Staring Down Volcanoes

This post is a continuation of my trip to Indonesia. If you missed the first part, check out my post titled “Now Where Was I?” to get the full story.

The train came at about 2:30am, an hour late. The train was not what we expected it to be. My original plan included an overnight trip on an executive-class train that had air conditioned cars, reclining seats, and was recommended by everyone I spoke to. Somehow, in our quest for penny-pinching madness, we decided to spend around $10 less and buy a ticket on another train. This other train was also “executive-class”, but as we quickly found out, price is a much better indicator of comfort than “executive-,” “business-,” or “economy-” class is.

We bought tickets a little late, so all of us were split up among the different cars. Some of us, such as Dina and I, got lucky and had seats next to each other. The train pulled up to the station, and I got the first glimpse into the dim windows of the train. I don’t think anyone else bothered to look inside, and luckily nobody saw the look on my face. It didn’t matter though, we were all about to board anyway. We said our brief goodbyes, split up, and hopped on.

No air conditioning. Okay, that’s really not a big deal at all. We all live in apartments with no air con, we’re used to this. Bench seats. Interesting, I wasn’t expecting that. Looks like we won’t be able to sleep that easily after all. Wait, why is this guy laying on the floor? Wait, was that a..? No, what? Man, get out of my face, I don’t want to buy your trinkets, at least let me sit down first. Stop yelling at me, I don’t even understand you. Why is this guy sitting in my seat? What is that smell? Wait, I just saw it again, that’s a…

Yeah, that’s definitely a rat.

Not a big deal. I wasn’t expecting luxury or anything. Sleeping on a train with rats is roughing it a bit more than I had planned, but I’m backpacking through Indonesia. I knew I would be making concessions somewhere. But the others… the others freak out when they see a cockroach. Thank God that Dina didn’t see it. I don’t think she did, anyway, and I’m not going to tell her about it. No need to freak her out… oh no. I told everyone that this train was going to be comfortable. This is my fault. I got us on this train. Everyone is going to kill me. Oh please don’t look at me like that, Dina. I think I can feel the blood draining from my face. Everyone hates me right now, I can feel it. I can feel their hatred rushing in through the open windows. Or maybe that’s just the smoggy air… oh WHAT IS THAT SMELL?

Get the point?

The train ride was rough. Six hours of people walking up and down the aisle, screaming at you in Indonesian trying to get you to buy their random wares. Some guy was sitting in the aisle next to us with a box of something terrible smelling. At least the open windows meant that a decent breeze was coming into the train car. It also meant that the deafening noise of the train engine and tracks made sleeping incredibly hard. I don’t have any pictures because I didn’t want to risk taking out my phone or camera and revealing that I was carrying either of them.

Anyone reading this who has taken a train in rural India or anywhere else in Southeast Asia is probably laughing at me right now. All things considered, our train ride wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it could have been. It was just not what we were expecting at all, and everything was made worse because we had been awake for 23 hours at this point and were hoping to get some sleep.

At first, Dina and I took turns sleeping. I stared at the wall for about an hour before she woke up and let me try to nap a bit. I dozed off for about five minutes before another hawker yelled in my ear and woke me up. Eventually Dina and I gave up and just slept whenever we could. I couldn’t help but wake up every 15 minutes or so, though, and I only got about an hour of decent sleep for the entire train ride. As soon as the sun rose, the light was beaming directly onto my face and killed any further chances of rest.

We got to the station in Surabaya. Dreary-eyed and still in a bad mood, we all gathered on the train platform. I slowly approached the group, expecting someone to unleash on me about my terrible planning. Nobody did. The looks on everyone’s faces said it all, but they were all nice enough to hold back their tongues. I’ve got good friends. Really good friends.

But our troubles weren’t over. The driver that we had arranged to pick us up from the train station was, yet again, nowhere to be found. After some confused conversations with locals, we found someone that understood a small bit of English. She led us to the back of a small convenience store where there was a phone, and she paid off the store owner to let us use it. A nice gesture. I wasn’t able to find out how much she paid, and she ran off too fast to let me repay her. Thanks again, mysterious train station lady. We were able to call our driver and he arrived shortly to pick us up in a small van that fit five people.

There were nine of us. We had been assured by the driver that he would have a van big enough for all of us. He insisted that this small van was all that was available at the time, and would have to do. We protested, but it was clear that there really was nothing he could do. Then a nearby taxi driver, overhearing us, offered to drive half of us in his car while the other half rode in the van. And he did it for free.

Here we were, nine tourists lost in one of the world’s largest cities with language barriers all around us, and for some reason two locals had just given up their time and money to help us out. Things were looking up for us.

Climbing Mountains

The ride from the train station to Cemoro Lawang (the small village near Mount Bromo where we planned to stay the night) was a sleepy one. In between short naps, I watched Surabaya and other small roadside villages speed by. Surabaya is an interesting city. Small, slummy neighborhoods transformed into enormous shopping centers within only a few yards. The highways were huge, but congested, and driving was as bad as everywhere else in Indonesia.

Once we got closer to the mountains, the scenery changed drastically. The drive up the winding, small, dangerous roads was beautiful. I was the only one awake to appreciate it all, and I quietly wondered whether I should wake everyone up or let them sleep. I decided to “accidentally” slam my hand into the leather seat, causing a noise loud enough to wake Cynthia, Kelly, and Lisa.

“Oh my God! Look at that! How long have I been asleep? Where’s my camera?!”

Ahahaha, success!

On the ride up

We got to our hotel around 3:00pm. We wanted to explore the crater as soon as we got there, so we stashed our bags in our rooms and took off for the crater’s edge. The sun was going to set in only two hours, and we did not want to be in the middle of an empty, unlit wasteland when the sun was down. It would almost certainly mean we would get lost, and we had heard that it was possible for temperatures in the crater to drop below freezing at night. We were on a mission, though. We were going to climb Bromo if it killed us.

Walking on the Moon

A long time ago, a supermassive volcanic eruption resulted in the crater we were now standing in. The crater is several kilometers in diameter and almost entirely flat. At the center of the crater stand three smaller volcanoes, one of which is Mount Bromo. Bromo is a fully active volcano that actually erupted in January of this year, leaving a thick coat of ash on everything. The entire place looked like a wasteland, and almost felt as if we were walking across the surface of the moon. The previous eruption had killed off most nearby vegetation, although small plants and trees had begun to spring up here and there. The plants themselves told a story about the volcanoes. Trees and brush struggled to grow in this vast sea of sand and ash. Some of the trees, lucky enough to sprout up in the shadow of one of the mountains, were shielded from the volcano’s blast and grew much bigger than their smaller, less fortunate friends. The trees that died served as fertilizer for the new plants attempting to grow in their place, safe only until the next eruption. It was a story of growth, death, and regrowth. A cool sight.

Looking over the edge of the crater
Random group pose at the base of Bromo

The Tengger Crater, as it is called, is inhabited by a group of people known as the Tenggerese. Separated from any other groups in Southeast Asia, these mountaineers seemed like people you would find in the Himalayas or the Andes, not in the middle of Indonesia. They rode horseback around the crater with packs of dogs following them around. Occasionally, one or two would gallop past us with their dogs not far behind.

Walking across The Sea of Sand
Picturesque, no?

The Tenggerese practice a subset of Hinduism and at the base of Mount Bromo is a Hindu temple, though it lays unused except for one celebration per year. As we passed the eerily empty temple, Bromo loomed above us, taunting us with occasional puffs of smoke. We were close enough to see the path leading up to the volcano’s rim, and we were racing against the sun to get there. We reached the beginning of the path soon enough, and other than a few locals selling overpriced drinks and snacks, we were the only people around. That is, until a group of 30 or so German tourists pulled up in a pack of jeeps.

Mount Bromo with Pura Luhur Poten, the Tenggerese temple, in the foreground

As soon as we saw how many of them there were, we knew we had to get to the top of Bromo before they crowded the small, dangerous staircase. We took off along the path up the mountain as fast as we could. Tin climbed a small rock face, walking along the cliff above the main path. Alison and I reached the staircase first. From far away, nobody really realized how big this staircase was, but standing at the base of it revealed how daunting of a task it would be to climb. It was at least 250 very steep steps, and to make matters worse, the entire thing was covered in a foot of slippery volcanic ash.

The Depths of the Earth…

We stopped a few times to catch our breath and take in the amazing view of the crater. The air was getting noticeably thinner and it was becoming harder and harder to breathe. We were almost to the top, though. Climbing the last ten steps is a memory that will stay with me until the very day that I die. It was, without a doubt, one of the most amazing and breathtaking things I have ever experienced.

I was mid-conversation with Alison when I reached the top. She was only a few steps behind, and we were joking about a random comment on my Facebook I had received the night before. I climbed the last step and caught my first glimpse of the caldera. Mid-sentence, I stopped. I couldn’t speak anymore. My entire train of thought came screeching to a halt. All I could do was stand in amazement as my mind tried to comprehend the view in front of me. My jaw was dropped. I might have even shed a tear.

You know those moments in life where you realize that every hardship you have ever endured has been absolutely worth it, just for this one moment? Those moments where your mouth drops, your body freezes, and the only thing you can do is thank God for the amazing, wonderful, awe-inspiring blessings you’ve been given? Those moments that literally take your breath away? This was one of those moments. Suddenly every bit of trouble with the train, the hotel, and the taxi driver was behind me. All of the stress of planning the trip was forgotten. The harrowing, tiring climb up the side of this mountain was over. And it was all worth it. It was a million times worth it.

I don’t know how long I stayed like that. Several seconds, perhaps minutes, I’m not sure. Eventually I turned around to grab Alison and pull her up to where I was. She had to see this, everyone had to see this. We made eye contact. She asked “What?” but I couldn’t respond. I was speechless. I grabbed her hand and pulled her off of the staircase, onto the small ledge that formed the rim of the volcano. Below us, I was expecting a small crater. Perhaps in the middle there would be a small hole that sulfur and smoke would occasionally rise out of. Instead there was an abyss, a pit the size of a city block that seemingly traveled to the center of the earth. The crater was huge and steep. Pulverized rock had fallen away from the sides of the crater, revealing veins of multicolored minerals glimmering faintly in the sunlight. The sharp drop into the pit was marked with jagged rocks and a steady stream of falling ash. Every few minutes, an enormous cloud of smoke would rise from somewhere within the depths of the Earth.

The small ledge on the rim of Bromo
Bromo Bromo Bromo

The others reached the top not too long after us. We ran around like little kids exploring a playground (probably not that smart, considering we were only one wrong step from falling into a gaping volcano). Some locals sold us small bouquets of flowers to throw into the pit. I assume it was custom to do that as an offering of some sort, or it may have just been a well-crafted way to get our money from us. I didn’t care. At one point, Tin accidentally dropped his sunglasses onto a ledge several feet below the rim. A local offered to climb down and get them for him for a dollar, and we accepted. We watched as he cautiously climbed to the ledge, almost slipping and falling down the side of the crater multiple times. What these people will do for a dollar…

Eventually we had to head back down. The sun was still racing against us, and we wanted to be out of the Tengger Crater before nightfall. At the base of Bromo, some locals offered us horseback rides to the edge of the crater. There were only three horses, so only three were able to take advantage of this. I had thought that these rides would mean you and the local would be sitting on the back of the horse while the local did all the steering. Nope. The local hopped off, you hopped on, and off you went galloping into the sunset.

We got back to our hotel just as the sun was setting. Perfect timing. Between the nine of us, we spent a few hours cleaning the ash off in the hotel’s only two showers. After our trek, ash was covering everything. It’s almost been a month and I still don’t think I’ve gotten all of it out of my hair. The place we were staying was actually a German-run place somewhat known for their fantastic potato dishes. I have to say, dinner was pretty good. We all crashed soon after, though. We had planned another early morning climb up the side of a nearby mountain so that we could see the Tengger Crater at sunrise.

We hitched a ride to our hotel from a random shopkeep. He insisted we take a picture with his van (?)

…and Far Above the Clouds

We woke up and gathered outside at 3:00am. This was going to be our third morning to see the sunrise in a row, and we were all still running on less than ten hours of sleep over the past three days. We were tired, but anxious. Several other travelers staying out our hotel were going on the same climb, so we hung out with them until our rides to the base of the mountain arrived. The locals here have invested heavily in a fleet of Toyota Land Cruisers to take the tourists around the different areas of Tengger (each Land Cruiser had a huge “Bromo JEEP Club” decal, though. Sorry Toyota). We climbed into the back compartment of one of the cruisers and within half an hour we were at the foot of Mount Penanjakan. Penanjakan is one of the tallest mountains in the surrounding area (the tallest is actually Mount Semeru, a dangerously active volcano only a few miles away) and offers an amazing view of the Tengger Crater. We climbed up a small, rocky, narrow trail for what seemed to be an hour or more. Eventually we reached the main observation point and were swiftly bombarded with offers to sell us drinks and snacks of all kinds.

It was cold. We were at an elevation of 9,000 feet and it was early in the morning. It was the first (and probably will be the only) time since coming to Singapore that I have had to wear a jacket. I caved in and bought a cup of hot chocolate from one of the vendors.

The view from Penanjakan was almost as breathtaking as Bromo was. To the east we could see the sun slowly rising over the peaks of the nearby mountain ranges, and as the sun rose it revealed the calm, tiny villages and farms that covered the valley below. I was amazed at how many mountain peaks there were to our east. It was incredible that we were so high above them. And then the sun revealed that they were not, in fact, mountains. They were clouds. We were thousands of feet above the clouds.


To our west were Tengger, Bromo, and Semeru in all of their glory. The view of the crater from here revealed just how incredibly huge it was. It was mind boggling that we had crossed that massive sea of sand on foot. Semeru puffed out little clouds of smoke every now and then, Bromo did the same, trying to compete with its much larger, much more dangerous counterpart. The Tenggerese temple sat quietly at the base of Bromo, and the sea of sand around it lay completely flat and motionless except for the occasional dust devil. The Tenggerese people believe that the Tengger crater is the center of all creation, and seeing it from the top of Penanjakan made it very apparent why. It was beautiful. It was really, really beautiful.

The Tengger Crater. Mount Bromo is the smaller volcano on the left, and Mount Semeru is the one in the back with the puff of smoke
Obligatory UT pic

While wandering around the observation point, I unexpectedly ran into one of my roommates! He had left Singapore almost a week before I did and we had no idea that we would both be making the trip to Penanjakan. He had been missing for almost a week and I ran into him on the top of a mountain! Crazy. I love running into friends in strange places.

This guy goes missing for a week and shows up at the top of a mountain in Indonesia. He was also freezing because he didn't have a jacket. Oh Johannes...

We descended the mountain the same way we climbed up, and returned to our hotel for breakfast as it was only around 7:30am at this point. I had arranged for a driver (the same driver that picked us up from the train station, actually) to pick us up from our hotel around 9:30am and take us to Banyuwangi, from where we would take a ferry to Bali.

Onwards and Upwards

I’ve gotten some questions about how I travel around all of these countries without a car or a decent public transport system, so I’ll try to explain it a little bit. It’s quite simple, actually. You find the nearest taxi driver or travel agency and ask them for a driver. The travel agencies have an enormous, nationwide network of vehicles and drivers that they call on to pick you up and take you wherever you want to go. If that seems a little sketchy, it’s because it is. Almost all of our trips consisted of multi-hour drives down unknown roads with a person we had met only minutes prior.

After our many hours of travel with Iwa, our driver, we became friends. He hardly spoke any English, but we were able to communicate well enough to tell each other jokes and talk about some of the sights we saw while zooming down the road. I liked Iwa. Most importantly, he was a really good driver. I keep saying how dangerous the traffic in Indonesia is, and that’s because it is absolutely crazy. People cross into oncoming lanes for no reason and more than once did I see motorcyclists or small cars come within inches of being crushed by a dump truck or bus. Iwa was really, really good though. We were in the car with him for a total of nine hours and I actually felt safe enough to sleep a bit (we set up the back seat of the van as a makeshift bed that we took turns sleeping on). I also had some time to take out a guidebook and look up a few phrases in Indonesian.

When we got to Banyuwangi, we unloaded from the van and I handed Iwa his payment for driving us. Then I took out 50,000 rupiah (about $5 USD) and handed it to him as a tip. He didn’t understand at first, but once he caught onto what I was doing his face lit up like Times Square. He shook my hand and kept repeating “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” I put my newly-acquired Indonesian to use and said “No, terimah kasih” (thank you) at which point his face lit up twice as much as before. He gripped my hand even harder and with the biggest smile I have ever seen he thanked me again. “Selamat tinggal,” I said (goodbye) and we parted ways. Indonesians are crazy friendly.

It wasn’t long before we were on the ferry to Bali. We wandered around the boat a bit, and eventually stumbled across the bridge. The door was open and when the captain saw us, he invited us all inside. We talked with the crew a bit and the captain even let us sit in the captain’s chair and spin the wheel around a bit. He even handed me the microphone to make announcements to the whole vessel. After a bit of chit chat, he also helped us organize a driver at the port on Bali that could take us to our hotel for the night. Again, really nice people.

Captain for a second

The ferry ride was awesome. The breeze was amazing, the ocean was beautiful, and in front of us the incredible Isle of the Gods, Bali, awaited our arrival.


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