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Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was exactly where I found myself at the moment.
It was late and our film crew of some fifty was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Translation please: Uh… Vanished.
It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu. That was the next day’s destination for our travel documentary.
While the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news as the hotel clerk and I traded broken Spanish for broken English - there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy. Mierda.
I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear and suitcases off the bus - chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time.
Man… that awful moment when you know you have to ruin everything for everyone. How to do it? How to convey disappointment and yet some hope? Should I hang my head as I walk back? Drop my shoulders? No, too melodramatic. I’ll just do a matter-of-fact delivery with light notes of expectant optimism. It will all be fine.
I told them. Everyone looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain.
The first to speak was one of our cameramen.
“I quit”, he spat out to no one in particular. But really at me.
“So quit”, our director smacked back. I liked the director’s aplomb. Plus, he had logistics on his side. We had two other cameramen, and the director could shoot as well. So good luck getting back down the mountain, in the middle of Peru, to get a flight back to Lima, to get a flight back to the States. Yeah… go quit.
The cameraman instinctively knew all this too and retreated into a well-worn sulk.
Before anyone else had a chance to throw a bomb, I addressed the crew, letting them know I was hitting the streets of Aquas Calientes and would absolutely find them rooms. No one would be sleeping on the bus. So I headed out, leaving them to mumble and pout as production crews sometimes do.
I couldn’t really blame them. I was angry as well. It had been a long day, shooting ancient Inca villages, riding the rapids of the Urubamba River and then the long trip up the mountain. Couldn’t we just get a shower and bite to eat?
But life is a relative measure of wants and needs. In just twelve hours’ time, our petty complaints would seem an indulgence. We would still be alive. For others, sleeping just yards down the street that would no longer be so.
Of course I could not know this yet, so I let the fates decide where our rooms would be as I trudged the narrow pathways. Every little hotel was booked. If you ever go to Machu Picchu, and I definitely recommend you do visit these spectacular Inca ruins, this is where you will probably stay.
I also recommend you make advance room reservations. With a reputable outfit.
As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I was now inquiring at the smallest and seediest of hostelries. I found a few rooms at one and then another and another. It was getting late and there were only so many vacancies, so people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.
But when I told everyone about the new rooming situation they were just happy to finally have a bed. Do you really believe that? No, of course they weren’t happy. They were pissed. They’re a film crew. On an all-expense paid trip through Peru. And being paid plenty themselves. Who wouldn’t be outraged?
Do we ever fully appreciate that we are the lucky ones? Official First World answer: No.
Anyway, to cut through the complaints, I announced we’d meet for dinner in an hour. We would have wine… so stop whining. We were at world famous Machu Picchu for God’s sakes.
Pisco Sours And Much More
So we cleaned up and had wine and Pisco Sours – the national cocktail of Peru - plus Cusquena Beer, named for Cusco, the region’s colonial city. These local spirits seemed to restore our own once more.
Tomorrow our show would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, a World Heritage Site and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Now that was something to dream about tonight.
But the rooms really were awful. Not just cramped - we were stuffed in, three or more - but creepy too. Something about the place felt unsettling. Everything seemed off since we arrived at Aquas Calientes. It felt like some strange Inca juju going on.
I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. The thing just roared above us. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.
And then the dogs… Through the thick white noise of the air conditioning, I heard dogs, barking into the night. They wouldn’t stop… barking at the air conditioner. Just mindlessly barking until the racket of it all numbed me back to sleep.
A Single Dog Barked
That’s how I awoke at dawn. To the sounds of single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply. All the other noise had ceased.
I got out of bed to peer through the room’s one high window. I hadn’t seen the street below in daylight so at first I wasn’t alarmed by the river of mud that now filled it. But how could that be? We had walked these streets the previous evening.
I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the beating of the rain on the hotel’s tin roof.
Down at the street we took in the muddy landscape. A nearby river had gotten fat and high with fast running water. Yes, it had rained. A torrent. And the debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing - just piles of possessions stolen by the thick batter of sludge. What had happened?
The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. We turned to look - only parts of structures remained. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone - swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud. It seemed like a painting or an illustration because it couldn’t possibly be real.
All that was left was an empty, silent space… save for the barking dog, looking for its family.
We turned to each other to make sure we were seeing the same thing. We had. But then a new dark thought, “Where are the others?”.
With a panicked breath I took off, retracing my steps from the previous evening. Where were those other hotels? I had only seen the town at night and in daylight I was disoriented. Plus its basic layout had just been horribly altered.
I ran down the street and of course, nothing looked as it should. How could it? I saw train tracks, ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.
Locals and tourists stood there, also trying to makes sense of it. I ran toward them, searching for my crew. Not a one. But an alleyway ahead looked suddenly familiar. I turned and ahead was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found more of my people. They had seen the wreakage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there. Ok, one more group to go. I knew the last hotel was nearby.
I took off down the street and guessed right. This was the place I found last night and it had been a godsend, housing my last seven. This was the youngest group – assistants, runners and interns. Thankfully, I found them all safe and alive… still asleep in their beds. Young, innocent and clueless.
Our Luck Held
We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below. The roads and rail line were gone. Everyone would have to be choppered off the mountain.
We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.
Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn, tamales and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.
But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.
As I sat at there gorging myself, I savored that respect. The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet and had been kind enough to spare us.
So you see how lucky I felt - even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.
I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.
Thankful for anything? Share with us below.