“Kopi Dulu: Caffeine-Fuelled Travels Through Indonesia” by Mark Eveleigh

Mark Eveleigh Mark Eveleigh

Kopi Dulu: Caffeine-Fuelled Travels Through Indonesia, advertises itself as a journey through the world’s most invisible country. This could be selling Indonesia short: it’s not China or Thailand, but it does get some attention. Islands beyond Bali and Java do slip under the radar but have featured in a number of well-received books. Kopi Dulu by Mark Eveleigh is a welcome addition to the collection.

The concept here is to report on one long trip from Sumatra in the West, to Papua in the East. In reality, the book is an amalgamation of the author’s many excursions in Indonesia going back decades. The first two chapters on Sumatra and Java are well written but nothing special. In the next chapter on Borneo, Eveleigh reveals himself as more than your average traveler.


‘I was on it that morning,’ I told him as we looked north towards a village that had grown so much I struggled to recognise it.
      ‘I was on the Sinar Bulan the morning it sunk.’


For Akim, the captain of a riverboat in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and Eveleigh’s interlocutor here, it must have been a surprise to find out his passenger was involved in a famous local accident twenty-five years prior. On his riverboat journey, Eveleigh sleeps in the cargo hold on a hammock.

In another passage, he casually mentions that he’s shot many blowpipes in his time. Eveleigh has a way of working his rich experience into the narrative without sounding self-important. Apart from jungle exploration, two of his major interests are surfing and local ghost stories.

Although he roughs in Borneo, the author sails to the Komodo Archipelago on a superyacht based on a traditional Indonesian Phinisi wooden boat. Instead of focusing on the Komodo Dragons themselves, he goes to meet the villagers living on islands with large populations of dragons. Unlike big cats, these giant lizards have no fear of humans and attacks are common. Schoolchildren are forbidden from walking home alone.


Kopi Dulu: Caffeine-Fuelled Travels Through Indonesia, Mark Eveleigh (Penguin SEA, September 2022)
Kopi Dulu: Caffeine-Fuelled Travels Through Indonesia, Mark Eveleigh (Penguin SEA, September 2022)

The title of the book, Kopi Dulu, means “coffee first”, and Eveleigh explains you can sit down to coffee with Indonesians anywhere, anytime. They are hospitable and social people. Eveleigh’s positive attitude towards his adoptive home—he and his wife have a house in West Bali—almost gets too much when he enjoys getting ripped off by a pedicab driver when arriving in Java. Although he steers clear of the controversial, the book is not lacking humor, as shown in the following exchange in English with a guide on Flores.


‘People are so hospitable here,’ Tiger smiled as we returned to the car. ‘We’ll stay tonight with my uncle and aunt in Aimere. They, too, are very good people. I’m certain they’ll also be hospitilizing us.’


Bali’s neighbor, Lombok, skipped over in the journey, is the black sheep of the family. Eveleigh describes the Gili islands off Lombok as a tourist ghetto, and Lombok itself as being the only place he’s experienced aggression from the locals.

Eveleigh is not the first to take inspiration from Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist contemporary of Darwin’s, whose book The Malay Archipelago detailed many remote places in Eastern Indonesia (and is a good deal more entertaining than The Origin of Species). Kopi Dulu looks at some of the endless supply of far-flung islands there are to write about in Indonesia: islands one could claim to be invisible because they are out of reach for most travelers. As it also covers the important islands of Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Bali, Flores and Sulawesi, it could be used as a primer for those wanting to educate themselves on the basics of Indonesian geography and culture.

Frank Beyer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Anak Sastra and Headland Journal.