Archive for September 6th, 2010

Of dreams and kidnappings…

Surprise! The old Guayaquil & Quito Railway is running between Durán and Yaguachi! And we rode it!

The railroad is now called FEEP (Ferrocarriles del Ecuador Empresa Pública).  The old railway cars have been beautifully restored to their former shining wooden glory, varnished to a gleam the color of honey and whiskey, with comfortable upholstered seats and yellow pom-pom fringed curtains.

There is, however, no sitting on the roof like in the old days. Back then, everyone and their dog could climb up onto the roof and ride along the scenic Avenue of the Volcanoes and down the Devil’s Nose under the Andean sun. None of that anymore, not since an unfortunate episode of tourist decapitation and scalping by a low-hanging phone wire.

These days, for the first time ever, Ecuador’s $245m national railroad rehab project appears to be making progress. The government has talked for decades – almost a century, ever since the G&Q opened – about a rehab, and over the years has made various efforts and attempts at restoration by throwing money into the idea, but the money always seemed to find its way into people’s pockets rather than rehab of the rails.

Ecuador’s current president, Rafael Correa, has taken a great interest in the railroad, not unlike his role model, Ecuador’s past president, Eloy Afaro. In 1895, Alfaro swept into power with a liberal revolution and the cry: “Railway! Railway!” Now, Correa has dusted off the old dream and is shining it up and bringing it back to life.

The ride began in the early morning in the terminus station of Durán, across the Guayas River from the city of Guayaquil. Passengers boarded, the train whistle blew, and the engine rumbled out of the station and through the suburbs, passing the Catholic Cemetery and a gravel quarry.

The steamy, flat lowlands of rice patties and sugar cane plantations passed by the windows, where white egrets flew like ghosts above the wet green fields. Houses stood on stilts with animals living below. Children along the tracks ran out to wave and shout, and small dogs ran along with the train, barking at it.

A railway safety crew in a truck speeds ahead of the train to each road crossing. There, workers in neon safety vests set up orange cones to stop all traffic as the whistle-blowing train went by, then threw equipment into the back of the truck and headed for the next crossing.

When the train arrived at the new Yaguachi station, passengers disembarked and had a few hours to explore the town, before the train turned around and rumbled back to Guayaquil in the afternoon. In Yaguachi, the streets bustled with fruit and meat vendors, pedicabs, pedestrians, children, and dogs.

A fellow by the side of the path to the Yaguachi train bridge demonstrated his roosters that he raises for cock fights.

We walked across the ties of the old Yaguachi River Bridge, which recently received a swanky shining silver coat of paint. Down on the riverbanks, a woman in tall black boots with a shovel was digging up the dark, wet dirt to sell to the railroad. Right out of the river.

Near the bridge was a memorial statue to the father of Ecuador’s president Abdala Bucaram that the people called “El Loco” – the Crazy One – for his theatrics and antics. El Loco, who believed Ecuador’s money was his own, had a penchant for throwing ashtrays in official meetings, and also fancied himself a rock star and liked surrounding himself with scantily clad dancing girls. He now lives in exile in Panama.

Katie and Araby wandered off in search of coffee, and found a little café with plastic tables, not knowing that just moments before, a kidnapping had taken place right there in the street, a boy snatched for ransom. But more on that later…

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Coffee in Yaguachi

We took the scenic railway from Durán to Yaguachi.  It is a beautifully refurbished little tourist line of the Ferrocarriles del Ecuador, all wood and brass interiors.  Once in Yaguachi Katie and I went wandering off to look for coffee, and ended up at the establishment of a little old woman who served us at her table, boiling water for the instant coffee in this huge gleaming kettle set outside the door to her bedroom.

As I was finishing my coffee, our guide Rodrigo found us and sat at the table.  He laughed into his coffee, saying- “You girls are crazy.  This is not a place that tourists would come.”

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