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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Lanyu - Day 1

The ticket cost 1400 NT, or about 45 US. I went through the small security area and up to the departure lounge. Then the group of us waiting, about fifteen in all, walked out onto the tarmac towards our plane. The plane was small, little taller than the van it was next to. I told my stomach to relax and went on board. The flight turned out to be quite smooth, despite passing through some dark gray clouds out over the ocean. In fact, it gave me an opportunity to take some pictures from above of the farmland near Taidong and on approach into Lanyu.

As the island came into view, and then came closer still, I felt as if I was in Jurassic Park, the scene where they first come to the island surrounded by clear blue water and mountains covered by jungles. Ahead were the mountains, some rising as high as 500 meters, and below, water near the shore a brilliant turquoise that would stop me in my tracks several times over the weekend as I walked around both Lanyu and Green Island. As we descended, we passed over a school and its track and then we came lower and lower over the water, with no land in sight. No more than ten feet below I saw water, and then large stone pilings. Five feet below, and finally land. When the plane came to a stop and I disembarked, I saw that the airstrip was sandwiched between the ocean and a steep hill, with very little room for maneuvering between the two.

Now I was on Lanyu and I had accomplished my most basic goal for the weekend. Now I had to figure out what I was going to do now that I was here – those little details like where I should stay. There was an information counter at the airport, but nobody was there. I saw the foreign guy who had been on the plane and I asked him if he knew whether or not there were shuttle buses from the airport to the few hotels on the island. He did not know. A group of Taiwanese saw me and asked if I needed help. I explained to them that I was not sure where to stay and that even if I knew where to stay, I did not know how I was going to get there. They suggested I rent a bike and I told them I was planning to walk around the island. Then one of them told me they were staying at a minsu (民宿) – a homestay – with someone they knew living on the island and that if I waited they could ask him if he had rooms. I was doing all of this in Chinese as they spoke limited English, so my head was spinning a bit. Throughout the weekend, though, I found that being able to speak some Chinese was an invaluable tool and it both saved me a lot of trouble and provided unexpected opportunities.

The man who owned the house and his friend gave myself and the other foreigner a ride to the house. It was in the village of Hong Tou (紅頭) and was very nice. Sadly I can not find the name card they gave me to pass along the address, but if I do I will pass it on. The owners are an aboriginal couple, with the wife quite obviously expecting a child. We decided to stay and share a room. We then introduced ourselves. The other foreigner, a Brit named Shaun, who I figured was another teacher in Taipei had actually come to Taiwan to travel for a month and Lanyu was one of the stops along the way. I was a bit shocked to hear this, as I think he may be the first person I have met who did not come to Taiwan for business, to work, to study, or to see a friend living here.

After setting our bags down, we headed out. We both like to walk, and we decided to head south. It was a little after eleven when we left, and due to my excitement at having arrived, I did not yet realize the following facts: that I had been almost sleepless for almost 30 hours, and that I had only eaten those two danbing (蛋餅) way back at 6:30. We headed south. The temperature was comfortable, although clouds passed over the island with great speed, which meant the temperature might fall or rise a few degrees every few minutes. On the left, a narrow strip of farmable land led up to the steep slopes of the jungle-like mountains that make up the majority of the island. On the right was the ocean, the beach leading to it rock and shell and coral strewn. On the beach we saw some of the canoes that the island is known for – which are apparently made from 27 pieces of wood that are intricately placed together. They were all painted with a similar black and white compass like design with flashes of red.

The residents of the island are mostly from the Ami tribe, and these canoes represent their handiwork. Over the past several years, it seems that many of the younger members of the tribe have left the island to seek more opportunities to make money. The majority of those who have stayed, as I was to see, tend to be older, with deeply wrinkled skin and mouths long-since stained red from chewing betel-nut – men and women alike. Alcoholism is also a big problem, and this was evidenced by the large quantity of empty bottles of beer and of whisby (more on this later) that have been collected around the island. While walking around the island, both on Saturday and Sunday, Ami that were just sitting around, or passing on motor bike would call out greetings or smile. However, if I asked them to take their picture, or lifted up my camera, they could turn downright surly. Shaun and I found this out almost immediately when we wanted to photograph a woman working in a field.

Lanyu is about fifty km all around, and could probably be walked in a day, if one really wanted to. There is a main road that circles the entire island, for the most part hugging the coast, and there is a second main road that cuts through the island linking Hong Tou with a town almost directly east of it. Shaun and I decided to walk the southern perimeter of the coast as far as the cross-island road and then to cut back to Hong Tou. As we walked, the scenery never stopped captivating me. The island, volcanic in nature and more similar to the Philippines in both appearance and in culture, as a rugged coast line dotted with huge rocks which jut from the turquoise water and possess names like Battleship Rock based upon their appearance. The Ami will make it quite clear that these are not names they have given the rocks, but names that have been given by the Taiwanese. At times the water was so achingly clear and blue that I just wanted to stare at it all day, or find a way to transport myself into it. For all of its coastline, though, Lanyu has no sand beaches, and because of the coral rock formations on the coast, most of it is not accessible to swimming. Shaun and I agreed had the island been blessed with several tons of well-placed sand, its appearance and pace now would be nothing as we found it.

Along the southern coast, we both realized we were getting hungry, and as I had no water, I was quite thirsty as well. Near the nuclear waste facility was saw a group of men out in near the water fishing, and along the road a group of women and children not doing much of anything. A few of the women started speaking the only English they knew (Hello!) and were surprised when I asked in Chinese if they had any food or water for sale. They had water, and they had whisby. The water they sold me, the whisby they gave me. To best describe whisby I would say it is something of a cross between Red Bull, cough syrup, and moonshine. In other words, it is not very good. It packs a punch, though, and thanks to my empty stomach, my limbs were soon nice and loose.

We reached Yehin sometime in the early afternoon, maybe around two. As we approached the town, the first thing that we noticed was that most of the houses were literally underground, only the tops of their roofs visible in the grave like holes the buildings had been place in. To get an idea of what this looked like from above, skip past all the writing to see the pictures posted on 3.28. The town was quiet with little movement, and we decided to see if we could find a place to eat. Past the buried houses were one and two story above-ground buildings where we hoped to find a restaurant. I was informed by two young girls who took great pleasure in laughing at my Chinese that there were no restaurants in the village but that we could buy instant noodles and munchies at a small, dusty convenient store that was more of a garage with shelves of food than it was a store. We ate here, while a man and woman spoke in an island dialect and the kids continued to make jokes about my Chinese. After the lunch, I asked a woman which road we should take to head back across the island. She was likely no more than forty-five or fifty, but she looked as if she was at least sixty. She pointed out the road, and then she began talking about her house, one of the buried houses. She asked if I wanted to look at it, and I said OK, knowing that she wanted us to stay there. The town was set up with three main larger roads running down into the main road near the coast. Running between these, then, were smaller walking paths. Leading from the paths were sets of two and three steps leading down into the bunker houses. Next to the house the woman showed us were four Ami tribal women, including one who must have been in her seventies or eighties, and whose face fascinated me with its deep-cut lines and twinkling eyes. Her legs were exposed to above her knees, revealing swollen and wrinkled knees, which hinted at great arthritic pain. The women were kind, and loved to talk. When we left, all but the old woman were moving on to somewhere else, talking and cackling in their native dialect. The old woman, meanwhile, sat and smiled, and kindly informed me when I asked to take her picture that I could not.

The walk back across to Hong Tou was mostly uphill, and offered great views out over the village of Yehin and out into the ocean. Along the way up we chatted with a Taiwanese couple (the guy was teaching on the island for a few months and had lived in America for awhile) and were told that we should definitely go to the weather tower at the top of the hill. With this advice in mind, when we arrived at the point where the road branched to the right and led up, we took the turn. The road was in good shape and would handle scooters just fine. For walkers, it is a little bit steep, but if you have walked around the southern part of the island already, it should not be much of a problem. It is worth the trouble, at any rate. Looking south, one sees the lush jungle-like slopes of Tasenshan (a 480 m high mountain)falling away into the ocean on both sides. Looking north one sees a similar sight, but on a larger scale, as Hongtoushan rises to 522mm and as the island to the north is much thicker around the middle. While up there, I chatted with a young man who is doing his compulsory military service at the weather station. He spoke some English, and he suggested that the following day we go to Tianchi, or Heaven Lake which is hidden high in the hills on the southern part of the island. I thanked him for his advice, and we returned to Hongtou.

Once back in Hongtou, we showered and relaxed on the balcony overlooking the ocean. The balcony is wide with several café style tables set up, and, if one looks past the mess of building materials piled up directly across the street from the minsu, offers brilliant views. I went back into the room after awhile and drifted off. I was awakened by a knock on the door and the sounds of Chinese. The owner of the house was asking us if we wanted to join the group of Taiwanese who had helped us back at the airport. I woke up and Shaun and I headed out with a group of 8, including the owners of the minus. We went to the nearby Epicurean restaurant/bar/café, which is a very nice restaurant, run by an Ami who was educated in England and speaks English very well. We had a meal with 7 dishes, including two fantastic squid dishes and a plate of fresh fish. There were some vegetable dishes as well, from a type of root found on Lanyu that was too bitter for my taste, and some fresh bamboo which tasted very good. As we ate, we I translated as much of the conversation as I could for Shaun, and translated his answers into Chinese for them. This was a great deal of fun, and made me think that maybe I should work harder on my Chinese so that maybe one day I could really do that. What made it even more fun was that a few of them told me I looked like someone they had seen in the movies. I have been told this many times before, for a wide variety of actors (and not all of them flattering – remember the show Life Goes On? Someone once told I looked like Corky…) Anyway, this led to a brief interlude of one of my all-time favorite Chinese language games, trying to figure out how you would say an actor’s name as transliterated into Chinese, or conversely guessing the English name from the transliteration. Great fun, really. All of this only cost 1800NT total, and it did not matter anyway, because no one was going to let Shaun or I pay. After dinner, the Taiwanese group went out with the man at the minsu to look for owls (apparently there are tiny owls that make strange noises living on the island) and Shaun and I went up to the balcony to have a beer before bed.

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