Under volcanoes

There’s an active volcano less than 25 kilometres from the house in Santa Domingo on the edge of Managua where we lived for three years (2002-05). It is called Masaya and inside a little national park there are expanses of rocky lava, which can be driven through almost to the crater. It’s possible to walk up to the edge and gaze down into a deep cavern from which a little sulphurous smoke emerges from time to time.

Shortly after we arrived in Managua we discovered that the mayor was concerned about accumulating rubbish. He proposed that the garbage disposal services could dump the city’s waste into the crater as a form of natural incineration. Happily the environmentalists disagreed! It was an uphill struggle to promote “eco-thinking” in Central America.[1]

On vacation in the shadow of Mount Etna on Sicilia, I thought back to our days in Managua, living close to the volcanoes. I also reminisced about our previous trip to Sicily in 1982, shortly before I moved to Denmark. In fact, the momentous decision to seek my fortune in Scandinavia was made during a short stay on one of the volcanic Aeolian Islands off the north coast of Sicily, where Lene and I spent a few days hanging out on beaches admiring the smoky mist of the island called Stromboli – another of Europe’s active volcanoes – in the distance.

Central America is the eastern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, an enormous geological formation characterised by instability. From the Andes to the Rockies, across the Aleutian Islands and southwards through Japan and the Philippines to Indonesia, the continental plates scrape against each other, the molten core of the planet bubbles to the surface, lava explodes from the cracks and there are numerous active volcanoes. There are also many earthquakes and sometimes tsunami, such as the devastating wave that destroyed the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi on Japan’s east coast in 2011.

The east coast of Sicily is dominated by Mount Etna, reaching 3350 metres into the sky. From the windows of the Airbus descending to Catania airport we could observe the cultivated slopes and the barren summit of the mountain. There are some small settlements at around 2500 metres, but throughout recorded history eruptions have led to lava flowing all the way to the Mediterranean, so the locals are very cautious. It is a bit surprising that thousands of people live and work in a series of coastal towns within a stone’s throw (sic) of the volcano.

Similarly, in Central America the volcanoes rise above gardens, forests, fields of pineapples, banana plantations and all manner of settlements: from the urban sprawls of Guatemala City and San Salvador to the historic towns of Leon and Granada, from San José the ugly capital of Costa Rica to Turrialba in the tropical rainforest, there’s a volcano nearby. We admired Mombotombo looming in the distance every morning as we drove the kids to school in Managua. At weekends we enjoyed trips to Las Isletas, rocky islands in the Lago de Nicaragua which are lava deposits blown from an eruption of Mombacho thousands of years ago. During a vacation in Antigua we strolled past colonial houses with their large courtyards under the vast shadow of Fuego (Fire), which regularly erupts pouring ash across the town.

Managua was more or less completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1972. The old city centre was largely abandoned and remains a semi-ghost town of ruins and empty plots, dotted with a few modern buildings that brave or foolish souls have put up in defiance of the seismic risks downtown. We lived far away and rarely ventured into “the zone.”

There was a taste of danger too on our return journey from Sicily in July 2019. When we were picked up for a shuttle service to Catania airport our driver informed us that Mount Etna had been rumbling so severely that air traffic had been disrupted during the morning. Indeed, there were large crowds waiting for a series of delayed departures. Happily it transpired that the quantities of volcanic ash and smoke were limited and after hanging around restlessly we were able to fly northwards some three hours behind schedule.

Beyond the volcanoes are the disruptions of the 21st century. Sicily is on the front line for “irregular migrants” crossing the Mediterranean with dreams of better lives. Similarly, many Central Americans are prepared to take great risks crossing violent Mexico to reach the US border. In both regions, the rich are busy building barriers in attempts to keep the poor away.

Sicily is much poorer than northern Italy and northern Europe. Unemployment rates are high. The Cosa Nostra apparently wields less influence than in the past, though drug trafficking is a serious problem. On a day trip to Catania we walked from the station to the city centre through a semi-wasteland of dilapidated buildings and desperados on street corners. A massive clean up effort is required to improve the urban environment, but people seem to prefer the individual pleasures of private consumption to improved public services.

Emigration has been a constant in the Sicilian world. Millions left in search of “el dorado” in the Americas in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. With roots in rural poverty Don Corleone is portrayed as a typical Sicilian in The Godfather. In the 21st Century lack of employment opportunities and widespread violence have encouraged an exodus from Central America too.

People living under the volcanoes seem to be strong believers in the power of god as well as nature.[2] In both Central America and Sicily the Catholic Church plays an important role. For example the born-again Christian President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega – an ex-revolutionary who has transitioned into a repressive thug – has introduced the world’s strictest anti-abortion legislation.

Widespread religious fervour was also easy to observe around the many churches in the town of Acireale on Sicily where we stayed during our vacation. It seemed as if every time we passed a church there was a wedding or another Catholic ritual underway inside. One evening some priests harangued a crowd gathered on the street outside a church near our hotel, before a spectacular firework show. Explosions in the sky seemed a slightly odd way to celebrate, only a few kilometres from Mount Etna…

IMG_3654A view of Mount Etna, smoking a little

[1] During our three years in Managua I worked on the design of a programme to fund conservation and environmental management in the region: Premaca (Programa de medio ambiente en Centroamérica).

[2] It is worth noting that volcanic eruptions on a large scale have caused periods of global cooling in the past, a “mini-ice age”, etc. The aerosol gasses from eruptions filter solar radiation and reduce surface temperatures. As efforts intensify to mitigate climate change, some geo-engineering freaks suggest controlled release of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere as a means of reversing global warming… but there are many unknown risks in playing like god with nature.

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