Let’s say that every day you walk to work carrying two men on your back. On the way you hike up a mountain prone to landslides and toxic wildfires. You pass tourists who take photos of your torment. When you arrive at the office your boss hands you USD10 for your efforts. He says go back and bring me two more men tomorrow. You agree because if you don’t your family will starve. Beaten and weary that night you sleep at the office. God sleeps there, too, in the next room over. In the middle of the night the office explodes in a toxic inferno. You survive knowing god was angry that night. This is Monday. Tuesday will hopefully be better.
Almost anywhere in the world, this job would be labelled insane. But for sulfur miner Arifin, who works and sleeps in the highly active volcano Kawah Ijen, it’s simply part of the job. Arifin, 47, has spent all 26 years of his adult life here. He followed in his father’s footsteps. He’s seen many of his friends die over the years. More than 70 miners have perished since the mine opened in 1968. Killed by landslides, eruptions, inhaling toxic gas, being crushed by rocks, falling over cliffs or losing battles with chronic lung diseases. There are many ways nature finds to kill these men. So Ari and the other 300 miners ask a giant Hindu volcano god to protect them. They believe she dwells in the acid crater lake. They say when she gets angry, the volcano erupts.
Sleeping With God
“In this place we can say there is someone or something who is looking after Kawah Ijen. Like the spirit who lives in the lake, she’s called Mbah Ijen. We call her Grandma,” Ari says.
It’s little after midnight and Ari is in his makeshift tent, sandwiched between the mine and the crater lake. He sits on his bed made from logs with an old blanket for comfort. In one hand he holds a flame torch, the other a lit cigarette.
Ari says Grandma hears everything from the depths of the crater, as he nods outside the tent. In the pitch black the world’s largest lake of acid seethes yards away. It is the kilometer-wide, 200-meter deep turquoise jewel of Kawah Ijen, but Ari and the other miners wouldn’t dare swim here. Not if they want to keep their clothes and skin. Only Grandma can swim here.
Ari and the miners are all Muslim, but they worship Grandma as a Hindu mountain god who predates their own religion in this region of Java. These devout men of the mountain even have a volcano Imam, who every December leads a procession of miners into the crater. He slits a goat’s throat and tosses it into the lake for Grandma to feast on. A sacrifice of honor across religions.
Grandma has shown herself in many forms over the years. “Like this one time I saw footsteps. They were about two-to-three meters long,” Ari says, taking another long drag of his cigarette. Other times he wakes to the sound of children laughing and hitting drum barrels in the crater. Grandma likes to play tricks on him.
A few months ago, Ari was stirred awake by water splashing on his face and the sound of thunder. Stumbling outside his tent he looked skyward as a 25-meter geyser of acid water shot up from the heart of the lake and rained down onto his ramshackle tent. “I ran as fast as I could and climbed out of the crater,” he says.
Ari could speak all night about his narrow misses with Grandma’s anger. He’s been spared so far where others have been sacrificed.
Every two weeks Ari leaves Grandma, the sulfur mine and the crater to retreat down the volcano to the sanctuary of his other home – the remote village of Licin on the outskirts of Banuwangi, where the majority of the miners call home. For Ari, it’s a two week rest during which he can see his family, farm his friend’s rice field, enjoy showers, attend mosque and pray to his other god. But not tonight. Tonight he’s here with Grandma. He has work to do.
Dare To Die
It’s 2am and Arifin makes the short walk to the mine, his torch flame slicing through the blackness a few feet in front of him.
“We miners have our own saying we live by,” he says, arriving at the foot of three giant pipes, billowing white smoke into the night. “Dare to die, afraid to starve. Better I have a tough a job than my family starve.”
Living with death so close has forged an unbreakable brotherhood between the miners. As one of the head miners, Ari is seen as a father figure by the younger ones.
His job is one of the most crucial at Kawah Ijen, one that also means he must sleep in the crater to ensure it’s safe for the other miners. He maintains the mass expanse of cooling pipes that funnel the hot liquid sulfur down into the belly of the mine.
Shouts and whistles echo down the crater walls. The other miners, who sleep in a hut halfway down the volcano, have arrived at the crater rim, 800 meters above. Arifin whistles back and sets to work, disappearing into a cloud of toxic gas, the sound of his pickaxe clanging on hardened sulfur. Minutes later he emerges coughing uncontrollably and carrying his wicker basket on his shoulders laden with yellow sulfur.
Ari stands just five-and-a-half feet tall (168 cm) but has strength that perplexes the average person. As one of the strongest miners he can carry up to 130 kilograms of sulfur on his back straight out of the crater and three kilometers to the nearest weighing station. He’s rewarded with USD10 each day, if he carries a minimum of 90 kilograms of sulfur on his shoulders. It’s the highest paid job Ari can hope to earn in the region.
“Kawah Ijen is an exotic place for visitors, but for us it’s like hell,” Ari says.
It’s 3am and, as Ari and the other miners work, high above them a trail of tiny shimmering torchlights zigzag down the crater wall. Tourists, in their hundreds, are on their way down them.
Tourism to the mine really began in 2002, when a strange phenomenon started at Kawah Ijen. Blue fire began to burn in the crater. An anomaly caused by a combustion of sulfur gases sending blue flames up to five meters into the night. Tourism quickly ignited, too. First domestic, then foreign. Then in 2011 another foreign anomaly descended on the volcano: film crews. National Geographic, The BBC, and Al Jazeera have all filmed documentaries here, bringing Kawah Ijen into living rooms around the world. One US travel show host even paddled a dinghy out onto the crater lake to see if it would sink. The curiosity of armchair tourists was well and truly piqued.
Tourism today in high season has rocketed, with up to 1,500 visitors a day making the midnight hike to the crater. Everyone wants to see the beautiful deadly beast up close. Today, it can seem like a circus in the crater. Tourists jostle to get photos of the miners as they work, and to try lift their heavy sulfur baskets, paying the miners a few rupiah for the pleasure.
Ari says he “loves the tourists”, that they bring him extra income, and that many sleep at miners’ homestays. But it’s been a tainted lifeline recently as increasing tourism is also putting him in danger. In recent weeks Ari almost died when a tourist knocked him while he was carrying his sulfur basket. He was sent hurtling into the void over a cliff. He fell 10 meters onto an overhang, broke his leg and was knocked unconscious. Nature and tourism are trying to kill him. He bears scars from the incident. He’s not mad at the tourist. He just feels lucky to be alive.
“Tourists must learn to understand the miners and situation and let us work,” Ari says. “They must follow the rules and move out of our way. They do that, and we welcome them here,” he says.
First light has just broken as Ari begins the long hike up the crater wall, carrying close to 100 kilograms of sulfur in his basket. The steep narrow path is lined the whole way by tourists carrying cameras and selfie sticks, which glint in the early morning sunlight.
The camera has changed the dynamic here, too, in recent years. Tourists are going to extreme lengths to get photos at Ijen. Some take selfies standing on the edge of the crater rim, inches away from the a 800-meter fall into the world’s most acidic lake. Little do they know that the volcanic rock they stand on is like putty to the touch. It’s highly unstable. The volcano has made tourists pay with their lives for their obsession with her, with an unverified number having fallen to their deaths.
“The tourists must be careful when they come here. They don’t understand it’s not just for their safety. If one dies, then the mine closes,” Ari says, taking a rest halfway up the crater. “That means all the miners can’t make money while it’s closed. Their safety is important for all of us.”
Ari’s day ends weighing his sulfur and collecting payment. The average 14 tons of sulfur mined each day is then driven away in trucks and shipped all over Asia to places Ari and the other miners have never been – Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur.
The shampoo you washed your hair with or skin lotion you applied today, instead of a brand name, they may as well say, “Dare to die, afraid to starve.” They are laced with sulfur.
Fight for the future
It’s 6am the next morning and Ari is working his friend’s rice field, sloshing around in knee-deep water with his hoe in hand. In the distance, a few kilometers away, Kawah Ijen keeps watch over him. Grandma waits for him to return.
Ari’s father and his youngest boy, Yoga, age 5, sit close by under the shade of a palm tree watching him work. His other boy, Guava, 21, is in the volcano, where he works as a tourist guide. Kawah Ijen won’t let Ari’s family stray far from her grip.
Ari passes time while he works in the field thinking of ways to keep Yoga away from her clutches. Ask Ari what his dreams for the future are and he doesn’t hesitate.
“For me life is a fight for the future. I want to send my children to school, to get the best education I can afford. That’s the most important. That is my dream,” he says.
Ari will retire from the mine in seven years, when he reaches 55 and will be eligible for a pension. He dreams that, when he does, his family’s legacy at the mine will end.
Until then he has to share his dreams with Grandma. The beautiful deadly beast.