love and the devil's nose

alausi, ecuador,

july, 2003

que tal, mi compadres?

we are bussing north from cuenca along l'avenida de los volcanos. so called for obvious reasons. between cuenca in the south of ecuador and quito in the north, all along the north-south pan american highway, there is a startling and magnifico series of snow capped volcanoes, dominating the skyline for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers. it is a tourist's, backpacker's, hiker's, mountaineer's, and traveler's highway to heaven. both dormant and active volcanoes, the highest of the latter has devastated the local provincial capital 22 times between 1532 and 1904; yet the resilient latacungans have rebuilt their home each and every time. but -- i'm getting ahead of myself.

i have read my "let's go" guidebook at least five times, and still i can't figure out the best way to take the riobamba-alausi-bucay-duran railway to find "el nariz del diablo", the nose of the devil, the breathless line of track that "mounts a perpendicular cliff by means of two amazing switchbacks in which the train actually descends caboose-first -- quite a feat of railroad acrobatics". or so the guidebook claims, although it is quite muddy about exactly when and where you can catch the train, which at least i do manage to figure out one can do only on wednesdays, fridays, and sundays -- although exactly at what time and from what city or village one does so is the critical and confusing part.

so wati and i opt for the shortest point between two lines - the center. i think miss barkin, my buck-toothed, cross-eyed 10th grade geometry teacher would be proud of me. it's a little town called alausi, a few pacers slower than the rest of ecuador, tucked softly in the cradle of the central andean corridor. however we are not exactly encouraged by our decision when we de-board the runaway bus (which has been hurtling downhill at terrifying and centrifugal-defying speed), and we seem to be one of only four gringos to have done so. the other two are steve and jane from london, a marine biologist and a packing-it-all-in lawyer, who are ending this south american adventure in new zealand, to where they will have all their earthly possessions shipped and begin a new life in approximately one month.

not unhappy to be in such risk-taking company, we follow them to the hotel americano, supposedly "the best hotel in town". unfortunately when we check in, we discover that there are no keys or locks to the doors, although the hunchbacked proprietress assures us that "no hay una problema", nothing has ever been stolen from the hotel. "nunca." (never). of course, english speaking steve and jane, wati, and i only get the quotated "problema" parts and the "nunca", and what's more, we don't seem to have much of a choice. we quickly go out to get a feeble dinner of chicken & rice, and when we come back we discover that the "agua caliente vente cuatro horas" (hot water 24 hours) also doesn't work, but we all reassure ourselves that we shouldn't expect much more for 4 bucks a night -- each.

in the morning we all hustle to the train station at 7 (that's when one of our guidebook says the train leaves), only to find out that the it will be arriving from riobamba in the north at 11, make the devil's nose detour south for 2 hours, arrive back in alausi at 1, then struggle back to riobamba in another 4 hours. we give ourselves high fives all around for being clever enough to miss out on an unnecessary 8 hours of train track from alausi to riobamba (we'll just get back on the 2 hour bus), go out to a paltry breakfast at the bus station, and return by 10 to the station. there are now about 50 people waiting for the train, having been bussed in by tourist agencies - or miraculously appeared out of the blue on their own - and we are all anxiously awaiting for the train from riobamba.

at 10:30 a train appears. it's a single car. bright red. clean. looks like it came from the train museum. all of us crowd around it, all trying to be amongst the first 20 or so who will be lucky enough to jump on the roof for the 2 hour trip. who wants to take el nariz del diablo cramped into a antiseptic red cable car? anyway, we all seem to feel the same, and as soon as the car comes to a complete stop (a few nuts before), we are pushing and shoving to get on top. a french woman says to me, "non, pas vous. c'est pour notre groupe." "no way", i say, "i was here 3 hours before you were, i paid my money, and i'm getting on the roof, s'il vous plait." she complains loudly, and the conductor-looking guy is able to extract the first three over-eager boarders from the roof and explain to the rest of us pushers and shovers that yes, indeed, this is a private car for a group of french tourists, and that the riobamba train will indeed be coming at 11 as scheduled. "ahhhh", we all sigh, allowing the beleaguered frogs to board their red museum car, as we jockey and position for the real deal at 11.

eleven o'clock comes. and goes. no train. the natives are getting restless. routine travel talk with distracted eyes looking down the track towards riobamba. finally -- a few minutes after 12, the real train finally arrives -- absolutely crammed with grumpy rooftop riders from riobamba. there is no room for any of us. but - we insist. we climb the ladder to the rooftop. the grumpiest passenger/self appointed watchdog at the top of ladder (also surprisingly french), says in grumpy english, "non, you can not. we got up at 4 in the morning and have been on this f-ing train for 4 hours. "too bad, pal," i say (somehow having led our troops up the ladder), "we paid our money too, and we're getting on the roof.". "non," the frenchman insists - and then a little softer, "please". i tell him there is room ahead for us, his wife gives him a little direction, and he acquiesces. we're on the riobam ba-alausi-bucat-duran railway, heading towards el nariz del diablo.

it's a perfectly clear, cloudless day. of course, wati and i have brought turtlenecks & sweaters for the guidebook-forewarned andean cold, and rain panchos for the unpredictable sky. fortunately we can sit on them. on the roof. and we're off. along with about 1000 other backpackers, tourists, travelers, and the like. all on top of 5 sardine-packed old-fashioned train cars. we look like a scene from a d.w. griffith movie, "the immigrants", although he never made one. we're from all over the world. talk a babel of languages (most sharing english of course). and most have been on the train for five uncomfortable hours - and have another five to go.

but now we're all riding the andean skyway south to the nose of the devil. it's spectacular. descending a mountainside by train. you know what "switchback is"? i didn't. sure i heard of it, but here's the skinny. the entire train - locomotive engine, five packed touring cars, and caboose go down the mountainside in a single direction - very slowly - until the entire train passes another connected track . then the caboose leads the train back in the opposite direction onto the connected track, but descending further down the mountain. this happens three times. the track is laid like a descending criss cross down the perpendicular mountain; the train descends down, engine leading, then caboose, until the bottom, then back up the same way. it's considered an engineering feat of great magnitude and the pride of ecuador. every tourist seems to have had their guidebook lead them here. and we're not disappointed.

until - on the way back up - we feel a sudden lurch. like the breath has been knocked out of us. or our iron horse. the train stops. dead. i say, being the experiencer of another temporarily crippled iron horse in north borneo, that the train has lurched off the track. mi amigos don't like the sound - or look - of the situation. all the trainmen have gotten off the train. we sit in consternation for about half an hour until the weak among us start climbing off the train - to pee -- to have a look - to assess the situation - take a photo - or out of just plain fear. it seems everyone's gathered around the second to last car, which has indeed, fallen off the track. the weak have decided that the car will tumble down the mountainside any moment. the strong (or the sheep) just stay on the roof of the non-derailed cars and buy the suddenly available banana chips and water that the wily locals provide for us at special, devil's nose prices. maybe every trip de-rails. who knows ?

yet, i'm sitting there thinking - shit, ain't life like a great train ride. or maybe, not all of life. more accurately, i figure, most of life is more like a long bus ride - calmly and slowly plodding along. many stops and starts. lots of late arrivals, missed connections -- but generally - safe - reliable. it gets you where you're going. most of us are on the bus, like ken kesey used to say. but scaling the side of a mountain - on an iron horse - that's more of a risk, more of an engineering feat of monumental proportions. more like -- a marriage. i mean, life - we all have one. but marriage -- that's a choice. a challenge. a wrangle. an endlessly unpredictable, turn-yourself-inside-out, soul searching battle, friendship, partnership, war. like to just get on the train takes all the guts you have. of course, some get on blindly, conformingly, and end up in an interchangeable sequence of serial monogamies. but those of us who wait, who resist, who hold out, hell, we're i n for a mountain-scaling kinda ride.

like just today, it took wati five times to just get on the train. i bought her a ticket. she unjustifiably (from my point of view) lost her patience with me (again), and told me to go by myself. i pleaded my case, telling her she misperceived something (again), and that she would miss this incredible, once in a lifetime train ride. i promptly lost my case, and she huffed back to the hotel. only to reappear - after i had sold her ticket back to the boleteria ; thereby having me ridiculously have to re-purchase her ticket a second time. only to have her get pissed off (at me) again, and stalk off to the hotel a second time. thereby having me even more ridiculously re-sell her ticket back to the same gruffy, non-english speaking train dude yet again. of course, then she reappeared a third time, well after the scheduled 11 o'clock departure time, ultimately having me re-purchase the same ticket for a third and final time. you can only imagine the scene. and the gruffy train dude. commitment is like that sometimes.

anyway, we're on this broken down train - that has de-railed - much like a marriage does at times. trying to re-scale the mountainside - much like having to make a marriage work after a painful or awkward de-railing. and all of us are wondering if we're ever going to get going again. some of us (the weak) have bailed. they're already walking up-mountain, along the track, trying to get back to alausi themselves. the majority of us are still there. most still on top of the train. some are passive. whatever. the train will start up again - or it won't. some are pissed off. what kind of fucking ecuadorian feat of super engineering is this? some are fearful. the entire train is going to plummet off the side of the mountain. some are having a good time. it's a sunny day, they're doing "el nariz del diablo", and this is all part of the ride. me - i'm trying to chose to be in the latter category. it's all just part of the ride.

sure, sometimes trains de-rail. sure, marriage is a fucking challenge. as in - always. but what's the alternative? stay on the bus. don't make a c-c-c-commitment? shit, it's taken me 55 years to finally get married. and sure, i didn't make it easy on myself marrying someone from another culture, another generation; someone who speaks a different language and is still learning mine. not to mention she's a gemini and changes her mind every other mili-second. but hey, howse your marriage? any easier? how was it in the beginning? how is it now? without its challenges? heartaches? de-railings? without its joys? miracles? growths? discoveries? changes?

guess what? somehow - miraculously - the train gets back on track. we start moving up-mountain again. along the switchbacks. we even pick up the cowardly and un-deserving mutineers. but life is like that. a great perpendicular train ride. or at least marriage is. at least from one man's metaphorical point of view. and whether due to the miracle of ecuadorian engineering -- or to our tenacious, problematic love and commitment - so is our marriage -- back on track. huffing and puffing our way north towards quito. twenty four seven.

yep. life is like that. and love. and marriage. nose of the devil. god - and we humans - made it that way.


from my nose to yours,

don erique of the switchbacks