Wong How Man
Lanyu, Taiwan

Fishermen by the coast. “I’d like a window seat,” I demanded to the agent as I checked in for my flight. “Every seat is a window seat,” the agent snapped back. Soon I walked out to the tarmac where a small plane was parked waiting. It was a well-used plane, a Dornier 228, something I knew familiarly as STOL, meaning Short Take Off and Landing type of airplane. Narrow as the plane was, indeed all 19 seats had a window next to the passenger. I’ve only flown private jet with such configuration.

As the twin propellers revved up, I could hear the high-pitch engine noise next to me and some small forward jerks. The pilots must have kept the brakes on hard, waiting for the right moment to release it. Momentarily the plane pulled off with a bigger jerk, and shortly thereafter we were airborne. Out the east coast of Taiwan, the intermittent clouds were hanging low. I was told this entire month had seen rain, all the way from Taipei to the coast here in Taitung. For the last two days before I took my flight, no plane left the airfield for the islands due to bad weather condition. The sun must be shining on my behalf just as I arrived.

Coastal scene.For a small plane, the turbulence could be felt vividly, jostling us a bit up and down as we glided out to sea. I looked down at the ocean and saw the chopping white surf, in between some shades of cloud. I quickly leaned forward and took some pictures of the receding coastline of Taitung. There was no door separating passengers and the cockpit. It was a rare treat to see how the pilots were handling all the controls. Even the center piece radar was visible to my view since I had Seat Number 2C, barely two rows from the open cockpit. The seats were packed full.

Just as I wanted to lay back and enjoy this short ride, I felt a hand at my back. Pulling forward quickly, I turned and looked. There it was, a slender hand of some lady seated behind me, grabbing my backrest tightly to stabilize herself. Perhaps more to stabilizing her mind than her body, she must have never flown on a small plane. While I took this as a joyride to heaven, she must have taken it as a daredevil journey to hell.

Flight with open cockpit. Soon I could see the radar in the cockpit showing a tiny speck of an island, rather colorful as far as such digital images are concerned. We had been airborne less than twenty minutes though it must have felt like an hour, or more, to the lady behind me. Turning and banking the last corner next to the green hills, the plane lined up with the short and narrow runway before letting down. More turbulence hit the plane, as ocean wind hitting the mountain must constantly make waves in the air. Looking down I could see real waves hitting some big rocks along the coastline.

A tiny airport Lanyu, or Orchid Island, has. The plane parked about a hundred meters from the main building and we disembarked. Once inside, I could see a digital machine next to the exit door. Above in large and moving digital display was the current radioactive discharge level at Lanyu. A monitor showed a picture of a factory-like plant where Taiwan dispose of its nuclear waste. Several indices next to the picture displayed in decimal point reading of radioactivity at the entrance, exit, and main building of these premises. I assume it is supposedly reassuring to visitors like myself, that today the overall reading was at 0.0276 uSv per hour, whatever that index meant to us laypersons.

Underground houses. A guy in flip flops held up a sign with my name. He was from the hotel I booked. A group of Taiwan tourists squeezed into his waiting van. The driver, the flip flop guy, gave me the key to a motorbike standing next to the van. He knew I wanted to rent a bike. His van won’t start, so I had to wait to follow him to the hotel. Soon another guy appeared in a bike, fiddled under the hood a bit, and off we went.

Less than half a kilometer out, my bike coughed and choked before the engine died. That’s when I noticed the gas tank was empty and the red light was on. I waved frantically and the van stopped. Not for me, but the van too, had broken down again. The guests were asked to walk the short distance to their hotel by the coast. I somehow got the engine started again and coughing its way to stagger for the last 400 meters to my hotel.

A metal framed hotel that it was. Two storied and I was given my key to an upstairs room. From the outside several rooms had its window broken and with frames hanging outside. And it dared call itself a Resort. Well, I didn’t come for a vacation, so be it. After all, I had the entire “hotel” to myself. The other group was staying somewhere else nearby. I had worried about winter weather off an island and motor biking around, so I had brought lots of warm clothes and even thermal wear, including two thin down jackets. But people were wearing T-shirts and Polo shirts around. Such extra clothing came in handy as I laid them nicely on my bed on top of dirty sheets. They would serve as my bedding, and the jackets as my blanket.

Aboriginal lady of Orchid Island. The owner/manager of the hotel siphoned a little gas into my motorbike, gave me a tiny map and directions, and off I went to the only gas station on the island. But this was not to be, half a kilometer out and the bike choked again. There was something wrong with this bike and I went back to the hotel and insisted on an exchange. Thus ended my motorbike episode when I finally cruised off to the gas station with another dilapidated bike.

With the ocean breeze on my face, I suddenly felt half my age. More accurately one-third my age, as I used to ride a motorbike while attending college when I was about twenty years old. At the time, I had an odd Austrian Puch motorbike, with two pistons yet only one spark plug. While I no longer have the body of a 20-years-old, my mind could still do some magic of transformation. That freedom feeling was beyond words as I whisked around Lanyu Island. The pigs, goats, chicken, and even the people felt part of the natural scenery.

Orchid Island sunrise. Approximately 2400 indigenous Tao people live in Lanyu. At Yeyin and Dongqing, two villages facing the east, their underground traditional houses could still be seen. I woke up at 530am, drove off from my “hotel” at 615, and arrived there to observe the final sunrise of the Year 2013. As they say here, the sunrise here in Lanyu is the earliest for any place within Taiwan, or when they feel like inflating themselves, the Republic of China.

Just as the sun hit the first layer of clouds and painted a most wonderful mosaic in front, I stopped by a tiny shed, Moses Breakfast Cafe, operated by Hsieh Ching-kwan and his wife at YeYin Village. School kids were crowding the counter to buy their breakfast sandwiches to take along to school. Facing the ocean, I sat with my breakfast tea and a special egg roll that the mom and pop of this shed prepared for me.

Hsieh Ching-kwan serving a meal. Moses breakfast cafe. Here at Lanyu by the ocean, there is always a big sky, and a big ocean. To have a tiny shed in a tiny piece of land in a tiny island feels like you own the whole world. After all, that big sky and ocean are just like the front yard of the little house. Wrapping up my thought for the year, I could not help but reflecting also on how tiny some land-grabbing people are, when compared to the sky and ocean right in front of me here in Lanyu. With such wonderful scenery, it seemed almost obscene to think of these mundane and irredeemable souls. But then, the natural world, beautiful as it is, has always been spoiled by us, people.

To end my 2013 on a positive note, let me transform myself to 25 years ago, when I visited an isolated Lisu village by the border of Yunnan and Myanmar. The Christian pastor led in singing their hymn song, Auld Lang Syne. Remote as they were, their spiritual belief thrived and permeated them with joy and happiness. Period.