The gringo of Santa Maria, Peru. March 2010

Santa María is a small town with about 1200 inhabitants near the Vilconota River, a 5 to 7 hours ride from Cusco depending on the type of public transport. The village is on the Inca Jungle Trail. In some way, the trail initiates here. Backpackers usually arrive here by bus or with special tour agencies. Others come with their all terrain bikes from Cusco. They spend the night and then start their walk up to the Machu Picchu early in the morning. It’s a 3 days walk through a beautiful area, but it’s not meant for everyone as the terrain can be rough and mountainous. In a normal day, one can count between 60 and 100 tourists here. They all fill up the main road and all the guesthouses. At the time of my arrival, I was the only “gringo”. The trail goes from here through Quellomayo to Santa Teresa where tourists spend a night. On the second day, they go to Aguas Calientes through hills, and on the third day, they get to the Inca site.


But for the past 6 or 7 weeks, because of the intense rains, it’s all shut down. The Machu Picchu is closed and lots of mudslides have destroyed the trail in many areas. Everyone wonders how long it will take to reopen the trail, and how they’ll manage to open an alternative route since some sections are just completely gone. There are no tourists here. People look at the town as a ghost town, although local business continues and when they are no mudslides cutting the road, buses and mini vans continue linking the village to Cusco and the nearby cities of Quillabamba and Santa Teresa.

Cusco Cusco

Santa María 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. Like in Quellomayo, the people who lost their house and farms due to the mudslides and the mad river received free land from the municipality to rebuild. People here are very surprised when I tell them that no one would receive free land in France in this same situation. What hurts most here, like in Quellomayo , Santa Teresa and the other small villages in the area, is the absolute absence of tourists. The Machu Picchu has been closed since the end of January and might be closed until beginning of April. The roads to get here and to the Inca city are in real bad shape and in some areas just gone. And since we are still in the rainy season, there is no way to say when they’ll get well fixed. Every day they are new mudslides and destructions. The rail road has also been severely damaged and the repairs are far from being over yet.

The guesthouses in Santa Maria are all empty. In the three or four weeks that I stayed here, I occasionally saw 3 or 4 tourists passing through. Two couples spent a night. In normal days, Santa Maria is packed with tourists and all guesthouses are full, night after night. I soon became the “Gringo of Santa Maria”. The restaurant where I was eating every day – 3 meals a day – was doing quite well with the locals, but hardly enough to pay the bills. Meals are cheap, 4 soles for a soup and a main dish, often rice with some beef or chicken stew. The owner and cook understood very well my vegan diet and I’ve been eating quite well although it was often the same food! Rice with avocado, tomatoes and onions salad and fried potatoes. On occasion I would get lettuce, carrots, green peas and beetroot. I was fine with it. I was getting most of the time plenty of food and my stomach got much better after a few days. I am not sure was hit me. It felt like parasites, maybe amebas. I’ve been very cautious with my food since then. As time passed, food got better.

My first night in Santa Maria was full of surprises. By the end of the afternoon, I went to a place that had a huge bar sign not far from the main road and that is run by a teacher from the local primary school and his wife. We’ll call him “Maestro” although he was known by another nickname. The place looked more like a family restaurant with tables in the back under palm roofs and huayno music (south Peru popular music) all of the time. I stayed in the front room facing the muddy street and the village below. The view was quite remarkable with all these high hills surrounding the village. I shared a beer with el Maestro. Soon he told me that he had an old computer and that he could use some advice. He also said that the school had received a few months earlier ten computers. He and the other teachers were quite lost with them and they had difficulties getting some training organized. It seemed that destiny got me a new mission! I promised him that I would return the next day and have a look at the computer.

The next day I stayed in my room almost all day. I was stomach sick. The food that I got at the restaurant was good and I got myself a few pills against colic attacks at the local pharmacy. I rarely take pills but I was getting real fed up of the pain. After a day’s rest, I felt much better. That evening, my host told me that her brother – the owner and cook of the restaurant – had just bought a laptop and that he also needed serious training. We will call him the Cook although he also was known by another name. It was clear that life brought me here for a reason: help the teacher – and maybe his colleagues – and my food provider with their computer needs. I told el Maestro y the Cook that I could help them in exchange for a place to stay and three meals a day. I knew by experience that free help does not work. There is a need for balance, exchange of energy for things to work. They both agreed. El Maestro was running also a guesthouse – empty at the moment – and would give me a room. He had offered me that room when I first met him for 8 soles a day! Now, I was getting it for computer classes. The restaurant would provide me with my meals and I would give them each one or two hours of training a day. The Cook loved the idea of helping the primary school and he was happy to give me free food just for that. I insisted with el Maestro that he should talk with the school director and see if we could organize more training with the other teachers. But we were in the registration week and everyone was very busy. Classes would start the following week and the director could possibly be more receptive by then. It would be nice to help the primary school and the teachers, I thought. At least I was starting with one, el Maestro!

Cusco Cusco

My room at the Maestro’s guesthouse was not as nice as the first one, but it was clean and somehow comfortable, just a bit more rustic and with very noisy water pipes in the bathroom. No place to sit either. The only seat in the inside patio was visited by tiny little ants that did not like me too much. I was most of the time alone in the guesthouse and I mainly stayed there only at night. On some occasions, most often on Saturday night, a few engineers with their all terrain motorbikes would bring their local girlfriends and spend a few hours – until 1 or 2 am – having good fun. The walls of the rooms are like paper and it was not always pleasant, for a single man, to be in the middle of that.

I had no idea of how long I would stay here. The weather was quite alright: rain most of the night, strong and noisy, and sunshine during the day. Nice temperature most of the time. It was even getting hot at times, but not as much as in Brazil or in the jungle of Iquitos. Not too many bugs either, only on occasion we would get a few mosquitoes and biting flies. Santa María felt much safer than Quellomayo. No risk of mudslides here, except on the riverside. The high hill however on the other side of the river facing the village is quite amazing. One can see many mudslides there. But there are neither constructions nor farms there. What’s very surprising is that they are opening a new road across the hill and the mudslides. It looks very dangerous. In fact, the day before I left the village, a car fell from the road down to the river below. Fortunately, the car did not have passengers, only the driver, who jumped out of the car before hitting the water.

After a few days in Santa Maria, I got my routine quite well organized. I was staying at the Maestro´s guesthouse in exchange for computer training between 2:00 and 3:30 pm. I was getting my 3 meals a day for classes from 3:30 to 4:30 or 5:00 with the Cook. I also got each computer very well set up. El Maestro has an old machine with Windows XP and very little memory. It’s slow but it works. The Cook has a brand new HP laptop with Windows 7. I got to discover this new version of Window here. Strange!! After 2 weeks, I even started to like it! I had to learn fast the Spanish that these machines use in order to teach it.

At the end of the first week – which was the coming back to school week – the Cook’s sister suggested that I should go personally and talk to the director of the primary school, since I should not fully trust el Maestro. The Cook’s mother told me that the director of the college also wanted to see me. I went to introduce myself to the director of the little school on a Sunday afternoon. She runs also a guesthouse. I briefly told her what I could do. She invited me to a meeting at school for the next day. Nine teachers signed up for a two weeks class, one to two hours a day, starting the following day. In exchange for my time, they would contribute 20 soles each for my personal expenses. Since I had my two other students covering my current expenses, I was getting a bit of extra cash. Considering that the minimum wage is less than 20 soles a day, I was indeed getting a salary!

I also went that Monday to introduce myself to the director of the college. They have 15 computers there. He asked me to return a week later to check the machines and discuss how I could help them. When I returned, the employee of the municipality in charge of actualizing the machine had left due to lack of payment and had not finished his task. I reviewed a computer that had been updated. Lots of problems still unresolved. I made the list and gave it to the director. He wanted me to return later and work with the technician. I explained to him that it would probably not be very diplomatic to send a tourist to an upset engineer. I told him that – at this point in time – I could only offer training to the teachers. I gave him the list of items that my class would cover and left. He would contact me later, he said. I did not feel very positive about the college and did not feel that he would look for me. I never saw him again.

After a few days in Santa Maria, all the children knew me by my name and were greeting me all the time. I don’t know how they learn my name! People were all very friendly, always smiling, even the local police. It was nice to help all these people, but it was also a lot of work. I found myself working over 8 hours a day the first 2 weeks. I also went twice to the nearest town to get some software tools and train the Cook with his laptop on the Internet. The town of Quillabamba is one hour drive in a packed minivan under the rain on a dirt road full of potholes, mud and rocks fallen from the mountains, and following a raging river – the Vilcanota – that has been swallowing houses, roads and bridges for the last 7 weeks. Knowing that I would not die that day gave me the courage to make the journey.

During the first 3 weeks of March, roads to Cusco, Santa Teresa and Quillabamba were often cut for half day or longer because of mudslides. They would fix things during the day and the heavy rains at night would bring more destruction. The sandy hills are saturated with water and the situation will only improve when the rainy season ends. The road to Cusco seems to be the safer for now, but I heard that the police did not allow tourists to go to Santa Teresa and beyond due to the high risks of mudslides. Besides all of this, they were rumors that the Machu Picchu would reopen on March 15th. On the 14th, I talked to the local policemen who come daily to the restaurant for lunch and dinner. They said that the Inca city would reopen on April 1st – perhaps – and that I should stay in Santa Maria and not try to go there for now. “There is still a lot of work to do to clear the roads” they said.

By the end of the second week in Santa Maria, I started to see some jealousy between the two families that I was helping. Each one had some complaints about the other. I was in the middle trying to stay Zen. El Maestro was also getting lazier with his lessons, showing less motivation every day and not making a real effort to use his memory and what he had learned. He even started to regress. To be realistic, it seemed that he did not have what it takes to be a computer user. On the other hand, the Cook was doing very well besides the fact that he was very busy with his job at the restaurant and taking much shorter lessons. I realized that making some pressure on el Maestro was more counterproductive and I started to take more space away. On his part, he was complaining of headaches and canceling more classes. I did not like the fact that I was getting free room without training him. I was not also very comfortable with the room, but I was worried about offending him and his wife if I was moving back to my original guesthouse. During the same time, I was getting closer to the Cook, his wife, his two sisters, his mother and aunt who were all working at the restaurant. On my third week, I even started to help at the kitchen and got to be the waiter during pick hours. I enjoyed the atmosphere, the jokes and the kindness. I even considered staying a few more weeks, moving to my original place and become the restaurant assistant, since the opening of the Machu Picchu was getting closer and tourists would soon start to return to the village. On the other hand, I also wanted to spend some time in Cusco, get a few things done on the Internet, get myself two or three massages at 20 soles each, and check the situation in Bolivia. I was told in Quellomayo that two young woofers had come from the village close to Apollo where I was planning to staying over a month, and they were very unsatisfied, complaining about the bad food that they received and a general bad treatment. I felt that it would be wiser to investigate the situation a bit deeper and eventually plan an alternative road since the other farms that I had contacted were also accepting my visit. For all of this, I needed high speed connection to the Internet; I needed to be in Cusco. The Cook’s wife birthday was coming in a few days. I decided to stay to celebrate her and leave for Cusco the following day.

Last Thoughts

I spent about six weeks in this area known as the Valley of the Convention. Here people are pretty much the same as every where else. Most of them are nice people, they work hard to make a living. Most of them are hardly paying the bills, working all day long and saving every penny. My friend the Cook works 15 to 17 hours a day. Some, like el Maestro, take it easier and spend less sweat go get the cash. What I find remarkable is the joy of living that I see with these people. They work hard but do not complain much. They like to laugh and remember funny moments. They listen all day to lively music, dance a few steps, sing a few tones, they enjoy themselves in spite of working long hours. The ones that work less seem to be the greediest ones. As I said, here people are like most people who live in the tropics. I just love their spirit, their enthusiasm and their joy of life – joie de vivre.

Although all the people in this area were very kind to me and always greeting me properly, a few of them showed some greed. Not too many , which I found very pleasing. It’s hard to find a place where all would treat foreigners nice and properly. Greedy people seem to be needed in order to bring some divine balance to life… One thing that shocked me though was the witnessing of how much work a 11 year-old boy was doing. El Maestro had two children at home, his 6 year-old daughter and a 10 to 11 year-old boy. El maestro was known as his godfather, and he was giving him quite a few tasks. The boy was washing his own clothes, cleaning the toilets and patio of the guesthouse and the house, and hunting for tourists. I saw him at 10 pm on the main road waiting for a late bus to catch customers for the guesthouse while el Maestro was in bed. I never saw the boy playing with another boy.

My last day in the village was full of events and even dramatic and revealing ones. I had bought a ticket a day before to return to Cusco in a comfortable van that was coming from Quillabamba. The cost was 35 soles, worth it. I was supposed to leave at 9 am. I spent the early hours serving breakfast at the restaurant. The van was supposed to come and get me. It never came. In fact, none of the agencies who were offering the service were moving either. I learned that the Ministry of Transport was controlling the documents of the operators, and since most of them were operating without the proper license, they were all waiting for the controllers to stop and go.

By 1:15 pm, I got the confirmation that my van was on its way and would pass through the village by 2:00 pm or so. After lunch, I was outside the restaurant, smoking, when I saw el maestro returning from the school. He had earlier expressed all his gratefulness for all my help and motivation, and he offered me a beer. I refused it. We chatted a few minutes and he left. Fifteen minutes later, the director of the Primary School came by, also returning from work. She asked me if el Maestro had given me my payment for the last week that I worked. I said that he gave me 50 soles. “But I gave him 150 and a receipt for you to sign. He said that the name on the receipt was not right and you did not sign it.” I was blown away. I asked her if she would walk with me to el Maestro’s house to resolve the issue. She agreed. I was afraid to miss my van but the Cook told me to go and that he would hold the van if needed.

We arrived at the Maestro’s house and asked for him to his daughter. He came after a minute and immediately apologized to me! It’s obvious that he had seen us coming up the street. “Oh I am sorry; I forgot to give you these 100 soles and the receipt.” We did not even have said a word yet. I replied nothing, took the money, signed the receipt and thanked greatly the director of the school then I left with a killing look at el Maestro. I was totally disgusted. I told my friend the Cook and his family what had happened. “As we told you, this man is a greedy man. Nobody likes him here. He hurt us badly in the past.” I had agreed to meet el maestro in Cusco on Sunday to give him a last class on the Internet since he was going to town for some professional training. When I arrived at Cusco, I called him and said: “On Sunday, I am going to forget our appointment. I don’t want to hear from you again.”

Life works in fascinating ways. If my van would have come as scheduled at 9 am, I would not have spoken with the director of the school and never had known that el Maestro was stealing from me. I was happy to see that life was treating me very well and kindly.

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