Ever since climbing Machu Picchu in 2007, and after years of studying the Spanish language, I walked away from the Incan Empire with my new favorite word in the entire Spanish language: La Pachamama. Not only is it a fun word to say, but it’s also a word that simultaneously commands respect and instills fear in only 4 bouncy syllables.
Fast forward to today, February 16, 2012. After two and a half months here, in Villa La Angostura (VLA), Argentina, I woke up this morning, half dreaming that I was back in Boston teaching. I have a cloudy memory of hearing the sound of plow trucks beep-beep-beeping, and scraping against the city streets, which always means one thing: a snow day for sure! Back to sleep…
When I finally oriented myself that I was in fact on the other side of the equator, realizing that it’s summer here in VLA, I remembered those plow trucks I heard in my dreamlike state only mean one thing here: Volcanic Ash, and lots of it.
Rewind to June 4, 2011: Just a mere thirty-eight kilometers away over the Andes Mountains in Chile, is Volcano Puyehue (said with argentine accent: pooshjayway). Ask any locals here in VLA about that date and their eyes sulk so quickly to the ground that the sadness and frustration of living in a town built on tourism, now covered in ash, is tangible. Puyehue went off on June 4th and with a lot of help from La Pachamama and with the Patagonian Wind Gods in Chile’s favor, it began to rain pumice stone on the Argentine side of the mountains at 3:30 in the afternoon. By nightfall, pumice stone turned to raining ash and which continued well into the morning of June 5th.
I was in Crete still when I was first notified about an “ash situation” that was possibly going to affect our bike trips. Being in a dry, mediterranean island, I pushed those emails aside, having no idea how to begin to conceptualize what a town covered in ash might look like. If only someone had said, “Imagine the worst Nor’Easter whipping through your small town in NH–one that would leave snow on all of your belongings nine months later, reminding you every single day that La Pachamama never really sleeps.” And that is exactly what happened here. Nine months later, this dumping station outside our hostal is as busy with plow trucks as the volcanic activity over there in Chile…
Today I went for a run and my normal running route turned into a video game of dodging ash mountains and mini-bulldozers:
The problem with Puyehue is that instead of exploding all at once, it has decided it would rather slowly pump out ash over time. In late December, I was on a bus to Chile with my co-worker and vacation buddy, Jason. From the bus window, he snapped this picture which gives you a good idea of why people from VLA talk about the weather here now more than anyone does in New England.
Every week when we bring our guests through our town for two days on our biking trip, I learn more and more about what happened on that day and what the repercussions have been for people, like our local guides who weren’t sure if they’d make it through the winter and summer season in a ghost town. I hear new answers to “What did you do with all the ash on your property?”, “Where did you start to clean up first?”, “Is it a health hazard for little babies?”, “Has the press done anything to help increase tourism here after this natural disaster?” , “Where were you on June 4th and what was it like when it rained sand on your house and all your belongings?”. The list goes on…
Now, we are able to joke and make light of the ash here, even with locals. At some point you just have to laugh about this difficult situation. The locals who have stuck around through this tough season with no tourists, are here for the long haul. Here are some of the more comical things that Volcano Puyehue has transpired here:
- When you look up the weather for Villa La Angostura on your Iphone you may see a hazy sun and written below it is “Today’s weather: Volcanic Ash”. That’s a new one for me.
- You never thought your boogers and ear wax could be so black, until you get beat up by some volcanic ash on a windy day…a true testament that your body’s ability to filter outside elements is working. At least I’ve got that going for me…
- I joke that the nutrient rich ash is making my hair smoother than a Pantene-ProV commercial.
- I somehow still get a kick out of receiving work emails from California that say, “How ashy is it today?”.
- The owner of our hostal, Mono has many Chileans come to stay at his hostal. One day I looked outside and one of the guests was collecting ash in a plastic bottle to bring home as a souvenir. I shot Mono a quizzical look and he said, “If only every guest from Chile did that, the ash would be gone! “.
- Something on my bucket list here is to jump into one of the lakes that has a huge layer of pumice stone still floating on it and take a picture of just my head popping out of the stone, as if I was up to my neck in quick sand. I mean, wouldn’t that be one sweet photo?
- The other day a bartender over-poured my rum and coke and I made a joke that it was “Puyehue exploding”. He laughed and then said I was a very bad girl for making that comment. You win some, you lose some.
While it will be years before VLA looks as green as it used to, the town of 11,000 is slowly but surely rising to the top, with a new heightened sense of what it means to be a community. For any of you who have studied spanish but have not yet learned the word for “ash”, just come to Villa La Angostura and the word “Ceniza” will be permanently routed to your long-term memory within minutes.
All in all, I’d prefer living in a place that wouldn’t require me to wipe a thin layer of ash off of all my belongings like electronics and books every time I use them, this has been an incredibly unique travel experience to add to the books and another great reminder about the power of La Pachamama.