Sunday, January 23, 2011

Wednesday and Thursday

When I walked in the kitchen this morning, my host mom wished me a happy birthday, and my host father gave me a big hug, and after checking to see if I believe in God, asked God to grant me many more happy birthdays. My Spanish class moved a bit slow today, probably because we were working on preterit and imperfect, which is quite tedious. After class, Daniel and I went to the supermarket to buy supplies for the hike tonight. We made the mistake of going before eating lunch, so everything looked delicious and very necessary for a volcano hike. Knowing I had a long day ahead of me, I took a short nap after lunch, until Daniel picked me up to go to school. Today’s big activity was painting the rocks that line a little garden in front of the school. We had about a dozen cans and buckets and bottles of paint, and as many brushes as we could ever want. We opened all of the paint, and let the kids have at it. What ensued was hilarious: four-year-olds fishing rocks out of cans of paint, mixing all the colors, adding water to cans of paint, and cans of paint to water. They had a great time painting, and we had a great time watching them. Of course, right when it was time to start cleaning up, the school’s water stopped working. We managed to clean up with what water was left, and headed home.

I meant to sleep between school and dinner, but ended up finishing my book instead. Just as I finished, Maggie rang the doorbell. We chatted for a while; she had a great meeting this afternoon and was super excited to tell all about it. After not long, Daniel came over. We chatted for a bit, and then were called to dinner. My family had prepared a wonderful birthday dinner, each plate set out with an array of tacos, and toppings all around the table. They brought out a birthday cake too. For the next two hours, we ate, talked about the volcano that Daniel and I were about to hike, and laughed and laughed and laughed. My host father is a genuinely funny man, and is filled with hilarious stories. After stuffing ourselves full, and then eating cake, I got my things together for the hike, and Daniel and I walked Maggie home. We went to Daniel’s to get his stuff, and at 10:30, went down the street to Quetzaltrekkers, the trekking organization that was leading the tour.

When we walked in, all of the talk was about who had done more 100 K’s, and who qualified for the Boston Marathon but not the New York. Quite intimidated, Daniel and I waited for the volunteers at Quetzaltrekkers, an all-volunteer organization that donate all its profits from the hikes to a school and an orphanage in town, to outfit us with the equipment we needed. We quickly realized that our little daypacks would not fit the four liters of water, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and as many warm layers we could find, so we borrowed big packs from them too. As we packed up, we realized that most of the marathon talk was coming from one woman, who clearly had to talk about herself and how amazing she was at every moment, and some of our feelings of intimidation faded. A couple next to me was speaking Hebrew, so I chatted with them a bit. Just as I finished packing my stuff, the couple asked anyone if they were interested in playing Set. It was clear we’d be friends. We played for a bit, and the husband (they are on their honeymoon) was quite good. As we finished our first game, they told the slower two-thirds of the group of twenty two hikers to get our packs on and head out the trucks outside. The 16 of us piled into the backs of two pickup trucks, and rode for about twenty-five minutes to the base of the volcano.

At midnight, after being introduced to the four guides who were with us and hearing a bit about the protocols, we began the hike. Though it was the middle of the night, we needed no flashlights; you could have read by the light of the full moon. It was an easy start, and we hiked for about a half an hour, and then took a break, waiting for the second group to join us. Every time we stopped we had to put on more layers, it was already in the forties. After waiting about fifteen minutes, the other group showed up, and we got on our way. We took another break, with snacks and everything, before the real ascent started.

Then the hike got hard. We continued by moonlight for the next four hours, talking with different people for a while, then moving ahead of them, or lagging behind them. At some point, I needed to keep my fleece on in addition to my gloves; frost was beginning to form on the rocks, and glistening in the moonlight. The city of Queztaltenango unfolded in front of us, the lights flickering, lighting up the whole valley below. We had to scramble up parts, and had to keep our breaks short to keep from freezing.

Just as we began to feel that we couldn’t go much further; the altitude hitting us pretty hard in combination with the exhaustion, we began to see the guide’s flashlights at the top. One of the guides led us up the last ten minutes, and we finally reached the top, freezing, exhausted, and triumphant. We scrambled to the very top, had a look around at the mountains illuminated by the moon. We then found a flat spot near all the other hikers who had already reached the top, laid out our sleeping pads and bags, put on all of our layers, and squirmed into our mummy bags, leaving nothing exposed to the air.

About an hour and fifteen minutes later, I woke up. The sky was a gradient of oranges, reds, and magentas, leaving the silhouettes of the volcanoes in front of us. I tapped Daniel, who bolted up, opened his eyes, and let his mouth drop at the sight of it. We watched the colors change from our sleeping bags for a while, until I got up to look around. We had a 360 degree view of Guatemala, with at least six other volcanoes in sight. The moon continued to shine brightly, making the sunrise even more emotional than it already was. Eventually most of the other hikers also got up, and were taking pictures, walking around to see more, and reveling in the sight. Two of the volcanoes, one silhouetted by the coming sun, and one right next to us, were active, and occasionally spewed a plume of smoke into the sky.

Just as the sun peeped through, our Israeli friend played Here Comes the Sun on his phone. Tacky though it was, it felt like the perfect way to welcome in the next decade of my life. At every angle a different gorgeous view could be seen; the city of Xela was completely covered in clouds below us, and the sun lit up the clouds beautifully. The most amazing sight, however, was opposite the sunrise. In the mist that covered the mountains to the west, the tops of which were lit by the sun, was the shadow of the volcano we were standing on, and the moon continued to shine brightly from the same direction. I have been many beautiful places, and seen many beautiful things, but this may have been the most cosmically incredible thing I’ve ever seen.

After walking around the peak and gaping at the views, we gathered and drank coffee and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Our Jewish friend, a tour guide in Israel, addressed the group, and explained that today is Tu bishvat, the Jewish New Year for the trees. It seemed so right that we were on the top of a volcano, breathing fresh air and enjoying the earth on this day. After his schpeil, I went over to where he and his wife were standing, and asked if we could say the shehechianu, a prayer saying thanks for bringing us to this moment in this place, that is generally said when things begin. It was the beginning of so many things—their marriage, the second decade of my life, and the day.

We spent about an hour and a half more exploring the top of the volcano, taking pictures from all angles, hiking down a little to see the little volcano right next to the one we were on, which is still active, and talking with Tom, an Australian geology student we had befriended on the way up, about the geology of the volcano.

At 8:30 we began our descent. It was slower going than I expected because of all of the switchbacks and the loose path, which gave us time to chat with the people we were walking with. I went on a carbon tax rant for a while with the Israelis and Tom, learned from Tom about how amazing it is to be a student in Australia—the government pays you to go to school—and had various other conversations with other hikers. When we got near the bottom, it got really dusty, and we looked like a herd of animals kicking up all of the dust. Exhausted, we reached the bottom, and hiked along the road for a little until we caught a chicken bus. The ride was very slow, along dirt roads and very indirect. Daniel noted that he was so tired he could sleep anywhere—except this bumpy, jerky bus. We finally got into town and walked about five minutes back to Quetzaltrekkers. We unloaded all our stuff, ate chocolate covered frozen bananas, and said goodbye.

When I got home, my host mother laughed at me, I looked like I had just finished a day of chimney sweeping. She insisted that I eat lunch, despite my utter exhaustion. I had been so excited for a shower, and when I finally got in, it was cold. I took a quick, freezing shower, ate some delicious yucca pancakes, and slept from two in the afternoon until eight. I woke up, ate a little dinner, and then Daniel and Maggie and I went to the Blue Angel, the gringo café, to eat guacamole, drink a little beer, and plan our last week here.

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