James Versus the Volcano

Our alarm clock went off at 3:45 am. Christian had called a 4:00 orientation before our 4:30 departure to hike up the volcano. Since a light breakfast of fruit, toast, and coffee was being served during our meeting, there was really nothing we needed to do to get ready beforehand. There was no way I was taking a cold bucket shower before we left for instance- it had dropped into the upper 50s overnight. Christian wanted to share some safety precautions with us as we would be hiking into a “red zone” where most people were not allowed to venture. In addition to our group, there was a French couple and four Singaporean girls making the trek that morning as well. The streets of Kaliurang were dark and deserted as we walked its back alleyways on the way to Merapi National Park. Under cover of darkness, there wasn’t a lot to see in the park initially- we just felt our way along the best we could as we began our ascent. The goal was to reach an ideal vantage point on the slopes of the volcano in order to watch the sunrise. Within an hour of leaving the hostel, we found ourselves gathered on the slopes to see the sun come up. It was a beautiful sight! It rose just over the villages that dotted the valley which had borne the brunt of the 2010 eruption. Christian described to us what happened during the that eruption- how the Indonesian government would like to expand the boundaries of the National Park but villagers are settled on much of the land that would be used for this purpose. When the evacuation order went out in 2010, many of the villagers stayed put- suspecting that the government would use the opportunity to seize their land. Christian said that a number of villagers told him, “we were born in this village and we plan to die here as well.” Many did just that.

After the sun came up, it was much easier to see where we were walking. This was definitely a good thing, since the trail now took us steeply up a slope over a series of fallen trees. At the top of one ridge, we found the remnants of a watchtower that was destroyed in the last eruption. The tower now amounted to a twisted pile of metal, hardly recognizable for what it once was. Further on, we discovered a covered picnic area made of cement. Like the tower, this enclosure was lying on its side and was broken beyond repair. From here, we descended into a narrow canyon which had contained the main lava flows. Christian told us that the hardened flows that we then followed upward dated from 1872, one of the largest eruptions on record. Before that, the eruption of 1006 is thought to have covered the entire island of Java in ash and may have contributed to the downfall of the kingdom which had built Prambanan. Christian believed that the igneous rock created by the flows possessed some kind of restorative power- he attributed his vigor and longevity to the fact that he makes a pilgrimage to Merapi almost every day. When we reached a certain point, he had us all take off our shoes and walk on the flows in order to share in this rejuvenation.

We would need some added strength in order to venture into the red zone of the volcano. One of the rules we had gone over in orientation was that, if Christian told us to run, we were to run like crazy. Upon reaching a tree with a big red X painted on its trunk, Christian reached down to turn on his radio as well as his portable seismometer. He had told us previously that he would have to radio in to check conditions before we ventured into this area, but we never saw him actually do so. We wondered if we were even supposed to be in this area at all. Before 2010, groups were occasionally given permission to hike all the way to the summit, but lately the government had been erring on the side of caution. In the end, we didn’t stay for long in the red zone and Christian’s electronic devices stayed mercifully silence the entire time we were there. Soon, our trail led through a stand of trees that were marked in red on their far sides and we knew we were back in relative safety once again.

I was pleased that we took a different way back to Kaliurang than we had taken to get to the red zone. We followed the rim of the canyon past where we had originally descended from the ex-picnic area and then crested a small rise that led to a wide path which returned us to civilization. Back at the hostel, we ate “second breakfast”, a meal that, like the first breakfast, was also included in the $15/person cost of the tour. It was only 10:30 am by that point but we felt that we had experienced a whole day’s worth of activity. I was curious about the chocolate and cheese pancakes that were featured on the menu. I reasoned that they probably included cream cheese in the crepe-like creations, not grated cheese, of course. I was wrong. I choked down the disgusting combination the best I could. Since the bus for Jogja reportedly left once an hour on the hour, we had to wait until the noon bus to make our way down from Kaliurang. The bus, as it turns out, arrived closer to 12:20 and then proceeded to take forever to reach Jogja. I’m not sure the driver ever stepped on the gas peddle- he may have just coasted down the hill all the way to town. In addition, we stopped and idled at a number of locations, presumably waiting for new customers, but few came. It took us more than an hour to make the same trip that had taken 40 minutes the previous day.

This must have been my day to have my patience tested. As soon as we arrived on the edge of town, I decided to change some money before heading to our next hostel. I went into Bank Negara Indonesia and took a number. Do you ever spend a really long time waiting for something but then don’t want the time you spent waiting to be in vain so you keep waiting and waiting? That’s what happened at BNI. After 45 minutes, my number was finally called and I went through 15 more minutes changing USD into rupiah. We finally hopped a bus for Malioboro Street and told them we wanted off at the main post office. While I didn’t have any more leeches to mail, Christian had told us to turn right at the post office and walk until just before we reached the Winongo River, the brand new EDU Hostel could be found along the eastern bank of the river just north of where we would be at that point.

The hostel was very nice- I have stayed in a lot of hostels in my day and this had to have been among the better ones. The girls were assigned a room on a woman’s floor, while Zach and I were in a room with four bunk beds on a men’s floor. The only disadvantage of this arrangement is that we had no way of contacting the girls if they were in their room, since our keys wouldn’t even let us onto their floor. Later, after we had showered and rested some, we walked up the street the hostel was on to find some dinner. If I have one thing to say about Jalan Letnan Jenderal Suprapto street, it’s that the most interesting thing about it is its name. We finally found a restaurant serving Indonesian food buffet style- so we went with it. What most excited us was the large container on the table filled with krupuk! On the walk back, we decided to stop at a bakery which specialized in brownies for dessert. You could order a number of toppings on your brownie- chocolate chips, banana, coconut, and cheese. What is the deal about chocolate and cheese in Indonesia? In the end, we opted to split a large plain one.

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