That cargo train that arrives every other day will be my, and anyone else’s, ticket out of these mountains. There’s no other way to reach this village now.
When that carguero (cargo train) comes into town and stops at the old station, I pop down to talk with the crew. We sit on the platform's wooden benches in the fading colored light of another dying day. Moths flit around the bulbs lit as night arrives. They tell me how, since the railroad was privatized, passenger services have been dropping like proverbial flies. Sometimes a line with be canceled the night before, news arriving to the jefe de patio (station chief) by telegram.
And thus it was with my planned route to the capital. My itinerary has had to be scrapped, as the train no longer arrives at the transfer point. On the concrete platform, the rail workers and I study the maps, looking for an alternative route. The first leg will be hitching a ride with them.
Almost a month ago, I had ridden the last passenger train to this village deep in the sierra and took a room in the village’s only inn, near the depot. I have spent the time talking with locals about their lives and how life will go on (or not) now that there’s no train (officially).
In a small, hole-in-the-wall eatery, I met a woman who was surprised there was no longer a train. She had heard nothing about it – how would she get to her aunt’s birthday party in a few weeks’ time?
The middle-aged daughter of the inn’s owner will be emigrating to the great north in search of work; a young couple will be her centenary mother’s caretakers. I have spent evenings sitting in a kitchen lit only by an oil lamp, eating cookies and milk while listening to that anciana’s memories of the Revolution.
I have spent many hours, too, writing, recording these memories, these stories, and images…
When the day comes for me to move on, I wait until first light and the crow song to leave. As I walk down to the locomotive shed, heavy mists rise from streams and rivers. The sierra is bathed in clouds.
The engineer pushes his cap back and greets me. “Would you like to ride in the second locomotive or the caboose?”
What a choice! For a train aficionada like me, it’s like being a kid in a candy shop. Ay, but riding in the caboose will be riding with the people, conversations, eating, learning. I shift my Rocinante (that is, my faithful travel companion, my knapsack) on my back. “With permission, sir, the caboose,” I respond.
I walk by eight cars loaded with timber. Aside from the ninth and last one, the yellow caboose, five other clandestine passengers await. A mother and a grandmother watch their two young boys kicking rocks that clang against the metal rails. The conductor’s girlfriend clasps her hands in front of herself, an overnight bag at her feet.
I climb the grate-steps into the caboose. I drop Rocinante in a cubbyhole before climbing the narrow steps into the cupola and taking a seat there. My neighbor is the carretero (brakeman). The conductor joins our conversation of the changes the new rail owners have brought (and wrought).
I sink into the beauty of a train ride. It is much different than traveling a country by bus. Because the rails wend into deep countryside and landscapes, and trains pass only once a day or only several times a week, wildlife is more abundant. It is like signing up for a safari! And the local human life one gets to observe, from children playing in front of adobe homes, mothers hanging flapping laundry on a line, farmers in a small plot of land. The small villages of whitewashed houses and a lone parish church – now to be endangered species.
I watch the thick clouds drift around and over the crag-faced mountains. The countryside is greener after last night’s rain. A yellow tree brightens in the early morning sun of this agéd autumn. Other árboles are turning burnt orange. The undergrowth is browned by the cooler weather. In a field of harvest-gold corn, two campesinos tie the stalks into standing bundles.
Our train speeds along, horn-blowing and slowing for villages, not stopping. No longer does this train have an obligation to stop to pick up passengers – officially, there are none. And like the village from where we departed, those people, too, will have no way out. There are many villages like this that are now isolated. We roll on, rattling, clicking, swaying southward – but many of those townsfolk will be heading northward, migrating, in search of work. In the distance rises a blue steeple bell tower.
At the outskirts of a village, more clandestine passengers – two women, four children – slip on. A man at trackside asks the conductor when they will pass again. May he ride then? The conductor gives him a thumbs up before we roll on, ever southward.
The kilometers click by. From out of the small windows of this cupola, I watch the countryside. A blue heron soars upstream just inches above the river’s surface. Far from its pueblo, a cemetery gleams bright white in the sun breaking through yesterday’s nebulous sky. A hawk atop a tree peers across the cold, damp morning.
We stop at the most important town between where we were and where we are going. Those newer stowaways go only as far as here. The train is growing in length. More open freighters, heavy with raw logs, are added. Before we reach our journey's end, we will haul nineteen cars.
A dog and his young boy run down the dirt path along the tracks. The dog races us, falling behind one car after another until this yellow caboose clacks past him. The boy waves and yells adios.
In one corner of this caboose, the workers cook their lunch on the diesel stove. The aroma drifts through this small railcar, wafting into nooks and up to this cramped cupola. The smell touches my stomach. The railroaders invite their passengers to join them in a feast of beans, tortillas, and stewed beef. One carretero pours steaming, syrupy coffee into metal cups. For our dessert, I add a jar of peaches the family at that village’s inn had gifted me.
We climb high and deep into the sierra, winding along rough-rock walls. Thin waterfalls snag on the splintered stone like stray threads. Gullies fall off steeply into unseeable depths. The heavily forested mountains crumble into one another. Clouds drift through their valleys.
We pass by scattered farm fields deadened by the coming winter. Grasses bow under the weight of dew. The sun sears the thick, sullen blanket of clouds. Bright blue sky seeps through.
At a field of shriveled vines in the middle of nowhere, the engineers stop the train—the diesel motors hum like out-of-season cicadas. The maquinistas run out, hauling squash after squash into the locomotive cabs. The clandestine boys aboard this caboose also dash out. They carry one squash after another into this car. When we leave, six large calabazas roll about the floor with the rhythm of our journey.
Later, down the line, we suddenly brake mysteriously. Beneath our wheels lie two cows. The zopilote buzzards begin circling near us. As the caboose rides over the beasts, the sour smell of their flesh fills the swelling heat of the afternoon. A rabbit hops down into an arroyo seco, fleeing our rumbling train.
Up in this cupola, I fall asleep. The warmth of that star soothes my face, my tired body. In the hazes of my dreams, I hear the girlfriend reading off numbers to the conductor as he fills out his paperwork. Their knees touch and depart, like dancers moving in time with this train’s syncopated melody.
In my dreams, dense smoke suffocates me, burning my closed eyes. I claw the darkness to escape this nightmare. I awaken.
The inside of this caboose blackens with the stove belching fumes, licking up flames. I stumble, half-falling out of my seat in the cupola. We all – railroad workers and clandestine passengers – move away to the far end, coughing, rubbing eyes. One of the carretero's dampens the fire. It recedes into the belly of the stove.
(Uff! If this car had gone up in flames and exploded, how would all the extra bodies within the burnt, splintered remains be explained? How much more illegal can this ride get – clandestine passengers, stealing from farm fields, killing some campesino’s cattle. Next …?)
A roadrunner (a trickster, old-timers say they are) crosses the desert. A golden horse runs wild, its black mane streaming in the sun. And we run wild, clacking, swaying southward, ever southward.
At dusk, we roll steadily through the railyards of our destination. But we clandestine passengers cannot be seen by the jefe de patio or any railroad exec that might be around.
To hide our reality, our presence (and this train’s crew’s blatant disregard for the dictates of the new owners), the caboose stops at the far end of the platform. We clandestine passengers slip along the tracks to a distant gate, blending into the growing shadows of coming night. The conductor waves a quick, silent good-bye to us and walks off to the station, embracing his girlfriend.
About the Author
Lorraine Caputo is a documentary poet, translator, and travel writer. Her works appear in over 180 journals on six continents, as well as in 12 chapbooks of poetry – including Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014), Notes from the Patagonia (dancing girl press, 2017), and On Galápagos Shores (dancing girl press, 2019). She also authors travel narratives, articles, and guidebooks. In March 2011, the Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada honored her verse. Caputo has done over 200 literary readings, from Alaska to the Patagonia. She travels through Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth.