What the Volcano Knows

The volcano knows I am hot and tired. And it knows I am afraid. This grumbling thing, spewing smoke thick as winter fog, its sulfurous gases stinging my eyes and burning my nose. But it knows too, that in spite of my fear, I am drawn to follow the path scarred into the gray rock by its ancient molten lava, behind us clouds hanging low over the valley, ahead a steep incline to its fiery lip. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The “Sea of Sand”

I didn’t start out so determined. But look at it there in the distance. Mount Bromo. How could a person resist walking across the Lautan Pasir, that ‘Sea of Sand’ stretching from its base? The cauldron- like expanse contains a number of active and dead volcanic mountains, only a few jeep tracks and scrubby shrubs to break it up.

The volcano wizards stop tourists at the nearby mountain village of Cemoro Lawang if the science says an eruption is imminent. Or so we’re told. But my sister and I, self-described intrepid Canadian dorks, see only Tenggerese horsemen with their small hardy mounts offering us a ride we must surely want. And jeep owners peering seductively over their knockoff Ray-bans tempting us to roar off with them.

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Tenggerese horsemen

Not easily seduced by men in balaclavas (protection from the sulfur and dust), we choose the forty-five minute walk. Down the steep grade of a hill shaded by jungle trees, down and down and out onto the sun-baked lava sea where a lone man schilling peanuts and lizard-skinned salak fruit makes his way toward us, smiling broadly and encouraging us to buy his wares. Wilma dubs him the Bedouin peanut man, and we walk, our clothes and skin darkening with the fine ash kicked up by an increasing wind. The salak is a surprising blend; firm like apple, sweet like coconut.

Salak fruit

It’s hard to describe such a place. Desolate, beautiful, stark, impressive; a scene of intensity, a record of the power of the elements. There’s a reason the volcano is considered a god to many Javanese who still make annual pilgrimages to throw offerings of flowers, and rice, plastic garlands and hand written poems into the mouth of the beast.

Looking back

And no mistake, Bromo sounds like a beast. As we approach its base, the low grumbling becomes a freight train’s roar, now distant, now near, a great belching and then a murmur. Alive. And perhaps not too happy about it. It gives us pause, but we are here, we can’t stop, the last thirty meters an incline so steep we haul ourselves up by clinging to a handrail built alongside stone steps slippery with years of ash and feet.

And the summit. A small rail reaches only to the knees, one slip and we’d tumble into the yellow crater, its mouth an abyss deep into the earth. I am stunned out of fear by its raw beauty; the power, the sound, the force of it. But somehow, despite all its intensity, it no longer feels malevolent. Looking down into the bowels of the earth, I recognize Mount Bromo has no agenda, no desires, no need for our adoration or worhsip. It just is. And I am. Puny beside its growling immensity, but less afraid because none of it is personal. It knows nothing of me, cares less. I am simply irrelevant, a fact that becomes strangely comforting, instantly humbling. And that, perhaps, is the only thing both the volcano and I will ever need to know.

Back from the Brink

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