Water poured steaming out of a heavy black kettle into and over a much smaller ceramic teapot cleansing and waking the tea leaves. She then used the same water to wash off the cups, one movement flowing into the next. My husband and I watched our waitress demonstrate how to make a perfect pot of Taiwan’s oolong tea at Jiufen’s Amei Tea House. I translated her final instruction to my husband, smell the fragrance after the first steep before the first sip. Then it was just the two of us, sitting outside with our tea in spite of the sweat soaking through our clothes. We spent almost an hour taking turns making several more pots of tea, recalling the instructions from waitress. We took care not to burn ourselves on the black kettle or the water inside of it that was kept near boiling over a small fire pit placed on the floor right next to us. The tea shop was built on a seaside mountain. On that September day, the views from our corner table featured rolling hills, sapphire ocean, and a light cerulean sky patterned with white clouds. The surface of the water was calm. Red lanterns with black calligraphy swung gently under the awning over our heads, a distinct foreground against the backdrop of blues and greens.
We had visited here before, years ago. Last time we blended in with the many tourists gathered to see the lanterns from the narrow streets, angling our phones above a sea of heads, arms, and screens to capture the glowing tea house. One look at the long lines made it clear we should not even consider trying to get inside the tea house let alone find a table with or without a view. We had picked our way up and down tight staircases scattered around town bumping up against strangers. We were afraid we may lose each other in the crowd. On this trip to Jiufen, the streets were almost empty. An orange cat with a red collar napped undisturbed on one of the concrete steps, people moved around it carefully after snapping photos. Most visitors look like they were Taiwanese instead of hailing from around the world. Unlike last time, we were now visiting as a married couple; still foreigners but residents instead of tourists. There were several families with kids taking in the sights and wandering the alleys. I wondered if it was less daunting to visit with small children compared to before Taiwan’s pandemic prevention border closures hollowed out the bustling town. Maybe in the future we can bring our children when the place is livelier, whenever that might be.
After we finished our tea we wandered around window shopping and then headed away from town, looking for the start of Mount Keelung Trail. The back of my husband’s neck was starting to turn pink when we finally saw, with relief, that at least the first stretch of the trail was shaded by trees. We climbed the steep stairs, pausing often to rest and to take in views of the mountains, ocean, and town growing smaller as we climbed higher. A few solo hikers passed us going up, making the hike look much easier than it felt. A young couple passed us going down chatting about their dinner plans in town. The sunset should be gorgeous, much better than the last time when it had rained. The trail led to an outlook, as I caught my breath the wind tangled my hair and I was greeted by an endless ocean view framed by mountains to the sides. To the left, the larger seaside mountains with Jiufen perched on them seemed to stretch towards the smaller raised island hills steeped in the blue waters. We quietly split a pomelo from our backpack, warm but still refreshing, and patiently waited for sunset. The carefree couple, my neighbor’s favorite label for us was a fitting description for the moment.
Other hikers began to congregate, some families, some alone, a photographer set up a tripod and we decided to point ourselves in the same direction as his camera for the best view. As the minutes ticked towards sunset thick clouds began to roll in from the ocean. As if battling for control over the scenic view, yellow gold light filtered through the gray and pieces of blue sky remained visible. Soon, however, the gray overtook the gold, leaving the sun to set in total privacy. The disappointment was accompanied by rain as we started to trek down the mountain. When the rain grew heavier, we sheltered with other hikers under an open-air pagoda about half way down the mountain. Water blew in sideways but it was better than nothing. The photographer tucked his camera under his raincoat as he huddled with the rest of the group. If only my neighbor could have seen the carefree couple now, drenched and stuck with strangers. It would probably prove her point that we were lucky not to have kids to manage in the midst of this downpour on the side of a mountain. Resentment rose unbidden, if only she knew our journey. Our losses. The children longed for and the carefree lifestyle I would trade to grow our family.
Earlier parts of our visit replayed in my mind, this time with a small child. The fire pit under the black kettle. Walking under the bright afternoon sun without hats and sunscreen. Nearly two hours waiting for the sunset. The sudden drop in temperature and rain. As these thoughts flashed through my mind, I noticed lights began to flicker on down below, Amei Tea House’s red lanterns blending in with the rest. The anticipated sunset view never came but, in its place, we had a sparkling night view. The cool air and glowing town adorning the hills below eased the sense of disappointment and lightened the grief that weighed on me.
Soon the rain turned into a light mist. A few deep breaths later I reached towards my husband. Arm in arm we finished the hike, lighting the path with the flashlight from our phones. We topped off our day trip with an iced sweet taro dumpling treat in the lantern lit town before catching a bus home.
Did I wish things turned out differently? That we could have seen a perfect sunset? Yes. But this was okay, too. This was more than okay.