Associate Editor Jim Weitz

The Pandemic Letters: Trapped in Taiwan

Associate Editor Jim Weitz has edited and compiled a series of interviews and first-person accounts of travelers trapped overseas by quarantine protocols associated with the pandemic caused by the CCP Virus (COVID 19). Below is his personal account.

I’m a novelist and travel writer. My particular genre of travel writing is literary tourism: articles covering both popular tourist locations and books that are set in those locations. This means I live out of hostels and guesthouses as I jump from place to place around Asia. But Saigon is kind of my base, the place to read the next book and plan the next trip, which this time was going to mirror Norman Lewis’s amazing travels in “A Dragon Apparent” through south Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Then the Wuhan Virus ruined everything.

In early March, the news was worrisome, especially for travelers in third world countries with sub-par medical systems in the kinds of far-flung places Lewis liked to visit. I decided to wait it out in Saigon, and while I was waiting I started reading reports about Taiwan’s success fighting the virus. Having lived and worked in Taipei several years earlier, I figured I could visit some friends there, maybe get an article or two written, also get to South Korea and Japan where the virus was mostly under control and write some articles there too, then later come back to southeast Asia. So, on March 17th, I booked a ticket for Taipei leaving the next afternoon.

The airport on the 18th was eerily empty. But the procedure was routine: A polite young woman behind the check-in desk took my passport and asked me how many bags I was checking, where I was going, whether I had any prohibited items in my luggage, etc. But as she was inputting my information, she looked up and said, “You must quarantine, sir.”

I wasn’t sure whether I heard her right. Quarantine? Where? When? How long?

“You will have to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in Taipei, sir.”


“The Taiwanese government has announced it today.”

An American man at the check-in desk next to mine had gotten the same news. We quickly searched the internet and found announcements on the Taiwanese government’s CDC website, in both English and Chinese, that said quarantine measures would not begin until the 19th, which would be the next day. We showed this to the staff behind the desks, who ignored it as they handed us papers to sign that said we understood that we would need to quarantine. Then we did one of the things that Americans are known for in some parts of Asia: we started a pointless argument.

“We are just giving you the information we have, sir.”

“It must be mistaken. You see, here it says quarantine begins on the 19th.”

“We can only give you the information we have, sir.”

“Could the information be wrong?”

“This is the only information we have, sir.”

I considered whether to stay in Vietnam or head on to Taiwan, even if maybe it meant a mandatory two-week quarantine. Where exactly would I stay? I had a reservation for a single room for a few nights in a hostel in Taipei. It was known mainly by word of mouth between travelers. I knew the woman who ran the place, and being low-season I was pretty sure I’d be able to stay there for the full two weeks, if need be.

I went ahead and checked my bags, went through security, and then, while standing in line for my exit stamp, a text announcement buzzed on my mobile screen from the hostel owner in Taipei: “Please don’t come to stay here go to Hotel better sorry.”

I stared at the message. This woman who had known me for years as a regular guest was suddenly cancelling a reservation because … because why exactly?

At the gate the plane was delayed two or three hours due to a blown tire. It had been scheduled to arrive in Taipei at 10:20 PM. But now we’d likely be arriving in the wee hours of the 19th. Someone told me it was the date of departure not arrival that was used to determine quarantine and whether foreigners would be allowed to enter the country after the 18th. Nothing was adding up. I texted a friend in Taipei, who responded: “James tomorrow no more flights from Nam to here, and YES will have to go into quarantine On the news now – 23 new cases from overseas travelers in Taiwan JUST today.”

I was probably going to need a place to stay for two weeks. The day before, the hostel owner had asked me to wear a mask and a disposable plastic poncho on the airplane to minimize the risk of infection. Perhaps a picture of how goofy I looked after faithfully following instructions might evoke some sympathy.


I got another message, the gist of which was “you stay on first floor, no come visit me.”

On the flight I sat next to a middle-aged Han Chinese man whom I assumed was Taiwanese. He told me he was from Malaysia. Oh, Malaysia! I explained I had just been there last year writing about Anthony Burgess’s first novels, The Malayan Trilogy, and Carl Hoffman’s The Last Wild Men of Borneo. Borneo was beautiful and Penang was a charming old place. Indeed, my editor had told me I should move to Penang because lots of writers were moving there. But, I had also been to Kota Bahru, a city of 300,000 that lacked a movie theater because the government believed it was immoral to allow men and women to sit close together in the dark. And there was no place to buy alcohol except for a Chinese-run bar/restaurant, where it was illegal for Muslims to enter. It certainly seemed like a country of contrasts. He responded by telling me about how when he was young, he had tried to get an education license to open a private Chinese (student not language) school. The bureaucrat in charge said no and pointed to his skin. “Too dark,” he had told him. (The man beside me was a fairly dark-skinned Han Chinese man, but the indigenous Malay Muslims are usually darker. I interpreted the bureaucrat’s comment as petty racial retribution.) He explained to me that Chinese were not allowed to start new private schools and could not get construction permits to add buildings on their campuses, even when paying with their own money. Forty years earlier there was about an even balance of Chinese and Muslims in the population, he said, but now there were about twice as many Muslims because of different birth rates, laws prohibiting those born Muslim to convert to other religions, and because Chinese were emigrating for work and education. He himself had moved to Taiwan for work as an engineer.

The plane arrived after midnight on the 19th. As far as I could tell, the date wouldn’t really have mattered one way or another. The government would have done whatever it wanted. We were all instructed to line up and register for quarantine. If any passenger was contagious, waiting together in a long hallway for two and a half hours was probably the most effective way to ensure community spread. Once at the registration desk, I had to give a phone number, so I wrote the number of the hostel owner. The man who was processing my registration called her and she confirmed that I would quarantine in “a private room she was renting to me just as a friend”, but she wanted to know if I could move to a hotel the next day. “Yes,” the man said. He waved me along and I went through immigration. The entry stamp on my passport read the 18th, even though it was already well past 3:00 AM on the 19th.

As inconvenient as my situation was, I felt lucky compared to a British man I befriended while in line. He had just finished a two-week quarantine in Saigon after leaving Hong Kong, which had no direct flights back to Taiwan, where his Taiwanese wife was waiting for him, after he had been deported a year earlier for illegally tutoring a few students on the side, even though he had a work visa and a full-time job.

It was around 4:30 in the morning when I finally arrived at the hostel. The door to my room was open and the keys were on the bed. The room had a bathroom but no kitchen or refrigerator; it was on ground-level with a window that faced a busy alley. My options for food would be delivery fare, unless I was kicked out to a hotel with room service.

The next day, the hostel owner tried to follow through with her plan. She had set up a room for me in a hotel down the street, but, despite what she was told on the phone the night before, the government was not sure whether they would allow me to break quarantine for the few minutes of travel it would take to get there. They would need to approve a vehicle for the purpose, and it would need to be disinfected after use. She was going to let me stay a second night while the bureaucracy had a think. And as this was all happening, she did something that probably did not help her cause. She decided to make a trip of several miles to some popular hot springs on the outskirts of city, carrying her phone with her, whose number was registered to me, and whose signal was being broadcast 24/7 to a computer at the local police station. The system at the station suddenly began flashing red, alerting that I was bathing in a crowded public bath in the mountains. Or so it was explained to me by the two confused officers who appeared at my door. No, no, I told them that I had definitely been in the room continually the entire day, and moreover I had registered my new Taiwan SIM card by calling a government department at a number that had been provided to me at the airport. But that government department apparently had not notified them. The police also got word from their station that my landlady had been reached and was telling the same story. They seemed to consider it a plausible explanation, and I was given an oral warning.

The next day the government declined to allow me to move, which left the landlady no choice but to let me stay. But she turned out not too bad after all, picking up some decent food for me here and there. On the third day the police called but I had only gotten the vibrate function on my phone to work, so I missed the call. Only nine minutes passed before I noticed and called them back, but the police were already on their way again. From then on the police called daily. I’m no good navigating my smart phone settings, but I finally found the right one for the ringer, which was a good thing. Inconveniencing the police a third time would have meant a fine and probably a permanent record.

The actual quarantine was not too bad. I read some books. I had the internet. The hostel’s TV worked for five days. I spent some time marketing my own book. I also exercised pretty regularly, pacing back and forth 75 minutes each day. And with the quality of delivery food being very low, I lost a good 8 pounds.

I had to handwash all my clothes and hang them inside. They took forever to dry. With twelve hours left in my quarantine, a friend came by my room and walked a couple of my shirts four yards around the corner of the building to hang on my side window so I’d have clean, dry clothes the next day. A neighbor called my landlady and said she had seen me outside and had taken a photo and was considering calling the police. I explained it was just my friend. Turned out she had only taken a photo of my shirts and had just guessed I had hung them there. I kept my quarantine the full two weeks.


About the interviewer:
James Weitz is a satirist and author of a novel, Gonzo Global Inc., a satire of globalization in which Mexican tap water is exported to the United States and sold as a laxative. He has lived in Asia and Latin America for most of the previous 15 years. During that time, Weitz has worked as a technical editor and taught ESL, composition and law at schools and universities in Latin America, China and Taiwan. Previously he worked in the Latin American and Caribbean region of the World Bank and on anti-corruption issues at the Organisation of American States. His stories have appeared in the journals Red Savina Review, and Pennyshorts. Jim Weitz has a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics with a focus on cross-cultural communication from Nottingham University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Minnesota. He also contributes articles to O:JA&L on Literary Tourism associated with the Western Pacific region.

Image 1: Flag of the Chinese Republic (Taiwan). Public domain.

Image 2, 3, 4: Courtesy of Jim Weitz.