At the foot of the metro escalator a woman thoroughly sanitizes the handrail. At any other time this would seem an excessive chore, but as Coronavirus spreads from mainland China into nearby Asian countries and beyond, this is considered a precaution.
Over a year ago Carl and I had begun planning for the trip we’re on now — A three-continent, 10-country trip. We put in for a leave from work, arranged flights and lodging, and just a few weeks before our departure from Pittsburgh into Taiwan, Coronavirus became one of the biggest news stories, with updated figures reported on each day.
Conversations with family and friends often involved an awkward segway of “ok, so we have to mention..” and while no cases had been reported in the state of Pennsylvania, pharmacies across Pittsburgh were sold out of surgical face masks. Fear had spread from Wuhan into our neighborhood thousands of miles away. Our dentist, who Carl had seen the week before we left, was kind enough to offer us 4 masks for our travels. This was amazingly helpful, given that the first four countries we were traveling to, Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore, were all hit by the virus and had mask shortages of their own to contend with.
At the time of our departure the total number of reported cases between those four countries was less than 100, with 13 of those in Taiwan. As I write this now, three weeks into travel, Taiwan has 26 cases in total – a small bump compared to other countries like Japan or South Korea. Taiwan’s population is 24 million, making the likelihood of running into someone with the virus on the street very very low, but with the media releasing graphs each day displaying newly reported cases, each update feels weighted. A scarlet number 13 which we carry with us from sight to sight.
Leaving Pittsburgh, everything was business as usual. We spot a lone traveler wearing a mask going through security, but see no other signs of alarm. During our layover in Chicago the number of travelers wearing masks rises, but wouldn’t appear out of the ordinary. Almost everyone who is wearing a mask is Asian. Landing in Tokyo’s Narita airport for our final layover, travelers who are sans mask are the outlier. Between airports, mask wearers went from <.1% to 5% to 90%.
As we walk towards customs in Taipei, our temperature is taken. Our Uber driver is masked up. In the morning, we see a queue formed at 8am outside of a pharmacy. They stand single file and stretch down the block. Masks, they are queuing for masks. With supplies being so limited, you wait in a line or go without. Or in our case, you sterilize the masks you have by steaming them in a pot in your Airbnb apartment.
Pharmacies have a strict 200-per-day limit on the number of masks they can sell. Individuals can purchase up to 2 masks for themselves per week, and can purchase masks for one other person at a time (providing the National Insurance Card for the other party). We see long lines throughout the week long before stores open, and with crowds easily reaching over 50, we understand that those towards the end of the line will likely go home empty handed, to try again the next day.
I realize this may sound bleak, but I want to assure readers that Carl and I are having a wonderful trip. We’re eating in night markets, taking day tours, using public transit, and going to major sights and festivals. Coronavirus isn’t dictating our day-to-day, but it is serving as a backdrop for our travels. Its presence is often felt, but businesses are open, people are on the streets and tourism continues. I simply seek to record what it means to travel throughout Asia during an outbreak. In many ways our experience of these places is not the one most will have. After all, how many people when on vacation will walk past a pharmacy that has a paper taped onto its door, translated across several languages, stating “Sold out of masks and alcohol”.
Our temperature is taken entering the National Palace Museum and Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. Both heavily visited, should you go maskless and cough in the crowd it will startle those around you. So quick everyone is to label someone as infected when a sneeze is let out. And because the masks partially obscure the face, a layer of anonymity is added, making passersby all appear as a single herd. United in distrust of one another. To become identifiable, to become an individual, is to become vulnerable to glances.
Protecting yourself is a courtesy to others – should you sneeze or cough you’re keeping your germs only to yourself. We spot some, the hardcore, wearing two masks at a time. A single mask is uncomfortable enough, restricting airflow and making itches impossible to scratch. One man we see on the MRT who’s doubled up is constantly adjusting the straps of his masks. He looks miserable. The fear with this one is strong.
Mume is a Michelin starred restaurant in the Da’an neighborhood we’re staying in, offering only a set menu and two possible seating times throughout the evening, as well as a hefty price tag and hard to snag tables. However, we’re able to book a table less than 48 hours prior to our reservation time.
Upon arrival for dinner we enter into a chic space of gray concrete. Above our heads is an intricate chandelier of knotted rope tying the bulbs together. It’s one of the most posh places I’ve dined, but before we can pass the bar to be seated at our table we have our temperature taken and are given mandatory hand sanitizer.
As our server gives us a detailed rundown of the menu I strain to hear what she’s saying. Words are muffled beneath her mask (all employees wear one), but I nod enthusiastically at what she says, comforted in knowing the menu is set and few decisions are needed from me.
The food is skillfully prepared, with amazing flavors, textures and presentation, but having a “temperature before tartare” requirement is certainly a different tone to set before a meal.
With so much weight given to respiratory hygiene and the wearing of face masks, hand hygiene must be mentioned. Keeping hands clean is one of the topmost ways to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. In short, try not to breathe in the virus or eat it. Luckily, Taipei has incredibly easy access to restrooms. Every MRT (subway) station provides free and clean public restrooms. The idea of relying on public restrooms in New York or Philadelphia to keep clean seems an impossible task, but Taipei manages to keep stalls pristine in each station and some are even equipped with a light board signaling just which stalls are available, or currently occupied.
With this much dedication to cleanliness, as well as each restaurant/cafe/teahouse we enter providing hand sanitizer at the check in counter, I can see how Taiwan’s infection rate has remained almost static since January.
The virus rears up in unexpected ways though. On our Taroko Gorge tour outside of Hualien City, there are only two other participants, two students from Belgium. One is abroad for school, while her friend is visiting. They sit in the back of the tour van speaking in Flemish, and while I cannot follow their conversation in the slightest, I can pick up that they’re saying f*** a hell of a lot.
When we have time to talk during lunch, we learn that the departing flight for one of our Belgian friends has been cancelled, due to their layover in Milan. Just that day Italy began banning flights from mainland China and Hong Kong, and while Taiwan is an island with only a dozen cases, it made it onto Italy’s banned list as well, being a Republic of China. There are still plenty of flights leaving from Taiwan that she can hop onto, but with the budget of a student it won’t be cheap finding a way out. She was due to leave the next day.
Having left the country, I cannot say how Taiwan will continue to handle the containment of Coronavirus. I can say that having been there, albeit briefly, there is a fear that at times can be palpable, but this causes residents to take precautions. Many stay at home on their couch. As our bartender at Zhang Men Brewing told us on a night of mostly empty tables, “If you were here a few weeks ago this place would have been packed”. I hope it will be again soon.