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Mar 31, 2009

Orchid Island

I spend the weekend on Orchid Island with two Taipei friends and my lovely wife (pictures at Facebook). A couple of things about this experience:

First of all, I was delighted to hear an aboriginal tongue on the train announcements as we entered Taitung -- normally the tri- or quadra-lingual announcements stick with mandarin, Hoklo Taiwanese, Hakka and a little English. But that was only a hint at what was to come.

We got on a plane at Taitung airport to make the 25 minute flight to Orchid Island. As we flew in the little puddle jumper, clouds leaked in from outside, fulfilling my childhood dream of being inside a cloud. That was really cool.

Upon arrival, our two Taipei friends met us at the Orchid Island airport, along with one of Jennifer's old diving buddies who lives on the island. We got a scooter. On our way to the hostel we were going to stay at, I couldn't help but notice the huge numbers of goats, pigs and chickens wondering the island. Interestingly, the goats and pigs are tagged to indicate ownership, but they're left to wander as they place, and they're only killed during traditional ceremonies. It was pretty nice to see that, though avoiding pig shit in the road was occasionally tricky.

The island was largely isolated from outside cultural influences until the late 1960's (though the Catholic Church is well established), which accounts in part for the incredibly well preserved traditional culture on the islands. Traditional Tao houses remain, built into the ground. This allows land and stones to act as a wall in front of the building and prevent typhoon damage. Drainage is also well planned, meaning the traditional houses won't flood. I saw one particular building that is already in its 4th generation of ownership, and that owner is an old man indeed.

Most local people over 35-40 can speak the Tao language. We saw an 86 year old man (still smoking and drinking) who can write his Japanese kana and sing songs about missing Japan -- taught to him by the few Japanese researchers on the island during the Japanese occupation. The men still hold traditional ceremonies and many still wear traditional clothes (basically a giant thong). Men build their own boats from wood to go fishing for flying fish, and women take care of planting taro and sweet potatoes. The six villages occasionally have what I think are mock wars. In other words, it's a really fucking cool place.

One interesting note is the extent of the KMT on the island. Party flags are everywhere, local officials are all party members. I think what happens in places like this, which already have a pretty strong sense of community, is that the KMT sets itself up as a combination of the 4H, Chamber of Commerce and a club. So that pretty much assures all local leadership is a part of the group, the local leadership does get influence over local affairs and decisions, they can use central government money to provide certain infrastructure, and over all it seems to make most everyone happy. And it has nothing to do with the unification issue.

The island is just amazingly beautiful -- mountains and ocean, coral reefs and animals galore. The pictures we took don't do it adequate justice. Look up more on Flickr. The place is just astounding!

I'm going again soon.

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