Pyroclastic flow, cassette tapes, disaster tourism, batik, the Ministry of Coffee, cobras, energy drinks, Indonesia, diagonal rain, fruitless placation, birthdays, spiritual daredevils, sultans & Mbah Maridjan.
Pyroclastic flow, cassette tapes, disaster tourism, batik, the Ministry of Coffee, cobras, energy drinks, Indonesia, diagonal rain, fruitless placation, birthdays, spiritual daredevils, sultans & Mbah Maridjan.
The key master died in Mount Merapi’s 2010 eruption. Most of the villagers living on the volcano’s slopes evacuated safely, fled in the middle of the night with only the clothes they happened to be wearing. But others, some following the key master’s example, refused to leave their homes.
He is the volcano’s spirit guardian, entrusted with the sacred duty to protect the kingdom of Jogjakarta—the sprawling Javanese metropolis 19 miles south of one of Indonesia’s most volatile volcanoes. More than one thousand years ago, the legend goes, the Sultan of Jogjakarta instructed the very first key master to eat an enormous egg, which transformed him into a giant and then, eventually, into the hill that lies directly between the volcano and the city. A geologic intermediary so perfectly placed that the legend seems believable.
Every key master since has lived atop or near this hill so that he can monitor the moods of the volcano spirits. But his primary job is attending to the giant within the hill, keeping it content with offerings of food and flowers so that it, in turn, will do its job: diverting the flow of lava around the city.
For those who live in Merapi’s shadow, the question is never if, but when. In 2010 the eruptions were unusually destructive. The spirits were agitated. Mount Merapi didn’t just erupt once; it sputtered and spewed for a whole month, issuing warnings throughout October until reaching its zenith five minutes after midnight on November 5th.
At least 350 villagers were killed. More than 100,000 displaced. And the key master, loyal to his post, died in the literal line of duty: on the hill between the volcano and the city.
I can’t see the volcano the day we arrive in Jogjakarta. Even from the tiny balcony of our room at the Ministry of Coffee (a hostel we clearly picked for the name), elevated above rooftops, laundry lines and snarled traffic jams, the horizon is a sepia-tone washout. It’s a sticky afternoon, the city choking on the fumes of its motorbikes and taxicabs. My husband and I have heard of Mount Merapi, but not from legends or guidebooks.
We’re traveling in Indonesia for only a month, but our friends had lived here—endured the torrential rains, the oppressive humidity, the dearth of wine, the cobra in their backyard, the constant threat of dengue fever. My husband’s journalism buddy was freelancing while his wife taught at an international school, so in November 2010, as hot ash covered his backyard like a freak snowstorm and his wife and two-year-old daughter evacuated to the coast, he headed up the volcano to report on the eruption with his Jogjakartan fixer. Fajar slipped the news crew through checkpoints and translated interviews with villagers gathered in emergency evacuation camps. Then our friends moved promptly back to California. That was two years ago.
You could live in fear and anxiety, or you could find a narrative that explains it all.
Rob uses the phone at the front desk. “Nobody knows Jogja better,” our friend had raved, giving us Fajar’s number before we left for Indonesia. Fajar insists on meeting us right away. He brings his girlfriend, a British girl named Yasmin with black hair sculpted into a cute bob and draped in a colorful scarf. Fajar is a small, sinewy guy with voluminous dreadlocks that add about one-third to his total human volume. They declare themselves our official Jogja hosts and brainstorm an itinerary for the next day while we sit in the lobby sipping small cups of strong coffee.
“Should we take them to Merapi?” Yasmin asks. I’m curious about the volcano that drove our friends away, but I don’t say so. I’m embarrassed by my eagerness.
“We’re up for anything,” Rob says. But I know he wants to go too. We didn’t come to Java looking for a story, and we certainly didn’t come to be disaster tourists. But we are both writers—my husband the bold journalist, unafraid of confrontation; me the quiet observer, composing sentences in my head—so maybe, subconsciously, we did. Because aren’t writers always searching for something in the rubble?
M bah (“grandfather”) Maridjan was something of a celebrity mystic in Java. As key master, he had earned a reputation of defiance and bravery when he refused to evacuate during Merapi’s 2006 eruptions, instead leading residents in a silent procession, circling local villages three times and making offerings of rice cakes to the angry mountain spirits.
Soon after, he starred in a commercial for an Indonesian energy drink—KukuBima Ener-G—with a national boxing hero. The ad opens with the key master in a lush field, gazing calmly at the fuming volcano, then cuts to the shirtless boxer in red track pants, throwing shadow punches and bouncing on his toes. Merapi sputters in the background and as the smoke plumes turn from grey to orange, the boxer takes off running through the woods. The music crescendos. Birds take flight. A deer bounds through the trees in the opposite direction. Purple bolts of lighting jag through the orange clouds as he reaches the key master in the field. The boxer takes a swig of KukuBima, erupting with strength in sync with the volcano behind him. Mbah Maridjan shakes his hand. They bow to each other, right hands balled to their chests in fists. The screen flashes: KUKUBIMA ENER-G!
The next morning, Fajar and Yasmin are waiting outside in a rental car. Merapi is still hidden, today behind a scrim of rain clouds, but Fajar doesn’t trust his vintage VW Beetle to survive the climb if we do venture up the volcano. He weaves effortlessly through diagonal rain and knotted traffic, pointing out this temple compound and that excellent Sumatran restaurant.
Fajar is equal parts Bob Marley vagabond and Sumatran warrior, which makes him the perfect local guide. When he moved from Sumatra to Jogjakarta, he tells us, his mom found his box of weapons under his bed—25 knives, swords and brass knuckles—and gave them away to his friends. “They were so proud to have my swords!” He grins at us in the rearview mirror. As far as I can tell, “sword” is not just a funny translation.
We won’t be able to see anything if we visit Merapi in the rain, so Fajar drives to the ancient Buddhist temples of Borobudur. We offer to pay their admission, but Fajar and Yasmin are happy to wait outside, holding hands, chain-smoking and drinking the free tourist coffee until we return. Back in the car, Fajar turns up the volume on his playlist of American pop songs, and he and Yasmin continue singing along. I don’t know half the songs, but they know all the words. We still can’t see Merapi even though the rain has let up, but as the playlist starts its third time on repeat, Fajar turns the music down.
Flour bursts in festive plumes, eggs fly through the air and explode on the birthday boy’s back and we all squeal and dart around the jeeps.
“When Merapi erupted, these were full of ash and lava,” he says, pointing out the dry riverbeds, sandy swaths of treeless earth lined by squatty palm trees. We pass what looks like a school. “That was a bunker,” Fajar says. Then a vacant lot that was a refugee camp. As we wind higher up the foothills, Yasmin stops humming. Fajar stops playing percussion on the steering wheel. One of them turns the music off.
“We were here the day of the big eruption,” Yasmin whispers. They both peer straight ahead, as if watching the memory replay through the windshield. Charred tree trunks appear on a naked ridgeline. Saplings and bushes sprout up here and there, but they aren’t tall enough to hide the crumbling foundations lining the road. Fajar tells us the legend of the key master—the egg, the giant, the hill—as we pass more skeletal houses.
“He wouldn’t leave,” Fajar says. “They found him in his home, buried by ash.”
M bah Maridjan was appointed key master by the Sultan of Jogjakarta in 1982. He lived four kilometers from the crater rim. He didn’t have a car. He was eighty-three years old when he whispered his last prayer. Rescuers discovered him under the rubble, kneeling in the sujud position: forehead kissing the floor, prostrate in prayer. They say the batik fabric of his sari was fused to his skin. Twelve other bodies were found with his, presumably trying to convince him to leave.
It was the pyroclastic flow, most likely. “Pyroclast” comes from Greek: pyro for fire, clast for broken in pieces. No one knows how fast or hot it surged down the mountainside into the key master’s home, but pyroclastic flows have been measured at temperatures reaching 1,000 degrees Celsius and speeds up to 450 miles per hour. Hurricane Force is the highest rating on the Beaufort Wind Force Scale, for winds greater than or equal to seventy-four miles per hour. A pyroclastic flow defies comprehension.
What did the key master ask for with his last breath? Did he whisper his prayer or shout? Did he see the rocks rushing down the slope? Hear the trees snapping, the walls collapsing? Feel the hot ash bury him? And was he afraid?
I realize we’ve arrived only when we pull into a gravel parking lot full of old military jeeps the color of split pea soup. “The peak is about a mile away.” Fajar points into the mist. A pack of jubilant young men in fatigue jackets materialize around us, yelling and joking, pushing the car back and forth. Someone opens my door and politely escorts me out. Two others do the same for Rob and Yasmin before locking Fajar inside. They continue the rocking, laughing hysterically. Fajar pounds on the window and flips them off with both hands.
There used to be a village here, but this close to volcanic ground zero, buildings basically disintegrated. Where houses once stood, there’s now a strip of crudely constructed roadside stalls selling souvenirs, shoes, cigarettes and sweet ginger tea. And where I imagine a bucolic scene of cows grazing in abundant fields, a herd of jeeps sits in a gravel lot waiting to be fed by curious tourists. But you wouldn’t know this was tragic ground from the raucous mob of drivers buzzing with a scheme.
She shakes your hand with intense sincerity, wrapping knobby fingers around yours, and invites you to walk among her memories—to tour her loss. She is the sole curator of this museum.
Fajar, now freed from the car, is quietly handing out eggs. Someone presses a plastic baggie of flour into my hand and another into Yasmin’s. She cocks her head toward a driver leaning against a jeep. “It’s his birthday,” she whispers. “Once all the tourists leave on that big bus, we’ll plaster him with eggs and flour.”
The tour bus putters away. Someone gives the signal. Mayhem erupts. Flour bursts in festive plumes, eggs fly through the air and explode on the birthday boy’s back and we all squeal and dart around the jeeps. I lose track of Rob in the chaos. A driver nudges me, noticing I still have my baggie of flour. I gently empty it over the birthday boy’s head and dash out of the fray, right before someone tosses a bucket of mystery liquid on him. It reeks of something so terrible that he sprints to a wooden outhouse and starts dry heaving. But his retching stirs no mercy; his friends keep stalking the outhouse, throwing another egg or handful of flour whenever he cracks the door open.
I thought this place would be solemn, like walking into a stained-glassed cathedral or attending a funeral. There are ghost stories here for sure, but there are also eggs and flour and birthdays.
Imagine living on Merapi’s slopes. Imagine the frequent rumbles, the plumes of smoke, the flares of lava. You could relocate, but your family has probably lived here for generations. You might own land, a farm, some cows. You could live in fear and anxiety, or you could find a narrative that explains it all. And so you believe in the key master and the Javanese spirit world. You believe that the spirits—those who roamed and ruled Java until humans settled on the island—now inhabit Merapi’s crater.
Besides the fact that they live in a palace, their life inside the volcano resembles your own in the village. Those clouds of ash and gas? Regularly scheduled palace cleanings and remodeling projects. That low rumbling? Just the echoes of another palace procession, led by the head spirit’s carriage. Some believe that Merapi’s big eruptions are punishment for wrongdoing, but you trust what you’ve heard: to warn villagers of an eruption’s magnitude, the spirits extend a special thread from the crater. You also trust the key master. He will read the moody mountain spirits. He will keep the giant in the hill strong. He will tell you if it’s time to flee.
But why should you imagine any of this? What good will it do to try on someone else’s reality? Is imagination just another form of disaster tourism?
After the 2010 eruption, people were curious. They would drive up the semi-paved road, the same road we’ve just traveled, to see it for themselves. Fajar’s friend Chris saw these disaster tourists and he saw men without jobs—men who had been farmers or sand-truck drivers before Merapi scorched their farms, killed their cows and filled the riverbeds with ash, burying the sand. So Chris bought an American World War II–era jeep and hired three drivers. Two years later, he tells us now over steaming cups of ginger tea, there are twenty-five guides in the Merapi Jeep Tour Community. He has to hire by lottery.
Despite the fog and impending dusk, Chris insists on driving us up the volcano—“Where we don’t take the tourists!” He smudges his cigarette out in an ashtray and pulls out his keys.
“Only if you let us pay for it,” Rob says as we follow him to his favorite jeep, the first one he bought.
They say the batik fabric of his sari was fused to his skin. Twelve other bodies were found with his, presumably trying to convince him to leave.
My husband sits up front next to Chris, his reporter instincts on high alert, tapping some quick notes into his phone. I squeeze into the backseat, devoid of seatbelts, with Fajar and Yasmin. We pause at a roadside stall, where a woman pours a jerry can of gas through a funnel held by her daughter, and then we’re off, lurching over rubble in the open-top jeep, maneuvering around huge boulders that weren’t here two years ago. The fog adds dramatic effect to a scene that doesn’t need embellishment: an old military jeep rolling through the quiet devastation of a war zone.
“Tours usually visit the key master’s grave,” Chris says, grinding through the gears. “But it’s getting dark and you have to see the museum.”
This is what disaster looks like: You stand awkwardly in front of the husk of an incinerated house, shivering slightly. It’s that time of day when the wind picks up just as the last bit of sunlight leaks from the sky. As if the space it took up insists on being filled. The full skeleton of a cow is assembled on the ground where a front door should be. An old woman the size of a child appears. Her face is all wrinkles and a toothy smile. Nobody else is here. This is the solemn cathedral you expected.
The woman’s name is Ibu Wati and she doesn’t live here anymore. She lives down the mountain now and walks up here every day. She shakes your hand with intense sincerity, wrapping knobby fingers around yours, and invites you to walk among her memories—to tour her loss. She is the sole curator of this museum. You notice the dirt under her nails.
Ibu Wati speaks no English, but she accompanies you through the rooms. Cement stumps that suggest where walls once stood now display what remains of her belongings. You try to pause at each item, even when you can’t tell what it is, to pay some sort of respect. But what does that mean? If you look long enough, will it alleviate her loss?
Some objects take a few seconds to recognize: melted coins and silverware, blackened shoes and crispy books, the charred frames of a tricycle and a motorbike. A table and four chairs sit alone in one room, scorched, as if waiting for their owners to finally sit down to dinner.
Is it disaster tourism if you’re invited?
She points to what used to be her little studio; she used to teach dance here. You ask about the box of melted black rectangles. Cassette tapes. The reel of tape that once produced music is a solid black clump, the notes trapped inside. A few tapes are still intact, but most are warped into odd shapes, like an avant-garde art project or a science experiment gone awry.
A cracked clock with a partially melted face is mounted on one of the only walls still standing. The black hands are paralyzed at twelve and five, the red second hand just above the eight. Five minutes and forty seconds after midnight. Two cow jawbones hang on either side, a frame of bone and tooth. Underneath, on a scorched piece of wood, the date of the eruption is painted in white: 5 November 2010.
You feel paralyzed too. You didn’t realize it until this moment: today is November 5th.
Ibu Wati is asking you a question. Do you want to take your picture in front of the clock?
Unnamed emotions bloom in your chest. They crawl up your throat, flush your face. You feel like an intruder, a voyeur, but she wants you to take the picture. She comes here every day so that people like you can see the remnants of a life like hers.
Somewhere a muezzin is chanting the evening prayer, but the fog smothers the words into a single muted minor tone, like one black piano key held down too long. Ibu Wati gestures toward your husband’s camera, then to her disaster shrine. Her eyes shine in the twilight. You put a few rupiahs in her donation box and shake your head no. This is her story, not yours.
Should I even be telling it to you?
“My job is to stop lava from flowing down,” the key master told The Jakarta Globe in an interview before the 2010 eruption. “Let the volcano breathe, but not cough.”
Mbah Maridjan defied government evacuation orders. He ignored the warnings of Java’s head volcanologist and the pleadings of friends. To one such friend, The Jakarta Globe reported, he said, “My time to die in this place has almost come, I can’t leave.”
Mbah Maridjan’s son succeeded him as the next key master—the fourth generation of spirit guardians. Shortly after the eruption, KukuBima Ener-G mixed a new commercial with images of an erupting Merapi and a praying key master, memorializing Mbah Maridjan as a spiritual daredevil.
Later that week, Fajar picks us up at the Ministry of Coffee. We’re going back to Merapi so Rob can interview some of the drivers for a story. Rubbing his bloodshot eyes, Fajar tells us someone broke into an apartment in his complex the night before. “Who breaks in at midnight?” he laughs. “Any good thief knows that’s too early!” He and some friends took off after the culprit—armed with their swords. They spent a good part of the early morning hours searching for the thief.
“What would you have done if you caught him?” Rob asks.
“Kill him,” Fajar replies, without pause or bloodlust. I believe him. I catch Rob’s reflection in the rearview mirror. My eyes are wide, but my husband doesn’t flinch.
An hour later, we sit together with a handful of drivers on wooden benches in front of the jeep office. The wall next to me is plastered with photos of bikini-clad women sprawled across jeep hoods. I sip my sweet ginger tea and try not to breathe in too much secondhand smoke. Each time the drivers find an inroad for a dirty joke, they take it. The punch line usually has to do with cows. Fajar translates the jokes as well as the answers to Rob’s questions, which he now focuses on Tri, who is soft-spoken but still more talkative than the others.
For those who live in Merapi’s shadow, the question is never if, but when.
After the eruption, Tri’s seven cows became sick and skinny and he had to sell them. He was one of the first jeep drivers, he says, and his tour route goes past the remains of his house. But if he doesn’t mention it, his passengers don’t know. Like Ibu Wati, he returns day after day, while people who don’t live in the volcano’s shadow take pictures and imagine the drama.
“Where do you live now?” Rob asks. Fajar translates: In one of the “plastic houses”— shorthand for the temporary government housing for the tens of thousands displaced by the volcano. Two years have passed, and Tri and his family are still waiting to receive notice that their permanent government housing is ready.
“He wants to know if you’d like to see his plastic house,” Fajar says.
I look over at Rob. Is it disaster tourism if you’re invited?
This is what survival looks like: after showing you his home of bamboo poles and blue tarps in the displaced camp, Tri wants to make one last stop. His eyes gleam with mischief, or maybe pride. His sister has a half-melted television that still works. She isn’t supposed to be living in her house, he explains. It’s within the government boundaries still deemed unsafe for habitation, but so far nobody has checked.
The first thing you notice is the gauzy lattice of spider webs across the semi-scorched rafters. It’s dark in the house, but you quickly and easily make out hundreds of spiders. Panic scampers up your throat. This fear of yours feels ridiculous here, and you compose yourself while Tri fiddles with the TV. The back of it has indeed melted into a strange plastic crater. The electricity isn’t working, so he carries the TV to a different room while his sister rummages around for the antenna. You stand next to your husband in the dim room, everyone staring expectantly at the blank screen. Suddenly, as promised, it flickers to life.
Tri and his sister smile triumphantly, faces beaming in the electric glow.
Before dropping us off at our hostel, Fajar takes us to his favorite Sumatran restaurant for sheep curry. While we eat, he tells us that he gave almost all of his money to the search and rescue effort after the eruption. “I’d just spent my last rupiah on gas for my motorcycle and a few cigarettes to share with Yasmin when your friend called me to help him report on the eruption.” With the money he earned helping with that story, Fajar paid the rest of his college tuition and finished his degree. He’s never told our friend that, but this, I understand, is why he’s been such a dedicated guide.
“I would do anything for a friend,” Fajar says solemnly. “My goal in life is for the most people possible to cry when I die.” I can’t help thinking of the key master.
Rob tries to swipe the bill when it comes, but Fajar is quicker. “You can bring me a pair of American cowboy boots the next time you come to Indonesia!”
Back at the Ministry of Coffee, Fajar gets out of the car to say goodbye. I hug him and realize that he really is no bigger than me. Then he and Rob exchange the embrace of men—a handshake pulled into emphatic back pats.
Visiting Merapi is not like other volcanic sightseeing. At Volcano National Park in Hawaii, you can safely watch the natural wonder of lava bubbling and churning. At Pompeii, the ancient Italian city buried by the pyroclastic flow of Mount Vesuvius, you can tour the ruins, imagine lava coursing through the streets. But at Mount Merapi, it’s all there: the evidence of natural disaster, the daily lives of those who survived, the ghosts of what did not and the pressing inevitability of next time. You can see it, smell it, touch it. You can taste it in the ashy grit on your teeth.
Here is the uncomfortable truth of disaster tourism: we want to get close to danger without actually being in danger. But maybe there’s something more. Maybe it isn’t the tragedy that we are really drawn to. Maybe what we crave is evidence of human resilience. We want to see it with our own eyes, hope it exists within us should we ever need it. Maybe that’s the allure of the key-master legends, the ferocity in Fajar’s friendship, the story that the residents of Merapi want to share.
Come, Tri’s eyes sparkle. You must see our miraculous melted TV!
Come, Ibu Wati implores, her crow’s feet crinkling as she smiles. Take my hand. Tour my disaster. Walk among my rubble.
See my survival.
Kaitlin Barker Davis writes and plots her next travel adventure from Portland, Oregon, where she works in communications at the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization. Her essays have appeared in Narratively, The Rumpus, Sojourners and Willamette Week, and she received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University.
Lead image: Austin Chan