Into the lungs of hell

The sulphur miners of the Ijen volcano, in the easternmost point of Java, carry out still in the 21st century, one of the most unhealthy and inhuman jobs in the world. The job involves descending into the crater of the active volcano which is constantly releasing immeasurable amounts of sulphur fumes, to crack by hand, the sulphur rocks that form on the surface, product of the chemical reactions of the sulphur coming in contact with the oxygen. Once they have enough rocks, they load them into their baskets which are then loaded onto their shoulders to carry them all the way up to the storage point, where the rocks are sold to the ones that will later sell them to the big companies. 

From the starting point at the storage cabins, the miners, carrying their empty bamboo baskets on their shoulders, begin a steep 3 km long climb towards the outer edge of the crater. Once at the edge, an even steeper and more dangerous slippery trail of loose volcanic rocks descends 1 km to the base of the crater . During the night, the only available light apart from their torches, is the blue fire that emerges from the Earth, in the same place where rocks of sulphur are formed. They walk there in the dark and in absolute silence, silence that is only interrupted by the rustling of the bamboo baskets, flexing on their shoulders with every single step they take. The luckier ones wear cheap rubber boots, others just simple rubber flip-flops.

At the edge of the turquoise acid lake that lies at the base of the crater, the volcano incessantly releases thick clouds of sulphur. Once there, it is time to get to work. Without masks or protections of any kind, they will use no more than a wet T-shirt wrapped around their faces to serve as an improvised filter for the highly toxic fumes. 

Equipped with no more than a simple iron bar, the same kind of bars used for reinforced concrete structures, they run quickly to the sulphur chimneys when the wind is favourable and begin to hit the formations of sulphur in order to crack them and break them into smaller pieces.

They must act fast, as fast as possible. As long as the wind is favorable and keeps blowing, the toxic fumes stay away making the work much more bearable. But they know this does not last for too long

Sooner or later the wind changes and the miners are submerged in the sulfur clouds. At that point, they start choking while running blindly away to find open air as fast as they can. One can hear the coughing everywhere while being completely unable to see whether anyone is close by. The sulphur makes the lungs burn badly and the eyes tear uncontrollably.

Once the rocks have been cracked and split into reasonable sizes, they are placed on the ground ready to be loaded in the baskets.

Rocks are carefully selected and arranged into the bamboo baskets. It is critical to achieve the perfect fit and balance in order to be able to load as much as possible, while preventing the rocks from falling out of the baskets along the long way that lies ahead of them. 

 At the set off point, each miner tests the weight of their baskets and sees whether they can carry them or not. From the weakest to the strongest, depending on age, experience and health, each miner loads anywhere between 70 and 100 kg of sulphur on his shoulders, per trip.

Finally it is time to start the long way back to the storage cabin. The miners gradually begin to reemerge like ghosts coming out of the clouds of sulphur, to begin the long and slow climb back.

One by one they will slowly come out of the clouds, with their creaking baskets on their shoulders and the bamboo cane arching up and down due to the walking motion.

Gradually, the throat of hell is left behind and the long and gruelling journey starts again, only that this time it goes uphill.

They go up slowly and patiently, there is no other option. One false step, with 90 kg of sulphur hanging off their shoulders via a mere bamboo cane and a catastrophe is imminent

 Fellowship here is everything. If anyone needs rest, he finds a spot and quickly steps aside to let the ones behind continue without having to stop. They wait and respect each other. Those who are descending with empty baskets, give way to the ones going uphill fully loaded. They are a fraternity, they all know very well the hardships of this work.

The climb becomes steeper as they approach the edge of the crater but at least the sulphur fumes are finally left behind

The breaks are a must. Age, experience and physical condition make a difference. Some need more rest than others.

They finally reach the final stretch, from the edge, the long way downhill to the cabin beings

Sulphur is a very precious mineral in the chemical industry an it is used for purposes as diverse as fertilizers, pesticides, cosmetics and medicines. Each miner is capable of two or three trips a day. At the end of each trip, they weigh their baskets. As of today (June 2013) the sulphur is paid 790 rupiahs per kilo, about 0.078-usd cents. This means that for each pair of baskets loaded with 100 kg, each miner makes about $ 7.80 usd. Since there are very few that can load 100 kg per trip, and even those who can, they do not do it every day and on every trip, a more realistic figure is $5 usd per trip. After a productive month, working seven days a week, a miner can earn around 250 usd, a salary that is more than twice of what others make in the surrounding rice plantations. It is for that reason that these brave men with iron lungs and spirit of warriors, put body and soul into their work. With the earnings, they have a greater chance to provide food and education for their children and perhaps, someday, through them secure a better future. The scars on their bodies are irreversible; almost everyone has a huge purple dent along the shoulders and an a massively oversized trapezius. In spite of breathing pure poison every single day of their lives, and like every good Indonesian, smoking like chimneys, there are no unusual (official) reports regarding their health and mortality rate. Where is the catch? There is no explanation. They are virtually iron men but of great heart. During their short breaks, they do not hesitate to smile at the silly tourists passing by, blatantly standing on their way while watching them as donkeys in a zoo. It is terrible to see miners having to ask for permission to pass through when some careless tourists are blocking their way to have their photo taken next to the crater. Instead of giving them a well-deserved kick so that they fall all the way down to the acid lake, 1 km below, the miners patiently ask them for permission and pass without complaining, or at least they don't do it openly. Their smile and good humor should be a lesson for all of us who complain for so little.

A couple of weeks earlier, while watching TV in one of the houses we stayed at, I watched a documentary from National Geographic that was called Mega Factories. It showed the process of designing and manufacturing a Mercedes Benz model with latest cutting-edge technology at a final cost of 183,000 euros. In the same world, where such an unimaginable piece of technological development is manufactured, where development reaches unthinkable levels that could only be conceived by science fiction just a few decades ago, the miners of Kawah Ijen do not even have a damn pulley to avoid killing their shoulders while carrying the sulphur so someone from the jet set in the west can use a 500 usd anti-wrinkle cream; there is neither an automatic drill to break the sulphur so that they don't have to use iron bars and bare hands, neither they have a damn filter mask to protect their lungs and eyes and prevent them from fainting and getting intoxicated by breathing sulphur. Lastly, they don't have more than 1 usd flip-flops to sort out the steep climbs on loose rocks where every single step they take, their own lives are at stake.

Technologically speaking, we might be the most advanced civilization ever, but in terms of humanity we are the least developed and clearly still going backwards. In school, we spend years studying feudalism in the Middle Ages and other forms of atrocities of the past as though they were something aberrant, but the past keeps repeating itself, except that now the shape and names of things have changed.  

Today we are able to use things such as ultra-smart do-it-all phones, but our emotional intelligence has been deeply impoverished. We have still been completely unable to ensure that all of us, across the globe without any distinctions, have access to a decent life. We are still worse than cavemen when it comes to humanity and empathy, and the saddest thing of all this is that we blindly believe that we are so incredibly evolved. It's like having our eyes wide open while living completely blind. In the long chain of evolution, I'm sure that several millennia in the future, if we are ever so lucky to still be around here, the humans of that era will look back to the 21st century and they will certainly find us closer to apes than to themselves, the only difference being that instead of carrying wooden sticks we'll be carrying 800 usd iphones, but in the end, we will be no more than pure primates.