Dan wasn’t the only sibling to move overseas for work. My older sister Becky also pulled up stakes and headed east, taking a job as an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Chiayi, Taiwan. So when I graduated from university, I decided to follow in her footsteps and try my luck there as well.

Not long after arriving, I thought it would be fun to take a weekend trip to Taipei. Becky couldn’t join me, so I hopped on a bus and headed to the capital city alone. 

I dozed off along the way, leaving an impressive drool stain on the bus seat. When I finally opened my eyes, it was completely dark outside. I groggily checked my watch, realizing I had underestimated how long it would take to get to Taipei. As a relatively inexperienced traveller, I didn’t relish the idea of arriving in the unfamiliar city after sunset.

Nevertheless, I pulled out my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook and struck out into the night in pursuit of the most affordable hostel I could find. With the English spelling of each street name changing from one intersection to the next, I quickly became hopelessly lost.

Meanwhile, despite my best efforts to blend in, I stuck out like a sore thumb. My backpack still had its airport tags on it. I was carrying a guidebook. And I was sweating like only a Canadian can in the subtropics.

After wandering the side streets for about an hour, I finally stumbled upon the hostel I was looking for. It was the cheapest one listed. I immediately understood why. 

The building was tucked away in the dark recesses of some rank alleyway — a six-storey heap of foreboding doom that looked ready to collapse. It made our university home on Marshall Street look like the Taj Mahal. I shrugged it off. I had lived in a laundry room. How bad could this place be?

That’s when I saw the creepy old man lurking in the shadows by the front entrance. The skeletal figure beckoned me to enter. “Upstairs, upstairs,” he rasped.

“Is this the youth hostel?” I inquired as steadily as I could manage, unable to find any signage that indicated it was indeed legitimate lodging and not somewhere naïve tourists went to get stabbed.

“Yes, yes,” he assured me with a toothy grin, “Upstairs!”

Incredibly, this was all the assurance I needed. 

I entered the open doorway which led to a rickety, wooden staircase. I heaved a sigh of relief when I didn’t feel a knife blade slip between my shoulder blades. Girding myself, I began the climb up, up the stairs on my way down, down to hell. 

Each landing was illuminated by a single, exposed light bulb, keeping the cockroaches just out of sight. Closed doors greeted me at each landing. I assumed they led to rooms filled with the rotting corpses of other foolhardy — and overly frugal — travellers. 

By the time I reached the third landing, the overhead bulb was blown and the stairs ahead of me were engulfed in inky blackness. Finally, my will to live overpowered my penny-pinching personality. It was time to get far, far away from this little hostel of horrors. 

I bolted down the stairs as fast as my legs would carry me. I half expected the walls to start moaning and bleeding at any moment. Bursting through the door, I flew past Skeletor and ran like the wind. 

When I felt like I was a safe enough distance away, I consulted my guidebook once more. With the cheapskate in me temporarily subdued, I ended up choosing a more reputable hostel that cost a few dollars extra a night.

My trip to Taipei taught me important lessons about balance and moderation. Sure, booking a room at a five-star luxury hotel downtown would have been a waste of what little money I had. But my impulse to stay in the cheapest crap-hole imaginable wasn’t the right answer either. 

The Buddhist “Middle Way” reflects this principle, arguing that the path to enlightenment is through moderation, away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. It’s an idea echoed by countless other philosophers and religious thinkers — from Socrates and Confucius to Muhammad and Saint Thomas Aquinas. 

The hostel I ultimately stayed at was cheap enough that I could still save money to spend on doing touristy activities later. But it wasn’t so cheap that I feared for my safety. 

Finding that middle ground in the midst of my cancer treatment was also crucial. To avoid getting sick, I was very strict about limiting my exposure to other people. But I remember my doctor encouraging me to go to a friend’s wedding I was telling him about. I needed to be careful, he told me. But I couldn’t stop living my life completely.

Similarly, my chemo protocol was an exercise of constant adjustments — keeping me in the sweet spot between getting more than my body could handle and enough to keep my rogue white blood cells in check.

Because in life, as in Taipei, it’s all about striking that balance between too much and too little.

Next: Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper