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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.