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Thursday, 24 December 2015

The Kids are Alright

The premise of my PhD research, for what it's worth, is that landscape possesses the capacity to affect those who engage with it, whether by dwelling, passing through, working and so on. As the (apparently ubiquitous) Nigel Thrift notes, affect has no stable defintion. Obviously, this ordinance from upon high hasn't prevented the usual suspects from trying to find one. This we have Massumi (2009): a processual logic of transitions that take place during spatially and temporally distributed encounters in which each transition is accompanied by a variation in the capacity ...'
No, me neither, though for once the Chuckle Brothers themselves, Deleuze and Guattari, manage to make more sense, describing affect as 'a mixture of two bodies, one body which is said to act on another, and the other receives traces of the first'. 
Melvin and Wilson: These kids really were alright
So here we are in Guatemala. One body, your correspondent, clad in hiking boots, spandex trousers and now relieved of much excess weight watching the other a frequently-erupting strato-volcano which is exerting a curious hold over her, from her vantage point on the summit of the adjacent Acatenango. Not so much affect, or even casting a spell. We might say that Volcán de Fuego has cast a hex, got a hold on her; beguiled and entranced and every time it coughs ash and cinders, with a throaty roar, your correspondent shifts itchily on her arse like an excited child. It's December 23rd but Christmas has come already. 
Volcan de Atitlan from slopes of Acatenango

So I'm not even going to attempt to define affect, just say what it does. 
Wednesday 23 December; Antigua, Guatemala
Wake up 02:00. Despite the hour and the darkness the friendly owner of the Hotel Camino de Santiago (no prizes for guessing why I chose it) has made coffee. I'm getting used to ridiculously early starts, for Santiagüito we set out at 12 midnight, a race against the clouds arriving and obscuring the view, which tends to happen around lunchtime. The driver (this is, after all, a private tour and I'll have my own guide - or rather guides) arrives at 03:00 and after an hour's drive to Soledad where the trail begins. here i meet my guides, Melvin and Wilson, aged 12 and 14. After hiking with three guides the right side of 35 I'm a little nonplussed but the kids have pedigree; dad, grandad and uncle are all guides though I can't help noticing the lack of any women in the profession. Melvin and Wilson will escort me 1500m up to the summit of Acatenango then 1500m down again. In between times we shall spend twenty minutes or so watching Volcán de Fuego perform. No offence to Acatenango, which is truly a beautiful mountain, but we've come to see fire, if not play with it. 
It's a long way to the top ...

The first 1000 metres of ascent are relatively straight foward and when the night lifts there are stunning views out towards the volcanoes around Lake Atitlan and over to nearby Volcán Agua, which I climbed back in 1989. But we're not here for those sort of views, are we? We've come to see what is, arguably, the world's most active volcano and we are single-minded - perhaps even marrow-minded - in pursuit of our goal. 
It seems to me that Melvin and Wilson have been thoroughly-briefed and are taking their responsbility - i.e. me - extremely seriously. They don't so much guide as herd, patrol even: always one in front of me behind me. There are times when I feel I'm being frogmarched to an impending doom and at first light I shall be no more. This shouldn't be read as a criticism of my guides, who stuck to their task assidiously; I am used to hiking alone and with my previous guides I was given my space. Melvin and Wilson don't cramp my style but I do feel like the child-adult roles have been reversed.

All the more so about 300m below the summit when your correspondent, aged 50-and-a-half throws her toys out the pram. The path has become a slippery slope of volcanic sand and ash - classic three steps forward, two steps back territory - and I just can't get a grip. I begin to swear and curse, quite loudly and then, when I really am getting nowhere fast, I lash out. Not at Melvin and Wilson, I hasten to add, but at the earth beneath my feet. I kick at it, hard, sending plumes of dust flying out into the wind. Estoy muy enojada  I try to tell the kids: I'm angry. But they just look on, a little bemused and concerned. When they try to show me the technique for climbing on this kind of surface I throw a tantrum and tell them I just can't do it. 
Like a glittering prize ...

Doesn't look like we're going to get to the top - so near and yet so far. Thank the good Lord for Wilson and Melvin who are almost English in their stoicism - talk about role reversal. Suitably chastened I edge onwards and upwards and, as demonstrated by a couple of teenagers, it really isn't that difficult. 
Acatenango summit

The summit of Acatenango is a shallow grater of grey stone and ash but we immediately see our glittering prize; within a couple of minutes, Fuego performs and continues to do so, sometimes for several minutes, continuously. Melvin and Wilson leave me to indulge myself and when they say it's time to go I jump to my feet and do as I'm told. We descend, very quickly, via another route, skidding and sliding over loose rocks. Five hours up, three back down. Apparently I was too slow in ascent and not as quick as I might have been in descent. Cheeky buggers ... here's a little tip, kids; it's a good idea to pander to your clients' egos and, if you really don't know what that flower with the white petals is, just make it up. I do it all the time and it's not as if I'm going to know any different. That's the problem with young people nowadays, too honest.
Volcan de Agua from Acatenango
Back at my hotel, I shower, lie on my bed and burst into tears. Now that, dear reader, is affect.
Fuego struts its stuff

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