Bondowoso / Daily Life / Indonesia / Peace Corps / People / Photography / Travel

Climbing Kawah Ijen

I never thought I’d do this, I think amusedly to myself as I climb down a mountain at two in the morning with nothing but moonlight to brighten the darkness. I’m not thinking of scary movies, I keep on thinking, I’m not gonna get bitten by snakes. I’m just gonna get down and sleep in the car. It will be great. As I ease my way down the mountain, fighting waves of nausea caused by the sulfuric fumes of the nearby crater, several climbers pass me by, going in the other direction, up the steep path.

Sendiri, miss?” some Indonesian guides ask with concern, their headlamps shining, “Lonely?” I contemplate the translation. In Bahasa Indonesia, sendiri is often mistranslated to “lonely,” when it actually means “alone.” Ya, I respond, saya sendirian, tapi tidak apa apa. Yes, I am alone, but it’s ok.

After leaving my group of PCV friends and Indonesians, I was completely alone in the path to Kawah Ijen, but I wasn’t lonely. I was relieved. Delighted, even. The stars were bright and enough people were passing by that I didn’t feel unsafe. The playlist I chose reenergized my hike and eased the cramps[1] and nausea that caused me to turn back in the first place. I was glad to be alone, free from people waiting on me to climb the 3 kilometers up a very steep mountain. Though I really wanted to see the blue fire of burning sulfur and the sunrise near the turquoise water of the crater, the cramps and nausea made that desire fade and the one for rest much stronger.

Forty minutes after leaving my crew, I finally reached the bottom of the trail. Relief! I thought. An empty small toko, or store, illuminated the rows of parked cars. I looked around for our driver and saw no one. I inspected the cars that looked like the one we had taken here; still, no one.

I sat down in the store’s steps and relaxed. The cramps stopped. My body temperature began to normalize and the cool air felt colder and colder. I checked the time: three in the morning. “Alone” began to feel a bit lonely.

Upon realizing that there was still a long time until sunrise and the improbability of finding the driver, I decided there was only one thing to do: climb back up. So off I went again—mountain climb, take two.

With new energy I make my way up the hill, steadily retracing steps I had already made. Every once in a while, men carrying empty baskets suspended on wooden sticks silently pass me by. These were the miners making their way to the crater to collect sulfur loads they would later sell for a large sum of rupiah. One cannot take a motorcycle. One cannot drive a car. The only way to get there is to make the arduous walk. I match my pace to one of the miners and he asks if I want to climb with him, and he tells me his story while guiding me up in middle of the night.

Pak Rufian leading the hike.

Pak Rufian is from Banyuwangi, the province on the most eastern coast of Java, near Bali. He has been working as a miner since 1997. He’s 33 years old. He started this job when he was 17 and carries an average of 80 kilos up the crater and down this mountain nearly every day. This load sells for about 700,000 rupiah or roughly 70 U.S. dollars. I believe he does not keep all this money and must receive only a fragment of that money for this incredibly laborious and dangerous work, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to ask.

This man is so strong that he hardly breaks a sweat. He carries no water. He breathes slowly. He watches me struggle in the steepest parts of the climb and asks if he may carry my backpack. My pride would not allow that, but he gave me the motivation to keep going, as he does this with nearly 200 pounds of sulfur on his back. He stands on leveled part of the mountain and waits for me to catch up, puffing on a cigarette.

After an hour and a half we finally reach the top. The crater, flooded with the gray blue hues of dawn, appears like another planet. Pak Rufian departs and disappears down the crater to complete his job. The weather is cold, and nearly intolerable as my body cools down again. A large number of people huddle all around the crater waiting for the sun to rise. The smell of sulfur is strong, travelling over us in big vaporous clouds, and the turquoise-colored water appears as the sun touches it. Miner after miner makes his way up and down the crater, carrying large loads of reeking yellow treasure.

This is what I imagine landing on the moon would be like.

Kawah Ijen

The sulfur mine.

I’m so glad I actually made it and found my people. I’m so cold my lips are white.

Julie and Blake

A miner carrying his sulfur load up from the crater.

Sulfur figurines to be sold to tourists.

Sulfur waiting to be taken down the mountain.


[1] Climbing mountains during a certain time of the month is not the best idea.

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