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Hot Brew:
the Guatemala volcano adventure

by Phillip Ghee

          I first caught sight of the volatile Mika as she sat upon a pile of modest luggage that was nevertheless still just as large as she. She looked bored, miserable and I also detected the type of eye movement and pouting that suggested there within lay a hidden cauldron of young female mischievousness; my kind of girl. I would venture to guess that she was less than a hundred pounds soaking wet. The look of discomfort on her face was not out of place, as the sweltering hot and humid Central American bus station was not playing favorites to anyone, locals included. Mika however stood out from the energy-depleted, profusely sweating patrons of the bus station in several respects. If a sweat was at all in her repertoire, then she hid it well and ladylike. Among the assembly of brown faces and black faces that ran the color spectrum, her paleness and classic oriental features were noticeable.

Mika was definitely not Central American and by dress and appearance I gathered that she was also neither American nor European. Therefore she must be from the orient and by the generous portions of hair and prettiness of body I would assume Japan. This struck me as strange. I myself had become quite a seasoned and observant traveler and seldom had I seen Asian women hailing from the orient traveling alone. This girl had some gusto and bravado to add to that slight trace of mischief. It was getting better by the minute and I was no longer plagued by the humidity and heat. Fascination and desire now held the reins to my motor drive.

            Sure enough I was right, Mika was from Japan, and once I got past the language barrier proved to be quite a fireball. Her Spanish was just as bad as mine but it was better than her English so she forced me to clumsily use the language of the day. Still most of our language was non-verbal and consisted of much pointing and much smiling on my part.

            We made our way south through Belize courtesy of Batty Brothers Bus Service and sampled much of the local fare and customs. The bus really takes you to places and villages straight out of a National Geographic photo shoot. Belize is also rich in Mayan history, many pyramids sights are still being excavated. We did not visit any of those grand sights.

 By the time we arrived in Guatemala, several days later, you could say that we had found each other at least in cuddly sleeping time. Besides the reggae music this was the only amenity I praised by going Batty. As we approached Guatemala City, my time together with Mika was coming to a close. I, like Doctor Who from the BBC science fiction series, had assembled along the way a host of traveling companions. I had started my Central America Odysseus almost two months earlier at the northwest point of Mexico in Tijuana. I had made my way through the entire country aided and befriended by various, quirky traveling companions.

 The mystic in me believes that each companion had been either miraculously sent by divine intervention or been sent as a test. I believed that Mika was a test. As much as I had drawn close to her, I still did not want our travel time to end as some fanciful romp in the chili patch complete with vain promises of future rendezvous.

           Guatemala has a predominate Mayan presence. Many of the citizens can’t even speak Spanish. The local indigenous people flood the streets of the city with their goods, beautiful and multicolored hand woven scarves and hats and all manner of dresses. They present the buyer with beads and hematite jewelry so cheap that one feels guilty paying such a ridiculous low price. Bartering is something you don’t need to do with these folks. Other varieties of handmade crafts and jewelry run the gamut. All of them steeped in traditional design, color and, fare.

             During the day, many of the structures seem to be fortified by heavy Spanish doors more suited for castles and churches than businesses. However at night these majestic doors are swung open to reveal restaurants, villas, clubs and bars. Co-mingled and seated around the generous community tables are travelers and extended-stay visitors. There among the flavorful and unpretentious cuisine, stories, tips and advice are offered. Itinerary and schemes are hatched and, perhaps even some of the more detailed points of smuggling are revealed, to everything from museum curators to private planes and boat pilots. The bulk of the travelers are European, from various countries. Stand aside French, English is used as the primary language of conversation even though many of the conservationists may not, as of yet, been to the United States of America .

              A sizeable number of the young travelers come there for extended stays. They answer ads or on their own make contracts to stay with a Guatemalan family much in the manner of an exchange student, yet their primary goal is to learn the everyday language of the land. Mika was on such a mission and this would be her final destination for a few months. Since her arrangement was done by agency, she had an actual date to meet the family, get a sample tour and then begin her residency. We had arrived on Easter weekend and her commitment would not begin until Tuesday. We had in the meantime gotten a room in a delightful and clean hostel set aside mostly for people making the Spanish school trek.

            Mika and I got an early start the next morning. This would be our last day together of shared experiences. We were off to good place that I had discovered for breakfast. Against my chivalrous intentions, something inside of me craved for and was possibly gearing events to lead into a more spectacular and combustible conclusion to our time spent together. My script and fantasies were abruptly interrupted when out of from the throngs of the early morning crowd, blocking our pathway, appeared a Rambo arrayed (minus the firepower) buffoonish yet hard sell pitch man. He was taller and more stoutly built than most Central Americans so at the least I thought I better not offend him too eagerly. After miming that our current location and surrounding were lackluster and redundant, he offered his simply pitch in broken yet theatrically enunciated English.

            “You come with me and we see the volcano, Pacaya, the real volcano.” He added the extra hint of drama by looking around to secure that no one else overheard his illegal offer. The offer was indeed as illegal as our pitchman’s acting abilities should have been.

              The war with the rebels had officially been over for some time, peace treaties and the like were signed. But once a rebellion starts, especially one based in legitimate reasons for discord, it is hard to snap it and/or various splinter groups out of existence with a piece of paper or new roads leading up to the villages. Something must had been flaring up because the Government had gone as far as to issue flyers, posted in the hostel, warning travelers about the dangers and illegality associated with visiting Pacaya at this time.

 What is up with this volcano stuff anyway? A group of three Europeans had arrived at the hostel the preceding Saturday. Now I can be amusing and engaging at times but this group latched on to me too quickly and without prompting. It seems their whole mission was to involve me in their ascent of a volcano latter that day. This particular volcano that they had intended to scale had two benefits or drawback, depending on how you look at it, over Pacaya. It was an inactive volcano and it was legal to climb. When after much urging and solicitation I continued to decline, their departure was just as abrupt as their arrival.

I was all set to offer my sincere apology and decline when Mika bursts out with a resounding “Yes”. What was I to do in the presence of the Macho-Man? I consented and we made plans for compensation and pick-up. I had never been to a Volcano before. Hum. What should one wear? A worn mini van picked us up at the agreed upon location. Inside the van already was a family of four Americans, the tourist-types. They had with two children, a boy and girl, roughly around ten to thirteen years of age. That for me was a little comforting because who would endanger lives of children? We stopped at another location and picked up two more Americans. Two travelers from the states, probably retired and better off than most but, still adventurous. We picked up the guy who would be the one of the two guides and we were off.

            The entrance to the volcano is just like the entrance to any other mountainous region. The lower portions of the elevations still house, sparse but thriving communities. We picked up provisions at a small enclave there. We then continued, still in the vehicle, further up. We parked at a farm house of sorts and the men with the team along with the men exiting the premises worked in unison as they drove the van into some heavy thickets and made additional attempts to camouflage it. Was this for dramatic show too, I wondered?

             At this level of the volcanic mountain you could barely tell that you were ascending into a volcano. The vegetation was so thick that it almost had a rain forest quality to it. I recall the group being startled by a pack of some sort of deer as it galloped past us from unknown and undetected origin.

             We arrived at our base camp of sorts at roughly 5 PM and by the time we had hiked to tree level it was dusk. Once past tree level the terrain was completed different than earlier elevations. Just sporadic patches of brush were visible on this new landscape which was as barren as the moon. The earth also gave way to pliable mounds of volcanic dust and nutrient depleted soil. It was as desolate as a lunar landscape. The climbing now was cumbersome as traversing new fallen snow. By the time we made it to our final plateau before the mouth of the volcano it was past 10PM and pitch dark. Only once before had I experienced such an exuberant display of the heaven. That was in the artificial light deprived regions of the Arizona and Nevada Deserts .

            The pitch black darkness of the night, combined with the constant barrage of shooting embers emerging from the belching volcano, produced a fireworks display worthy of any Fourth of July celebration. Occasionally fiery red bubbles of lava would rise to the rim of the mouth, giving us all the thrill of a lifetime. The grumbling and belching of the volcano was intense, sometimes so powerful that you could feel the throbs deep within your innards. The air was caustic with fire and sulfur. Just to think that I was less than 300 feet from the mouth of a live volcano was stellar.

          We sat in awe, planted frozen on the hot ground as the guides went to provide assistance to the family group who were having a difficult time engineering this last stage of the journey. We had been given specific instructions: because of the dangers of sizeable rocks being ejected from the volcano, we had reached our final destination and were to proceed no further. The two men issued a logical yet ill advised summation. One said to the other, “We’ve come this far, so why not have a look into the damn thing?”  This logic made perfectly good sense to his traveling companion and off they went. I did not want this logic to make perfectly good sense to Mika but it did and off she went. She didn’t even bother to pull me along side of her. She had bigger fish to fry, how demeaning. “Don’t worry, little Mika” I will save you, I will protect you.” These were my ego affirming thoughts to myself. And although I was quite content where I had stationed myself, duty called.

            To this day, I still can’t validate a hundred percent that what I did was worth the risk and, I truly want the reader to reflect before engaging in such motivation. However, as the four of us stood right on the crest of the mouth of an active volcano and looked in, what we saw perhaps none of us will fully be able to convey in words alone. Waves upon waves of liquid molten rock flowed over the eroded rim of the far side on the volcano and made its way into the lake below.

            A sea of fire is my simplest portrayal, yet it was so much more. To elaborate any further would only do it an injustice. Therefore you will have to gather up copies of Natural Geographic and use your own imagination. At one point our logic king was taking in the full panoramic with his video cam when he uttered another profound wisp of logic.

                        “I think it's going to do something”

            Still today, without any other further prompting, I find it hard to believe that under their own power and intuition that four distinct individuals could have instantaneously enacted the same response. In our separate ways we tumbled, fell, slid, and rolled down the slide of the hot slope as a nano-second later a powder keg of a belch erupted from irritable bowels of Pacaya. Amazing, at least externally, no one was hurt as all around us fist and some times brick sized hot rocks cluster- bombed the areas around us.

           Even if we had stayed at the supposedly safe plateau we still would have needed to use evasive actions. Sometime I believe that maybe being at and nearer to the mouth of the volcano offered us some additional protection as like a fountain, the upward spray is direct and expands outwards as it descends. As for me protecting Mika, I did see her again when we landed. Aside from multiple assorted scrapes and bruises, I had managed to rip to sheds a fairly new and sturdy set of hiking boots. The guides were furious at us when we told them where we were during the heavy belch. We were scolded and led back to safety, with a head full of memories that few will ever achieve and knees and arms full of well earned mementos. Keep your Everest, I have my Pacaya.

            In retrospect, I offer two explanations.

            First, much like I detail in another adventure, that God would rather send you a message than a miracle. Mika or no Mika, there is no way that I would have had the extra energy to make a similar climb the following Monday. To scale a volcano is strenuous, you can compare it to running a marathon. Your body will talk to you about it, the next couple of days afterwards.

             Second, in lieu of me ignoring God’s fine offer of engagement elsewhere, my higher and more attuned self realized the fallacy of such a refusal and ushered me in to get some Prayer Insurance.

            Mika and I parted having shared only adventure and close companionship. Pacaya still has a bad case of indigestion so be warned, oops! I mean advised.


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