Monday, November 2, 2015

An Eye-opening Escape from the Big City (Travel in Taiwan)

For the past few centuries, Taiwan's southern lowlands have been the island's agricultural heartland. Thanks to reliably warm weather, and a vast network of channels and ditches which carry water to farms during the long dry season, the region produces an abundance of rice, vegetables, and fruit. It's no surprise, then, to find an exceptionally popular recreational farm in this part of the world.

Yet DaMorLee Leisure Farm is quite different to the majority of agrotourism destinations. Hardly any food is grown on site, and there are no sheep or goats to pet and feed. Rather, the farm demonstrates a variety of ecofriendly construction and living techniques which visitors are encourages to try.

“We want visitors who're interested in recycling and nature, as we provide recycling education in a great natural setting,” says John Lamorie, who owns and runs the farm together with his wife, Shelly Wu.

John and Shelly have been developing this 7,000m2 plot in Pingtung County's Ligang Township since 2007. Bananas, betel nut and other crops are grown in the area, which abuts a tributary of the Laonong River. 

“When we bought the land, it had been fallow for a number of years. The previous owner earned a little bit of money from the government by growing nitrogen-fixing plants which were then plowed back into the soil. When we took it over there was nothing on it – no trees, grass, or even weeds,” John recalls. 

“When we started, I only wanted flora and fauna native to Taiwan, but some compromises had to be made. I wanted the place to look more 'wild' than Shelly wanted, but we achieved a pretty good balance,” says John, who was born in Canada and later lived in New Zealand. 

“When visitors come, I lead the paper-house DIY activities, and any English components. Actually, many groups ask for us to do as much as possible in English. Shelly takes care of time management and food,” says John. 

Guests can make their own pizzas using German sausages, imported cheeses, and other choice items. Another food option is German Pigs' Trotters, a feast of Canadian meat and served with sauerkraut and mustard. DaMorLee's bread is deservedly popular, being packed with tasty morsels such as macadamia nuts, and figs marinated in rum.

According to Shelly, the farm gets 200 to 250 visitors during an average week, and groups should always book ahead. “We've had university groups and kindergarten groups, as well as tour groups. We try to limit larger groups to one bus in the morning and one in the afternoon,” she says.

John, an energetic sexagenarian, has acquired an impressive range of skills over the years. He's an eighth-generation woodworker who's held 45 different jobs over the years. He worked at a five-star resort in the US, and taught computer studies in New Zealand. Arriving in Taiwan in the late 1990s, he worked as an English teacher in Yunlin and Chiayi before settling in Ligang.

He designed and built all nine of the farm's finished structures, proudly stating: “About 95% of what I use is found, scrounged, or rescued.”

John paid a nominal amount for an old blackboard which he then dismantled and turned into roof beams for the farm's coffee-shop/restaurant. He crafted the window frames from a polished-hardwood floor torn out of a residential building. He made the tables from wood scraps and recycled panes of glass.

What's called the Japan House incorporates screens and windows John salvaged when a local friend demolished a family property dating from Japan's 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan. The roof tiles were taken from the house, not far from the farm, where Shelly was born

A new addition to the roster of activities is traditional soap-making. As recently as the 1960s, factory-made cleaning agents were too expensive for many ordinary Taiwanese. Rural folk did their laundry with the aid of the fruit of the Sapindus tree.

Each Sapindus berry is about 1.5cm in diameter. Most of it is seed, there being just one or two mm of flesh beneath the yellow-black skin. As Shelly explains, the berries need no processing. If you break the skin of one with your fingernail, then start rubbing it between your fingers with a little water, suds appear straightaway. 

“We do sell bars of handmade soap and bottles of liquid soap, but really we want people to try and make their own,” says Shelly.

If any single attraction has made DaMorLee famous – it's been featured on at least 25 TV shows in Taiwan, as well in magazines and newspapers – it is John's use and advocacy of papercreteThose who've not previously heard of papercrete may well guess this portmanteau word describes a concrete-like substance made from recycled newspapers. 

Conventional concrete is strong and durable, yet requires a great deal of energy to produce. The associated extraction of gravel from riverbeds and hillsides has been blamed for environmental problems in certain parts of Taiwan. Concrete is very difficult to recycle. Also, when reinforced concrete roofs and walls collapse during earthquakes, the consequences for people inside are dire.

“The cost of papercrete is just a fraction of that of normal concrete,” says John. “Papercrete walls provide much better noise- and heat-insulation than concrete. Papercrete walls are less likely to fail during earthquakes, and even if they do fall on you, you're unlikely to be seriously hurt.”

John's papercrete production method results in bricks almost as big as cinder blocks, but no heavier than a small bottle of water. One drawback of naked papercrete is that it isn't waterproof. For this reason, exterior walls are sealed first with tung oil and then with elastomeric coating. Interior walls are treated with tung oil, then plastered with a blend of liquid papercrete to which sand and a little cement have been added.

Insects, especially termites, have long been an enemy of those trying to build in Taiwan using materials other than steel, glass and concrete. After several years' experience, John concludes: “Nothing eats papercrete, except snails!” 

To add an artistic flourish as well as let in natural light, John places vintage sake bottles between papercrete blocks.

John is now midway through his tenth building, a steel-framed, papercrete-walled structure on stilts that will be the couple's home. And he's considering assembling another, this time using bamboo, to serve two purposes. Elements normally hidden behind plaster or board would be left exposed, to educate visitors about vernacular architecture. (Even now, old single-story houses with bamboo frames and wattle-and-daub walls aren't uncommon in Taiwan's countryside.) Also, it would be a studio where he could indulge his passion for raku pottery. 

The farm may lack domesticated animals, but the 2,000m2 pond is an ecological hotspot. More than 20 species of dragonfly, plus butterflies, damselflies and water striders reward those who stand still and pay close attention to the surface of the water and the surrounding plants.

John estimates the fish population at around 6,000. “We've at least seven different fish species. Some of them are quite tasty, I might add,” he says. These water dwellers attract kingfishers, egrets and herons. There's also a handful of turtles.

This is an edited version of my article in the November-December issue of Travel in Taiwan. The entire magazine can be read online. Since the article appeared, the farm has been featured in a BBC report. And here's a Reuters report about the place from 2010. Both photos are taken from this Pingtung County Government webpage.

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