Taiwan: Slippery When Greased
By Chris Pady
I balance perilously on my teammates shoulders, at a loss about what to do next. I would love nothing more than to wipe the beads of nagging sweat scurrying down my face, but my hands are covered in grime, and I am afraid tobring them near my eyes. The noise, a combination of people screaming and music, is so loud that I can barely concentrate. Next to me, my teammate, Scott, also perched on trembling shoulders, swings his right leg upwards, trying desperately to reach the loop of one of the footholds. His attempt to secure footing fails when the foothold unravels as effortlessly as a ribbon on a gift. With only a greased up pole to grab onto in desperation, he inevitably loses his grip and plunges a good ten feet before landing awkwardly on the thick-roped netting below. We anxiously await his reaction before assessing the damage and collectively breathe a sigh of relief as he struggles to get up slowly—visibly shaken—but with all limbs still intact.
As I lift my head up to get back to the task at hand, my eyes meet directly with the mammoth TV lights. The glare is so strong that I feel like I'm looking directly into the sun and must avert my gaze skyward for relief. And what do I see? The moon, plump and full, smugly overseeing the proceedings. The whole situation is so surreal that the question hits me as hard as Scott's thud of a landing only moments ago, “How on Earth did I get here?”.
The story of how I came to participate in this unique festival native to southern Taiwan begins when I received a text from a friend from the Isle of White named Siv. A voracious seeker of novel experiences, he asked if I would be willing to skip a day of English teaching to be a part of the first ever foreign team to compete in the Chiang Ku, or—as it so eloquently translated into English- the Sacrifice Pole Grab festival in Hengchun. Though I hadn't the faintest idea as to what I was getting myself into, I could not turn down such an intriguing offer. The next thing I knew I was on a chartered bus with a dozen other foreigners headed southbound towards the town of Hengchun, for what would turn out to be the most bizarre and memorable experience of my stay in Taiwan.
We arrived at the site in the afternoon. The tower could be seen from the bus, rising threatingly high over the old city wall. After a bus ride filled with optimistic discussions about speculative tactics and strategy, the menacing tower looming outside began to plant the seeds of doubt in some of our minds. We were in over our heads. No one expected the tower to be that high. We hastily disembarked from the bus to get a closer look.
The tower consisted of four massive poles, each about twelve metres high and caked thick with gooey beef tallow, one connecting to a platform at the top. The Chinese characters for north, south, east and west were painted above each pole to distinguish the teams. On the top platform, stood a small tree with a dead chicken strung to a branch. The concept was simple enough: the first team to reach the top and claim the poultry wins.
Using denial to mask my fear of the daunting task ahead, I diverted my attention towards watching people carryout the myriad of oddjobs that needed to be completed before the big show. The techno music pounding out of the massive sound system did not help to make me feel any more relaxed.
The conspicuously huge television lights began heating up, gradually increasing in intensity as the start of the event grew nearer. Enticing smells wafted from some of the food stalls, and I succumbed to temptation by purchasing a piece of bbq'd squid to curb my hunger as I made my rounds. The older lady in the stall, chewing on bing lang (beetle nut), was surprised to see a foreigner and reacted by flashing a toothless smile from a mouth stained permanently red.
Having been a long-time resident of Taiwan, I was accustomed to the minor celebrity status one attains being a wai guo ren (outside country person). Therefore, I was not the least surprised when a Taiwanese man in his sixties struck up a conversation with me. He, like many of his fellow countrymen, was short but strikingly muscular with tree trunk thick thighs and thick arms and calves, the physical consequences of countless hard-working generations. He exuded vigor and might have been in better shape than most western men in their thirties.
His name was Mr. Su, and he spoke exceptional English, having lived in both the States and England. “My English is at a very high level,” he repeated throughout the night, in case I would dare to start to think otherwise. The Taiwanese can be a very proud people, and sometimes this pride can resemble boasting to the uninitiated. He spoke with a heavy accent, which I can only imagine is what prompted him to pick up the quirky habit of spelling out words for seemingly no other reason. He would say things like, “This event is phenomenal. P-H-E-N-O-M-E-N-A-L.” Mr. Su's firm grasp of my arm forcefully led me to where fold-out chairs had been lined up for the pre-event entertainment. I willingly went along, but the truth is I didn't have much choice. I asked him about the Sacrifice Pole Grab. “Oh yes, I did it ten years ago. Too much glease! G-R-E-A-S-E,” he said, laughing and shaking his head wildly.
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