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I had trouble striking up conversation with the portenos (locals) in Buenos Aires, their withering glances and patronising stares were not inviting. And when a stroll along Florida Street left me without my wallet I felt even less inclined to chat.
Despite all of this there was something I liked about Buenos Aires. I had been recommended a restaurant named Desniveles by a friendly Australian on my bus, it turned out to be the best steak I had ever tasted. The place was packed and its plastic tablecloths and penguin wine carafes gave it great character (unlike the portenos). I spent much of my time in the city strolling around various areas and sitting in the shade hiding from the relentless 35 degree heat. La Boca with its colourful houses and tango dancing charmed me and I enjoyed the boutiques of Palmero. Nothing as literary as Paul Theroux’s week with Jorge Borges, but I did visit his family home and duly admire the plaque on the wall there.
I also paid a visit to the police station to report my various thefts and get a crime number. This proved to be more entertaining than all my sightseeing put together.
A fleshy policeman ushered me into the ancient station and bade me to sit, promising he would be able to help. He proceeded to smoke a cigarette while sitting at an empty desk, wondering if this was the idle officer’s way of helping me I took in my surroundings. It felt as though I had returned to the seventies, the paint was peeling from the walls and old black and white photos of former policeman hung wonkily. An ancient chandelier dangled precariously by a single wire as water dripped onto it from a leaking pipe in the ceiling. The smoking policeman watched the drips form a puddle and sighed before looking over at his colleague who was diligently typing into what looked like an IBM computer. I waited…. A member of what looked like the ymca came in and gave the smoker his lunch, he was wearing his police uniform with tight style and copious amounts of hair gel, much kissing and greeting occurred, a cultural embrace between men that I was still getting used to. I was beckoned over to the IBM and we discovered an issue: my bag had been stolen in a state outside of Buenos Aires police jurisdiction. Both police disappeared into the office of the jefe (boss). Then the stunningly handsome jefe appeared from the office and put his arm around me: “Let me tell you a little secret….your bag wasn’t stolen on the border, it was stolen here.” He waggled his perfectly shaped eyebrows at me and nodded. “Great..thanks a lot” I managed to stutter while staring into his beautiful eyes; it felt like I was in some sort of South American soap opera. Much back slapping and kissing between the policeman occurred again as they agreed on the dates and times of the crime and the IBM typer got to work. Everyone was happy and I stumbled out of the station in a daze with my crime statement wondering if I had just played a bit part in a camp musical or was about to see Ashton Kutcher shout ‘you’ve been punk’d.’
My next plan was to organise one of the last legs of my trip; how to get to Patagonia. Paul Theroux took the Lagos del Sur to Ingeniero Jacobacci before taking La Trochita (The Old Patagonian Express). So I went in search of a train ticket.
The Tren Patagonico office was where I met Hector Cassano the last train expert in Argentina and saviour of La Trochita. His stories of political persecution had me rooted to my seat…more about that to come…and I discovered (again) that the only way to get a train ticket in Argentina was to book three months in advance. It seemed despite Buenos Aires European aspirations its reality was still firmly rooted in South America.
I waited a long time to cross the road in La Paz, then all the people I thought were waiting with me got into a collectivo minibus. Ah ha.. I thought and tried to style out my long wait with a jaunty stroll across the road, which nearly ended my life as a taxi screeched to a halt millimetres from my toes.
La Paz was somewhat a confusing city and certainly a busy one, but I felt a change in atmosphere from Peru almost immediately. The people were a lot more smiley and there was a certain openness about them which made me feel relaxed. A simple transaction of buying a cup of coffee could last for hours as pleasantries were exchanged and general chat occurred.
I had met many Peruvians who harboured resentment about the state of their lives and economy and were happy to voice their grievances, but the Bolivians I encountered so far seemed content with their lot and proud of their country, in fact I felt compelled to tell every Bolivian I spoke to that theirs was by far the best country in Latin America. As Paul Theroux remembered on several occasions: They hate criticism.
“Bolivia is my country, I love Bolivia I will never leave here, but I HATE Evo Morales, he is stupid.” Not a common criticism of a president, but this was in fact the second person who had said this to me. I was enjoying a beer in The Blue Note, a cosy bar in La Paz, with a musician whose name I could not pronounce, when I asked about his thoughts on the president: “You want to talk about politicsssssss?” he hissed at me menacingly. “I don’t, it makes me angry for my country.” He shouted beating his chest. I decided to change the subject. The pony-tailed flute player calmed as he spoke to me of the beautiful jungle, mountains and cities in Bolivia.
La Paz left me breathless and confused, just when I thought I knew the way back to my hotel I was faced with another unfamiliar hill littered with small Indian women begging or selling their wares. Looking up to avert my gaze from the beggars I noticed the terrifying wiring, thousands of lines crisscrossing the streets and connecting the jumbled buildings in a decidedly unsafe fashion.
The central square, as with all squares in South America, was filled with life. Women selling drinks and snacks, children playing with the pigeons and men sat on benches chatting. Cheerful armed police posed with tourists as did the guards on the government houses. The buildings were beautiful, especially the Palacio Presidential, designed in an Italian renaissance style and known as the burnt palace as it has twice been gutted by fire.
Each corner in the city brought a new surprise, one day I stumbled across the most impressive parade I have seen for years, rows of women dancing happily in matching outfits, their bright shawls swished as they turned, a brass band ompahhed along behind them all coordinated by a very cool chap who looked a little like a pimp, a real party atmosphere. A saint’s day celebration and a wedding combined I was told.
But I was a bad tourist in La Paz, I didn’t want to see the inmates in San Pedro prison or cycle down the aptly named death road, so instead I wandered around the city watching its inhabitants and eating the most delicious cakes I had consumed in a long time. Perhaps this had something to do with why the Bolivians were so happy, their cake. It oozed out of the shop windows, huge chocolate sculptures that I thought only existed in cartoons. I must have been in a post cake haze one day when I left my bank card in the machine. Cursing my stupidity I returned to the bank the next day with low hopes of retrieving the card. I explained to the pretty lady in traditional dress of blue sparkly fringed shawl and bowler hat (I was having problems thinking of her as a bank employee) when she told me to look for Horacio. After a few ‘Donde esta Horacios’ I found him and lo and behold he had my bank card in his hand. He smiled and handed it back to me with a jaunty nod. I was astonished.
I did attend one kind-of tourist activity in La Paz, one which I decided could not be missed named Cholitas Wrestling.
This was a fun Sunday activity which involved local families and a few tourists turning up to a sports centre and watching women in traditional dress um…wrestle, and not just wrestle each other but wrestle men also. It was the most obscure afternoon I had enjoyed in a long time. The wrestlers were introduced, as in all wrestling matches, with a lot of pomp and ceremony. First up was a man dressed in camouflaged army gear and sunglasses, he marched around the ring as the locals booed and I caught sight of a little old Indian lady with a very wrinkled face flicking him the bird.
Next in was a pretty Indian lady who danced around the ring before removing her earrings and bowler hat for the fight The bell rang and she approached her opponent with a rake, which he swiftly grabbed from her and began to press into her forehead, blood spurted all over the Cholita and the ring. What good clean family fun I pondered to myself, although the blood was fake the effect was fairly horrific. It seemed the lady had not a chance against the tough ‘army’ man and she was ’punched’ and ’kicked’ in true fake wrestling style until left ’bleeding’ having lost the fight in the centre of the ring. Her daughter came to drag her away though, which was a nice touch.
At this point an American lady sat next to me, who had been brought to this traditional event by her Bolivian family, got up and walked out shouting about sadism. Her husband, who had been enjoying himself and yelling at the wrestlers, slunk out after her, tail between his legs.
The rest of the audience was enjoying the show and participated with yells and boos as the fights continued, local favourites came and went, popcorn and candyfloss was consumed and at one point the fighters spilled out of the ring and onto my lap. After a few fights I escaped into the thin altiplano air and back to my hotel feeling somewhat confused and wondering if every Indian women I saw was really a secret Cholita wrestler about to attack.
These words, from The Old Patagonian Express, rang in my ears as I clung to the edge of my seat and kept my eyes tightly shut as the bus negotiated the highest, narrowest and scariest ‘puna’ (high, cold plateau) I had ever encountered.
Taking a route across the Andes via Andahuaylas had seemed like an excellent idea from the comfort of a town that actually had paved roads running in and out of it.
Two bumpy, dusty hours out of Ayacucho and frightened for my life I was beginning to have my doubts. Alarm bells had started ringing when the bus driver had backed out of the station smashing his wing mirror off in the process, this was not boding well for his negotiation skills, but I tried not to worry and kept my head in my book, also trying not to think about the fact the bus looked as though most of it had been glued back together at one stage or another in its long life.
An hour out of Ayacucho the brakes started making a horrific squealing noise, further adding to my panic. It was starting to become very difficult to concentrate on reading (My book: Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes – not a great choice at this point in the trip) and by the time we reached the puna I didn’t know what to do with myself.
We were as high as the highest snowy peaks and the formidable mountains surrounded us as the creaking monster of a bus struggled around the hair pin bends, looking at every moment as if it might slip off the road and down into the precipice below. At each bend the driver hit the squeaky breaks and honked his horn for the benefit of any oncoming traffic.
I alternated between staring out of the window while shrieking quietly to myself in harmony with the breaks and keeping my eyes closed and breathing deeply. Just as my thoughts of ’why, why did I choose this route?’ started to get out of control, the driver came to a screeching halt and all the passengers screamed as we nearly had a head on collision with a truck on a hairpin bend overlooking a sheer drop of 350 ft.
This had an almost cathartic effect on my mood. How much worse could this get? I thought to myself, and an hour later when we stopped for lunch I shared my fears with one of the ladies on the bus. She looked at me and burst out laughing: “This bus journey is very safe the roads are wide, they used to be a lot worse than this. There is no reason to be scared.” I felt a little bit embarrassed and laughed nervously while thinking… well its easy for you not to be scared there is no awareness of safety in this country whatsoever. Just walking down the road is a liability with uncovered drains and giant potholes everywhere you look. A simple stroll to the local shop would be an American lawyers dream.
After lunch the track became slightly more tolerable and I spent a great deal of the afternoon trying not to be covered in a bottle of oil a local woman had brought onto the bus. She was dressed in local garb with a smelly bundle on her back and a lidless bottle that kept tipping over and emptying its contents over my feet. The problem was made worse by the fact that whenever I tried to right the bottle she snatched at it, thinking I was trying to steal it and snarled at me with a toothless grimace. Just as I thought things could not get anymore uncomfortable or weird a man got on the bus and started giving the passengers some sort of sex education talk before trying to sell them posters of scientific diagrams of genitalia.
It is safe to say that the ten-hour trip from Ayacucho to Andahuaylas had been one of the worst so far and that the Lonely Planet’s description of “a tough ride on a road rarely used except by the most hard-core travellers” was not wrong, although I very much doubted that I fell into the category of ‘hard-core traveller’.
Huancayo is a buzzing little Andean town, full of colour, people and life. Certainly not the cold, sad picture that I had imagined after Paul Theroux‘s descriptions:
“There was something about the damp walls of every room in this town, and the muddy roads leading out of it that made the isolation palpable; it’s chill conveyed a physical feeling of remoteness.”
No longer so isolated from the rest of Peru, with good connecting roads, the town has blossomed into a thriving Andean centre, famous for its Sunday markets and even boasting a modern shopping centre.
The square was a veritable social club, always full of chatting families and street sellers. I had arrived on the weekend of Halloween and the pavements were mobbed with miniature vampires and ghosts, while a Christian concert took place on a makeshift stage. It all felt a little surreal as I watched little children dressed as devils sing Halleluiahs with their parents.
But I could not linger long, I was going to take a train that even Theroux himself had not managed to get on; he had returned to Lima from Huancayo and flown to Cuzco, as in the seventies, when he took his trip, there was no passable road or railway through the mountains to the east. Now it is possible to take the train to Huancavelica then a bus to Ayacucho and then two more mountain buses across the Andes to Cuzco.
This was in fact the same route which Michael Jacobs took in his book Andes, so I started mentally preparing myself for the bus rides, which sounded a little rough. Although I should have perhaps focused on the train ride which was also a little less than comfortable. Even the queue for tickets was an experience in itself: I was serenaded by a man in a wheelchair and his son, sold bread, offered sweets, moisturiser, tiger balm and flowers. So distracted by these offerings I failed to notice a man push in front of me, which caused quite a stir when the security guard picked him out of the queue giving me a disparaging look and a telling-off as he did so. The ‘queue’ was a colourful melee of shouting, pushing and a distinct lack of personal space, so taking a deep breath I stuck my elbows out and pushed forward in an attempt to get a ticket while wondering why on earth I hadn’t thought about booking in advance.
I was still wondering this when I found myself sharing my bag, which was now being used as a seat, with a small family of three, off to visit their relatives in Huancavelica.
The mother, dressed in the usual Andean outfit of smart hat, brightly coloured flared skirt and belongings tied in a shawl on her back asked me:
“What is the traditional dress in England?”
That’s a good question I thought to myself and ashamedly I could not give her a very satisfactory answer.
“What kind of food do you eat in your country?” was the next question, crikey I thought, this is going from bad to worse, I tried explaining fish and chips, the lady looked less than impressed.
The scenery was beautiful, craggy peaks and tiny villages passed by as we climbed to a height of 3676 metres. A “classic” Andean train journey as described by The South American Handbook. We clung precariously to the side of the mountains whilst negotiating numerous tunnels (38 to be precise) and bridges.
From my perch on the floor I marvelled at the goings on in the train: families squabbled, children cried, strange looking foods were consumed and the jostling continued. I peered jealously into the buffet class car. This car had been full when I reached the ticket office, it boasted numbered seats and no one was allowed in the aisles or doorways. It’s attendant was tasked with serving food to the entire train. He tottered up and down carrying plates piled high with food, his skill in this task was impressive as he never seemed to spill anything despite the numerous obstacles in his path – including myself.
At each village people poured off the train and even more climbed on. At one point I was nearly hit in the face by a lamb bleating in a bag. After a while an English teacher from Huancayo took pity on me and offered her seat for half an hour, I gladly accepted as the man now sitting next to me had fallen asleep and his breath was less than fragrant. As I prised his head off my shoulder and relinquished the space on my bag-turned-seat the teacher explained:
“Sorry, that’s my brother.” She added apologetically. “He drinks.”
I took her seat in the carriage to be faced with what felt like hundreds of people staring at me, as we bobbed along I enjoyed the views which were unlike anything I had seen on a train ride before, the towering mountains took my breath away and the peering locals made the experience all the more unusual.
The peering did not stop once I had disembarked from the train in Huancavelica, a charming little town nestled in the craggy mountains. Sitting in the square after a stroll I watched a little boy try and teach his brother how to ride a bicycle, the little boys inability to balance was not the only problem in the venture, a stray dog, of which there are many in Peru, was nibbling at their ankles as they circumnavigated the square. I was happy to have something to watch, it took my attention away from the local inhabitants who were mostly staring at me, this was somewhat unnerving as it appeared I was the only tourist in town.
Lima did not feel as downtrodden as I had expected. Most people I met had advised me to avoid the city altogether, perhaps because my arrival coincided with the choosing of a new mayor the place seemed in a jubilant mood.
The “lovely cream-coloured railway station in Lima,” as described by Paul Theroux, is now a bright shade of yellow and is not solely the train station, as it doubles as the ‘Casa de la Literatura Peruana’ housing many literary exhibitions and a new Mario Vargos Llosa library.
I was very excited about taking the train from Lima to Huancayo and also slightly nervous, I had only just got over a bout of altitude sickness and Paul Theroux’s descriptions of ailments on the journey concerned me. Determined to be able to enjoy the stunning mountain vistas I took an altitude sickness pill and hoped for the best.
Luckily I was not disappointed. Sat in classic (cheap) class as the train clattered out of Lima I felt happy to finally be on the tracks and travelling a good distance. The train, which reaches an impressive height of 4781 metres, making it one of the highest in the world, takes 12 hours to creep to Huancayo and is even slower now than it was in the seventies.
We started the trip with bright blue skies and as the train climbed out of the suburban Lima slums the brown shrubby mountains appeared.
Llosa in his book, Conversation in the Cathedral, describes some of the houses in Lima as “… cubes with gratings on them, caves cracked by earthquakes, inside there’s a traffic of utensils and reeking little old women with slippers and varicose legs.”
Sadly this description came to mind as the train passed by row after row of half-built one-floor hovels with ill-fitting windows and grimy occupants spilling onto the dirt roads. I was moved at the sight of a sad old man standing alone in the middle of a derelict football pitch, a ball poised at his feet while he waved and smiled forlornly at the train.
Sitting across from me was a honeymooning couple from Wales who were very excited about the journey, so much so that not a second passed on the entire trip when the new bride was not snapping a photograph, accompanied by the rolling of her new husbands eyes: “If she hasn’t taken a picture of it then it hasn’t happened.” he mentioned to me at one point, I pondered on this rather frustrating concept for a while and tried to contain the urge to ask what on earth they did with these millions of photographs.
The scrub on the mountains started to turn green and trees appeared as we climbed ever higher and the train negotiated bridges and tunnels while clinging to the mountains edge.
I took a walk along the train’s corridors and met a holidaying family from Lima. They were in high spirits and talked of their weekend plans for Huancayo.
The brown earth turned a startling shade of red as I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of sitting and contemplating on my green faux velvet seat on the train.
All too soon the sky followed the earth and coloured bright red before darkening, signalling our arrival in Huancayo.
Laying fully clothed shivering in my hotel room bed I was reminded of Paul Theroux’s problems with altitude sickness: the staggering and the sweats. As I had ascended gradually in Ecuador it hadn’t been a problem. But a bus straight from sea level to Huaraz at 3052m followed by a hike to Lake 69 at 4600m, had proved too much for my body to handle.
Prior to this my brief coastal interlude, first at Mancora and then Trujillo had been a welcome respite from the mountains. Trujillo and it’s surrounds were especially interesting.
Inspired by Michael Jacobs (author of Andes) I visited the ruins of Chan Chan, the former capital of the Chimu Kingdom and the largest pre-Colombian city in South America. It was an impressive site and with the help of an English guide I was soon envisaging how the city and peoples had functioned when it was built in AD 850 until it was taken over by the Incas in AD 1470. After an educational morning I headed to Trujillo and lounged in the colonial square and restaurants before taking a trip to nearby fishing village Huanchaco, which had once also been part of the Chimu’s land.
Fisherman bobbed in the waves on their ‘Caballitos’ (reed fishing boats) while backpackers, volunteers and surfers loitered on the beach and in bay side eateries. This welcoming village was just managing to retain its traditional charms, despite the swarms of tourists who have now discovered this peaceful spot, with it’s relaxing atmosphere and good waves.
My urge for the coast now sated I took a taxi to catch a bus back into the mountains, this time heading further south to Huaraz.
“How much do you earn in your country? I only earn $200 a month, it’s a hard life in Peru for a taxi driver.”
Back in the seventies, Peru, according to Paul Theroux, was the poorest country in South America, now this is not true and Paraguay sits bottom of the economic pile, with Bolivia and Ecuador following and Peru just above them. My complaining cabbie, seemed not to be aware of his improved status and told of the difficulties in his life for the entire 20 minute journey to the bus station. I couldn’t decide if he was annoying me because he just wanted a bigger tip or whether I felt genuinely sorry for the man.
In my bed in Huaraz a few days later I was certainly feeling sorry for myself. I vowed to take things a little slower in the future and chuckled at the irony as I thought of Paul’s frustrations when taking the train from Lima to Huancayo: “Why was it in this landscape of such unbelievable loveliness that I felt sick as a dog?” I agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment.
Finally feeling better I ventured out to see what the city had to offer. The streets were lined with Andean women in their traditional hats, bright shawls and skirts selling fruit and vegetables. As I surveyed the buzzing market streets a man tapped me on the shoulder: “Tortuga?” Tortoise? I thought, that’s a bit odd why did he say that? Then the chap turned around to reveal a huge tortoise on his back, crudely covered by a plastic bag. I jumped and yelped with surprise: “No gracias?!” It was certainly the first time anyone had illicitly offered me a tortoise on a street corner.
The local women looked very tough and judging by their surrounds they have to be, the harsh Andean climates and the poor living conditions combining to make their lives quite a struggle. I often saw women carrying heavy loads on their backs and in one instance I spotted a lady rolling a huge rock across the road which I’m sure heavyweight lifters would have struggled with.
But I didn’t linger long in Huaraz, because I needed to get to Lima in order to catch the train to Huancayo. This train, to my elation, does still run but only once a month so I hopped an overnight bus, this time bound for Lima.
I’ve updated my google map so take a look and follow my journey. You can find it by clicking here: Rachel’s trip to date (or above).
The map shows pointers of each place I have been to and am hoping to visit, click on the pointers to see links back to relevant blog posts and little excerpts and bits of info.
The red pointer shows my current location.
I hope you enjoy and do keep reading and posting your comments. Thanks all.
“I don’t think it runs anymore”
“It runs on a Saturday”
“Only on a Sunday”
“I didn’t even know we had a train in this town”
“It’s run by Metropolitan touring, ask them”
“Metropolitan touring don’t run it anymore it’s run by the government”
My patience with these vague answers was wearing thin, I was also running out of people to question. The coup had kept me inside my hotel for two days so I asked the receptionist Jorge his opinion.
He told me: “I haven’t taken the train since I was a child, I’m not sure. Go and ask at the train station.”
I pointed out that he had just advised me not to leave the hotel as it was unsafe on the streets.
“Ah, yes, well perhaps wait a couple of days and then go, things will soon be okay.”
When I finally made it to the station it seemed my plans to take this train were as thwarted as Paul Theroux’s.
“Sorry the train is full for tomorrow. It runs again next week.”
How was this possible? I mused, the city had been in lockdown for the last two days, perhaps all the locals had taken the opportunity to pop out and book places on the train while the tourists were cowering in their hotels.
Paul Theroux took a flight from Quito to Guayaquil with the hope of returning by train. All the trains were full, so he went back to Quito and finally bought himself a ticket on the ‘Good and Quick’ as it was then nicknamed, only to miss the trains departure.
It seemed I was having the same luck.
Time was not on my side so I decided to head straight down to Riobamba where I would be able to pick up the only other section of the train that is currently running.
The bus took me through the famed avenue of volcanoes, a landscape unlike any I have seen before. Villages passed by the windows framed by towering volcanoes and fruit sellers lined the sides of the dusty roads.
Even Patrick Swayze’s torso on the bus’s television could not tear my eyes away from the stunning scenery. But when a local man, who had been staring at me for most of the journey, leant over and started stroking my arm I was forced to avert my attention to inside the bus.
He was dressed in local garb, the hat and poncho, and kept asking where I was from and saying ‘blanco…blanco’ as he stroked my arm. I assumed he was referring to the colour of my skin.
‘Inglaterra, Inglaterra’ I tried to explain. He looked confused. I pulled out a map of Europe and pointed to the UK. He looked even more confused, I took out a map of Ecuador and asked where he lived ‘Ambato’ he replied. We had passed his stop half an hour ago. It seemed geography was not his strong point.
I felt a moment of hope at Riobamba’s train station as I watched a video about the restoration work currently underway on the Quito to Guayaquil line. But my ‘train’ journey on this line was to be undertaken on what can only be described as a bus on rails.
This was only temporary, I was assured by the chap in the ticket office. They would be running the real steam trains next February when they had fixed the once dangerous Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) section of the train line. The line had been closed after two tourists were decapitated after riding on its roof, so I was told.
Well it was to be a ride on the rails nonetheless so I retired to my hotel, La Libertador, complete with a painting of Bolivar astride his horse, for an early night before my 6.30am departure.
The train pulled out of the station with a little bump and rattled along the old railway lines as the great white peak of the famous volcano Chimborazo came into view.
Eucalyptus trees lined the hills and railway line surrounding Riobamba, introduced to Ecuador in 1861 they were now causing environmental issues as the trees upset the natural biodiversity of the area.
We bumped along with a regular running commentary from a lady tour guide who pointed out such exciting sights as a cement plant and a river. I yawned and wondered why on earth the train left at such an ungodly hour.
The city gave way to hills and countryside and we past farmers tending to their fields and locals dragging their animals to and fro.
The train stopped in Guamote, an indigenous village. As I disembarked I almost tripped over a local woman in traditional dress hacking up a pig, I gave her a wide berth and took a walk around the market, marvelling at the village which seemed stuck in the past. I couldn’t understand who was staring at who the most. At one point three generations of women in a family walked past me in garish pink traditional dress. I was staring at them and they stopped opposite and stared at me, it felt like one of those staring competitions I used to have at school. It was their village so I looked away first, much to their amusement as they tottered off on their uncomfortable looking shoes in a fit of giggles.
Back on the train I myself felt uncomfortable, like a strange sort of voyeur. I suppose this is what travel and tourism is about, I pondered, although I wasn’t sure if I liked it. I’m always keener to see local cultures rather than partake in cheap adventure sports while on my travels, but popping into an indigenous village felt rather like an invasion of privacy.
The train ride itself was beautiful, picture perfect views of stunning Ecuadorian landscapes. The hills looked like patchwork covers with their undulating fields of bright greens and browns and the locals waved and shouted as we rattled past.
I felt sad when we arrived in Palmira, the landscape had become arid desert punctuated by ferns, it looked as if the train had pulled up in the high street of an abandoned wild west town. I heartily wished the train/bus could have taken me further on my journey. But the ride on the rails was over too soon, I was quickly ushered into a waiting bus to take me on to nearby Alausi and then Guayaquil.
Only a Colombian could get away with wearing a pink anorak and a cowboy hat. But somehow the jeep driver in Salento pulled this off and managed to look pretty damn good. He also had a moustache, a rather a grumpy look about him and a silver horse on the front of his jeep. But I wasn’t going to question his taste or mood, he was driving and I was holding on for dear life.
I didn’t have the luxury of a seat for this journey. Instead I had to stand on a small set of metal bars on the back of the jeep and hold onto whatever I could as we bumped along the roads to the Cauca Valley.
This was one of the most beautiful sections of my journey to date. I had travelled by bus from Bogotá to Salento along the winding roads of the Quindío Valley and it was as impressive as I had hoped.
Paul Theroux said: “I had seen nothing to compare with this, well, rude magnificence of nature.”
The valley dipped and turned and our bus chugged along the road, squeezing past concrete houses and shacks which were impossibly pinned to the side of the mountain, ready to topple off at any moment.
This part of the world did not look to have changed since Paul Theroux’s visit.
He commented: “I saw no people venturing out, it looked as though they would simply fall down as soon as they left their front doors.”
It seemed madness for people to live in such an inconvenient place. But perhaps the stunning beauty of the place itself made up for its difficulties, clouds dipped into the valley and the terrifying heights and chasms took my breath away.
The bus struggled and during the gear changes I could see straight into people’s front rooms, mothers cooking dinner, children playing and even a couple laying in bed. It felt odd to be able to stare into these people’s lives at such close quarters, but I supposed they must have been used to it.
Back on the jeep in Salento my grip was loosening as an American spoke to me about how safe it was to get into Ecuador overland.
“It’s fine, there is nothing to worry about, I did it not so long ago, its fine as long as you go during the day. Well it’s fine… most of the time.”
His comments were not ringing true with me and I wondered (correctly) what this man’s idea of ‘fine’ was as far as safety was concerned.
He continued; “Well it’s mostly fine, although I met some girls recently who took the bus during the day and it was held up by some robbers, they shot some bullets through the driver’s window and it was only because a lady on the bus called her brother in the military that they were all rescued, otherwise they would have been robbed and maybe taken hostage. But really it will be fine.”
I had been debating on the safety of crossing this border overland for a few days as FARC’s second in command had just been killed. The American’s story made my mind up, I would fly, as it would be the safest option. (Although the irony of this decision became apparent later when I flew into Quito and a political coup).
After my jeep ride to the Cauca Valley and a stroll amongst the beautiful cloud forests, it was time to move on. Paul took a train from Armenia to Cali, and as usual I discovered this train had not been running for some years. However there was a train that ran from nearby La Tebaida to Cali. Fabulous I thought. But after much questioning and umming and eerring from various locals/travel agents and tourism ’experts’ I discovered this train no longer ran either.
My quest to travel by train through the America’s as Paul Theroux once had was turning into a distant dream. Each country I visited I held new hope of finding the rail system still vaguely in tact or being renewed, but sadly so far I was told that governments were planning to improve/resurrect the rail systems, but had just…well… not quite got around to it.
So it was that I found myself on yet another bumpy bus, this time the road followed the old train tracks for the entire trip, crossing them at some points as I headed towards Cali, Colombia’s salsa capital.
Dancing is not something that I can do unless I am fairly inebriated and so it was with a slight amount of fear that I headed to Tin Tin Deo, Cali’s salsa hotspot on a Thursday night.
The club looked like a fairly normal place: slightly dim, posters and neon lights adorning the walls, tables and chairs scattered around. What was not ‘normal,’ not from my experience anyway, was the dancing. I had only ever seen this calibre of dancing on the television.
It seemed the locals of Cali had some serious moves. As each new song started up guys grabbed girls and they hit the dance floor, with vigour, their fancy footwork as they twisted and turned was difficult enough to watch never mind emulate.
I sat rooted to my seat, mouth slightly agape at the fantastic show in front of me. The cheer and enthusiasm coming from the dance floor was contagious and the club got busier and busier.
One of the more impressive dancers sauntered over and asked me to join him, I muttered an embarrassed ‘no thank you’ as I took the decision to stay firmly where I was. Suddenly I was very aware of my Englishness. Salsa was just not in my blood and there would be no chance I could even start to get involved without some hideously embarrassing consequences, or was that just my English paranoia stopping me from letting loose?
I played it safe, ordered another beer and enjoyed the dancing from the safety of my seat, while pondering on whether it was worth going to bed as I only had four hours before my flight took off for Quito, Ecuador.
For a moment I thought I was at home; a cup of tea in one hand, cricket on the radio and a contented feeling. But this unusual peace was soon disturbed by a din outside, I looked down onto the street to see a very strange sight. A young man was enthusiastically playing an accordion, not so unusual for a Colombian street, but his audience was rather out of the ordinary: A group of about 20 armed policemen. They were dancing and singing around the accordion player, snapping photos of each other with their guns swinging precariously from side to side as they gyrated.
Ah yes, I’m in Bogotá I remembered and sipped my tea whilst watching the shenanigans below.
I was staying in an area of Bogotá called La Macarena (yes like the dance) with a journalist friend named Jon and his wife Susi. Their apartment was opposite the police station where apparently these sights were very common.
“We’ve seen them in dressing up costumes before, zebras, lions, bears, quite amusing.” Jon told me.
“But don’t be fooled they look a good bit scarier dressed up in all their riot gear.”
Police and military were everywhere in Bogotá and as far as I could tell not many of them looked older than about 22, but they were all toting huge guns and attempting to look menacing, well when they were not dancing around, texting their girlfriends or listening to their iPods. I couldn’t decide whether to be scared or laugh.
Bogotá has certainly changed since Paul Theroux’s visit. He was upset by the number of homeless street children he encountered and spent his time staggering from church to church, suffering from the altitude.
The altitude, luckily, did not affect me and there were far fewer homeless than in Paul’s day, although apparently far more drug dealers.
There seemed to be a plethora of memory stick/usb sellers every few metres as I strolled down Calle 7, I needed a usb so entered into a conversation with one of the men, but rather than a straightforward transaction things got very complicated, it was too much for my limited Spanish so I walked on, later learning that his usbs were only a front for selling cocaine. I saw a good many shoelace sellers on the streets also and pondered on their technique for selling cocaine if this was also a front. Did the length of the shoelace you purchased represent the amount or strength of cocaine you required?
When I had got my bearings I took a walk to the train station. The last piece of track on the line from Santa Marta to Bogotá was still being used for a Turistren and I was determined to investigate. I managed to purchase tickets for the steam train, which departed on Sunday, but before I left I was treated to some traditional Colombian hospitality in the form of… a Welsh pub.
Edgar, the pubs owner, had married a Colombian lady he had met in Spain, 40 years ago. The couple had lived in Bogotá for most of their lives, but I’m pretty sure Edgar still missed his homeland as he had created an authentic Welsh pub in his lounge room. The strange thing was it even smelled like a pub, photos of Wales and old issues of Mersey beat adorned the walls and a welcome glass of wine was placed in my hand. The situation felt rather surreal as Edgar regaled me with tales of his youth in London and Wales while several other ex pats arrived to celebrate a friend’s birthday.
It was as if I had been transported to Wales itself and I wasn’t sure if I was happy with that.
The next day saw the Turistren chuffing out of Bogotá’s La Sabana station. It really was a tourist train and any hopes I had of finding a real passenger train still running in Colombia faded into the distance with each raucous band that passed through our train carriage.
Despite this it was a great day out, topped off by a visit to a real country fair in one of the local villages. Bands warbled on the makeshift stage and men on horses paraded nearby. There was even a float parade, but to me it looked rather like several battered pick-up trucks camouflaged in various bits of tree.
The conversation in Bogotá had been very enjoyable, I was happy not to have to explain where I had travelled to or from or discuss the merits of how cheap my accommodation was or for how many years I had been on the road.
On the train to Bogotá Paul Theroux was plagued by a Frenchman with a sore throat who extolled to him the virtues of getting the bus because it was cheaper. This is a very common travellers boast and also a most tiresome one.
With these thoughts in mind I packed my bag and prepared to hit the road again. This time with plans to lie entirely about myself, my trip and the cost of my accommodation the next time an inquisitive traveller thought to ask, which was in fact on the way out of Bogotá as I headed southwest towards the Quindo pass.