06.09.2009 - 06.11.2009
Right now I’m at the Hotel Mahara in Takengon, the largest town in the Gayo Highlands region of Nangroe Aceh Darussalam in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Aceh (pronounced ah-CHAY), as many of you will recall, was devastated in the tsunami that struck the day after Christmas 2004. At the time, the region was mired in a 28-year armed conflict between the Indonesian military and the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM, or the Free Aceh Movement). As tragic and harrowing as the tsunami was, it generated global attention to this region and resulted in a peace accord that gave Aceh a significant degree of political and economic autonomy.
The Gayo people, who are a distinct ethnic group with their own culture and language, for the most part did not identify with the GAM but unfortunately - as often is the case - got dragged into the war by both sides. Many ended up fleeing their villages and returned only after they were convinced that the peace accord would be enforced. They resumed farming, with many of them tending to their coffee plants that had fallen into neglect. The result has been high-quality coffee coming out of the Gayo Highlands, grown by small-scale farmers that have been organized into various cooperatives (some of which have received Fair Trade certification). It is because of these cooperatives that I came to Indonesia in the first place, as Atlas is now buying from three of them.
First, however, I had to go to Medan, the third-largest city in the entire country and the capital of North Sumatra Province. All of the exporters are based in Medan, which makes sense not only because of its size but also because the container port of Belawan is about 30 miles away. I had been forewarned that Medan is not the most attractive place, and sure enough it proved to be a fairly chaotic, crowded, and slightly worn-down city (though it has some shiny shopping centers that cater to the wealthy). The traffic alone is quite something: in the four days I spent there I didn’t see very many traffic lights, even at larger intersections, so cars, motorcycles, and becak (motorcycles with covered carts attached to them) just weave in and out. Everyone’s on the lookout for even the slightest seam yet accidents are relatively rare.
While planning this trip I discovered that the new J.W. Marriott, which opened just this year, was offering a special 21-day advance reservation rate at $60/night. Normally when I travel to coffee-producing countries I don’t stay at the nicest hotels, especially in larger cities. Part of this is because I think hotels generally are rip-offs, plus I know that a one-night stay can be the equivalent of a family of four’s food budget for an entire month…if not more. But I’m never one to pass up a good deal (if you’re reading this blog but don’t know that about me, then we must not be spending enough time together), so I opted for luxury. It wasn’t until I was in Malaysia that I remembered the bombing of the J.W. Marriott n Jakarta six or seven years ago. I suddenly had visions in my head of the hotel attacks in Mumbai last year and started wondering if I had made the wrong choice. Well, too late…I was sticking with the plan.
Having departed from the enormous and ultra-modern Kuala Lumpur International Airport, it was quite a contract to arrive at Polonia International Airport in Medan. The airport interior was fairly cramped, with more airport workers than passengers scurrying about or just standing still waiting for something or someone. I knew that I had to get a visa-on-arrival (VOA), and just navigating that process was slightly unnerving. First I had to pay $25 at one tiny office and then go right next door to an equally small office to get the visa – both were filled with smoke, though I have to say it wasn’t as offensive to me because the local cigarettes are laced with cloves. After passing through immigration and finding the baggage carousel, I was pounced upon by a short man in uniform who grabbed my bag from me and whisked me past customs. I had two boxes of smoked salmon that I had brought as gifts from Seattle, and I declared them on my customs form under “Animal products, food, plants, etc.” because the last thing I was going to do was get detained (I pictured myself stuck for hours in a smoky office or worse). I barely had enough time to hand the form to the official because the airport employee had bolted right past. We went outside to where the taxi drivers were crowded around the arrivals area, and I suddenly felt the strong need to separate myself from this man and any potentially dicey situation that could ensue. I took my bag from him and said I was waiting for someone. He asked for a tip. I said I didn’t have Indonesian rupiah. He said that was OK. I gave him $2. He seemed dissatisfied and asked for more. I refused and dismissed him with the wave of my hand.
You can imagine my relief when S., the head of the local office of an exporter, found me. We would be spending the next two days together, so I said that I was fine on my own for the rest of the evening once we arrived at the hotel. After gorging myself in Malaysia I needed to work off some stored fat, so I spent a good hour at the hotel gym – the sophistication of which I had never seen in any hotel in the U.S. or otherwise. I also signed up for three days of Internet service in my room and cursed the Marriott Corporation for gouging guests like me. The cost for those three days turned out to be about as much as a one-night stay at the discounted rate. I was aghast but realized I didn’t have any other options for staying connected.
On Wednesday I visited the exporter’s office and met the rest of the staff as well as the head of one of the cooperatives from which Atlas was already buying FTO (Fair Trade/Organic) Sumatra. It didn’t seem all that hot when I first got there, but soon I was sweltering in the heat and humidity with the back of my shirt completely drenched. Ugh. I gave Atlas t-shirts and Obama ’08 bumper stickers to S., his co-worker, and the cooperative leader. It’s customary for roasters in the U.S. specialty coffee industry to bring t-shirts, baseball caps, etc. when they travel to “origin” and meet producers and exporters, and on numerous occasions I had packed my bag with multiple items of Alterra Wear. Knowing that Indonesians practically claim Obama as a native son, I knew the bumper stickers would be a big hit. And they were.
For lunch S. and the cooperative leader took me to one of the best Padang restaurants in town. Padang is a city on the western side of Sumatra but its spicy, chili-laden cuisine is famous all over Indonesia. The way in which the food is served is also distinct: the restaurant or food stall will cook a number of dishes and place the plates and bowls in a window for everyone to see. When the diners sit down at a table, the server brings the dishes over – the bill is calculated based on how many dishes were eaten. Those that were untouched do not get added. I swear, there were at least twelve or thirteen plates on our table, some of which were stacked on top of others. It was crazy. Since this was a nicer restaurant, everything seemed to be hygienic. I never figured out what happens with the food that is not eaten, though. Does it get served to another table? Either way, the food was excellent. I didn’t get to even half of the dishes because of my slow eating habits…very unfortunate.
After lunch we went to the cooperative’s mill where the parchment shell is taken off before final drying and manual sorting. The tasks were split along gender lines. The males, almost all of whom seemed to be in their late teens, spread the beans on the cement patio with wooden rake-like tools, while the women were seated at low tables doing the sorting. It’s apparently common knowledge all over the coffee-producing world that women are more meticulous and therefore better at picking out defective and misshapen beans. Only at PRODECOOP in northern Nicaragua have I seen a man engaging in manual sorting.
The next day (Thursday) S. and I paid a courtesy call at the office of another exporter. The main purpose was to meet someone with whom I had exchanged countless e-mails and then engaged in Skype chats. He’s an advisor to another Fair Trade Certified cooperative in the Gayo Highlands and was extremely - bordering excessively - eager to sell to Atlas. The problem was that the cooperative does not have organic certification, so I unfortunately had to shift in another direction. Since I was in Medan, however, I felt like I should still meet A. just to put a face with a name and all of the Skype chats that popped up at 11pm Pacific Time, always with the same intro: “Hello Al. How are you?”
After we fulfilled that obligation, S. took me to a restaurant nearby that specializes in Javanese cuisine. The food is sweeter and less spicy than Padang food, and I did notice a difference. The restaurant itself was quite something – most of it was open-air, covered by a very high wooden ceiling/roof built in a traditional architectural style with sweeping eaves that ended in points. Gamelan music played in the background, which I immediately noticed since my younger sister referred to it as “ka-TANG ka-TANG” back when she was an undergrad music major (the University of Wisconsin has a gamelan orchestra). Now we use the term for most world music.
S. and I ended up getting into a fascinating conversation about all sorts of political topics, mostly relating to Islam, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and U.S. foreign policy with all of its hypocrisies. I already had been telling him about how specialty coffee has become intertwined in certain countries with U.S. policies, such as the anti-narcotic efforts in Colombia that have funded the USAID project administered by ACDI/VOCA. We talked about what USAID is doing in Rwanda with the PEARL & SPREAD projects, and how the U.S. still bears collective guilt for not intervening in the 1994 genocide. I told him about Atlas’ relationship with indigenous Ixil producers in Guatemala who suffered terribly during the civil war. Having spontaneous discussions like this one really make me appreciate working in specialty coffee, because I get to interact with people from all sorts of backgrounds, cultures, religions, etc. Far from being an expert on these topics, I did try to explain to S. why the U.S. has backed Israel all these years, why we support regimes in certain Middle Eastern countries and then preach to the rest of the world about democracy and human rights. Finally putting my SFS degree to use, I think!
Yet another marathon post, and I’ve only covered 48 hours in Medan. More to come!