A Rainy Day in Shifen

FOMO (or Fear of Missing Out, to those of you so fortunate as to not know this malady by its abbreviation) is a terrible thing. I hate seeing or reading about fabulous things happening to other people that I can't now or will ever have a chance to experience. It's why I have never really gotten along with Instagram and why my Facebook is a ghost town of old pictures and zombie Birthday wishes. Sometimes, rather than look at these things, these glorious possibilities, I just put my head down and focus on the circumstances of my own little life, operating under the assumption that what I don't know can't hurt me and that the less I feed my greed for life, the better. Ignorance is bliss, and all that jazz.

On the other hand, I have also structured my life—as much as is possible, that is, given a narrow personal budget—so that I have the opportunity to experience many things my contemporaries may also never see or do. I have lived full-time, for a year or years at a time, in other countries. I have traveled for weeks or months in over a dozen more fascinating locations, from Armenia to Japan. But even so, it is never possible to fit all the wonderful possibilities of the world into your life, and any illusions to the contrary are just that. Illusions.

Still, FOMO hurts like a bitch.

The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival isn't just a festival famous in Taiwan. It routinely makes Top 100, Top 20, or even Top 10 lists of Festivals To See Before You Die (and yes, there are such lists. Of course there are.) Sky lanterns, four feet tall or larger, ascend in massive groups of hundreds at a time, borne upwards as little smoldering embers from a gigantic campfire, burning through the clouds, carrying the hopes and dreams and best wishes of the thousands who attend the festival into heaven. Since mass ascensions of sky lanterns inevitably pollute the landscape (or worse, the ocean) many countries ban them outright. The Pingxi district, however, is blessed with high mountains and reliable wind patterns, which means the land can be cleaned up in the aftermath of this festival.

It's a glorious, magical experience, one that a dozen travel articles urge you to experience and a plethora of travel bloggers gush over as being the highlight of their tour through Taiwan.

And I read all these articles two weeks after the festival had begun.

It's not like I didn't mean to go. I did! It's just that the previous Sunday had rained all day, and the Saturday before that I'd gone to another, non-aerial lantern festival in Taichung. I couldn't do everything, could I? I'd done my best!

But…the articles weren't clear. Some said the festival went on for two weeks, and the day I wanted to go would make it two weeks exactly. Was it two weeks inclusive, or not? I scoured site after site, blurb after blurb, growing ever more irritated and bitchy as I read. The start date was clear, but the ending was frustratingly not so. If I went, would I just see the aftermath of something unique and beautiful that I had just missed? Or would there be some fantastic closing ceremony that I would be lucky enough to catch?

Hmm. It would be six hours round-trip to find out, but I decided to go. Once I decided to go, my roommate and another teacher from our mutual school decided to come along as well. So now there was no backing out without the whole plan collapsing, which for me is always a good thing. I've done a lot of things just because I didn't want to disappoint other people by not doing them.

At least all the reading had done me some good. I knew that the Pingxi Festival didn't take place in Pingxi village, but rather Shifen village, a few train stations down the line. I knew how to get there (Zhunan to Banqiao, Banqiao to Ruifang, Ruifang to Shifen) and when we should leave to arrive a few hours' before dusk. I knew there was also a waterfall in the area, as well as an historic train line cutting right through the center of the town. At least, I reasoned, we should have things to see besides the lanterns, if they were truly finished for the year.

So we went. The trip was uneventful, save that about two hours into the journey I began to wish I'd stayed home, Michelle and Sylvia's disappointment be damned. The weather, so sunny in our home town of Zhunan, was beginning to close in as we traveled north, and as we boarded the historic train and began to cut east, the clouds thickened and spat a drizzle of rain down the windows. At least, having dutifully checked the weather like a seasoned traveler, I had my umbrella and jacket ready.

And the historic train was charming. We slipped through overgrown forests on a track barely wide enough for the carriage, the mountains sliding down on one side into a gorge through which teal waters flowed around massive boulders. The rocks swirled in beautiful, muddy patterns, smoothed by the endless flowing waves. The towns through which we passed were hung with lanterns in colorful shades, spots of cheery brightness in a mid-afternoon drear. And this last leg of our journey soon deposited us in the narrow village of Shifen, where a quick look up the road told us we were not too late for the lanterns!

Three feet into the town, we were all charmed. I'm a smiler when I'm happy; I look, quietly, and I smile, widely. Michelle expresses her joy by matter-of-fact statements of enjoyment. And Sylvia, at all sixty-one years of age, is by far the most artlessly childlike of us all. She exclaims. In a quiet country like Taiwan, you could track Sylvia for miles by the sounds of her joy.

The rain pattering off my umbrella and the thick, low sky seemed to me the perfect weather for the miniature hot air balloon lanterns to fly away in. What good would fire have been in a bright sky? What good would their bold, primary colors have done in a day overflowing with them?

There were no mass ascensions. That part of the festival was truly done with. But it didn't matter. We were one of only a few hundred to make the long trip to Shifen that day, and that gave us ample space to ramble down to the waterfall, no competition for our selfies, and no shoulders to bump up against as we first painted, and then flew, our lanterns.

But all that came later.

Shifen is a village, narrowly clustered around the arterial railroad track that lances through it, crisscrossed in places by the river we'd followed for the last hop of our journey. On either side of the railroad, the town is only a few blocks deep. Fronting the tracks are tchotchke shops and lantern stalls. At the latter, you can buy and decorate your sky lanterns in sweeping strokes with a calligraphy brush, before an obliging and efficient worker flips the balloon upside down, lights a stack of oil papers on fire, and takes both pictures and video of you and your lantern in all the stages of its ascension. At the former, you can buy magnets, postcards, picture frames, and any other memorabilia of this process that you care to.

As the stalls thin out towards the edge of the village, there is the food. And as an enthusiastic connoisseur of street food, I can tell you that Shifen does not lack in the delicious and deep-fried.

As the light was already fading, I wanted to set out for the waterfall first, and save lighting lanterns for later. Also, as the rain was only a drizzle, I wanted to do our walking before it had a chance to change its mind. The others agreed, and we set out of town, stopping only to buy a carton of flaming hot fries and a carton of crispy fried squid.

The waterfall turned out to be two waterfalls, interconnected along the river which, seen up close, was a jewel-shaded turquoise rather than the verdant green it had looked from above. The rain shimmered its surface delicately, and here and there we could see fallen lanterns washed up on its banks, where the wind must have knocked them astray.

The path to the falls led us by a small temple and more souvenir stands, but the temple was another venue for wishes as well, where a small donation bought a brilliant, scarlet polyester ribbon printed with yellow prayers for peace, health, and other good fortune. These wishes were bordered with swastikas, but that poor, abused symbol did belong to Buddhism first. Still takes some getting used to, though.

The temple did its best to provide places to tie those ribbons, as there were statues of horses, elephants, ostriches, frogs, bulls, and dozens of trees ringing the grounds, but each of these was so thickly covered with ribbons both old and knew it looked as if each one had grown a dense coat of polysynthetic lichen to protect it from any more damage. Walking under the trees especially was like walking through a haze of scarlet Spanish moss.

Michelle and I—Sylvia having wandered off, we found later, to not even see the falls at all!—tied our ribbons one after the other, so that we could each film the other doing it. Pics or it didn't happen, and all!*

By this point, the path to the waterfalls was about to close, so Michelle and I—hoping Sylvia was ahead of us, and not dead in a ditch somewhere—raced ahead, got to the falls, took pictures and selfies, and raced back, finding out that Sylvia, having lost us, had retraced our steps and was waiting at the head of one of the suspension bridges over the river. We joked about her temporary power of invisibility—two weeks before, I had lost her again at another lantern festival—while heading back into town.

Now it was time for the lanterns.

We picked almost the first stall we came across, mostly because it—or the lady who worked in it—picked us by tossing a lantern menu in our faces. There are eight colors of lantern, as well as the possibility of combining four or all eight on one lantern, depending on how many favors you want to beg from the sky.

Michelle put her vote in for red, symbolizing health and prosperity, as red is the classic color. Sylvia and I agreed.

Funny how personalities shine through. We each had our own way of decorating the lantern. Michelle, artistic and grieving, wished for world peace and painted a tribute to her mother just passed on her side of the balloon. Sylvia, bemoaning her lack of artistic talent, begged Michelle to draw something over her own wish for world peace and kindness. And me? I'm no artist, and I don't create well on the fly, either. So I wrote a simple, direct list of all the things I wanted from life—See, Create, Do, Peace, Love, Joy, and Cats—in heavy, dripping strokes of the brush and called it a day.

The picture taken of us as we released the lantern is my favorite of the day. As the tallest, I'm in the center, and my whole body seems to lift off the ground after the balloon, my hands curved open and my raised foot pointed. You can see my smile even though the rest of my face is tilted back, following the path of our lantern. The gray sky and neon lights of the town are a fantastic, complimentary palette for the flaming red vessel above our heads.

Once in a lifetime, that moment. The experience can repeat—and it did, later that night, because we sent up a blue lantern, the last one of the day—but that instant can never come again. But it was had, nonetheless, and it will be, I hope, as bright a memory twenty years in the future as it is now, three weeks in the past.

*But I tease; I'm a stalwart photographer, not because I want to share my life with the world, but because I want to share it with myself. So many tiny moments and little commonplaces, precious though they are to us in the moment, are so easy to forget without something to jog our memories. I take pictures of pretty flowers, of busy intersections, of an odd carving on a door, of door handles and knockers, and the food I eat because those things bring back the texture of a day more than the perfect shot of a landscape that you might as well have bought on a postcard. In fact, I tend to buy postcards of the big things because the photography is so much better, the moments so much more well-timed. After all, I'm not going to get up at dawn to get that perfect shimmer of morning light on a mountain top, and one can never control the sunset.

But the little things? Those can only belong to me and my unique experience of the place, and the day, and the time.

Phew! Anyway. Thank you for joining my philosophical treatise on Why It's Okay to Photograph Your Damn Lunch, Just As Long As You Actually Eat It Too.