Oct 22, 2010

Living in the shadow of Indonesia's volcanoes

Volcano Feature
All hell is about to break loose, but Udi, a 60-year-old farmer from the village of Kinarejo on the Indonesian island of Java, will not budge. Not even though a mere three miles (five kilometers) separates the smoldering peak of Mount Merapi from Kinarejo. Not even though columns of noxious gas and the nervous tracings of seismographs signal an imminent explosion. Not even though the government has ordered a full-scale evacuation. "I feel safe here," he says. "If the Gatekeeper won't move, then neither will I." Merapi is a natural-born killer. Rising almost 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) over forests and fields, it ranks among the world's most active and dangerous volcanoes. Its very name means "fire mountain." An eruption in 1930 killed more than 1,300; even in less deadly times, plumes drift menacingly from the peak. Some of the surrounding area, warns a local hazards map, is "frequently affected by pyroclastic flows, lava flows, rockfalls, toxic gases and glowing ejected rock fragments." As the volcano's rumbling crescendoed in May 2006, thousands fled the fertile slopes and settled reluctantly into makeshift camps at lower, safer altitudes. Even the resident monkeys descended in droves. Not Udi and his fellow villagers, who take their cues from an octogenarian with dazzling dentures and a taste for menthol cigarettes: Mbah Marijan, the Gatekeeper of Merapi. Marijan has one of the more bizarre jobs in Indonesia, or anywhere else, for that matter. The fate of villagers like Udi and of the 500,000 residents of Yogyakarta, a city 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the south, rests on Marijan's thin shoulders. It is his responsibility to perform the rituals designed to appease an ogre believed to inhabit Merapi's summit. This time, the rituals seem to have fallen short. The warnings grow more urgent. Volcanologists, military commanders, even Indonesia's vice president beg him to evacuate. He flatly refuses. "It's your duty to come talk to me," he tells the police. "It is my duty to stay." Marijan's behavior might seem suicidal anywhere else, but not in Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,500 islands that straddles the western reaches of the hyperactive Ring of Fire. It's a zone of geophysical violence, a juncture of colliding tectonic plates that loops more than 25,000 miles (40,200 kilometers) around the Pacific. Geography has dealt Indonesia a wild card: Nowhere else do so many live so close to so many active volcanoes—129 by one count. On Java alone, 120 million people live in the shadow of more than 30 volcanoes, a proximity that has proved fatal to more than 140,000 in the past 500 years. Death by volcano takes many forms: searing lava, suffocating mud, or the tsunamis that often follow an eruption. In 1883, Mount Krakatau (often misspelled as Krakatoa), located off Java's coast, triggered a tsunami that claimed more than 36,000 lives. The name became a metaphor for a catastrophic natural disaster. 
For Marijan, though, an eruption is not so much a threat as a growth spurt. "The kingdom of Merapi is expanding," he says, with a nod at its smoldering peak. In Indonesia, volcanoes are not just a fact of life, they are life itself. Volcanic ash enriches the soil; farmers on Java can harvest three crops of rice in a season. Farmers on neighboring Borneo, with only one volcano, can't.
On a less earthly plane, volcanoes stand at the heart of a complicated set of mystical beliefs that grip millions of Indonesians and influence events in unexpected ways. Their peaks attract holy men and pilgrims. Their eruptions augur political change and social upheaval. You might say that in Indonesia, volcanoes are a cultural cauldron in which mysticism, modern life, Islam, and other religions mix—or don't. Indonesia, an assemblage of races, religions, and tongues, is riveted together by volcanoes. Reverence for them is virtually a national trait. If the Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation, the government agency that keeps eight seismograph stations humming on Merapi, represents modern science, Marijan, the Gatekeeper of Merapi, is Indonesia at its most mystical. When a Dutch hiker went missing on the volcano in 1996, Marijan reportedly made the thick mist vanish and found the injured hiker in a ravine. It is often hard to distinguish the kind of volcanic spasm that builds toward a convulsion from the seismic restlessness that settles back into quiescence. But monitoring technology has grown more sophisticated. Overnight, government volcanologists have raised the alert to its highest level. The lava dome might collapse at any moment. Hasn't Marijan heard? The entreaties leave Marijan unimpressed. The alerts are merely guesses by men at far remove from the spirit of the volcano. The lava dome collapse? "That's what the experts say," he says, smiling. "But an idiot like me can't see any change from yesterday." INDONESIA'S MOTTO, "Bhinneka tunggal ika—Unity in diversity," speaks to some 300 ethnic groups and more than 700 languages and dialects. The government officially recognizes six religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism, but mysticism riddles all faiths and bares their animistic roots. Sumatra, the vast island northwest of Java, is home to the Batak people, converted to Christianity by European missionaries in the 19th century. Yet many still believe the first human descended from heaven on a bamboo pole to Mount Pusuk Buhit, an active volcano on the shores of Lake Toba. The Tengger, Hindus who live around Mount Bromo in East Java, periodically climb through choking sulfurous clouds to throw money, vegetables, chickens, and an occasional goat into the crater. On Flores, the Nage, Catholics like most on that island, are buried with their heads toward Mount Ebulobo, whose cone fills their southern horizon. Likewise, on largely Hindu Bali, volcanoes are sacred, none more so than 10,000-foot (3,000 meters) Mount Agung, its highest peak. It is said a true Balinese knows its location, even when blindfolded, and many sleep with their heads pointing toward it. In 1963 a catastrophic eruption of Mount Agung killed a thousand people. Others starved to death after ash smothered their crops. "The very ground beneath us trembled with the perpetual shocks of the explosions," wrote an eyewitness. Yet what once was spoken of as divine wrath is now seen as a gift. The rock and sand thrown up by the eruption built hotels, restaurants, and villas for hordes of foreign tourists, who started arriving in the 1970s. Despite attacks by Islamic terrorists in 2002 and 2005, which killed more than 220 people, tourism remains Bali's biggest industry. And by the grace of Agung and its neighbor, Mount Batur, houses that once nestled in fields of chilies and onions now overlook quarries filled with workers shoveling volcanic sand into trucks.



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