Eastern Bolivia, showing the rail lines from Santa Cruz to the Brazilian border. San José de Chiquitos, my weekend destination, lies midways.
Saturday 10 October 1998
Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia
A man approaches me. He is dressed in beige pants and an off-white, maroon-trimmed sports shirt. His short, black hair gleams in the sun. “There are no more tickets for today’s train,” this scalper tells me. “Where are you going? I can give you a ticket for 30 bolivianos.”
In this early afternoon, I have arrived at the modern station on the east side of town. I ignore his offer and enter the station to wait. The ticket window will open at 2:30 p.m. I know the fare to San José de Chiquitos is only 18 bolivianos.
This is a three-day holiday weekend. Monday is Día de la Raza (or, as it is known in other latitudes, Columbus Day). I have decided to ride the infamous Death Train that goes to Puerto Quijarro on the Bolivian-Brazilian border. Over the years, several Bolivian friends have told me about this train: a monotonous, hot, mosquito-plagued trip through the jungle. Second class rides in over-crowded, claustrophobic box cars, or atop them.
But I shan’t go as far as the border – only as far as San José de Chiquitos, one of the old Jesuit missions. You see, I’m short on money until my stint at a school begins after the holidays … so short that I had to give up my room until Monday at a cheap alojamiento. Taking the train for the weekend is cheaper than paying rent.
A family also waits, hoping to take a weekend outing to San José de Chiquitos – which is obvious in their dress. All – husband, wife, her sister and two children, in various builds of overweightness – are dressed in shorts. A cooler and jug stack next to them: foods for this trip.
The wind through the open trestle roof sounds like a train pulling up. And amidst this wind, the train does pull up: a small orange locomotive with eight clean, shiny green and white cars. The line that had long begun to form at the gate begins pushing onto the platform and into the cars.
In this line, we talk of how the scalpers are allowed to be selling tickets like they do. The immigration man says they’ve tried to stop it.
At 2:30 p.m., Brazilian music begins filling this cavernous space. A man shines the floor with a push sponge mop.
At 3:00 p.m., the ticket window opens. But there are no tickets.
A short campesino pushes his battered straw hat up over his short bristled hair. His blue work shirt and half-buttoned-up blue pants are messy and lived in. “Go talk with the conductor. Buy the ticket aboard,” he says. The ticket seller agrees, “Talk with the conductor.”
I go to the gate. That campesino continues to follow me, wandering through the bureaucracy, putting in words of support for me. He tells me in a low voice, “He’s in the office … There, he’s on the platform. They’ll charge more, 29.50.”
“But, sir, the passage is 18. I can’t afford …”
“Talk with the conductor when he comes through.”
Mennonites have boarded in the last car for San José, second class, the men in their blue-jean overalls. I ascend into this clean, well-maintained car and grab a seat by and the window in hopes … in hopes … And begin writing this piece.
And bit by bit, I am scooted from one place to another in this group. Amidst the last rush of passengers and the slow roll away, I am without a seat.
We depart, into the bright sun and unclear, heat-hazed blue sky. A freight car is hooked behind the locomotive and the smaller passenger bodega car where the poor voyagers ride. We squeal along the tracks, past the long grasses bent by the wind.
Vendors stroll by. A man with watches and pocket calculators. A woman with a bucket over one arm, with bags of cookies. Another woman, chicha, chichia fría, in a green bucket. A man, newspapers under the crook of his arm.
We clunk past the cars stopped, past the homes where children wave, where in one yard a black and tan dog barks. And past more traffic. The train suddenly jolts with a hiss of brakes. A few more journeyers board. A newspaper-wrapped bouquet is placed gently overhead.
And on again … Two bare-butt, pot-bellied children jump up and down in their yard. Multi-colored laundry flaps on barbed-wire and chain link. Off on the edge of a field, tarp roofs of make-shift homes sail. Through countryside of dense brush, palm trees, of garzas flocking up from grazing cows. Treed track-side swamps. Our windows are open to that wind.
Yogurt, Yogurt, a man calls, walking by, tray across arm.
We click past Cotoca station without stopping. In vain, a woman hustles up the platform, bag in hand. The passengers around me look at her. “Yep, the same one who tried to wave it down in Santa Cruz. She knows the train leaves four o’clock sharp,” the man next to me says. He pulls his white ball cap over his brow and settles again in his seat. He crosses his dark arms across his white shirt. Across from that station, in a yard, music plays in a white and yellow balloon-decorated yard.
Refresco, refresco de piña frío, a tight-skirted woman calls. A red bucket hangs over her arm. That wind whips dust from dirt roads, blowing it into these open windows. A man enters our car, a silvered tray in arm. It is decorated with a bottle of ketchup and another of mustard for those red hot dogs lying in buns.
I lean against the wall of the vestibule, placed half-ways down the length of this car. I sketch the floor plan. Bench seats facing one another. On one side, they are large enough for two and on the other, for three. On the opposite aisle, a young man has his leg up, his high-cheek-boned face, his almond eyes painted with pain.
In a plowed field, the powdery soil clings to tractor tracks. The dirt blows into this car. We go over a long bridge spanning a sandy river. Off in one shallow, a brother swings a boy. We continue over thick jungle, then back through farmland. We bounce and rattle and bucking, slowing for El Pailón. Along this village’s earthen streets and swamps laced with railroad tracks are simple homes. In front of some, used clothes are displayed on blankets.
Mother holds that son’s ankle, the ankle of that son’s wounded leg. He briefly looks into her almond eyes and then away, eyelids fluttering in desired escape from the pulsating nerve.
A newspaper passes from reader to reader.
And here comes the conductor collecting fares in this crowded mid-car vestibule. I hope for the best … and score a ticket for 19.50 bolivianos. No seat – but I do have a ticket to ride this Death Train!
A bit later on, a man came by, ticket in hand, looking for his seat. We are only more than an hour and a half out of Santa Cruz.
Just dust and wind and dense brush, large farms plowed and fallow. Monstrous silos. Just the bouncing, bucking, jolting into the falling twilight. Golden sunlight for a moment touching leaves. Then fading, fading. The sunset behind us. Pale magenta bleeding across the haze. The ceiling lights flicker like a strobe in this darkness gathering inside. Just mile upon monotonous kilometer.
The newspaper has made its way to that young man with his left leg extended. He leans against the window, cushioned by a blanket, and reads until the light disappears.
A Mennonite man opens the fuse box door. He checks for loose wires, then declares in his Plattdeutsch-lilted Spanish, “It must be a weak battery.” He returns to the rear portion on this side of the vestibule of this car.
I comment to the fashionable woman across from me, “It’s almost like a disco. We’re only missing the music.” She laughs, her thick jowls wiggling. Passing a hand with deep-red lacquered fingernails through her permed, reddish hair. The flickering light plays across her designer glasses.
A railroad worker excuses his way to that control box. The lights brighten and steady. Outside complete blackness blanket the same miles.
But as soon as the worker leaves, the lights quit. He returns and brings them back up …. but they die. I’m writing by flashlight. Eventually we are left in complete blackness.
Sleep begins nipping at my mind. This darkness and so many hours of traveling this day, the heat … Others have already entered that other world. Except those asking the pollo dorado vendor, How much? Cuánto?
Near Posotera, the train slows. Frogs whoolop out in the night. Stars speckle the sky. We creep swaying past a long cargo train pulled onto another track. Once clear, we continue our sojourn across the many miles, no longer able to hear those sapos’ songs.
I awaken from out of my hazes at the same moment as the others do. There is absolute blackness within and without. A long village clatters by. What time is it? 9:25. I check the schedule: We should arrive at 2236 (10:36 p.m.) – yet 35 minutes from our destination. The others fall asleep. In the aisles, people bed.
I step out onto the mid-car vestibule. There people sit, drinking and smoking. The orange coals of their cigarettes glow. I return to my seat. Outside, the shrill clatter of frogs can be heard … the clunking clatter of this train. Insects hover in the yellow-white light of my hand lantern. The blackness of the night, of a waning half-moon not yet full. The air is cooler, humid. The light of the locomotive and other cars barely cut the edge of the night. Ghostly light of stars and fireflies.
Another traveler had gotten off the train when I did. We went to try to find a hotel, but there were no rooms available. All were booked by participants and spectators of a cross-country road rally that was passing through. This was a surprise to both of us – did not know it would be ….
Oh, I misspeak. There was one hotel that had a room available – at the horribly inflated price of 90 bolivianos.
We returned to station and asked the guard if we could stay there. We slept on the cool concrete of the platform.
The train schedule. The fares noted at the top are for the full journey to the border. The handwritten comments in the right margin are the scheduled times of the Puerto Quijarro-Santa Cruz trip. photo © Lorraine Caputo
11 October 1998
San José de Chiquitos
If it wasn’t for the lighter-colored day, then it was the clang of the station bell that awakened us.
In those passenger cars awaiting its train to Santa Cruz, metal shades are pulled up. Heads appear out the widows.
The red sun emerged quickly above the cut of the tracks, gleaming off the rails.
The vendors, mothers, daughters and sons, walk along that car and this platform. Café, café. Thermoses dangle from hands.
And from that distance, the horn blow of the locomotive. Bit by bit that orange engine came into view, pulling its string of cargo and baggage car, eight passenger cars.
That star climbed higher, orange to yellow. The vendors turn their attention to the new train. Café, Café. Gelatina. The engine detaches with the bodegas, switches to that side track to retrieve those two cars.
But I decide to wait until another day passes, explore the mission and this town.
The train departs, pulling the second-class cars, the first-class, a dining car, Pullmans, the special thrice-weekly La Brecha. It disappears into the distance.
I then head to the main plaza, just a few blocks away.
I sit on a bench in the partial shade of a tree, the old mission of San José de Chiquitos just across the street. Soon a priest sits next to me, also awaiting the opening of this old Jesuit church to open. We pass several hours talking about a variety of topics – the history of the first centuries of the Catholic Church, the call for a Third Vatican Council (he believes all the proposed points will be accepted, except women to be priests – even though the Church did used to allow all three points) and the reason for his “pilgrimage” to these hot jungle plains of eastern Bolivia.
He is, by training, a historical architect. He has been making the circuit of these old mission churches (reducciones), constructed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Of the seven that the Jesuits founded, six yet survive and are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. This, San José, is the most accessible. The others are more far-flung. He has already visited San Javier, Concepción, San Rafael and Santa Ana, all designed by the Swiss priest, Padre Martin Schmidt, as well as San Miguel. This is the last one he has to see.
I notice the door to the temple has opened. I excuse myself and seek escape from the sultry day within the cool, dim church. While exploring the iconography and sketching the floor plan, I shadow falls over my page. It is the caretaker of the church – and head of the Chiriguano indigenous community. He teaches me about the history of this mission – but most importantly, current hopes of the native peoples, the projects to recuperate their traditions and their arts.
The day has quickly fled in conversations … I must now rush back to the station to secure my ticket for the train back to Santa Cruz.
Past 12:30 a.m.
That half-moon rises red-orange, and as it climbs, goldens to waxy white. Its light shines upon the station – white over forest green – like train cars that run along these rail lines.
The two-car ferrobus for the Brazilian border has come and gone amidst station bell clangs and locomotive horn blows.
A woman bundles beneath covers sleeps on the bench I occupied last night, the widely spaced slats cutting into her dully (as they had me).
I am ready to take my place in that car awaiting on a side track. I have my ticket, I have my place. But now I don’t have the urge to sleep as I did all afternoon, all evening.
A bit after 3 a.m.
I am awakened from a deep sleep by the jostling of people passing my feet, standing out in the aisle, the vendor’s calls – young boys and women. Outside the platform is full of Bolivians and Mennonite Bolivians. I resign myself to ending this sleep.
The station bell clangs its warning. In my absence, my seatmates arrive, a couple with an eight-month-old infant swathed in knit hat and sweater. They take all three places.
I walk back out to the platform. An older Mennonite woman stands near the coupling, drinking coffee and eating an empanada. I toast her with my cup. An overall-ed, straw-hatted man of her family approaches us. My Spanish won’t work with her. But, yes, they can kind of understand Hochdeutsch – like I can kind of understand their Plautdeutsch.
I hear the distant rumble of the locomotive, its headlight glowing on the eastern horizon. We hurriedly return inside. The two diesel engines hum deep next to us. They then detach from their chain and pick us up with a clang and bang. Gently we are brought into the body, another link. Again the bang, the clang, the jump back. And the gentle, slow departure through the almost-four-a.m. morning.
The gentle chug of the engines later grows quicker as we clear the edge of this former Jesuit mission, the quickening clicks, the swaying, the bouncing – the bucking of this blackened car into the moonlit night. The brush and trees silhouette against the dark grey sky.
Everyone, it seems, has fallen asleep, except this poet writing by flashlight. The next car behind, yes, is lit. Someone walks by, stepping over the long lean body of a Mennonite asleep in the aisle.
I awakened to a lighter sky. The sun rises behind us, unseen. In a marsh wades an ibis. We click through miles of jungle growth, past miles of girasoles turning their faces to the sun.
A Mennonite man and I talk about the way of life, their religion and farming – and of his family. They are from a community of some 3,000 souls. They originally are from Cuahautémoc, Chichuahua, Mexico but a drought there forced them to move to Belize, then on to Bolivia where they have lived for the past 20 years or so. They have eight children, some of whom were born in Belize and others here in Bolivia. Two daughters still live at home. How many grandchildren do they have? Oh, 20 or so.
Bolivians welcome Mennonites, and are exempted from military service. This religion is known for its hard-work, building communities that have great farming success even in the most challenging of environments. Mennonites (especially the Old Order Mennonites, as the Amish are called in Spanish) are also famous for their old ways, living without modern comforts like gas engines and electricity.
And this couple dresses like traditional Mennonites from wherever. The 58-year-old, clean-shaven patriarch is dressed in dark-blue overalls and a dark olive-green, long-sleeve shirt. His clear blue eyes sparkle as we talk. His wife has a dark-blue dress with blue print, covered with a black apron. Her light-brown hair escapes from beneath a black head scarf tied under her chin. Her face is clear, her hazel eyes also lively – difficult to believe she is 57 years old.
Their community grows soy, sorghum and corn. Yes, they do use chemicals and fertilizers in the farming, as well as tractors. The only electricity they use is for work – none is in the home. Schools are taught in Hochdeutsch, though Plautdeutsch is spoken at home. All of his family, as well, speaks Spanish. He also knows English.
In the growing light of day, we clatter past fields studded with termite mounds. All night, a mother and daughter have occupied two seats each – while others stood, including this Mennonite man. The older woman’s face is marked with disgust at the question if he could sit down. And these two only paid for two places, not four. Cochinas, pigs, someone else says on the other side of the aisle. And once more the mother and daughter fall asleep.
We clack over a bridge spanning jungle, sandbars and a sandy river. The winds are calmer this mid-morning. We are not bathed in that fine, beige dusty soil.
In the boredom, in the growing heat of day, the youth across from me in this next group fall asleep, the young women’s heads on one another’s shoulders. The infant of large black eyes sleeps at her sleeping mother’s breast. He awakens, his large black eyes rolling in on-the-edge-of-two-worlds disorientation and flops against the other breast. The Mennonite man perches on the edge of that hog-daughter’s seat on the other side of the aisle, his arms crossed.
We enter the growing city, past a dozen geese and children running towards us. We roll into the railyard and near the station. Shoes get put back on, handbags stuffed. People on the platform look at the faces peering out windows.
The final stop with a jolt. The overhead racks empty, passengers rushing for that center vestibule.
The Mennonite man watches me writing images and lines accumulated in my mind. He wants to know what I am writing. In my desperation to capture them on the page, I beg him for a few minutes.
I am lost in images plowing from hand to hand, from hand to pen, to ink to page as we pull into the station … He had disappeared ….