Saturday, January 15, 2011

Train journeys 2 - Peru

In 1989 I went to South America with a good friend who was born in Peru. After we had a mild falling-out, I set off on my own for a while. I didn't keep a journal on this trip but I wrote it all up when I got home. Here I have walked the Inca Trail with some casual acquaintances, and now have to rush back to Cuzco.

Cuzco, the brownest town of them all.
I'll start at Machu Picchu. I was wearing my trusty Acasio camouflage watch (bought for about 1500 intis in Lima) which told me I had very little time to reach Las Ruinas station for the train back to Cuzco. Because of tactical errors, bad luck and a lack of assertiveness, I was lumbered with returning my boots, our tent, Charlie's tent, three sleeping mats and two sleeping bags to Cuzco. I had to run down the goat track (I could not afford the bus) to the station, carrying all the above, and suffering from footsoreness, back pains, a permanently damaged toenail, and grief at not having longer to spend at Machu Picchu, the tourist magnet of Andean America. On the way down I met an enterprising Chilean called Osvaldo who was on his way up to sell Sublime chocolate bars to the tourists at a 100% mark up. We had a quick chat while we got our breath. I was glad to be going down, not up, and he was glad to be carrying a good deal less than I was.
I have a vague memory of a shady path up to a small house. I think I bought an Inca Kola there, from an old woman. It must have been at the base of the mountain. There were concrete steps up to the quite modern station. Many Indian women were selling all sorts of fairly crappy tourist-type handicrafts. I spent quite a while there, just sitting and looking out at the green wall of jungle in front of me. There were quite a few travellers - some Italians, and a big Peruvian school group. I remember talking to someone who I think was half Italian and half German. I was waiting for the ticket office to open. When it did, they would not sell me a 4000 inti ticket - they insisted I buy a tourist class ticket for 75,000 intis. As I was completely out of money, but had to get back to Cuzco that evening to return the hired equipment, I had no choice but to walk down the tracks to the next station. This was a bit hair-raising, as there were two short tunnels to negotiate. When I reached Aguas Calientes station, there was a small crowd waiting there. There were quite a few travellers, and Osvaldo with his wife and a friend. There was also an Israeli boy, and his French-Jewish girlfriend. Between the six of us we had a fantastic multi-lingual conversation, translating for one another and waving our hands.
 When the train finally arrived, everyone jostled for position on the edge of the platform. Before it had even slowed down very much the Peruvians were on and finding themselves a seat, or a space to stand. By the time I climbed on the train was very solidly packed. I found that there was quite a bit of space in the toilet, and I decided to settle for that. It didn't smell too good, and there was only one tiny window, but there was room to put my collection of gear down and sit on it. The toilet was not used, except by one little girl accompanied by her mother - we all turned our backs.
The trip took about four hours. The Israeli I met earlier was travelling with about six others. The boys among them were taking turns riding on the coupling between carriages, as there was not room for all of them in the tiny nook they had found on boarding. They were by the little door at the very head of the carriage. They simply propped it open, and whoever was outside joined in the conversation, singing etc, until they decided to rotate positions.
They were in a good mood and so was I. I had just completed the toughest walk of my life, and I felt strong, and independent. I was very pleased that I hadn't let the theft of my gear stop me from doing the Inca Trail. I passed the time singing entire Midnight Oil albums from start to finish, much to the amusement/bewilderment of the Peruvians I was sharing the toilet with. Occasionally I got a turn by the window, gulping fresh air and peeping at the Urubamba Valley trundling by. The train was certainly not an express.
 After an eternity of stopping at little stations, letting a few off and cramming twice as many on, we reached the pass above Cuzco at twilight. For about an hour we went to and fro on the switchbacks that gradually lower the train down the hillside. Eventually we pulled into the station. I tagged along behind the Israelis, hoping they were heading into the centre of the city, because I had no idea where I was. Luckily, they went past a few landmarks I recognised, so I shouted goodbye to them and headed for the Hostal Suecia. I put my things down but postponed relaxing until I had returned the hired gear. That done, I went back to the room I shared with Charlie and Mike, who I'd walked the trail with. They were staying in the Urubamba Valley a little longer. I took my shoes off, and wrote in my sketchbook 'I'm back'. Later that night, an Australian staying at the hostal told me Hawthorn had won the Grand Final, although Ablett kicked eight goals for Geelong.

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