Wednesday, March 5, 2008

THE CRAZY TRAIN. Part II

Well, It was 2 in the morning, we were kind of drunk, and had just gotten kicked out of a temple. Fortunately the festival was still going on, so we didn't feel to forlorn. Since the elementary school was our fall back option for a place to sleep, and this seemed like an excellent time to go for the fall back option, we started to move towards the elementary school. We weren't walking for long before we ran into a large group of people, and another temple. We stopped at the temple, with some vague hopes of being able to sleep there, and ended up talking to some more Taiwanese high schoolers. We again broached our problem of having now where to sleep, and the kids threw out some options. One even pointed at himself, but I think he was just doing it as a joke, or to make himself look better in front of his friends, because it never went anywhere. Some of the kids were chewing betel nut, and offered us some. Ben took one, and started chewing, and I refused at first, but after a while a kid came up and shoved one in my face, so I accepted. We kept chatting and chewing betel nut for a while, when suddenly we realized fireworks were about to go off behind us. People around us (mainly the high schoolers) didn't seem to concerned, and weren't weaning full protection, so we didn't panic too much, though we did turn our backs, while carefully looking over our shoulders.

After the fireworks were done, the high schoolers started to move on, and we moved in to check out the temple in slightly more detail. It turned out to be small, and given our record of success, we decided not to ask if we could sleep there. We started moving back towards the elementary school, chewing on betel nut (which causes incredibly heavy salivation), and spitting out huge red globs of spit (I know its disgusting, and I know this doesn't make it OK, but, all the native Taiwanese people do the same thing, so overall, I don't feel too bad about it.) It didn't take to long for the betel nut to get old, and we spit it out before we made it to the school. Once we got there, we did another perfunctory search to find someone to tell/ask to sleep there, but to no avail. We scouted around for a good place to sleep, and decided on a patch of ground near the track. We stashed out stuff here, and deciding it might be hard to fall asleep on the cold ground, headed off to the nearest convenience store (fortunately less than 100 yards away) for a nightcap. It was cold, and we were worried about not being warm while sleeping, so we jogged to the store. As Ben was buying his beer, in the spirit of trying to be warm, I decided we should get some chocolate, and eat that too. To my good fortune, they had Milo bars for only 8 kuai (a screamin' deal) so we got two of those, to help wash the beers down. Then we headed outside, and sat down near the elementary school to have our last, hopefully very conducive to sleep, 'meal'. After it was over, as per our instructions earlier, we left our beer bottles on the ground, and jogged back to our piece of ground. Just as we were putting on our moped helmets for sleep, we realized someone was walking around the track, and for a moment we were worried it was a security guard, coming to try to kick us off of the school grounds, but the person paid us little heed. It must have just been someone out for some late night exercise, and they ended up not being alone. Due to a number of factors such as: being cold, having my camera in my right pocket so that every time I laid on my side it was jabbing me in the thigh, sleeping on some rocks, and having my backpack laying on top of me, I didn't sleep very well. Because I didn't sleep very well (and also possibly contributing to this) I noticed that there were people exercising almost all night long. The first person was there when we went to bed (at close to 3), and when we got up at 6, there was a whole group of people out running or walking or exercising in some way. I've gotten up early to exercise before too, but I was still surprised to see people out all night long.

As we started stretching and moving to try to warm up, one of the exercisers made his way towards us. As he passed us he said something in Taiwanese, and I responded by telling him (in Chinese) we didn't understand Taiwanese. He smiled and (what appeared to be) a look of comprehension spread across his face. Then he said something else in Taiwanese. We just smiled and nodded, and he went on his way. After dusting ourselves off, we decided to head to the nearest 7-11 to get something warm to drink. We went back to the same one we'd bought beer from the night before, and not only did they have warm things to drink, this particular 7-11 was equipped with a short bar and a few stools, so we decided to stay a while. Interestingly enough, the same guy was working now, as had been working when we came in the night before, and I think a quick recap from his point of view is in order.

Two foreigners run excitedly into his store at 2:30 am and grab beers. One buys his beer, while the other peruses the candy selection, then yells excitedly (because I found the good deal on the Milo bars), and buys his beer and two candy bars. Then they leave. 3 hours later they return (not running and maybe even shivering a little) with dirty clothes and blood shot eyes, buy coffee, then slump down on some stools for about 30 minutes before leaving, looking only mildly more energized.

I bet that store clerk has an interesting opinion of foreigners.

We stayed in the 7-11 for a while, and we hoped that by the time we'd left, it would have warmed up some outside, but we were disappointed. After we left we began searching for someplace to eat breakfast. Before to long we found a Danbing (sort of thin pancakes with onions in it, and an egg place fried on top) store, so we stopped there. As a sort of reflection of the group mentality of Taiwanese people, I think the vast majority of them only ever order two danbings. I almost always order three, and whenever I do, it is almost certain to cause a stir. Not only does the cook as one or two more times to make sure I know what I'm doing, but I also frequently get stares from other customers. This danbing place was no different, the cook asked twice if I actually wanted 3 danbings, and a couple old women who were waiting on their food to be cooked, cast shocked and curios sidelong glances at me. The danbings were good though, and we got some soymilk to accompany them.

During breakfast we made some priorities for the day. 1: Secure some form of transportation (preferably leaving at 2 am ish) back to Taipei. 2: Fritter away time until crazy fireworks, preferably by napping. After we finished breakfast we set out to accomplish priority one, so we headed back to where we'd gotten dropped of last night. The bus stop had a sign projecting from the building and, right underneath that sign was a booth. So we approached the booth, and only after a minute of so of looking at the menu for the booth did we realize it was a stand selling waffles, and that all the bus stop was made of was the sign. So we started looking at the sign. While we were discussing our options I saw another sign a little further down the street that pointed to the harbor. I thought it would be neat to see the harbor, so I interrupted Ben in mid-sentence, and broached the idea to him. He seemed excited about it, and we set off immediately, talking about our surprise that we were actually that close to the ocean. After walking for about 15 minutes, we realized we had no idea where we were or even where we were going. We had only seen one sign, and it was pretty vague. It felt sort of like, what I think being ADD would feel like. We just saw a sign to the ocean, thereupon we immediately dropped all plans and departed (without even realizing we'd dropped any other plans) for the ocean.

We began to realize that the combination of: being exhausted, hopped up on caffeine, having no difficult goals for the day, no where to go to accomplish these goals, and no where to go when we weren't accomplishing these goals, led to a very interesting state of mind. This mindset in turn let to various feelings of exhaustion, hilarity, and complete satisfaction with where our lives were at at that point in time.

Back to the story, we didn't know where we were or where we were going, so we decided to ask for directions. Normally this isn't a difficult process, but we do hem and haw a little to find someone friendly looking to ask, or we have to think about how to phrase the question, but now there was no beating around the bush. We turned to the person nearest to our physical position when, which happened to be some guy on an old motorcycle. He said we were about 20 km from the ocean, so we immediately dropped all thoughts of going there, and headed back the way we had come. On the way (we were getting back on track with 'our priorities') we decided to take a bus back to the larger town with the train station, and try to secure transportation from there. A woman was waiting at the bus station when we got back, and she told us it was just a few minutes until the next bus, so we got in line. After a short bus ride back to Xinying we headed to the train station to look for the tourist information center. The train station and bus station were on opposite sides of a traffic roundabout and both stations had their own set of taxi drivers, who, despite having seen us a number of times, took every opportunity of us walking past, to avidly sell their wares (a taxi ride to the fireworks festival). Their approach was to communication involved a lot of yelling, or just loud noises indicating fireworks, accompanied by gestures of explosions and soaring rockets. It was interesting at first, then it got old, then it got interesting again because they were so dedicated and oblivious to our apathy in their taxi rides.

At the train station, the tourist information center didn't open for 30 more minutes, so we were at a slight loss. However, we took this opportunity to go to the bathroom, and clean up a little, and Ben called his landlady to tell her he wasn't going to be in Taipei that day (something had gone wrong in his apartment, and they needed him to be there while they fixed it). It turned out that Ben's landlady was coming to the festival, and was driving down as he talked to her. We wondered if we might be able to get a ride back with her, Ben had said she was nice.

After getting cleaned up we decided to move on to goal 2 for the day, so we asked the station manager where the nearest park was (our plan was to go there to nap for a while). The station manager was happy to tell us that there was one, just right outside of the station. We walked out, only to discover that the 'park' he was talking about was just a monument inside the roundabout. As soon as we found this 'park' we were stoked. It was perfect. Not only were the marble benches around the monument not covered in dirt, but they would warm up with the sunlight, hopefully creating some sort of oven in which we could warmly bake ourselves. And if that got too crazy, there were a couple patches of scraggly grass (actual grass, not just dirt that looked like grass, like where we slept the night before) underneath trees, so we could seek refuge. We really were really excited about this 'park' for about 45 seconds until we realized IT WAS A 20 FOOT BY 20 FOOT CIRCLE IN THE CENTER OF A ROUNDABOUT. We still liked it, but we decided to keep looking for another place, and to hold this as a fall back option. So we headed off down the road. We explored a couple groups of trees in hopes of finding a little park somewhere, but they were just houses with gardens. After walking for a little bit, we saw a sign for the local 'Cultural Center'. We got excited about that, and were about to run off towards it (it seemed like we might be able to sleep at a 'Cultural Center'), when we remembered the dangers of following random signs, so we stayed the course. We did get off track a little bit when we ran into an internet cafe, and stopped to check our emails. It was kind of an intense place because all of the computers had huge chairs in front of them. They were obviously the sort of chairs made for 15 hour stretches playing the same video game. We almost passed out here, but Ben was in favor of finding a park, so as we were leaving we asked directions to the nearest park. Apparently it was just through a couple stop lights, then take a right and we were there. So with these hopeful directions, we set of again. On the way we came upon a truck parked by the side of the road, and right after we passed it we saw another copse of trees of to the right, so we went to check it out. The benches in this park were too short, and there was no grass in between the bamboo, so we decided to move on. Because of circling around a little in the park we ended up behind the truck, so we had to walk past it again, and as we walked back towards the road, we picked back up the same conversation we'd been having before spotting the park. It all worked out so that, as we were passing the truck for the second time, Ben was saying almost exactly the same thing he had said the last time we passed the truck. It was sort of like deja-vous, except that the same thing had just happened, I didn't just think it had just happened. It was a little creepy and funny, and probably made more so by the mental state we had going.

Shortly after that we finally made it to the 'Cultural Center' (even though for a while we hadn't know that it was our goal, we made it there anyways). It was truly amazing. It had a lake, and two or maybe two and a half football fields worth of open grass fields, and trees, and a hill, and a lake, and an island, and nice modern art glass structures, and small elk looking statues. Truly unbelievable. My skin still tingles thinking about how awesome it was.

We decided to go to the hill for our nap. It was actually a very small hill, only 10-12 feet tall, and also pretty small in circumference, but it gave us the illusion of having some privacy while we slept. So, the glorious moment had finally arrived. The sun was out, and it was warm, and the day was truly beautiful. I didn't sleep with my moped helmet on at first, but instead used my jacket as a pillow. However, our hill was right next to the lake, which had a fountain in it, and when the wind shifted, we got sprayed with the mist off of the fountain. In the end, I put the helmet on, and now, not only was it an amazing pillow, I put the face mask down, and it kept me from getting awoken by fountain spray hitting me in the face.

After 2 hours of glorious relaxation and napping, we woke up. We hung out on our hilltop for a little longer, but it was a little after noon, and we were both hungry so we left. On the way back to the train station we passed a dried noodles store, and stopped there for lunch. As a testament to our mental state, and the slowness of my mental capacities, I grabbed a bottle of spice to flavor my curry soup a little, and as I was grabbing it, I thought I saw a fly on the wall. It took me 20 seconds of staring at the wall to figure out that it was just a discoloration in the fake wood grain finish. Ben and I never lacked for something to talk about, but this meal was more characterized by slow eating, and slowly ranging thoughts. After lunch we walked back to the train station. We were walking in the road, going against traffic, and at one point a middle aged man driving a moped, went for about40 seconds without looking at the road in front of him. He was just staring off to the side, presumable looking at someone he knew, but because he wasn't looking, he was slowly swerving towards Ben. He finally looked back to the road and straightened his course, but at no point in the whole process did he ever seem to be worried about the consequences of driving one direction and looking another.

We made it back to the train station OK, and went straight into the tourist info office. The woman was very helpful, and found a bus that we could take back to Taipei. She called a couple people to check schedules, and then she asked us if we wanted to make reservations over the phone. We did, and so she made another call, and then handed the phone over. I was surprised, and not ready, but it was already ringing so I didn't have much of a choice. I made the reservation OK, and then woman on the phone asked me what my last name was. Without thinking I gave her my Chinese last name, and she scoffed a little. At the time, I thought she scoffed because my name is maybe a little less common, but shortly there after I came upon a much more likely situation. She knew full well I was white, and wanted me to give her my English last name. It all worked out though. After the phone call, the tourist information woman wrote down the name of the company we had just reserved tickets with, and then we took our leave. We decided to go in search of a second lunch (hopefully we'd be really full, thus aiding in an afternoon nap). We found a place that had vegetarian lunch boxes for pretty cheap, so we got a couple of those, and tried to head back to the paradise we'd found in the morning. We got lost immediately. Because we wanted to find a different restaurant for our second lunch, we went a different way back (to see new restaurants). We did indeed see new restaurants, but we also got lost. We struggled with admitting how lost we were before finally asking at 7-11 how to get to the 'Cultural Center'. While Ben was asking directions, I walked down a different alley, to see what I could see, and I actually ended up seeing some very interesting things. After Ben got out of the 7-11, I brought him back to the same place, and asked what he saw. He confirmed what I'd seen. We were in the background of the view we'd seen earlier from our hilltop at the 'Cultural Center'. We were seeing now, the backs of buildings we'd seen the fronts of earlier. This matched up with the directions Ben had gotten, so we headed off, and got to the park in no time.

Because we were approaching the park from a different direction, we had cause to check out some of the glass structures. Apparently they were also solar heaters, not only heating water, but also exporting electricity. The 'Cultural Center' was already badass, but this pushed it to a whole new level, which I didn't even really know existed before. After checking out the solar structures for a little while, we went over to some picnic tables by the lake to eat our lunch. The lunch was actually really delicious, but things started to go a little bad at this point. It was just singing really, but it was incredibly terrible singing. There was an amphitheater in another corner of the park, and there were a couple of people who were belting out some old Chinese opera. I will admit, I can't sing myself, and I recently had to have it explained to me what an octave was, so I'm generally not much of a reliable musical critic. However, Ben is, so I'll just use the analogy he made to explain the situation. This singing sounded like: Someone had gotten really drunk. They were so drunk they passed out. Then one of their friends poked them with a stick until they woke up, handed them a microphone, and told them to start singing. It was a song they were familiar with, so they knew the words, but they were pass-out drunk, so their singing ability was in the toilet. Basically, no rhythm, pitch, or tone, and far too much random quavering. And someone was playing with the echo machine, randomly adding in an echo affect.

Mostly we just laughed at the music, and our lunch was good enough to almost make up for it. There was one tough thing about the lunch though. The soup. It was in a little cup, so it needed to have a tough lid, or else it would spill out, but this lid was a little too tough. At least for us right then. And the reward of getting the lid off (the soup) was disappointing, but in a really amusing way. The soup was just, clear liquid, a piece of carrot, an unidentified white vegetable, and a date. I guess they were just trying to keep it simple.

After lunch, it was nap time again, but this time we decided to sleep on the back side of the hill, to keep out of the wind, which not only changed the temperature and made it hard to get comfortable, but also sprayed water on us. And we could prop ourselves up against the side of the hill, for a little change of position. We ended up having noticeably less privacy here (we heard a number of people comment on us as they walked past) but it was a dynamite place for sleeping. Somehow we still got a little bit of spray from the lake, but much less, and leaning up against the hill was also dynamite. It was more comfortable at first, and then when I finally decided to lay down, it made laying down much more enjoyable. We woke up at about 5:00 pm, about 30 or so minutes before sunset, and decided we'd better get going. Although we had reserved tickets, we still needed to pick up the paper copies, and we also had to make it back to the Yanshui (the town that had the actual festival). So we packed up our stuff (and by 'packed up our stuff, I mean, we put on our shoes, and grabbed our moped helmets), and left our beautiful park. On the way back we stopped to buy a couple of towels, because, although, we already had some, it seemed like a good idea to grab a couple more.

At the bus station, we tried communicate that we only needed to get to the other bus station (the one with the bus back to Taipei, it was half way in between Xinying and Yanshui). We'd hoped that if we could communicate this, we could get discounted tickets, because we really only needed to get half way, but we had a hard time with the communication, and in the end they said they knew where we wanted to go, but we still had to pay full price for the tickets. As we were boarding the bus the ticket cashier made a point of telling the bus driver where we needed to get off, which made things simpler for us. Sure enough, when we were about half-way there, the bus driver stopped and yelled something unintelligible, which we assumed was for us. Normally when you get off the bus, you have to give the driver your ticket, but we'd hoped this time, we wouldn't have to, because we weren't actually at our destination yet. If we didn't give him our tickets, we might be able to flag down another bus (they were pretty common between the two cities) and ride the rest of the way, thus getting the full value out of our tickets. (In hindsight, this seems like we made a huge deal out of this, because we would have only been saving about 25 cents, but I guess it is the principle of the matter.) Anyway, somehow, while we were getting our tickets out to give to the driver, the driver said something, and we became the but of a joke for the whole bus. I have no idea what it was, because he said it in Taiwanese, but whatever it was, the whole bus thought it was funny.

So we were a little disgruntled when we got off the bus, and we didn't find the bus station immediately, which made us a little more disgruntled. When we did find the bus, we went inside, and I told the cashier we had reserved a pair of tickets, and my last name was 葛. She said they didn't have a system where you could reserve tickets. I was confused, and looked over at Ben, who seemed just as confused. We decided to abandon the reserved tickets, so I asked the woman if she had any buses going back to Taipei in the early morning. She did, and so we bought the tickets. Major Score. At this point in the day, we had accomplished both of our priorities. The previous day, we had been a little worried about how to get transport back, but mostly we were worried about how to fritter away an entire day without getting bored. The first goal was easy, and we had made light work of 'frittering away our time'. Now all we had to do was eat something, get a little drunk, and get shot at by fireworks.

We still had to make it to Yanshui, so asked the cashier if there was a bus station near by where we could catch a bus to Yanshui. There was no such station, and she told us that we would have to take a cab. We were pretty strongly against this option, but in the interests of being open-minded, we went outside, found a taxi driver, and asked how much it would be to get to Yanshui. The answer was, about 6 times as expensive as the bus. We haggled a little but the driver was having none of it, so we started walking. At first it was a haggling strategy, but the taxi driver didn't call after us, lowering his prices, so we kept walking. We also had vague hopes of flagging down a bus to Yanshui, but after not too long, we decided it was only about 2 km, and we should just get a beer and walk. So we did, and it was amazing. The moon was out, and beautiful, and fortunately the traffic wasn't to heavy, so we felt like walking along the road/highway wasn't too dangerous. Another benefit was that we got to walk through the outskirts of the festival, instead of being dropped off right at the center of it.

We really got to see everyone doing there own thing. Most people were just shooting off fireworks in the middle of the street (which was still cool to see, cause fireworks are pretty), but we passed a couple guys swinging a string of fireworks around their heads, as the fireworks were going off. Which was also neat to see. At one point, on the walk in, Ben stopped to find somewhere to pee, and gave me his beer. So I was left standing beside the road, watching the traffic go past. I stand out enough already, but standing by the side of the road, double-fisting beers got me more than the normal amount of stares, and covert looks. But when Ben got back, we decided to roll with it. We decided to purposefully make ourselves the butt of the jokes, and smile and laugh right back. So we stood there for a while, drinking and smiling at people, but we soon realized that the traffic wasn't really that thick there, and so we moved on. Before we got shot at by fireworks, we still needed to check the local bus schedule, to make sure we could make it to the other bus station in the morning to catch our bus. The sign at the 'stop' wasn't clear, so we decided to ask the women at the waffle store.

By this time, Ben and I were a little drunk, and this could prove to be a hindrance to the conversation, but in the end, it proved to be a huge advantage. It was one of the most fluent conversations I've ever had in Chinese. We ended up finding out that the buses quit running at 8 or 9 at night, so we'd have to find another mode of transport back (either walking or a cab), but we ended up talking to the women at the waffle stand for a long time. We talked about the festival, and mine and Ben's schools, and I was making jokes with some words that people don't really say anymore (cause a couple of my textbooks are from the 50's), and everyone was laughing. It was great and proved a fortuitous omen for the whole evening.

After we finally left the waffle place, we went to eat a big dinner before continued drinking. After dinner, it really was go time. We knew the fireworks started at 10, and somehow we had frittered away most of the time since we'd awoken in the park, and now it was about 9. We only had one hour, and we had lots of things on our do list, so we set off to the nearest 7-11 to make a run at the first of our objectives. We were both pretty full from dinner, but given our time frame, we had to start chugging liquids. First, we both chugged about half a liter of water (not only to mitigate the after effects of drinking, but also because we were about to put on multiple layers of clothing, and it would probably be hot in the press of the crowd), and were going to keep going, when we realized it wouldn't hurt to have some for later. Next, we each pounded a can of coffee, nicknamed 'Double Dregs' last year because it is loaded with 2 times the normal caffeine amount. Our last beverage of the evening was beer, but before we moved on to it, we made clear what had to be done during the rest of the night. Not Die. So we made sure that before we got into the actual fireworks danger zone, we would throughly protect our throats and eyes. And with these precautionary statements out of the way, we walked back towards our old trusty Elementary School, drinking our beers on the way. When we got to the Elementary School, we changed clothes, and got on our protective gear. In addition to the towels we'd picked up in Xinying, we also each got a pair of cotton gloves, while we were walking from the bus station. On the bottom, I had on hiking boots and a really old pair of Carhartt jeans. I had brought one towel from home, and I tucked this down the front of my jeans, so it made a sort of loin cloth (but only in the front) to protect my crotch. On the top, I had my old black jacket, and over that I was wearing a sweater (I had planned on wearing the jacket on top, but last night someone had advised me that the nylon was not a good material for resisting fireworks, so I wore the sweater on top). Our moped helmets were full-face helmets, but they didn't have a chin guard, so I taped the other towel along the bottom of the face mask, for neck protection, though I was also wearing a scarf. When things got really serious, I also pulled my hood up over the top of the helmet, so the back of my neck was also protected. Ben was also wearing Carhartts, in addition to a pair of cargo shorts (on underneath). He was also wearing two layers on top, with a scarf, and towel taped to the moped helmet. We felt like we'd accomplished our goals of making sure that both throat and eyes were protected, so we stashed the rest of our stuff under a tree, and took off.

It was really hot and steamy to wear the helmets with the face masks down, so on the walk back to where we thought the show was getting started, we carried our helmets underneath our arms. It was the most empowering thing either of us had ever done. Our excitement for this event had been building up for weeks (even longer for Ben, because he'd heard about it the previous year, where as I had only heard about it a few weeks earlier). We had gotten our hopes up on the way down, and the previous night, they were at first disappointed (to find out the real ho down wasn't until tonight) and then bolstered (because we got a preview of the awesomeness to come). Now we where here, the excitement was beginning to come to a peak, and we were fully, completely, 100%, WELL PREPARED. Carrying our helmets underneath our arms not only highlighted this fact, but seemed to make the occasion that much more amazing. We both felt like we should be carrying swords at our waist's, as we walked into battle.

As we neared the area where there had been the concert the night before, and where we assumed the events would kick off tonight, we found it empty. This was a little confusing, but we pressed on and quickly found what we were looking for, a huge field, overflowing with people, and a stage with someone talking. We found out from people outside the field, that this was indeed where the event was about to get kicked off, and that they were going to start as soon as the person finished talking. We decided we had enough time, so we sprinted away (still carrying our helmets under our arms) to the nearest 7-11 for one more beer (only the kid sized one) before things got started. We ended up missing part of the opening fireworks, but they were magnificent enough that we could still appreciate them from outside the 7-11. As the were finishing, we ran back over to the field, only to find people streaming out of it. We asked one middle aged man where everyone was going, and he said he was going home. Interesting. We asked someone else what was going on with the festival (we had heard it went until 3-4 in the morning), and they said just to follow the flow of people, and we'd find it. A lot of people seemed to be heading into an alleyway, so we ran that way. We soon found out that all of those people were going to their cars, and going home, so we turned right, to swing back around. We passed a fire truck, with a few fire-fighters hanging around chatting, so we stopped to talk to them. They were very friendly and told us again, just to follow the stream of people, and that they didn't know exactly where the festival would be or when. So with vague ideas of following streams of people, we sprinted off again. This time, however, we weren't disappointed and we found the right stream of people to follow. Pretty quickly we meet up with a group of college students, and start hanging out with them. The conversation is great, and we chat it up, as we slowly move along with the procession.

OK, I think a breakdown of the main attraction is in order. The whole scheme of the festival is, basically to get shot at by fireworks. Everyone who is interested gets suited up, and makes a sort of parade out of it. Everyone who isn't interested stays the hell out of the way, so they don't get hit by stray fireworks. There are 4 or 5 carts, sort of rectangular cubes, maybe 7 feet tall, but only 3 feet by 3 feet square. They are on wheels, with one pole mounted on each side, making a handle in the front and back. Inside the rectangle is an alter, with a Buddha or some other sort of religious idol. Everyone follows these carts around, and every so often the carts stop. When the carts stop, another cart is rolled out from a store in the area. These don't have much in the way of handles, and are much larger. Still about 7 feet tall, but maybe 8 feet long by 3 or 4 feet wide. The sides of the cart are covered with red paper, upon which Chinese is written. The red paper is then torn off, and burned in a pile in the street, revealing racks of fireworks pointing into the crowd. At this point, the people tending the carts with idols in them, start to shake them, which is sort of creepy, and also makes an odd creaking noise. The shaking combined with the creaky noise take the amount of ambient intensity to the whole next level, which is really saying something because having racks of fireworks pointed into the crowd made things pretty intense already. Then everyone starts to push in, and sort of jump up and down, and move side to side. At this point, we become part of the group mentality, and jump and move ourselves. Vaguely moving in this way makes the whole thing seem less dangerous, and we sort of don't have a choice anyway because the crowd is so tight. At some points, I am unable to move, which makes things scary again, because I don't feel like I have any retreat. Then the fireworks start to go off. At first they go off the top of the cart, but then the sides start to go to, and the carts are shaking, and everyone is jumping around a little, and fireworks are screaming around in all different directions, and I bet if we'd looked up it would have been beautiful, but I think we had other things on our minds. Then the fireworks are over, and everyone gives thumbs up and high fives all around, and maybe even a hug or two. Then someone comes and takes the cart away and the procession moves on.
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We hang out with the college kids for a while, but then we get separated from them in the crowd, so we move on. However, there is no shortage of people to talk to, and in the press of the crowd, there is always a fresh face. People just stare at us because we're tall and white, and because we're so close to them, and a little drunk, it is really easy to say "Hey, is this your first time coming to the festival?", and then we're off in conversation. I don't remember how many carts full of fireworks they rolled out to shoot into the crowd, but I'm pretty sure it was more than five. Ben, somehow, caught a firework to the leg (it left a mark, but no burn) and I got hit in the face mask once (which, interestingly enough, was sort of my goal or expectation for the evening). Aside from the carts and everyone doing there own thing (which was still going on, even with the parade), there were a couple of other types of fireworks. One was strings of fireworks that just exploded brightly, powerfully, and noisily, and upon which some people thought it was a good idea to dance (as they were exploding). Ben and I did abstain from this particular brand of tom-foolery. The other type was not dangerous at all (at least compared with dancing on top of exploding fireworks), and was actually very pretty. Long strings of sparkler like things were pulled up into the air, creating a beautiful waterfall of sparks.

So, once we found the parade the evening consisted of, talking to people, getting shot at by fireworks, watching people dance on fireworks, actually enjoying the beauty of the fireworks, and drinking the occasional beer. Although the excitement for the festival had built up to an impressive high, the festival itself had fully, completely, 100%, LIVED UP TO ANY AND ALL EXPECTATIONS. Everything had gone entirely perfectly. There were many opportunities for Ben and I to turn the experience in to a crappy one, but our mentalities were so similar, that any difficulties we encountered we rolled with. We honed the 'go-with-the-flow' mentality to the point of being willing to sleep on marble benches in the middle of a roundabout. The bus driver made fun of us, and at first we were disgruntled, but later we opened ourselves up to ridicule, and tried to use it to open up conversation with strangers. The number and quality of conversations we did have with strangers, who, if we hadn't spoken Chinese, would have had no way to talk with us, and the incredibly rewarding feeling this gives. The sheer randomness of the majority of the things that happened (such as: the possibly drunk stranger who didn't kick us out of the temple, but seemed genuinely sorry for it having happened; the random security guard who almost forced us to drive his moped after we'd been drinking, and who wanted us to pick him up some special bowling ball the next time we where in the states; the random old couple who decided it would be a good idea to go sing some old Chinese opera style karaoke in the park; the cornfield in the middle of the city; or the random guy at the temple asking if I was Dutch, then upon finding I wasn't, leaving the area; or the wild pack of family dogs, see above photo), but how everything still seemed to come together perfectly. The festival would have been amazing by itself, but all these things combined to make the experiences in either Ben's or my life. And it wasn't even over yet.

Our bus left at 1:50, so as the time neared 1, we began to separate ourselves from the parade. Things were starting to wind down anyways, and we ran into some Australian girls on the outskirts of the danger zone, so we stopped and talked to them for a while. We'd taken our helmets off, but this turned out not to be the best decision because, in some ways, the outskirts were more dangerous. The stray fireworks were a little more crazy, and there were still some people doing the crazy firework dance. We realized time was getting short, so we ran off in the direction of the bus stop. Somehow we had gotten on the wrong side of the procession, and we had to press back through the crowd to get where we needed to go. The carts were starting to shake again, so we knew things were about to get serious. We donned our helmets as quickly as possible, and pushed through the edge of the crowd. Once to the other side, we took our helmets off, and started to jog. The Australian girls had pressed some betel nut on us, so as we ran, we spat out huge globs of red spit, and tried not to choke on what we didn't spit out, while we panted for breath. It was still a nice run though (we were carrying our helmets under our arms again), and we grinned at each other as we jogged along. We contemplated, only very briefly, jogging all the way to the bus station, but it was already 1:30, so we got a cab. We told the driver the name of the bus company the woman at the tourist info place had given us, and he drove off. When he stopped the car, we found out that we were at the wrong place, though we were very close to the station we'd bought our tickets from. We told the driver to pull over to the other place, but at the same time, we realized that the place we'd just stopped was where we had made phone reservations. Apparently, we'd been dropped off at the wrong place earlier, but since we didn't pay for the reservation, it didn't seem to matter. At the correct bus stop, we shed our layers, and had a victory beer. Our bus came, and we got on it, but there weren't two empty seats, so Ben had to sit in the front of the bus (where he chatted it up with the driver), and I sat in the back. I was staring around, dazed and tired, and realized that we weren't supposed to have beer on the bus. Oh well. The bus was moving now, and no one had told us, either because no one really cares, or because we're white foreigners. On the ride back they played 2 movies on the bus, "The Constant Gardener" about aid work in Africa, and some Lindsay Lohan move. Both seemed very out of place. I made a mental note to add them to the list of random things that had happened. About half way back the bus made a stop, and Ben came back and sat next to me. We had a little pep talk, then the bus started moving again, and he went back to the front.

At about 5:30, we got into Taipei. We were worried about the subway not being open because it was so early, but by the time we made it there it was 6, and the trains were running. We had a little touching parting company moment as we each went to our separate train lines. As I ate breakfast, I watched the morning news, and saw reports on the festival. Apparently only 18 people had been injured. They had some random coverage of mostly nude people (just wearing helmets and bathing suits) standing on carts getting dragged around and shot at by fireworks. I wondered where it had taken place. They even had a couple token interviews with white people, one heavyset guy with inch thick foam padding taped all over his body, and another random guy. After breakfast I rode my bike to school. It was the same that it always is, just a regular ride. I wondered if any of the festival had even happened. It all seemed so different with the two familiar cross-walks and the short on campus bike ride to get to school. The sun was shining and during my first class, I stared out the window, and thought about calling Ben in the afternoon, to see if he didn't want to grab his moped helmet, and find a park in the city to nap in. Or better yet, find another festival somewhere in Taiwan, grab our moped helmets and a little money and head there. We could sleep later. Ben and I had talked about this some, and I fantasized about it in class. A whole new style of traveling. Just money, the clothes on your body, a moped helmet, and an open mind. Maybe a towel too. Then you just go, and everything else would sort itself out. I haven't yet had a chance to implement this new strategy, but I do know that the results the first time were unbelievable.

I feel like we really lived.