You may someday find it useful,” I said as I handed over a box of snake bite medicine to Sharon. “Last time I was here, I saw two bamboo vipers within five minutes. One of them was right at the edge of our house. Those are extremely poisonous.” I added as I turned the box to look at the ingredients and the dosage printed on the back.
“Hmmm, look at that - lizard skin, centipede, poisonous plants and more. I guess it takes something toxic to remedy snake bite venom,” I pointed to the ingredients. “And dosage; twenty pills for a start, down to ten later on,” I read out from the small print on the box.
“But just a minute - do not use if pregnant. Huh! Why not? In that case, maybe it is also good for abortion,” I quipped. “I don’t think I would ever need it for your suggested application,” Sharon finally snapped back, sort of barking.


But for us, the medicine’s intended use is a necessary precaution. We are opening our Taiwan Alishan project site for the first time to host students, eight students and two teachers from Hong Kong. The students are from an animation class in their school. When they go home, they will create animation films regarding a chosen aspect of what they have learned. They are here to learn a few things from Amo, a member of the Tsou indigenous tribe deep inside the mountains of Alishan.
Former head hunters until the early 20th century, today there are less than 4,000 of the Tsou people remaining. As the Tsou were hunter-gatherers, there is much for city kids to learn from such mountain tribes, who still live close to and depend much upon nature.


On the third day, the students embarked on an overnight outing with Amo, Dr Bleisch and Sharon. There were no tents and they would have to learn to build their own shelter. Food had to be prepared in the wild, after an extended hike in the forest. I, as the most senior in our group, would stay behind. With two days idling and few books to read, I knew I would get bored. My motto to students has always been, “If you find things boring, you are probably a boring person.” So, I had to think up something to alleviate the situation.
As soon as the students left our site, I hitched a ride with Amo’s wife down the mountain. An hour and a half later, I was at the highway junction. I had called ahead and met up with Ah Feng, a woman taxi driver I had relied on before. She would drive me for over a hundred kilometers to a coastal town in the south to catch a ferry to Xiao Liu Chiu, a small island off the west coast of Taiwan. Two hours later, I was at the ferry.


The ride to the island was barely twenty minutes. But it seemed a world apart. I had been here on this six- kilometer long island over two years ago and loved the scenery and the quiet setting. Hardly any cars were on the island but there were plenty of motorbikes.Going around the entire island on a bike would take less than an hour.
It was a Friday and I rented a scooter at the pier for a meager 600NT (US20) for two days. Soon I checked into a small hotel with only eight rooms. The Star Moon Villa (Hsing Yue) with colorful fresco wall on the outside is an obvious imitation of a Gaudi in Barcelona. It seemed a bargain at 2500NT for a night.
However my desire for a revisit wasn’t just to ride around the island. On my last trip, I saw Green Turtles and heard locals bragging about swimming and diving among these marine giants. I wanted to do the same. After lunch, I stopped at a variety shop and bought a swimming outfit and snorkeling gear.


Tsai Cheong-yi, the shop owner, goes diving all the time, and offered to show me the best spot for seeing sea turtles. I didn’t care to join any of the snorkeling schools that go out as a group of ten. So I was delighted to accept his offer. We made an appointment to rendezvous the next morning to head for the beach.
The next morning, we rode our scooters to nearby Mei Ren Tung (Beauty Cave) beach. It was only ten minutes away from town center. Tsai told me there are more than two hundred sea turtles around the island, the largest density in the world for a tiny island the size of Xiao Liu Chiu. Here at this small beach, not of sand but of coral stones washed ashore, there are always a few sea turtles staying year-round.
Though it was only eight in the morning, two groups of ten students each led by a snorkeling instructor had arrived. It took some maneuvering to avoid bumping into them in the water. But I managed to spend the next two hours bobbing in the water near shore. The tide was coming in, making the water a bit choppy and a bit murky. Tsai assured me that on a nicer day, the water is perfectly clear. The coral below also seemed bleached and not many fish could be seen.


Tsai seemed to know where the turtles like to hang out, so I followed him toward the far end of the bay. Indeed, there was one giant Green Turtle in shallow water, barely two feet under water. But the instructors for snorkeling must also have known the same spot, and soon we had twenty some people around us.
They quickly formed a roped circle around this turtle, which bobbed back and forth with the waves. The two instructors kept telling their students not to touch the turtle, yet the pounding surf would push the turtle to all these novice snorkelers with life vests. Some girls would scream out in excitement each time the turtle touched them. The many people with rope literally cordoned off the area and kept the turtle trapped.
I backed off and waited until they had had enough fun and left the scene. Then I closed in and had my special moment with this beauty of the sea. With my iPhone inside a simple waterproof case, I made a series of pictures of this turtle, some above water when the turtle surfaced to take a breath, others below in murky water. I could imagine this big guy must weigh over fifty kilos once out of water, but inside the ocean, it floated with ease slightly below the surface. I was surprised to see close-up how long her front flippers were.


After satiating myself with the sea turtle, I hurried back to the hotel, as this was a Saturday and all the finer hotels had been pre-booked. I had to move to a simple family lodge, belonging to Squid Auntie (You Yee). She is the real auntie of Tsai. At the age of 13, she began selling squid in the market after going far out at sea to catch them, at times two hours out by boat at night. With a life-long occupation and now into her 60s, she’s known to everyone as Squid Auntie.
The following morning, a Sunday, the island became extremely crowded with weekend tourists. It was time for me to head back to the mountains. I took a morning ferry and Ah Feng, my taxi driver, came all the way from Jiayi, over a hundred kilometers away, to pick me up. But I did not want to go rejoin the students quite yet. First, I must make an important stop near Kaohsiung.


Gangshan is Taiwan’s most important air force base and cadet school. Recently they established an air museum with airplane exhibits, including many fighters and even vintage airplanes. Among them was the Airplane “Mei Ling” (named after Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, Soong Mei Ling). It was a C-47 version of the DC-3, converted into a deluxe presidential airplane and used during the last years of the Kuomintang on the Mainland and into the early years after Chiang retreated and moved his government to Taiwan.
For a long time, I had wanted to visit this airplane and photograph its Art Deco interior, especially the cockpit. At our 1939 Exhibit House in Hong Kong, we have a DC-3 mock cockpit. But we are missing pictures of the two side windows, and this visit offered an opportunity to fill that gap. Ah Feng had her GPS map on the dashboard all the time and she punched in the address of the museum – No. 55 Jie Yuan Road.


After we passed Kaohsiung and arrived at Gangshan, we drove toward the address. But as we got to the walled compound, the GPS tracking was lost. I checked my iPad with the Galileo software and again the satellite blurred when I got to the area of the air base. Suddenly I realized that most military bases are blurred, out of courtesy and respect to host governments.
But serendipity kicked in. Ah Feng said her husband was a cadet at this airbase over twenty years ago, graduating as an officer, although now retired from the air force. Quickly she got him on the phone and he readily directed us to the back side of the air base where the new museum was situated next to the airstrip. As a senior, I got in for half price.


The huge exhibit hall had many older airplanes suspended mid-air, including early bi-planes and smaller jets. My eyes immediately caught sight of the white C-47 sitting on the ground, with blue stripes on its side. The name “Mei Ling” was imprinted right behind the cockpit window. I asked one of the caretakers about getting inside.
To my dismay and disappointment, the airplane interior is restricted and out of bounds, like all other airplanes on display. I satisfied myself by only photographing the outside as I walked around its base. One consolation prize was next to the C-47; there a P-40 Tomahawk of Flying Tiger fame sat peacefully, very much a sleeping tiger.
Another unexpected consolation prize, perhaps more unusual than the C-47 and the P-40, were several airplanes on display belonging to the Chinese Air Force of the Mainland, the People’s Republic of China. Among them was an IL-28 Beagle Light Bomber painted in green with the Red Star and imprint of the numbers eight and one inside the star. That was the emblem of Chinese military forces. Two guns protruded from the back where the tail gunner would cram himself in in flight. This Soviet-built airplane defected from China to Taiwan in 1965 with three air-crew onboard.


The other three Chinese Air Force planes were a MIG- 15 and two MIG-19s. The MIG-15 defected in 1962 and the two MIG-19s in 1987 and 1989 respectively. Descriptions in both Chinese and English depicted the specifications, ordnance capacity, and performance of each model, and names of the pilots who flew them across the Taiwan Strait. Nothing however was mentioned about the one million US dollars with which each defected pilot was rewarded, something much publicized during the height of the Cold War, when the air was hot and crossing the Taiwan Strait could be a deadly game.
My thoughts momentarily went back to a gentleman I had met some years ago when I delivered a keynote lecture in Xinjiang. Among those attending the conference on conservation and sustainability was Justin Lin. Unlike the MIG pilots who were flying west to east across to Taiwan, Lin was an officer in the Taiwanese Army guarding the frontline on the island of Kinmen, just a “short” distance across the bay from Xiamen of Fujian Province.


“May Day, May Day,” as a distressed airplane or ship would call out on its radio. So it was on a May day and in the darkness of night of 1979 when Lin swam for two kilometers off Kinmen Island and defected to the Mainland. Later he was to gain his PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago under the tutelage of a Nobel laureate. The last I heard, he was the Chief Economist of the World Bank. Certainly by now, his reward must have been far more than one million USD.


I recalled also the evening before I left Xiao Liu Chiu. I was visiting an old coastal fort facing the Mainland. The underground cannon and ordnance position faced the coast of China to the west. It was near sunset and I could see in the distance the setting sun and the golden sky framing two Taiwanese warships patrolling the Strait between Taiwan and the Mainland.
The modern Chinese aircraft carrier “Liaoning” was also supposedly out at sea with its convoy, on its way to Hong Kong to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of the British colony’s return to China. Its fleet of jet fighters were not expected to take to the air; likewise Taiwan’s fighters from Gang Shan Air Base were not expected to scramble. An engagement at sea was highly unlikely, as now the political turmoil of earlier days had been eclipsed. Just like the calm sea in front of me - at least until the next storm arrives.