My Taiwan Trip: Adventures in Pandemica 2020
Hi all, so glad you landed here! I’ve been meaning to do a blog post for some time now, and on this date in
April ahem I mean May 2020, I have nothing but time to do so — one of the few upsides to our ongoing stay-home mandate… other than of course the flattening of the curve that we all so anxiously seek. In any case, first up: my February-March trip to visit my son, Julian. Thanks for reading on, and I welcome any comments you may be inclined to leave.
I wasn’t about to miss Julian’s 25th birthday — hadn’t seen him since I first traveled to Taiwan to help him celebrate his 23rd, back in March 2018. It was early January when I first bought my ticket for the March 2020 visit. At the time, there were rumblings in the news about a virus spreading in China, but no indication yet of how deadly serious the matter truly was. I did not have long to wait, and as global attention and concern about Covid-19 contagion began increasing, so did mine.
So I was not surprised on the last day of January when I received an email from Air Canada informing me that the Toronto-Shanghai leg of my trip had been canceled. I called the third-party booker I had used, and they quickly found a replacement flight route for me, albeit one that would require me to leave a day earlier than originally scheduled. And, instead of heading to Shanghai, I would now be hopping on a flight to … Seoul — that’s right, Seoul, South Korea, which even as I was talking to the agent, I already knew was an established and still growing hotspot for the dreaded virus.
I rationalized that upon arrival at the Seoul airport, I could focus on protecting myself by keeping my distance from others during my 2-hour layover, using the travel-size hand sanitizer I had already purchased, and washing my hands as often as needed. The riskier part, I figured, involved the 2-hour flight from Seoul to Taipei — only the luck of the draw would determine how healthy the fellow passengers I’d be sitting near would be.
I didn’t hesitate long, after weighing these factors. I rolled the dice and agreed to the new arrangement.
By early February, I was beginning to worry about the wisdom of my travel plans (he said in his best deadpan). After all, by the end of January, roughly 10,000 Covid-19 cases had already been identified and reported, spanning some 20+ countries. But my scheduled departure date of February 28 was still a ways off, and I decided for the time being to take a wait-and-see approach about canceling my flight altogether.
Mind you, it wasn’t long before my loving wife, Kathy, was suggesting I delay my travel dates — certainly a reasonable mid-February suggestion. But I was still determined not to miss what I considered to be a major birthday for Julian, not after two whole years of not seeing him, and I rejected her gentle attempts to safeguard my health, usually mumbling something along the lines of “well, I hear ya, but I still want to see how things unfold, and if I’m going to cancel my trip, then I might as well wait until the last minute to do so.”
I checked in with Julian and told him I was still weighing the wisdom of the planned visit. He texted back reassurances that Taiwan was very safe, primarily because the government had taken rigorous, early steps to monitor air traffic between Taiwan and China and limit the possibility of incoming virus-bearing passengers from China — both Chinese visitors/tourists, and Taiwanese returning from China. I agreed that the global data I was tracking made Taiwan seem like a pretty safe destination for the time being. Since I was also confident I could stay out of trouble at the Seoul airport for the 2 hours of my layover there, I felt more comfortable with the prospect of venturing forth with the planned trip. Nevertheless, like most people by then, I kept a close eye on the news for any development that might change my mind.
The virus clearly was beginning to spread at an alarming pace as the days of the month ticked by in February. A steadily increasing number of cases were now being reported, mostly out of Asia and several European countries. The first US case was identified in Washington, on January 19. By the end of February, it seemed that the bulk of the cases in the US were still limited to the West Coast states (though today we know that many were already infected — if still officially unidentified — on the East Coast, in particular in New York). I decided the trip was on.
My rationale for proceeding was based on two main thoughts: 1) to avoid exposure while flying and while stuck in airports on layovers, I could profit from my own knowledge of sound public health practices, gained both from my academic background (I have a Master’s in Environmental Health) and from a career spanning 30 years in lead poisoning prevention; and 2) based both on my son’s reassurances and on data coming out of Taiwan, I figured once I arrived there I would be as safe as virtually anywhere else in the world — may be safer than most.
Adventures in Incheon
The flight from DC to Toronto, the first leg of the trip, was uneventful and blissfully short. There I boarded the flight to Seoul. Though it was a long one (more than 13 hours), the plane was not very crowded, and I had no immediate neighbor to be potentially concerned about. Once at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, I took a careful walk around, more or less in isolation as I checked out the airport food vendors. Located upstairs in the terminal, I was surprised at how few food options there were. As I continued my walk, I was also surprised to see not a single reference to this year’s Oscar-winning Best Movie, Parasite — I had been expecting at very least a congratulatory poster or two praising the film, but nope, nada.
In any case, I had a snack at the nearly empty eating area and then proceeded to the gate to wait for the final flight of my trip to Taipei. On my way there, I had to go through security, where I was politely ushered to the side by an official and asked to take a seat while she and two colleagues consulted about … I’m still not sure! After a solid 10 minutes, with me trying not to look nervous but on the inside wondering what the heck was going on, I was finally allowed to proceed by a uniformed official who handed my passport back to me with a casual smile.
I found my gate and a seat by myself, with nobody else within 15-20 feet of me. I stayed in the seating area until the flight took off, confident I had not gotten near a single person (other than airport officials) during my 2-hour layover.
As the dozen or so passengers waited quietly in line to board, none of us too close to the next person, an airline staff person (Eva Airways) used a handheld, infrared thermometer to check everyone’s temperature prior to boarding. Inside the plane, Eva flight crew all wore masks.
There were very few of us on this last leg of my trip. In fact, so few that the flight attendants explained we all needed to sit towards the rear of the plane in order to keep the plane’s weight balanced! I confess I did not know that was a thing.
Taoyuan Airport Procedures
After a short flight, I arrived at Taipei’s international airport, Taoyuan, where I went through not one but three checks before getting through customs. The first two occurred as passengers were making their way towards the passport check booths. First, airport personnel took our temperatures. Then, at a table, all were questioned about where they came from and also asked if they had been in China at any point during the previous 14 days. When my turn came, I answered that I had arrived after a 2-hour layover in South Korea, and my interlocutor showed an immediate, somewhat alarmed reaction. She examined my boarding passes with keen interest for a solid two minutes, then gave me a form to fill out with my contact information during my stay in Taiwan. All good — contact tracing in action!
I was allowed to proceed. and I walked over to a customs official who checked my passport and looked at the form I had just filled out. Some confusion ensued after he saw that the previous official had added a hand-written note on the form, indicating I had come from Seoul. With my passport in hand, he consulted for nearly 5 minutes with two other officials before letting me pass and returning the passport. He also did something I never expected, let alone previously experienced, from a uniformed airport customs official — he apologized for the delay! Wow — a first indeed. But I made it! I was now in Taiwan, and after collecting my suitcase and a quick bathroom break, I was excited to spot Hana and then Julian as I exited the baggage claim area.
My stay in Taiwan was a blast. After hugs befitting two years of us not seeing each other, Julian and Hana accompanied me on a 45-minute-long, middle of the night subway ride to my Taipei hotel, the same one I had stayed at during my 2018 visit — a comfortable, mid-sized hotel, centrally located, and super-convenient to public transport. Upon my arrival, the desk clerk informed me they were currently in the process of cleaning and disinfecting the entire property, floor by floor, and I was given a room on one of the floors where that had already been done. Julian and Hana escorted me to my room, and after making sure I had everything I needed and was satisfied with the room, we made plans for the next day, and we wished each other goodnight. After they left, I unpacked and promptly hit the sack.
As was true in 2018 during my previous visit, I did not feel much jetlag, and I spent a bunch of time with Julian and Hana, re-familiarizing myself with Taipei’s efficient subway system in the process. Many delicious food experiences, good talks, long walks together in Da’an Park, a happy birthday celebration, and a quick visit to Julian and Hana’s cozy apartment to meet their beautiful cat Mila, as well as 2 magnificent solo hikes later, it was time to leave. I was shocked and disappointed at how quickly time had passed, but it had been a great visit. These days I find myself occasionally wondering when the next opportunity will present itself — it sure seems as I write this that the world has now dramatically changed, making such travel increasingly challenging.
Taiwan’s Focus on Public Health
As is now generally acknowledged, Taiwan took what proved to be a model-nation approach to successfully limiting the spread of the virus on its soil, acting early and efficiently on a number of fronts. The steps to limit access to the island from folks traveling from China (and later, for those who had visited China, Hong Kong, or Korea, at any point within the previous 14 days prior to their arrival in Taiwan) were complemented by immediate efforts to ensure contact tracing and by seeking to identify any incoming passengers with a fever. This I experienced first hand.
As passengers on my Seoul flight to Taiwan proceeded from the arrival gate to the passport check area, co-mingled with passengers from other flights (and as I already mentioned above), someone with a hand-held thermometer that provides an instant read-out checked our temperature by holding the instrument 4 inches or so from our foreheads. Next, was a table where each passenger was questioned about where they had come from. When it was my turn, I told them I had arrived from a 2-hour layover at the Seoul airport. I then needed to complete a form, filling in my name, flight number, address, and a phone number where I could be reached during my stay on the island. This way, should I develop symptoms, the health authorities could contact the flight crew and any fellow passengers that may have had to contact with me, and likewise, I could be contacted should any of them develop symptoms. This was on February 29, and presumably, the program had already been in place for a while, maybe even quite a while.
In addition, the government by then was also featuring PSAs on TV, arming its citizens with information on how best to guard their health against the virus, and giving them access to a heavily advertised helpline, should anyone want to contact a public health specialist.
But that’s not all. The government was also deploying subway and bus staff to clean surfaces throughout subway stations and in the buses and trains themselves — daily and often, rinse and repeat. I witnessed it in person every single time I took the subway, mornings, afternoons, and evenings, each day I was there.
Finally, as mentioned to me by Hana (Julian’s girlfriend who has also been teaching English to young students in Taipei since 2017), there was considerable “peer pressure for locals to wear masks” whenever outdoors.
Indeed, a solid 85% of the passersby I’d encounter every day wore a mask, whether on foot, in a bus, on a motorcycle or on a subway, day or night — pretty impressive for a city of some 2.6 million souls.
As the above makes clear, by the end of February Taiwan had already taken multiple steps to:
- Ensure widespread public awareness about the virus
- Repeatedly convey mass media messages about best health protection practices
- Establish a solid contact tracing program
- Involve public transportation staff in a vigorous cleaning campaign and
- Engage active public participation, not only by wearing masks and using good hygiene practices, but also including by such methods as stores and restaurants setting up hand sanitizer stations at their entrances and posting staff there to ensure customers availed themselves of the sanitizer.
I saw banks checking temperatures at the front door before allowing access, with hand-held thermometers that provide instant readouts — something I had never experienced prior to this trip. At a few places, the hand sanitizer was required along with the temperature check.[Interesting tidbit that I don’t believe has gotten much play in the US: Leadership Matters! The President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, is a law professor. She is popular among the people, who re-elected her President for a second term in January 2020. But I suspect the government’s early, aggressive, and multi-faceted approach to Covid-19 was in no small part due to the skills her Vice-President, Chen Chien-jen, brought to the table — he is, after all … an epidemiologist.]
Return Via Japan
I had originally been scheduled to return via Hong Kong. But on March 7, just 4 days prior to my scheduled return trip, I received another notification, this time from Eva Airlines, alerting me that the Taipei-Hong Kong flight had been canceled and notifying me that the only other option I could select that would fit my timetable was a flight to Tokyo. At the time, Japan was evidently considered a safer destination. There, I would endure a 6-hour layover… good times…
My Narita International Airport layover was long but turned out to be an interesting half-day interlude in a near-empty airport. I arrived at about noon, and as these photos show, I was nearly the only passenger strolling through the airport!
Had my first-ever meal in Japan at the airport, a ramen soup chock full of fresh veggies, a soft-boiled egg, and two thin slices of meat — quite filling, and delicious. After that lunch, I took the next couple of hours to carefully examine the various stores selling goodies I would want to bring back to the States. That was an interesting experience in itself, as some of the displays were eye-catching…
In the end, I opted for a lil something to satisfy my forever clamoring sweet tooth, and I brought back enough to see Kathy and me (ok, mostly me) through a month of stay-home chocolate treats! And boy, I can vouch for the fact that Japanese chocolate is truly delicious.
With a hefty chocolate supply under my belt and soon to expand my belt size, after a long trip once again on a plane that was barely half-full, I returned to North America, first landing in Montreal. After yet another, this time nearly 3-hour layover, I finally was headed home, landing at DC’s National Airport, where Kathy was waiting to greet me. So happy to be home after barely sleeping a wink during the previous 24 hours! That was March 11, the very day the World Health Organization chose to declare a global pandemic. Fourteen days later, after practicing self-quarantine and checking my temperature twice daily, I was fine and symptom-free, and we celebrated accordingly. 🥂
- For more pics of this trip, here is my Taiwan Trip Gallery