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Recapture the past on Orchid Island of Taiwan

Set off the southeast coast of Taiwan, Orchid Island, also known as Lanyu, is a 45 km wide volcanic island with a tropical climate, inhabited by the aboriginal Tao people, or Yami as they are familiarly known. The scenery is impressive with jagged, black, volcanic rocks edging the coastline in dramatic formations, while lush rain forests cover the higher mountainous regions inland, which is where the butterfly orchid that gives the island its name, may be found.

Recapture the past on Orchid Island of Taiwan

Distinctive Features

The Yami, add a distinctive quality to the island, remaining traditional in their customs despite certain intrusions of modern-day life such as television, cigarettes and beer, not to mention the ubiquitous motorcycle, to their island.

Their way of life is said to reflect their Philippine and Pacific island origins, both in their dress and living habits. Many of the older generations still wear loincloths and speak in their own distinctive dialect, and the women, when working in the fields, do not swathe themselves in protective garments as their Chinese counterparts do in order to escape the sun’s rays.

Yami homes are traditionally built semi-submerged under the ground in order to gain sanctuary from the prevailing typhoons that frequently hit this barrier island. However, these structures are now regarded more as testaments to a fading culture than of any practical use. Most of these aboriginal people currently live in modern, concrete, government-built dwellings in the six villages that exist on the island.

Commune with Nature

When considering the unique cultural qualities that do still abound on Taiwan’s Orchid Island, plus its inspiring natural beauty, it must be said that it is an ideal spot for those wishing to escape the humdrum existence led in the cities on the mainland. Life is lived along with nature. Modern convenience chain stores, which proliferate in the cities, do not exist on this island where locals grow their own produce and rear their own livestock. Sheep, pigs and chickens, together with goats, can be seen roaming around freely if somewhat perilously when straying onto the highways and byways that circle the island.

Orchid Island of Taiwan

Fishing, one of the main industries, is steeped in tradition. The traditional canoes used are special in themselves. Each boat is ornately decorated and is thought to possess a soul of its own. Only the men of the tribe are permitted to build and then sail in these canoes, women being relegated to the fields for the cultivation of the staple crops of taro, sweet potato and millet.

The fish caught are flying fish which are considered to be a ‘gift from heaven’ by the Yami. Accordingly, they follow a certain procedure for the storage of this food, soaking it in seawater before hanging each fish up to dry for future consumption. Fresh fish is also prepared in a specific way being divided into three groups: the elders, the men and the women. It is said that if the elders eat fish designated for a different group, they will become ill! This is due in all probability to the variance in flavor and texture that exists in the different gradings of fish, governing its digestibility, rather than any implied divine retribution for such a misdemeanor.

The ceremonies associated with the flying fish, held from March to June each year, form a core element in the cultural traditions of the Yami people on Orchid Island, prophesying as they do a plentiful supply of fish to sustain them throughout the year.

Problems with Accessibility

Going to the island during the winter months, visitors may be subject to the full force of wind and rain, making traveling by foot or motorcycle, the two main forms of getting around, very wet if exhilarating experiences, as I can personally testify! You can escape such inclement weather in summer, but it is then very hot.

Orchid Island

The weather can also cause problems with air travel to and from the island. The winter months’ wind and rain often create disruption to planned timetables, and flights frequently are canceled when winds are too strong for the small aircraft that are flown. Marooned at the airport, passengers are forced to resort to sea travel and the prospect of a rough crossing back to mainland Taiwan. This involves obtaining a ticket to board and, if not purchased in time, a further day’s delay, and the problem of finding suitable accommodation.

Modern Day Haven

Traveling to and from Orchard Island can be seen to present a challenge to the traveler, but this very isolation has preserved its uniqueness, ensuring as it does its escape from the influences of modern-day life. Although this fact has driven many of the young to seek their fortune in Taiwan itself, the older generation remains, and continues to uphold their culture and traditions, at least for the time being, that gives this island the distinctive appeal that travelers seek.

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