When The Smoke Clears

Saturday, February 17, 2018

active volcanoes in indonesia

Storytime is a series of  stories about my most memorable travel experiences. Read more here.

This trip was made possible by Indotravelteam, a premier tour agency that organizes tours to active volcanoes in Indonesia. Check out their website for more information on our three day Bromo Ijen Tour.

The comfort of the night seemed to flee as we descended. Cloaked by fumes that burned eyes and throat, Ijen before dawn looked like a witch's vat. Our feet did not reassure us. The ground, strewn with rocks, was deceitful: firm, one moment; unsteady, the next. But after a few more steps, I gained more confidence. What was ahead reeled me in. In the gloomy haze was a spark.

Blue Fire.

Wheezing through my gas mask, I elbowed my way through the crowd, following my husband who was setting up his camera. We were now face to face with the spewing vents.

Kawah Ijen, like most volcanoes, has an abundant deposit of sulfur. These gasses are routed by ceramic pipes across a sloping mound, at the foot of which, the gasses condense and harden into yellow-orange slabs. Sometimes, the gasses ooze along the way, through tiny punctures in the pipes, igniting when it makes contact with the air, and setting off brilliant blue flames. This phenomenon draws in tourists from all over the globe. Us included.

The day of our visit, however, the sapphire flames were diffident. There were only sputterings. And blankets of smoke and the stench of brimstone and the commotion of the crowd.
sulfur mines in asia

I was disappointed. We came all the way for the famed electric blue flames only to be met with brief lashes of purple-blues, swallowed by the fumes almost as quickly as they light up.

Almost as soon as I felt this, I chided myself.

This was the risk that comes with wanting to experience natural phenomena. It's all timing and luck. I shouldn't take it personally.

When dawn finally came, I was ready to leave, but our Indotravel guides ushered us further. And, my, did I spoke too soon.

The early light came and revealed another aspect of Ijen. In the brightness, the crater's landscape transformed right before my eyes. Just beside the sulfur vents, away from the throng of tourists and sulfur miners, was a lake. Calm and impossibly turquoise, the water glistened under a wispy veil. Jagged peaks bordered it. Smokes billowed, hovering on its surface.
largest acidic lake in the world

This was the largest acidic lake in the world. Just a drop of the lake's water is enough to leave you with burns. The methane that had gathered beneath it also drives it into unpredictable geyser-like eruptions. Compared to the ever belching sulfur vents, the lake looked innocuous, but it was turning out to be as devious as the rest of the landscape.

The trip to Bromo, and the takeaways from it, suddenly sprung into my consciousness, and our circumstance now only strengthened my point: Nature toys with us all.

But it was one thing venturing into the crater for thrills, to go there daily to toil was another matter.

Ijen yields a daily supply of about 14 tons of sulfur, exported across Asia for use in the production of rubber, sugar, and cosmetics among others. This lode is harvested by some 300 miners. These men typically submit themselves to hazardous conditions six hours a day, five days a week. They start before midnight, when the toxic gasses are most tolerable, walking two hours across a steep path, and another half down the crater. Using metal rods, they hack the hardened sulfur that collects below the vents off the crater floor. They then stow the harvested slabs in a pair of wicker baskets attached to a beam of wood. Hauling this contraption across their backs, which when full could weigh between 70 to 100 kilograms – almost double their own weight – the miners trudge back up the way they came. Some have taxis – makeshift trolleys – waiting at the crater's rim, making the rest of the descent slightly less difficult. But most still have to continue manually carrying the load.

The closest thing to a safety equipment these miners have is a wet towel, which they stuff in their mouths in an attempt to filter out the noxious fumes. The miners' rotten teeth, leathery skin, and rattling breaths tell you this is futile.

It's not that they don't have access to gas masks. On our trip to Ijen, one of our guides informed us that some tourists donate their masks to the miners. But the miners still choose to go without it, renting out the protective gear to other tourists instead. The masks are considered hindrances. And in a treacherous workplace such as Ijen, one needs to be as unencumbered as one can get.

Pay for hewing "Devil's Gold" is considered good if you take into account the low cost of living in the area. A miner earns approximately 12$ a day, more than some entry-level office posts in the Philippines. But the risks are decidedly disproportionate.
ijen sulfur miners

The backbreaking nature of their work had made miners "marked" men. Even as a tourist, I could easily spot them. Our two guides, in fact, showed telltale signs. I wasn't surprised when they shared they were also miners. One of them had obvious bowed legs, bent from years of hauling heavy loads – it showed even in his branded hiking pants. Mid-sentence, both would suddenly burst into a barrage of dry coughing. I bet, on their backs were matching deep grooves where the wooden beam would fit perfectly.
ijen local tour guides

Like any traveler, I pondered about the workers' conditions. I brooded upon them on the way back up the crater. It all seemed like a glaring form of injustice, and, surely, something can be done. But as we reached the caldera's rim, thoughts of contemporary ills slunk away from my mind. Like any traveler, I knew that worldly problems, however dire and right-in-the-face, were ultimately no match for the sublime.

And here, on this spot, was Transcendence.

In the near-noon sun, Ijen came alive. The terrain looked alien, but marvelous. A cloven slope of orange and gray stood in stark contrast with the vivid greens of the forest on the opposite side. A ridge marched endlessly, the people looking like soldiers ants. Below, the crater tried to cover itself with its own miasma, but the patch of milky blue of the lake brazenly cut through the smog.
forest in mt ijen

hike to kawah ijen in indonesia

I knew that behind that smoke, men were toiling, deliberately and repeatedly putting themselves in harm's way. An act of defiance. A contest we all – them included – know they'll always be on the losing side.

We are stubborn that way.

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