THE TICO TRAIN : Paseo en Tren a la Tica

Costa Rica, train

Paseo en Tren a la Tica – a Costa Rican railroad excursion, 2004. photo Lorraine Caputo

(10 January 2004 / San José  – Playa Caldera-Mata de Limón – San José)

The first rule of traveling is patience, patience …

And, ay, how patiently I have waited for a train in this country!

I first came to Costa Rica in early 1992, traveling overland to Quito, Ecuador. I was almost broke, my knapsack had been stolen in Mexico, and it seems a million other things wrong. I hitched a ride with other foreigners to Puntarenas and spent a few days there.

I seriously thought of taking the train to San José.

But I chickened out.

All service, including the famous the Jungle Train (locally known as the Tren al Atlántico as it used to clack its way the Caribbean coast), were cancelled on 27 June 1995.

I wrote to INCOFER (Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles), the national train company, in May 1997 to find out the status of trains. In its letter of 24 June 1997, it replied:

At this time, the Government of Costa Rica is undertaking the steps to bring back train service, administered by independent companies that wish to use the rail system and provide excellent service, better than that provided by INCOFER.

We believe that the end of 1997, it could be possible to begin rail operations in the Atlantic zone, specifically transporting bananas from the plantations to Moín harbor in Limón. On its part, in mid-1998 the train between San José and the Pacific sector, in Puerto Caldera, could function once again.

I returned to Costa Rica in July 1998. No, no train yet. If I hadn’t have spent a few extra weeks in Nicaragua, I could have caught a special train for some saint’s feast day.

My research online in June 2002 gave me news of the Pacific train resuming service. In July 2003, plans were announced by INCOFER to begin cargo and passenger service again of the Jungle Train – at least from Guápiles and Siquirres to Limón.

And so I have returned.

Thursday 8 January 2004 / ~10:45 a.m. – San José

Gosh bless it – I’m as happy as a pig in a poke – a kid in a candy shop — & who knows what else ….

So, I went down to the train station to find out about trains. I was referred to a travel office there. I spoke with a young man, Mauricio (he gave me his business card). I explained my mission & travels over the years.

He told me about the trip they offer to Playa Caldera-Mata de Limón on the Pacific coast. About 98% of people who take this excursion train to the beach are Costa Ricans – & what I love tremendously, is it makes short stops along the way to allow vendors to come aboard to sell, in order to create business along the way, give people a source of income. He’ll allow me to go at the Tico price ($11 US) instead of the foreigners’ price ($25 US), payable in colones or dollars.

But before deciding, I wanted to find out more about service reportedly starting in Limón. I spoke with señor Moreira, the manager of operations. He said, No, only from Siquirres to Limón & only with cruise ship companies. They are also doing banana cargo service in the area. (I jotted notes about which lines are operational from map while he was gone making photocopies of the stations between here and Playa Caldera.)

I came back to the cheap hotel near the Central Market at about 10:30 a.m. My room was ready. I got my things and settled in.

I asked the man at the desk about having to be at the train station at 5:30 a.m. He said there would be no problem. The man on duty at that time can help me hail a taxi. It’ll be safe.

So I guess I should go get the train ticket …

I feel a bit uneasy about having to  take a train in only a few days – but it’ll be better to get it out of the way … & it leave me open for other possibilities of traveling here …

Just have to set that alarm for Saturday – have everything ready to go – figure out how much I’ll need, money-wise, to take with me for the trip (& stash the rest away safely) … Pack a picnic lunch …

I’ll go up to the station now & get that ticket. This will be the first time I ever take a tourist train – and only because the majority of passengers will be locals.

Costa Rica, train

The light grey line show the rail lines in Costa Rica. photo Lorraine Caputo

Saturday 10 January 2004

Am I nervous? Yes – I can’t get to sleep until after midnight, packing a day pack. I copy the list of train stations and the time schedule. Do I sleep? Do I dream?

And with the beeping of my alarm clock at 4:57 a.m., I am up and waiting for a taxi at 5:19 a.m.

Dawn is just beginning to lighten the eastern sky. A cool, humid breeze gusts.

Vendors are already dollying their goods through the twilight streets. Stalls are set up with rainbows of fruits. Nurses are going to work, people boarding buses, security guards going home after a night’s vigil. Clouds spot the mountain horizon.

I arrive at the station. The lobby is two-thirds full of families, nuns and a handful (fewer than a dozen) foreigners.

Mauricio, one of the company workers, greets everyone and tells the rules. He tells us the rails are being maintained, so we will be going a bit slow today.

And we begin boarding. On these tracks, behind the rumbling máquina (locomotive) are seven passenger cars: four blue wooden one, the first being an ultra-first class, and three silver cars. Bringing up the rear is a caboose.

Still taxis are depositing passengers at this depot. Those clouds are beginning to capture the magenta and peach of this morning’s sun.

Families pose for photos and hurry aboard to leave at six o’clock sharp. A blast of horn. Rush constant. Clang of engine bell, the horn, the horn, the horn and we roll off, out of the yard.

Two male pedestrians wave at us and yell “huevo duro, huevo duro,” hard-boiled egg, hard-boiled egg. Behind those track-side homes, a dog barks. Homeless people sleep in the grass, covered with cardboard to protect them from the chill and dew. A man steps out of his jeep to give us the thumbs up.

I am riding backwards, so it is hard to see what is happening outside. It is as I am seeing the train in space and time, of where it had been.

Young children sit on some parents’ laps. The rail company’s policy is that if can fit child on lap, rides for free. So, we must be, hmm, probably close to 400 total passengers on this ride to the Pacific coast.

We slow and stop – a car is blocking the tracks. And the whole human world also stops. A man shouts, “Buen viaje.” Then we creep slowly away.

People at the Mercado Mayoreo smile at our passage. Produce trucks are parked so close, too close to our tracks. In this new day’s light gleam mounds of lettuce, spinach, cabbage – carrots, yucca, beets – strands of onion and garlic … mounds of oranges, melon, mandarins – plantains, carambolas, piñas – blocks of dark sugar. A kid battles the traffic, arms full of white onions, the long green tops flowing.

And we are stuck again. The car hostess explains our situation and nervously prances with our delay. Finally we clear the market zone with an almost constant horn blast, swaying, rocking away.

The kids across the aisle wave out the window at everyone – but not all wave back. We approach Sabana Park. A man driving on the highway waves. We cross over our first highway bridge. Chinese bodega workers hoot and wave at us. We pass over another highway. A factory worker gives the thumbs up.

We pass the Zona Franca (Free Zone). The tracks are congested with trash. In front of homes built of scrap metal, an addict stabs and stabs his chest with a syringe.

A young Afro-Costa Rican family stands watching us pass by. Pa helps his son to wave to a toddler aboard this train. A woman hangs washed laundry. The River Torres rushes hundreds of feet below.

We chug into Heredia province. The houses here are richer, ranches are widely spaced. Sleek horses graze in a pasture.

Costa Rica, train

The list of stations and approximate time of arrival at each. photo © Lorraine Caputo

BELÉN

We make a stop here to pick up some passengers. Mauricio, dressed as a country bumpkin, runs around yelling for his ma who boarded in San José. And as we leave Belén, Ma Ramírez is looking for Mauricio.

Families wave from their front patios. Dogs bark. A guard on a tile roof, yes, greets us – and those workers at a plant. And behind poorer homes on the same side of the tracks, two shirtless shoeless boys wave from their dirt yard.

SAN RAFAEL

We clack through San Rafael. A smiling officer leans out the police station window with a smile and greets us. A man in a field of onions looks up at our clatter before returning to  his fumigation. We pass another former station stripped of its signs. Tilting warning signs are rusted and illegible.

We now cross a broad valley still hemmed by mountains. This landscape is carpeted with sown fields and feral fields, fields scattered with lava boulders and pastures.

CIRUELA – 800 meters a.s.l. – 23 K San José / 93 K Puntarenas

7:23 a.m.

A couple, still in bedclothes, waves from their yard. The day is growing warmer with the higher sun and lower altitude. Beneath the ghostly waning moon, butterflies flurry along the tracks and into this car.

TURRÍCARES

Near this unmarked station are cattle ranches and a country club, and large egg farms.

The Ramírez family again visits our car again. Their humor and drama continue.

It is 7:50 a.m. The moon has now almost faded away over the mountains. The land we traverse is now rougher, with massive and low-worn volcanic stones.

CEBADILLA

The land flows around us. On roads parallel to our tracks, people stop mid-passage to wave at us.

ATENAS

Here we stop to allow aboard vendors to sell traditional foods and fruits, to allow a musician to play.

I gaze out at the pockets of sugar cane and pockets of meadow. Zopilotes soar above the earth.

An older musician comes to our vagón. He sings, playing a guitar and blowing a harmonica. Everyone sings along. Some passengers whoop. There’s a call for another song and everyone (save I) sings along. Our visitor collects the tips, then provides us with a third canción.

Tree limbs, tree trunks are weighted down by ant nests. A paper wasp nest hangs from the limb of another. The árboles are small-leafed, sparse-leafed. And now there is only the song of wheels squealing upon rails as we twist through this rolling land.

A señora arrive with baskets of gallo de gallina. She serves me up a plate of range hen, with an egg, tortilla and a torta de papa (potato cake).

MANGOS – 408 meters altitude – 48 Km de San José

We roll past this small station that’s more like a country bus stop, only perhaps some three meters square. It has no seats. The windows are mere openings in the walls. A feasting sloth hangs by its tail from an electrical line.

ESCOBAL

Budding mango trees shade this depot. An overgrown garden of yucca, banana and bamboo surround the building. The trees are small-leafed, sparse-leafed trees have limbs that are heavy with ant mounds. A wasp nest hangs from one branch. The brush is woven by vines of  blue morning glory, of lavender morning glory.

We pass by this forgotten station with the squeal of our wheels upon rail, the clunk, clack-clackety, clunk, clack-clackety of our train.

Branch-to-earth vines decorate the countryside. Zopilotes fly through the jungle-covered canyons. Squeal of wheel … The azure sky is spotted with clouds. Up on a low ridge, an anteater peers around a tree trunk, observing our passage.

Clunk—clack—clunk, clunk—clack—clunk. On the other side of this train snakes a snakes a river ravine. We sway into the cool of shade, out of the bright sun. We roll past a patio of three spurs where boxcars retire. We swing past isolated homes where dogs bark.

We waver into small towns, our train’s horn blowing. Yards are framed with crotons and bougainvillea. Families wave. A bare-bottomed boy waves in the door of his house.

Clack clack, clack clack, clack clack, clack clack. The smell of burning brush wafts through this car’s open windows. The constant horn blare greets the village of Orotina. The people there laugh in amazement, with delight at the sight of a train. Past the cemetery where a young couple is placing flowers on a grave. A shaggy poodle barks, his voice lost above the horn blare, the horn blare.

COYOLAR

This station is blue and white like all the others. The sun glares off its sign.

The squeal, the hiss of brakes as we descend towards our destination. Trees are covered with thick thorns. Lizards run up the embankment. A broad river to our left rushes towards the ocean.

Clack clack clack, click click. Clack clack clack, click click.

The land stretches flat to the now-distant mountains, flat to the nearing sea. From houses of the rich, from homes of poor, people greet us aboard this train, the dogs bark. Fields and pastures green the scape.

HIDALGO VILLAGE

Far below are acres of perfect rows of young melons towards which we wind, descending, winding. We clatter over a river in which children swim. And in this countryside, many more acres are being planted. Some farmhands stop wave to us.

We swoosh through a tunnel (283 meters long). When we emerge, I see hills of worn tan faces dappled with growth and miles of fallow fields. In the distance is a shipping yard full of container cars and vessels.

We ride long a now-mud swamp with tall roots. The estuary is low, exposing a wide expanse of sand.

And our party has arrived at about 10:47 a.m. Families gather their towels and picnic hampers, and head for the beach.


At about 3 p.m., I hear the locomotive horn. I run from town to where the train awaits our return.

Two women rush towards the train to sell the fruit and coconut drinks. With flavored ices, men on bicycle carts travel aside the cars. Sales are made through the windows. A woman selling Pan, fresco el pan arrives breathless.

All the passengers return, bronzed or burnt from their day at the beach. People pose on the vestibules for photos – Say, Whiskey!

3:19 p.m. – A long blast of horn

More folks settle in. More photos are taken.

3:23 p.m. – Two blasts of the horn

Adriana our attendant counts heads. Three passengers are missing. The strong mid-afternoon sun glints off the estuary waters. Elizabeth asks if she and her eldest daughter, Alejandra (16 years old) and two young sons (Orlando, 6 years old, and Daniel, 2 years old) could move up to the empty seat next to me. We make our introductions and settle in for the ride home.

3:28 p.m. – A wavering blast of that horn

The engine has been moved to the front of our chain of cars. The direction of the seats has been switched. I will be riding on the same side of the car as I came on – but this time I will be facing forward, into our journey.

3:30 p.m. – One last horn blast

And we roll off, clunking past tangled tree roots in the scarce swamp and those raíces left dry.

Daniel is cranky from too much sun, too much heat. He wants mama’s breast. Soon he falls asleep. And in a short while, her older will also be asleep ….

Egrets dapple a field of cattle. I smell the black-earth aroma of that tunnel. And now green and yellow tractors plow those miles of melons. The field hands toil under the hot sun. A boy and his dog lazily walk a dirt road. After the last rows of that melon finca, we rattle through a cut, steep rock walls surrounding us. We sway past a mango orchard and barking dogs.

HIDALGO VILLAGE

Jungle and savannah, sugar cane campos drape this landscape. Children wave.

COYOLAR

Poor homes, rich homes. Barking, waving.

OROTINA

Here we stop for ten minutes to buy mangos and mangas out our windows.

And then we are on our way, that river ravine to the west and jungle on the other side. Monkeys climb and leap from tree to tree.

The sun is passing beyond the western mountains. Those valleys pool with gold. Shadows fall longer. Clouds become brushed with magenta. The sun is a golden orb. The sky bathed in a spectrum.

ESCOBAR

We roll through this town. Some passengers are singing and clapping.

The sun has now disappeared. Shadows deepen. Cicada song swells. The west is still colored by the departed sun. The sea is now far, far off.

It becomes chillier with the dusk and ascent of altitude. The land, the plants are mere silhouettes against the pale indigo sky. Venus emerges, then more stars. As we clack and sway, tired children are rocked to sleep.

ATENAS – 38 Km to San José / 78 Km Puntarenas

6:18 p.m.

The museum is now closed. Vendors come aboard.

TURRÚCARES

Night is absolute. Now and again, in the distance, the golden net of some city’s lights spreads across the uneven land. But still the human world must stop for our passage. Folks wave, dogs bark.

CIRUELAS       SAN RAFAEL

Toots of horns greet us. The shouts of adios.

BELÉN

A soccer game is underway in the field in front of the church.

Here, Elizabeth and her family debark, departing for home.

We are into the last stretch towards San José. Windows are closed against thrown stones. And we stop, and we go slow through gangland. Trash blocks the rails.

SAN JOSÉ

And we are now home. It is about 8:04 p.m.

A HEALTHIER BANANA CAKE

A HEALTHIER BANANA CAKE

banana cake, no fat, healthy

A healthier banana cake – and would you believe with no butter or oil, and only half the usual sugar?! photo © Lorraine Caputo

There comes a time when we may have to say farewell to sweets … and thanks to months of lockdowns and not being able to be as physically active as we may have been before the worldwide Covid pandemic, it seems it may be just that time.  

(I know, I know – when these “adventuresome” times began, I urged folx to “Bake cookies, brownies or a cake for dessert – or for unwinding in the evening” in my article, “60 Ways to Leave Your Boredom.”)

But do we really have to say farewell to something that tops off a nice dinner with such flair? Can we tweak our favorite recipes into something with less fat, less sugar, less calories … yet have something delish, something to satisfy that sweet tooth?


I began to research. Is it possible to cut out butter without affecting the texture of a cake? Decrease the amount of sugar, and yet have a satisfying dessert?

I’d heard of making cakes with avocados instead of butter. One pre-pandemic communal Sunday dinner, a housemate presented a chocolate cake for dessert. It was absolutely delish. After we had cleaned our plates clean of the last crumb, she revealed the secret: It was made with avocados.

Avocados, luckily, are quite inexpensive here in Latin America. But are there other things that might be used in place of butter or oil? Then I found this wonderful article by Nan Schiller. She lists over a dozen substitutes for oil you can use in baked goods.

Brandy Almond cake

Brandy Almond Cake – one of my favorite homemade desserts! So buttery, and that touch of ginger! photo © Lorraine Caputo

That got me to thinking about a previous Recipe Corner sharing, in which I discussed ways to make a cake without an oven – and my two favorites pasteles made that way, Brandy Almond and Lemon Macadamia.

Ay – but with all that sugar and butter! In truth, though, those measurements are standard for a rich cake. So, how????

I meditated on my dilemma – if I substitute this … and with the natural oils in the nuts …

Then hit the kitchen with an idea. What follows is my creation – with no butter or oil, and only half the usual sugar.

This Healthier Banana Cake turned out very moist, with a fine crumb texture. The second night, the flavors were much more matured.

So, join in on this great experiment. I hope you enjoy it as much as we have!

HEALTHIER BANANA CAKE

In blender pitcher, whip at high:

2 large ripe bananas

½ cup brown or white sugar (I used brown)

2 eggs

½ cup walnuts

¼ cup whole flaxseed (if you use flaxseed meal, add it to the dry ingredients)

In another bowl, mix together well:

1 cup flour (I prefer using whole wheat flour)

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ teaspoon baking powder

3 tablespoons of flaked natural coconut (that is, with no added sugar)

Pour the liquid mixture into the flour mixture and blend well.

Lightly grease and flour a cake pan, and pour in the batter. Bake in a preheated 180ºC (350ºF) oven until the top springs back when lightly touched and a toothpick (or thin knife) inserted near the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

If you find yourself without an oven, then lightly grease and flour a heavy four-liter pot. Pour in the batter. Cover and cook over medium-low heat about 30 minutes.

When the pan or pot is cool, remove the cake. Serve plain with a coffee or tea.

¡Buen provecho!

NEW PUBLICATIONS : Poetic and Travel – June Solstice 2021

Seashells, ocean, summer, solstice, June, Colombia

The first day of the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer is Seashell Day! Seashell mosaic, Palomino, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Indeed, my poetry and travel writing continue to appear in journals and on websites around the world – this quarter, in the UK, the US, India and Spain.

Spend this June solstice browsing through the list (with links) below, poetically journeying to Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, Alaska, Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, the US, the Galapagos Islands, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Ecuador …

… and by train in Mexico, Bolivia and (perhaps … or not) Argentina …

And until we next meet …..

Safe Journeys!

Door, architecture, colonial, Quito, Ecuador

The Portal. Quito, Ecuador. photo © Lorraine Caputo

NEW LITERARY EXPRESSIONS

“Friday Night at the Crossroads” in StepAway Magazine (UK) – 10th Anniversary (March 2021)

“Aureate Afternoon” in Trouvaille Review (29 March 2021)

“Night Passage,” “Into the Chaco (fragment)” and “Pocitos” in Impspired (UK) (Issue 10, April 2021)

“This Desert Road” and “Braiding” in The Mark Literary Review (Issue 29, April 2021)

“Comments on a Poetry Reading,” “Guerrilla Poetry” and “Banquete Cultural” in The BeZine (5 April 2021)

“The Portal,” “Oospore,” “Spirit Suite – Étude Nº 13” and “The Place of the Dead” in Lothlorien Poetry Journal (England) (13 May 2021)

“Night Passage,” “Into the Chaco (fragment)” and “Pocitos” in Imspired (UK) (Volume 5, 2021)

“Caribbean Night” and “Purple Rain” in ILA Magazine (India) (Issue # 3 May/June Edition 2021)

“Excursion (Into the Night)” in The Literary Nest (Vol 7, Issue 2 – 24 May 2021)

“Every Night” in Freshwater Literary Journal (May 2021)

“To Build a Snowman” in The Poet MagazinePoem of the Day (4 June 2021)

“The Sound Poem,” “After the Storm” “Mexican Murals – Tuxtla Gutiérrez” and “Scattered” in Otherwise Engaged Literature and Arts Journal (Seventh Edition, 2021)

“Amanecer en Kuélap” en Bajo Otros Cielos (España) (7 junio 2021)

“Chi – Standing Five Elements” in As Above So Below (UK) (Issue 7: Hands / Feet, June 2021)

“Weekend’s End” in As It Ought To Be Magazine (18 June 2021)

Escape to the Sea (Origami Poems Project, 2021)

This microchap has 6 poems I wrote while relaxing in Zorritos (Peru)

FREE to download … print it off and fold it for your own copy!

If you are in need of an article for your publication or website, a translation, or your dissertation, book or article proofread / edited, please feel free to contact me.

I am also available to participate in literary events.

THE TEXAS EAGLE

US trains Amtrak Texass Eagle

A 1990s map of Amtrak’s routes.

17 – 19 August 2003

St. Louis, Missouri – El Paso, Texas, by way of San Antonio

Texas Eagle / Sunset Limited

 

I spend this day simmering in nerves. Will I remember how to observe, explore, to write?

It has been so long since I last took a train. Let’s see if I can remember. Christmas 2000, it had to be. The Ann Rutledge between Jefferson City and Chicago. Almost three years now.

Tonight I’ll be hopping the Texas Eagle, from here to the Mexican border.

 

All morning I mull over Saint Louis maps. Which will be our route out of town? Will we follow those tracks through Carondolet Park, near Cristina’s house? But there is such a maze of rails southward. I give up.

I try to catnap. It’s another sultry summer day on these banks of the Mississippi. Heat advisories are posted again. I can’t sleep. I give up.

I pack. Try to rest. Give up.

We have a late lunch. Despite the beer, and rum-coffee liqueur- spiked ponche crema (or because of), I still can’t sleep. I awaken sweating. I give up. I shower, stow the gear into Rocinante (my knapsack) and tie her down. I try to read for a while. But I can’t … I give up.

And I worry. Can I remember how to ride, how to write?

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Cristina, Germán and I arrive at the downtown Amtrak station. It is already crowded with people and baggage for the Texas Eagle, due in at 8:50 p.m. from Chicago. We greet a friend awaiting his brother on that train. The Eagle finally alights at 9:17. I check my watch with the lobby clock. I am three minutes fast.

Cristina, Germán and Dan marvel at this silver string of double-decker cars. Never before had they seen a Superliner, the long-distance trains. But I must find my place, and Dan has spotted his brother. Time only for hurried hellos, good-byes and hugs.

A man across the aisle helps me hoist Rocinante onto the overhead rack. I peer out the window. My friends are nearing their auto. Germán keeps looking over his shoulder to our gleaming Eagle. I wave furiously. They finally spot me. We say farewell one last time.

Indeed, this is the Texas Eagle. Here in Saint Louis, the last car will be taken off. Once we get to San Antonio, only this coach and one sleeper will hook up with the west-bound Sunset Limited on its way to California. And I’m on my way to El Paso.

We are in darkness for a while until the last car is detached. Union Pacific freighters clunk, rattle by on the next track.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

And so we slowly roll through the railyards, boxcars parked on sidings. The night streets are abandoned. Over there is Saint Louis University.

We glide through the blackened metropolis, swaying past Monsanto Center and warehouses. Crossing empty streets, red lights flashing. Lit truck yards. Long expanses of pitch, desolate city.

At last the rhythm of wheel upon rail quickens. A blast of train horn. Trees silhouette against a charcoal-grey sky.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Down in the smoking car, a girl listens to her mother and two other women trade tales of men.

The loud boasts of teen-age boys fill one end of the snack bar. The attendant is taking stock of his wares. He slow-wipes the counter in rhythm to that sweet jazz playing.

And in the sightseer car, a twenty-something man talks on his cellular phone. A young woman wraps herself in a blanket. Other folk listen to music filtered through headphones. All settle to watch the Missouri countryside slide by.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Now our Texas Eagle soars through the velvet night, carrying its passengers into the Dream World.

The mother in front of my row hushes her children. Jeremy, shhhh, people are sleeping. Jeremy turns the lights on and off. They flicker across these pages. His younger brother looks over the seat and waves at me. Mother returns to Harry Potter, a third son nestling against her.

The horn again blows as we pass through a nameless village, past the police station, past the tavern whose small windows are lit with neon beer signs.

And once more into indistinguishable night. The hollowness of a bridge. The sway over a rough stretch of tracks. Crossing-bar lights pulsate. A pick-up truck waits our passage.

More ebon-forested landscapes, scattered anonymous towns. The earth begins to mound. We are winging into the Ozarks. High above in the east, Mars shines red. Behind fleeting trees, I see the copper half-wane moon. Here in the near-midnight countryside, the sky is a rich deep blue.

More nameless … More hollow …

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

About 2:23 a.m.

I awaken, wondering where we are. Has Poplar Bluff come and gone? Nothing looks familiar. We are flying across a flat land. The now-white moon seems fuller. Endless civilization.

I struggle against sleep.

And awaken to our Eagle creeping. Another train zooms by. The almost-continual horn.

And suddenly again the vibration of our speed through my body. And the planed scape, stark moon, civilization. I hear the conductress go through and later, drifting towards the edge of wakefulness, I hear her seat a new passenger.

I rise and sink to consciousness. The land is flat, flat. I search the nameless towns this train stalks for some clue.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

About 4:56 a.m.

We hover through these Little Rock railyards. Freighters pass us at a quicker clip. Their engines hum. Their cars clatter. In the distance, neon-outlined buildings shine through the fog. Over a river, a long hollow rattle, boards creak. The capitol. And a momentary rest for more passengers.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

About 5:45 a.m.

Still it is so dark outside. Soon we will stop at Malvern, near Hot Springs. Perhaps by then dawn will paint the oriental heaven.

I think I shall fall back into the rhythm of this Eagle – allow it to lull me, to let me swoop on its wings into the Dream World once more.

The sky is faintly lightening.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

And when I next awaken, it is pale blue. We dart straight through skimmed-green swamps. Through small towns without stopping. Hope, Arkansas. Cows and egrets out in a pasture. Rocking and rolling. Occasionally the click of rails can be heard. Osage orange trees hang heavy with fruit.

            The snack bar is now open for breakfast.

                        Coffee .. sausage and egg sandwich

            Or perhaps a bowl of cereal. 

And down there, the attendant serves his coffee. Dinah Washington sings soft.

            The dining car is now open

            for your dining pleasure.

Up in the sightseer car, Robert the Porter spins tales of his many years of service. The best ride? For scenery, the Empire Builder. Ah, also the California Zephyr. It goes through high desert, low desert, plains, mountains and canyons – views you can get only on a train. The craziest thing that’s ever happened? The twelve kids that wrea-eaa-eaked havoc all the way from Dallas to Chicago.

(Suddenly this reminds me of My Nightmare Train, on which the kids wrea-eaa-eaked havoc all the way from Viedma to Bariloche in Argentina’s northern Patagonia. Gee, kids aren’t so different 9,000 kilometers apart.)

            Amtrak’s next scheduled stop is

                        Texarkana

            Last stop in Arkansas

The self-same landscape into Texas. That young boy in front of me looks over his seat and greets me.

                        Amtrak apologizes for the delay.

            We’ve got a bit of freight traffic

                        coming our way.

We sit surrounded by woods. Twin locomotives and containers on flatbeds, sometimes double-stacked, rumble by. Worn-white, orange, blue flash past our windows. The air conditioning within here blows soft. Soon enough that other train passes.

And we skim the red soil of Texas. Over rivers. A lake with drowned trees shimmers beyond the forest. Past swamps, an egret flying above.

The mother and her three sons gather their belongings. Shifting his small pack upon his back, the youngest turns and gives me a quick smile, a quick wave. The vestibule door closes behind them.

Through Atlanta slowly, past its prim brick station, not stopping.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Marshall, Texas

Our Eagle alights in front of a brick station with pristine white trim and wrap-around porch. We await our new conductor and engineer to arrive. I scan the Union Pacific freight train passing with multitudes of boxcars and tankers and hoppers.

Robert says it’s already getting hot out there. The early-morning sun sparkles on his smile. “And when we get to Dallas, it’s going to be 5,000 degrees. And El Paso, whew,” he wipes his molasses-colored brow, “7,000 degrees!”

                        We are running ahead of schedule.

            Most likely we will now be arriving

                        to all our stops early.

On time we take flight, cutting through mid-morning forests of willows, oaks and sumacs, past refineries, through woods of mimosa, horseweed and locust. The earth is drying. The many swamps and rivers of before have disappeared. Now and again dirt roads raise their dust. Past acres of rolled-up bales of hay. Sometimes a farm pond. Clapboard houses shrivel.

A young boy across the aisle listens to his CD. The music leaks from the headphones and flows on this air-conditioned wind. He dances in his seat, air-scratching the records. His ma hopelessly tries to still him. She turns to her window to gaze upon the countryside beneath this gliding Eagle.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Longview, Texas

Passengers go, passengers come. Below on the sidewalk, some child has drawn a yellow-chalk figure. Four generations of African-Americans with mounds of luggage on carts board the train. A young Texan stumbles with her red duffel bag.

As we leave, lunch is called in the dining car. Service must be finished by Dallas. I share a table with Renee of mid-sized town, Oregon. She’s been visiting family in Arkansas. Sandra serves us our meals. (On this side, Cornish hen, mashed potatoes and green beans, with a glass of Merlot.) Renee is a third-grade teacher. Sixty percent of her students are Hispanic. She tells me of their difficulties immigrating, of their poverty-filled Christmases. Over cheesecake and coffee, we talk about how our rôles as women have changed and the constrictions we still face.

It is now just before one. We are the only two diners still left. The workers are clearing other tables, folding the cloths. Renee asks Sandra where we are entering. Dallas. In the distance its high skyline rasps the faded-denim heavens.

Sunlight sheens off hot chrome handrails, off the metal horse wings and hooves of a mural. On the other side of the platform, a Trinity Railway Express commuter departs for Fort Worth. The air is barren and still. The sun glints off the glass walls of the Hyatt.

And within here, the ages, the rainbow that is the United States. Whites, Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans. Immigrants or mere travelers from Eritrea, India, China and Switzerland; from Mexico, Germany, Australia, Japan and Israel. We spend this time watching DVDs on computer or reading; talking on cell phones or sleeping. Some lean over seats, chatting with one another. Others play games. A few women knit.

Leaving Dallas, drifting by a caravan of open hoppers of shredded scrap metal, and boxcars. Empty lots, neighborhoods and then the railyard web, sandwiched between long lines of cargo trains. Under and over interstate highways, towards Fort Worth. Soil bone-dry, trees small-leafed. Shopping centers. Warehouses. Pawnshops and lounges and Baptist churches. Into and out of Arlington. Traffic stopped by red and white-striped bars, red flashing lights.

I doze. I hear an announcement in the hazes of dreams.

And awaken to a slight breeze cooling the blistering sun. We are in Fort Worth. A large Santa Fe sign on the roof of the station-cum-market. On the other side of our platform idles – and soon departs – our sister Eagle. Further beyond, two BNSF engines head a long string of hoppers heaped with coal.

We pull away. On the next track over, a Union Pacific freighter is stopping, blocking roads.

            The snack bar once more is open.

The line forms. The attendant repeats over and again, “No, ma’am, we’re out of that. That, too, sir. But we do have …” And that jazz, still that jazz.

Back into small town and rural Texas. A land of nopales, drying arroyos, of dust devils a-winding. Cumulus clouds build high into the bleached sky. A land of fragile, pale soil carpeted with wildflowers. A dead dog rots into the earth, its bones stark white. Fields of brittle corn. Mesquite. Mobile homes and decaying barns. Horses and burros, cattle graze among snowy egrets.

And miles upon miles of flat, unpopulated lands.

We arrive in MacGregor at almost 6:30 p.m., over a half-hour late. The conductor seats more passengers going beyond San Antonio.

And that young Texan who got on back in Longview? She’s raising a fuss about having to give up the seat next to her. At least she said it: She’s a spoiled l’il brat.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Chasing the Sunset

I came to the sightseer car to watch the sun set. It has hidden behind a bank of grizzled cumulus shadowing the land. A solitary, thick ray shines towards earth.

Acres upon acres of sear maize, hayfields, and feral brush dusted with white flowers. The train horn blows. Yards full of scrap lumber and abandoned autos.

That beam widens. Faintly the heaven begins to color.

A tractor with a sunbonnet mows a field ere dusk settles. In the distance is the Temple, Texas water tower. Doves gather on electrical lines.

The clouds gather pale melon.

Folks in this car watch the movie. They ignore Temple, our horn blow.

To the east, lightning pulsates.

Street lamps light.

Sometimes to watch a sunset, one needs patience. It becomes a meditation.

The ray frays, becoming lemon yellow. That melon pools deeper. And above the nebulous star – pale rose.

Now it’s about seven-thirty. A small dog chases a pick-up truck across a field.

The sun sinks beneath the clouds. Its orb is visible, a bright yellow-orange. Out to the east it rains. The sky is now peach.

Through a town of old wild-west buildings. Through stubbled-corn acreage.

And that star emerges again. The heavens intensify – peach and orchid, a touch of magenta. Gradually this evening’s painting is emerging. The peach turns to orange, the magenta brightens. Distant oriental clouds reflect soft gold.

Shadows are forming as we enter Taylor. A large graveyard lies yonder. Between birthday greetings and community announcements, a bank sign flashes 8:03 p.m., 90º. These buildings block my view of the sunset.

And by the time we leave Taylor, that near star has completely departed. The sky is shading to indigo. The greenery darkens. Clouds cling to the thinning remnants of color.

 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

The conductor announces we are approaching Austin. Our Eagle wings down a highway median, surrounded by traffic. We pull in 26 minutes late. Higher downtown buildings are outlined in neon.

Then over Town Lake, heading south. These interior lights are dimmed. Some children are already tucked in and asleep. Twenty minutes behind schedule, we arrive in San Marcos. Those burnt rails are cooling with this new night. With a horn blow, the train slowly takes flight.

Robert stands at the front of our passenger car. “We should be getting into San Antonio about 11 p.m., or about a half-hour early. A barrier will be put up between this car and the ones in front. Those cars are going back to Chicago tomorrow.

“Now, you can get off this train and do what you all wish. But remember, this is your place.”

Just before 11, we hover past the Alamo. Ay, to have a tour at this hour, to meet the ghosts of Texan independence. We roll into the blackened old-city heart and roost at Sunset Station. And I fall asleep.

I awaken before midnight and wander the streets in this part of town. No stores, nothing is open. Some people found the Denny’s, but it is closed until two. I take a study of the huge black Southern Pacific steam locomotive and hopper on display. Engine Number 794 – 58,000 pounds light; 160,000 pounds loaded.

Suddenly our Eagle lifts off, switching tracks, changing the order of cars.

I enter the station. The woman behind the counter is speaking Spanish to a family of would-be travelers. I chat with her co-worker. He says the Sunset Limited is running about an hour late. (It’s due in at 2:28 a.m., according to the timetable.)

“The rest of the trip will be off about the same amount of time. Rail traffic is heavy out in west Texas at night.”

“Indeed,” I reply. “Lots coming up from Mexico.”

“Precisely.”

I reboard. That Texan who had gotten on in Longview is leaning over a seat, talking loud. A few older women nod their heads politely (and occasionally shake them). She’s going to pull a blanket out, she declares, and sleep in the aisle. (Poor thing, she can’t reckon having only one seat. She needs so much space. As ma across the aisle says, “If you want two seats, pay for them.”)

The young woman pushes her glasses up with a fat hand. Her Texas Roadhouse t-shirt shudders with a quick breath. Chomping her gum, she praises the air conditioning. The train crew is mean and selfish. They charge so much for food. They take a whole row of seats for themselves. They were out of margaritas when she went. (Is she old enough to drink?!) Therefore, the train is full of drunks. Only old people ride the train. And there are no kids. (Ahem – and how many are there presently in this car? At least six.) Well, I just heard her say she’s in ninth grade and has a pretty high reading level. She’s going to get a scholarship to study law at UCLA. She has always wanted to be a lawyer.

I continue writing in my journal and peering down to the station. I hear an announcement. I can’t understand it.

After El Paso, it’s going to be so boring, nothing but desert, nothing to see, she complains. She’s going back to California to live with her pa. She couldn’t cotton living with her ma and stepfather. Her mother’s shipping her back …

I am beginning to feel sleepy again. Perhaps I’ll nap for a while.

 

Shortly before four a.m., I awaken to the rising crescendo of an approaching locomotive, to its horn. We begin divorcing from the Texas Eagle, wedding to the Sunset Limited. I keep dozing off. By the time the ceremony is over, we are almost two hours late.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

About 6:39 a.m.

Eastward the sky begins to lighten, and for a while, holds a dusky rainbow. Shadows lift to reveal a fawn bounding through sage and mesquite. The returning sun is brilliant yellow, bathing the sky gold. A hawk skims the brush. The earth sculpts into buttes.

In the sightseer car I sit, meditating upon the desert below. A young woman plays guitar.

In some small town, way before Del Río, we stop for the passage of a Union Pacific train: 126 boxcars and tankers. We are now entering the region of these massive cargueros. There is no hope of making up lost time – all surety of losing more.

A zopilote soars above flatlands, above a mobile trailer parked back from the dirt road. A herd of pronghorn antelope wander through the desert.

A one-hundred-twenty-car Union Pacific rushes by. In the distance, north of Del Río, Laughlin Air Force Base shimmers like a mirage. Then Del Río itself, where we can step off and stretch our legs. “But you can’t go into town,” the loudspeaker warns. Too soon we receive the all-aboard and we begin journeying. Only to stop within a few feet to pick up a passenger who – yes – had gone into town.

We follow the Río Grande. A wild ram fades into the dull brush. We pass a dam to the south, its Lake Amistad bright blue. Sage, fruiting nopal and mesquite. Candelaria cactus, creosote. Rocky earth scattered with ranches. Yucca, agave. Soil leached pallid. A solitary windmill whirls, no buildings near. A herd of sheep. Zopilotes swoop.

And somewhere out there lies Mexico.

Into a canyon, the deep-green Pecos River shaving the red sandstone walls.

Longview and a sight of that Big River once more. Over yonder, the Hanging Judge’s ranch.

Land rises into hills and buttes, thick layers of wind-eaten rock, eroded soil, barren arroyos.

By late morning, animals have retreated from the heat, and I am sleepy.

But when I awaken, it is still the same desert. Orange butterflies dart amongst flowering bushes.

Before Sanderson, our train sidewinds, then continues straight like always. Across Warbur Flats, Marathon Flats, part of the Comanche Trail. Glass Mountain to the north. Across a broad, ancient volcanic flow.

Sometime before Alpine, up on a southern slope not too far from the tracks, sits a stagecoach driven by three dummies, teamed by four silhouette horses. The air is parched in the Gateway to Big Bend National Park.

Flat-bottomed cumulus spot the sky. The distance is hazed by heat. Whirlwinds spin. Some small town somewhere and an abandoned cattle loader, a large maze of chutes. A deer runs towards the West Mountains that climb, shadowed by clouds.

All along Texas one sees the occasional herd of longhorns and ranches. This is a mostly open country – though not desolate. For this desert holds so much life for those who are willing to still themselves – to watch, to meditate, to listen – not with ears, but with Spirit.

And its colors so pale, so leached, so eroded. Beige, tan, pink, ochre. Sage, bright green, yellow-green. Grey, black, bone-white, bleached-bone-white. The blue sky – bright above, fading towards the horizon.

Another town, Valentine, of rust-lace tin roofs, melting adobe. The sand is embossed by prints. Another Union Pacific train of Mexican boxcars. A pair of dirt devils dervish across the desert. La Migra patrols the chain-link border. We wait for three freighters to pass.

Rain falls upon those mountains. Twisted carcasses of derailments. Dry gulches, dry washes, canyons. Clouds thicken overhead, their rains eluding us. The surrounding land relaxes.

 

We near El Paso, drifting past irrigated orchards and fields of blooming cotton, past a campo santo, a trailer park, our horn blowing and blowing. A sister and brother walking up Álvarez Road wave to our now-creeping train. We must wait for a carguero: seven locomotives, 115 cars.

We are just, just within reach of El Paso. It is now 4:20 p.m. The conductor announces our delay: We are behind two freight trains awaiting relief crews. We don’t know how long it will be before we can arrive in El Paso.

To our left is a high school. Football teams practice under the hot, late-afternoon sun. Male passengers watch.

A quarter-hour later we crawl a few hundred yards. Again we stop dead. Now we are beside a warehouse and lot, beside fields of brush and more cotton.

By 5 p.m. we jerk nearer El Paso. The first call for dinner comes. I look out the window. There are no tracks on either side of us. I go down and pull my knapsack out from behind, beneath others’ luggage. It’s now 5:20 p.m.

The conductor gives us an update on our position. We’re now moving up a bit, half up-limit. Then we have two trains that have to move to the left. Then we can switch from Track 1 to Track 2 and go on in to El Paso. Five-forty-five p.m. – one down, one to go, he tells us.

Suddenly we are moving into the web of the railyard, clicking, clicking, Crossing bells clang, our horn blasts. Under an interstate overpass, its leggings painted with portraits of Che Guevara, Pancho Villa and the Virgen de Guadalupe. The sky is beginning to darken with a muted dusk. Those rain-wettened mountains draw nearer. But here it is dry. The streets are full of traffic. These rails are full of traffic.

And finally, at 6:10 p.m., I step into El Paso. I watch that train leave to chase this day’s sunset.

IF THERE’S A TRAIN TO TAKE, I WILL FIND IT

train, map, El Salvador

The rail line from Sonsonate heads eastward. Armenia is about half-ways to San Salvador. photo by Lorraine Caputo

(27 April 1998 / Sonsonate-Armenia, El Salvador)

 

So many people had told me there is no train in El Salvador. But I found one, across from the city market, hidden behind the jumble of stalls.

Here is the worn-brick station of Sonsonate, with termite-eaten door jams and decaying, faded-green ceiling and partition walls. Inside people wait on scattered benches for this train to Armenia that departs four times per day. Bundles of rainbow hammocks and baskets lie at their feet. Food is being sold at stalls.

Clanging bells, the horn blow, the hum of locomotives swell around this building. A freight train of a dozen black tanker cars and a yellow caboose arrives from Acajutla. It rumbles into the yard and a bit beyond, blocking the street. On the side of its silver, yellow-green and red engines, in capital italic letters, is written FENADESAL.

Out by the shed, a man hops onto the roundtable. He turns it to connect the track for a locomotive to come and hook onto the freight train, now split in half. The other part attaches to two green passenger cars. The front one is an old boxcar with several lengthwise benches. The second is an ancient passenger vagón with wooden seats facing each other.

A thick line quickly forms at the ticket window. “Armenia, por favor,” I request. “Dos colones,” the man replies in a dry monotone. He hands me a ticket printed on recycled paper. I join the growing crowd of passengers at the armed-guard barriers.

The gate opens. We stream down the tracks to those two cars. On the rails behind the taller sag an old steam locomotive and passenger vagones. In the brush a grey cat slinks. It stops, tense, tail twitching. It then jumps, disappearing into the weeds.

Already all the seats in the second car are taken. The vestibules are full of people. The jumble of conversations, the rustle of today’s paper being read fill the air.

 

The schedule posted in the station said this train should leave at 9:10 a.m. but we won’t depart until nine-thirty. That time slips by. Then the long hiss of brakes, bells clanging. We pull away slowly on the click of rails.

A steady blast of horn. Past houses, past restaurant and market stalls so close to the tracks you can touch them. Past Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles church, rocking, swaying.

Homes of cane slat and palm thatch begin moving further away. Wood fires smoke. In one yard, children play. In a doorway, a man stands. And over there, women sit around a table. They stop their conversation, watching us clatter by.

 

Our first stop is at the dirt crossroads of a village. Casas hide behind banana and mango tree hedges.

The tall, beer-gut conductor checks our tickets, collects fares. Now and then he adjusts the navy scarf at his neck, the Chisox ball cap, the dark sunglasses.

A woman sits looking out the window, two trussed roosters at her feet.

On one stretch of tracks, men are working.

 

Some passengers wish to debark. The tan-uniformed flagman stands on the back vestibule, leaning out, waving a cloth. The train quickly jerks to a halt.

Our dust flies around campos of corn, or sugar cane, and into open windows. As we cross a strong creek, some children o-oo-o. A father and son silently watch the world crawl by.

Behind trees, behind brush, I catch glimpses of fields and houses. In an irrigation ditch of waist-high water, a woman scrubs clothes. Men plant fresh-plowed, rich-brown earth. A man leans on the handle of his shovel, chine resting on crossed arms. Homes of palm-leaf walls. Coconut groves.

 

At Coluco, many come and go. An older woman next to me, in a dirty pink dress, leans out the window and whistles. As we pull away, she waves goodbye, her hand holding a bag. He small-framed daughter sits across from me. Her large, sad eyes are tearful. She clutches a handkerchief in one hand. Her upper lip is tight. Mid-morning sweat plasters thin strands of hair to her forehead.

I glance out the window. There a young girl, about the same age, stands outside a gate. She wears nothing more than a bright magenta skirt and loose black hair. Wild curls fall into her face.

Along a wall, women wait to fill plastic urns at the village tap. A silvery stream of water fills one jug. Drops glitter on the women’s sun-red arm.

 

Another stop. The flagman notices some women boarding, troubled with their heavy bundles. He puts his hand up, telling the engineer to hold on. He then hops off his vestibule and runs to help them.

Past a small cafetal, into an eerie landscape of black lava stone. The train’s clatter is like a heartbeat.

 

The man and his son have gotten off someplace. Into Los Lagartos, its old adobe station patched and white-washed. The train rocks me to sleep. I drift in and out at each dusty, unsigned roadside stop. The sad-eyed girl leaves.

The dry season has been searing this year. Unirrigated soil is parched. Leaves shrivel on coffee trees. Corn stubble is brittle.

A pig squeals distressingly. In the next car up, a man struggles to load it on.

 

Finally we arrive at Armenia. It is 11 a.m. Our locomotive detaches and disappears to San Salvador with the tanker cars. We are abandoned amidst a string of tracks. Up ahead, at the station, awaits an engine to hook up to these cars and journey back to Sonsonate.

 

 

CATALOG – Poetry & Travel Books – 2021

Stroll through this gallery of my poetry and travel publications presently available – invitations to join me in poetic journeys to Patagonia, the Galapagos Islands and the northern coast of Peru … and guides to help you plan your own journeys through Latin America!

(And they also make great gifts for the travelers in your life!)

Safe Journeys!

NEW PUBLICATIONS : Poetic and Travel – March Equinox 2021

NEW PUBLICATIONS : Poetic and Travel – March Equinox 2021

Indeed, my poetry and travel writing continue to appear in journals and on websites around the world – this quarter, in the US, Singapore, the UK, Canada, the Philippines and Denmark.

In the realm of travel narrative, we enter a time capsule, back to Nicaragua of the 1990s.

Spend this March equinox browsing through the list (with links) below, poetically journeying to Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, the Galápagos Islands, Peru, Chile, the US, Honduras, Panama, Argentina, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Bolivia and Guatemala.

 And until we next meet …..

Safe Journeys!

Galapagos, marine iguana

Dreaming with a marine iguana. Tortuga Bay, Isla Santa Cruz, Islas Galápagos. photo © Lorraine Caputo

NEW LITERARY EXPRESSIONS

“Silence” in Flora Fiction Literary Magazine (Volume 1, Issue 4, Winter 2020)

“New Morn Swaying,” in Trouvaille Review (24 December 2020)

“Being” and “Volcanic Dreams” in The Tiger Moth Review (Singapore) (Issue 5, January 2021)

“Shadows” in Credo Espoir (Issue 7, January 2021)

“Morning on the Llanos,” “Becoming Rain,” “Into Muted Dusk” and “Arica Morn” in Otherwise Engaged Literature & Arts Journal (Sixth Volume, Winter 2020)

“Nightfall” in New Feathers Anthology 2020 (2021)

“To Build a Snowman,” “In the Shallows,” “Sonata for a Late Afternoon” and “Bocas Morning” in The Poet Magazine (UK) – Childhood (Winter 2020, Volume 2)

“The Wait” in Writing in a Woman’s Voice (21 January 2021)

“Sfumato,” “Spirit Suite – Étude Nº 15” and “Future Dreams” in Impspired Anthology (UK) (Volume 4, January 2021)

“Squalling” in The Literary Nest (29 January 2021)

“Sunrise River” in Visitant Lit (3 February 2021)

“Elusion” and “Traveling Down a Country Lane” in Backchannels Journal (Issue Nº 7, Winter 2020)

“Ruta de Cacao” and “The Desert & Its Sea” in Beliveau Review (Canada) (Issue 4, Spring 2021)

“Iguana Dreams,” “Astray,” “Arica” and “Ghosts” in Lothlorien Poetry Journal (England) (12 February 2021)

“Meditation: Galápagos Seas” in Poetry & Places (12 February 2021)

“Resurrection Dawn” in Black Coffee Review (Spring 2021)

“San José Days” in The Drabble (28 February 2021)

“High Plains Sojourn” in Celestal Review (Philippines) (Cycle IV, March 2021)

“Izabal Wind” in Verse-Virtual (March 2021)

“Umbral Rains” and “Dusk” in bones (Denmark) (22, March 2021)

“Harbinger” in The Abyss (17 March 2021)

(Reading) Dando Paz - Giving Peace (26 D 2020)

… and a virtual  poetry reading with an incredible line-up of poets in which I was the featured creator, hosted by Tammy Gómez

Dando Paz – Giving Peace

26 December 2020

Nicaragua

NEW TRAVEL EXPRESSIONS

            Synchronized Chaos

“Revisiting a Memory” (February 2021)

If you are in need of an article for your publication or website, a translation – or your dissertation, book or article proofread / edited, please feel free to contact me. I am also available to participate in literary events.

LIFELINE

(Veracruz to Mexico City, January 1997)

Mexico, train, Veracruz, Mexico City, pulque

Several train routes connected Mexico City with the port of Veracruz: one through Córdoba, popularly known as El Jarocho, and another by way of Xalapa – our adventure for today. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Through the Veracruz railyard and past its old boxcars turned into homes. A woman stands in the doorway of one, vigorously brushing her teeth.

The city slowly thins into village after village. Outside whitewashed buildings stand horses.

A turquoise-shirted man rides his broad-flanked chestnut horse. And the narrowing road along the tracks becomes dirt, the village’s rangelands with cattle. With a large plastic-bag-wrapped bundle tied onto the handlebars, an old man on a bicycle wobbles around the scattered stones. His stout-crowned, high-brimmed Veracruzan hat shadows his face.

We pass by broad, treed flatlands … a pasture of thin-legged colts trotting after mares. To the south stretch low, hazy hills. Past fields of full-grown sugar cane … then younger fields … and newly planted fields. Past rocky acres of dried cornstalks snapped over.

I am startled awake from a catnap by the screeching caterwauling of a young boy. He closes his eyes tightly, singing with full lung to be heard at the other end of this car. Soon he begins to walk down the aisle. His outstretched hand shakes. Through narrowed eyes I glare at him, still angered at the rude awakening. But then I dig into my pocket for a few coins. I turn to the elderly man now sitting next to me, shaking my head, rolling my eyes. He laughs softly and nods.

A woman comes before us, bucket full of sweet tamales, of pineapple, coconut. The old man insists on buying me one of each. “A gift,” he says. “You must try our regional specialty.”

Don Emilio tells me and the woman seed across from us about the tamales of Oaxaca, of Guadalajara, of Tampico.

“I have traveled much,” he says, pulling off his brown jacket. The day is warming. “I used to drive buses. For over thirty years, I did. I first got my license in 1955. But I’d already been driving five years without one. Then I got certified. Yes, I know all the roads, north to Tampico and to Monterrey, down to Villahermosa. But in those early days there weren’t many roads in Chiapas. The Indians there would walk through the mountains for days and days.”

“Really,” the woman on the opposite bench says, her mouth dropping open a bit.

“Oh, yes. They’re used to it. They are people of the mountains. And they have other interesting foods …”

My mind fatigued with now-this-second day of traveling loses itself to the passing scenery.

LOS ÍDOLOS

Brightly painted wooden walls surround a blue and white big top. Drying clothes hang on the guidewires. Zullman Circus, those walls proclaim. The hypnosis master’s penetrating eyes watch us clatter by.

The woman’s four-year-old son with bright black eyes squeals, hops up and down in his seat, playing peek-a-boo with another boy at the opposite end of the car.

“Don Emilio, how many children do you have?” I ask.

“Five – full grown.”

“Any grandchildren yet?”

His soft laugh, bright smile fills the air between us. “Grandchildren? I’ve already got great-grand-children! My two daughters work for social security there in Veracruz. One of them, the nurse, has a small son. Her man left her. One son lives in Monterrey – has two children, now with their own. He married young. Another in Guadalajara. He has three. They wanted to become bus drivers like their father. What could I say? Nothing – just advise them it is lonely, dangerous work. And my other son, he still lives with us. Twenty-two years old.”

Suddenly the mountains rise before us and their valleys fold deeply. Heavily forested, heavily green. The earth softly crumples around us. In the distance, the age-worn, bare walls of a canyon fall, falling … then disappear from our sight with the swelling of the landscape around us.

And just as suddenly, the land relaxes and gently rolls to the further mountains.

XALAPA

I awaken here to the swishing of a broom as our floor is swept. Two cargo cars are added. We leave exactly at noon. This city, too, feathers into the surrounding desert.

A cow grazes next to the tracks, tied off to the post of a barbed-wire fence, where laid-over clothes dry in the afternoon.

Two boys, black-haired, brown-skinned, stoop outside a scrap-board, scrap-tin shanty. Their dark eyes watch our blue cars go by.

Past lush pasturelands of grazing sheep. A black lamb, a white and a tan one leap after their white mother. Another spread of emerald green. Egrets standing on stick legs among black and white cows.

PEROTE

The high black walls of a prison slide by as we arrive at this town. A woman with very-coarse vein-knotted legs sells pulque in plastic bottles. From the platform, she reaches up to the open windows of our car. As we leave, she shakes a smaller bottle and drinks the last bit.

Past more cornfields speckled with husky maguey. Sand wraps around the train, around the clicking rails. The fine dirt seeps through the cracks of windows. In the distance, a dust devil rises, swirling, growing larger.

“There is Orizaba volcano.” Emilio cracks my silent meditation of this nearer landscape.

I follow his dark hand, to where he points in the distance. Its snow-streaked peak is hazed by the dust of this broad valley we pass through. The sun glints off a silver band on his ring finger.

“And your wife, don Emilio?”

“Oh, she’s back in Zempoala, where we live. She’s used to me being gone all the time.”

“How long have you two been married?”

“Oh ….” His neck rubs the slightly worn collar of his white shirt. “It must be going on forty years now.” He counts off on his stout fingers with short-cut nails. “Let’s see, sixty to seventy,” he mumbles, “seventy to eighty to ninety … Yes, almost forty years.”

“What’s the secret?”

He looks at me askance with his dark eyes, with a slight laugh. “We never argue. Well, almost never. A bit more now that the kids are gone. But, no, we never argue.

“It was never easy, though. In the beginning it was difficult. We lived in a four-by-four shack. With a bit of time, we enlarged it to ten by six. By then we had three children. Later we could buy a house.

“In the beginning, my wife insisted on working, taking in sewing. After our second child, I told her, no more. You have enough work to do, taking care of the boys. No, you let me bring in the money. And I worked, and worked hard. I was gone much of the time.”

La Malinche Mountain tears the horizon towards which we travel. A herd of goats chew on bedded corn. They flee the hum of our diesel locomotive, its plume of smoke casting a shadow on the ground alongside us.

And more fields through this valley plain. Some have been cleared for planting. In a few, long, high irrigation snakes hiss water.

SAN LORENZO

In the station lights outside my window, I see six guards, black pants tucked into black boots. Mismatched jackets: a blue one … a Raiders one … two fatigue greens … two black. Five of them sling semi-automatic rifles.

I whisper to Emilio, leaning towards him. “Why are there so many of them?”

He silently shrugs.

A wildfire cuts across the flatland, a long rose rope. Even though it is many miles away, I can smell the burning grasses. Flames leap into the dense, dusky-gold smoke that reaches for the soon-to-be-setting sun. That star washes the sky bright white, bright yellow.

And on the opposite side of the sky, the ghostly near-full moon has already arisen.

The sun has fallen behind a bank of clouds, touching their tops with a brilliant white-gold, dyeing the sky with pastel colors.

Then it slips through a crack in those clouds … for just a moment glaringly orange … and again dipping behind, pale tints spreading across the distant mountains. Faint fingers of light radiate skyward … and then weakly disappear.

The now-bright-red sun cuts below the edge … sinking … pulling its colors down with itself … behind another cloud … just a sliver visible. The vague forms of those masks outlined … and defined for just an instant … before that star falls beyond the horizon.

All that’s left … is a chilled rose … and above, the golden white … fading … fading … fading  …

A distant valley fills with fuchsia. And as we slide along these rails, the most brilliant of that pink shifts behind the mountains … hidden from my sight … leaving just a pale wash.

Then the colors arise again with new life … reaching into the clouds … painting them icy apricot … icy magenta … in this still-winter sky … giving depth and texture to that soft … seemingly solid … blanket.

Lights begin to speckle the passing villages. The chill of night swells within this railcar.

The landscape obscures into dull, dark green against faded beige … silhouetted against the twilight sky. Their colors, too, sink into deep greys to black.

The sky duskens … darkens. The last of the sun’s palette duskens … darkens. This land duskens … darkens.

The locomotive lamp before us barely touches the nightfall.

“You should come visit us sometime.” I hear don Emilio’s voice in the dark. “We have pyramids and a beautiful beach. Really, you should.”

I write down his address by flashlight.

MEXICO CITY

From a distance, the light of the City … millions of lights … stud the valley and climb the mountains. The sour smell of heavy-metal industry seeps through this window.

Past traffic stopped by our lumbering train, now only two passenger cars and a locomotive. I don’t know when the cargo cars were unhooked. Sometime in the depths of my travel-fatigued sleep.

Past shacks built at the edge of the tracks.

The moon, two days from fullness, sheds its bright white light upon this city, flooding the streets, penetrating the ochre haze of pollution.

Don Emilio walks onto the platform at the stop before Buenavista station. Light brown jacket. Black bag to his left side, its strap across his broad chest. Green plastic bag with his fifteen sweet tamales in hand. He looks straight ahead in his steady gait, stopping momentarily, continuing on, lost to my sight, lost in the crowd.

And I continue on, watching Chilangos stand at gateways, talking. They walk in pairs down deserted streets. The roads below our overpass are congested.

Rocking … Rocking … The blare of the train horn.

Past a soccer game.

Rolling, without stopping, into the heart of the city.

Past factories and their acrid smoke swirling white into the night. Past neighborhoods. In the open doorway of a shop bright with fruit, a woman’s shadow reaches across the counter, taking a heavy bag.

My study of this passing cityscape is sliced by the young men now sitting in the bench seat facing mine.

“Oh, man, we should be on our way to Aca-pulque,” one laughs.

The other drains the last drops of the cactus liquor from the green plastic bottle. He stuffs it between his seat and the wall. “Ah, yes, in a pulque-man car, going in style.” He slouches, knees inches from mine.

I turn my gaze out the window once more.

We snarl the traffic with our steady approach.

Past a Virgin of Guadalupe shrine near the tracks. A string of lights embrace it. On a corner curb, a young woman sits on her boyfriend’s knee.

The train backfires repeatedly as it slows … coming into the edges of the railyard … entering the massive web of tracks. The horn blows. Idle cargo and tanker cars line the sidings.

We suddenly stop, forced aside by a long string of US railcars heading North, new automobiles encased in silver cocoons. A while later, three lone locomotives stop. And starting again, they bathe the night with thick black smoke.

The city lights flickering through the window mosaic the youth’s waving hand. “Oh, of course not, chauffeur. There is no hurry. Sure, go ahead and have that other cup of coffee.”

And the moon climbs higher … and higher. Its light pulls up out of the streets into the greyed sky.

The other young man scowls. “Hey, come on. Save that cigar smoking for later, man.”

With a soft giggle, I crack a smile.

Further into the depths of the maze. Trash heaps along a wall that separates this yard from those neighborhoods.

Stop … and go … and …

Finally the conductor says in his loud voice

BUENAVISTA

And we enter the last set of tracks. Brakes clank stop, and rolling on and on. The platform comes into view up ahead. So slow … we crawl … to ours … Number 8 … and alongside it.

NEW YEAR’S EVE IN LATIN AMERICA : A Photographic – Poetic Journey

At the stroke of midnight, eat one grape at each toll, making a wish of what you desire the New Year to bring you. ©Lorraine Caputo

At the stroke of midnight, eat one grape at each toll, making a wish of what you desire the New Year to bring you. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Tonight, as this old year ends, people will be celebrating throughout Latin America. Fireworks burst across the midnight sky, and twelve grapes are eaten with each stroke of that hour, to bring twelve wishes to fruition. Viejos (Old Man Year) are set afire, finally exploding into a million sparks shooting into the new year. Food and liquor flow into the wee hours.

One of Latin America’s most common New Year Eve traditions is the Old Man Years, often representing politicians, sports stars or other people in the news. photo © Lorraine Caputo

One of Latin America’s most common New Year Eve traditions is the Old Man Years, often representing politicians, sports stars or other people in the news. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The most explosive of the customs is the Años Viejos (Old Man Years). These effigies represent politicians, sports figures, entertainment celebrities or other famous persons. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, they are dragged to the middle of the street and lit ablaze. Once the flames reach the center of the effigy, the fireworks stuffing explodes.

Some Latin American neighborhoods have contests for the best one, in which civilians and public services, like the bomberos (fire department), participate. In Ecuador, the end-of-year custom also includes displays summarizing the year’s events in political, sporting and other arenas. Often Años Viejos are accompanied with a testamento, a word of advice or with a list of the things to be burned before the New Year begins.

Colombians believe that a sheath of wheat placed in your home brings abundant food and prosperity in the New Year. ©Lorraine Caputo

Colombians believe that a sheaf of wheat placed in your home brings abundant food and prosperity in the New Year. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Colombia has a bevy of traditions (agüeros) not practiced in other parts of Latin America. They believe that a sheath of wheat placed in your home brings abundant food and prosperity in the New Year. At the stroke of midnight, Colombians walk around the block with a suitcase (to bring lots of travel in the next year), count money over and again (to make it multiply), or take a champagne bath (to ensure good fortune and prosperity). They also have a number of other ways to draw wealth, good luck — and even to divine the future year.

Yellow for luck in life, red for luck in love. ©Lorraine Caputo

Yellow for luck in life, red for luck in love. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

One custom that Colombia shares with its southern neighbor, Ecuador, is wearing yellow underwear to draw good vibes. Red will fulfill passionate desires.

Ecuador’s most unique New Years’ custom is the Viudas Alegres, or Merry Widows. ©Lorraine Caputo

Ecuador’s most unique New Years’ custom is the Viudas Alegres, or Merry Widows. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

But besides the fireworks and the Viejos, that equatorial country seems to have something all its own: the Viudas Alegres, or the Merry Widows. Ecuadorian men dress up as women and joyfully greet all on the streets. Why do the men do this? Some state that these are the Merry Widows of Old Man Year, so happy to see him finally gone and done with. Others say, to disguise themselves from the problems of the old year, so those troubles don’t follow them into the New Year. But you’ll see everyone, man and woman, child and adult, dressing up. Quito’s Centro Histórico streets are crowded with vendors selling everything from cheap, florescent wigs to pointy witches’ hats to help outfit the Viudas.

Street vendors and shops begin selling colorful wigs the day after Christmas. ©Lorraine Caputo

Street vendors and shops begin selling colorful wigs the day after Christmas. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

The perfect eyelashes to go along with your new hair-do. You may also pick up shimmering, pointy witches’ hats, and an array of body parts: breasts, tushes, and aprons covering the (ahem) nether regions. ©Lorraine Caputo

The perfect eyelashes to go along with your new hair-do. You may also pick up shimmering, pointy witches’ hats, and an array of body parts: breasts, tushes, and aprons covering the (ahem) nether regions. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Another Ecuadorian custom is to have a baño – or spiritual bath, to cleanse oneself of negative energies. Business owners also sweep their stores clean, from back rooms to the front door, with brooms made of eucalyptus, rue, chamomile and other herbs, then lock the shop up tight until the New Year.

To enter the New Year spiritually clean, Ecuadorians line up for a baño. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

To enter the New Year spiritually clean, Ecuadorians line up for a baño. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Since 1988, I have spent most northern winters travelling in Latin America. I have rung in the New Year in large cities and small towns in Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

One scene that stays with me – that I have never witnessed before or since – are the fireworks in Santiago de Chile: The burst formed one giant blue heart, from which emerged another blue heart and yet another and yet another … Such a beautiful way to end a night of feasting, drinking and bottle dancing in the middle of a street at a block party.

In Trujillo (Honduras), like everyone else, I dodged the Bárbaro. This Garífuna custom involves a bare-chested man dressed in a grass mini-skirt, covered in rouge or grease, demanding spare change from all on the street. (The money is used for community parties and projects.) If you don’t give him even a mere centavito, he will give you a big bear hug – thus covering you with grease (or rouge).

In Havana, I spent the night with Cubans, eating and dancing to the world’s best music. At the midnight hour, the national anthem played, everyone singing along, to mark another year of the Revolution. (Yes, that scene from the Godfather II is true: At the stroke of midnight, dictator Fulgencio Batista announced he was throwing in the towel and, loaded down with millions of dollars in cash, art and jewels, boarded a plane into exile, thus handing victory over to the guerrilleros after their decisive victory in Santa Clara, under the command of Ernesto “Che” Guevara.)

In Bucaramanga (Colombia), at the invitation of the hostels’ family, I lit a candle for my next year. In Puerto Ayora, Galápagos (Ecuador), I saw the beauty pageant in which those lovely Viudas Alegres showed off their talents, modeling and answering “probing” questions.

In Mexico, I pondered what the New Year would bring to a world on the brink of war. In Ecuador, I watched a Syrian refugee immerse himself in the local customs.

Today, let us poetically journey to these celebrations and ponderings.

May the New Year be full of Light, and wishes come true.

Safe Journeys!

“ … & at that hour / they are burnt …” photo © Lorraine Caputo

“ … & at that hour / they are burnt …” photo © Lorraine Caputo

WELCOMING THE NEW YEAR

(Colombia)

Midnight approaches

without a

bell toll

Already rockets burst

in green & white

in a red heart

against a sooty sky

The old men are dragged

to the streets

& at that hour

they are burnt

firework stuffing

exploding

& we eat grapes, one

by one

Gabriel counts his money

over & again

Rice is thrown, scattering

in the still air

Someone walks around a block

suitcase in hand

To welcome in a

better year

published in:

The Blue Hour (1 January 2013)

“ … blasts of fireworks / To scare away the demons …” photo © Lorraine Caputo

“ … blasts of fireworks / To scare away the demons …” photo © Lorraine Caputo

NEW YEAR’S TRIPTYCH

(Mexico)

I.

Outside the empty

streets echo

with blasts of fireworks

To scare away the demons

that lurk in the shadows

of time a-changing

& within this silent house

my mind echoes

Scare away those demons

of war, hunger, disease

Scare away those demons

of misery & poverty

Scare away those demons

of corporate greed

that is destroying this planet

II.

At midnight

the streets fall silent

I eat a grape

at each stroke of the hour

& wish

May there be no war

& wish

May there be peace on earth

& then

more cracks to scare

the last demons away

III.

Come dawn

the smell of a fire

creeps along the

abandoned streets

A police car’s red-blue-red-blue-

yellow lights silently

reflect off windows

Standing in the

ochre fog that slithers

past sleeping homes

& closed shops

I look for an answer

of what this new year

may hold

published in:

The Blue Hour (1 January 2013)

“& the man in the bright pink wig dances …” photo © Lorraine Caputo

“& the man in the bright pink wig dances …” photo © Lorraine Caputo

DANCE FOR A NEW YEAR

(Ecuador)

The near-midnight streets

are littered with

the frenzied sales of this day

Someone sweeps them

into large piles

& sets them ablaze

On one corner a family sits

drinking to music

& the man in the bright pink wig dances

On corners

& midways down blocks

the Merry Widows of this dying year

stop cars for coins

dancing, lying atop hoods

& the man in the bright pink wig dances

On stages decked with eucalyptus

Old Man Years slump in plastic chairs

a DJ spins, a young woman sings

& the man in the bright pink wig

dances with abandon

The midnight hour

the Old Men are dragged to

the center of those cobblestone streets

gasoline poured & set afire

& the man in the bright pink wig

dances with frenzy

As far as the streets climb

steeply up, the fires blaze, fireworks

explode

& the man in the bright pink wig

frantically dances

to forget he cannot go home

to his war-rent country

his family cannot get out

his uncle dies of poisoned water

a wife to be found, a family to be formed

Heavy smoke filled the narrow streets

stinging eyes, burning lungs

creeping past shuttered shops

creeping past the migrant indigenous

families come to the city for work

round dancing to Andean cumbia

& the man in the bright pink wig

dances, dances

published in:

Prachya Review (Bangladesh) (Summer 2016)

“Music of distant parties throbs in the land’s crimps.” photo © Lorraine Caputo

MIDNIGHT TOLL

(Ecuador)

Even before those

midnight bells ring

This valley resounds with the explosion, the sizzle of fireworks spiraling green, white, red sparks against the yellow-light speckled hills.

The Old Men are dragged to the streets & set afire. Eager to see this year ended, people leap over the flames, beckoning luck to come.

Yet I await that

new year hour to toll

Awaiting to embrace my future dreams

bursting, sizzling before

The fireworks die … fading. Silence fills the streets. Music of distant parties throbs in the land’s crimps.

The smoke of Old Man Year’s fires & of the fireworks lowers with the silence, mingling with the clouds lowering, obscuring this valley’s slopes.

published as “Another New Year’s Eve” in:

Tigershark (UK) (Issue 28, December 2020)

Another year ends, another yet begins. ©Lorraine Caputo

Another year ends, another yet begins. photo ©Lorraine Caputo

CHRISTMAS IN LATIN AMERICA : A Poetic – Photographic Journey

Navidad procession in El Cocuy, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Navidad procession in El Cocuy, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The streets are crowded with people rushing from shop to shop, buying gifts. Vendors call, Wrapping paper, five sheets for a dollar! Barely heard above the ruckus are the greetings of the jolly fat man dressed in red, perhaps accompanied by two curvaceous elves dressed in micro-minis. At schools and workplaces, partiers are dressed in costume, and bags of candies or large boxes of viveres (dry goods) gifted.

Pase de Niño. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Pase de Niño. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Processions wind through narrow streets. From before Christmas through the Feast of Epiphany, city traffic will be stopped for the Pase del Niño. Schoolchildren dress as José, María, the three Wise Men, shepherds (pastores) and angels to accompany the baby Christ. And, of course, in the novena leading up to Christmas Day, the pre-dawn prayers and song of the faithful softly echo down the cobblestone lanes.

Large manger scenes decorate the churches, homes and even hilltops. In living rooms, families read the novena in front of the nativity scene. On Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), they go to the special mass where the baby Jesus is presented, kissed by all, then placed in the manger scene. The midnight sky is painted by the bursts of hundreds of fireworks, celebrating the birth of the Lord Savior. After the mass, families retire home for a big feast and to exchange gifts. (In few places do they keep the custom of gift-giving on the Feast of Epiphany, the Day of the Three Magi – 6 January.)

Christmas-season dinners differ from country to country. There may be turkey or tamales (a.k.a. hallacas). A Mexican side dish is ensalada de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve Salad), made of apple, celery and walnuts dressed with heavy cream. In Argentina, they’ll be sitting down to a parrillada (barbecue). A common desert is pan de Pascua or panetón, similar to the Italian delicacy, panettone (a sweet bread with dried fruits and nuts). Rompope, a drink very much like eggnog, will be spiked with rum; this typical drink is called cola de mono in Chile.

Everywhere, villancicos are sung. Some of these Christmas carols are familiar, like Noche de Paz (Silent Night). Others are unique to Latin America, such as El Burrito Sabanero. Unlike northern European (including US) traditions, caroling from house to house is not common.

In Latin America, the weeks leading up to 25 December are like much elsewhere. But each country, each place also has its traditions.

In Mexico, are the posadas, nine days of processions through neighborhoods, topped off with tamales and hot atole drink. Also in Mexico – specifically Oaxaca – is the Noche de Rábanos, or Night of the Radishes, celebrated on 23 December with a popular competition of the best-carved giant radishes.

In Trujillo, on Honduras’ Caribbean coast, the Indio Bárbaro accosts people for donations to community projects. If you happen to be out on the street when he passes by, and you refuse to give him a “tip,” he will bear-hug you with his grease-covered body! Another Garífuna tradition in these Black Caribe towns, is Hüngühüngü (also called Fedu), the women-oriented processions of the singing, dancing grandmas.

Cousin Its in Málaga, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Cousin Its in Málaga, Colombia. photo © Lorraine Caputo

During the Christmas novena (16-24 December) in the small mountain village of Málaga (Colombia), teens dress up as Matachines (masked, Cousin-It-looking creatures). They prowl the streets, brandishing gaily painted, inflated cow’s bladders. Money collected from would-be wallop victims is used to fund the carrazo floats in the parades at the beginning of January.

Everyone heads to the beach during the Christmas-New Year holiday, if they can. Prices rise – for transport, lodging and food – and the strand is über-crowded with lots of drinking people blaring music. This is definitely a time to witness Latin American partying at its finest. (If you prefer your beach scene to be, well, rather saner, I recommend you wait. Leave the beaches to the locals during holidays – you can go any time.) And some folk, in order to finance these family vacations, resort to petty thievery in the weeks leading up to the holiday: Keep an eye on your belongings!


Since 1988, I have spent most northern winters travelling in Latin America. I have passed the Christmas season in large cities and small towns in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

I have witnessed and celebrated many of these traditions. My encounter with the Indio Bárbaro in Trujillo (me, barefoot, recuperating from a broken toe, returning from the beach with nary a centavito in my shorts, is one of the culturally most embarrassing moments I’ve ever, well, enacted …) In Estelí (Nicaragua), I shared a meal with a Quebecois, of whatever special things we could find in the market ($1 US for an apple!). In Chile, I took a train on Christmas Eve, arriving in the capital like the Virgin Mary: no room at the inns.

Today, let’s take a poetic-photographic trip through the sights and sounds of Navidad in Latin America.

And however and wherever you are celebrating this holiday, may your season be bright, and the New Year be full of wishes come true.

Safe Journeys!

This beautiful pesebre in Iglesia Señora del Carmen (Pamplona, Colombia) extends half-ways down the nave. photo © Lorraine Caputo

This beautiful pesebre in Iglesia Señora del Carmen (Pamplona, Colombia) extends half-ways down the nave. photo © Lorraine Caputo

For the past few weeks, Catholic churches and public spaces throughout Latin America have displayed crèches, These Nativity scenes – called belén (Bethlehem), nacimiento or pesebre in Spanish – display Mary (María), Joseph (José) and the three Kings (Tres Magos or Tres Reyes Magos) along with shepherds and angels.

Beyond the usual cast of characters, though, is a motley assembly of animals: Among the expected sheep, camels and burros are farm animals – chickens, pigs, cows, etc. – and local fauna, like llama. The animals and humans are of a variety of sizes. It is not unusual to see a cock towering over a Magi.

MÉRIDA MAGI

(Mérida, Mexico)

In the oldest cathedral

on the American continent

built of Maya temple stones

On the day the Three Kings

visited the manger

in this side chapel

Mary tenderly places the Christ child in his cradle

Joseph presents him with out-stretched hand

Slowly the Magi approach

passing by a giant cow

by a giant tapir

Yellow lights drape the plastic pine boughs

& dried palm fronds hung

with colorful glass ornaments

They wink in electronic rhythm to

Oh, All ye faithful coming

shepherds     magi     & others

Hark! Do you hear the herald angels singing

with the jingling bells?

Even Santa Claus is coming to this town

on this silent night

when joy has entered the world

Frosty the Snowman watches

those who come a-wassailing

Through the open windows

wrought-iron-grilled

the sound & smell of traffic passes

The chapel begins to resound

with the cathedral bells pealing

for five-o-clock mass

published in:

The Poet Magazine (UK) (December 2020)

Iglesia San Sebastián, located on the eastern flank of the Panecillo (Calle Loja and Calle Borerro) reflects the barrio’s indigenous heritage: José and María are from the Shuar nation. The three Magi are from Otavalo, Esmeraldas and Tsáchila. The scene also includes the fathers and nuns of the Oblate order doing missionary work among Ecuador’s other indigenous nations. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Iglesia San Sebastián, located on the eastern flank of the Panecillo, reflects the barrio’s indigenous heritage: José and María are from the Shuar nation. The three Magi are from Otavalo, Esmeraldas and Tsáchila. The scene also includes the fathers and nuns of the Oblate order doing missionary work among Ecuador’s other indigenous nations. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The infant Jesus is not added to the Nativity scene until tonight, 24 December. At the night mass, the infant is presented to the congregation. Each devotee shall kiss him, before he is tenderly placed in the straw-filled cradle in the center of the pesebre.

The Latin American custom is for the family to attend mass together (however, the Misa de Gallos, or Midnight Mass is quite rare these days), and then break fast with a huge family meal.

NATIVITY

(Valladolid, Mexico)

Near midnight       on Christmas Eve

Within the aged church

 

A line of people slowly passes to the front

Each stoops to kiss

the Christ child nestled

in the arms of a woman

A nun stands next to her

handkerchief in hand

ready to wipe away lipstick

 

Fathers with their young sons and daughters

stop in front of the manger

framed in winking lights

to ponder the miracle

of the still-empty cradle

 

After the last mother, the last child

has welcomed that baby

He is laid into the straw-bedded cradle

his hands wide open to this world

his fat legs kicking the air

 

& the families step into the streets

washed clean by the rain

the sunset lightning had forebode

 

published in:

The Poet Magazine (UK) (December 2020)

In many Catholic homes, families also present a manger scene. In the evenings, they gather around it to say the novena and sing villencicos (Christmas carols). It is not uncommon for the manger cradle to hold more than one infant Jesus. They are the personal Christs of several generations of the family: mother, daughters, aunts, grandmother. photo © Lorraine Caputo

In many Catholic homes, families also present a manger scene. In the evenings, they gather around it to say the novena and sing villancicos (Christmas carols). It is not uncommon for the manger cradle to hold more than one infant Jesus. They are the personal Christs of several generations of the family: mother, daughters, aunts, grandmother. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Nativity scenes aren’t just relegated to churches. Many homes and businesses will also have one set up – like this inn in northern Mexico.

COURTYARD CRÈCHE

(San Fernando, Mexico)

The moon is almost full

sometimes visible through

the swift heavy clouds

 

Beneath, within the black of this night

Mary recently full, now illuminated

stares down upon her child

Her hands are crossed

against her full breasts

Joseph looks plaintively

upon her child

They are framed

in winking multi-color lights

Each strand alit for just a moment

then still in the gusty night

 

The courtyard is dark and quiet

Puddles from the days of passing rains

glisten in the holy lights of this chilled night

 

published in:

Tigershark (UK) (Issue 28, December 2020)

The scene in Quito’s most luxurious church, La Compañía, has a classic air to it, in harmony with the temple’s Baroque interior. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The scene in Quito’s most luxurious church, La Compañía, has a classic air to it, in harmony with the temple’s Baroque interior. photo © Lorraine Caputo

SOUNDS OF SILENCE

(Quito, Ecuador)

These Christmas Eve streets

echo with the mournful

song of a blind

man’s accordion

 

These Christmas Eve streets

beneath the dim light

of a waning crescent moon

yet to be arisen

 

These Christmas Eve streets

echoing with the footfall

of families going to mass

announced by silent bells

 

the cry of a new-born

babe in a manger

in a parish church

bathed in the perfume

of palo santo

 

The silence of footfalls

upon centuries-old

wooden floors

the silence of prayers

before the crèche broken

by a baby’s cry

 

These Christmas Eve streets

echoing with the silence

of the departed blind

accordion

 

published in:

Crêpe & Penn (Issue 8, June 2020)

The crèche in Iglesia La Merced, in the Historic Center of Lima, Peru, occupies one large side chapel of the church, and includes scenes of the Peruvian life in the countryside and the city. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The crèche in Iglesia La Merced, in the Historic Center of Lima, Peru, occupies one large side chapel of the church, and includes scenes of the Peruvian life in the countryside and the city. photo © Lorraine Caputo

We grow up with the tale of ghosts of Christmas past. In Northern European indigenous traditions, ghost stories are told around the Yule log. This season, it is believed, is one of the times of year when the veils between the World of the Living and the World of the Dead part, allowing families and friends to once again reunite.

One year in Buenos Aires, I could sense those spirits and I thought about relatives who had immigrated to that port city almost a century earlier.

MIDNIGHT NAVIDAD

(Buenos Aires, Argentina)

In these narrow streets

of San Telmo

lit by a nearly

full moon

 

Midnight Navidad

erupts with the burst

of fireworks

set by boys & men

The sparkles reflect

in windows of

Gardel’s day

The cracks splinter the

mourning song

of bandoneón

 

In the shadows

of doorways stand

families shawled in

the cool of summer’s eve

 

& the spirits perished

from cholera & yellow fever,

of immigrants surviving

in cramped conventillos

 

published in:

North Dakota Quarterly (issue 86.3 / 4, November 2019)

Iglesia Santo Domingo (Quito, Ecuador). photo © Lorraine Caputo

Iglesia Santo Domingo (Quito, Ecuador). photo © Lorraine Caputo

One thing – especially for travelers from the Northern Hemisphere – that is much different about Navidad in Latin America is that a White Christmas exists only in song. Only in the extreme north of Mexico (perhaps, depending on the year) and the highest of mountains will you find snow. Most of the region is located in the tropics, and it is summer south of the equator.

RESISTENCIA CHRISTMAS EVE

(Resistencia, Argentina)

All day
the heat, the humidity
strummed sultry,
multi-grey cumulus mounding
high into the heavens

until late afternoon
when its crescendo
erupted into thunder
pulsed by lightning

a rain washing
the blistered streets raw
& the clouds
into a uniform tone

Near midnight
the cathedral is dark
A man eats cake
before resting
on his blanket
upon the steps

A few kiosks are yet
grilling sandwiches, serving beer
to customers
at sidewalk tables

All else is closed
(save a pharmacy)
security guards murmur

Festive lights pulsate
in darkened windows
The laughter, the music
of a party drifts
down a deserted street

As that twelve o’clock hour nears
the crescendo of rockets
mounts, pulsed by sprays of
multi-colored sparks across
the heavens, clouds of gunpowder
drifting skywards
Resting birds startle
from a tree

The hotel watchman
sits in a lawn chair
on the front walk,
sipping sidra &
listening to chamamé
on his radio

published in:

Tigershark (UK) (Issue 28, December 2020)

A Nativity scene in Esquel, Argentina. photo © Lorraine Caputo