by Catherine Ryan Howard
Winner of the Adventure Category in the 2009 WanderWomen Write Contest
I’m not cut out to be a backpacker.
Backpacking, if you’re not familiar, is a form of traveling popular with twenty-somethings looking to see some of the world, broaden their horizons and have regrettable sex with strangers. Typically, the backpacker will arm his or herself with a large backpack (hence the name), a string bikini or pair of loud surf shorts, anti-malaria tablets, a well-thumbed copy of the Lonely Planet (which they will have to later deny they are carrying as no real backpacker would ever be caught traveling with something as useful as a guide book) and a ticket to some far flung, exotic country wholly unlike their own like, say, Australia.
Once there, they will spend their days making friends, being on buses, discussing The Big Issues Facing The World Today, drinking, being on boats, checking Facebook, complaining about the corporate cancer infecting the world (while simultaneously tying up their Nikes and turning up their iPods), taking photos, criticizing America, being on trains, zip-lining and talking about how what they really want to do is go to India.
After several months of this they will return home with a bronzed glow, a stubborn venereal disease and the symbol for egg-fried rice tattooed on their lower back. They’ll upload their photos to Facebook before they even unpack and rely on them, in later years, to remind them that they once glimpsed the world outside the grey office in which they now spend eight hours of every weekday updating their e-mail signature, drinking coffee, pretending to understand what their colleagues mean when they say things like, ‘applying Six Sigma to our core competencies will cause a paradigm shift’ and waiting for death to come.
In February 2008 I was living in the States, loving it and happily working for one of the largest corporations in the world, Disney. I not only welcomed the idea of a Starbucks on every corner but I was steadily building a collection of their mugs. I detested any activity that involved hiking, jumping, diving, rowing or plunging; my ideal day would be one spent exclusively on the sofa. As for holidays, I liked mine to feature lying places (i.e. on the beach, by the pool, in bed), complimentary robes, 24-hour room service and brand-name products by the hotel sink. I wanted to go backpacking as much as I wanted to pull off my own arm and hit myself with it.
(Maybe even less so.)
Which was why when I agreed to embark on a nine-week trek through five Central American countries with my adventure-junkie best friend – Sheelagh – I was as shocked as anyone. But honestly, how bad could it really be?
I got my answer only five days in, on a volcano called Pacaya just outside the colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala.
Yes, on a volcano.
An active volcano.
This volcano climb/suicide mission would be the first real adventure of our trip and the fashionable thing to do when in Antigua. In an act of self-preservation my brain decided that this was only going to be a short walk up a gentle hill to look at some lava from very, very far away and from behind a very, very high fence. Acutely aware of my own mortality – my idea of danger is crossing without the Green Man – this was hardly an activity I was likely to enjoy, but I consoled myself with the thought of all the Facebook photos I’d have afterward and how they’d be irrefutable evidence that I was indeed living a life of above-average excitement.
This delusion was reinforced by the woman who sold us our bus tickets. She claimed the hike was ‘fine’ and, to prove it, pointed to a collage of summit photographs in which everyone was alive, smiling and not on fire.
I also felt obligated to grant Sheelagh this one concession. We both knew that without me, she’d have already zip-lined through a rain-forest, dived into a waterfall and thrown herself out of an airplane, probably all blindfolded and all on the first day. I could at least agree to do this.
The night before, I looked up Pacaya in my illicit Lonely Planet.
‘Although foreigners climbing volcanoes around Antigua were sometimes robbed, raped or murdered, recent safety measures have reduced the problem…Because of its status as the only active volcano near Antigua, VolcÃ¡n Pacaya (2552m) attracts the most tourists and bandits. The situation is improving since each group is now accompanied by a security guard [but] a hike up Pacaya still entails risks…travellers are now more likely to be hurt by flaming rocks and sulphurous fog than criminals. Climbers have suffered fatal injuries when the volcano erupted unexpectedly while they were near the summit.’
I snapped the book shut.
Sheelagh lay on the other bed, immersed in Eat, Pray, Love and evidently oblivious to the fact that tomorrow we were going for a stroll through the worst bits of the Bible.
‘If anything happens,’ I said, ‘tell my parents they can give me a Catholic burial. I’ll be dead, so it won’t matter to me.’
Sheelagh looked at me, smirked and went back to her book.
I lay in bed and waited for sleep to come on what was, quite possibly, my last night here on Earth.
First thing the next morning we packed a picnic lunch of cheese sandwiches and boarded a shuttle bus along with a small herd of our fellow travelers. During the hour-long drive to Pacaya, I did my best to mute the survival nodes in my brain and ignore their desperate pleas to turn and run.
(Well, ask the driver to stop, get out of the bus and then run. You get the idea.)
Alleviating my horror somewhat was the presence of a baby on board our bus. Yes, an actual baby. Perhaps a year or so old, happily bouncing around on the laps of its fantastically attractive young parents. Assuming they weren’t planning on sacrificing the infant to the volcano gods, this was surely proof that the Lonely Planet was exaggerating and that since their writers last paid it a visit, Pacaya had got a ticket booth, a cable car and a coffee shop.
No such luck.
The bus deposited us more than half way up the mountain on a patch of waste ground and metres from a shed with a hole cut out of the front of it – the ticket booth. A thick, smoky fog drifted down from on high. Sheelagh bought us two passes while I stood to one side and hoped the end would be swift.
An Unlikely Way Up
Then the hike began.
We were a motley crew: fifteen or so of us gringo backpackers, a couple of local guides and four or five teenage boys. We moved together towards the fog.
We started up a paved footpath which gave way after twenty feet or so to a sandy trail dotted with rocks and boulders. Both were steep. I’d say I’d taken approximately ten steps when I felt my lungs threatening to burst and realized that my calve muscles already had. I might have been able to overcome my fear but not the fact that I unfit, overweight and recovering from a chest infection. I stopped moving and croaked out Sheelagh’s name, ready to perform an Oscar-worthy parting scene involving the phrase, ‘Go on without me!’ I would happily sit all by my lonesome at the base of the mountain for five hours than torture myself trying to get to the top especially if, as the Lonely Planet predicted, I was only going to meet a fiery death when I got there.
But then a man appeared at my side with a horse.
In the muddied depths of my fear, pain and breathlessness, I wasn’t entirely sure what it was he was doing there, or what he was trying to tell me with his vast collection of hand signals. (Was I already dead? Had I been hit with a football of flaming lava? Was this who St. Peter sent to greet the Atheists?) But then suddenly, I understood; for a few Guatemalan quetzals, I could take a horse to the top.
Had I ever been on a horse? No. Was horse-riding up an active volcano on my list of pre-approved activities favorable to a long and healthy life? Hardly. Would I, at that moment in time, have climbed on the back of a ravenous lion, grisly bear or hissing velociraptor if I thought it meant I wouldn’t have to walk any further? Absolutely.
So I got on the horse.
Initially I was just happy to be off of my feet and able to breathe again, but I quickly realized that narrow, rocky and near-vertical paths up the sides of active volcanoes are not best negotiated on the back of a horse. In tight spots, the pre-pubescent boy walking near the horse’s head – my guide, apparently – would motion for me to hang on for dear life while the poor animal made a run for it up a particularly steep stretch.
A week ago, trying out a different drive-through Starbucks qualified as adventure. Now I was on the back of a horse, ascending an active volcano through thick, sulphorous fog in Guatemala. The scene had a surreal feel and my ears buzzed as panic threatened to breach the perimeter fences. I should have just gone on a beach holiday, as I’d originally planned. The only danger there was sunburn.
It took an hour and a half to reach the top, or what looked like it: a flat expanse of grassy plain that disappeared suddenly into a cloud of heavy white smoke. It was the crater. After I’d dismounted (read: fell off) my horse, my young helper told me the price was twenty quetzals, or about Â£1.45. I gave him the smallest note I had, which was a hundred, or about Â£7.25. He couldn’t believe his luck. I couldn’t believe I’d been on a horse.
The walkers stopped to catch their breath and break out the water bottles. It had been a very tough hike; Sheelagh’s face was purple. The baby was still in one piece as was the father who’d carried it. We took a few photos and laughed about the horse.
I thought the worst part was over but I was very, very wrong.
After scrambling up to two and a half thousand feet, it was time to climb back down at bit and into the volcano’s crater. Through the breaks in the smoke I could see that there was only one way to get there and it involved going straight down.
Okay, so we weren’t exactly Tom Cruise in the opening scenes of Mission Impossible 2 (swinging hand to hand across a featureless cliff face with a drop of several thousand feet below, if you haven’t seen it) but it was still pretty dangerous. We had to climb about twenty feet down an embankment with nothing to hold on to and nothing but sliding sand beneath our feet.
Oh, and lots of jagged volcanic rock waiting its turn to make ribbons of our flesh and lots of steaming, boiling lava ready to cook whatever was left.
I looked at Sheelagh and mouthed the word no.
The Final Push
‘Come on,’ she said, pulling me by the hand. ‘Just don’t think about it.’ And so I did, completely zoning out and flying away, looking down from above on my body as it reluctantly slipped, slid and tripped its way down the embankment.
At the bottom and under the cloud of smoke, we got our first good look at the crater. It was expansive, with rolling hills and troughs like an extremely dangerous version of the Irish countryside. Pockets of tourists were dotted here and there, as were open lava streams, burning red, only feet – nay, inches – from where we stood. Heat from the black rock underfoot quickly permeating the soles of our hiking boots and its jagged edges looked as if they’d slice our skin open on contact.
All I could think about was (a) my imminent death and (b) that fact that I didn’t have travel insurance.
Our guide led us to a relatively secure spot and then left us there. With the rubber soles of our boots getting toasty, we quickly fished out the cameras and started snapping. After all, I hadn’t risked my life and lungs to leave without photographic evidence, and lots of it.
Someone had brought a bag of marshmallows and was passing it around. Sheelagh, ever brave, moved closer to the lava to toast it, and I captured the moment on memory card. But as soon as I lowered the camera, I saw her face change.
‘Catherine,’ she said to my feet. ‘You need to move. Now.’
Looking down, I saw that indeed I did. The ‘rock’ I’d been standing on was merely a make-shift bridge across a glowing lava flow; there were only inches of brittle rock standing between me and me barbecued. But since my mind had detached itself from my physical form I took this news calmly – she might as well have said I had a crumb of cake on my face – and stepped aside with nonchalance.
And where was the baby? A quick scan of the crowd found both baby and supermodel parents alive and well. It seemed the guide had carried the child down the embankment himself. While I was jealous of this kid’s childhood photo albums, I had to question the supermodels’ parenting skills. At least the child was oblivious.
I admit it was kind of thrilling to see molten lava up close, but the Discovery Channel and my geography textbooks had done a good job. It looked just as I expected it would – red, flowing and really, really hot. However it was infinitely more terrifying when it was right there and I wanted to get away from it before I fell into it. And so we made our way back up out of the crater – which proved to be only slightly easier than getting down it – and collapsed on the grass at the top.
Soon afterward the sun set, the smoke and fog met and we started our long, dark walk back down the mountain. Getting onto our bus at the base, I leaned my head against the window, closed my eyes and relaxed for the first time all day.
We were hungry and tired. Our clothes were black with ash. My chest hurt every time I took a breath and the skin on my hands was nicked and bleeding.
But I was alive. It was eight o’clock, it was over and I was alive.
And boy, did I have some cool Facebook photos.
* * * * *
Catherine Ryan Howard lives in Cork, Ireland. She likes to write, drinks lots of coffee and wants to be a NASA Astronaut when she grows up. (She’s 27.) She is self-publishing her first book, Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida, in March 2010 and highly doubts she will ever go backpacking ever again.