The summer of 1990 I lived and worked in the Andes Mountains near Cuenca, Ecuador. The main focus was building latrines and planting trees, but we also taught baseball to the local kids. The bat was made of bamboo, and the ball was a rock, both wrapped in duct tape.
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 Jake 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 earlier in the 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 imagined Bangladesh or India, they were on board before Jake and I had time to react and join the throng. No space inside, we jumped up, Jake to the platform and me to ladder, then the rectangular wheeled hunk of iron 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. Jake, I’m jumping off this frickin’ 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 leap out to clear the gravel, it 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 Jake.
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 toward the women, toward 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 ocean of the unknown.
Behind me the train starts up again, and I hear Matt 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 Matt is holding out his hands telling me to jump for. It is my Indiana Jones moment and I make it count. They hold my arms, strip off my backpack, my butt 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 Quechan faces, the people who were going to take care of me and help me get back to civilization.
polka-dotted white shirt collar
in the rain, little black bits of
sulphur dioxide and nitrogen
oxide, liquid smog clears the
Andean air, never knew the
mountains were there before
storms of winter, when all
is pure again, I wait for the
micro (bus), slicked hair under
umbrella, leather jacket like
a Russian made man to hustle
on these Spanish speaking streets
in transit to work for finance
power company, electricity and me
daydreaming of Neruda in dirty drips
of sky just asking, why? why?