Into the Land of Volcanos
Indonesia is a series of 17,000 islands created by 147 volcanoes. Some of those volcanoes are still active, as is evidenced by the fact that Mount Sinabung on Sumatra erupted two days ago, spewing ashes for nearly 3 miles. It probably did not make the news back home, but volcanic eruptions are a constant part of life for Indonesians.
MA and I wanted to make sure we saw some of this geography up close so we headed into Eastern Java. This required taking another overnight train. This one left at 1:20 am so we had to find a way to entertain ourselves (and stay awake!) until that time. We decided to splurge on "Executive Lounge" passes for the train station. The perks were limited, but they did separate the smokers (yay!) and gave us free wifi. Junk wifi, but enough to get our email. The more interesting part is the shows that were on tv in the lounge!
The first show was some sort of talent competition. The costumes were garish, and included a larger woman wearing something that appropriated Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. At one point, there was an audience participation section where the entire crowd joined in some sort of dance that included more steps than the Macarena. It was fascinating.
When that show finished, an Indonesian soap opera came on. I have no clue as to the actual plot, and I could not understand a word of the dialogue, but it was easy to get hooked. There was some sort of spell-casting and mysticism and scandal, all acted in an over-the-top manner. MA and I crafted our own plot to go along with the story, and I was actually sad when our train arrived because I had gotten sucked into this silly show. Now I will never know whether the witch successfully cursed the new wife...
Anyway, we got into Malang early in the morning. Kat's mom was waiting for us at the train station. We had a chance to take showers and get settled in before we met the family for coffee. I don't talk much about specific hotels or restaurants in this blog, but I have to comment on The Library. This is a lovely spot up the street from Kat's family home. The coffee is all grown locally and they make great lattes. The food was delicious and the wifi is excellent! What more can you ask for when you travel?
There was a great deal of discussion about our plans for the two days that we were in town. At one point, there was a discussion about hiking up to Mt Bromo for sunrise. But we decided that one volcanic sunrise was all we needed. We would spend this first day exploring the area around Malang and then head up to the Ijen Crater.
We spent our time in Malang at the Secret Zoo (which far exceeded expectations!), the Transportation Museum (which had an incredible collection of vintage cars and some pretty incredible photo ops), and then visited a small mountain community where Kat's family established a church and school. One amusing thing we noticed in this part of Java was that MA and I were novelties to many of the residents. We were often asked if we would allow people to have their pictures taken with us. I think 50 year old white ladies, traveling alone are not a frequent site in this area. At one point, while watching a lion feeding in the Secret Zoo, MA was asked to be in a photo - not to include the lion! MA was also asked to be a part of a couple's wedding photos. I guess this is a small taste of life in a boyband...
It was a lovely visit, but adventure was waiting for us. We headed out to see the sunrise at the Ijen Crater. This involves a midnight hotel departure followed by a two hour drive, then a chilly climb in the dark up to the summit before a descent to the sulfur mines to see the Blue Fire. In order for this plan to work, we needed to go to sleep early (hello, Tylenol PM!) and set an alarm for 11 pm.
The alarm went off and we quickly got ready. Our grand plan included a return to the hotel for a quick shower after this event. This would be a two hour detour but neither of us felt like spending the day in a car, smelling of sulphur. So we left our bags behind at the hotel.
We had read several travel guides about the hike so we were well prepared. We had headlamps and multiple layers of clothing and had left our jewelry behind (rumor had it that the sulfur tarnishes silver - we believed it.). I was too anxious about the climb to sleep on the drive to the crater so I watched the scene out the window.
We arrived at the start and made one last trip to the toilet (of course they were stand-up toilets!) before we purchased our tickets and began the ascent. We did not feel the need for a guide as we would merely follow those in front of us (note to self - hire a guide next time). We put on all our layers and started to walk.
It was really dark as we started climbing. It did not help that it began raining so the moon and stars were blocked by clouds. I was going to be very irritated if we got up this early and hiked in the rain but saw nothing (Flexible Maggi 2017 was not with me at this time - she was smartly sleeping in a hotel room). There were actually local guys who were willing to pull you via trolley to the top if you could not climb on your own. No thank you!
This may be the scariest hike I had ever done! We wore head lamps and rain jackets so our vision made it appear that we were walking through a tunnel. There were no switchbacks and the terrain was slick. We made a point of walking very slowly and deliberately towards the summit. We knew that the climb was expected to take 1 1/2-2 hours and then we would reach the descent. All of this would take place in the dark.
There were a series of flat sections which helped us to catch our breath, and then we reached the area where we would begin a single-file, steep descent. There were actually a few people who were coming out as we began heading down - show-offs! MA and I were happy to take our time.
As we approached the Blue Fire, we could finally see why this trek was so worthwhile. It was truly amazing! I wish any of my pictures did it justice, but I think you will have to see the pros for that. The sulphur somehow reacts and creates a true blue flame. It stinks like crazy down there - thank God we had good advice and were wearing masks. When the wind switches directions, you can be enveloped by the foul smell. Luckily, it switches often so you have time to adjust.
We watched the flame for a bit, then decided that we wanted to go down to see the sulphur miners. These guys have it rough! The mining is done by hand - each miner collects two buckets of sulphur and then carries this across his shoulders to the summit and back down to the start for collection. The miners wear little more than wet rags over their noses and mouths to protect them from the fumes. The guys get paid about $0.08 per kilo of sulphur or $12 per day. We as tourists are asked to pay 5000 Indonesian Rupiah (about $0.45) per photo is we take pictures of the miners. Some of the tourists try to sneak pictures without paying! Seriously... as if they cannot afford to (or don't want to! which is worse) to offer these guys coffee money but can afford to travel to Indonesia.
Rant over - We still had time to make it back to the summit in order to watch the sunrise over the crater. This was beautiful! And I have pictures to prove it. The yellow sulphur against the blue green water was incredible to see. Flexible Maggi 2017 arrived in time to see this event, and was really glad to be there.
As we waklked out, we could now see the path that we had taken in the morning. There was no tunnel - just slick tracks across a volcano. It really was a beautiful place.
The climbs in and out were both difficult for us. We determined at the end that we had each taken 2 falls, and we had the bruises to prove it. I was really glad that we had downtime in the car when this was over.
As we finished our walk out, we saw something that I need to share. There were three older, white people who were being carried on litters (Confession - had to look this word up. MA and I both knew what were talking about but neither of us knew what they were called. Google helped us figure out what "those things that were used to carry Caesar and Cleopatra were") up to the summit. It was one of the most imperialist things that I have ever seen! Four Indonesia guys each carrying one fat Westerner up to see a volcanic crater. Gross.
When we finally reached our car, neither of us felt good. We had probably breathed in too much sulphur. I had a wicked headache and MA had an upset stomach. Our driver then told us that we would have to take a detour back to our hotel - so the ride would be closer to three hours. It turned out to be four. We really wished we had brought our bags with us...
When we finally arrived back at our hotel, we had missed breakfast and we barely had time to take showers before we had to check out and begin our drive to Bali. We would end up spending 12 hours in the car, including a beautiful ferry ride from Banyuwangi to Gilianuk on the island of Bali. A day of leisure was calling me...