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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.