Monday, June 23, 2008


These are all photos taken by the professional team accompanying the walk. Thank you to Sky for providing me with these photos so that all of you can have a more finely recorded vision of what this walking looked like from the day of my arrival through many days on the road and many nights on stage.

that's me in the badass bandana

Yes, there are stories to all of these but for now I will simply let the photos say what they will.

And now some more casual photos from some of the group members.

This last photo is the day we arrived back at their mountain home. of course much more has happened since then as you all have heard some of the stories but this for now is where the retrospective must end.

Monday, May 26, 2008

So, my accomodation here in Taipei is in a shared apartment owned by a woman who is a devoted Buddhist scholar and looked to for guidance by many people (including my friend who set up this incredible arrangement for me). She herself only lives there a few days out of the week sometimes accompanied by her husband or daughter. They have one bedroom, I have one bedroom and the 3rd bedroom is occupied by another woman, also a Buddhist scholar and her very sweet mother who speaks to me only in Chinese. They have study sessions every wednesday and friday night when the small living room is filled with people eating rice crackers and drinking tea as they laugh and debate the words of the master around our little coffee table. The picture below is taken from our 5th floor balcony room which is actually much less glamorous than it sounds- it's like an open hallway we use for washing and hanging laundry sort of like those you can see across the street. But the rainstorm I am trying in vain to photograph was quite momentous- the thunder was such that at every clap the little grandmother and I would look at each other in surprise. Apparently I've come to this moutainous tropical island for the rainiest month of the year... little did I know. At the end of the street you can see the performing arts center where there are a myriad of classes held for the community and where they are training the next generation of U-Theater, now still in highschool. Also I am allowed to come and use the studios for my own work whenever I want (!) So at the request of the artistic director, I am currently preparing a piece to present here sometime before I leave. So little time!

But back to my flatmates. Last week they told me they were organizing a ceremony for Buddha's birthday and I was welcome to attend if I wanted to. So on Sunday morning I found my way to the park she'd named and wandered a bit bewildered through the tables of people with pamphlets (for I don't know what) and the group of women looking eclectic despite their matching white pants and red T-shirts (I discovered later they were there to perform some traditional Chinese dancing in honor of Buddha), and up to the group gathered around what must have been a great master giving a talk in front of a series of alters. Finally I found my friend's husband who helped me get my bearings and welcomed me to follow the others through the line of alters to "wash Buddha." Apparently the act of washing the Buddha statue also washes away anything "bad" from oneself (I'm sure it's more complex than this but our limited shared language forces simplified understanding). So a bit shy at first I finally thought what the heck and got in line.
The man in front of me, a friend of the group turned and asked if I was Christian "mm, no" I reply, not really. "Do you like Buddha?" yes. And that's all I needed to feel ok there.
So I followed the example of those before, bowed 3 times and knelt to pour 3 bamboo-ladlefuls of water on the small golden Buddha statue standing in the pool of a golden bowl. I then followed along to the next alter, bowed 3 more times (all the way to the ground) and was gestured to pick up a scroll from the pile on the table. I took this with me to the large gong where I was to give it a good hit- my first attempt was deemed too weak by the attendant who told me with a smile to go ahead and hit it again harder. This I am told is to wake yourself up- perhaps your spiritual self? Then I moved on to the Priest-like monk standing at a table with little bowls. He instructs me silently: take a pinch of this and rub it into your hands (some kind of spice?) take one of these (a clove) and eat it, now put your hands together in prayer. I close my eyes as he sprinkles me with water from the branch of leaves he dips into the last small bowl on the table. I do feel blessed.
At the last alter several people sit in robes in a silent prayer or meditation, they have almost become part of the alter itself. I bow 3 times and turn to face my waiting friends who happily gather to read my scroll which I have not yet untied. Of course the meaning is hard enough to decipher in Chinese so they are stumped by the translation. We bring it to at least 5 different interpreters who all give me a slightly different angle on it. I delight in seeing all that these few words can contain. Of course I have yet to find a concise poetic translation in English but the gist of it was that if I listen to the rhythms of my instincts/self then I will find enlightenment/ peacefulness like a cool breeze and the wonderful feeling of that moment will last forever (meditation, readings, teachers are all ways you can help find your own voice but they are not necessary). Anyway, it was a lovely morning and the cool breeze was indeed refreshing in the heat of the sun.
It happens that that day I also met a friend of a friend, an aboriginal from the Tarogo tribe who would later bring me to see his people's land and this Puyuma tribe dance ceremony here in Taipei. More on these adventures in the next entry.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Laughing all the time

Yes, I am laughing all the time. The food I eat, the clothes I wear, the mistranslations in conversation or on store signs, the instructive drawings in elevators depicting people catching fire or happily playing a game trapped inside while they wait for repairs. Of course the captions are in mandarin so these are just the situations as I understand them.

I continue to be fascinated by the food here and I think I finally understand what makes it so unique. As one member of the company put it- the Taiwanese like to take 2 things that seem totally unrelated and put them together just to see what happens. So for example, yogurt and green tea. I think first, umm no thanks, but I sampled some yesterday and was as always very surprised to find it quite scrumptious. Or my breakfast roll the other day of coffee-flavored bread squeezed full with red bean paste and rice milk pudding. How can you not laugh at that? Also there is a whole subcategory of food here which I have created under the heading "dragon food" because it's all named in honor of this favorite creature. Dragon beard is a green vegetable with long curly whisker-like leaves, dragon eyes are eaten dried (and stuffed in bread or as a surprise at the bottom of your tea or all sorts of unexpected places) but when had alone it is suspiciously like eating a dried I imagine it anyway. And then there is the dragon fire fruit which is surprisingly unoffensive but tastes sort of like a pale kiwi despite its daunting exterior of bright pink skin that shoots up in a flame shape. [missing picture]
Then there are the daily conversations like

"Will you bring your mother flowers for mother's day?"

"No, I am not the kind of son who brings flowers but tonight I will appear in her face"

I mean... I couldn't help myself. I had to laugh. Of course I knew surely he meant something much simpler, like "I will visit her" and we got to that eventually but first I had to enact for him what exactly "appearing in her face" sounded like in english. At which he also had a good laugh.

Sometimes I imagine my conversations here like a game of Guesstures or Taboo (thank you dear suitemates of Bdorm for your years of unintentional training) because though intentions and emotions are usually quite clear there is a distinct lack of shared vocabulary between myself and my friends here. So I want to say "relish something" but I can't use the words indulge, savor, or pleasure because those are also unfamiliar. Or I have to explain what "bones" are without using the word "skeleton." It's often a lot harder than you think, but thankfully there are no rules and any method to get the point across is acceptable as long as it works. But as you can imagine there is still lots of room for hilarious misunderstandings. So far we have a great time even with those.
Yesterday I spent the whole afternoon with Ibao who is a Taiwanese aboriginal and one of the coolest people I've ever met. Her age she says is a secret- all I know is she has some gray hair and has done a lot of things already but would have no trouble tackling me to the ground if she ever decided it was necessary. She speaks less english I think than the other members (so we are still learning words together like "feet" and "shirt") but we may talk more together than anyone else. She is always pushing me to really learn the language and find ways to be helpful (when others insist I needn't worry) and I'm really grateful for that. She said to me one day "you are my good friend" and I couldn't have been more honored. Still her friend was shocked to learn we'd spent the whole afternoon hanging out and neither of us really speaks the other's language. Somehow it hadn't even occured to me to be impressed. We get along fantastically.

The last week of walking we had a lot of rain. But the company members are stout believers that the show must go on and so it did, and so did the walking. We covered the drum heads with plastic and ran about the stage in our plastic ponchos covering everything as best we could to keep as dry as possible until show time. I thought surely no one would come and sit outside in the rain for an hour but I was very wrong as you can see by the ocean of yellow still seated before the stage at the end of the show.

After one day of soaked feet in squelchy shoes some of us started creating desperate improvisations to stay dry during the walks. Here I am with 2 of the members with our innovative rain spats made from the sleeves of these rather pitiful ponchos. I think I look like Rosie the Riveter playing Singing in the Rain. Other days we wore huge straw, or probably bamboo hats in the traditional Taiwanese style and I would drape mine with a scarf to shade my face or tie the scarf under my chin to keep the wind from blowing it away. The point is I found myself looking pretty ridiculous most of the time. And I can't help thinking of my parents and how mortified I was as a child to see them contrive such painfully dorky getups (sorry Dad) for just such reasons as too much sun or unexpected wind or rain or whatever. Dad's special way of wearing his hat sideways to protect his neck from the sun or Mom wrapped like an onion in countless layers of coats and shawls because we decided to take a family vacation to the January. So now I admit I have never felt so unexpectedly like my parents. And I thank them truly for what I've come to understand as a certain sense of flair which I am happy to inherit.

Here I am at a fancy meal where every dish held a mystery (back to my theme-song question directed at each new plate: "what's this?!"). Even the tea at the end which was served in this 3-part cup where the leaves were brewed right into the cup and then lifted out when ready to drink. My hair decoration was originally on my plate.

This was one of our non-temple stays. A beautiful old scattering of houses which I think they are in the midst of converting into a retreat/resort tucked into the lush hillside. There isn't a day goes by I don't sit in wonder at how amazing this experience is, thinking how absurdly lucky I am.

And now I am in Taipei where I will stay until the end of June. All new things to learn here but every time I think my free-fall has begun, somebody shows up to show me the way and I am only alone as much as I need to be. I have no doubt I will accrue many more curious and thrilling experiences before I leave this place- a departure date which already feels much too soon.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

What's this?

So, I arrived in Taiwan just over a week ago now and literally hit the ground walking. I was picked up at the airport and driven to the spot where U-Theater was, though they were hard to track as they were on the move. I was let out of the car to greet them and only then discovered that the manager hadn't told them I was coming but was keeping it as a surprise! They were shocked and delighted, greeted me with huge smiles, dropped jaws and hugs and applauded to hear I would join them for the rest of the walk. I was rather abashed.
We took some, and by some I mean countless, photographs as they are being followed by a team of no less than 4 photographers and with HUGE digital cameras and they're also making a documentary. So right, lots of pictures turns out to be routine. We stopped no more than 10 minutes before continuing on (I with them now leaving my luggage in a car) to finish the days 26km walk.
So maybe now I should catch some of you up on what I'm doing here. The troupe is called U-Theater and they are traditional Taiwanese drummers with a presence like I'd never seen before. I met them at the Watermill Center last summer and was so taken with them that they've welcomed me to come along on their 20th anniversary tour in which they are walking across Taiwan down the east coast and now all the way back up the west coast to Taipei where we should arrive in I think another 3 weeks time.

The key to all this walking and to their stage presence it seems is meditation. The only instruction I've had is to put my consciousness in my feet. Or as one girl put it in response to my aching knees "maybe you can put your" and pointed at her foot. So that's what I'm working on. It's not easy but when I manage it, I am astounded at how much easier the walking becomes. And thank goodness because we walk everyday anywhere between 10 and 30 km rain, wind, heat, whatever. Really, I'm loving it.
One of my favorite parts of the day is when we stop for a break (duh) but not just because we get to have a break. Breaks involve the expected sitting, stretching, chatting, water and snacks. but they also include a plethora of mysterious powders, liquids, wedges and balls of unidentifiable substances which the company members add in abundance to their water bottles. So I am constantly trying new things. Of course meals and nights out to the fairgrounds are similarly full of strange new consumables. I am constnatly asking "what's this?" and I can usually expect one of 3 responses: "chinese medicine" or "good for health" both of which I have learned to mean it will be horribly bitter. Or if they can't find the words we turn to the reliable "try. you try" in which case I can end up with anything from coffee flavored vinegar to a surprisignly delicious dessert of tofu and sweet red beans in an icy syrup- which doesn't sound so great, I know- nor does it look so great I admit but I happily ate a full bowl of it last night so I've decided it must be good despite appearances.
We mostly stay in temples where there are large rooms (one for men, one for women) lined with sleeping mats and blankets. Here we girls lie on our backs with our feet up on the wall trying to reverse the effects of the day's walking as they have warned me our feet can grow up to 2 full sizes from all the walking! Which just sounds crazy, but I imagine they know better than I. The temples themselves are each more astounding than the last. The one below should be noted as the elephants have 6 tusks each!

This is a bodhisatva statue at the same temple. One of the earlier 6 buddhas (before the most recent buddha which is who we tend to think of when we say Buddha), this one would sometimes take the form of a woman.

Then sometimes we have half days for walking because they have a performance, or we stop at some historically significant site. Like this beautiful afternoon at the first temple built in honor of Confucious where we listened to several groups of children and adults playing traditional music from the silk road and the Qin (?) Dynasty followed by a casual tea ceremony.

Other times the temples happen to be holding giant festivals like today is the birthday of Madzu, the great goddess here worshipped since ancient times by the fishing people (which is basically everyone on an island). The parade at this temple today is unending, though I am told that it is such an important temple for Madzu that it is practically a festival here every day with people making pilgrimages, carrying idols, dancing playing loud drums, setting off firecrackers, etc..And then some places we go to are blissfully quiet. Like this park once army base now being converted into a giant cultural center. They gave a stunning performance at night and during the day their student group performed in this grove of trees where people sat to watch and children stood among the roots growing down from the branches of these strange and striking trees.