Our car wanders through the farthest parts of Bengkulu, where Ikhsan lives with his wife and two children. We pass by Fort Marlborough, which was constructed by the 18th-century British venture the East India Company (EIC). Fort Marlborough has gone down in history as the second largest British fort in the Asia-Pacific region, following one in India. It now stands in the centre of Bengkulu with its cannon facing the vast Indian Ocean.
As our car continues to meander, we pass the house of the Bengkulu governor, where Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Stamford Raffles used to live when it was a British colony.
“Bengkulu was initially known for its gold,” Ikhsan continues as the car leaves the city. “The gold that decorates the National Monument in Jakarta was actually shipped from Bengkulu.”
We make our way to Kepahiang, one of the plateaus in Bengkulu province, passing houses with sacks of coal piled up at the front. The quiet and misty road becomes a long, uphill one. The cold begins to creep through the open windows of the car as the fog swirls around the treetops. The hills roll one after another through the conservation forest and natural reserve, creating a plateau surrounded by the fog.
After two hours on the road, we arrive at a vast tea plantation. At the centre, female tea pickers line up carrying baskets, adding a wide array of colours to the lush green background.
“The best-quality tea to be exported must be harvested in the morning before the sun is up,” explains Katmi, a 40-year-old worker at the plantation. The thousands of workers stack the harvest along the road. After the harvest is weighed, Katmi and the other workers receive Rp700/kg in payment. The harvest is then picked up by trucks heading to the Kabawetan Tea Factory of PT Sarana Mandiri Mukti.
This tea-processing factory operates in a vast old building that has been designated as a cultural heritage building by the government. Agus Eka, a security guard, takes me on a tour around the factory and introduces me to another worker, Sukardi.
“This village is where I was born,” says Sukardi. “I have lived here my whole life and have never left Kepahiang. I followed in the footsteps of my grandfather and father, who worked at the tea plantation before me,” he adds. “This delicious tea has come and gone since the Dutch colonisation, only to emerge again.” Sukardi also tells me that the factory initially produced only black tea. Now, it produces green tea since black tea has lost its popularity overseas.
I pass by the lorries, the workers unloading the tea, the fire in the oven, and the machines in operation as I walk around the factory. “Kepahiang not only supplies tea to PT Sarana Mandiri Mukti, but also to PT Trisula Ulung Mega Surya, which processes high-quality oolong tea,” says Sukardi.
The British and EIC lost their hold of Bengkulu and were replaced by the Dutch. Included as a part of Sumatra’s ‘Westkust’ by the Dutch colonials, Kepahiang was home to thousands of manual workers in the past. Tea was the main commodity, bringing the region fame as a renowned tea producer.
However, tea was not the only commodity cultivated in Kepahiang. There was also coffee. The Tropen Museum in Amsterdam houses photographs taken in 1920 of the Bengkulu coffee plantations and their abundant harvests. But where has the coffee of the Bengkulu plateau gone?
To find an answer, the following day I drive to Bandung Jaya village. Sitting at 1,400m above sea level, the village is surrounded by fog, as if floating on a cloud. The aroma of coffee fills the whole village. In the freezingcold afternoon, village head Supriyanti brews hot coffee for me.
“Each family in this village owns a coffee plantation of at least two hectares,” explains Supriyanti as the fog sneaks into the living room where we are talking. With deft agility, she takes me around the coffee plantation and shows me the rolling coffee mills and the civets as I enjoy the smell of coffee from the oven.
“We have quality coffee, from red cherry Robusta, super Arabica, to civet Arabica,” says Supriyanti. I take another sip of the strong coffee to warm myself in the midst of the chilly fog.
Soon after, I leave Bandung Jaya and find myself in Tebat Monok village, at the edge of the Bukit Daun Conservation Forest. Here, I meet a middle-aged man named Holidin who offers a different perspective on the world and aroma.
Twenty years ago, he obliterated his coffee plantation. Along with his six siblings, he planted amorphophallus, a giant carrion flower, which doesn’t bear fruit as coffee and tea do.
“Not to be righteous, but erosion and flood will worsen if deforestation continues,” Holidin says. “This flower will also be extinct. If the flower is extinct, what will be the pride of Bengkulu?” He then shows me some varieties of amorphophallus, including the Rafflesia arnoldii, which was creeping along the large trees: variabilis, titanum, gigas, manta, muelleri and paeoniifolius. Holidin also explains the characteristics of these giant flowers: how they take years to grow just to wither within hours; pollination; and how the buds fall off when they mature and return as seedlings. It’s a long process that a carrion flower has to patiently go through.
“Out of the 182 amorphophallus species, 11 are found in Sumatra, and you can find seven out of the 11 species here,” says Holidin proudly. “See this titanum? At 1.5m in diameter and 3.2m in height, this is the largest giant flower in the world. Meanwhile, gigas is the tallest giant flower at 4.35m.”
Bengkulu has long been known as the land where the giant carrion flower grows. In the past, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles explored the forests in the deepest parts of Sumatra to study the flora and fauna. That’s how he became so closely associated with Rafflesia, one of the species of giant flower that grows in Bengkulu forest.
I leave the breezy, warm Kepahiang plateau; and, in the scorching heat of Bengkulu, surrounded by beaches and forts, my mind returns to the smell of coffee, the vast tea plantations and the smiles of the tea pickers in the fog.