While recovering from a commercial diving accident in Indonesia in the late 1980s, I took refuge at a small beach community called Carita, on the western tip of Java, and was introduced to “Volcano Culture.”
Carita is a peaceful place with pristine beaches and swaying palm trees, and has a volcano as a backdrop. It was not until I asked one of the staff a bit about my surroundings that I learned that the volcano that posed for photos far out to sea was not just any old volcano, it was Anak Krakatau, or, “Child of Krakatau (pictured above). As I listened to my host tell his story, I was fascinated by his reverence for the brooding giants. After all, they were just volcanoes, so I thought, but to Indonesians volcanoes are more than an everyday fact of life. They are “givers” and “takers.” They give on a daily basis, fertile soil, tourism, mining, but they also take, and sometimes they take in a violent way. The list of volcanic devastation has bludgeoned its way into Indonesian history with persistence, and its culture reflects it.
Mount Kelud erupted on Thursday and spewed 10 km of smoke, ash, and volcanic material into the air, over 75,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes. Earlier this month Mt. Sinabung erupted with the loss of 14 lives. In 2010, Mt. Merapi erupted numerous times and over 350 lost their lives. The list of volcanic eruptions is plentiful in Indonesia, and it tracks right back to Krakatau, across the bay from Carita, which erupted in 1883 with such force that over 30,000 died and the accompanying explosion was heard miles away.
The volcano culture in Indonesia is a byproduct of seismic activity. It is the worlds largest archipelago and is littered with around 130 active volcanoes. To put that into perspective, the United States and all its territories have around 65 that are considered active, or potentially active, while Canada has around 21. The explanation for the high numbers in Indonesia is that it sits on the western edge of the “Ring of Fire.”
The Ring of Fire is a horseshoe shaped string of volcanoes that begin at the southern tip of South America, stretches up the west coast of the Americas, curls westward across the Bering Strait, and descends through Japan and Indonesia before petering out in New Zealand. The high degree of seismic activity is a result of “plate tectonics.” The “plates” are large pieces of the earths crust that are constantly moving. Some plates move away from each other, divergent plates, which create trenches, others converge, which create mountain chains and volcanoes. The Ring of Fire follows the leading edges of many of these plates.
In a sense, Indonesia is a country of naturally occurring land-mines, add a population of 250,000,000, 58 percent of which live on the island of Java, and a coexistence with volcanoes is not considered an act of folly, but a necessity of sound land management. So they have adapted to their situation. Crops adorn lower slopes where fertile soil can return twice, sometimes three times a normal crop. Cattle graze where food is plentiful, and tourists come to indulge in their mighty presence. Companies now offer trips to many of the volcanoes, such as the “Krakatau to Bali” 16 day tour. The trip looks fascinating, though clients are advised the itinerary is subject to change depending on volcanic activity!
Indonesia is a magical destination. The mention of it conjures up visions of exotic beaches, palm trees, lush jungles, temples…..and volcanoes. Yes, volcanoes, their brooding, haphazard, almost surreal presence throughout the country are as much a part of Indonesian life and culture as Satay Ayam, skewered grilled chicken, with a peanut sauce.
Did I hop a boat-ride out to Anak Krakatau when I was there? No, but my sojourn at Carita allowed me an insight to the people of Indonesia. It gave me the slimmest thread of understanding of what it means to live in, around, and with a volcano culture.
Editorial by Scott Wilson