Friday, April 24, 2009

Turquoise Lake

I was not prepared to collect a story like that during my trip to Indonesia, but I am glad I walk with Suleiman the miner, on the way down to the turquoise lake.

Strating Point

After our Mont Bromo expedition, we were waiting for the local bus to pick us up to go to Bali and its well deserved beaches, when the tour operator started talking about the plateau. He did warn us about the beautifulness of the place but did not mention at all the collective effort (or pain) shared by the miners in the dangerous sulfuric habitat. He just said that it was the most beautiful place in the region and we could walk on the same path as the miners. He also mentioned that they were doing a hard work and he would not want to do this type of job himself. Well … there are so many jobs I don’t want to do myself, I though it was one of them … but I never imagine to be so close to the (re)action of the pain of work that I saw that day.

Ijen Plateau

The next morning, we started at the end of a peaceful misty road, early in the morning as usual in this grandiose land of the majestic actives volcanoes. It seems that people in East Java enjoy waking up at 3 AM to start their day at 5 AM. Not sure why they are so set on the Japanese time zone … but anyway our driver left us at 6ish at the feet of the trail and wished us a good luck that should had been taken more carefully.

Yellow dots on the trail

The pleasant walk across the forest only lasted a merely three minutes, and the trail changed suddenly into an abrupt trek that I can only imagine Nepalese would delight themselves over a cup of tea early in the morning.


I was walking at the best of my capacities crossing sporadically groups of miners, with flip flops on their feet and empty baskets on their shoulder. They usually asked for a cigarette or small cash in exchange of a picture or a smile. My poor physical condition did not allow me to follow their steps. They never waited for me and jumped right back to their early exercise, living me behind fighting with the extra pounds that I carry around my belly for quite some months now.

Sweat & Swearing

Laughs from around the corner gave me some hope that the end of my morning exercice was coming to an end soon, but the small hut was in fact a stop over on the way down the hill for carriers to weight their loads. Carriers were making a stop and exchanged their loads, smoking a cigarette or discussing over a splash of water. 75 kilos on average was what they were caring on their shoulder. More or less my weight (if only these extra pounds …) and half my size.

Digging the mineral with a cloth in the mouth

The smell of the yellow sulfuric stones was everywhere along the trail, and it was not long before we could finally see the top of mountain. Like magic, trees move out of the way to let me contemplate a large greenish lake at the bottom of a smoky yellow crater. The early morning light was reflecting on the surface of the lake as well as dancing trough the smoky cloud coming from the crater. The scenery was wild and impressive.

The Supervisor

Suleiman was singing along the way to his destination when I met him. He stopped over and started engaging the conversation, showing me his atrophied shoulder muscle, his scar from a previous day way back in time and explaining me his daily routine: three back and forth, starting at 6 in the morning and finishing at dark, even if it rains.

Human dots in the fume

On top of the volcano he pulled me on the side and explained me what everyone was doing. The yellow moving dots on the trail were in reality the carriers who pull out of the mine over 70 kilos each time of raw sulfuric mineral. You also have the digger who breaks the mineral in the sulfuric mist with his hand and a piece of cloth in his mouth for only protection against the killer fume. And you have the boss who watches everyone.

Even smaller human dots

That was Suleiman who showed me the best place to watch the smoke coming out from the bottom of the volcano, who lead the way on the path down and who translated the joked about this crazy foreigners who want to see the entrance of Hell.

Sulfuric lake

Right at the bottom of the volcano, close to the green lake, looking at the yellow mountain was dangerous yet fascination for me. I could not stop myself shooting pictures trying to get closer and closer to the fuming action. The sulfuric mist which sometimes was eating alive all human form and sometime spilling them out, had golden reflection on the lake and made me thing of a live animal with which the miners were fighting against.

Walk back

During a few minutes, the lake opened itself under my eyes, delivering a loud and sunny panoramic view, melting acidic greens, yellows and blues all together. My fascination for the aesthetic of the scene was at its maximum, I could not let go my camera.

Why is it that the most dangerous jobs have to be in the most beautiful places?

From atop

The walk back was even more painful, and I could measure the exact amount pain the place was taking away from them for each step forward they were making. The volcano was echoing all the swearing that the Suleimans of the plateau were throwing at each other to give themselves strength and courage, and also a sense of purpose why they were doing all of these for a merely U$20 a day.

Panoramic view

His name is Suleiman from Indonesia, a sulfur miner at Ijen Plateau. They are hundred of thousand like him across the planet. His name could have been Pedro, a silver miner at Potosi in Bolivia, or John, a daemon miner in Liberia or even Silva, a gold miner in Brazil.

I am glad I spend some time with one of them, on the way down to the yellow lake.