The truth is I am not really sure how to describe a day like today. So many images and emotions were and are swirling around in my head that it is all a bit difficult to decipher. I’ll give it a shot.
I get up at 4 am in order to get an early start. As it turns out this was a smart move. My destination: Ijen Plateau –
“The Ijen volcano complex is a group of stratovolcanoes, in East Java, Indonesia. It is inside a larger caldera Ijen, which is about 20 kilometers wide. The Gunung Merapi stratovolcano (not to be confused with Central Java's Gunung Merapi) is the highest point of that complex.West of Gunung Merapi is the Ijen volcano, which has a one-kilometer-wide turquoise-colored acid crater lake. The lake is the site of a labor-intensive sulfur mining operation, in which sulfur-laden baskets are carried by hand from the crater floor. Many other post-caldera cones and craters are located within the caldera or along its rim. The largest concentration of post-caldera cones forms an E-W-trending zone across the southern side of the caldera. The active crater at Kawah Ijen has an equivalent radius of 361 meters, a surface of 41 × 106 square meters. It is 200 meters deep and has a volume of 36 × 106 cubic meters.” Wikipedia.
The trip from Bondowoso took about two hours give or take. It was the pathetic state of a stretch of the road to the plateau that accounts for much of the travel time. Some parts of that road are nothing but gravel and miniature boulders, not exactly the terrain for which my motorcycle was designed. When I arrived back at the hotel the ‘Phantom’ decal plate fell off the gas tank. Shake, rattle, and roll.
I had to pass through three separate security checkpoints and sign three separate log books before I arrived at the base of the trail. Not exactly sure what the hell the point of that was but what do I know, really? The road to the plateau is rather picturesque and a lot of fun on the motorcycle (notwithstanding the bad stretch of course). Varying types of farmland, coffee plantations, and mountains form just part of the landscape. When I finally arrived I was anxious to get to the plateau as the morning provides the best light for snapping photographs. I did a bit of hustling up the hill. In fact, I even started jogging at one point.
Why would I do that? In order to impress the locals? No. So I could spice up the blog? Negative. It is not exactly clear to me. I guess I did it because I could, because sometimes I like to push just for the sake of doing so. There is, always in the back of my head, this thought that there will come a day when I wish I could run up the side of volcano. Why not do it now so I remember the feeling?
When I arrived towards the top of the rim of the Ijen crater I quickly moved to the far end until I reached a place where I was alone. As I walked toward the opposite side of the rim something strange occurred. I began to think about how fortunate I was to be in that place, that beautiful awe-inspiring place. It was windy, a bit chilly, and the area I found myself in had a slightly mystical aura to it. I started to get this feeling, a feeling that is difficult to describe. It felt like I should be in that place, taking in the stunning grandeur of yet another turquoise volcanic crater lake, appreciating the hell out of its natural beauty, and just being . . . . there. I actually had tears in my eyes. I don’t know why but there they were. I’m walking on the edge of a volcano and my eyes are filling with tears. They were not tears of sadness but they were not exactly tears of joy either. Maybe it was some sort of natural reverence that made this intense emotion bubble to the surface. I stood on the edge at one point and let the wind pass through me. I closed my eyes and I just let it flow. . . . and it was, for lack of a better word, magical.
I spent the better part of an hour exploring the western edge of the crater and basking in the windy, eerie solitude. I then made my way back to the other side. Towards the bottom of the Ijen crater sits a sulfur mining operation just above the turquoise lake -
“An active vent at the edge of the lake is a source of elemental sulfur, and supports a mining operation. Escaping volcanic gasses are channeled through a network of ceramic pipes, resulting in condensation of molten sulfur. The sulfur, which is deep red in color when molten, pours slowly from the ends of these pipes and pools on the ground, turning bright yellow as it cools. The cooled material is broken into large pieces and carried out in baskets by the miners. Typical loads range from 70–100 kilograms, and must be carried to the crater rim approximately 200 meters above before being carried several kilometers down the mountain. Most miners make this journey twice a day. The miners are paid by a nearby sugar refinery by the weight of sulfur transported. The miners often use insufficient protection while working around the volcano and are susceptible to numerous respiratory complaints.”
The mist you see above the lake is the result of fumes bellowing out of the mining area. I took a stroll down to get a closer look. Two words: holy shit. Most of the area around the mining operation is colored yellow. There is a constant flow of sulfuric gas seeping out of the ground and it can be overwhelming. More than once I was engulfed by the gas which burned my throat and watered my eyes. I've felt that sensation before. In the army all trainees are required to enter the tear gas chamber, doff their masks, and soak in the toxic goodness. Yummy. Well, here I found myself in nature’s own outdoor chamber. More than once I had to move to a pocket of fresh air to restore normal breathing. It was crazy. I hung around as long as I could taking pictures but after a while I had to get the hell away. Imagine working there every day for eight years with nothing but a shoddy cloth covering your mouth? I won’t be filling out an application any time soon.
I actually offered to carry a load of sulfur up to the top of the crater in order to get an idea of how difficult it would be. I could not pick it up. How sad is that? As I made the attempt my sciatic nerve was whispering in my ear: Don’t do it asshole. Pick it up and I will make you regret it. I will make you my bitch, hombre. Feeling lucky? Do it. I dare you. I triple dog dare you, you ignorant fool. At least I think that was my sciatic nerve. It could have been someone else’s for all I know. God knows their bodies must be screaming bloody murder.
Later I discovered out why I was having such difficulty. I started to delude myself into thinking that perhaps my surrogate miner overloaded the baskets in order to screw with me. Nuh-uh. I was present when some of the folks weighed their loads. 65kg. 69kg. 72kg. One guy had a load that weighed in at 85 kg. 85 f’in kilograms?!!! I weigh 85kg!! That’s close to 190lbs. Are you kidding me?
It gets worse. One guy showed me his receipt. For carrying 65kg he received $36, 600 rupiahs. That’s roughly US $3. Most of the workers I spoke to make two trips a day. That means if they are lucky they might pull down $8 for a day’s work. Two of the men were aged 50 and 60 years old. They were not a picture of health.
Inside the crater miners encourage photos. You can imagine why. First they ask for cigarettes. I don’t smoke. Then they ask for money. Handing out money can get ugly. You give a few rupiahs to one guy and the rest will come a running. It did bother me a bit as I was snapping photos like a sports photographer on barbiturates so I made an attempt at redemption. When I arrived at the weigh station, roughly half way down the mountain (but outside of the crater), I purchased nine packs of cigarettes and handed them out as the workers trickled in. I am sure it sounds ludicrous. Hand out smokes to folks that spend part of their day choking on sulfur fumes and the other part hauling 150lbs or more out of a crater and down a mountain. I am not necessarily proud of it, believe me. I guess I was just trying to do something nice for people who live a life closely resembling hell on earth. It was while I was doing this that I discovered the paltry sum they normally earn. I felt a bit ashamed. Here these guys are busting their asses and destroying their bodies on a daily basis and I start giving out three cigarettes per person. Mother Theresa I am not. I guess I was at a loss. I will say they did seem to appreciate it. A short reprieve was all I could offer.
There is another aspect of this that can be a bit unsavory. You could argue that I set a bad precedent, that from now on they will expect such behavior from fellow tourists and may begin to hassle them with greater alacrity. I cannot deny the validity of that claim but I figured if they can haul my body weight out of a volcanic crater then at least I could do was throw a few cigarettes their way. They were only 10,000 rupiahs a pack (less than $1) but that is almost a third of what they take home for hauling a load. Fuck it.
When one of the individuals working at the weigh station found out I was American the cigarette largess seemed to make a bit more sense to him, especially when you consider Barack Obama is my leader. I think he figured that Obama’s generous nature trickled its way down to the masses. You’ve gotta love it.
What a day. As I left my friends and made my way down the mountain (smoking the last cigarette just for shits and giggles) I was feeling….alive. Stunning scenery, heartbreaking reality, the good, the bad, the ugly. It is what it is but I was thankful that I was able to once again touch it, to feel the life coursing through my veins. It was good. It was bad. It was real.
Why do I do this? I drive down an atrocious Indonesian road at half past ridiculous in the morning trying not to lose control of the motorcycle, cursing and shouting the whole way….I start jogging up the side of a volcano because I can, because I want to cherish the physical ability to run up the side of a volcano ….I hug the edge of the caldera and stare at the surrealistic turquoise lake nestled at the bottom....I feel the wind and the chill it provides make its way across my body....I try, unsuccessfully, to hold back tears that I neither have the ability nor the desire to explain….I stand at the bottom of a crater in a state of sulfuric intoxication to capture a moment and attempt to make sense of a situation that piques my curiosity….I watch these men, these mortals, engage in a near Herculean enterprise for the price of a subway token....the quiet desperation in their eyes is palpable and compliments the physical scars on their bodies....I make a meager attempt to alleviate some of their sorrow by handing out two cigarettes to each man as he weighs his burden....I put the bike in neutral and coast down the twisting mountain road....I listen to the wind whistling in my ears as I try to take in the scene spread out below….and I feel alive.
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'Love me or hate me, but spare me your indifference.' -- Libbie Fudim