Another Week at the OVT: Day 8

I’ve been longing to write about last Thursday on the side of Tungurahua, and a completed post has been long in the works. However, since my last post (here), I have climbed Tungurahua, risked a rickety bus journey to the city, celebrated the capital’s birthday at Fiesta de Quito, worked on the side of Cotopaxi, been kicked out of an apartment and reinstated, and finished some PhD applications. Things have definitely been frantic, but still: I apologise for the late response.

The Thursday in question, 3rd December, was fascinating because I learned first-hand the devastating power that a volcano can have, even with minor eruptions. During the course of our 14-hour day, we saw damage to property and to people, and I understood some of the danger and damage  that is faced by those who choose to live on and reap the benefits of the volcano’s fertile flanks.

I was out for the day with Ben, a long-time expert in Tungurahua ash. We began our day at 06:30, and by eight had already invaded houses, climbed the side of a castle, and infiltrated the roof of a school. The reason? To inspect Ben’s cenizometros, ingenious contraptions made from plastic bottles that were designed to capture and quantify the amount of ash that had fallen from the volcano. Of course, ash first falls on roofs and terraces, and so the cenizometros (ceniza = ash in Spanish) had to be both vulnerable to open air and well-hidden from inquisitive strangers. My favourite cenizometro spot was below, at Rio Verde overlooking the Manto de la Novia (Bride’s Veil) waterfall. We could see the volcano to our south, beautiful and distant, slightly hazy. As the day grew, it became clearer and clearer – the damage that it could do.

Real-life Chutes and Ladders.
And they say that academics live in an ivory tower …

After we had completed our studies of the villages to the east, we took the eastern road towards Riobamba. We stopped above the small town of Bilbao, and here began a long trek up the side of the volcano. Little by little, the lush beauty of the valley left us behind. The flowers were the first to go, their riot of colour changed up to a simple palette of two: green, the grass; grey, the ash. The trees were uniformly silver, their leaves shivering in fear at lower altitudes, and abducted further up. Trees became limbs became stumps wizened to nothing, ground down in the receding grass. Eventually, that went too.

The dead and dying life around T-07, the highest station on the western flank of Tungurahua.
A barren landscape at 3000 metres.
One of the many houses abandoned to ruin by previous volcanic activity. The tree to the left stood perfectly silver with ash.
Even when we continued down the slope, the effects of the volcano stayed with us. I spied several houses that had been completely ruined, then abandoned. As we drove down the road, we passed a church. Its roof had vanished. The walls bowed in, like repentant churchgoers, contrarily: shouldn’t they have supported the roof, and not the other way round? Herbs now grew in the space where the faithful used to pray.
As we continued with the day, it became harder to maintain hope.  How could Roberto and his family, down in Chonglitus, continue to work their land in the face of disaster? The simple answer was that they had no choice. The abundant ash-falls on the 18th and 19th of November had decimated their crops: maiz, frejoles, papas, tomates, all were covered in a widow’s veil of ash, and although the family of four had strived to brush off the sooty war-paint, the battle was clearly lost, twelve hours of sunshine abstinence enough to kill the plants. Three months of hard work gone overnight. A small group of black cows grazed in the distance, their coats glossy. Large hens with lustrous feathers pecked hopefully among the stubbled fields. The animals looked healthy, but the people spoke of disappointment and difficulty. Senor Roberto’s mother wandered around the I.G. truck mournfully, repeating her words over and over in a harshly accented voice. Gone, completely gone. We asked why they hadn’t planted onions (known to be resistant to ash because of their negligible presence above ground); but the family had planted onions before, and they had fallen prey to a wild strain of disease. When they had gone to their local mayor, he had created an elegant solution. Move, he said, go to the town of Penipe and there you’ll be safe from the ash. And do what? These people are farmers, born and bred, and good at it. They harness their skills excellently to produce wonderful and rich crops; the price they pay is the occasional natural disaster. Farming in Tungurahua, you don’t always reap what you sow.
Three months of work, down the drain! It was impossible to not think of the cruelty and opportunity of that time-scale: how could we in the UK ever hope to produce four harvests in a year? And yet, in under a day their hard work had gone down in dust. Ben gave Roberto $40 for his work in collecting ash data. It didn’t seem a great deal to cover the months ahead.
Below the ruined houses, you can see the remains of the former bridge at Palilactua. The houses have indoor gardens, now.

Our penultimate stop was at Palilactua, in which we arrived just as dusk was falling (19:15). The volcano was usually never clear from this side, but it appeared that we had struck lucky. By the falling light, I could look out from the cenizometro spot and see the ruins, the aftermath of a huge lahar that had passed through the village in 2010. On the left bank of the river, a concrete slab from the previous bridge provided a convenient headstone to itself. Ruined houses mournfully tended gardens within their cloistered walls. A man passed us, his eyes suspicious and watchful.

By the time we finished, it was so dark that we were working in head-torches. Our final cenizometro stop was beside a pig-pen in the high village near Huambalo. I listened to the pigs snort, and counted the stars, while holding a conversation with the owner of the pigs. He told us of the eruption on 18th November. Wild storms! Darkness at midday! We asked if he had been affected, but it seemed not. It’s never fair, whom the volcano hurts.

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