The Spirits of Lanyu
Lanyu, or ‘Orchid Island’, lies about 60 km off the southeastern tip of Taiwan. It is not the tropical paradise the name implies. Few orchids grow on the hills which have been deforested by the Taiwanese in the sixties. The majority of the inhabitants of the typhoon-lashed island scrape a subsistence-level existence from narrow terraced fields carved into near-vertical slopes. The main source of protein is fish, often caught with harpoons in the rough seas.
Lanyu’s links to the mainland are tentative. Occasionally, a plane-load of visitors arrive for a brief stop-over to gawk at the native Yami people and their distinctive wooden boats. They snap a few shots and then leave. By the looks of it, there is little aid from the government and little interest in the island except as a nuclear waste dump.
The island numbers a few thousand, mainly Yami inhabitants, six villages, two hotels and almost 98,000 barrels of low grade nuclear waste in an official storage facility at the south coast; several hundred more were recently unearthed near the village of Yeyou on the west coast.
There is scope for tourism: the ‘Orchid Island Leisure Hotel’ in Yeyou operates a dive-centre, but it was off-season, and I was the only foreigner on Lanyu.
Getting there had not been easy. It turned out that I had just missed the boat and another wasn’t due for two weeks. It took a whole day and a futile trip to the harbor in Taitung to establish in sign-language and pidgin English that there would be no alternative but to fly. Taiwan’s domestic airlines have a history of crashing and, judging from the price of the ticket, they did not invest heavily in passenger safety. I looked at the single propeller plane with trepidation, telling myself that it flew the route every day and wasn’t any more likely to crash today than yesterday or tomorrow. Sixteen passengers fitted into the tiny aircraft, mainly returning locals clutching bundles of newspapers and shopping bags.
A small plane makes you appreciate the physics of flying a lot more. The engine rattled into life and we hobbled down the runway, then the ground fell away with a sickening lurch. The world dipped sideways while the pilot briefly fought with the controls. After a near vertical ascent and a steep turn, we were over the ocean where turbulence battered the plane before dropping it several hundred feet towards the white-capped waves. “Bit windy today,” the pilot muttered as he pulled up the rudder. He spoke English on account of having a foreigner aboard and I smiled self-consciously. The other passengers smiled back.
I had been warned that the locals were not necessarily friendly. They resent being stared at by visitors – their abject poverty forming the backdrop for quaint holiday photos – but I did not carry a camera and found the cautions unwarranted. Hitchhiking, I had been told, was near impossible and public transport was non-existent, but that did not deter me. I had my tent, water bottle and dried food and had planned a walk around the island. Some of the suggested routes led up the steep slopes into the interior but I was deterred by the scree, thorny vegetation and possible encounters with snakes and wild pigs, so I decided to stick to the coast.
Within minutes, a battered scooter pulled up next to me. It was driven by a reedy woman who could not be more than half my size; her taut features shaped by a lifetime of toil in the fields. She grinned, revealing betel-stained teeth and patted the seat behind her. We skidded off on the gravelly road. With her slight frame and my considerable weight and bulky backpack, I was worried that she might lose control over the scooter at any moment, but she swept around the tight bends with not a care in the world, occasionally expelling dollops of blood-red betel juice and grinning at me over her shoulder. I mostly kept my eyes closed, only occasionally stealing a glance at the magnificent scenery.
I did not do much walking that day. Two lifts later I was deposited in the village of Tungching, halfway across the island. It was late afternoon and I had to find somewhere to camp. According to the guidebook, permission is usually granted to pitch a tent next to a school or church. Sharing tea with my latest benefactor in her house I tried to convey this. Eventually she realized that I was asking for a “place to sleep” but she did not understand “camping” or “tent” so I suppose this activity is not as common as the guide would have me believe. Instead she assumed that I wanted to impose on her.
“Very sorry,” she explained: “We have not much…” she indicated food.
The house was sparse, more of a concrete-hut really. When I had asked for water, I had found that even this was a rare commodity. Shocked, I only added a small splash to my bottle. These people had next to nothing and now I had put my host in a position where she lost face. In this stark environment that appeared to be less of a problem than on the mainland – poverty was a fact of life here and plain for all to see. I smiled apologetically and shook my head: “No, no, it is not what I meant.” I pointed up the road: “I have a place to stay, there!” When she looked at me questioningly I smiled a little harder and nodded emphatically: “It’s OK! No problem!”
No problem – apart from the fact that I would have to camp away from the village somewhere in the shrub among the snakes and wild pigs. This was not what worried my host, though. “Be careful,” she whispered as she led me to the door: “At night, the spirits…” she cast a worried glance outside.
We waved good-bye and I walked down the road. A few bends past the village I marked a pylon as reference point and walked into a dense growth of gnarled, stunted trees which formed a narrow patch of jungle between the road and the sea. I could hear the waves crashing onto the rocks nearby.
Under the low canopy, the air was perfectly still. It was five thirty and already the shadows lengthened. I looked around for a suitable clearing and erected my tent, a well-practiced routine. Within ten minutes everything was in place where I could find it, even in the pitch dark – I never carry a torch because I do not want to draw unnecessary attention to myself. Not that this would be a problem here. Away from the larger villages, nobody was likely to venture outside at night.
In the fading light, I took out my cigarettes and a small bottle of kaoliang (the local fire-water) which I had bought in Taitung. This particular brand was an off-yellow colour. I assumed it was a local specialty but it tasted like bitter cough syrup. No matter. It would get me to sleep.
By six darkness fell as abruptly as if someone had flicked off the lights in the sky. Gradually the blackness gave way to the silver sheen of a full moon. In the soft breeze that had picked up, the gnarled twigs and shadows seemed to dance and claw at my hidden campsite.
The kaoliang had induced a pleasant stupor and I felt almost ready to sleep. Just a little bit more…
Thoughts about ghosts and spirits entered my head. Sitting in my clearing on this tiny island off the eastern tip of Taiwan I felt the same eerie suspense I had felt at nights in the jungle of the Congo basin, where I had not ventured outside the protection of the villages. It felt as if I was being watched by something waiting to pounce. Other than wild pigs and the occasional bull, there are no large animals on Lanyu. In Africa it might conceivably have been the wildlife that kept me inside. Here it was something more sinister. I stared into the shadows with baited breath and felt my grip on reality slipping.
Don’t be stupid, I thought: there is nothing there. What can there possibly be? Go and look! Bad move. I crept closer to the dancing shadows, my head starting to spin.
See? Nothing. Hold on…what’s that over there?
I staggered on, fumbling my way around rocks and stumbling over twigs, careless about the noise I was making, careless about snakes. Faster and faster, breathing heavily, I ran flailing and shouting into the moonlit night.
At long last, I regained my senses. The sound of the waves was louder here; I was near the coastal fringe of the forest. Not far to my right, I knew, there was the road. But I had run away from my tent, I would not find it in the dark – not by the now fading moonlight.
I crossed the road and huddled in the cover of the trees. At first light I walked up the road to ‘my’ pylon and located the tent. Both mosquito net entrances were open, I had wanted the stale air to circulate, to dry out my clothes which were slightly damp from the day’s drizzle. There had been no mosquitoes but instead there was other insect life. When I woke up with the sun high in the sky, the first thing I saw was a long-limbed smaller cousin of the common cockroach squatting next to my sleeping bag.
I blinked and looked around, making out the blurry shapes of dozens of its brothers who had found refuge inside from the moist, leafy forest floor. It took a while to locate my glasses, carelessly displaced during last night’s drama. Still blinking in disbelief, I shook out the tent as best I could (which wasn’t good enough as it turned out; the little forest roaches would pop up periodically during the remainder of the trip), then packed up and staggered back onto the road, suffering the beginnings of a killer hangover and a parching thirst. I drank the last swig from my water bottle and unfolded a small packet of dried meat.
A dog with short black-and-brown fur appeared by my side apparently from nowhere and looked at me with moist eyes. “What?!” I grumbled but tossed him some of the meat and the dog followed me down the road. In a way it was nice to have a companion for my island walk. We crossed a deserted bay with a stony beach. The waves broke on the reef just offshore. I wondered what snorkeling here might be like. I carried a mask but was too self-conscious to strap it on and dive into the sea. I still felt watched, this time by locals rather than ghosts, and I thought about sharks.
Water was going to be a problem, but just like a fairytale, my small act of kindness was repaid. The dog stopped at a deep puddle and started lapping. Freshwater – thank God. I filled the bottle and dropped in a purification tablet, hardly able to wait for it to stop fizzing.
Back on the road I accepted a lift from a passing scooter. I felt sorry about leaving my companion but I did not want to take the chance of another night in the open and was grateful to get a little closer to civilization. The dog ran behind the scooter for some time before giving up, tongue lolling from his mouth. I felt a prat at abandoning him after luring his friendship.
From Langtao, the northernmost village, I finally got a chance to walk. Jagged rock formations loomed dark against a steely sky, next to the moss-green slopes. A fresh breeze drove drizzle into my eyes. The sea had eroded the black volcanic rock into caves and pillars. The wind whistled around the columns of this stone cathedral, playing bits of rubbish strewn about. At the foot of a steep drop I stumbled across a kid-goat, its neck broken, death drawing a milky-blue veil over its vacant eyes. I looked out over the desolate, windswept beach towards the churning sea. Even without the nuclear waste barrels (of which I was ignorant at the time), the place had a definite post-apocalyptic feel to it. A forbidding land of wild and untamable beauty.
In Yeyou, I found shelter in the ‘Orchid Island Leisure Hotel’, settling for a twin room when the proprietor claimed that the dorm was closed out of season. After a long shower, I explored the culinary offerings of the little town. Earlier I had spotted several roadside stalls, indicating a night-market. Now, after dark, delicious BBQ smells wafted up the streets. I smiled at the vision of sizzling chicken skewers and squid.
The stalls were practically in touching distance when somebody called out to me. Behind an open door, a group of young women squatted around a low table laden with tea bowls. One of them waved me to join them. She and her friends wanted to practice their English and we chatted for a while, downing countless cups of tea. At last, one of them got up and placed a wok onto the stove, then took a long, thin salted fish another handed to her. I took that as a cue to get my own dinner.
“Oh please no, you must stay!” they begged.
I shrugged and sat back down. Within minutes, the cook had concocted a bowl of saltfish with taro and greens. Everybody helped themselves. “Go, eat,” they prompted. Figuring that this one bowl was probably going to feed all four of them, I took a small mouthful (it was tasty) and then declined. “It is delicious, but I have just eaten. I am sorry, I cannot manage!”
So I finally said my goodbyes. But to walk up to the stalls was unthinkable, I would be seen and my hosts would deem their offerings inadequate. With an inward sigh, I returned to the hotel and soaked some of my packaged noodles in the hot water provided in my room.
On my final day, I strolled back past the airport to the village of Hungtou. I was relieved to find the ‘Lanyu Villa Hotel’ open, although the proprietor was not pleased when I asked for a dorm bed.
That afternoon, I managed to hitch a lift to the weather station with a group of visitors. They departed later that day which left open the question of what to do on my last night on Lanyu. The sleepy neighboring towns of Hungtou and Yujen did not bode well for nightlife. But I had not ventured far from the hotel, searching for a noodle-stall, when I was surprised by music and laughter echoing into the street. Lanyu’s newest (and only?) nightspot, the ‘Jiu Bar’, had opened just a few weeks previously. As a foreigner, I quickly became the centre of attention for the select crowd of pretty young things and we danced and drank until the small hours.
Walking down the street to the airport at 7:30 in the morning, I saw men sitting in ramshackle sheds downing kaoliang and beers, relieved to have lived through another outing of spear fishing. Already, the women were gutting and salting down the day’s catch – refrigeration facilities are still woefully inadequate on Lanyu.
One man walked down the street with a magnificently coloured fish which made me regret not to have gone snorkeling after all. Later I spotted him among the passengers in our little 16-seater plane. He held on to the fish on the roller-coaster ride back to Taitung and emerged from the airport into the bustle of the Taiwanese town still proudly clutching his prize, but now looking vaguely out of place.