Monday, December 23, 2013

The Amount of Crazy to Get to the Blue Flames of Kawah Ijen

Below is a photo from Kawah Ijen in East Java, Indonesia. This volcanic crater lake, found at an elevation of 2,800 meters above sea level, has become an odd tourist attraction because of its open sulfur mine. Trekking up here in the cold of night, we saw miners extracting the sulfur from the crater walls by lighting them on fire. It burned bright blue as the sulfur melted away. Quite the sight.

Kawah Ijen, East Java, Indonesia
The otherworldly blue flames of the open sulfur mine in Kawah Ijen of East Java

It was not easy getting this photo. Let me tell you. Can I indulge a bit? Alright then.

Almost Scammed

From the cool and pleasant city of Malang, we took a bus to Probolinggo. There, we were to take a bus to Bondowoso, the jump-off point to Kawah Ijen. Right before arriving at Probolinggo's bus terminal, we were almost dropped off to a tour agency whom I knew right away to be a scammer. I had read a travel blog earlier warning travelers of that same tour agency. I guess this tour operator and the bus conductor were often in cahoots to dupe tourists. I was glad we stood our ground there. As the bus moved forward, a fellow bus passenger flashed us a thumbs-up sign in approval of our refusal to be duped. Proud moment.

One-dollar Bus Scam

In Probolinggo's bus terminal, we argued with sketchy bus conductors regarding the fare of the non-AC, jam-packed bus. Included in the ride were peddlers and musicians performing along the bus aisle asking for loose change. Some even had mics and speaker systems with them. Unlucky us, it was the only bus going to Bondowoso that day. Refusing to pay, we were almost thrown out. In the end, we each coughed up 3 USD, only a dollar more than what we knew the correct fare was. Quite the unnecessary commotion for one buck. And quite a painful five-hour bus ride.

Language Barrier

When we arrived in Bondowoso, we headed to Hotel Baru, recommended by a fellow traveler in Malang for its Kawah Ijen tour. Problem was nobody at the hotel spoke English. The hotel staff, every one of them, just kept speaking to us in Bahasa, which wasn't their problem, of course. This was small town Indonesia. It was we who had to adapt. Finally, I called a friend, a Bondowoso local, who was hosting me for the Eid al-Fitr celebrations to ask her to come and translate for us. She said she'd see us in a few minutes. Being hungry all day, we headed to Hotel Baru's cafeteria while waiting.

Scary Blue Lady

We were eating when my host arrived. She explained that she knew another tour operator whom she trusted to take us to Kawah Ijen and back safely. Just then, a middle-aged woman in bright blue abaya and her entourage came barging in accusing my host of poaching her business. The woman was the tour operator for Hotel Baru and as can be expected, she was fuming with eyes all scary, wide-open, and fixated on us. A lot of shouting, threats, and finger pointing ensued that I knew I had to get up and try to break up the fight. Finally, we decided to just get the bill for our unfinished food and get the hell out of there. Boy, that escalated quickly.

Lady Boy Hijab Model

My host then took us to the outdoor set of a just concluded fashion show for her hijab collection. (I know! That's a thing!) The predominantly female crew was already packing up, but upon seeing the blue-eyed pretty boys I was doing the Kawah Ijen tour with (one looked like an un-douchey Justin Bieber, the other a young Mark Wahlberg), the girls went crazy. A lot of giggling, screaming, and phone cameras were involved.

Just then, a slender kid in full abaya, whom I quickly knew to be a lady boy, came up to me and asked for my number. I was flattered. And weirded out. I mean, Justin Bieber and Mark Wahlberg were right there! Unfortunately, I did not reciprocate whatever impulse made the kid approach me. Still, I gave my local number, but it ultimately became useless when I left Indonesia a couple of days later. I'm sure s/he'll move on and find someone better.

Shifty Weather

After only two hours of sleep in my host's place, we drove out into the dead of night up into the mountains of Kawah Ijen. We got there and right away started trekking on foot. The trek up to Kawah Ijen and down to the crater lake took a little more than an hour. Being an open sulfur mine, the smoke from the burning sulfur filled the air. It reeked like rotten eggs, and the fumes scratched the throat and stung the eyes.

Unfortunately for us, the winds that night shifted every way possible. One minute, you could see 10 meters in front of you. The next, not even a meter. Assuming, of course, you could still open your eyes given the potency of the fumes. Did I mention it was still dark? Finally, I just had to settle on a spot and wait it out, hoping to get at least one good shot. Thankfully, I did. And a few more, too.

Kawah Ijen, East Java, Indonesia
One of the few rare seconds when I got a clear shot of the surreal blue flames of Kawah Ijen sulfur minnes

Kawah Ijen, East Java, Indonesia
The white-out caused by shifty winds during our trek to Kawah Ijen

Kawah Ijen, East Java, Indonesia
As much crazy as we had to endure, what's crazier is the work that the miners of Kawah Ijen do round the clock. Once the sulfur solidifies, the miners carry them from the crater lake, up the crater lip, and then down the mountain, 40 to 50 kilos on their shoulders per trip. That is just unbelievable.

It was all very surreal when we found ourselves outside Ketapang Port a few hours later. My travel companions were headed for Bali while I was heading back to Bondowoso for the Eid al-Fitr celebrations. I just had to ask myself if all that—the scams, the shouting, the giggling, the lady boy, the noxious fumes—if all that happened within the last 24 hours. And I guess they did. They really did.

What is the craziest 24 hours you have ever had in your travels?

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