During my stay in Takengon, a lakeside town nestled in the Gayo Highlands of Sumatra, Indonesia, I found myself experiencing many surprising, remarkable moments. Every encounter, however short it may have been, shaped my understanding of Gayo and perspective on quite literally everything.
A split-second decision to cross the street while on a walk in Uning, a small village neighboring Takengon, led to one of these moments that will forever be etched in my memory. It was at noon on October 25, 2023, when I met Wahyuningsih and her son Sayed.
Nurdin Ali, a Uning local, and Darmawan, a proud Gayonese resident, invited me to spend the day with them exploring the area. The morning began quite unexpectedly with a visit to a coffee plant nursery and the backyard coffee farm of a local roaster in town, and the rest of the day followed suit.
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At midday, Nurdin Ali and Darmawan went to pray at the Uning local mosque as I lingered in the car. A whisper from my grandmother's wisdom nudged me to explore. As my companions took off their shoes and washed their feet for worship, I peeped out the window and told them I was going for a short walk.
The car was parked just around the corner from a somewhat main street. I walked alongside the road as cars and motorbikes passed me. A passing Toyota truck, with three cheerful men in the back, waved and honked. A family of four on a motorbike, trailing dozens of cartons of eggs behind them, all turned their heads toward me. Two schoolgirls on motorbikes slowed down to say hello, waved, and giggled as they continued on.
I had only walked about 100 feet. I looked across the street and saw a woman and little boy behind a wooden fence. I waved, she smiled, and I smiled back. That silent, mutual connection is exactly why I think kindness will always be a universal language. I took one more step forward but noticed no cars on either horizon of the street—it was quiet, which seemed like a rare occurrence. I walked across the street, the woman opened the gate, and that was the start of a most memorable encounter.
“Waalaikumsalaam.” [An Arabic greeting meaning peace be with you.]
The little boy was very timid and held onto the woman's leg, gesturing to be picked up. She held him in her arms, his head nestled into her chest as he glanced up at me.
"Nama saya Abby," I introduced myself.
"Saya Wahyuningsih dan anak saya Sayed Ridwan Al Habsi, dia malu," she responded with laughter, sharing that her son was shy.
Linguistic barriers faded into the background as we engaged in a more nuanced conversation of simple gestures and singular words.
Wahyuningsih tended to a simmering pot of traditional Gayonese stew that boiled over a wood burning fire in the corner near the fence. Punctuating our conversation, she turned to me.
“Kopi?” [The Indonesian word for coffee.]
With slight hesitation from my surprise at her generosity, I replied. “Ya, kopi, terima kasih,” meaning “yes, coffee, thank you.”
I followed her into her home and sat on the yellow mat detailed with soccer cartoons. Sayed zipped past me on a mission to fetch a light blue ball. He smiled and tossed the ball towards me. We kicked the ball around mimicking each other’s previous moves. I glanced over at Wahyuningsih, smiling at her son. She poured a cup of water from a large bin into the pot over the fire. While the water warmed, she scooped a spoonful of coffee grounds into an orange glass cup sitting on a small tea plate.
Minutes later, she handed me the cup of coffee. She joined Sayed and me on the mat for just a few seconds before having to shoo away some coffee-loving chickens. She said the chickens often meander in while she pulps coconuts in her milling machine that sits in the front of her home alongside a coffee machine.
In that moment, two strangers from disparate worlds found a common language in kindness and generosity. Our backgrounds, beliefs, and physical differences became mere background noise. I had never experienced a moment in my life when I felt the simplicity of what it means to be human—all starting with Wahyuningsih's smile.
When Nurdin Ali called to ask where I was, I said, “I met a new friend, just down the street from the mosque.”
Wahyuningsih signaled for me to hand her my phone. She invited him to join us for a coffee.
Before long we realized Wahyuningsih's neighbor was Nurdin Ali's former school principal. We all stood there laughing at the sheer coincidence of events emphasizing the smallness of our world. Not to mention Nurdin Ali’s son-in-law is from my home city. What are the chances!
A moment before I left, Wahyuningsih walked out with a woven tray filled with green coffee beans.
“From luwak,” she said.
In this moment I realized that the Gayo kopi luwak story is not just about a luxury coffee, history, controversy, or trendiness, but it is also a tale of people like Wahyuningsih, a mother, wife, and neighbor who rely on the kopi luwak market for daily living expenses.