Arrivals

We’re in Tupiza, a small town buried between cactus speckled mountain ranges. The town is coloured deep red, which makes the ground look hot to the touch. As we wait at the station for our train to Uyuni we watch some children jump blissfully from the platform onto the track, struggling to pull their tiny bodies back up onto the platform simply to jump back down again. It looks like fun, but I resist the urge to join in. Our train is running late, it should have barrelled into the station, where these kids are still playing, half an hour ago. No one seems worried, so neither am I. What Bolivia lacks in safety standards it more than makes up for in landscape.

A half-hour later the train saunters into the station. While I contemplate Bolivian rail maintenance standards we search for our car. We walk all the way down the platform and finally match the number on our ticket with the number on the caboose. I consider this lucky, since I’ve never seen a photo of a derailed caboose. I climb into the train and relax into my reclining seat aided by the knowledge that twenty-two other cars will pass over each set of tracks before we do. Our seats face the back of the car, where a large television is perched, waiting to entertain us. A movie clicks on as we leave the station, looks like an Indiana Jones flick.

Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Death Train

Harrison Ford enters the screen as the title sequence vanishes. He seems older than I remember. A few moments later I realize we’re going to have to sit through George Lucas’ latest money-grab: Indiana Jones 4. This film has none of the charm of its predecessors, and to make matters worse, it’s been dubbed in Spanish and I can’t help but read the terribly translated English subtitles. I’m buckled in for the ride and have no choice but to bear it. At about the point where Indie discovers the aliens the DVD skips to a stop, but the relief is only temporary.

The movie is now skipping with every bump of the track, and let me tell you, Bolivian trains are not the smoothest. The next half-hour of the movie passes by in five second increments–Short bursts of explosions and gun-blazing action followed by silence. Sleep is no longer an option.

Some time later, a delightful soul switches off “Indiana Jones: The Slideshow” and I close my eyes, ready for some sweet, sweet sleep.

Just for Laughs

Before I can even begin counting llamas, the television clicks on again. I catch the DVD title screen for only an instant, but it sends a chill down my spine. We are going to watch an entire season of Just For Laughs: Gags.

In this show a handful of actors put everyday people in awkward situations. The unwilling participants are filmed as they try to cope with situations such as: Police Officers falling asleep on their car, painters pretending to get wet paint on their clothes or picking up pornographic photos dropped by a passing priest.

We are subjected to one gag after another. Each featuring one of three impossibly annoying, circus-esque sound loops that is accompanied by the incessant laughing of a brain-dead studio audience.

At around gag number ten–just as the police officer is getting out of his car in his underpants–I begin digging frantically through my backpack for my earplugs. I squeeze the little buggers as hard as I can and shove them into my ears so deep that I’m not sure I’ll be able to retrieve them. Our train ride isn’t even half over, and I’m not sure how many of these skits are crammed onto this one cursed DVD.

The earplugs only slightly muffle the sound so I take my sweater and wrap it around my face, closing my eyes to try and block out this on-going assault on my senses. In the darkness, I think about how pathetic these people are. The stupid, confused and dumbfounded expression that creeps onto their faces as they are confronted with extraordinary situations. It’s so cruel and unjust. The thought of these helpless pawns struggling against a situation eternally stacked against them is enough to make me want to cry.

After a few more minutes an even sadder reality creeps over me. I realize that the joke isn’t so much on the people on the TV as much as it is on us. The embarrassment these people experience during their thirty-second television debut is really nothing compared to the embarrassment we experience as humans. I think about every time I have accidentally said ‘You too!’ when a taxi driver tells me to enjoy my trip. I think about every time I accidentally pushed a pull door. I think about every time I accidentally pulled a push door. I think about our ancestors, who foolishly thought that the earth was flat, and how violently they fought to uphold their belief, in the face of irrefutable evidence. The studio audience must have realized this just as I did, because they had stopped laughing at the people on TV and were now directing their jeers directly at me.

I am trapped in this tiny, rattling cage, listening to this cruel incessant laughter. I never asked to join this evil, travelling circus. I just thought it would be more comfortable than a bus.

The other animals in the cage were also getting restless. One stood up and tried to turn the volume down, but the buttons had no effect and the laughter kept coming. Another turned the TV off but this only deepened the darkness and heightened the hallucination.

Everything now feels premeditated, an evil scheme perpetrated by unknown, shadowy figures. I scan the car for trap-doors, hidden cameras and one-way mirrors but I am foiled by the cold darkness that blankets everything. There is only one explanation that makes sense: this isn’t the train to Uyuni, we are actually suspected terrorists with a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay. I wonder when our car was uncoupled and airlifted to this secret military base. I look outside but now I realize that the passing countryside is just an illusion created with projectors and a simple video loop. I wonder if any of the other detainees have noticed the pattern. Cactus, mountain, cactus, cactus, tree, mountain, tree. Cactus, mountain, cactus, cactus, tree, mountain, tree.

Smooth Tracks

I usually find it easy to sleep on trains. A train with good rhythm can be very peaceful–the repetitive clatter is like an ancient Sanskrit mantra. In no time I can commit it to memory and my distracted mind quickly drifts into a peaceful, heavy sleep.

In my unconscious state I am plucked from the car and transported effortlessly to the front-row of my favourite jazz club for a special performance. The talented tracks are on percussion, the horn section is provided by the rails and the conductor is an up-and-coming vocalist that everyone in the scene has been talking about.

Odd Citizens

I look out the window and see a miniature town with tiny, crowded houses stretched out across a steep hillside. The village whirrs by, only meters from the window, and in less than a second it’s gone. Judging from the size of the houses, I conclude that the residents mustn’t be bigger than the size of my hand. I figure that they are religious folk, since each home is covered in flowers and topped with a crucifix. I wonder what a village of tiny people prays for. Are their problems of a smaller scale than ours? Do they simply pray that their God will make them the same size as everyone else?

For a moment I consider what it would be like to live in that microcosm of a society. I wonder if, like most youth, the young people of the town dream of leaving to explore the great beyond. I imagine them walking around with us, but stubbornly realizing that their small statures make them unfit for our world. They must avoid sidewalks for fear of being trampled, they find every grocery store, post office and government building inaccessible, they are teased to tears by bullies. With sadness in their hearts they return home, but are cursed with the knowledge of a grander world, and now, their homes feel more like tombs.

A Stranger Skeleton

I look away from the window and wrap my sweater around my body. I’m still worried about being robbed in my sleep so I grab my backpack off the ground and make knots of the strings that dangle from the zippers. I put my bag back on the ground and wrap my legs around it. I look at the overhead rack and see my guitar case sitting where I left it earlier. I had taken the precaution of using a carabiner to fasten the straps of the case around one of the poles of the rack. Feeling secure, I nod off for just a second.

When I awake I find myself staring into the eyes of a cadaver. The body is that of a girl, about the same age as me. Her eyes are sunken in shadows, her mouth twisted open and her skin is a cold deep blue. I can see no visible signs of decay, so I assume she hasn’t been dead long. She had clearly drowned. Perhaps she was in a train car that derailed and plummeted into an icy lake. If she had been asleep she would have woken up, too disoriented to find an escape. She should have sat in the caboose, as it is the least likely to derail.

As I’m dreading notifying the next of kin, the body lifts its hand and rubs a clump of fingers underneath its runny nose. It lets out a muffled snort and opens its eyes.

I quickly shut mine and turn towards the window, hoping that the dead body hadn’t caught me staring at dead bodies. Meanwhile, the moon, hidden somewhere out of view, illuminates canyons, mesas, peaks, and gorges. The landscape looks like a haunted house full of couches, tables, coat-racks and cabinets–antique furniture crowded together in a dark room and draped with starched sheets.

S’miles All Around

Calina, who is sitting next to the window, lets out a massive yawn and stretches so expansively that I’m afraid she might break her spine. She has a huge grin on her face that makes me wonder if she’s still asleep.

“Hey”, I whisper.

“What–”

“Nothing, you were smiling. Were you dreaming?”

“Umm–sort of,” she replies, and falls back asleep.

Tilted Universe

The conductor’s voice comes pounding through the PA system. Although his voice is booming, I seem to be the only one awake.

“Attention ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to report some very exciting news! You see, it’s just come in through dispatch that the earth is, as our great ancestors once firmly believed… flat.”

“Not only is the earth flat, ladies and gentlemen, but it has been irrefutably proven that it is also tilted. Now this is especially interesting for us because it just so happens to be tilted in the direction in which we are travelling!”

“In light of this amazing discovery, we have shut down the engine and will allow the train to slide effortlessly along the tracks. Of course, you will be refunded a portion of your ticket price in light of our reduced fuel consumption, but please be sure to jump from the train at your appropriate stop, as braking is no longer possible. Please note that this train does not stop at the edge of the world before plummeting into darkness and that failure to exit the train before this point may result in our inability to issue your refund.”

I See Lights

For the first time that night, I see lights in the distance. They are approaching with astounding speed, and with the conductor’s words still ringing in my ears, I know I have to act quickly. If we delay, we may miss our stop and forfeit our refund. I grab my things and wake Calina, ushering her to the door.

“The train isn’t stopping,” she says.

“The train doesn’t stop,” I reply.

We jump out into the night, our bodies and baggage crashing into a bed of soft, white sand.