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Peru Diaries, Part IV

Our intrepid reporter has been joined by his girlfriend to visit the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. But instead of a few days relaxing in the tourist village of Aguas Calientes, they wound up at the scene of a disaster. Thrill to the story of inept crisis management and international tensions, with an special appearance by the President of Peru...

Anger gave way to mourning when darkness fell on the plaza, broken by a hundred white candles that flickered around the body of Juan Carlos Tapia Farfán, 13. Raging waters took his life when homes vanished into the Alcamayo River. Juan Carlos' body was found six kilometers from the town of Aguas Calientes, the last stop before the Inca city of Machu Picchu. Bodies of the other victims haven't been found and are presumed dead. Carlos Tapia, 27; Roberto Rossel, 40; Lenidas Yucra, 31; Alicia Gutierrez, 20; Ronald Yucra, 5; Lucy Layme, 30; Eleazar Tapia, 10; Romer Tapia, 3; and Carlos Daniel Tapia, 3 months.

Saturday 1:45 a.m. Swollen with heavy rainfall the Alcamayo river flooded its banks and devoured six homes that lay near its banks, about 300 meters from our hotel. The houses couldn't withstand the thousands of tons of mud, water and boulders that cascaded down the valley.

Saturday 2:15 a.m. A mudslide a quarter kilometer in length detached from the Peruvian jungle and ripped down the side of a mountain leading into Aguas Calientes. The mass of rocks and earth swept over the railway –- the only means of reaching Aguas Calientes –- covering it with tons of debris and pushing heavy machinery used to clear the tracks down into the torrent.

Saturday 2:30 a.m. Over the roar of the river and rain it was impossible to tell anything was amiss in Aguas Calientes. No one heard when six houses were destroyed and their inhabitants taken. But when water started to seep into hotel lobbies, local residents knew something was wrong. Tourists were raised from their slumber and told to evacuate immediately to the town's plaza. By then the river had jumped its banks and was running down the railway line, carrying mattresses and sofas.

Saturday 5:30 a.m. We woke up eagerly looking forward to a second day touring Machu Picchu. Our plans ended when the hotel receptionist said we should hurry to the plaza and wait for instruction on how to be evacuated. The town of Aguas Calientes can't have more than 10,000 inhabitants, who largely cater to the 1,500 tourists that make it their last stop before taking the bus up to the ancient town. About two months earlier the area was hit by a similar disaster, fueling optimism a contingency plan was in place. As the morning wore on, tourists began to filter down the steep hill through the center of town, coffee in hand and nervously laughing. A sign on the Perurail office said an announcement would be made at 10 a.m.

Saturday 8 a.m. Tour group leaders began to make lists of their groups, hoping to hand them to municipal leaders and be the first to get out of town. It wasn't long before others began to make lists, scrambling for pens and scribbling the words "Lista Oficial" on the top of the page in hopes of being the first. There must have been at least 50 pages of official lists going around.

Saturday 10 a.m. It became clear to most in the plaza that no one was in charge. The mayor, the rail monopoly, the federal government and the police were nowhere to be seen and the word was they were fighting about who would pick up the tab for the rescue. Peru's President Alejandro Toledo was in the area to visit to ruins and still hadn't made an appearance. Local residents though weren't waiting, and with their bare hands began to try and move the rocks, mud and debris that covered the site where houses once stood. An Air Force pilot with Toledo told us the problem was that the helicopters were on one side of the landslide and the pilots were about 30 kilometers away on the other side of it. Wouldn't it make sense to always keep the pilots close to their vehicles?

Saturday 11 a.m.The sign at the train station was changed. "Announcement at noon."

Saturday 11:30 a.m. A bus rolled down the hill from Machu Picchu and President Toledo stepped out wearing a white shirt and jeans and began to tour the site. I quickly tagged on to his group. "Those rocks weren't there last night, and now they are on the roof of a house,'' he said, pointing to car-sized boulders. Racing to catch up with Toledo, I lost my shoe in about two feet of mud that was 10 meters up from the river. Toledo scrambled down over a ledge to where the houses used to be; I was impressed he was taking risks. But the politician couldn't be suppressed; he stood up on a rock with the river behind him and posed for a camera crew that was with him. After the photo op was done, he said a few words and took off for the plaza.

Saturday 11:45 a.m. Toledo climbed up on the balcony of the plaza to speak to the crowds. He promised the use of his helicopter to first evacuate the injured and the sick. He pledged to build a wall to keep the river in and to relocate houses. Tourists couldn't care less. "My tickets won't be refunded. Will you evacuate us?", a Spanish lady yelled out. "This isn't Spain. We're not a rich country," Toledo answered. "Just as you couldn't predict March 11, we couldn't predict this." With the crowd unappeased, Toledo made his move. "I need to go now to leave the helicopter for you," he said. Yeah right. And with him left the only person who could have taken charge.

Saturday 1:00 p.m. The mayor came out and told everyone to move to the street where lists would be read out. Peruvians were told they would not be allowed to be evacuated by helicopter. This to me was the biggest outrage. I could just imagine the scene in Canada if Canadians were banned from taking a helicopter paid for with their tax dollars to leave a natural disaster site. Peruvians, strangely enough, didn't complain. One man who was kicked off a bus came out smiling. "I nearly sneaked on," he told me. Wrong, we were the ones sneaking on to their helicopters.

Saturday 1:15 p.m. About 1,000 people heckled the mayor as he tried to read the lists. Nobody could hear a word he said as he read down a list of names. People pushed, shoved, hit, scratched, spat and heckled as he tried to read out names. "Inutile," yelled some Spaniards. Tour operators came from nowhere to give him a 'special list'. I was told the first group gave the mayor $150 to be the first list. It worked. "You're not going to get my vote," an Australian yelled. "How much money do you want so that I can get out?'', an Argentine woman yelled. Frustrations boiled when more 'lists' appeared and the crowd got ugly, the mayor was heckled, people screamed about international flights, children, high blood pressure and promises. They mayor broke down and ordered everyone back to the plaza.

Saturday 1:30 p.m. A lady from the rail monopoly came onto the balcony came out and said they would attempt to restore rail service by 4 p.m. on Sunday and that nothing would be done before then. Just to be sure we got the message she said it in English, French, German and Spanish. "Now in Hebrew! Now in Hebrew!", yelled some Israelis. She said that the tracks were knocked out 10 kilometers down line and that it was unadvisable to walk out. No kidding. She was wrong. It was a 30-kilometer walk out, according to a U.S. couple I met in the airport after. Their shoes were worn out, the soles broken by the jagged rocks and both heels were bleeding.

Saturday 2 p.m. Frustrated with the enormous quantity of lists some people decided to walk down to the heliport and jump the line. The mayor came back out and said that due to fights at the heliport he was leaving to attend to that problem. People jumping cues were swinging fists in a bid to be on the helicopter. An American from San Francisco told me it sounded worse that the picture of the last U.S. helicopter out of Saigon. The last time I saw the mayor he was sitting in the plaza, his head down and with tears coming down his face. He had taken office thinking it was nothing more than free drinks and bribes. This guy was no Giuliani. Someone later told me his house had also been damaged by the floodwaters. He can use the bribes to repair the damage.

Saturday 3 p.m. Back in the plaza more lists started to appear. This was the official list we were told and another queue was made, with the usual queue-jumping tactics employed by the tour group operators. Even Gandhi would get ticked off after a tour guide with a list of 40 people jumps in front of you for the sixteenth time.

Saturday 4 p.m. We gave up and decided to try our luck at the heliport. It was a 30-minute walk down to the field where it was landing and we got there a bit late. About 200 hundred people stood before us. There was a fence at the end of the field where the groups passed through to get on the chopper and that's where it got most ugly. Dominik was an especially rude German tour group operator who attempted to sneak through the foliage to gain some yardage. His progress was halted by four South Africans, who together weighed as much as a rhino. "Where the hell do you think you're going mate?", one of them yelled out.

Dominik quickly retreated about 10 meters and tried to 'legally' get back in the line where he was originally. But by then he had lost his place and his efforts to jump back in were shot down. "Back of the line Dommy," shouted an Australian.

"Off you go mate," I said. "There's no room here for jumpers."

Dominik lost it at that point; his face, already sweaty and red from the sun, went to a shade of deep purple. "What's you're problem? One lady in my group has a funeral to go to!", he yelled. About 50 people around me burst into laughter. There were children in the line, pregnant ladies and elderly. A funeral for someone who was already dead wasn't going to allow get him and 40 Germans to the front of the line.

"My dog ate my homework," cried an American. "I need to get on the helicopter."

"If the lady is dead you can't do much about it Dommy can you? So back to the end of the line,'' the Australian yelled.

Saturday 6 p.m. We were two helicopters from getting out when the service was cut for lack of light. The canyons were dangerous even during the day, now with the fog and lack of visibility it was impossible.

Saturday 7 p.m. We got back to the plaza to see another list was being made. This was the 'official list', we were told. Just what I wanted to do --
wait in a line for another 2 hours. "Peru – Expect Nothing and Get Nothing," an Australian said.

Saturday 10 p.m. One of the bodies had been recovered six kilometers away. The family covered the corpse with a blanket and set a vigil, drinking fermented corn. It was eerily quiet. Around the corner, tourists, with voices hoarse from yelling, tucked into suppers and bottles of wine. One bar put tables out in the street for revelers to party through the night. Peruvians, who were forbidden to ride the helicopters out, mourned their dead. No mention was made of them, no sympathy was given to them. Screams about that "Iberia won't reimburse my $1,000 ticket to Madrid", contrasted with the quiet sobs of the families that grieved their dead.

Saturday 10:10 p.m. PeruRail, the monopoly which charges as much as $400 for a trip to Machu Picchu and a minimum of $700 a night at the Sanctuary lodge (the only hotel at Machu Picchu) did nothing. No donations, no food, no pledges. Nothing. Way to go PeruRail.

Sunday 5 a.m. Rise and shine. Time to get in line.

Sunday 6 a.m. I went to the bus stop and a queue was being formed to get down to the heliport. It was becoming routine.

Sunday 8 a.m. We heard (really) 'official' lists were being posted at the town hall for the helicopter evacuations. We decided to abandon our prime spots near the front of the bus line and run to the plaza. There it was in black and white: we were on list #3.

Sunday 8:05 a.m. All hell broke loose. People not on the lists went ballistic. "My father is 72 and ill and I was first in line," said a Brazilian liar. (I saw him later and there was no father). People threatened to rip the lists down and storm the municipality.

Sunday 8:30 a.m. Police officers (all minors) appeared and told people to line up according to list numbers. Thirty-something Spanish ladies left off lists manhandled the police officers.

Sunday 8:35 a.m. Our line was moved to the river. We were getting closer.

Sunday 9 a.m. Our line disintegrated.

Sunday 9:30 a.m. Our line was moved onto a bus

Sunday 10 a.m. Our line was moved down to the heliport.

Sunday 10:05 a.m. There were at least five helicopter loads before us and every third trip was to Cusco to refuel. We slowly moved forward. A coffin was unloaded from the chopper and for once in 48 hours all screams, complaining, laughing and cursing stopped. It started again when the white coffin with a yellow plastic sheet disappeared up the jungle path.

Sunday 11 a.m. Two helicopter trips away.

Sunday 11:05 a.m. Dominik was behind us. Ha. Take that.

Sunday 11:10 a.m. Another fight broke out; this time between an Air Force officer and a municipal worker who wanted to be in charge of the landing pad. Air Force 1 - Municipality 0.

Sunday 12:30 p.m. The chopper came down into the field and our group got inside. We were free. Hats off to the pilot who went back and forth through the narrow canyons to ferry rich tourists out of their ruined vacations. Beneath us was the wreckage of the five homes that were leveled and the residents still clearing debris. Pity the residents of Aguas Calientes, the mayor is corrupt and incompetent and the government prizes rich tourists over its own citizens. Overhead the last chopper out of Saigon made its way down the valley.


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Yikes. Sounds like an excerpt from P.J. O'Rourke's "Holidays in Hell"

Hope you've got lots of whiskey handy....

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