An Unexpected Guide (part 1)

Mom and Dog

The focus of this blog is Taiwan tea, but once in a blue moon, I feel a strong urge to share a personal experience from my tea-related travels. This is one of them.

Late April in the town of XiDing (隙頂, literal translation "Gap at the Peak") in AliShan Mountain. Spring tea harvest and tea production was in full swing.

At 11pm, my mom and I walked out from the warmth of our B&B and began our walk to a tea factory. At an altitude over 1000 meters, the midnight air in AliShan was crisp and chilly. We were out to visit a tea factory where the owner Mr. Lin had kindly agreed to let us observe his tea-making process.

Tea making is a continuous and labor-intensive process. It begins as soon as tea leaves are harvested, and continues non-stop until the leaves are dried (generally <5% water content). In AliShan, the process usually takes around 48 hours. Around this time at night, we would be observing the de-enzyming (heating), initial rolling and drying stage.

My mom and I walked silently along the mountain highway. The factory was located on the other side of town, but we decided to walk anyways. We wanted to experience the quiet yet bustling activity of tea-making in this little town. Every other household was engaged in making tea. Warm delicious scent of roasted tea permeated the evening air.

Dim light from street lamps and houses guided us along the dark mountain road. Pretty soon we noticed a black dog trailing behind us. That didn't scare us. (* See note below) Feral dogs would usually follow people around a bit, seeing if they can be get a scrap of food. After a while though, I realized every time I stopped to look at him, he would stop, look at me, then turn away. He was using his body language to indicate that he was respectful, that he meant no harm.

Why was he still following us though? I wondered. With a dog's excellent sense of smell, he must have realized that we had no food to offer.

So we continued playing this game of stop and go, stop and go. Then it suddenly occurred to me ... this dog is "heeling" perfectly with me. In dog training, it's quite an achievement to train your dog to heel. Two years, I had been attending doggie classes with my pup Toby, and heeling remained a challenge. Yet this feral dog I just met a few minutes ago was heeling with me in perfect harmony!

Hmm ... I wondered what that implied about my dog trainng skills. Leave that thought, I told myself. Focus on this beautiful connection right now.

"Mom, look at this dog, " I broke the silence. "He's practically heeling with me. So smart! I want to get him a hot dog or something."

"Oh?" My mom looked back at the dog. She was not quite as impressed.

Straight ahead I saw a convenience store. But is that it? A hot dog? It's not everyday you encounter such an amazing doggie. Perhaps I should find him a home? As these thoughts raced across my mind, I noticed my mom at the doorway of a tea factory.

"Are you making tea? It smells so good!" my mom said happily to a plump friendly face.

"Yeah, I'm making black tea. Would you like to come in and see?" 

My mom looked at me then walked in without waiting for my response. I had no choice but to follow. I looked at the dog ... he had parked himself at the threshold at the door. His eyes stayed on me as I walked further into the store. The friendly man invited us to smell his drying tea leaves. Then he showed us various equipments, how to control them, etc.

I glanced back at the doorway. The dog was still there, in the same position. "Give me a few more minutes, then we'll go get you that hotdog," I whispered.

"This dog," I said to the friendly tea-maker. "He's been following us for a while. He's so polite ... just waiting outside the door. Do you know if he has an owner?"

"Yeah, dogs around here are pretty friendly. Nothing to be afraid of," he explained. "Some are owned, some are feral. Well-behaved ... they don't cause any trouble."

"Really?" I turned back to the dog. Oh no! Where was he?

I rushed to the doorway, just in time to see him run across the street. He was joining a group of other dogs running in the same direction. He seemed happy to rejoin his "real" pack.

My heart dropped down a sudden valley. My eyes lingered as he disappeared into the darkness.

My mom followed me to the door. "What happened?"

"The dog's gone," I replied, perhaps with a hint of reproach. I sighed. "I wanted to give him a hotdog." Something to celebrate our acquaintance.

"There's a convenience store up ahead," my mom tried to sound cheerful. "You never know, he may just reappear."

We thanked the friendly tea-maker who then invited us to have tea the next day at his store. I bought the hot dog at the convenience store. I was surprised at how disappointed I felt, so much so that I was no longer up to observing any tea-making process.

"Mom, would you mind if we didn't go to the factory? I'm tired. And ... if we head back now, there's a chance we might find the dog," I said.

"I don't mind," my mom replied. "If that's what you want. I'm here to accompany you anyways. It's late and I'm actually quite sleepy."

We start back to our B&B, me vigilant and hoping the hot dog smell would somehow attract "our" dog back. It was midnight when we reached our B&B.

No, there was no sign of any dog.

(To be continued ...)

* Note:  Feral dogs are not uncommon in Taiwan, especially in rural area. Though mostly mutts, many seem related to a local species called the "Taiwan native dog." It is a beautiful species - pure black, pointed ears, mid-sized with a sleek and slender body, and large black marks on their tongue. And very intelligent ... Taiwan's aboriginal people bred them to be hunting companions.