Riding the train through Peru is an exercise in two worlds…
I generally consider myself someone who knows a thing or two about trains. I take Amtrak at least twice a year (round trip) in the States, and I actually really enjoy it. As I’ve mentioned before, I like being in transit. After today, however, my train standards have changed. True, the train that my family and I took from Puno to Cuzco was first class while I am strictly a coach girl in the States, but I have ventured into the first class cabin on Amtrak before (in violation of their rules, but hey, nobody stopped me) and let me tell you, the folks up there do not get tablecloths. Let alone nice table clothes.
Our train left Puno at 8am, and we boarded with plenty of time, but as soon as we stepped onto the train, I stopped and stared. I had been expecting, well, a train as I know them, which means Amtrak. I was not expecting real wood tables with real armchairs, decorative lamps, wood paneling, and an actual rose in a miniature vase. Not a plastic rose. A real rose. That was picked off a plant.
Honestly, the first few minutes with my bulky backpack, I felt like I was going to break something. I also felt really bad about mussing up the tablecloth every time I moved.
I settled in quickly. It’s hard not to when everything is so comfortable. The train attendants started coming around almost immediately taking orders for breakfast tea and coffee, and once the service stopped it didn’t stop for the rest of the day. Almost as soon as the breakfast cups had been cleared away, they came around taking orders for the complimentary three course lunch. As that was being prepared, they came by with complimentary pisco sours, a local drink made with pisco, which is Peruvian grape alcohol with a 40% alcohol content. The drinks were very good.
Then the servers began setting the table for lunch service coming by every ten minutes or so to lay a new component at everyone’s pace setting – two forks, two knives, two glasses (one for water, one for wine), a butter knife, etc. Once the places were set, they began to serve lunch, jogging back and forth from the kitchen with three or four bowls of soup or plates of squash balanced on an arm. I have no idea how they did it.
Lunch was delicious. The appetizer choices – spinach soup and a squash and potato dish – were excellent. For a main dish we had a choice between a beef and potato dish, a local trout, and a vegetarian lasagna. While I didn’t have a chance to try the beef, if it was anything like the trout or the lasagna, it was delicious. The vegetables in the lasagna even tasted fresh. Moreover the wine that accompanied the meal (Chilean) was excellent whether you chose red or white. And desert was chocolate custard. Heaven.
And all the while, the servers kept jogging up and down the aisles to get the food to everyone quickly. They all spoke English, and were unfailingly polite even to the loud and obnoxious European group at the front of the car. They also exhibited the friendly shyness that has characterized every waiter and waitress I’ve encountered so far in Peru. And their job wasn’t done after lunch.
Once the lunch plates were cleared away, everyone received a pink drink made with white wine, pineapple and several other ingredients I didn’t catch. Honestly, she had me at white wine. Then came afternoon tea, and finally a snack plate with a caprese pita, a mini chicken salad sandwich, a mini fruit kebob and two chocolate truffles. Seriously, the service didn’t end until we were actually pulling into the Cusco station.
Needless to say, I have been intensely spoiled by this trip and may never be fully satisfied on an Amtrak train again. And the prices don’t even compare. The PeruRail trip was more expensive, but when you consider that Amtrak doesn’t give you so much as a complimentary bottle of water, it’s not really pricey at all. And I know all about exchange rates and different cost of living and whatever, but yeah, I’m still spoiled. I mean they had a live music group come through. They had a session in the bar where they taught you how to make a pisco sour. They had traditional dancers in the observation car. They had an observation car. They had nice bathrooms. Let me say that again. Nice bathrooms, full stop. Not nice for a train, just nice.
The most fascinating part, however, was the view out the window. Peru is a beautiful country with huge mountains and beautiful valleys. I had the window seat for the first part of the journey, and got to watch the city disappear out the window and give way to farmland and small villages. As we passed through the first village, the children were clearly on their way to school on a dirt road that ran parallel to the tracks, and lots of them stopped to waive while others held their ears against the train whistle.
It’s strange to ride past so much poverty in a posh train car. We saw hundreds of little farms that I can only assume represent subsistence agriculture. Houses with thatch roofs. Scrawny dogs along dusty streets. People who could be any age from thirty to eighty bent over a garden patch. On the one hand, the people we passed all seemed to at least have some land and livestock. They weren’t starving. On the other hand, what kind of standard is that for someone eating a three course lunch whose biggest concern at the moment is that it’s gotten kind of hot as the sun comes in, but opening the windows fills the car with the smell of train smoke.
It makes you wonder, what do they think of us as we jet past? The little children who gape at the moving marvel, the ones who wave, the ones whose parents wave their hands for them, smiling as and watching the child watch the train. The people who plug their ears against the train whistle, the ones who grimace with exasperation but keep on about their business. The people who watch the train with bored eyes, the ones who look on curiously. And more than anything, the ones who look on without any indication what they might be thinking.
It’s strangest of all to go slowly through a town where little shops and stall are situated so close to the tracks that I’m surprised the poles of the makeshift awnings don’t brush against the car. The shop keepers wait in their stands for the train to pass and a few brave customers actually walk in the space between shop and train. You look down into these little worlds that might sell anything from lengths of rope to spices to clothes to dried rodents, and often times, someone looks back at you. Not at the train. At you.
What are the protocols for this? What do you do? Do you smile and wave? Do you look away? For some reason, we go to countries wanting to see the sights, wanting to see the people, but we don’t want them to see us back. But life is not like a television show. Are we afraid, I wonder, that they will see the things in us we don’t want to look at?
I sit in my seat with a book and a laptop and waitresses jogging up and down the aisle in smart uniforms. I look down at a woman in a shop. She looks back. What does she see? What do I see? Am I ashamed of being rich? Is she ashamed of being poor? Are either of us anything other than two strangers looking at a world so far removed from their own that the windows might as well be separate worlds.
I feel bizarrely better in a town near Cuzco as a teenage boy on a dusty street takes a photo of the train with his digital camera. I don’t know if it counts as gawking when people gawk back.
Riding a train in Peru is an exercise in two worlds, but I’m not a person who believes in two worlds. There is one world, one big, complicated, contradictory world. Trying to reconcile all the contradictions is impossible, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to them.