When I travel to a new place, I don’t take a tour to get oriented. I don’t knock off a bucket list of what one is supposed to see in “36 hours in [insert city name here]”. I just wander the streets, observe and absorb the ambiance, the sounds, the smells, the markets, the people.
One day, back in 1981, at 23 years old, I was in Hong Kong for the very first time. I wandered around the backstreets of the Mongkok neighborhood and stopped by an openfront shop selling loose teas out of bins. It wasn’t a particularly attractive shop, not quaint or ornamental/oriental. It was about as exciting as a little hole in the wall business you might go to when you needed a rubber stamp made or an odd light bulb of a particular size.
I couldn’t speak any Cantonese, but the little boy minding the family shop packed up small amounts of whatever teas I pointed at and we both enjoyed the exchange. He deftly wrapped up each little mound of tea leaves in a square of paper, and wrote the names of the teas in English for me.
Later, back in my room at the YWCA on MacDonnell Road, I tried each one in a glass of hot water, watching the leaves unfurl, seeing the colors develop, tasting the light steep, the medium steep, the long steep.
This was the first time I tasted lung ching (longjing), shou mei, pu-erh, ti kuan yin and shui hsien. This was the first time that I realized how varied teas could be, how aromatic, how complex, without being flavored by anything else. Like wines are varied, though they may all be made from grapes.
9 years later, I opened an Asian teahouse in Seattle, and I was in the tea business for about 20 years.
So when next you travel, go someplace you’ve never been before, maybe where you can’t speak the language and try something new.
The little thing you discover in a shop around the corner in a backstreet somewhere you’ve never been can change your life.