Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Great Rafflesia Hunt

Overall, I loved this weekend. Truthfully, I would probably love any mini-vacation that included hot water. Whew, though. I misjudged exactly how much traveling we needed to do.

Raj’s school van picked me up at 6:30am. We were at the airport by 7:00. Our plane left Palembang for Jakarta at 8:30am. We had a layover there (which is annoying because it’s completely in the opposite direction of where we wanted to go), and then we met up with Christine. Our plane left Jakarta at 12:30pm and we arrived in Padang at 2:30pm. By the time we got our luggage, it was about 3:15pm. We were lucky that the man we randomly asked for directions to the bus station happened to know the number of a sweet little minivan willing to drive us directly from the airport to our hotel in Bukittinggi. Add 2 ½ more hours on, and we finally set our luggage down in the hotel room at about 6:00pm.

And we did it all again starting at 10:00am on Sunday, finally arrive back in Palembang at 10:00pm.

The hotel wasn’t reviewed very well in Lonely Planet, but I couldn’t really find anything else that looked promising online. As it turns out, another company purchased the large hotel last year and completely renovated the rooms. So that part was terrific.

Another terrific part? All the windows had shutters. Like, real shutters. If there is a person in the world who can see shutters without wanting to rush to them, throw them open with both hands, and lean out and yell or sing something… that is a stronger person than I am.

I started asking about the rafflesia flower immediately upon arrival. I’m getting a little better at “going with the flow,” but I still had every single point of interest in the town written down on a notepad, along with addresses and phone numbers. I showed the hotel staff.

“Oh, the rafflesia,” he said. “Not blooming this week.”

Not blooming this week?

Well, what does this guy know? His hotel wasn’t even reviewed well in Lonely Planet.

At dinner another guide approached us about taking motorcycle tours of the area. “I want to see the rafflesia flower,” I said. “That is the most important thing.”

“Oh, the rafflesia,” he said. “Not blooming this week.”

What do they MEAN? I dropped $300 on this weekend to make sure we got here before the flower was out of season. I told every single Indonesian I know that I’m coming here, and no one said anything about needing to coordinate my trip with the rafflesia’s personal calendar. It’s supposed to be in bloom until November. I realize it’s getting close, but cut me some slack.

“It bloom ten days ago. It bloom again in ten more days,” the guide added.

I decided I didn’t care. I wanted to see the flower. If I couldn’t see the flower, I wanted to see the flower bud. Or the place where the flower sometimes grows. Or dirt, I don’t care.

There has to be one rebel flower, right? You know the kind—marches to the beat of its own drum. It blooms when it wants to, not when all the other flowers do. Yeah. No problem, I’ll just go find that one.

Thankfully, Christine and Raj were tolerant of my obsession with this stinky blossom. Despite the recommendations of the hotel staff (besides valuing good window d├ęcor, what did they know?), we hired a taxi to drive us to the jungle where the rafflesia is supposed to be.

I grew increasingly worried. I literally chose this entire trip because Bukittinggi is supposed to be the best place to find the flower. I also coerced two other people into coming, and each of us was spending 1/3 of our monthly salary over the course of three days.

And there might be no flower.

The car drove around many sharp turns, past waterfalls and hundreds of wild monkeys on the side of the road. (Did you hear me?! Wild monkeys!) Finally, we stopped at the entrance to some forest/woods/jungle. (Henceforce I will only refer to this as a jungle, just because jungle sounds so much more awesome and exotic than forest or woods.)

We hire a guide—who was more like a man that happened to be walking by—and he led us on a hike (no, a sprint) up the side of a mountain. After a heated debate that morning, Christine and I had agreed to wear flip flops. Worst. Idea. Ever.

We scraped. We tripped. We rolled.

“It’s all worth it,” I gasped, “if we get to see the flower.”

I didn’t even know this thing existed until a few months before I left. Why did it suddenly become the reason I was panting in the middle of the jungle with mud on my knees and blood on my elbows?

And you know what? They were right. The guides and the hotel employees.

The rafflesia flowers were not blooming this week.

Believe me, I am not the kind of person who is unnecessarily optimistic. But it really did turn out all right. Great, in fact.

I saw the bud. It was a big orange thing, bigger and smoother and harder than a basketball. When the others weren’t looking, I tried blowing hot air on it, fanning it a little, and knocking on the petal just to see if maybe it would open up a little. Nah.

I turned around, ready to slip and slide and trip through my half-hour hike back out of the jungle. And then suddenly our guide was replaced by another one. This one spoke English, and he seemed to know a lot more about the jungle and the surrounding village.

He brought us to another bud—the amorphophallus, the tallest flower in the world. Hmm, well this was pretty good. I perked up considerably.

He started showing us all the other plants as we walked (and I fell) the rest of the way out of the jungle. Coffee beans growing in trees. Nutmeg. And… cinnamon.

CINNAMON! I licked the bark of a cinnamon tree. Can you imagine anything more purely delightful?

By the way, cinnamon is “kayu manis” in Indonesian, which literally means “sweet wood.”

Then the guide led us to a woman’s house, where she was roasting Kopi Luwak. This has been another huge goal of mine. Kopi Luwak is some of the rarest, most expensive coffee in the world. And it’s shit. (Heh heh… literally.)

The civet monkey eats ripe coffee beans from the trees. The beans aren’t digested in the monkey’s system, however, and the droppings are filled with coffee beans. Only now, the beans have a different, less acidic flavor. People scrape the floor of the jungles looking for civet monkey poop to use for coffee. Cups of Kopi Luwak in the US usually fetch somewhere between $150 - $300. It’s not really because it’s that good; it’s just so hard to find. And imagine—we found it in my little jungle!

We each had a cup (for $1.50) and bought some to bring home. I hardly ever drink coffee, and honestly, this tasted like most other coffees I’ve had. I guess I don’t have a very selective coffee palatte. We had found a bag for about $6 in a grocery store in Bandung that said it was Kopi Luwak, but it just didn’t feel sufficiently… natural enough. Dirty enough? I’m not sure. But this stuff was the real thing.

The woman who runs the small but lucrative business spoke fluent English and was very nice. She showed us every step of the process, and she even let us take home some civet monkey droppings.

When we finally headed back into town, I was feeling caffeinated and pleased with our discoveries.

The rest of the trip went by quickly. We shopped for souvenirs; I bought a bunch of meter-long sticks of cinnamon, which I broke up into pieces for the trip home. We had dinner at a nice place where a scary man sat down and wouldn’t leave us alone. He told us he liked to do mushrooms with white people. We just smiled politely. He also said he was a cop for the Australian government and he makes spirit paintings to trap criminals. I’m a bit skeptical.

The architecture of the Minangkabau (matrilineal society) was awesome, and I’m not one to care much about architecture. According to legend, the Minangkabau people were preparing for war with a Javanese village. The two sides decided they would pit two bulls against each other instead of risking the lives of their people. So the Javanese sent out their biggest, fiercest bull. The Minangkabau entered a little baby buffalo. The bull tried to attack, but the buffalo was confused and tried to nurse from the bull. The Minangkabau had wisely tied a spear to the buffalo’s head, and he ended up ripping the undersides of the poor bull out completely, killing him. Minangkabau means “buffalo wins.”

The buildings are all built to look like buffalo horns. Even our napkins at breakfast were folded in the traditional style. There wasn’t a lot to do in terms of actually appreciating the matrilineal heritage of the place, but it just felt cool to be there.

On the way back, we stopped at a couple roadside fruit stands. Hmm… move over dragonfruit, there just might be a new favorite in town. I know I tried manggis before, but it wasn’t fresh, delicious, pick-it-out-myself-from-the-rubble-of-an-earthquake manggis. It is so unbelievably tasty, albeit messy to pick apart. And I tried rambutan for the first time! It was surprisingly good, too. The best thing about rambutan is the way it looks—like hairy round little creatures. You almost expect them to grunt and complain when you start pulling them open. I bought a big bag of each to bring back as presents for my neighbors and fellow teachers.

So the final tally—

Minangkabau houses; very cool
Stinky flower; disappointing
Tall flower; serendipidous
Kopi Luwak; unexpected and terrific
Cinnamon; enchanting

Oh, silly rafflesia. You may have evaded me this time. but I’m not giving up without a fight…


  1. Katie! Yay! I can finally comment on your posts--Tim got me all set up. I look forward to reading your posts as if they were an ongoing television series or something. I don't like it when your mom "gives away" a story at work! We are all so proud of you. You are in my thoughts so often. Keep writing and keep believing in yourself!
    Blessings to you!

  2. I tell the Rafflesia story to ALL of my classes. "Miss Katie and Miss Christine went to Bukittinggi to see the flower... ect ect....we hiked and sweated and fell and got dirty....and DO YOU THINK WE GOT TO SEE THE FLOWER!?!?! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO"


    Pay me Now. No really, now.

    The flower, it no bloom. Belum Miss Katie.

  3. Katie--what a story!! You always seem to find the most exciting things and also the weirdest. That was definitely an adventure and no one but you would keep after it and find other things that are amazing on your hunt.
    Wanted to tell you that we have 8-10 inches of snow in Denver....snow day in Oct, how great is that! Love, Dad

  4. Oh, how I wanted you to see the flower, but there were so many other great things that you got to see and experience. I loved this entry, but you have a knack for story telling like this!!!

    I'll think of you tomorrow night when I make apple pie cider and cook four sticks of cinnamon in it. It won't be as good as your "sweet bark."

    It's like I'm there with you!

    Love you, miss you... kisses to you!!!

  5. Great story telling - I am the same - what does hotel staff know about blooming flowers/what time the floating market opens/how best to get to the temple!! ha ha! I'm jealous of the civet coffee...and cinnamon. Do you plan to go see orang utans in Bukit Lawang?
    (also no direct flights to Padang? that's crazy travel you did)