The Trials of Mt. Bromo

Leaving Ubud, the driver picked up speed. 90’s American dance music blared over the speakers. City streets flew by in a nauseating blur, hardly slowing at stoplights and busy intersections, braking in sudden shaky bursts that rattled the luggage above our heads. We were making our way to Mt. Bromo, an active volcano located in Tengger Semeru National Park, on a Bali-to-Java overnight bus. I hadn’t slept in two days and was hoping to catch up on the ride, and while Gunung Harta provided half-decent coaches, the trip was shaping up to be a terrifying mess.

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I was sitting next to Tony who was staring out the window listening to his iPod, biting his fingernails nervously. I wondered if he managed to drown out the synthesizers, drum machines, and auto-tuned voices filling the bus. Across the aisle were Zach and Jeff; Zach with his neck pillow secured and already sleeping, or so I thought (At one point, the music reached a miserable peak, and I let out a dissatisfied groan. Zach suddenly woke as if waiting for the opportunity and said, “So you like that part of the song, Danny?” Then managed a smug laugh and fell back asleep.), while Jeff made his best effort to read Dune among the chaos.

Then the cities disappeared, and we were surrounded by dense jungle. The sky was a darkening blue as we headed into the hills. I covered myself in the complimentary blanket, face and all, until the world was an inky black. The bus veered around curves at 80 mph, tires squealing on the pavement. And in the moments when sleep would once again slip between my fingers, like shaking hands with a disinterested ghost, I peeked from within my cocoon catching glimpses of tail lights and headlights setting the darkened jungle ablaze.

By the time we reached the Bali-Java ferry, I’d racked up a terrible headache and hadn’t gained a wink of sleep. The bus backed onto the large passenger liner, wedging itself between other coaches and cars, packed together like a giant game of Tetris. Exiting the bus, I felt the cool sea air and smelled gasoline fumes permeating the space. Fluorescent lights buzzed high above our heads, unnaturally white, dotted by black flies.

Photo Credit: Jeff Hencz

Photo Credit: Jeff Hencz

We climbed a narrow metal staircase to a second-floor lounge – a long room filled with rows of orange seats, with wide windows that looked out to sea. The boat pulled away from the dock and the steady hum of the motor filled the room. Jeff smoked cigarettes and drank coffee from a melting plastic cup, Tony alternated between writing in his journal and laying across a row of seats, and Zach, for a time, was nowhere to be found.

At the far end of the room, behind a glass partition, was a darkened karaoke lounge occupied one man singing bad karaoke to an empty room, curled up in a chair with a wireless mic, wearing black dress socks with no shoes in sight. Fuzzy music videos were projected against the far wall with Indonesian subtitles scrolling across the bottom of the screen. The singing man knew the lyrics to every Indonesian pop tune the machine spit out, his voice a dull wail that mixed with the sound of the motor. It seemed like he’d been on the boat forever.

I stood at the open window looking into the night. The water was foamy green against the side of the boat, darkening to an uneasy blackness that met the slowly approaching island, lights glowing on its distant shores. Leaning out and looking up, I saw the hazy yellow moon hanging among the clouds. The air smelled like fish and piss (I was standing near the bathrooms). I could hardly keep my eyes open but inwardly felt excited and alive.

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Docking in Probolinggo

***

We docked in Probolinggo harbor at 2:30 am, were picked up and dropped off by another coach at a small bus stop where strange people milled about or slept on the bench beneath an awning. Street lights flickered absently from red to green at the intersection, and behind the awning was a fold-out table with a dirty patterned cloth on which there was a plate piled high with fried tofu sqaures. A large woman sat beside the table fanning herself with a piece of cardboard. I could see the sweat droplets on her forehead glisten under the fluorescent light swarmed with insects. There was an odd stillness in the muggy air, like this night had been going on for years.

We set our bags down and tried to figure what was next.

“This can’t be the main bus terminal,” said Zach lying against his pack, flipping pages of the Lonely Planet. “There should be a minibus station nearby. ‘Bout half a mile from here, we’ll probably have to walk.”

Something landed on Zach’s head and he swiped it away nonchalantly, then jumped to his feet in surprise. A spider the size of a salt shaker! With two-inch legs, and a yellow-black abdomen crawling erratically over our bags. We watched with fascination and disgust, then looked at each other. I sure as hell wasn’t going to pick it up. Then the spider found its way to the bench. We hastily gathered our packs and moved away. In the very same moment, a man wearing a navy sweat suit stumbled toward us, gesturing emphatically into the street.

You…come with me…” he said pointing to himself, “I’ll take you to a friend…” pointing again into the street, “to a room…very cheap!”

We gave each other the no-way-this-guy-is-going-to-rob-us look. “I think we’re going to look around first,” said Zach drawing a circle above his head. At which point we agreed it best to leave this place and started down the street. Out the corner of my eye, I saw one of the men sitting on the bench pick up the spider and pocket it.

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Where the heck are we?

We walked along a wide empty street, supposedly heading toward the main bus terminal. Save the occasional car, we were alone beneath the foggy street lamps, passing darkened homes and vacant yards, feeling very tired and lost. Across the street a parked minibus honked its horn. This shook me from my delirium. The driver honked again, then again, longer this time, leaning out the window shouting, “Hey! Hey! where you going!” as if trying to accuse us of something. We crossed and told him we wanted Cemoro Lawang, the town at the base of Bromo. A little too quickly, the driver agreed to take us there, and a little too quickly, we agreed and climbed in back.

For a mere thirty seconds, I felt reassured that I knew where we were going. That this bus was definitely going to take us to Bromo. But hard facts are difficult to come by at 3 am in Probolinggo, and less than a mile down road, the driver slowed in front of a house, honking his horn and yelling something out the window like he was calling someone outside. There was no answer save the howl of a dog in the backyard.

He sped away quickly, disappointed, next stopping in front what looked to be the main bus terminal, amounting to a long dark stretch of road leading to a building glowing with fluorescent lights. Outside was a group of five men standing a strange distance from one another, as if trying to not look associated, yet sharing the same dark intent.

The driver spoke to one of the men who was smoking a cigarette. I couldn’t understand them, but if I had to guess the driver was explaining that we were lost, and American, and probably pocketing a fair sum of money. The man outside the car nodded his head, put out his cigarette, slid open the back door and leaned in, smiling. He too had a “friend” that would lead us to Bromo and promised that if we got out of the bus, he would take us where we needed to go.

Everybody here seems to have a friend, I thought, and these friends had all the answers to our problems.

I told everyone to stay put. There did not seem to be much dissent among us. These men were going to mug us, no doubt about it. And for the first time on that trip, my safety felt threatened.

Just then, an old lady wearing a flower-patterned dress broke into the circle, started beating her fists against the man’s chest, yelling at him in Indonesian, shooing them all away. And strangely enough, after exchanging annoyed glances, they listened, broke apart like chunks of ice in the Arctic Sea and floated back toward the bus terminal. Cautiously, we exited the vehicle. I nodded and smiled awkwardly at the old lady, thanking her, though I wasn’t sure what had transpired a moment earlier. The driver demanded 30,000 Rp, honking his horn as we walked away, and for one reason or another, Tony turned back and gave the man his undeserved payment.

The terminal offered little respite. It was a sad, strange place, lined with all the seedy folk in town, like to the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars, except there was no alcohol, no Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes, and nobody was having fun. Nobody was sleeping either, no, everybody in the bus station was eternally awake, wired on caffeine and cigarettes. Time did not matter here. They all knew each other, too, that much was certain, but nobody was friends. Their relationships were rooted in hard familiarity, territorial almost. Young or old, they were all searching for something they could never find. Money, maybe. Sex. Drugs. Whatever it was, they knew they wouldn’t get it from each other, so respected each other’s space. But us, a sorry looking lot, tired, sweaty, unshaven, and terribly lost, we were like fresh meat to those who were searching from the shadows. We were wanted, you could feel it under your skin.

We sat on a bench across from a table of young men who were smoking and drinking coffee, talking to each other in low tones, making eyes at us from droopy lids. I could feel the tension between our groups, as palpable as the hot night air. These guys wanted a fight and were looking for anything to spark it. We discussed our options. Either we search the station for someone to take us to Bromo, or we wait till morning, when the options were certain to be more numerous and viable. We decided on the latter; we would wait out the unending night at the edge of the world and hope someone might actually be willing to help us in the morning.

Jeff and Zach stepped outside for a cigarette, leaving Tony and I alone on the bench. The table of men intensified their stares, making it quite obvious they wanted conflict. One of the men, dark-skinned with slick black hair, made sharp eye contact with Tony. He poured his coffee into the filthy ash tray at the center of the table, and still making eye contact, drank it down to the bottom. Not a line of grimace crossed his face. “Jesus,” I whispered, and we got up without a word to join Jeff and Zach outside.

The main entrance to the bus terminal was a long strip of concrete lined with stone benches on either side. Above the benches were street lamps, burning white and buzzing. Tony sat next to Jeff and Zach on a bench, and I sat across from them. It was nearing 4am, and the other’s figured it best to wait out the night without sleep. I, on the other hand, decided that this was where I might actually get some sleep so lay out my towel and used it as a pillow. It was a miserable arrangement, the stone unyielding against my side, the towel flat and damp against my ear. I closed my eyes, and while I did not sleep, the events around me managed to grow distant, as if they themselves were a dream.

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4am at the bus terminal

We had three visitors throughout the night: the first was a man in black dress slacks and a white button down, extremely tall and lanky. Oily hair fell to his shoulders and his skin was oily in the same way, glistening in the lamplight. He didn’t say much; hell, he wasn’t even speaking a language! Using instead high yelps and giggles to communicate, accompanied by an insane smile. What did he want? I still have no idea. He grabbed Tony’s leg and jiggled his calf and kept jiggling and giggling until Tony (strangely non-perplexed by the situation) waved him off, and he disappeared into the shadows beyond the bus terminal.

The next visitor was a drug dealer, selling weed out of a battered suitcase. All drugs offenders in Indonesia are sentenced to death by law. We waved him off.

Our third and most involved visitor was a familiar face; the same man as who tried to rob us outside the terminal! When he approached, I was expecting trouble, but quite the opposite was the case. A few minutes into the conversation (he spoke broken English) we collectively realized that this man, with his beige windbreaker and pudgy face, was lonely! He just wanted to talk, to practice his English.

Zach did most of the talking. It even seemed like the two of them got along after a while. Once I realized there was no danger, I actually drifted into something like sleep, and their conversation came in broken segments. I remember the man unceremoniously began the conversation about race. He said, “There are five kinds of people in this world: Black, White, Brown, Red, and Yellow.” And although this was perhaps the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, none of us were going to contradict him. That would have been stupid.

But there did seem to be a reasoning behind the topic. He whipped out his cell phone and just as abruptly asked, “What do you think of pornography?” “I think it’s alright,” said Zach. “Do you watch porno in America?” “Oh, sure. It’s fairly common.” At which point he started the movie on his cell phone, and yep, my ears confirmed it, it was a porno, a black guy doing a white girl, and her chipmunk moans filled the quiet, uncomfortable space. “Is this real?” the man asked, and the three nodded their heads, yes that is very real. “And this does not bother you as a white man?” Again, Zach had the balls to answer (no pun intended). “No, not really. This is common in America. Black people and white people marry and have kids in America.” And the man was amazed, not for some perverted reasoning, as I had initially thought, while the porno still played in his hand, and I caught a closeup of some hard penetration before he put the phone away.

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Oh yes, I was very tired.

Where else did this conversation lead? I can hardly remember. It lasted until dawn, until the sky somehow changed from an endless black to a dull, distant blue, and the birds in the trees began to sing, and the shadows dried up like lakes from the ground, and people outside the terminal could be seen on their mopeds and in their cars starting a new day, and time had passed and was continuing to pass, though there must have been a lapse in time and that lapse must have been the bus terminal and all those who dwelled within. For one night, we were time’s rejects, and now I understand what purgatory must feel like, and why we fear the line between life and death. Yes, all of that can be found in Probolinggo.

At dawn we were joined by a group of French travelers who were also going to Bromo, which was like a breath of fresh air. Finally, someone with whom we can communicate! They told us we would find the minibus terminal just next door, and we headed there together.

It was hardly a terminal, as nothing is really what it claims to be in Indonesia. Rather, it was a tire shop with three janky minibus out front and a group of skeezy Indonesians smoking kreteks barefoot, leaning against a pile of tires, wearing matching red polos. They all had thin mustaches and licked their lips and were missing teeth. We asked them to take us to Bromo and one of them informed us that we needed eight travelers to accompany us to the top before they could leave. Then and only then would the trip cost the 30,000 Rp as advertised in the Lonely Planet.

Of course, another scam!

We shrugged our shoulders and drank grainy coffee at the warung next door. Surely it wouldn’t take long for other travelers to arrive. The ceiling fan whirred above our heads, the television played a fuzzy soap opera, and morning light filled the room. The coffee helped the sleep deprivation, but only a little. The delirium was tremendous; anytime I closed my eyes beyond a blink, I could see dreams forming in bright pinks and purples and whites. Never before had I come so close to dreaming in waking life, and the feeling was not unpleasant.

We finished and paid and lay against our packs in the parking lot outside the warung under the shade of a large tree. We spoke to our french companions, who were decent people and spoke decent English. Two were from Bordeaux and the other two from Paris. They knew each other from L’universitie Sorbonne and were on holiday. Simple, surface conversation, but it broke the motony of speaking to one another, which is all we had for three days prior. At one point or another, one of us would drift off into sleep involuntarily, and the other’s would carry the conversation, and it continued in this way until I decided to try to catch some honest sleep beneath a tree further down the lot, and again laid my towel beneath my head, and watched another large spider spin its web meticulously above my head, which was symbolic of something…and hypnotic.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Hencz

One hour passed, then two, then three. Where were these other travelers? The drivers did not seem to be in any hurry. In fact, they had hardly moved since we first spoke. I couldn’t catch any real sleep, the spider dangling above my head on thin threads made me nervous. I was expecting it to fall on my head each time I closed my eyes, so eventually got fed up, and talked to Jeff, who had taken to wandering the parking lot aimlessly, smoking cigarette after cigarette and looking like hell.

“Well, what should we do?” I said.

Jeff shrugged, “You wanna ask them to go now?”

“We’ll have to pay more.”

“What’s the difference? It’s been three hours already.”

“Guess you’re right.”

“Maybe we can find some travelers back at the station.”

“It’s worth a shot. I’ll head to the station and you gather the others. Maybe try to talk the price down.”

Jeff nodded and flicked his cigarette, blowing the last plume of smoke from his mouth, where it wafted into the trees.

The bus station was a very different place during the day. Sunlight illuminated its corridors, children walked hand in hand with their grandmothers. Cafes were buzzing; travelers sipping coffee and playing cards, others leaning against walls, smoking. Yet I couldn’t spot a single foreigner, and each time I asked “Bromo?” I was pointed in the direction of the minibus station.

In my search I ran into the old lady who saved us from being mugged the previous night. In the daylight she looked rather youthful and calm. She recognized me at once. “You okay?” she asked, gesturing with her finger in my general direction. “Yes, thank you.” I gave her a nod and a smile. “Where you from?” “America.” “Oh, America!” She laughed. “You far from home!” I laughed nervously, “Yup, and you?”  “Here,” she said pointing at the ground beneath her sneakers. “Live here at the station.” Then she smiled at me, revealing a mouth of yellow crooked teeth.

I returned to the minibus station empty handed. Our companions were speaking French rapidly and quietly to one another. Zach, Jeff, and Tony were lying against the packs, half asleep.

“Well, what’s the word?” I asked Jeff.

“They wanted 60 per person, and we talked them down to 55, and they’re not budging.”

“Well I couldn’t find anyone at the bus station. You want to bite the bullet? Get the hell out of here?”

Jeff agreed. I spoke with the French travelers, and they consented. 55,000 Rp it was, an unfair price taken out of frustration and apathy.

The minibus was a cramped, musty affair. Four rows of bench seats, their cracked leather covering ripped apart at various places, and its yellow, spongy stuffing torn from the inside, like an animal had attacked. We piled our packs on the front-most bench and filled the three remaining rows with our bodies. I sat in the back row, closest the right side window, Tony and Zach to my left. I hated the drivers. They didn’t give a damn. They knew all along there was no way eight travelers could fit into this death machine. The whole thing was a waiting game, and they always won.

***

The road to Bromo banked sharply around switchbacks as we ascended into the mountains. The driver, so familiar with the route, steered recklessley side to side. The van had no air conditioning and was nearing an unbearable heat, not to mention the odor of sweat and gasoline permeating the air. I could think of nothing better than to try and sleep, but each time I lay my head against the window and closed my eyes, the van took a sharp turn and my head was thrown against the glass, or against the bench in front of me. Somehow Zach was able to sleep (a recurring theme throughout the trip), his head lolling back and forth, swaying with the van. The hot morning sun would fall on his face, creep into his agape mouth, then slip into the space between us and disappear out my window. Nothing seemed to shake him, and I regarded his snores and dreams with envy.

In the rare moments when I was able to focus on the world outside the van, I caught glimpses of some truly astounding scenery. We drove through mountains covered in greenery and shrouded in cool gray mist, arching majestically into aching blue skies. We drove through villages farming the steep cliffsides; stalks of corn and sugar cane standing at near 90 degree angles. The women and men of the village walked the steep roads on bare feet, balancing poles across their shoulders with water buckets swaying on each end. They walked as if the climb were their morning commute. In fact, it probably was. Instead of sitting in a car in rush hour traffic, waiting to get to an office, the villagers climbed the mountain, stressed their bodies in the hot sun. And instead of collecting a paycheck, whether for survival or comfort, the villagers lived for the mountain. It was the very medium of their existence, the basis of their lives.

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Outside the van. Photo Credit: Jeff Hencz

At last, we reached Cemoro Lawang, vacating the van as quickly as possible into the cool, thin mountain air. Milky sunlight flooded the streets, so bright you had to squint to see anything in focus. I could breathe again, and stretch my legs, and for a moment felt again like I was dreaming. Yet the tiredness of my body, and the weakness of my thoughts, entering and leaving my mind like a plastic bag whipped about in the breeze, reminded me that I was still awake. Still awake!

We grabbed a meal the first warung we could find. A tiny house painted blue on the inside, lined with shelves of water bottles, canned goods, and glass bottles of Sprite and Coca-Cola. The meal was forgettable: nasi goreng for the hundredth time, and the iced tea tasted like cough syrup. We were damned irritable during the meal. Didn’t say much to one another outside practical business, and even those words were tensed.

Photo Credit: Jeff Hencz

Photo Credit: Jeff Hencz

We hitched our packs and headed for the park entrance, a quick climb up the hillside. At the information desk, we were expected to pay a whopping 300,000 Rp for entrance, while locals were charged a mere 30,000 Rp. We’d been swindled many times on that trip, but nothing felt more like a slap in the face than paying the entrance fee to Bromo, and pitching in for Zach’s ticket. I expected Bromo to be beautiful and mysterious, but I knew it wasn’t worth 300,000 Rp, especially since the trip was nearing an end, and we were all running low on money.

After a long descent into the valley, motorbikes and jeeps filled with tourists zooming by, we stood at the entrance to the volcanic ash desert that surrounded the volcano; The Sea of Sands. The sand was fine and gray, and the desert large, desolate, and impressive in its bleakness. There were only a few forms of plant life poking from beneath the folds; sharp tall grasses swaying in clusters, and a lone tree in the middle of the vacant expanse. Far ahead was the smoking crater of Bromo, belching white sulfurous clouds into the air from an unseen source.

We marched, wind whipping our ears, and sand clouding our eyes. The ground felt hard beneath my shoes. Any words spoken seemed to be swallowed instantly by the silence that stretched in all directions. On either side, vehicles moved as tiny dots along the horizon, occasionally bearing the thin wail of a jeep or motorbike engine. It felt very much a like Dali dreamscape, with brightly-colored figures moving ambiguously in the distance, seemingly without connection or purpose. Sand cyclones kicked up gray dust then disappeared like ghosts. Deep, scar-like grooves cut the earth where rivers had once flowed. Never before had I been surrounded by so much death. And all the while, the smoking crater approached.

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The Sea of Sands

There were many people around the base of the climb, even a film crew preparing some kind of documentary, actors milling about, technicians moving around lights and microphones. Perhaps the film was on the most recent eruption of Bromo, which was in 2011, causing a film of volcanic ash to drift down to the rooftops and streets of Probolinggo, some claiming it drifted as far as Bali and northern Australia.

A long staircase was carved into the side of the mountain, and we started the climb our heavy packs. This was the final ascent, after two days without sleep, and all of our recent hardships, we were finally going to reach our fabled crater. My legs ached beneath the weight of my pack. I grasped at the railing, huffing and puffing, miserably exhausted, and slowly but surely, the number of stairs in front of me became be fewer and fewer, and then we were at the top.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Hencz

And Bromo did not disappoint. No, it was otherworldly in nature, a massive crater at the center of a mountain, so large a hot air balloon could comfortably descend into its depths. And from its massive black mouth came forth white sulfuric clouds, reeking and endless, disappearing in the sky. Ancient and terrifying, mysterious and beautiful, for a while all I could do was stare in awe. And that endless crater, leading so far into the earth! I imagined my own death, falling into that crater, looking up at the disappearing circle of light, consumed by heat and vapor. When would I burn up? Would I hit a rocky outcropping and break my spine? I was morbidly fascinated.

Indeed it was a triumphant moment, but was it worth the hardship we endured? Of course it was! Travel hurts. It pushes your boundaries in ways you’d never expect, sometimes unmercifully. You are thrown into situations you cannot control, forced to speak to people you’d never otherwise engage, and make sacrifices that cause a rupture in stability. And what is it all for, but the feeling you get when you reach the top. That sense of accomplishment outweighs the greatest fatigue and paints your perception in such a way that you are once again grateful to see, to perceive, reality in its many forms.

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Zach staring into the abyss. Photo Credit: Jeff Hencz

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