A clay wok sits on top of my kitchen cupboard. I bought it in the Mount Ijen region of East Java. It was during a Remote Destinations trip. It had taken a full day of travel over a long, curious route— by air to Bali, by bus to the far tip of Bali, and back across to Java by Ferry, then a long, bumpy ride inland, up windy, narrow roads to reach Mount Ijen. The area is lush and beautiful, sharply graded, deep terraces planted with rice, potatoes and other crops. Fields are plowed and furrowed by water buffalo and hand planted by wizened women in sarongs. We visited during Chinese New Years', February 2008. It was still the rainy season so the hills, roads, fields were slippy, sloshy, muddy. The air was heavy and hot. but bright blue.
We were at the beginning of a walk through the terraces when I bought the wok. All five of the “girls” on the trip bought one. We also bought clay placenta pots—pots in which the after birth and placenta are buried after a birth. The toko, "shop" where we made our purchases was in the tiny village lining the road to our hotel. Aside from individual packets of laundry soap or shampoo, instant coffee, chips, cookies and individual wrapped candies, these clay items were pretty much all there was to buy in that slap-board, grass-roofed toko. Definitely the most interesting items, well made and decorative. Delighted to make those sales (at a rich profit, I am sure) the shopkeeper cheerfully wrapped each wok and pot and delivered them to our hotel.
On the way home from Ijen, the round, clay ring made to steady my wok, crumbled. But the wok came through fine. A happy reminder of that trip, that day, that toko.
On a more recent trip to the island of Flores, Curtis bought a big bag of coffee beans. Once home, I put them into the refrigerator. Rusnati and I had chatted about them: about how the beans needed to be cooked; about how Curtis loved his coffee.
Last night we arrived home from a long weekend in Lombok. A spicy coffee deliciousness greeted us. I went into the kitchen to see Rusnati. Smiling wide, she pointed out the bag of coffee resting, waiting on the counter.
“I cooked Mister’s coffee,” Rusnati offered. She pointed up to the cupboard, to the wok.
The wok rested in its usual spot on the cupboard. But something wasn’t right. Its lovely terra cotta color looked dirty, the design blackened, faded. It took me a minute to comprehend what had happened.
“You used the wok?” I asked.
“Yes,” Rusnati smiled and nodded. She opened the bag so I could smell the coffee beans. Gleaming with roasted oils the beans roasted richness filled my head.
“Oohh,” I sniffed. “So good,” I said, to make Rusnati happy. But inside leaden weight dampened my spirits. Sure, it was nice that she cooked the beans, but why did she have to use my wok? Why would she even think to use it? Now my lovely terra cotta wok, my Ijen souvenir, was ruined. How long will I have to leave it up there on the cupboard, all grayed and dirty-looking, before I could hide it in a cupboard or toss it out back to a shelf in the servant’s area? Why hadn’t Rusnati used her big old metal wok? The one she used to cook everything else?
Hours later, after Rusnati left, I went back into the kitchen where the scent of roasted coffee lingered, thick, rich, warm and a long ago memory of Rusnati and I talking about how her parents grew coffee back in their village wafted up. How her mother picked coffee berries off the bushes and dried them in the sun, then stored them in baskets until she had enough to roast. How she only picked the ripest berries, so at most collected a handful or so at a time. How her mother roasted the dried beans in a terra cotta wok over a wood fire, stirring slowly, tending them until the beans released their oils. How good her coffee tasted.
A sense of shame washed over me, then, mixed with a sense of being loved and cared for richer than any roasted coffee. To think that one day, while we were off lazing at the beach, leaving Rusnati to mind our home, she had looked up at that wok and remembered. And so, short, little Rusnati had climbed up onto the cupboard, carried down that wok—so like those back in her village—taken out that bag of Flores coffee beans, and lovingly stirred and tended and roasted those beans as a welcome home gift.
I had been so wrong. The wok wasn’t less beautiful now that its terra cotta coloring was grayed from use. It was velveteen rabbitish: grayed and burnished, worn from being well-used by loving hands.
That wok is going to stay right were it is, on top of the cupboard— unless Rusnati needs it to roast Curtis more beans—the first thing I see each time I walk in the kitchen.