Wednesday 29 March 2023

Pompeii to Poas, A Writer’s Perspective

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29 March 2023 - At The Banks - BCCR

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The Poas Volcano April 22, 2017. Foto Raul Mora, RSN

Q COSTA RICA – by Chris Clarke – Many readers have strolled through the ghostly ruins of Pompeii. The chariot-rutted streets; the broken pillars and the lewd frescos in the brothel, with improbably well-endowed participants, conjure up decadent lives snuffed out.

Most poignant of all are the human remains, posing grotesquely in solidified ash. The lonely man with the upheld arm failed to protect his lungs against the searing particles. The mother tried despairingly to save her child. The lovers were entwined forever in death. The man helplessly attempted to protect his beloved. The thief was found next to the gold hoard that led him to his doom. Why did they not run away at the first rumblings of trouble? Roman Grand Admiral, Pliny the Elder even sailed his ship to a nearby viewpoint. He died trying to observe the Vesuvius spectacle.

Over five years ago, my wife and I moved to Costa Rica from New York. Its lack of a military, tranquility and diverse wildlife sounded siren calls. Being British, we chose to live at a pleasantly cool 5,000 feet. This is the first thing that has been cool about the Brits since 1967. Our valley vistas, distant mountains wreathed in mists and incandescent sunsets are spectacular.

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If we look up behind us at our mountain, all we see is rainforest. The silver-tongued realtors never mentioned volcanoes. Friends tell the same tale.

Conspiracy theorists might argue that the locals remain silent to boost the price of their farms. Maybe the inadequate maps are part of the plot. We thought that the volcano was over an hour’s drive away. As visiting it entailed driving down our ridge and up another several miles away, we assumed it was a completely different mountain.

Innocently, we moved into our tropical paradise. Large red rocks are scattered about the exotic garden. They set off the lush vegetation and passion flowers rather nicely. We never wondered how they got there.

One day, we took a tough two hour walk upwards, along jungle trails. Huffing and puffing we reached the clouds and the misty richness of trees, heavily laden with mosses and bromeliads. Finally, at well over eight thousand feet, the spectacular crater of Volcan Poas appeared before us. We gasped in the thin air. Until now, a major tourist attraction, the crater is awesome and one of the largest on the planet. It possesses all the features that cause two million cameras and selfies to click annually. Vertical cliffs, more than a mile around, show the stratified reds and browns of multiple past eruptions. They cause tourists to peer timidly over the edge into the depths. There, a bilious green acidic lake with plumes of steam cooks gently in one part of its floor.

Vegetation is sparse above the rim due to acid rain. Some plants have evolved thickened upper leaves to protect themselves.

Worried and home from our hike, our further research showed that recent eruptions were of steam and nothing of great concern.

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Later, a local computer techie visited us from his village of San Roque de Grecia, two miles further down the valley. Cheerily, he shared his parents’ memories of molten boulders and ash damaging this distant barrio. A workman advised that previous damage had been confined to other ridges of the mountain in San Luis and El Cajon. The locals had sold their farms cheap to developers. He smiled, “It’s alright, only gringos live there now.”

And so, life went on. A few years back, an unrelated 7.4 earthquake caught us in a local gym. My wife was hospitalized. Her friend was badly injured and subsequently fled home to the US. Though concerned for my beloved, I secretly found it rather exciting, like surfing the waves of the earth. Why worry about apparently dormant volcanoes?

Then, it was back to barbeques, gin and tonics on the patio and listening to friends moaning interminably about the state of the US. Apparently, this is a deeply troubled country somewhere in a galaxy light years away.

We enjoyed a little schadenfreude when Volcan Turrialba, some 40 miles distant, rained choking particles on its villages. These had to be evacuated. “Poor people and animals.” Things became more serious when the glassy particles in the ash damaged jet engines and frequently closed the airport.

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One morning three weeks ago, I took my dawn swim in a nearby Olympic sized pool. My dive broke the mirror of the surface and the ripples from my strokes painted the blue tiles below with shimmering shapes of light. As I broke the surface, I saw it. In the distance, the mountain, our mountain, was spewing steam far into the air. Driving home I saw people standing in the street taking pictures with their cell phones.

This phase continues. The local media now relegates our eruption to its later stories or middle pages. Only an exploding nocturnal light show of molten rocks briefly raises its profile.

Our drama is slowly developing over the weeks. An understanding of our long-lost brothers and sisters of Pompeii emerges. The process is like the story of how to boil a frog, without it jumping out of the pot. Why anyone invented the frog analogy is unknown. Maybe it was a hungry Frenchman, seeking supper between revolutions?

The process requires persuading a frog to bathe in pan of cold water. The heat is gradually increased, so that the poor amphibian never notices. Maybe that is what happened in Pompeii. Is it happening to us?

Or perhaps we will deliberately remain, to be encased in rock for posterity. Like the dinosaurs, we will be discovered in millions of years, probably by the dominant evolved cockroaches. Or maybe today’s ruling, unevolved cockroaches will break off from their wars of destruction and come to our rescue in the nick of time. Pass the gin!

– – – – –

Chris Clarke is a writer living in Grecia, Costa Rica. Since settling here, 6 of his works of fiction, written under the name of Aaron Aalborg, have been published on Amazon. They are available as e-books and in paperback. They often include scenes set in Costa Rica. ‘Doom Gloom and Despair’ is a book of short stories. Several are set in Central America and are darkly humorous. He is working on book number 7.

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