Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Indonesian Polar Vortex

This will forever be the day where I thought either my boyfriend was going to get pneumonia or frost bite at the very least. We were totally unprepared for the adventure we were getting ready to embark on. This trek will forever be a lesson learned!

A little background information about Mt Merapi:

  • most active volcano in Indonesia
  • has erupted regularly since 1548 (last eruption was November 2013)
  • locals still live near the volcano, despite its dangerous proximity and thousands of deaths
  • many believe Merapi erupts when "he" is angry
  • "Merapi" means "fire of Rama and Permadi" (those names are old rulers)
  • locals believe these rulers and their palace live inside Merapi (including roads, soldiers, domesticated animals and righteous people of that time)
  • to make these spirits happy, locals will regularly give offerings inside the volcano

FAQ: Isn't it dangerous to climb a volcano?
Answer: Not really. Merapi might be active but I actually felt safer compared to Batur because there were more things to grip onto. We didn't have narrow pathways that required balance, despite a steep drop below. Although there are no safety waiver forms (not even at Batur), the tour guides are pretty good at what they do. They hike these volcanoes at least once a week. Also, they don't have you vertically climb a volcano. You hike the surrounding mountain that is part of its landscape (and farrr away from the volcano itself). Depending on the volcano you hike, you can sit on a ledge and see the smoke rising (far off in to the distance). I have seen volcano craters but they are perfectly safe guarded (such as Bromo).

Sunday had been a very busy day for us. As mentioned in previous posts, we had a local Yogya tour with ViaVia and did some silver shopping afterwards. Before our trek to Mt Merapi, Ryan and I finished up some last minute souvenir shopping because we knew we would be completely exhausted after the trek.

Around 9 pm, the driver, Miko, from the Mt Merapi trekking company arrived. Once again, we were surprised that he had arrived on time. Yogya really has it together. I give them props. He was very giggly for a 40 something year old man and always had a smile on his face. An authentic one at that. Indonesians are very happy people. I love it!!

Panorama shot taken with the new HD camera!

We were soon on our way to Mt Merapi. We were pretty tired from a busy day/food poisoning recovery so we slept a majority of the 2 hours in the van on the way to the volcano. We didn't really pack anything. I was wearing a rain coat, tennis shoes, a pair of Adidas capris and a t-shirt. Ryan was dressed in hiking sandals, a t-shirt, khaki shorts and a garbage-bag material-like parka. He also brought his backpack and placed a few water bottles as well as the huge loaf of Rosemary bread we had purchased from a bakery earlier. Ryan actually wanted to bring more items but I convinced him that volcano trekking gets extremely hot, despite the early morning chill. He was thisclose to bringing extra clothes but once again, I told him he would be fine without them. I wish he wouldn't have listened to me. :(

Lush green scenery

Where are the hobbits?

About an hour and half later, we woke up to our driver zipping around sharp curves, splashing through rain and speeding up and down the mountain side. Ryan said he felt like we were in some scary movie -- you know, those ones where the person is basically taking you to a place to be murdered?! I told him he was being ridiculous. He can have quite an imagination sometimes. I rolled back over awkwardly (car naps get harder on the back every year) to snooze for the remaining 30 minutes or so.

The naive-couple-before-the-trek photo
Eventually we arrived and were happy to be there. We were greeted by the tour company staff and also a couple from Hong Kong who were excited to trek. They were definitely a bit more prepared than us -- they had flashlights and layers of clothing. Although the company provided flashlights, we both regretted not having enough clothes later. We were served hot tea/coffee and sweets to hold us over for another hour or so before the trek. The bubbling aquarium was relaxing and at one point, I thought about just sleeping instead. (It was here that Ryan also had his first experience with a squatter toilet.)

We were judged for our lack of attire and were asked several times if we had enough clothing to keep warm but we insisted we were fine. I mean, I had done this before! How bad can it be?  Our tour guide looked at us crazy, in his multi-layered suit and rubber boots before leading us out the door.  Our driver wished us a safe (and warm) journey and reminded us that he would be comfortably snoozing on the couch while we froze our tails off. We were on our way!

The trek up wasn't really all that bad. The first few kilometers were spent walking up an inclined paved road. Thanks to my runners legs, my calf muscles got me up with absolutely no pain whatsoever! I asked them optimistically, "Will it be like this the whole time?" They laughed and said, "No." At the time, I didn't realize what was so funny. I would soon find out.

The aquarium + camera's special effects

Eventually we reached the path that would take us up the side of the mountain. We had occasional breaks and sure, it had some slippery areas because of the rainy season and an occasional shower would come down but it wasn't that bad. It helps to definitely be in shape when hiking these beasts.

Our point of entry for the trek

The biggest difference I noticed between Merapi and Batur (in Bali) was the landscape. Batur seemed more sandy and at parts, had very narrow pathways. Merapai, on the other hand, was very rocky and full of trees. Batur had more bushes and branches to grab a hold of. There was more "climbing" with Batur -- slippery climbing because of the sandy texture of the dirt. In fact, I remember it being so sandy that we could actually "ski" down the side of the mountain.

Merapi landscape

Merapi had more sheltered pavilions which was nice (and more privacy if you needed to use the bathroom!) We passed a lot of locals on the Merapi mountain unlike Batur (on the way down). Merapi was also colder (and rainier) as we climbed but that was probably due to the rainy season. At one point, I couldn't feel my toes. They were numb! I was confused because when we hiked Batur, it got hotter.. not colder.. and when I say colder.. I mean at to the point of teeth chattering. It was bad ya'll, like really, reallllllyyyy bad.

Poor Ryan, his nose was running, toes were freezing and he had chills but was pulling me up despite his uncomfortableness. He was the one encouraging me -- even though I was the only one with a jacket, socks and tennis shoes -- to keep going and was constantly reminding me that we had already come so far. I really started to feel miserable but it wasn't because of exhaustion. It wasn't because of the intense cardio and difficulty breathing (higher elevation).. but the COLDNESS. It definitely had to be at least 32 degrees and it continued to lower as we climbed.

This is what misery looks like

It felt like FOREVER before we reached the "plateau". Because of the clouds and rain (aka no visible sunrise), we were told that we were not going to the peak (which was another 3 hour trek upwards). Thank GOD. I didn't even feel like I was in Indonesia. Ryan swore he saw ICE on rocks. The entire area was white. I don't know if it was part clouds or snow (or freezing rain).. but it was not the Indonesia we were in 3 hours prior. The landscape was barren except for some large Lion King type rocks and a few dying weeds. The wind was intense. It made it very difficult to stand. I thought I was going to get knocked over by the wind.

I turned around at one point and saw that Ryan's "garbage bag" had wrapped itself in all sorts of weird directions and was beginning to rip as it smacked and flapped around in the wind. His backpack was completely soaked, his arms were crossed, and his lips were not their usual color. My palms had turned yellow-ish and the tips of my fingers were blue. I pressed on them to make sure there was still circulation and there was.. but I couldn't feel them. Or my toes. My teeth were chattering but I was happy that we made it.. and would be headed down shortly.

Then, the tour guide asked, "Photo?" Instead of laughing in his face (which I was tempted to do), I turned back around and looked at Ryan who said without hesitation, "I can't stay here. I have to leave. Now." Yikes. I asked him if he wanted my jacket and he looked at me like I was a madwoman and then said, "No." I asked the tour guide in Bahasa (well, to the best of my ability) if he had an extra jacket. He said, "No." Ryan was like, "He doesn't have an extra jacket?!" I remember thinking, This guy is bundled up! So -- in the perkiest voice I could muster -- (he really needed my optimism and support at that moment), I told Ryan that I thought he had misunderstood me so I said I would ask him again. Success!

The tour guide (I can't remember his name -- BRAIN FREEZE) then proceeded to unzip his jacket and removed two sweaters (at this point I had snot running out of my red-tipped nostrils, I was squinting because of the intense wind and my entire body was shaking to keep warm) and was just standing there, bare chested with his jacket flapping in the wind acting so bad-to-the-bone -- as if this was an everyday occurrence. My mouth dropped. This guy is crazy. I knew we were gonna have to give him a big tip after that brave feat! Ryan was so cold that he needed my assistance to zip up the jacket. Poor guy. I remember looking at him feeling so, so bad.. thinking he was either going to get pneumonia or frost bite in those sandals.

Trying to stay warm

There was no way on earth we were going to take a photo at that moment so the tour guide led us to a towering rock to break the wind and then began making us coffee. I hate coffee but downed it. And Ryan suggested we get the loaf of bread out for energy. It made all the difference! Eventually, the other couple made it and we all huddled to try and stay warm enough to take pictures.

I was not moving
Although Ryan had begun to warm up, my teeth were still chattering and I couldn't feel my fingers or toes. Ryan had me put my hands in my pockets and placed his hands over mine to keep me warm. He truly is amazing. He then realized that after all our hard work and effort, it would be a shame not to take any photos so he even got out my camera and had the guide snap some photos! He's so great!

We worked our way back down about a half hour later (it felt like 2). All I could do was move my toes (Ryan informed me later that this was actually a bad idea along with the coffee) and think about my warm, comfy bed back in Jakarta. My knee kept trying to occasionally go out so the tour guide was a great help in getting me down the mountain. He practically held my hand the entire trek downwards. He even gave me his gloves! Ryan joked at one point, "I see you have a new boyfriend." I was too cold to really say anything witty. :)

We ran in to some locals on the way down (it was about 7 or 8 am at this point).. who were probably on the middle of the mountain. I sure hope they had homes up on that mountain because to trek that huge beast every day for gardening or cultivating crops is ridiculous. We did see some tobacco crops on our way down but I was still defrosting so I didn't snap any photos. Remember, volcano soil is very fertile!

Posing with local woman (post-freeze)

We were so glad to make it back down! Luckily, there were no injuries or falls between Ryan and I. The other couple slipped and slid every once in awhile which served as a warning for us since we were following so close behind them!

Posing with the tour guide

We were served a scrumptious banana-pancake breakfast and steaming hot tea/coffee. It was so nice to be in a warm place again!

My lovebug
Our clothes were drenched. Ryan was grumpy and I was tired. I couldn't wait to be back in the van and be able to sleep and snuggle with the heat on until our driver informed us that he didn't have heat in his car. Awesome. We passed out in the backseat. I woke up at one point - Miko is a crazy driver - and he was falling asleep! I was too cold to care. He shook his head, opened his eyes real wide, gripped the steering wheel and handled that rain like a boss.

Never again ya'll.

xoxo amber

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