First impressions

It’s been a busy week! I am writing from my bunkbed in Fuego’s observatory, OVFGO1, in the village of Panimaché Uno (here). I am taking today (Friday 22nd February) off after conducting interviews between Monday and Thursday in the villages of Panimaché Uno, Panimaché Dos, Los Yucales, and Morelia. I am tired, but really stoked by this week: it has been uniquely interesting and informative. I tend to be self-critical (*High-Fives to all my fellow PhD students*), so a chorus of voices inside me are wondering if my optimism is ill-founded. Most of my experience of research has involved struggle. On the other hand – maybe this is going well? And maybe I’m good at this? One reason for my happiness is that I have been so warmly welcomed. The people I’ve met are extremely kind, and generous with their time, and it is a pleasure to be here with them.

Speaking of good company – I had the unexpected good fortune of a visit from friends from the University of Liverpool this morning. Felix, Eva and Armando arrived to collect ash samples and capture infrasound via drone. I was able to join, it being my day off. North we drove, up the road beyond Panimaché Uno until the embroidery on Fuego’s skirts became too complicated to follow. The truck’s undercarriage had scrapes and dents from unexpected rocks on the path, but we had the most wonderful view of below: of Panimaché Uno and Morelia, and even el Peñon de Siquinalá, shining in the sun. Similarly, I won’t be able to foresee the problems that inevitably occur, but I can reflect as I go. Here are some things I have learned in my first week of ethnographic fieldwork:

  1. Friends matter. Having a local friend accompanying you seems absolutely critical to being welcomed. Without the company of Don Edgar Antonio (one of Fuego’s observers, who has worked here for 16 years), I doubt I would have been received with such warmth. His reputation as a knowledgeable and trustworthy presence is rubbing off on me, and I am very grateful for the reflected shine.
  2. It’s hard to hold back. A lot of what people tell me is interesting, or easy to sympathize with, and I find myself struggling not to interject out of enthusiasm or to agree with their opinion, when I should perhaps be impartial. All the same, I am a person as well as a researcher, and as my research method (semi-structured interview) often reflects a natural conversation, I could also acknowledge this will be imperfect sometimes.
  3. Language matters. The specific words that people use to describe their experience seem really important. For instance, the observers have a different language for Fuego’s activity than local people do (e.g. lahares vs lava, bajarón flujos piroclásticos vs subió el humo). Does this difference matter in terms of hazard perception, or in preventative or responsive action taken? I don’t know yet.
  4. Oceans of data. I have already held 20 interviews and recorded ~30 hours of audio. Everything seems meaningful – and this is true, but not helpful, if you are writing a thesis. Hence my intention is to code (to draw out significant themes and keywords from the data) the interviews as I go along. Fingers crossed I stick to this!
  5. Disempower yourself to empower others. During the course of the week, Edgar and I have developed a “pitch” that we use to approach people for their permission to talk and to be recorded. This was pretty rusty for the first interviews but seems to have become streamlined with experience. An effective introduction, I’ve found, is to present myself as “someone who studies Fuego, but from a distance, only in theory – I have no idea of how it acts in reality. So, I would like to talk to you about what it is like to live beside a volcano in reality, what you see, and what you have experienced.” My sister (a very talented researcher herself!) has told me that this method has precedence in academia, a sort of self-disempowerment to empower others to discuss their experience as an expert. I have still to research the details of this academic method, but I can say that in these circumstances, it appears to work.

There are loads more things I’d like to talk about. However, it’s 5 o’clock on Friday and it is, after all, my day off: I’m going to have a beer. ¡Hasta la proxima!

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