Saturday, May 13, 2006

A ten-thousand foot volcano in Central Java is waking up, and I can see lava from here. I’m a freelance radio reporter studying in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, about ten miles from the bubbling crater. Today a fleet of military trucks and busses evacuated about seventeen thousand people after geologists sounded the red alert. Mount Merapi’s been groaning for several weeks now, and I’ve been talking with scientists and some of the villagers who live on its fertile slopes. Over the next week or so I’d like to describe what I see.

It’s a small volcano, but it’s right in the middle of a densely populated area. Volcanologists here say it usually erupts at about 3 or 4 on their scale, while the biggest eruptions on our planet are register a 7 or 8. It has erupted every 2 to 7 years for the last few centuries, which means the pressure gets released often. It’s also unpredictable – I imagine it’s like an old coffee percolator sputtering in geological time.

Here’s the really interesting thing. The Javanese believe there’s a spirit kingdom at the top of the mountain. They have been waiting for its king to give the signal to evacuate. Like many of Indonesia’s island cultures, people on the mountain have preserved and interwoven ancient animist beliefs with Islam. So thousands of people have been staying at home in spite of the government’s warnings to get out of the risk area. A few weeks ago, I saw transport trucks full of men wearing their Saturday best batik shirts headed down the road. My guide said they were going to a special feast meant to pray for safety from the mountain.

But now they’re all in evacuation camps. I was at a huge celebration of Buddha’s birthday at the ancient Borobodor temple when the evacuation started. Tomorrow I’ll try to talk with refugees. I know some of them; drank their tea and attended one of their sacrifice ceremonies. I know they are probably scared, and probably irritated. The farmers didn’t want to leave because they have to take care of their livestock. I’m thinking about all those animals up there. Thousands of goats and cows and chickens in pens and fields while the humans wait for the mountain to explode at its base. I wonder what they’ll all do now. I wonder if they’ve heard from the mountain king


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