I found treasure in a small misty village in the mountains of a remote part of Taiwan recently.
I’m not quite sure how or why it happened. Perhaps I was subconsciously looking for a mother figure after my own mum died four months ago. But when I spotted a little old Chinese lady in the dark recesses of a tea house, I felt unusually drawn to her.
She was warming herself by a charcoal brazier while her son and his two friends prepared tea for us in a traditional age-old ceremony. Her family had owned the Xin Quang Fan Tea House in Pinglin for three generations and her son, Wang Wen Hwun, had been making tea for 50 years.
It was an elaborate procedure with much boiling and pouring of hot water into a small teapot stuffed with tea leaves harvested from the family’s own plantation. The tea was then poured through a strainer and transfered into small pre-warmed cups.
The whole process was carried out on a large stainless steel draining tray, which caught the overflow of the boiling water.
I asked how many cups the men had in a day and our Taiwanese guide and translator, Francis Hu, said they could not really say. They drink tea all day – from dawn until dark and beyond.
“Tea is part of life. We sit and chat and drink tea all day,” was the rough translation.
The little lady must have seen me gazing at her because after about 10 minutes, I caught her eye. She beamed back at me and came out of the shadows.
We exchanged a warm handshake, smiles and names, and had a sign language conversation assisted by her son, who could speak a little English.
He told me his mother’s name meant gold in English and she was 81 years old. She was shorter than me – in other words, very short – and was wearing a warm pale pink padded jacket and a purple woolly hat. She had the sweetest smiley face, bright eyes and a warm disposition.
Gold then disappeared into a back room and I rejoined the group. This was an interesting experience for me in itself as I had never drunk tea before and had to muster all my courage to taste my first ever brew. Having grown up with fanatical tea-drinking parents, I had come to hate the smell, especially on long car trips. So it seemed ironic that after all these years, my first cup of tea was in remotest Taiwan.
Francis explained this was a special tea house because the family had won multiple awards for their product and were allowed to sell it at a premium.
Judging from the looks of bliss on the faces of my tea-connoisseur travel mates, the green tea Mr Wang served was indeed special. The taste surprised me – I quite liked it.
Gold reappeared five minutes later with a plate of sticky rice cakes, some with a pumpkin filling and others a red bean sauce. I ate one of each and found them gooey but delicious.
We took photos and exchanged hugs and then waved goodbye, me bound for New Zealand later that day and Gold back to her son and his tea-drinking friends.
It was a chance encounter but as we left, I had an overwhelming desire to kidnap her and take her home with me. Maybe it was something in the tea.
Ten days later when my nephew spotted a photo of Gold and I on Facebook, he said, “Aha, you’ve found another Nana, I see!” He was referring to his beloved nana, my mum, without any idea of who the person was in the photo. There was no caption or description with the image.
Whenever I open the tin of tea I bought from Mr Wang, I think of Gold and the little tea house in the hills beyond Taipei.
Maybe that’s why I was attracted to her. Perhaps Gold reminded me of my little old tea-drinking mum.
Justine Tyerman travelled to Taiwan courtesy of Taiwan Tourism Bureau and China Airlines