Saturday, May 29, 2010

rushed goodbyes

The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry, especially when volcanoes erupt.

Yesterday, at around 10am, we got our first ever phone call from school. In the brisk stream of Spanish, I was able to fish out the key phrase: small problem with the volcano. ¿Necesitamos cogerlo *ahora*?  I asked a few times to make sure I understood. Si, they wanted us to pick him up ASAP. Nosotros vamos a llegar en 10 minutos.

My heart sank. It was Miguel's last day of school, and we had planned a going away party for him during the last half hour. For days, his teachers had been talking about how sad they were that he was leaving.  When we got the call that school was closing early, we were just getting ready to pick up the cake and walk to the photo place to make prints of pictures for his teachers and our other friends.

Empty-handed, we hopped on our bikes and pedaled quickly to school.

Earlier in the morning, Michael had noticed a mushroom-shaped cloud over the local volcano and a graybrown ashy smudge spreading over town. As we rode, we saw people on corners talking and pointing in the direction of the peak, invisible from most parts of town, but always present. Parents walked home with children in a rainbow assortment of school uniforms. Radios were turned on louder than usual.

But it felt more festive than tense. Locals here know the drill. It's not to say that they do not take Mama Tungurahua seriously. But, they have been through so many escalations and de-escalations of activity that they have a better sense of when to worry.

Banos is on the "safe" side of the mountain. In the picture above, you can see the ridge--and the statue of the virgen--that help protect the town. The crater tilts away from Banos, so the lava, mud flows and ash tend to spill down the northwest side, which is where villages have been evacuated.

I was emotional when we rolled up to the strangely quiet school courtyard. Most of the kids were already gone. Miguel's teachers were on cell phones, trying to track down stray parents.  Thankfully, Miguel did not seem too aware of the canceled party, though he did ask, "Donde esta' mi torta?" (Where is my cake?)

As we were leaving, I hugged Adita and told her that she was the perfect teacher and thanked her so much for all she had done. She started crying and took Miguel in her arms to say goodbye. I chomped on my lips to try to stem my own flow of tears; I didn't want to distress Miguel. Adults understand goodbye more than kids do. As we left, Joanna, Adita's assistant (and Miguel's sometimes after school babysitter), ran after us with a folder of his school work. This opened my faucets.

I had so wanted to give Miguel and his classroom community a proper celebration.  We are deeply  grateful to them for making Miguel's first school experience so positive. And I am very proud of the way Miguel handled the challenge of a new place, new people and a new language. As we left, I promised to send pictures, such as this one of him and Joanna.

We biked to the cake shop to pay for the cake and explain that we would pick it up later. We figured we would share it with friends, maybe at the Posada for dinner.

 We swung by the bus terminal to see if the road to Ambato was open. We were told that it was sort of open. When I jokingly asked if it would be open tomorrow, they said of course. I looked for their crystal ball, and chuckled at their certainty.

When we got home, my nerves were shaken by both the emotional good bye and the deep rumblings of the mountain, which were louder and more frequent than anything we heard earlier in our trip. Mayra, our landlord and Spanish teacher, called me downstairs to watch the news with her. All the airports in Ecuador were closed due to ash, which seemed crazy to me, because Banos, so close to the peak, was fine. The weather graphic showed the direction of the plume--straight to the coast, away from Banos. Still, with the windows rattling every 15 minutes, we decided to start packing.

I had planned to be methodical, using Friday and Saturday to gently extricate ourselves from our home of the last 5 months. Instead, I threw things haphazardly into our bags. One hour later, I sat in the living room, not pleased with the packing job and unsure what to do next. So, we decided to head to the Posada to camp out for a few hours.

We had a leisurely dinner with Jim, Marshia and two families we have become friends with through yoga. Rebbecca and Daniella  have boys close in age to Miguel. I wish we had connected with them sooner, and look forward to keeping up online. Daniella is from Quito. Spanish is her first language, but she speaks flawless English. She has promised to make me keep working on my Spanish. Her Facebook updates are the perfect length for me to puzzle through.

Miguel did us the favor of falling asleep in one of the Posada's guest rooms, so we could spend some more time with Jim and Marshia. We will miss being able to pop in to visit them. They left a big hole in Chicago, and we are so grateful to have had this time to reconnect. They are great friends, collaborators, role models, and, of course, hosts.

We debriefed our five months in Banos while listening to Jimmy Buffet's "Volcano" on repeat:
Hey I don't know
I don't know
I don't know where I'm a gonna go
When the volcano blows

After shuffling a sleeping Miguel home into a taxi, we spent an uneasy night  listening to volcanic explosions every few minutes. It was sort of like living next door to a bowling alley, but scarier.  The most incredible part was seeing lava fireworks above the ridge line. This picture shows the view from our bed, with a bit of a zoom lens action. The white cloud is the top of a plume. That's where the fireballs were last night. Makes me wonder how high the lava was flying.

Today, we plan on leaving town a day early and spending the night at Hacienda Manteles, about twenty miles away from the volcano. If the sky is clear, we should have quite a pyrotechnical show courtesy of Tungurahua.

Leaving is bittersweet. We just returned our bikes to Jim and Marshia for our last goodbyes. On our walk home, Miguel and I stopped into the some of the local stores, including the panderia around the corner, to say that we were going home. I made sure to explain that it was *not* because of the volcano.  I detected some skepticism, but insisted that it was simply time for us to go. Thanks to Mama Tungurahua for making it an exciting exit.


  1. thanks for the beautiful post, ginny. I'm going to miss following your adventures in Banos. I can't wait to see you this summer!

  2. Excellent writing! I felt like I was there. Viaje seguro!