In Volcanic Limbo

If you were to walk the streets of Ubud the past couple of weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking that business is – life is – unfolding as usual. The locals are still going to work; stocking up on staples at the early morning market; ferrying their children to and from school; folding and stapling leaves together, preparing offerings; sitting by the roadside calling out to foreigners “massage” or “taxi”! Cows are still chewing the grass, dogs are still barking at strangers, massive pigs are still rounded up and slaughtered for ceremonies. The men still coast along the roads holding a covered birdcage or fluttering rooster in hand; the women still gather in groups where cinderblocks have been dumped, piling up two or three atop their heads to carry them to the back of a compound, where yet another (Balinese) owner – or foreigner, on the sly – is building yet another villa / Airbnb outpost.

You wouldn’t guess that, within eyeshot, there’s a volcano whose crater is on the verge of “imminent eruption.” You wouldn’t guess (if you didn’t know) that thousands of evacuees are still displaced from their homes in the so-called ‘red zone,’ that which lies closest to Mount Agung’s still-smoking crown. You wouldn’t guess that those locals, now more than 2 weeks housed – in tents, community pavilions, relatives’ homes in southern regions – are on tenterhooks, relying still on shipments of non-perishable food items, toiletries, water filters, towels and mats (plus toys for the kids) – as a way of coping with the upheaval that has already (pardon the pun) rocked their lives.

But if you pay closer attention, you might notice little hints around town that things are not quite what they used to, ought to be. You’ll see signs posted, in banjars (hamlets) and midtown, asking people for donations. You’ll see more locals than usual heading to temples for prayers – because their priests have told them so, or because of fear, or superstition, or in solidarity. You’ll see stores that display, next to their cash registers, a pile of masks – N95 or N96 – just in case the volcano erupts, spewing ash downwind. You’ll hear drivers, hotel staff and restaurant/warung owners bemoaning the decrease in tourism, the cancelled reservations. And one early morning, like yesterday, you might see a massive landslide – that, despite the good fortune of not damaging lives or homes – will block for hours a main artery, and will again remind you of how the earth is shaking below.

But who knows: Will Agung erupt – or will it sputter, explode or will the magma be re-routed so that the holy mountain may sleep once again?

So here we are. Still in extended waiting mode. Our ‘ditch’ bags – filled with emergency, multi-day supplies – are starting to reek from mold; our water bottles and canned beans are growing cobwebs; the paper, plastic wrap and duct tape is pushed further back on tables. The volcanologists may remind us that we are still up at the highest alert level (Category 4), and some of  us might still be feeling the ongoing tremors underfoot (and under-bed, like me!); but when we see a Frenchman’s video clip of his daring (and, quite possibly, sacreligious) trek to the lip of the crater – in which nothing but a few wisps of smoke can be seen rising from within – we might be forgiven for standing down from anxiety, becoming a little blase, and just like the locals, going on with life as usual.


  1. Amit, as you know, volcanoes are notoriously unpredictable, but if there’s anywhere on the planet to take the warnings seriously it’s Indonesia. We lived at the beach on the Florida and Georgia coasts, and when hurricane season rolled around it was always the same “prepare and wait.” It’s frustrating but necessary. Are you still on high alert? ~ James

    1. Hi James, thanks so much for your comment and concern. I can imagine that living in hurricane regions must be hairy at times. Yes, Bali is still on high alert. Thankfully, for the coming week at least, I am not.. I’m in Singapore visiting with a friend from overseas. No tremors here 😉

  2. My wife just returned from her three week visit with our nonprofit group. She described an aura of uneasiness over the entire island. The displacement of so many people for such a long time will definitely put a burden on government services for a long time.

    1. There’s certainly a bit of that to contend with, both now and in the future. And yet, in non-evacuation areas, life goes on… mindful of what is unfolding and the possibility that Agung will still blow.

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