Volcano Child - A YA Novel in Progress by Candy Gourlay
Two weeks ago, Mouse decided to dig his way to London.

02 September 2008

Life After The End of the World

This is what it’s like at the end of the world:

The sky is blue, deep and rich like an ocean, and yet so bright it hurts to look.

It is silent, the cocks do not crow, the dogs do not bark, the water buffalo do not low. The silence is piercing. It hurts my ears.

It is hot, the sun sits forever at its zenith, turning the blood in my veins into molten rivers.
And at the end of the world, there is nothing.
Excerpt from Volcano Child

These are the new opening passages to Volcano Child, imagining what it is like in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption.

My novel is based on the eruption of Mount Pinatubo after my younger sister took me on a trip up the mountain in 2005, 14 years after its eruption (the second biggest in the 20th century) which destroyed huge swathes of countryside.

Ashfall covers the landscape like snow.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons


The eruption taught us Filipinos a new word - Lahar - water and volcanic debris combining to create a cement-like torrent that swept the countryside. In some places waves up to six metres high were reported.

View of village buried flows of lahar. Photo: US Geological Survey

By the time we visited in 2005, many of the towns and villages had been rebuilt, there were acres and acres of bright green paddy fields, and people had somehow rebuilt their lives.

Bright green paddy fields have been planted over the devastation.

A village shop. People got on with rebuilding their lives.

Just in case, concrete barriers were built to control lahars which
occasionally still flow down from the mountain.


Life simply carried on ... even with the shadow of another volcano - the massive Mount Arayat - glowering on the horizon.
The next volcano along: Mount Arayat

We visited San Guillermo Parish Church (originally built in 1576 by Augustinian friars) - or what was left of it after lahar buried the church to half its 12 metre height in a flash lahar flood (if you can call a lahar a flash flood).

San Guillermo Church lost six metres
of its bottom


Services are now held where
the rafters used to be
.


It is only when you go inside that you realise how much of the church was lost. The new floor occupies the space where the rafters used to be. Windows are the tops of the old arches.

Ghostly survivor of the calamity

A walk in the church grounds and there are more chilling reminders of the deadly lahar flood.

Rooftops are all that's left of mausoleums
and church buildings after the lahar


What's left of someone's house opposite the church.

Broken statuary in the church yard.

The only vehicle that could cope with the rough mountain road was this massive juggernaut kindly lent to us by the mayor of Porac Town at the foot of Pinatubo.

From the top, one can see the gullies carved by the lahars flowing down the mountain.


The mountainside was smoking with small fires used by people to "clean" the land before planting it. Slash and burn farming like this is responsible for some of the terrible floods and landslides experienced in this part of the world

we stopped at a village on the way up the mountain. Most of the villagers were tribal people called Aetas. The number of Aetas who died are hard to count because they prefer to live deep in the jungles on the mountain. I asked one old man what the eruption was like. He said: "The sky was red and the children looked like little white statues in the ash."

A small community that has appeared since the area was evacuated

Aeta children crowded round us when we stopped at the village

Our massive truck couldn't make it all the way up the mountain because of a landslide the night before so we switched to a small pick-up truck and followed some really scary windy unpaved trails down to the 'riverbed' carved by the lahar.

The lahar 'riverbed' is flanked by five to six metre walls of compacted debris from the volcano, now overgrown by vegetation. It is like a moonscape, fragile and crumbling.

It was quite an adventure for the teenagers who came along:
my son, Nick, and his cousins, Misha and Coco (not in picture)


A thin stream rushed throught they strange riverbed made of volcano debris

Close up of Lahar and other volcanic debris on the riverbed

Hot springs have sprung up where there were none, and the original river's flow has diverted elsewhere. It was an amazing trip, but I felt somehow a bit reckless, because driving on that river bed (our guides often had to climb out with shovels and dig us through) on the fragile moonscape, we were lucky not to get caught in a landslide!

We visited the Philippines two years later and I was amazed to see this poster (right) in the airport, advertising the lahar riverbed and the crater of Pinatubo as a tourist attraction!

Photographs unless otherwise indicated by Candy Gourlay (Please let me know if you want to use them!)

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03 December 2006

Calamity is about People

"They fled a toxic cocktail of volcanic gas and ashes and then suffered an avalanche of volcanic debris that has buried most of their homes," he said in an official sounding voice. "Now they shelter where they can —"

He pointed the camera directly at Mouse.

Mouse puckered his lips and made a rude noise, "Pfffttbbbfff."

Excerpt from Volcano Child

When you watch television news videos of calamities in the Far East, do you see sad, hopeless, faces with nothing much to say and nowhere to go?

When I see videos like that, I see my own brown face multiplied a hundredfold.

It happened again the other day.

Around Mayon Volcano, the scenery turned from this:

Mayon Volcano before Typhoon Reming

To this:

The aftermath of super typhoon Reming.


A super typhoon slammed into the Philippines and Mayon Volcano unleashed a torrent of mud and boulders, burying towns and killing (by the most recent count) almost 1,000 people. And there, on the BBC news, were the sad fathers and the sobbing mothers and the homeless orphans.

Living with mud.

This is one of the reasons I wrote Volcano Child. I wanted to show that calamity happened to real people.

Like me.

Like you.

The Philippine Red Cross is on the scene now and I am sure donations will be welcomed. This can be done via a bank transfer (see the bank details on their website). From the UK, funds can be transferred more cheaply via a Filipino remittance firm. The one I use is London Manila Express

Photographs © Tommy Bombon, English Al-Jazeera and Red Cross Philippines

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04 September 2006

In the Shadow of Danger: Living With Volcanoes

A boy marches to school on the paddy fields below Mayon Volcano. Photograph by Tommy Bonbom

When Father was a small boy, the volcano spat out some yellow clouds of smoke and all of Santa Rosa had to move miles away to another town. For weeks, they lived in tents and church halls, the farmers frantic to return and stop their fields going to seed and the mothers despairing as water supplies dwindled and their children ran wild. After a few tiny puffs, the volcano returned to its slumber and the people of Santa Rosa returned to their homes, angry and annoyed.

Old Maria had made fools of them.

So now, when the monsoon blew too hard and wet and the paddy fields vanished under flood waters, they blamed Old Maria. When the sun burned too hot and the rice browned on their stalks, the farmers all sighed,
ay, Maria. When the skies refused to let go of the rain and the paddy mud dried into a barren crust, it was the volcano’s fault.

Excerpt from Volcano Child


Who would live next to a volcano?

Surprisingly, quite a lot of people. And for some, the volcano is part of the atttraction. Check out this housing development a stone’s throw from Taal Volcano, south of Manila, promising "a life of luxury and serenity" (Taal is a live volcano that sits in the crater lake of a larger, said to be extinct, volcano).

For others however, it’s not a matter of choice and the volcano is like an irritating old maid aunt whose occasional outbursts can result in exasperation and inconvenience.

Photograph by Robert GardnerThe image at the top of this post is by Tommy Bonbom, a photographer from California, who chanced on an eruption while visiting his late father’s hometown in Bicol. Tommy also posts cool video clips of Mayon’s recent rumblings. Robert Gardner took the photograph of children in a rice field on the left. View more images of Mayon by Robert Gardner.

But before I tell you any more stories about eruptions and volcanoes, I’ve got to tell you this story: The Legend of Old Maria.

Photographs © Tommy Bombon and Robert Gardner.

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25 August 2006

Waiting for Calamity

Father once told me that animals knew when calamity was imminent. Dogs barked, roosters crowed, water buffalo abandoned their mud holes.

I glanced at Bowow, who lay flat on his back at the foot of Mouse’s mat, snoring, mouth open, paws limp in sleep. Ridiculous dog. No sign of calamity there.

Excerpt from Volcano Child

Albert Garcia's image of an eruptionAlbert Garcia emailed to wish me well with the website. He's the photojournalist who snapped the van escaping the pyroclastic flow. He apologised for the un-updated state of his website – "I've been away for a month photographing Mayon," he wrote in Tagalog,"just hoping I'd strike it lucky again!"

Oooh, Albert, be careful, man. Looking at that amazing pic of the van fleeing the eruption cloud, what you don't realise is that Albert was in the vehicle in front, hanging out of the back door, breathing sulfur and composing his shot, instead of whatever it is you're supposed to do when death is staring you in the face.

The volcano they were running away from is Mount Pinatubo. I based the eruption in my story on Pinatubo. But Pinatubo was not much to look at - in fact, now that it's erupted, Pinatubo is more a lake than a mountain. View slideshow

So I had to look elsewhere for a nicer looking volcano to describe and I chose Mayon. That's Pinatubo on the left (not quite sure which lump is the actual volcano). And that's postcard-perfect Mayon on the right in Per-Andre Hoffman's postcard perfect photo.

Pinatubo did not look like a volcano But Mayon was a postcard-perfect volcano. Photo by Andre-Per Hoffman


To tell you the truth, I had no idea Pinatubo was a volcano until it blew its top. Literally. It was a catastrophic eruption, one of the largest and most violent in the 20th century! The sort of thing you would see on those Extreme Volcano shows on cable TV. But more about Pinatubo later.

Strange coincidence that Mayon Volcano decided to wake up just as I was finishing my book.

Mayon is a busy volcano, erupting once every ten years which is plenty often – especially if you live on its slopes as up to 50,000 people do. It's not a Krakatoa but it makes up for it in its persistence. Here is a video of it huffing and puffing last July from MysteriousGreenEyes over at YouTube:

Beautiful but scary. You can also check out the news videos on the BBC. It didn't in fact erupt, but stones the size of cars flew out of the cone. Residents are this minute making their way home again fed up with living in uncomfortable evacuation centres, oh dear.

Living next to a volcano must be like having an unexploded timebomb in the next door bedroom.

Like living with a teenager really.

Joke only, as we say in the Philippines.

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