38 - Sub Specie Aeternitatis (Ijen Plateau, East Java, Indonesia)
Paging Earnest and Henry… Tell me why baby, why baby, why baby why you make me cry baby, cry baby, cry baby cry. Heroes in the mist. My lumbar in a twist. Cigarettes, smiles and gratitude piles.
by The Nostomaniac
HOW TO DESCRIBE DAYS LIKE the one I spent with the lesser Ijen volcano. At a loss then. Can only grasp clumsily now. I need a ghostwriter. I literally need a ghostwriter…Thoreau, Hemingway, Kerouac, (Insert favorite writer here), etc. Send them on assignment to the past. Shadow me. Capture that moment. Find the words…and let me steal them. It’s for a worthy cause. I promise… I promise.
I arose early. Stupid early. 4 am. I was unsure of the route from Bondowoso to Ijen. The day before I did a scouting mission to make sure I knew the way. Problem is, this didn’t match the directions given by a hotel employee. I was confident I’d found the correct path, but I left early just to be sure. Nothing like a volcano in the early morning light. Early bird catches the worm…and all that shit. This was a good move.
This was a good move because the trip was a solid two hours and parts of the road were a transportation shitshow, nothing but gravel and miniature boulders. Not ideal terrain for the Phantom. As if to underscore its displeasure, the motorcycle shed the gas tank decal plate upon return to my hotel. I stopped. It clanked to the ground like it was waiting for permission. Shake, rattle, and roll.
The roads dismal state wasn’t the only obstacle. Besides lunar surfaces, I also had to pass through three security checkpoints before arriving at the trailhead. To this day, I have no clue why. Rebel forces? No insurgent activity I was aware of. Civil unrest? No signs of that either. The sulfur being mined inside the Ijen crater has value but not that much value. Dunno. I was perplexed… and a little worried. You may recall from an earlier post I was only carrying copies of my passport and visa, not the genuine articles. Would this be a problem? Nope. They waved me through without asking for papers. Goodie.
Notwithstanding gaps in road integrity and hints of a security state, the path to Ijen was most agreeable. Navigation by motorcycle was well worth the effort and potential damage. The backdrop included well-manicured farmland, coffee plantations, and (surprise) volcanoes. Unexpected considering Java is Indonesia’s most populous island, but development had yet to spoil the region. That was then. And now? Pardon the pun, but tourism has exploded since my visit, sooooooo…
The sunrise was not my goal, but basking in the morning glimmer was definitely part of the prescription. I left my bike in the parking lot and made the almost two-mile hike to the caldera rim. Golden hour was fading, so I hustled, breaking into a light jog. You could say I was giddy.
I was giddy then, I’m lazy now. Here’s an Ijen roundup a la Wikipedia:
“The Ijen volcano complex is a group of composite volcanoes in the Banyuwangi Regency of East Java, Indonesia.
It is inside a larger caldera Ijen, which is about 20 kilometres wide. The Gunung Merapi stratovolcano is the highest point of that complex. The name "Gunung Merapi" means "mountain of fire" in the Indonesian language (api being "fire"); Mount Merapi in central Java and Marapi in Sumatra have the same etymology.
West of Gunung Merapi is the Ijen volcano, which has a one-kilometre-wide turquoise-coloured acidic crater lake. The lake is the site of a labour-intensive sulfur mining operation, in which sulfur-laden baskets are carried by hand from the crater floor. The work is paid well considering the cost of living in the area, but is very onerous. Workers earn around Rp 50,000–75,000 ($5.50–$8.30) per day and once out of the crater, still need to carry their loads of sulfur chunks about three kilometers to the nearby Paltuding Valley to get paid.
Many other post-caldera cones and craters are located within the caldera or along its rim. The largest concentration of post-caldera cones run east-west across the southern side of the caldera. The active crater at Kawah Ijen has a diameter of 722 metres (2,369 ft) and a surface area of 0.41 square kilometres (0.16 sq mi). It is 200 metres (660 ft) deep and has a volume of 36 cubic hectometres (29,000 acre⋅ft).” See Wikipedia.
The work is paid well considering the cost of living. Um, ya sure? I’m not. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
So, I broke into a trot. Why? Dunno. Impress the locals? No. And even if I wanted to, it wasn’t possible. They were tougher than I’ll ever be. Maybe I wanted fodder to spice up the story upon retelling? Don’t think so. Who really gives a fudge if I walk or ran? Nobody. I ran because I could, just because I could. I felt good. I was awake, open. And there was magic up that hill. It’s not that I was in a hurry. I think I scurried because I knew a day might come when I wished I could scramble ass up a volcano. Maybe I did it just because I was able to and wanted to remember the feeling… Maybe.
The view from the caldera’s edge was spectacular. Sulfur vents billowing fumes beside a turquoise lake as wind wisped smoke above the water, skimming the surface. It was not time to linger. Not then. Not there. Miners were busy carrying sulfur from the hill bottom near the water and tourists were trickling up. I hastened toward the crater’s western border and left everyone behind. I reckoned the farther I went along the rim, the less likely anyone would follow. I was right.
There was a chill from the wind lapping at my face, but this only invigorated me and was little match for the warming sun rays bombarding the scene. In those moments, as I climbed Ijen’s western boundary the world was right, the world was good (my world, anyway). I was where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there. The beauty. The awe-inspiring magnificence fed a deep and profound gratitude. Gratitude for what? For being alive… as myself, then and there. Spend any amount of time in a place like that with a little patch of isolation and you’ll be an instant mystic. You might not remain one as the spell dissipates with distance, but while you’re there, you’ll be a believer. You’ll have no doubts and won’t even know what you believe in. And it won’t matter. I tell you it won’t fucking matter.
Tears in my eyes. I was crying next to a volcano and wasn’t sure why. They weren’t tears of sadness, but they weren’t exactly tears of joy either. Was I in mourning? For what? Who? Was I pining for something? What? Was I at a loss, or overwhelmed by cosmic largess? Ever receive a touching gift you hadn’t expected? The kind which requires someone to see you, really see you, and then pluck a memory or sentiment or emotion from somewhere deep inside you, a place you yourself don’t comprehend fully, and conjure a talisman that instantly disintegrates barriers while paving a superhighway straight to a place you weren’t completely familiar with? Well, Ijen volcano was somewhat like that for me. A gift I didn’t know I needed but was eternally grateful for receiving. I stood on the edge letting the wind and it pass through me, whatever it was. Even now, I don’t know. If that wasn’t magic, then magic doesn’t exist.
I passed the better part of an hour exploring the crater’s western edge and lolling in the windy, eerie solitude before returning to the main event. First I got high, then I went low. I’ll go lazy again and let Wikipedia do the describing:
“An active vent at the edge of the lake is a source of elemental sulfur, and supports a mining operation. Escaping volcanic gases are channeled through a network of ceramic pipes, resulting in condensation of molten sulfur.
The sulfur, which is deep red in colour when molten, pours slowly from the ends of these pipes and pools on the ground, turning bright yellow as it cools. The miners break the cooled material into large pieces and carry it away in baskets. Miners carry loads ranging from 75 to 90 kilograms (165 to 198 lb), up 300 metres (980 ft) to the crater rim, with a gradient of 45 to 60 degrees and then 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) down the mountain for weighing. Most miners make this journey twice a day.
A nearby sulfur refinery pays the miners by the weight of sulfur transported; as of September 2010, the typical daily earnings were equivalent to approximately $13 US. The miners often receive insufficient protection while working around the volcano and complain of numerous respiratory afflictions. There are 200 miners, who extract 14 tons per day – about 20% of the continuous daily deposit.” See Wikipedia.
*Drone Footage Courtesy of Jenya Ivkov
*Drone Footage Courtesy of Drone Caraibes
Holy shit. That’s how I’d describe what I saw down below. The open-air hillside mine resembles an area plastered by yellow paintballs. Rising from the sulfuric miasma came the warriors of Ijen. Break up cooled sulfur into manageable chunks while choking in undulating clouds of sulfur gas… and then move your ass. Imagine if random tear-gassing was a job requirement? I explored the operation at my peril. More than once I was engulfed. My throat burned, eyes watered. I've felt that sensation before. All army trainees are required to enter the tear gas chamber, doff their masks, and soak in the toxic splendor. Well, there I found myself in nature’s own outdoor chamber. I was forced to scurry repeatedly to fresh air pockets to restore normal breathing. Nuts. Most work without proper equipment (respirators, eye wash gear, etc.). I can hardly envision what it would be like year after year with nothing but flimsy cloth covering your nose and mouth. My visit provided visual aids.
I was curious and we all know what curiosity did to the kitty. Two baskets on a pole. That’s what miners use to haul sulfur hunks up nearly a thousand feet. It looked unwieldy, so I thought such an inefficient method would preclude excessive weight. Enter curiosity. I offered to carry a load to the top. Wish in one hand, shit in the other. I couldn’t pick it up, not without risking back injury. Sad frowny face. I could almost hear my lumbar spine whispering in my ear. Do it, asshead. Feeling lucky? Pick it up. I dare ya. I’ll make ya regret it, kiddo. I’ll make you my bitch, hombre. Feeling lucky? Do it. I triple dog dare ya, ya ignant fool. I think that was my lumbar. Who knows? Could’ve been someone else’s. That work will grind you down, and many had the scars to prove it.
Am I a pussy? Certainly, but I gave myself a pass when I discovered the scales from any one load weigh in somewhere between 65 kg (143 lbs) and 85 kg (187 lbs). Imagine balancing that weight on one shoulder a thousand feet up (forty to sixty-degree gradient) and two miles down to the weigh station. Here’s an exercise: Go to the gym and back squat a hundred sixty pounds ten times, and then try to visualize hoisting the barbell on one shoulder and going for a hike. I initially suspected the miner I “assisted” overloaded the baskets as a gringo gag. Nuh-uh. I saw the scales with my own eyes.
And then came the testicle punch. What does sixty-five kilograms of sulfur get you? A cool $36,600 rupiahs (roughly US $3.00). The miners I spoke to made two trips a day. That means if they’re lucky they might pull down eight dollars for a day’s work. The work is paid well considering the cost of living. Fuck off. Two men were aged fifty and sixty years old. They were not a picture of health.
Inside the crater, miners encourage photos. Then they encourage cigarettes. I don’t smoke. So, they encouraged money. I balked. Handing out cash can get ugly. Give a few rupiahs to one guy and the rest will come a running. It will never be enough and then every visitor resembles an ATM. Not that you could blame them. I was just some asshole with a camera on holiday. This was their bitter reality. No cigarettes? No money? At least they didn’t shove sulfur up my ass. In their place, I might not have been so magnanimous.
It did bother me. After all, I was snapping photos like a Japanese honeymooner on crystal meth. What to do? I settled on a thoroughly inadequate solution, but it was all I could come up with. At the weigh station, I purchased cigarettes (nine packs) and handed smokes (three cigarettes per man) to the workers as they trickled in. Ludicrous? Yessir. Hand out butts to folks who divide their days between choking on sulfur fumes and shuttling one hundred fifty back-breaking pounds or more up a crater wall and down a mountain? Mother Teresa I am not. I guess I was just trying to do something nice for folks allowing me a glimpse of their world. And I have to say, they did appreciate the hell out of my gesture. A pack of cigarettes might be less than a dollar but that’s still a significant percentage of income. There was shame in my futile gesture, but it did bring smiles to a few faces.
I set a bad precedent. True then. True now. A tourist doling out cigarettes? They could get used to that… and probably did. This may very well have lead to a hassle or two for those that followed in my wake. And, truthfully, I have no counter. The argument is valid. I was well aware at the time but was so touched I grasped for a way to show my appreciation. If they can carry nearly my body weight out of a volcanic crater, then I could throw a few cigarettes their way… maybe? Well, fuck it. I’d do it all over again… probably.
When a miner discovered I was American, the cigarette bounty made sense. Obama, America’s president, is generous. I’m American. I must be generous. That ostensible oversimplification was remarkably common. I experienced it again and again. Sometimes shit is that simple. You’ve gotta love it. Oh, how things have changed on the homefront… Fuuuuck me.
I left my new friends behind and skipped my way down to the valley, puffing the last cigarette. Is it possible to feel too alive? Is it not a drug? Shift your baseline too far and the everyday humdrum will seem unbearable. Blessing and a curse. The experience is a blessing, the fallout a curse. But it doesn’t have to be so. We can learn to appreciate the mundane, the everyday, the seemingly inconsequential details. Just being, existence itself, is a goddamn miracle, is it not? It’s there even if we don’t look. You don’t need to travel the world to see. You only need adjust your goggles. I’ve spent years trying to adjust mine. Too little, too late? We’ll see.
Stunning scenery. Heartbreaking reality. The good, the bad, the ugly… I almost wrote a shitty poem. Almost.
Drive down an atrocious Indonesian road at half-past ridiculous in the morn trying not to lose control, cursing and shouting the whole way… Jog up the side of a volcano because you can, because you cherish the physical ability to run up the side of a volcano, here, now… You hug the edge and stare into acidic turquoise surrealism…You feel the wind, the chill engulfs you… You try, unsuccessfully, to hold back tears you neither have the ability nor desire to explain… You stand inside Ijen’s heart smothering in sulfuric intoxication, trying to capture the moment and make sense of whatever can be made sense of… You watch these men, these mortals, engage in a near Herculean enterprise for the price of a subway token, the quiet desperation in their eyes palpable and a compliment to the physical scars… You make a meager attempt to alleviate the melancholy by handing out three cigarettes per man as each weighs his albatross… You put the bike in neutral and coast down the twisting mountain road… You listen to the breeze whistling in your ears as you take in the scene spread out below… and you feel alive… for now you feel alive… and that’s good enough… for now.
I missed something, something spectacular I must say. Ijen has a night mode, one highlighted with arresting blue “lava” pulsating iridescently in the dark. From the photos and video I’ve seen online, the performance is incredible. The source of the light is not lava, but the combustion of sulfur gases reacting with air. Sadly, I had no clue. A real shame. A real shittin’ shame. Had I only known? Gas mask. Tent. Sleeping bag. Those would’ve been a few of my favorite things. Next time… next time… fucker.