Wednesday, February 23, 2011

STRUNG OUT IN HEAVENS HIGH


I have to go to work on Sunday, Juanita says, staring at her red wine. Why don't you fly to Merapi? What's left of the village there is covered in ash. I saw some photos. It looks really cool. Everything is grey.

We are on a rooftop. It's Christmas. The sounds of the mosque drift across to where we sit. A bulbous red sun does a slow-motion impression of a lava lamp on the scraper-strewn skyline. I take up a piece of brie. What do you want for Christmas, i'd asked her. Wine. Wine and cheese. I pop the molten cheese in my mouth and take a swig of the heavy Barossa red. Good idea, i say.

We can get you some tickets tomorrow, Juanita says. But tonight we're going to party.

Flying out to an active volcano is a sure cure for a hangover. Especially when you are flying Lion Air. Because by the time the plane arrives - usually two to three hours late - you've been transmogrified by the airport lounge into a state where you are no longer hungover, but flungover. As readers of The Nerve can attest, flungover is like hungover, only further over. It is fractured kind of suspended animation fuelled by coffee, Valium, unidentified frying objects, airport music, pseudoamphetamines and Extra Joss. I crawl onto the plane, buckle up, and hold on. But the plane still spins out of control. I pop another little blue pill.

If you need to refill the vest, blow into the mouthpieces. Use the whistle and light to attract sharks.

Looking out the window, i see the coastline is beneath us, bleached and washed by some sea or other. Wow, tropical seas. I thought i was flying to Central Java. I didn't expect to see surf. I find myself staring, zombie-like, at the Lion stewardess. A Lioness. I smile and give her a friendly little wink. I'd like to blow into your mouthpiece, i think. She blushes and hurries to the back of the aeroplane. You still got it, i say, nodding to myself. You don't need a light or a whistle. You are a shining beacon of man-love.

The drugs have worn off by the time we land, and the airport is filled with people. I am completely disoriented. I notice for the first time that Indonesia is filled with Indonesians. I ask one for directions. He speaks no English, so i draw a mountain in the air, make exploding noises and point out at the horizon in a few different directions. I raise my eyebrows and wait expectantly. No directions are forthcoming. Not a glimmer. He walks away. I have not the faintest idea which way the volcano is, where Jogjakarta is or even how far it is from the airport. Bah. Maps are for vassals. I shoulder my pack and head out past the taxi rank towards what appears to be a railway line. It's only when you lose yourself that you truly find yourself. It's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything. It's only after walking about six metres that i decide to hire a taxi.

Merapi erupted in spectacular fashion on the afternoon of October 25, 2010, the lava frying villages and vapourising people in its wake, leaving a death toll in excess of 350. Merapi - literally 'fire mountain' in Javanese - has been doing this sort of thing on a pretty regular basis since the mid-1500s. An earthquake in 2006 in the region killed around 5,000 people. As volcanoes go, Merapi takes itself pretty seriously.



Hermann speaks a bit of English, and has hugely dilated pupils set in vivid blue eyes. But by now i am used to this congress of wacked out Indonesian taxi drivers, and am not in the least disconcerted. Because Hermann claims to know where Merapi is, and more importantly, has a roomy new car with air conditioning and electrified windows. So i strike a deal. $30 for the car, and Hermann will act as my guide and interpreter for the day. He agrees readily and we quickly sideswipe the city, tracking deep into rural Java. Villagers tend cows and rice paddies. Coconut trees do a sterling job of looking picturesque. Ominous mountains loom in the distance. As Hermann points out how the family and neighbours come together to build a house, i realise he is wearing coloured contacts.

Crossing a narrow bridge, a sudden black river of frozen rock appears below us, heavily striated and ruptured, coarse and brutal. Hermann says something in Javanese. It's lava. We make our way on through innumerable detours, UN shelters, crowded roads and scorched earth. On the way up to the volcano i see the wiry, skeletal remains of torched bicycles and motos on the roadside, with scarecrow-like figurines of riders, clumsily constructed from stuffed trousers and shirts, perched atop them, as painted arrows and signs scribble our way onwards and upwards. We are stopped once more by village bandits and i shell out a few more rupiah to see our way clear. But it is only when Hermann finally squeezes the aircon on wheels into a mass of cars amongst what once was a village, and i make my way up towards the lava fields, past hastily assembled food and drink stalls, that i realise what all this is about. It's Sunday, and i am standing in the middle of one big tourist attraction.

Locals line the massive ruptures in the earth, gawping and gaping, sipping cool drinks and munching fried snacks, smiling as they have their photographs taken before this destroyed building and that decimated home. I realise i am witnessing disaster tourism. No, i'm not witnessing it; i'm part of it. I feel a red blush of shame as i take up my Nikon.



I hand some rupiah, about ten dollars, to an old woman shovelling lava slowly from her ruined home. And again to an old man standing, wearied but quietly unbroken, outside what is left of his house. The Indonesian tourists find me a curiosity, and stop to have photographs taken with me. I'm wearing my press tags in a vain attempt to appear professional rather than ghoulish as i prowl amongst the ashes. A pointless gesture amongst this macabre fun-fair. I find myself standing diffidently with two teenage girls who want a photograph taken with me. We stand, smiling amongst this grey ruin, as their mother tries to find the shutter on the mobile phone.

Monday, February 07, 2011

BREEDING LIKE RABBITS

Rabbit Flat, in the Tanami Desert in the Northern Territory, made international headlines in the 1970s when word got out that its population had doubled overnight.

Twins had been born to its only residents, the roadhouse proprietors.