Taiwan, the Pandemic, & Tea

Taiwan Marga Ortigas Places

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You can tell a lot about a people in the way they handle adversity. And what bigger challenge has there been lately than a pandemic managed by countries unilaterally instead of collectively, and a shrinking global economy driven further into doldrums by an unexpectedly protracted war in Eastern Europe?

New arrivals in Taiwan waiting in line at the airport to hand over saliva samples for COVID testing.

WELCOME TO TAIWAN: Please Stand Back

Landing in Taiwan in the midst of all this has been an experience. It’s been lauded globally for its effective response to the pandemic. And now, as most countries are opening up to travel and transitioning to ‘living with COVID’, not quite the Beautiful Isle. The minute you step out of the plane, you are met by people wearing full PPE (personal protective equipment). They’re all eager to help, but the whole arrival process proved rather tedious.

photography of man in building

To the left, to the left

Those of us on a flight from Manila were made to go through a security check before we could get further into the terminal. No one else seemed to receive this, ahem, privilege. Off to one side, a man in full PPE held up a sign in Tagalog waiting for Filipino migrant workers to deplane — all of whom were also made to wear full PPE before embarking in Manila. Each group of Filipino migrants wore distinct matching ‘suits’, as if to identify them as a unit. The Taiwanese airport chap shepherded them aside, addressing them, surprisingly, in their native language.

Once past the special security check for those of us arriving from Manila, we were made to join a queue for foreigners needing to buy a local SIM card before filling up the necessary health declaration form. Fortunately, I had been told about this before the trip and brought a spare phone so I wouldn’t have to give up my original mobile number. I had also filled out the form before departure hoping this would speed things along.

No Way, Jose

Apparently, I needn’t have bothered. The filled out form was not valid unless I had listed a local number. Which of course I did not yet have at the time. Well, wouldn’t you know it: when my turn came at the phone counter, the battery on my spare mobile unit had died. So, I had to wait while the guy at the counter very graciously charged my spare phone enough for it to receive texts from the local health authorities and be used to scan a QR code that would identify me while I was being processed for mandatory quarantine.

Testing, Test Kit, Coronavirus, Covid

The now familiar pieces of a COVID19 self-test kit.

Check One

After the local SIM and certification is obtained, we each had to speak to a health officer who explained the 3-day quarantine requirement and handed us 2 boxes of COVID test kits — a luxury in a place running low on supply due to public hoarding and panic buying. We were also handed small plastic containers and a printed form with our details to be handed to health officers upon exit.

Check Two

Then, it was finally on to Immigration, where once I got to the counter, an officer told me to step out of the line and fill in another form I supposedly needed. Naturally, I complied.

When I rejoined the line, it had doubled in size and I was now at the airport almost as long as the flight time from Manila to Taipei. (2 and a bit hours, in case you were wondering.)

orange and yellow flag on top of building

Immigration: Take Two

Guess what? When I got to the front of the queue again, a new immigration officer gave me back the form I had been told to fill up: “You don’t need this,” she said, being — helpful.

After immigration, it was finally time to get my luggage, which at this point was lying on a stationary conveyor belt.

Home free?

Not yet.

Once past Customs, we had to leave our suitcases aside and walk out of the airport terminal to some side street where temporary booths were set up to collect saliva samples for a COVID RT-PCR test.

Only after that did we get a big blue QUARANTINE sticker put on our sleeves before being shown where to take designated taxis to our places of accommodation. Right after my mobile was scanned by the transport officer, the battery gave out. And just as I was about to get into the cab, another health officer indicated I should first stand still and hold my arms up to the side. Next thing I know, I am being doused with alcohol from 2 rather hefty spray bottles. My clothing was drenched when I finally got into the cab on my way to the hotel.

city skyline during night time


Evening was now falling over Taiwan. I was exhausted from what was meant to be a short travel day turned into an airport arrival saga. It was a Wednesday and I so looked forward to being “set free” by the weekend — only to reach my abode and be told that this was technically Day 0 of the 3-day quarantine period. DAY 1 would officially begin the following morning!

airliner in airport during rainy season

Manila international airport.

Quarantine vs Quarantine

When I flew into Manila last year during the mandatory 5-day hotel-stay quarantine period, arrival day counted as Day 1 — even if you landed at night. Then, if you were willing to pay a premium, you could get a “fast-tracked” COVID test, which had a health worker come to swab you at midnight on the eve of the 5th day, and your results were released before 6AM, so if you tested negative, you could check out of the hotel before cut-off time would have you pay for a a full – exorbitant – 5-day stay! Manila. Short cuts. What can I say?

tea people neon signage

From SHORT CUTS to Boba tea

But things seem more deliberate in Taiwan. I am officially on DAY 2 now. I’ve been fed yummy Taiwanese street meals, bowls of fruit, and endless cups of boba tea. Every day — on my new local number — I get a call or a text from the island’s health authorities — to confirm that I have stayed where I’m meant to and that I haven’t fallen ill. They’re always courteous and speak to me in English. One day to go. I haven’t left my room and I’ve already picked up that people here will take the time they feel necessary to do things properly. When they offer to help you with something, they will accomplish it. And when they ask that you respect their regulations, it’s only right that you do so.

red and brown hanging decors on green concrete wall during daytime

Hello, Taiwan

I have never had a problem staying in — it gives me a chance to write and work. But I can’t wait to see what lies beyond my limited quarantine view of one of the last places in the world that still imposes such COVID regulations. It also happens to be one of the strongest democracies.

lighted red lanterns

It’s going to be an interesting stay.


About the Author:
Marga Ortigas is a bestselling author and podcaster who spent 3 decades as a journalist,  working for CNN International and Al Jazeera. Her novel The House on Calle Sombra was published by Penguin Random House SEA in December 2021.

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  1. Wow what an experience huh!? I’m afraid to travel anywhere outside the Philippines after hearing similar stories from family and friends haha! Enjoy your stay in Taipei!

    1. It has been interesting for sure. And thank you! Stay safe and well 🙂

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