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Volcano views in Antigua Guatemala
We had some amazing views of Volcán de Fuego from our hotel rooftop in Antigua Guatemala. That was part of why our trip leader picked this hotel; the rooftop offered phenomenal views of the city, churches, and volcanoes.
Lightning filled the sky over the active volcano on the first night. The second night, the sky was clear and we were treated to bright explosions and lava flows from the caldera. Although the composition lacked strong elements, it still made for a neat photo and experience.
We spent the next week in Lake Atitlán working with our NGO partner – which I will write about soon – and returned to Antigua.
2018 volcano disaster
Our return route took us past the pueblo of Finca San Miguel Los Lotes, which on June 3rd, 2018 was decimated by an eruption of Volcán de Fuego. I had a morbid curiosity to see the ruins and climbed up the lava flow from the road to see what remained.
It kind of made me sick, knowing that a couple hundred people had died when the town was destroyed just one year ago. I took a few pictures and walked around as a dog barked nearby, assuming the place was deserted. But then I saw chickens in a coop among the rubble, and I don’t think they put themselves there.
Someone was here. I stopped taking photos. A few minutes later a middle-aged woman with a weathered face and wearing a tattered apron appeared from a corrugated tin shelter.
She started speaking in Spanish, and although I only understood probably 75% of what she was saying, I was near tears after a few minutes.
More than a firsthand account
This lovely woman was out of town the morning the eruption happened but returned shortly after. The ground was hot and ash and toxic fumes filled the air. The debris flow went right through where her family was beginning their morning, with no time to get out.
A total of 50 family members died that day; 38 were recovered and 12 remain buried under the rubble, including her mother and sister, below our feet.
The government offered to relocate the survivors and provide disaster relief, but she didn’t want to go anywhere with so much family still missing. So she and her surviving family built a shelter on top of the debris field and stayed, slowly digging day by day, collecting rainwater and tending to a makeshift memorial.
Because they chose to stay, they are no longer eligible for any disaster relief.
The government will come in a few weeks to begin clearing the rubble in search of the missing, but the town will not be reconstructed. She’s been searching for over a year, herself and less than a dozen other relatives.
Sometimes you can say more without a photo
I wanted so badly to ask her for a photo, to help give some perspective to what happened, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
If I had been able to spend even just a few hours with them, learning their story and documenting their life today, I would have no problem with it and am confident they wouldn’t either.
But we only had a few minutes. Asking her for a photo would have felt like I was just collecting a souvenir of her hardship. At least that’s how I felt in the moment. We just listened instead.
As we were leaving, everyone’s eyes red from emotion, we thanked her for sharing her story. She in turn genuinely thanked us for listening.
She told us that she feels forgotten out there. No one ever stops by, no one talks to her, no one checks in, and no one knows her story. All she wanted was an attentive ear, and we were thankful for the opportunity to oblige.
We returned to the hotel and watched the volcano magnificently erupt again that night. But it wasn’t the same for anyone, knowing she was under it all, refusing to abandon her family.
I was here in Guatemala to teach indigenous Mayan children all about visual storytelling, and how important environmental portraits were to telling that story. But there are times when it’s better to leave the lens cap on.
Would you have asked for the photo?