As the bartender hammered boards across the windows, I locked myself in the bathroom and cursed myself for such bad timing. My hiking group had run out of the bar and left me to my own demise, except for my friend Sandra, who is one of those unflappable travel partners who can handle just about anything. She continued pounding on the door, saying “Girl! You’d better hurry up in there. Get out of there. Now.” As it turns out, “scared shitless” isn’t just a cliché.
Scared Shitless: A Peruvian Evacuation
At the time, I thought Sandra waited for me because she wasn’t as scared as I was, but I later learned that she thought we would die right then and there.
Our final day of hiking the Inca Trail concluded that morning at Machu Picchu, where we admired the ruins and green mountainscape until the busloads of tourists arrived, and we boarded a local bus for nearby Aguas Calientes, six kilometers away. We dropped off our muddy hiking clothes at a laundry, found a hostel, and changed into bathing suits and shorts, anticipating a soak in the natural hot springs that give the town its name. Pastel-colored buildings etch into the side of the canyon walls, and the jungle-clad mountains crouch above, notching the sky. The canyon is so narrow that passing trains nearly scrape the buildings on either side.
We looked forward to relaxing in the springs after hiking over 13,000ft passes, most notably Warmiwañusca (or Dead Woman’s Pass), 13,829ft above sea level. And when we weren’t climbing granite stairs, we hiked steep hills that our guides called “Andean Flat.” It was early April, the changeable season, the time between the wet and dry seasons, but our hike was more wet than dry. Our last night, it rained so hard — the Spanish word for this is aguacero — that our guides and porters were up in the middle of the night digging trenches around our tents, which made me feel like one spoiled princesa, and not in a good way.
We had promised to meet our hiking group and guides at the bar for a couple of celebratory pisco sours before heading to the hot springs. As we were finishing our drinks and exchanging email addresses, outside a train shrilled to a halt. People jumped from the train and scattered across the canyon, running along the pebbled tracks. Vendors abandoned their wares — blankets, walking sticks, ponchos, and postcards — on the narrow sidewalk. Shopkeepers began hammering boards over their windows. One man fell onto the train tracks, smashed his head on the rail, then stumbled to his feet and continued running. Blood stained the rocks where he had fallen.
We asked the people running by, “Que pasó?” What happened? A woman shouted, “Avalancha de tierra.” A man in the tourist uniform, zip-off khakis and a floppy hat, yelled “Landslide” as he ran past. And that’s when I was sent back into the bar with the immediate urge to go.
The air outside thickened with humidity, drenched with the smell of wet earth. Everyone ran every which way — no one really knowing the mudslide’s path, just that it tumbled toward us from the misty mountains, from somewhere up there. Sandra and I ran across the street, joining the others who had gone in search of higher ground, but we didn’t know the exact location of the landslide. Was it on our side of the box canyon, oozing toward us, about to topple the building above us?
A British woman from our hiking group seemed unreasonably calm. She reminded me of the Titanic passengers, who were sipping their after-dinner drinks and insisting on dessert, even though they knew the ship had collided with an iceberg. She told me the guides had said not to worry, that if there’s danger, the town sirens would sound. “So not to worry,” she said, “no sirens.”
We breathed in the heavy air, chewy and primal with the smell of earth. No sirens, no sirens, no sirens — I repeated this mantra. Until the high-pitched alarms bounced off the canyon walls. The police hurried toward us, shouting. Our hiking guides translated: “Run!”
Ten minutes earlier, I had been so sore, I could hardly walk. Now I ran, my sandals flip-flopping through muddy puddles. The adrenaline felt like a cold snake down my spine. Shards of gray sky seemed to break off and fall in the downpour. The crowd bustled along, and the British woman stopped to take a photograph. I squinted through the rain and finally saw the mudslide down valley, the watery earth winding a brown trail through the green mountainside.
We all continued running over the bridge, the Rio Urubamba bubbling in a cold, muddy boil, slopping over the rusted metal sides in murky waves. The sounds of the turbulent brown water like the static of a radio turned on maximum volume. I ran with my arms flapping about like wings, as if that would somehow lift me into flight. Sandra’s sprint was more dignified, void of arm fury, so she didn’t knock fellow evacuees from her path in the unfortunate way I did. We escaped through the ruta de evacuación, the evacuation gates about a mile upstream, and to a train that had stopped up canyon, waiting.
We stood in a rustling line, not sure if the surrounding hillsides would slide onto us, if we would be enveloped by mud, swept away by a brown waterfall. I only had my prescription sunglasses — my regular glasses had been left in my backpack at the hostel. My swimsuit, shorts, and towel over my shoulders were soaked. I worried because I didn’t have a ticket for the train. Did I need a ticket to evacuate? People pushed into each other, trying to board.
A young Dutch-Australian couple in front of us in line argued. He spoke in English and said, “Get a hold of yourself. It’s going to be fine.” She answered in Dutch, but with all her crying, even a native Dutch speaker wouldn’t have understood her. She crossed herself and began praying: “God te behagen.” Then more crying. This time the hysterical, hyperventilating kind — the sort of crying I’m sometimes prone to — but I felt too scared even to cry. And her hysteria gave me a strange sense of calm. She demonstrated exactly what I felt, so I didn’t have to. But I wasn’t nearly as calm as Sandra, who later asked, “Being smothered with mud would be the ultimate horror, but what could we do to stop it, so why panic?”
The husband tried to calm his frantic wife. He said, “We will have children. We aren’t going to die on our honeymoon.” The opposite effect was achieved by this mention of their future, and the rise in frenzy now featured convulsive moaning and choking sobs.
Until he slapped her. And she resumed a silent weeping.
Looking back, I can feel the sting of that slap with a glassy sharpness, though unflappable Sandra would say, “If I were him, I would have slapped her sooner.” But at the time, I felt nothing more than surprise and a mild dismay; it all just seemed part of the surreal drama unfolding around us. Now I see that there’s nothing like fear to reveal the beauty — and also the horror or maybe the shamefulness — of our human selves.
When we made it to the train’s door, I tried to explain to the conductor that we didn’t have a ticket, but he waved us tourists on board. The guides and porters, however, were turned away. This upset me, but not so much that I was willing to give up my seat. I looked out the rain-spotted window with shame. The river rumbled a chaotic brown past us, still rising. The rain continued to fall in steady, gray petals.
I would no longer have to wonder if I would do the right thing when prodded by danger. It’s easy to say that there was nothing I could do, and that our guides and porters would probably be all right — and thankfully they were — and while this is true on some level, it’s also not true; it’s the lie I rely on in order to forgive myself. And the ugliest part of it is that if I had to do it again, I can’t say for certain that I would react any differently. It’s harder to say you would do the right thing after you’ve already been tested.
The Dutch woman ordered a bottle of wine and asked us if we wanted some. Sandra said no because she sells wine for a living, and regardless of what I considered the dire need to drink, Sandra wasn’t about to drink cheap swill. So I took turns with the Dutch woman, passing the bottle back and forth. We waited there, wondering if the land would buckle above us, sending the train into the river. I asked the waiter if everything was going to be okay, and he said, “No sé.” I don’t know. But that certain squint of his eyes, the voice cracked in whisper, gave away his fear.
The British group showed each other digital images of the mudslide. As they shared photographs, they didn’t seem bothered at all that the train wasn’t yet moving, that we remained in a box canyon in the pouring rain. I took another swig from the bottle of the cheap merlot, trying to muffle the voice in my head: While the guides who delivered you safely stood there in the rain by the rising river, you just sat there.
The train eventually lumbered through the canyon toward Cusco, and everyone clapped, which both took me by surprise and didn’t. The husband apologized to the wife, who accepted with a wine-happy smile. Sandra fell asleep, as she has been known to do during exceptionally turbulent flights and on small boats in rough seas. I sat there in my sunglasses and swimsuit, wet towel draped around my shoulders; I swayed with the din of the rocking train, watching the black hollow of night slide past my reflection in the window.