For most of the time we were in Guatemala, we stayed in Antigua, a photogenic and very small colonial city which contains the highest density of old churches, monasteries and nunneries that I have seen in my travels. Antigua is dominated by two large volcanoes, one active (“Fire”), and the other inactive (“Water”), to the extent that it is quite hard to take a photo without capturing one or other looming above the foreground.
Antigua was the third attempt at a capital city for Guatemala. The second, a few kilometres away and closer to the Water volcano, was wiped out when the crater cracked and created a huge mudslide, just a few years after the city had been founded.
Indeed, it is hard to understand the logic in building and living in such an unstable place, where, even recently, there have been major earthquakes and other seismic activity. Today, life and commerce just roll on to the accompaniment of random puffs of smoke and fire from the Fire volcano. Perhaps because the volcanoes have been there for so long, people just accept them, though many locals still carry scars inside from personal losses in the devastating 1976 earthquake and are aware, at a deeper level, of the precariousness of their existence.
So why has Antigua been a locus for people? Part of it is probably the flip side of the danger, in the incredible fertility of the volcanic soil. With great risk comes the possibility of great reward. Add to this the wonderful ability of the human mind to discount older experience and bathe in the light of the moment, and it becomes easier to see the pressures that lead to this abstractly illogical place.
Although I revelled in the spectacular vistas that the volcanoes created, I found the omnipresent dark backdrop somewhat foreboding, for reasons that, at first, I couldn’t quite grasp. And then it hit me. Over the last year we’ve all come to see that we have all been living in the shadow of a fulminating volcano, which is finally beginning to erupt. A volcano built on years of rampant and unbridled capitalism, fed by greed and ineptness. We’ve all built our houses at the foot of this abomination, enjoying some of the rich fruits that come from fertile soils and, for many years, we’ve gone about our lives barely conscious of the structure that towers over all of us and has become much larger than any human can comprehend.
Now that the first eruptions have occurred, it is as if the clouds around the summit have cleared and we can all see this monster for the first time. And, to one degree or another, we all cower paralysed in the anticipation of what happens next. The devastation will take apparently random paths, just as in the tragedy that obliterated much of Ciudad Viejo, but spared houses just a kilometre away. In Comox, the significant population of Air force workers and retirees may see their lives continue as before. Locals who drifted into construction because it was the only place to make decent money are already finding that the hot spring of opportunity has dried up, just as the mineral springs in towns around Antigua dried up in the last major earthquake. The long shadow of the volcano has already stretched its probing tentacles to sleepy and sunny Todos Santos. There are fewer tourists, and certainly less people who want to spend serious money. I am sure, whatever path the lava takes, the blight of stalls all selling the same genuine Mexican “made in Indonesia” serapes will continue, much as, even after a nuclear blast, cockroaches will thrive. But the more innovative businesses, already feeling the pinch of increased rents due to landlords’ naïve belief in extrapolation of the past, may not survive the onslaught of this unnatural disaster.