Monday, November 23, 2009


Saturday I set out at 2 PM to climb a volcano. Volcan Pacaya. It feels kind of bizarre to be in a land of volcanoes. In grade school I always felt like volcanoes were this prehistoric phenomenon-- only really existing with the dinosaurs. Yes, I realized there is a volcano in the states, but it was far away, not really in my world. Well. There are a lot of volcanoes in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica. And they are not only volcanoes, they are active volcanoes. So on Saturday I went to experience one up close and personal. Maybe the most surreal, insane experience I have ever had.

As you may know, the only shoes I brought with me were flip-flops and my Chacos. Well, I'd been told that under no circumstances should I go up Pacaya in my Chacos. But one person said I might be ok, and I did not want to shell out $10 for some new used shoes, nor have to carry them around after. So. I went in Chacos. Well, I can now tell you that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES ARE CHACOS APPROVED FOR VOLCANOES. I love my Chacos, but in this instance, not the wisest choice. Also, I forgot the bottoms of my zip-off pants, so I had to go up in shorts. Again I tell you: shorts are not approved apparel for volcanoes. Learn from my mistakes, people, when you yourselves climb an active volcano. Because I tell you, this is something you should do before you die.

This experience also had some sentimental value for me. I've been planning this trip for what, 7, 8 months or so? before embarking. And that time period was filled with excitement, doubt, nerves, trepidation, the list goes on. Well, in my NYC subway stop, there was the following advertisement:

And every time I saw this advertisement, it re-inspired me. It encouraged me. I wanted to be that guy conquering the world. I wanted to be that guy experiencing bizarre, amazing, unusual journeys. I didn't want to pass by an advertisement in NYC every day without venturing out on my own to live the adventurous life beyond my comfort's walls. Sometimes I wouldn't think the trip was going to happen, and seeing this ad reaffirmed my determination to make this trip happen. Sometimes I felt scared to go. This ad helped me remember that nothing was ever gained without some risk. I didn't want to stay the boring retail Laura forever. I didn't want to stay the boring retail Laura one more day. I was going to go conquer flaming volcanoes.

And on Saturday, I was this guy. It looked exactly like that. Yes, it was a little bittersweet doing this on my own. And really, I cannot believe that I did this on my own, because it may be the most dangerous, the most terrifying thing I have ever done. I thought that waterfall was scary? Hah, that was nothing compared to this volcano.

What I regret is that I didn't have 3 more hours to experience this volcano. I would have liked to stop again and again on the way up, because it was a stunning view. We kept rising over the valley, over Antigua, with other volcanoes on our horizon. The volcano itself is so fertile and beautiful before you get to the scorched part. The sun was setting, and we kept ascending above the clouds. I'd never seen anything like it.

And then we got to the scorched part. Nothing was growing, the ground under our feet was a ton of tiny, black rocks, that slid as soon as you stepped on them. And immediately, my feet were in terrible pain. The pebbles, of course, wedged between my foot and my sandal, so it was like I was ascending the volcano barefoot. It hurt so bad after about 1 minute that I was shaking. Thank heavens Eddy gave me his socks otherwise I would not have made it for 5 more minutes. So, wearing white mens socks and my Chacos was not only an amazing fashion statement, it also made wearing the Chacos a little slippy. And when we got to the part where we were walking on cooled lava, this proved to be a little perilous.

The thing about walking on recently cooled (well, not really cooled, it's warm and even hot in places) is that this newly formed matter is like Satan's version of glass. It is exceedingly sharp, all over, in fact, it's like needles, because it could pierce my skin and leave little pricks inside if I just touched it when losing my balance. It's black. I was terrified of losing my balance (which is a pretty common occurrence for me), because if I fell, or even just bumped up against that satanic mass of needle-rock, my skin would instantly be shredded. Understand why shorts are NOT recommended? To be honest, if I had known what the experience was going to be like before I was there, I probably wouldn't have gone, I don't think I would have been brave enough.

As I was internally freaking out about the potential to get really hurt, I was marveling at how cool it was to be walking on this lava. Not only is it Satan's version of glass, it is also so evident how recently it was liquid. It's rippled like thick fabric.

At one point my small group of climbers was left without a guide-- they'd all gone ahead. And we were at a point on the dangerous, cooled lava that we weren't sure what the 'safe' route was. The guy before me fell (miraculously not getting hurt besides some scrapes on his hands). (The cooled lava would give off this awful, foreboding scraping sound when it wasn't strong enough to support human weight; we heard this sound a lot). So, I became the group leader. What?! What?! I moved forward, striking our path, not believing what was happening right then. Other people in the group had started to get a little panicky when they realized our guides had left us, so my 'Jack' instinct kicked in and I, of all people, struck out to choose our ominous path over hot, unstable, sharp rocks. And we made it.

We finally joined the rest of the group at the molten lava, flowing over the side of Pacaya. When the wind changed just a bit, the air hitting our faces was scorching. We stood above the clouds, by glowing, flowing lava, as the sun was setting. It is the most surreal experience I've ever had. I've never been anyplace that looked like the top of that volcano. It was a completely new experience. And I only had about 5 minutes up there, I was SO upset I didn't have an hour to not only just spend some time experiencing it, but to take pictures. I mean, as a photographer, being some place so foreign, so new, so texturally appealing, so beautiful, so different, so dark, so dangerous, it was torture not having time to capture it. It was such a different place, and it had such a surreal feeling to it, that I decided to forget about pictures and just experience it. I didn't want to spend my entire 5 minutes behind the lens of a camera.

I think I made the right choice, but it makes me sad I don't have a good record to share with family and friends, as this was truly a different experience I would like to share. I have a few, I'll put them up soon. But otherwise, this experience will just have to live on in my brain.

We roasted marshmallows over the lava and made s'mores up there. I will never have s'mores again without thinking about the top of Pacaya.

And then coming down. Oh. My. Heavens. When I was at the top, I couldn't stop thinking about going down. Because getting there had been so perilous for a sandal and shorts-wearing clutz that I couldn't imagine descending. In the dark. But, all you can do is move forward. And I'm telling you, every instinct in my body and mind and soul was telling me not to take the next step, because I knew that I was going to fall, and end up sliding down this unbelievably sharp, deadly mountain. It was DARK. And every step we took caused a small avalanche. And I've already described what the rock was like. It was steep. Everything in me was screaming to me to stop, and the only way that I moved forward was because I knew I had to. There was no other way of getting down that volcano. (I really wished I could just stay camped out at the top til morning. Not only would I get the time I wanted to experience the volcano, but then I wouldn't have to descend in the dark.) Seriously, I am not a brave enough person to willingly go down a volcano in the dark. The only reason I took the next step was because I. just. had. to. And then the next step. And the next. And the next. Until finally I was on relatively solid, level ground. Still being those little pebbles, but at least I wasn't on such a steep angle.

Fuck. (I'm sorry people who are shocked right now that I just said that word in such a public space as the Internet, but this experience truly calls for a strong expletive.)

I can't believe people don't regularly die/get severely injured on that trip up and down the volcano. I can't believe my travel insurance wasn't called into action. I could SO EASILY have been seriously injured.

And you know what? When I was coming down in the dark? People were still going up. LUNATICS. What the f*** are these people/guides thinking?

The walk down was great. I chatted with these 2 Irish guys the whole way, and then continued to on the hour trip home in the van. We went out for drinks after we got home and showered, and ended up staying at the pub til they closed at 1. And then I had to get up at 6 for my trip to Chichicastenango yesterday. But it was worth it, those guys know how to have some good conversation. And they were a riot. How I appreciate a good sense of humor. I really wish I could spend more time with them, but they're off to Lake Atitlan, and I think I may be off south, to the beaches of El Salvador.

I'm not quite sure what my next move is going to be. It actually turns out that I have quite a bit more time flying solo than anticipated. So wish me safety as I go it alone, and off I go to conquer more world.


Rebecca said...

THAT. IS. AWESOME. Seriously. I really hope you got one picture of YOU on that mountain, because that's what I'm really hoping for. Great job, Laura. This is amazing stuff.

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