Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Orchid Island

From a distance, as my boat was approching the KaiYuan harbor in a golden hue of sunset, the island looked like a mirage surfacing on the open sea; an island that contains mysterious species that can't be found anywhere else. Indeed, except for the white shelled snail (Helicostyla okadai) that can also be found on Green island, birdwing butterfly (Troides magellanus), Scops Owl (Otus elegans) and Kikuchi's Gecko(Gekko kikuchii) etc. can only be found here.

Geographically seperated from Taiwan, orchid island developed its unique ecosystem and culture. The island was delared as an ethnological research area off-limits to the public. As a result, the traditional culture of the inhabitants, Tao, who migrated to the island from the Batan Archipelago 800 years ago was well preserved. The restiction was lifted in 1967, Mandarin became compulsory in education, increasing tourism... the island is losing its uniqueness fast.

Building boats and fishing are the basic skills defining a man on the island. It may not be rocket science to build a traditional Ami boat, but it's certainly a skillful art. Wood selection in building a boat is function oriented, woods that are highly scratch resistant are use to build the bottom part of the boat whereas hard woods are selected to make up the front and rear parts of the boat in counteracting frequent collisions. 21 (small boat) or 27 (big boat) pieces of wood are shaped precisely in accordance to the parts of the boat, piece by piece the boat is assembled without using a snigle nail in the process. Boat festival is one of the biggest ceremonies on the island. The ceremony is held for ipanitika, boats that decorated with special symbols on the side before sending them to water, whereas undecorated boats, ipiroaun, can set sail without the ritual.

Sending the boat into water is the climax of the ceremony, villagers wear traditional costumes (thong, silver helmet and spear) to participate in the ritual. Males in thongs make ferocious looks while the captain waves a knife to exile evil spirits. They heave the boat and toss it in the air several times until the boat is brought to the sea. After the cruise, a fish is hanged on the boat for prosperity and a chicken is sacrified to the spirit of the boat.

Flying fish come with the black current in the pacific ocean during March to June every year. The traditional way of fishing on the island is sailing out at night; attracted by the light of torches flying fish jump out of the water and fly in all directions toward the boats. To ensure a great harvest, 13 times of flying fish festivals are held on the island during the season, like the boat festival, female participation in such festival is prohibited. At dawn, males dress in thongs and silver helmets gathering their boats at the beach. The elders sing prayers and lead the crowd welcoming the flying fish with their helmets and gestures. Captains of each boat then sacrifice a chicken and mark a rock with the blood for prosperity.

Legendories, taboos, ancestor worshiping and instructions of the elders are guidelines to the daily life of the villagers. While men are out there fishing, women grow water taros which is the staple on the island; by the instruction of elders, caught fish are divided into 3 groups by the texture of the fish: the finest ones for women, the worst for the elders and the rest for men... The island's inaccessibility may slow down the speed of cultural assimilation but the increasing tourism has changed the way that Tao live. The villagers on the island have the most contradictory perspective on toursim that I've ever seen. Hotels, restaurants and bars are increasing in Hongtou (red headed) and Yuren (fisherman) villages on the South-West of the island, whereas elders who still wear thongs and live in the semi-underground houses in Yeying and Dongchin villages on the North-East of the island might scream at you to fuck off when approching. Even in the same village, the conflict exists between generations. It is interesting to see the hospitable young generation inviting tourists to visit their traditional semi-underground houses while the elders greet them with swear words.

By air:
Dailyair is the only airline with flights to Orchid Island, NT$1345/one way (25 min). Flight schedule

By Boat:
Two routes are available, one commutes between FuGang harbor, Taitung and KaiYuan harbor, Orchid Island; the other commutes between Houbihu, Pingtung, KaiYuan harbor, Orchid Island. NT$1000/one way (2.5-3 hours). There is no fixed schedule, so call the ferry companies below before making your trip.

Gold Star Ferry (金星客輪): 089-281477
LanYu Star (蘭嶼之星):089-280290
Grean Island Star (綠島之星):089-280226
Victory Ferry (凱旋客輪):089-281047
Star Ferry恆星號:0912982330

This website (Chinese only) provides online booking; passengers must check in at the Fugan harbor 30 mins before departure.

Motocycle rental on the island: NT500/24hours
LanTien (嵐天): 0963-165258
JiaJia (佳佳):0933-107460
MeiYingMei (美英美):0910-583277
WenWen (雯雯):0937603294

LanYu Hotel (蘭嶼別館): (089)731611; NT400-4000.
Ocean Hotel (蘭嶼大飯店) :(089) 732166, 731037; NT450-4000
TaTaLa (TaTaLa的家) : 089-731635;
YanXiang (原鄉) :(089)731683; NT500-2500, semi-underground houses, recommended.
B &B : visit

Most of the B&B can arrange all kinds of activities such as diving (TungLung(東龍潛水) : (089) 732617, 0937579695) and night tour, etc. Stop by the LungMen harbor at night with a powerful flashlight, you may catch some fly fish in the old fasion way.