Ethiopia and Yemen are seen as the mother soil for coffee. Many centuries after the presumed beginnings of its usage as a drink, species of the rubiaceae coffea were being successfully cultivated elsewhere for the first time – namely, on the Indonesian island of Java. While the Dutch colonial powers did not only bring about prosperity to that part of the world, today we delight in having a greater global choice of coffee taste profiles, thanks to their undertakings.
Just to the south of Bandung, capital of West Java, is Mount Malabar. This was home to the famous Malabar Radio which began operations in the 1920s. Two-hundred years earlier, it was also the place in history where the coffee seedlings were planted which the Dutch governor of the Malabar region in India ordered to be shipped from Yemen. By the early 1700s, the spreading of Java throughout the rest of the world had begun, to the extent that today Java is also synonym for coffee.
With a peak reaching 2,343 meters above sea level, atop many hardened layers of lava, volcanic glass and ash, Malabar is a stratovolcanic mountain, lively with thousands of Indonesians on mopeds shooting up and down its roads, and with its organic fields of tea, coffee, cabbages and carrots, largely being cultivated in small farms. Especially for the citizens in and around the city of Bandung, the Malabar Mountain is livelihood. Here they sleep and here they work. It reminds me of a fisherman’s town where the people are proud of the work they do during the day, and in the evening delight in the very fruits of their labour.
Having reached the first stop on our way up, spotting several goats was a reminder of a famous coffee legend. Kaldi, the Sufi goatherd from Ethiopia, observed his goats jumping around much livelier than usual, and that earlier they had been eating from bushes with bright red berries. This is the legend of how humans became aware of coffee, and subsequently succumbed to caffeine dependence.
On my first visit to Mount Malabar, I only made it up to 1,850 meters. What a feeling! Walking between rows and rows of coffee and tea, tasting ripe coffee berries, listening to locals joyfully sharing stories of their history.
Now, back in New York City, when I brew coffee or infuse tea leaves for my friends, the connection to my labour is a different one. It will take long before I detach the making of hot drinks from this mountain.