Virtual Vacation: Harvest, Day 24

Last night after dinner, Karyn and I got to spend a few special minutes with Putu Metta Sustrawan, the 15-year-old boy whose education we’ve been sponsoring for the past year. When we met him with his father last year, Putu was shy and deferential and spoke very little English. This year, his voice had dropped and his English had improved. Putu brought us lovely gifts—a handwritten thank you note, a pencil drawing he had made, a sack of special fruit from his village, and a large bag of local coffee. He told us his favorite subjects in school were still Indonesian, math and science, and that he has continued to play in the local young people’s gamelan group. Putu shook our hands and thanked us for helping him stay to school, and we in turn, thanked him. It’s such a small way for us to give back, and yet it is making a difference in one boy’s life.

Today, most of our group took off for an all-day outing: a world-class snorkeling expedition in West Bali National Park followed by a visit to the local hot springs. Since Allison and I had been scuba diving there just a few weeks ago, I opted to stay behind to drink in the quiet of this place, and to give myself time to think about facilitating the last few days of the retreat.

After seeing everyone off, I gravitated to Vanya’s porch, where the two of us could observe the harvest of red rice in the field immediately below us. At first, I felt conflicted about sitting at my small round table on my wicker tourists chair, up on a balcony, watching other people, twenty yards away, doing hard physical labor, but my fascination and curiosity with the harvest process prevailed. There was also been a bit of a smile fest between me and one young teenage girl, her black hair pulled back in a high ponytail with a thick pink tie. She carried a purple and white woven bag, and placed select strands of rice into it in a lackadaisical way. She wore brown pants, a white shirt with pink polka dots, and a thin black and white hoodie, zipped open in front.

The women talked softly as they work, their hands always busy, their heads covered with caps, wrapped cloths, or towels.

Photo credit: Julia Atwood
Photo credit: Julia Atwood
Photo credit: Julia Atwood

Each carried a small knife with a curved wooden handle, small enough to nestle in their hands, just as Surya described yesterday, so that the transition from death to life is gentle.

Photo credit: Julia Atwood

The rice they were harvesting is the traditional rice grown on a nine-month-cycle, the ceremonial rice, the special rice. As I watched my girl, she walked the outside edge of the field. She worked a little, stared out into space a little, wandered a little. At one point, she answered her cell phone. No one seemed to hurry her along. Every once in a while, she came a few steps closer to me, and smiled up at me, a shy curious smile. I wanted to take a picture of her and capture the open beauty of her face, but it felt like I would be stealing. This is what she looked like when she was working in the field:

Later, when I ran into Julia, she told me she had a full-face image of the girl I could use:

Photo credit: Julia Atwood

I wondered what this girl was thinking as she looked up at us watching her. Vanya was typing on her iPad; I on my laptop. Was this girl as curious about me—the tourist from far away—and my life, as I was about hers?

In front of me, the girls’ mother, wearing an orange towel and a baseball cap on her head was tying the bundles of rice, creating the tufted golden bunches we saw drying on our hike yesterday. After she tied each bundle, she turned it upside down and thwacked the center with her hand, smacking it and fluffing the strands of rice into a giant golden mop of strands.

Then she put the bundle in a pile with other bundles and left it on the ground.

Photo credit: Julia Atwood

Other women carried baskets or large bags of freshly harvested rice on their heads, to where I could not see.

Photo credit: Julia Atwood

Twenty minutes after we sat down to watch, the workers moved on to the adjacent field. The one in front of us had been picked clean; now just green and brown stalks remained.

I thought about following the harvest to the next field, but then Vanya asked if I wanted to go get a cup of Luwak coffee up the street. I’d suggested it as a field trip for my writing students, so I said yes. I’d been planning to head over there anyway since I’d promised Budi I’d help with his translation and I still had some questions to ask him in person before I could finish the job.

Vanya and I joined forces with Joy along the way and the three of us made the five-minute walk up the road to the Farmer’s Cooperative. The place looked completely deserted and unremarkable so it was good I was with them.

We climbed these very steep steps up the backside of the building:

And then up a second flight of steps that seem made for a giant.

We sat at the same table I’d enjoyed with Allison a couple of weeks earlier—the one with the million-dollar view. As we perused the menu, we laughed. The heading over the list of beverage choices said, “Homely Drinks.”

The three of us debated how big a pot of Luwak coffee to order. None of us normally drink coffee, so we decided to order a pot intended for two. While I left them to watch the magical brewing process and enjoy the view, I asked Budi my questions about the mistreatment of civet cats.

When the coffee was brewed and ready, I returned to our table and the three of us turned the tiny golden spigot to fill our expresso-size cups with small amounts of the thick strong brew. We sipped it and winced at the strength, and Budi laughed. He’d brought us a glass container of palm sugar and when he saw our faces, he also offered us milk, “like beginners,” he said.

As the three of us drank more of the special elixir of life, our conversation grew more animated. As I drank my third small cup of Luwak coffee, I started trying to identify the intense heady feeling overtaking my body and my mind. It wasn’t like any caffeine high I was used to; nor did it have the bitterness or bite I often associate with coffee. I didn’t feel jangly or on edge; I felt more…more….alive.

“Expansive” was one word that came to mind. “Like I can think more clearly,” was another. “I feel like I could write forever,” is what I said. I searched the repertoire of my past drug experiences to try to express what I was feeling. “It feels like subtle cross between cocaine and an acid trip,” is what I concluded, but that didn’t capture the wonderful elated, clear-thinking space I’d been elevated into.

All three of us non-coffee drinkers eagerly poured ourselves more of the black gold from the beautiful coffee maker in front of us. Our talk became more animated the more we drank. The two of them were going off to have massages after this—I tried to imagine lying on a table after drinking this stuff and was glad massage wasn’t on my agenda; I was happy I could keep my body upright and my mind floating free.

The cups of Luwak coffee were definitely unusual, but they did have one effect on me that often happens with normal coffee, at least in my case. I suddenly needed a bathroom.

I’m trying to think how to describe my next twenty minutes without grossing you out, but let’s just say that after diarrhea landed me in the Candidasa clinic a couple of weeks ago, my bowels have not been normal. Since then, the issue has not been too much coming out; it’s been the opposite. All the rice I’ve been eating (and they serve rice here breakfast, lunch and dinner), my bowels have been on the stopped up side. So I was happy to have this urgent signal coming from my body. I asked Budi if there was a bathroom nearly and that’s when I had a classic third-world Asian bathroom experience.

Budi directed me back down the steep cement steps into the backyard of the family compound where civet-pooped (and cleaned) coffee beans were drying in a large tarp on the ground.

I went into a garage-like shelter and found the door to a bathroom that bore little resemblance to the more Westernized bathrooms we’d grown used to in our hotels and other public places designed with visitors in mind. This was the bathroom the family used and there was nothing in the design or utility of the room that had someone like me in mind. Yet my need was urgent and there was no choice but to use these facilities.

This was the mirror in the bathroom:

I’m generally not squeamish about bathrooms; I’ve rarely seen an outhouse I would refuse, yet this room did present some tactical dilemmas for me. To begin with the floor was wet. A hose was coming out of the wall dripping water slowly onto the floor. I’m not sure why, but there was no one to ask and I doubt I’ll bring it up later. I didn’t mind the dampness. I was wearing shoes that could definitely be washed off easily.

The second issue was that there was no toilet paper, yet my business there definitely required more than a cursory splash of water from the yellow plastic tub in the corner. That’s when I looked up and spied a lone roll of toilet paper in an upper window. Crouching, I stood up and grabbed it. After I used the toilet paper (being careful to use the minimum necessary), I threw it in the toilet and tried to flush. But it didn’t flush; the handle was obviously broken. When I peered under the lid and played with the works inside, I still couldn’t get a response from the mechanism. I tried pouring several buckets of water in from the yellow tank, Asian-style, and that didn’t work either.

Unfortunately, my body let me know that my business in the bathroom wasn’t done and I had to sit down again. As I sat there, I pondered what to do with the next wad of toilet paper. I couldn’t throw any more into the toilet, which was already was stuffed up. There was no garbage can in sight and I didn’t have a pocket. So I wrapped that piece of toilet paper into another clean piece and then a third clean piece (all the time thinking of what Surya had told us: “Bali is a paperless society.”) I wadded up the result and tucked it in my fanny pack, next to my iPhone and my rupiahs. Dilemma solved, I headed back upstairs. Washing my hands? That would have to wait.

For the next hour, Budi and I sat together while I asked him questions to hone my understanding of the text I was smoothing out for him. In the course of our conversation, I learned that Budi speaks Indonesian, Javanese, Japanese, English, as well as the local Balinese dialect and some French. He will be translating my English text into Japanese and French for visitors from those countries.

In between discussing the digestive systems of civet cats, he asked me about Obama and we got into a long conversation about Congress and politics and political corruption in my country and his. He is a cultured, articulate, committed man and it was a pleasure to talk to him.

When we were done with our writing project, the result read like this:

During the past five years, as the demand for Luwak Coffee (Luwak Kopi) has increased, many of the producers of this coffee have taken short-cuts in its production which has led to the mistreatment and abuse of the civet cats, whose digestion of the raw beans is essential to the production of this special coffee. Unscrupulous producers, in Sumatra and Java, and also in Bali, cage the civet cats and force-feed them the coffee berries.

Civet cats are nocturnal animals and are difficult to catch in the wild, so less reputable Luwak coffee producers trap the animals and even shoot them as a way to capture them. The idea is that they will “wound” the animals and then rehabilitate them in captivity, but the vast majority of animals are killed in the process. Those that survive their initial capture often die of hepatitis shortly afterward. Of those cats that remain, their lifespan is shortened dramatically. In the wild, civet cats live to be sixteen years old; in captivity, no more than six.

In addition to the inhumane nature of these methods of capture and the innate cruelty of caging a wild animal, the quality of the coffee gleaned from caged cats is inferior. It is a natural enzyme produced in wild civet cats that breaks down the caffeine in the coffee bean in the precise way needed to give Luwak coffee its extraordinary qualities. When the cats are stressed, their body chemistry changes and the stress hormones have a completely different impact on the coffee bean, creating an inferior product.

At the Farmer’s Cooperative in Munduk, the only Luwak coffee served and sold is made from cats left to roam in their natural habitat. In addition, the Farmer’s Coffee rehabilitates wounded civet cats and releases them back into the wild.

By supporting the Farmer’s Cooperative and only buying coffee from purveyors who produce coffee from wild cats, you will help curtail corrupt practices and ensure the continued freedom and survival of civet cats in the future.

Budi gave me a big terrima kasih from all farmers and offered to take me out to see his coffee plantation. I went back to my room to fetch my poncho and better walking shoes and an hour later, headed back over to join him.

When I arrived, Budi was waiting by his scooter. “We have a short drive up the road,” he announced. I hopped on the back, delighted. I’d been secretly hoping for one more scooter ride.

A few miles up the road, we turned onto a small winding road that quickly turned into a narrow walking trail. Two hapless groups of tourists blocked the pathway. As they moved out our way, they gawked at us quizzically. What was a scooter doing in their hiking trail? What was a white woman doing sitting behind a brown man? Just where the hell were they going?

A little way up the trail, Budi parked the scooter. “We just have a couple of kilometers to walk,” he said, and he set out leading the way. I guess I’m getting my exercise, I thought as I panted keeping up with him.

Budi was wearing western pants and a green, blue and red long sleeve polo shirt, a ubiquitous pair of flip-flops on his brown feet. He kept up a fast pace and occasionally checked his cell phone as we walked. As I watched him on the trail in front of me, the main thing I noticed was his posture. He stood perfectly upright, with grace, as do all the Balinese. I mentioned it to him, and gave an exaggerated pantomime of the head-forward way most Americans walk, and both or us laughed.

It was a misty day and as Budi began pointing out the plants alongside the trail, I realized I was getting my own private nature walk with my own private guide. The most common plant along the side of the trail was the robusta coffee that I’d seen so much of yesterday.

We followed a winding stream and Budi stopped to show me the lerek tree. “It’s the best thing to wash batik with,” he said, “without fading the color.” It’s also used as a medicinal herb—to treat dandruff and drive away insects.

Budi told me that the land we were walking on was a nature preserve owned by his family. They had a tree planting projects for local students and the whole area was free for people to hike through.

At one point, Budi stopped and pointed out a large stand of old growth tropical rain forest on a far off hillside that had been preserved by his parents. “My mother always told me not to cut trees,” he said. “This is my commitment. Human being to the nature.”

A moment later, when we passed a large rock, Budi told me he could feel the spirit of the rock. “I’m a man who can get very quickly connected to that kind of thing. There are many areas outside of modern knowledge,” he added, “things untouchable by science.”

As the trail wended up and down, occasionally slick and steep in spots, Budi told me we were entering the area where they released the civet cats back into the wild, and he explained why this particular habitat was perfect for them. There were coffee plants everywhere.

As I looked around at the vast density of nature all around me, I asked how anyone could possibly find the poop of a wild cat here. Budi explained, “Civet cats are not like monkeys. They are very clean animals. They like to poop in a set place—on a dead tree, on a rock or even on a clear path—never in the bushes.”

And to prove the point, we came across civet cat scat right on the trail in front of us:

Occasionally, as we hiked, Budi and I had to back against the foliage on the side of a trail to let a scooter go by. A father rode by with his two daughters sitting sidesaddle behind him, each sucking on a big Fudgsicle. A woman walked down the path toward us with four small cinder blocks stacked on top of each other, balanced on a rag on her head. Her tiny daughter walked right behind her, a cinder block perched on her head. We had crossed from the preserve into Budi’s certified organic plantation.

At one point Budi motioned for me to climb off the path into the shade of orange tree full of ripe green fruit. He pointed to a low bush. “This is a new kind of coffee,” he told me. “It was discovered here in Bali twelve years ago. They call it formosa, like the city.”

Budi pointed out a mangosteen tree with a fungus. Just after we passed it, we turned a corner and I was in for a real surprise:

And right across from the waterfall was an open air café.

Here was the menu:

One guy was staffing the café. His young daughter sat nearby, playing on a cell phone. Budi and I sat down at the best table in the house, directly across from the waterfall, and had “mixed juice, no sugar.” Budi told me he’d taught the staffers there that they had to serve Westerners within 15 minutes. “They don’t like to wait,” he told them.

Budi and I enjoyed our juice and the view. We sat for an hour and talked. I brought up the possibility of creating a guided walkway with signs along the way, educating hikers about civet cats and local plants. Budi told me about his travels around the world, and how he always comes back to Bali. I asked how he earned his money. He told me that he sells organic produce to local restaurants and owns a small construction company in Denpasar. When I asked how large his family’s parcel of land was, he said 29 hectares, or 71 acres.

“I like farming,” Budi told me, “It makes me feel connected to nature.” He doesn’t do the physical labor himself, but he pays his farmers more than the going rate. And he shares the electric power generated by the waterfall with his neighbors.

For a time we sat quietly, companionably. I had never expected my visit to Budi’s cooperative for a cup of Luwak coffee to end up here.

“The big question,” Budi concluded, just before we headed back, “is what can I do for the nature. I’m not an economically strong man, but I try to do something that will be beneficial for the land and the people.”

There is an essence of Budi that reminds me of Surya—something these two well-educated, well-traveled, balanced, spiritual intelligent Balinese men have in common. It’s a grace and sense of balance I don’t associate with men of other cultures.

As we headed back, I was so glad I’d skipped the outing and stayed put today, that I’d had the chance for one last solo adventure. As I climbed off the bike and shook Budi’s hand goodbye, I knew next year in Bali, I’d be seeing him again.

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