Last year (2018) I attended some fascinating traditional festivals in Taiwan and Spain, worlds apart in physical and cultural space, but both wild and compelling. Mixed in among the noise, smoke, laughter, animals –real or magical – and general craziness, I learned a few things about myself. Travel can do that for you, at its best.
In April, I went to the Luohanmen Welcoming Buddha Event in rural Neimen Township, Kaohsiung City, southern Taiwan. It’s a temple procession in honor of Guanyin – “the Goddess of Compassion” – a Buddhist Bodhisattva that plays a major role in Taiwanese religion.
Early on a fine spring morning, me, the wife, and her “temple-granny” mom from the neighborhood, elbowed our way through the throng outside the Neimen Purple Bamboo Temple, a venerable community institution. The wide plaza in front of the building was punctuated by pools, pagodas, and big brick ghost money burners. The far end of the square was skirted by a narrow lane, dominated to our left by noisy puppet-show trucks. (These maniacally squawking entities are so ridiculously loud they could plausibly be used by the residents of that Russian arctic town Belushya Guba to fend off invading polar bears. However, perhaps the locals would think it a poor bargain.) On the right there was a row of traditional shops selling stuff like beverages, noodles, steamed buns, and peanut candy.
Directly in front of the temple doors, where the crowd was thickest, an open space was cordoned of by men in Qing dynasty garb. We went there to take a look, and soon the spectacle began, starting with some acrobat shows and campy old musical folk plays. But soon it was time for the main act: the palanquins emerged, carried forward out from the dark, incense-fumed temple interior. The crowd parted to let them pass, although some of the devout chose instead to lie face down in a single-file line along the path so that the palanquinned deities would be carried above their bodies. Thousands of people marched along behind: locals and their families, tourists, and various traditional groups that played a major role in the event. These included Dragon Dancers – my personal favorite – Lion Dancers, spirit mediums, and the stars of the show, troupes of Song Jiang Battle Array performers.
Off we went, our procession continuing for hours on a carefully planned “divine inspection tour” of the countryside, following winding lanes through fields, small villages, and hamlets. As we passed, locals set off huge chains of firecrackers, and presented food and drink offerings to the gods – and to us marchers as well.
From time to time, the parade stopped at key temples, where tables groaned under the weight of dozens of freshly slaughtered pigs, beautifully presented fruit, and many other foods. Out front, the Song Jiang Battle Array performers displayed their martial arts moves, weaving, bobbing, jumping, twirling, thrusting and parrying with swords and spears, as the drums beat on and on and on, and massive explosions of firecrackers rent the air, creating clouds of grey smoke. Boo ya!
The tradition of the Song Jiang Battle Array troupes dates back to the time when settlers from China during the Qing dynasty had to band together and form militias to defend themselves from bandits and irate Formosan Aborgines. Song Jiang is the name of the legendary leader of 108 righteous men whose lives were ruined by corrupt Song Dynasty officials, forcing them to become the heroic outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh in Shandong, China. The legend is depicted in the brilliant novel Water Margin, written by Shi Nai’an during the Ming Dynasty. Song Jiang is a symbol of integrity, military success, and resistance to a corrupt regime.
When the Empire of Japan occupied Taiwan in 1895, it imposed strict law and order. The militia that had safeguarded villagers from real threats were no longer as necessary for security. However, they were encouraged by the Japanese to carry on practicing and performing their Song Jiang Battle Arrays as a folk art. This they have done to this day: Neimen Township has a population of just 20,000 people, but boasts over 30 Song Jiang troupes of around 40 members each. Maybe one household in three has a member in one of the troupes, which add color and fun to temple events, promote local pride in a healthy way, and attract money-spending tourists.
I had a great day marching with the procession, positioned just behind a long, colorful, undulating dragon figure. But the event was more than just fun: it was also a window into the fascinating diversity of legends, deities, numerology, geomancy, and superstitions that make up Chinese folk religion. This is a colorful alternative universe of the imagination to explore, and one which is preserved better in Taiwan than anywhere else.
My main connection to that universe has always been my wife’s “temple granny” mother, who loyally follows all the customs of her creed and temple. One of these is the bai-bai, or ritual obeisance to the gods, performed with incense. Every Lunar New Year I go with her and my wife to the Neimen Purple Bamboo Temple. We wave the burning sticks first in one direction, then another, then put them into the brazier. I go along just to make her happy. After all, everyone else is doing the same thing. It is kind of an interesting process, and the artwork in the temple is quite impressive, so I do it. It makes me wonder how popular religion would be if the acts of worship were solitary and dull!
I doubt that most of the people at the Luohanmen Welcoming Buddha Event under 60 years old really believed in the gods. Probably the majority of attendees were there for a bit of fun or to appreciate the traditional culture as an art form. The event was about remembering the past, yes, but was also in tune with the modern world.
THE BLOOD ALSO RISES
In stark contrast, the Running of the Bulls at the Festival of San Fermin, Pamplona, Spain, is in no way in tune with the modern world. Although the outer skin resembles a modern tourist event, the core is a bloody taurine ruckus bubbling up from deep in the past. Six Spanish Fighting Bulls and six oxen run an 825-meter course along narrow, twisting, cobblestone streets in Pamplona’s medieval town center, through a throng of thousands of idiots brave men dressed in white and red. The men wait for the bulls, the bulls come, and the men run with them. Every year people are injured; since the beginning of record keeping in 1922, 15 men have died in the run, usually gored by a bull’s horns. Most injuries are not very serious, such as bruises or contusions, but one year a guy actually got gored up the ass. I’m not sure how macho he would feel telling that story, although it doubtless came as some consolation to him that Spain has the finest bull-related-trauma surgeons in the world!
The encierro originated 700 years ago, when young herders taking the bulls through the streets from their corrals to the bullring danced around them to show off their bravery. Today’s runners are still known as mozos – lads.
For hundreds of years this local tradition would be virtually unknown to the English-speaking world, until a young Ernest Hemmingway popularized it in his classic modernist novel “The Sun Also Rises.”
Soon, macho dreamers from all over the world were traveling to Pamplona from July 6 to 14. They became mozos, wore the white pants, white shirt, and red cap, neckerchief and waist bandana, and ran with the bulls like locals.
I hadn’t even read that book until after I came back, but I had seen some YouTube videos of the encierro that touched a chord in me I hadn’t even known was there, one that Hemingway had mentioned.
I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided to participate in the “encierro de Sanfermines”, but once I had announced that I would, I had to go through with it. It was that kind of thing. Hem would have agreed.
So, when the time came, I got on a plane. Twenty-one hours later, stiff-legged and jet-lagged, I landed in the Spanish capital. I took the metro downtown, emerged into the streets, and then fell in love – with Madrid. The warm morning sunlight illuminated elegant old sand-colored buildings. In little café-bakeries, men stood at the counter reading newspapers over their breakfast of churros, orange juice, and coffee. A real reading culture it was indeed. People chatted at newsstands, and I even saw even people reading books as they walked by! I cut through Parque El Retiro; full of fountains and statues, its verdant trees shimmering in the sun, then crossed the flamboyant avenue Paseo del Prado near the Fountain of Neptune. As I walked into the Centro Historico, striking architecture delighted the eye. It was a testament to Spain’s many layers of history.
Modern waves of change were also evident: there was a big LGBTQ festival in town, and many prominent buildings displayed the rainbow flag. There were also a lot of African migrants illegally selling stuff like cheap bags on the street. These guys had a tough, wary, dried-up look in their eyes, the mark, I thought, of real hardship. In the old public square called Puerta del Sol, there was a peaceful demonstration by FEMEN, a radical feminist group based in Paris. Spain’s old right vs. left divide, which dates from before their civil war, is still very much alive. In Pamplona, I was definitely going to be interacting with the older, conservative side of the culture. Bullfighting and running with the bulls was something “the Left” would ban if they could.
After a brief stay in stunning Madrid, I took a bus north to San Sebastian (Donostia) in the Basque country. It was a fantastic day by the window, gazing out at endless dry grassy plans and shrub-forested mountains. As if for foreboding, several times I saw bulls grazing on the slopes. We got into the coastal mountains, and the forests grew lusher. A rainstorm hit while we were switchbacking down toward the Atlantic Ocean. Finally the bus let us out in San Sebastian, and I fell in love again: “Donostia” as the locals call it, is a hauntingly beautiful place with a picture-postcard beach and delightful Napoleonic era buildings. The cool fresh soul of the Atlantic permeated the city. I happily tramped about, enjoying its amazing food and views for a couple of days.
Then, early on the morning of July 6, I took the one-hour bus ride to Pamplona. Festivities were well underway! The city was awash in citizens bedecked in the traditional white and red of San Fermin. Even grannies and little babies in strollers were dressed up in the colors! As I walked through town, drunk youth were shouting and running about, and were empty beer bottles and cans were everywhere.
I checked into my hostel, and then got my first surprise. As I was having lunch in a little café-bar next door, live on TV they were showing the opening ceremony for San Fermin, meaning of course that I wasn’t actually there! A small rocket called the chupinazo was set off from a balcony in Pamplona’s city hall, formally starting the festival. An official shouted: “Viva San Fermin! Gora San Fermin!” and the crowd cheered wildly and threw wine all over each other – while I sat in a café eating a damn sandwich! How had I missed that? Anyway, I wasn’t going to miss the bull-run encierro. No way!
I walked back into the old town. It was full of really cool old medieval buildings, albeit on a smaller and quainter scale than Madrid. You could picture a drunk guy riding a donkey through these streets, singing in the moonlight, in the time of Don Quixote. But today the narrow alleys were absolutely jammed with partygoers, thousands and thousands of people guzzling booze: calimocho – half wine and half coca cola – proper wine from wineskins, and one-liter bottles of San Miguel beer. It was totally nuts, but quite merry and unaggressive, and here and there small bands played traditional music.
Google Maps helped me trace the route that the bulls would follow the next day, and I gently barged through the fiesta madness, walking each part of the course. That done, I relaxed and chatted with other festival-goers over a few drinks – but not too many! Tomorrow was the big day.
The next morning, I woke up at 5 a.m. Time to face the music. I had hatched this crazy plan, day-dreamed about it, and now it was today, not tomorrow. I strode through the streets at dawn, in awe at the evidence of truly massive drinking from the day before: an army of garbage trucks and men were getting rid of hundreds of thousands of booze containers; people were sleeping it off in parks or simply passed out on the sidewalk, and others were still at it.
On the encierro route, crews of workmen were quickly and expertly putting up the stout wooden barrier fences that would contain the beasts and protect the spectators. The spaces between the slats were wide enough for a runner in danger to slither through, but not a bull.
I arrived at the rallying point, the Plaza Consistorial, in front of the town hall, a lovely building from 1760. Other beautiful structures framed the small square, with people out on little balconies looking down at the gathering crowd. My fellow mozos were a mixed bunch: drunk young backpackers trying to sneak wineskins in past the sharp-eyed cops; groups of Spanish men in their 20s and 30s; and gringos like me. Excited, I chatted with people standing next to me. Some had done this before, others seemed not even to have done much homework on the run. Outside the fence, it was the modern world, with TV cameras, ambulances on stand-by, and people using their smartphones; inside the fence was something far more primitive.
Excitement was building. By 7:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the release of the bulls from their corrals, the square had become much more crowded, and there was a sense of heightened expectation. Disturbingly, however, I noticed that a line of policemen had formed a cordon around the group of about 50 guys I was in at one corner of the square. The cops suddenly extended their arms and shoved, compressing and jamming our group together. It was scary and totally unexpected, and none of us knew what was going on. After a couple of minutes of this, it was becoming hard to breathe. Suddenly a wooden barrier was thrown open nearby and we were unceremoniously ejected! Later on I figured out that we had been standing in a dangerous turn where the bulls might careen into us. I get the cops’ logic, but not why they were so rough. It seems that is a local tradition too:
What a letdown! But I still wanted to see the bulls. I ran around to one of the wooden fence areas where people could watch the run. It was jammed with onlookers, police, and TV cameras. I ran to the next one, which was much less crowded, and told a young Spanish couple standing there: “I wanted to run with the bulls but the police kicked me out!” The woman said: “Just go back in! There are no police here right now.” Aha! I slipped through the slats on to the street, and was back in the game.
I jogged down to “Dead Man’s Corner”, a sharp turn at the bottom of a hill which has proven particularly deadly over the years, and turned right on to Calle de la Estafeta, a long straight lane where the bulls don’t have to deal with tight corners on slippery cobblestones. I had read that this was the easiest and safest place for newb runners like me. After going along Estafeta for about 30 meters, I turned around and waited for the bull herd. The crowd roared at the sound of the two rockets signaling that the bulls were on their way. Soon they arrived.
The YouTube videos I’d seen of the encierro were always from an elevated angle, with a clear view of the approaching bulls. But bulls are shorter than men, so as runners on the ground we couldn’t actually see them coming until they were right on us. What we did see and hear was an approaching shockwave of panicked people shouting and jumping out of the way. When that wave got close, the bulls shot out, black and scary as hell. Those animals were as juiced up as anything I have seen: fierce as tigers, glossy and beautiful, lively beyond belief. Mixed in with them were the brown steers there to guide them. The herd ran by much faster than I had expected, at about the sprinting speed of a college athlete. Transfixed and without a programmed reaction, I watched them gallop by from the other side of the lane. One bull slowed down for a second, cast me an angry eye, then carried on. Another bull and a steer ran by. Was that the last of them? I looked back warily, and saw a strange thing, three oxen joined by a belled wooden yoke, followed by a bull herder. It was the sweeper team. I ran behind them all the way to the entrance to the Plaza de Toros, but immediately after the oxen entered, a line of security guards blocked the path, and the door to the arena was shut. My run was over!
Later that night all six bulls would be killed at a corrida, or bullfight. I had seen one before in Mexico City, a brutal, graceful, and bloody spectacle. But here in Pamplona, at San Fermin, which has more than 1,000,000 visitors from around the world, the bullfights had been sold out long ago; getting in would have been impossible.
Feeling happy about the entire experience, I had a few drinks with some other mozos and foreign travelers, then finally walked back to my hostel.
It was only in retrospect that I realized what I should have done, and felt some regret and disappointment. In addition to having missed the chupinazo, I had also missed the San Fermin procession on the morning of July 6, when thousands of people follow a 15th century statue of the saint that gets carried around the old part of town. (Funny the similarity to Taiwanese religion.) I also should have actually run with the bulls instead of just watching them go by and chasing them. Why hadn’t I? The bulls went by so fast I hardly had time to react, so I just went on instinct. Believe me, if you were there you would not have instinctively run toward those bulls! But the bottom line was that I had not programmed myself with the correct response for the occasion once I was actually next to the bulls. I hadn’t imagined the moment.
Despite that fact, I don’t feel that my performance was a failure. I did it! But it was only Act One. I must go back to Pamplona and finish it right. I’m going to do it. Next time, I will wait in exactly the same place, and when the bulls appear, I’ll start running as fast as I can. I know they will catch up with me! When they do, I’ll do my best to run with them all the way into the Plaza de Toros. And then my mission will be accomplished. Ole! New program uploaded.
How about the bulls’ point of view? Many people feel that the encierro and subsequent bullfights are brutal and unethical. I agree. However, they are far less unethical than the routine slaughter of meat animals. Spanish Fighting Bulls – Toros Bravos– live wonderful lives until their moment of truth, an average of five years under almost ideal conditions, grazing peacefully in open fields. That’s far better than the slaughtered pigs I saw in Neimen, which had lived for a maximum of one year in a crowded barn reeking of feces and urine. Think of battery chickens, veal calves, the slaughter of lambs: the list of meat cruelties is a long one, and on a scale millions of times greater than blood sports with bulls. But that’s old news. Enjoy your pork chop!
Looking back on the whole thing, it was very interesting to learn first-hand how programming can affect behavior under stress. I guess we are all behaviorally programmed to a large extent, so if we learn how to program ourselves, that’s a step forward then, isn’t it?
Other than that, I can only share the clichéd observation that as societies with long histories move forward into an increasingly weird future, it is emotionally important for them to maintain their connections with the past. Taiwan and Spain both do so in a lively and enjoyable way, and outsiders like you and me – travelers for life –-are welcome to join in. So I’ll end with a very sincere xie xie damas y caballeros! Nimen de cultura antigue zhen de hen hao!