Do you think your job is tough? Try this on for size.
In East Java, Indonesia, west of Gunung Merapi Volcano is the Ijen volcano. The volcano’s last eruption was in 1999. It is more commonly known as the Ijen crater because of its kilometer wide turquoise-colored acid crater lake, the largest in the world. Rubble surrounding the lake shines brightly against the vibrant turquoise lake. It’s sulfur, and the lake is the site of a sulfur mining operation.
We tagged along with workers to see what a day of sulfur mining was like. After waking up at 3 am, we were driven to the volcano. The walk up started out nicely with a flat path through the trees.
However, after a final turn, a steep hill came into view. As the sun started to rise, we crept up the hill and many Indonesian men joined us. These men were small, but their muscle tone was obvious. Over their shoulders they carried flimsy boards with baskets on the sides. We walked with them up to the rim of the crater. Peering over the edge, we could see steam rising off the lake and got our first whiff of the stench of rotten eggs. That’s what the sulfur smelled like. We had been walking uphill for over an hour, and the sun was starting to beat down. It was time to climb down into the crater.
Although this is a tourist attraction, there are no steps, no handrails, and no safety measures. The air stung our eyes. As we moved down, some Indonesian workers were moving up, carrying the baskets that were now filled with large pieces of sulfur over their shoulders.
Finally, we reached a flat surface overlooking the lake. We took a few photos and assumed it was time to head back up.
However, the man helping us motioned for us to come further. We were descending into the midst of the mining. The smell was so strong we had to tie cloths, shirts – whatever we had – around our mouths and noses.
When we reached the bottom, standing at the edge of the lake next to the men digging up the sulfur, the clash of the turquoise water and yellow sulfur was magnificent, but what was more incredible was that we were allowed to be there. We fended off men trying to sell us sulfur made trees and turtles. We bought one from the man that helped guide the way, but what were we to do with a sulfur tree?
It was time to head back up, probably the most torturous part of the trek. The sun was strong now, and the walk steep. To top it off, we were walking behind men with 90 kilograms of sulfur around their shoulders. I could see more closely the muscle definition, scars, and disfigurement from where the pole rested on their shoulders. I couldn’t help but think of what would happen if those baskets broke and fell on my head, a plausible reality at that time.
However, they glided up with ease, some smoking cigarettes. Fumes from the lake and sulphuric clouds are risks to their respiratory system. Most miners only wear a dampened cloth tied over the mouth and nose. However, most of the men are healthy, and some miners continue until old age.
The journey up from the mining area to the rim of the crater is about 300 meters, and back down the mountain is about three kilometers, plus another three kilometers to the valley where the workers must take their loads to get paid. This journey is made all while carrying a load of at least 70 to 100 kilograms of sulfur and doesn’t include the trip up the mountain and down the crater before the mining. Most miners take this journey once or twice a day. They get paid about 700 rupiah per kilogram. On average, converted into international standards, the men make about $13 a day.
It is such a beautiful scene that it is hard to believe it is one of the most toxic places on earth. The lake might look refreshing, but this is one lake you would not want to take a dip in.
Yet Ijen crater is a thriving tourist destination. Companies provide tours that include lodging at one of the only hostels available, transport to and from the volcano, and wake-up calls. This is a good experience not only for unique beauty, but also to witness what hard work Indonesian men do for such little pay.
If you feel frustrated with your job, take a trip to Ijen crater and walk along with the men. I’m sure you’ll go home happy to have the job you do.