tourism and mythology

last week, i had an ambivalent experience of visiting a natural wonder well worth visiting from a natural history perspective; yet, my visit left me worried that i was trespassing. this feeling clung to me as i trudged through the stinging rain back to the bus station three kilometers away, even though the guide and ticket seller were both fongbin ‘amis

my anxiety comes from two different modes of befriending a landscape. both are valid; and yet, one feels unable to arbitrate between them. in a sense, we might consider them incommensurable: hence, ambivalence

i visited tfon no fulad, or moon cave, after hearing one version of the narrative of the cave from my friend, contemporary indigenous artist rahic talif, who has a sculptural piece based upon the myth now on display in the courtyard of taipei MOCA:

a long time ago, there were an elder brother and a younger sister. the two were caught in a flood and could not catch sight of land. aware that they would die of exposure or hunger out there on their raft on the open ocean, the brother thought, “if i follow the moon as it sets, it will take me back to our island in the west.” he kept rowing and rowing. “ah! elder brother, i perish from thirst!” cried the sister. “wait,” said the brother. but he could no longer see the moon, which was hidden behind clouds. suddenly, as he rowed, the moon appeared again. but it sank into a cave. they had reached land. the brother got out of the boat to see where the moon had entered the cave. “ah! such cold water!” he said. and then, he remembered his sister, who was suffering thirst. he took some of the water in his hands and gave it to his sister. “brother, as you rowed, you sweated, and it relieved my thirst,” she said. the sea had given them a new chance to live. yes, the sea gave them their lives, and so we should respect the ocean. do we today?

moon cave sits on a bluff above the pacific ocean and is filled with fresh water flowing through this part of the coast ranges. to enter the cave, one must take a guided row boat. the cave has been part of a tourist imagination since the japanese colonial period: the japanese paired moon cave–which they thought of as female–with the “manly stone,” a phallic rock outcropping now called the stone umbrella. today, if you visit moon cave, the guide will point out the three varieties of bats which live within the cave, at least one of the freshwater eels hiding about, and a few of the geological features. the cave features fossilized swallow’s nests besides stalactites. in the summer, only female bats live in the cave, journeying out every night to feed on fruit or bugs, depending on the species. the winter hibernation season brings both male and female bats. the guide also points out that other subterranean chambers of the cave system are only accessible by diving. two of the rock features the guide pointed out when i visited resemble chinese deities

the cave is small, even considering the two chambers, one male, the other female. if you visit, do not expect an all day venture or even an hour long boat ride. nonetheless, it is captivating. it is not surprising that the ‘amis people around makota’ay considered the water which drips from one of the stalactites in the female cave sacred water. in the tone of a natural history guide, our cave guide said that the cave was discovered at least 200 years ago by an ‘amis woman, who was healed by its water. in the past, he adds, the cave could only be entered by women. i asked someone from makota’ay about the cave later: “yes,” he said, “that cave was paysin; only cikawasay (female ritual specialists) could enter inside of it”

on the one hand, we have a mode of appreciating and befriending the cave which gives an account of its geological features, origin, denizens, and discovery, adding a few imaginative descriptions of a few of the rock formations (“kuan kong in stone”) to appeal to an audience who might know kuan kong as well as have interests in geology or bats; on the other, a myth and an account of the former situation of the cave within makota’ay ‘amis ritual life. i might add that the issue here is not explicit trespassing: like nearly all taiwanese indigenous people, most makota’ay ‘amis profess some form of christianity. the paysin surrounding this cave cannot hold now that there are no cikawasay; besides, my guide is ‘amis and talks animatedly with me about how fongbin ‘amis are both similar to, and very different from, the ‘atolan ‘amis with whom i live and work

nonetheless, i recognize that there are two ways that we might befriend this cave, even in the present. wouldn’t it be a very different experience of visiting the cave if we were never allowed to enter, and heard only a description and the narrative? or what if we heard the narrative of the cave while sitting there, in the boat?

the natural history mode of befriending the cave has many allies. for one, it promises accessibility, teaches about the value of bat species in local ecology, and provokes a sense of wonder–a kind of affect that supports environmental advocacy. all of these are important. we could ask, rightly, if our lives would be diminished if we weren’t allowed to see the cave. still, i wonder if this broadly humanist, environmentalist approach to the cave neglects another kind of diligence, a type of respect for the other modes of befriending the cave which environmentalism displaces. in other words, this is a site where dominant, eco-tourist environmentalism conflicts with an indigenous understanding of country. it is a site whose ambivalence might be a productive one

i have no ready solutions for my ambivalence, but it has motivated me to produce a rough sound piece on the site.  this sound work might better capture the competing friendships in which the cave is situated (link on soundcloud–mp3 format)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *