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The Expresso Sur to Villazon

The Expresso Sur to Villazon

How I longed to be able to board the train in La Paz and three days later arrive in Buenos Aires. Despite the delays Paul Theroux arrived in Argentina’s capital unscathed. I felt rather like I had undergone some sort of emotional and physical challenge and to add insult to injury I was robbed a second time on my first day in the city.

After a bumpy seven hour bus ride on my way out of Bolivia, on unsealed roads through some of the most desolate landscapes I had seen in my life, I thankfully boarded the Expresso Sur bound for the Argentinean border. Sadly the train was not a sleeper but it boasted reclining seats and blankets. I tucked myself in and fell fast asleep, the clickity clack of the train on the rails rocking me into a deep slumber. I awoke feeling refreshed and headed straight to the dinning car where I was served a good breakfast of coffee and eggs. The landscape had changed, it was greener yet still mountainous. It filled me with hope, the dry riverbeds and barren vistas of south Bolivia had started to depress me, I longed for a paved road, a clean bathroom and a tasty snack. The pretty cacti that speckled the ground had started to look more hydrated and it felt as though this lusher landscape was leading me to better things. This was sadly something of a delusion.

The border was the usual melee of queues and chaos. The gringos were being stamped out of Bolivia ahead of the natives and their wads of paper. The Argentinean side was not as speedy, I spent some while trying to work out why a gringo tourist was wearing rubber gloves and searching luggage, until I realised he was Argentinean, I was filled with a sense of relief… I was no longer going to stand out, I would blend in with the locals for the first time in months. This excitement was sadly somewhat premature, at the bus station in La Quiaca I stood out enough to have my bag swiped from the office of a bus operator. I had placed it on a table for no more than two minutes before it disappeared. The only people in the office had been myself and the bus company employees. Trying to contain my anger I attempted to bribe, beg and cry for the return of my bag but all to no avail: “It must have been the Peruvians, they are thief’s.” was the only answer I could wrestle out of the employees. This was one of several frustrations I was to suffer in Argentina, I think the look of the country had lulled me into a false sense of security, the city streets reminded me of an older Spain or Portugal and the chino wearing men and glossy women looked like they had stepped out of an eighties European fashion magazine. But despite a shiny exterior the inner workings of Argentina seemed to have a lot of catching up to do and according to the papers things were moving back not forwards.

From the border, minus my bag, luckily my passport had been in my pocket, I wearily took an eight-hour bus ride to the pretty town of Salta. Arriving late and with only a morning to spare I strolled around the main plaza, marvelling at its impressive pink cathedral and ate breakfast in a café, all the while feeling like I had been transported magically back to Europe.

I was soon reminded I was in South America when I tried to organise taking the train from Tucuman to Buenos Aries.
“The train is booked until March.”
“March…?” I spluttered back incredulously. “But I’ve only just arrived in Argentina and could not find a way to book the train online.”
“We are sorry the train is very popular in Argentina, but it only runs twice a week.”
Frustrated with both myself and the rail company I tried every trick in the book to get onto the train, I flashed my press pass, talked about The Times, my blog and all to no avail.
I left, resigned to yet another long bus ride. A mere 22 hours to Buenos Aires.
With a heavy heart I boarded the 12.30 Andesmar bus. We stopped to change buses half an hour our of the city and I marvelled at a man in the petrol station, he was eating a huge steak, it must have been the size of a chess board. No salad, no chips, no drink even. Just a huge steak. Well this was Argentina after all.

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I waited a long time to cross the road in La Paz, then all the people I thought were waiting with me got into a collectivo minibus. Ah ha.. I thought and tried to style out my long wait with a jaunty stroll across the road, which nearly ended my life as a taxi screeched to a halt millimetres from my toes.

La Paz was somewhat a confusing city and certainly a busy one, but I felt a change in atmosphere from Peru almost immediately. The people were a lot more smiley and there was a certain openness about them which made me feel relaxed. A simple transaction of buying a cup of coffee could last for hours as pleasantries were exchanged and general chat occurred.
I had met many Peruvians who harboured resentment about the state of their lives and economy and were happy to voice their grievances, but the Bolivians I encountered so far seemed content with their lot and proud of their country, in fact I felt compelled to tell every Bolivian I spoke to that theirs was by far the best country in Latin America. As Paul Theroux remembered on several occasions: They hate criticism.

“Bolivia is my country, I love Bolivia I will never leave here, but I HATE Evo Morales, he is stupid.” Not a common criticism of a president, but this was in fact the second person who had said this to me. I was enjoying a beer in The Blue Note, a cosy bar in La Paz, with a musician whose name I could not pronounce, when I asked about his thoughts on the president: “You want to talk about politicsssssss?” he hissed at me menacingly. “I don’t, it makes me angry for my country.” He shouted beating his chest. I decided to change the subject. The pony-tailed flute player calmed as he spoke to me of the beautiful jungle, mountains and cities in Bolivia.

La Paz left me breathless and confused, just when I thought I knew the way back to my hotel I was faced with another unfamiliar hill littered with small Indian women begging or selling their wares. Looking up to avert my gaze from the beggars I noticed the terrifying wiring, thousands of lines crisscrossing the streets and connecting the jumbled buildings in a decidedly unsafe fashion.
The central square, as with all squares in South America, was filled with life. Women selling drinks and snacks, children playing with the pigeons and men sat on benches chatting. Cheerful armed police posed with tourists as did the guards on the government houses. The buildings were beautiful, especially the Palacio Presidential, designed in an Italian renaissance style and known as the burnt palace as it has twice been gutted by fire.

Each corner in the city brought a new surprise, one day I stumbled across the most impressive parade I have seen for years, rows of women dancing happily in matching outfits, their bright shawls swished as they turned, a brass band ompahhed along behind them all coordinated by a very cool chap who looked a little like a pimp, a real party atmosphere. A saint’s day celebration and a wedding combined I was told.

But I was a bad tourist in La Paz, I didn’t want to see the inmates in San Pedro prison or cycle down the aptly named death road, so instead I wandered around the city watching its inhabitants and eating the most delicious cakes I had consumed in a long time. Perhaps this had something to do with why the Bolivians were so happy, their cake. It oozed out of the shop windows, huge chocolate sculptures that I thought only existed in cartoons. I must have been in a post cake haze one day when I left my bank card in the machine. Cursing my stupidity I returned to the bank the next day with low hopes of retrieving the card. I explained to the pretty lady in traditional dress of blue sparkly fringed shawl and bowler hat (I was having problems thinking of her as a bank employee) when she told me to look for Horacio. After a few ‘Donde esta Horacios’ I found him and lo and behold he had my bank card in his hand. He smiled and handed it back to me with a jaunty nod. I was astonished.

I did attend one kind-of tourist activity in La Paz, one which I decided could not be missed named Cholitas Wrestling.
This was a fun Sunday activity which involved local families and a few tourists turning up to a sports centre and watching women in traditional dress um…wrestle, and not just wrestle each other but wrestle men also. It was the most obscure afternoon I had enjoyed in a long time. The wrestlers were introduced, as in all wrestling matches, with a lot of pomp and ceremony. First up was a man dressed in camouflaged army gear and sunglasses, he marched around the ring as the locals booed and I caught sight of a little old Indian lady with a very wrinkled face flicking him the bird.

Next in was a pretty Indian lady who danced around the ring before removing her earrings and bowler hat for the fight The bell rang and she approached her opponent with a rake, which he swiftly grabbed from her and began to press into her forehead, blood spurted all over the Cholita and the ring. What good clean family fun I pondered to myself, although the blood was fake the effect was fairly horrific. It seemed the lady had not a chance against the tough ‘army’ man and she was ’punched’ and ’kicked’ in true fake wrestling style until left ’bleeding’ having lost the fight in the centre of the ring. Her daughter came to drag her away though, which was a nice touch.

At this point an American lady sat next to me, who had been brought to this traditional event by her Bolivian family, got up and walked out shouting about sadism. Her husband, who had been enjoying himself and yelling at the wrestlers, slunk out after her, tail between his legs.
The rest of the audience was enjoying the show and participated with yells and boos as the fights continued, local favourites came and went, popcorn and candyfloss was consumed and at one point the fighters spilled out of the ring and onto my lap. After a few fights I escaped into the thin altiplano air and back to my hotel feeling somewhat confused and wondering if every Indian women I saw was really a secret Cholita wrestler about to attack.

You once wrote:

The llama was a special reproach to me.

‘The llama is a woolly sort of fleecy hairy goat,
With an indolent expression and an undulating throat,
like an unsuccessful literary man.’

I’m currently in Bolivia swigging, instead of your morphine spiked cement, nasty, pink, Pepto Bismol, and feeling a little sorry for myself, wondering what it is I’m doing here. I feel a little like the llama in your above prose. Nevertheless I have made it this far and will soldier on to my goal, The Old Patagonian Express.
I have discovered the only part of the line left running from La Paz to Buenos Aires is from Oruro to the Argentinean border at Villazon. So this will be my next and I believe, sadly my penultimate train ride, as the Lagos Del Sur Express is also out of action.
I hope you have been enjoying reading my blog and if you have any tips for the last few weeks of my journey then I’ll be pleased to hear them.

Best Wishes
Rachel Pook

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I ran huffing and puffing towards the train station, leaving my taxi abandoned in the traffic of Cuzco. It would be typical, I thought as I dodged the tourists and Indians, if I missed this, the most expensive train of my trip. Arriving at the station while cursing my heavy backpack, a smart guide ushered me through a room of welcome panpipe players and onto the train.
I was a mess: red, sweaty with a dirty backpack and a broken plastic bag containing my snacks.

The train on the other hand looked like the reception of a five-star hotel. The chairs were actually armchairs, the tables were adorned with tablecloths and gold-plated lamps and the other passengers looked haughtily up at me over their reading glasses.
I settled myself in trying to ignore their prying eyes and took in my luxurious surrounds. Wood panelled walls with gold trims and photos of the train from yonder year when the locals could actually afford the trip. At $220 for a one way ticket, there was sadly not a local in sight and despite enjoying the comfort as I sipped my ’welcome’ drink I felt frustrated that this rail journey had now been reserved solely for the moneyed holidaymaker.

Paul Theroux had not managed to take what is now called The Andean Explorer, strikes had meant he was forced to take a bus to Puno, like the locals now. I settled into the undulating Andean scenery, local farms and villages whizzed by as the occupants of the train, spurred on by their welcome drink, retired to the bar carriage to enjoy their expensive cocktails.
The train slowed at one of the villages and dirty children tried to sell us Llama dolls through the windows, I remembered a bag of lollies I had and decided to share them with the kids, they smiled and laughed as I passed them out of the train. One of the haughty women suddenly shouted across the carriage to me:
“Are you giving them lollies?”
“Yes” I replied
“Well tell them to clean their teeth then, all of these children have terrible teeth.”
I doubted that any of these children had ever seen a toothbrush, their parents picked at the teeth they had left with sticks and the kids probably did the same. I desperately wanted to respond to this idiotic woman but I knew that whatever I said would come out rudely so I did the mature thing and ignored her, fuming silently inside.
The train chugged through the centre of the town Juliaca, the market was either side of us selling everything imaginable including car parts and plumbing, haughty lady remarked to no one in particular: “This is the real Peru…I’ve been living in the real Peru for three weeks. It was hard but very rewarding.”
Suddenly a small group formed around her as she told of staying in a village, ‘without a hotel?’ someone gasped. I walked away unsure I would be able to hold my tongue when faced with more of her right-on preening.
The tourists got drunker and started dancing in the bar with the local band, in a very English manner I felt embarrassed for them and stayed in my seat reading Death in the Andes, a dark tale that had me gripped as Mario Vargas Llosa’s fantastic prose gave me an insight into some of the Andean towns I had recently travelled through.

Puno itself is a small bustling town with more tourists than I had imagined, scurrying to and from the floating islands on Lake Titicaca and the Bolivian border. I enjoyed a beer in a rock bar with graffiti all over its walls and spent some time reading the daubings, my favourite being: ‘We got them out on Lake Titi.’ Lovely.
The bus to the border and La Paz awaited. It’s torn seats and smelly interior filled me with a new dread, I had heard many a horror story about Bolivian roads and buses and this particular one seemed to be living up to its reputation. Paul Theroux had enjoyed the luxury of taking the train from La Paz all the way to Buenos Aires but the details of this part of my trip were hazy as that train no longer runs. The thought of spending substantial amounts of time on Bolivian buses worried me somewhat, but the stunning sunset over Lake Titicaca and the mountains stopped my concerns until I was shaken awake by a Bolivian army guy and asked to get off the bus.

I was confused, he was pointing me towards a little boat where the rest of the passengers were waiting, it appeared we had to cross a small stretch of water, us in a little boat and the bus on what looked like several planks of wood that would then be punted to the other side. I looked around hoping to see a bridge, but there was none. The situation was so bizarre and I was so sleepy I wasn’t sure if I was in a dream, but sure enough after waiting a few minutes on the other side of the water our bus came bobbing towards the shore and we were back on the road. Marvelling at the strangeness of the situation I had no time to be complacent as not much further along the road we came to a sudden halt. I peered out of the back window into the dark to see an overturned bus on the road and a backpacker limping towards us. The driver had been going too fast around the corner and the bus had toppled. I checked that the backpacker was okay. He was very casual about the situation, I think he must have still been in shock:
“I’m fine, I just clung onto the luggage shelf while the whole thing seemed to go in slow motion, but it was really nothing. Where are you planning to stay in La Paz anyway?”
I couldn’t get over how calm he was being as the twinkling lights of La Paz appeared before us. I was excited about seeing this city, one of the few that Paul Theroux had actually praised.

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