Travel optimization and other lessons from Taiwan.

In the past few days, Steve and I have been looking back at our three and a half month stay in Taiwan, figuring out what has worked out well, and what mistakes we’ve made that we definitely want to avoid on the rest of this trip. Hindsight can be twenty-twenty, but you have to be willing to look in the rearview mirror, assess your decisions dispassionately, and be candid about where you made the wrong calls. Here’s our attempt at doing that!

Know Your Priorities
People travel for different reasons, and one thing we haven’t done a great job of is really prioritizing our reasons. What Steve and I like best about travel is being able to soak up a particular culture, its idiosyncrasies, and hallmarks. We like to grab a meal on the street and talk endlessly about how you order a meal in China and the endlessly amusing subway jingles in Tokyo. Equally fun is people-watching, like comparing the different school uniforms and bags of Taiwanese high school students. We also want to have plenty of time to read books and plan our own projects (for Steve, websites and games, and for Connie, grad school and social enterprises).

So what does all of this mean? It means our rushed time in Japan was too heavy on the tourist sights, and though we found Kyoto quite interesting and different from Tokyo, our experience may have been better served by staying in one place the whole time. Similarly, if we are to be productive and good at writing multiple drafts of a statement of purpose, or systematically debugging a part of a website, we should prioritize for comfort and spend our time and mental energy on work. Instead, we prioritized for money — we snapped up a 6500 NT/ month (~220 USD) apartment in Kaohsiung, but had to work at meticulously building it up, going to IKEA multiple times to debate over furniture choices. We logged so many trips to Carrefour and other stores, trying to pick up a hot plate and coffeemaker second-hand, that I eventually refused to accompany Steve back to buy ground coffee, citing bad memories from our first week here. Even the smallest errand felt like a monolithic burden to bear, and when we got back, made the rest of the day feel like a wash. The result was a lot of lost days and weeks that sapped our mental strength.

While we were burning up precious time shopping and working on building up possessions that I am just as quickly trying to sell off now, we also had to contend with some other time-eating activities like finding food. Steve and I have some times very opposite preferences on food, especially of the Asian variety. The language barrier also meant that we couldn’t go separate ways very often. Our fledgling familiarity with the local area, my inability to read some of the traditional characters, and Steve’s general embargo on seafood meant often long, aimless-feeling treks around the area looking for a restaurant or café that fulfilled our specifications. Add that to the fact that we often got out of bed late, and you have two hungry, cranky people running around Kaohsiung every day trying to find something that was affordable and nutritious. There was even a two-week spate in early November when we discovered that we were sleeping 12 hours a day, naps included, and Steve suggested that we might have an iron deficiency. I looked online and found that we had not had any iron rich foods (like spinach, lentils, artichokes, beans, or beef) in a week, whereas we used to eat most of those items once a week back in the U.S. After that, we logged several trips to Watson’s, a local pharmacy store, to find multi-vitamin supplements.

How could this have been averted? To be sure, I’m used to cooking Western food, and the lack of some convenient Western staples (an abundance of canned beans) in the local supermarkets would have put a dampener on this either way, but the fact that we had no kitchen and an unwieldy hot plate that needed to be washed out in the bathroom sink made cooking a royal nuisance. We had some success in the beginning when Steve and I focused on making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as well as pasta, but it quickly faded.

The Flexibility Trap
One of the alluring aspects of this trip was its sheer flexibility. We tossed our heads proudly and casually let on to our friends that beyond the plane tickets in booked into Taiwan, we had only a rough sketch of the path that we would take to Southeast Asia and to Europe. We didn’t bother buying a round-the-world trip ticket on one of the main airline alliances, because that would have meant committing to certain cities. Flexibility meant we could choose to travel to another country on a dime, or get out of a city that wasn’t as interesting as we had hoped. We were free to take advice from locals and go wherever the wind swept us.

In theory. In theory, deciding to go to Hong Kong on the spur of the moment is exhilarating. In practice, it means you have to wait on tenterhooks while three Airbnb hosts take turns rejecting your reservation and a fourth costs you $60 USD in booking fees because he neglected to mention that his maid sleeps in the same apartment, so you can’t have the privacy you wanted! Planning on the spur of the moment is costly and annoying. Just don’t do it.

Flexibility also bit us in the behind when it came to doing research. Restricted choices means restricted possibilities; it’s not difficult to optimize for the cheapest and best bang-for-buck choice when you have four or five decent looking hostels in a city. But when you throw more choices into the mix, and remind each other that you can fly instead to Kuala Lampur, Phnom Penh, Singapore, or Bangkok, then the number of apartments, Wikitravel pages, visa-stay restrictions, and currency exchange rates you have to research, compare in your head, and decide between just explodes exponentially. The prime example of this headache-inducing burden was our Christmas vacation, which had many different permutations. We were thinking about Asian destinations like Hong Kong, Seoul, Manila, or Kuala Lampur, which varied greatly in their price and attractions. At one point, we were looking at coming back to the U.S. to Seattle, Hawaii, or Greenville. The trade-offs were simply too many to keep in my head. Even worse, often when I laboriously pare it down to a few worthy choices to show Steve, he may be dissatisfied with them and go back to the drawing board on his own to try to find a better option, so that we double the amount of time we waste. What-ifs provide great daydreams at work, but when you’re on the road, they’re a time-killer.

February and Beyond
What we learned was essentially a very long lesson on willpower and ego depletion. Those articles explain the concept better than I can, but with a finite amount of mental energy and patience to make decisions, we were far better off using those resources on coding or working on crafting a better resumé. We were creating problems for ourselves, by setting up lots of minute, insignificant choices that we needed to deal with on a daily basis, thereby wearing ourselves down when the time came to work on the things that were actually important. Ego depletion is a concept that we were both familiar with, but this was a punishing lesson in exactly how travel and the many, many choices it offers, can kill by a thousand cuts.

So what can we do in the future? I recently read an article on how famous authors prepare themselves for writing. Many have deliberate and ritualized habits, like fulfilling certain amounts of quotas, or waking up at a certain hour. Isabelle Allende, who wrote my much beloved House of the Spirits, begins all her books on January 8, by heading to her office and just starting to write. I also read somewhere that President Obama also starts his day by picking between only two colors of ties, then some exercise, and then heads into work. The point is that by faithfully following a ritualized routine, you don’t have  to make any decisions, like what to wear or what to eat. You conserve more willpower, patience, and presence of mind to work on the more important things. This is a theory, of course, but I think a good one. 

So here’s our conclusion. Heading out of Taiwan in late January, we are going to Thailand and Singapore in February, India, Turkey, and Israel in March, Croatia and Italy in April, and France beginning in May. This deviates from our previous schedule, but in general, we want to stay in countries for more than a week if possible. If we visit multiple cities, we will stay in each city for at least five days, except Italy. We will give ourselves the gift of a slower pace of travel and the chance to really soak in the atmosphere of a country.

Moreover, we’re both committed to making things a little more easy for ourselves, instead of scrimping and saving: direct flights where we need to go, instead of layovers, nicer hostels with soft beds near town center that will make trekking through foreign cities a little easier, apartments with a kitchenette and hopefully a grocery store nearby. We are fully embracing here from now on the principle that a little expense often pays off in a big way, helping us to conserve energy and time, which are our two most precious resources. Though money is very important, it is still the most expendable of the three. And best of all, we’re going to book it all before we leave Kaohsiung! I’ve already reserved two weeks in Croatia at a beautiful apartment just outside Dubrovnik’s Old City, and that one small act makes both Steve and I feel great. Here’s to making many more decisions in the near future to free up our future time for people-watching, coding, and productivity!


2 thoughts on “Travel optimization and other lessons from Taiwan.

  1. This is so great! I’m impressed by your ability to analyze the effects of your own previous decisions. Also I’m a huge believer in decision fatigue – definitely has a major impact on travel, but even in everyday work life as well. And I’m exicted to hear more about your upcoming destinations! I spent a lot of time last night trying to decide whether I could afford to take time off to go skiing this winter and visit a European city that I haven’t seen yet (I want to do both!!), so your list is definitely making me jealous…

    1. It’s obviously been a little while since I wrote this, but I just wanted to report to you that it definitely paid off, and I’m now thinking actively about how to apply this theory. Today, we took a direct flight for ~400 USD for both of us from Chiang Mai to Ko Samui, which could have been less than 200 USD if we had taken a train to the coastal city, then a bus and a ferry, but our travel time would have at least tripled!

      When you know the itinerary is bad enough that half-way through, you’d throw any amount of money at it for it to be over, you should just pick something else that’s easier and costs more. I’m so glad we made this choice, so now we’re just relaxing here! Also, I think I’m going to advocate that we default to meals at our hostel unless we really want to go somewhere else so that we can save our decision-making muscle for something else! =)

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