I was exploring one of the lush, green islands dotting Thailand’s seas, when I saw something unusual. Among the greenery, a very simple hut had a large sign stating "Coffee." No other houses could be seen in the vicinity, but that meant little; an entire village could be easily hidden in the steep terrain surrounding the coffee shop. I had no choices; this was a "must stop" spot. Once inside, I was surprised for a second time. I was expecting a simple setup, serving the simplest version of coffee available in Thailand. Since the sign was in English, maybe he would serve also cheap coffee of the soluble type. That was fine; no coffee is too shabby for SeenThat.
Yet, I was welcomed by the shiniest Japanese espresso machine. It was literally shiny, because most of it was made of transparent glass that was kept impeccably clean. Behind it, on a line of equally clean shelves, there were glass jars filled with coffee and carefully labeled in English. One of the labels caught my attention. It read "Blue Mountain." Many consider it the best coffee on earth; it originates in the site of the same name in Jamaica. One of its peculiarities is that more of it is sold than produced. In other words, it is a popular target of fakes. In one of my visits to Europe, I had the opportunity to taste it in a place that for sure sold the original. I may not agree on its being the best coffee on earth, but for sure it is among the finalists. It has an extraordinary flavor, and an aftertaste that is its signature. I had no illusions. The jar probably contained fake Blue Mountain coffee. Yet, this place was so shiny and unexpected….
Next to the machine was the stubby owner. He watched with interest my silent investigation and after a few seconds handed me a menu. The stated prices were very steep for Thailand. Yet, a cup of Blue Mountain coffee couldn’t possibly be sold at such a low price. Except for a few baht, I had nothing to lose. "One Blue Mountain, please," I summarized the preliminary findings of my research.
"So you know a lot about coffee," the owner said while preparing the machine for the delicate task of preparing the best coffee on earth.
"Why do you think so?"
"Just the way you studied the machine and the coffees. I got the machine from a Japanese friend," he said caressing the contraption.
"Is it really Blue Mountain?"
"Yes, a friend from Hawaii sends it to me regularly." At this point, I was worried. Hawaii is home to Kona coffee, which many consider the second best coffee on our blue marble. Yet, I said nothing. Seconds later a transparent cup of coffee was placed in front of me. From its aroma, I could tell it had spent too long in the glass jar, which was exposed to the relentless tropical sun. The coffee had burnt even before being put inside the shiny machine. One sip of the tasteless mix confirmed that. It was impossible to say where that dark powder had been harvested, or even if it was coffee at all. In Thailand ground tamarind is regularly added to the coffee in the markets; as far as I could judge, I tasted pure ground tamarind. I needed to change the topic, and fast. There was a picture of a matronly woman on one of the shelves.
"Is that your wife?" I ventured while taking another tasteless sip. As said, nothing is too shabby for me.
"That’s mia yai," he said mysteriously.
I understood both Thai words, but together they made little sense. "Mia" means "wife," "yai" means "big." Was he obscenely referring to the obvious weight problem of the person in the picture? He hadn’t winked, or given any sign he was joking. He saw my hesitation and explained:
"It means ‘big wife.’ It is the first wife. If a Thai man is wealthy enough to support his wife in comfort, he can take a second wife, who is then called mia noi, or ‘little wife.’" He summarized while preparing for himself a coffee. This time, he didn’t use the Blue Mountain. That was a good diversion; we spent the next few minutes exploring the subtleties of such a marriage. Then, as I was preparing to leave, I respectfully handed him one of the second largest Thai banknotes, expecting to get no change after calculating the tip. "Kop kun kap," (thank you) I said with a smile.
"It’s OK, I invite. Please come back."
Seconds later, the hut disappeared in the greenery; the turquoise sea was just minutes ahead of me.