The Pilgrimage of Mazu

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Chenlin Mazu Temple
So over dinner one time, my aunt and uncle told me that the "biggest" religion in Taiwan is not Buddhism or Confucianism, but worship of Mazu, the goddess of the sea. They told me that every year, Mazu makes a pilgrimage around Taiwan, making stops at various Mazu temples (which all face seawards, as Mazu supposedly protects seamen and fishermen, etc), and many people take the pilgrimage with Mazu.

And then I forgot this story ... until this weekend. After a conversation between two of my aunts in rapid Taiwanese, I found myself being "kidnapped," not allowed to return home for the weekend with no change of clothing, no charger for my phone, no contacts case or solution, no toothbrush ... and no real idea of where I was going. Except I was going with a bunch of elderly people on a bus somewhere to see some Taiwanese cultural event. Yippee.

So I've heard about these bus trips that old Chinese people take, and there are different variations in the U.S. ... there's the Cantonese kind and there's probably the mainland Chinese kind ... and then there's the Taiwanese kind that I took this weekend. Taiwanese people are very ... passionate, and these elderly people passionately talked and yelled the entire way down to Taichung (where I later learned we were going), even over the non-stop karaoking. Yes, these tour bus are equipped with karaoke machines and those screens turn into mediums through which bad, bad things happen. Ugh.

Anyway, they dropped us off two hours later at a temple in Taichung (know not what it is called), where believers rushed to "bai bai," or pray ... and then there was the food. For some reason or another, this pilgrimage brings endless amounts of free food to anyone traveling along its path. So in the basement of this temple, there were free cold noodles, a free yellow j-ello-like flavorless gelatin ... all dumped on tables in large bowls with communal chopsticks to scoop 'em up. The idea of free food all day had, at first, sounded fantastic to me, but in practice, it just seemed unsanitary. Gelatin was practically force-fed down my throat and I hoped I would not die of hepatitis, and onwards we moved.

Along the parade route

Don't quite understand the girls dressed like Spice Girls, but whatever floats Mazu's boat ...

Another hour on the bus brought us about 0.3 miles away, on the parade route, where tents were set up, giving away free food (some sponsored by companies). More gorging on unsanitary food occurred (I tried my best to refrain, but a girl's gotta eat), and my aunt and her friends stuffed their bags with 2, 3, 5 of everything (buns, drinks, fruits, candies), sometimes trying to stuff some into my bag too. No thank you, I'm (hopefully) returning to Taipei at the end of the night and don't need a heavy bag. Then we began to walk along the parade route -- even in the parade at points -- to get to the Chenlin temple, Mazu's final resting place at the end of her long and arduous trip.

Inside the temple

Inside this temple, the believers again went to pray, and we visited this gold statue in the cool basement (it was in the upper 80s outside). And then we went out to await Mazu's arrival. Pushing and yelling ensued and my temper flared, but for an hour, I watched as characters from Chinese folklore came to life, and a dragon danced before us. And then we left our perch on this giant rock to find our tour bus. Apparently the "arrival of Mazu" celebration lasts for about 5 hours, and we saw just one of those 5.

Like a Greyhound bus, this tour bus made a pit stop midway for people to use the toilet ... even though the ride itself was only 2 hours. I learned that the elderly work on a very different bathroom break schedule, and become very demanding when you express that you don't actually need to use the bathroom. Some of the more vocal complained to the tour leader that they hadn't eaten enough (really!!!) and that they wanted to be dropped off at a restaurant.

If you look closely, you'll be able to see some masked characters on stilts towards the center 


This is where things got interesting for me ... they have (for lack of a better term) fast food Chinese sit-down restaurants roadside here!!! The one we stopped in was a giant, giant room of round tables covered in plastic tablecloth. The utensils were all plastic, and a pot of rice was brought out to each table, along with five or so "prix fixe" dishes. And then back on the road we were ... back to the life I had been so abruptly plucked from.

All in all, not worth it. I didn't know anything about Mazu, didn't know what was going on even during the trip because most of the elderly speak exclusively in Taiwanese and not Mandarin. I didn't know any characters from Chinese folklore, and I definitely did not want to eat any of the free food. Everything I learned, I learned from the internet upon my return. One thing I did learn, though ... say no to anything that particular aunt might suggest in the future. :)

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