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Tracking the Volcano

 Tracking the Volcano

by Jonathan Copp

December 31, 2001

Indonesia’s volcanoes had drawn me. Having worked in Singapore for the past month and a half, installing a hydraulic press system, I was well acquainted with the dichotomy between the ethnic Chinese and Malay people. However, when the boat from Singapore finally landed on Sumatra’s densely vegetated coastline, the far-reaching differences became apparent. The Sumatran people’s pace and attitude were more relaxed, peaceful. Despite this calm, the pounding shorelines and thrusting volcanoes seemed to speed my consciousness.

While still in Singapore in February 1994, I mapped out a course that would systematically connect all of the highest volcanoes erupting from this island nation of Indonesia. I later looked back on the map and laughed, seeing my true course loop, backtrack and hover over destinations once unknown. Only after being lost, waylaid and stuck in situations I never could have imagined, did I realize that to truly track the volcano, a direct approach only leads to elusion.

By landing on Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest and western-most island, I had jumped into deep water. The summits here are seldom sought. Traveling alone, swimming through the tea fields, I encountered farmers sporadically. With a limited vocabulary, I asked how to find the best way toward the volcanoes. Many times I received only a laugh and a "tidak apa apa". Literally this means "no what, what," but it essentially means "it doesn’t matter, it’s all good." I later found this to be among the most common phrases in Indonesian. My alpine objectives transformed into a search for understanding.

I continue to dog paddle through tea plants until I hit a wall of biomass, the jungle that surrounds and enlivens the flanks of the great volcano. The dark interior, replete with monkeys, birds and insects of wild dimensions, holds me momentarily at bay. My goal is to make the summit by tomorrow’s sunrise, but I am continually sidetracked, investigating an elephant ear plant or a horny-shelled beetle. My systematic map and mindset slowly deteriorates. Each volcano becomes more of a journey into exotica than a physical challenge. I remain consistent, however, in trying to reach the summits by sunrise. As soon as the sun warms the moist jungles, clouds race towards the highest points of land, the “puncak,” the rim of the volcanoes.

After hiking all night, I find myself on the upper flanks of the cinder cone. The moonscape bends in conical angles as the sun touches the horizon’s clouds. I pick up the pace, knowing the menacing rain will surround me within an hour. I turn to see the building cloud mass, which appears like some sort of ancient energy or spirit from the jungle, as it races toward me. I am running – tracking the volcano.

Fifty meters and the clouds are almost upon me, ready to wipe out all sight. I stumble to the edge, pumice falling into the crater’s void. I am there - in the heart of it - breathing the acrid air, and staring into the red eye of this island. Having forgotten about the advancing clouds, I am startled when the opaque, moist mass engulfs me. Hail and water droplets fly in all directions. The depth of view is about six feet. Tidak apa apa.

These moments of clarity, though they are fleeting, keep me tracking with patience on a meandering course.

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