Ijen and the Blue Fire

From start to finish this was my favorite part of the tour. We stayed in a guest house in some coffee plantations, didn’t see much coffee though, but below the guest house were big gardens with mountains around them, there were mostly strawberries in the gardens. The people here were very friendly, with big smiles and happy to talk to me. I went off looking for the seeds of a plant called Kelor to take home for my mom to grow. I’m told it grows all over Indonesia and seems like a miracle plant. It is good for your garden, adding fertilizer, nitrates or something, and is a natural pesticide. It is rich in vitamins and a source of yen cooling energy, and fights black magic. It is used medically to treat loss of appetite, epilepsy, ulcers, jaundice, muscle pains, herpes and other skin wounds. You can eat it in soups and the seeds can purify drinking water from germs and other impurities. The people there, fishing or going on walks or heading to mosque, said it didn’t grow in that area, but they were very amused by my looking for it and asking in Bahasa Indonesian. I had gotten a nice gay Indonesian guy on our tour to teach me how to ask to buy it and I think what he wrote translated into: “Can you give me a gift of some Kelor seeds?”

The guest house was worth a few days stay but we went to bed after just a few hours, at 7pm and tried to get some sleep, then woke up at midnight and didn’t return. Luckily I was tired from getting lost on Mt. Bromo the day before and did get some rest.  Off to the mountain.

The climb up was steep and about three kilometers. I barely stopped and let my heart rate climb high and level out. It is different to climb in the middle of the night. I talked with a cute Indonesian girl on the way up and some of her friends. It’s weird to talk with girls who have saris over their head and are clearly Muslim. I don’t know the rules. Another time I had been told not to touch a girl, not even to shake her hand. I don’t know the way to tell the level of each girl’s strictness in her religion.

At the top there was just about nothing, only a sign saying “Danger, it is not allowed to go any further”. I did not notice this sign till after I had come back up from going further. It was dangerous too, we went down into a valley or something, very steep, walking on rocks that could slip away. Of course there was no railing, like most outdoor tourist sites in SE Asia, but also it winded on itself often so if you fell it could be down multiple sections at once, meaning, it was a damn far fall, maybe death. The sulfur wasn’t too bad till I was at the blue fire. There, when the wind changed and blew it in my direction, it burned into my lungs. As it attacked my chest I did not get enough oxygen so I wanted to breathe even deeper. Even with my sweatshirt over my face, it didn’t filter much of the sulfur smoke, and it burned my eyes so I couldn’t see. The only good move was to stay still, breath slowly, and get lower to the ground.

The blue fire. It is the sulfur on fire. It does not stop, 24 hours a day, until all the resource has been used up which I guess will not be for a long time. It’s supposedly only present in two places in the world, here and in Iceland. In the night not much is visible, blackness and smoke, but when the smoke shifts you catch a glimpse of it, blue flames on the side of the mountain. It is like they are hovering, dangling in the air because you can see nothing but blackness around them. Multiple different patches of them but the smoke blocks your view so when they appear you stare in amazement. Something about it being the side of the mountain that is burning, or that it is rock that’s burning, or that you just climbed up here in the middle of the night. It’s like no fire you have ever seen before, it is like it’s not fire at all. Everyone is in awe, trying to get pictures though the picture are just blue flames in a field of nothingness, they just can’t do it justice as most pictures usually cannot for scenes of natural beauty. You must see it with your own eyes.

DSCF5625They have set up little tubes to collect the melted sulfur as it runs off. It goes down the tubes and onto the ground below, where it hardens and the workers, local men, break off pieces with a metal pole and carry them one kilometer up the steep rocky path that I came down, and then down the mountain another three kilometers, all in two baskets connected by a piece of wood that they then carry on their shoulder muscles on one side of their bodies or the other. Fifty to seventy kilograms we are talking about here. They do it two times per day, every one of them. Most of the men I talked to have been doing this for upwards of twenty years or were sons of men who have been doing it for longer. One older man had a torch made of a soda bottle full of fuel with a rag sticking out. He stood, torch in hand, amid the sulfur smoke posing for pictures, breathing it in for extra tips. None of the men wore face masks.

I stayed up there till 7am. There were different places to stand with different views, avoiding the smoke was always at the top of my list of priorities. There was also a lake that I didn’t see till the sun was coming up. It was very acidic, I put my hand in to see if it was hot, it was hot, a little more than lukewarm, but it also burned the cuts on my hand, and even my skin but only slightly. I didn’t notice it at first but within a few second the acidic water started biting into the exposed flesh. It hurt pretty bad for about 15 minutes.

There were people collecting the molten sulfur and pouring it into water slowly to make pretty (stupid) looking souvenirs to sell to us. They looked like hand dripped beeswax candles.  In the daylight I also found the toilet amid some rocks off the path, where the early morning dump is taken when needed.

Really the fire was beautiful, incredible, alien, but it was the whole experience that made it great. I was one of the first up as I walked fast and past most of the Indonesian tourists who had started a little earlier, and I was one of the last ten to leave. One the way out I had had enough sulfur. It came hard at us while we walked out up the rocky path. I didn’t think I could take anymore. My hacking lungs started to sound bad and I kept gaging. But I made it out and looked down at the smoke and flames from above, less impressive in the daylight.

I gave one of the guys carrying sulfur rock a shoulder massage, he said it was the first time anyone had done that. He had been carrying those heavy loads for 24 years. I said he must have a great wife to work so hard for her, he laughed and said yes of course he did.

On the way down I passed tourists going up. They were tired and didn’t really look at me, whereas all the workers smiled big at me and said hello enthusiastically. I don’t know how they keep their spirits up while working so damn hard but I guess they have to or day after day it would be unbearable. I gave a few of them snacks from my bag and bought some silly turtles molded out of the sulfur for a buck. I forget the figures of how much they made for a trip of seventy kilos but it was small, 10 or 20 cents on the kilo, but I was told they make double what a normal worker in Indonesia makes.  I would put it on my list of hardest working jobs, maybe hardest, but definitely not worst jobs, just hardest.