What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

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

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

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

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience