Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Climbing Atitlan: Take Two

Although I had climbed Volcan de Atitlan (the highest of the three volcanoes at Lake Atitlan), two years ago, the fact that Rachel and Christy and I planned last weekend’s trip to do it again all on our own made it seem like a brand new adventure. 

Our first order of business was to decide how exactly to arrive at San Lucas Toliman, the town we’d hike from.  We decided to drive directly to the town, rather than driving to Panajachel and taking a boat across the lake, and therefore, we had to gamble on which roads leading to the lake would be least full of potholes.  After much deliberation, and after getting the opinions of multiple people, we took the way the app Waze said would be half an hour shorter than the other two options.  This southern route meant no winding through the mountains, no traffic jam passing through Chimaltenango, and best of all—a brand new landscape that none of us had seen before.  And we lucked out—only about a 3km stretch of the road we took had any potholes or bumpiness. 

We arrived without a problem at our hotel, a nondescript place called Hotel Emanuel, just after noon on Saturday.  Shortly after we got there, our guide for the volcano trek stopped by to meet us and iron out a few details.

San Lucas Toliman central square, as seen from the hotel patio 

We met Luis, our guide-to-be, in the hotel’s garden.  After introductions, we agreed to leave for the hike at 4am (a compromise between his suggestion of 3am and ours of 5am). 
Hotel garden
Then, after reminding us to bring snacks and plenty of water, Luis asked us for a favor.  It turns out he gives private English lessons to a few local kids on the weekends.  He asked if we would be willing to come to his class that afternoon to give his students a chance to hear correct pronunciation, practice with native speakers, and answer any questions they might have.  We readily agreed to meet him at the house where he gave lessons at 4pm.

English lessons with Luis and his students that afternoon ended up being one of the unexpected treats of the weekend.  For the first hour, we worked with two younger students (a boy and a girl, ages 8 and 11), teaching vocabulary and practicing basic questions and answers.  The second hour, two older boys (ages 15 and 17) switched places with the younger kids, and Rachel and I spent that hour going over a recent test the boys had taken, making corrections and working on pronunciation and comprehension. 

In the end, I’m not sure whether any of the four students will retain anything from the hour we spent with them.  But it was so refreshing to work with kids who love learning, who understand that education (including English skills) could mean the difference between poverty and a job that pays well.  I don’t even know how long it’s been since I worked with a kid who truly loves learning like these boys do.  When I asked Pablo his favorite subject in school, he answered proudly, “Matematicas.”  And when I asked him his least favorite class, I was met with a look of confusion, and then, “Ninguna.”  None.  He likes all of his classes, because he loves school.  Amazing.

4:00am the next morning came quickly, and soon we were throwing on our daypacks, turning on headlamps, and setting off through the quiet town with Luis and his cousin, Alex, who would also accompany us up the volcano. 

4am was early, and we left in full dark, but with a clear sky dotted with stars and a brilliant nearly-full moon overhead to light the way.  We were also graced with a magnificent sunrise over the distant Acatenango and Fuego at around 6:00am. 

The route up the volcano seemed much longer than I’d remembered it. 

 By the time we reached the point in the woods that I remembered as “halfway,” we’d been walking a full three hours.  It was at that clearing that Luis spotted an injured bird near the base of a tree and scooped it into his hands.  We admired the pretty little thing, then wondered what to do with it.  Luis said he was going to take it home with him until it healed enough for him to release it back to the wild.  I thought that sounded more traumatic for the bird than letting nature take its course (whatever that might be) in the woods, and I think I must have made my disdain pretty clear, because eventually Luis was asking each of us in turn what we’d do in his place.  Eventually he let the bird flutter off to hide in the underbrush once again. 

After the bird clearing, the path becomes much steeper, and each of us settled into our own pace.  My first time up Atitlan, two years ago, I struggled to keep up with Amy and Will, who set the pace, and my legs burned with each step I took.  This year, I was able to follow behind Luis without stopping (he was still faster than me, and would wait for me to catch up to him every few steps or so—but would start moving again as soon as I reached him).  Luis and I reached the summit a few minutes ahead of Rachel, Christy, and Alex (who was acting as rear guide at that point), and I soaked in the view while waiting for our friends to join us.

The summit of Volcan Atitlan was just as wonderful as I remembered it.  There’s a breathtaking 360 view of Lake Atitlan on one side, the volcanos Fuego and Acatenango on another, and the rolling plains of southern Guatemala stretching out on the other side.  The view is completely unobstructed, and this weekend, the skies were clear—hardly a cloud in sight. 

We spent a little over an hour at the top of the volcano, eating lunch and exploring the summit, the crater, and the steaming fumaroles.  Laying on the ground next to one of the vents turned out to be the perfect spot for a nap; though the wind was chilly, the ground itself was heated to a perfect temperature, making the soft moss a perfect resting place. 

My favorite fumarole.  (I am such a dork). 

A little after 11:00am, we grudgingly decided we’d better begin our descent.  We still had a long hike and a long drive to the city ahead of us. 

The first hour down the mountain was torture.  The sand and rocks were loose, and Christy and I slipped repeatedly.  I felt like my legs weren’t working properly to help me balance, and I got more frustrated than I normally do on descents.  Thankfully, none of my falls resulted in an injury more serious than a faint bruise on one hand. 
After that first hour down, thankfully, the path leveled just enough to make the walk passable.  Unfortunately, it was about that time that Christy pulled something in her knee, making the rest of the walk more painful for her.  Talk about a good sport, though—she completed the next three hours with no complaints and no limping. 

Pausing for a rest on the way down

We finally reached the main road again around 3pm, and we hopped into a tuk tuk to take us back to our hotel (because that last 30 minutes of walking just wasn’t necessary). 

The drive back to the city was uneventful, and Rachel did a great job of keeping me awake with conversation and offers of snacks and water.  We pulled in just after 7pm, and after a shower, I fell into bed and was asleep in minutes.  My muscles didn’t feel overworked, but my body certainly was tired after twelve hours on a volcano and three driving home. 

As always, the hike was completely worth it, though.   

Friday, February 19, 2016

Hard Drive Not Found

I’m really not great with technology.  I am constantly on my computer or attached to my phone, yes, but when it comes to how things work, I rely almost entirely on techie friends.  So, you can imagine the pure dread that went through me about a month and a half ago when my computer started making strange noises, froze, and then the “blue screen of death” popped up asking me to restart the computer. 

But worse…when I did that, this disturbing message popped up:

Insert full-blown panic. 

It’s so easy to get caught up in the idea that “life” is saved on my computer.  And it’s true—I have a lot of memories, both in picture and journal format, saved in electronic files.  (Thankfully most of my digital materials for work are saved on the school computer or in the cloud, so that was less of an issue). 

Fortunately, as I mentioned before, I have techie friends.  I sent a few frenzied photos to them on my phone, and they succeeded in calming me down.  No, the world wasn’t ending.  And no, shockingly, I wouldn’t need to buy a whole new computer.  Richard was kind enough to come over, attempt to recover information from my fried hard drive (no luck), and then go out and get me a new hard drive, install it, get me set up with Windows 10 (I should have known that when I told him, “No, I like Windows 7…and if getting Windows 10 will be more work for you, just put the older version on it,” that there was no way he’d let me live with the “old version” of anything tech-related), and install the programs and apps I regularly use.

And, due to techie friends of my past, I do at least own an external hard drive to which I’d periodically backed up my computer.  (Unfortunately, the last time I’d done this was 6 months ago).  Better than nothing. 

Last week, I finally got around to copying the files from my external hard drive onto my computer once again.  At first glance, all of my folders and information appeared to be there.  I eagerly began leafing through the files, ensuring everything was in its place.  

Unfortunately, it’s not there.  I have no idea what happened, because the computer was backed up on June 29, 2015, but only certain documents and pictures saved.  I mean, I’m missing all of my photos from August 2013 through December 2014, but I have some from early 2015.  I am missing select folders of documents from that time period, but others are saved.  That “Year of Celebrations” document I blogged about at the end of the year?  Totally gone. I don’t get it. 

So I had a moment—again—of panic, of feeling like a part of me is gone, like I can’t go on without those memories. 

But you know what?  I think this was good for me. 
It’s true, some of the lost data will be convenient.  (Tonight’s project includes updating my resume, since I’m left with only the 2013 version of it).  And it’s true I lost some pictures, which I regret.  But most of my favorites are posted on facebook (thank goodness I’m such an addict), so I haven’t lost every memory of those years.  And I lost of a lot of journal entries—but last fall, I mostly journaled about breaking up and getting back together and breaking up again with my ex, and so maybe those angsty, depressing journal entries are better off deleted.  Some people say everything happens for a reason.

The clearest memories are the ones we keep in our minds, not the ones that have to be written down to ensure they won’t be forgotten.  So this data loss has been a good reminder for me.  The world doesn’t end with a few deleted files.  There are more important things.  

Monday, February 1, 2016

Surviving Santiaguito: Lucky Volcano #13

It was on the way to hike Santiaguito, the most active volcano in Guatemala, that I asked Rachel, “Will this be the 13th Guatemalan volcano that you’ve hiked, too?”  It was.  Lucky #13 for both of us.  Knock on wood that our 13th wouldn’t be our last!

Rachel, Russell, and I were mostly excited, but all a little nervous to be hiking Santiaguito, “Guatemala’s youngest and most dangerous volcano.” [1]  The volcano erupts nearly every hour, and we planned to sleep right next to the crater, crossing our fingers that the wind wouldn’t blow the wrong way and shower us with flying rocks and lava. 

Our friend Ben, a guide from Quetzaltrekkers, had hiked it before and was excited to take us up.  He assured us that the hike was “More of an adventure than just a trek,” and estimated it would take us 8 hours of hiking each way.  That’s a long trip, when you consider that our group can generally make it to the top of any volcano here in Guate in 4-6 hours.  But we were totally up for it. 

By 6:20am, we were at the base of Volcan Santa Maria, and the sun was just beginning to rise.  We hiked up to the mirador overlooking Santiaguito and stood watching our first eruption at 8am. 

Then the real hike began.  From the mirador, we began a descent through dense jungle.  On Ben’s supply run, he’d used a machete to cut back some of the most offending plants, but vegetation was still thick, and I was glad Ben had advised us to wear long sleeves to protect our arms from the foliage.  We witnessed another eruption when we were maybe halfway down the jungle, and soon ash was raining from the sky.  It was only 9am, and we were already covered in a thin layer of gray dust.  The plants around us were covered too, and I got the feeling that everything within a few miles’ radius of the volcano is perpetually covered in ash. 

After two hours of our steep descent, we broke out onto an extinct lava flow which we followed down to the base of the valley.  The rock was slick, and at various points, we sat down and used it as a slide rather than risk a foot flying out from under us.
Butt sliding was definitely the way to go! 
After about 4 ½ total hours of hiking, we emerged from the lava river to the area Ben calls the Field of Death, a wide valley strewn with large boulders and not much else.  There, we each hid 2 liters of water so that we wouldn’t have to carry it up Santiaguito and would have some in reserve to climb up the lava river the next day.  We also stopped to have a snack (Ben shook his head each time we stopped and Rachel or I offered a new snack from our packs.  He joked that even if he forgot all our food, the four of us could probably have survived just on the snacks that Rach and I had packed).  

At 11:11am, with a silent wish for a safe night at the crater, we started the rocky ascent up towards Santiaguito.  The path was steep, and we used the boulders as steps, picking our way in and around them.  We stopped halfway up to rest, and while not at my limits, I definitely felt tired.  But with one final push, we reached the first beach—a flat, sandy area with green cliffs looming on each side. We rested, then continued straight up and then through another rock field to get to the 2nd beach. 

The 1st Beach

The second beach—another open, sandy area—was dotted with impact craters left by rocks thrown from the volcano.  Any rock thrown with enough force to make a hole the size of my head in the sand would surely kill a person.  My nervousness grew. 

We continued on, scrambling over more rocks to make it to the third and final beach before the campsite.  Ben paused at the third beach, looking up at the final rock face we would have to top.  “I wish the fog would clear so you could see this part,” he told us.  But after a few moments, it was clear the cloud engulfing us wasn’t moving, so we started our ascent.  I was secretly glad we wouldn’t be able to see the looming rock face.  Climbing it was hard enough, without seeing how far I had yet to go.

The final climb
We edged our way up that final incline, clinging to the side of the wall, putting our weight on hardened ash outcrops that felt like they might give way at any moment.  There were very few actual rocks to step on, for a while.  And then we reached the final rocky slope.  Ben actually had Rachel and I pass our packs up so we could climb the last stretch without the bulky weight on our backs. 

Prior to the trip, I’d read a blog that described the climb, calling the last challenge to the hike a “30 foot vertical rock climb” with no ropes or equipment.  Ben had assured us that there was no actual rock climbing involved, but we all agreed the last scramble was probably what the writer had referred to.  It was not vertical, and there were plenty of hand and foot holds to make it a relatively easy climb, but it was certainly menacing.  Ben joked that the blogger would have been better off claiming the last obstacle as a “300 foot nearly vertical slope,” because that’s the truth, and doesn’t it sound more intense than a mere 30 feet? 

We made it up to the campsite and cleared the small rocks covering the sand to lay down our tent.  Just as we did so, it started to rain.  Rain?!  The end of January in Guatemala is the peak of the dry season; there is no way any of us were expecting rain.  In fact, Ben had planned to sleep outside to watch for eruptions.  There was no denying the water falling from the sky, though, so Rachel, Russell and I jumped into the tent to wait it out.  Ben passed in lunch, then went to hang out in the rock nook he’d found previously—a spot carved out almost like a chair with an overhang that kept him dry.  After perhaps half an hour, the rain stopped, and we emerged once again to look on the crater directly across from our campsite. 

Our campsite--looking back from the crater

This is what I love about Ben: he’s the definition of a “glass half full” kind of guy.  While we all could have complained that the rain spoiled our afternoon, Ben emphatically stated, “Man, we were so lucky the rain hit when it did.  Imagine climbing up that last stretch in the rain!  This worked out really well.” 

The rain began again, and it ended up raining for almost a solid six hours, finally petering out around 9pm.  Ben emerged from the tent to cook us dinner at 10pm (because we all agreed hiking on empty stomachs the next day would not be a good idea), and then we returned to bed.  But we essentially spent the time from 4pm until 5:30am inside the tent, sleeping.  

We heard a few soft rumblings in the night, but we could never tell whether they were rock slides (which happen frequently), more thunder, or the volcano venting smoke. 

It’s funny.  Prior to the hike, Ben told us he could guarantee that during the night, sleeping at the campsite, each of us would feel real fear at being so close to the volcano.  I felt my fear standing on the mirador at the beginning of our hike watching the eruption from a distance.  And as we hiked, I reminded myself over and over that fear takes an enormous amount of energy, but really does a person no good, so at the campsite, I planned to push my fear aside and not let it in.  But when we arrived at camp, I didn’t have to.  I didn’t feel afraid at all once we were at the campsite, staring the crater in the face.  Maybe it’s because there wasn’t a major eruption while we were there.  Or maybe the anticipation was worse than the actual event; whatever the case, I was relaxed and had a great night’s sleep. 

Just before dawn, Ben woke us to see the glowing lava on the side of the volcano that wouldn’t be visible in the daylight.  As the sun rose in a clear sky, Santiaguito graced us with a small eruption that continued for perhaps 15 minutes, smoke puffing straight up into the sky. 
My view of the eruption from inside our tent
We ate breakfast and packed camp, and smoke and steam continued to vent from the crater.

Morning coffee and a volcano view

 The hike down the mountain offered a new perspective, as the sun was out and the day was clear.  Everything was beautiful, and I snapped tons of pictures.  (And this time, we could see every inch of that final climb as we picked our way slowly down it). 

Looking down from the campsite.  The patch of dark sand on
the left is Beach #3

The arrows point the route we took.
Can you spot Russell?

The walk back was just as difficult, if not more difficult, than the trek to the crater.  There were equal parts downhill and steep uphill, and we worked every muscle in our already-tired legs.  When we were about 2/3 of the way through the dense jungle right before we arrived again at the mirador (much harder uphill than it had been going down!) when we stopped to catch our breath and heard a massive eruption from Santiaguito.  Though we were well over a mile away, it rained ash on us for the next thirty minutes or so.  I was very glad of our timing, and that we hadn’t been at the campsite for that eruption.  I have a feeling I would have felt the fear Ben spoke about. 

By the time we made it back to the QT office, it was nearly 5pm.  Our packs and clothes were covered in ash, our legs were tired, and we were completely content at our accomplishment.  The three of us returned to our hotel for a shower, then met Ben at the best Indian restaurant in Guatemala for a delicious meal to end our adventure right. 

Sabor de la India--you do things right.
The whole weekend reminded me what life is really all about.  It’s about surrounding yourself with positive, energetic, enthusiastic people, and it’s about celebrating the beauty that is all around us.  It was much needed and well appreciated. 

[1] http://www.enjoyguatemala.com/guatemala-volcanoes/