Flights of fancy

In the middle of my mud tour (see yesterday’s post), the driver stopped at a town to pass on some kind of message to his nephew. While I was waiting for him, I wandered around the corner into an amazing scene.

It was a pigeon race, right on the edge of the disaster zone. Guys (it seems to be a male sport) were lined up with their birds, and they’d release them on cue. The pigeons had to fly five times back and forth between their handlers and the other end of the field. The fastest bird in this particular race would win a million rupiah, or more than a hundred dollars U.S. They were even videotaping the whole thing in case of close finishes.

The little black thing near the right edge, above, is a pigeon in flight.

“This pigeon won a car,” said one guy. I protested that birds can’t drive, and the owner told me he was happy to handle that part himself.

I knew pigeon racing was popular here, but I’d never actually seen it. The whoops of the handlers, the speed of the birds and the overall excitement were kind of intoxicating, especially in the middle of touring a bunch of ghost towns. “Java is an amazing place,” I said to the driver when he came back, but I don’t think he knew why.

Mud revisited

While I was in Surabaya, I went down to Sidoarjo and took an ojek tour of the mud disaster zone. It was interesting to see how the landscape has changed since April. It’s like mud has become the full-time industry. There are pipes and machinery everywhere.

This goat was having a nice scratch, which reminded me of the time when a US Senator told me — with a straight face — that drilling for oil in Alaska benefited the local wildlife because “bears love walking on the pipelines.”

The abandoned houses have been pretty well picked over for roof tiles. Now the bricks are going.

Things have dried up a bit, since it’s the hot season. This guy was scavenging firewood from a dried-out village with a becak.

Some places are so deeply buried, there’s only a kind of moonscape left.

I kept thinking of the Shakespeare line, “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” I don’t know if they had sweet birds here before, but “bare” and “ruined” definitely fit the bill.

Mud tourists

For those who are just catching up, there are several posts here from our recent trip to the mud volcano disaster that has flooded thousands of people out of their homes in Sidoarjo, East Java …

The main highway in Porong runs right next to the disaster site. You can climb the embankment and look out over the mud lake and the distant geyser. On weekends, it’s full of mud tourists.

Local vendors bombard you with offers of ojek (motorcycle-taxi) rides and DVDs, sometimes actually pulling you toward their motorcycles by the arm. It’s a pretty aggressive scene by Indonesian standards. Some of the men who’ve lost their houses have been officially licensed as ojek drivers for the disaster area. They’re clearly pretty anxious to make some money.

Here’s a license: “Embankment Ojek Association, Victim of Hot Mud Overflow.” It must be odd to wear a badge that says “Victim.”

The long ride

For the last few months the mud from the volcano has been channeled into the Porong River and thence to the sea. We wanted to see the impact on marine life, so our “fixer,” a local reporter named Suyono, arranged for us to go out on a boat with the head of the fishermen’s association.

Here’s Suyono, lounging around as if he’s on a pleasure cruise, along with a photographer friend of his at the back and the fisherman in front. We were crazy about Suyono and enjoyed hanging out with him. When he SMSed us in the morning to find out the day’s agenda, he would often ask what we’d had for breakfast, which was oddly endearing.

I had blithely assumed it would take half an hour to get to our destination. It turned out to be two hours. Luckily we were close to shore the whole time so I wasn’t worried about safety. About an hour into the trip, though, I really, really had to pee. I wasn’t about to halt the expedition to go ashore, so after confirming that there was no miraculous hidden bathroom on board, I said I’d just crawl under a big orange tarp they had and use a plastic bag. Which I did. I felt I deserved a Girl Scout badge, but there wasn’t anyone around to give me one.

Finally we got to the mouth of the river, where we saw a huge mud flat stretching out into the ocean.

A fisherman was coming in with his catch. He told us there’d always been a mud flat here, but it had become much bigger and denser since the mud disaster, and the fishing had dropped off precipitously. With the scarcity of fish and the added impact of fuel price increases, he estimated he was making 80 percent less money now than a year ago. But, he said, with little education and no experience in any other job, “I can only work as a fisherman, what else can I do?”

People storage

Back to our Sidoarjo trip — Refugees from the mud volcano are being housed at a marketplace near the disaster area. The stalls they’re living in are meant to be used by vendors during the day and locked up at night; they’re not designed to be lived in. Even as market stalls they’d be pretty depressing: windowless, unventilated concrete boxes. They reminded me of the storage units you can rent in the US for your extra stuff that you don’t want to look at or have around anymore.

The banner refers to two proposed forms of compensation: being resettled en masse in a new housing development, or being given money to buy their own place. Sentiment throughout the camp was overwhelmingly in favor of cash. I think people are tired of being told where to live, what to eat, etc.

Here’s the inside of one. Charming, eh? Guess how many people were living in it.

That would be twelve. Twelve people from three families.

Now, here’s the part where I try to be fair: people are getting a roof over their head and three meals a day, all paid for by the gas company accused of causing the mess. Throughout Indonesia there are poor people living in tumbledown shacks they built themselves, so maybe a crowded market stall isn’t so bad. But I don’t think you should set conditions for refugees compared to the worst possible standard of living. And at least a leaky handbuilt house is your own house. When people said the lack of privacy was making them crazy, I believed them. And when they said the food was lousy, I believed them too.

The women have come up with an amusing answer to the food. Instead of eating the rice that comes in every meal packet, they spread it out to dry.

Then they make a dough out of it and fry it into crispy, salty crackers, which they sell. They use the proceeds to buy their own food, or to pay their kids’ school fees.

Mud cakes

We’re told Kue Lumpur, or mud cakes, were a specialty of the Sidoarjo area even before the mud volcano. They’re basically very tasty, eggy coconut custards. I’m not sure how they got their name.

We bought them at a Giant Hypermart in Surabaya, next to some Large Fried Things.

People at work laughed when I passed around “mud cakes from Sidoarjo.” Some actually recoiled. This perhaps validates the fear of one distressed local, who said, “Sidoarjo used to be famous for mud cakes; now it’s just famous for mud.”

Dropping the balls

The mud geyser is surrounded by embankments made out of dirt and sandbags, which hold back the main lake of hot mud. There are little paths up the sides so you can scramble up. At their tallest, the embankments are two or three times my height, so I was surprised when I climbed up to the lip of the dirt wall and found the mud nearly reaching the tops of the sandbags. That’s a lot of mud — more than a million barrels a day, according to many estimates.

Unfortunately the geyser itself was hidden behind big clouds of white smoke and steam. There’s a layer of water on top of the mud that forms waves that roll in and break, so it was a bit like an ordinary lake. But then there’s a layer of gunk underneath that seems to be at a slow boil. It goes splut, splut, splut, like thick oatmeal over a low flame.

The national team handling the disaster is trying to slow the geyser’s output by dropping chains of cement balls into it. You can see them sliding one of the balls toward the volcano on the cable in the photo above. This seems like a dubious notion and hardly anybody other than the national team has much faith in it. As I understand it, the idea is to absorb some of the geyser’s energy through friction and vibration. But there are fears the balls will just clog the exit and force the mud up through different cracks in the ground in other locations.

The balls do make handy lawn furniture, though.

Normal operation

On our first morning in Sidoarjo,we headed right down to the mud zone. After enduring a hellish traffic jam, we turned off the highway and walked up an incredibly dusty road crafted from the mud. On the way we passed buildings like this, submerged during the first stages of the eruption, before they built embankments to corral the hot mud. The sign says “Caution, depth +/- 5 meters” (that’s about 16 feet for us metric-impaired Americans).

The mud dries into a really fine sand that blows into your eyes, ears and nose. You can see why, according to the fishermen, it gets into fish’s gills and suffocates them. I felt a bit suffocated myself, especially given the pounding heat of the sun and the added warmth radiating from the mud volcano.

We checked in at this little control point with the helpful sign explaining the different levels of mud volcano danger, from “normal operation” to “extreme danger.”. Strangely enough, I don’t recall any flags or signs indicating what the actual level was. And what is “normal operation” of a hot mud geyser, anyway?

Now just another short dusty walk would bring us to the geyser, marked by the big construction machinery on the horizon.

Tomorrow: the volcano’s mouth!!!

Mud lake

We just got back from Sidoarjo with deadlines looming, so this will be short. It was a strange, sad, fascinating trip. Here’s a photo of the main lake of mud from atop the embankments holding it back. These dirt-and-sandbag walls are, in places, at least twice my height. The actual mud geyser is behind the smoke somewhere.

And here’s a guy pointing to the remains of his mud-flooded house from the world’s tippiest canoe. Chad is looking at me as if to say, “are you getting a good shot?” whereas I’m just trying not to capsize us.

This homeowner used to work in construction. Now nobody’s building in the area, so he parks cars for tourists who come to see the mud. He’s one of thousands of people scraping by, trying to make a living while waiting for some resolution to the situation. In his case, it’s been a nine-month wait.

More soon.