BALI, Indonesia -- The best part of the Santi Agra Visata coffee plantation is not, in fact, the coffee; nor is it the stunning views of sloping valleys and radiant crops; nor is it the first taste of smooth black poop coffee that has made Indonesia famous in caffeine circles. What makes Santi Agra worth a visit is the refreshing honesty of its owner, Wayan, a young Balinese man with gelled hair and a quick, tacky charm.
We did not specifically ask to come here; it was part of a full-day tour, and our driver had shown us the coffee and cocoa beans, guiding us from the parking lot through to the shop and terrace. On the way, we could see the buds on the trees and met the young boy whose job it is to slit them slowly by hand. But when we sat down at the picnic tables, our driver disappeared, and Wayan showed up with a tray of every type of coffee and tea available for a sample taste.
My girlfriend was in heaven. I was worried about a scam. But there was none, Wayan assured us; the samples were not only free but replenishable. The only cost was optional: 30,000 rupiah (or $3) if we wanted a cup of their infamous Luwak Coffee, roasted from the cleaned dung of the cat-like jungle creature for which there is no common English name. They keep the ‘cats’ caged up and feed them coffee beans, which the critters seem to love but still, they don't look very happy in their cages.
Wayan sat down with us. He explained that he opened his plantation to the public three years ago, though it's been operational for five. He used to work in a hotel, where he'd practice English with the guests. Since then, he’s learned a few verbal tricks. While I spoke to Wayan, a South African woman noted how sweet their ginseng brew was, to which he called out: "Not as sweet as me!"
I asked Wayan how he could afford to give out free samples when there was not even an entry fee to the plantation. "After people taste, people know what they like," he told us. The drinks were admittedly terrific—the lemongrass, their top tea seller, had a striking perkiness to it, while the vanilla, coconut and ginseng coffees were all milky and smooth, a result of their being ground up together with the coffee beans. Wayan was right—the stuff does sell itself.
I mentioned how odd I found it that Balinese coffee is not as internationally renowned as Java or Sumatra blends. Wayan attributes this to sheer numbers: Bali has 4.5 million people, with just enough coffee farmers to supply the island itself. By contrast, Java may as well be the size of Australia, with the manpower to support it. So the Balinese keep their crops to enjoy for themselves. As with anything on this island, it’s hard to tell boasts apart from modesty.
But what was nice was being able to have a conversation with someone in Bali and not, for once, feel like we were being sold something. Earlier, we saw the island's major temples and we were driven to the gigantic patty fields. Locals crowd the temples and work the rice paddies with such gross enthusiasm that you wonder if they're all extras hired by some grand Truman Show-esque mastermind. Women try to sell sarongs to tourists with such desperation that even if you are already wearing one, and point to it, they smile aggressively and chase you down, shouting, "How about two?"
Sure, we ended up splurging and bought the poop coffee. It was cheap and Wayan assured us that outside Bali—not to mention outside the country—it costs twice as much. (We checked in Java and it was nearly double.) Thankfully, it tastes nothing like poo, but like a thick black coffee, a little grainy, with a mighty aftertaste.
But none of that even mattered. We didn't buy it to taste it. Mostly, we just kinda liked the place.
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