Quellomayo, Valle de la Convención, between Santa María and Santa Teresa, on the Vilconota river, a few hours from the Machu Picchu by foot.
Quellomayo, or what is left of it is located in a small valley about 1300 meters above sea level, and is surrounded by high mountains. From Cusco, I took a bus for 15 soles to Santa María, leaving at 8:30 am and arriving at 4:00 pm. Half of the way is in very good conditions and the view is phenomenal. I was lucky enough to travel on a sunny day and to enjoy the eternal snow of one of the high mountains of the area.
The second half of the way to Santa María is in a poor state and the journey became more painful. The difference in temperature was quite spectacular. In Cusco, I was wearing 2 long sleeve T-shirts, a jumper and my polar jacket, and I got to feel cold as we were close to the snowy mountain. Then, as we were getting closer to Santa María, it was getting much hotter to the point of hardly being able to support one single T-shirt.
The bus left me on the main road that crosses the village, a muddy road with many potholes and water running constantly from the hills. Santa María is a small town with about 1200 inhabitants near the Vilconota river. It got hit by the river a month earlier and a few houses got lost, as well as a few cultivated lands. But nobody died or got hurt, only material loss.
When I arrived at Santa María, I took my backpack out of the bus and crossed the road to leave it for a moment on a wooden bank at the side of a local restaurant. I wanted to take a few minutes to evaluate the situation. Three men were sitting on a bank next to mine, looking at me. I lighted a cigarette, took a few drags and asked the men how I could get to Quellomayo. I knew that the short road, a dirt road that goes along the Vilconota river, was closed due to various mudslides and the destruction of some sections gone with the ravaging river. No one knows if they will ever rebuild the road. The level of the water had gone down, but it still looked very rough and full of mud. Although I arrived on a sunny day, we are still in the middle of the rainy season. Clouds often cover the high mountains and it normally rains at night and sometimes in the morning. But it could be rainy in the mountains and sunny here. I knew that there was an alternative road to Quellomayo thought the mountain, a dirt road in very poor condition, and only a taxi would take me for a price that was far more than the 5 or 6 soles that “collectivos” – shared taxis – used to charge before the disaster. One of the three men was a taxi driver and he offered to take me for 50 soles. “The road is in very bad condition” he said, “It takes over an hour and half”. I got him to lower the price to 40, but he would take other passengers to get his fare. In less than 5 minutes, we were on our way with 3 ladies that came from Cusco in the same bus. I ended up paying 4 times more than them!
The road was indeed in a very bad shape and the driver was very rough, driving with very little care for his car. Everything along the dirt soaked road was looking very dangerous and unstable. It looked like we could be covered by a mudslide at any moment. I did not like the feeling and I was wondering if I was not getting into a place where I would get stocked if this only road was to collapse in the following days.
I arrived at Quellomayo in late afternoon. The site is very beautiful (see photo album) and impressive, but it also gave me a feeling of oppression, with its high mountains surrounding the very small valley. I could hear the river just a few meters away from the house roaring like an angry wild animal. On the other side of the house a high hill looked like ready to collapse on top of us. I immediately felt unsafe. As I was getting my bag out of the taxi and considering my situation, I had the strong feeling that I would not stay here as long as I had initially planned.
The family welcomed me nicely with a hug. The British man who was my contact – and who had married one of the daughters seven years ago – was out in Cusco with his wife and two years old daughter. I met him at his return a week later. On my arrival, I got introduced to the parents in their late 60’s, a 30 years old son and his wife who lived in the house next to the main house and a woofer, a 22 years old American from San Diego who had been there for over 7 weeks. We both shared the same room, which was more his domain than mine since his clothes were spread all over the place and he never judged necessary to organize the room a bit while I was there. I set my things in a corner, got my bed ready with a mosquito net provided by the family and only used the room to sleep.
The first week was quite intense. The mother was running the place like an army camp, using her woofer as much a possible, waking us knocking on the wooden door with her keys. The young American was hardly speaking to me, living in his own world, not even saying greetings in the morning. He was hardly understanding and speaking Spanish but always tried to answer my questions in Spanish with a very thick accent. A week later, when my British host came, they were of course speaking English together all the time. Wired boy! The mother had us under control. We were starting the day cleaning the house and doing the dishes and then leaving for the farm in mid morning after breakfast to work until 2 or 3 pm under a heavy sun and in the middle of biting flies worth than mosquitoes. The farm was up in the hill, 30 minutes walk climbing a steep trail. The walk was hard, and so was the work.
The fourth day I got fed up with their constant jokes about my vegan diet and asked them to stop and show more respect. They did not take my comment very well and simply stopped speaking to me. While I was the center of attention for 4 days, I just became invisible. They started to ask plenty of questions to the American boy who until then had been quiet, since “it was hard to have a conversation with him” as the family members had told me earlier. The father, on the other hand, was very nice to me, but he left for Cusco to participate in a public protest in order to get the government to provide immediate help to the area, to rebuild the roads and reopen the Machu Picchu earlier. I felt quite isolated after he left on the fourth day with no one to communicate to.
After a week, my English host returned from Cusco with his family. He had developed a special bondage with the young American and I kept being the invisible man. To make things worth I found a small piece of bone in a soup that the daughter in law had prepared. She had confirmed that the soup was vegetarian. I showed her the bone and pushed the half eaten plate away from me. Since that moment, I did not accept to eat any other type of soup. And then I got some kind of food poisoning and started to have serious stomach cramps and diarrhea. No one seemed to care too much about my condition. “Black tea with lemon is good for you” was saying the mother when I asked her if they had some healing herbs. I then decided that it was time for me to leave. When I told my host, he simply said: “This place is not meant for all.” He did not offer me to drive me back to Santa María – and eventually see a doctor – but I heard that the other woofer was also soon to be leaving. I would just wait a few more days to take advantage of the lift.
I initially thought that the community really needed our help. That´s the message I received from my host when I was in Iquitos. “Be prepared to perhaps be involved in some rather more personal tasks that affect the locals and our families as we try to get things back on their feet,” he had wrote. But the reality was quite different. It’s true that many families lost their house and the river took away most of the village. But they all had time to empty their house, including removing roofs, doors, window frames and even the electric posts before their houses got swollen by the river. They all received emergency food from the Peruvian government and the municipality gave them all a free parcel of land with building material in a new location up the hill to rebuild their community. Engineers were there to start bringing drinking water system, sewage and electricity, all of that for free.
Besides all of that, they were arguing with each other, jealous each one of the other and complaining that the municipality was not doing enough. Meanwhile the mother – the lieutenant, as I was secretly calling her – was trying the first three nights during dinner to get into a conversation with me arguing how privileged we, Europeans, were with all our social benefits. On the third day I kindly and with humor asked her to stop arguing and to consider how privileged she was herself to receive all this help for free. “In my village, if something like this happens, the government does not give us anything. We have to buy a new land and start all over. And we do pay heavy residential taxes,” I told her to end the conversation.
I got really bored. The village was gone. The inhabitants got relocated uphill in a very unsafe place and the atmosphere among them was based on greed and jealousy. My host did not mention any special work for the community. The rain was falling every night reminding me how unsafe the place was. The hill next to the house could collapse at any moment. The road to Santa María could collapse at any time. The family was not very friendly with me. I was sick. The community did not need my help. I heard that the young American was going to be leaving on the first of March and that my host had decided to drive him to Santa Maria, since he also wanted to go to the closest town of Quillabamba. I decided to leave too. I had been there 10 days. No one seemed to be bothered with my decision, except for the father who had returned from Cusco two days earlier: “But Fabricio, when are you going to come back? When will I see you again?” he asked with true and honest love and kindness in his eyes. I would have stayed forever just for him, but the situation was too uncomfortable. “I live life as life wants” I told him, “and my body is telling me that now is the time to make a move and heal.”
We left Quellomayo on Monday March first at mid morning after the family breakfast. My host’s wife thanked the American boy for his work and thanked me for my “visit”, as if I had done nothing for a week, when I had indeed done my share of housework every morning and had worked hard in their farm clearing the land, removing elephant grass with machete covered by biting flies on full sun, even with stomach cramps. I felt very annoyed with her but choose to say nothing. I was stomach sick with diarrhea and her comments were not helping. My host owns a recent 4 x 4 Toyota pick up truck, a perfect vehicle for the dirt roads. The rain stopped half hour before we left. The truck was packed with half the family and 3 ladies from the house next door. I traveled on the back outside of the truck with the father – all smiling and nice -, the American – all quiet – and a lady dressed in traditional Peruvian clothes with her hat, long skirt and heavy socks. We got shacked like dirty cloth on the muddy dirt road full of potholes for an hour and a half and finally arrived at Santa Maria alive by noon. I felt immediately relieved.
As a parenthesis it is worth mentioning that many farmers in the area cultivate openly coca. Coca is similar to a tea tree. It grows about one or two meters high depending on the quality of the soil and can produce coca leaves for almost 20 years. Farmers, according to my old friend – the father – sell their production almost openly to the underground cocaine producers, the coqueros, without even being bothered by the authorities. There is in Peru a company, ENACO S.A., which buys legally the dry coca leaves and distributes them nationwide as energy drinks or as dry leaves to make the famous Coca tea – mate de coca, or simply to chew as so many like to do. But farmers have to deliver their production to some cooperatives and get usually paid half the price that the underground buyers pay. The coqueros also pick up the leaves at the farmers’ farms. It’s not hard to understand why most farmers deal with the coqueros.
In Santa María, my old friend took me immediately to a restaurant run by one of his friends, and whose sister runs a guesthouse. She got me a decent room with a private bathroom for 15 soles. I was the only guest there. They received me with a warm smile that got me to feel great besides my stomach cramps. My host and his family from Quellomayo disappeared in a cloud of dust.
I was out of the ghost village and back in a safe place.