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Sitting on top of a volcano

Monday, April 19th, 2010
Photo: Gudmundur Pall Olafsson

Volcanic eruption in Eyjafjallajokull glacier, Iceland. PHOTO: GUDMUNDUR PALL OLAFSSON

I found myself in Jakarta last week as news started coming in of the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull Volcano in Iceland.

Having covered the fury of the eruption of Mt Pinatubo and its aftermath in the Philippines in 1991, there was a feeling of deja vu as the news channels displayed pyroclastic flows and ash clouds soaring into the stratosphere. Sure enough, airports throughout Europe shut down one by one. Trans-Atlantic flights were cancelled. Until press time, no one seemed to know how long it would last.

Pinatubo went on for two weeks. I remember day turning into night and the sight of the snow-like white ash on the streets of Manila. This wasn’t soft powder. The wiper in my car made a screeching noise as tiny glass particles scratched the windshield. For weeks, our apartment rocked gently as the eruption set off tremors, and we stopped even noticing the quakes. Airports were closed, highways blocked, and the eruption hastened the departure of the American military from the Philippines after the destruction of military bases at Angeles and Subic Bay. Decades later, lahar floods were still changing the geography of central Luzon.

Yet, Pinatubo was a tiny firework display compared to the eruptions of Tambora in 1815, the famous Krakatoa volcano in 1883 and the super-eruption of Toba 70,000 years ago. All three volcanoes are in Indonesia, and were cataclysms with long-term global impact. The Toba mega-volcano was so violent the planet was shrouded in a dust cloud and the sun didn’t shine for ten years setting off a mini-Ice Age. Deposits of ash up to 6 metres deep can still be detected in the Malaya peninsula. Much life on the planet became extinct and emerging humans were nearly wiped out. Those complaining about Eyjafjallajokull should be glad it isn’t a Toba.

In 1815, it was the turn of Mt Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. Ash fell throughout Southeast Asia killing nearly 80,000 people. With the sun blocked off, 1816 was known as the “year without summer” all over the world. There was a famine and starvation spread across Asia and Europe. A Tambora today is unthinkable, but it could happen any day.

krakatoa-simon winchesterThose whose interest in volcanoes has been piqued by this week’s eruption in Iceland should get hold of Simon Winchester’s fascinating book, Krakatoa, The Day the World Exploded. The explosive eruption of Krakatoa 127 years ago wiped out a mountain and an entire chunk of an island in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java. The explosion was heard 4,000 km away in Madras, “the loudest sound ever heard by human ears”. A tsunami 80-100m high killed 40,000 people and obliterated entire towns. Today it would kill at least 4 million. Winchester says this was the first “global event” because it coincided with the development of the telegraph and the laying of the first under sea cable linking Asia with Europe. Sketchy news of the eruption reached Europe nearly as it happened. The apocalyptic disaster turned some Indonesian Muslims into fundamentalists, and gave birth to Asia’s first anti-colonial independence movement.

Winchester’s most chilling prediction is that the pressure will build up again in the magma chamber below Krakatoa, and there will be another eruption. It may be tomorrow, or it may be 100 years from now. If it is not Krakatoa, it will be one of the hundreds of active super volcanoes in Indonesia, Alaska or even the caldera in the Yellowstone National Park.

Our wars, the petty geopolitics, the competition for natural resources, globalisation and even climate change will pale in comparison to the planetary cataclysm that will befall us one day soon. This was the thought racing through my mind as our plane took off from Jakarta last Tuesday and we looked down at the inky blue Sunda Strait merging with an azure sky and, far off in the distance between the green expanses of Sumatra and Java, the tiny island known as Anak Krakatoa (the son of Krakatoa). Everything looked idyllic but from this point on the morning of 27 August 1883, it must have looked like the end of the world.

Photo: Gudmundur Pall Olafsson

The ash is extremely fine and therefore ittravels far and wide. The black cloud on the right is the ash that just sits in the air. PHOTO: GUDMUNDUR PALL OLAFSSON

Photo" Gudmundur Pall Olafsson

See also:
Gudmundur Pall Olafsson’s photographs of the Annapurna

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11 Responses to “Sitting on top of a volcano”

  1. Jeffrey on Says:

    Amazing photographs., both these and the previous one from the Annapurnas in last week’s Nepali Times:
    How true, all our global crises will pale when there is another toba-type megavolcano and a ten year volcanic winter. It will make Eyjafjallajokull look like a picnic.

  2. sunita tiwari on Says:

    This comment has been removed by the moderator.

  3. East West | Travel Blog by Kunda Dixit | Nepali Times … | Nepali Search on Says:

    […] the article here: East West | Travel Blog by Kunda Dixit | Nepali Times … Tags: climate-change, cultural-issues, dixit, kunda-dixit, times-features, topic-on-traveling […]

  4. Geolog, Munich on Says:

    Simply fabulus fotos, Gudmundur, the best I have see so far of the Iceland vulcanic activity! And another nice blog by Dixit.

  5. sky.quake on Says:

    great shot….. looks like dragonfly clouds….. globe’s on, mass.tiff breathing…. Sha.head ball on saw.head gate, bomb.gali on Kong.gali….. natural.bee.have.your …… of hope.bahadur, bait chait….. on much much peacefull than

  6. Saurav Shrestha on Says:

    “Our wars, the petty geopolitics, the competition for natural resources, globalisation and even climate change will pale in comparison to the planetary cataclysm that will befall us one day soon.”

    Well said, sir!

  7. badri rai on Says:

    Dear Mr. Dixit,
    Firstly, apologies for ‘misusing’ your space. But, then, being currently outside the Kathmandu Valley, this was the only option I had. The regular Nepali Times ‘channel’ would have been an option. But ever since a letter of mine went unnoticed more than a month ago, I am not too sure.
    I have an article which is a reaction of sort (but much more, I’d like to think) to Rabi Thapa’s Miss ‘Mangol’. In fact, I intended it initially as a ‘letter’ but changed my mind. I hope it is good enough to find space in your paper. I am also sending you the aforementioned letter which was my reaction to Vijay Lama’s article(s). I am curious to know if it was just too bad or politically incorrect to be ignored.
    By the way, just a couple of days ago, I was browsing Google Earth when I came across a caption which pointed at a helicopter wreckage above the Lukchi Valley, southwest of the Popti Pass. Might it be that of the as-yet-untraced helicopter (if I’m not wrong) which went missing in the Makalu area a couple of years back? The coordinates of the site on Google Earth are roughly 27*47’33.20”N 87*17’19.98”E; elev. 12960ft. or about. I’d like to think that Google Earth has no place for hoaxes.

    Now, here goes the article.

    The ‘Mangols’ Are Coming? – Let Them!

    Firstly, let me say that I’m completely at one with Rabi Thapa in his first two paragraphs. But what gets my pig (to paraphrase his expression) is the remainder of his article. This is one of the most bigoted articles I’ve come across in recent times. What is worse is that though he tries to play safe by declaring his impartiality, his prejudice and sneer are all too palpable.
    Let me paraphrase one of Mr. Thapa’s lines. Why does the term (i wouldn’t call it idiotic) ‘Aryan’ claim roots thousands of kilometers away, on the other side of the Black Sea (if I’ve got my facts correct)? It is exactly because it has been established that the Aryans originated somewhere around there. Just as it has been established that the Mongoloids (Mangol? It appears deliberately mocking) originated in the region between Siberia and Northern Asia, on the other side of the Great Walls of China. It should make Mr. Thapa justifiably proud that if not everyone, then at least Bahuns and Chhetris can claim an identity different from that of the ‘Mangols’. As for the Maoist hypocrisy regarding Mr. Thapa’s condescending ‘a-dime-a-dozen-Miss- fill-in-the-ethnic-blank-unless-you-are-Bahun-or-Chhetri’pageants, all he has to do is ask the exasperatingly-exclusive-Bahun- leadership – of -yes-even-the-proletariats why they need to do so. Sadly, the Chepang and the Chamar (to name just a few) have yet to render themselves visible on the socio-political radar to have the luxury of making farciful and chauvinistic attempts at self-assertion through something like a ‘Miss Mangol’. And I’m not being sarcastic here.
    I don’t know what the requisites of Miss ‘Mangol’ are. Nor do I care. Of course, it may be absurd. In fact, if what rabi thapa says is true, I say it is absolutely absurd. But aren’t all beauty pageants by extension so.
    Now, let me tie myself in loops using Mr. Thapa’s logic and argument. Why debar males from Miss Nepal? Why can’t I take part in a Chhetri Dewaali? Why should all those slaughtered goats, fowl etc. that are spared the Dewaali festivity( so to speak) need to be buried instead of giving it to fellow Nepalis(and not a few) who seriously need to supplant their meager diet with some direly-needed protein? Why should yours truly, a Rai and a male at that, be debarred from a Newar Guphaa ceremony? Why should we be barefoot while entering temples filthier than one’s well-beaten trekking boots? Why should only Hindus be allowed inside Pashupatinath? Why is it that we have no qualms about wearing clothes sewn by the Damai but need to cleanse ourselves of their touch? Why do I need a high school certificate to attend graduation courses? Why can’t I play alongside Xavi, Messi &Co. in the Nou Camp? I long to jam with Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Why can’t I be a part of the National Planning Commission? The Americans should be serious about making me a part of their lunar mission in search of the ‘man on the moon’. Just because the ‘Mangol’oids are less hairy (in general) than their Aryan brethren, should it mean that the former are higher up the evolutionary order? Why isn’t Borat Sagdilyev behind bars? Why shouldn’t(or didn’t) The Vatican object to Samuel ‘Jules’ Jackson’s profane Ezekiel in Pulp Fiction? I could go on and on, courtesy Rabi Thapa.
    Of course, I may be retorted that you are being too wishful here. That you are not good or qualified enough. That some of your questions are stupid enough to make The Three Stooges look positively enlightened. And I’m (im) modest enough to more than accept these truisms. One could argue that what one requires for Miss Mongol (or any other such farces) is superficial to the ‘real’ criteria that presumably apply for football, music, culture, religion, astronomy or other such ‘meaningful’ stuff. But then, isn’t it true that what one terms as superficial and by contrast, real is nothing more than arbitrary and relative? And in a way, subjective. Even then, aren’t these entire criterion (and questions) variant only in degrees – of rationality? Besides, don’t absurdities have their own logic (however we may disagree)? – so to speak.
    Just because I won’t be accommodated in certain tamaashaas – both farciful and presumably ‘serious’ – doesn’t mean that it gives me the freedom to be overanalytical and see something sinister and conspirational about them. Or find the excuses that such ‘easy’ targets provide to vent my prejudice and spleen. They are just categories with their own criterion-however absurd they may be or may seem – and that’s that. Nothing more, nothing less.
    There indeed is something called overinterpretation. Just because one has an aptitude at playing with words doesn’t mean that it provides us with a license to overplay it. If we analyse stupidities as microscopically as Rabi Thapa does, we are bound to end up finding nothing else than absurdities. It is as ultimately as futile an exercise as attempting to skin the hair. Let me have the temerity of translating Indra Bahadur Rai through his Bhudev, that fiery orator from Aaja Ramitaa Chha – “taile aafnai baabulaai pani raamrari ekohoro laayera herirahis bhane ekchhinmaa arkai kohi manchhe jasto lagchha, tyati bela baabu chhaina bhannoo (Even your own old man will seem like an alien if you look at him too closely – through his nose .Do you then say that he is not your daddy dearest?)”
    Just because Miss ‘Mangol’ debars Chhetri-Bahuns (I don’t know) doesn’t mean that one has to be bitter about it. Even if it does, so what? In fact, I say, why be bitter about being denied entry into absurdities? Isn’t it healthier to have a good laugh about the ‘Mangol’ ‘s misplaced assertion of their identity or treat them as bad jokes, as they should be? I’m not good enough to find succinct replacements in the Bard’s language for our Nepali expression ‘saano chit-ta’. In fact, if one has to be bitter, let’s be bitter over more meaningful stuff. Like how more than 90% of Nepal’s bureaucracy is dominated by communities making up no more than 25% of the population. Please, no excuses about ethnic communities being slothful, more attracted towards being ‘lahurey’ and to the easy life, whatever that may imply. While there are some random truths behind generalization of communities (even societies), socio-history is an aspect which needs more serious excavation in this regard. Like who sent the so-called martial communities to the killing fields in the first place? Ask Pashupati Rana why the Tamangs were debarred from enlisting in the imperial army? In fact, the Tamangs around the Kathmandu Valley turn that simplistic development axiom – that you need to be near power centres to prosper -around its head. Contrast the valley Tamangs with those in and from Darjeeling. I don’t need to even talk about the Dalits, those wretched of the earth. Besides, one should take care to remember that generalization (especially of the negative variety) is a two-way traffic. Remember, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander!
    As for Mr .Thapa’s concern (?) about the negativity pervading the ethnic movement in Nepal, it is sadly an almost natural trajectory that is followed by such socio-cultural movements. Unless, of course, the leaders are in the mould of a Jefferson, Periyar or a Sub-Commandante Marcos. Unluckily, they are exceptions (to the extreme) rather than the rule. Unfortunately, it takes jingoism and shrillness – initially- to make such movements visible and legitimate to their communities – largely illiterate, emotional and nursing grievances (real or imagined) – and by extension, the larger public. Only then are they accepted by their audience and able to gain the necessary confidence and legitimacy to tone down the rhetoric and articulate their ‘real’ issues. It is then that sane voices prevail. Mr. Thapa should understand that Nepal’s ethnic movement is yet to step completely into this second phase. Till such time, fear-mongering, especially by and from the powers-that-be, is a luxury we the nation can’t afford. And what’s more, Harka Gurung is not with us. Of course, it is more than debatable if the larger ethnic movement in Nepal is regressive and jingoistic.

    By the way, I read this week that a cricket tournament is being held in Tundikhel, exclusively only for Maarwaaris. I’m sure it too has got Rabi Thapa’s goat. Mr. Thapa, euta koora sodhna mun lagyo? Have you ever been to a Kirati Saakelaa in Tundikhel (or anywhere else)? Let me say that it is open to everybody. And I mean Everybody. I’m willing to bet my pig you have not. Should this mean that you are biased against ethnic communities? Of course, not. Lastly, a confession. I have never ever been to a Saakelaa myself. Does this imply that I’m embarrassed to identify myself as a Rai, from the Thulung tribe and the Tongdochyo clan? That I’ve betrayed my community? Let me declare that there is no prouder Rai and a Nepali than yours truly.

    Now, the letter.

    The more I meet Vijay Lama in Nepali Times, the more irritating he
    gets. Even with his feet on the ground, he seems unable to let go off
    his bird’s-eye view of Nepali society. Not the clarity and precision
    that it normally denotes but the jaundiced one of missing or worse,
    ignoring the all too numerous, obvious and visible troughs and ridges
    that dot Nepali society. His pilot training seems to have condemned
    him to see everything on the same plane (pun unintended). His attempt
    at masking his shallowness with an overtly romantic notion of Nepali
    society is pathetic. What’s worse is his brown sahib statement about
    the rural Nepali’s mindset. His romantic harking back to Nepal’s past
    would have been harmless and indulgent at best were it not for the
    extreme pessimism he shows for Nepal’s present and by extension,
    future. As if to compensate, he makes a futile attempt at masking his
    cynicism with kennedyian rhetoric.
    It is a truism that Nepali society has been relatively tolerant and
    accommodating. But, it can be said to be a feature of almost every
    hill society. But, this fact doesn’t and shouldn’t mask the
    discrimination, injustice and inequity that have plagued Nepali
    society. Mr. Lama should know and understand that what Nepal is going
    through now is a reflection of the fissures that have developed and
    accumulated through its history. Every society has had to undergo such
    painful, but necessary, catharsis before evolving into a more just,
    equitable and saner version of itself. It is a baptism that Nepal too
    is condemned to endure.
    Sure, we really are living in interesting times. But, it can’t be
    whisked off by pouring contempt and rage at the hapless and always
    easy-to-blame politician for spoiling his lost utopia like Mr. Lama
    does. The least we can do as responsible Nepalis is analyze events
    with nuance, a critical but sympathetic eye (to borrow a line from the
    blurb of a Nepali scholar’s book) and conducting ourselves in its
    spirit. And not looking back to a romantic past that never was.
    Lastly, Mr. Lama needs serious reminding that he is an atypical Nepali
    who has the luxury of always coming back to his comforts after eating
    away his blues – with pure chainpurey ghiu.

  8. Manoj Aryal on Says:

    I like your writing but i have the same question for you, aren’t you guys going more and more communal by the activities like miss mongol ? Pashupati Rana didn’t stop tamangs to be in the Army, You should ask Chandra Sumsher Rana, who died eighty years ago..!! things are changing, i don’t know why you guys have such bitter feeling about bramhin and chettries ?? i come from the same clan and i am the tenth generation in this country called Nepal that means i belong to an ethnic group..!! I swear non of my generation has ever Oppressed any MONGOL ethnic group , I was amazed to see the calander published by Nepal Federation of Ethnic groups..!! in the calender there were photos of almost every ethnic group execpt baramhin and chettri..!! i asked myself after seeing where do i belong ?? you guys are making us strangers not we..!! and its strange you relate you guys with Mongolians..!! I don’t want to discuss who we are, I am a nepali now and living in this land that’s my identity and i want to carry that. Rabi Thapa has raised a proper question which you have to answer..!! things have been changed man, A GURUNG is leading nepali army , another GURUNG is the composer of national anthem a RAI is the lyricist of national anthem..!! and i respect all these guys..! You talked about marwaris and their ghetto but you too are in a ghetto, why not to break this and do a Bramhin Chettris (the clan you guys hate) and You people together a common dinner where we can talk to each other and try to understand each other, where i can request the Federation of Ethnic group to put our photos too in the calender.

  9. Travelling on Says:

    your story is nice. we truly are living in riveting times. But, it can’t be
    whisked off by pouring contempt and choler at the poor and ever
    easy-to-blame politico for spoiling his wasted sion equivalent Mr. Lama
    does. The lowest we can do as amenable Nepalis is psychoanalyze events
    with signification, a indispensable but kind eye (to have a differentiation from the
    blurb of a Nepali scholar’s playscript) and conducting ourselves in its
    feeling. And not superficial affirm to a idiom old that never was.
    Lastly, Mr. Lama needs overserious reminding that he is an untypical Nepali
    who has the sumptuosity of e’er reaching affirm to his sustenance after consumption
    away his megrims – with sublimate chainpurey ghiu.

    Thanks for sharing your talent.


  10. Emmanuel Carvajal on Says:

    Hi there could I quote some of the material from this blog if I link back to you?

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