Three Miles High
‘To the station,’ I said.
There was no need to tell the taxi driver which station. There is only one railway station in Lima, the so-called Los Desemparados station which is sited magnificently by the back garden of the Presidential Palace, bang in the centre of Lima. It is as if Euston were at 11 Downing Street.
‘Ah, so you are taking the train,’ he concluded. It was a fair conclusion; at 7.20a.m, when nobody much else is stirring in Lima, it seems a fair bet that anyone hurrying in the direction of the President’s Palace is either bent on a coup d’etat or due to catch the 7.40 train. It was however a wrong conclusion.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I just want to see the train leave, and have a look at the station.’
He turned round in his seat and looked at me.
‘You want to look at the station?’
‘Seňor, there are many more interesting things in Lima. I will take you on a tour.’
‘No, thank you.’
‘There are good museums here. There are old houses. We have many ruins. I do not think it is worth going to the station.’
Ah, but it is always worth going to the station. When I am landed in a foreign city I tend to make for the station just as other people feel impelled to do the cathedral or the big shops. Quite apart from the fact that the station is liable to be architecturally as impressive as anywhere else (Grand Central Station is still one of the finest cathedrals in New York), there is an excitement and mystery about a mainline station, especially a terminus, which are hard to rival. The lines snake out from the platform into the sunlight beyond and vanish for any of a thousand destinations. The people milling around could be on the verge of a long journey which will never bring them back, or about to take the same ten-mile journey which they take every day. The old Blackfriars Station façade used to have a list of its destinations carved in stone: down one side were inscribed the names of Sevenoaks, Bromley and other homely towns, while down the other in equal weight were announced Budapest, Istanbul, Cairo and all points beyond. I do not think one can ask for a single to Istanbul now, but the effect is still the same for me. Slightly magic.
I found this impossible to explain in my low-level Spanish, however.
‘To the station,’ I said.
He gave in silently. One should always humour madmen.
By 7.30 the station was already bustling with passengers and street salesmen – the two are inseparable in Peru. Doughnuts, sticks of bread, biscuits, curiously knotted bits of pastry, newspapers, cigarettes – anything designed to take you through a long journey – was on sale outside the grand ice-cream façade of Los Desemparados, though most of the arrivals seemed to be well-equipped already, if not with snacks for the train, then at least with all their worldly possessions tied up in bundles. If they were Peruvians, they were mostly encumbered with large shapeless packages wrapped up in blankets; if young European travellers, they had those huge, orange, aluminium-framed backpacks, with ancillary bedding rolls and surplus equipment attached like limpets, which are as much an ethnic part of their cultures as the multi-coloured blankets are of Peruvian life. Into a dark hall they all poured, with stained-glass windows glowing grandly above them, then down a narrow staircase into the much less grand but more business-like waiting room, and the queue.
Ah, Peruvian queues! How patient they are, and how orderly. We English pride ourselves on our civilised approach to queuing, but the Peruvians can show us a thing or two. I had imagined that the Latin American temperament would make queuing a matter of competitive pride, but I had not reckoned with the place that bureaucracy has in their lives, nor with the Indian tradition of long-suffering stolidity. That one lone ticket seller should have to cope with the hundreds hoping to board the train; that he should not seem to accelerate as departure time grew near; that the end of the queue would undoubtedly miss the train; none of this seemed to strike them as unfair, but simply as part of life’s unrich pattern. One queue I did see in up-country Huancavelica where, five minutes before the train was due to go, those at the back panicked and rushed forward. A deep chant of ‘Cola! Cola!’ (Queue, queue!) broke out from those who thought they had a better than even chance of making it, and the interlopers slunk shamefaced back to their hopeless position.
At 7.40 precisely a bell rang, the ticket collector swung the heavy metal gates and shut and locked them, and together with the disappointed portion of the queue I watched the train slowly slide out of sight. Five minutes later the station was totally deserted, the ticket office closed and the station dog fast asleep in the middle of the tracks. He was in little danger there, for the last train of the day had just left. Not so long ago there used to be two trains a day, the ordinary train and the express train, but the difference between them was never more than between twenty and thirty miles per hour, their respective top speeds, and now there is just the one train a day leaving from the one platform in Lima’s grand central station.
That a capital city should be served by no more than one daily train seems extraordinary to us, but it makes sense in Peruvian terms. For one thing, it is buses and not trains that are the true backbone of the transport system, and the ribs as well. For another, the train from Lima to Huancayo takes eight hours, but along the new road which shadows it all the way it is only five by car. And above all there is the fact that the railway was not really built for people. It was built to open up the interior and bring the mineral wealth of the Andes down to the coast.
Lima is a seaside town. Standing in the strip of desert which runs almost all the way down the west side of South America, separating the Andes from the sea. It would be easy enough to build railways down through that flat featureless strip, joining the towns and ports that tend to occur where a river mouth has created a settlement, from Ecuador through Peru and deep into Chile. But a hundred years ago, in the great days of railway building, that need was already satisfied, if not by roads, then by sea transport which was well developed and able to jump the problems caused by national frontiers. No, what was needed was a thrust to the interior, to the mines placed infuriatingly on top of the Andes, to the great silver mines up in Bolivia, to the ore deposits inside Chile. That is why a railway map of South America shows so many lines at right angles to the sea, running away from the main centres and never connecting with the next line down the map. The energy of the great railway-makers went into driving railroads into places where there were not even roads, only mountain paths.
‘To the station,’ I told the taxi driver.
‘You saw the station yesterday,’ he said. ‘Today let me show you some ruins.’
‘Today I am catching the train.’
That was why I got up at 6.00 and arrived at the station at 6.30. Once you have gained respect for a Peruvian queue, you like to be somewhere near the head of it. But I had not made allowances for another Peruvian habit, that of being late for most things, and the station was not yet unlocked. I retired across the road to a small restaurant oddly called El Lunch Café and had a cup of coffee. Nothing more. I had been told very strictly that the first time you hit altitude, there is nothing like a full stomach to bring on nausea. My eyes, roving round the lunch café, lit on a large mirror presented by Andrews Live Salts. “Sal de Andrews” it said; “Lista al Instante”. Buy your liver salts now, seemed to be the message, because by God you’re going to need them at the top. I ignored it.
So, leaving the friendly surrounds of the Lunch Café, full of familiar products such as Te Horniman and Scotch Whisky (made by distilleries one never hears of in Britain but which seem to export directly to dusty cafés in Graham Greeneland), I again crossed to the station, descended into the bowels and became a member of the queue in my own right.
What I have mentioned so far is that I was also very nervous.
Travel writers never mention this.
But going to Peru was, for me, rather like meeting a very famous film star or a member of the Royal Family for the first time. However blasé you are outwardly, even cynical, inwardly there is just one though on your mind: not to make a fool of yourself. I know in my heart of hearts that if I got into the same lift as Greta Garbo, I would ask her very casually which floor she wanted, lean forward to the control panel and press the alarm bell by mistake. Peru has many film star qualities. It not only has the highest railway in the world – which is why I was there – but the charismatic Andes, the Inca City of Cuzco, the legendary forgotten city of Machu Picchu, the llama and the highest working lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. I was due to meet them all. Would my table manners be good enough to meet this all-star cast?