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  • Many years before the Zapatista Uprising we lived through a volcano exploding near - by and we were buried in ashes:

    Afterwards, many people said they had been awakened by a sound like none they had ever heard before. I did not wake up. But the following morning everyone read in the newspaper: eighty kilometers northwest of us, near Pichucalco, a new volcano had been born! We read that the earth had been shaking and fuming for many months prior to the eruption. Scientists had warned of the possibility of an eruption, but the media had not taken their warnings seriously. Neither had the government nor the local campesinos, (farmers), who lived near the volcano, paid much attention. But now, out of a fuming hole in the earth, an enormous amount of ash had emerged and created a mountain that had buried several villages. The new volcano already had a name, El Chichonal — the Bump!

    El Chichonal continued to spit ash as well as poisonous gasses that had already killed many. Survivors had begun a long march to safer land, carrying with them the few possessions they had been able to rescue.

    My parents were visiting from Germany when the eruption occurred. Since my childhood I had shared a fascination for volcanoes with my father. When I was a child, he had brought home many books with photographs of exploding volcanoes which I loved to look at again and again. Now we were together in a part of the world where volcanoes are not just in books.

    We were all sitting at the breakfast table when my Dad suddenly pointed out the window in front of him and exclaimed, “Look at the sky there! In all my life I have not seen a sky that color!”

    All of us ran to the window to take in for ourselves the yellow-grey sky, much too dark for nine in the morning.

    “Do you think this comes from El Chichonal?” I asked.

    Nobody knew.

    We turned on the TV. Reporters were giving details of a new eruption from the night before at El Chichonal. There was no warning or advice given and we set about the day as usual.

    We dropped the boys off at the kindergarten and proceeded downtown to the local market with my parents. My mother had an appointment at the hairdresser’s. She is a very elegant woman and as long as I can remember for all of my life my mother has gone to the hairdresser’s every Friday morning. Her appointment was at ten o’clock. Ten minutes before ten, we stopped at the market. Getting out of the car, we noticed huge flakes drifting down. They looked like burnt paper but reminded me of snowflakes. The Indian salesladies, too, looked up at the sky from behind their stalls. In the next instant, darkness fell over us as if a tremendous summer storm were near. But it was not summer; it was spring when there are no thunderstorms.

    Somebody shouted. Many vendors had started to run. Then the day turned into pitch-black night! The huge flakes of ash continued to drift down. Now they resembled snow even more. It was snowing ash!

    Chaos reigned. Everyone sought shelter in nearby stores or their cars.

    There is a silence that blankets the landscape when it begins to snow. The same silence accompanied the ash. We sat speechless in the car and watched grey overtake our world.

    My mother finally broke the silence. “I think that perhaps I’ll cancel my hairdresser’s appointment today.”

    My husband awakened from his reverie and started the car. We picked up the boys from kindergarten and drove home. As we covered the distance to our house, we were flabbergasted to see how quickly the ash was covering the streets.

    I remember that I was trembling. Each time I thought back to being thrown into dark of night at ten o’clock in the morning, I felt adrenalin pumping into my chest. There was the terrible stench of sulfur. Would we die here, now?

    We huddled in our house. Our maid listened to her radio. Many Mexicans are skilled at living very simply, but they cannot conceive going through life without their radio. Now, weren’t we glad! Her radio was essential to us all. Finally, the warnings and advice were issued: Do not leave your house, except for an emergency! If you must go outside, protect your nose and mouth with a cloth! Do not panic — this is not the end of the world!

    I truly hoped that all the residents, in even the most remote parts of Chiapas, were listening to their radios and believing what was being said, because it did look like the end of the world outside.

    My parents were just great. They reminisced about emergency times during the war. My Dad occupied the boys who kept trying to get outside to play with this wonderful powder that fell from the sky — but that was exactly what they could not do. It was hard work to keep them in! Meanwhile, my mother baked cakes to sweeten the experience for us.

    After a few hours, daylight made its way back to us. But for weeks following the eruption, during the brightest hours of the day, the sun seemed to be only a dirty tortilla behind veils of ash. Two more subsequent clouds of ash fell upon us. It was impossible to drive. San Cristobal was cut off from the rest of the world. We continued to have difficulty keeping the children in and the ash out. It was so fine that it seeped through closed doors and windows. As soon as we had cleaned it up, it drifted in again. It covered the floor and furniture. It nestled in our clothes. It entered our lungs. The children developed bronchitis. We all coughed. Birds fell dead from trees and shrubs, the ash having clogged their delicate systems. Their innumerable deaths resulted in a plague of insects the following summer.

    The new volcano calmed down eventually, but it took two years until the ash was no longer visible in the garden.

    El Chichonal erupted in 1982, but its ash continues to linger in some of our town’s attics.
    The ash has fertilized Chiapanecan soil, a boon for our campesinos. If you visit El Chichonal today, it seems nothing more than an unimposing mound of ash; its dramatic eruption long forgotten.

    As far as I know that Friday is the only time in my mother’s adult life that she ever missed her hairdresser’s appointment.

    Art by Kiki
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