Sunday, August 3, 2008

End of the Line

Cusco is not our last stop on this 8-month journey, but in many ways it is our ultimate destination. After here, we have Lima and Buenos Aires to look forward to, but in both cases they are necessary stopping points on the way home. Cusco (and Macchupicchu) have been in our sights since the start. As a destination, it was all the more meaningful because waiting for us at Cusco train station was Livia, Letizia's mother. She's been coming here for 10 years or so, working on a very special project. But more on that in a later blog.

Being such a significant point in our trip, we travelled to Cusco in style. There is a train service operated by PeruRail called the Andean Explorer, which runs three or four times a week from Puno to Cusco. We booked it while we were still in Chile, and while it came in at almost 300 euro for a oneway trip, it was money well spent. For a number of reasons, it was the most spectacular train journey of my life. Never have 10 hours of any form of transport gone by with such ease.

The Andean Explorer is a colonial Gentleman's Club on wheels, trundling across an Andean wilderness, where the seats are real armchairs placed on the carpeted floors, the bathroom is a welcoming environment of dark wood and marble, and the table service is performed in a synchronised swirl of black and white uniforms. We were in the second-last car, and behind us lay the train car to end all train cars - a bar and observation deck. The elegant bar served Pisco Sours to window-side tables. The observation deck was almost completely enclosed in glass, except for the very last section - a brass rail in the open air.

Trains in Europe are hermetically sealed high-speed tubes that bullet through the landscape and skirt around cities. The Andean Explorer lets you breathe the air of the land you are passing through and instead of bypassing towns it runs right through them. When we first pulled out of Puno, I was leaning against the brass rails, ready to enjoy the receding lakeside scenery. Instead I found myself in a traffic jam in the city centre, cars on either side of me, kids and adults alike looking up at the spectacle of a badly-dressed gringo leaning out the back of the train. (Just think of the last scene from Dumbo, but with a less endearing cast). At first we just grinned at each other. Then the kids started to wave. Naturally I waved back. Nina and Sara joined me for a while, and the three of us waved at anything that moved. The girls got bored and left, but I was just getting warmed up. After 15 minutes or so I had the hang of things. Men prefered a dignified nod and a respectful smile. Adolescent males were to be saluted with a single raised hand ONLY if they initiated. Adolescent females - actually all women - appreciated a vigourous wave and a cheekily raised eyebrow. These rules applied not just for Puno but for Juliaca and every other town we passed through. My jaws were sore from smiling after the first 4 hours.

In many of the towns we passed through there were markets. It appeared that the markets formed either side of the rail and the railway line itself acted as the main thoroughfare through the stalls. Or it did until our train arrived. Business was suspended as we slowed down and squeezed past stalls selling everything from fruit to car-parts, never further away from the market tables than then length of a 20 soles note. The waving, nodding and smiling continued unabated. The relationship between those on board the train and those looking from the ground was one of mutual curiousity, neither party quite believing what was happening. I'm convinced that I saw more of Peruvian Altiplano life in those few hours than I had in the previous five days spent in Peru.

Another aspect of our train ride that made the day especially memorable for me was the company. Imagine that you're sitting on a luxury train, fresh from experiences of deprivation and sleeplessness. You've paid top dollar to be there, and just as you start to settle in, you watch a family of four lurch towards your table and proceed to surround you. Hell, right? Well Kim from Ottawa suffered exactly this fate as the four of us piled into the Andean Explorer and took up postions all around her that pretty much excluded all chance of escape. A lesser woman would have taken refuge in a book or a tall alcoholic drink, notwithstanding the hour. Kim, and her friend Janet (who was an entire merciful car away but who occasionally came to comfort Kim) handled our 'company' with the tolerance and good humour for which Canadians are deserved respected. (Kim: May there be many, many mountains. Your stories kept us on the edge of our, erm, seats.)

The reception we received in Cusco train station, and afterwards in the lobby of the Hospedaje San Blas, involved flowers, confetti and much shaking of hands and kissing. We deserved none of it, but were instead basking in the reflected glory of Livia Rosetti, my mother-in-law, who has helped to make a real difference to the lives of the people of the parish of Belen here in Cusco. I'll tell you exactly what I mean by that over the next couple of blogs.

It's been 5 days since we arrived here in Cusco, and the experience has been so full-on that it's only now that I'm catching up with the blog. I'll introduce you to a whole host of new characters over the next few days, and tell you about what we've seen since we got here. In the meantime, I should have been asleep an hour ago. Goodnight.


Alejandro said...

I came across your blog and found it interesting reading. The train ride from Puno to Cuzco sounds wonderful. Saludos!

Brendan Lawlor said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment Alejandro. I like the look of your Peruvian Food blog. We've been really impressed by the quality of food here, and I'm really looking forward to sampling some Ceviche in Lima. Any other recommendations?