Porong disaster site becomes tourist spot

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Hans David Tampubolon, The Jakarta Post

Porong in Sidoarjo, East Java, has come into the international spotlight as a destination for both tourists and researchers. Ironically, this global attention is driven by the massive curiosity about a terrible environmental catastrophe — the Lapindo mudflow.

The name of the mudflow is derived from PT Lapindo Brantas, an oil and gas exploration company operating in Porong and owned by the politically wired Bakrie family. Many have attached the Lapindo brand to the mudflow because the disaster started in 2006 while the company was conducting drilling in the area. Sometimes it is referred to as the Lusi mudflow, an acronym of Lumpur Sidoarjo, the Sidoardjo mud.

To get to the location, visitors can take a one-hour bus ride from Surabaya, the capital East Java.Transportation is also available from Juanda international airport in Surabaya at a cost of Rp 165,000 (US$17).

At the location, visitors will see a large dam surrounding the mudflow site. The dam was built by the Sidoarjo Mudflow Mitigation Agency (BPLS) to contain the mudflow.Around the dam, there are a number of entry points, watched over by several men, claiming to be displaced residents. Visitors must pay them Rp 10,000 as a fee to enter the dam.

“This is how we live now because we have not yet received our compensation from Lapindo,” Cacan, one of the entry point guards, said.

Cacan said that on a good day, he could earn Rp 40,000 collecting entry fees. But on a bad day, nothing.

Once visitors manage to enter the dam, they will be greeted by several motorcycle taxi drivers offering their services for people wishing to go around the mudflow scene.

“Welcome to the infamous Lapindo mudflow area. Here you can rent motorcycle taxi services for Rp 25,000 all day,” a motorcycle taxi driver named Untung greeted The Jakarta Post.

Untung said that he and his colleagues also sold documentary DVDs for Rp 10,000 to Rp 15,000 each.

Untung also said that it was advisable for visitors to go around the mudflow area with a motorcycle taxi driver because it was too dangerous for strangers to be in there alone.

“The mud spots are completely unstable. [...] If you step on very soft mud could swallow you up.” So far, no visitor has been buried alive, according to Untung.

“There was one close call. A visitor recklessly decided to go on top of the mud using a motorcycle. He was almost drowned. Luckily, I was there to save him. His motorcycle, however, could not be saved,” Untung said.

The notoriety of the mudflow has lured visitors from around the globe to visit the scene.

“I have seen visitors coming from Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, Germany and the United States,” he said.

“Some of them are researchers looking to investigate what really happened here while most of them are tourists,” he added.

Untung’s colleague, Mustofa, said that residents had to accept the fact that the disaster had become an object for tourism.

“Deep in our hearts, we cry because what happened is a disaster. This is not something that needs to be celebrated as tourism,” Mustofa said.

Both Untung and Mustofa said that in terms of empathy and tolerance, foreign tourists had more sensitivity than domestic tourists.

“Malaysians burst into tears when they see how the mudflow has buried our properties. Foreign tourists are also very kind [...] They pay us at least Rp 500,000 per trip,” Untung said.

“Yet domestic tourists tend to lack sensitivity. They pay us very little, plus they like to joke around about how ‘cool’ this location is. [...] There is nothing cool about having your house buried three meters underground,” he added.

Untung stressed that both the Indonesian people and government had to realize that the Lapindo mudflow scene was a disaster that needed to be solved, not a tourist site that needed preservation. “People from the big cities often try to be smart and tell us that we need to be thankful because amid the disaster that has befallen upon us, we’ve received tourism in exchange,” Untung said.

“There is no silver lining here. We were struck by a disaster and we have become tourist guides because if we don’t, we cannot eat. Our income as guides is much lower than what we had before the mudflow erupted. I used to earn Rp 5 million per month from my farmlands but now I am lucky if I can get Rp 1 million per month,” he added.

“We understand your curiosity. But that does not mean you can belittle our sufferings and offend us,” he said.