“Ten minutes, that’s all we’ll have”.
I sipped my coffee as I watched the wrinkles on her forehead deepen with the conversation. It seemed strange to be having such a dark conversation in a room filled with lace dollies and pastel walls. “Ten minutes. And the two main volcanic veins run directly under the park and under Guayabo. And the pressure would be so great that they would probably burst. And our evacuation route is to Squirres, then Limón, so there would be no way out of the valley.”
Minutes later I walked out of my host family’s house and there directly in front of me lies the subject of many worrisome conversations like the one I just had: Volcán Turriabla. Lying only 12 km northwest of my Peace Corps site it looks like one of the many surrounding mountains that help form the valley, unsuspectingly dotted with pueblos and trees. But to those who aren’t blessed with the bliss that is so closely tied to ignorance, it’s a notable contributor to the countless wrinkles on the bronzed foreheads of those heads that duck and bob around me in the market place, the bus, outside the Evangelical church.
“It’s the water supply that worries me the most… We should go and buy some bottled water tomorrow…” November 1st 2014 and the volcano had it’s largest eruption in the past 150 years. Out of the blue, thick grey billowing plumes of ash dominated the northern horizon of my green valley for nearly a week. Ten pairs of anxious eyes were glued to the news every spare moment, attentive ears searched for the now familiar voices of the volcanologists on the radios while shuffling to and from school, to home, to the pulpería. Neighbors told me that they had had dreams of the eruption. Needless to say, I had been having a few of my own.
I was around nine years old the first time I dreamed about a volcano. Pompeii to be exact. My grandmother had just died and after reading a D.K. book and seeing the grey figures frozen for centuries in their last moment alive, the horror of inevitable mortality sunk into my imagination and later into my dreams. How would the future archaeologists find me? Sleeping? Reading? What historically influenced name would they give me? What museum would feature my false life that a team of experts projected onto my stiff featureless form? But of course time would erode away the last bit of evidence of my time on Earth and I’d be condemned to be a lost and nameless inhabitant just like the millions of people before me that didn’t make the history books. These dreams are back now, but with bubbling bright red lava and fabricated tribal rituals while the voice echoes– ten minutes…
“Ahhhh, so you’re the black cat”. I was talking with my director on the phone. I had recently learned that the increased volcanic activity had started at the same time that I moved into the valley and under the volcano’s shadow. Possible site changes and evacuations aside we both agreed that we both knew too little about volcanoes to make a wise decision on how to proceed in case of another eruption.
I had been sitting in class, hot and lethargic after lunch, day dreaming out the window while my co-teacher, Adri danced in front of our group of septimos (high school freshman). The day was cloudy and muggy making each movement a little more taxing than usual. Half listening to her melodic explanations I watched the clouds shift to reveal the volcano’s bald top. A pen dropped near me. I turned my head in reaction to the noise and returned to my gazing. In the four seconds that I had look away the sky had turned an apocalyptic shade of grey and once again the volcano had belched out a heavy gush of ash. My mind began to race: archaeologists estimate that the female, named María José by the team of experts, is calculated to be around 25 years old. Given the ancient writing instruments found around her experts assume that she was most likely a teacher… Maybe I’ll make an article in National Geographic… As the minutes ticked by and no alarms were rung and everyone plugged along their schedules, logic calmed me. Only later did I find out that there were four eruptions that day, one being the largest in recorded history. The international airport in the capital was closed due to the ash. The news constantly murmured updates of the volcano from my host parents bedroom. Luckily, due to the form of the volcano and the wind patterns Turrialba didn’t have ash raining down. It was all blown into the Central Valley to the point were people were advised to wear masks to avoid inhaling the ash.
It was 10.30 at night when I was making tea and thinking about going to sleep. The news began to murmur from the bedroom again, but this time accompanied by a loud gasp. My host mom stood, hand over her mouth, eyes wide and intent on the screen in front of her. The night vision cameras that monitored the volcano’s crater were being shown. A slowed down video stream was being played on repeat. Clear one second– a choppy frame switch. The familiar billowing of ashy smoke– a choppy frame switch. A bright white light shooting up from the middle of the crater. Lava.
My hands clumsily searched for my passports, documents and other indispensables. As they moved rapidly I couldn’t help but think: Ten minutes. Jesus, I hope I’m over reacting. My hands moved quickly as I thought of all the things that haven’t done yet; they haven’t earned enough wrinkles. Should they call my family back in California? Should they dial for the Peace Corps emergency phone? Continue packing and hope I’m over-reacting? Ten minutes– if this is truly my last ten minutes what should they do? They ended up answering a phone call. My director. “Unofficial evacuation”. Taxi. Siquirres. Now. They hurriedly put on shoes and dialed for a neighbor who was driving a taxi that night. They clasped the forgotten cup of tea that my host mom had put in a to-go cup for me. They gratefully hugged her and buckled a ragged old seat belt. And thankfully, the next morning, when the panic had dissipated with the night, they grasped a cup of coffee while I talked with Jaleel who had been kind enough to host me for the night. They gripped a bus ticket and later opened the door to my host family’s house once more. They slowly unpacked my emergency bag– freeing me to ponder my “last” moment, my future and my ten minutes.