I wouldn’t have believed it if someone told me I would someday be the kind of person that would have no fear of a smoking, red-glowing, recently-erupting volcano. And yet, here we are. “Ooh, look. The volcano is really bright red tonight. How pretty….Okay, night night. Sleep tight!”
Our brief time in Pucón, Chile living at the base of the Villarrica volcano has underscored a fundamental truth we’ve taken from this journey and one that will shape our future lives probably more than any other lesson we’ve learned along the way. The world really isn’t the scary, dangerous place we sometimes make it out to be. Rather than fear it, we simply need to understand it. Explore it. Experience it. Live it. Learn about it. Once we do that we see even fiery, smoking volcanoes aren’t so bad.
Villarrica, known in the indigenous Mapuche language as Rucapillán, meaning “House of the Spirit”, rises to 9300 feet above sea level and dominates the southern skyline of Pucón. Hovering over this small city of about 20,000 without any tall buildings to block the view, the volcano is easily seen throughout town.
On March 3 while we were enjoying our time in a Fijian paradise, Villarrica erupted for the first time in almost 35 years. The reports we saw on the internet portrayed a dire situation. Reading words like “thousands flee” and “explosion of ash” and “rivers of lava” made me question our decision to come here for the Spanish language program we’d scheduled. However, in talking with the school administration and reading follow-up reports, I realized the news had been a bit overplayed. Lava wasn’t flowing through the streets. No death or destruction had occurred. Only rural areas right at the base of the volcano had been evacuated as a precaution to potential mudslides. No volcano worries! However, when the Calbuco volcano erupted 300 miles to the south of Pucón less than two months later, I started thinking, “Okay, what kind of geologic mess are we walking into here?” We seriously considered cancelling this portion of our trip out of fear southern Chile was entering into some sort of bizarre, volcanic hellstorm.
Then we remembered that lesson we’ve learned over and over again on this journey. The world is not the dangerous place we humans tend to think it is. If hundreds of thousands of people living near the volcanoes of southern Chile were going about their lives as usual, then certainly we could be tourists there for a few weeks.
As it turns out, we’re so incredibly glad we didn’t let some dramatic news reports affect our plans. Pucón and the other towns of southern Chile are all situated safe distances from the volcanoes. Why? Because sometimes volcanoes erupt. Why? Because they alleviate the geologic pressure within the earth’s crust. Why? Because without these periodic eruptions our planet would be in a real mess. Why? Okay, enough! Stop with the questions!
Seriously though, we now have a better understanding of life here in the “Ring of Fire” and this different version of normal. When Villarrica erupted, the Pucón locals all got up and watched it, sharing coffee and sweets with neighbors in the wee hours of the morning. A couple months later when the eruption of the Calbuco volcano sent ash all the way to Pucón, the residents stayed inside for a few days, swept things off a bit and looked forward to the rain that eventually washed it all away. Where I grew up in the Midwest, we had tornado drills. Here it’s just volcano drills.
Life in Pucón is going well for the Carisch crew. We’re learning Spanish during the week and exploring this area of Chile, called the “Lake District”, on the weekend. With it being the rainy season we sometimes forget the volcano is looming above the town since it’s often hiding behind the clouds. However, when the skies clear we can now appreciate the view without fear of this particular unknown.