Thursday, April 30, 2009
Liz and Adrian versus the volcano.
Antigua was an easy place to do nothing. There were no ruins to rush out to see first thing in the morning. There were plenty of cheap places to eat and drink. And there lots of people to keep you company while you did that whole lot of nothing. So on our second day we embraced the culture of nothing, except I cheated by spending the day catching up on the blog using wifi I found in a restaurant while Adrian watched the Man United v. Arsenal football game on the tv. We stayed there until it was dark and by then the lightening storm started over one of the three volcanoes that surrounded the city (photo above). It was a productive day but not in a particularly remarkable way. So on the next day we decided to make up for it by visiting one of those local landmarks – Pacaya, an active volcano where lava flows freely and you’re invited to roast marshmallows.
Booking the trip was easy – the Yellow House had an in-house travel agency. And just like ATM once we handed over our money we were given a list of things to bring and a brief description of the trip. 1 hour drive. 1.5 hour hike. 1 hour on the volcano. 1 hour back down. 1 hour trip home. It sounded fine except for the 1.5 hour hike up the volcano. The woman at the desk told me it was easy. We’ll see.
As we were fixing lunch I chatted with a Quebecois couple who were thinking about doing the hike. However she was pregnant and wasn’t sure she was up for the challenge. I told them I’d let them know how it was when we got back that evening. Inside I was beginning to doubt whether we’d make it to the top. But it was too late to back out.
We waited outside the hostel for the mini van to arrive, quickly popping into the bakery across the street to pick up some snacks for the long journey. We were joined by two other couples from the hostel: the first was a girl from Victoria and her American boyfriend, the second a girl from Barrie and her Germany boyfriend. I guess Canadian girls have a thing for foreign men.
The mini van pulled up and we jumped in amongst a bunch of frat boys from Vanderbilt U. They were on an 8-day rush trip through Guatemala – it was supposed to be Cancun but swine flu had thrown a wrench in their plans. They were relatively well behaved for frat boys as the van took us through crazy curvy roads, through small towns then up a rocky road to volcano entrance. By now my bladder was going to burst and as soon as the door to the van opened I ran to the use the washroom but glad I had a stash of toilet paper in my purse (don’t leave home without it). Back outside I was pounced upon by dozen of kids trying to sell me walking sticks they’d made from tree branches. And then men trying to rent me a horse for the walk up the mountain. I shooed them away – really how hard can it be to get up the path?
Our guide gathered us all together and told us our group was call Panteras and that we had to always follow her and listen to her instructions. We walked around the corner and started walking. Straight up. Uh-oh. After 10 minutes of climbing, my lungs were aching and my legs were like jelly. I asked the guide how much longer. “una hora y media,” she replied. There was no way I was going to make it another 20 minutes let alone another 90 minutes. Just then two men with horses appeared. And I didn’t even bargain when they said $12 each for the ride. But once on the horse I wasn’t feeling much better.
We pulled ahead of the group and now the path was very steep and very narrow and very uneven and seemed far more dangerous than trying to crawl up. As I leaned backwards and forwards to stay on the horse, I kept picturing the horse losing its footing and sending me hurtling down the mountain to die a horrible death. Of course, that didn’t happen. And soon we were in dense clouds so I couldn’t see the path or what was on either side which helped to distract me from any impending doom. Behind me I could hear Adrian once again trying to communicate to someone who spoke no English. “Football. Yes? Dallas Cowboys. Denver Broncos. Football good.” When he didn’t get a response, he moved on to improving his Spanish vocabulary. “Rojo. Azul. Negro. Amarillo.” I guess he was pointing to things and repeating the colours his guide was saying. This went on for the rest of ride up. It amazed me that Adrian continues to attempt these long one-sided conversations. I have to give him credit for persevering. But also felt a bit sorry for the guide.
Eventually we got above the clouds, revealing a lunar landscape of loose black volcanic rock and the smoking peak ahead. At this point I got of the horse joined a few minutes later by Adrian. We took in the sight and waited for the rest of the Panteras to appear. 10 minutes later they came through the clouds, sweaty and panting after the climb. And then it was up the path to the lava flow.
Although just a short walk, the rocks were razor sharp and they were not completely stable making it hard to keep your balance without a place to put your hands unless you wanted to them shredded on the rocks. Ahead of us another group of guys had decided to up the ante and roast not just marshmallows but a whole chicken over the lava. I didn’t think it was possible until I got within 5 metres of the flow. The heat was unbearable, like standing in front of a blast furnace. Unfortunately we never got to find out if it was possible to roast a chicken as their stick gave way under the weight of the bird sending it rolling down where it was pounced upon and devoured by a couple of stray dogs.
I wanted to continue up the path but at that moment another tour group made up of more of those loud rude travelers stormed the lava flow pushing their way past our group. They blocked the path and refused to move to let people up or down. As I balanced on my tiptoes in the small square I still had, I felt my legs begins to buckle. I though for sure I was going to tumble backwards on the rocks so I pleaded with them to move - one said where. I motioned back down the path two steps but they ignored me and refused to budge. When I realized I was either going to end up fried in the lava or cut to shreds on the rock I decided to retaliate by pushing them back and out of my way. After all that effort to get up the mountain (well, the horses effort) I now just wanted to get back down and away from this group. I started to walk back down the path well away from the crowd and was soon I was joined by some of the others from my group who couldn’t take the pushy crowd anymore either.
Rather than hang around up at the top, Adrian and I continued walking down to get a head start on the rest of the group. We may have been heading down the mountain but I knew there was a whole lot of up along the way too. And the men with the horses knew this too and followed us like vultures waiting for us to call upon their services once again. But in actuality the climbing up part of the trip down proved to be less of a problem than gravity. It was pulling me down the hill almost faster than my legs could keep up and occasionally I had to run over to a tree and hang on just to stop my descent and catch my breath and stretch my legs.
The man with the horse asked me again if I wanted the horse, for free, he said, honestly concerned for me. No, I replied, I want to do it myself. He walked with us and lit the path with his flashlight as it began to get dark, pointing out tree roots and rocks so we wouldn’t trip over them. Finally we made it down safely and the man with the horse congratulated me. Okay, so I didn’t make it up the mountain and I didn’t get to enjoy much lava. But making it down the mountain was a victory I cherished just as much.