A Volcanic diary
……finally confident about returning home after two difficult weeks of coverage around the volcano……
First attempt: Santiago-Puerto Montt-Castro-Chaitén-Puerto Montt.
May 2: Puerto Montt (1016 km south of Santiago). It’s 10 p.m. at the local airport and I must reach Chaitén, a village which is in a state of alert. The Chaitén volcano, of which there are no historic records, has awoken after a 9,000- year slumber.
I drive to Pargua, cross the Chacao channel by ferry to Chiloé island, drive 81 kilometers further to Castro. In Castro I await another ferry for a 12-hour trip to Chaitén.
May 3: It’s 3 a.m. in Castro. The Kavala ferry docks with the first evacuees from Chaitén. I take pictures without light at a very slow shutter speed. The people disappear in different directions thinking that they will be able to return home soon. We still don’t know that the volcano will dictate otherwise.
The Kavala’s captain allows me to embark towards Chaitén, with space for me but not for my car. The crew offers me coffee and a blanket as we head towards Chaitén.
My first view of Chaitén takes me back to my childhood, to a great, dark movie theater where I sat next to my mother watching The Lost World, the great-grandfather of dinosaur movies. Little houses at the foot of mountainous walls on whose peaks move dense clouds forming a gray halo…But this time instead of fear I feel respect.
I hitch a ride on a pick-up into Chaitén where everything is covered with a layer of ash. The village is nearly empty of its 4,000 inhabitants. A villager, Mr. X, offers me boarding for the night, but his insistence makes me nervous and I prefer to excuse myself. A few days later I find out that the same Mr. X was arrested while robbing an evacuated building. Does the feeling of seeing your town turned slowly into a ghost town bring out the best and the worst in people? At night I find proper lodging, food and a pick-up that I share with other colleagues.
May 4: By the afternoon the sky opens little by little and the column of ash starts to emerge from between the clouds.
The sight of Air Force twin otters leads me to the local runway. In no time I’m sitting in a copilot seat. I see the backlit effect the ash creates on the landscape. When we circle Futaleufú town to land I shoot the column of ash through the tiny window. I see minute homesteads covered with half a meter of ash, and I fumble for my zoom and shoot.
When we land the local authorities tell us that the situation is under control, although a gut feeling tells me the opposite. How can you control a giant that has awoken after 9,000 years? Everyone quietly begins to return home, including myself in spite of my premonition.
The clock shows 10 p.m. and I’m offered a bunk on the Slight, a Naval buoy-repair ship, where I rest until a siren wakes me up in Puerto Montt. My gut feeling about the volcano persists.
May 5: In Puerto Montt I see one of my aerial photos on the front of Chile’s largest newspaper. Near the port at a meeting with the mayor of Chaitén and evacuees I see the people’s faces showing expressions of anxiety and uncertainty, made larger through my long lens.
May 6: The gut feeling that I had ignored became as real as the televised images that I watch at home, the volcano emitting a column of ash that makes the previous days’ column seem just a little powder. Everyone is evacuated from Chaitén and a radius of 50 km is declared a danger zone.
Second attempt: Santiago-Puerto Montt-Osorno-Bariloche-Esquel-Travelin-Futaleufú.
May 7-8: I return to Puerto Montt and rent a pick-up truck. I load it with supplies that allow me to drive confidently along the slippery roads. During a short truce in the cloud cover the sky becomes the most incredible spectacle, giant and indecipherable, the same sensation produced by the first sight of the column of ash, an image that reminds me of my small and imperfect humanity.
I arrive at Futaleufú, and quickly photograph all that I can. I edit and file and only then contemplate what I’ve seen.
In my mind appear the inhabitants of this inhospitable region who in spite of the incessant rains never get wet. Why? What mysterious relationship do these children and grandchildren of colonizers have with the landscape and climate?
May 9: On the main plaza I notice that the ash gives one of the sculptures an expression of anguish, but a person distracts me. A man cleaning a roof says that in the municipal gym they are giving out alfalfa for herd animals. I take a couple of shots of him and head there. Blocks of sod lie piled on the basketball court. The composition of a great carpet of grass crowned by a basketball hoop is surrealistic. I return to the plaza in search of my anguished sculpture but it’s too tall. I back up my truck and take pictures from the back, and then jump to the ground only to see the doors lock automatically with the keys inside. Two hours later the village’s only mechanic arrives and with a piece of bent wire becomes my savior and I vow never to leave the keys inside again.
May 10: The ash’s effects on cattle are alarming; I take the route towards Lake Espolón and find more than 100 head of cattle being herded down from the mountains. I greet the herders, talk and shoot. They are nice people, carrying the hard mountain life on their faces. My surprise is even greater when I ask the 40-year-old herdsman his age, and find out he’s only 19. I silently follow them along the lake.
May 11: Lake Espolón has lost its singular color, as if filled with milk instead of water.
At the lakeside a man and his son, who wears a woman’s hat, await the ferry to carry them to El Tigre from where they have to herd their animals to safer ground. The man tells me that his son is accompanying him in a task too difficult for the 12-year-old, and that they will hike six hours to reach their camp and then three days to herd the animals. That will mean three days away from school, friends and games. I take some shots and as they set off.
May 12: At the Rio Negro elementary school I take a picture through a microscope’s tiny lens of the volcano’s ash looking like a celestial landscape.
May 13: Futaleufú awakes with a thick layer of muddy ash. The few soldiers I see go to work only when a TV camera arrives. The cameraman takes a break and the soldiers follow suit.
In an abandoned military base in Villa Santa Lucia, some 100 dogs that were evacuated from Chaitén are corralled inside a dark stable. A sad dog tied alone in a corner gives me a feeling of abandonment. At dusk I drive to a nearby hill from where I can transmit the dog pictures.
May 14: The rain never stops and the planned evacuation of cattle never happens.
May 15-16: During the trip back to Puerto Montt my mind returns to the sinuous roads of the lake district where the inhabitants’ strength makes the Patagonia possible to populate and develop. A place of unique, fragile landscape constantly threatened by the advance of modern man and unfortunately now by nature herself. The volcano’s assault does nothing more than revive in the inhabitants the strength of the first colonizers that allowed them to face adversity. But why, in spite of the incessant rains, do the inhabitants of this harsh region never get wet? I’ve spent nearly two weeks here, so why in spite of all the gear to protect me and my equipment am I tormented by the rain?
I hear the final call for boarding at the airport in Puerto Montt, and it’s time to head to Santiago…..