It’s 6:15am when I fire up my bike, and I’m late for today’s mission. Up to Kintamani, I swing by Penelokan at Lake View to see Sarita Newson’s son Komang to drop off some flyers Kopernik had made up: a simple step by step evac planning and procedure. I’m in a rush, and he receives me, unfazed, with razor in hand and half shaven face. He immediately gets the idea and will distribute them to communities – “do 30 photocopies” he asks his help. We discuss possible routes through Bukit Sari. As I ride off I get Dek Goen of Yoga Barn and Bali Regreen on the phone and we decide to scrap that route – the Kelian of Alengkong is already actively doing stuff to prepare and I send Dek Goen the document over What’sApp. (You might think I’m sponsored by them but What’sApp has been a miraculous communication tool during these last few days).

Instead I head through Sukawana as it will bring me to Penuktukan on the coast, where some of the evacuees from Tulamben have been moved (It’s a constantly changing board this evacuee camp thing). On the way I go through Siakin and have a quick chat with the Kelian, Kt Sukra is reasonably alert and gets the need for a clear evac procedure. This village is not in the immediate danger zone, but certainly in the ash fall out area. There are already 70 evacuees from Ban and Lingasana here, mostly because of family ties. Hopefully they won’t have to evacuate again.

A long and winding and steep ride later, I get to Penuktukan and find a very warm and hospitable village ready to receive evacuees, and doing it intelligently. They have broken the people from Tulamben up into smaller groups and placed them in various public buildings dotted around the village. This eases the strain on limited sanitation etc facilities and feels much less like a ‘camp’; the bigger ones which I have seen end up making people miserable after two days. The village admin are more than happy to show me different alternatives and we discuss how to adapt the sites. What a lovely warm lot of people they are! I feel ashamed that I have ridden through this village at speed too many times over the decades and not ever stopped!

Above: Simple but effective toilets. Below: the Les camp “school bus”

G, a relief volunteer worker with international experience meets me in Les and we have a roadside breakfast with Abé, a volunteer for Kopernik Foundation who everyone says is a real worker. There are a lot of amazing people out here just doing the job without strutting around. I check out the Les camp and it confirms my worst nightmares. G and Abé have been building clever simple toilets that are easy to install, and sanitation is slowly coming under control. But the problem is also the heat, and boredom brought on by idleness with a very real prospect of depression. As I leave, a pick up truck of laughing kids are being brought back to camp after school. Whoever decreed that the evacuee kids should immediately join local schools, even if they didn’t have their books or uniforms, deserves a big ovation. Imagine if they had to stay in camp all day!

I head up to Ban on the slopes of the volcano, I heard there are a few people who are refusing to leave. On the way I pass a rather ghoulish shrine. Ban is that strange mixture of abandoned dwellings and a few people calmly going about their business that I keep seeing in the various danger flagged zones..

Above: a slightly ghoulish shrine

I decide to continue on that road around the back of Agung heading for Besakih via Perempatan. I stop to chat with a group of men sitting and drinking chemical looking lemonade. We start chatting in polite Balinese but soon break into a more comfortable common level (well more comfortable for me as my high Balinese is very spotty), occasionally throwing in an honorific term just to maintain standards.

I bring it up because the language differences around Bali are really quite marked, and language reveals the psychology of people. Here on this dryer, hotter side of the volcano people are more down to earth, tough, closer to the Buleleng style. They aren’t enamored of the camps “Phew, it’s hot down there. We are here during the day only but it helps!” As I take my leave I switch into high Balinese to show them my respect, and beg them to be careful. They immediately respond respectfully and assure me they will. These partings, from brief but very direct and honest human encounters, are starting to break my heart. “Will they be alright?” “Will the volcano blow at night and spare them?” “How many will not make it?” And finally, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if the volcano just burped a bit and this whole hullabaloo was over and people could laugh at me for being a scaremonger?” But I am obliged to lay out worst case scenarios, and the volcanology is very real. Later when a friend sends me the link to the governors statement downplaying the possible damage “let’s not scare the tourists” – it really gets my dander up. At a time when the BBC Indonesia is reporting a crack in the crater and visible red hot magma, it seems incongruous at best to try to reassure the tourist industry rather than focus on the future of evacuees.

Through beautiful forest on the northern slopes I ride, and again there are people in little bunches. But there is more palpable tension here. Motorbikes and pickups overloaded with fresh fodder literally speed home through here. The volcano is hidden by looming black clouds, but the crackling crater is only a few kms away, almost straight up. It’s the closest I’ve been in a week. At the road to Cegi I quickly whip out my phone and snap a pic, not bothering with proper cameras. I feel oppressed and almost cowardly. I decide not to go all the way to Besakih so about 5km short I turn around and do the whole run back again. As I speed down a nice stretch of asphalt I catch sight of a woman hanging out washing –everyday things have become so bizzare.

above: speeding through the forest with fresh fodder. below: at the crossing to Cegi

Below: Ibu Dani’s kiosk next to the closed Pertamina station is the only fuel on the whole stretch.

Back down at the highway at sea level I stop to top up the tank at Ibu Dani’s kiosk, which is right next to the closed Pertamina station in Kubu. We chat. “I go back to where I am staying with family in Tembok at around 5pm. I stayed a day at the camps – Adoh, pusing (wah, it made my head spin)”. She and her daughter sit calmly making offerings, selling their fuel. Classic Bali. And I get back to those long empty miles through the dust and heat of Kubu. Suddenly on the far side of Tulamben I run into a group of policemen stopping and redirecting trucks. “We’re closing down this quarry for now, and reducing traffic on the road”. It makes sense. We salute each other as I ride off.

I drop in on a ‘community’ meeting in Amed discussing contingency plans, which is mostly expats and a few Balinese divers or so. No local Balinese community leaders. Not much for me to do here except to try to impress on them that they should work on evac procedures as Amed will be cut off if the volcano blasts enough material on all the roads. I hand out a couple of flyers, and move off.

Evacuees from Jungutan being moved out

As I ride through the winding road in Sibetan, I suddenly see a large group of people sitting around and a truck with a couple of BNPB guys. It turns out that 300 people from Jungutan who were accommodated in the village for the last few days, are being moved to Padang Bai. I chat and joke with some of them, and they are still in jolly village mode, still comfortable in their environment. I try not to imagine them after a couple of days in a much hotter, less inviting environment. When people get herded into those camps it makes it so much harder for them to adapt and become active again, not to mention being even further from their homes and farms.

I continue and finally find my contact Doblé, who is the Sibetan village administrative secretary. I hand him some evac procedure flyers and once again stress the need not just to post these but to have proper community planning meetings following these guidelines. I pledge 21 water filters for the 7 banjars still staying (some 4000 people apparently). Ewa from kopernik assures me they will there tomorrow (Doblé thanks me profusely and I feel awkward, it’s so little), as well as another 28 or so for Budakeling who are also staying but much more exposed. My contact there, Wayan Gin, tells me one of the 8 Banjars was already headed for Denpasar when one of the priests went into trance and insisted they turn back. Sekala, Niskala. Bali’s seen and unseen has never been so sharply in focus for me as now.


text and photos ©Rio Helmi