28 December 2007

In the total darkness, a little light goes a long way

It was Easter 1986. I was supposed to go with a party of Scouts on a walking weekend in the Canta area, in the Andes just East of Lima (Peru). I was one of the six adults in the party of around 18. A change in my exams timetable meant I could not leave with the group in the morning coach to Canta. My namesake JC was in a similar situation, so we arranged to meet up and take a 4pm coach instead - it should put is in Canta by 6pm, just at dusk, and we should then be able to make the 3mile walk from Canta - at the top of the valley - to Obrajillo, the village by the river near which we'd be camping for the first night. Sergio, the leader, had prepared a map with the camping spot marked in it. Easy.

Of course, it didn't work out as planned. The coach took four hours to reach Canta - it got there at 8pm. It was a moonless night, and fog had covered the entire valley. My mate and I walked the four streets that made up the town of Canta and took the road to Obrajillo - apparently the only people to do such thing that night. We had no torch with us and could not see beyond our noses. At some point we heard water running - a small stream of water that run across the winding road, but since it had been raining the day before, we suspected it might have grown wider. When we got close enough we kneeled down to touch the water, then tried to guess the width of the stream, hoped there'd be no obstacles on the other side, and jumped. Good news: we got across unharmed. Bad: we fell short, and ended up wet to the ankles.

When we finally got to Obrajillo the fog had lifted. Only the village square had street lights. We followed the map, took the path out of the village towards the mountains and after a mile or so reached the end - the cobblestoned way marked by half-height stone walls on boths sides became just a winding path going up to the foothills of the mountain. There we hesitated. According to the map our group should be right there, but in the dead silence of the night (in the Andes people rise early and retire early - at 9.30pm there wasn't a soul in sight) we couldn't hear a thing or see any lights. We panicked. We called, shouted, blew our whistles - no response. We assumed we had misread the map - perhaps the campsite was on the opposite side of the river. We walked back through the village, through the cemetery end (how is that for atmospheric?), over a footbridge and down the path on the opposite bank.

From there, we saw it: a light was shining on the other site, very near where we had just been. It was a flickering light inside a tent - in the pitch dark it seemed so near! We rushed to it - it took us a good 30' to get there. To our huge disappointment, the light belonged to a parafin lamp lit by some peasants guarding their field from a makeshift shelter.

Beaten, we strolled into the village. We found one shop open, a frail woman and a single candle on the counter. We begged her to let us stay the night but she refused. She helpfully suggested we tried Don Melchor's - he was known to rent rooms to travellers. His was the house right next to the church on the village square. We went there and gently tapped on the door. Nothing. We tried again, this time whispering 'Don Melchor, Don Melchor'. Nothing. An old man sitting on the steps of the church, cigarette in hand, looked on. Panic once more seized us - we frantically started beating the door with our walking sticks and shouting 'Don Melchor!, Don Melchor!'.

The old man from the Church stood up and came towards us. Then he said calmly 'Yes, young men? I am Don Melchor'. How we spent the night at his place, how we found our comrades the following morning and how the whole expedition came to a successful end, will be the matter of another note.

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