I love to travel. It’s another mystery to me--how can something that is, on its face, uncomfortable, be something that we long for. It’s proof to me that we were somehow made to do hard things--that it’s as important to our health as love.
Love stinks. We all love a dozen or a hundred times before we find someone whose love we can key into. And even once we do key in with someone it’s a daily giving of ourselves to another person. So why do we do it? As I look around at my life I realize that most, (all?) of life’s good things come from hard pounding. Love,children, earnest friendships, fulfilling work and even traveling are difficult endeavors that don’t always position their rewards out front where we can see them, but somehow we know they’re worth the cost.
I grew up in a family that did not travel at all. As kids we had periodic trips to California or Nevada to visit family. But the idea of traveling further, or without a clear purpose was as enticing as it was foreign to me when I traveled to The Philippines when I was 15.
Southeast Asia is a heck of a way to get one’s feet wet, but for me it did the trick. My first trip was a clashing offensive barrage on my senses and yet I loved it. And it changed me--it adjusted my brains on a very deep, bassy level. Like a tree planted in the ground and watered by irrigation, suddenly discovering that its taproot had reached down, down into some wetter soil, so that its land was the same and its sky was the same but its blood was different.
This year, I traveled to Southeast Asia again for the first time in all these years. I’ve traveled in the meantime, but never back to Southeast Asia. It was the same, and different. It was the same and different the way Canada is the same but different from the USA.
I experienced many things that I found familiar with my five senses, but it was still new.
Although I’ve traveled, I’m not a traveler, and travelers are a different kind of people. Especially the statistically youngest type of travelers--backpackers. I spent a little bit of time with backpackers on this trip and it was a cultural peek into the west via the east.
We went to a town called Takengon which is in Aceh, (Ahh-chay), which is the northernmost province on the Island of Sumatra --which is in Indonesia, which is just north and a little bit west of Australia. We went there to see coffee, to touch it and taste it in forms other than roasted and brewed. And that’s what we were able to do!
It felt good for me to be able to walk out onto a hillside planted with coffee and see the shade-cover. I could see the citrus and banana trees that they grow to keep the comparatively fragile coffee plants healthy. I could reach up and eat an orange right off a tree.
I could put leaves in my hand and see how leathery and tough they were, how shiny and veiny. I could find a blossom that would eventually become a cherry and I could breath it in and smell jasmine.
I could feel the bark of the tree and smell it and see how it was different than the trees that I have at home. But also the same. Different but the same.
I could grab a red coffee cherry and pop it right into my mouth and bite down on coffee seeds that were a lot softer than our cherry pits, but a lot harder than I’d imagined they might be. I tasted the skin by itself and then scraped the inner fleshy layer off with my teeth and tasted that on its own. I felt how slippery the beans were with a layer of thick pergamino still intact. Pergamino means parchment and it’s usually dried and broken off the seed before it ever leaves port. But I have a little baggy of coffee still in parchment if you’re curious.
I watched as three generations selected some coffee they’d picked earlier in the day and fired up the machines that remove and separate the coffee seeds from the flesh and skin. I watched as they used the spent skin and pulp to fertilize their trees and feed their chickens.
There’s a danger here in me over-romanticizing what is essentially some farmers working a living out of the ground. I want to be careful to find the balance and say that while it’s maybe not as romantic as I saw it, it’s possible that all farming is more romantic than we think.
I listened while they patiently reported their methods and tried to explain processes to me that weren’t happening right now because it was the off-season.
And then I watched them roast their coffee, grind it and prepare it in ways that are different than we do. I was served cup after cup after cup and I tipped my chair back and looked at the sky and I breathed deep gulps of air -- I liked that.
I mounted a motorbike with an Indonesian holding on for dear life behind me. We darted off into the mountain, following the rutted muddy road that wrapped ‘round Lake Lut Tawar. He showed me where the coffee grows best and which farmers do the best work. He showed me what he called “coffee stones” which is a white mineral of some sort that’s prevalent there. He swears it’s why Gayo coffee is the best coffee in the world. (Takengon is in a mountainous highland area traditionally inhabited by the Gayo people).
I kept waiting for my guide to tell me to turn around and head back for town, but he never did so we pushed forward. We rode through tiny villages looking for little groups of children, their mouths agape at the sight of us, children who I could stare and wink at on my way by sending them into a cacophonous laughter.
We went further and came to a farm to visit with only one little man working on it as, I learned, he had for most of his life. He was just there. Farming that land. Smoking those cigarettes. Farming that land. Eating that fish. Farming that land. I was born in September. He was there--gearing up for harvest to start in the middle of October. All of my life, all of my experiences. He’s been there, farming that coffee the whole time.
He lived right in the trees. There was just a little clearing in the middle of a thickly planted hillside for a shack that I wouldn’t have been happy to live in long term. But he looked okay with it. And maybe part of that was because it was so quiet. It was just the sound of his fire and the rain. And when the rain stopped, you could hear the whole jungle and it didn’t sound scary. His little shack had an open side with a long bench -- it looked out onto an incredible view of the lake and then the highlands beyond.
We ate lunch on the far side of the lake before continuing forward, this time back around the other side of the lake toward town again.
In that day, we rode all the way around the lake and we saw fish farms and brightly colored mosques pointing up toward God. We saw dirty little villages and clean, spotless little villages and that reminded me that people are people no matter where you go, and that civic pride is not limited to big cities. We saw beautiful cattle that my inner farm-boy wanted to stop and see more closely. We saw rivers pour into the lake and we saw pines! The forest is high enough and cool enough for part of the year that pines will grow there. It was the same as home, but different.
Finally we came back into Takengon, riding into town on the opposite side from which we’d gone.
I was so glad to have had that experience! That day out on the motorbike. As I reflected on it that afternoon, waiting to board a bus that would mark the beginning of my very long trek back to Oregon, I got to thinking about things being the same and different.
We almost all live in or very near incredibly beautiful surroundings. I was struck on my trip how often I was reminded of home not by ethereal fondness for my family, but by my actual surroundings.
Southeast Asia is, it turns out, not a whole other world. It’s part of this world and I think it’s cool to have traveled there to learn new things and see new things and also to be reminded of the beautiful sameness.
Photo credit: Thank you Evan Finley for sharing your photos of the trip!