Recently, a foreign friend of mine said, “I can’t understand why many people prefer to stay in Yogyakarta and not flee. Many people there seem more concerned about the effect of the volcanic ash on their motorcycles than on their respiratory health.” Rather than staying in the city, my friend chose to take shelter in Bali shortly after the first eruption of Mount Merapi, which has been belching out gas and ash for the past few weeks.
Simple as my friend’s statement was, it gave me plenty of food for thought. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps for foreigners, the decision to stay in a city that sits so close to a source of disaster seems silly. Of course, there’s no shortage of reasons to run away from a volcanic eruption.
Aside from obvious dangers such as molten lava and deadly pyroclastic flows, problems can also be caused by the clouds of ash that fall like grey snow after each of Merapi’s exhalations. These ash particles are minute and can easily get into the lungs. Inhaled, they can make even the healthiest people fall ill. And they make those who suffer from asthma prone to experiencing severe shortness of breath and coughing fits.
And don’t rule out the fact that, albeit rare, prolonged exposure to volcanic ash can cause serious and lasting pulmonary conditions. The ash is very fine and contains siliceous crystals, which means that people will certainly experience bad side-effects if they live within an area with a high concentration of volcanic ash for a prolonged period of time.
The above facts aside, some people have a tendency to pigeonhole Indonesians as fatalistic, a trait believed to be behind their “silly decisions.” Many such stereotypes originated during the colonial era, a time when such opinions were deliberately perpetuated. The myth of Indonesians as people driven by destiny has been confirmed for many by the notion that their behavior is driven by superstition and mysticism. People who decide to stay despite the dangers posed by Merapi might provide justification for the premise that Indonesians are fatalistic and superstitious.
The death of Mbah Maridjan, the spiritual guardian of the mountain who rocketed to sudden fame following an eruption in 2006, supports the assumption. He saw the volcanic phenomena through a lens of the supernatural and decided to stay put during the latest eruption, a decision that led to his death. The old man did not put credence in the scientific findings of the Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Center (PVMBG), that had urged him and others to evacuate their homes before the next eruption took place, and he paid the ultimate price
Be that as it may, there are factors, which, if one looks deeper, can provide an explanation for why so many people do not move away from the shadow of the volcano. Believe it or not, living in a country where natural disasters can happen anytime and where the resulting death tolls are often high has a way of making Indonesians more accustomed to the concept of fatalism, compared to Europeans.
A Portuguese psychology student of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta who visited an Indonesian evacuee camp to help the people deal with the psychological impact of the catastrophe, expressed shock at how the victims all seemed to be “fine.” They had been displaced by a major disaster and many had lost everything, but they weren’t crying as he had thought they would.
“They just lost everything, belongings, homes, families, but I’m not sure they need me here,” he said.
Another factor could be that, percentage wise, there are more Indonesians who believe in the afterlife than Europeans, who have long tended to think more empirically about such matters. That being said, death to Europeans is generally the end of a cul-de-sac while to most Indonesians death is a door to another phase of life.
But do all those who stay near Merapi think that way? Maybe not, but there are numerous logical reasons why they choose to remain. Consider the fact that most Indonesians do not have the financial luxury of being able to flee and leave behind their worldly possessions. The fact that they stay doesn’t mean that the people aren’t scared or concerned about their safety.
Most people living close to Merapi are doing what they can to follow the advice of the experts from the Volcanology Center. There is a 20-kilometer danger zone around the crater of the volcano and Yogyakarta is outside this zone by at least 10 km so its residents are presumably safe from the immediate danger. People have also been sharing tips on how to lessen the health risks of breathing volcanic ash.
In my opinion, this shows that people have reacted rationally by saving their lives and health without allowing themselves to be completely overwhelmed by anxiety over things they can’t control — which, to me, would be more irrational than the decision to stay.