I was expecting the train to zip along through picturesque scenery like in a movie, but my expectations were quickly dashed as the train did not accelerate to the speed I expected. We were educated very quickly as to how our train ride was to go. The train tracks were in terrible condition. The rails were uneven in many places and the train swayed precariously from side to side. And then to add more excitement the train would jump up or down occasionally and at times would bang loudly as it dropped with a fright. Looking out the window I estimated we were only going about 30 miles per hour.
I heard the horn blowing at the front of the train as we slowed. I watched out the window to see why we were slowing. We were passing through a barrio that resembled a shanty town. It made me sad to see the horrible living conditions. Scraps of wood and tarps held together with rope and strips of inner tube created the shacks. It was obvious there was no electricity, running water, or bathrooms in them. Some young children stopped whatever they were doing and watched us pass. Scrawny dogs barked at the train in an attempt to protect their domain. Piles of trash and construction debris littered the sides of the tracks. Occasionally a pile of garbage would be on fire with a plume of stinky smoke rising up into the sky. The train was creeping along at this point and finally we could see what was going on ahead. We could hear the engineer blasting the horn over and over.
Railroad crossings did not have lights and bars to stop cars and trucks like in the U.S. Simple signs warned the traffic of the tracks, and unlike the U.S. trains do not exactly have the “right of way”. Cars and trucks continued to cross in front of the train until the last second. Finally, the engine blocked the road stopping the traffic and we began to accelerate again.
We continued through some very undesirable areas as we made our way out of the city. The process of slowing for road crossings was repeated several more times before the buildings and shacks started to thin.
We were headed east toward the city of Robore, which was the last city before the Brazilian border. We were to get off the train at the village of El Portón about 30 miles before Robore. All we knew was that a man named Miguel would meet us there.
About an hour or so into the trip we came to the Rio Grande. The bridge is a typical steel truss type railroad bridge. I had crossed this bridge a number of times in a pickup because it is a dual purpose bridge. It has been said that it was the longest dual purpose bridge in the world. When there are no trains coming cars and trucks are allowed to cross the narrow bridge one direction at a time. It was too narrow for more than one vehicle, in fact a large truck could barely fit between the steel beams. Boards had been laid across the railroad ties but many were loose causing them to bang and shift as vehicles crossed.
The train slowed as we approached and crossed the long bridge slowly. Upon reaching the east side of the river the train stopped in a small town. Immediately the train was bombarded with people selling food, fruit, candy, drinks, and trinkets of all kinds. Trains, busses, trucks, and cars that traversed the bridge were a captive audience, albeit short, for vendors. The vendors were mostly women calling out what they were selling. Each one was attempting to be louder than the competition. They carried their items in baskets or wheel barrows. There were a few men pushing coolers with bicycle wheels attached to them selling popsicles and ice cream bars. They were calling out “paletas paletas paletas” with a “sing song” voice while squeezing their bicycle horns or ringing bells to get the passengers attention. Sodas like Coke, Pepsi, and Fanta were being sold in clear plastic bags with a straw sticking out of the top. It seems strange until you understand that a glass soda bottle is worth more than the contents, so the vendors would pour the soda pop into a bag so the purchaser could take the drink with them. There was always someone selling citrus fruit that was peeled and upon purchase the vendor would cut a hole in the fruit so the refreshing sweet juice could be squeezed into a welcoming mouth. When a passenger wanted to make a purchase they would signal or yell to get the vendor’s attention. When the price had been negotiated the passenger would precariously lean out of the train window to the point they looked like they might fall out while the vendor would stretch up as high as they could to reach the awaiting hands of the passenger. It was quite a scene as both the vendors and passengers frantically made their transactions. I saw one ingenious lady that learned how to balance on her wheelbarrow filled with bags of peanuts and popcorn as she reached up to the passenger leaning out of the train. I wondered how many times she had fallen attempting the balancing act. One other ingenious vendor had a 6 foot long stick with a hook on the end. He would snag a plastic net bag full of fruit and use the stick to lift the fruit to the customer’s window.
I could see that some people got off the train and a few boarded as well. Some of the new passengers were 3 women that appeared to be Ayoreo Indians. I could tell by the way they were dressed and their facial features that they were natives. They climbed into our car, however all the seats were taken. So they made themselves at home near the back of the car where there were a few seats missing. Shortly after they were seated the horn blew again and the train jolted into motion. In a few minutes we accelerated to our bumpy and swaying speed.
We were traversing large flat farm fields now. Some of the fields were so long you couldn’t see the other end of them very well. The fields were separated by rows of trees. These rows varied in width but most appeared to be less than 10 yards wide. Occasionally a tractor could be seen working. I assumed they were preparing to plant their crops since the rainy season was approaching in a few months.
It was not long before the train slowed to a stop again at a small town. This was a farming community. The houses were all small and it appeared most did not have any sort of utilities. Scrawny dogs could be seen roaming around looking for scraps to eat. Chickens were also wondering around in a quest to find bugs to eat. A few skinny horses were tied to stakes pounded into the ground where they grazed. They had all mowed the grass all the way down to the dirt in a perfect circle around their stake stretching their necks and not leaving one blade of grass untouched.
This part of the country had been settled by many European Mennonites. They could often be seen in the city of Santa Cruz at the markets buying supplies. The women always wore dark colored dresses with some form of head covering. The men always wore blue bib overalls with white long sleeve button up shirts and white straw hats. I always felt that they stood out worse than the “gringos” did. The Mennonites were the owners of many of the large farms we had been seeing. They brought their farming knowledge with them from Europe to make a new life. While they used tractors on their farms, some still traveled by horse and wagon otherwise.
Near a small building that served as the train station several wagons pulled by beautiful horses could be seen. One was quite large with rubber tires pulled by two of the most beautiful large white horses I had ever seen in the country. Another smaller wagon had brown horses and yet another was more like a buggy with a single black horse. I saw some Mennonite men, women, and children that appeared to have disembarked from a train car ahead of us. They quickly unloaded their purchases from their big city trip. As soon as they finished the horn blew and shortly after, we jolted back into motion.
The sun was beginning to set behind us and our view was disappearing. The farm fields were decreasing in number and more dense forest filled the landscape. We were now entering what was called the Gran Chaco.
The train stopped at several more villages letting people off. Just as the afternoon light was waning we began to slow again, this time it was because we were climbing a hill. By the time we reached the top it was pitch black outside.
Neal closed the window because we were both chilly at this point. I stood and pulled our jackets from our bags over our heads. Neal had an insulated denim jacket that was fairly warm, but all I had was a thinly insulated blue and grey long sleeve flannel shirt. I was still a little chilly but not cold with my jacket on.
Around 9 PM we arrived in the town of San Jose. The train slowed to a stop and was almost instantly bombarded by vendors. I needed to use the restroom so I inquired how long we would be stopped. A gentleman told me that we would be there for at least half an hour. We knew we could not leave our few belongings unattended in the train, so I got down first and Neal waited in our seats. There were no such things as public restrooms so I found a secluded tree and did my business. As I returned to the train my stomach decided I needed to investigate the wonderful smell of food in the air. There were some building close by with propane powered lights shining out the windows and doors. Many of the passengers were gathered around them so I made my way over to investigate the wonderful smells. The first was a restaurant with blue painted interior walls adorned by beer company and Coca-Cola advertisements. There were a few tables and chairs. I made my way inside and asked about something to eat. A man behind the counter told me he had a dinner of beef, potatoes, and fried plantains that he could wrap up so I could take it back to the train. It sounded wonderful to me so I told him to leave off the plantains and my dinner was quickly wrapped up in some wax paper. I knew I would need a drink so a plastic bag of Coke was included. After a few pesos were exchanged I quickly made my way back to the train where my brother was waiting rather impatiently. I told him where I got the food and he disappeared off the train.
Neal returned a few minutes later with his food. I had already scarfed down my dinner of grilled steak strips and thick slices of fried potatoes. I was still thirsty so I jumped back off the train to get another drink. This time I settled for a Fanta in a bag. I didn’t return to the train immediately to take advantage of the opportunity to stretch my legs. The gentleman I had spoken to on the train walked over and asked me where I was going. I informed him we were getting off at El Porton. He informed me that our stop was the fourth stop from San Jose. I thanked him for the info and returned to the train just as the horn blew to let the passengers know it was time to re-board.
I heard the horn blow again, this time longer than before as the train jolted into motion. I was trying to figure out the engineer’s horn signals and what they meant, but they really were not consistent. Sometimes it was a short blast and other times it was a long blast to signal the departure of the train. There was a conductor of sorts, but he really didn’t do much other than collect tickets and money from people that were picked up along the way. There was no way of announcing the stops or towns. I was paranoid we would miss our stop so I sat wide awake to count the stops. Neal did not seem too bothered or concerned by our situation and leaned over against the window and fell fast asleep. The swaying train must have felt like a rocking chair since he was snoring like a hibernating bear.
There were a few dim lights in the train car and I looked around at all the other passengers wondering where they were going and what their lives consisted of. There were children sleeping in the aisle in makeshift beds, while their parents occupied the seats next to them. Outside the darkness flew by. There was no moon in the sky making the darkness ominous.
The train slowed to a stop at another village. It looked like there were only about half a dozen houses. We were stopped for no more than a minute or two before the horn blew. Less than a minute later it blew again as we jolted back into motion with a bang as the train car hitch extended. Soon we were back up to speed. My bladder decided the Coke and Fanta needed to go so I slipped through the passengers asleep in the aisle to the small room at the front of the car that served as a bathroom. I opened the door and discovered there was no light, but a small amount of light filtered in through a crack in the wall. The tiny room was so small I could barely turn around in it. There was no sink or running water. The smell was indescribable and almost nauseating. There was simply a wood box with a hinged lid covering part of it. I lifted the lid to reveal a hole cut in the wood box underneath. There was no toilet seat. I looked down through the hole to see the railroad ties zooming by. I braced myself against the wall while I did my business because the train was continually swaying back and forth. Upon completion I returned to my seat hoping to never have to use the facilities again.
We briefly stopped at two more villages. At this point I was very concerned that we wouldn’t even be able to get off the train when it stopped at our stop because it was stopping for such a short amount of time.
I found the brief stops quite ironic. This was a country where businesses still closed for “siesta” from about noon till three. Many store owners would have a hammock or cot set up in the back of their store or restaurant they could take a nap on before re-opening for the evening. In general, the people of Bolivia are very laid back and have a poor sense of time. In fact, there is a saying used quite frequently to describe the laid back attitude when speaking about scheduling something. “Hora Boliviana o hora Americana?” That is to ask, “do you want me to arrive on time, like an American would, or are you okay with me being an hour and a half late, like a Bolivian might be?” If you are inviting someone over or being invited over for dinner you better clear that up. Because “6 PM” might actually mean “6 PM” or it might mean “7:30 PM”. This even applied to doctor appointments and things of that nature. A set appointment time was just a suggestion. When I was in junior high my orthodontist would wonder into the office 2 hours after our scheduled appointment time while the waiting room was full of patients waiting to be seen while she acted like she was right on time.
But while that was their attitude something that always intrigued me was that if you sat in your car at a stoplight for one millisecond after it turned green every car behind you felt obligated to honk at you to inform you the light had turned green. And if you still did not stomp on the gas as fast as they expected you to they were going to honk again and continue to honk until you were no longer impeding them. It mattered not, to them, what was going on in front of you. If you were not honking your horn as well the people behind assumed you were responsible for the half a second hold up, so soon 15 or more cars waiting at a light were honking at the guy in the front of the line even though he was halfway through the intersection at this point. This process was repeated a million times a day in the big cities by people that were an hour and a half late to everything but couldn’t wait an extra second at a stop light. So you can imagine how I found it ironic that a train with a top speed of 30 mph could only stop for a few minutes without any sort of warning for passengers to disembark.
The train slowed and I thought that we must be arriving at our stop so I woke Neal up. Just as he was coming to, we started to speed up again and I realized we had just gone over a hill. He wasn’t real happy about being woken and went back to his snoring. I dozed off myself for a bit, but woke when the train was slowing again. I waited attentively as the train slowed and slowed some more until we were crawling along at walking speed. I was certain this had to be our stop so I shook my brother’s shoulder waking him. He sat up and no sooner than he sat up we could see out the window we were going through a narrow pass over a small mountain. We could see steep banks that were cut away for the tracks to go through. Once again the train picked up speed, and once again Neal was not very happy I had woken him. At this point I wished I had spoken to the Ayoreo women and inquired about their destination. So I began to glance in their direction every few minutes to see what they were doing.
Neal fell back asleep as the train clanked and banged down the tracks. Occasionally the ride would become smooth and just when you were least expecting it the train car would lurch to one side or the other. The top would lean right or lean left. At times the car would jerk to the left or the right almost tossing me into the aisle. Up and down jolts were common place and sometimes it was a mixture of all the motions at once. I glanced back at the native women seated on the floor at the back of the train and saw them start to gather their things. I knew then that we must be getting close to our stop. I heard the horn blow like it had done as we approached some of the stops earlier so I woke my brother. I quickly explained to him that the women were gathering their things and according to my count the next stop was ours so we better get ready. No sooner than I had spoken and we felt the train slowing while going down a grade.
The train came to a stop and the ladies were off the train in a flash. Neal and I stood and grabbed our things and quickly made our way to the back of the car in the dim light. We scrambled down the dark steps and jumped to the gravel rail bed below. About a minute after we disembarked the horn sounded and train started to roll away. Leaving us in the darkness.
Through the pitch black we could see a flashlight coming toward us. Neal and I stood next to the tracks still not knowing what to do. Finally the flashlight wielding man approached us. He was accompanied by a young boy. He shone the light on us and introduced himself as Miguel. He said the boy was his son. He grabbed one of our bags and said we should follow him, he had a place we could sleep.
We walked through the darkness without speaking following Miguel and his feeble flashlight. Neal had a small Maglight and pulled it out of his bag and more than tripled the amount of light we had. We approached an abandoned passenger train car. Miguel told us we could sleep inside. We climbed up the stairs and found there were no windows or seats in the car. The wood floor was weathered and warped from exposure to the elements. The three women from the train entered the other end of the car making themselves as comfortable as one can get in that situation. I wondered how they found their way in the dark because I had not seen a single flashlight between the three of them. Miguel shone his flashlight on his watch and said “It is 2:30. “Madrugamos en dos horas”. I understood the word “madrugar” meant to rise at sunrise. I was a little confused, because I knew the sun would not be up in two hours, which would be 4:30 am.
We pulled the blankets my dad gave us out of our bags and made makeshift beds on the wood floor. I used my bag for a pillow. It was breezy, and chilly, but once we laid down the wall blocked the breeze and it wasn’t so bad. I was so exhausted and relieved at the same time I fell fast asleep on the splintered wood floor.