Day 9: Ijen Crater


Climbing with a gas mask near the crater

A Tough Climb

This morning started with Trinh and I getting up at 11:30PM on Saturday night at our hotel near Mount Ijen. We dressed as warmly as we could and rested in the 1.5-hour car ride towards Mount Ijen. We arrived in a grassy field at the base of the mountain and our guide for the mountain, Iwan (he was also named Iwan). Iwan gave us small gas masks for the sulphuric air and we headed up the 3km dirt trail. That ran steeply up the mountain.

At the base of the trail, there were Indonesian men with wheelbarrows offering to push those who are unable to walk to the top. Throughout 1.5-hour trek upwards, we’d see these man pushing the heavy people up the mountain. Some of the wheelbarrows had ropes which were tied to men walking in front who were mushed like reindeer pulling a sleigh. Dishearten, we looked at this tough labor. Trinh said, “This should be a crime”. As we panted to catch our breath on the side of the trail we saw people playing with their phones as four men tried to pull them up a god damn mountain. I looked on at those who hired the porters in contempt. I can imagine that the porters were better off to have the work. There are much worse jobs.

Trinh, Iwan, and I made it up the cloudy trail with headlamps on and stopped regularly to give ourselves a much-needed chance to rest. It was difficult to see because it was after midnight and foggy. As one point I had to step off the trail to do my business; I felt years younger afterward.

As we approached the top I could tell that we were alongside a steep drop-to-yo-death cliff. I wondered what would happen if I got hurt up here. Soon the air became sulphuric and we had to put on our gas masks. It was otherworldly to have on gas masks and walk semi-blind through the fog on a cold night on the edge of a cliff.

I kept an eye on Trinh and held her arm as we made it up slowly. We were hot and wet with sweat when we reached the top and the rain began. With over an hour until sunrise I wasn’t thrilled about the rain and chilly clouds. I was scared that it would freeze me. Oh cold, my enemy. So I hastily put up the umbrella and Trinh put her poncho on me.

A Tough Job


A minor climbing in the dark

Iwan began to lead us (along with hundreds of local tourists) down a rock staircase into the center of the crater. After a few steep steps down clinging to the rocks sticking from the cliff. A miner, yes this volcano which excretes hot sulfur is an active sulfur mine, appeared on the staircase carrying 200 pounds of sulphuric rock up the stairs by himself. He carried the rocks in bamboo baskets carried over his shoulder. He wore flip-flops and smoked a cigarette. I was shocked that not only did he have such a grim job, but also he had to push through tourists on dangerous staircase up a volcano crater at night in the rain while breathing in toxic gasses. I later told Iwan, that sulfur mining is a brutal job and Iwan laughed back,” it is not a job, it’s slavery”. He went on to mention how the mines needed to monitor the sulfur level 24 hours a day by literally watching the volcano. The miners stayed in the hazardous zone carrying heavy rocks in baskets with just their flip-flops and no gas mask, just a wet cloth over their noses. We decided not to climb any further into the crater and we went up back up the rim and sat in a cut out craved by lava shelter from the window and the cold.

Ijen Crater

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With just 20 minutes before dawn, we began climbing further up the foggy rim of the volcano. It was like we’re on a mixture of the moon and a forest in a scary movie. Trinh enjoyed the scary movie atmosphere of the place and started recording video around us. We knew we were walking along the side of a cliff, but we had no idea until the sun rose and clouds parted that we were on the edge of an enormous crater.

After sunrise, the view of the acidic lake and the full cater was amazing. It amazes me in a primordial way how much better life is when the sun comes up and we can see that we are not hiking up a cold toxic, but at in fact on a beautiful mountainside. The photos speak for themselves.

Walking down the cater was exhausting and fun. To make it less tough on our knees Trinh and I walked down backward. After we got back to our car and had peanuts and corn, we mentioned to our driver that we wanted to eat McDonald’s. Having an adult drive, me to McDonald’s made me feel like a kid  being driven to McDonald’s by my Dad again and we when arrived at KFC I threw my hands in the air, “woo who!”– Only to learn it was closed.


We drove with Ferry for hours toward Sukamade National Park. We stopped for lunch at a local place on the edge of a large national forest. Immediately after climbing Ijen Cater, we were headed to Sukamade, a Sea Turtle Nesting Beach deep with a National Jungle.

Into the Jungle

Ferry took us 30 minutes down a dirt road to a rural village within the park. There we transferred ourselves to a 4WD Jeep and got in the back with two Indonesian dudes who spoke no English. Then they drove us two hours through the dense jungle to Sukamade Beach. As we set off this the guys it was clear that I had no information about them, internet, common language, connection to Ferry or real understanding of what to expect, or where we were going. I watched Trinh’s head bobbled along as we traversed jungle terrain over dirt roads and through rivers.

The off-roading reminded me of my Dad and I looking through Land Rover Magazines and our one off-roading adventure in New Jersey. I thought that he would love this pure jungle off roaring. I felt I understood him better. Looking for an adventure, anything to clear this mind of the stress and monotony of database programming.

The bouncy ride ended two hours later in a small campsite with fairly good concrete lodging. When Trinh and I first arrived, we were the only tourists in this beach outpost with a bunch of men. We didn’t know when the other tourists would arrive and or what we would do here. So we dropped off our packs in our simple room, “no AC, no Fan”, and packed our valuable belongings into a backpack and walked 700 meters through a jungle path to the Turtle beach. Feeling more comfortable walking on the beach then hanging around with the jungle bros. We lay on the sand and watched the crabs and gray clouds crawl across the sands. Then our guide arrived with about 15 other tourists and we went back to the campground for a communal dinner in the mess hall.


After dinner, Trinh and I watched and gave voices to a gang of monkeys fornicating by the rubbish bins. We struggled to adjust to our new reality – two hours deep into the jungle. The amenities were fantastic for a jungle, but still, we struggled with the mosquitoes, our unwashed clothing, our double case of culture shock and our rapid change from a nice hotel to a campground took some balancing. Particularly, the squat toilets not aligning with our upset stomachs.

Sea Turtles

At 9:30PM, We set off with the guide and other tourists to see the Sea Turtles that come to shore daily at Sukamade Beach at night. Our guide was accompanied by a no-nonsense park ranger who hold us through his mustache all the rules about not disturbing the turtles.

When we did, in fact, find a Sea Turtle laying eggs on the beach. The ranger scooped them all up into his backpack for incubating at the camp. Then he encouraged us to take photos with the huge turtle. It was amazing to see a wildly Sea Turtle that was about as larger as me. Trinh and I felt that we were disturbing the turtle too much and she and I walked away from the crowd and turned our head toward the heavens.


We were enchanted by how many stars we could see, especially the Orion nebulae. Trinh pointed out that the stars in the nebulae were twinkling. We lay on the sand and pointed at the stars together. Pointing to different memorizing corners of sky. Then with flashlights out, we walked back through the jungle to our room for some rest.

A vision

As I lay in bed, I could hear the bugs and crickets outside and feel the dank air in our small room. I lay with my eyes closed on the bed and chirping of the bugs brought me to a summer evening standing in front of my grandfather’s cabin on Cape Cod as a child. I walked into the kitchen through the screen door, to find my grandpa there at the kitchen table with one light on above him. He was wearing a dark fleece and gray wool beanie. He was reading the local newspaper at the table silently. I wanted him to say something to me, but half-awake I thought that would be too Hollywood.

Today, I had cried reading a book for the first time. I’m reading, “Becoming” by Michelle Obama and I cried when I read about her losing her father. As I cried, I laughed at all the times I said, “No one I loved has ever died”. My naïveté as evident as an ass in yoga pants.



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