Train Jump: (Machu Picchu, 1994)

I’m staring down at the rails, air whipping as we pick up speed. Holding onto the steel ladder, the blur of tracks look like melting kit kats one after the other. Arms exhausted, my two hiking boots are balancing precariously on a single round bulb of protruding metal, as I contemplate velocity and how hard my body will hit when I jump off the train. I envision a quick touching down of feet, then a shoulder roll, maybe a sprained ankle at worst. But at 35mph, realistically I’d be broken. I see Jack standing on the small platform between the trains, he’s only a few feet away, but there is no room on it for me, he has his elbows out protecting himself from being shoved off by six Peruvian guys, their shorter bodies jostling him while the locomotive thumps along. We are fatigued after four days of hiking the Inca Trail. We arrived at Machu Picchu this morning before the tourists, out of food, too tired to do much except sit and take it all in, the ancient rocks, the steps, the now open air rooms where god only knows what happened hundreds of years ago. Our group had hiked with the Brazilians, their drums and guitar echoing into the Andean nights as we sucked on coca leaves. We left the ruins and dutifully purchased our tickets for the afternoon train to Cuzco, stomachs rumbling, longing for a big order of pollo and papas. The train pulled in, masses of non-paying indigenous humanity swarmed past our dusty backpacks launching their squat brown bodies onto the train. The scene was how I imagine Bangladesh or India, they were on board before Jack and I had time to react and join the throng. No space inside, we jumped up, Jack to the platform and me to ladder, then the rectangular wheeled hunk erupted with that distinct chug of childhood stories. The Inca Trail gone, I readjust my grip on the ladder wondering how much longer I can hold on. Jack, I’m jumping off this fucking thing if doesn’t stop soon, I yell. He shakes his head at me. No way dude, he yells back. I’ve got maybe six minutes left in my arms, max. While I’m pondering how far to jump out to clear the gravel, the thing starts to slow down, then stop. I hop off, thankful to have my kneecaps and face abrasion-free. I’ll meet you guys in Cuzco, I shout up to Jack. I look around; the multitudes are gone, only mountain cloud forest, a few Quechan women in their bowler hats. They are selling cuy, I can smell the grilled guinea pig, a rustic delicacy I ate a few years back when I lived in Ecuador building latrines. I should be scared, but I have my sleeping bag and a little money, and I know the Quechua, know that they treat people like people. As I take steps towards the women, towards the communal life, I’m almost giddy. Will I follow the tracks back to Cuzco? Will I hitchhike? Will I live with the Quechua for days waiting for a random truck to pass by some isolated road? I feel free, knowing I’m about to drift into the beautiful ocean of the unknown. Behind me the train starts up again, and I hear Mark and two other guys from our group yelling, Dan, we have room. My fantasy bubble pops as I muster my legs and backpack for a sprint to the open door where Mark is holding out his hands telling me to jump for. It is my Indiana Jones moment and I make it count. They catch my arms, strip off my backpack, my ass hanging out the door, catching wind. I ride like that for many minutes until eventually more people get off and I finally sit inside the compartment. We make several more stops before finally getting to Cuzco, at each one, I stare at the Quechan faces, the people who were going to take care of me and help me get back to civilization.

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