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“Meet at 7. Bring swim trunks for the boat trip and a jacket for the volcano. We’ll buy beer, dogs and burgers on the way and I’ll supply the gas-masks. I have 11 of them.”

This was the WhatsApp text we received from our half-Javanese, half-American comrade named Chris the night before the Fourth of July in Bali, Indonesia. Raised both in Texas and Jakarta (with some schooling in Santa Barbara) Chris looks quite Indonesian but sounds a little-to-a-lot like Owen Wilson. He’s also a real pill too, and while the Fourth of July should mean absolutely nothing within the Islamic Republic of Indonesia — Chris was out to change that.

We’ll get to the gas-masks…

The following morning Chris (pretty much our trip ring-leader) shows up to the meeting spot with his girlfriend an hour late and severely hung-over from the night before. A few other couples show up too — mostly young Americans living in Bali that wanted a piece of this patriot-party — plus a Russian girl…and Chris’s mom (also a real firecracker, no pun intended.)

After driving four hours across the island to the other side of Bali, we arrive at a boat (Chris’s mom’s boat), hop in and do the Fourth of July-abroad proper. It is a proven scientific fact that a successful Fourth requires a boat, a body of water and a BBQ and we had all of the above, plus another couple from Texas (the most ‘Merican of Americans) who had the audacity (genius) to start an authentic Texas-style smokehouse BBQ restaurant here in Bali which is killing it, by the way.

So we motor into a small island between Bali and Java, turn up some American tunes at a culturally-respectful level (definitely no louder than the Muslim call-to-prayers blaring from the Java-side), fire up the grill, start crushing beers, do a couple backflips off the boat and stuff our face with hot dogs until we feel sick.

That evening, we dock at a hotel on the edge of East Java at the foot of Mt. Ijen volcano and Chris orders us all to be up and ready to trek by 3am. And that, again, he had ample gas-masks for all.

“Why…3am, Chris?” I ask.

“So we can see the blue-flame in the crater,” he says, matter-of-factly.

“And why…gas-masks?” I also ask.

“Because of the sulfuric gas,” he says even more matter-of-factly.

It wasn’t easy but we hit the trail at the designated (psychotic) pre-dawn-hour, and march up a path at the base of the semi-active Mt. Ijen volcano. Other volcanoes rumble violently in the distance, one of which (to this day) is diverting, delaying, and plain cancelling flights on Bali. Something about volcanic ash in the air that can suck into planes’ jet-engines and convert into molten glass.

After a grueling couple of hours, all up-hill, the sun-rises quicker than we’d anticipated, thus glimpsing that ubiquitous “blue flame” in the crater was out of the question. We opt to take the trail down toward it anyway to see the magnificent, electric blue crater-lake up close. Suddenly, the wind shifts and yellow sulfuric-smoke billowing from one corner of the crater consumes us. This was what the gas-masks were for and we slip them on like it’s a Cuban-missile-crisis-era bomb-drill.

And then we see a sight that has us dumbfounded. Trudging through the yellow gas, dozens and dozens of small, wiry local men lug buckets of sulfur rock from the crater, the weight bending the bamboo that counterbalances each pail on their shoulders. They’re literally heaving these rocks up the slippery volcanic trails, through the thick sulfuric smoke and then all the way down the volcano to the base — mask-less. It’s a humbling spectacle, especially since 10 hours earlier we were literally booze-cruising a few miles from this slice of human suffering. The wind shifts, the smoke clears, and we gladly leave our 11 gas-masks and goggles with gracious new owners.

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“Should we be worried about the volcano?” I ask our guide Ren, reaching down to give Rachel a hand as we climb up a slippery mountain trail. Texts and emails had been flooding our inboxes with subject lines like, “R U OK??” or “Sumatra Volcano??” Apparently it’s been all over the world news, with tens of thousands of Sumatran residents being evacuated from their homes. Falling ash, impending doom, death from above…with no one round here saying a word about it. 

Ren looks back at me blankly like, “Which volcano, again?” 

“Mt. Cinnabun,” I say, informatively.”

“Oh, Mt. Sinabung?” he corrects. He mulls it over for a second and shrugs it off like, “What-evs.” Then he puts his finger to his mouth to quiet us and glares up at the rainforest’s canopy. “I think Julie is here,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “…but I hope not Mina.” The twinkle vanishes.

We are hiking through the thick and steamy Gunung Leuser National Park near Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra tracking wild orangutans, by the way, and only a couple hours in. We follow narrow, sometimes unrecognizable footpaths that weave through the lush rainforest, loud and alive with cliché-like jungle sounds. Apparently there are even Sumatran tiger sightings now and then, a critically endangered predator on the verge of extinction. Our guide, Ren, and his young son sandwich Rachel and I, pausing every so often, both to catch their own breaths and to listen to the trees that might shake with a heavy, redheaded primate.

Ren looooves orangutans. Ren’s also the kinda guy that eats his fried rice lunch with his fingers, then snaps a photo of you with his ipad and seconds later, smugly says, “Already uploaded to Facebook,” with a look on his face like, how easy was that? He licks the remaining sauce off his fingers. Ren has also named quite a few of the orangutans we’re tracking too. He speaks fondly of Julie and Sandy, smiles and shakes his head when talking about Jackie and her child, but Mina — not so much.“Mina is mean. Very aggressive,” he says with a frown. “I hope we don’t see her…Mina bite.”

“Like, Mina bites often?” we ask, a little concerned. 

“Maybe once a month, once a week in high-season,” Ren says, scanning the forest cautiously. “She has bitten me before.” He rolls down his sock and shows us a nasty scar. So, it’s personal. Also I’m pretty sure it’s the high-season.

Suddenly there’s a rumble directly above us. We crane our necks straight up and an orange-haired mass descends toward us at an alarming pace. There’s a tense moment where I can tell Ren is glaring at the creature in the tree to get an I.D. and then bursts into a smile, “It’s…Sandy! With her baby!” He glows, proudly. He reaches into his backpack and hands Rachel a banana. “Share with them.” 

Rachel takes a piece of the fruit, moves a couple of steps forward and the two women reach out to one another, Sandy with a small child clinging to her chest. The orangutan’s hand grazes Rachel’s softly, taking the banana. One of those beautifully wild and pure moments in life. 

We continue on for a few more hours and eventually see Jackie, a nameless large alpha male, a man getting attacked by a swarm of bees, and, luckily, not Mina. We also find out that Mt. Cinnabun is less than 50 miles away from the park. C’mon, Ren!?

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