Posts Tagged ‘Cusco’

For the last couple of weeks during my teaching and online livelihood investigation, Lou has been steadily tearing her hair out trying to find a reliable home for the donation sent to her by Peros to help the homeless communities affected by the flooding in the Sacred Valley.

It has by no means been an easy road, with community infighting for resources, allegations from all and sundry about the validity of some claims about being homeless/in need of food etc. and a great deal of NGOs stepping on each other’s toes, not to mention the process of starting and managing a project here between locals and extranjeros, an experience akin to herding cats.  There’s also been the overarching issue of how best to use the finances; short-term aid relief or long-term sustainable development project?

In the darkest hour of a haphazard meeting, Lou plucked a solution from the ether; why not buy animals for the affected communities so that they can be reared, sold and eaten?  It covered all the bases for handing self-generating resources over to the communities and avoiding the situation where all the money would be spent after a couple of months, leaving the communities no better of then when the floods first hit.

Amusingly, the most suitable animal of choice turned out to be the cuy, or guinea pig.  These squeaky little furballs are normally classified as pets to be polished off by over-zealous children in the UK, but here they are precious commodities.  Growing to full maturity in about 3-4 months, your average cuy can then mate to produce more (and believe me, they do given half a chance) or be sold to restaurants and suppliers at a tidy profit.  This forms the basis of a very stable business, which has the obvious benefits of additionally generating a food supply and a much-needed source of nutrition to the diets of the locals.  With a certain amount of humoured disbelief, Lou has set the wheels in motion for a guinea pig empire.

She’s been working with a team composed of a range of people over the last couple of weeks, which recent swelled to include a couple of agronomists, specialists in the agro-industrialisation of cuy.  One particular proponent of the crack squad of fur-peddlers has been Carlos, a Cusqueñan who has a powerful desire to help in any way possible.  Sadly, this tends to manifest itself in fairly short-sighted thinking, rushing out to buy building materials at great expense and putting up structures without due planning or consideration for the needs of the community or the wider priorities of the situation.  It seems that Carlos sees the available fund as bottomless and capable of sustaining random unguided projects for all eternity, which it obviously isn’t.

Most of Carlos’ ideas begin with a colourful sketch on graph paper (one presumes to emphasises the engineering importance of the scheme).  Sometimes these drawings include measurements, sometimes not.  Having accepted the cuy project reluctantly (he was angling to put up as many kitchens as possible and keep supplying them with food until the money ran out) he swung into action with these works of art below.

Witness the majesty of...Cuylandia!

When pressed for specific costing on ‘Cuy Land’, three categories were submitted, each with their own question mark (literally) to substantiate the pending financial liability.  Costs, it seemed, were not a factor in this scheme.  No joke, here’s the breakdown in the 4th section of the proposal, “Investment”:

  • Ground: 500m2 * $??? = $????
  • Construction: $????? (does the greater amount of exclamation marks infer a higher cost?)
  • Guinea pigs: $????
  • I have to admire Carlos’ enthusiasm, but the short-sighted nature of his schemes is fairly depressing.  I have to say that it’s a fairly characteristic approach that I’ve seen demonstrated many times in Peru; many people here will insist on taking an extra 20 soles extra out of your hand today without thinking about the possibility that their pushy attitude will lose them future business with you that could add up to a lot more than the short-term win.

    The other sobering point is the complete lack of willingness to take the time to speak to someone who knows what they are doing; Carlos really doesn’t have a clue (his drawings bear strong testament to this), but he’s been insistent in his proposal despite failure to provide costing and also very unsupportive of any alternatives or measures of caution and consideration provided by the rest of the group.  This has demonstrated the double-edged sword of  another characteristic Peruvian attitude; there’s nothing wrong with rolling your sleeves up and having a go, but resistence to experienced or educated advice can be tiresome and potentially damaging.

    All in all, not an easy situation for Lou to manage, but with an increasing number of capable heads around her she’s sure to see the project through to a successful outcome.


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    I stayed the night in Ollantaytambo after the comedor building efforts, falling into a deep sleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.  The next day presented the opportunity to spend a few hours in the morning helping the residents of the tongue twisting village of Huayronkoyocoyocpampa (!) outside Ollantaytambo to dig building materials out of their shattered houses.  Most of us mow the lawn or wash the car on a Sunday; can you imagine pick-axing your way through the remains of your house?

    Village remains in the Sacred Valley

    The community was a mess.  Thick mud covered everything, and the looming carcusses of adobe houses lay sprawled in it.  Men moved about the dead buildings, carrying tools and steadily extracting usable remains from the building materials, presumably to being the long process of rebuilding with them elsewhere.

    I arrived towards the bottom end of what must have been a very pretty little village with fellow volunteers Leander, Lou and Kirsty, passing flowerbeds in which colourful blooms still thrived, winding their way around collapsed doorways and walls.  Introduced to Alfred, one of the residents with a kindly and weary face, who was clad in a yellow football strip and standing beside a tangle of wood, wire and earth in which he once lived, the girls and I split forces as they headed off to assist a neighbour shifting roof tiles.

    Salvage work in the Sacred Valley

    Alfred and I huffed and puffed together as we dragged the thick roof beams from the wreckage and piled them to one side, placing planks that were once floorboards next to a defiant abode wall that had resisted the floods, pockmarked with a thousand holes from which a busy traffic of wasps came and went.

    As we turned our attentions to the remaining wooden beams, doors and windowframes buried by the rubble, Alfred and I talked.  He’s a chef, working in the Casa Andina hotel down the road towards Urubamba.  He’s on holiday right now, not laid off due to the flop in tourism like some many other Peruvians in this region, thanks to the rains.  When I ask him what his priorities are, he tells me that he needs to build a new house, and must get back to work in order to pay off the 15,000 soles loan that he will have to take out for the rebuilding process.

    “How long did your house take to build?”, I ask him.  “A year,” he replies.  “And how long did you live in it for?”, I continue.  “Eight months,” comes the sobering response.

    Albert and the rest of the community were awoken at about 4am in the morning as the river broke its banks and rose rapidly to the foundations of their houses.  They ran for the higher ground, sitting on the ancient terrances made by the Incas, on which they grow some of their crops.  As they sat, powerless to do anything, the waters rose up the walls of their houses, dissolving the abode bricks and causing the buildings to subside into the rushing flood waters.  For three days they waited, trapped on the side of the hill, unable to cross for assistance to Ollantaytambo as the bridge was severel feet underwater.

    We dig deeper into the heap of adobe.  Albert’s pickaxe strikes a pink child’s bicycle; it belongs to his daughter, Carola.  Severel minutes later we encounter a shattered flowerpot, the plants inside incredibly still green and living after two weeks hidden from the sun under a couple of feet of earth.

    Picking through the rubble

    Albert tells me that finally, this week, the municipality have been delivering food to the school in which the locals who have lost their homes are sheltering.  Its the first clear support that has been provided since the flood over a fortnight ago, a handful of tents from the Ministry of Defence aside.  The current concern of the homeless families is that the school will resume  its term again at the end of the month, forcing them to find elsewhere to live until such time as they recieve somewhere to live.  The government has promised new housing in three months, but as Albert tells me, “They don’t deliver on most of their promises.  They give words, and nothing else.”

    Alfred salvaging materials from his house

    I feel slightly hopeless as I leave Albert next to the remains of his house.  In the two and a half hours that we worked together, we stacked up beams, planks and doors.  We chipping away the the land on which his seven by four metre two storey house used to sit.  But I can’t find him and his family somewhere new to live; the municipality is supposed to be taking care of that.  I can’t build him a new house before they become homeless again; I don’t have the skills or time.  And most of all, I can’t help him avoid the long, hard years of toil that are going to bring him back to the place where he was fifteen days ago.

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    Thanks to a stirling effort by Bullfrogs nightclub in Cusco, a few thousand soles were raised from one of their nights to put towards the efforts of  Hogar de Los Niños del Sol (Home of the Children of the Sun), a project founded and run by Carlos Gibaja Tapia.  Priorities for Carlos were to create a covered communal space for the homeless members of the Sacred Valley communities to be able to cook and eat, providing an end-point for the foodlines that he had already been set up.  Solutions for housing would be shortly to follow, replacing the crowed Ministry of Defense tents that had been distributed in limited amounts around the affected communities.  Thanks to connections with Leander, founder of the UK charity MySmallHelp that was acting with Carlos to recieve donations from  overseas, our presence was requested to assist with the building of a comedor, or cantina.

    Building a comedor, PaucabambaBuilding a comedor, PaucabambaBuilding a comedor, Paucabamba

    We met Carlos early on Saturday morning and shot down into the Valley in a hired truck to pick up some wood to build the frame of the design that he had been drawing up over the previous couple of days.  A straightforward timber frame affair with tarpaulin sheet walls and a corrugated plastic roof, it wasn’t going to win any design awards, but it was relatively cheap, quick to put up and apparently very durable.  A similar design had been installed in a community a few years back and was still standing to date.

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    We arrived in the community and got to work straight away, the community members levelling out an empty patch of ground with picks and shovels, shoring up the downhill side of the plot with stones.  Throughout the day I was very impressed with the skill that the locals showed in everything they did, shaving paper thin layers off wooden beams with unwieldy picks and knocking 7″ nails into wood with a couple of blows after I’d bent a handful trying to do the same job, cursing for all I was worth.

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    Lou, Carlos, the locals and I worked together for about 3 hours until a couple of trucks rolled up stuffed with volunteers from Bullfrogs and a Cusco-based social project that Lou worked for, Aldea Yanapay.  Despite the enthusiasm of the volunteers, there were more hands than tools and tasks and progress actually slowed for a while as people charged around the crowded plot trying desperately to find ways to assist.

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    Eventually a debris clearing operation was found a little further down the valley and half the mob left in the trucks topull building materials out of flattened houses.  The pace of work picked up again, and soon the comedor was taking shape, as Lou and I committed our efforts to make a table for the comedor.  After our cheerful construction of a frame that could only be described as ‘functional’, idle locals descended upon our efforts to finish the job, resulting in a pretty decent looking piece of furniture.

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    We finished the comedor in about 8 hours of solid work, and as night fell the last nail was hammered into place.  The structure was christened with a meal from the food which had the result of donations from two lovely Americans, George and Kathy; simple but wholesome fodder of noodles, potatoes and meat.  Beer bottles arrived to toast the efforts of the construction crew, and by the light of the single bulb suspended from the rafters of the roof, Carlos thanked all present for their efforts and instructed them to make the most of their new facility.

    Building a comedor, Paucabamba
    Building a comedor, Paucabamba

    It was a fascinating experience in which to be involved, and very interesting to see the interaction of volunteers with the work effort of the locals; there’s a great deal to be said for striking the balance between helping aid recipients to build their own facility, but giving them the lead in taking ownership of the resource that should be theirs for years to come.

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    A nice surprise...

    Since the last weekend of sobering revalations, people have been busy in Cusco.  Tuesday morning dawned and I stumbled down the stairs to find Lou staring slightly confounded at her laptop.  She was coming to terms with the fact that she had just recieved a very generous donation from some UK business contacts, a fairtrade sales and distribution company called Peros.  If you want to know how much, check out the JustGiving link, and while you’re at it, please leave a few quid yourself…

    Now to anyone, a donation of this size would be a marvellous godsend.  That is, until you realise that you have to navigate the tricky waters of how to spend a large amount of money and make sure that you get every ounce of value possible.  With small donations, the logical route is to chip away at relief effort, but a large sum opens up long terms options; how can the money be invested to really benefit communities in the long term?

    Options pop up for the coming months, including:

    • Debris clearance, relocation and reconstruction projects for affected communites
    • Investment in small businesses to diversify income from farming, which has been seriously affected by the distruction of the crops

    and of course, right now

    • Ongoing relief aid; people need food, water, clothing and shelter, and in many cases are still not being provided with it

    How do you balance the immediate need for aid and the sustainable investment of donations in longer term projects?  And just as importantly, how do you choose the right partners for the long term options?  There are a lot of community projects, NGOs and government schemes, but the waters are muddied with the mistrust between locals, government and foreign interests founded on a long history of corruption.

    Rest assured the connections that are already forged with the communities of the Sacred Valley allow for a diverse range of perspectives about choosing the right options for development, and the right  partner to do them with.  It’s just a matter of time…

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    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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