(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)


Attention! The following post may be shit.

We arrived in the blue dark of night at the foot of the volcano. At 3:30, a few dozen tourists were already milling about the parking lot, while guides smoked and peeled the plastic wrappers of little chocolate cakes at a convenience stand made of bamboo. We set off in layers of sweatshirts up a trail marked with a sign: “Attention! For all climbers are warned to keep the secret and the holiness of mountain Batur”.

After a short stretch of dirt, the track tips up and turns into chunks of black and gray lava. Near the bottom, too far from the path to reach with our flashlights, is the presence of an old temple with tiered, thatched roofs nestled into the mountainside. It got steep — with every meter gained was a foot lost to the volcanic gravel, and as the night moved closer to dawn, double-sweatering started to seem like a bad idea. Up above: wisps of the Milky Way and the patterns of unknown stars of the southern hemisphere. Far away: tiny yellow lights from the villages on the caldera rim.

After an hour and half, sometimes scrambling up natural steps hands first, some hikers call it a day and crowd around to wait for sunset at the first available cafe. There are little restaurants, warung, sprinkled near the top and around the crater. The three of us, my dad Jerry and I, and our Balinese friend and driver Jerry (named after the husband of the woman who aided in his delivery — my mother) were on a longer climb. Half an hour further up a steep channel straight through the clouds, our guide Komang lead us to the summit.

Flares of orange peeked through. We emerged from a cloud into a pocket like the eye of a hurricane, hemmed in by white. The sun was thinking of rising, but those of us at the top — a family or two of French travelers, Australian girls, a group of teenagers and the guides — could only tell by the diffuse light creeping out over the ocean that it was nearly day. Armed with coffee or ginger tea or cocoa from the tiny warung, it began to warm up fast. (Balinese) Jerry was still freezing.

For fleeting wind-blown moments the view cleared for us to stand face to face with massive Gunung Abang, with the peak of Gunung Agung, the 10,308-foot king of Bali, sticking up against a backdrop of ochre and deep blue. The cone of the summit was all we could see over a thick field of clouds, peeking out and disappearing behind the morning’s curtain.

The name Batur has two parts: Batu means “stone” in Indonesian. And rrrrrrr, Komang explained, is the sound volcanos make.

Gunung (Mountain) Batur is the most active of Bali’s seven mostly dormant volcanoes — in the past two centuries, it has erupted more than twenty times. 25,000 years ago, the earth’s poles shifted and something in Bali exploded so violently that it formed a massive caldera more than eight miles in diameter. Around 10,500 B.C.E., another eruption produced a second crater within it. In this crater is the largest lake in Bali. A mile-high over the lake stands Batur.

When the sky cleared and when the French family finished posing for snapshots with the sun pinched between their fingers, we moved along the ridge of Batur’s crater — only feet wide in places — to go make breakfast. Komang hopped a few feet down the slick, muddy banks of the ridge. Beneath beds of moss and dripping ferns were several cavities in the rocks, coated with coarse, pitch black pumice. They might have looked like animal dens of some sort, or little shrines, or nothing at all, except that they were all steaming. The whole mountainside was steaming.

Liquid magma is never far from the surface of Mountain Batur, and the heat from below boils the moisture left behind by passing clouds and sends steam from every orifice. Lower on the mountain, making a small divot in the ground with the toe of a boot can uncover steamed stones too hot to touch. Up on top, we were blasted with the nearly boiling mist as Komang coated one mini-cave with leaves. Lava bubbled a couple hundred feet below. We hard-boiled eggs.

It was almost 10 a.m. After fifteen minutes, Komang scrambled back up to the ridge with a basket of eggs and toasty steamed bananas. On a bamboo bench looking out over all of Bali — the lake, Gunung Agung (with mighty Gunung Abang behind it), the sea, green fields knit with the cindery black of destructive twentieth century lava floes — I ate egg and banana sandwiches and took a nap.

Across miles of open air, Pura Ulun Danu Batur looks out from the rim of the greater crater. This is the second most important temple and the reincarnation of one that existed lower down inside the caldera until a major eruption in 1926 demolished almost everything. Everything, except the most sacred shrine. Lava stopped just feet short in an act, many say, of divine protection.

There is certainly a lesson there about going with the flow, but I’m not sure if I’ve learned it. Certainly, a birth certificate in Batur is a license to not be fazed by the little things.

Even higher, at the peak along the crater rim, is the Pura Puncak Penulisan, a.k.a. the Pura Tegeh Koripan.  This is the highest temple in all of Bali — and some say the oldest.  The Temple Puncak Punulisan (puncak, “peak”) houses hundreds of shrines three hundred stone steps above the street. In the largest temple, there are lines of eight-hundred year-old Hindu statues — elephant Ganeshas with fingers clasped in ritual mudras, Brahma with his many arms — uncovered and squeezed together as if for storage. We asked Jerry why they weren’t in a museum. Impossible, he said. A sacred statue cannot be held in a secular place. “These must be in a temple.”

Jerry and Jerry and I picked our way down the mountain – or ran down yelling when the red magma faded into fine black sand. Around another mini-crater, smoke billowed furiously from bright yellow rocks coated with sulphur. (“Ten years ago,” Komang pointed. That explosion killed two reckless tourists.)

From above, half of the land around Batur is black at the scalp. Major lava floes are distinguished by the amount of greenery that has regrown on top, landmarks defined by their relation to the total destruction that bursts forth every few decades. Balinese living in the caldera must not be easily unnerved — everything, after all, can be dealt with.

The back way down Batur is more alien than the moonscape, made of a field of black, porous boulders like a comet had just smashed into a parking lot. And after more than ten hours of exploring, we were back in the real parking lot, Bintangs in hand, racing to dump the lava from our shoes.

Komang invited us into his home on the very edge of Lake Batur, where his wife and many children brought snacks of the kind you serve hesitantly just so as not to offend. But the fibrous, boiled sweet potatoes (green, not orange) were nearly delicious and and the packaged bread turned out to be something like Philadelphia’s Tastykakes. We sat on the tile floor outside his small home that struggled against the passing years, and flies gathered to sit on our ankles. I would flinch and try and flick them off as they landed, but Komang’s wife sat perfectly still. I counted eleven little things along her knees and arms and face.

Every so often she would shrug, and they would all fly away.

Video coming “soon”.

More pictures from Bali here and here.

1 Comment»

  sarah – the hedonista wrote @

What an amazing trip. You seem to do all the things I am too tired to do. Curse this 5-star obsessed lazy body. Time to get on the treadmill methinks, before I melt into old age…

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