jingning: (Sazh and Dajh)
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The late afternoon sun broke out from between the clouds as Lara and I approached Joyce sitting on a bench outside of the main entrance to NTU, one day before the Moon Festival (中秋節: literally, Mid-Autumn Festival). The streets were very busy, as many people return to their homes and families during this time to celebrate the fullness of the moon as a representation of the wholeness of the family. We were lucky to get a glimpse into the life of a traditional Taiwanese family that night as well as have Joyce and her older sister guide us through the famous areas around Sansia (三峽).



Before long, Joyce, Lara, and I were seated comfortably in Joyce's father's car and we were off to the South, to Sansia. We made to put on our seat belts but Joyce said it wouldn't be necessary, as we were sitting in the backseat. According to the law of Taiwan, only the people sitting in the front of the car need to wear seat belts. As I watched the cars around us swerve on the road like the lines didn't exist, the buses and taxis wrestling with each other for the most convenient lane, and the mopeds getting caught in between, I assumed that not wearing a seat belt would be a death wish. Nevertheless, I complied and was thrown back to the days of ignorant childhood, when wearing a seat belt was like wearing a straight jacket.

As Taipei suburbia slipped by outside, we conversed in a delightfully confusing mixture of Chinese and English. Joyce's father mentioned that Sansia was named after the three rivers that run through it; Joyce and he continued to act as our tour guides, while the buildings outside melted away into tree-covered hillsides with a myriad of shrines, houses, and statues embedded in its folds. We were eager to see what lay beyond the looming edges of the Taipei basin.

After driving through a number of winding tunnels, the scenery changed back into snapshots of human civilization, narrow shop-houses springing up to our left and right (buildings with a family-run shop on the first floor and the living quarters on the upper floors). After a couple of turns, Joyce's father stopped the car in front of a large, ornate gate that lead to the mouth of an even more impressive bridge. Small snack stands lined the road leading up to the gate, their owners lounging peacefully about, waiting for customers.

The three of us started off across the long bridge to a local tourist area, famous for housing the Sansia Divine Ancestor Temple (三峽清水祖師廟) and the historical Sansia Old Street (三峽老街). We soaked up the pleasant atmosphere as we waited in the twilight at the entrance of the temple for Joyce's older sister, who would act as our tour guide for the temple and the old street. When she arrived, she immediately dived into explaining the ins and the outs of temple customs in Taiwan, first in Chinese and then in English. Most of the temples and shrines that can be seen sandwiched in between high-rise corporations, tucked away in the countryside, or within the confines of a local's home has nothing to do with religion. Rather, they are established to commemorate the ancestors and bring peace and luck into one's life.

Sansia Divine Ancestor Temple
A section of ceiling in the temple. There is a light in the center that illuminates the gold foil pasted up on the elaborate designs.


Joyce's sister helped us light incense sticks and introduced us to the tradition of showing reverence to the spirits by bowing three times in front of each of the small shrines. After each bowing session, we would place one incense stick in each one of the giant pots of ash, said to be the food of the spirits. It was very empowering to experience a different culture in this relatively intimate way. Instead of imposing one's own culture upon this practice, its definitely best to take these traditions within local context. After practicing this custom, we finally felt like it would not be trespassing for us to tread upon this temple.

Sansia Divine Ancestor Temple
More of the ceiling, in a different section. Each section of ceiling had a different design.


The interior was absolutely exquisite. Each carving, whether it be wood, stone, or metal, was hand-crafted, evidencing years and years of dedicated work. Each carved wood pole carried layers upon layers of detailed notches and shapes; each pole carried its own unique story. The ceilings were decorated with strips of gold foil, painstakingly pasted onto the intricately carved wood beneath. Paintings and etchings were all extremely well-preserved or restored. The incense quietly twisting and turning in the serpentine breeze carried soothing herbal scents all around us. It was a beautiful place.

Sansia Divine Ancestor Temple
Receiving some information about the temple from Joyce's sister. All of the stone work in this temple was done by hand, most of them carved out of one whole stone piece. For example, the piece in the foreground of this picture is not made up of smaller pieces glued together, rather it was carved just like that from one large stone.


After visiting the temple, we made our way to the nearby Sansia Old Street (三峽老街), a street established during Dutch colonial occupation, lined with shops featuring Baroque architecture. It was here that I realized how diverse Taiwan really is: a bold mixture of Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, and indigenous Aboriginal cultures, and probably much more hidden beneath the surface.

Sansia Old Street
The entrance to Sansia Old Street.


The Old Street of today mostly features famous gift shops and snacks. As the sun was already beginning to set, we only had enough time to take a quick stroll. Nevertheless, it was so intriguing to see that many cultures blended together in Taiwan, the traditional shop-houses with Western decor and marble-like tiled siding.

Sansia Old Street
There was an old-fashioned Western water pump and well near the entrance. We're always looking for a reason to cheese it up for the camera.


It was getting quite dark by that point in our journey, so we all decided to head back to Joyce's home, which ended up being just a minute's walk away from the entrance to the bridge. We walked down a small lane lined with the familiar narrow, tall buildings that signaled residences. Many residence buildings in Taiwan seem to be built this way, from apartment complexes to family homes, they all reach up instead of out. I'm not entirely sure if this is just a city thing either, as many homes on the outskirts of Taipei county take on this look. It seems that unless you live in the hills, you'll live in a house like this.

We were greeted at the doorstep by Joyce's mother and father, who welcomed us into their home and lead us to a table full of home-cooked, vegan Chinese cuisine. The dishes were a colorful range of vegetables soaked in different sauces and a small bowl of rice for each person. It was beyond delicious.

At this point, I was really beating myself up for not picking up a gift for Joyce's family before I left downtown Taipei. While Lara and I gave a box of assorted pastries and Moon Cakes to Joyce the night previous, we ran out of time to pick up one for the rest of her family. So, when we arrived at her home empty-handed, I felt extremely ashamed. It is customary to bring a gift when visiting someone's home in Taiwan. In addition, it was nearing a major holiday, so I especially felt rude.

It is also customary to give gifts of Moon Cakes (月餅) to friends and family during the Moon Festival, as they, along with pomelo, are traditional foods to eat while gazing at the full moon.

Image found on Google Images
Moon Cakes usually have a flaky pastry exterior with a thick filling made from lotus seed paste or red bean paste. The ones traditionally eaten on the Moon Festival also contain a salted egg yolk in the middle, like the one above. The exterior is usually printed with elaborate designs and Chinese characters relating to the themes of the Moon Festival, although there are some modern varieties without these embellishments.


After our meal and conversation together, Lara, Joyce, her sister, and I took a narrow staircase five stories up to the very top floor of their home, to the entertainment room. The floors in between this one and the ground floor contained bathrooms and bedrooms. In addition to standard entertainment room fanfare, they had various gaming consoles and their own karaoke system set up (called "KTV" here). We ate some moon cakes and pomelo together and watched various Taiwanese and Chinese music videos on their karaoke system. This song, sung in Taiwanese language, especially caught my heart:

博杯 by 江蕙

The red moon-shaped pieces are called 博杯(bwa bwei in Taiwanese) and they are used in temples and before shrines to ask the gods questions and receive answers. Throughout the video, the man asks the gods if his wife will get better from her illness and, time and time again, the gods reply "no" (both of the pieces are either lying face up or face down). In the end, the man asks if his late wife can hear him saying that he misses her so much (妳在天上有聽見我很想妳嗎?), to which the gods finally reply "yes" (one piece is faced up, while the other is faced down).


As the evening came to a close, Joyce, Lara, and I played ridiculous Wii games while waiting for Joyce's sister to whisk us off into the night for some local snacks and then back to the NTU campus. We ended up getting lost on the way back, but it didn't bother us too much. The sights and sounds of Taipei at night are mesmerizing. We drove past the largest park in the city, down the road that leads to Taipei 101, and past the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall (中正紀念堂). We saw lights blinking and streets emptying themselves of vehicles, the smattering of 24-hour shops leaving their lights on for those unable to go to sleep. I couldn't help but think: "Someday, this will all be home. I will navigate these streets like I've been here all my life." Even then, though, I'm sure I will get lost. There are those who, in fear of getting lost, will not even attempt to seek.

Go get lost somewhere... you'll be surprised how much there is to be found.



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Sorry for the unusually long hiatus. We will be updating more regularly now that we have adjusted to moving into a new apartment and schoolwork/language exchange. We've done much exploration and documentation during our break from our blog so rest assured that there will be more to come~!

Also, Lara forgot to bring her camera during this journey, so we apologize for the lower quality of the photos and the lack of photos for some parts. We do plan a re-visit of the aforementioned areas and will post pictures in a later blog and on our online photo album. Thank you!

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-- Sara
何靜寧



Disclaimer: Photography in this post done by Joyce and Joyce's sister. Thank you~!



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taiwanderland: Sara and Lara outside National Palace Museum (Default)
何靜寧 & 何靜嵐 --- Sara & Lara

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