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144 pages, Hardcover
First published January 1, 2009
I grew up with an atlas. And as a child of the atlas, I had never travelled. The fact that a girl in my class had actually been born in Helsinki felt unimaginable. ... To this day, I am baffled by Germans born, for example, in Nairobi or Los Angeles. Of course I know that Nairobi and Los Angeles exist - they are on the maps. But that someone has actually been there or even been born there still feels incredible to me.
Then I looked for my country: the German Democratic Republic. East Germans could not travel, only the Olympic team were allowed beyond our borders. It took a frighteningly long time to find. It was pink and tiny as my fingernail. This was hard to equate: at the Seoul Olympics we had been a force to reckon with, with had won more medals than the United States: how could we suddenly be so infinitesimal?
My love for atlases endured when a year later everything else changed: when it suddenly became possible to travel the world, and the country I was born in disappeared from the map. But by then I had already grown used to travelling through the atlas by finger, whispering foreign names to myself as I conquered distant worlds in my parents' sitting room.
The tallest mountain range in the world is underwater – where the Pacific plate converges with the Philippine plate in the Marianas Trench, several kilometres deep – and its smoking volcano cones rise out of the ocean.I am offering a giveaway of this title on my my blog until Dec 15, 2014. Visit and put your name in.
Pagan is a double island of two of these volcanoes held together by a land mass, At its narrowest point, it is only a few hundred metres wide.
The village of Shomushon lies at the foot of Mount Pagan in the north. Its people want to be evacuated because smoke has been rising from the summit for some time, and there have been earthquakes. But no one takes any notice. They say the volcano is not dangerous.
On 15 May 1981, it erupts, spewing fire, hirling rocks and hooting fountains of lava into the air. The sky turns black; it rains ash and smells of sulphur and burning earth. The raised huts in Shomushon shake, and a flood of lava spread though the palm trees, Soon the first crackle of fire in the village is heard. The mayor sends a message by short-wave radio - This is it! Come get us! – before the sixty villagers flee, crossing the narrow neck of land to the south. They take refuge behind a mountain ridge and pray to be spared from the glowing river.
When they are evacuated by air shortly after, only the rooftops of Shomushon can be seen above the layer of brown ash. On Pagan, there are now 20 million tonnes of tuff stone, the material of the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Baths of Caracalla.