It begins with pressing the doorbell at the Usaquén railway station. A bright sun was keeping the rain at bay and I was about to take my first train in Colombia. I searched for a ticket wicket (as we Indians do before throwing kith and kin at railway stations) but there was none in sight. As I anxiously awaited my 9:00 a.m. departure to the nearby town of Zipaquirá, I was joined by a group of fellow weekenders, armed with cameras and an enthusiasm for riding iron roosters.
Back in India, it would be quite a surprise to see a group of travelers get so worked up over a rather dull-looking steam engine. Images come flashing to my mind of all those Bollywood song and dance sequences, where as you might guess, everyone does a song and dance, around a parked “Lucknow Express.”
There was no Shahrukh Khan sitting rooftop, arms extended, shouting love songs to a girlfriend gone astray. The only stray I could see was a four-legged beast trying to cross the chinese noodle looking tracks of the Calle 106. But the prospect of crossing the green Sabana de Bogotá on 50 kilometers of track, appealed to me and seemed worth every peso. The price: $42,000 pesos (adults), seniors $35,000 pesos to Zipaquirá and back on board the tried and tested “Turistren.”
The first jerk of the old wheels of the locomotive scratched the tracks like vinyl hitting gramophone. People somehow held on to each other, trying to catch their balance, as if we were being catapulted into outer space at a speed of 20 kms per hour. The “Rajthani Express” from New Delhi to Mumbai in 15 hours flat, runs at almost 140 kms per hour covering a distance of 1,400 kms. People there are accommodated on every inch of the train. We Indians have the largest rail network in the world. Rich man and poor man ride the same carriage, the same tracks and risk their lives together. Sleeping arrangements range from refrigerated cold to steaming hot. All served jointly. We’re a masala of motion.
Riding Turistren is one of those experiences you treasure as Colombian. Cans of cold beer cracked open beside me as we rumbled past the Autopista Norte. Youngsters pressed their noses at the window mesmerized by billboards and bumper to bumber traffic. And then the music began to play from a papayera band, as I sipped on a steamy plastic cup of coffee and not milky chai.
The view from the window looked similar to some corners of India. Dry mountains emerged, so did broken roads, leaking waterpipes, and street dogs looking at the train like a living monster. In India, we have a ban on smoking in stations and trains, and when a gentleman made his way between carriages to light a cigarette, I remembered the way men back home hide their whisky bottles under the sari of their wives – pretending to drink Coke – playing tricks with police and authorities.
But on this jumping “Baldwin” – built in 1947 – you can twist the bottle and pour the can without worrying about fines. With this measure of tolerance one forgives the old engine for her deprived performance. I also missed our black coated man called the “TC”, ticket checker, milling around the dank carriage filling his pockets with cash. The trip past Chía was all laughter and light: a kind of Harry Potter on his way to Hogwarts in the Andes.
But there was one thing that inches our two countries and train cultures together: people on trains are curious of each other. A trip in India for a foreigner will invariably involve countless questions from the curious, such as “where is it that you are coming from?” As I spoke English, this seemed to arouse the inqusitiveness of my fellow passengers. Now I was the ‘foreigner’ traveling not to the The City of Gold – as Mumbai is called – but into the foothills of El Dorado.
The Turistren stopped ten times before reaching our destination. After a brief and pleasant walk around the magnificent Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, it was time to return. I had taken a trip to “nowhere” but as a journey, I had touched some nerve of Colombian life.
For more information on tickets and schedules: www.turistren.com.co