Have you ever come home from a day at the office and complained about what a hard day you’ve had? Read this and your day probably won’t seem so bad after all.
The Ijen volcano, which has a one-kilometer-wide turquoise-colored acid crater lake sitting at the base, is the site of a labor-intensive sulphur mining operation. Sulphur is mined from the depths of the crater, put into baskets and carried by hand from the crater floor up to the rim and then down to the base of the mountain.
After another unwelcome 3.30am wake up call and short drive to the base of the crater we start the climb. We make slow progress. The path is steep and yet again I’m questioning my fitness levels. I’m not even carrying ‘the boy’ and it’s hard work. And then we first spot them, the workers coming down the mountain carrying their loads of sulphur. The men are surprising small, but the weight they’re carrying on their shoulders is incredible. Each man carries between 75 and 100kg of sulphur per load, split between two baskets that are joined by a piece of thick bamboo and carried over their shoulders. The baskets creak and bow under the weight but the men don’t. They move swiftly down the mountain, getting into a steady rhythm that takes them to the bottom of the 5km descent.
Yesterday, climbing Mount Bromo, I’d found the additional weight of ‘the boy’ slowed me down considerably. In comparison to what these men have to endure everyday it seems quite lame to complain about the extra 11kg.
On reaching the crater lip we were confronted with warning signs telling tourists not to continue into the mine below. The dangers were becoming apparent, but the mine worker who we were chatting to on the trek up offered to take us down, providing that one of us waited at the top with ‘the boy’. The treacherous path to the crater base combined with the toxic poisonous gases that are omitted from the vents in the earth are not a healthy mix for most adults, let alone a baby. Without hesitation I offered to wait at the top.
After sitting still on the crater lip for twenty minutes the boy and I were getting quite chilly (it’s still not even 7am!) so on behalf of both of us I decide to head part way down the mountain to the workers tea hut. The weighing scales that determine the wage for each labourers load (RP1,000 / 7 pence per kg) are situated outside the hut so ‘the boy’ and I watch as worker after worker come by to weigh their sulphur. I tried to lift one of the baskets, but weighing in at 82kg it was impossible. How these slight men, who are lighter than me, can carry these huge loads day after day is beyond me. It’s an incredibly tough job, and with a life expectancy of the workers reaching only 55, a job with serious health consequences.
Whilst waiting for the others to return, one of the oldest workers at the mine took a shine to ‘the boy’ and kindly took him off my hands whilst I drank my coffee. The feeling between ‘the boy’ and the old chap were mutual and when it was time to leave ‘the boy’ didn’t want to say goodbye. We nicknamed him Papa Bahru, meaning ‘new dad’.
The descent down the mountain was difficult. Having been given 3 hours to return to the vehicle we thought that the journey down would be far quicker than up. We were wrong. The path, covered in grit and dust, was incredibly steep and slippery. Within two minutes of leaving the tea hut I fell and luckily didn’t harm ‘the boy’ who was in the sling on my back. I promptly decided to put him on my front, protecting him if I fell again. Some of the workers heading back up the mountain offered to carry ‘the boy’ down for us (at a cost of course), but we declined and took it steady, finally reaching the bottom over 50 minutes late!
The Ijen crater wasn’t even on our agenda, but thanks to meeting Laura and Paul we got to experience a little bit of what these brave men have to endure every day to make a basic living.
Maybe your hard day at work wasn’t so bad after all.
Top tip of the day:
When descending steep mountain paths wear your baby on your front rather than your back. If you fall you’re less likely to injure your baby (as I found out!).