The New world meets the old: Coffee Adventures in the Spice Islands

I well remember the proverbial first day of the rest of my life. I had arrived in Bali at 10.30pm after leaving Wellington some 23 hours previously and transiting in Sydney. I was on a QANTAS flight packed with an eclectic mix of middle aged holiday makers heading for resorts and surfers heading for sparkling white sand beaches and the perfect wave. The only thing they all seemed to have in common was an unquenchable thirst for booze. When the crew came around with the immigration cards, the guy from Cronulla sitting next to me filled in BALI under “what country are you arriving in” and grabbed another 2 cans of Fosters.

My memory to this day is stepping down out of the red and white 747 into the humid soup that made up the Balinese evening. The sweet smell of Pandan and Frangapani hanging in the air like a soft velvet blanket. The human wave that swept me to immigration and then the sweaty search for the hotel I was going to spend my first few nights in.

 Bali, make that Indonesia as a whole, is not a parallel world to the one I came from, it is rather a polar opposite! Rules are made to be broken. The use of indicators, rear vision mirrors, brakes and even hands on the steering wheel are not the norm. An Italian I meet on my second day in Bali said that even he was scared sh**less of how they drive on the roads in this country. So scared, he refused to take any form of two or four wheel vehicle and instead walked, sometimes many kms, to where ever he was heading.

indonesian coffee

So now I have known this country 11 years, I still live in two very distinct and clearly defined parallel worlds. It used to be very difficult to flick between the two, as one would surf through a myriad of TV channels on a decent Cable network without settling on one. However these days either I am becoming more adept at doing it, or I am just past noticing and have become semi tropo with the burden of the decade that has swept over me.

One area where I am comfortable with both worlds is in the area of coffee. Cafes (and Cafe standards) are somewhat of a photocopy (or fotokopi in Indonesian) of what are found in LA, Auckland, Sydney or London. I am on home turf and comfortable with standard operating procedures, hygiene rules and methods of managing and measuring a cafe business. An espresso machine extracting a shot in Jakarta mirrors what a similar machine is doing in Johor, Johannesburg or Jaffa. Sure, there are bound to be some differences but these are adapted to local conditions.

The parallel world of coffee is that of the growing community. The small holders; farmers, individuals and small townships that are the underlying fabric of the coffee industry. Sometimes there is a crude comparison made between the oil and gas sector and coffee. Oil and gas comes out of the ground in some of the most isolated countries in the world, has value added in refining and is sold by garish and colorful retail vendors such as Mobil, Esso, BP and Shell. It is said by some that coffee follows a similar route, a similar path to the end user. Of course anyone in the coffee business should answer that back with a venomous rejection. Coffees beginning with the small holder is just an amazingly small piece of a multicolored patchwork that makes it so special.

After my initial time in Bali, learning the language (Indonesian that is, not Balinese which I can speak very little of), I began the long and adventurous part of my Indonesian Coffee odyssey- traveling the islands, meeting the farmers, listening to tales that were either heartbreakingly honest or downright creative lies. Hot, wet nights in Javanese villages, or hot dry nights in Flores and East Timor. Always hot, even at the high altitudes which can get down to what people not born in NZ would call cold! Eating Bananas with growers on the shores of Lake Toba, or having a gun pointed at me in the dusty, bare wood lounge room of a 1 star hotel in North Sumatra. One day I would love to write a book about it all, but for now just a note or two is enough to refresh some of those warm and Indonesian(ly) unique experiences.

Gunung agung Bali at sunrise

These parallel world of the grower in Indonesia is probably similar to that in other producing countries. I would say that the average Indonesian coffee growing village is, perhaps, better off in terms of resources and standard of living. This is in a good part due to the fact that the Dutch system of Colonization required tenant farmers to pay part of their crop to the Dutch who were more oversees than landowners. As a result cooperative effort at village life meant that it was fairly rare for villages to starve to death of be on the brink of ruin. A strong social fabric and usually fairly favorable weather conditions helped many farmers here to lead subsistent, but sustainable lives. There were no large local landowners, save for the sultans and kings found through most of the country. Sultanates still exist today, the Sultan of Jogjakarta being one of the countries most beloved and influential figures. The wealth was always seen to be mainly in the cities, thus after independence most agricultural systems were, and still are today, small-holder based.

Driving out of a big city in search of a growing community. The coffee trail is seductive and always full of promise. Its almost like a forbidden feeling... a secret, furtive first crush, only the adventure with coffee is a perpetual one. Coffee, good coffee, great coffee in not easy to find. Indonesian coffee grown on the low lands is Robusta. Its not treated especially well by the villagers as it is a product they roast for their own use, or sell in moldy and unwieldy sacks to sweating brokers who drive up from Jakarta, Surabaya or Lampung in airconditioned cars. Robusta is the the proverbial red headed stepchild of the coffee industry in Indonesia. It always causes problems and while it is the back bone of the broker based business here, it never delivers any real promise in terms of quality, often disappoints and always creates poor press for specialty coffee here.

 It is a little harder, in fact very time consuming, finding the gems of the coffee world in this maze of volcanoes and jungle. The prize is Arabica and more often than not it is grown in hard to get to, hard to find, hard to live in and hard to get out of places. Forget Java, forget Sumatra and sure as heck forget cushy 5 star Bali. You are talking Sulawesi, Papua, Flores, Sumbawa and Timor when you talk of the best coffee in Indonesia. Here the parallel world lags far behind its equivalent in Jakarta. I remember well pulling into a small town in Flores in 98 to find the people still believed Soeharto was president...7 months after his dramatic collapse from rule. His picture was everywhere, smiling benevolently from the official government print that was displayed at the head mans house, smiling knowingly like Da Vinci 's Mona Lisa from the town badminton hall. I did not have the heart to break the news that he was gone. There was no phone in this town. As hard it is to believe, no one came in or out either. The place was fairly much self sufficient, a chicken infested paradise on the slopes of yet another volcano in the Eastern Isles of the country of islands.

On these long and somewhat lonely trips my Indonesian was understood by perhaps a handful of villagers that had been educated at a provincial high school. More often than not the local dialect, there are over 300 estimated in this country, was the only language spoken. Fortunately the common language was coffee. Kopi Arabika, Typika, Bourbon all words that could be recognised in both worlds. I even learnt a whole vocabulary of words for coffee in a number of tribal languages. It was always an adventure, sometimes like being in a classical coffee version of a Tintin comic. After 2 weeks getting to and working with a coffee community, I would slowly make my way back to Jakarta on a PELNI (Indonesian State owned) cruise ship. This would be my time to unwind. Sleeping on a deck hammock normally grouped with a couple of travelers.

These days perhaps I am a touch softer, certainly 10 years older!. The trips are never as long as they used to be and (unlike the Italian I met in Bali) I put my trust into the quickest way of getting to the grower regions. The trips are quicker, more sanitized, but the thrill and the realisation that the parallel worlds are almost one within the coffee growing segment of this wonderful industry keep me fresh and inspired. Although these days I am spending less and less time in Indonesia, I guess my heart and soul will always be wrapped up in the adventures I have had there.

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