Sunday, March 26, 2017

SPIROCHETE—Peruvian Spiral 4

A steep climb up metal steps got passengers into a rundown train car in a long row of equally rickety ones linked together behind an antique but operational steam engine. It was 10:20PM and dark. No lighting on board. We found seats and waited, crowded in, until just before midnight, with the screech of a whistle and great puffs, like in a movie, we lurched out of Arequipa along the narrow gauge rail.

For our twenty-three hour ride sat on a wooden bench with a plank for a table between the seats, in frigid mountain air with no sleep and no warm clothes. I was definitely unprepared for the day-long journey. I had a heavy jacket but no hat, scarf, mittens or blanket. I had not packed food. The nationals were prepared, I was not.

We chugged and switch-backed through the mountains stopping at Yura, Sumbay, Cabaña, Juijica, Sqo, Pupujo, Ayavir, Santa Rosa, Maranganí, Sicuani. Not every stop had a station, merely a sign on a stake beside the tracks at the end of a footpath. Passengers came and went at each while vendors, Quechua and Aymara, hawked their wares through the night. Sometimes they boarded to sell souvenirs, clothes and food. I bought an Alpaca hat with earflaps but it didn’t help much against the Andean chill. 

Similar to the chicken bus in Guatemala, the Indian Train was crowded and rough. People jammed into seats with wares to peddle in Cuzco. Bags of alpaca wool, onions, corn, coca leaves, blankets, jewelry. Lots of coughing and snivelling, but very little talking. Most passengers had black, thickly calloused bare feet. Men were wrapped in ponchos, women wore layers of skirts, everyone wore hats. The only toilet was at the front of the car, a small hole cut into the wooden floorboards of a tiny cupboard to the track below. There was nothing to hold onto as the train rocked and jerked. It was easy to miss the hole in the floor. Urine sloshed up and down the aisles where several passengers had curled up, trying to sleep. Toilet paper? What is that?

Our journey continued through San Pablo de Cacha, San Pedro Tinta, Combapata, Checacupe, Cusipata, Quiquijana, Urcos, Caicay, Cropesa, San Jeronima, the sounds of the names turning like the rods and crankpins of the engine. Just past 6PM our train pulled into the Cuzco station ahead of schedule, a pleasant surprise given the delays we’ve endured on this journey.