A VOYAGE INTO THE PAST : The Old Patagonian Express

Juan, our engineer on this day. © Lorraine Caputo

 

As the 1922 Henschel steam engine leaves its shed, people gather along the long platform to watch its dance as it couples the eight cars for the journey to Nahuel Pan. For some it will be a many-year dream fulfilled, to ride the famed Old Patagonia Express. For others, like that petite, white-haired woman there, this is a step back to childhood when she first came to Esquel. She had been relieved to step out of her carriage after the almost-day-long journey from Ingeniero Jacobacci on La Trochita, as this train is loving called by locals.

 

The white-haired lady is ready to step back into her childhood. © Lorraine Caputo

 

El Viejo Expreso Patagónico – also called El Viejo Expreso Patagónico and La Trochita – has been the subject of many books, like Paul Theroux’ epic journey through the Americas, The Old Patagonia Express, and documentaries. It was a challenge to build this 400-kilometer (244-mile) narrow gauge line through the desolate Patagonian landscape. When completed, it was the southern-most regular passenger service in the world. It yet holds that distinction, being the main transport for the Mapuche inhabitants of Nahuel Pan.

All aboard! © Lorraine Caputo

 

Those villagers slip into the rear car with the workers while the tourists board the five 1922 Belgian-made passenger cars. In the two dining cars, one at either end of the train, doña Jovita will serve coffee and tortaletas, beer and sandwiches during the trip. As our journey begins, guides tell the historical trek of La Trochita.

 

Inside the Belgian-made cars, built in 1922. In front of the seated woman is a salamandra stove. © Lorraine Caputo

 

Early 20th Century Patagonian villages were isolated. To get their goods to city markets as a three-month or more travail. Under the 1908 Ley Ramos Majía, these communities petitioned for a connection to the outside world.

Water sources where a steam engine could fill up every 40 kilometers (24 miles) had to be pinpointed in the dry Patagonia plain. In 1923 construction began southward from Ingeniero Jacobacci on the San Antonio Oeste-Bariloche line. Narrow gauge or troche angosta (75 centimeters / 29.5 inch) was chosen because of the land’s mountainous lay. Midway down the line, a workshop was established at El Maitén which still maintains these steam engines and makes any parts needed.

Despite icy winters, the global economic crisis of the 1930s and the high cost of laying the line, cargo service finally reached Esquel in 1945. Five years later the first passenger train arrived, with trains running several times per day. Each journey took 14 to 16 hours, longer in winters. These days, the usual speed of the Old Patagonia Express is 45 kph / 27 mph, with a maximum speed of 60 kph / 36 mph, due the winding nature of the tracks.

In 1993, then-President Carlos Menem turned administration of the railroads over to the provinces. Because many could not afford the maintenance, dozens of lines closed nation-wide, including the Ingeniero Jacobacci-El Maitén leg of the Express in Río Negro Province. With determination, Chubut Province has kept La Trochita alive.

 

Over the years of taking trains throughout the Americas, I have learned that three things are always true when a train passes:
• Traffic must stop.
• People – especially kids – wave.
• Dogs bark.
© Lorraine Caputo

 

Between Esquel and the first north-bound station, Nahuel Pan, we cross several modern-day roads. The cars must stop for our passage. We exchange waves as this little train clatters along. A truck on Ruta 40 salutes the Express with a blare of its horn.

La Trochita twisting across the mountainous terrain. © Lorraine Caputo

Watching the terrain of the Old Patagonian Express. © Lorraine Caputo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Old Patagonian Express on the longest curve of the line. © Lorraine Caputo

 

Nahuel Pan Mountain rises beige and faded-green on the east horizon. Across the narrow valley are small farms. Birds wing from our approach. The longest curve of the line is just south of Nahuel Pan hamlet. From the last cars, the engine comes into view. Its steam pumps across the blue sky.

 

The Mapuche-Tehuelche village of Nahuel Pan. Here many passengers will visit the Museo de Culturas Originarias Patagónicas. © Lorraine Caputo

 

The Old Patagonian Express preparing for the homeward journey. © Lorraine Caputo

 

The Henschel refills its water hopper at Nahuel Pan and pirouettes to the front of the cars. Further on are several abandoned engines. Meanwhile, passengers visit the Museo de Culturas Originarias Patagónicas and buy crafts from these artisan villagers. With a toot of the locomotive whistle, we board the wooden cars for our homeward journey.

 

Homeward bound. © Lorraine Caputo

 

The end of our excursion is nearing. Across the vestibule, I see that petite, white-haired woman looking wistfully out her window of the next car. What memories has this trip brought her? Perhaps the smell of sausages cooking on the salamandra stove each passenger car has. Perhaps the bustle of others gathering baggage and bundles as La Trochita approaches its final stop.

 

The summer fields of Patagonia. © Lorraine Caputo

 

All year long, through winter snows and summer fields of thistle, Esquel visitors hop the Old Patagonia Express, once or twice weekly in the off season, daily at holiday times. Once monthly, the ride goes as far as El Maitén, where the maintenance workshops can be visited. In the high season, nighttime rides are offered from Esquel to Nahuel Pan. Another regular run of La Trochita is from El Maitén to Desvío Thomae. About once a year, foreigners charter La Trochita to do the entire line, from Esquel to Ingeniero Jacobacci, a four to five-day excursion. Schedules are posted on the website.

The second weekend of February is the Fiesta Nacional del Tren a Vapor (National Steam Train Festival) in Maitén.

 

Gazing into the mighty Henschel’s innards. © Lorraine Caputo

Guiding the Henschel to bed. © Lorraine Caputo

At the end of the day’s run, La Trochita mounts the roundtable to be turned around before entering the locomotive shed. © Lorraine Caputo

NEW PUBLICATIONS : Poetic and Travel

NEW PUBLICATIONS : Poetic and Travel

It’s time for the bimonthly round-up of recent publications of my poetry and travel writing, which are continuing to appear regularly in journals and on websites around the world.

And I have (finally) hit the Big Leagues in the literary world! Check out my story that appeared in Prairie Schooner – as well as travel advice for exclusively for women (though you men might pick up a few useful tips, too!) and a review by a travelling family I met.

Safe Journeys!

Ever ready to give a poetry reading: My “traveling poetry” books with over 25 years of works, in English and in Spanish. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Ever ready to give a poetry reading: My “traveling poetry” books with over 25 years of works, in English and in Spanish. photo © Lorraine Caputo

 

NEW LITERARY EXPRESSIONS

“We Ain’t Supposed to Play,” in 3:33 Sports Short, Prairie Schooner (22 September 2016)

Playing ball in the streets of Cartagena. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Playing ball in the streets of Cartagena. photo © Lorraine Caputo

NEW TRAVEL EXPRESSIONS

AndesTransit

10 Things to Know When Traveling Sola

Insider’s Galapagos / Galapagos Travel Planner (including ghostwritten articles)

Galapagos Islands: what happens in September

Floreana Island: Off the Beaten Galapagos Track

Santiago Island: A Hidden History of Colonization in the Galapagos Islands

 

AND FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT …

Jessica and Will homeschool their two pre-teen children – with an international twist. Each  year, they choose a different country in which to live, so that Avalon and Largo also learn other cultures and languages, They have lived in Costa Rica, Ecuador – and have just begun their latest adventure in the south of France.

Follow them at Goodie Goodie Gumdrop. They are truly inspiring!

History In Quito + Weekly Round Up

AN AFFAIR NEVER-ENDING

I have spent many hours studying the hatched lines to see where the rail roads go. © Lorraine Caputo

I have spent many hours studying the hatched lines to see where the railroads go. © Lorraine Caputo

Imagine, if you will, that I found a new passion after I left my mate of many years.  I was not looking for a new love. Nay – you could say, it found me.

It was 1988 and I struck out to learn, face to face, mouth to ear — about Mexico and Central America. Twenty-nine years old and I reclaimed my self, my independence. And during that ten-week sojourn, I took the first honest-to-goodness train of my life. We ain’t talking ‘bout no rapid from the east side to the west. We’re talking ‘bout El Oaxaqueño, 12 hours from Mexico City to Oaxaca. Ay, how I relished the mystery of traveling through the night, awakening in the morning amidst hamlets nestled in the folds of rock, cliffs so close I could study their formations.  The slow reach of the sun over one and another range of the Sierra Madre del Sur. Wood smoke scenting the crisp air. The food offered by the women who boarded, the conversations with other passengers and the workers. The squeal of wheel upon rail as we hairpinned through those mountains, finally descending to our destination.

 I then knew that riding the rails is a perfect way to learn about a country. Many times the train goes where no road goes. You travel slow enough to be able to see wildlife from those smoke-hazed and cracked windows, critters scared by the traffic of highways. You can catch glimpses into homes set close to the tracks.  And beyond passing through pueblocitos, within the train itself forms a community. You can talk, share lives and food, walk about. Face it, you can’t even begin to do that on a bus.

If I could, through my poetry and stories, share these experiences, put a human face on the names of pueblos from Alaska to Patagonia through these rides. I decided to devote every cent, every opportunity to travel by train.

But come 1997, the raison d’être of these journeys changed. No, it deepened.

With the signing of NAFTA, Mexico had to agree to privatize its national holdings, including the railroad. In five sectors it was sold off to consortia, made up by Mexican capitalists and — in larger part — by US cargo train companies: Union Pacific, Santa Fe-Burlington Northern and others. By early 1996 freight services were in their hands.  Then 1 October 1997 — I came to discover — marked the official turnover of the passenger services.

I didn’t know this when I crossed the border on an October day, planning to again to ride the rails. I wanted to go to a friend’s family’s village in the Sierra of northern Durango State.  I could make it totally by trains.

Or so I thought.

 

14 October 1997 / Matamoros, Mexico

Just after dawn I cross the bridge from Brownsville and arrive at Mexican immigration.

“How will you be traveling?” the official asks.

“By train.”

“Well, you’ve missed today’s train.  It left at seven this morning.”  He turns to a co-worker. “Isn’t that right?”

The other man raises his eyebrows and shrugs his shoulders.

My information says the Tamaulipeco leaves at 9:20 a.m.  I head off for the station, through the streets of this awakening city, in hopes of catching it.

I stop at a stand where a brazier and pots of coffee steam in the cool of morning. “Which way is the train station?”

The man replies, “There are no trains, no hay.”

Further down the main road, I find a tourist information booth. Two men are inside, one behind a desk. “The train station? It’s up about four more blocks. Pero no hay.”

Next door is the government tourist office. The young woman shrugs. “I don’t know. It’s best to go to the station and ask.”

Once more I make my way up the now-busier street. At the next corner, near the tracks, a tourist officer and several taxi drivers sit on a bench. They all say, No, there is no service from here because of privatization by the government. Pero sí hay from Reynosa.  It leaves at 4 p.m.

A loud train horn disturbs our conversation. We all cover our ears. A long chain of Northwestern and other cars come rumbling along. It stops. Security men begin searching between the cars for stowaways, pulling them off. A few jump and escape.

I turn back from my quest and catch a bus for Reynosa.

 

Reynosa

Out front of the bus terminal, I ask a man where the train station is. He responds, “No hay trenes.”

I walk up to a taxi driver (they always know). Yes, he agrees, at 4 p.m. there is a train. He gives me directions.

Later I stop by a man selling roasted corn at the curb. “No,” he answers, “there are no trains.”

“But in Matamoros they told me there is, and a taxi driver here said so, too.”

“Look,” he says adamantly, “you can believe me or you can waste your time. But there is no train.”

“Since when?”

“Oh, at least six months now.”

Another man comes. “For Monterrey? Yes, there is. My sister took it Sunday. It runs every other day. So, yes, today there will be.”

With this hope I follow the tracks to the blue and white station.

It is boarded up, the doors locked with heavy chains. Some of the windows are broken. Through their white paint peeling away, I see the schedule blackboard still hanging by the ticket window. The blue seats in the waiting room remain.

Between the old station and the abandoned restaurant next door, a man sells gum and candies. “Excuse me, sir. Why is there no passenger service?”

“It’s because of a company del otro lado, from the other side. It bought it and decided there will be no service.”

“Since when?”

“Oh, since three or four months ago.”

Right at that moment, a lengthy string of US freight cars halts, brakes clanking. Black-coated men begin searching among the cars for stowaways.

I return to the bus terminal and stay until night to go to Monterrey. In the women’s bathroom, I recount to Socorro, the attendant, my fruitless search for the train to Monterrey. She is surprised to hear the news.

 

15 October 1997 / Monterrey

I grew bored in Reynosa and finally took a bus here, arriving at 1 a.m.

At about three, I wander outside and ask two taxistas there. They conclude, “With the change of owners, no-one knows the present schedules. It’s best to go inquire there.”

“Who are the new owners?”

“Some are Mexicans, others are from the US.”

I wait until the light of day begins washing the city streets and I walk as fast as I can with this forty-pound knapsack to the train station. A man sits behind the ticket window.

“Is there still a train for Durango?” I shift the pack on my back.

“Yes. It leaves in fifteen minutes. For only one? Ninety pesos.”

Ay, I tell him of my misadventures with the Tamaulipeco. “Since when doesn’t it run?”

“Since January.”

 

We leave behind those saw-tooth mountains of Monterrey, swirled with white rock. The chilled dust of early morning blows through my shattered window. Our train of hard foam cushioned seats, of dirty floors and dirty floors rocks and sways past a hamlet of rubble of once-homes destroyed.  From the ruins of one flies a zopilote. Forests of ages-old yucca trees. A hawk soars over the green desert thicket. Encrusted sand dunes sculpt the earth. I snuggle into the warmth of the sun as we pass by a village of old-fashioned adobes.

And I awaken at Paredón. In those hazes of sleep, I expect this car to be full of Mexican Revolutionaries.

The train winds through low mountains, then horseshoe-curves around a flatland. Once more it begins to corkscrew through mountains. A hawk sits up on the rise of ancient basalt boulders. The desert sand is laced with dry streambeds and footprints, horse trails, coyote tracks.

We zoom past cornfields and jolt past a sky-blue circus big top as we enter Concordia. There, a black-hatted, sun-glassed man boards. He strolls up the aisle and back down, playing a beat-up guitar and singing a corrida. He gathers his tips, then goes to the back of the car. He performs a few ballads, a fellow passenger joining in.

As we pull into the next town, a new voice and masterful strumming is heard. All women’s eyes turn to that man, black hair pulled back into a curly ponytail.  They nod, smiling, whispering to one another.

Near the tracks, nine students stand. Their brass coronets gleam in the now-afternoon sun. A few practice notes, and as we pull away, they play a clarion call.

The strolling musician is gone.

We fast clip upon these old rails. The diesel engine hums deep. Vineyards and orchards neatly crisscross this wide valley.

Over a soccer field in Gómez Palacios bobs a blue and yellow kite. Children gather in the stands, watching its dance. A colorful clothesline flaps its laundry in the cool sun.

At Torreón, an elderly woman boards. Her silver hair is covered by a black lace scarf. She holds one corner of it in her mouth, hiding the right side of her face. It falls away for a second, revealing a misshapened nose, a cheek deeply incised with wrinkles, a sunken eye, a sneering mouth.

A little girl’s dark eyes peer over the seat in front of me, then dart away as I grin. Next they appear around the side of the seat and retreat with a shy smile.

As we ride into the sunset, we hug mountains of folded rock.  Shadows fall deep and long. The red soil is shaped into irrigation ditches and plowed rows of golden maize. The bright-yellow sun nears a blanket of gilt-edged periwinkle clouds touched with peach. I listen to the music of this train and wish I could write its symphony.

Dá-da-da

Dah        Dah

counterpointed by squeaking springs.

Just before the sun sinks beyond, the bottoms of the clouds are etched in magenta. Then the landscape falls into greys. The pastel sky drains. Out there, to the north, a long spume of white smoke blows from an orange bundle of flames.

I turn my eyes to where the moon has risen above the sierra. The rest of our way to Durango, I gaze upon her fullness.

 

17 October 1997 / Durango

Sunrise is beginning to wash the eastern sky. The once-full moon disappears in the western. The chill of this semi-desert morning hovers around and within this caboose. In the warmth of a diesel stove, the conductor, an old farmer and I huddle.

“Come Monday,” the conductor says, “there will be no more passenger service — only cargo. The day before yesterday there was a passenger car. Now they ride in the caboose.”

“Why will there be no more passenger service?” I lean towards the stove, holding my hands out.

“The new owners have decided the tracks are in too bad of shape.”

“Who are the new owners?”

“Union Pacific here, Santa Fe elsewhere. They own the tracks, stations, everything. And they’re ending a lot of services.”

Así pues, I wanted to take the train from Matamoros to Monterrey, but there is none now. But there is from Reynosa, they told me. So I went there by bus. Pero no hay.”

The farmer shakes his head. The conductor nods his, “But we believe some will return once repairs are done — like that one.”

“Well, the story is much the same up north. Before, all the passenger trains were run by the freight companies — Union Pacific, Santa Fe and others. But during the 60s and 70s they decided to do away with them. Then in 1976 the government said we needed them again. But AMTRAK, as the passenger service is now called, doesn’t own many lines. It has to pay the freight companies to use theirs. So AMTRAK can’t make much money, and fares are high.”

The conductor checks the fire.  “, money is more important than the people.”

The old man nods.

The conductor falls silent as several other workers enter. He hands me a cigarette and lights it, hands cupping the flame.

Once they leave, he continues. “One has to be careful of what one says. There are many animalillos.” He draws a finger across his throat.

“Even on el otro lado,” I respond, “people are afraid to speak up. For fear of losing their jobs, their homes, their cars and all else.”

We talk about our pueblos, our people on either side of the Great River. Of how US corporations are robbing the people of the trains, the farmers of their lands.

Soon the day is lighter and more passengers board.  Our conversation ends. I take a perch in the cupola. The old man stays at the table, near the stove. The conductor begins his work.

At about 8:30 a.m. we leave, with two locomotives, seven open hoppers, this caboose, a car with barred windows for security guards and a payroll car behind.  Over two dozen passengers are crowded in here.

 

Past shantytowns of wood and cardboard homes and into the desert, its edges and mountains hazed. The rocky land rises, studded with fruiting nopales, and it falls away to dry stream beds.  Through forests of mesquite, the ashy soil beneath carpeted with sage. Campos of maize sprinkled with sunflowers, fields of frijol. Cows graze near the tracks. One’s breath steams the morning. Another, chewing its cud, slowly moves off to a quieter place, away from our clicking train.

We stop at a village. The sun strokes my face through this open cupola window. The farmer looks up at me writing these words. With a slight laugh I wave my pen, writing in air. He nods and smiles. I lean out a bit and notice in the third hopper up front rides a white-jacketed, white cowboy-hatted man.

A herd of seven bulls begins stampeding, one by one, across a high field of grain. Above them flies a flock of low-swooping black birds. And just as suddenly the bulls stop.

In the yard of a blue and turquoise house, a young boy runs. He pauses to watch our train go by.

On the stove the workers heat some chiles rellenos and water for coffee. One of them warms his hands.

We arrive at another village.  On the gravel road traversing the tracks a bicyclist stops to look. Before we depart with nine new passengers aboard, he pedals off.

A yellow-sweatered boy climbs up to sit on the cupola floor.  He calls to his nervous brother to join him. I squeeze myself closer to the window to share my seat with him.

Lucia — a pueblo of raw adobe walls. A woman with her young daughter runs alongside us. The conductor leans out the vestibule.  “Where are you going?”

“To Canatlán.”

“Get in the caboose.”

En serio?  They told us there was no passenger car!”

And more pots appear on the stove. Their smells waft up to my hungry nose. The conductor motions me down to share lunch with them.

As we slow for the next stop, Los Pinos, the old farmer waves good-bye before darting out the back door.

The conductor rummages through his black sports bag. His ball cap comes flying, landing at my feet, as he puts on a gnarl-faced mask and turns to us at the table. He tosses that aside and digs out a cassette player. Between stops he listens to music through the headphones.

A woman sits upon the bed platform in the rear section. Her young fingers skillfully crochet a doll’s dress. Her son Josué puts on the Halloween mask. Papa reads today’s paper. Over his shoulder, her green eyes study an article he shows her.

At this workers’ dining table sits Mary with her four-year-old niece. Next to me is Rosario. Rosario, now 18, yes, has finished her studies. “A ver – we’ll see,” she says with a shrug when asked about her future. Mary, 23, finished only secondary school. She has no job. “No, I’m too old to finish my studies,” she says with a tilt of the head, a lift of the shoulders.

We ignore, then parry, and ignore again the chiding of men.

Through the partly opened window, I catch glimpses of countryside and villages, of children waving, of workers in the fields. Lakes glitter in the noon-day sun.

Esfuerzos Unidos, Alisos, Nuevo Ideal. Family by family, person by person, the caboose begins to empty. Angelita, Las Flores, Chinacates. A wagon drawn by two horses trots across a field.

The wooden crucifix and rosary beads above this table sway with the train’s rocking. We begin winding our way down through the heights of the Sierra Madre. Rock walls hug this train.

The conductor goes atop. Another worker hops out a cupola window to join him. There I see them standing, coated against the wind, speaking into walkie-talkies. One leans through my window and begs some matches.

At Kilometer 157 we make a short stop. A sow leads three piglets across the dirt road. The conductor climbs down to talk with some fellow workers there about when their paychecks will come. “We have the payroll car here.”

“No,” one states, “I got my letter.”

“Well, after Monday, no hay tren.”

No me digas — Don’t tell me,” another says surprised.

A lone zopilote soars over a land of bleached bones. Two yellow butterflies dance above a yucca. Beneath the shade of mesquite a burro lies. He lazily turns his head to these clapping cars. We still creep through this mountain chain, metal screeching against metal. Not far from a swift river sits a lone adobe house. In the front patio grazes a tethered horse. A small waterfall tumbles. A black bull wanders to the shallows to drink from the clear waters.

At Santiago Papasquiaro we wait. The locomotive pulls away. A dust devil picks up trash & egrets in its whirlwind. We finally depart here. Three young boys jump on a trampoline in a yard. The man with the white sombrero is gone. A dog on a rooftop barks as we gain speed.

Rosario, now in the cupola, squeals as one of the brakemen walks through with the mask on.

Within the cloudless sky a hawk dips and rises above the scrublands. A roadrunner darts among the brush. Above a pool of steaming sulfur springs hovers an orange and white dragonfly.

The conductor sits at the table reading the news. After a while he falls asleep. Rosario and Josué sit across from me up here, singing corridas. A six-pack of Modelo goes around the caboose. One by one, the cans of beer are popped open.

A pair of blue and black butterflies appears alongside us. But just as quickly, we leave them behind.

At Presidio Rosario gets off, a bit tipsy from one beer. A family of four women and a boy come on with hand-made ribbon wreaths protected by clear plastic bags.

We journey along a river that occasionally cuts cliffs and other times winds through the plain. At Corrales the new women and boy depart. They walk across the wood-plank bridge, across the river, into town.

We arrive at Tepehuanes, only seven passengers left, the end of this line. The adobe station is pink-painted bricks. The train goes a bit further to begin loading timber for the paper mills down south.

 

Next door to the station is a hotel. My room is large, with thick adobe walls. I open the shutters of the window and begin spreading my work on the table beneath it. Before sunset I head for dinner, crossing the bridge over a brook, climbing the hill into town. After I return, Magdalena invites me to join them in the kitchen. An adobe stove in the corner warms the interior dimly lit by one bulb. On tomorrow’s south-bound train, she will be leaving on a “trip.” Later, she confides she is going to el otro lado. Since the train will no longer be arriving, there will be no guests for their hotel — and so to make a living? She will leave her 113-year-old mother in the care of a young Lola. Lola’s mate, José still doesn’t believe the train will end come Monday, that this was indeed the last train to Tepehuanes.

I spend evenings in that kitchen, seeking the heat of that stove, chatting with Lola and José. Doña Julia dips gingerbread cookies into her glass of warm milk, gumming her words. One night of chilled stars and the sierra silhouetted against the waning moon, she tells me of when she met Pancho Villa. She was down by the river washing clothes with other women. No, she laughs, she rejected his invitation to join the revolutionary forces. I ask her if it were true he had many women. She only gives me a demure, silent look.

My plan is to spend a month here, then travel down to Durango. From there I will take the train to Felipe Pescador, to make the connection with the south-bound Ciudad Juárez-Mexico City train.

I spend the days writing, and talking with the local people about the end of this train, and of those to Aserraderos and Regocijo. One late afternoon several women and I drink coffee in an eatery. Candy, who works for the village, shakes her head. “I had heard such, but…” The waitress is shocked. “There is no train for Regocijo? But, but I was going to go visit my sister there in a few weeks! How will I be able to afford it now?

The Day of the Dead comes and goes. And every other day, when the cargo train is due in, I go down to greet the workers.

 

7 November 1997 / Tepehuanes

I go to dinner about 4:30 p.m. Afterwards I decide to walk down to the station to see if the cargo train had come in. Several workers and I sit on the platforms.

“Today is National Railroad Day,” says one.

“Ay, there used to be bands greeting us here and elsewhere,” another reminisces.

“But now there is just silence.  All is mute.”

The conductor turns to me. “Since two or three days ago, there’s no train from Durango to Felipe Pescador.”

“What?  How are people going to get there?  There’s no road!” I interject.

The workers dejectedly nod.

“There’s talk, too,” he continues, “that there won’t be one for Torreón nor from Mexico City for Juárez come the 13th or 14th of this month.”

“When I was in Durango, I asked about those trains, and I was told that they would continue to exist!”

“Well, that of the Felipe Pescador line was a bit abrupt. The jefe de patio got a telegram saying, ‘As of tomorrow, service is cancelled.’ What could he do?”

I look at the shadowing ground. “How is it now without passengers?”

Triste, sad.”

 

I arrive in Mexico City 15 November and go to the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México. A woman in a 12th floor office shows me the official schedule as of 29 September 1997. She has received reports that between 40 and 50 routes have been cancelled since then. No, she didn’t know about Tepehuanes, nor Aserraderos, nor Regocijo.

In the next few months in Mexico, I madly dash after disappearing trains.

A copy of the rail map the FFCC de México used to give away, with most of the rides I’d taken marked. © Lorraine Caputo

A copy of the rail map the FFCC de México used to give away, with most of the rides I’d taken marked. © Lorraine Caputo

I look at my map of Mexico, noticing those black rail lines that go where no road passes, a web covering the nation from Baja to the Yucatán. I think of the routes I have taken over this decade of traveling. I think of the rides I will never get a chance to experience.

I shall miss the awakening from dreams, to see the full moon shining upon a sleeping home. Hushed voices in unlit cars of passengers coming, passengers going. The golden mesh of lights filling the valley as we’d come into Mexico City at night. I shall miss seeing the morning sun reach its fingers into the crevices, range by range, of the southern Sierra Madre mountains, morning mists over jungle cerros of Tabasco. I shall miss storm clouds mounding, then bursting upon the afternoon desert, sand imprinted by coyote, correcaminos running for shelter. Sunsets painting the western horizon.

I shall miss leaning upon the vestibule half-door, the wind blowing loose strands of my hair about, listening to the clickety-clack over wooden ties, the softer rhythm over concrete ones. I shall miss the smells of those women offering me gorditas de nopales con queso and atole in Chihuahua mornings, volovanes de cangrejo and coffee come Veracruz evenings. The bite of wood fires in crisp darkness. Of burning fields of sugar cane in the zafra.

I shall miss the children looking over their seats at this loca writing, or playing with their toy cars in the aisle, or sitting with me and this map, seeing where we had been and where we were going. Of sharing my sleeping bag with families migrating north, dressed in nothing more than thin cotton clothes.

I shall miss the stories of a doña Juana telling me of her childhood during the Mexican Revolution, before roads cut the Durango deserts. I miss sitting next to a doña Teresa embracing sweet azucenas to her Tehuantepec-huipil breast, like a Diego Rivera painting. I shall miss the conductor’s wife offering me a croissant, a banana and coffee, the workers offering me fish tacos or chiles rellenos.

I shall miss the sharing of lives and hopes, food and love with others, whiling away the time on those endless, timeless journeys.

Traveling by train no longer became a way to enjoy the country, to learn of its culture and life, to share community. No, riding became much more than that. I had to face deeper realities of the importance of these trains.

What will happen to those people who supported their families by selling to us passengers? On ebon nights, awaiting in the lights of the station, boarding with their baskets and kettles steaming in the chill air, stepping over bodies wrapped in thin blankets, sleeping in the aisles. The voices of mothers and their children quietly calling

Arroz con leche

Café       Atole

Tamalitos       Enchiladas

Gorditas . . .

How shall campesinos get their cheeses and fruits to market? How will they feed their families tonight, tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow?

What will happen to those villages whose lifelines were the silver rails?

Will abandonment beat the dirt roads, melt adobe homes into the earth? Will wooden doors bang in winter winds sweeping down from the north? No longer will laundry sway in a blue-white sun. No longer will small circuses pitch their ragged big tops for a few day’s pesos before moving on to some other pueblo. How many of these families have had to pack their trunks and bundles, migrate to a city in hopes of survival? How many of these communities are now rent by these winds of thoughtless change?

How will folks visit one another? How many will be able to afford a bus ticket for everyone in the family, to see abuelito, to celebrate Tía Rosa’s birthday, to take a holiday? Before, the bus was up to three times more expensive than the train. Who will be able to afford those bus fares spiraling, spiraling upward, now that there is no competition?

How many lines might continue to because these new owners deem they can jack the prices up, rake in the big bucks from the foreign tourists? Or because of protest by the people?

For now the vestiges of the Mexican Revolution continue to fray in the northern winds. Perhaps those days of train travel are gone. Or perhaps not. Maybe someday a new government shall come to power that recognizes the importance of the trains to communities, to the families, to the economies of these pueblocitos — as is happening in other countries.

Or perhaps a new Revolution is brewing in the Sierra Madre. Maybe one day former workers and a village will take up “arms” of máquinas and carros, appropriate the tracks, and with no funds from anyone keep the lines alive and gleaming silver to the ejidos, giving campesinos a way to get their products to market, for the ill to receive medical attention, for kinfolk to visit.

It may seem this affair has ended, but I still study my map, tracing those black lines. This is a love that has deepened with the years. I still search, every time I am in Mexico, for whatever visage of those train adventures. And, ay, when we meet once more, what a ride we have!

Sí pues, as long as there is a train upon which to journey, this shall be an affair never-ending.

 

© Lorraine Caputo

 

Would you like to continue riding the rails in Mexico? All aboard!

ADVENTURE ON RAILS (Nuevo Casas Grandes – Cumbres, August 2003)

DESERT REIGNS (El Águila Azteca – Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo, December 1996)

THE CONDUCTOR AND HIS WIFE (División del Norte – Mexico City to Ciudad Juárez, March 1994)

A TICKET TO RIDE (Torreón train station, October 1992)

EL JOROCHO (El Jorocho – Mexico City to Córdoba, December 1996)

THE JUNGLE TRAIN (Córdoba to Mérida, December 1996)

RANDOM ACTS (El Oaxaqueño – Oaxaca to Mexico City, April 1996)

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ : His Macondo, Aracataca

“All journalism is political,” Gabriel García Márquez. Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez (Bogotá, Colombia). photo © LorraineCaputo

“All journalism is political,” Gabriel García Márquez. Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez (Bogotá, Colombia). photo © Lorraine Caputo

One of Latin America’s greatest writers is Gabriel García Márquez. He was born in Aracataca, Colombia, in the midst of United Fruit Company’s banana plantations, on 6 March 1927.

The great author died 17 April 2014 in Mexico City. His archives are now at the University of Texas-Austin. His ashes will rest in the Claustro de La Merced of the Universidad de Cartagena.

García Márquez – affectionately known as Gabo – was a journalist, screenwriter and novelist, and is credited with founding the magic realism literary movement. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. His most famous work is One Hundred Years of Solitude, which began its life as La Casa – only to be destroyed in the fires that raged through the capital during the Bogotazo.

His collections of short stories are also legendary. But what I enjoy most are his journalistic writings. The stories he would uncover! They are a definite instruction to budding journalists of how to look for a story.

On my breezes through Cali, Colombia, I would stop into a used bookshop I stumbled across downtown in 1999 (and for many years had marked in my memory.) I would search the shelves for any copy of the Oveja Negra editions – small and cheap for super-budget travelers.

And in that first visit in 1999, I found two treasures that would accompany for that May 1999 I spent in Colombia: Cuando era feliz e indocumentado and Crónicas y reportajes.

Casa del Telegrafista, where García Márquez’ father worked. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Casa del Telegrafista, where García Márquez’ father worked. photo © Lorraine Caputo

There are many places in Colombia where you can follow Gabo’s footsteps:

  • Aracataca – His home town, with the Casa-Museo Gabriel García Márquez, Casa del Telegrafista and other sites.
  • Barranquilla – The Museo Romántico displays the typewriter on which he composed his first great work, La Hojarasca (Leaf Storm), as well as other personal items by the great author. La Cueva was where he and rest of the Grupo de Barranquilla hung out.
  • Cartagena – His home for many years, just a block from the Spanish fortress walls, is in the San Diego district. His ashes will rest in the Claustro de La Merced of the Universidad de Cartagena.
  • Bogotá – Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez
Gabo’s typewriter in the Museo Romántico (Barranquilla). photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Gabo’s typewriter in the Museo Romántico (Barranquilla). photo ©Lorraine Caputo

But today, let’s take a step back in time, to war-riven Colombia, 1999. To Gabriel García Márquez’ Macondo we shall go.

Safe Journeys!

 

IN MACONDO

Aracataca’s arabesque village church. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Aracataca’s arabesque village church. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The General in the Labyrinth of This Park

I sit in thin shade, on a bench at the edge of Parque de Bolívar. Just there, in the center, stands a diminutive statue of the Libertador.

The doors of the white-washed, arabesque church are open to the heat of this early morning. Within, the worshippers are exposed.

Vendors on the other side of this park have their stands open, revealing all manner of gadgets and belts and purses.

Men sit on the garden walls, sharing news. I don’t hear their words – just the Caribbean lilt murmur and the hands speaking.

From the side street, music plays from a café. There a group of women chat. I don’t hear their words, I don’t hear their murmurs. Their hands speak through the already-muggy day.

 

Was This a Death Foretold?

The church bells ring steady, in a rhythm.

I look up from my book.

Those worshippers depart behind the white and purple vestmented priest, behind the coffin atop four pairs of shoulders. They turn the corner of the church and disappear up the street. Many in the park, many in the café drop their conversations and follow. Others mount bicycles and motor-scooters, joining the procession.

 

The birdsong and human murmur fall back into place. Flies swarm and dance over the pages held in my sweating hands.

An old, dark woman stops at my side and asks, “What are you reading? An evangelical book?”

“No, ma’am,” I respond, placing my fingers where I must leave off reading. “García Márquez.”

“García Márquez? You have him there? García Márquez is in that little paperback?!” She repeats over and again, shuffling off. Her flip-flops barely flop. A heavy black bag swings from her wrist. “She has García Márquez in that little book!” The filtered sunlight glitters off her whitened hair.

Her murmurs fade to the corner and disappear.

Casa-Museo Gabriel García Márquez. Photo ©Lorraine Caputo

Casa-Museo Gabriel García Márquez. Photo ©Lorraine Caputo

La Casa

A bus of workers stops in front of the ochre and white house: Casa-Museo de Gabriel García Márquez. Quickly they scan the exhibition room of the front building and through the two rooms remaining of the white and green casa natal.

Quickly they board the bus again and disappear.

 

On the other side of that park, a man builds another stand. His hammer echoes through the air growing heavy.

Every once and again, a passing woman murmurs, Buenos días or Adiós. I repeat their greetings, barely looking up from my pages to their smiles.

And as I sit writing these words, young men or young boys stop to watch my pen flow. But when I look at them, their eyes quickly turn away to some innocent pursuit.

Another truck laden with African palm fruit goes around the plaza and disappears.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

A strange town, indeed, is this Macondo in the midst of banana – and now African palm fruit – plantations of some foreign owner. It is full of interesting characters.

On every spare space imaginable – upon walls, upon benches – someone has written prophetic biblical quotes.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

I decide to stay in Aracataca for at least a day more. But one sultry day blends into another, the heat and humidity swirling from day into night and again into day.

I drop by Residencias Macondo where the price is right for this wandering poet. Rooms set around the patio share the bathroom stalls and showers at the back of the yard. On one side is the owner’s kitchen.

“You look tired,” the doña says to me. “Have a seat. Would you like a tintico?”

A tintico, a strong cup of Colombian coffee. Precisely what I need! It’s been a long week or so of traveling, in search of trains. My dream trip of sailing the Río Magdalena is off. Already, in the first four months of this year, over 200 kidnappings have happened on that river-highway.

And although it is not spoken aloud, the tensions of the civil war in this year of 1999 permeates the air.

So many adventures to tell that lead up to this point. They are for another story, I dare say. But on this leg, from Puerto Berrío on the west bank of the Río Magdalena to here, was a necklace of adventures in and of itself. In a nut shell?

After a night of clandestine traveling through the war zone, being dropped off at the Bostonia crossroads as the sun rose, I hitched northward. I wanted to go to Fundación (where I erroneously thought the 1928 banana massacre occurred – García Márquez mentions it in One Hundred Years of Solitude – I later find out it happened in Ciénaga). But the driver didn’t hear my banging on the back of the pickup truck until we arrived at the crossroads for Aracataca. I hoisted my Rocinante (my knapsack, my faithful companion) and hoofed the three kilometers into town. At least I’ll visit the casa-museo before continuing to Santa Marta.

The doña and I sit under the shade of the níspero trees growing in the patio. Other women come to chat, holding a cup of tintico in their hands. Chickens peck at the dirt, around our feet.

A vendor arrives and greets us. He places two large sacks of in front of his room’s door. He opens one. “Welcome,” he says as he tosses to me two oranges from the sack.

Down by the old train station there’s a sculpture in a small roadside park. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Down by the old train station there’s a sculpture in a small roadside park. photo © Lorraine Caputo

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Down by the old train station there’s a sculpture in a small roadside park. Upon this giant book open to the passage about Remedios reclines a woman. A multitude of yellow butterflies flurry all around, around that woman.

The station is painted white. The sign declaring this station – Aracataca – still hangs on one side. Its white and black paint is peeling. On the side porch benches, four men sit. A fifth joins them. A few young girls sit on another bench. They are all wrapped in their conversations.

Suddenly they fall silent. Their eyes turn to the northern horizon. They watch the southbound train pass by at a quick clip. Two locomotives haul a chain of 83 open hoppers, the weight and technical information all in English. There is no caboose. A worker on the last car waves to those of us who have gathered at the station.

And after the train disappears, the old men and young girls wander away, disappearing into the late morning.

But again they shall gather here in the afternoon, to wrap themselves in conversations, to fall silent, to wordlessly watch the train pass by … and again disappear ….

… until the next train’s passing.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

A strange town, indeed, is this Macondo in the midst of the civil war zone. It is full of interesting characters.

Donkeys wander around the parque, near the station, past the market, down side streets.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

All day, the heat and humidity drive people to sit – on chairs, on curbs, on planters – under the thin shade of trees along the streets, to catch whatever slim breeze possible.

One day I go to the neighborhood general store. Out front sit a man and the shop’s owner. A third man sits quietly, not saying a word.

The first man – who could be in his mid- to late-40s and just worn from too much work or booze, or he could have been a young 60s or 70s – is dressed in shorts, sandals and a worn t-shirt. He is a storyteller, weaving incredible tales (and damn that now I can’t remember a one of them!)

The owner seems to be taking most of his tales with a proverbial grain of salt, with a slight smile.

A young woman in not-too-short shorts, a modest shirt and low, open shoes strolls by the three men. Immediately the storyteller falls silent and turns his attention to her. “Boy, she sure wears those shoes well.”

And, no – his eyes are not looking that low ….

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

A strange town, indeed, is this Macondo.

Not only do donkeys abound – but also the flies. Perhaps it is because of the generations of bananas and flesh that have rotted into the soil of this tropical Caribbean backwater region.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

The market is quite gross with the swarms of flies that hang as heavy as the humidity. But it is the only place where I can find to have a cup of coffee!

I pull up a seat at a small wooden table outside the only stand – of the dozens in this mercado – that serves coffee. Three men are also there.

On the narrow street beside us, a truck is leaving. It hits a motorcycle parked near us. One of my tablemates jumps up. He inspects his bike for any damage – as does the crowd of people that forms thicker and thicker around the scene. Every minuscule dent and scratch is examined – “What about this? He didn’t do it? And this one?” A fervent discussion pursues about what should be done.

I leave the crowd – and the dozen donkeys milling around – to continue exploring Macondo.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

One evening at the restaurant where I have dinner, I ask the woman there when Gabriel García Márquez last visited his hometown.

“When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.”

“Why hasn’t he visited since then?”

A look of disgust washes over her face, bitter words sprout from her mouth. “Because he feels he’s too good to come back. He hasn’t done anything for our community – though some say the solution to the problems here or here isn’t his or anyone else’s money, but the system as it is, and everyone has to work towards the change and solution, what do you think?”

I remember the warning the taxi driver in Medellín had given me when he learned I was going to take the train to Barrancabermeja on the east bank of the Río Magdalena: You don’t know who is guerrilla or who is paraco (paramilitary). Keep your mouth shut.

The civil war zone extends this far north. In fact, it extends through most of the country in this year of 1999.

I keep my mouth shut.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

A strange town, indeed, is this Macondo.

Not only do donkeys and flies abound – but also the ants.

One pre-dawn, I hurry across the patio to the bathrooms in back. As I stoop over the stool, I notice a line of ants ascending my leg.

I hop into the shower next door to wash them away.

And I examine my tennies. In the left shoe, dozens upon dozens of ants have begun building a nest.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

Tonight I eat at a different place. The air conditioned salon has a large painting of García Márquez on one wall.

I ask the man there when Gabriel García Márquez last visited his hometown.

“When he won the Nobel Prize.”

“Why hasn’t he visited since then?”

“Ah, because of security.”

“In what sense, sir?”

“With the situation in the country, he could be kidnapped. Any of the factions would want to lay hands on him.”

“Where does he live now?”

“In Cartagena and Mexico.” In the great metropolis of that latter country, he believes.

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

My time in Aractaca has come to an end.

After days of passing messages, I have my next clandestine ride set. I must hurry back to the residencia to grab Rocinante and head out.

I take one last look at the red long johns I had worn when I left Quito several weeks earlier. Because of the hard travel, I didn’t get a chance to take them off until I reached the banks of the Río Magdalena. Now I am heading for the Caribbean coast.

I no longer have use for them. I toss them on the bed before closing the door behind me and saying good-bye to the doña.

I am sweating in this late morning. But soon I shall be where the sea breezes sway the palm trees. Ah, there is a very slight one blowing now. How refreshing!

But what the heck anyone in a place like Aracataca is going to do with red long johns, goddess only knows!

 

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

 

Postscript

Several weeks later, I spend a few days in Parque Nacional Tayrona, just east of Santa Marta. I stay in at Arrecifes, and spend the days snorkeling in La Piscina, hiking to Chairama and beach combing.

One night, hours before the dawn, I hear a voice. “Lorena, can I borrow your flashlight?”

It is Sergio, the Colombian-Swede with whom I am sharing this open-sided palapa. I pull my mosquito net aside and step out of my hammock.

Sergio shines my flashlight to where his bag is hanging from an overhead beam. A donkey is rummaging through the pack. Upon noticing our presence, he disappears into the darkness.

Sergio picks up his copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The burro has eaten the first hundred pages or so.

Just another tale in this Macondo that is any Colombian Caribbean village.

 

GAUCHITO GIL : A Home-Grown Saint for Travelers and Justice

A roadside shrine to Gauchito Gil near RíoTurbio, in Argentina’s southern Patagonia. © Lorraine Caputo

A roadside shrine to Gauchito Gil near Río Turbio, in Argentina’s southern Patagonia. © Lorraine Caputo

From the Bolivian border to the Beagle Channel, from the Andes along the Chilean frontier to the Atlantic Ocean, I have seen red flags fluttering at the side of roads. What are these small shrines so boldly decorated?

I am told they are to Gauchito Gil.

But who is he?

My curiosity finally piqued me like a tábano horsefly. I began to search for his history, his mark in the Argentine consciousness.

Pilgrims touch Gauchito Gil’s cross. photo © Lorraine CaputoPilgrims touch Gauchito Gil’s cross. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Pilgrims touch Gauchito Gil’s cross. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The Legends of Gauchito Gil

Gauchito Gil was born in the 1840s in Pay Ubre, approximately eight kilometers (5 miles) from Mercedes, in Argentina’s Corrientes Province. His given name was Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez. He was of the gaucho peon class, working on a large estancia (ranch) as his father had done. He was assassinated 8 January 1878. During his life, it is said, he was recognized for his healing abilities and known as a devoteé of San La Muerte.

There are three main tales about the life and deeds of Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez, who came to be known as Gauchito Gil. Some include the story line that he was in love with the widow owner of the estancia (ranch) where he worked – who also throbbed the heart of the local chief of police. (Of course, there ALWAYS has to be a love angle to a tale, no?)

The most common tale is that to escape the love triangle and accusations of robbery (by, of course, his love rival), Gauchito Gil fled to join the army in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) against Paraguay. He returned a hero, but immediately was drafted into the civil wars (1814-1880) raging through the region. He went AWOL and was later captured and executed as a deserter.

The second version of the tale recounts that he was drafted into the Colorado forces to fight against the Liberales in the civil wars. He fled, and when recaptured, declared: “Why am I going to fight my brother and spill his blood if he did nothing against me?” On the way to Goya for his trial, he was executed “while escaping.”

The third variation paints Gauchito Gil as a Robin Hood, stealing from the wealthy land-holding class who sponsored the civil war, to give to the poor of the region who were suffering from the inter-rich fighting.

But all these legends end the same way:

Upon being captured, Gauchito Gil declared his innocence and said the letter with his pardon was on the way. Of course, his jailer did not believe him.

Gauchito Gil also warned his captor that upon returning to Mercedes, he would find his son was dying. If the jailer prayed to Gauchito Gil, the son would be cured.

It happened exactly as Gauchito Gil foretold. The jailer prayed to the renegade gaucho, and his son was cured. To honor the saint and pay for his crime of murdering an innocent man, the executioner walked to Pay Ubre with a large wooden cross. He erected it at the site of the murder.

And the rest is history. The shrine quickly grew, as well as Gauchito Gil’s renown as a saint who could intercede in matters of health, work and safe journeys.

The Santuatio (sanctuary) of Gauchito Gil at Pay Ubre, approximately eight kilometers (5 miles) from Mercedes. photo © LorraineCaputo

The Santuatio (sanctuary) of Gauchito Gil at Pay Ubre, approximately eight kilometers (5 miles) from Mercedes. photo © Lorraine Caputo

In Search of Gauchito Gil

I arrive in Mercedes, in the center of Corrientes Province in northern Argentina. I ask the workers at the hostel how I might be able to arrive at the shrine of Gauchito Gil. Very simple, I am told. Just catch the green Línea 2 city bus at Plaza 25 de Mayo.

As we approach the roadside shrine, red flags dance on the day’s light breeze.

And the bus stops in from of the Santuario de Gauchito Gil. Several others and I debark. Other passengers hop off for a few minutes to make a quick request to the Gauchito. This is customary, I am told. All passing buses pause to allow people to visit this saint.

The many stalls sell everything you need to pay respects to Gauchito Gil at this sanctuary and at home. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The many stalls sell everything you need to pay respects to Gauchito Gil at this sanctuary and at home. photo © Lorraine Caputo

I stroll past dozens of stalls offer all sorts of wares for the faithful: statues and portraits to take home, scapulars and prayer cards to protect them on the road. Red streamers and flags to hang upon his massive statue in the center of the crowded compound and red candles to light the way of their requests to this popular saint.

And I enter the tin-roofed chapels where smaller versions of Gauchito Gil stand, surrounded by candles with flames dancing in a barely perceptible breeze. The walls are covered with plaques, photos, handwritten notes – all thanking this renegade saint for his intersession.

The chapels’ walls are covered with photos, plaques and gifts thanking Gauchito Gil for his intercession on matters of health, justice and journeys. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The chapels’ walls are covered with photos, plaques and gifts thanking Gauchito Gil for his intercession on matters of health, justice and journeys. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Modern Argentina isn’t a particularly religious country. What is it, then, that drives such fervor passed down through generations? What draws hundreds of pilgrims to come here every week? Why do so many thousands come and camp along this highway every 8 January, his feast day?

But in the holiness of this space, I feel uncomfortable to ask probing questions about their faith to a saint the Catholic Church (let alone any other) would adopt as its own.

Statue to chamamé music. Santuario de Gauchito Gil, Pay Ubre. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Statue to chamamé music. Santuario de Gauchito Gil, Pay Ubre. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Chamamé

I cross the highway to a roadside eatery to sit down to a typical Argentine parrillada (barbecue). A small band – guitar, violin and accordion – is playing chamamé music.

This sad music is native to northern Corrientes Province. For a pair of days in early January, after Gauchito Gil’s feast Day, Pay Ubre hosts a chamamé music festival. Dozens of artists, like Nélida Zenón and Julián Zini, pay tribute to this saint. The capital, Corrientes city, has its Fiesta Nacional de Chamamé, also at the beginning of January. Other towns in northern Argentina, too, host chamamé festivals during the austral summer months.

But the cradle of this song is M’burucuyá (155 kilometers / 93 miles southeast of Corrientes city). Here is the home where chamamé pioneer Eustaquio Miño once lived (Calle Cabral, east of Plaza Mitre) and the Museo de Chamamé (Calle Moreno, between Calle Cabral and Calle Astrada). The Festival del Auténtico Chamamé Tradicional (Authentic Traditional Chamamé Festival) occurs in February.

A Gauchito Gil prayer card. photo © Lorraine Caputo

A Gauchito Gil prayer card. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Prayer to Gauchito Gil

Te pido humildemente se cumpla por tu intermedio ante Dios el milagro que te pido y te prometo que cumpliré mi promesa, y ante Dios te haré ver y te brindaré mi fiel agradecimiento y demonstración de fe en Dios y en vos, Gauchito Gil. Amén.

I humbly ask you, through your intercession with God, the miracle that I request and I promise you that I shall fulfill my promise, and before God I shall make you seen and I shall grant you my faithful thanksgiving and demonstrate my faith in God and in you, Gauchito Gil. Amen.

Before I leave Pay Ubre, I cross the road again and am guided by some force to those chapels. A sanctity flows through this space like incense, a sanctity unsanctified by any official church. This is a holiness that blossoms from the roots of the earth – and is common throughout Latin America. Gauchito Gil is found not only throughout his matria¸ but also in neighboring Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil. Other countries have their santos populares. Venezuela has strong cults of popular saints like José Gregorio and María Lionza. And in cemeteries in both small towns and large cities throughout the Americas, you’ll see a tomb with flowers, candles and offerings to some local, home-grown santo. None sanctified by the Catholic Church – but rather sanctified by the pueblo.

Before leaving to return to Mercedes, I stop at these stalls of Santuario de Gauchito Gil. I buy a few travel talismans for my coworkers in the guidebook office.

And, of course, I have mine which I keep with my faithful Rocinanate, ever ready to hit the open road ….

My faithful traveling companion, Rocinante, with Gauchito Gil. photo © Lorraine Caputo

My faithful traveling companion, Rocinante, with Gauchito Gil. photo © Lorraine Caputo

WHEN THE VEILS PART : Honoring Our Dead

La Catrina is a popular figure in Mexico’s Día de los Muertos presentations. photo © Lorraine Caputo

La Catrina is a popular figure in Mexico’s Día de los Muertos presentations. photo © Lorraine Caputo

The last Sunday of October is Visit a Cemetery Day. It marks the beginning of a week of Holy Days that are variously called All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (on the Christian calendar); and with roots in indigenous traditions, Hallowe’en (Europe); and Día de los Muertos (Latin America).

 

For many European indigenous cultures, this time of year was an observance of the end of the harvest, the entering of a time of rest. Although not the December solstice, it is Eve of Winter. In the Northern Hemisphere, the days are shorter and colder. The first frost has snapped life from the once-green landscape, now blanketed by golden and russet leaves lying at the roots of barren trees. The first snowflakes are now scurrying across the grey sky. And this is when the veils between the World of the Living and the World of the Dead disappear and the denizens of the two realms may reunite.

This is the season when the Celtic nations commemorated Samhain, still called such by Gaels, Welsh and Neopagans. In Cornwall, it is called Allentide; on the Isle of Man, Hop-tu-Naa. Later, with the forced introduction of a new religion, this celebration’s name and vision would be changed.

With the introduction of Christianity, many indigenous European holy days were coopted and acquired a thin Catholic façade over the original celebration. The Roman Church’s honoring of saints was originally held in May, replacing the Roman Feast of the Lemures. But with the extension of its power further north into pagan lands in the 9th century, the date was changed to 31 October – 2 November. Samhain became Hallowe’en, meaning All Hallows Eve – the eve (night) before All Saints Day (1 November), followed by All Souls Day (2 November).

All Saint’s Day is an official holiday in not only the Holy See (Vatican City) and a host of European countries, but also Latin American countries like Chile, Guatemala, Peru and Venezuela. All Souls’ Day is a national holiday in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Some of the symbols associated with modern Hallowe’en have their roots in ancient indigenous European customs; many others do not. 31 October also has more modern designations that have little to do with its original spirit: Beggars’ Night, Carve a Pumpkin Day, Increase Your Psychic Powers Day, National Caramel Apple Day and Books for Treats Day. Hallowe’en is principally observed in Canada, the US, United Kingdom and Ireland.

When the Spaniards invaded the lands west of the great sea (Atlantic Oceans), they met indigenous peoples honoring the dead at the end of October, after the maize harvest. In modern times, this feast is called Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or Día de los Difuntos.

Day of the Dead commemorations begin 31 October and extend through 2 November (with this last night being the most important). During these days, families go to the cemeteries to clean and repaint their families’ tombs. Carefully, the names and dates are re-lettered. The graves are decorated with flowers and wreaths. Then, as night falls, food and drink are spread out, and the living and spirits of the dead feast together. Music may accompany the festivities illuminated by candlelight.

The most famous place to witness these traditions is Pátzcuaro, Mexico. Mexico’s celebrations are recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. In other countries with yet large indigenous populations – Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia – families also greet the return of their dead in this manner.

In Mexico and Mexican communities in the Southwest and other parts of the United States of North America, families prepare ofrendas. These altars set up in homes are dedicated to family and friends who have parted over to the World of the Dead. The difuntos’ photos, favorite toys, foods and other items are placed and kept for them to enjoy when they come to visit during these celebrations of the Día de los Muertos. Cempasúchil (Tagetes erecta Linnaeus, giant marigold) and sugar skulls also decorate the altars.

Mexican ofrenda. photo © Lorraine Caputo

Mexican ofrenda. photo © Lorraine Caputo

 

Our Journey to Honor the Dead

Today, we shall make a photographic-literary journey through Latin America. Through photos, we meander the cemeteries. Through poetry and prose, we witness the traditions of these nations commemorating their dearly departed, celebrating the Day of the Dead – and pay tribute to those who have died.

This article is of three parts:

 

  • Part One: Discusses the historical foundations for these Holy Days of late October and early November.
  • Part Two: Poetic journeys for the days leading up to Hallowe’en and the Day of the Dead, and another poem about Samhain, all honoring the dead.
  • Part Three: Poetic and prosaic journeys into the Day of the Dead, as celebrated in Mexico, the Galapagos Islands and Bolivia.

You may read all the offerings at once – or choose to read it day by day, from today through 3 November.

Safe Journeys!

 

Would you like to read more of my adventures for this week of Holy Days?

 Then please hop on these “rides”:

Honoring the Dead in Latin America: Cemeteries & Historical Sites

Ghosts of Iquique

Arequipa’s Phantoms

Argentina’s Haunted Past

International Day of the Disappeared (Chile)

Endings

Curse

LUCHA LIBRE ECUADOR!

Lucha libre action in the ring. Photo © Lorraine Caputo

Lucha libre action in the ring. Photo © Lorraine Caputo

While waiting for tonight’s event to begin, people line up at the small stand to buy sodas and the ubiquitous Ecuadorian snack of salchipapas (hot dogs and French fries) to share amongst the entire family. The stands around two sides of the small arena fill. The spectators watch films of past matches on the big screen TVs. In the middle is the ring where tonight’s action will take place. Spotlights already bathe it. Large posters of the star wrestlers – Big Venom, Minister, Dr. Pesadilla, Ricky Glamour, Maxxx Viper – decorate the walls.

As the time nears for the event, hands slightly part the red curtain at the far end of the room. The spectators begin to clap, to stomp, to whistle. But it is only a tease. Soon enough, though, the two announcers take their seats at the table to the right of that slit in the red curtains. The referee climbs into the ring. And the action begins.

El Gladiador makes his entrance. Photo ©Lorraine Caputo

El Gladiador makes his entrance. Photo ©Lorraine Caputo

In the first half, El Gladiador is abandoned by his evil teammates. He swears he will turn to the Light. This raises a round of cheer from his multitudes of fans. The first match of the second half features Ricky Glamour, one of the most popular wrestlers of Ecuador’s lucha libre. The night ends with a free-for-all, break-loose match between many of the fighters. It spills out of the ring, one large hulk chasing another and another round the arena, into the stands.

The night is over. Families depart into the cool mountain evening. Plastic cups and bowls with caking ketchup and mayonnaise skitter across the emptying parking lot.

The night ends with mayhem spilling out of the ring, right at our feet. Photo © Lorraine Caputo

The night ends with mayhem spilling out of the ring, right at our feet. Photo © Lorraine Caputo

History of Professional Wrestling in Ecuador

In Latin America, professional wrestling is called lucha libre. Mexico is renowned for its long history of this sport. Its most famous stars came to Ecuador. The saint of all kids like El Gladiador was El Santo. Some thirty years ago, Argentina also made the scene with stars like Martín Karadagián and La Momia. Influenced by these two countries, professional wrestling arrived in Ecuador in the 1970s.

Today, four wrestling federations operate in Ecuador, based in Quito and Guayaquil. In the capital, the season is year round. In the coastal metropolis of Guayaquil, there are no matches during the first four months of the year, due to the rainy season.

One of the major federations is WAR (Wrestling Alliance Revolution). Its shows feature the lucha entre los Buenos y los Malos – the struggle between Good and Evil. Its stable of fighters travel to other cities and small villages to do events.

In real life, these fighters, who range in age from 16 to 40, are hostel managers, English teachers, journalists, dog breeders and gym owners. Most are fathers. But this sport isn’t just limited to males. Women are also professional wrestlers, and mixed matches are held the same night as the main events.

WAR’s live events may be caught at the arena at Río Vuano y Av. de La Prensa in north Quito (Metrobus stop La Florida). Tickets ($5) go on sale at 5 p.m. the day of events. Fights begin at 6 p.m. If you can’t make it to the matches, you can watch them on WAR’s you tube channel.

El Gladiador at rest, thinking of future conquests. Photo © Lorraine Caputo

El Gladiador at rest, thinking of future conquests. Photo © Lorraine Caputo

One early summer day in Quito, I sat down with one of the stars of WAR, El Gladiador. Weighing in at 215 pounds, this 37-year-old fighter is one of the most popular of WAR’s fighters, especially among children who consider him a hero. El Gladiador even has his own channel on you tube. He started his career as a Malo, but now he has joined the ranks of the Buenos.

Before becoming a professional wrestler five years ago, El Gladiador was a successful bodybuilder in the 80 kilogram (190 pound) class. He was Mr. Pinchincha in 2002, and placed third in Mr. Quito 2002. He also practices muay tai, jujitsu, mixed martial arts. As a wrestler, he was the Champion in Parejas (Tag Team) a few year years back.

 

Why did you decide to become a wrestler?

I have liked lucha libre since I was a child. I watched it on TV and the WWF. I would stop whatever I was doing to watch lucha libre. Also I liked Arnold Schwartzenegger’s movies and Hercules.

 

Who were your inspirations, your favorite fighters?

The Argentinians, the Titanes en el Ring. Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior – both of the US – were also huge, strong. Of today’s fighters: the Rock and Kane. Especially the Rock.

 

I have seen photos of you as a bodybuilder. You looked much leaner, much more sinewy than as a wrestler.

In bodybuilding, you work for less body fat and water – to give muscles more definition. In wrestling, these are necessary in order to protect yourself from the blows and falls.

 

I always thought of professional wrestling as a show, as theater – all fake. But when I went to the matches to see you fight, I came to realize that it takes a lot of training to learn how to fall correctly, and to throw punches that won’t injure your opponent. What is training like?

Wrestling is a high-risk sport. Injuries can easily end a career or lead to death. Unlike the U.S., we don’t have to report our hands as deadly weapons.

Not all is drama in lucha libre. Many come to the sport, but leave after the first training session.

We have to learn techniques to fall, to receive blows. The chest and back have to be able to resist more. Also to hit without causing injury. I work out two to three times per week, two to three hours each time. It includes weightlifting, jogging and cardio-vascular exercises.

Before entering the ring, a fighter trains for eight months to a year. In a new fighter’s first time in the ring, the older wrestlers gives the newcomer a ceremony, a baptism of blows and machetazos (chops): five blows to the upper chest.

 

And what type of diet and lifestyle do you have to follow?

No smoking, no drinking, no drugs. We eat a lot of animal protein.

 

And any restrictions about sex coming up to a fight? My father was a professional boxer, and he often mentioned that.

El Gladiador laughs. No, no restrictions on sex, he responds.

 

Of the Buenos and the Malos, it surprised me that one of the most popular fighters is Ricky Glamour, whose personage is a stereotypical gay and a good guy. How can you explain this in a country where homosexuality is looked down upon?

He’s an “exotic fighter.” In Ecuador, homosexual jokes are popular between men. It’s the sal quiteña: we are jokers, happy.

Ricky Glamour makes his grand entrance with much glamp and golden glitter. Photo © Lorraine Caputo

Ricky Glamour makes his grand entrance with much glamp and golden glitter. Photo © Lorraine Caputo

El Gladiador had a relative who was a professional wrestler about 40 years ago. In that age, they went to the small towns and fought in rustic rings that were made of oil barrels with a board atop, covered only with a rug. It was really high risk.

A friend of El Gladiador – who only wishes to be identified as “El Negro” – joins our conversation. El Negro is of Chillo-Jijón and Amaguaña indigenous descent. His long straight hair is tied back in a ponytail and his chin capped with a salt-and-pepper goatee. With his stocky build, he looks like he could be a professional wrestler as well.

El Negro grew up in Chimbacalle, one of the poor neighborhoods on the south side of the capital. He has been an aficionado of professional wrestling since he was a kid. I ask him whether he ever wanted to be a professional wrestler like his friend, El Gladiador.

“When I was a guambra (kid), I loved wrestling. But you know how parents are: How are you going to earn a living? Lucha libre was considered ridiculous. I was a student of sports, and later was a soccer and basketball trainer.” He is now, by trade, a jewelry maker

“Some 35 years ago, the basketball courts at Chimbacalle was where the matches took place. It was open-air, a boxing ring. The big wrestlers at that time were Monje Loco and Fortunato y Hermoso. Tickets were only three sucres. Kids would save their money for school snacks to go. And before, the matches were only during vacations. Now they’re all year round.”

“Before Chimbacalle, according to my father, the fights took place at Plaza Arenas.”

There’s a mercado called Plaza Arenas tucked between La Guaragua (Calle Galápagos) and Calle Venezuela, near the Básilica in Quito’s Centro Histórico. I interject, “In the market there?”

“No. Before it was the market we know today, it was a Plaza de Toros (bullfighting ring). After Chimbacalle, fights took place at the Coliseo Julio César Hidalgo in La Marín.”

The empty ring awaits it fighters. ¡Lucha libre! Photo © Lorraine Caputo

The empty ring awaits it fighters. ¡Lucha libre! Photo © Lorraine Caputo

Ecuador’s Lucha Libre in Film

Just a few weeks ago, a new film featuring El Gladiador and other Ecuadorian wrestlers hit the silver screens in Quito. It’s called La Rompecuellos. But this isn’t the first film about professional wrestling in Ecuador.

Santo y Evaristo contra los Secuestradores (Federico Curiel, 1972) was a Mexican-Ecuadorian production starring Mexican legends El Santo and Ernesto Albán “Evaristo.” In this production, Interpol’s Special Investigations unit sends Santo to Ecuador to investigate a kidnapping and counterfeiters.

Three decades later, Ecuadorian director and writer Vivian Codero presented Un Titán en el Ring (2002). In this story, a new priest arrives to a small village deep in the Andes mountains where wrestling matches are the main entertainment for the children and town folk. When a corrupt promoter comes to town, the villagers rise up.

In the same year, Lucha libre – Historia del luchador la Sombra de Ecuador (2002) was released. This mini-documentary recounts the career of La Sombra, an Ecuadorian wrestler who gained international fame.

Lucha Libre in Latin America

Where else in Latin America can you catch the action of professional wrestling?

The country with the longest history, most influence and strongest contemporary following is Mexico. The heroes are often found in real life outside the ring, fighting the ills of modern Mexican society and corruption. Matches are held in Mexico City, Puebla, Guadalajara and other major cities. Mexico has been the example for lucha libre for much of the rest of Latin America.

Argentina also has had a vibrant lucha libre scene. El Gladiador cites la Momia and the Titanes en el Ring as some of his childhood favorites. He and El Negro reminisced of the classic Titanes fight, of la Momia versus Martín Karadagián.

Bolivia has a strong women’s league of this sport, dominated by the Fighting Cholitas – indigenous women dressed in their traditional garb of multi-layered polleras (skirts) and petticoats. You may catch their matches in El Alto, city perched on the altiplano above La Paz. A 2006 documentary, The Fighting Cholitas, won an honorable mention in the Short Filmmaking category at the Sundance Film Festival.