Monday, April 02, 2012

Taipei and the case of the false ceiling

When people who haven't travelled much ask me about my travel experiences, for some reason they often expect me to have terrible tales of missed flights, lost luggage, pickpockets, stolen cameras, nights out in the rain and who knows what else. The simple fact is that travel is mostly safe, most of the time, especially if you employ a bit of common sense. Of course, sometimes you are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that's true of life at home as well.

Touch wood, but in all my flights over the years, and there are dozens and dozens of them (hundreds probably, if I sat down and listed them all), no airline has ever lost my luggage. The closest I've got to that recently is when airport baggage handlers can't be consistent about whether prams and strollers are handled as normal luggage or oversize baggage - every time I try to pick a stroller up after a flight, I think it hasn't shown up but it's either meandering around the carousel on its own while I wait at the oversize baggage counter, or vice versa.

Hall in Chiang Kai Shek Memorial complex, Taipei
 However, every long-term traveller does collect a couple of horror stories, and they probably even get embellished over time to make them more interesting. My favourite takes place in Taiwan, a country I otherwise love, and I must say from the outset, it's entirely possible that the entire situation was an innocent (if strange) misunderstanding. But it makes a good story, so here goes ...

After spending a couple of days outside of Taipei, we arrived back in the capital quite late at night and used our guide book to pick a cheap hotel. We checked in, paid our money (cheap hotels make you pay up front, you know) and went up to our room to collapse. My boyfriend at the time was slightly less exhausted than me and decided to take a shower, while I lay straight down on the bed. A short time later I heard an exclamation that I recognised as meaning trouble. He used the same tone of voice as the time when we were in Karijini Gorge in the north-west of Australia and he'd seen several leeches crawling on my skin. I jumped up, suddenly wide awake.

Lungshan Temple, Taipei
This time, in the tiny Taipei hotel room, there were no leeches. Instead, in a modular kind of false ceiling in the bathroom, there was a little gap. He had seen some paper hanging down and had investigated. What he revealed were several packages of powder, wrapped in plastic and then (badly) wrapped in paper.

Hmm. Mysterious packages of powder in the ceiling. What to do.

After a few moments of stress and brainstorming we decided to go down to the front counter and ask the guy there to call the police. It may have been the fault of too many crime shows but we were convinced that if we said nothing it would be some kind of set-up and we'd be "discovered" in the morning with "our stash" and we'd never get back to Japan. The hotel employee went up first of all to have a look and then shocked us a little by simply bringing the parcels with him down to the front desk. He then did indeed call the police, and one of them did a drug test on the powder (it involved jumping around stomping on a small test packet to mix it properly) and labelled it inconclusive. They took our passport details, told us it was probably cleaning powder, and left.

Cleaning powder? Wrapped up and stored in a false ceiling? This seemed more than a little strange. We went back up to our room nonetheless and tried to sleep, since it was around midnight by now. Neither of us could sleep. All kinds of worst case scenarios ran through our heads. We wanted out! We repacked our backpacks, headed downstairs and convinced the guy at the counter to stop playing Solitaire on his computer long enough to give us a refund, and went to spend the night at a fancier hotel instead.

Who knows? Perhaps it was innocent. Perhaps not. I certainly never felt otherwise that Taiwan was in any way unsafe and I'd love to go back and visit there again soon. But I will probably - no, definitely! - be avoiding that particular hotel.


  1. Lol wow, that's crazy! But yeah, better safe than sorry. I'm glad you guys weren't locked up in some crazy Taiwanese jail.

    Btw, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Park is one of my favorite places in Taipei. We always visit when we're back, and it's always more lovely to me than even in my memory.

    1. Weird, hey. Though if I had to get locked up in jail in Asia I think Taiwan would be a preferable and civilised place for it to happen.

      How beautiful that CKS Memorial Park is even better each time than you remember - rarely the case I think - it is definitely a gorgeous area. I'm very keen to go back and take my family to Taiwan. One of the carers at my son's daycare is from Taipei so we talk about it often and she's given me all the tips for cheap airfares from Perth too! Soon?!

  2. I think you did the right thing. The entire time I was reading your post I was thinking about the few episodes of Banged Up Abroad that I have seen...better safe than sorry!


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