Gloria Kurnik | Visual Storyteller | Documentary filmmaker (director, preditor and camerawoman) based in Asia.

Hell in Disguise – Kawah Ijen

June 11, 2014
gloriaku
Documentary, Photo-Story
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Hell in Disguise

I'm lacking the words
to describe the beauty of the crater while we’re descending. The blue waters of the lake are mesmerizing as the sun animates the surface. The rocks, painted by the elements in yellow and white, compliment the sky in a perfect match. A photographer’s paradise and a feast for the eyes. But the shining turquoise lake below is nothing what it seems, filled with not water but acid.
This active volcano is an open
sulphur mine and the sole provider of income to a few hundreds families from the surrounding villages. Its small production barely satisfies the demands of the local market and the purchase prices are incredibly low. With 80-100 kg of sulphur on their shoulders miners climb up the slopes of the steep crater and then follow three kilometers long trail down the hill, most of them in worn out sandals. One such trip a day, however, pays too less. Most come back twice, those stronger or crazier even thrice. The scars from broken bones mark their backs but the lung diseases are even more common.
Our group of three is blessed
with a perfect weather and pretty ignorantly we linger in the crater for slightly too long. There are no other tourists down here, only the miners and their baskets full of crystallized sulphur. The wind blows the odorous rotten-egg-like fumes away after they gush out of the pipes. But then the weather changes, trapping us surprisingly in the cloud of vapors. Out of the sudden it feels as if a heavy boulder was resting on your chest and you have to fight for each breath. The eyes burn and fill with tears. The throat hurts as if you were swallowing knifes. The miners progress slowly up the hill with rags held in the mouth. I follow, desperate to survive, and wrap my face with a t-shirt but to no avail. One of the workers takes my cloth, soaks it with water and shows how to place it inside my mouth and breathe right through it. It somewhat helps with the burning but the oxygen is still scarce. It gets too difficult to climb so the miners sit patiently on the rocks, resting and pacing their breathing. I’m afraid that if I sit, I won’t be able to sand up, so I rush forward. This obvious mistake brings me to a verge of collapse but somehow in a superhuman effort I manage to reach the peak.
The miners start emerging
from the crater and I look at their silhouettes and admire their slow and steady pace. Those courageous men daily pushing the peak of human abilities, really carry the baskets filled with their hopes and dreams. Longing only to change their family situation, to educate their children and give them a brighter future, those men are the heroes for their families and even villages. On average, they bring 10 dollars a day to the household, which is three times more than a factory worker in Java or four times more than a local farmer.
I've been to hell, fuck
I survived but the miners are not so lucky. They often die young due to the extremely harsh work environment, which ironically breaks they dreams leaving their sons in their shoes. I believe there are many places on earth that can be a hell to their occupants. But there are only rare instances when they, literally, reek of sulphur.

Wet rugs placed inside of the mouth are the best protection those miners can afford. While slightly easing the breathing, this technique has also a flaw. As the wet fabric soaks up the sulphur dioxide, the gas turns into an acid that gradually dissolves worker's teeth.

Almost every visitor to Kawah Ijen wants to come back with a portrait of a miner. Most of the workers are accustomed to the tourists asking them for a pose but paying for a picture is a common courtesy here. Apart from Rupiahs, a t-shirt , a bottle of water or a cigarette are a much valued currency.

The miners are capable of carrying 70-100kg of sulphur in their baskets, which is usually more than their body weight. For each 10kg of this raw material they get approximately $0.60.

In such a toxic environment a gas mask wouldn't last more than few days, hence it's a luxury that no one can afford. Good old tricks can help reducing discomfort and a throat irritation but cannot protect the workers from developing severe lung diseases. As a consequence, the life expectancy of the miners is little over 30 years.

Men like this one are hired to extract the sulphur and break into the portable chunks. On average , each of them extracts 10 tons of this material daily. Numerous pipes drive the gases consisting of hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide on the surface. Molten sulphur drips down the pipes as the gases cool significantly along the way. This flexible substance is often moulded into tiny sculptures that are sold to the tourists. The sulphur solidifies as it cools further.

With the change in the wind direction, the situation in the crater also changes rapidly, sometimes even trapping the miners inside. The 300 meters climb up the steep slope is impossible if the concentration of the gases is too high.

Sulphur dioxide envelopes the crater and the ridge. Even though the miners know this trail by heart, in such a limited visibility and on such a narrow path, they need to watch every step. One mistake or a stumble can cost more than only broken bones.

A miner on the way to take his first full breath. But the smell of sulphur will haunt the man even through the night , as it takes days to fully wash it out.

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