Part Six of Travel Geek: Documentary Taiwan, explores Tainan during the Fireworks Festival. In this hand-to-hand fireworks combat, people actually soot each other with a barrage of pretty dangerous explosives — many of which are rocket propelled and uncontrollable. But that doesn’t stop this crowd.
The entire town goes up in smoke, literally, all in the name of fun at the behest of the loudest, most dangerous means possible.
Explosions light up the sky from dusk until about 2am. And all the while, people swing ropes of detonating M-80s, live moon rockets and flaming Roman Candles. Throwing caution (and may other dangerous things) to the wind, this festival is more akin to the dashing of the gods, the smothering of the weak-willed and the ultimate game of Smear the Queer with a high school dodgeball team mentality.
I witnessed several people on motorbikes making their way through entire, elbow-to-elbow crowds with two handfuls of shimmering rockets darting to-and-fro, sending people all a-scatter in a raucous rage in every direction. It was a sight I never knew possible, to see crazed hoards bursting through a haze of sparks and smoke as jet-like, spiraling tracers with ember tails exploded in dangerous proximity to the onlookers. Wails of chaotic fear pulsed through this mad scene like banshees letting loose their shrill cries. And all the while, any shadows in the commotion were quickly created and destroyed by the strobing, shooting explosions flickering throughout the multitude.
And at any moment, you realize that the scene unfolding on the hapless saps just meters away could just as haplessly become your momentary reality. In which case, you’d be the one ducking and covering, wincing in preemptive pain. It’s a troubling thought. There’s nothing quite like it, I’d say.
The week prior, trucks haul in tons of fireworks for the event. Throughout the weekend (normally preceding Chinese New Year) they are set ablaze amid a curtain of rope lights, blinking Christmas lights and lit-up lanterns.
The day after the event, it’s like it never happened. By noon, the townspeople will have taken to the streets with their brooms, buckets and bags. And they sweep away all the ash, paper and still-smoldering leftovers. I’m sure it’s like watching ants attack a pound cake from a bird’s eye view. And when it’s all done, the sidewalks, alleys and streets are just as spiffy clean as if the city-wide conflagration had never taken place.
It’s quite a spectacle, indeed. And I even after having been in Taiwan for six months, I’d never even heard about it until a couple of days prior. But once I found out that there was a festival where people shoot fireworks at each other, a team of Clydesdales couldn’t have kept me away. I knew that I had to go document this amazing scene and experience it firsthand.
When I arrived, however, I realized that I was a bit under dressed. It seems that the players in this explosive game sort of cheat a little bit. When I found out about the battle, no one ever told me that they dressed themselves in modern day armor for the event.
When I showed up (in shorts and a t-shirt), I looked around amazed to see people all over the place looking like spacemen who’d recently been left behind, abandoned by their evacuating ship. They were covered head-to-toe in helmets, towels, several layers of clothing and what looked like work boots. Every inch of skin had been covered. They even duck-taped towels to their helmets to ensure that no ricochet or stray mini-bomb would find its way into their only patch of overlooked skin and detonate – taking with it that same overlooked patch of skin.
I was not so prepared, though I wish I’d used some foresight in the matter.
At one time in the ordeal, someone had taken it upon themselves to stack a giant column of rocket-propelled M-80s right in the middle of the street. And without warning, my friends and I were stuck in the middle of what must have been the familiar feeling of close combat soldiers in Afghanistan.
There were explosions all around my head and face. There was smoke everywhere. All I could do was take refuge behind an adjacent column and hope that none of the screaming explosives made their way to any part of me that I couldn’t do without. It was pretty frightening. But, all told, I think I weathered it pretty well. Because the friends that I met there were amazed that not only had I not worn any protective clothing, but also that I’d made it through unscathed – as far as I can tell.
A week later, I’d be hit by a car (that didn’t stop or even slow down at all during the entire process) and leave me with an inch-long scar on my left foot. So I guess Taiwan still made a dent in the Travel Geek after all.