Seeing the world, one country at the time

By Rail From Cuzco to Puno



Our last breakfast in Cuzco was wolfed down at El Buen Pastor, a non-profit bakery down the street from our hostel, which donates a percentage of proceeds to good causes. We drank a much-needed hot tea, Lars had a one-sol pizza and I, a chocolate croissant. Pizza for breakfast seems like a man’s domain. Running late, we managed to make our bus Just In Time. JIT seems to be the theme in our travel. We have yet to miss a bus, train or plane, but we have come awfully close.

The compartments are luxurious compared to the local trains. We had table seats with comfortable and old-fashioned high-backed chairs. A couple of Italian men sat across from us. As we clacked through town, people were breakfasting next to the train tracks. Benches around a provisional table held folks wearing thick black braids and bowler hats slurping up hot soups. Dogs ran everywhere. They are surprisingly strong and healthy, covered in thick pelts adequate for this climate and this altitude.

Train travel is ideal because it exposes what is behind the facade. This is the natural, unguarded side they don’t show the world. Riding on this train, I experience what Paul Theroux described in The Old Patagonian Express. From another Latin American country he writes “I noticed the naked children and the lamed dogs and the settlement in the train yard, which was fifty boxcars. By curtaining the door with faded laundry, and adding a chicken coop and children, and turning up the volume on his radio, the [Peruvian] makes a bungalow of his boxcar and pretends it is home. It is a frightful slum and stinks of excrement...” Even half a century later, very little has changed. The town dump is located along the railway tracks. Detritus surrounds us. Strips of colorful plastic cling to branches and stones in the river or on its banks.

USASESINA, meaning “USA kills”, is painted on a wall. This sentiment is quite common in South America, but is usually held toward the government, not its citizens. We see women with carts selling popcorn, abundant throughout the Andes. We pass men manufacturing roof tiles. Every roof sports orange clay shingles and like most architecture in the country, the style reflects the materials found locally. They take the red clay earth typical in this area, roll it flat with a rolling pin on an inclined wooden contraption, and hold it over a form to dry.

Both men and women lug bales on their backs strapped on with ropes or the ends of a shawl crossed around their neck and clutched with both hands.
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These are not lazy people. Dogs materialize, tearing across fields, racing the train. Sometimes it seems as though the dogs are going to win, but we always pull ahead. Lars is amused at the thought that the dogs never tire of this game, repeating it with every train that passes. Most buildings seem unfinished. They all seem to have metal rods sticking out from the ground floor roof, where another story could be added in the future. “It was not a house. It was a shack of cardboard and rusty tin. Holes had been punched in the tin to make windows, and broken bricks held bits of plastic over the leaky roof.” describes Paul Theroux. We pass sheepherders working and plowing by hand. Their family and their animals are all together. They are part of one unit. In the biting cold outside they sit along the banks in their fields in skirts, feeding their children and watching their llamas. Lars enjoys waving at the children and they in turn wave back.

Phrases like “VIVA PERU” or “Cristo Vive”, and images of fish or numbers are carved into the mountainsides above the cities we pass. They seem a poor imitation of the Nazca lines of their predecessors. Maybe it is a way to express themselves. There are also advertisements for, among others, a candy company. Spiritualism and commercialism in one. Even universities and graduating classes make their mark, like the white paint used to rally “Go Panthers!” on SUVs in the US during football season.

“No orinar pena de massacre – los vecinos” (Don’t urinate at the risk of death – the neighbors) is painted on a wall of a much larger city we traverse. It is a market town named Juliaca. We have 47 kilometers to go to reach Puno. This is where everybody for miles around comes to buy. You can get anything here, in this big jumble of blue tarps, tents and cement cubes sheltering bundled-up men or women selling books, laces, clothes, socks, rolls or rope, food, tools, junk, soft drinks, bicycles, car parts, tires, haircuts, spices, and musical instruments. Shops are piled on top of each other. It is impossible to take in this mob scene. How could there be such demand? The roads are red mud, the dogs lapping from the puddles. Heaps of garbage line the road in front of public bathrooms offering hot showers. Busses and tricycle taxis crowd the roads, which are lined with mufflers hanging on hat stands and cars being fixed on the side of the road.

Juliaca is filthy, garbage-strewn, dark, dingy and depressing. The stench permeates the train. I hope we don’t ever have to get off here. Down in the maddening crowd, everybody is wearing a hat. What is the purpose of these hats other than decoration? The Indians live in one of the most unforgiving climes and yet they wear hats that don’t cover their ears and hardly protect their faces from the bright sunlight. They serve no practical purpose that I can fathom. It reminds me that “he would not have done it if he were not a [Peruvian] and I would not have noticed if I hadn’t been an American.” also from Paul Theroux’s book. This proves true for so much we see and experience on these travels.

There is another warning for us not to urinate or throw garbage. “Prohibido botar basura y orinar. Zona de massacre” Zone of massacre?! There must really be a problem with public displays of bladder excretion. My mother told me that it was commonplace for the Peruvian Indians in Lima would squat in the street and do their business, but big city habits must have discouraged this behavior, because I never saw that anymore.

Despite all this, the description of our train route on the website was poetic. It describes beauty and a romantic history. Reality is very different. As usual, Latin Americans are wistfully looking back at their past. “The backward-looking [South American] is greatly encouraged by the thought that the land had once known glorious days.” “He urges you to ignore the squalor of the present and reflect on the glories of the past”, explains Theroux. And he has not changed. After all, his livelihood often depends on a tourism based on ancient cultures. Tourists are not there to see the Peru of today, but rather to imagine the Peru of the Incas, the largest former empire in South America.