“The news reports about how dangerous it is in Santa Cruz during carnaval are highly exaggerated. This year we only had one death and seventeen injured through gunshot wounds for the entire festival”.
We were having lunch with Mariesabel, the representative of the Superintendencia de Transportes in Santa Cruz. It seems that as carnaval progresses people graduate from throwing water balloons at each other to shooting at each other. Santa Cruz was hot – very hot, and this time of year it rains a lot. There is a lot of water lying around and this produces a difficult climate in which to live. Santa Cruz is the largest city in Bolivia although if you put La Paz together with El Alto the high metropolis takes top honours.
Santa Cruz is very different from La Paz. There are few people in native costume and cholitas are not seen very often. Instead of wearing shawls, petticoats and bowler hats the local girls wear very little and flaunt what they have. It is a low city with few high buildings. There is an interesting central plaza with an enormous brick cathedral and a few colonial type buildings, but apart from this the city has little to recommend it.
My main course arrived. Crumbled duck with rice and several vegetables with fried plantain and yucca, the whole topped off with a fried egg. They seem to put fried eggs on most dishes here. We were sitting out under umbrellas enjoying a brief period of sun but rain was never very far away.
Tuesday 19th February 2002
Santa Cruz to Roboré
The railway station has undergone a transformation. Formerly it was a big empty ugly concrete building that smelt of urine. Now it has been transformed into the city bus terminal with forty-nine bus lines operating from it. It is still ugly and it still smells of urine.
We left the station just after seven o’clock in a track inspection car with our destination Roboré on the line to Puerto Quijarro in the jungle to the east. A few kilometres out, but still in yard limits, we took a siding to allow the ferrobus from Puerto Quijarro to pass us. This is an 18 hour overnight trip and was very full. The passenger trains are very crowded because the roads are very bad and the buses cannot compete.
There are few towns along this line and food can be difficult to come by. We stopped at Pailon to see what we could find to last us until San Jose. There were bananas and a cheese empanada called cuñape. The cheese forms a gelatinous mass inside and it is very good. We got back into the car ready to face the rigors of the railway.
Animals on the right of way is a problem – pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, dogs. At least the line is, in the main, straight so that there is adequate warning but it is still difficult to get them off the track. It is a little unnerving to come upon a herd of sheep who just stand looking without any attempt to get out of the way. The pigs seem to root around in the grass right until the last moment. We came very close to hitting a piglet, there was a rumbling sound and squeals of terror from below – I didn’t look back to see what had happened. As we came close to San Jose we came upon a herd of cattle. One cow unwisely decided to try and out run us. We hit it on the rear and knocked it down a low embankment. Amazingly it walked away but it must have been badly bruised.
Coffee and humintas
From San Jose we had a clear run to Roboré. However, it began to rain and is soon became dark. The foxes come out at this time of day and several were caught momentarily in the headlight. The forest gradually became jungle and the rain became heavier. Water was flowing everywhere close to the track and in a couple of places was over the rails. We kept a sharp lookout ahead in the small area which was illuminated by the headlight. There was a short stop at Ipias for what came to be known as a “parada tecnica”, or bathroom break. The jungle was noisy in the pitch darkness.
We passed the burnt out shell of an automobile abandoned close to the railway. It was a long way from the nearest road and I wondered how and why this came to be in such an unlikely place.
Approaching Roboré, the radio burst into life. How many rooms should they prepare for us at the Roboré hotel and what did we need for dinner. For a while, it appeared as if the entire resources of the railway were engaged in finding us accommodation and food. Several voices were involved and there was intense questioning as to whether we would require carne o pollo (meat or chicken) and whether this should be delivered to the hotel. The latter was unresolved.
The car stopped just short of the Roboré station so we could walk across a field in the rain to the hotel. Passing through a plastic jungle of garish coloured flowers I was shown to my room which was had a Christmas wreath on the door. It smelt strongly of furniture polish. There was an en-suite bathroom, the main feature of which was a plastic garbage bucket full of water with a broken plastic Sprite bottle serving floating in it to serve as a ladle. There was an electric shower but this was useless as there was no running water.
We walked along the muddy street to a restaurante and found a table with sufficient umbrellas to protect us all from the rain. The thorny problem of the menu was neatly resolved. The meat came in the form of various body parts and sausages cooked on a dagger (Pacomuto) and there were several enormous deep fried chicken halves. This was accompanied by a salad and fried yucca and fries. A satisfying end to a thirteen hour day was marred by the news that there would be a strike on the railway the day after tomorrow.