Once upon a time, some people from Southern China sailed across the seas, reached the shores of Sumatra and ended up settling around Lake Toba. That’s the official story about the origins of the Batak people and it is explanation enough considering the level of anthropological interest in the area.
But when you study the people’s faces, something seems wrong about the story above. The Batak ethnics look more like Negrito or Melanesian people. Their features are more similar to populations of Eastern Africa or the Native Americans of the Pacific coast then to Chinese people. Also, their music and their dialect could easily fool you to believe that on the other side of Lake Toba lies French Polynesia.
The Posmen that rang 7 times
When I met Mr. Posmen I thought to myself there’s no way his ancestors came from China. I mean, look at him – he looks more like Clark Gable than Jackie Chan. And soon I discovered that it wasn’t just the look. The guy was also acting like a Hollywood star – side glance, ample gestures and a way with words that left one wondering if he really was a know-it-all or just a bluff.
- You are searching for something and I can help you find it…
- And how exactly do you know I’m searching for anything?
- I can see it in your eyes…
Oh, hail thee, soul reader!
- I’m looking for Kopi Luwak.
- What’s that?
- It’s the world’s most expensive coffee. I heard I could find some in this area.
- If it is here, we shall find it… we shall find it…
The joint I was in had only one thing on the menu – tuak. I sat down on the wooden bench next to Mr. Posmen and I was brought a mug of this milky palm wine. I hadn’t even asked for it. I took a sip and tried to mach the taste with something I had tried before. After browsing through my memories, my brain could only find two flavors somewhat similar – chardonnay whine and sour soup. Tuak is the house specialty in North Sumatra. All natural, with up to 4% alcohol, mildly intoxicating, it loosens tongues and opens hearts. It’s a national treasure. You either love it or hate it.
- What is your name?
- I’m Posmen.
- Post man… You work at the post office?
- Not POST MAN! Posmen. This is my name.
I should have known. After all, Indonesia has millions of citizens named Suparman.
A good screen writer could have written a great movie script about Posmen’s life. In their 20 years of marriage, his wife gave him 6 daughters. Posmen was living with seven women under the same roof. And you should know that homes in Sumatra have only one room under the roof. Can you imagine that?
- Now I live with only five of them. The oldest ones of my girls are studying in Medan. They only come home during the holidays.
- Five is still too much. How do you handle it?
- Well, I work. I have to work, to support them.
- I wasn’t talking about that. How can you manage life alongside 5 to 7 women every day? It takes forever for just one to put on her makeup…
- That’s why I’m asking you for help. I need to work. Give me something to do.
- What kind of work can I offer to you? What do you usually do for a living?
- I’m a tourist guide.
- Aha! So you admit it: it’s not work you want. It’s getting away from home.
I had been reading a lot about the Sumatran coffee but I still needed someone who was familiar with the places and the people, who could take me to see the coffee plantations and could speak Batak. Posmen looked like the right man for the job.
We talked a bit about the trip – we would spend a couple of days on the heights of Samosir and then another two or three around Lake Toba. Posmen didn’t negotiate a price for his services. He immediately accepted the amount I offered him without any comments. He really wanted to get away from home.
I let him finish his tuak and I went to get some sleep. My room suddenly seemed very large. Of course, there weren’t five women in it.
Luwak. Kopi Luwak.
It’s called an “Asian Palm Civet” and the Indonesians call it “Luwak”. It’s a small long tailed animal that looks like a weasel. The little creature had a happy life until it came across the first coffee plantation. At night, while the farmer’s asleep, the civets sneak up on the plantations, feed on the ripest coffee berries and then run back to the forest. Naturally, in the morning, they eliminate the undigested beans in their droppings.
One day, one curious Joe thought to pick up the beans off the jungle floor and see how the coffee would taste after passing through the civet’s belly. Apparently, the enzymes from the animal’s digestive tract leave them with a special, unique taste. A coffee expert (or just a good businessman) was later mesmerized with it and so it was that the most expensive coffee in the world came to be. Nowadays, you can find it in luxury coffee houses in the US or UK for up to 100 dollars a cup. I know I’ve told you about this before, but I was in the advertising business. Old habits die hard.