It’s still rainy season in Yogyakarta, so the famous Mount Merapi hides its peak behind clouds that settle every sunrise.
At the base of the volcano is a town called Kaliurang, where visitors find local guides to lead them to the mountain’s peak, and where locals have suffered numerous tragedies due to the volcano’s frequent eruptions.
The town makes an art of it. Almost every young man in Kaliurang works as a driver or guide, and the rest maintain the scenic national park containing the lush hills surrounding the volcano, where hikers look out at the ruins of the village once prized by the Sultanate, flattened most recently in 2010.
Unwilling to hike to the mountain’s crest at 3 AM (the only time of day the mountain frees its tip from the clouds), I decided instead to hike through the national park and explore what was left of Kaliurang. The entrance into the park looks like any other tourist-friendly site. Paving stones secure a flat rest area, left from when the Japanese infantry occupied the hills decades ago. The paving stones continue in steps up the hills, leading hikers high into the humid air, where the only distractions from sweat profusions and burning buttocks are the gorgeous tropical plants that bend over the ever-steepening walkway, the varieties of green sprouting on every fertile knoll.
After the hike, my friends and I hired a local man to take us on a ride in an old Japanese army tank. Clad in an antique helmet and goggles, I clung to a rail as we toured the bumpy roads of Kaliurang. From the car we could see a fine view of Mount Merapi, which remained obscured behind mist most of the day but which teasingly unveiled its tip for minutes at a time. The close scenery was just as grand and much more interesting. The rocky condition of the roads attested to a town that had not yet been cleaned from the latest eruption, and the surrounding homes, half-crumbled, hinted at a space once comfortably populated and now left level and dry.
For the most part, the difference between life and death in Kaliurang is stark and unashamed. A disaster museum overlooks a dry river valley hundreds of meters deep and miles of brown flatland stretch before hints of healthy forest. At the museum entrance, the skull of a cow caps the head of a scorched motorcycle. Beside the museum—itself a half-crumpled building relic—smiling women from the town stand behind kiosks, inviting visitors to buy volcanic coffee and fried snacks. For the locals, the temperamental volcano is part of the ancestral story; regardless of the wrecked landscape and the ash that kicks up with the wind, the townspeople of Kaliurang will always call this dustbowl a home.