Friday, June 19, 2015

Dragon Boat Festival!

19 June 2015

Our neighbor- hood has little parks all over the place - the park across the street is the big park, but there are little parks scattered around, just about every other block.  Makes for nice walking.  And I'm sure it's great for the people who live in this area too.  Many of the parks have swings and slides and such for little kids, but there are also those exercise things for situps, chin ups, etc.  Plus the rocks with carved poems and saying in bright red!

There's one park with crazy animal sculptures - the structure is made from plywood, and then the stag is covered with some multi-colored laminate.  The elephant is covered in all kinds of buttons - just crazy!!!

We went to the night market one evening.  Like many hot tropical countries, the night market is sort of the social center for the town - there are games for children, just about every kind of food is available, and there are stands and shops for general shopping.  Plus the evenings are cooling down, so it's just more comfortable to be out and about after sunset.

We tried going to the National Palace Museum - found a taxi, tried explaining but he didn't speak English and we didn't know the name in Chinese.  We found someone to ask, but he didn't really know what we were saying - he found two other people, they tried to understand what we were saying, and finally I wrote it down.  The man translated for the taxi driver, who happily took us to the National Concert Hall - maybe the Museum was translated as Music?  Palace was translated as Hall?  We don't know, we were so confused!  But, well, the National Concert Hall and Theatre complex was a really gorgeous area, built something like the palaces of ancient Beijing.  And it was all next to a really pretty park.

So what could we do, it was one of the first nice days we've encountered here in Taiwan.  We were by lovely buildings, a large park, and we didn't want to waste the day.  We walked around the park, which turned out to be the Chang Kai Shek park, and the memorial with his name.  It was all really beautiful, and interesting.  Gorgeous buildings, formal gardens, and even some araucarias trees (the ancient trees we found in New Caledonia).  

I also encountered a group of older people doing Tai Chi or something - one of those slow motion movement exercises.

And the squirrels!  Okay, the first squirrel jumped out of a trash can and scared me, looking like a rat - the squirrels are big and dark brown, not grey.  But they really are very pretty squirrels!  Friendly, and used to being fed by people.  Not pushy to the point of jumping on people, but not too shy, either.

Okay, we sort of stumbled into the Dragon Boat Festival.  We usually don't know what local holidays or events are happening before we visit a country.  Some holidays are pretty well known, such as Chinese New Year.  Others, not so much.

And in some countries, there are posters or signs around, advertising lion dance competitions (Malaysia); or maybe there will be a squib in a paper about some event (the cultural parade and fire walking in Japan).

Then there's plain old luck and being in the right place at the right time.

I saw a group of women practicing line dancing one evening in the park across from our apartment.  I went over to find out if I could join, and what nights they meet.  They were just finishing up, but took a few minutes to try to explain their class to me.  They normally would meet on Friday, but explained that Friday was a holiday so no class or dancing.  But they didn't have enough English to tell me what was the holiday on Friday.

A quick search online and I found the Dragon Boat Festival - this is a national holiday in Taiwan, so schools, banks, the government are all closed.  And wow, what a fun holiday!

The Dragon Boat Festival is the third most important festival in Taiwan, after the Chinese New Year and the Moon Festival.  The origins of the Dragon Boat Festival are based in a folk tale.

The story goes that Qu Yuan (sometimes spelled Cyu Yuan) was a great scholar, poet, and statesman who lived during the Warring States Period of ancient China.  (The approximate dates for his life are 340 - 277 BCE.)  Qu Yuan was leader of one of the states, and in favor with the king.  However, his enemies lied and sowed discord about Qu Yuan, to the point that he was exiled from his homeland.  When his region was captured by his opponent's army, Qu Yuan threw himself into the river to end his life and show loyalty to his political beliefs as well as to the king, despite being exiled.

Qu Yuan's subjects searched up and down the river, looking for his body.  This is the origin of the dragon boat race.  (My information sources don't tell us whether or not his body was ever found.)

So each year, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, teams from around the world race up and down the various rivers of Taiwan, re-enacting the search for Qu Yuan.  Really, international teams participate in the boat races, and it really is exciting!

We watched the races for a bit, but had questions, so I found a young woman who spoke English well.  Turns out she was there to cheer on her friend's team - they were last year's champion team!  So, teams range from the small boats (twelve rowers, plus a drummer, a navigator who steers with the rudder, and a signal person), up to the large boats which have sixteen or eighteen rowers.  Each team is assigned a time slot and races against comparable teams.  The race is 500 meters, so the races are over fairly quickly; then the team rows back to the dock, but that part doesn't count.  

Friday's and Saturday's races are essentially the qualifying matches.  The winners of each heat then compete on Sunday during the finals, in a series of races, until there's one ultimate winning team.

And then she had to go cheer her friend's team, so I didn't get the rest of my questions answered.

We aren't sure how the teams are set up, or if teams only race against similar teams.  For example, some teams seemed to be only women rowers.  Do they race against only women teams?  Or mixed teams?  We don't know.

Teams were easy to recognize because they have team shirts and a coordinating flag.  They would do warm up exercises and stretches, put on their life jackets, and head down to the dock.  Race staff would show them their dragon boat, and hold the dragon's head while the team climbed on board, front to back, so that the front people would help steady those walking to the back of the boat.  (These are long narrow boats.)

Everyone would get into position, the drummer would set the pace for rowing, and they'd back out of their slot and go line up for the race.  Now, while the teams seemed to be great at rowing at speed for the 500 meters, some of the teams were really bad about backing up and turning.  It was pretty funny to watch - some were great, but some had trouble figuring out who should be rowing forwards or backwards to turn the boat.  It was one of those Keystone Cops kind of events for some of the teams.

Then an airhorn would blast, the teams would start, and thud thud thud the rowers would dip their oars in time to the drummer, trying to not be confused by the drums on the other boats.  And the same time, teams would be returning from the far end of the river.  

At times there'd be one team that was clearly in front, just racing ahead of the other teams in that heat, several boat lengths ahead.  Other teams would be the clear last place finisher, just way in back of the other boats and losing ground with each stroke.

But some heats the dragon boats were neck and neck, vying for first all the 500 meters down the river!  When watching, it was hard to see which dragon was out in front!  The announcements would broadcast the winners, but we had no idea because everything was in Chinese.  It was thrilling to watch!

Apparently the finals on Sunday are the most exciting event, though, because these are the best teams and they truly fly down the race course!

There are other events - carnival sort of games, slides and bouncey houses for small kids, booths with food and souvenirs - all the normal sorts of things you expect at festivals.

There was one team shirt that was great, black with a gold dragon face on the front.  Unfortunately, they only make enough team shirts for the team - they don't sell them.  (One would think this might be a great fund-raiser for the teams.  But maybe this isn't a very entrepreneurial enterprise.)  But people were very nice trying to understand what we wanted, and to figure out how they could help us.

In all the chatting, we saw two men with Cigna shirts - so of course I told them that was my health insurance company, and they enjoyed that.  We asked how their race went, and they won their match - so, well, what could I do, I had to take their photo and I told them they'd be in our blog.

The city also runs shuttle buses from various points in town to the river park, to ease traffic congestion.  We found the spot for the bus back, although we weren't sure where to get off or where to find a bus back to our area.  But it got us closer, and a few people on the bus spoke enough English to ask us where we're from, what we're doing there, and how do we like Taiwan.  (There aren't very many tourists running around here.)

We'll try to get there on Sunday for the finals, and get some more photos.  It really was an exciting cultural event - and we're also hoping for fireworks in the evening!

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