Chriswan Sungkono, WEEKENDER | Wed, 11/30/2011 3:14 PM |
For the Manggarai people of Flores, coffee is more than just a crop or a drink.
The coffee was Arabica.
It was served in a petite, colorful glass, its jet-black residue banked up at the bottom. The gritty texture gently massaged my tongue, tickling the excitable tissues of my soft palate. As I waited for its lean acidity to unravel itself fully from the intoxicating sweetness of the sugar that had captured my taste buds, I raised the glass close to my nostrils and inhaled greedily. The rising vapor settled within me, its warmth filling my nasal cavities, its gorgeous aroma sending my olfactory nerves firing on all cylinders. My eyes, shorn of conscious control, rolled upward, as if my irises had arranged a tryst with my drooping eyelids.
During that timeless yet transient moment, Manggarai coffee entered my soul.
The spell of ecstasy was broken by the honest, impish laughter of children, directed right at me. The adults couldn’t help themselves either – the otherworldly potency of this flavorful blend must have spoiled me such that I looked downright ridiculous to them. So I endeavored to straighten my face, trying to appear more sensible – with meager success – as I carried on sipping this divine drink, lingering as long as possible, until nothing remained but sludge.
“Some more?” An elderly woman with a shiny smile emerged from inside the house, a sooty tin kettle in hand. After a questioning glance at my partner – with the steaming mug clasped between her palms, she was lost in her own bubble of pleasure – I nodded.
It was only our second serving, but the people we’d met just minutes before had suddenly become affectionate friends. It was a cool, cloudy late afternoon in Melo, a pristine village surrounded by lush valleys and the stately vertebrae of volcanoes, in the region of Manggarai, Flores. Dark, menacing clouds were convening in great numbers above us, yet rain was hesitant to come down.
All the better. The villagers, done with their morning work in the fields, were able to flock to this simple house built of neat narrow planks, to chat about life over the ubiquitous cups of freshly brewed, sweetened Manggarai coffee. Indeed, life for these people revolves around Coffea arabica and the mighty beverage humanity has brewed from it: Next to me sat a young mother with a toddler, who could barely say hello but was already practiced in the art of imbibing coffee from his plastic demitasse.
From a very young age, children of the Manggarai tribe must not only learn to drink their homegrown coffee and love it (that comes pretty naturally), but also to weave the daily sight of – and interaction with – the coffee plant, with its budding flowers, its fleshy red cherries and especially its fragrant beans, into their narrative of reality. As I joked with the younger boys, two girls aged no more than 10 were gaily pounding pestles taller than themselves into a huge timber mortar, rhythmically, dexterously pulverizing the beans inside into rough powder.
“We do this sometimes once or twice a week, sometimes every other day,” the woman who’d served us the brew remarked. “Always plenty of beans for all of us!”
Why, of course. I peeked through the window of a large shack beside the house: Inside, girls and young women were industriously helping their mothers sort the mounds of dried beans they’d collected in straw baskets.
Most of these greenish beads of bliss would go straight to the market, to be consumed, sooner or later, by someone sitting in a cafeteria on the other side of the world. (That’s how coffee and a few other commodities like candlenut and cocoa help most families in Manggarai make a living and send their children to school.) The rest would stay here, ending up at the bottom of people’s cups after being stripped of their shape, zest, taste and scent. Only the black sheen would remain.
For devout coffee aficionados such as the Manggarai, whose fertile highlands are blanketed in plantations of one of the most adored – and heavily exported – coffee varieties in Indonesia, freshness is the main – if not the only – point of concern. Roasting raw coffee beans is a routine commonly observed in any kitchen or backyard on a typical afternoon, whether here in Melo or in a neighboring village. As for grinding, not a day goes by in this coffee country without at least a few households engaging in this activity.
In Their Veins
As the sky gradually turned gloomier, the fathers and the older boys came home, to the welcoming gestures of the women. These men had just returned from a caci performance held not far from the main road. The Manggarai’s most celebrated traditional whip-fighting ritual turned sporting event, caci is customarily held after a major rice harvest for the sake of the communities involved, or as a sideshow to celebrations of certain national holidays. In the latter case, however, it is more an ostentatious spectacle for attraction-thirsty tourists than a sincere display of gratitude toward the munificence of Mother Earth and the ancestral spirits.
Bare chested, but sporting ornate headgear and finely crafted accessories around their waists, the caci fighters grabbed what empty chairs among us there were. Some simply sat down on a patch of grass, not remotely concerned about keeping their splendidly woven songket sarong bright and spotless. After a long day of preparations, succeeded by brief but fierce bouts of fighting, they were finally allowed their peaceful moment of repose.
Some of the men returned from the battle-dance with fresh wounds, embellishments on their solid arms, their rigid backs, their broad chests. A warrior had had the skin on the left side of his abdomen torn quite badly; the gash was covered with a slender streak of thickening blood. A curious boy poked the wound with his tiny fingers; the warrior squeaked in surprise, to which the kid, and of course the crowd, responded with frenetic laughter. His wounds, and those of the others, would soon enough be tended by mothers, wives, daughters or sisters. But the first line of treatment for these warriors following their demonstration of valor was not attention to those blood-smeared cuts. Instead, they were handed coffee.
Only a short while later, the first droplets of rain began to hit the soil. For us, that was our curtain call, as we had to leave to resume our journey eastward. Hours earlier, we’d left Labuanbajo with its punitive heat, dusty streets and mesmeric sunsets. Our sojourn in Melo didn’t even last an hour, yet this village felt so much more serene – so far removed from the maddening din that governs Labuanbajo.
Brew to a Thrill
Ah, Labuanbajo. This quirky port town at the western tip of Flores continues to be the island’s most evident embodiment of growth, a magnet not just for tourists, who flock to the spot partly thanks to the Indonesian government’s wholehearted efforts to promote Komodo National Park to the world – face off with a monstrous dragon, anyone? – but also for native people from rural areas in pursuit of better jobs and more lucrative prospects in the booming economy.
It isn’t that hard, however, to sense how the budding town is at odds with itself. At any one time, you might hear that at least two or three luxury hotels are being developed, sending the prices of beachfront properties shooting into the stratosphere. Yet good manners, let alone proper hospitality, among those working in the hospitality business are still a rarity.
But in Melo – at least in Melo – hospitality is never an issue. Although they might never have even heard of the word, their hospitality is expressed, unrefined as it is, through the cup of coffee they bring you with a cheery countenance the minute you step into their house.
In our quest to discover the multifarious facets of Flores, particularly those still unglazed by the monochromatic golden tint of commercial tourism, we embarked from Labuanbajo in the relatively well-known (though not yet well-worn) west, to Larantuka, deep in the more enigmatic east.
Sitting in a truck, winding along the Trans-Flores “highway”, an erratically fragmented, rutted road so perilously jagged I guess only Florinese drivers can master it – but which also gives you more than 600 kilometers of an untamed, terrible beauty – I let my mind wander.
I closed my eyes, shutting myself off from the hypnotic landscape before me. Even deprived of sight I could picture what I missed: mountains crashing upon mountains, the ground tearing itself apart ever so sluggishly, at geological pace, carving ridges and savage cliffs out of bedrock, an arresting landscape marbled with luminescent staircases of rice fields alternating with impenetrable islands of tall ancient trees.
But I couldn’t help my tongue. In abject loneliness, it began to roll inside my mouth. It searched and searched, prying deep into the nooks between my teeth, sliding along my gums, for a hint of that indescribable taste, familiar only moments ago but now sorely missed. All I pined for was what had once been in my soul – that liquid hospitality called Manggarai coffee.