In Part Three of the documentary series in Taiwan, I visit Lanyu Island. And before I even arrived, I came upon some harsh realities of this part of the country.
Firstly, it’s only on the whim of the boat captains that the ferries disembark. This was troubling since I knew that if I had a more stringent schedule, I’d have been very disappointed about the turnout here. My camera person and I didn’t have to wait long for our trip. But I heard that we were lucky. We were only there for an hour when the boat captain gave the signal for people to load up.
This is actually not uncommon for the area, I’ve heard, though. In fact, the whole of the east coast in Taiwan blends much of an “island feel” into its way of life. Things happen when the initiative of those in charge of the task topples the inertia that resists it. Aside from that, the weather pretty much determines everything else.
Especially here in the south of the east coast, the climactic changes are sudden and often fierce. This is where the Pacific finds its ending point. And the last remaining fetters enacted against it have either been destroyed by the damaging elements or are weathering away to the realm of obsolete.
On the boat trip, there were similar and negative challenges to the comfort most of us expected to have. We all heard that it was a bit bumpy. But what we didn’t hear was that it was three hours long in choppy seas, the “choppiness” of the seas were such that 20-foot swells were common, and that the engine’s exhaust pumped right into the passenger deck, inflaming the sense of nausea by removing what little air was available to quell the initial upsurges of sea sickness.
About an hour in, I started feeling it myself – and having been on boats for a good portion of my life, I considered myself to have a pretty strong stomach. But this was not doing much to keep me from turning quite pale in the presence of people blowing chunks every couple minutes. I fared well until the fumes from the engine made me almost pass out from aerial poisoning. But once I was out on the back deck for a breather, I could feel the blood making its way back through my body, rejuvenating what was previously a circulating concoction of toxicity that could kill a nest of cockroaches.
Lightheaded but aware, I made several trips in and out of the cabin to keep myself conscious. And once we arrived, all the passengers sort of gathered on the concrete harbor to collect themselves for a few minutes before heading off to their respective destinations.
I’d say tourists comprised only about 10 percent of the travelers on board. The rest were native Yami bringing goods and supplies back to their homes or coming back from school to visit their families. So I instantly knew that we were there at the right time of year to bypass the tourist rush (late January).
After snapping a few shots, I had my first encounter with the long, bony arm of Taiwanese law. The Coast Guard was on watch with a few semen at the helm of a wind-worn look-out shack just past the main harbor. And since they were the only live bodies around after I’d stupidly wasted my first few minutes snapping away at the amazing view of the imposing mountains abutting the southern coastline along the boat dock, I pestered them into getting in touch with the locals that were in charge of the motorbikes that were parked in a random place along the concrete boardwalk.
It wasn’t too much hassle to rent a bike. I finally worked out that I’d be renting for a couple days at $NT500/day. There was no need for a driver’s license, a passport or even a handshake. These guys knew that there was no escaping this tiny island without everyone knowing about it. And even if I’d had it in mind to try and skip town, the boat captain was probably related to the bike owner in some way. So, keeping things honest by way of the scarcity of white faces in these parts, it was a quick conversation, and off to see the sights. I donned a helmet, cranked the engine over and set off into the nearest village.
Tribal villages in Lanyu are not what they seem in writing. When you drive through this area, it’s immediately evident that this area was once much more “native” than it is now. Currently, concrete slabs and continuous construction of small buildings takes place everywhere you’d hope to go here. And with every direction boasting Levy’s, satellite TV and rap music blasting out of the sheet-for-a-window cottages, it’s a lot like driving through south Chicago – if it laid against a lush, green hill.
In between villages, though, is where the real allure takes the mind on a pleasant, time-forgotten journey, with its less humanized topography.
Every few hundred meters driving up the east coast of the island, a giant, overhanging ledge would spew up a giant, bluish mist and fill the chilly air with a palpably salty fragrance. If I wasn’t on the bike, I’d think I was flying through a sea of clouds that took on the hue of a glacier and filled my nose with the essence of table salt.
I’d stop and snap a few shots as humongous surges of ice-blue water thunderously beat down against the jagged, weathered, charcoal-colored rocks below. It was a vivid pallet for the senses. And the grime in the air added a tone not unlike the old harbors of the south Maine coast. All that was missing was the infrequent clanging of the offshore brass-bell buoy… and the incessant screeching of giant seagulls.
[baby goat shot]
I’d stop between every village and climb around on the rocks, snap photos of the free range goats. We even took the little off-shooting roads to see where they’d lead. We came up on this open field where this particularly brave batch of them let us approach quite closely. And I almost stepped on this little infant goat (what is the name for them anyway?). It was cute. The camera person thought it was a good idea to pick it up. And by all appearances, it seemed like the natural thing to do. This cute, little, scruffy animal seemed about as threatening as a marshmallow at a campfire. But I knew better. I knew that this little guy was born with a set of chompers and jaw muscles that would just as soon take off with my finger as sit there and continue to look cute. So I let it be.
When we arrived back in the original town that we’d started at, we asked around until we met an English-speaking native. Her name was Zoe, and she was on the boat with us. She’d returned along with a few others from the mainland for the college break to catch up with family at the onset of the Chinese New Year festivities.
She and her friend invited us to stay with them in one of their extra rooms. It was bare-bones. But it was workable. The room itself was spacious, or perhaps it felt that way because there was literally nothing in it. We’d brought our sleeping bags with us for the road trip around the southern tip of the island. So we were prepared to have colder weather. But it’s a good thing, because without those, we’d have had nothing between us and the hardwood floor underfoot.
But for what the accommodation lacked in amenities, the family more than made up for in hospitality.
As soon as we arrived the ladies invited us over to their house for a midday lunch that was cooking in the kitchen. We sat down and the women started hitting on me – it was uncomfortable. But we made it through the meal and headed back to the room for a siesta.
That night we found out just how difficult it was to get a hot meal at night. The shops closed up pretty early, and if it wasn’t for a neighboring grocery/everything-else store, we’d probably have gone completely without food for the rest of the day.
We managed to score some noodles and hardboiled eggs for about three times their normal selling price on the mainland. But it was what we needed to finish off the night and we slept until the morning.
The second day was much like the first, with the exception of increased difficulty in finding food. But we knew enough to plan ahead at that point – and we knew right where to go for provisions. So we were spared of a night full of tummy-grumbling and slept soundly. That is, we slept soundly until the storm hit in the middle of the night which shook the floorboards underneath us until the early morning.
And it was that fateful storm that would also prove to be quite a first-perceived wrench in our plans.
We’d started the road trip with the intention on going all the way up to the gorge in the car and camping for a night there. But the storm had left the sky above the southeastern coast with enough remaining pressure to churn the seas into a roiling, non-navigable fusion of combers and gales. So, while I was disappointed that we’d be missing out on Taroko Gorge (which I made up for by filming later), I was okay with maintaining my current status of “alive” by staying on the island until the high winds passed.
In any case, there were no boats adrift today. So our opinions on the matter were about as persuasive as a prey’s appeal to a predator.
And this turned out to be a good thing in the end. Because when the family found out that we’d be staying another day instead of taking off that morning, they invited us to eat this huge meal chock-full of all the local delicacies.
Soups seasoned with local herbs whose names I’ll never be able to recall; a stack of locally endemic potatoes, squashes and other root vegetables; and a variety of teas and other hot drinks – these were all meted out with dizzying generosity on our last day on Orchid Island. And this is after a giant pig was butchered, quartered, divvyed and shared with bottle after bottle of Taiwanese booze. By midday, we simply couldn’t keep up any longer.
We passed out to a drizzle plinking beats in the tin roof overhead and awoke in just enough time to make another pass around the island before savoring our last moments in Lanyu with the guest family that evening.