Highlights of Java:
- Two successful volcano climbs.
- One unsuccessful volcano climb.
- A sulphur mine in one volcano crater.
- Unhealthy amounts of volcanic gas resulting in violent coughing and burning eyes.
- Singing Sweet Home Alabama to an assembly of an entire girls Muslim high school.
- Doing laundry. (Yes, laundry is a highlight in my life right now)
I reached my fourth Indonesian island after a nice ferry ride from Bali and landed in Banyuwangi. This surprisingly cool little city is one of the jumping off points to Kawah Ijen, a world famous active volcano. I didn't get a chance to do to much exploring, but Banyuwangi had a nice city center with a huge park, market, lots of street food, and a big mosque. The park was awesome. It had a huge rock climbing wall and some bouldering walls, basketball court, skate park, and soccer fields. Maybe I was just there at the right time, but people were out, food was cooking, kids were playing, and everyone was having a good time. Maybe some kind of event was going on; maybe it was just the weekend. I actually don't know if it was the weekend or not. I actually rarely know what day it is.
I try my best to do all my adventures independently. No tour groups. No guide. Go at my own pace. Find my own way. Carry my own things. It's been pretty easy. I'm usually in a relatively touristy area, locals see me and they try to get me to buy tours and guides for all kinds of things. I just talk to a few of them until I find someone who will give me a ride to where I need to be with none of the extras, even though they keep trying to push the extras the entire time. They are persistent, but almost always still friendly and helpful. I arrived at Banyuwangi too late to figure out my own way to Ijen, so I had to book my first tour which included transportation to Ijen and back, a guide up and down the mountain, a gas mask, a flashlight, a tour of a coffee plantation, and a trip to a waterfall. The only thing I needed was the transportation, but what can you do?
The journey started at 12:30am when our group met to pile into three vehicles and drove the hour and a half up a very rough and winding road to the base of Ijen. On the way back we only had two vehicles, and I'm pretty sure we added a person. No idea what happened there, but it didn't surprise me in the least. One advantage of tour groups is that it's easy to meet people. I enjoyed everyone in our group. I met a fellow traveler from New Zealand, who shared my view on tours - along with many other subjects ranging from career choices to food and so much in between. So when we got our entrance tickets from our guide, Michael - although that can't actually be his name, we took off into the park and never looked back. Lost our group and our guide immediately. We were not upset about this. The path is easy and obvious. Plus there are a few hundred other people there to show you the way. We got into the crater before the largest group of tourists made it down and found a great spot for sunrise on the opposite side of the crater rim where it wasn't too crowded. Maybe we should be guides.
Kawah Ijen is famous for its blue flames and sulphur mining. Here's some science on the subject from a legit source. Kawah Ijen
As you hike down the crater in the middle of the night the smell of sulphur gets stronger. You can smell it through the gas mask. You can see blue flames flickering like a small candle far away. Closer still you can see the smoke cloud rising up from a small spot in the mountain below you. When the wind is right and the smoke clears you can see a weird yellow stain on the mountain. When you reach the bottom you are in such a crazy place. Being down there is like being on another planet. It is absolutely like nothing I have ever experienced, and it is impossible to compare to anything else.
First thing - stay out of the smoke cloud. Everybody knows this feeling. It's like sitting around a campfire. The smoke is usually in one direction but can change suddenly. It's kind of annoying. It's a little more annoying when the smoke is escaping volcanic gases. When the wind changes, the cloud engulfs you quickly. You just get low, close your eyes, try to breath as little as possible, and wait it out. Or you run like hell.
Secondly - the colors. Blue flames. Yellow rocks. The sulphur covers everything around in a thin layer of yellow dust. When you shine a light around it seems to glow. The colors are amazing, at least when you can see through the smoke and you're not suffocating.
Third - the weird mix of miners and tourists. There are local miners who are down there trying to work. They have handmade baskets that they use to haul up to 200 pounds of sulphur up 1,000 ft out of the crater. They make a couple trips down into the crater each day. They must get annoyed with all the tourists there. I would be. If I had a job. And tourist were in the way of it. There are no rules down in the crater. You can go right up to where the sulphur is being mined and break a piece off to take home with you. Just try to stay out of the way of the miners, who are sometimes not even wearing gas masks, and their rebar for breaking off large chunks of sulphur. I know they are annoyed when they are carrying 200 pounds of sulphur on their shoulder and they have to wait for a young lady who is very slowly trying to climb her first mountain and documenting it with selfies the entire way. Or maybe that was just me.
The sunrise view from the crater rim was pretty great. Again, it looked like a completely different world. There was little to no vegetation, the whole mountain was covered in a crusty soil, it is all gray except for that yellow spot, there are very defined water erosion marks, and there is a crater lake that is an unnatural looking blue color. So cool.
From Ijen I was off to my next volcano, but I had an unexpected pit stop on the way. I was trying to sleep on the five hour bus ride to Probolinggo, partly because I woke up at 12:30am and partly so I didn't have to keep giving money to the constantly revolving group of musicians jumping on and off the bus playing guitar, when a curious young girl sat next to me. Her name was Silvia and she spoke English quite well. She was smart, talkative, friendly, and seemed much older than she was. Within two minutes of meeting me she invited me to stay with her and her family for the night. I had no place to stay yet and experiencing life with the locals is the best way to learn about a place, of course I immediately said yes. Indonesians have been so friendly and such gracious hosts.
We had a good night with dinner and conversation. Silvia is eager to learn English better, although she is one of the best English speaking locals I've met in Indonesia. She invited me to her school the next morning. I was in a hurry to climb two more volcanos in the next four day before I left the country, but of course I couldn't turn down her invitation. And I'm so glad I didn't because it was such a cool and unique experience.
We arrived at school the next morning. There were about 100 girls all gathered in the central area of school doing their daily morning prayers. They told me to wait as they prepared. They were very worried about what they were going to do to prepare for the foreigner. I felt nervous. I wasn't exactly sure what they expected from me, and I wanted to make a good impression and be a good ambassador. Like all of America was counting on me. Don't worry Obama. I think I did alright.
I did go well actually. I ended up having a lot of fun. Silvia translated for me. Maybe she just made me sound better than I actually did. It was really cool to be able to stand in front of a whole group of young people and talk about travel, learning, cultures, and religion. I don't know how much I was understood. At one point they just wanted me to sing. They requested Katy Perry or Justin Bieber. I went with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Of course lots of photos were taken and everybody was happy. Eventually they had to kick me out so people could actually learn.
I hopped in a large van going to Cemoro Lawang about 11:30am knowing I needed to climb Mount Bromo and make my way to Ranupani that same day. It was actually very doable and would have been really easy had I not made one dumb decision. More on that later but first Mount freakin Bromo.
The "hike" is really not much at all, but the view, the sound, the whole experience once again left me feeling like I have no idea how this planet works. It was such a different place. You learn about volcanos and geology and science and the layers of the earth in school from elementary to college. But being right there on the rim of a volcano that is ROARING from a hole in the mountain just below while smoke is pouring out just left me speechless. Throw out all the college level geology lectures and the elementary school science fair model volcanos. Actually being there and seeing it will blow your mind. I was seriously concerned that this thing was about to explode like every doomsday end of the world movie you've ever seen. Those sci-fi movies don't seem so sci-fi to me anymore.
And the area surrounding Mount Bromo was just as fascinating. Bromo is surrounded by the Sea of Sand, an immense flat desert looking area. The whole area looks like Mars, but a little less red. Surrounding the Sea of Sand is the crater wall. So Bromo, the Sea of Sand, and this entire Mars looking environment are inside one HUGE crater. Standing on the crater rim at one end, you can't even see the other side. Indonesia amazes again.
My next stop was Semeru, another active volcano and the tallest point on the island of Java. Leo and Alex, my French friends from Rinjani, wanted me to climb Semeru and see if the French flag they planted on top was still there. By this time I was very curious myself and wanted to go find this flag. The two day climb to Semeru's summit starts in Ranupani. Ranupani is a small village located about 11 miles from Cemoro Lawang, where you go to visit Mount Bromo. This is when I made the decision that I came to regret pretty quickly. I decided to walk to Ranupani. So I left the fiery Mount Bromo and set out for the other side of the crater, across the Sea of Sand. (Sounds like a movie, right? A bad one at least.)
I proudly passed up several offers from motorbike taxis for rides. It was nice out - until I got just out of range of the taxis. Then it started to rain. Slowly at first. So I continued. Then harder. I had gone too far. Nothing to do but keep going. I ended up walking 3 hours in steady rain. No trees for protection. It was wet. It was muddy. It was uphill. It was downhill. It was cold. It was foggy. And by the end, it was dark. I should have taken the lift, buy hey, I saved $5.
I arrived at the only joint in town. The only bed they had available was way overpriced. I tried to look pathetic, which was my normal look at the moment since I was soaking wet and shivering, and remark about how high the price was and ask for other options. In the end I was too cold and tired to argue over price with someone who doesn't speak the same language. That's exhausting enough when you are dry and rested. Just a fail all the way around, but that'll happen sometimes when you're on the road for so long.
I wasn't too upset about the hiking in the rain and the overpriced bed. I've been there and done that before. What made me really regret this decision was the next day. A lot of my clothes were still pretty wet. They wouldn't dry because it was still foggy and drizzling on and off all night and the next morning. I waited as long as possible, and the weather cleared for a minute before the mountain was engulfed in clouds again and it started spitting. If I had a fresh start at the mountain that day with dry clothes, boots, and gear, I would have made a run at it. But with wet clothes that I knew would not dry and only a hammock and bivvy for the cold night, I made the executive decision to let Mother Nature win this one. Sometimes she's a bitch, but you gotta respect her.
So instead I spent the next two nights laying in a plush bed in a fancy hotel watching movies, eating, and enjoying hot showers and air conditioning. You win some, you lose some. But if this is losing, I'll be alright.