I love travelling by train. I think it is (normally) the most relaxed way to travel, and you can still meet and talk to people as you “drive”. Far more interesting and you can see so much more than you can from a car.
My wife and I once made (oh dear! I’ve just realised how long ago it was!) a journey from Mexico City to Mexicali and it was an education. (I learned new breakfast habits.)
We had (you see, I’m not a true planner) flown from England to Mexico in 1978, 18 January. It started out, the plane that is, on the 15th, but extremely low temperatures and freezing fog brought us back from the runway and into the airport for the longest wait I’ve ever had for a take-off. (We did get two free nights in the Tower Hotel in London as consolation.)
I had been trying to fly to Bolivia, but there was no available plane on the 15th, so we decided to fly to Mexico and walk to Bolivia. (It was only a few inches on the map!) Long story short(er) we landed, after several days of sub-zero weather, in Mexico City. Stepping from the plane we noticed it was a little warmer than England – 80+ degrees (we didn’t use these Celsius/Centigrade thingies back then). As we were wearing every bit of warm clothing we owned and carrying two rucksacks packed with essentials (more about these later), we were soon uncomfortable.
Mexico City was then (and I think still is, if you don’t link cities to boost their size) the largest city in the world. Outside the airport was a street plan of the city. It was huge, and spread about six feet along the wall. The airport was clearly marked, as was the boundary of the city. It was a looooooong way. We had very little money (£480 to last the rest of our lives), but decided we would take a taxi to the edge of the city and then thumb the rest of the way to Bolivia.
Problem 1: I didn’t speak Spanish then. (Told you I wasn’t a planner, didn’t I?)
Problem 2: The taxi office said I had to pay before I set out, so I had to name my destination…
The taximan was good with sign language, semaphore and whatever other means I could employ, but could not understand where I wanted to be (nor could I). Eventually for a few pesos he agreed to take us. I had pointed down the road we needed to take and off we went, heavy rucksacks nestling round our feet, a Persian cat on top of mine. (It belonged to the taxi driver and its name was “Paca”.) After a couple of miles the taxi driver stopped and said (I think);
“That’s it, as far as I go.”
“No, no, we need to go MUCH further.”
“Nope! Get out!”
(You get the picture?)
A couple of high value peso notes thrust under his nose eventually persuaded him to take us another couple of miles, but after the next stop he absolutely refused to take us another inch. Out we climbed, very hot, very annoyed that my plans(?) were thwarted and with a rucksack that had so many cat hairs on it Huggy Bear was getting envious.
That road was 17 miles long, from the airport to the final boundary of the city. The rucksacks weighed a ton. We decided to throw away anything we didn’t really need. Like my wife’s seven pairs of fashion boots, a hair dryer, an electric torture device of rollers that was for ripping out hairs from ladies’ legs without pain (ouch!). In fact, six or seven electrical devices that were all the wrong voltage for the country and, of course, the wrong plug anyway.
I wasn’t innocent… I had two chess sets, one with a large and heavy leather covered board with pieces around 6″ high and another, made from jade, which my mother had given me. The large one went. Several warm coats including a leather flying jacket also went, as did much of our outer clothing that had protected us in London, but had been another burden laid across the top of our rucksacks. Ten yards from the building site where we dumped them we saw a huge gaggle of children and adults claiming any of the items not already fought over and won. What on earth they ever made of the hair thingy, I’ll never know.
That night we slept, without preamble, under an advertising hoarding on waste ground. No blankets were needed – we were asleep.
Next morning we woke and saw a small lady cycling (well, pushing, as there was no chain) an old-fashioned Walls ice cream-type tricycle. It was loaded with oranges and advertising fresh juice. I scrambled over the rubble, almost frightening her to death, and indicated we’d like two drinks.
Her look of fear was relaced by an almost toothless smile and (as we were obviously important foreigners) she fished in a small cupboard for “glasses”. These were paper cups, already drunk from many times and covered in the remains of previous drinkers’ leftovers, but (we were VIPs, you know) she proceeded to clean them out with the hem of her long skirt. That the skirt was probably dirtier than the cups didn’t seem to matter and after she had squeezed about two dozen oranges and filled the cups we both had the best tasting and most refreshing drink I’ve ever had.
She waited while we drank and then took the cups from us to save for the next VIPs she met. The drink cost us (though I can’t remember the value of the peso after all these years) about 2p in British money.
The journey went on for a long time, so I’ll curtail our adventures to get to the railway journey bit. After getting as far as Oaxaja my wife had had enough! We got more lifts back to Mexico City and found the railway station. Here we paid for tickets to Mexicali on the border with the USA, and as far as the train would go. (We were heading, I hoped, for my sister’s home in San Diego.)
Our train was due to depart at 0715. At seven-fifteen in the morning we were still waiting for it to arrive (it should have arrived at four). We were still waiting at three in the afternoon, when we (several hundred people) were told that it wouldn’t now leave (?) until tomorrow. Our first indication of the reliability of Mexican trains.
Sure enough, next morning the seven-fifteen left promptly (at eleven) with us ensconced in our “de-luxe” cabin. This had two drop-down beds, a fan, a table and, most importantly, a private toilet! Plus a buzzer to call for room service.
Switching the fan on immediately we entered, while the attendant was still attending, brought an instant rush of, well, nothing – it didn’t work! “When the train is going” was the mimed and highly amusing signal from the cheerful attendant. When the train was going, the fan stayed exactly as it was. By opening the windows, we did get the fan to turn (by the wind idly stirring the blades) – a great achievement. A job for me in fan maintenance.
I mentioned the drop-down beds. Unfortunately the table was also drop-down, so my rucksack (only slightly less hairy by now) was used to prop it up. The private toilet had already been used (for about six months) and there was no water to flush…
But we were going, so what did that matter?
The word “going” is relative, as we were travelling at about ten miles an hour. Several times we saw young men jump off, buy something from a lonely vendor and run back to recatch the train. Heady stuff.
We were enjoying the leisurely journey until just before darkness, when the speedy rate of travel was replaced by an even speedier stop. Our carriage had lurched violently to the left and I was now looking at the ground, without the need to put my head out of the window. The suspension had gone! We were ordered off the train while a gang of men sought to repair the break. With huge hydraulic (and older screw-type) jacks the carriage was lifted to almost upright again and pieces of railway sleeper were inserted between the carriage and the wheel beds. The jacks were lowered and that was the repair! Speeding through the night we found it difficult to sleep, as the “suspension” was not suspending, we bounced and thudded for hour after hour, until, eventually, and one by one, the “shock absorbers” were splintered or ejected. Around three in the morning with a sickening lurch the carriage was back to its tilted position. It was during this first night that the drop-down beds (at least the one my wife was on) lived up to the name. (But then, who minds a close cuddle?)
Next morning we said goodbye to “Pakistan” (the boldly-painted name on the side of our carriage) as it was replaced, with much ingenuity, by means of horses and a turntable. Settling into our new home we found, to our delight, that the beds stayed up, the fan worked and, wonder of wonders, the toilet worked! This was more like it!
They also replaced the tired old diesel that had been pulling us by a much larger diesel painted an incongruous bright yellow colour and, even better, by putting another engine behind us, this one a more usual red and gold colour. We could really rattle along now. Our seventeen carriages were now travelling at around 45 mph, it was exhilarating!
Next morning we could put off eating no longer! When breakfast was announced we made our way to the dining car and met for the first time our fellow passengers from the other cars.
“Hey! You guys…come over here, you’re English, ain’t you?”
“Yes, we are.”
“Let me buy you breakfast,” bawled an enthusisastic and very loud American voice.
Of course, given our state of funds, we allowed him to do the honours – or should I say “honors”? After ordering we chatted to Chuck (who just loved our accent) and waited for the food to arrive. We weren’t disappointed, breakfast was wonderful. Afterwards Chuck ordered pancakes (American style) and honey. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but when they arrived, along with the coffee, Chuck proceed to pour the “honey” from the stainless steel pot all over his stack of pancakes. Nothing wrong with that either, except that he’d poured the coffee, not the honey!
“What the hell,” he grinned, “all goes down the same hole”.
He then finished the stack, every bit, with soggy crumbs scooped up with a spoon. “Best I’ve ever tasted!”
The train pulled into Mexicali another day later, having given us a lifetime’s memory – the vendors who, every time the train pulled into a station would have trays of food held high above their heads loaded with tortillas, rice, beans, chicken and more, all for a few pesos and no hygiene intended! Fingers rule, and serve yourself! Wonderful people, great food (Mexican food is still my favourite) and three days of superlative comfort (?).