My ’48-hour cure’ for culture shock

img_2227.jpgThe best travel advice I’ve ever gotten from a seasoned traveller was: “You don’t have to like it.”

At the time, I laughed politely, not really understanding what she meant, but my partner and I have been traveling for nearly four weeks, spending time in New York, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Berkeley, Seoul, and now Taichung, and I think I get it now.

On this trip, I have never fallen in love at first sight with a new place. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite: I have instant buyers’ remorse. I’m convinced that we’ve chosen a terrible place to stay, that we won’t be able to find something to eat close by, and that we’ll definitely never be able to relax. Yet, talk to me 48 hours later and I will be raving about our perfectly located, incredibly cozy accommodations, and about the places we’ve eaten and have loved so much we have to go back, and generally about feeling completely chilled out.

At first, this mood swinging made me question whether I actually loved travel. How can I be so excited by the idea of exploring a new place and then so paralyzed with anxiety when I first encounter it? And after some reflection, I’ve decided (possibly too charitably) that my initial panic is a side effect of being an intensely curious and highly visual person. When everything is brand new, it is just too much to take in; my brain short circuits, and I start wishing ardently for the familiarity of home.

I was this way on the West Coast of the United States, so you can imagine that Taiwan hit me with extra force.

It started out fine: the UBus from Taipei airport was easy and luxurious compared to American equivalents. The lush green landscape flew by, hazy edges of mountaintops rose and fell, and we enjoyed the air-conditioned quiet. Two hours later, however, we emerged into the blasting heat to discover that our destination, ‘Chaoma station,’ was just a bus stop on a busy road where all the signs were in Mandarin.

After a few creatively improvised “conversations” (a combination of Google translate and screenshots of maps to our hostel) we made it to another location and what we believed was our bus… except that we didn’t have a payment card or exact change for the fare. A woman who spoke English as translator and said the bus driver would let us go. We thanked her profusely, but when she asked where we were from and where we were going, she said, “Oh, this is the wrong direction!”

She told us to get off with her and hurried us over to a 7-11 to buy transit cards, then explained in detail where we should go to get the bus back in the right direction, how to recognize our stop, and to make sure that we tapped our cards when we got onto the bus and when we got off. This amazing, generous lady then wished us happy travels and went on with her day (I have vowed to pay this kindness forward the next time someone asks me for directions in London or New York).

Naturally, when we made it to the hostel, I was in full-on panic mode — the worst of the journey so far. Was staying in Taichung a good idea? Was travelling for three months too long? I thought achingly of our cozy apartment and our local pub in London.

But I’m writing this 48 hours later.

So today, I can rave about what a calm, cool oasis T-Life hostel is. How the showers are hot and the beds so comfortable. I can tell you about the awesome people we’ve met from all over the world, and the great, cheap meals we’ve had from places right on our street (plus the several we’ve cooked in the lovely kitchen). In general, I am feeling so completely chilled out. Surprise, surprise.

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Learn from my mistakes! A few tips for getting to T-Life Hostel from UBus for the English-only speaking traveller:

  • When you arrive in Taiwan, get an EasyCard (all details on their site)
  • If you are arriving via the UBus stop at Chaoma Station, when you get off the bus, walk for about two minutes in the same direction as your bus was travelling. Look for the long, white, covered structures in the centre of the street. Cross to the opposite side of the street (ie. you want a bus going in the opposite direction from which your UBus came) and wait for any bus between 300 and 310. They announce every stop, and Tung Hai Villa will be the stop right after Tunghai University.

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