Sometimes, you find in life that things are timed badly. This would include your only day off in Tainan being placed right after your night of adrenaline pumping superstardom, which ended at five A.M. at a club called Suck (no, no, it was nothing dirty, just a bad example of a hip Asian club slightly misusing the English language). But, I was not going to miss my one day of sightseeing, so up I got at nine, and into a cab (which are plentiful and extremely cheap here, which is wonderful), and off to the department store where I had eaten the world’s most delicious bowl of steaming broth and homemade wontons the day before.
I will go off on a little tangent now – I find that Asian food is perhaps the world’s best hangover food, maybe ever. In fact, I think the prize for the all-time best hangover food item in the world goes to Korea’s Kimchi Fried Rice. This is red fried rice, filled with salt and spices, and mixed in with Kimchi, the distinctive spicy pickled/fermented cabbage that most people who aren’t Korean hate but I ferociously adore. And the Koreans (and the Taiwanese) love their eggs, so there’s usually a fried egg lying on top of the rice, and the entire thing is salty and deliciously restorative. I don’t know why salty foods tend to be the ones you crave when you are recovering from a night out – if I had to apply my high school biological knowledge, I’d say it was that your body wants the salt to try to retain water that you’ve lost with the alcohol, but that could very easily be a complete lie.
Anyhoo, off to the department store, wontons, followed by a delicious small cake in the shape of a fish that they fill with sweet red bean cake (by the way, this entire meal cost the equivalent of $4.00 US). I wandered around the store, and pondered the fashions of Taiwan (perhaps a later post), then got in a cab and went to a large dutch fort. It was lovely, and I was wandering around the food market outside when I noticed, down an alley, the telltale curlicues of a temple roof. I wandered down the street, and discovered tucked away the temple of Matsu, the Goddess of the Sea.
Again, I will go a little tangential here. I long ago noticed a peculiar look come into people’s faces when they spoke of going to Asia, and a particular tone of voice to accompany it. It always struck me as though part of them had never returned from their visit, and never would – that there was something about Asia that kept part of you there forever. And it was only when I went to the temple of Matsu that I began to understand that.
It is hard to describe these temples – although they are not usually that large (none are two-storied, although many are made up of a few builings), but in every one I’ve seen thus far, every conceivable surface is covered with something beautiful, the craftsmanship of which is impeccable. The ceilings alone are carved into colorful animals, or shapes, and painted on top of that, further up than the naked eye can glimpse, and the spaces behind the altars, where you can barely see at all, is the same. The stone stairs in the front are carved with long flat dragons (which the woman selling devotional flowers outside had to point out), and the walls are painted with murals, some of which look to be as old as the building itself. The altar, at least in the Matsu temple, is the size of a living room, and filled with statues not only of Matsu herself, but of her guardian monsters, and the attendants that serve her, all of whom are wearing silk clothing covered with the most intricate embroidery I’ve ever seen. So, despite my small description there, you can see why I said that it’s hard to describe – basically, every conceivable surface, every wall and space, even those visible only to the god of the temple presumably, has been made beautiful, for the benefit of the god. And the air is cloudy with insense smoke, and you feel standing in the middle of the temple that you are connected with something deeply ancient. The word, technically, would be awe. Both because, on an intellectual level, to be in the presence of a spirituality that is so separate from the deeply policitized religion of our world today is a sadly rare thing, and because there is no intellectual level at all, really. To stand there is to feel, viscerally, a connection to something greater, whether it is some sort of god or just the higher level of beauty that humanity is capable of creating, but only occasionally truly does. And that, I think, is what you hear in the voices of people who speak about Asia – this strange harmony, this strange ancientness, that makes you feel more a part of your natural world and your species and its history than almost anything else I have encountered. Well, that, and that Hello Kitty is just so goshdarned cute.
Oof, this post is getting mighty long, which I guess makes sense considering it’s been being worked on for three weeks now. And I originally started this blog with the intention of having each post be themed, which will not be happening here, so sorry about that. And, of the two things I promised I would talk about in the subject heading, I have talked about neither. But now, I think I will save those stories for later posts, as I feel I veered unexpectedly into some depth there with the Matsu temple, and I’d love to figure out how to add some pictures. So I shall say goodnight, and you’ll have to wait for the dragons and the dumplings.