Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

As ash and smoke continue to rain down upon the poor communities surrounding the still erupting Merapi in Central Java, turning their villages into one vast pub carpet, I thought that it might be a good idea to get a look at one of these smokers up close. In fact, last weekend I joined up with the ever outbound boys and girls from Java Lava, Jakarta's premier expatriate hiking club (check them out on the Interwebs) in order to tramp through the highlands north of Bandung, finishing up at the smoking volcano crater of the legendary Tangkuban Perahu.

Indonesia is chock full of volcanoes of course, around 200 of which are still active, which is more than can be found in any other country on earth. Indonesia is a land of smoke for reasons other than magma flows and plate tectonics however. Superannuated vehicles traverse its highways belching out eye stinging clouds of all hues; slash and burn agricultural practices get out of hand and destroy huge swathes of forests, creating thick smogs which blanket not just Indonesia but also neighbouring countries; and of course most of the general population (or the men anyway) smoke packet after packet of the kind of industrial strength clove cigarettes that would have the Marlboro man expiring on his horse before he reached the comfort of his ranch. Spark up and then spark out would seem to be the general way of things here, and the humid weather only serves to exacerbate the general smokiness.

In this context, Merapi for me symbolises a giant Indonesian lung, coughing up phlegm balls of lava, rocks and ash from its emphysema stricken magma chambers, as it tries to clear its airways of tropical pollution. Anyway, waking up at a delightful 5 AM last Saturday morning, we rented some angkots (public transportation minivans) which took us up to the North of town for the start of our hike.

My Indonesia/smoke thesis was proved right from the off however as the minivan that I was sitting in had had one of those 130 dB boy racer exhaust systems fitted to it. Alas however, it didn't seem to have been fitted very well as the passenger compartment soon filled with exhaust fumes and presumably no small amount of carbon monoxide. In fact, by the time we reached the start of the hike, I was starting to feel rather drowsy. Another few kilometres and they would have been stretchering us out and into an ambulance (hopefully one without a racing exhaust).

The walk itself proved to be stirring stuff however, and we tramped through the cool, fresh air of the West Javanese highlands. We walked through kilometres of tea plantations and even stopped at a tea factory to see how they processed the stuff. Java is primarily known around the world for its coffee of course, however the tea grown here is also supposed to be of a very high quality.

Eventually, we started trudging up the moody slopes of Tangkuban Perahu itself, eventually reaching the smouldering crater, which is about a kilometre across and has a brackish lake sloshing about in its depths. It’s quite beautiful in fact and we breathed in the sulphurous air whilst taking memory cards full of snaps (and in my case having a well earned Bintang).

This is a land of smoke and air pollution for sure though, despite a recent report in the Globe which said that the Philippine-based Clear Air Initiative Asia Center have given Jakarta's air a clean bill of health. One wonders if they actually even came here. Unfortunately for the smokers among us though, it's usually them that seem to bear the brunt of any urban air pollution initiatives, despite the fact that motor vehicles, power stations, industrial pollution and the burning of garbage totally eclipses their feeble smoke signals by several orders of magnitude.

Thankfully for the butt suckers though, things aren't as bad here as they are in squeaky-clean Singapore. In fact, the last time I stayed at a hotel there, the information sheet in my room said something like, "Dear guest, to guarantee that you will fully enjoy your stay with us, this hotel is totally smoke-free. For any infringement of this regulation, you will be charged $200." If you take this statement literally, then it seems that one is to be punished for refusing to fully enjoy one’s stay. Kind of sums up modern life for me in my darkest moments, banging our heads on the wall insisting that we are happy whilst popping anti-depressants by the cartload. Give me a Marlboro Light any day.

Also, this country seems to be free of the horrible pictures of birth defects and destroyed lungs that can be now found on cigarette packets elsewhere in the world. Such health warnings are becoming just a little bit over the top in my view. Actually, I can remember the author Kurt Vonnegut, in an interview towards the end of his life, saying that he was planning on suing Philip Morris. "They promised to kill me, it clearly says on the health warnings on their packets. Well, I'm 83 years old and they haven't done it." Hopefully, Merapi's victims will soon be able to return home and enjoy a nice cool packet of Gudang Garams. Here's to a long life and rude health.