It should come as no surprise that technology is changing the way we travel in the 21st century. The next big wave of innovation transforming how we travel is in social media. Sites like Couchsurfing.org — a worldwide network of three million wired nomads who offer up their homes (i.e. couches) for free to other members traveling through their city — might sound a bit dicey to some, but if you believe that people from around the world can share fun, trust, and friendship, then this is a great (and cheaper) alternative to hotels. But even if you’re not quite ready to sleep on a stranger’s sofa, social media can still greatly enhance your travel experience, as I learned during a recent trip to Taiwan.
Soon after meeting Diana Lee, the founder of Asian in New York, we became friends on Facebook, through which I learned that she was from Kaohsiung, Taiwan. This happened to be a city I was planning to visit, so I sent Diana a message asking if she had any recommendations about what I should do there. She replied that she had forwarded my name to some of her other Facebook friends who live in Kaohsiung and suggested contacting them upon my arrival. She assured me that they spoke good English and that they would be happy to share their hometown with a New Yorker. Then, within just a few hours, I had two new “friend requests” on Facebook. This introduction proved quite fortuitous. For starters, English is not widely spoken in Kaohsiung, and because I prefer to get off the beaten path when I travel, it would be really helpful to have someone along with local knowledge.
After a successful rendezvous, my newfound friends and I were off to the Liuhe night market, one of the best of its kind in Taiwan. Known mostly for their exotic foods and local dishes, I was encouraged to sample a little bit of everything. Being someone who usually tries anything at least once, they still couldn’t persuade me to eat the snake meat. But the soup dumplings, bawan (pork stuffed in a rice ball and fried), puffed batter cake, and papaya milk were all quite tasty.
Two days later, we met up again and took a ferry over to Chichin Island, a popular day-trip for locals who want to enjoy its long stretch of beach on the South China Sea. We were there for the seafood, however, which is freshly caught every day and cooked up in small street-side restaurants in any style you like. Thanks to my trusty companions, we ordered Szechuan-style crab, squid, and prawns that were served to perfection. On the way back we had to stop for dessert — Taiwan’s famous shaved ice, topped with sweetened beans, jellies, and taro root, and all tied together with some brown sugar syrup and a hit of sweet condensed milk.
Wanting to assure my hosts that I was interested in more than just food, I asked if they would like to accompany me on a trip to the Fo Guang Shan Monastery (which I had read was the largest in Taiwan), 45 minutes outside the city. Not having been there in years, they welcomed the idea enthusiastically. The map that we were given of the monastery’s 74-acres reminded me of something you would get at Disney World, but once we started walking the bamboo-forested grounds and witnessing the 10,000 statues there, it felt like we had traveled back in time to the early dynasty period.
Because I couldn’t completely rely on the generosity of my new friends to get around, I headed solo over to Lotus Lake, a popular tourist destination known for its many temples. Feeling free to embrace my inner tourist, I strolled around the entire perimeter of the man-made lake taking pictures of the Spring and Autumn Pavilions, the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas, and the Confucian Temple from various angles and under different lighting conditions.
On my final night in Taiwan, we all had dinner together one last time and I left feeling great about having made three new real friends, not just digital acquaintances on Facebook. I’m not sure if they’ll ever come to visit me in New York so I can reciprocate their warm hospitality, but meeting Heidi, Karen, and Han will always remind me of the incredible possibilities technology offers us if we simply embrace them.
Rainer Jenss traveled around the world with his wife and two sons and blogged about his experience here on Intelligent Travel. Follow Rainer on Twitter at @JenssTravel.