The smell. The colour. The distance. The death.
Torrential rain and pealing thunder sends us huddling into the relative safety of our outdoor kitchen. Taking warmth from the oven and cooking activities, we open up about the heaving volcano.
All connections are down in Karangasem, the regional epicentre of Mt Agung. Since Saturday we have had no word from Ketut and her family whose return from the edge of the volcano’s exclusion zone we expected hours ago. As this spoken realisation hits home for her sisters in the kitchen, Ketut and her husband Ketut arrive, splashing across the puddling threshold with their two year old Veda who is feverish, coughing and curled up in arms.
“The lahar dingin is moving so fast”, they report. The smell. The colour. The distance. The death. The lahar has reached the bridge sooner than anyone there could have possibly imagined.
As Ketut illustrates the distress of her village, she circles back to the smell. Smell she says is rising from the lahar in the waterways. The mud flows are being driven faster and further by the unrelenting pounding of rain. She describes the pervasive stench in the same way we might relate to the acrid fumes of struck matchsticks.
She tells of the dark sludge overcoming the river banks and flooding the fields. Dense, spreading liquid seems to me one apt reference for this phase as I observe it. The emotional atmosphere feels different now compared to the initial period of volcanic unrest in Bali, two months ago.
Back then, emotive descriptions were escalating to a pitch in conditioned anticipation of a cracking, climatic boom. The earth was shuddering daily with seismic activity rippling out from the magmatic belly of Bali’s principal mountain. There was more talk, more speculation fuelling both angst and readiness for the worst.
No matter the prestige of foreign or native experts weighing in with scientific and metaphysical assessments, they all respectfully defer to the reality that volcanoes have their own natural cycles of explosivity, that we humans in our wisdom will not deign to control or proclaim to predict.
It makes sense that such an informed allowance for natural upheaval might entrain a firmer grasp of reality, even as livelihoods are threatened by degrees across the land.
This firm grasp of reality doesn’t shun a sobering outlook of potential doom and certain gloom. When speaking to Ketut and Ketut later in the day they tell it like it is, for them in their village. Even before a full scale eruption, the toll on these people directly affected is daunting if not crippling. Dead fish float by in their barely recognisable river. The poisoned water is no longer fit for bathing and washing. The sacred irrigation flows into the rice fields have been closed off. The clear water springs will surely have a queue of people, Ketut says, walking far in her case with bucket on head. Crops are being coated with ash. And the prices for rice, livestock, vegetables, flowers and palm fronds for daily temple offerings will be rising island wide.
They worry. But the fear has a marked difference now. The heaviness in the atmosphere has both blunted spirits and steadied acceptance, maturing a weighted resolve that went unnoticed before. We sit together to count the losses and calculate the costs for survival in times ahead that mean lowered income and destabilised outcomes.
Through it all is the unshakeable understanding of what counts the most — adult responsibility for the welfare of the young, old and community as a whole. And furthermore an instinctual understanding of what it looks like to care for oneself and others at the base level. A level of basic needs that seems to be flattening again. Flattened or levelled in such a way that just talking about the potential future sounds like we could be talking about how our elders and ancestors lived in the past. We contemplate the past for a moment and Ketut says that basic conversations in those days were about how to subsist and interact considering environmental conditions and how to care for those out of balance.
I remember when I first arrived here in Bali in the 80’s when fresh conversation began and centred around the essential matters at hand, such as “Where are you coming from?” and “Where are you going to?”. Going and doing meant a great deal more in those days when any expense of energy that carried you out of your home had to be worthwhile in terms of goods shared and connections circulated through the telling of one’s tales — through the stories of what happens in between and of what often goes unseen.
Story: Tuesday 28th November, Bali
Photos of lahar dingin: Thursday 30th November, Bali @freethequest
Donations: Bumi Sehat, Bali