I pulled my newly-bought wool cap down further over my ears and clung to my plastic cup of aggressively sweet ginger tea, shivering slightly in the pre-dawn mist. I never thought I would be cold in Indonesia. It’s hard to believe that this is part of a tropical island at all. Cyprus trees, terracotta tile roofs, terraced fields of tomatoes, cabbage and peppers–if not for the uniquely Javanese crowns ornamenting each house, we could have been in Tuscany.
Many thousands of years ago, a volcano violently erupted here, scattering ash, sand and black rock over a huge swathe of mountainside. The resulting caldera is now evocatively named the Sea of Sand and in its center sits the still-smoldering cone that caused all this trouble in the first place–Mt. Bromo.
The area around Bromo is predominantly Hindu, remnants of the ancient Javanese Kingdoms that once dominated the island. After a 14th-century eruption of Bromo, they took it as a sign to hightail it out of there and move eastward, settling Bali, now the only predominantly Hindu island in the archipelago. In a strange twist of fate, now people flock to Bromo, lured by the misty, sunrise vistas and the deep, unsettling gurgle and roar of vapors trapped beneath the volcano’s mouth. Needless to say, we we not alone this morning.
Shoulder to shoulder with other sunrise gawkers, we sipped our tea and nibbled on fried bananas, waiting, giggling every so often as another tourist would try to photograph the faintest glimmer of dawn light–always unsuccessfully. Languages swirled all around us as people woke up with the sun–snippets of English here and there but mostly local tongues: Javanese, Balinese, Bhasa, and many indecipherable others. In a country with 17,000 islands, “local” tourists may not really be so local.
The sun rises and sets suddenly this close to the equator, like a light bulb being switched on and off. The crowd around us began to murmur and stand up, pushing to the front of the overlook as they recognized the fast approaching dawn. All around us volcanic peaks were now visible, bathed in pink morning light, their valleys blanketed in thick, tropical fog. After a few photos that completely failed to do the scene justice, we joined the crowd now seething down the slope for the next leg of the journey, to peer over the rim of Bromo itself.
We clung to the backs of motorbikes as drivers for hire precariously wound their way down the twisting mountain road. We continued to the descent by jeep, marvelling as the panoramic vistas that had been invisible during our dark ascent. The Sea of Sand stretched out before us and our driver picked up speed, nervously eyeing a car stuck in a sandy rut nearby as we hummed a few bars of the Indiana Jones theme song.
Mt. Bromo sat foreboding in the middle of the sandy wasteland. As our driver deftly parked our jeep in a surprisingly perfect grid of other vehicles among the shifting sand, a bevvy of skinny, sarong-swathed men leading skinny ponies approach us. Fifteen minutes up a steep, sandy slope by horseback and another fifteen up a punishing flight of stairs and then, abruptly, there we were, on the rim of a huge, palpably powerful volcano. The guardrail spanned only a few dozen feet directly above the staircase. Our charmingly maternal guide was waiting back at the jeep so we could only images her horror as we struck out on the path above the guardrail, leading to the highest point on the rim. Sitting there, our feet resting inside the crater as strange steam left incandesecnt green streaks down the interior, there was nothing to do but drink in the awe…and help French tourists take their Christmas card photos.
The wakeup call came at 11:45–more a nap than a night’s sleep to prepare for another night of volcanos. At least now we knew what we were getting ourselves into….or so we thought.
Three hours and 1,500 vertical feet later, we started walking downhill again. Then our guide stopped to help us put on our gas masks. “Woah–when they said ‘climb a volcano,’ I didn’t think they meant literally into a volcano,” James and I concurred.
Thick sulfuric mist swirled all around us, rendering our flashlights useless–illuminating only opaque cones of yellow fog–as we minced our way down the treacherous, rocky path crudely cut from the interior wall of Ijen’s huge crater. As soon as the smoke changed direction we had to stop our descent again, this time to hug the rock wall so a sulfur miner could pass by, hefting on his narrow shoulders a straining wooden pole with two wicker baskets piled high with what looked uncannily like yellow foam insulation–actually raw sulfur.
These men make this journey several times each day, carrying close to 200 pounds on their small, sinewy frames, as they have for decades, the caustic sulfur gas rendering it impossible to install any sort of metal machinery to aid the process. Mining sulfur here is a generational affair–an occupation passed from father to son. Our guide’s father had been a miner and urged him to study hard to avoid the same fate–“do your homework, kid, or I’ll send you to the sulfur mine” quite literally. Suddenly, my life seemed inconceivable cushy.
As we neared the bottom of the pathway, snaking deep inside the still-active crater, there it was, a sudden flash of neon turquoise amid the thick, ochre plume–Ijen’s mysterious blue fire, a result of sulfur gas released from the rocks at high pressure. We sat there just drinking in the bizarre beauty of it, breathing Darth Vader-like into our gas masks until the acrid air becomes too much to bear. At the top of the strenuous climb back up to the rim, we were met with a sign, now visible in the wan pre-dawn light: “Visitors are prohibited from going down in the crater. Dangerous!” and another: “Beware Toxic Gas.” We exchanged glances as our guide just laughed and puffed away on a cigarette amid the plumes of toxic gas and declared nonchalantly, “but this is Indonesia!”
He was right of course–for better and for worse–this is Indonesia. It’s a land of extraordinary natural beauty and extraordinarily poor concern for maintaining it. It’s a highly industrialized nation full of Cargill plants, oceanfront cement factories and second-rate sanitation. But it’s also a profoundly proud and ancient culture–or rather cultures, as the diversity of language, religions and customs require all Indonesians to learn a second tongue (Bhasa) simply to facilitate basic communication throughout the country. Rather fittingly, it’s a country where a lot seems to get lost in translation.
It’s so easy to make those sort of judgements as a member of the first world visiting this remote outpost. I found myself over and over again questions why “they” didn’t just pick up the trash littering the roadsides, or stop burning it in the gutters; why 70% of men here smoke despite already sky high cancer rates from environment pollution; why the wholesale destruction of the rich rainforest and its inhabitants to make way for palm oil plantations seems like a reasonable idea. But face to face with these sulfur miners, these trains of thought derailed–it was a painful reminder of the palpable, and very real, struggle at the heart of so many Indonesians lives. The men toil in conditions unthinkable back home in the name of progress, of the slow and slight chance to better their lives or maybe their children’s’. When industrialization spells modernization, opportunity and connectivity, there is no argument–the march of progress prevails, its casualties inevitable byproducts, invisible ghosts of future pains, less palpable than those at hand.