The excitement might kill me

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¨Was that the thunder that I heard?¨ -Bob Dylan

Mama Tungurahua, in 1999.  Image from Wikipedia.

Throughout history, in times of confusion, humankind has turned to Bob Dylan to pose the questions we cannot put into words ourselves. WAS that the thunder I heard, booming across Baños, rattling the windows and causing nervous glances to pass between people on the street? Or was it Mama Tungurahua, our friendly local volcano, who has been active now for a week?

I don´t need Dylan to find out the answer. It´s on every radio and on every pair of lips: volcán, volcán. Some days it´s every few minutes, and some days, every few hours, but the roar is unmistakable: that´s not thunder we hear, but the rujio- the roar- of Tungurahua, spewing ash and lava.

I started this post around noon today, while eating delicious Ecuadorian bonbons and waiting for the sirens to sound, announcing the scheduled practice evacuation. The people here call it the Simulacra and they are surprisingly calm about it. The phrase I keep hearing is ¨no pasa nada¨- we´ve lived here with the volcano active for ten years now, and nothing happened.

Except, something did happen. In October 1999, the people of Baños and the villages surrounding Tungurahua were forced by the military to evacuate. The people of Baños were kept away from their homes for three months. From talking to other volunteers and people who lived here at that time, life for those months was grim. Evacuated to school buildings, people idled their days away in empty rooms without beds to sleep on. I don´t know what the food and water situation was, but one can imagine that there were no six-course meals.

¨They killed our chickens and cooked in our homes,¨ a Baños resident told Tobin & Whiteford in 2002. Indeed, the fear that police and soldiers were looting their homes back in Baños was not unfounded, and in 2000 a Chilean TV station broadcast the proof. The evacuees, en masse and armed with shovels, dug through police blockades and reclaimed their town.

Today, people are reluctant to leave, even in the face of a mandatory evacuation. It´s being said that the government is, therefore, reluctant to announce one. Given the history, it´s easy to understand why. However, there is a lot of misinformation being spread and the reasons are, naturally, political and economical. On my way to the internet cafe this morning I passed a mural that declared ¨Tourism is our strength.¨ Every other storefront in Baños offers something to the extranjeros- strangers- who drive the local economy: shops selling handicrafts, tour offices with whitewater rafts suspended from their ceilings, hostels, kitschy restaurants with menus in English. Everywhere I go, people ask me what they´re saying about Baños in other towns. Are they telling the tourists not to come? Why are there no tourists, and if they don´t come, how will we pay our bills this month?

Tourism is our strength.

Midway through this post, around 12:30 pm, the sirens went off. People in the cafe calmly packed up their belongings, paid their bills, and hit the streets. Outside, shops were already shuttered and people were walking, a little wearily, down the evacuation route. I ran into Oscar, one of my local friends, and we walked the route together until I got near La Bib (that´s what we call the Biblioteca- where I work), and I turned to leave the route. ¨Why aren´t you going?¨ he asked, confused. See, only locals were required to take part in the evacuation. Tourists were off the hook. As I said, people are talking a lot about the difficulty of separating precaution from politics.


Back at La Bib, I found out that another volunteer, Jenny, had left for good. The local woman who was renting Jenny a room in her home assured her that these drills happen all the time, at least two or three times a year. Jenny asked someone at La Bib when the last simulacra was. ¨Oh, two, maybe two and half years ago,¨ she said. The stress of not knowing what´s really going on is getting to all of us. Another volunteer is thinking of leaving a week early. ¨I hate not knowing what´s really happening,¨ I told Oscar a few minutes ago, when I ran into him again. He laughed. ¨The authorities don´t even know!¨


Even though I knew that the evacuation was only a drill, I couldn´t help feeling a little sick to my stomach when I heard the sirens, which sound like our U.S. ambulances, but more mournful. I reeled a little on the sidewalk, unsure of which way to go, despite having studied the evacuation map since the second I arrived in Baños. If there really is need for an evacuation, it´s pretty clear that it will be a mess. At La Bib we are waiting with fingers crossed that in a few days this will, as Karl (the volunteer coordinator) put it, all blow over. ¨Are those the words you want to use, Karl?¨ I said, with a nervous chuckle. So let me just say that we are hoping that we´ll we able to say soon, ¨No pasa nada.¨ Because I really, really, REALLY love Baños and I don´t want to leave. Let me tell you a little about why.

waterfall you can see from our window

First of all, it´s GORGEOUS here. That waterfall is visible from the house I live in, right above the Bib. The town of Baños is surrounded on all sides by nearly vertical walls of rock so high that for the first few days, I couldn´t look down a street without getting dizzy. The walls are green and lush with, oh, just the occasional waterfall cascading down or even, incredibly, horses grazing on narrow ledges. The weather is cool and cloudy, with bursts of sunshine. I have definitely achieved my dream of experiencing year-round sweater weather. I can´t say I miss the heat, bugs, or humidity of my native Florida summers one bit.

wall of mountain

Second, the people here are amazing. I already have friends. I´ve sat on stoops, chatting with locals. A few days ago Carlos, the security guard at the supermarket, took me on a tour of the aisles, explaining the names of things and telling me which foods are the most delicious. Speaking of delicious foods, they abound and they are CHEAP. I found my favorite store already, where the most incredible Ecuadorian truffles can be bought for 25 cents (American… they are on the U.S. dollar here), fresh ground peanut butter for a dollar, and a block of fancy local cheese for $1.25. Since it´s such a small town, I can walk every day to buy fresh French bread at an amazing bakery called Rico Pan. They even have an entire brand devoted to people with such discerning tastes as mine:

I´m a SNOB... are you?

I´ve been surprised, pleasantly, by small-town living. I think that´s been the biggest culture shock for me. I´ve learned that I have to figure at least a half hour of chatting into my trip any time I leave the house. Everyone here wants to know where I´m from, wants to know what I´m doing in Baños, and wants to help me learn Spanish. Their faces light up when I point to something, ask the word, and say sheepishly in Spanish, ¨I´m trying to learn.¨ Last night, while I waited for my dinner, the shopkeeper sent her little girl over to my table with a Spanish picture dictionary so she could teach me a few words. Everyone here knows about La Bib, so when I tell them I´m working there for two months, they get these huge smiles on their faces. It´s no wonder. La Bib, it turns out, is amazing in every way I hoped it would be, and more.

Fundacion Arte Del Mundo

Every day, a few minutes before we open, tiny faces can be seen peering inside the window, waiting. When we finally open, they burst in, tugging on the volunteers´ sleeves and making their case for a game of Jenga, or Spanish Pictionary, or reading a book together. Because the kids in La Bib speak very little English, they have to help me get by in Spanish, and they are incredibly helpful. While playing Pictionary, I had to draw a word I didn´t know. A little girl reached into her backpack and handed me a Spanish/English dictionary.

Fundacion Arte Del Mundo

At Fundacion Arte del Mundo, there are three programs going on, and I´m lucky to be part of them all: the library, children´s English classes, and night classes in English for adults. There´s also the weekly Intercambios, where English and Spanish speakers gather for a guided discussion in which we each must use the others´ language. I think it helps put the students at ease to realize that, poor as their English may be, my Spanish is much, much worse.

My first day in Baños, I woke up after a sweaty night listening to the volcano to hear ¨Dust in the Wind¨ blaring out on the streets. By the end of the day, I was dancing with thirty or so happy children to a Spanish version of the BeeGees´ ¨Stayin´Alive.¨ It was oddly reassuring and for now, I am staying in Baños. I´ve been here less than a week but I already feel right at home. There is so much here that I want to accomplish at La Bib. Something in me says that Mama Tungurahua will continue to look after Baños, and so I will try to revel in the excitement.


A recap of my first ten days in Ecuador, including such hits as:
The Time I Almost Died
Sobbin´ on a Mountainside
Hide the Volcano
Wild, Wild Horses
You Don´t Look Like an American… Congratulations!
Is That a Volcano or a British Man?

Until then… ¡¡¡CHAO!!!


Written by Sam Kelly

June 4, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Major high fives for attempting to stay on as the lone protector of the town after everyone evacuated.


    June 5, 2010 at 10:10 am

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