If you have been faithfully reading my travel story from the beginning I thank you. If you have been cheating on me a little bit with some other blogs I understand – I can be a little unreliable and inconsistent. But I have some pretty exciting news – the next post tells the story of The Actual Witch Doctor (Woe is implied throughout and Wine Coolers? Well I have a weakness for alliteration. But there ARE wine coolers – after the Witch Dr.) So hang in there faithful reader(s) – shit gets weirder…I promise.
After landing in Ecuador at last we quickly changed our travel plans yet again. While in line to buy bus tickets to our original destination we fell into conversation with a couple of English guys. Beaten down by near hysterical levels of exhaustion I merely nodded when Paul told me that he wanted to follow our new “mates” to San Lorenzo via train.
We took several rat trap buses into the mountains and arrived at the train station. I was pleasantly surprised to see actual train tracks and a platform. It all looked pretty official. I was especially impressed with my train ticket which had a seat number and everything. Finally some civilized travel! Several hours passed as we waited for the train and the station slowly filled with a mix of travelers and locals.
Eventually the train pulled in a mere hour and 45 minutes late – not bad for South American time.
But before it had even come to a complete stop the environment on the platform shifted from idle time killing to one of mild panic. I wasn’t worried though. I had my ticket with my seat number so I hung back and let the locals crowd in front of me. Probably headed to coach I thought, poor bastards.
The train doors opened and roughly 300 hundred bodies simultaneously crushed forward into the narrow doorways. Where was the conductor? The ticket agent? Which coach was my seat in? Paul and the new travel companions we had picked up all looked at each other with alarm as we noted a small goat being passed up hand to hand and into the train. That goat better not get my fucking seat I thought. We joined the crush.
Now I have been in crowds before. I have waited at Disneyland to ride Space Mountain. I have been in Filene’s basement sale (east coast thing), I even stood on the Brooklyn Bridge to watch the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in 1986 where the crowds were so tight I was literally cojoined with a nun standing in front of me in a form of holy communion. But I have NEVER seen a crush like this. It was like a crowd surfing mosh pit but with sacks of grain, babies and farm animals. We barely made it on board. And bless my little American heart when we DID make it on board I actually looked for my seat number.
There was no rhyme or reason, no order of any kind. Getting on the train was one thing, staying on it was another as the push of bodies moved you along in an undulating wave and if you were not careful you would be forced out any random opening. Determined to sit the fuck down I squared my shoulders and bull dozed my way through a field of petite locals until I made contact with a window and a seat. I then pressed my backpack down under the seat with a superhuman effort and held my ground against all invaders. MY seat now motherfucker – back off.
Eventually the “boarding” ceased and the contents of the train settled into a swarm of humans and animals. I saw chickens, pigs and goats. I thought I heard a monkey and a parrot but it was kind of hard to tell. There were many crying babies and locals traveled with large baskets and sacks, bundles and crates. What was a lark for us was a critical method of travel for the people who lived here. I felt a pang of guilt realizing my seat could have easily gone to one of the wizened little old women but I was welded in at this point and besides – those little old ladies could have kicked my ass a hundred times over. I was a candy ass tourist and they were hardy like oak trees.
The train lurched out of the station and our trip to San Lorenzo began. The trip had been explained to me as a once in a lifetime train trip through the rolling mountains of Ecuador. What had been missed in that description was the sheer endurance it would require. 12 hours through winding mountain passes – beautiful to be sure but also a little terrifying. Some of those tracks looked a little light on supports and there were tunnels that the metal roof barely squeaked under. (for fun you can read a little bit about this train at The Ecuadorian Railway: The Most Difficult Train in the World – see, I’m not making this shit up!)
The most challenging aspect was the time. Twelve hours unable to move, stand, pee or breath. Occasionally I nodded off or passed out from lack of oxygen (either/or). My nearest seat companions were Paul – who had probably trampled a small family to acquire his seat behind me, and an English girl Michelle, who was happy to chat about all her travels til now. Paul was a nationalistic English magnet and seemed able to extract all fellow Englishman from the ozone wherever he went.
After several woozy hours of winding mountain passes we finally pulled into the next station. I was relieved at the thought of some passengers leaving and making a bit of space. I also entertained the hopeful idea of getting outside the train to stretch my legs and find a bathroom. Apparently I still had a little bit of American clinging to me. The train would eventually take care of that.
The doors creaked open and no one made move to leave – simply held their ground. Then against all odds and defying the laws of physics MORE people began crowding onto the train. Much more. Where before I had to sit close to the window I was now forced to fold my shoulders up and press my face against the glass – for the next 9 hours. Any notion of “stretching my legs” was abandoned. It was all about endurance now.
Luckily refreshment was available. Young entrepreneurs would leap onto the top of train when it pulled into the station and run down the rooftop banging on windows. The window would be pushed up and a small child – all skinny arms, knobby knees and big grins would hang down from the roof and offer their wares. Choices were limited. For 10 centimes you could have a ziploc bag filled with Fanta and for 20 centimes you could select an empanada or cheese ball from a plastic bucket covered with a damp towel. I held out for two more stops – 9 hours into the trip – before something broke inside me and I said sure – give me a couple of ziplocs and a cheese curd. It was warm and salty. And that was just the Fanta.
Battered and bewildered I continued on in a haze fairly certain the train ride would never end. I didn’t fail to notice how sanguine the locals were about the conditions. Sure it was crowded and hot and stinky and the trip was long and harrowing – but why make a fuss? Why worry or complain about it? It simply was what it was – a way to travel a long distance quickly. Crowded into a steaming train car with a bunch of fucking zen locals began to strip away the last of my sense of entitlement and “correctness” that had dogged me since my arrival in South America. Accept it. Just go with it. Whatever happens happens – it’s all good, right. I mean – how bad/weird/hard can it really get?
And then we finally made it San Lorenzo and I found out how weird it could get….quickly.
PS – A big Happy Birthday to my buddy Tom (Yes! That Tom!) – talking to you this morning about this train trip so long ago made me want to sit down this morning and write about.