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Archive for January, 2010

Down To The Valley

Ruins in Calca

The remains of Calca. Gracias a Johan por este photo

I stand on the bank of earth that separates one stagnant lake of water from another as the fetid pools stretch to the distant adobe walls.  A putrid odour rises from the surface and smacks into my nostrils as I stare out over what used to be the village of Calca in the Sacred Valley, about a two hour drive out of Cusco.  Brick stacks that used to be walls stick out from the surface like broken teeth, wooden beams that once supported roofs and floors, splintered and broken, lie in tangled heaps.  Plumes of smoke rise from the chaos where something burns, and figures are barely visible, moving through the wreckage, searching for something, anything, that might be left.

It has been a week since the heavy rains that have swept violently through the Cusco region of Peru, causing rivers to swell and burst their banks, sweeping away houses, roads and bridges.  Landslides have been prolific, with hillsides tumbling onto houses, roads and sometimes people.  When the Vilcanota River burst its banks at about 4am on the morning of Sunday 24th January, the waters sprawled over the flat and fertile reclaimed soil on which, for decades, the local population had been building their houses and growing their crops, the fundamental source of income outside tourism.  Eyewitness stories that came from those who had visited the Valley were not pretty.  On Sunday the 31st of January, I had the opportunity to assist in a supply run to the affected communities with a group from the English school at which I work, and see the situation for myself.

High river in Urubamba

We crossed the swollen river that ran bloated beneath the bridge; its brown waters a dormant menace, like a carnivore resting after its last big meal.  Its banks were flecked with the detritus of buildings, trees, plants and possessions.  Urubamba was eerily quiet, the uphill side of the street a disarmingly normal scene.  The riverside, however, was a different story.  Buildings rose at crooked angles out of a mud-soup, tangled piles of brick, wood and metal showing where the rising river had mercilessly swept away the infrastructure.  We left town in search of a smaller community off the main supply route of the community organisations that were providing aid in the absence of government support.  We soon discovered that the more remote collections of houses in which to distribute the contents of the heavily laden truck were deserted, as the people chose to cluster around the main towns, waiting for assistance.  Turning back on ourselves and heading back in the direction of Urubamba, the decision was made to move along the main road and distribute a proportion of the supplies as and when families and groups were encountered.

Supply run in the Sacred Valley

It was a bizarre experience, travelling along rural roads overhung by trees and bordered by flowers as the steep green walls of the Valley towered above us.  The warmth of the midday sun cast a calm and lazy blanket over everything, and it was almost at times as if nothing had happened.  Then the tents started appearing at the side of the road, dark blue and boxlike, with families and groups sitting around them, or emerging blinking in the sunlight as the truck stopped for a drop-off.  Each time we asked how many families were affected, and had been forced to retreat from the weakened shell of their houses which could collapse at any moment to pack into the tents that sat beside them, and each time received sobering answers; eighteen families, four tents; twenty families, three tents.  Weary, red eyed elderly women broke down in tears as we handed over tins, and stony-faced men spoke of how they had lost everything.  Those who were not lucky enough to qualify for a tent sheltered under plastic tarpaulins, bundles of clothing and possessions heaped on the ground.

Supply run in the Sacred Valley

My companions were cautious as they handed out the tins, sacks and bottles; word had spread that certain people were taking advantage of the situation, claiming as much in aid resource as possible, and then selling it to fund upcoming construction work.  We saw one man struggling to haul a 10kg sack of pasta, a staple food delivery, through the front door of his shop.  Individual tins and bottles were handed out to each family in their roadside tent, with the sacks and bags given to community centres, where grasping hands and hungry eyes crowded around the truck, to be shouted back by the group leader.  Sadly, cries of “We’re homeless!” were treated with caution and mistrust as we tried to understand as best we could if we were giving to the desperate, or those who were going to sell to them.

Ruins in Calca

Our journey ended in Calca.  The once bulging tail of the truck almost empty, we arrived to the desolation of what once used to be the riverside residential district.  There we encountered the acting president, who led us to the community centre.  Inside were mountainous piles of clothes, the result of a donation, but only a few sacks of food in sight.  “We don’t need clothes,” he explained, “but that’s all they are bringing.”  Talking to him further, the frustration in his voice was clear.  “The mayor has left the town,” he continued, “And we think he’s useless.  They are having a meeting in Lima to get money for repairs, but he has been gone almost a week and we have heard nothing.”

Community centre in Calca

Forty-five families were sheltering in the community centre, some one hundred and forty-five people.  At the time we were there the vast majority were out working the land, trying to salvage the remains of the waterlogged and rotting crops that were about to be harvested before the rains struck.  Maize and potatoes form the majority of the export crop, and without the income from the harvest, the future is especially bleak for the families of the Sacred Valley.  Without housing, income and support from their government, the long hard stretch through the rest of the wet season and out the other side into urban regeneration and soil renovation and replanting seems like an insurmountable task.

Food distribution in Calca

Flooding doesn't stop mischief...

We left the Valley with the little consolation that meals for the day had been provided to some of the families, but the work that needed to be done was much longer and harder.  As testament to the spirit of the people and their resistance to hardships that they have doubtless endured over the years, a few of the local kids were stalking the streets armed with brightly coloured water pistols and balloons bulging with river water; February is Carnival month, in which periodic soakings are exacted upon members of the public, and especially tourists.  To lighten the mood, one member of our party decided to purchase a couple of balloons to exact some mischief on a car of fellow volunteers.  As we accelerated level with their vehicle, he hurled the balloon through the open window of the other car, only to see it bounce harmlessly intact out of the passenger window.  Adding insult to injury the remaining balloon burst in his hand, soaking the crotch of his trousers and leaving our driver cackling at the ineptitude of his broma.

NB: If any of you wants to donate to a project that is already helping to deliver food, water and clothing and build mobile kitchens and shelter for those affected in the Sacred Valley, you can donate through JustGiving.  £10 will feed around 16 families.  Further details of the project can be viewed at MySmallHelp’s webpage.

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Time To Get Involved

The international press has recently been releasing articles confirmed that the last of the tourists have been airlifted out of Machu Picchu, with around 4000 people (including locals) evacuated from Aguas Calientes, confirmed by the Tourism Minister Martin Perez.  Meanwhile, stories are starting to come through about the devastating effect on the regional population.  A few days behind the Correo, the BBC ran this online article (and another a couple of days later) about the remains of Lucre and Pinipampa.  The final part of the former article makes an excellent observation, that I have to say I’ve noticed as well in and around Cusco; the community spirit and sense of solidarity is an inspiration.

Personally, I have been sitting in Cusco over the last few days, hearing the sound of the helicopters thudding back and forth overhead (doubtless carrying their cargo of tourists) and feeling thoroughly useless; what can I do to assist, and how?  A trot around the Red Cross office and the central plaza of Cusco has revealed only that food, water and clothing donations are the priority; the Ministry of Defence had distributed a limited number of tents, but this has been the only response to date from a government that was yet to allocate any budget (“We don’t have a machine to print money”; Alan Garcia, President of Peru) to to the aid and regeneration efforts, let alone begin to act.  The displaced inhabitants have been relying on supplies from outside the Valley from local religious and community organisations and proactive individuals and groups.  As I have no money to buy items for donation and nothing of my own to donate, my only options are my time, and effort.  Things aren’t made any easier when I recieve photos like the one below, from a friend in a social project in Cusco.

Another bridge goes down, Sacred Valley

Fortunately the opportunity has come sooner than I expected.  A groups of friends who I’ve met through my English teaching needed hands to help with distribution of a sizeable collection that they had pulled together through family and friends.  I’ve gladly accepting their offer of a space in their truck, and should soon find myself rolling down into one of the main points of entry to the Sacred Valley, the town of Urubamba.

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Trouble in the Sacred Valley

Image courtesy of REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

In further developments with the weather problems in the Cusco region, it also seems that the BBC have run a story on the recent events, including some comments from tourists trapped in Aguas Calientes; I’m sure things are pretty terrifying, but some of the comments are a little disheartening, a case in point from Penny Hale:

“I am still in Aguas Calientes. I have spent the whole day in a frightening queue of increasingly angry people. Supposedly I am going to be prioritized because I am retired and travelling alone. However priority is actually being given to mothers and children.”

Sorry to hear about that Penny; it’s pretty inconsiderate to bail out the children first…

The word from Cusco is of complete chaos; the local paper ‘El Correo‘ is writing about eyewitness accounts of favouritism for European tourists who are paying handsomely to jump the queue and be lifted out; prices of commodities sky-rocketing as food and water run out; hotels and hostels closing their doors, leaving everyone stranded in the open under heavy rain.  In one incident, 50 Latin American tourists, tired of being shifted down the queue and waiting to be hit by landslides, decided to walk out of Machu Picchu down the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo; a journey that took almost 24 hours to complete.

Things can certainly turn ugly when selflessness takes a back seat in the case of the privileged few…

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Everyone in Cusco is talking about the recent heavy rainfall; the streets have been like rivers for the last three or four days.  Word is about that there have been a lot of landslides, and the river at Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Town) have grown so strong that the rail link between it and Cusco has been ripped to bits.  The Guardian seem to have been the first British newspaper to put something up; Stranded Tourists await rescue from Machu Picchu…

I just found this video from ITN about the goings on in the Sacred Valley, that leads to Machu Picchu; looks pretty serious.  The government are evacuating all tourists from the area; call me cynical, but I wonder if anything is being done about the locals?

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The house that funk built

Through my new front door...

In a flurry, it appears that I’ve become a resident of Cusco.  Lou and I met the director the COCLA coffee cooperative last Monday with whom we have just written a couple of sections for a business plan; it became clear that we will have to wait for a while as COCLA assemble the plan from the various different parts that have been written and punt it back and forth to get feedback with a funding agency until it ends up in some kind of shape acceptable to attract investment.  We should be involved in this process, but the honest truth is that we are probably going to have to wait for a couple of months, doing, for the most part, nothing.

However, the good news is that COCLA have agreed to subsidise our rent and food costs during our wait, so for the simple exchange of a reciept, any financial concerns are swept nicely under the rug.  We’ve also got a big enough subsidy to rent a nice place, so after a couple of frustrating days of house-seeking (tedious in any country, it turns out) we have become residents of H-16 Urbanizacion Mateo Pumacahua, a nice quiet neighbourhood which is about a 15 minute walk outside town.

So now, for the first time in 6 months, I can relax in my own room, surf on my own private internet connection undisturbed by hordes of pre-pubescent boys trying to kill each other via online gaming, cook my own food when I want and wash clothes on the rooftop terrace, with some spectacular views.

Private rooftop views over Cusco

Meanwhile, to keep myself busy I’ve taken a job teaching English at the mighty ICPNA (Instituto Cultural  Peruana Norteamericano; they love their big names here), thus dragging myself out of bed to start a class at 8:45, herding a range of teenagers through the curriculum.

It’s great to feel a bit of routine creeping in to life at the moment after the exciting but slightly exhausting perpetual change of the latter half of 2009, and having my own space for the first time in months is most definately a long awaited bonus.

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Ollantaytambo to Huancahuasi

What an incredible couple of days I’ve had!  Following the ‘unique’ New Year experience Lou and I got up early at about 6.30 and caught a taxi up the valley to a little village called Patacancha.  From there the plan was to walk to Lares, a trip that we heard could be done in two or three days; slightly concerning, given that we were due to have a business meeting in three.

Ollantaytambo to Huancahuasi

The road up to Patachanca was spectacular, with Andinos running in family groups the other way down the valley road to get to a big parade for the municipal major, in their colourful traditional clothing.  Arriving in Patacancha, we strapped on our bags and set off through the base of the valley, skirting alongside the fast flowing river, swollen with rain.  Following directions from locals as the trail was fairly difficult to pick out, we passed field after field of potato crops, turning eventually up a steep climb and into a higher valley that opened out into a jaw dropping view.

Ollantaytambo to Huancahuasi

Passing through the valley we saw adobe and straw huts surrounded by livestock, and very little other signs of life.  At one point a group of Peruvian mountain bikers passed us, descending from the mountain pass at 4500m to which we eventually climbed, our minds slightly boggled as we descended on the other side at the climb which they must have done to reach altitude.

Huancahuasi

Descending on the other side of the pass, our feet eventually led us to Huancahuasi, a sleepy village dispersed along the river that flowed down from the snow peaks above us.  We decided to stay there for the night, accosting a home owner and paying him a bit of money to get some food and a space to sleep, playing with his kids until nightfall.  Initially slightly wary, they family warmed to us eventually, but we were slightly embarrassed to realise that the couple had given up their bed for our benefit, sleeping on the floor in the upstairs section of the two room house despite our strongest protestations.

Huancahuasi

It was very, very cold during the night, and neither of us slept well.  The house, a dark and cramped little adobe number with an outside drop-toilet, was an eye-opener; a far cry from the comfortable surroundings in which we passed christmas.  Despite the discomfort of staying the night, it was well worth the effort, starting the year with with a strong reality check and a perspective on how many people in rural Peru live.

Lares thermal baths

Leaving fairly stiff the next day, a two hour brisk walk took us through the mists of the valley down into Lares, where we checked into a hostel for the followin night and payed a well earned visit to the local thermal baths, dunking ourselves in bubbling hot water to soothe tired legs.  A fine end to a new beginning, and a surefire reminder that there are better things to do on New Year’s day than lie in bed moaning with a hangover…

Lares, Peru
3rd January 2010

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New year in Ollantaytambo

Well, I hope you all had a good start to 2010; mine was certainly unique!  Getting out of the madness in Cusco for somewhere a little more tranquillo, Lou and I ended up in Ollantaytambo, one of the few remaining example of Incan town planning that the Spanish didn’t smash up, some way down the sacred valley towards Machu Picchu.

It was here that, after a day of pottering around the ruins, we encountered two likely characters in our bare-bones hostel; a couple composed of a Californian and a Russian (whose accent when speaking English was textbook) who were travelling around with the intention of sneaking into tourist sites for free.  The Russian, who was a freelance jornalist would then, in his own words, “Send article about sneakink to bullshit middle class Ruski newspaperrrrr”.

New year in Ollantaytambo

Somewhat enamoured with the both of them, we allowed ourselves to be talked into climbing over a two metre wall made (by the smell of it) of cowshit and dropping into the site under cover of darkness.  The rain was coming down heavily, but we didn’t care; protected by newly purchased thick ponchos and carrying boxes of ‘Gato Negro’ red wine and tic-tacs (?) we climbed the impressive stairways through the looming ruins to the top of the site, where upon the stroke of midnight the town below us erupted with fireworks set off by determined locals, drenched by the rain.

New year in Ollantaytambo

Not content with our current altitude, the couple decided to climb as high as possible, me following willingly in their wake.  Lou wisely decided to stay put with a box of wine for company as we scrambled up steep wet rocks in the dark, slightly off balance from the booze.  Eventually we arrived at the top of a large wall looking down over a dizzying sheer drop of about 60 feet, upon which the Russian installed himself, screaming communist slogans at the top of his voice in his mother tongue and swaying with a bottle in hand.  Despite my concerns, no disasters happened and Lou and I were not required to scrape bits of Russian off the ruins to welcome in the new year.

Ollantaytambo, Peru
1st January 2010

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