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To Coroico by Carl Cleves

Page 3

The train left Arica at dusk. It was expected to take twenty hours. We carried food, my guitar and our rucksacks. Tashi too had a small rucksack with his clothes and some toys, which he was used to carrying. The train was very crowded. Most of the passengers were Bolivian women carrying large and weighty bundles of smuggled goods - clothing, transistor radios, cigarettes, perfumes, kitchenware - all wrapped and tied up in a blanket. They made the trip regularly as this was the way they earned an income. This was my first contact with the Quechua people. My first impression of the women was that they were harsh and sullen. I was wrong. I would get to know them well and learn to appreciate the warmth behind the tough exterior, caused by the struggle of their lives to raise large families, tend small plots of land and attempt to sell their meagre produce on the market. Ever since the Spanish conquest, generations of Indians have been marginalised and exploited. That they survived at all seems remarkable.

I have written many songs about railway stations and trains. I love the bustling activity of platform sellers, the tearful goodbyes, the sense of purpose, the final call of the stationmaster, the adrenaline of departure. The constant movement of trains that bring freedom and break the routines of everyday life, the opportunity to leave one's old self behind and the anonymity to be whomever one wants to be, the meetings with fellow travellers, the changing landscape and the rhythm of the railway tracks, the sense of destination, it all holds a special thrill. People open up more readily when riding the rails. The travel bug strips off defensive layers. As a teenager I used to devour the railroad chronicles of Paul Theroux: "The Great Railway Bazaar", "Riding the Iron Rooster", "The Old Patagonian Express", "Slow Trains to Simla". And so once again I felt exhilarated when the train pulled out of Arica station. We were on our way to the heart of the continent, the roof of South America, the Altiplano.

Soon after dark the train started climbing away from the Pacific coast. The Altiplano lay 4000 metre higher. Lit by the moon, a strange harsh landscape with little vegetation crept past. Looking out, a sense of loneliness came over me in that crowded train with Tashi's warm body curled up in my lap. The passengers had quietened down soon after our departure and most were asleep. When the train stopped in the middle of the night everyone woke up. I looked out at a barren terrain. Like the bed of an ancient sea, I thought. This could have been Mars or some asteroid. It was one in the morning. We waited but nothing happened. I fell asleep again. After about an hour a conductor passed through the carriage informing us that the train had broken down and that another one was on the way. Some passengers went for a stretch and a look-around outside but the biting cold was so severe that soon everyone was huddled inside again, suspended between waiting and dozing. Dawn broke over the Altiplano. Outside a shrill wind blew and the sky was clear and luminous. Rain seldom fell there. On the horizon I could see the glacial mountain peaks of the Andes.

The rescue train was half the size of the one we had to leave and suddenly there was a mad rush to change trains. The lady-smugglers seemed to know just what to do. Armed with their hefty baggage they fought their way through the doors. Punches were exchanged, shoves and kicks dealt out, but the ladies stormed forward like a tank-division, bulldozing all opposition as they assaulted the smaller train. I ran with Tashi in my arms and found him a seat, then raced back to get our packs and my guitar. On my return an Indian woman with a large bundle of goods entered the carriage and with one sweep pushed Tashi off the seat and plonked down her wares. Parents have a tendency to transform into ferocious tigers when their offspring is threatened and something snapped in me. I grabbed the woman by the neck and started screaming at her in several languages. She screamed back. We were spitting insults into each other's face. She pushed me and I pushed back. My first encounter with the backbone of Bolivian society had not been a good one. Fellow passengers intervened and calmed the situation. In the end Tashi shared his seat with the woman and I remained standing for the rest of the journey.

We travelled all day. Tashi developed mountain sickness from the sudden rise in altitude and vomited several times. This together with his disfigured face, still blue and swollen from the accident, made me a worried and guilty parent. I held him in my arms for a while but I was too tired. I swore to find a peaceful place somewhere on the journey ahead: a place with children, good people, mountains and rivers. The hours slipped by, the grey desolation outside only interrupted by small Indian villages and the fleeting apparitions of adobe houses, llamas and alpacas, thick-coated mules, scraggy and emaciated dogs. It was a hard existence scraping out a living on the Altiplano. The roof of the world also seemed like the end of the world.

The train was hours behind schedule and it was nighttime when we arrived on the edge of the plateau overlooking La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Again the train came to a halt. There was an 11 pm curfew in the entire country and nothing but the military moved between 11 pm and 6 am. The train could not complete the last few kilometres into the station and we had to wait another night in the freezing cold. The strict curfew applied even in the smallest villages and anyone venturing outside was promptly arrested or, as I later found out, shot at. General Banzer now ruled the country but that was bound to change at any time. The generals in charge squabbled over the spoils of the rich cocaine trade and mineral exports, while the Indians slaved in the mines and somehow survived in this inhospitable land as they had done for centuries since the cruel Spanish conquerors had crushed the old Inca empire. Bolivia has witnessed some 180 revolutions in its 150-year existence. Several months after our train journey, while living in the pleasant city of Cochabamba, another coup took place. Armoured vehicles took over the streets and the curfew was extended from 6 pm to 6 am.

At 6 in the morning the train finally descended into La Paz. It had taken 36 hours to cover the distance of 400 kilometres. The city of La Paz lies in a depression of the Altiplano where it is protected from the fierce winds. White-clad mountains, rose-coloured in the morning light, loomed over the capital. Almost every street climbs or descends and, at this altitude, this is a strain on the breath. Tashi and I were puffing with exhaustion, hauling our luggage after the uncomfortable train ride and sleepless night. Seventy percent of Bolivians and half of the citizens of La Paz are Indians who are mostly poor and live on the high slopes, their houses glued against the steep hillsides. This section of town seemed like one huge market. Everywhere women, often with babies, lined the street with their wares, usually not much more than a few carrots, potatoes or loose cigarettes. We found ourselves a room in a small hotel frequented by travelling salesmen, dropped our luggage on the floor and fell into deep sleep.

(To be continued)