Coffee. With milk. Please!

SEMPORNA, SABAH, Malaysian Borneo At 6:10 a.m. the peace and quiet of the hotel was shattered by the excited noise of neighbours who had just…

SEMPORNA, SABAH, Malaysian Borneo

At 6:10 a.m. the peace and quiet of the hotel was shattered by the excited noise of neighbours who had just checked in — half a dozen shrieking, laughing children and as many stomping, yelling adults.

Televisions blared, doors slammed and luggage banged.

The only escape was to head out for coffee.

The hotel restaurant sits on stilts in the Sulawesi Sea.

Where there should be windows, it is open to the breeze.

A never-ending parade of boats passes by: fishing boats, dug out canoes, dive boats and jungkong, local traditional boats.

Sadly, it was too early. The place was closed.

It was a 10-minute walk into town. A narrow, broken sidewalk led to a small bridge that crossed an inlet from the sea where rusty fishing boats were moored.

Each person passed with a greeting.

“Hello.” “Good Morning.” “Selamat Datang.” Welcome.

Turning onto the main street, still a bit foggy from the rude awakening, we took a seat at a café’s sidewalk table.

Coffee in Malaysia is usually served in a tall glass.

The sugar is on the bottom, the milk sits on the sugar and the coffee is poured in last.

A spoon stands in the glass; when you receive the coffee, you stir everything together.

A waitress came to take our orders.

“Two coffees, please, with milk and sugar.”

She hesitated.

“Just coffee; no food, thank you.”

She walked to the service area. In the meantime, a small crowd was gathering outside the hardware store across the street.

The owner had unlocked the rolling metal screens and was sliding them open. People peered intently into the store, bending over for a better look between the slats.

Children pressed their noses against the glass.

The waitress returned to our table.

“Milk?” she asked politely.

“Yes, please; coffee with milk. And sugar.”

Returning to the service area, she entered into an animated conversation with another waitress. The second waitress came over.

“Yes?” she asked us. “What would you like?”

“Two coffees, please, with milk and sugar.”

Just as the first waitress had done, she hesitated.

“Hmmm,” she nodded, and returned to the service area.

The crowd outside had grown so large that 15 or 20 people moved off the sidewalk and formed a clump in the middle of the road.

They stared at the store as if to indicate the view was better from there. Traffic dodged around them.

“Coffee?”

The first waitress stood at the opposite end of the table this time, perhaps hoping it would make more sense from that side.

She was frowning slightly, concentrating.

“Yes, coffee please. With milk and sugar.”

When she returned yet again to the service area, a third voice, louder and more authoritative, entered the discussion.

This third person now approached the table.

She looked a little tired.

“Coffee with milk and sugar is kopi susu. Kopi susu is how you order coffee with milk and sugar. Otherwise, “coffee with milk” means a cup of coffee and a glass of milk.”

She smiled.

“Oh, thank you! Yes, please, two kopi susu!” we assured her, grateful for the lesson in local Malay.

A few minutes later, the original waitress appeared with a tray on which sat two glasses of strong coffee, with, yes, milk and sugar — and a spoon — in each one.

“Terima kasih” we thanked her, a little sheepishly. She smiled, perhaps at the ways of visitors.

Stirring the kopi susu with great anticipation, we glanced across the road.

The hardware store was open, the eager crowd pressing through the entrance.

Catherine Millar is a Whitehorse-based writer on a months-long tour of far-flung places. Her chronicle appears here every Monday.

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