Sol vs. The Volcano — A History
In Portland, Oregon, when given a piece of white construction paper and finger paints, children will blob and smudge paintings of snow-capped mountains topped with whipped-cream clouds and sprinkled with pine trees. In San Diego, California, kids will draw sandy beaches lined with palm trees and spotted with sharks and surfers. In Guatemala, the children draw Volcanos.
Normally they draw them in pairs or triplets with square-page-corner suns looming over rolling hills or blue lakes. Today, the children have added something special to their volcanoes. Can you guess what it is? Let me give you a hint: it’s red, it’s fiery, and it has something to do with that game your mother used to yell at you for when she found you jumping from the couch to the dining room table in order to avoid touching the floor. Yup. Hot lava. Hot lava is what is spewing from Volcan Fuego at this very moment as I write from an internet cafe in Antigua, Guatemala. Hot lava, and pictures thereof, is what is finally making the front page of the local papers after two weeks of constant eruption activity. And hot lava, is what has inspired all the young Guatemalan artists to open, and apply liberally, the contents of the bottle of red paint.
The hot stuff, and that which produces it, has also fired a little inspiration in me. It has inspired a sort of reflection on The Volcano’s influence, or its *explosive* pressure, on my own life. And thus I present to you: Sol v.s. The Volcano — A History.
May, 1980: Sol vs. St. Hellens
Now it just so happens, that my earliest memory of life and/or consciousness took place on May 18th, 1980. Of course, my consciousness was not so keen enough to actually remember that date. The date I got online. My consciousness was only mature enough to grasp and remember the image of ashes falling from the sky as I was being held up on the top of a car. May 18th, 1980 is the date Mount St. Hellens erupted.
In the years between that fir-tree-fateful day and my first trip to Central America, The Volcano influenced my life only in the forms of ice cream cones, chemistry class filter flasks, and Madonna’s chest. But WHEN The Volcano decided to make a move in my life, it did so in true volcanic nature… violently.
October 2000: Sol vs. Volcan Madera
Volcan Madera is located on the Ometepe Island, in Lake Nicaragua. Myself and seven other travelers hitched and hiked our way up to an old banana plantation called Magdalena that had a hammock-deck open for backpackers wanting to hike the volcano towering over it. We arrived late in the night and passed out early in preparation for the eight hour hike the next morning. Early a.m., we gobbled up the only meal the plantation owners had to offer — beans, rice, eggs and bananas. The owner told us that we needed a guide to find our way and a rope to climb the last half hour down into the crater-lake. “Guide? Sheeah. Who needs a guide!” He offered us HIS rope.
Four of us were impatient waiting for two in our group to finish breakfast. They waved us on and told us they’d catch up with us in a few minutes. Now a five-hour hike up doesn’t sound like much, but please keep in mind, it was about the angle of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
About four exhausting hours into the trip, whilst we were sitting down for a rest at a break in the path, an Italian guy caught up with us. Two paths layed out in front of us and he opted for the one the rest of us had just decided against. But he was adamant, and I told the others to rest while I climbed it with him a bit. We had been climbing up the jungle floor for about ten minutes when I decided, mostly out of the fact that I didn’t WANT to climb mud any more, that the other path would be a better option. I yelled this up to him. The last I heard were his continued echos of, “No! I’m sure this is it….just a little farther!”. I turned around, found the others, and we took the other path. And hour later we were splish-splashing ourselves a very fine time in the lake within the crater of The Volcano and eating bruised-to-baby-food bananas and cracked eggs…. and feeling that very special type of proud you can only feel after successfully hiking a volcano.
In typical Central American rain season fashion, it POURED on us on our way DOWN The Volcano — turning our descent into the world’s largest non-yellow slip-and-slide. When we finally returned to camp, we were painted head to toe in mud and short one shoe. We kicked back in our hammocks anxiously awaiting the arrival of our friends (from their own adventures) so that we could clink beers and revel in how cool we were, together. We waited and waited…and it grew dark.
The pair that had told us they were going to follow us “in five minutes” came down first. They were covered in mud and scrapes. The girl was on the verge of hysterics. She read the questions in our eyes. “I don’t want to talk about it.” she stated. Her partner stumbled up on the deck after her and replied, “See…we made it!”. She shot him a lava-hot glare that any volcano would have been jealous of, and stomped off to the showers. Apparently, she had followed him and his claims of “I know where we are!” around for a good eight hours before they ran out of water and fell down a stream created from the downpour. Eventually, but still hours later, she shoved him out of the way, and they managed to find and follow a river down The Volcano.
The second pair of travelers had left in the morning in search of some hidden waterfall at the foot of neighboring Volcan Conception. They never found the waterfall, but they DID find a dead body…in the ditch of a street. Traumatized, they headed back to the plantation, but got lost on their way back up in the dark and had walked into ants nests. No. They didn’t want to hear about our trip up The Volcano.
The next morning, the planation owner asked us if we had seen an Italian man when we were up on the Volcano. Apparently, he hadn´t come down yet. We crossed worried eyes at each other and told him our experience. He shrugged nonchalantly and told us that just the day before, a girl had sprained her foot on the way up and had spent the night on The Volcano. He stopped the next couple starting up on their hike up and told them to keep an eye out for a lost Italian — Nicaragua’s version of a formal search party. I saw the Italian come down a few hours later. I didn’t ask him if he wanted to talk about it.
4 lost hikers, 2 lost overnight, 1 dead body, 2 ant attacks, 1 sprained ankle, and 1 lost shoe — all offered as sacrafices on the altar of Volcan Madera in one weekend. Enough to appease the Gods?
October 2001: Sol vs. Volcan Pacaya
Volcan Pacaya is a 7,383-foot volcano that lies about 27 miles south of Guatemala City. For five bucks, a person can join one of the dozens of tour groups that climb the volcano daily. The hike takes about three hours to ascend in the tour group, but about 1.5 if you’re not “resting” every 15 minutes at the command of your guide while waiting for the stragglers in the back of the group. Pacaya is highly active, and if the prospect of a close encounter with the lava kind doesn’t inch up the adrenaline, the rumor that all the armed guards placed along the trail are ex-convicts usually does. No worries though, because your 50-year old guide DOES have a really big stick.
I hiked Pacaya in October, during the winter season of Guatemala. During the trip up, our guide repeatedly pointed out — into the walls of thick white fog surrounding us — the beautiful views of volcanos and cities that we could NOT see. (Advice: The best time to hike Pacaya is NOT in the rain or winter seasons. It is also suggested to hike Pacaya when it is NOT exploding. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised at what official warnings the tour agencies will NOT tell you about if they see a flash of cash.)
The last hour of the hike was up black volcanic sand.
*one step up…..slide two steps back*
*one step up…..slide two steps back*
It was in this manner that we lost ten percent of the hikers to exhaustion.
There were about 15 hikers in front of me on the narrow path when hard gusts of sulfuric gas began picking fights with each of us indiviually, trying to steal our oxygen. Three wide-eyed and crying girls came crawling frantically down the path yelping to everyone to turn around. Having been recently trained to spot the signs of panic in a divemaster course, I grabbed the first one, stared her squarely in the eyes, and instructed her to breath, be calm, and climb down. Admittedly, it WAS difficult to breath, but I had brought a handkerchief to cover my mouth and wasn’t about to turn around five minutes from the summit. (Stupid? Probably. For the record, I knew that.)
At the top, I found one of the guides posing pretty with successful hikers. Oddly enough, none of the ten or so cameras that made it up, worked — something to do with too much white balance because of the walls of fog and smoke. So we all just moved back and forth in a dance that involved inching closer and closer to the cliff of the crater *one, two, three* and jumping back and crouching low to cough and gasp for air *one, two, three* before we turned around and made our way back down *dip*.
The descent of The Volcano held its own surprise delights. First, the “one step up, slide two steps down” dance that exhausted us on the way up, made for a thrilling black-snow-ski-slope ride back down. Those daring to make a run for it, flew down the summit in echoing cries of laughter. It was while we sat on a cliff emptying sandfalls from our shoes that the walls of white fog decided to part like stage curtains and unveil to us — in gasps of awe and clicks of cameras — those INCREDIBLE views that we had missed the entire way up. It was a surprise party worth being unaware of.
February 2002: Sol vs. Volcan Fuego
More than 500 volcanoes are known to have erupted on the earth’s surface since historic times. One happens to be erupting within view of the window beside me. Last night, we drove to the foot of Volcan Fuego to get a closer seat at the show. After the initial shrieks of excitement (in response to the the river-of-red) subdued, we heard — in the silence — the undulating purr and roar of The Volcano. One word for that sound: Humbling.
The constant erupting action of Volcan Fuego over the last two weeks even inspired me to drop “Volcano” into Encyclopedia.com. It was there that I learned that Volcan Mauna Loa is taller that Mt. Everest (but its base is on the ocean floor) and that evidence of extraterrestrial volcanic activity has been found on Venus, Triton (a satellite of Neptune), and Lo (a satellite of Jupiter). Some travelers say that it’s the influence of the four volcanoes looming over Antigua that exert mysterious forces upon weekend passer-byers into changing their departure dates and getting lost here for months — a kind of Bermuda-Volcano Triangle if you will. Of course,despite my research, the mystery, magic and beauty of The Volcano remain indefinable in my own mental encyclopedia.
So, Volcan Hellens inspired consciousness within me. Volcan Madera inspired fear. Volcan Pacaya inspired beauty and awe. Volcan Fuego inspired magic and mystery. But it is in the cumulation of all of these experiences, that The Volcano has inspired one thing above all these others. And that is…respect.
(I’m traveling this weekend to Quetaltenago, to soak in the hot springs of Aguas Calientes Georgina for three days — Compliments of The Volcano.)