“Now for a good twelve-hour sleep, I told myself. Twelve solid hours. Let birds sing, let people go to work. Somewhere out there, a volcano might blow, Israeli commandos might decimate a Palestinian village. I couldn’t stop it. I was going to sleep.”
― Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Boca Diablo (part 1)
Dwayne was the only young “vacationary” that could sleep in a hammock. He tied it up between two rough wooden support poles on the vast front porch of the mission where he enjoyed the slightly-cooler night breezes while the rest slept in standard bunkbeds inside. The others thought he was nuts.
“You’re only a few feet from the dirt street,” Suzanna said, “Plus all the bugs and crap flying around.”
“I’d rather deal with that than all those snoring kids inside… and that’s after they quit horsing around and go to sleep.”
Suzanna was from his church back home and he knew his mother had asked her to look out for him. He didn’t appreciate that at all – but supposed that it wasn’t her fault.
Though he was comfortable in the hammock, he couldn’t sleep tonight. He rocked gently side to side, thinking about all the work he had done, the weekend carwashes, the letter writing, essentially all the begging, to earn enough money for this trip to Santa Pagua. Up until that evening, it had been a waste – more of a teenager week at camp than the serious expedition into a foreign land that he had hoped for. Most of the male kids spent their days out in front of the mission scrabbling at the rocky entrance road with no real effect. The girls repackaged vitamins from giant bulk containers into little ziplock bags – counting pills to distribute somewhere unknown.
“Be sure and throw away the moisture packet,” the leader would shout out, again and again, “We don’t want anyone eating those.”
“What a waste of time and money all that was,” Dwayne mumbled to himself. The disappointment and bitterness had melted away though, replaced that afternoon by the excitement that was keeping him awake.
He had come in from digging at a particularly stubborn rock with a pointed iron bar, dripping with sweat, and was getting a Coke from the refrigerator when he noticed a man speaking to the Reverend Martin. The man was obviously a local, dressed in the straw hat, loose collared shirt, and light cotton pants adapted to the tropical climate – but his English was impeccable. He had been making a impassioned point, waving his hands in the way typical to Santa Pagua, to the Reverend – who simply stood there, passive, and looking around. Finally the Reverend replied.
“Of course, Mr. Chaix, we understand your needs and appreciate your objective, but you must know that we are here doing God’s work, and his work is never finished.”
Dwayne was instantly interested and boldly walked up to the pair.
“What does he need Reverend Martin?”
“Oh, Dwayne,” the Reverend began, condescension dripping in his voice, “This is Roberto Chaix, a local geologist. He is looking for some free labor in helping place some seismographic equipment around an active volcano.”
Dwayne felt his eyes grow wide. An active volcano! This is the sort of thing he had been hoping for.
“What volcano?” he asked Chaix directly, ignoring the Reverend.
“Well, you look strong enough to be of help to me,” Chaix replied. “It’s called Boca Diablo. It’s a low cluster of collapsed structures about fifteen clicks south of here. You can see the smoke rising on a clear day.”
Dwayne had noticed that column of rising smoke. He had read about Boca Diablo in his research before the trip. It was one of the most active volcanic vents on the planet, alternately spewing lava and collapsing back into itself since recorded history. The early Spanish explorers had called it Boca Diablo, thinking it had to be a portal into hell itself.
“Oh, please, Reverend Martin, please let me go.”
It took some time to get Reverend Martin to relent and agree to loan him to Chaix for a few days. After the Reverend had acquiesced Chaix simply said, “Be ready at six thirty tomorrow morning, out in front of the mission.”
Dwayne wasn’t sure if he had slept at all when the sun began to splash purple and gray phosphorescent figures along the horizon. He slipped out of his hammock, untied the knots, and rolled it up into a tight packet, hiding it behind a planter. Since he knew he was up before anyone else, he slipped off his clothes and dipped himself in the barrel of water that caught the runoff from the mission roof. The other kids would take conventional showers but he had come to enjoy the natural softness of the aqua pura.
He quickly dressed and moved out into the street away from the mission to wait. He didn’t want the Reverend to come out and change his mind about letting him go.
Chaix showed up exactly on time, driving a heavily dented British Land Rover. Following behind was an ancient junky looking pickup truck piled with gear. Dwayne sat in the ‘Rover beside Chaix and the two trucks set off for Boca Diablo.
It was a day of hard work. The first order of business was to get the vehicles across the lava field that stretched between the volcano and the highway. Some semblance of a road had been dozed through the jumble of rugged jet-black slag, but it was not passable. The razor-sharp glassy rock broke and shifted and they had to constantly wrestle the vehicles through tight or loose spots. Dwayne understood why Chaix had come to the mission for help, the two workers from the pickup were strong, but lazy, and would take no initiative themselves, simply standing around until someone told them exactly where to stand and what to do.
The obsidian lava caught all of the heat of the rapidly rising sun and soon the heat became unbearable. The workers in the pickup were sneaking beers from a cooler hidden under their dash and quickly became even more useless. Finally, a little before noon, they reached the volcano itself.
Dwayne had always imagined a volcano as a symmetrical cone of a mountain, something like Mount Fuji in Japan, rising up above all the land around. Boca Diablo, however, wasn’t like that at all.
Chaix explained that most volcanoes went through cycles of eruption and collapse and at Boca Diablo – the collapse won out.
“It’s a down volcano,” he explained. “The actual vent is a long way below the level of the surface.”
There was an oval ridge that surrounded the complex that was a lot smoother than the lava field and the vehicles climbed the last mile easily. Then they parked and walked up to the edge.
The sight was so unexpectedly stunning that Dwight felt dizzy for a second. He was staring into a vast, deep void, a huge cylinder cut out of the very crust of the earth – possibly a half-kilometer wide and just as deep. The bottom was smooth – a jet black sea of recently solidified molten rock. In the center, a smaller crater dropped down even farther, and a constant column of white smoke rose from the vent high into the sky above them. This pillar of smoke would move around in the wind. When it approached the side they stood on it would stagger them with a horrific rotten-egg, sulfurous odor.
“Sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, mixed with sulfuric acid and steam” Chaix said. “We have to be very careful, that stuff can be deadly. We must stay out of the smoke at all costs.”
As he explained the dangers, a low rumbling sound came up from the vent. They felt it in their feet as much as heard it in their ears. Chaix glanced down at his watch.
“Oh, here it comes. Every seven minutes, like clockwork.”
As they looked down into the vast crater, a sound like a jet engine began to whine out of the vent. Then, without warning, a swarm of bright orange specks began to shoot out of the smoke, arcing across the space in the crater, then splattering against the rock floor.
“Lava, shooting out from a pool down in the vent,” Chaix said. “For years it’s been doing that, surprisingly steady. Sometimes it shoots more, sometimes less – but every seven minutes.”
Then they all started in to work. After some instruction from Chaix, Dwayne was able to understand how the seismographs worked – how to set them in place, how to arrange the solar panel that provided power, how to turn on the radio transmitter. Dwayne took one of the workers and Chaix the other. That way they could each carry two instruments, and then walk off around the crater, placing them. The idea was to put sixteen seismographs spaced more or less evenly around the crater. They would run for a few months; then be picked up.