The trip from Jogjakarta takes 13 hours with a stop in Probolingo to change buses and be shaken down by the local transport mafia, an organization fronted by a thick-necked dwarf and a man with one good eye, the other blind and cloudy with blight. As we arrive, the hotel courtyard in the valley northeast of the presently-erupting Mt. Bromo is covered in black ash, and a clutch of hippieish Argentineans sit fussing to a German couple over lukewarm water and the price of instant noodles.
I can hear the eruption of Bromo faraway on the wind, and in a kind of subaudible rumble propagating through the ground beneath my feet, which grits under my sandals as I shift them. Over at the table a short distance away an Argentine woman bitches about the food, and I receive and bolt a meal of fried rice and egg, loving the faraway sound of the earth rumbling in the darkness.
The next morning in the blueblack predawn staring out over the empty sand sea from the 2770m peak of nearby Mt. Penanjakan, Bromo roars and the earth shakes; in the distance the broad irregular cone spits gouts of orange fire out into the night like sparks. Then the dawn comes, the assembled spectators climbing the surrounding hillside with their Canon compacts, or scrambling onto the roofs of the viewpoint pavilions with tripods and expensive reflex cameras, chattering with the idiot seriousness that afflicts DSLR owners about ISO settings and aperture values, as if they are the sole members of a technologically advanced civilization capable of documenting the event.
In the new light Bromo booms and a huge greyblack cloud of ash emerges from its mouth, drifting east toward the sunrise and over the town of Cemoro Lawang in the valley below, where it falls like ashen snow. There in the town an hour later, grey men walk through a grey landscape, their heads wrapped in dun-colored scarfs like desert nomads. The fields clinging to the steep mountainsides like a skin show only the tops of green plants, and on the road out to Probolingo, men with rakes and hoes are scraping brown muck an inch thick from the road in a light rain.
And though Bromo is the main attraction of this mountainous region of eastern Java, it is the volcanic highlands of the Ijen Plateau, a day’s drive further east, that are its most spectacular sight — a barren landscape of twisted black roots and bare earth rutted with the fingers of runoff and white with a crust of condensed brimstone. The next morning we rise before dawn to make the 3km climb to Kawah Ijen, a vast sulfur lake situated there at 2148m. Rounding a corner at the peak we come suddenly upon the crater, its pool of poisoned turquoise partly hidden by a great yellow-white plume of sulfur vapor rising up on the wind.
All along the trail, men in shower sandals or muddy galoshes trundle up out of the crater bearing huge yellow chunks of brimstone in baskets hung on poles between their shoulders. They are smiling as they make the ascent in the acrid plume; “Selamat pagi,” one man after another greets us, “Good morning!” It is just now six o’clock but already these men have been at it for hours, panting as they bear their loads of 60 to 80kg to the weighing station a kilometer away after the hard climb up out of the crater — an effort for which they will earn about $4.
My friend Michael and I (A Bavarian transplant living for seven years in Singapore) descend into the badlands of the crater, heavy with the stink of rotten eggs and completely bare, a zone of rocks and earth. We climb all the way to the bottom, to the shore of the dead lake, which is slack and grey-brown viewed flat on, our clothes and hands stained with yellow dust from the rocks we’ve gripped on the way down. Even with washing, I find, my hands will smell of sulfur for more than a day. There on the shore men crouch, hacking huge yellow slabs of condensed sulfur vapor from beside the rusted metal vents and pipes from which it is pouring — POURING — up out of the earth in thick billowing clouds.
The wind shifts and the sulfur cloud envelops us as we climb the drizzle-slick stones and mud back out, making an irritating tickle in the lungs and an eggy chemical taste in the back of the throat. The men above us are inching along the path cut into the hillside, plodding slowly with their canary-colored burdens, worn handkerchiefs tied around their nose and mouth like stagecoach robbers.
Afterwards, we pass from the crater as quickly as we entered it, back onto the dirt track leading through the green of the mist-covered hills. We talk for a while about the conditions of the 150 or so men who do this job everyday, so friendly but begging cigarettes and food, and getting none of the considerable entrance fees to the park in which their curious form of labor is a principal attraction.
“In any case, I must be sure not to show the pictures of the crater to my wife,” Michael says. “I left her in Singapore for five days to tend to our sick cat; if she sees that I went travelling and got to see THIS, she’s going to be really angry.”
“Then again,” he muses, “she IS very beautiful when she’s angry…”
So much like this corner of Java, where the violence of the earth begets a landscape as beautiful as it is fierce.