Taipei: I Want a Do-Over


I was so excited to go to Taiwan.

I’ve only been there once before—for two wonderful weeks back in 2014, right after I finished my dissertation—and was thrilled that my Asia trip this year would conclude in Taipei. I added on a couple of vacation days after the work portion of the trip was schedule to end and started making a list of everything I wanted to do in the city. For weeks before my departure, I told everyone I spoke with how excited I was to return to Taiwan.

I was so excited that when the group had a tight window to transfer not just planes but terminals in Shanghai, I led the race through Pudong Airport, walking as fast as I could while weighed down by a backpack, handbag, and large rolling suitcase.

That was probably how I hurt my back.

I didn’t realize it at first. We made our flight (as it turned out, the plane was delayed anyway) and flew to Taipei. I felt fine the whole way. But later that night, I sat down at the desk in my hotel room to send my parents an email letting them know I’d arrived safely. That done, I went to stand up so I could go to bed … and immediately sat down again, knocked off my feet by the intense spasm that rippled across the muscles of my lower back.

View from my hotel room. I spent a lot of time looking at this intersection.
View from my hotel room. I spent a lot of time looking at this intersection.

That was not what I had planned for Taiwan.

The spasms were still there in the morning, stopping me in my tracks at unexpected moments. The rest of the time I moved at a cautious shuffle, never knowing what subtle shift would tell my muscles to seize up and send a electrical frisson to the pain sensors in my brain. Still, I blindly convinced myself that I just needed to move around and “loosen up”; soon enough, the spasms and pain would go away on their own. Right? I dressed in my work clothes and headed off to the day’s meetings with the rest of the group.

That didn’t go so well.

By the end of the day, having shuffled my way through four meetings and a banquet with a double-digit number of courses (it was delicious, but I spent a lot of the meal checking the menu next to my plate to see how many courses stood between me and my bed), I finally admitted that I was in bad shape. One group member who has had significant back problems of his own advised me on how to treat mine: rest, gentle stretches and exercises, and a patch of traditional Chinese medicine, which he gave me from his stash. And plenty of ibuprofen, unless I wanted to go in search of something stronger. (I didn’t.) I hobbled back to the hotel and (gently) fell into bed.

The view from my hotel room, which I had practically memorized by the end of the trip.
Same intersection. More traffic!

I spent most of the next two days growing increasingly bored in my hotel room as I alternated among sleeping; walking slow laps the length of the room; and lying on the floor doing all the back-focused yoga poses I could remember, while marathoning the “Ask a Clean Person” podcast. Plus Googling “herniated disc” to assure myself that this wasn’t that. Fortunately, the spasms were subsiding, both in quantity and intensity, and I brushed off my boss’s suggestions that I see a doctor; I was pretty sure that I would be fine.

But Taiwan … I was missing Taiwan! As comfortable as my room at the Howard Plaza Hotel was, I had not planned to spend all my Taiwan time cooped up in it. I thought ahead to the two precious vacation days I had added to my trip and started mentally deleting items from my to-do list. Clearly, I wasn’t going to hike up Elephant Mountain. Soaking in the hot springs at Beitou would probably feel great, but I couldn’t handle the metro trip out there. Maybe I could still see a baseball game, although the matches that weekend were being held out in Taoyuan, which required either a short ride on the high-speed rail or a long one by taxi; I kept that possibility on the list for a while longer, but eventually had to admit defeat. I was not going to do anything I had planned in Taiwan.

Tai Yi Milk King, the shaved-ice dessert place I finally got to visit on my last evening in Taipei.
Tai Yi Milk King, the shaved-ice dessert place I finally got to visit on my last evening in Taipei.

So, new plan: the centerpiece of my two vacation days—really, the only major non-work thing I did in Taiwan—was a long, extravagant massage on the afternoon before my flight back to New York. (“Extravagant,” of course, is relative; NT$1650 felt like a fortune to me, but then I did the math and realized I had purchased two hours of luxury for US$50.) I described to the masseuse the problem I had with my back, and she gently but thoroughly went to work on it, kneading away the knots and leaving me finally able to walk at half my normal pace, rather than one-quarter. It wasn’t a cure-all—I still had the occasional spasm if I moved the wrong way—but afterward I felt like I was really going to be okay and could handle the flights back. (And I did, in large part thanks to my boss: she called a contact at the airline and explained the situation, which secured me bulkhead aisle seats on both flights.) I went out for dinner and a Taiwanese shaved-ice dessert—finally, something that was actually on my Taipei to-do list!—and enjoyed the brief chance I had to see more of the city than the view from my hotel room.

So Taiwan was kind of a bust. But in the grand scheme of how trips could go wrong, this was fairly low on the scale—I didn’t actually wind up in the hospital or anything—and a good reminder to be flexible and try to make the most of whatever possible while on the road. A bad day while traveling is better than a good day at home, or something like that.

Hello, Kitty. Remember to practice proper back safety techniques while hauling that suitcase.
Hello, Kitty. Remember to practice proper back safety techniques while hauling that suitcase.

Still … I’d really like a do-over. I feel fine now, and I have a whole Taiwan to-do list that I didn’t get to tackle.

Previously: Beijing, Shanghai, Liaoning. Next: What I Ate in Asia.

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