SHADOW ECONOMY: MUD MINDER

Back to Earth

Every day, 100,000 cubic meters of hot mud leak out of the bowels of the earth, bubbling into a steaming brown lake that has already engulfed more than 641 hectares of land and twelve villages in East Java, Indonesia.

This is the Sidoarjo mud volcano, brought to life four years ago by a natural gas drilling mishap. Its endless spew has claimed the homes and livelihoods of more than 30,000 people. The drilling corporation PT Lapindo Brantas denies responsibility for the catastrophe, but not everyone is running away from the problem. A few intrepid evacuees have returned to profit from the mud. It's catastrophe tourism.

From the urban blight of nearby Surabaya, catch a Bluebird taxi to Sidoarjo's stacked retaining walls. Take the entry ramp and hand a few rupiah to any one of the 12 or so men blocking your ascent. Once on top of the wall, you'll find yourself eye to eye with a liquid plateau. A few more steps forward and you'll be over your head in mud, in the company of many villagers. You'll find DVDs of the mud's slow flow, homemade photos and postcards, motor scooters to rent, and even tea, boiled on the burning flame of natural gas that streams straight out of a crack in the ground.

In the distance, skyscrapers of steam mark the mud's source. It'll cost another 30 rupiah to ride through the narrow maze, clinging to the back of your motor scooter chauffeur. On the way, displaced villagers have established checkpoints: here was one former village, there another, and their respective mud-flanked embankments are now toll roads. The drowned homes to your right and left have completely disappeared under the quivering carpet of muck. Five rupiah to pass.

The closer you get, the stronger the smell- a noxious sulphur stink that gives you a headache if your eyes attempt anything more complicated than looking straight ahead. Before you've even reached the rising gas plume, you're ready to turn back. And that's the real reason you need a Sidoarjo mud minder and his motorcycle- a gaping, belching brown hole in the earth is only fun if you can make a quick getaway.