my heart sank so deep that the only way to recover it was to relive that night again.
It was just unforgettable.
In the end, I canceled my morning train to spend the time having breakfast with Cor and Claudius again for the last time. Sometimes, you just got to stay put right where you need to be at instead of moving along so quickly. Goodbyes had never been this hard before but like all the other good things in life, it has to come to an end too.
By the time I reached Tainan, the next city on my random list, I firmly believed that the best part of the trip was already behind me. But that was right before I met Celine, the owner of 77Hostel, and Claudia, Celine's German assistant. I reached to their doorstep feeling flustered after being chased down a dark alley by an angry taxi driver (which was a different story by itself). I was still trying to catch my breath when Celine, embraced me with a warm hug to calm me down. Then she said to me, "Drop your bags down. You can check in later. Let us bring you out for dinner at the night market first." There I was, on one hand, panting for air trying to recollect myself and on the other hand, I was being greeted by the subtle kindness of complete strangers. Over the course of that night, I grew comfortable with them. They took me in like I was part of the family.
After having something to eat, we randomly decided to go to a supermarket and buy a basketball, just because we felt like throwing some balls into the hoop at midnight. Can you imagine that? From being chased down to the brink of my life and then suddenly to have everything turned upside down in a matter of few hours. How the hell did that even happen? Everything went pass in a blink of an eye.
I got up early the next morning like how I always do, to find Celine making coffee in the kitchen. She then invited me along with her to the local market where she wanted to run some errands. She was so kind in taking care of me; she searched high and low for any food that doesn't have pork for me to eat and I will forever be grateful for that. After which, I spent the entire afternoon lazing around in the apartment with the both of them, playing some board games and just chatting over a fish soup lunch. We ended off the day again with another round of basketball in the evening. That was when they asked me if I ever felt bored coming to Tainan? After all, I didn't even step out of the apartment to explore the city. The only thing I did was to spend time with them - every single minute that I was there. And here is lesson number four. I told them that even if I didn't do anything exceptionally touristy, I was still very happy.
Sometimes, living a day in the lives of the locals can also be such a wonderful eye opener for us. We don't need to visit museums or go for sight seeing all the time. That is not what traveling is all about. We travel to experience and understand something new, and if by putting on the shoes of the local people and walking the mile with them helps you achieve that, then why not? Apart from breaking down the rigidity of itineraries, we must also break down the very definition of traveling too. And when I left Tainan, believe me, I felt like I had seen the entire city even without stepping a foot into a single museum.
But the journey didn't end there because as fate has decided, Claudia was traveling to Taichung on the same day as I was. So, in the end, I had spent close to five or six days with her from Tainan to the next city. And that was, by far, the longest period of time I spent with anyone on this single trip. It was significant to me because one of the things that I learned about myself is the value of having company. After being out there by myself for so long, I appreciate having someone else around to have a conversation or even a meal with.
I remember on the last morning of our time together. I was about to meet Claudia at the train station and my heart felt very heavy. Sad that the end was approaching far too soon and sad that I have to say yet another goodbye on this trip. I was standing right in the middle of the train station, surrounded a tide of human bodies - so purposeful and organized. But as cliché as it seems, I had never felt more alone at that point than ever before.
There are, in fact, many other stories and people that I have omitted out of this post due to the length of it. Important people like Kelly, who will always hold a special place in my life, Yachen who organized that Christmas dinner, Syren and Yuhua, the cool twins-like from China and a few other people too that I am sorry I couldn't afford to include in this post. But if any of you happen to read this in the future, do know that my thoughts are always with you guys.
As I bid goodbye for the last time to this amazing country and the even more beautiful people that I have met, I can still take heart in knowing that more than just photographs, I have also collected a wealth of memory. No matter how difficult it was to turn my back on this journey, I was still glad that I had taken the chance and learned so much from it.
And here is my last lesson number five: The best way to find yourself again is to get lost.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
- Anthony Bourdain