Where Matches Come From

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We arrived shortly before dusk at the Arabica coffee plantation which would also be our home tonight. This place was much different from the Indonesia we have seen so far. There were nicely manicured gardens and ornamental plants all over the village. Things seemed very neat and organized. Weronika and I splurged and bought some Kopi Luwak, which is the world’s finest coffee. Its origin is the Luwak, which is animal known for its taste for only the finest, ripest coffee fruit. Luckily, the critter is not interested in the coffee bean itself, which it does not digest. People run around and pick up Luwak poop, pick out the beans, clean them (presumably) and roast them. We just can’t wait to see what it tastes like.
The 3:30am wake up is getting annoyingly common. Once again, roused from beautiful slumber we had to pack up and get into a bumpy minibus which took us to the trail head of the Ijen plateau.
The first part of the adventure was a 3km uphill hike. We dragged our sleeping feet up the beat down dirt path and slowly made it up the mountain. Passing us briskly were men carrying double baskets, empty for now. The road was littered with bright yellow specs — sulphur.

Lunar Landscape View from Rim of Ijen

After some time, we arrived on the rim. Ahead of us, a foggy lunar landscape. Far off in the distance, some yellow stone formations and hints of a blue-green lake. Out of the yellowish rocks clouds of yellowish smoke were billowing high into the air. We started making our way down the rocky steep trail. Already, men with full baskets of bright yellow sulphur were hiking up the same trail. They did not look heavy. The unnaturally yellow colored rocks looked like plastic or styrofoam. However, the creaking bamboo pole and the considerable effort of these poor souls told a different story. I tried one on for size, and the weight put so much pressure on my shoulders that I could not last more than 20 seconds. Each load weighs over eighty kilos! Yet these guys walk around smoking cigarettes, smiling, and sometimes singing.
As we descended down this trail, our jaws dropped further to the floor. I lack the words to describe this accurately and to express fully what it’s like here. It was simply unnatural. The smoke was hissing out under pressure. The rocks were bright yellow. The nearby lake, a serene azure. The air generally smelled like rotting eggs, caused by the sulphur gas. However, when the wind shifted and the cloud enveloped you, it was close to impossible to breathe. Eyes watered, lungs burned and seized up, even with a wet cloth shielding the worst of it. These men work here, chipping at the rock, filling their baskets, and tending the pipe works which somehow aid in the extraction of this yolk-colored substance.
We’ve spent some time down here. I was overcome by a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, the fantastic landscape, awash in unnaturally bright color not normally found outside of a painter’s palette. And on the other, the harsh and torturous conditions under which these men make a living. There was a general lighthearted mood here, shining in bright contrast to the hellish environment surrounding these workers.
This is one of those places that will linger around in my memory forever. It was the most amazing thing we have seen so far on our trip, and one of the most amazing sights in general. There are a few things I wish I knew before coming here. When you take photos, you’re often asked for something in exchange, and a 1000 ruppie note, a cigarette, or a cookie go a long way.

Hellish Sulphur Mining

For us, the hike out was difficult, as the wind shifted and we had to climb in a cloud of sulphurous steam. Struggling for oxygen and trying to keep from vomiting, we knew that soon we would be somewhere else. These men, however, will continue to toil here, making about $4 per 80kg load, and they do so in the brightest of spirits. I bought a chunk of sulphur, and symbolically carried it down, Once we return to reality, I will put it on my desk, and know, that no matter how tough my job is, I do not have to work at the place where matches come from. Also, I will never look at the color yellow in the same way.

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One Response to Where Matches Come From

  1. Koo says:

    Hey! Amazing stories and photos! Looks like an unbelievable trip. Keep posting!

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