With 20 minutes to go, I was getting a little nervous. Having recently cycled from the UK to Singapore, I was full of confidence and had jumped onto a plane at Bangkok without so much as thinking about getting a visa for my destination, Taiwan. The worst they could do was turn me round and send me back and with no money, I reasoned it couldn't be at my expense. Being unprepared couldn't possibly be advantageous, but I didn't care.
As the plane docked, the adrenalin was flowing through my veins. I was enjoying it, not exactly daredevil stuff, but not knowing what would happen made things more interesting. I took my time getting my things together. I never saw the point in standing up for five minutes waiting for the doors to be opened and then for the people in front of you to disembark. Far better to relax and then walk to the front of the aircraft at a comfortable pace. When the crowd thinned, I got my bags together and found a stray package under the seat in front of me. This was less than a year after 9-11 and we all know what we're supposed to do with unattended luggage. The occupant, along with almost everyone else, was long gone. It was a carrier bag with what appeared to be a box of 200 duty free Marlboro cigarettes. Nothing personal or really valuable that I would feel compelled to find the owner of. Theoretically, it could be a bomb, or even elaborately packaged contraband, I supposed. The rule book says play it safe. Sod it, I thought. If they are cigarettes, they're well within the duty free limit and I can sell them in Taipei, although I had no idea what they were worth before or after duty. If I get blown up, I probably won't know much about it. And if it's something else, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
I made my way to passport control, hoping that a. they let me in, b. I didn't get blown up and c. I wasn't an unsuspecting drugs mule. "May I see your passport please, sir?"
"Here you are," I replied, unaware if I even needed a visa.
"Do you have a visa for The Republic of China, sir?" I was just about well informed enough to know that The Republic of China referred to Taiwan, not China.
"No. Do I need one?"
"How long are you planning to stay?"
"...er, I'm not sure. Maybe two or three months."
"And what do you intend to do in The Republic of China?"
"I thought I might teach English," I replied casually.
"I can give you a one week landing visa. If you want to stay longer than that, you will have to leave the country and apply for a visa at one of our overseas missions."
That was better than being turned round and put on a plane immediately, so I was happy. I could find a place to stay, work out what I was doing in Taiwan and then spend more money that I didn't have on a weekend trip to Bangkok. It could be worse. Thus began my totally unplanned 9 years in Taiwan.
Convenience is a watchword in Taiwan. I collected my bags and my bike, walked through arrivals hoping my duty free didn't set off any alarms, glanced around and then walked the few metres to the ticket office for the buses that waited just outside.
"Where would you like to go, sir?" the attractive young lady asked.
"Taipei?" I said tentatively.
"And where would you like to get off?" she continued.
"I'm not sure, I replied. "I need a cheap hotel."
"Taipei Main Station is the best. The driver will tell you when to get off."
I paid the money, thanked her - as yet unable to do it in anything other than English, picked up a few tourist leaflets and stepped through the automatic doors. The tropical heat hit me hard in the face. I breathed deeply and felt the warm, moist air filling my lungs, a stark contrast to the cold, dry air inside the terminal building.
It was immediately clear which bus to get on. The driver checked my ticket, helped me place my still boxed bike in the luggage compartment and I boarded the bus.
I sat on my own, about three quarters of the way down the bus and began to glean what I could from the tourist literature I had picked up. As I was reading, I noticed a girl in her late twenties or early thirties sitting on the opposite side of the bus. With everything to learn, I tried to appear approachable, while not making any particular effort to strike up a conversation.
It wasn't long before she took the lead. "You're new here, aren't you?" Clearly she was not.
"Yes," I replied. "I've just arrived from Thailand." Then, as now, I didn't want the story of my cycling expedition to immediately dominate the conversation. She gave me her card and recommended that I get one made as soon as possible after getting a phone. She told me that I should be able to find work quite easily and that the website tealit.com was a good place to start for most expat things in Taiwan. When the time came to disembark, she said to stay in touch, and wished me luck with my adventures.
It was a few days later when she emailed me to let me know that a room had come up in her rooftop apartment for one month, while its English occupant went for a boozy month watching the world cup in Bangkok. I accepted the offer and moved in within days, making friends that I'd know for all of my time in Taiwan and the Englishman, back in the UK too. It was only later that I discovered that she'd described me to them as "kinda green, fresh off the boat". Having passed through approximately 20 countries en route, I wasn't too bothered!