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Kaliurang and Merapi

We were four friends: teachers gathered from all over the United States in order to teach at the Universitas Atma Jaya in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. And despite differing backgrounds and differing personalities, we all got along with each other so well we were able to share a few adventures together. Scaling Mount Merapi was one of them.

At 2950m, Mount Merapi (“the mountain that blows fire”) is one hell of a volcanic peak, and though it was calm other than the occasional rumble the entire time I lived in Indonesia, it erupted five months after I left Indonesia. It has gone on to blow its top several times since then, destroyed dozens of villages and hundreds of lives, and generally lived up to its name: eruptions in 2006 and 2010 killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands. It's essentially in a state of continuous eruption or activity. During the two years I’d learned about Indonesia and studied Bahasa, I’d come to understand Indonesians almost without exception are born, live, and die within sight of a volcano. Merapi, which dominates the northern skyline of Yogyakarta, would be mine in 1993 and 1994.

It was an early Saturday morning when we set out, gathering along the rumbling “Jalan Ring Road” intersection to catch a mini-bus up the mountain. We’d take that bus dozens of times more as the mountain town of Kaliurang became a sort of refuge from the lowland heat for us. Clawing its way upward through myriad farming villages we passed huge stands of tropical forest, a bit of upland rice, and shared the road with oxen and water buffalo towing enormous carts, and buzzy, 100cc motorcycles shuttling people back and forth. At the top, the road opened to Kaliurang, some sort of chilly Shangri-La. There we slept in an old building that still bore the hallmarks of the Dutch era, including casement windows that opened to images of the highlands. Somewhere just obscured by clouds, loomed Merapi’s peak.

In Indonesia you scale mountains in the pre-dawn, when the air is still cool and before the day’s billowing clouds have obscured the summit or brought rain. We hiked by the light of a flashlight, up a trail that started broad and gradually narrowed, climbing over boulders, around massive tree trunks, along slopes pulled clear by torrential rains of days past. The night hiking was disorienting: no matter how hard you try you almost immediately lose track of time and distance. Despite the cool night air, the exertion brings rivulets of sweat down into your eyes; your heart pounds. The shadows leap at you, the sky overhead is mostly obscured. Only many hours later do you finally emerge at some sort of escarpment where the remnants of a slight volcanic cave - almost certainly blown away by now in the recent eruptions - allow a moment to watch the sun rise. But Merapi continues upward.

The map we were using, courtesy of our losmen (boarding house), was poor at best. But it made clear the last step was traversing fields of sharp rock and black sands before summiting the volcanic cone itself. Given the quality of our equipment, we opted to climb just to the far end and a bit past the treeline before calling it quits. Had we continued, Merapi's violent, volcanic maw remained another two hours' scramble straight upward. We shared a can of tinned fruit, took pictures of each other, gazed out at Java laid out beneath us. Amazingly, from Merapi, you can easily discern several other peaks queuing in each direction, the length of Java. Already, mist was gathering into clouds, obscuring these volcanic giants’ feet. Time to head back down.

The way up a volcano is aerobic, as each step takes you higher and the cost of your legs’ strength. But the way down taxes your joints, as you pound your way down, down, down, back across black sand and muddy trail and deep forest and sharp fields of volanic rock. It’s quite probably the more painful half of the hike. It took many hours, but finally we were back at Kaliurang, which beckoned like a Nepalese hilltown with promises of cold drinks and warm food and a change of footwear, a warm window sill on which to read books, and a brief respite before the mini-bus carried us down another 1500 or so meters to the ‘real world’ of Yogyakarta, employment, and responsibility.

It's one thing to hear about a volcanic eruption that has spewed lava and ash and threatened the lives of hundreds of poor villagers. But to know you've visited those villages and maybe smiled at children who are now potentially displaced, injured, or buried in volcanic ash and hot lava is another thing altogether. In Indonesia I learned you enjoy life because death is never far off, and rather than fearing it you ensure the present is worth living.


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