This is a story about one of the largest islands on Earth. It’s about the most expensive coffee in the world and the most devastating tsunami in history. But it’s also about human nature and nature’s folk. And about travelling – by water or by nightmarish land roads. Sumatra, Indonesia, the Untameable Island.
A serial story column by Brad Florescu
A traveller is like that lucky grain of sand that somehow manages to get inside an oyster. The shell will nurture and grow it, with patience and perseverance, year after year, until it turns it into the most beautiful pearl. Likewise, the traveller should not be looking for spots to escape to, but for places to come back to. By returning, he will add layer after layer of beauty and apprehension to that grain of sand that is his first visit.
Life nowadays turns us into shallow tourists. We collect destinations. I’ve seen 100 places, you’ve seen 200, he’s seen 1000. A great holiday is conditioned by the number of destinations that we’ve visited in just two or three weeks. Some people even manage to check four or five countries during such a short time. That’s the bottom line – all we do is check towns, regions, countries on our maps. We have one-night-stands with a city, a temple or an ocean. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years we’ll have a new sport – speed travelling.
As far as I’m concerned, I’m never satisfied with just one night of love. I always come back for more. Maybe my destinations conquest list is far shorter than other’s, but I have a bug: I’m always looking for places to love and to receive love from.
So, last November I lost my heart to Sumatra – a beautiful, wild, untameable island. When we parted, with tears in our eyes (especially mine) we didn’t think we’d see each other again (especially her). When I got home, I opened the memories box and I found myself torn with yearning and blues. I drove all my friends mad with Sumatra’s pictures, her stories and, above all, her songs. I think I’ve done the same to you, by publishing my last column story.
If you’ve read it, then you already know the role that chance played in my encountering Sumatra. And, if you continue reading this, you’ll realize that it was also chance that provoked my next encounter with my lovely island. And it happened even earlier than the two of us would have ever expected (especially her).
The way to the Equator begins in the snow
Our story begins in January 2010, in Bucharest. I was on a short visit home from Thailand to see my mother and meet up with some friends. Among them were Roxana and Radu. I had promised them I’d come and have a cup of coffee at the Roasting House – MonKaff – that they had opened in the fall. There were minus 25 degrees Celsius outside and I had just returned from a plus 30 degrees temperature zone. I parked my car on top of a snow bank in front of the Roasting House and went in shivering with cold. The inside was warm and pleasant and it smelled like the Equator. I hadn’t seen my friends in over four months. After hugging them properly we sat down and Radu asked me what kind of coffee I wanted to try. I had no idea. In those days even instant coffee seemed fine to me. They served me a large cup of coffee. Laurentiu, the bartender, had sketched a small pine-tree on its surface, using milk foam. (I should tell you that, in Romanian, my name – Brăduţ – means “small pine-tree”). So I sipped form the cup wondering whether I’m not committing an act of auto-cannibalism.
- Wow! Radu, what is this?
- What? Don’t you like it?
- No, no! I love it! Is it coffee or what?
- This is real coffee, not the rubbish that you drink every morning. It’s an Indonesian coffee: Sumatra Mandheling.
- No way! You’re killing me, man! I’ve been crying over that island for two months now and not even in Bucharest will you let me forget about it?
I felt like the coffee Laurentiu prepared for me held inside the soul of my beloved island. It was hot like the lava from its volcanoes, flavoured like the songs on Samosir and soothing like the clear waters of Lake Toba. Or was it all just in my head? Well, when people fall in love they tend to see the loved one’s face everywhere. That’s what happened to me.
Meet the most expensive coffee in the world
I asked to know more about the coffee from Sumatra. And it was like Roxana and Radu had just been waiting for my signal because they instantly put me in the corner and began sharing their knowledge. They told me about Mandheling, but also about Blue Batak Peaberry, Danau Toba, Takengon, Sidikalang and other sorts and types of coffee that people grew on the sixth largest island in the world. Naturally, the list of Sumatran coffees wouldn’t have been complete without adding to it the most expensive type of coffee in the world – Kopi Luwak.
- Well – Roxana explained – there’s this animal called a Luwak in Indonesian, a civet in English. It comes to the coffee plantations at night and eats the berries. It’s very careful in choosing only the good, ripped ones. Then it goes back to the jungle and eliminates them through faeces, which the locals gather and clean. The enzymes of the civet’s digestive system give the coffee beans a special taste. But the locals can’t collect large amounts of this kind of coffee and that’s the main reason it’s so expensive.
- How much are we talking about?
- Well, in a luxury coffee house in London it’s sold for up to 50 pounds a cup.
- That’s nuts! Who would pay 50 pounds for a cup of coffee?
- You would be surprised!
Soon we were all caught in a sparkling dialog, each of us wanting to tell their own stories. They knew everything there was to know about the Sumatran coffee, I had been there. I was eager to tell them all about the places I had seen, about their cultural heritage or the amazing geology of Lake Toba. Keen on turning me into an advised coffee drinker, they had transformed our reencounter into a scientific seminar. They told me about every coffee plantation in the world, from Jamaica with its delicious Blue Mountain, to the legendary Yirgacheffe of Ethiopia and the Sulawesi of the new discovered Toraja. It was amazing. Passionate discussions are pleasant and rare. Nowadays, people meet up only to share significant nothings with each other.
Thus, the idea came to life.