Sleepless Mystic is Early Alert for Villagers Near Volcano – New York Times

June 12, 2006 New York Times


KINAHREJO, Indonesia, June 12 ó In this village, one of the closest to Mount Merapi’s ominous crater, sleep is often tenuous.

Darto, 50, slept only a half hour on Sunday, spending all night sitting cross-legged beneath a small window, out of which the peak of Merapi, mired in smoke and gas, glowed orange between two tall trees.

Next to him, in a jumble, slept his wife and three daughters, wrapped in thick blankets, keeping warm in the cold mountain air.

In the distance, the volcano, considered one of the most unpredictable and dangerous in all of Indonesia, thundered. Wide trails of lava and volcanic rocks tumbled down its southern slopes, sometimes coming within half a mile of Mr. Darto’s small, wood-framed house.

At about two in the morning, the crash of rocks grew loud, startling his wife, Sri Semiyati, 40, awake. With a motion of his hand and a nod of his head, Mr. Darto assured her there was no danger.

“I guess it is a heavy responsibility,” Mr. Darto said. “But I don’t think of it like that. This is my family and these are my neighbors. I simply have to protect them.”

Earlier in the evening, after a simple dinner of noodles and tea, Mr. Darto’s wife swept the kitchen, his son tinkered with the engine of his motorbike and his daughters studied for today’s final exams. Mr. Darto, a tiny man with a big smile, one that rarely leaves his face, sat watching the volcano, drawing on a hand-rolled cigarette.

“Merapi’s activity is not that high compared to past years,” he said. “But with all the media attention, people are becoming panicked. I think it’s been exaggerated.”

With that he stood up, his smile quickly departing and his eyes glaring at Merapi. His wife wandered out of the kitchen, his son looked up from his bike and his daughters abandoned their books. Together the family stood in the dirt courtyard, ash heavy in the air, watching to see which way a freshly ejected hot cloud would travel.

It went west, and without a word they all returned to their activities.

“The worst of it is over,” Mr. Darto said. “Merapi will begin calming down now in the next few weeks.”

Scientists, who are often at odds with mystics like Mr. Darto, seem to agree that the danger around Merapi is receding.

Subandriyo, head of the Merapi division of Yogyakarta’s Volcanology Center, said the alert remained at its highest level, but could be reduced if activity continues decreasing over the next few days.

Volcanologists have long feared an unstable lave dome, forming around Merapi’s peak, could suddenly collapse, sending millions of cubic meters of volcanic rock, lava and hot gas down the mountain’s slopes, threatening nearby villages like Kinahrejo.

Last week, however, a large piece of the dome slowly began to crumble, triggering a series of small eruptions. Its reduced size is now less of a threat, said Subandriyo who, like many here, uses only one name.

Mr. Darto’s family, along with about 100 other families living in this village, which is about three miles from the teetering lave dome ó well within striking distance ó have refused to heed government warnings to evacuate for months now.

Merapi first started showing increased activity on April 13.

The villagers believe they are well acquainted with Mount Merapi’s character, and will know when it is time to leave. And so they remain in their ash-covered houses, tending to livestock and guarding their homes from looters, lying awake at night, eyes and ears trained on the mountain.

Mr. Darto, one of the village elders who is respected for his intimate connection with the spirit world, is entrusted with the task of sounding the alarm in the event of danger, which would most likely arrive in the form of a fast-moving cloud of superheated gas, exceeding temperatures of 540 degrees Fahrenheit.

One such cloud, which Mr. Darto and his family remember well, burned 66 people alive here in 1994.

The villagers must depend on Mr. Darto, they said, because the government’s alarm ó which sounds like an air-raid siren echoing off the mountain’s valley walls ó comes too late.

The last time Mr. Darto hammered his steel bell, drawing everyone out into the street, was May 15, when numerous hot clouds danced around Merapi’s southern and western slopes.

In the street, the villagers quickly debated the seriousness of the situation and radioed for a flatbed truck to move the elderly, women and children to the safety of refugee camps, a mile and a half below, Mr. Darto said.

They all returned later that afternoon.

Many of the families living in this village have been here for generations. Fathers and grandfathers taught their sons how to read the signs of a coming eruption. Mr. Darto now teaches his 16-year old son, Mulyadi.

“Most importantly I teach my children to meditate, to exercise their spiritual power, so they will be better in tune with the nature around them,” Mr. Darto said.

Although most Javanese are Muslim, many still practice ancient animist beliefs. The kingdom atop Mount Merapi is considered one of the most important symbols in all of Javanese culture.

According to Javanese mythology, history is now entering a time of great torment, a time of darkness and evil. This explains, Mr. Darto said, the May 27 earthquake about 25 miles south of Mount Merapi that killed about 5,800 people, as well as the 2004 tsunami, claiming 170,000 victims in Aceh, Indonesia’s northernmost province.

Early Sunday evening, Mulyadi rushed into the kitchen to inform his father that the full moon had arrived ó a dangerous omen, the son said.

Indeed, scientists say the gravitational pull of a large moon can disturb the volcano’s liquid magma bubbling inside, increasing the chances of an eruption.

Nevertheless, Sunday night passed without incident. After morning prayers today, Mr. Darto crawled under a blanket beside his daughters and managed his half-hour nap, while Merapi continued to smolder outside the small window.

“We cannot protect ourselves from death,” Mr. Darto said later. “That is God’s will. We can only nurture our soul, respect our environment and pray that God will bless us in return.”

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

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