Sokerman, my friend from the volcano
A moment lived in Indonesia by Maxime, a traveller from France
It took us a day to ride from the south of Bali to the south of Java. Whilst I lived in Bali, I had the impression to arrive in a new country. I felt like being home; but a different home.
After a short night, we took the road in the direction of the Kawa Ijen.The road went through the coffee plantations, then a dense rain forest with huge tree ferns. The road was more than bumpy, and the mud – gift from the previous tropical rain – didn’t simplify the ride. More than once we had to get out of our motorbike and push it uphill.Parked at the entrance of the National Park, the walk starts.
After an hour of climbing the steps, we finally were out of the forest that covers the volcano sides and approached the top. No more lush vegetation around us, only stones and some dead trees that have been burned by the acid rain. With the first lights of the day, the landscape that surrounded us seemed to be otherworldly… A smog was covering the path ahead; on the right side, the volcano wall clear, with only a few burned tree trunks. On the left, a steep slope until the bottom of the caldera where a lake has formed.This lake, with its chemical and unreal blue colour, is actually the most acid lake in the world. At the bottom of the slope there was a hut; near there, a huge column of white and thick smoke spiralling towards the sky.
We were sitting on the side of the path, flabbergasted by the infernal beauty of this view when a creaking sound, as regular as a metronome, seemed to get closer to us.From the way coming out of the caldera we saw him: walking fast, on the rhythm of the creaking, his body bent under the weight of the bambu sticks that he was carrying on his shoulder. A basket hung on each end of the sick; full of yellow and smelly stalactites: sulfur.From his face, we only saw his smiling eyes; the rest was hidden by a cap and a scarf. Coming next to us, he said hi and sit with us. That’s how I met Sokerman.
We stayed there for a while, chatting and sharing some food. He then offered to lead us downhill until the camp next to the huge column of smoke.
The way to go downhill was steeper, more slippery and dangerous than expected. The drizzle coming in this early morning didn’t help us, nor did the remarks of our guide that punctuated our path with “be careful, someone fell down here and died”.
Once we were in the caldera we passed next to the hut where someone was asleep and went closer to the smoke.
Suddenly the wind changed and the smoke came on to us. The air was then full of toxic gas, burning my lungs. Squatting, trying to get some fresh air near the ground, Sokerman came to help me to get out of the toxic cloud, before disappearing into it, with a crowbar. He returned one minute later, the arms full of hot sulfur stalactites.
With the smoke blowing uphill and the rain getting stronger, this was not the best moment to leave, so we decided to go into the hut and wait for a more appropriate time to climb.In the hunt, around a fire, we talked about our lives, becoming more and more aware of the differences between our lives.Sokerman was 40, working in the volcano since he was 12. Twice a day, six times a week, his job was to go down and snatch some sulfur from the toxic heart of the mountain. In total, around 60 men were doing this “job”.
The sulfur, bought 500 rupiah per kilo by a company, was used to refine sugar beet, make matches and also denim.Taking a total of 100 kilos allows him to get $5 per day, which allows him to feed his family and pay for the studies of his son.The job is extremely hard. Sokerman’s shoulders and back were distorted by the weight of his baskets and every single laugh followed by a coughing fit. However, Sokerman never complained about his life.
He told us a bit about the man that was asleep. This post is offered by the company to the men that are now too weak to carry the baskets: the “firemen”. They stay in the caldeira, monitoring the pipes that carry the liquid sulfur out of the volcano. Sometimes with the contact with the cold air, the sulfur burns and might damage the pipes. The small advantage of this position: a gas mask is provided by the company, whereas for the others a simple wet t-shirt covering the nose and mouth is enough.
The accidents in the volcano were numerous, and every year was synonyme of victims. To be sure that their baskets were full of the bigger pieces, some workers start to work earlier, in the darkness, taking more risks.The life in the south east of Java is not always easy, and while this job seemed to us to be a form of modern slavery, more and more people were coming to the Kawa Ijen: getting $5 for a working day of 10 hours was appealing for some poor people.
During the years I spent in Indonesia, I came a dozen of times to Kawa Ijen, and seeing most of the times my friend Sokerman. He looked a bit more worn every time, a bit more stooped under the weight of his baskets that seemed to be less and less full, but never the smile on his face seemed to vanish.