Sumer of 1994, Part 7
I awoke with mixed emotions. I had been having fun in the last week working with Miguel training Vicente and helping around the ranch, but I also wanted to head home. I still didn’t exactly feel qualified to do what I had been tasked with, but it appeared that we had collectively been successful. No one had been hurt, which was a very good thing, and I felt as if Miguel could safely ride Vicente by himself now.
After breakfast we rounded up our rides for the day. Miguel offered to let Neal and I ride Ford so we decided that we would swap at the halfway point. While one rode Ford, the other would ride Muchacho. Miguel saddled Ruby. He didn’t bring his son this time. Miguel had asked Abram a few days earlier if he could go with us. Unfortunately he declined because of a commitment he had, but if he could have gone Miguel was going to take Vicente. He didn’t want to ride that far alone on the return trip with a green broke animal while leading several others, so Vicente was left behind.
We made the hour long ride to Tobite and stopped in to say goodbye to Abram and Rut. They also had some mail to send to the city so I added it to my bag and agreed to deliver it for them. After watering the animals we were on our way again.
The return trip seemed to go much faster than our arrival and before long we were to the halfway point and stopped for a rest. Neal and I traded places and I mounted up on Ford.
He was an amazing animal to ride. It was quite difficult to get up in the saddle because he wouldn’t stand still. But once seated I spun him in a circle a couple of times until Miguel led the way. I let loose on the rope that ran through the ring in his nose and he straightened out in the direction we needed to go. He was incredibly smooth. After being bounced by a mule for nearly a week Ford felt more like a Cadillac than the pick-up he was named after. While riding a horse it is natural to touch it on the neck occasionally and I naturally rested my hand on his shoulder since he didn’t need any input from the rope. Ford educated me very quickly that this was not allowed. His horn smacked the back of my hand so hard I was certain it would be bruised and sore. Touching was off limits! My job was to just sit in the saddle, enjoy the ride, and keep my hands to myself. Occasionally there might be a fly on his shoulder and if your hand was in the way it would be hit with a horn.
Miguel turned off the road onto the shortcut trail and before long we were at the mountain we came down in the dark before. This time we were to climb the steep grade. We all dismounted to save our animals and ascended the switchbacks and rock stair steps to the summit. It seemed much shorter in the daylight, but still quite steep. In one part a simple misstep by man or beast and there would be a big price to pay. I had no idea how treacherous the trail was when I descended in the dark a week earlier with no flashlight.
The view from the summit was spectacular. There were a few higher mountains off in the distance to the south and east, but to the north it was fairly flat as far as the eye could see! The vast jungle of the Gran Chaco spread out before us. While it was peaceful on the mountain top I knew that the miles of jungle and brush was anything but. Much of it had never been seen by a white man. It was nearly inhospitable to humans. Standing there I wondered what the first Spaniard explorers thought when they laid eyes on this country hundreds of years before.
Miguel let us soak in the view for a few minutes before we mounted up and continued our journey. We were only about an hour or so from El Porton and the train stop. Soon our trail rejoined the main road. We turned left rode toward some more mountains off in the distance.
It was nice traveling in the daylight instead of the dark. As we neared the mountains we could see their beauty. Vertical cliffs and massive outcroppings of rock could be seen. These mountains were not extremely tall, but they were steep, jutting up out of the Chaco.
We turned down through a canyon with a small stream. I remembered riding through here in the dark. Shortly after, we came to the railroad tracks. The rails snaked through the steep mountains. In several places the hill sides were cut away just wide enough for the train to pass between them almost like a trench.
We crossed the tracks and proceeded up a hill to the east beside the tracks. A vertical descent off to our left dropped about 50 feet at the summit to the railroad bed. I had no idea this is what we rode over in the dark just a few days before. I was nothing more than a passenger on an old cranky mare, but she knew the way in the pitch black night.
We descended from the hill into a beautiful, small, and green grassy valley. It felt like we in a western novel. Three dusty tired cowboys coming out of the hills to town on our trusty steeds.
Off to the south against the base of a cliff were a couple of small buildings and a corral. To the north, was another steep mountain where the tracks ran along the base. In the middle of the valley was the abandoned train car we slept in. A train track curved off the main line and intersected with a track that curved off the main line from the other direction creating a triangle of sorts. At the very tip of the triangle sat the abandoned car.
Shortly after we arrived a freight train rolled to a stop from the west. Blasting its horn as the brakes screeched in protest to the stop. We had decided to go onto Robore and spend the night. We would leave the animals there in El Porton. Miguel had a motorcycle stored at a house nearby and decided that Neal should get on the train with our belongings and he and I would ride his motorcycle.
We rode up to the train and Miguel negotiated with the conductor for Neal to ride in an empty box car for a few pesos with a few other passengers that had been picked up along the way. He was really not happy with me for leaving him alone since I spoke better Spanish.
After Neal was situated Miguel and I took the animals to one of the houses. We pulled off their tack and a boy that lived there carried it inside a small shed. We staked the animals and they immediately started eating the grass. Miguel negotiated with him to water and move the animals to fresh grass until he returned.
I still had no idea where his motorcycle was. He told me it was close by and started walking off quickly. I realized I better follow him and quickly caught up. Miguel told me that if we didn’t hurry Neal was going to beat us to Robore. But the train seemed in no hurry to leave and Neal was still sitting there waiting as we disappeared from view. We walked close to a mile before arriving at a small house with a shed out back. It did not appear that anyone was home and Miguel walked straight to the shed like he owned he place. I helped him open the doors to reveal a Honda XL 250 motorcycle.
Miguel pulled the dirt bike out of the shed and gave it a quick look over. It had been stored here for about 6 months. He attempted, without success, to start it. He knew I could ride motorcycles so he offered me a try. After a couple of tricks and kicks the engine fired up.
We headed east on a deep sandy road. I did not have much experience riding in deep sand and I was a little freaked out at first. Miguel was hard on the gas and the bike was weaving all over the place. I felt so out of control sitting on the back with no helmet on. I learned pretty quick the key to riding in sand like this was to keep the throttle twisted and just let the bike do its thing.
After about an hour of riding we came to the city of Robore. Miguel made a bee line for the train depot for us to discover that Neal had not arrived yet. We inquired what was going on and were told the train was delayed waiting on a west bound train to pass it.
It was after dark when Neal finally arrived. He was not happy with me for not staying with him. We carried our bags to the hotel room we had secured nearby. Unlike in America, we didn’t have to pay for the room when we checked in, but had to leave our IDs with the attendant. The room was nothing to write home about, but it had a couple of beds and a small color tv on a table along one wall under a small window. A bathroom was located down the hall with a shower. We took the first showers we had in a week. I had begun to smell so bad at that point I couldn’t stand it. The water was cold and I detested taking a cold shower, but I was so filthy I didn’t care.
We walked down the dirt street to a small restaurant and grabbed a bite to eat before turning into bed.
Morning came quickly. Neal and I had shared a bed that was not really big enough for the both of us. My back was sore from the bed and my back side was sore from all the riding. We made our way to the train station to purchase tickets for the train that night. Like Santa Cruz, tickets could not be purchased in advance. The train was scheduled to leave about 7 pm and was called an “express”. It was supposed to have minimal stops and arrive in Santa Cruz at daylight.
We returned to the restaurant from the night before for some breakfast. After breakfast we explored the city a little on Miguel’s motorcycle, all three of us! The rear shock was completely compressed and it was not good for it. We did stop by the guest house of another mission organization for a bit and we grabbed some lunch at a nice restaurant.
We were informed upon returning to the hotel that the police had come by and taken our ids and we needed to go to the police station to recover them. We were perplexed by this and made our way to the station right away. Miguel didn’t want to take his motorcycle to the police station because his registration wasn’t exactly legal, so we grabbed a taxi.
After a bit of wait, we were ushered into the commander’s office. We were informed that since Robore is a “frontier” town all foreign visitors must go through customs and immigration upon arrival and show their passports. Since we did not come in on the train from Brazil we didn’t think anything about it and had no idea we were breaking the law. The police didn’t know how we arrived or where we were from other than Neal and I were foreigners. Miguel proceeded to get into a heated conversation with the commander defending us. The commander kept saying we needed our passports to travel, but since we had our Bolivian issued “carnets”, which is their version of a “resident alien card” also known as a “green card”, we didn’t think there would be an issue. Once again, the fact that we were on a border town was the issue. The conversation between Miguel and the commander was so intense that at one point I thought Miguel would get arrested. Miguel became very agitated because we were getting “shook down” and we had done nothing wrong. It took more than an hour at the station, but finally we were released to go without paying any money. I think the commander thought he was going to get a little Christmas money out of us. In general, police were not respected because they tried to pull stunts like this all the time to line their pockets. It didn’t matter who you were, but especially if you looked American you had a target on your back because they assumed you had money. The street cops were the worst. They would pull us over for no reason and make up traffic violations and demand and outrageous payment on the spot.
We returned to the hotel so we could check out. Miguel decided to store his motorcycle with a friend and ride the train to El Porton where we left the animals.
When Miguel returned we walked to the train station. A train was already waiting on the siding. Neal and I found our seats on the left side of our car while Miguel bought a ticket. As we were putting our bags on the shelf above our heads I found a number of white boxes. There was little space for our belongings so I looked around and saw that anywhere there was space in the car there were white cardboard boxes stashed. The boxes were about the size of a VCR box. I was perplexed, but went about finding a place for my bag. Even though this was an express train, it would stop in El Porton just long enough for Miguel to jump off. Miguel caught up with us on the train and took a seat near us.
A little after 7 the train horn started blowing. In typical Bolivian fashion, we did not get under way until about 7:30. The sun had set and it was dark. I was hoping to see more of the trip in the daylight, but it wasn’t meant to be.
It took about an hour for us to reach El Porton. We said goodbye to Miguel and he gathered his bag and disappeared into the night as soon as the train was stopped. No sooner than he was gone, the horn blew and we lurched into motion.
I was sitting by the window this time and leaned up against it to get some sleep. The train swayed and rocked. It banged and creaked. It jerked from side to side and up and down. None of this bothered me and I was fast asleep.
I awoke in the early hours of the morning. The train was sitting still. Neal was asleep next to me. A man was standing nearby stretching like he had just woken up as well. I asked him what the problem was and he informed me that we were waiting on a siding for an east bound train to pass. Once it passed, we would go.
About thirty minutes go by and I had my head leaned against the window when I received and awful fright! The train we were waiting on was whizzing by on my side of the train not more than a few feet away. It was so close I am sure I could have reached out and touched it. I knew the other train was not going any faster than ours went, but because it was so close, it felt like it was speeding by. But in reality, it was lurching along down the tracks at a dreadfully slow speed.
Finally we were on our way again. I was beginning to think the term “Express” was a marketing gimmick to make the passengers feel like they were special. When in reality, this train was no faster than the other we rode on.
Day light came just as we were crossing the long narrow bridge over the Rio Grande. I knew we didn’t have far to go now. Soon we started the game of slowing for all the road crossings while trying to get the cars to stop for us. It was while we slowed for one of these that I learned what the deal with the white cardboard boxes was. Several men came into our car and started grabbing all the boxes and throwing them off the train. I got a better look at one of the boxes and saw that it clearly was a VCR. The men were tossing them off the train with no concern to the fact they were fragile. I looked out the window at the line of boxes on the ground. There were more being tossed from the car ahead of us that were a little different shape. They looked like they could be “boom boxes”, as we called them back then. The train paused for an exceptionally long time at this road crossing and I decided the engineer and conductor were in on what was going on. These men were circumventing the law and unloading their imports before they had to pay customs on them. I thought surely someone would come along and pick their things up, but as we neared the road crossing I saw a man with a red Toyota pick-up piling the boxes in the back of his truck. I made a mental note to never purchase a VCR or boom box in Bolivia, because it was probably tossed from a moving train.
My patience was wearing thin when we finally reached the train station. We quickly gathered our bags and exited the train. In front of the station was a circle drive way full of taxis waiting for passengers. We walked up to the car at the front of the line and as was customary we asked for a price quote. As a Gringo, you never jumped in a taxi without asking first, otherwise you would most likely get ripped off. Once again, it goes back to the fact they thought we owned trees that grew dollar bills. The driver quoted us an outrageous price and we laughed at him and asked the next guy in line. He was in on the scam too and having heard the first guy told us the same price. Now I was downright offended because these men were not only trying to rip us off, they figured we were not only “rich Gringos” but also “dumb Gringos”. I acted put off by their prices, but in all reality I was not surprised. Neal and I were not ones to waste money so we walked off.
The street was only about one hundred yards away so we hoofed it out there with our bags. The moment we exited the station gate a taxi was passing and I waved it down. I leaned down and asked the driver through the open window for a price and he quoted me a very reasonable price. We agreed and the driver popped the trunk for us to put our bags in the back. We climbed into the back seat and the driver sped away as if practicing for the next NASCAR race.
The taxi was a Toyota Corolla. What made it somewhat unique was that the speedometer and gauges were all located in front of the right seat, but the steering wheel, pedals, and the driver were located on the left side of the car. This was common place. My understanding was that in Japan cars that were 5 years of age were outlawed or the engine had to be replaced due to strict emission standards. So many of these cars were shipped to South America where a conversion was done to move the steering wheel and pedals to the left side of the car. If the purchaser wanted to pay extra, the dash was also switched over so the car looked normal. Many taxis were like this and the conversion was rarely completed.
We arrived at the mission guest house in a short while. We were both exhausted and needed to rest.
Our plan was to stick around Santa Cruz for a few days. We had a number of friends that lived there we wanted to see. I also needed to go school shopping and since I would not be making a trip to the big city before school started my mom had given me the green light to shop on my own that year.
A few days later we bought bus tickets to go home. The bus ride was uneventful and we arrived safe and sound. While we had just concluded a tremendous adventure, it felt great to be home.