We visited the Wenmu Temple on Sun Moon Lake two years ago during a week-long trip to Taiwan. It was our first time in Taiwan, and at the end of the week, I remember telling Dahlia, “You know, I think could live here.” Little did I know.
I knew nothing about the Wenwu Temple, knew next to nothing about the religious practices of the Taiwanese. I think more than anything it was an excuse to get out of the rain.
Normally, I’d spend weeks in research. I’d devour guidebooks, pour over maps, sift through blogs and social media. I’d build a rough itinerary with a running list of places we might see, things we might do—a compendium of possibility. I did none of this in preparation for Taiwan, did nothing that could be construed as “preparation.” It’s embarrassing to admit as an experienced traveler. I was only too content to be led around, wholly passive, completely ignorant of my surroundings.
By way of excuse, I was haggard and threadbare after a long, difficult year in Nepal. It had little to do with Nepal, almost everything to do with a dysfunctional workplace, under the (mis)rule of a petty tyrant. I was running on coffee and inertia and little else. Taiwan offered a sorely needed respite, however brief, before we headed back to the States.
We spent time wandering the temple grounds. I can’t describe what I saw, can barely remember what the temple looked like. Much of that trip was like that. I remember the floor was slick and wet. I remember the sound of the rain pouring from rooftops. I remember hundreds of golden bells hanging from string, glistening, but I wasn’t trying to imprint a lasting memory. I wasn’t thinking, better get it all down, every goddamn raindrop. At the time, I was content live in the moment.
But I do remember the circumstances of the photo (above).
It was near the entrance. It was red, about the size of a refrigerator. Encased in glass, a miniature temple and a miniature priest. It was easy enough to see how this contraption worked. Insert the proper coinage and the miniature priest swivels into action, sliding the temple doors and reemerging with a fortune, which he would then deposit for the would-be fortune seeker.
I inserted the proper coinage. The machine stood inert, mocking me. Maybe I should have taken it as a sign.
I’m not superstitious, that’s what I tell myself. Yet I do, quite often, knock on wood to avoid tempting fate. And I can’t help resenting, on a deeply personal level, the seemingly high volume of misfortune that befalls me. It’s as if there’s some malevolent, cosmic prankster laughing his ass off at my expense.
I am a rational being, I tell myself. Yet I invoke the notion of luck to explain so much of what happens, often the things I feel I have no control over, the disasters I’d rather not own. (The successes, however, are almost always self-inflicted.)
So I guess it should be no surprise that I found myself feeding more coins into that pilfering, utterly ridiculous, prophecy vending machine. The miniature priest finally spun into action and out popped this miniature scroll. I slid a pieces of paper out of a plastic casing, unspooled it, and read aloud. Hilarity ensued.
It prophesied a perfect (shit)storm of misfortune, a portentous tsunami of devastation and ruin. As if I could really could’ve expected anything less given the year we’d had.
The last line was the coup de grâce. “Do not lament for the deferred travellers [sic],” it said. Admittedly, a somewhat ambiguous warning, which I translated as “If your friends can’t make it— if they get a flat tire, get car-jacked, whatever—it’s all for the best, really. Given what’s coming your way, they should probably stay as far away from you as possible.”
“Oh my God! That’s the worst fortune I’ve ever seen,” said a Taiwanese friend we were traveling with. She was laughing her ass off. They all were. I shrugged my shoulders and joined them. What else could you do?
Epilogue: It’s two years later. My wealth (what little of it there was to begin with) “be not all gone.” I’m also happy to report that I’ve suffered no major setbacks with regard to fame, marriage, health, or private property. I have spent not a single day in court, so there could be no risk that “litigation be not give judgment.”
I daresay the rumors of my imminent peril were clearly exaggerated. If anything, things are looking up. Knock on wood.