Thursday, November 4, 2010
An Airborne Event
As I walked to class this morning, the sky to the north and east was bright blue and spotted with high-loft clouds. But to the south it was dark, and darkening. Moving left to right as I walked, like a fuzzy and off-color storm front, a cloud of ashes from Merpi came creeping over South Magelang and SMKN1. By 9 .m. the entire sky was transformed--a heavy dust-fog, green and brown and gray. Ash fell on the tiled roofs of the school buildings, collected on the leaves of the petai (bean) and kepayang (spice) trees that grow all over campus. It coated the students' motorbikes and dusted the walkways and stairs, the benches, the walls, the floors of every classroom and teachers' lounge.
Several of the teachers showed genuine alarm. One of the English teachers said several times that she had never seen anything like today's Airborne Event, and she was not handling it well. She sat in on one of my classes and as the rest of us worked on a game, she kept up a loud and running conversation with two students, in Indonesian, about Merapi, the ash cloud, nearby evacuations and her fears. I had a couple absences in all classes today and another teacher told me it was because the kids live near enough to the mountain that they've been affected by the widening exclusion zone, now at 15 kilometers. They're in shelters with their families today, maybe returning to school later this week. They may have to attend different schools for a time; my colleague didn't know.
School officials sent the kids home about an hour and a half early this afternoon, and the place cleared out faster than normal. Students went right to the bikes, hopped on and took off. My roommate Song and I walked down to the main road, Jalan Subroto, to take a look at traffic. Word on campus was that all public transportation had shut down. The skies by then were something like they are right before a hard summer rain in Chicago, faded olive green, only here the green was mixed with blue-gray and white-gray. It was foreboding, no doubt about it. A light rain fell and with it dirty, splatting raindrops in my hair, across my glasses. We walked wearing face masks and so did most others. The school and the town felt very constricted, like you couldn't catch your breath and weren't sure how long or how far you would have to drive before you could. Or maybe the roads would be jammed and you couldn't get out, and so you'd just sit and breathe shallowly until, well, until when?
The transport rumor turned out to be bogus--as soon as we got to the street we found it filled with mini-van shuttle buses--and while relatively light there was still a decent amount of traffic up and down the road. Behind each vehicle, car or bike or van, a swirling cloud of gritty ash. One guy came around the corner on a motorcycle, his helmet and visor caked in ash like dirty snow. I couldn't see his eyes or face at all.
We bought lunch from a place that was only doing carryout today and several bags of fruit from a nearby stand. As we carried the food back home, down a heavily coated Jalan Cawang, the light changed again. From heavy cover to less-heavy, hints of bluing to the east, the ash cloud lightening up. Tonight as the sun fades into late afternoon, the color outside is reddened gray, the ashed leaves picking up the colors of sunset through a veil of particulate. My surgical mask is off, and I feel a little freer.