I’m oven it like that

I can’t remember who first proposed we should see the ovens above Panimaché Dos. Perhaps it was my friend Arelis, before she left with Beth to speak to Doña Elena. I had chosen to stay behind, to talk with Arelis’s mother, Marta, about her memories of Fuego’s 1974 eruption. My ears pricked up in interest. The ovens?, I asked. Ruins from the big eruption. Hidden in the fields above this village, they responded. I had never been higher in Panimaché Dos than to the paddock where I had interviewed Doña Ana two years ago, and had never thought there to be any more to it. So when Doña Marta and I grew tired of talking about memories, I proposed to her that we should walk up the road to find Beth and Arelis and then continue towards the ovens. With pleasure, she replied.

A house in Panimaché Dos, built with wood and lamina roofing, and a yard of arena. The road is of adoquín. There are flowers everywhere.

At the top of the village of Panimaché Dos, where the adoquín ends, begins a dirt road at whose margins one can see the distinct layers of Fuego’s three powerful eruptions of the 1900s. The three layers rise, dark brown and apparently impenetrable, like the segments of a beastly insect. The lowest layer is arena, coffee-coloured and gritty, well over a metre thick; the thorax is also arena, but darker and much shallower, finely packed; the head is slightest of all, and is crowned with a thin layer of relatively rich material into which the vegetation grows like a shaggy thatch. The height of the lower layer disturbs me. This much airfall, from one eruption – an event of only hours. I can imagine a moment of the cataclysm when this fell from the sky.

Beth with the distinct layers of the three eruptions Fuego made in the 20th-century which greatly affected Panimaché Dos. Dates uncertain, but possibly August 1966, April 1967, and October 1974.

We continue on the road, twisting left and right, always moving up. The volcano’s green skirts spill behind us. Marta’s plait swings as she leads the way. Nearly at the distance where the lands begin to steepen relentlessly to the summit, we find the first oven. What a queer object – it looks like a beehive with a mouth. On its left cheek is a mossy plaque. The inscription reads: E 1921, L..E….N.ADO HORNO RENO…DO …OR DON PEDRO MIRANDA. The oven is a thing of beauty. At 100 years I think it is quite old enough; but Arelis tells us that this is a traditional stone structure, quite likely built sometime in the 19th century. She shows us that the inscription has effaced earlier writing that perhaps gave the original date and name of the artisan, just as we now read Pedro Miranda. Incredibly enough, Marta remembers the Miranda family. Not father Pedro, but his two daughters who lived here together and were old when she was young. What a place to make your daily bread. From here one can see the foot of Fuego, barely a stone’s throw away, and over the other shoulder there lies below Panimaché Dos, Morelia, the bocacosta with its wide flat expanses of sugar cane, and somewhere in the haze lies the Pacific ocean. I am struck by the extraordinary strangeness of this place, of the incredible fact that people lived here over one hundred years ago, with few people and a frothing, fiery monster for neighbours. Marta tells us it was the first eruption of arena – that metre of coarse coffee grounds – that forced these labourers to flee. What a view they had; and what an event it must have been to have compelled its owners to leave.

A beautifully built, and carefully restored, traditional stone oven for baking bread found above the village of Panimaché Dos (formerly Panimaché Uno), Chimaltenango, Guatemala.

From the first oven we ascend to a ruined cornfield, where we find a man idly standing guard. Over what? He introduces himself, and his surname is one that Marta mentioned earlier, one of the few who did not leave the aldea after that eruption. He negates Marta and Arelis’s claim that there is another oven, but relents and looks with us. We find it hidden below a stand of sour little mandarins. After hacking away at the side of what remains, the guard holds up a palm of barro. This material is soft and friable. Perhaps that is why it has eroded so heavily? There is very little left. Still, I want to preserve the oven and with it the memory of what was here before. Each sink of the guard’s machete into its side makes me wince a little.

Long after I return home, the visit to the ovens stays with me. Other structures around the volcano swim into view. That dishevelled concrete wall at the entrance to Panimaché Dos; the mudlogged shower cubicles at the Scout encampment; San Miguel Los Lotes, with its blasted doors now growing over with flowers. How quickly memories of disaster are lost in this land of lushness.

I have changed the names of people we visited in Panimaché Dos for anonymity. I am hugely grateful to the Jeremy Willson Charitable Trust and their generous sponsorship of my research through the Geological Society. This post is (I hope!) the first in a series on my research into 20th-century eruptions of Volcán de Fuego, Guatemala. I will also write a proper report on this project once it’s completed – watch this space!

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