Taiwan: Walk Hao, or the Power of Two - Theology, wet ladies, political massacres and alimentary delicacies.
We were informed early this week that February 28 is a national holiday. "It's a government mistake," they told us. "They forgot to not make it a holiday any more". Some fifty years ago, a protest that took place on the last day of February resulted in police violence, which escalated into a widespread national massacre of dissenters. Certainly not the kind of event one wants to remember by partying the night before and having a backyard barbecue. But what was done was done, so Dave and I ended up having an unplanned holiday.
The days leading up to it were hardly devoid of interest. On Monday night, Our Host took us out to see more parts of town, including Lungshan temple (one of the oldest traditional buddhist temples in Taipei). It struck me that, despite all the assertions one hears in religion classes that Buddhism is not about praying to the Buddha, the reality about what modern-day everybodies do in a Buddhist temple is surprisingly theistic.
The kneeling and praying in front of the "special" buddhas (one for when you need to pass a test, one for when you seek good financial fortune, one for when you want to have babies, one for when you seek health), the symbollic burning of incense, and the food offerings all are not very distant from lighting a votive to the Virgin of Guadalupe or burning a cow because the smell of burning flesh is pleasing to the Lord. Some of the lanterns where only a donkey and a virgin removed from a Christian nativity scene. Interesting how one may explain certain things theologically and encounter a completely different praxis.
We also went to a night market nearby known affectionately as Snake Alley, but officially called the "Lungshan Tourist Night Market". It is the one night market that has been "prettied up", so to speak, by putting a domed glass roof overhead, lighting looking antiseptic. However, and I think it is very telling, this was the only place in Taipei where I actually felt unsafe, even mildly unclean. I'm not sure if it was due to the endless rows of barkers trying to peddle their snake soup and bile, or the couple of sex toy stores, or the very, ahem, friendly ladies sitting at the food stalls. In any event, the general seedy feel of this emphasized to me, once again, that seedy is so much more than plain dirty or even tawdry. This was the kind of place where you might be compelled to jump into a tub of Clorox after leaving, just so you can feel clean again.
One notable memory of Snake Alley were photographs pinned on posterboard at some herbal remedy stand. After looking at them for a few minutes, it dawned on us that what we were seeing were pictures of people's perineal area, and that those big, red, pustulent lumps were overgrown hemorrhoids covering their rectums. Apparently, if you ate whatever centipede-looking thing was in front, you would either prevent or cure such painful growths. I was almost tempted to eat the bug as prophylaxis--Buddha protect me from ever getting anything that vile looking.
Other memorable things this week, before the holiday, included an English course on television where a lady was teaching Mandarin speakers how to say "My underwear is too tight" (I could not make this up--that was it, word for word, honest to goodness, and by Buddha). Additionally, a Colleague of our Gracious Host treated us to dinner in what had to be amongst the most exclusive seafood restaurant in Taipei. Delicacies of the evening included shark fin soup (Dave had a hard time with it, I didn't even know it was shark fin, I thought it was just an unusually tough portobella mushroom), crabs with most of the white meaty stuff removed and left with the hardened crab fat and roe, sea cucumber stomach on whitefish, and an amazingly succulent lobster. I think Dave and I handled it pretty well, despite the general viscosity of the whole meal.
Which leads to 2/28 day. We decided that we wanted to be adventurous, to leave the city (and avoid night markets), so we decided to head to Yangminshan National Park, about 15 km outside of Taipei. When I asked the woman at the concierge desk what the best way to get there was, she looked at me as if I had just mentioned my third eye or commented on the size of her breasts. With some disbelief, and not without fearing for our getting lost or being baffled by why we'd want to go there, she gave us some directions. Another concierge mentioned that "yes, the air there is more fresh, healthier than in the city."
This should have been a warning. Apparently, we were not the only people who had this idea, as we were stuck in a traffic jam on the way there that was so bad that we decided, 3/4 of the way there, that we'd make better time walking, even though we didn't know how far we were from our destination. The park itself
was full of flowers in spring blossom, and the strong smell we initially attributed to stinky tofu we later decided was stinky tofu plus sulfur emanating from the steam vents--Yangmingshan is in a volcanically active area, and there are multiple hot springs there. We found none where we might dip our weary, wet bodies, although I hear that there are some user-friendly springs. We walked, were asked by a group of Taiwanese teenagers to be in a picture with them, and saw a funeral procession. Our return trip to the hotel involved walking back to where we got out of the taxi and then some, in the rain, hoping to find a cab to take us back.
Back at the hotel, we treated ourselves to the hotel's spa and, realizing that despite our desire to order a pizza we'd never be able to communicate our desire for a ham and pineapple medium pizza with the local Domino's, we walked towards the Pizza Hut that was nearby, and treated ourselves to local delicacies like tuna melt pizza and mexican pizza (with corn and jalapeños).