Tuesday, January 11, 2011

An ongoing calamity

In the last couple days, I've made two trips up to the Merapi area to see the after-effects of November's eruptions and to do some legwork for a piece I'd like to write on the disaster tourism cottage industry that's grown up around the volcano. I spent most of Sunday on a paid tour out of Jogja that took me and a friend to a village that remains without water service after eruption-related flooding washed away their catch basin. The village, Babadan, is located on the western slopes of Merapi and was not directly affected by the kind of pyroclastic flows that destroyed similar settlements on the mountain's south slope. (Downtown Babadan can be seen in the Merapi picture in Monday's post.) For that kind of blasted moonscape, I had to travel yesterday with friends from school to the very toasted village of Kinahrajo.

I'll write more about what I saw and how those sights are being incorporated into an ad hoc tourist attraction—one that's manned by villagers whose homes and livelihoods have been burned and washed away—but it occurred to me as I set out to report back on a months-old eruption that my little area of Central Java is very much a place of ongoing natural disaster. Or if not disaster, of natural calamity.

Merapi dumped millions of tons of volcanic sediment into area rivers when it erupted in late September and early November, heavily silting up the river beds, and while officials and villagers and anyone with a front-loader has been working to dredge the waterways, the region is very flood-prone right now. Especially hard hit has been the main road connecting Magelang to Jogjakarta. When I first returned to Magelang on Dec. 3, I was unable to take the airport shuttle bus because the main road connecting Magelang to Jogja—conveniently known as the Magelang Road—was washed out. I shared a long and circuitous cab ride from the airport with four other people. We and our bags crowded into a minivan and puttered our way around the road closure for almost three hours.

I'd heard of subsequent weather-related closures on the Magelang Road and then ran smack into another one Monday while trying to return from Jogja. I use the airport shuttle because it is one of the few buses here that run on a reliable schedul, and when I showed up at the terminal Monday afternoon I was told the Magelang Road was washed out and that no buses would be making the trip for at least two days. I again had to cab it back to Magelang, this time with my roomie Song, and again taking narrow and often deeply divoted back roads that were at times impassably crowded with diverted traffic. On the shuttle bus, using the main road, that trip can take as little as 50 minutes without traffic. We spent two and a half hours in the cab Monday night.

Then yesterday, Song and I headed out to Merapi with our school's principal and a math teacher. The Magelang Road remained washed out--the Kalih Putih, or White River, was overflowing its banks and washing across the road--and we had to take long detours on both the outbound and return trips. If all roads were open and passable, the trip out and back might take a little over an hour. We were on the road for almost four. We stopped at the site of the washout, near a ton called Muntilan, and joined several hundred other curious rubberneckers who paid a 50-cent admission fee to stand on tall banks of volcanic silt deposited by the flooding White River and watch yellow-brown water from a rogue branch pour across the roadway.

The Magelang Road and the rogue White River

Central Javans are endlessly interested in bearing witness to these 100-year floods and eruptions. They are living in curious, historic times, and they know it. I've never seen this before, is a regional refrain. Bridges are washed out, relatively normal heavy rains bring unusual and especially punishing flooding. Many of the curious bystanders at the White River flooding site last night were standing on silt and sediment on the site of Muntilan's traditional market. The mud and sand has completely wiped the market out, knocking down some stalls while filling others with three and four feet of heavy volcanic muck. The vendors are displaced—none were catering to the tourist crowd last evening—and who knows how they absorb the loss of even a week's income, let alone a month's or more.

We left the White River site as the sun finally fell, heading out on a two-hour meander back to Magelang and a late dinner of goat satay washed down with hot, sugary lemon juice. A good and long day, most of it in the SMK's Kijang.

Then today, seemingly against all reasonable odds, the Magelang/Jogja road is reportedly back open--many of the teachers at my school commute from down near Jogja--and traffic, and possibly airport shuttles, are again headed in both directions. But it didn't rain last night and hasn't yet today and I imagine when another hard rain comes we'll be back to the back-road detours. I have an appointment Friday morning in Jogja and we're building in four hours of travel time. Just in case.

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