Exciting title eh? Brace yourself, for this is a tale of horror and gore, not for the faint hearted or heavily pregnant...
So where were we, readers? Ah yes, the bus to San Jose. A former Jesuit town containing a famous ruin. My seat mate, Christoph & I are pretty much ejected from the bus onto a random dusty roadside. Before I really had chance to say "What the hell?!" we were sharing a taxi to the centre. We get as far as the traintrack and find a goods train as long as the horizon parked up, going nowhere. Our driver decides to go off road down the side of the train to cut across the head of the train. This takes some time, but the the train starting moving the opposite way to us, speeding us along.
Eventually we hit town and old C gets out at a military barracks. That would explain the aviators then. He leaves nae cash, so I guess I'll get this one then. Cheers Chris. I ask drive to hit the train station, cos tonight I ain't getting on no bus, foo. My first train in all South America. And what better one to start on than ... Drums please ... THE TRAIN OF DEATH!
A long queue later, where no-one pays any respect for the order of the line, I secure my 23 Boliviano First Class ticket to Santa Cruz. Depart 2am. Arrive 9am. Hopefully the same day. But for £1.44 how much can you ask for? Though that's cheap for death.
On a station bench I people-watch for a bit. Over the road, under the same terracotta tiles as the rest of the town is a small restaurant serving the locals. A couple of pigs and a skinny dog graze & snuffle outside. A seemingly drunk man stumbles out of the shadows, finds a brick and launches it at a pig. He misses but laughs all the same, then nearly falls off a bridge over a sewage channel.
Looking like an astronaut I double-pack my way to the town centre, which is pretty much around the Jesuit complex, and find a room in an empty hotel. Nack all a night? Done. I shower up, do my washing and, while I wait for the midday sun to drop a little, I attack my hair with me 12p paper scissors and two mirrors I pinched out of the bathrooms. Afterward, considering the massive pile of hair on my bedroom floor the boof don't look much different, just less hedgey.
I wander to the square round 3pm and sit on a curb with a bottle of fanta and stare out the imposing Jesuit Complex. Why do places paint the bottom of trees white? The main church building, walls and towers are in impressive condition and the insides have been sympathetically restored. I mosey and potter, doing my best to decipher the Spanish info-boards describing the restoration. It's a working church, and two twelve year olds sweep up dust with witches brooms around the gold painted alter and benches. I meet a lady who's one of the restorative artists painting a side building they're currently fixing up.
I pull up a pew under the ornate wooden roof, for the 2nd time in two days, and do some maths. 12, add 14, add 12, add 16 is, err, 54 hours. Seems an awful 'mission' to travel this far to look round a church. Fortunately it's nice, and out in the authentic arse end of nowhere. I ask about the other local Jesuit ruins, and although there are loads, they ain't that local and require a bus to San Ignacio 4 hours North. So after some grub and a have a bash on possibly THE slowest internet connection in all Bolivia and duck back to me room to get some rest. I'd almost forgotten what a bed felt like, like.
An hour later what sounds like a scooter fires up outside & people start coughing. Soon I'm coughing too, so I step out on the balcony to find out what's on. There's a man in a gas mask, backpack and radiation overalls gassing stuff with a gun. He can only be one of two things, a dengue fever disinfecter or a Ghostbuster. By the time he sprayed each room in the hotel I couldn't stop coughing and had a T-shirt pressed to my face. After he'd left I felt like I had a full blown cold. Wonderful. Nice of you to stop by.
After a powernap I woke up round midnight hot and itchy. Remove my T-shirt and find myself covered in an exciting blotchy scarlet rash. Joy. It felt like the prickle of bedbugs but could well have been a side effect of the dengue spray. Neither rock that hard.
I pack up and stroll out into the scary night for a dark dark walk to the train station. The road's under construction so I can't taxi. Shops that have just closed burn their rubbish in little piles so as to make garbage collection unnecessary. Though it creates a dangerous post apocalyptic street atmosphere. As my perception prickles, every noise points to an ominous doom, but before I know it I'm on a lit platform with loads of locals waiting on THE TRAIN OF DEATH!!
A bit of googling told me that the Train of Death was so named because of it's habit for detaching itself from the rails and bounding down the railway sleepers or nearby hills. This happens less and less often these days and now the train is considered by many to be deathly only in how boring it is. It's slow and regularly breaks down, and unlike in the UK, is considered the poor mans option to buses. The track connects Santa Cruz with Western Brazil, and offers a rare chance to take in Bolivia's Eastern lowlands. Though how much I'll see between 2am and 9am is questionable. Still it's nice to take in a South American plane, train, bus, boat, bike, foot and automobile.
At the station, and noticed around town earlier, are a different type of person than yet seen round of South America - the white skinned redneck. Standing out like a sore thumb are Caucasian, freckly, sunburnt cowboys in full-length denim dungarees and wild-west cowboy hats. They slink around like lost extras from 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou'.
I'd only seen a few in town earlier, but nearly half the folk in the station were Caucasian. Men looked straight out of a 1930s Arizonan time warp, in denim, cowboy hats / baseball caps and neckscarves, like railroad formen or mid-American farmers. The women looked even bizarre, in long unflattering, old-fashioned dresses with no make up. They floated around in conservative, dark pleated plain or floral cotton dresses with high necks, a big hat, white tights and plimsolls. Kind of plain Wagon train hillbilly chic.
I do believe they may have been a bunch of Mormons. They put out this judgmental standoffishness, which even felt a shade like racial hatred. They even had a redneck drawl; a 'deep South' sounding Spanish. The more I watch the surreal it became. The dismissive and sombre atmosphere surrounding them made me suspect they were on exodus to some woods somewhere for a mass suicide party.
The Ferrovaria Oriental diesel loco rattles in, on time (another difference from Uk railways) and I find two 106B carriages. Settle into seat 25V next to an old lady, then decide it's the other 106B, cos the other says 1st class. The seats are exactly the same but round the other 25V the other whole row is free. Result.
The train chugs off and I lie back as it clatters therapeutically over the uneven track. Camerabag clipped on and acting as I headrest I munch half a box of Pringles (you can stop, it's just hard) and gaze out of the open window at the passing stars till I drift off to sleep.
So far, no death.