As Bali volcano bubbles, thousands flee while others stay put

If you were living near a huge volcano that was spewing ash and scientists were warning of a possible eruption, you'd want to flee, right? Well, not necessarily.

Rather than leaving, the compelling impulse to see an aggressive and majestic show of nature, and to record an uncontrollable force, is motivating some visitors to the tropical island of Bali to stick around for a while.

Take Mark Levitin. He's not going anywhere. The activity inside Mount Agung is the 12th volcanic eruption he's witnessed up close.

"It's just beautiful. I like the power of them," said the lanky 39-year-old, who grew up in Russia and Israel.

"We're living on what is essentially a huge bowl of magma with a very thin crust," Levitin told the Associated Press. "Even the place we call home is mostly hot enough to vaporize us in an instant."

Many foreigners are making haste to leave the idyllic Indonesian island after its airport, shut for 2 ½ days due to drifting ash, reopened on Wednesday afternoon.

Some airlines are advising people who'd already booked travel to Bali that they can cancel, defer or change their destination because the airport could easily be forced to close again by a bigger eruption or by the billowing columns of ash moving back in its direction. Its last major eruptions, in 1963, killed about 1,100 people and the volcano didn't quiet down for a year.

A plume of smoke above Mount Agung volcano is illuminated at sunset as seen from Amed, Karangasem Regency, Bali, Indonesia, November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside - RC1EB0B12800

Mount Agung is seen in Bali, Indonesia.  (Reuters)

However, leaving is not the agenda for Mariano Gonzales, a polyglot travel guide from the Canary Islands, who to his surprise was turned away from an ash-covered hotel he arrived at three days into his two-week Bali vacation.


"I was a little bit shocked because everybody was a little bit stressy because they saw me arriving with my bags and I didn't know anything about this volcano," said Gonzales, who is now staying in Amed, a picturesque fishing village with a spectacular view of the smoking volcano about 15 kilometers (9 miles) away.

He said he tried to get closer to the mountain but was turned back at a checkpoint.

"We feel comfortable. We're enjoying our beer and this beautiful view," said Gonzales, sitting cliff side at the Sunset Point bar that has a panorama of the cone-shaped mountain, the Bali Sea and rows of brightly painted fishing boats below.

Indonesian disaster officials ordered 100,000 people to leave the exclusion zone that in places extends 10 kilometers from the crater after the mountain began violently erupting on Saturday.

International passengers are seen outside the terminal after the airport on the resort island of Bali reopened following the eruption of Mount Agung volcano at Ngurah Rai International Airport, Kuta, Bali, Indonesia November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Johannes P. Christo - RC13A9693F10

Thousands of travelers have been stranded at Bali's main airport amid warnings that Mount Agung could erupt at any moment.  (Reuters)

Since then it has gushed ash almost continuously, hurling the gray-black columns of dust, steam and smoke 4,000 meters (13,200 feet) high and glowing a menacing red at night as lava wells up inside. Lahars of muddy volcanic debris have flowed down its sides through some villages.

Though many Balinese did heed the officials and left the immediate danger zone, some feel they have no choice but to keep farming their lands in the volcano's shadow.

Katut Wiri and her family were planting crops Thursday in an area that authorities warn would be in the path of hot ash clouds and mudflows during a major eruption.

"If I'm not planting these fields, somebody might come and claim it and start farming on it. So I won't have any land to farm," said the mother of three. "So that's why I came and started planting."

Still, officials are warning that the volcano could burst.

Farmers harvest rice on the edge of the evactuation zone as Mount Agung volcano erupts in the background in Karangasem Regency, Bali, Indonesia, November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside - RC176870A450

Balinese farmers work in the shadow of Mount Agung, which has been spewing ash as officials warn that a major eruption is possible.  (Reuters)

“We cannot predict whether it will be bigger than 1963, but ... according to our evaluation the potential for a full-scale eruption is still high,” Devy Kamil Syahbana, an official at Indonesia’s center for volcanology and geological disaster mitigation center, told Reuters.

"My first volcano was almost 20 years ago in Costa Rica. Almost killed me," Levitin said. "I had no experience and didn't know how to do it and I almost walked right into a bombardment of volcanic rocks."

But, he adds, in the unlikely event an eruption is huge beyond any expectations, nowhere on Bali would be safe.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.