I’m Burning for You – Indonesia

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The brush fire today outside our open-air bungalow. The roof is open just above the walls in order to let heat out. Unfortunately, it allows smoke in.

Fire is such a sensitive issue for a wood-burning-pizza-loving kind of person like me. When we had the pizza oven I always insisted on a large crowd to share a burn as the energy used to build such a hot fire seemed excessive and greedy if used only to feed a few. I was also conscientious of the weather on pizza party days hoping for high pressure that would allow our smoke to escape the city well above neighbor’s open windows or guest’s nostrils and lungs. Occasionally, I would be left feeling irresponsible if low pressure pushed the smoke earthbound.

Fire once held such allure for me. As a kid, we cooked on a wood cook stove for many years. I loved helping my mom pry up the cast iron hob to fill the firebox with wood, feel the heat of the flames warm the top then marvel that a fresh loaf of bread or a pot of soup made from hard lentils, carrots and onions could be achieved all with the help of fire.

I remember the long cold nights when we tapped maple trees and boiled the sap for days over an outdoor fire. I would sit at the fire’s edge poking and prodding logs with a big stick just to watch the embers glow; to see how fire could collect itself quietly into red hot coals tinged with white then suddenly burst angry and fierce into blue-orange flames.

Camping in my early years not only meant fire and food, but gave my imagination license to cast myself as a character on one of my most cherished children’s books. I was thrilled to learn that my favorite campfire culinary treat was called “Hobo Dinner.” I was mesmerized and held in reverential respect when I saw that fire alone could translate hard potatoes, carrots and onions into delicious nourishment. As a fan of The Boxcar Children, I loved imagining myself living the simple life and making do with “found” items. Scrounging for sustenance captured my little girl imagination, and with a master gardener as a father, I knew how simple it would be to sneak into late evening gardens and steal away with a few potatoes, carrots and onions to cook over open flames. Just like the boxcar children, I knew I could survive without a house or parents! Of course, I’d need to stock up on foil and carry a little supply of salt to really make it work! Fire captured my heart and imagination.

As we all know, things that once were dear can become irritants. Now, I am jaded with regards to flame, and fire no longer holds its allure. I know what power it holds, and I have come to understand that it is a relentless punisher if its rules are not followed. I now understand that what lies beyond its blue-orange licking flames and luscious warmth is not the magic I saw as a child. What I didn’t know then is that if fire is abused, it will punish fiercely. Fire lives an independent life not meant to share space with its cousins, and humans have forsaken this implicit rule of the flame.

You see, fire must be conserved; used communally and sparingly, and only when absolutely necessary.

Since we arrived in SouthEast Asia, we bear witness to the wrath of fire. Fires burn across the land, across our eyes, across our lungs and into every fibre of our being. Fire is used to scar the earth; to remove foliage from another year’s planting, fire is used to prepare breakfast and dinner, and fire is used to feed the tourists. The use of fire over a small area of land is excessive. Every family stokes a wood stove, every family burns their yard waste and garbage, every restaurant grills meats and fish and every farmer employs slash and burn. And for this, the land will become unlivable for animals and humans alike. Smoke hangs so thick that eyes and lungs burn while the brain beats a rhythm as if asking to open the door and let it escape the fumes. Just like lungs screaming to the brain to take a breath, a brain filled with smoke chants, “Go home!” while flashing images of fresh air from the Wisconsin hilltops and moisture laden air from smoke-free valleys. The residues and waste of fire fills the sky across this lower continent, infiltrating every nook and cranny and making it nearly impossible to breathe.

Let’s put this into perspective for those of you from Minneapolis. We are staying on an island the size of Lake Harriet with a similarly sized three-mile walk around the perimeter. This island has 55 official restaurants all of which serve Saytay or some sort of grilled meat to the guests staying in over 50 hotels or guesthouses. Each home of the 1,800 local inhabitants cooks breakfast and dinner over their kitchen fire and much of the garbage and brush from trees gets burned daily.

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Gili Air in a perpetual state of haze from fires.

As humans feel the sting of fire’s waste, so too, does the earth. Huge tracts of land lay barren completely deforested by large populations living nearby. Animals that once had habitat are homeless and starving, and erosion is so rampant that sides of mountains slide into rivers leaving them clogged with silt and unable to sustain aquatic life. Combined with toxic particulates from factories and millions of motorbikes in the north, acid rain collects in the smoke and smog making worse the affront to respiratory and environmental health.

It is the rare occurrence in the U.S. when every neighbor in a high-density area is BBQing at exactly the same time while burning yard waste or garbage (including plastic) and filling the air with smoke, but that is the daily reality in Southeast Asia. Meat lovers might think they would enjoy the aroma, the call to dinner, the rich smell of smoke promising something savory and delicious, but after days of the acrid relentless smell, the charm wears off and illness sets in. Perhaps it’s only respiratory irritation, perhaps pounding headaches, or for some, life-threatening asthma. In the U.S we live in a big country with wide open spaces, so fire does not punish unless Memorial Day is particularly warm, but in places like Laos and Indonesia we can both see and feel the wrath of flame in the fragility of our bodies and in this earth upon which we live.

We all share the same air and it’s pollutants. I do not mean to be hypocritical in pointing out my discomfort in breathing Southeast Asian air as I know that many of my practices, unfortunately, contribute to environmental degradation as well. I merely wish to point out that fire burning en masse is very uncomfortable to be around if one is susceptible to respiratory issues or headaches. I have found myself reflective regarding my own use of fire and its impact on others.

Perhaps this is the purpose of travel? To give us perpective in order to rethink our policies and practices.

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One of the many burning garbage piles around the island.
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4 thoughts on “I’m Burning for You – Indonesia

  1. How fascinating to read this post from Indonesia! Sarah, you probably do t know that my parents lived in Soerbiya (misspelled) Java and that is where I would have been born, had it not been for Dec.7th, the attack on Pearl Harbor. You both write such interesting posts that I feel like I’m there too.

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  2. 100% agree with your conclusion. So many perspectives and new understandings gained through travel. From your descriptions, I imagine you have black snot! Baaaahhh. The worst. Thanks for sharing even when what you write could be perceived as unflattering it is important to understand your lived experience.

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