Sunday, June 29, 2008

The sulfur miners of Ijen

The reason people stay at Margo Utomo, besides the enormous bat and the nutmeg, is that it makes a good staging area for a hike to the Ijen Plateau. And Ijen is one of the most amazing places I've ever seen.

Photo: Jason Gold

The path up is quite pleasant, with pretty views of the surrounding mountains. But once you get above treeline, you're suddenly standing on the surface of the moon. It's all exposed, striated rock surrounding a smoking crater and an unnaturally bright-aqua lake.

The crater spews clouds of yellow sulfur gas. Sulfur collects all around the crater mouth, and local people chip out chunks of it and carry it 5 miles down the mountain to sell. The baskets full of sulfur often weigh more than 100 pounds (45 kg). The miners typically finish two trips per day, for which they get paid around $7.

Chad and I went into the crater to do some interviews. Here, as opposed to Mt. Bromo, we got very lucky with the wind direction. When we arrived it was blowing the sulfur right up the trail, but as we began to descend into the crater it shifted to the side.

Still, the mine was like some medieval portrait of hell. It was hot; the men did backbreaking labor, using long, metal-tipped poles to dislodge chunks of sulfur; every time the wind shifted and blew a cloud of gas over them, they were seized with spasms of coughing.

Each man generally works two weeks on and two weeks off; you can't do this job full-time because your knees and lungs can't handle it. As it is, the miners have multiple health problems and tend to die younger than their counterparts with easier jobs.

Ask them why they do it, and you get a simple answer: for their kids. School costs money here, and any responsible parent is focused on getting his or her children educated. $7 clearly isn't much, but it's way more than you can make farming.

This guy has a grown son in the Navy. He was proud, and justifiably so, but he was still laboring away because he has more children to raise.

The New York Times has a pretty cool slideshow of Ijen here.

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