Sometimes it gets a bit easy to forget that we are expats, living halfway across the world from “the peak of good living” (otherwise known as Apex, N.C.). People always seem surprised when I say that, probably assuming that the whole not-speaking-Chinese thing might remind us we are in Asia oh… say… every time we try to do anything. I mean, we realize one year abroad doesn’t turn you into a local; it’s just that we have a pretty good grasp on where we live. We (i.e. Dan) know how to get to the places we want to go without getting lost. We know where the best restaurants/cafes/bars are, and what to order at said places. We know how to run 16-miles through breathtaking farmland and mountainous panoramas without going too far out of the city. And driving on my scooter to go teach the most adorable kindergarten kids in the world, all the while knowing I will most likely come into contact with glitter, has become my temporary life. But then, something happens like a boat burning festival, and it puts everything back into perspective. We remember we are actually living in a country very different from America with unique cultural practices and beliefs.
Specifically, it’s a country with the Wang Yeh Boat Burning Festival.
To understand why a 14-meter wooden ship is constructed for the sole purpose of burning, a little bit of information about the Wang Yeh is helpful. According to our understanding, the Wang Yeh are folk deities worshipped in Southern Taiwan. They are believed to be supernatural beings that eradicate plagues and demons, bringing in their place peace and prosperity. The boat burning is essentially a medium to assist in the plague elimination. Once every three years, a wooden ship is constructed and after 8 days of celebration, it is paraded around the city of Donggang where it collects the sicknesses and ill fortune of the people. After being stocked with food and necessities for the spiritual journey, it is propped upon a giant mound of ghost money on the beach. A couple hours of traditional rituals later, the boat is set on fire via military grade firecrackers, forcing bad spirits out of the town and leaving peace in its place.
We knew we had to experience this ritual while we could, seeing as how it only occurs once every three years. After a 4-hour train ride followed by a 45-minute taxi lift, we arrived at the event location. The entire city was abuzz with food stalls, vendors, lanterns, fireworks, Chinese plays, and of course, ‘Taiwanese burritos’. A sneak-peek of the ship could be had at the town’s central temple, dedicated in part to the Wang Yeh. After a quick stop and photo-shoot that mostly consisted of loosing our party, we made our way to the beach to stake out our seats for the boat burning. In all honesty, we were a bit ambitious, and we didn’t even end up staying in our coveted ‘seats’ upon a fitted sheet in the sand; however, we did make about 30 Taiwanese friends, all of whom were interested in learning the rules to a card game called “Bang!”.
Finally, after hours of waiting, the ship was brought to the beach around 2:30am.
At this point, we, along with everyone else, were quite tired and ready to get this bonfire roaring. Little did we know there would still be another 3 hours of boat building and preparation before the first firecracker ignited. The masts were ceremoniously lifted, the flutes were played and the offerings were loaded, but we couldn’t help but doze off in what had become our humble 2-square-foot territory. Finally around 5am, the crowd started to stir and you could tell IT WAS TIME. After the anchors were lifted from the already grounded ship the big finale erupted, quite literally. In explosions of heat and light the boat and everything on it was sent skyward.
We were surprised to hear mixed reviews from fellow foreigners that it may not be worth the long hours to witness this religious ceremony. Our conclusion: it is definitely a unique and cultural experience. Just remember, good things come to those who wait…. and wait… and wait.