Karl Orozco was the 2013-2015 Shansi Fellow at Syiah Kuala University. This is his first year narrative.
“Coffee culture.” It was these two words paired side-by-side that I kept hearing before beginning my fellowship in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. “Banda Aceh has a unique coffee culture” is an approximation of what everyone told me about my future home. For some reason, hearing that word pair always puzzled me. Although I didn’t drink coffee until just last year, I understood the appeal. As far as drinks go, it’s sophisticated and functional, plus it smells and tastes great. But what does it mean for a place to have a coffee culture?
There is a highly refined, sometimes astonishing level of specificity at our disposal when talking about coffee (e.g. Can anyone tell me what an antoccino is? Or a ristretto? What’s the difference between a “long black” and a “flat white”?). However, the word “culture” is as murky and muddy as the cup of kopi hitam I currently sip. Talking about culture is clumsy; “culture” often becomes a catchall for any common belief or behavior amongst a collective unit. Is coffee so important to the Acehnese that the word “culture” needs to be attached to its hip?
Gulp. Turns out, coffee is a big deal in Aceh. It’s more than a drink, it’s more than the act of
drinking and it’s more than its industry. So here I am, doing what I swore against doing when I first set out on writing my annual narrative: I’m talking in cliches. I’m talking about Aceh and I’m talking about coffee. However, rather than watering down the conversation any further, this is my attempt to strengthen it. I’m thinking espresso, not Americano, and damn right you better get used to these coffee-related puns because I’m good to the last drop.
America runs on Dunkin’; Aceh runs, strolls and jumps for joy
My vision of Americans drinking cups of java (likely unaware that Java is an island in Indonesia) consists of office mates taking coffee breaks before battling against spreadsheets, powerpoints and other scary demons. Either that or college students taking sips from the blood of some finals-examination-demigod. Maybe these assumptions are wrong, but to me, [drinking coffee] in the U.S. is the first step in a flowchart that usually ends with [work].
Conversely, coffee in Aceh possesses this all-purpose functionality. Sure, people will take a
morning or mid-afternoon coffee to add the usual pep to their step, but coffee is also the preferred drink of choice for relaxing with friends. Karaoke bars serve coffee, not alcohol, which makes the whole experience feel a lot more serious and a lot less sloppy. Hordes of Acehnese men gather to watch late night soccer matches like it’s a sixth call to prayer while sipping on some sanger (coffee plus condensed milk). To this, I usually giggle; most American bros would be chugging Buds with their buds while catching the big game. Coffee just seems so tame in comparison, but I suppose it does help fuel all the post-goal shouting matches.
I can’t think of substance back home that subsumes so many social utilities. When I began
teaching, I used this conversational exercise normally called “cocktail party” which involved students having short conversations with everyone in the class as if mingling on a party floor. Before starting the activity, one of my students respectfully requested that I change its title. After all, good Muslims don’t drink alcohol. “Well, what do you suggest we call it?” I asked. What other drink would hypothetically relax the atmosphere and allow for easier conversations to occur?
“Hmm… Let’s call it a ‘coffee party!’” she answered. Of course. I could probably throw a rager
with kegs of coffee while I’m at it — although I can’t say I’ve tried.
I arrived in Aceh admittedly expecting a stifled social life at best. News articles painting pictures of a war-torn, waterlogged, conservative environment remained fresh in my mind. Perhaps this worked alongside my own personal ignorance, unaware of what fun was to be had in a Muslim city. On the contrary, in my time so far I have found that the social life in Aceh doesn’t come in drips — it’s oversaturated.
This isn’t to say that the social life in Aceh has a whole lot of variety, especially compared to
Oberlin’s event calendars that looked like five-times-used bingo boards. Every now and then there’ll be a concert, cultural festival or open mic night. The city’s surrounding area is also ripe with beaches, mountains and jungles, which are always available for adventure. However, there are those inevitable, slow nights when nothing is going on. Whether it’s your first choice or your last resort, you can always ngopi.
Ngopi literally means “to drink coffee,” but broadly speaking it means “to hang out,” most likely over some coffee at one of the city’s many warong kopis (coffee shops). Even if you’re drinking something other than coffee — or not drinking at all — to ngopi is to “chill.” Some warkops (short for warong kopi) are primarily for those trying to work, but most are accommodating the city’s gaggles of socializers. Luckily, there are a ridiculous amount of warkops in Banda Aceh—so many that I am always shocked to hear that a new one is opening up. In the past year alone, there have been at least five new warkops opening—and this is in a city that already has more than 150!
Couldn’t this city use something else other than more warkops? Perhaps so, but otherwise,
warkops remain the cheapest, most accessible way for people to see and be seen. Judging by the large night-to-night crowds, the constant tweets telling me where my friends are at and all those selfies with less-than-stellar interior lighting, the warkop reigns on.
Aceh has been closed off from the West for much of its history—a fact most Acehnese will attribute to their people’s “stubbornness” and “pride.” After the 2004 tsunami wiped out most of Aceh’s coast (as well as put an end to a 30-year armed rebellion), oceans of foreign aid and thousands of NGO workers were funneled into this region to spark growth and development. The tsunami became a pivotal moment in Acehnese history, not only because of the level of damage and turmoil caused (as most Acehnese will also point out, this region is “used to bad news”) but also because Aceh was both open to and receiving attention from the outside world. A tour through Banda Aceh’s newer coffeeshops reveals what boatloads of money and helping hands can do.
Banda Aceh’s newer coffeeshops bear little resemblance to tidy cafés in the U.S., and even
further resemblance from the traditional warong kopis. These new warkops are bigger, often spanning two floors and the area of a basketball court. They’re louder; some warkops blast their music so loudly it feels like I’m in a bar or even a dance club. And they’re decked out — wifi
(which is otherwise hard to come by), plenty of power outlets, comfy sofas, flatscreen
televisions, large speakers and sometimes projectors.
Look further and you’ll see another trend: a slew of Starbucks ripoffs. Starbucks is a brand
whose U.S. symbolism is bested only by McDonald’s. Imitating the world’s most famous coffee chain must give some cache with the locals, but otherwise, what foreigners are they trying to impress? I kept seeing these flashy warkops churning through thousands of customers a day, many bearing logos with some variation on Starbuck’s ring-around-the-mermaid. All this is near buildings that remain leveled since 2004 and by construction sites that look like they were drawn by M.C. Escher, in that they never seem to go anywhere. Something doesn’t add up.
None of these newer warkops existed — nay, none of these warkops had a chance†of
existing — pretsunami. Yet here they stand, making big impressions. And being from the United States, it’s another reminder that it’s us†doing the impressing. There are ripples to all of that foreign money, and they can’t always be measured in dollars or rupiahs.
Just a sip
I was never much of a coffee drinker back in the U.S.; coffee-drinking-Karl basically exists only in Aceh, and at this point he is a bit of an addict. The heat makes it hard to do anything without a regular dose of caffeine. It also doesn’t hurt that the coffee here is so damn tasty. Yet although I’ve lived in Aceh for almost a year, my coffee-drinking habits still reveal some “American” tendencies. I’ve consumed a cup of coffee during every session used to compose this narrative, each time reverting to my naturally American instinct to work-work-work. My warkop of choice is located far outside the city, where I can taste the ocean breeze and sit down with the company of my laptop or book; I’ll ngopi every now and then, but would normally prefer to be in the company of friends at home. I drink the same kopi†as everyone else, but at times I feel more like a witness rather than partaker of Aceh’s coffee culture. Really, the same could be said for my relationship with Aceh and its culture.
This doesn’t come as a surprise. I never expected to belong in this new setting after just a year. But the longer I stay, that sense of belonging seems to remain just as unattainable. I may pass off as Acehnese from time to time, I can read and experience as much I want, and I’ve made some truly great, genuine friends here, but I have a prized American passport and my time here is timestamped. What I learn becomes a life lesson that I get to keep, while the gripes I may have are ones that won’t actually affect me in the long run. “Being forever foreign” is a more than fair tradeoff for “the ability to leave this space.” I have loved the first year of my fellowship in Banda Aceh, but it’s a bittersweet experience. Or maybe I’ve just had too much to drink.