Tourism in Java's Land of Ghosts

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As we neared the top, a monotone world surrounded us. The thickening fog stitched gray rocks to the sky. Piles of volcanic ash sat, untrammeled, in driveways, as innocuous as autumn leaves. The narrow road snaked ever upward, passing emergency shelters and informal checkpoints.

I was on Mount Merapi, whose active volcano dominates the horizon outside Yogyakarta, in central Java, Indonesia. My wife and I were visiting the country and had heard about the effort to transform the mountain into an unlikely tourist attraction since a 2010 eruption killed more than 300 villagers and forced over 100,000 to evacuate their homes and farms, and to abandon jobs in sand mining.

The only souls here were a surfeit of guides and visitors like us, driving up the mountain as far as our rented sedan would go.

That turned out to be about a mile from the peak, where a gravel lot was surrounded by modest wooden stalls selling phone cards, sweet ginger tea and cigarettes. More than a dozen drab Willys Jeeps, a World War II-era precursor of today's brand, sat ready. Because no formal roads went beyond the lot, we would need a Jeep, and a guide, to go any higher.

We enlisted a serene 30-year-old Javanese man from Yogyakarta named Christian Ignasius, who in the three years since the eruption has organized its tourism infrastructure: a shoestring operation in which 25 guides lead tourists on off-road treks to see what were once their vibrant villages. Money from the tours ($25 to $45, depending on length) is divided among drivers, their villages, widows and the poor, and the cooperative to which they belong. They call it the Merapi Jeep Tour Community. It is the latest of the ever-growing number of places hoping to gain from their loss by marketing themselves as destinations for disaster tourism.

We climbed in the seat-belt-free Jeep, and Christian took the wheel, cutting a precarious path through boulders left behind by pyroclastic flows from the eruption. Gears grinding, wheels spinning, the Jeep creaked through the fog, finding just enough traction to climb the massive mounds of rubble that had been violently tossed around us. We lurched atop what he estimated was 30 feet of debris.

Our first stop was a yellow sign warning: "Asap panas," Bahasa Indonesian for "hot air." Christian led us to a circle of rocks in what had been a riverbed beside a farming village just two years earlier.

As we looked around, it was easy to imagine the lush, bucolic life. A few miles downslope, verdant fields were still being tended. But here, when we dug into the ground, the gray, gravelly sand was hot and smelled of sulfur. I threw a football-size rock, and the thud from its landing produced a hollow echo rising from below. There was not enough water or vegetation to dampen the sound.

"There are a lot of ghosts here," Christian said.

He has been a refugee himself. He worked in Banda Aceh, on Sumatra, after the December 2004 tsunami killed an estimated 170,000 there, returning to Yogyakarta after his own home was destroyed in a 2006 earthquake. When Merapi erupted, he helped restore a supply of clean water and continued volunteering with the recovery effort for two years.

As throngs of curious tourists from Indonesia and across the world began arriving in 2011 to see the damage, Christian realized that they could support local jobs. And so, for $1,500, he bought his 1948 Willys Jeep and hired three drivers. Now the tours have become so popular, hosting nearly 1,000 visitors a month, that new drivers are chosen by lottery.

Although Christian took us up, he doesn't usually serve as a driver. But he introduced us to several, including Tri Triono, a quiet 33-year-old who used to raise dairy cows. He sold all 12 when they fell sick after an early eruption, a forerunner of the blast that destroyed his family's home.

Two years later, he's still living in a temporary house the government built in an anonymous cut of jungle. He can't move back home, but he drives tourists past its shell. His new work is easier and better paying than raising cows, Tri said, but constantly revisiting the land where his family lived for generations ("since before it was called Indonesia") weighs on him.

"Economically, I feel better today," Tri told us through an interpreter. He earns $5 for each Jeep tour and is paid every day, not once or twice a year. "But I really miss the old times. Psychologically, we were more comfortable before it erupted."

Because we'd made our impromptu trip to Merapi late in the day and needed to be back down before dark, we didn't make every stop, which included a mass grave and photo-ops at otherworldly boulders. Nor did we visit the tomb of Mbah Maridjan, the mystical "key master" -- appointed by a local sultan to make offerings to a large hill near Merapi's mouth in order to steer lava from Yogyakarta -- who died in the 2010 eruption. But our curiosity turned brief photo ops into long conversations with Christian about the eruption and life after it. As we drove from place to place, the bumps nearly pitched us out.

With the light fading, we made a final stop at the concrete ruins of a house, which had become a makeshift museum. We made an offering in the worn donation box. An aging woman with a small frame and a bright smile emerged. She introduced herself as Abu Wati. This, she told us, was her home. She'd had a dance studio here, she said, pointing to warped cassette tapes on a table.

She fled before the eruption but carried nothing with her. She lives down the volcano's slopes now, in a temporary government-built camp. But every day she returns to this place she lost, collecting grass for her goats and showing visitors around.

Her old home is a frozen-in-time homage to the eruption and life before it. Her four cows' skulls sit out front. The remote control is melted to the television. The arms of her analog clock, still on the wall, mark the time of the biggest blast: 12:05 a.m. and 42 seconds. She offered to take a photograph of my wife and me standing in front of it. (We politely declined, feeling as if we were invading her privacy, even though she had welcomed us in.)

Looking at the clock, we made an unsettling connection: the deadliest blast had happened exactly two years to the day before our visit. The sun, which long ago disappeared in the mist, had set. We were suddenly hyper-aware that we were standing atop a deadly volcano. An overwhelming sense of isolation set in: time to go home.

Christian led us on a jolting path back to base camp, bouncing along a freshly cut road. He said he hopes for a day when the Jeep drivers are able to return to their old jobs. But he warned that another eruption is expected in 2014. Like other Javanese we met atop the volcano, he's unfazed by the threat.

"I don't know what will happen," he said. "Maybe big, maybe little. So please come! You can make a photo."

EXPLORING OTHER VOLCANOES

Volcanoes have long drawn tourists who want to see long-abandoned ruins on dormant mountains or experience an active peak. Here are some of the most accessible places to explore a volcano.

Mount Fuji: Japan -- The snowcapped cone atop Japan's tallest mountain is admired from afar for its beauty, visible from Tokyo on a clear day. The mountain itself, an active volcano whose last eruption was in the 18th century, also draws plenty of tourists who try to reach the summit in time for sunrise.

Mount Kilimanjaro: Tanzania -- This nearly 20,000-foot peak is Africa's tallest and contains craters left by volcanoes that erupted thousands of years ago. The volcano is dormant, but the mountain draws tourists for its diverse topography and an otherworldly summit.

Mount Vesuvius: Italy (pdf) -- The eruption of this mountain near Naples in A.D. 79 buried the nearby town of Pompeii in ash and pumice. The town was excavated and is now a Unesco heritage site, drawing millions of visitors a year. Tourists who want to visit the mountain itself, which last erupted in 1944, can do so by entering a national park in the area.

Thrihnukagigur: Iceland -- The draw here is a bird's-eye view of the magma chamber of Thrihnukagigur, a dormant volcano a short drive from Reykjavik. A tour operator lowers visitors 400 feet into the chamber of the volcano, which last erupted thousands of years ago.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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