Friday, March 1, 2013

Indonesia: Ijen Crater

I wrote this while I was still in Indonesia; it's not my normal blogging writing-style, but I wanted to capture my feelings while they were still fresh.

January 24, 2013
Deep in the jungle of East Java, Indonesia lies Mt. Ijen.  From bottom to top, it is about a three kilometer hike, traversing steep, unforgiving slopes, leaving the climber with the distint impression that she is unwelcome at her destination, and why should she be?  Upon reaching the top, the climber is suddenly awed by the view that overwhelms the fog-covered mountains and treetops upon which she turns her back.  In front of her lies the crater of an active volcano, filled with the largest sulfur lake in Indonesia, turquoise blue and deadly acidic.

The sulfur lake in the Ijen Crater

This is the mountain I was taken to see on my trip to Indonesia.  A renowned attraction, a visit to this natural wonder is regularly included in tourist packages.  I was prepared to be exhausted by the climb.  I was prepared to be intimidated by the active state of the volcano.   I was prepared to realize my own insignificance in the face of something so powerful.  I was not prepared to meet the men who spend their days climbing up and down its path, mining the sulfur that has become so crucial to Indonesian culture.

When I first saw one of the many men carrying two baskets of sulfur bricks across his shoulders, I was floored.  Upon asking its weight, my guide told me that it weighed close to 85 kilograms.

"That's more than I weigh!" A nearby woman exclaimed.

With a jolt of shock, I realized that it would be an easier task for this man to carry me across the mountainside than his load of sulfer.  I assumed it to be a testimony to the poor economy of the area that the man did not have any modern tools to help him with the process, but a friend of my tour guide encouraged me to think further.

"I asked the men why they didn't use more modern tools," he said.  "They told me the government won't let them."

He went on to explain that Ijen is a type of national park.  "I guess that's why can't use [modern tools]."  But the look on his face left me with the distinct impression that he was as dissatisfied with that answer as I was.

At the mouth of the crater, I was quickly greeted with the opportunity to have one of the miners help me descent to the lake below and give me a tour of the mine.  He told me the trip would cost me 50,000 rupiah, roughly 5 USD, which would be slightly less than he would make for one load of sulfur (85kg is worth about 56,000 rupiah).  I agreed, eager to see the mine and happy to make the day easier for this man.  He produced a couple of painter's masks for me to layer and wear to combat the smoke, and we were off, climbing almost straight down through the noxious fumes.  Concentrating solely on not losing my footing, I often didn't see the miners until they were right on top of me, carrying their loads up a rock face that would have made me uncomfortable even if I had been harnessed into climbing ropes.  Yet they climbed it in goulashes, many mask-less in the acrid smoke.  I tried not to think of the number of years that were being cut from their lives during my trip alone.

A man carries his load up the crater

I greeted each man with a smile, to which each man always replied, "Where are you from?"

"America," came my hesitant reply.  Several overseas trips had taught me to share this information cautiously, as it usually elicits passionate responses.  The miners held true to form, although I was relieved to see it took a more positive bent.

"America?  Obama!" was the standard response, and, as if it was a cheer designed to hearten the rest of the workers, it was always met with a chorus of "Obama!" from all the men within earshot.  As Indonesia was the president's childhood home, I was not incredibly shocked by their love for him, but it took a moment for the magnitude of it to sink in.  His very name seemed to birth hope, something I've not seen in relation to any other president in my lifetime, but I imagine it was something akin to how the American people reacted to John F. Kennedy while he was in office.

We repeated this exercise almost every time I met a new worker until, on the floor of the crater, one man broke form.

"Obama?  He's my relative!"

I did a double-take.  Surely not, I thought, prepared to argue that the fumes had addled his mind like the man I'd overheard telling a pair of hikers that he was a Pokémon.  I looked to the men around him, trying to discern from their actions if there was any truth to his claim.  None of them laughed or turned away as they had with the Pokémon man; it seemed his had them convinced.

I spent a lot of time wandering around the crater, taking pictures and chatting with the miners, but, as the wind picked up speed, I began to feel an urgent desire to leave.  My guide had already been waiting at the top for me for quite some time, and I did not want to be extraordinarily long, so we began the ascent.  This time, however, the smoke was much more oppressive.  I could not see further than a meter in front of my feet, and it was not long before I joined in with the miners in spite of my masks, coughing and moaning.  Immediately, they were at my side, encouraging me to drink my water.  The miner who had brought me down offered me his ski cap through which he had been breathing himself. I took it reluctantly, and only used it for a couple of breaths, eager to get him to cover his mouth.  Eventually, though, the volcano began to win, and I crouched, hyperventilating against the rocks.  We doused my bag in water and added it to the mask collection on my face.  Between it and the miners pushing me through the steepest parts, I was able to make it back to the mouth of the crater.  I paid the man as quickly as my shaking hands would let me, and my guide and I retreated back down the mountain.

That night as I laid awake in bed, grappling with the pain in my smoke-burned lungs, I thought more about the conversation I had had with my guide's friend:

"I asked [the miners] what the hardest part was for them: the three kilmeter hike or the two hundred twenty-five meter hike up the crater."

"The climb, of course," I answered.

"Yes," he said.  "The smoke... the smoke..."

The men work through the smoke, with or without proper masks.

I wondered how many of the men were also lying sleepless on their beds, as I was, trying to massage the burning out of their chests.

"I asked why they didn't get other jobs," the friend had continued.  "But Indonesia's economy is bad.  This is the last stop for these men.  There's nothing else."

"They're cutting so many years off their lives for this," I said.  My guide's friend and I locked gazes for a moment, and I knew we were both trying to communicate the same thing across the language barrier: These men were doing what they had to do to provide for their families, even if it meant paying the ultimate price.

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