What’s That Again?

Did Anyone Hear That Announcement?

Did Anyone Hear That Announcement?

Like all inventions, it was well intentioned—originally. Then, like most inventions, things got out of hand. I am referring to public address systems, which work well enough in certain controlled environments, such as schools, but are all but useless in crowded situations such as airports and railway stations.

Yesterday, for example, I took the new Expo light rail from Santa Monica to Downtown L.A. and back again. Admittedly, it was only the fourth day of operation of the extended Expo line, but all was confusion at the 7th Street Metro Station. A train had pulled in whose destination was Willowbrook on the Blue Line. There was a scratchy P.A. announcement saying something or other in which the words “Santa Monica” were mentioned, after which half the people in the train got off. Thereupon, the train was marked “Not in Service” and left the station with several hundred people bound for either Willowbrook or Santa Monica or the rail maintenance yard.

This is a typical occurrence. Most public address announcements are innately confusing. There could be technical reasons for this, or the announcer could have a voice that is not appropriate for the medium.

At airports, I have gotten used to ignoring all announcements and looking carefully at the status board. That’s what I wound up doing at the 7th Street Metro Station yesterday: I just waited for a train whose destination was clearly marked as Santa Monica.

In 1979, my brother and I were flying to Villahermosa by way of Mexico City. We were told by announcement that our flight was canceled. That’s when my term “flying by Mexican rules” was born. Dan and I hunkered down and kept our eyes and ears open. Sure enough, there was a scratchy announcement that mentioned Villahermosa, and we found that the plane was in fact being boarded. Only at the last minute did that status appear on the electronic signage.

Through the Devil’s Nose

The Nariz del Diablo Train Route

The Nariz del Diablo Train Route

When I go to Ecuador later this year, I hope to take one of the trains that go through parts of the Andes. The only problem is that they are all tourist trains, that is to say, the locals do all their traveling by bus. Most of the routes are scenic fragments of what once were longer routes, back when one could ride the trains with Andean natives carrying their goods to and from market.

The problem is that I tend to dislike traveling with large groups of Americans. That’s when I dummy up and answer all questions in Hungarian. I don’t want to talk about how things are in East Jesus, Arkansas.

At present, the most spectacular route is through the Nariz del Diablo, or Devil’s Nose. It used to be part of the route between Quito and Guayaquil. Now it only goes between Alausi and Sibambe, where there’s a show for the tourists, a small hotel, souvenirs, and a small museum. According to Lonely Planet Ecuador:

Somewhere along the nariz, the old choo-choo (it’s actually more like a retrofitted bus) inevitably derails. Not to worry, though! The conductors ask everyone to get off and by using advanced technology—big rocks and sticks—they steer the iron horse back on track.

I remember taking the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad in Mexico between Las Mochis and Divisadero Barrancas some three decades ago, but that was a real train where there were no roads. Half the passengers were train aficionados like me, but there were many campesinos; and Tarahumara women sold tasty snacks at most of the train stops.

In Peru, I took the tourist train between Puno and Cusco, which was an all-day trip that I enjoyed immensely. Also, the only way to get to the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu is to take the train from Poroy or Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu town. That  wasn’t bad either.

The Blue House on Galos

I’m Starting to Book My Vacation...

I’m Starting to Book My Vacation…

I’ve already begun booking my vacation, even though it is still months in the future. There are still a few question marks. Now that Calbuco has gone to orange alert, I suspect I won’t have any major volcano troubles.The biggest question right now is how I will get a reservation on the November 13 Tren Patagonico between Viedma and San Carlos Bariloche. I suspect what I’ll do is contact an English-speaking tour agency in Buenos Aires, one like Say Hueque, which is geared to more independent travelers like me.

According to the international rail travel website The Man in Seat 61:

Viedma is across the river by small ferry from Carmen de Patagones, but no same day connection is possible so you need a night in a hotel. The Trén Patagonico from Viedma to C. de Bariloche is tremendous fun and thoroughly recommended!  Comfy secure sleeping cars (solo travellers are given a compartment to themselves and a key to lock it), excellent dining car serves steaks and wine, good company and wonderful Patagonian scenery in the morning. Excellent value, and you can buy the tickets in advance in Buenos Aires at Gallerias Rio Negro on Reconquista.

I’m afraid that by the time I get to Gallerias Rio Negro on November 4, the train will be all sold out.

In the meantime, I booked a ideally situated hotel overlooking the Recoleta Cemetery on Azcuénaga in Buenos Aires, and a nice boutique hotel near the river in Puerto Iguazu. For Valparaíso, I’ll be at the La Nona B&B on Galos (Wales) Street atop Cerro Alegre. It’s in the blue building on the left in the above photo.

Yes, it’s beginning to take shape!

El Tren de la Sierra

It All Began in 1980...

It All Began in 1980…

My interest in visiting South America first began when I read Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas back around 1980. Even earlier, my interest had been whetted by reading the stories, essays, and poems of Jorge Luis Borges—though the South America of Borges was more nonspecific, almost mythical.

Theroux, on the other hand, was an intelligent and highly snarky American who decided in the 1970s to travel by train—insofar as it was possible—from Boston to Patagonia in Argentina. One of the routes he took, El Tren de la Sierra ran from Lima’s Desamparados (“forsaken”) station to Huancayo high in the Andes. It is one of two Peruvian rail routes that claims to be the second highest in the world; the highest is the recently opened rail route connecting Xining, Golmud, and Lhasa in Tibet. According to Wikipedia’s list of the Highest Railways in the World, the high point of the route is at Ticlio, altitude 4,829 meters (15,843 feet). The Tibet run is a scant 800 feet higher at Tangguia.

I am thinking of taking the same route as Theroux if and when I go to Peru. His goal was to go by train to Huancayo and take land transportation to Cuzco, from whence he would visit Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. The problem is, it is faster and far more convenient to go back to Lima and take the bus to Cuzco: Travel along the ridge line of the Andes is sometimes possible, but mostly not. Rains, snows, mud, and avalanches take their toll, especially between Ayacucho and Cuzco. Based on the map on the endpapers of my copy of The Old Patagonian Express, it looks as if Theroux flew from Huancayo to Cuzco, though I am not sure that is possible.

On his trip, Theroux ran into problems with altitude sickness, the dread soroche. To help combat the headaches and nausea, railroad employees handed out plastic balloons filled with oxygen, which afforded him some relief. There are some medications that are said to help, including Diamox, which has some gnarly after-effects, and a local preparation called Sorojchi. The locals also chew coca leaves with lime or drink a tea made with coca leaves called mate de coca. If I go, I’ll have to be prepared.  Here is Theroux’s description of his symptoms:

It begins as dizziness and a slight headache. I had been standing by the door inhaling the cool air of these shady ledges. Feeling wobbly, I sat down  and if the train had not been full I would have lain across the seat. After an hour I was perspiring and, although I had not stirred from my seat, I was short of breath. The evaporation of this sweat in the dry air gave me a sickening chill. The other passengers were limp, their heads bobbed, no one spoke, no one ate. I dug some aspirin out of my suitcase and chewed them, but only felt queasier; and my headache did not abate. The worst thing about feeling so ill in transit is that you know if something goes wrong with the train—a derailment or a crash—you will be too weak to save yourself. I had a more horrible thought: we were perhaps a third of the way to Huancayo, but Huancayo was higher than this. I dreaded to think what I would feel like at that altitude.

Theroux didn’t think much of Peru: He thought the whole place rather ramshackle. But then, that’s what Martine thought of Buenos Aires, which I love.

The Bus and Train Freak

At the Bus Station in Trelew, Argentina

At the Bus Station in Trelew, Argentina

Here in the United States, our intercity ground transportation is the pits. Even Mexico has us beat, with buses they manufacture themselves. Of course, neither the U.S. nor Mexico are any good at railroads, with a few minor exceptions.

One thing about me that you may not know is that I am a transportation freak. I think about public transportation a lot. Two weeks ago, I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night remembering the bus company that took me in 2001 from Reykjavík to Akureyri via the Kjölur route across the desolate plateau that forms the center of the island. The bus I took was labelled Seydisfisbilar Akureyrar. (There may be a few diacritical marks missing: The line doesn’t show up on a present day Google search.).

The funny thing is that I could figure out bus and train schedules almost irrespective of what European language they’re written in. Asking questions and understanding the answers is an entirely different issue.

In Argentina, Martine and I rode long-distance buses between Puerto Madryn, Trelew, and Gaiman—mostly on the 28 de Julio line. They were so far and away better than anything Greyhound has in the field that I blush with shame. Even the verbal interface with the ticket agents in the above cities was relatively easy, until I found out that, on some routes, seating is assigned rather than being asiento libre (“sit where you please”).

When I am in Iceland, if I run into Straeto employees that either do not or will not speak English, I may run into a spot of trouble. But since 95% of Icelanders under the age of 70 speak English, that is pretty much a baroque fear.

As for Icelandic train schedules, there are none, primarily because no one ever built a passenger railroad to serve a sparsely populated island in the Arctic.