LAST DAYS IN PARADISE: PART IV
I’M WONDERING IF THAT GROWLING NOISE is Made S’s stomach or mine. It’s been a number of hours since we last pillaged a well-hung banana plant, or were offered a chunk of a stranger’s coconut.
Made S and I turn at the temple gates on either side of the road in Kintamani, and head south toward Ubud. It is late afternoon, the sun is now a gold dabloon sliding down a deep blue blanket of sky to the west. Pure white cumulus hover above the horizon. No sign of rain now.
I’m remembering the last time I was on this road—something like three years earlier, and driving in the opposite direction. I had ridden north out of Legian Beach on my motorbike, passed through Seminyak, found my way through the horrid congestion surrounding Denpasar, and headed toward Kintamani. There are few hard rules of the road in Bali for numerous reasons: sheer volume of traffic, a gazillion motorbikes, narrow roads, poorly maintained roads, roaming animals, people walking in the road, children playing in the road, dogs lying in the road, spiritual parades in the road, funeral processions with giant floats in the road, tipsy tourists in the road, wandering sacred cows. But there are two main rules of the road here.
Rule One: the guy with the biggest tires has the right of way.
Rule Two: “do what you have to do to get where you’re going and survive the getting there.”
There was a time not long ago when you could legally ride your motorbike in Bali without wearing a helmet. But, so many tourists were renting bikes for the first time in their lives and pretending they were Hells Angels (or simply wasted on too many Bintang beers or the much harder arrack, distilled palm flowers) and dying, or plowing into cows or sacred processions. So now, the rule is you have to wear a helmet. You can still get away without wearing one in some places, like smaller villages and back roads. But in general, when you pass a policeman—like where they station themselves to direct traffic at the main intersections in Ubud —you’re better off wearing one. And out on the highway to Kintamani where police lurk waiting for some tourist to cruise by without a helmet, or without an international driving permit. The police will ticket you. Then, you’ve got a real hassle on your hands: red tape in Bali is a deep, dark, murky shade of red that you simply will not relish. And don’t expect “your” logic to match logic here.
I do not desire to waste your time, nor more than a line or two, on the inane concept of international driving permits. But the concept annoys me and has for years, and not only because I’ve had to spend time and money to renew mine every year for the last 20 years. And I’m figuring if you’ll read paragraphs on gecko poop and cloacas, international driving permits lie in about the same category of crap, so to speak. Does anyone see the value of an IDP? I mean, you take your regular driving license into some place like AAA in the States, or something similar elsewhere, you pay your 15 or 25 bucks, and WHAM! magically, you are qualified to drive in foreign lands.
You are not required to study an international drivers handbook. You are not required to take an international driving test. You don’t have to know anything about driving in other countries, or practice driving on the other side of the road, or shifting gears with your other hand, or driving in traffic that looks less like traffic and more like the chaos after a football-match-gone-bad in Nigeria or England, not to mention sacred cows, or knowing what road signs in foreign countries designate. I mean, just what are you supposed to do when you come upon a road sign with a platypus on it?
So why does a country—a country that makes no money from selling the permit—demand you carry one? I don’t get it. But I don’t get a lot of things that simply are and always have been and always will be. Like say for instance, in some places, it’s not criminals, but the police you should avoid if you want to avoid danger or unpleasantness, or getting mugged. Or shot.
Bali is not one of those places, but it might feel similar at times if you’re a tourist riding a motorcycle. First, you better be wearing a helmet. And second, you better be carrying your newly-purchased-without-taking-a-test-and-worthless International Driving Permit. If you are riding around Kuta Beach without a helmet, the police won’t bother you. But out on main roads, like from Ubud to Kintamani, you will sooner or later happen upon a police officer lurking beside the road in his patrol car. He is waiting for you to arrive without that helmet, or without that IDP. He may stop you even if you are wearing a helmet, to check if you have a permit. If you do, fine, you are back on your way to Kintamani, no hassles, no red tape, and he won’t mug you. Or shoot you. The Balinese are not Colombians. Nor Americans.
The gates at the country club near Bedugul were impressively enormous and spanned the road. These are actual temple gates, also quite impressive.
Three years earlier on that trip out of Legian to Kintamani on my bike, I realized, maybe thirty minutes out of Legian that I had forgotten my International Driving Permit. I’m pretty sure I hissed a few words the gods and demons may have noticed, and I slowed the bike to turn around and retrieve it. But then I happened upon a beautiful rice paddy. I stopped to take photographs because the sun was beginning to rise behind the rice, creating the photographic effect of backlighting, so the rice appeared vibrant and luminescent, an almost shimmering green while the ground of the paddy was dark in shadow. I got back on the bike an hour later, and headed off toward Kintamani, hoping my good karma would continue, or luck would will the day into a positive manifest destiny, and that I would not encounter the local fuzz… erm… polisi.
But I did. So much for karma and manifest destiny sanctioning the day. Luckily, I saw the patrol car up ahead soon enough to slow down, so I could put on my helmet before I got to the cruiser.
Hint du jour: do not try this at home, kids. Do not ever try to put a helmet on while riding a motorcycle. It’s more dangerous and more stupid than texting while driving. People here die doing this, trying to outwit the police, more often than you might imagine. Just wear your damn helmet. Do as I say, not as I do…is all I’m saying.
The officer was not fooled, he stops me. I smile. I remember Rule Two: “do what you have to do to get where you’re going and survive the getting there.” I plead my case with good humor. I act dumb. I act jovial. I banter with my finest traveler’s good nature. This might be one of those times you wish you’d been born female and had a rich and shallow boyfriend who bought you breast implants, and you wore skimpy tops to flaunt them while flirting.
I try to hide my anger with myself for forgetting, and try to hide my angst—ever since the 60’s, I’ve harbored a slight trepidation of police (just sayin’). I try to convince the officer I did have an IDP, but had inadvertently left it in the villa. I say “villa” to achieve a little credibility, not a man trying to save the price of an IDP. He says he believes me, he can see in my passport that I have visited Bali many times in the recent past. He believes I know, and would follow, the rules. I’m no teenager or shoestring backpacker, I’m a law-abiding geezer who shaves his beard while on vacation in his villa. He understands my mishap. But sadly, he has a job to do. So, what to do, he says. His brow wrinkles, his sad eyes peer directly into mine. The officer says he is obligated to write a ticket. He shrugs his shoulders, which are topped with epaulets and brass buttons. I’m wondering if he’s wondering if I know the unwritten rule of the road here.
He tells me how much the ticket will cost, some outrageous amount in the millions of rupiah, and that I “might” need to go to the police station in Denpasar to pay. But he hesitates writing the ticket. He just sort of stands there, fidgeting, waiting. And talks. With sad eyes. Wrinkling his brow. And I wait. With sad heart. And talk. Feeling disoriented, a badfish out of water—yet once again. Then, I figure: his stalling is some kind of message from the gods and demons—do what you have to do to get where you’re going, doofus.
I ask if I can simply pay the ticket here, rather than go to Denpasar. The officer looks to the side, he thinks about it. For about three seconds. Then nods. I ask how much. His sad eyes begin to burn with something close to disdain. He glances away, searches the horizon, squinting. He cocks his head to the side. His mouth tightens into a thin line, his lips disappear. His shoulders rise into a slight shrug. I do not wait for an answer that will not come. I pull 500,000 rupiahs out of my pocket—slightly high at $34, I think, but a few million rupiah shy of the original fine he’d mentioned, and maybe one of those unwritten rules is “don’t insult the cop.” I palm the wad of 100,000-rupiah notes (the way suave guys in movies do) and reach for the policeman’s hand. The 500,000 rupiahs crinkle between our palms as we shake hands. The policeman smiles, saunters toward his patrol car, slides his hand into his pocket. The teak handle on his revolver sways from side to side as he walks away.
I hop back on the bike—inexplicably feeling like Castro raising his arms after the coup, even though I’ve just lost a wad of cash, but escaped that dark red tape—and I ride off toward Kintamani. Later, that day when I return, the cop is still there, busy with another hapless tourist on a bike. The officer is about to wave me over, then recognizes me and waves me on, and I ride past. I used to believe teaching people to surf or Legong dancer were the best jobs in Bali. I now believe being a policeman is the best job in Bali—you command respect, you get paid well, you get a free car, you get to wear a gun, women with shallow boyfriends and manufactured cleavage expectantly flaunt it for you.
Today, as Made S and I finally make our way back toward Ubud, white clouds begin to veil the sun above the mountains to the west. The sky is turning 20 shades of amber. Gold and silver beams radiate behind white cumulus. The sea is far away in the distance beyond those mountains, so you can’t see it from here. We pull into a coffee plantation that produces kopi luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee. Kopi luwak is arguably the coffee with the world’s weirdest (read here: most disgusting) method of coffee production.
The coffee plantation that Made S and I are visiting is set up as an “agro tourism” business. Meaning they grow and process coffee, as well as rice and other agricultural commodities, and entertain tourists who want to see mangoes and pineapples and coconuts growing while they sip extravagant Bali coffee and eat nasi goreng while watching the sun go down over a valley of rice paddies trimmed with bamboo trees and mangosteens.
The reason most people come to this plantation is because it processes and sells kopi luwak, and is well known for their high quality. You can buy bags of coffee with “kopi luwak” written on the bags in stores or cafés all over Bali, but the bags may contain only ½ kopi luwak, or 1/3, or none at all. Bali is a paradise, but businessmen are businessmen everywhere in the world, and as they say in movies, suckers are still being born every minute.
I once knew the name of this flower. Any flower lovers out there know?
Made S and I walk through a gate and into a grand garden of flowers and trees. We are met by a young woman who will be our guide. You are NOT going to believe this—or you’ve already guessed it—our guide’s name is Made. Made the guide begins showing us around the acreage, pointing out the various plants they cultivate, like coconuts, rambutans, snake fruit, cacao, jackfruit, durian.
The Kintamani area, high on the slopes of ancient volcanoes, with rich volcanic soil and perfect growing conditions (shade, rainfall, altitude), is one of Bali’s—and perhaps the world’s—finest coffee-growing regions. Both Robusta and Arabica beans thrive here. Arabica beans are usually preferred by coffee connoisseurs because they yield a milder, smoother-tasting coffee. Robusta beans offer a more bitter, stronger-tasting coffee: the reason for that is Robusta beans harbor remarkably more caffeine than Arabica, and it’s the caffeine in coffee that gives you a bitter taste.
Poop question du jour: Why does coffee make you poop? Apparently, it does not make everyone poop. If it makes you poop, you are one of the one-in-three people it does. I am one of those one-in-three people. Every morning, it’s clockwork: one or two cups of coffee, then high tail it to the head. Previously, people believed that it was merely the caffeine that made you poop. But decaffeinated coffee makes people poop, too. So, they don’t know precisely what all in coffee stimulates the muscles in your colon, which then promotes peristalsis, which then makes you poop.
At the coffee plantation, we discover a number of other interesting facts regarding coffee. Robusta beans contain more of something they call chlorogenic acid. On the one hand, this stuff helps caffeine create the bitter taste. On the other hand, it helps lower blood sugar levels, helps prevent diabetes, and helps you lose weight. As we like to say here at the Badfish and Chips Café: there is good and bad in everything.
If you put the beans side by side, you’ll notice Arabica beans are slightly larger and have an elliptical shape. The Robustas are smaller and more round. Because of the different levels of caffeine and chlorogenic acid and lots of other chemical stuff, the beans will roast differently under the same processing conditions, as you can see in the photo. These beans were roasted together by the boys at Sekumpul, and both beans came in the blend-not-labeled-a-blend coffee I purchased at the Falls.
Arabica beans contain almost twice the sugars as Robusta, which may also affect the flavor, and bitterness. Arabica beans contain maybe 50% more lipids. I googled “lipids” and honestly, I don’t understand them at all. Lipids appear to be many things. The wax in your ear and in bee hives is lipids, along with that oil floating on the surface of your coffee. Vitamins A, D, and E are lipids. Estrogen and testosterone are lipids. So, for the most part, maybe we can assume drinking coffee is good for you?
Here’s another interesting difference between the beans: Arabica trees pollinate themselves. Robusta trees need the birds and the bees doing their thing. And, this detail seems particularly odd: Robusta beans possess half the chromosomes of Arabica.
Question du jour: If chimpanzees have like 99% of the same chromosomes (and genes) as humans, does that mean chimpanzees are more like humans than Arabica beans are to Robusta?
Some say the best way to get the most flavor out of coffee is to brew the bean whole. That way none of the flavoring materials are leached from inside the bean. The obvious drawback is that it might take hours to brew whole beans. When you grind the beans, you obviously create more particles, so it takes less time to brew. However, you start losing some of those flavoring elements when you grind beans and expose them to air. That’s why some people like to grind their beans just before brewing. I grind mine every two or three days, or so. It might be easy for someone to go a little OCD on something like this. I prefer the middle road, a path of moderation in (most) things. However, life does have a way of fabricating itself into a balance of excesses some times in my world.
Fact du jour: if you drink 99.5 cups of coffee in one sitting, you will OD on caffeine, and die. Because that much caffeine—something like 2.5 teaspoons, or 10 grams—will kill you.
Kopi Luwak is so expensive, you probably won’t be tempted to commit suicide by overdosing on the stuff. In some places in the States, it sells for 200 to 400 dollars a kilo, or 90 to 180 bucks a pound. In the US, a whole pound of a Starbucks regular coffee or blend will generally run you around 11 or 12 bucks. One pound weighs a bit less than half a kilo. In Bali, 100 grams (1/10th of a kilo or a little less than ¼ pound) of Kopi Luwak will run you 400,000 rupiah ($27). You can buy 100 grams of regular Bali coffee for 12,000 rupiah (92 cents). You getting a picture of the size of things here?
But get this: If you really want to go overboard, you can spend US$10,910 (not a typo, it’s ten freakin’ thousand) on Terra Nera Kopi Luwak, which comes in a 24-carat gold-plated bag with your name engraved on the sack. If you are not that rich—or stupid—you can spend $1100 a kilo on Black Ivory Coffee, which is made from beans eaten and passed through elephants in Thailand.
Possible rationalization du jour: if you are thinking of trying kopi luwak, you may need to come up with some rationalization for why you might want to sip something through your lips that has been eaten and swallowed whole by a fairly unsavory wild animal, has passed through that animal’s alimentary canal, has egressed through his anal sphincter, then lain in the dirt for days covered in poop. And flies.
Remember what I said earlier about “your” logic being logical in Bali? Think a minute about the first guy who happened upon a pile of poop with coffee beans in it. What possible scenario could we come up with for his thought process, his logic? Something like: “Look Made, that pile of shit looks just like coffee beans. Hey, it is coffee beans. How cool…we won’t have to bother climbing the dang ladder to pick ‘em. We can just grab this pile of shit, drop it in the pot and boil us up some…” See what I mean about logic?
Vocabulary du jour: Coprophagia—the consumption of feces. Flies do it. Blue butterflies do it. Pot-bellied pigs do it. Coprophagiacs do it. If there is a word for it, maybe it makes it a little more palatable for you to drink kopi luwak? Or does knowing this, and now thinking about it and knowing people do this, just make things worse?
BIG QUESTION: why has my blog gone off in this scatological direction? And just stayed there? In person, I assure you, I am not obsessed with dung. In person, I do not think about it. In person, I do not talk about it. I drink my morning coffee, then poop…end of topic for the day. But here in my posts, we seem to careen back to piles and piles of the stuff from geckos to elephants.
EARLY NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: After this one, no more posts about poop.
Made the guide says they have some luwaks we can see. Luwak, or Asian Palm Civet, sightings are rare in Bali for a couple of reasons: they are nocturnal animals, arboreal, and they are becoming endangered because they have lost so much of their natural habitat to agriculture and because they were considered a pest to plantations, and slaughtered when sighted, until kopi luwak became popular.
Wild palm civets spend most of their lives in trees. They are territorial animals. They are not very sociable, spend most of their time alone, and generally hunt and feed in complete darkness. Civets are a small animal, about the size of a large cat, weighing maybe 5-10 pounds, with long tails. Their bodies are long and slender, with rather short legs. Their hair is fairly course, and either gray or tan, with three black stripes (or strips of dots) running along either side of its body. They have powerful claws that allow them to climb easily, or slice open your skin. Both males and females have anal scent glands, and are capable of spraying a noxious scent, like skunks. Their eyes are dark red and are quite disturbing looking. Palm civets get their name from their fondness for palm sap, which the Balinese use to make arrack, a potent palm liquor. So we could assume that if there were an animal that might need drug counseling, it would be luwaks. Civets are actually friends to the coffee trees, as they drop the coffee seeds far away from where they eat them, which allows new trees to germinate, and spread into surrounding areas.
I’m excited. I’ve never seen a luwak. One of the things I love most about traveling to foreign lands is viewing their natural beauty: trees, rivers, volcanoes, lakes, flowers, animals (and apparently, entrances to country clubs). I try to imagine what a civet looks like. We walk to where the luwaks are. Almost immediately, I see Mister Disappointment making his grand entrance, stage left. My heart sinks. The plantation has luwaks penned up in cages. Fairly small cages for a wild animal. I don’t go to zoos much at all. I prefer not seeing animals in cages, or even held in marvelous large enclosures. A camel roaming the sand dunes outside Dubai quickens my blood, but seeing a dog on a leash bothers me.
Coffee growers everywhere in this part of the world hold luwaks captive unnaturally close to other luwaks, several to a cage, which causes them stress. They are forced to eat more coffee beans than normal. They are forced to be active during the day. Growers tell us the price of kopi luwak is so high because of its rarity and the way it’s gathered by hand in the plantations. This is a load of crap. Most kopi luwak sold today comes from caged animals like these. And it is not rare, there is a shitload of the stuff (I’m getting the scat verbage out of my system!).
So now, besides rationalizing the idea of poop in your coffee beans, you might need to consider whether or not you desire to support this kind of treatment to animals.
The captive luwaks have a piece of a tree to climb, and a bit of space to walk around. The luwaks pace in their cage, like wild animals. They are wild, they have wild eyes, but they just do not stop moving. At first, I believe it is simply their nature, high strung maybe, or they are frightened. Or they’d rather be sleeping? It may be all of these.
Then I notice the floor of the cage is scattered with fresh coffee beans for them to eat. They are all Robusta beans, Made the guide informs us, and some are not even red. This must be a major disappointment for the luwaks because in the wild, they prefer to eat only Arabica, and only when precisely ripe. Animals are not dumb. The luwaks must be fairly high on caffeine I would imagine. If you ate coffee beans all day in a cell with three people you hated, you’d be pacing your cage, too, perhaps. The luwaks’ expression, and their eyes, look very similar to the Sekumpul xylophone player’s eyes. So…one more side effect of coffee, we might presume?
The world’s most disgusting coffee production begins benignly with the coffee growing on the tree.
When the beans ripen in the wild, luwaks chow down at their 1 o’clock-in-the-morning dinner, downing beans almost whole, apparently without much chewing. One important factor is that when in the wild, luwaks know precisely when the coffee bean is ripe, the perfect time for harvesting. Human field workers can see if a bean is red or not, but it may not be the “perfect” ripeness.
The beans, along with whatever else the luwaks eat—insects, small animals, fruit—transits the alimentary canal and emerges from the animal’s digestive tract, completely intact. The stomach’s fermentation process cures the beans, giving them their unique flavor.
One good reason to be grateful: luwaks have no cloaca.
Disappointment du jour: I’ve just realized that Made the guide did not show us at the plantation how they collected the beans, nor how they cleaned the beans. What do we imagine happens? Maybe someone gathers the poop-encrusted beans with a scooper or tongs, then what…hoses them down?
The outer shell is removed, which for me anyway helps alleviate some unsavory notion I might conjure about sipping the brew.
Then, the beans are roasted by hand over a wood fire. Lovely aroma.
I’m not rich…but you can act rich in Bali. You can rent a house and call it a villa, complete with a maid. You can dine at fine restaurants with views of mountains and ravines, lakes and oceans. And one fairly small cup of kopi luwak will cost you 50,000 rupiah ($3.44), a pretty steep price for Bali, cheap for Harrods.
Traditional method of grinding, using a large stone mortar and teak pestal.
Made S has previously brought numerous guests to this place, but he has never tasted kopi luwak before, so I buy him a cup. We sit at a wooden table on the rim of the ravine and peruse the valley below. We sip kopi luwak. We are both very rich at this moment. Rich people do not discuss animal dung at times like this.
We sip and watch the sun slip behind the mountain on the other side of the wide valley of the agro tourism plantation.
Coconuts are also grown on the acreage. When in Bali, I usually drink the juice of a coconut every day. Somebody has to do it.
When they print “powder” on a bag of coffee in Bali, they literally mean powder. The Balinese grind their coffee beans to a fine powder. Then they simply add the powder to hot water, allow the powder to sink to the bottom of their cup, and drink their coffee with the fine grinds settled in their cups. After a while, you get used to drinking it like this if you have a maid who makes you breakfast every day, or if you break the glass on your French press. You might even begin to prefer your coffee like this.
If you are wondering just what kopi luwak tastes like, let me quote Nixon and “say this about that”: it’s remarkably good. Okay, I’ll use a word I try to never use: kopi luwak is awesome. Mellow, smooth, mild. Almost creamy texture. No aftertaste. Not bitter at all. I don’t like “bitter.” I like sweet. I like hot…chili hot. But not bitter. I don’t even like, nor ever use, salt. When I drink regular coffee, I use sugar, lots. These days, I’m using Stevia powder that a friend mails me in care packages from the States because sugar will kill you. She mails it to me because the stevia you find where I live says “100% stevia” on the box. But the teensy writing on the label (you need a magnifying glass to read it) informs you that 3% of the “stuff” in the box is pure stevia and the other 97% is some chemical with a name you can’t pronounce. Businessmen and suckers abound.
When the waitress brings Made S and I our coffee, I want to experience unadulterated kopi luwak. I want to know what the fuss is all about. I want to know if it’s worth the price, so I take a sip with no sugar. I am amazed; it tastes so smooth, rich, and creamy, I drink the whole cup without adding any sugar. And I buy a 100-gram bag of their powder for the (not-so) bargain price of 400,000 rupiahs. I decide I’ll return later to the plantation on one of my trips and buy a couple bags of the whole beans to take home.
Yeah, it’s good stuff. But let me also say this about that: don’t waste your $180 (or ten grand) on a baggie of the stuff. Like Steppenwolf says: “god damn the pusher man.” Kopi luwak is addictive. Kopi luwak is like any drug: a fun experience to try…maybe once…in Bali…with a Made or two. But nothing you want to get yourself strung-out on. Unless you’re, say, Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List.
QUESTION: who do you think first brewed a cup of kopi luwak…what was their story? Traveler, poor, lazy, psycho, closet Coprophagiac, other?
You can find previous Parts of story here:
You can find more entries to DP Photo Challenge here: Grid
You can find more entries to Lucile’s photo challenge here: Photo Rehab
You can find more entries to WP Daily Prompt here: Night and Day