The walk to the jaws of hell.

We went to Indonesia a few days back for an adventure filled trip. I am generally not a person who finds pleasure in doing random acts of adventure especially during holidays where the contrasting option is always a lazy morning with a widespread buffet breakfast made complete with items which I never miss while I am at home – orange juice, potato wedges, baked beans and so on. But during holidays, these items are the elixir in my life, seducing me every morning to wake up and grab a nice seat by the water body which is always around the breakfast area. My husband being painfully aware of these fascinations of mine probably shuddered before he booked this trip. He would probably have imagined my breakfast buffet devoid face while going through a trip where the only thing that spelt luxury was the woollen jacket that I got to choose few days back and also Kopi Luwak, one of the most expensive coffees made in the world, made through a careful series of steps, one of them being passing through the intestines and in the poop of an animal called the Asian palm civet.

 

Note- I did not have Kopi Luwak ultimately.

 

A bit of background-My husband had started planning for the trip a few months back. We were 4 of us going for the great adventure. He sent us multiple emails on the itinerary asking us to confirm whether we were okay with the plan. We agreed to the plan, without going through the email. There is something about avoiding blatant and harsh truths which gives a sense of comfort, of knowing that you are in control. Reading that email would have led to months of discussions on how difficult it was going to be without food, sleep and clean air, in some cases. Avoiding reality gave us a nice bubble to hang out in, in a world where all of the above were freely granted.

 

Reality didn’t strike us even when we landed at the Surabaya airport, from where we had to drive for 9 hours to a resort near Ijen crater. The drive was peaceful and we reached the resort(?). The walls of the resort were paper-thin, which reminded me of the Friends episode where Ross cheats on his girlfriend with Rachel. Of course, nothing of that sort happened here, but I was incredibly tuned into the hope that there were no snorers in any of the adjoining rooms. Thankfully, I slept like a log for two hours, before it was time for us to see the Ijen crater.

 

Note: I didn’t know till I came back from the holiday that BBC had a documentary on this place titled – ‘Kawah Ijen Volcano- In the jaws of hell’.

 

Knowing myself, I would not have hopped out of the hotel like a happy bunny wanting to go to a place with a description ‘Jaws of hell’ . Come to think of it, I would not even watch a movie titled ‘Jaws of hell’. I get teary eyed when I think of my blind innocence. We reached the foothills of the mountain on which the crater was located.

 

Note- One reality you need to be aware of when you go to Ijen, is that the concept of time and distance is lost on the tour guides. They will say anything to make you keep walking. If they say it is a 5 min walk to the crater, glare at them till they come out with the truth. Sometimes even that doesn’t work. You might just need to ask your lungs on how long it can keep you alive and that is the distance to the top(can be the top of the mountain or the place you go to after your lungs give up).

 

Anyhow, we started walking. We were of the impression that it was an uphill walk of 2 km. I was overconfident about my abilities to scale such a tiny distance. There were N95 masks passed around, but I folded mine and kept it in the pocket. My lungs had survived the haze in Singapore and a little bit of volcano dust would not do me or my lungs much harm. And I had done pranayam(breathing exercise) a week back, so my lungs were probably covered in some sort of impermeable golden halo which no volcano dust, smoke or farts could penetrate.

 

Note: I did not know that the crater boasted of vast amounts of sulphur and the beautiful lake that you see in the picture below is an the largest acidic lake on the planet Earth.

 

We started moving forward. We had carried an innocent looking torch for the trip. The tour guide and my husband were the ones who got to carry the torches. The rest of us were clueless people just walking ahead step by step, counting metres till we saw what was to be seen.

 

I did a bit of small talk with the tour guide.

 

“So how much time from here?” I asked, not seeing the point since we had to reach the top anyway.

 

“2 km.” he said.

 

“Ah!” I said.

 

Silence followed by some panting and puffing by the people around. It was cold and the wind was hitting against my face. I used my muffler to cover my face as much as possible.

 

“How many times do you go to the top?” I asked.

 

“Once a day.” he said.

 

“Lazy fellow. Had I been him, I would have gone at least 3 times. It is just 2 km.” my brain said.

 

I decided not to let the rudeness of my brain escape in the form of words through my lips. I smiled and walked on.

 

The air started becoming more and more impure. It was getting difficult to breathe. The voices in my head were getting muddled. The only saving grace was the misery of the people around. Had they been hopping on the way up, it would have raised serious questions on my fitness levels. We gave each other the look that prisoners probably give each other – one of desperation coupled with anger . For us, the anger was based on the decision to leave the cozy confines of the thin-walled hotel in order to smell sulphur(willingly).

 

My husband was relatively unperturbed by all of this. He reminded me of Jillian Michaels where she gets all brutal and smiles occasionally to encourage the gasping beauties on her show. We took breaks, walked on, trudging in darkness most of the times, because the tour guide was flashing the torchlight everywhere except on the ground and we were too out of breath to complain. Some prayers may have escaped my lips, not that I remember now.

 

I stopped asking the tour guide on how much longer we would take to reach the top, because of his blatant lies and his lack of knowledge of time and distance. Amidst all the helplessness, a wave of sulphur air hit us, almost as if a bunch of dinosaurs had decided to fart at the same time, although the smell was a bit more pungent than dinosaur fart would be.

 

The tall women walking in front of us announced to their tour guide that they were heading back because someone in their group couldn’t breathe properly. I was tempted to join them.

 

We were then given masks by our tour guide. These masks, my husband informed later, are used to avoid poisonous gases in war zones, etc. Although the masks looked ugly, they looked like the sweetest present sent from heaven as if to give us one last chance at life. Can anyone else hear a symphony of angels?

 

There we were(gasp) finally at the top. The tour guide told us that we could either wait to see the sunrise from that point or we could walk down(ugh) a few metres to see the blue fire, which is essentially ignited sulphuric acid. The couple who had come with us decided to stop at the sunrise point. My husband wanted to see the blue fire. I was game until I saw the narrow path down the crater with few rocks being used to balance oneself and walk downwards.

 

“I am not going down that road. What if I fall into the blue fire? What if I skid, surpass the thousands of people who are walking in front of me and end up right in the middle of the blue fire?” my brain protested.

 

I decided to go ahead anyway. We started walking downward, with me using curse words ever so often, to warm myself up from inside. There was a railing which we had to hold(read grab onto for dear life) as we walked down the slippery path. The smell of the sulphur fumes grew stronger. The blue fire would take at least 45 minutes to reach given the slippery path and the heavy crowd. My husband (thankfully) decided to click the pictures from a comfortable spot, at a fair distance from the blue fire. I gasped in and gasped out, trying to get back to normal after the walk we just had. During this time, the tour guide informed me that there were workers who carried 80 kg of sulphur from the crater to the foothills every day. My lungs shuddered when they heard this fact.

 

We walked back up to the sunrise point after 15 mins of picture clicking. After reaching the sunrise point, we clicked selfies and smiled at each other as if all of the above never happened. Some people, however were undeterred by the entire walk or probably had done a lot more pranayam(breathing exercise) than me. One of the guys who was standing next to our group asked me as to what language I was speaking and told me that it sounded cute. At that point in time, I couldn’t have cared even if a bird had come and spoken in Hindi, which happened to be the cute language I was speaking.

 

But it was not over yet. In our minds, we knew that there was a long walk back, down the slippery road. But, the thought of hot Indonesian coffee and clean air kept us going.

 

Image Credits- https://www.facebook.com/lenspaint.
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Mom, the cake is salty!

It was a bright morning. My friends were about to come home for a giggly girl gossip session. Going by my choice of words, I am sure you would have figured out that this incident dates back to my teenage years, back to a time when having giggly girl gossip sessions were considered ok. Of course, now we call them venting sessions for lack of better words, or plain old anger. I had gotten up early on that day and was feeling particularly open to hard work. It was a new feeling, especially during the summer holidays where the days used to be laced in a blur of endless eating, drinking and sleeping.

I had decided to make chocolate cake that day. My friends were(and still are) special and I was in a mood to soak in some compliments from them on my baking début.

One swift move and the apron was on. I opened a cook book which had pages that looked so delectable that I wanted to start licking the pages.Thanks to the concept of 2D and 3D , no such calamity befell the recipe book, which lay glistening with all the glory of the beautiful dishes which people often got tempted to lick off from.

As all recipes go, this one also had a (rather long) list of ingredients. I started collecting all of them, scurrying into the storage room next to the kitchen ever so often.

Do you recall the last baking show that you watched? Does it resemble anything that you do in the kitchen in real life?

The answer for me is no.

Baking shows make it look effortless and beautiful, with transparent bowls and everything neatly arranged before the camera starts. They don’t show a teenager darting off to different corners of the kitchen and store room using curse words that she has recently learned if she is unable to find the ingredients. No, those women are the power ladies(or teens).

After gathering all the ingredients and instructing everyone to stay out of the kitchen, I started preparing the dough and mixing the ingredients. Portions were carefully measured and the flour was washed off from the hands ever so often. Everything was perfect. My friends would be home in around an hour and the cake would be ready by then, shining in all its glory. After using all my muscular power to mix the dough properly, I carefully emptied out the contents into a baking tray brushed with butter so that the cake would not stick to the tray.

Note: I did not taste the batter.

As I often do, as soon as the batter was popped inside the oven, I started staring at the dough, almost pressurising it to rise. It did ultimately rise, flaunting its spongy golden brown fluffy texture. I was mighty pleased and was mentally preparing for an acceptance speech. My heart started beating faster as the time to take out the cake from the oven approached. I was gleeful, to say the least.

After what seemed like an eternity, the oven went ‘ting’. ‘Ting’ is always a sign of completion, a sound of achievement. But it is often accompanied by goofititis( coined by me- fear of goofing up). I picked up a fork and smoothened out the cake, leaving behind some crumbs for me to taste.

The cake crumbs went into the mouth. Even today, I recall everything from picking up the crumbs to putting it into my mouth in slow motion. That was where the illusion of having baked a perfect cake was shattered, and that tiny moment determined whether I was a good teenage baker or not.

“Aargh.” I shouted, blinking my eyes quickly as if to make sure that I had tasted the cake properly.

My mom who was just outside the kitchen came rushing in, realising that the earlier rule of no one inhibiting the kitchen but me could be broken.

“What happened?” she said.

“The cake.” I said.

“What about it?” she said.

“It is salty.” I said.

“Are you sure?” she said.

“Yes.” I said, now snorting like a pig.

She could not taste the cake because there were eggs in it and she is a vegetarian. But this was an acute baker goof up. How did the tv shows get it so right, I thought, my face turning a little green due to jealousy and due to the contents of the cake.

My logical brain ( which I think I possessed back then) came into action, trying to make sense of the situation. I looked at the recipe again. Did they intend us to make salty cake? You never know what trends pick up and suddenly you are the uncool one not knowing that salty cakes are being eaten all over the world. The ingredients however did not reflect anything of that manner. It was meant to be a boring old sweet cake.

What in there could I have goofed up?

Of course, I had put in salt. But what had I not put in? The only two contents that were white were flour, rice flour and sugar. I knew what sugar looked like – grainy. I was specifically given the jar for the all purpose flour from the storage room by our cook. The only thing that I hadn’t seen before was rice flour. I remember having opened the cabinet in front and picking out the first white thing I saw thinking it to be rice flour.

“Mom. Where is the rice flour?” I asked.

She went to another cabinet and showed me a jar. My worst fears that had culminated in that 10 minutes had come true. Instead of a cup of rice flour, I had used a cup of salt. My friends were to arrive in half an hour. I tearfully threw this cake into the dustbin, with a sense of valour rising up in me.

At least I know what rice flour looks like, I thought, my head held up high.  (If you wish, you can imagine some motivational song playing in the background to blend in with the sense of valour that had risen in me.)

I took in a deep breath and some tea and started again. My friends thankfully(and predictably) arrived late. I had a cake ready for them by the time they came. Needless to say, the cake’s name was fancier than the actual cake. But at least it was not salty.

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