By Agnes Chew | 30 April 2016
It was the last summer of freedom.
Here I was, standing equidistant in time between my graduation and commencement of work, striking item by item off my list of virgin experiences. Since tossing my mortarboard and tassel in the air two months ago, I had journeyed to the Middle East and dived into a world of infinite riches beneath the seemingly calm surface of the ocean. My next challenge was a trek up an active volcano in a remote part of East Java, which cradled within its centre the world’s most sulphuric crater lake.
That morning, I found myself awaking in the semi darkness to begin my trek up Kawah Ijen. As I clutched the straps of my backpack, attempting to motivate myself for the trek ahead, a miner came up to me and introduced himself as Tommy. Sleepy-eyed, I acknowledged him politely and offered just my name. Nonetheless, I found his footsteps soon matching mine in pace.
A conversation gradually blossomed. As I followed the funnelling path up to the volcano’s crater, I began to enjoy his company. Our conversation evolved from him sharing on the history of the place to that of his own. His words offered me insights into the lives of the volcano’s miners, who toiled each day without fail, making as many rounds as they could. These miners carried tens of kilogrammes of sulphur on their backs as they navigated the steep, rocky terrain – all for a meagre sum that was barely enough to ensure their survival, much less that of their families. Each breath I inhaled seemed to grow heavier than the last.
As Tommy introduced his miner friends to me along the way, I observed that his fluency of the English language was not the norm. In fact, it was an exceptional anomaly. I came to learn of his love for languages and his curiosity of the world – two things which had propelled him to speak to the few foreigners whom he had encountered on the mountain in the early days. While brief, these interactions enabled him to pick up the language slowly but surely. In fact, so impressive had his command of the language become that he was featured in an international documentary that was focused on the volcano’s miners. I struggled to keep pace.
The first of the sun’s rays began to peer through the clouds, allowing me a better look at Tommy’s face. His tanned, leathery complexion betrayed the amount of time he had spent under the sun, but the single feature that struck me most was the way in which his smile revealed his innate sanguineness. I thought about the words he had shared with me earlier. His hope was to save sufficient money, so that he could one day get married and start a family away from the fumes of the Ijen volcano. He wanted to provide well for his family, and to give them a happy and comfortable life. I thought about my own aspirations, and the reasons that led me to this very volcano.
Before I could delve deeper into these thoughts, his voice abruptly rang out. “We’re here!” I glanced up from the rocky terrain on which my gaze had been fixated. Indeed, we were. We had arrived at the summit of the volcano, standing at 2,800 metres above sea level. This was what I had come to see. The view that lay before me felt surreal. The turquoise of the lake that seemed to exist only in oil paintings or oversaturated colour photographs glittered under the sunlight. The undulating mountains stood in the distance, unfazed by the surrounding beauty.
Suddenly, a dense cloud of fumes enveloped us in an unwelcome embrace. I had been warned about this, having read about the hazardous fumes that spewed out from the crater’s core. I had come prepared. Whipping out my towel, I dampened it and promptly placed it over my mouth. Tommy stood beside me, both hands holding his empty baskets that remained hungry for sulphur.
“Want to go down?” he asked. I hesitated. My original plan had been to climb to the top, take some pictures and admire the view, before making my way back down. After all, I had read about how dangerous the crater was. Its lake was the most acidic one in the world, with a PH of 0 due to the high concentration of sulphuric acid. If I were to accidentally land my foot in its waters, it would most certainly be dissolved right away. I looked down at crater that continued to belch out opaque fumes. My throat pleaded for mercy.
Despite all that signalled me to do otherwise, curiosity saw me accepting Tommy’s offer. It was a treacherous climb down. I considered the kind of practice it must have taken for these slipper-clad men to navigate the rocky slopes with such deftness. On hindsight, I did not know how I managed the precarious descent. All that I remembered was my death grip on Tommy’s arm, without which I would have since fallen into the unknown depths of the crater and my being, completely disintegrated in that deadly lake.
Arriving at the aperture at the bottom was an otherworldly experience. It seemed as though I had entered another dimension – a yellow-stained warzone. Miners were everywhere. They disappeared into clouds of sulphuric fumes with empty baskets, and reappeared again with their backs loaded with the precious solid. I could barely breathe. Next to where I stood, turquoise waters lapped softly against the rock. There was no other traveller in sight; I contemplated my sanity.
Before long, I was relieved to be making my way down to the foot of the volcano. Tommy trotted effortlessly alongside me, despite the freshly added weight on his shoulders. I wondered how many more rounds he had to make, before the day his dreams could be realised. I wondered if there might ever come a day where he would no longer have to fill his lungs with the fumes of sulphur. I wondered how much mettle it would require for a man to continuously repeat this arduous routine, until the day he achieved his sulphur-free liberty.
“You like Kawah Ijen?” Tommy asked, grinning.
Looking at his lemon-dusted hands, I nodded.
“Very much,” Very much.
Unless otherwise stated, images by Agnes Chew and Cheow Yidian.