Bang Bang–(Surviving)The Yanshui Fireworks Festival

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It’s Saturday night and we have our friends Simon and Tina over for dinner. In between bites of tacos we’re discusing our plans for the rest of the weekend. I have to turn down Simon’s invitation to a pick-up game of ultimate frisbee on Sunday because Kay and I have made tentative plans with some other friends to visit a town north of Kaohsiung in search of a fireworks festival. Tina says she’s been to the festival before, but that she probably doesn’t need to do it again. She also tells us that if we go we’ll need to wear motocycle helmets.

“What for?” I ask. I’d heard very little about the festival and was putting off doing a web search until I knew for sure that we were going, but  certainly didn’t anticipate needing a helmet to attend.

“For protection against the fireworks,” says Tina.

Now I’m confused and thinking about all my previous firework  experiences: numerous Fourth of July celebrations, carnivals, the Minnesota State Fair, the Busan International Fireworks Festival in Korea. I don’t recall needing protective head gear for any of them.

Maybe the Taiwanese have different, more sinister versions of fireworks than what I’m used to. Maybe the festival is a town-wide Roaming Candle war pitting visitors and tourist against the locals. Maybe “fireworks” is an incorrect English translation and the meaning is closer to “gunpowder” or “dynamite.” Who wouldn’t want to visit a Taiwanese dynamite festival?

The next day I do a quick web search and discover that every year on the 15th day after Chinese New Year visitors flock to the town of Yanshui to be repeatedly shot by hundreds of bottle rockets.

The Yanshui Fireworks Festival (widely considered to be one of the most dangerous festivals in the world) stems from a cholera outnreak  in the late 19th century that nearly wiped the small town out. The citizens of Yanshui called upon the Chinese god of war, Guan Dong (also called Guan Di) to help fight the the disease by carrying his statue around town on a palanquin while shooting off  fireworks every step of the way. The epidemic receded and the locals have been paying homage ever since by annually reenacting the pyrotechnic exorcism.

The highlight of the festival revolves around the sporadic lighting of “beehives” –large structures built with wood or steel, laden with thousands of bottle rockets connected to a single intertwined fuse. Once lit, rockets fire in all directions and festival goers donned in motorcycle helmets and coveralls gather around and allow themselves to be pelted.

Positioning the beehive.

Positioning the beehive.

Kay and I decide to visit the festival with some friends, but opt out of being bombarded with fireworks. In fact, of the four people in our group only our friend Jenna (author of the blog Nomad Notions) is brave enough to join the rocket fodder. We hop a train to Tainan City then continue by taxi to Yanshui. We don’t make it more than 5 feet out the car before  hearing the rumble of fireworks in the distance.

The streets are lined with food vendors and local shops have tables set up with scooter helmets, gloves, safety glasses and other rocket protection gear for sale. the air smells like rotten eggs and the entire town is under a heavy blanket of smoke. Dim pulsating lights can be seen flickering through the smoke overhead and groups of people wearing matching coveralls with burn stains are roaming around–no doubt in search of the next beehive explosion.

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We stroll towards the center of town stopping sporadically to sample street food and buy beer. There’s not a lot to do for those uninterested in pyromania, but families still gather for photo ops near a creek littered with glowing ornaments of different sizes, and to send  the occasional prayer lantern floating into the sky. It’s been about two hours since we arrived and we still have yet to witness the lighting of a beehive. We’d gotten word that a large one was set to go off at 10pm, but when that was pushed to 11 (and later, 11:30) we followed others who claimed to have knowledge of one being lit a few blocks away.

Anticipation mounts as the large contraption is rolled into the middle of the street and a fellow who’d clearly been chewing betel-nut all night encourages all the foreigners who want to get blasted by the bottle rockets to be doused with water beforehand to avoid their clothes catching fire. As with many small towns in Asia, the large group of foreigners draw a lot of attention and many of the locals are taking pictures with several expats who have added themes to their protective gear (big shout-out to Captain America).

Waiting for the Beehive to be lit.

Waiting for the Beehive to be lit.

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Participants have water sprayed on them to avoid catching fire.

I snap as many photos as I can then retreat to what Kay and I think is a safe  distance–20-30 yards from the beehive, behind a parked car. They parade the palanquin of Guan Dong around the premises and the crowd quiets as the fuse is lit.

When it starts the first few shoot straight up into the air and rain down sparks onto the entire scene. Then row after row of the rockets fire directly into the crowd, causing those in the front to dance and turn away in an attempt to dampen the force of the barrage. As the fuse travels through the frame the smoke thickens and only long streaks of light left in the wake of the rockets are clearly noticeable. None of them have shot in our direction yet so I rise from the hiding spot (fully exposing my head) to take some photos. By now everyone close to the beehive is hopping around trying to cover the more sensitive areas of their bodies and the entire street looks like an astronaut rave in the middle of a meteor shower.

I whip out my iPhone and begin recording video hoping not to catch a bottle rocket to the face, and a Taiwanese gentleman appears at my side gesturing for me to follow him to a better vantage point. I crouch down and scurry behind him, feeling like a solider scrambling into a foxhole for cover. As he ushers me into a nearby tent (turns out it’s the same tent where they were storing the beehive) two rockets go off near my head and I give up on the recording. I’m way too close. 

 Luckily I end up next to a couple who have gotten ahold of some cardboard and together we hunker down behind it.  After a few minutes the barrage of rockets shifts to a different direction and I’m able to make my way back to the previous shelter behind the car. It’s been ten minutes since they lit the damn thing and it’s still going strong. Some people emerge from the crowd to take a breather and bat out the flames on their clothes before retuning to the onslaught.

When it’s finally over we emerge from our shelter and search for Jenna and some other friends to inspect for injuries. There’s a few burn holes and a mangled umbrella, but no one is hurt and everyone is wearing a wide grin. Beers are drank and we take some time to enjoy the fireworks that are being shot overhead instead of into the crowd.

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Captain America took one for the team.

We watch a couple more beehives explode (one made to look like Sponge Bob and the other shaped like a tea pot) before calling it a night and heading back to Kaohsiung. It’s 1 a.m. but some people are just arriving as the festivities will continue until 4. I’m secure in my decision not to join in on the action, but pledge to partake next year. It’ll be two hours before we make it back home–plenty of time for my ears to stop ringing.

Peace

*Author’s note: If you’d like to read about Jenna’s recount of her experiences on the front lines, you can do so here.

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Formosa First Impressions: Kaohsiung

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There are plenty of cities on this planet that suck and make you vow never to see them again after the first date. There are plenty of cities that suck less once you get to know them a bit and allow them to soothe you into a bittersweet commitment (I’m talking to you, Ko Pha- Ngan). Yeah you might date for a while, but you don’t tell your friends about it. Then there are cities that you plunge into head first and are quickly wooed into a long-term love affair after only a few days together. Suddenly that other hot city you promised never to cheat on is long forgotten and you find yourself making direct comparisons between the two in order to justify the money you’re about to spend going exclusive. Yeah that other place had sexy beaches, but the food this city churns out makes my mouth water from the smell alone. You feel the burn of guilt for a little while, but only until your work visa arrives.

For me Kaohsiung is one of those “love affair” cities. Hanging out on the southwest coast of Taiwan and facing the Taiwan straight, it’s home to about 3 million and receives less rainfall than most other cities in Taiwan–and ideal location to set up shop. Insert me.

It had been 4 days and we’d had about as much rain as we could take in Taipei (not to mention the steep hostel rates) so we decide hop a bus south hoping to find sunshine in Kaohsiung. Luckily we secure a host on Couchsurfing willing to put us up short-term while we search for either more hosts or paid accommodation. We moan about the possibility of paying week-to-week hostel prices, but are prepared to shoulder the costs if need be. After 5 hours we arrive a begin the task of finding our host’s apartment. We make it to within one block of the place, but still manage to spend 45 minutes stranded in confusion, looking for an “orangey looking” building with a semi-circle driveway. It took a troop of Taiwanees women on their way to dinner and a friendly security guard to help us find a building that was not more than 60 yards away from where we stood.

This is where the love affair with Kaohsiung begins to take hold; not from her sunshine or wide boulevards or quirky coffee shops, but from the wealth of generosity her residents (expat and otherwise) bestow upon us newbies.

Our host–we’ll call him Catlard–couldn’t have been a better person to meet just arriving in the city. He offers us a place to crash, shows us around the neighborhood, takes us us out to breakfast, gives us a quick Chinese numbers lesson and sets us up with a pre-paid phone(this is in addition to teaching me poker, something I’m still horrible at). He also introduces us to a few of his friends who are equally helpful in answering questions about the teaching market and providing possible avenues for finding work. You’re the man, Catlard! I try to return the favor(s) by teaching him how to Moonwalk, but somehow I don’t think it compares: He lets us sleep on his living room floor. I teach him the signature dance move of a deceased, loony, mega pop-star. You be the judge.  After 4 nights, Kay and I find a cheap room to rent in central Kaohsiung (from another awesome expat) set about making it the base of operations for finding teaching gigs.

We’re not there 2 nights before meeting yet another friend who tips us off on an teaching position opening up nearby. Within a day Kay is able to secure an interview, and as I type, she’s probably finishing up a lesson demo. Time will tell if it all works out. Meanwhile I’m still in the hunt.

After canvasing some well known teaching websites I head out and get lost while searching for a school I heard is hiring. I pass a mega-department store boasting every designer brand from Gucci to Ferragamo (after walking 3 blocks in the wrong direction) and enjoy the feeling of not really being noticed. I’m sure I stick out in every way possible, yet  no one seems to care. I stroll past small shops and restaurants, a dental clinic and an European looking round-a-bout and no one bats an eye at my presence or tries to fondle my odd looking hair (which happend all the time in Korea). I find the school I’m looking for and am greeted with a look of confusion as I tell the receptionist that I would like to drop off my resume.

“May I ask what country you are from?”

The question doesn’t come as a surprise. Unfortunately there just aren’t enough black Americans/Canadians/South Africans traveling about Taiwan to justify her assuming I’m from an English speaking country. Fair enough. I tell her I’m from the U.S. and she nods in approval and accepts my resume, promising to submit it to the director of the school. Being that this is my first morsel of a job opportunity, I leave feeling like I’ve already got the job.

On the way back I cut past Kaohsiung’s central park. It’s rush hour. People are walking their dogs, middle schoolers frolic and flirt at a busstop an old man rests on a bench sipping a liquor bottle filled with a mysterious green tonic. It’s getting dark and the city begins to put on her make-up of neon lights and flashing billboards. You’re a fly gal and your friends are pretty nice, Kaohsiung. We should hang out for a while.

Peace,

Jay

Formosa First Impressions: Breakfast

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A solid night of sleep does wonders for the senses. When I arrived in Taiwan it was dark, raining and mostly unappealing. The next day however (after realizing that I was in fact, in Taiwan) I wake up amped at the thought of kickstarting my day in a new country.

After paying for the first couple of nights at the hostel we set out for breakfast. The kind lady at the front desk assures us that there is a great place for a traditional Chinese breakfast just around the corner and scribbles out a map on small piece of paper along with our order written in Mandarin to make sure we get the right food. After taking a look at her map I’m skeptical about our chances of  finding the place. It takes us a while (after walking in the complete opposite direction) but eventually we end up in a large 2nd-floor cafeteria lined with food stalls. In front of one stall there’s a long line of diners extending from the cash register to the stairwell at the back of the cafeteria. The whole place is packed with people eating, conversing and taking pictures of their food with smartphones and large DSLR cameras. If this isn’t the place, who the hell cares. One thing I’ve learned about seeking out good food in foreign countries is that if the locals are lining up, follow suit.

We hop in line and I begin scanning the room to see if anyone has noticed the brown gentleman with mop hair and his short female companion who have just entered their popular food haven. No one seems to care. I can’t help but compare the situation to Korea, where it was an everyday occurrence that someone would gasp or sigh or point whenever I’d walk into a local restaurant or market. I played it off as best I could, but it got old pretty quick.

As we approach the counter I notice  a room off to the side with glass walls where food is being prepared by a small platoon of women . Dough is being stretched, cut, sprinkled with sesame seeds, rolled into long buns and tossed into a circular kiln looking device where it sticks to the the outer walls and and begins to cook. My mouth starts to water. I have my Nikon on me, but I decide to simply snap a couple photos with my iphone as I didn’t want to tinker with camera settings and loose my spot in line.

Making  Shao Bing at Fu Hang Dou.

Making Shao Bing at Fu Hang Dou.

Just about everyone is ordering the same thing: A bowl of hot milk-like liquid, the aforementioned  hoagie roll split open and stuffed with what looks like an omelette and a churro, and a some type of tortilla folded together with egg and drizzled with…cheese?

Behind the counter is another platoon of women (I think I saw one male stocking to-go containers in the back) working with assembly line precision taking and preparing orders. We hand our little paper over and make a sign that we would like two of everything.
“Hot or cold,” she asks.
“Uh….hot.”
“Okay. Wait.”

Within moments we have two bowls of the same frothy milk-like substance that everyone else has, but nothing more.
“Is that it?” Kay looks at me as if I know what’s written on our small order slip. We move along to the register with our bowls and proceed to pay. “One six-ta-hee!,” says one woman.
“One fifty?”
“No, no, no. One six-ta-heee!” A second woman joins her and they it together: “One six-ta-ta-ta-heee!”  They both let out a loud chuckle while patting each other on the back. I chuckle as well and hand over $160 Taiwanese dollars.

“That can’t be all we ordered.” Kay is now convinced that, despite having no idea what the lady at the hostel wrote on our little slip , that more food is coming.

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I insist that we have all that we ordered and we find seats along a along a counter in the cafeteria. I take a few sips of the hot liquid. It’s semi sweet, and taste similar to the the Cream-of-Wheat my grandmother used to make. Seconds later the “one six-ta-hee” lady appears and hands us the rest of our order: two hoagie-like breakfast sandwiches. Kay was right. We should’ve waited.

I would later discover (thanks to my homie Google) that our breakfast consisted of  “shao bing” stuffed with a Chinese style doughnut and green omelette. The steamy white liquid turned out to be soy milk.

We gobble down our food and head out down the back stairwell. By now the line has quadrupled in length and its almost noon. I’m stuffed and hoping that Kay won’t mind coming back to the same place tomorrow.

Peace,

Jay

*Author’s Note: If you’re in Taipei and looking to enjoy the same breakfast head to:
Fu Hang Dou Jiang (阜杭豆漿) inside the Hua Shan Market building, 2nd floor.
Take the Blue line MRT to Shandao Temple Exit 5. The Hua Shan building will be on your right.
Breakfast runs from 5:30-1230. Expect to wait in line.

Fu Hang Dao

Fu Hang Dao

Are We There yet?

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Remember the Titans is a good movie. It’s a film showing how, with hard work and perseverance, we can overcome adverse situations to achieve a desired outcome. A fitting movie to watch during a delayed 4-hour flight from Tokyo to Taipei. I liken myself to the film’s main character, Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) after sitting for 45 minutes on the tarmac waiting to be cleared for departure  No, I’m not coaching a racially torn football team to a state championship, but I am hungry, suffering from severe gas and sitting in the middle seat of the center row of a packed, hot airplane. As far I’m was concerned our fate’s are linked. Boone needs to find a way to bypass a town’s racial prejudices and pull his team together in preparation for the upcoming season, and I need to survive this last 4 hours without having a panic attack and realeasing a foul stench from the depth of my bowels–both are challenges of great magnitude.

Luckily this is the last leg of a long journey that will drop me back in Asia, on the island nation of Taiwan. I just about cheer when the Japanese flight attendant announces that we have begun our final descent, not unlike the fist pump I wanted to throw in the air after Rev Harris executes a perfect reverse to score the winning touchdown towards the end of the movie. It’s magnificently epic.

We file off the plane and shuffle through customs faster than I anticipated and quickly find our way to the bus station. There’s several companies offering a ride into the city center and as Kay and I stare dreary eyed at the different booths, two men approach us asking where we’re headed. They both appear a bit ragged and I immediately assume they’re taxi drivers looking to make a quick buck on unsuspecting foreigners. I turn around prepared to ignore them, but Kay enlists their help and we’re suddenly standing in line waiting for the bus to arrive. The two would-be taxi drivers are from Taiwan and have just returned from a trip in the states. They not only help us find the right gate to stand at for the bus, but also write down the directions to our hostel in Mandarin for us to give to a taxi driver upon arrival in Taipei. And I, feel like a supreme asshole. I remind myself that Taiwan is a different country with different people than the lot that I sometimes dealt with while bouncing around SE Asia. We haven’t been in country for more than an hour and I’m already thinking people are trying to get over on us. Lesson learned.

It’s after midnight and raining when we finally arrive in. I have just enough energy to lug my pack and other belongings from the taxi and into the tiny elevator, up to the 6th floor Taipei hostel. We have no plans for the next day, except to maybe do some exploring and contact a few Couchsurfing hosts. I’m wet, cold and tired, but I’ve made it. I don’t have a football to hold above my head signaling victory over my opponent, but I am grinning as pull the blanket to my chin in our tiny closet of a hotel room. Denzel would be proud.

Peace,

Jay