An Unexpected Guide (part 2)


The next day my mother and I went back on schedule to visit various tea factories. A night's sleep had lessened my disappointment, but I had still had the hot dog on me. I was still secretly hopeful.

This time we drove to Mr. Lin's tea-making facility. His factory was in full-scale operation. Bushels of fresh-plucked tea leaves were brought in and spread across tarps laid out in wide open space. Withering in the sun - the first step of tea-making, and a critical one. The purpose - to quickly evaporate off the water in tea leaves.


Withering tea leaves under the sun

Inside the factory, another crew was working on tea leaves processed from last night (or rather early early morning today ... the process that we missed seeing). (* See part 1.) This would be the shaping stage - when tea leaves are rolled into uniform balls characteristic of Alishan high mountain tea. 

The shaping process was tedious and repetitive. Leaves were gathered and wrapped tightly into big cloth balls, squeezed into shape by a rolling machine, then dumped into a drum machine to loosen and separate. Then the process was repeated again ... 20 to 30 times or more. It was quite incredible to see tea leaves transform from their original shapes into pellets of little balls.

I watched these processes with interest, but in the back of my mind, thoughts about the dog from last night lingered. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect to see him again. Even if I did, I wasn't sure I would be able to recognize him. Better to just give up and focus on the task at hand - observe, understand, and document the tea-making process in AliShan.

During the lunch break, I befriended a black dog belonging to Mr. Lin. He was out in the sun, tied to a big metal crate just outside the factory. I asked Mr. Lin's permission to feed him the hot dog I had.

The dog barked at me in an unfriendly manner, but after a few pieces of hot dog, he decided that I was a "friendly" and focused on the hot dog instead. I didn't really like what I saw. The dog was tied down by a metal chain to his crate, and his collar dug deep into his neck every time he lunged. There was dried poop everywhere, in the limited space that the dog could move.

But the fact remains ...  in many places in Taiwan, dogs are still considered "utility" animals. They are kept to perform certain jobs, in this case to guard the house. Sometimes it's hard to not become judgemental, but I reminded myself to respect the fact that the dog belonged to Mr. Lin, the same Mr. Lin who had been extremely kind and courteous to us. We were only acquaintances, but he allowed us to observe his tea-making process and spent a lot of time with us, explaining the process and answering our questions.

Later in the afternoon, my mom and I visited other tea-making facilities. Some visits were planned; sometimes we simply came across people in the middle of making tea (they were everywhere) and asked their permission to observe.

By now, with the hot dog gone, I accepted the reality that I would not locate the dog from last night. But I still wondered about him. Watching another group of people spreading out tea leaves to wither in the sun, I spoke with a friendly chatty lady and described my encounter with the dog. 

"Oh that," she smiled. "That's not so unusual. Quite a number of people have said to me that the dogs here are really friendly. They kind of act like "guide" dogs."

"Guide dogs?" I asked. "What do you mean?"

"Well, sometimes they just come up to people. You know, visitors who are not from around here ... they lead them to scenic spots, and then they leave," she responds.

"Hmm ..." I was perplexed. "How would they know where people want to go?"

"I'm not sure," the woman shrugged. "Somehow they just do."

I was puzzled. Dogs are known for doing amazing things. But guide dogs? I decided to leave it at that ... something mysterious and inexplicable.

The next day my mom and I left for ShiZhuo (石棹, literal translation "Stone Table"), a neighboring town in AliShan also well-known for its tea. The trip was quite productive, but after a day the weather changed for the worse. Harvesting tea in the rain is a big no-no, so operations ground to a stop leaving us with very little to see or do. I wondered if we should return to XiDing to visit the plump black tea maker who had kindly invited us to visit his store. 

My mom and I returned to XiDing, but unfortunately the store was closed. Neighbors informed us that the family was out, taking a small break before the weather cleared and the tea making would start up again. Disappointed we headed to our car.

As we did so, I noticed a black dog standing near our car.

"Mom, is that the dog from that night?" I nudged my mom, incredulous.

"I'm not sure. They look so alike," my mom answered. "But maybe?"

"Yes, yes! I recognize the strange curve of his tail," I got very excited. "Hot dog!" I thought. Of course I didn't have any hot dog on me. Fortunately we had a big lunch, and we had a lot of leftover stir-fried chicken. I scrambled to the car, looking back at the dog to make sure he didn't leave.

He didn't. He waited and ate and ate while I tossed pieces of chicken one after another. After the chicken was gone, he gave me a long look. Then he crossed the street and trotted off. In the rain.

"Thank you, dear doggy," I thought, " ... giving me the chance to keep my promise." 

 If you ever travel to Taiwan ... and if ever you visit AliShan and pass by the town of XiDing to buy some tea, keep your eyes peeled for these unexpected guide dogs!