34. Mountain Descent

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.


The drive back to Yogyakarta wasn’t quite as spectacular as the drive there. The sun sets in Indonesia at around six o’clock and it was already after five so the light was fading. We were also descending through the clouds and there was some drizzle and rain on the way down.

As we took the main road from the plateau we trailed behind a couple of trucks carrying sulphur miners back to their villages and I was reminded of a documentary I had seen on TV about the world’s most dangerous jobs; sulphur mining in Indonesia is one of them. The biggest of these sulphur mines is Gunung Ijen, an active volcano in the east of Java.

Sulphur miners use basic tools to hack away rocks of sulphur from inside the mouth of the volcanic crater before carrying heavy baskets of the stuff weighing up to 90 kilos to the weighing station where they get paid in cash. They do this for about ten hours a day in the blistering heat surrounded by poisonous gases that not only scorch their eyes, throat and lungs, but have also been known to dissolve their teeth. Their life expectancy is around 50 years and many of them end up with crooked, bent and disfigured backs from the hard graft they do. Yet for this literally hellish job they are paid a mere pittance of around 1,000 IDR (about 4p) per kilo.

As I looked at the red eyes of the men smiling from the trucks in front of us, I was reminded of the way many of the people living in developing countries and the Third World are cruelly exploited. Often these places are what we westerners consider natural paradises. They are the places we go for holidays and gap years and, if we happen to be wealthy enough, to bank our money tax free. We get our cheap hotels and cheap drinks and cheap food and cheap souvenirs and cheap counterfeit goods and even cheap sex from these places. And whilst we retain a guiltless distance, the truth is that all the exploitation these people are subjected to is typically in order to feed the capitalist appetites of those of us who live in the developed western world. It’s like vicarious slavery experienced at a moral distance via consumerism, commerce and online shopping. This ethically unsound condition is the human toxic waste of capitalism that pollutes humanity. However, the irony is that on either side of this extreme social chasm, no one is truly satisfied. Whilst the poorest of the world often live in abject poverty, most of us in the industrialised western world live in a state of lost abjectedness.

Despite their grim lot, the truckload of miners arguably had more smiles in them than the throng of early morning rush hour commuters scrambling to jobs that they also hate. Tired and sleepy and with half a mind on the massage I had booked, I drifted off as I pondered on what a wonderful, cruel and crazy place this world is that we live in.

I slept most of the way back to Yogyakarta. I hadn’t bothered to stop for food so Nana made good time and we were back at the hotel a little after 8.30 in the evening. As the driver pulled into the small drop off area at the side of the building to let me out I thanked him sincerely and paid him his money. I’d had a really good day out and it was 950,000 IDR well spent, and well deserved. For the whole twelve hours Nana had been a consummate professional. During the entire time he had barely spoken. The only thing I had learned about the man was that he was from Jogja, he was married and he had a great smile. Also like myself, he didn’t like Jakarta.


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