Friday, September 7, 2012

In the Rafflesia Village: Looking for the World's Biggest Flower and Drinking Kopi Luwak

After our brief stay in the cacophonous environs of Bukkittingi we hopped in a car (organized by the folks at Canyon Cafe) and sped north a few miles out of town back into the towering jungle to encounter the rare Rafflesia Arnoldii, the world's largest individual flowering plant.

Apparently, two or three of these giant parasitic beasts occasionally bloom in the thick forest surrounding Desa Batang Palupuh.  The West Sumatran species (Rafflesia arnoldii) is the largest variety in the world (the flower can also be found in parts of Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo, Thailand, and the Philippines), sometimes measuring over a meter in diameter!  We were quite lucky to be in the area when one of the flowers was blooming from its parasitic perch on a jungle vine.

Desa Batang Palupuh, traditionally an Islamic commune of rice, coffee, clove, and cinnamon farmers, is now affectionately known as the Rafflesia Village since the discovery of two nearby blooms over two decades ago.

Our young, sinewy local guide met us on the road and we set off towards the flower: through the dusty village, past a shady mosque courtyard by populated by chain-smoking septuagenarians hunkered over tea, along rice fields, and into the jungle via a modest, poorly maintained dirt path.  As we entered the dense undergrowth, our stoic guide abruptly turned to us and plainly announced that he expected a generous offering of gratuity at the end of the trek.  He intimated that life was difficult in the village and tourism was faltering, the all-too-typical lament heard throughout Sumatra.  We sympathized, but found his lack of tact a bit off-putting.  Alas, there is just not enough intrepid European backpackers sweating through Sumatran jungles anymore...

He also informed us that this particular Rafflesia bloom was a bit further out and harder to get to.  This trek proved to be our toughest yet.  Trudging up steep inclines with only thin, prickly vines to cling to, with soft, slimy mud and loose soil providing precarious footholds.  We slipped and slid our way through the jungle, tripping over rocks and splashing through cool mountain streams.  Hindsight is 20/20 and hiking boots are gold.  Conversely, our sure-footed guide strode nimbly up the arduous path in well-worn flip-flops.  Leaving the bumbling orang bule clan well-behind.

After about forty minutes of intense hiking we made it!  This flower was on the smaller side, only about 60 cm in diameter, but it was still a thrilling experience . Rough travel for a rare thing!

Rafflesia Arnoldii

Since this particular flower had bloomed several days ago, and they are doomed to an ephemeral existence, it was starting to blacken and rot around the base.  Our guide said that it would be completely black and dead in just a few days.  Several days of glory after nearly nine months of budding and then a fade to obscurity.  Although famous for the pervasive funk accompanying their bloom, this flower had a mild bouquet with only a hint of rotting animal corpse. 

After our precarious photoshoot (the flower was perched on a very steep hillside) we headed back into town.  The way back was even more difficult, as we slid down the hill like drunken otters, each of us making several tumbles.  By the time we got out of the jungle our lower halves were encrusted with terrain.  We bathed and laundered our socks in a stream near the footpath.

An agricultural livelihood.

We enjoyed the walk back through the fields toward the village.  The afternoon sun streaming down as we wandered past farmers tilling their crops.

Back in the village our guide took us to the next local tourist trap: a large home in the center that was the headquarters for Rafflesia Luwak Coffee, a local organic coffee company that brews its distinctive blend from beans eaten, digested, and then excreted by Asian Palm Civets (kopi luwak).

Civet shit coffee is also highly prized in Vietnam (ca phe chon); however, the horrific conditions at civet farms in the Central Highlands have always deterred us from indulging in the beverage.  Rafflesia Luwak Coffee proudly claims to only make their coffee from previously digested coffee beans found on the forest floor.  The wild civets eat the ripe coffee cherries (pictured above) and in their digestive system a complex process occurs in which enzymes strip the nutrients away, leaving the bean intact.  Environmentally friendly and good for the civets, but we couldn't help but feel for the plight of the villagers who spend their early mornings scouring the jungle floor for cat turds.

We listened intently to the memorized spiel.  The resounding theme was that kopi luwak is delicious and organic and reasonably priced and organic.

Gavin drank the coffee and smoked a locally-produced clove cigarette.

We examined the civet poop and learned about the cleaning process.

I got a rub down with the coffee grinds... a natural exfoliant that leaves your skin silky soft!

Apparently we drank the Kool-Aid... or at least I did.  We walked out of there with lighter pockets; having exchanged dirty colored paper for an expensive bag of coffee, spa-grade grounds for my new beauty regimen, and bags of cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon.

The bark of the cinnamon tree
Before leaving, we took a stroll through the village, admiring the local products drying in the blazing afternoon sun (cinnamon, cloves and coffee).

Dried Cloves - later used for cooking and to mix with tobacco
Coffee beans
Ripe cloves
Possibly my two favorite photos of the whole trip...

After all that talk of digestive enzymes, we were getting a bit hungry ourselves.  After the village tour, we loaded back up into our car and at our request our driver took is to a local Padang-style restaurant.  This delightful West Sumatran cuisine is famous throughout Indonesia and here in the Minangkabau Highlands we were at curry ground-zero. 

Padang cuisine was a highlight of our travels in Sumatra.  Complex coconut-based curries, spicy sauteed vegetables, and tender morsels of chicken, fish, and beef are brought to your table in a vast array of small dishes.  You take what you want and are only charged for what you eat. 

Mix and diligently knead the saucy curries with generous offerings of white rice, using your hands as utensils of the first order.

I piled my rice high with vegetables and fish curry topped with plenty of fiery sambal!

After our meal we headed out through rolling, mist-enshrouded valleys and highland villages, cruising onwards to our next destination: the volcanic Lake Maninjau.


Carol said...

Rough Travel for A Rare Thing was indeed exhausting....I don't know how you two do it-pure determination I guess!

Ned said...

This is my favorite ever posting on Head (South) East. Giant flowers in lush jungles plus civet-poop coffee: this one really gets to the heart of the matter, the very essence of what Southeast Asia is all about! I can't believe how much mileage your summer trip has given you that you're still writing about it. Enjoying every bit.