"From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines, going where I list, my own master total and absolute, Listening to others, considering well what they say, Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me."
Walt Whitman (1819-92)
"When I look back now over my life and call to mind what I might have had simply for taking and did not take, my heart is like to break."
Akhenaton (d. c.1354 BC)
And now, the current weather, from some random person we pulled off the street:
Wednesday, February 18, 2004
Exotic in Thin Air (Part 5, the Andes Express)
ad-ven-ture Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English aventure, from Old French, from (assumed) Vulgar Latin adventura, from Latin adventus, past participle of advenire to arrive, from ad- + venire to come -- more at COME
1 a : an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks b : the encountering of risks
2 : an exciting or remarkable experience
3 : riding along the crest of a mountain chain on top of a railway freight car
(Please Note: This section describes a train trip taken in 1987. The conditions and events described here may not be representative whatsoever of the current accommodations on the route, which is now far more heavily traveled.)
The day had arrived, and there were no hummingbirds, but that was OK.
Last night at our lodge the tour guide had told us that there were hummingbirds in the eucalyptus forest behind our lodge, so we got up early and took a quick walk.
The air was brisk and biting at the high altitude, but we did not see any hummingbirds. What we did see was one grumpy alpaca or llama or something and, typical for Ecuador, a scraggly ostrich. Why this one bird had ended up in a pen on the wrong continent, I have no idea. Neither did it, obviously, and it was really tee'd off about it.
We had breakfast and headed for the terminal.
Well, the word "terminal" may not be precisely the right word here. It was more like just a field with some train tracks running through it. There were five or six freight cars scattered around, a caboose, and one beat up locomotive pushing things to and fro seemingly randomly.
From what I had gathered, the spot we were in at Riobamba had been the point where the train from Quito had met the "train" from Quayaquil on the coast. I put the word "train" in quotes on purpose, because the actual Riobamba to Quayaquil run had been done by a modified school bus. Essentially, they had pulled the tires from the rims and then ran it on the train tracks.
It would descend down the side of the Andes by an incredible set of switchbacks, not even turning around between each one. So, for a bit you would go forward, then when the switchback came up, you would back up to the next one, and so forth.
At the time, it was the steepest descent for any "train" on Earth, assuming you didn't mind sharing the bus with a few chickens and the occasional odd piece of livestock.
The year before we arrived, the track was washed out by a particularly bad El Nino, so we couldn't do that part of the trip. Shame.
Back to the present, and there in the middle of the railyard were two ladies running towards a freight car. Wait a minute, that's my fiance and a friend she made yesterday!
They started to clamber up the side of a rail car at the precise moment that the locomotive decided to hook up to it. WHAM-CLANG! The car lurched backwards from the massive impact. They swung wildly from the ladder, then scrambled up to the top of the car.
'Her mom is going to kill me,' I thought, as the car began to roll through the railyard, both of them gleefully hanging on for dear life.
My fiance's friend was a nanny for the British ambassador. She had a plum of a position; she was getting paid as if she was in Britain, but living in Ecuador, which meant that she could do anything she pleased and still put most of her money away. And she had one of those happy go lucky devil-may-care personalities that said to her new friend, my fiance, lets go ride on top of the train!
Of course, in Ecuador, there are no railway laws, so it was fine. (Note: they still think it's fine.)
Eventually they figured out that they were on the wrong car, so they got back down until the train assembled itself. Finally we were ready. We had one locomotive (check) one coal car (check) one freight car full of cement (check) and a caboose full of tourists (check).
And for Ecuador, this was the Orient Express.
We rolled out of the station, slowly building up speed. I don't remember anything about the outskirts of Riobamba except that it was completely unrememberable.
But soon, we began to climb into what is called the "Avenue of the Volcanoes." During the day we would be treated to spectacular views of Chimborazo, Tungahuroa, Cotopaxi, and several more of the world's most impressive active volcanoes.
The train would go for a while, then stop for a bit, then go for a while, etc. Whenever the train came to a stop, my fiance would bop in from whatever part of the train she had most recently ridden in (or on) and grab a supply of beer for everyone.
I chose to ride inside the train, thank you. Well, inside I could hear the tour guide. And there was not so much dust to get in my contacts. And, and... oh heck, I dunno, riding on the top seemed a little too radical for me. (Just for the record, nowadays I would be up there the entire trip.)
Now, I might get some of this out of order, forgive me if I do, its been 15 years.
We pulled up to a station called "Urbanna." It was really nothing to look at, just a little tiny building standing all by itself in a field. However, it has the distinction of being the highest train station on Earth at over 9,000 feet.
The air was so thin I could not walk across the train car. And, I was looking up maybe a couple of thousand feet at fields that the Andean Indians were tilling by hand!
Amazing. I couldn't breathe and they are hauling truckloads of grain on their backs a thousand feet above me. What an incredible people.
When the train came back down in elevation a bit and stopped again, my fiance popped in and grabbed a supply of beer, saying that they had been in the locomotive riding on the cowcatcher, and it was great I really should try it goodbye see ya next stop.
I thought about it as the train lurched back to a slow crawl.
You know, why the heck not. Besides, I should spend some of the trip with my fiance.
The next time the train stopped, I hopped out and ran up to the locomotive. For some reason, the train only stopped for about a minute, so they started rolling as soon as I climbed the stairs.
I walked in, and there were two Ecuadorian railroad engineers. And that's all. Nobody else.
Did I mention that we had lost our Spanish phrase book?
I quickly said "I berg your pardon," which was the single phrase from the book that seemed appropriate. "Happy Christmas," "I've often headache" and "Bring me roast cow with mashed potatoes" seemed out of place, and I didn't need a "chiffon" at the moment. At least I didn't think I did.
They nodded back, smiling broadly. We smiled back and forth for a while, seeing as how our conversational abilities were exhausted, and I tried to use sign language to ask them where my wife went.
They were baffled. Or at least they looked baffled, it's not like they could tell me they were baffled. Or they could, I guess, but it wasn't like I could understand them if they did.
They did not even make the attempt, saving both of us some energy.
I tried describing my fiance to them with gestures (you know, the hourglass one), and suddenly one of them lit up and said something, motioning me towards a door in the front of the cab. Cool, I finally got my point across! They were through that door! So I walked through.
Uh, no, no fiance here.
I found myself perched on a very little ledge, feeling like a human hood ornament. We were rattling down the track and I was right at the front with a very little guardrail.
By myself. On the cowcatcher.
Wondering what sort of hand gesture I had made that made my fiance look like a little ledge on the front of the train.
I stood there for a minute or so just to say I did it (otherwise these last few paragraphs would have been really boring) and retreated back to the cab with the two engineers.
I looked around like I knew what the heck I was looking at, which I didn't, and found the absence of a steering wheel to be a bit disconcerting, although I don't know why exactly.
We all grinned at each other a bit more, and they began to talk among themselves. I don't want to guess what they were saying, but every so often the two of them and I would launch into another grin fest just to keep the conversation lively and all.
At the next stop I returned to the caboose.
We passed through a town called something like "Mila flores". I know I misspelled that, but it means "millions of flowers." And it was as beautiful as the name implies, with flowers everywhere, in the immaculate yards and hanging from the balconies of gorgeous homes. I was told that at that time, a large home could be purchased in that town for about $35,000 USD, and for another $1,000 a year, you could hire an entire family to keep it up.
I think it was when we were pulling out of Mila Flores that we broke down.
The train ground to a stop with an awful grinding noise that we had not heard before. Steam wooshed all over the place while the engineers walked back and forth scratching their heads. Pretty soon, out tour guide went out there and scratched his head with them.
After some serious head scratching and some involvement with a few new people that showed up, the tour guide came back and told us that yes, the train broke, but the engineers knew "this guy" in town that might be able to fix it, and might have the part that broke. Now, I'm thinking, this country has one train, and we randomly broke down in a town where they know "this guy?"
Well, apparently that was precisely what had happened. Who knew.
Now, in the meantime, my fiance and her friend and a couple of other people were riding on the top of the cement car. The car was now parked right under a bridge, and a group of people were gathering there and everybody was staring and smiling back and forth, since they were only feet apart. During the hour that we sat there belching steam, a fairly large crowd of onlookers gathered, mostly ladies and kids on bikes. They all had a good time waving and smiling back and forth.
Finally, we started rolling again, only an hour behind schedule. Hey, it was Ecuador, that was close enough.
A few miles out of town, we were slowly accelerating only going about fifteen miles per hour or so. I was standing on the back deck of the caboose, where I had been most of the trip, and saw an Indian run out from the side of the tracks and start running after us.
Pretty soon, he caught up and then started waving at us. I waved back.
We smiled and waved again, hey I was getting good at this.
Then he grabbed the rail and hopped aboard. That rather caught me by surprise.
For the next mile or so, we chugged along while the Indian guy took turns waving and grinning at everyone we passed and looking at me with one of those winky "Hey, can you believe how cool and clever I am look at me" expressions.
Then with one final grin, off he went.
What a country.
We stopped for lunch in a bit, and had some chicken TV dinners that were all sticky with a side of frozen vegetables that had gotten soggy in the packages. It was great (We were hungry.)
When we started rolling again we were in mountainous country, going through passes and cuts in the rock. I think it was during this period that my fiance, from her vantage point on top of the train, saw a family of Indians literally living in a cave on the side of the tracks, and they had come out to grin and wave. No one in the caboose saw it, only the ones on top.
She also says she saw a herd of wild llama. What I saw was a whole bunch of trips for beer, so we'll take her word for it.
The train began to slow down again, and rolled to a stop in front of a traditional Ecuadorian homestead. We saw a mud hut, some milling livestock, and an authentic Indian family came briskly to the train.
I might want to mention here that, aside from postcards, this was the only authentic mud hut we even so much as glimpsed our entire trip. The family, who was dressed in really authentic clothes, lined up for some really authentic photographs, they smiled and waved, we smiled and waved, then we all had to tip them with really authentic money.
But we got some good pictures.
About now we were heading into a national park. Cotopaxi was looming large above us. This is really a magnificent mountain; it looks like Mt. Fuji, but is bigger and on the equator. It is snowcapped, and it is still very active.
I remembered an article I had read about a man who made his living hiking up the side of Cotopaxi early each day to harvest a backpack full of snow. Then he would bring it down and sell it for snowcones in the local markets. Think about that, hiking all that way every day just to get a sack of ice. Never complain about going to the grocery store again, OK?
Suddenly, my reverie was interrupted by train brakes engaging. I went out onto the deck, and we were surrounded by soldiers.
With submachine guns, of course.
Fortunately, they were just drilling. Our train had stopped because they were spread out all across the tracks. We watched them do some pushups and run in place and attempt to do some drills. Let me tell you, if we ever go to war with this country, we can certainly out drill them. Oh, they were all in time, just not with each other.
We left there for the last leg into Quito. The sun was setting and the temperature was dropping. The sunset was astonishing.
The fiance, still on top of the cement car, was freezing. But happy.
That night, we slept like stones.
The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for.
Louis L'Amour (1908 - 1988), Ride the Dark Trail