Having just returned from a three-day trek across the Andes to the Bolivian salt lake (more on that another time, but you can see some pictures here) Amy and I contemplated our next move. Should we get the hellish 10-hour bus ride to Sucre (bumpy roads, no toilet stops), or the simple train journey to La Paz? Everyone we met on our salt lake trip was catching the train and I complained that joining them would be taking the easy option and that we should rough it on the bus. Character building and all that. How wrong I was.
We knew that the train ticket office was said to only open an hour or so before the train arrived, so we made a simple plan: enjoy dinner with our new friends, then meander to the station for 10pm, buy tickets, then stroll back to the hotel for our bags, possibly grabbing a drink before boarding the train at midnight.
I will never be able to capture the true despair, boredom, panic and terror of what really happened but I'll try:
8pm - Check station before heading to dinner. Note that people are already queing for tickets. All's well so far.
10pm - Return to station after dinner. Despite the presence of many more hopefully travellers, the ticket booth is still closed. Join the crowd.
10.30pm - Station is filling up fast. Two Brits accuse a large gang of Israeli's of queue jumping. An arguement breaks out. Everyone else is quite pleased with the entertainment.
10.50pm - Two stray dogs enter station and begin fighting. The patient crowd watch silently. I root for the pregnant, white dog. Booth still closed.
10.57pm - I overhear an American describing Machu Pichu as "kinda neat."
11pm - The booth should be open by now. The station is crowded with over 100 cold, frustrated people. Our group grow concerned that if we can't buy tickets soon there won't be enough time to make it back to our hotels to collect backpacks.
11.13pm - I break wind, silently.
11.23pm - Out of complete boredom, the waiting crowd shuffle into a formal queue that leads to a closed ticket booth.
11.24pm - I check my watch for the 58th time.
11.26pm - I contemplate which part of my Swiss Army Knife I've used the least. (Conclusion: probably the toothpick).
11.27pm - Fearing that the space between buying tickets and running to the train will be small, our group organises itself into three teams: one that queues, one that taxis bags from hotels-to-station and another that guards the bags at the station. The process runs like clockwork; the Bolivian train network doesn't.
11.46pm - The train arrives. The ticket booth is still closed.
11.47pm - Ticket booth opens! One man with an ancient ticket-printing machine is all that stands between a crowd of 200 people and a train about to leave in 15 minutes.
11.50pm - A couple of minutes into selling tickets it's apparent that several purchasing cartels have formed - people at the back of the queue are paying those at the front to buy them tickets. Arguements break out, fingers are pointed and 10mins later it's apparent that our group is last in the queue and may not get tickets.
Midnight - The train is due to depart, but being only half full is delayed for 10 minutes. The driver still chuffs up the engine and toots the horn occassionally to send a wave of fear through those still in the queue.
12.15am - Finally, with tickets in hand, our nine-strong group (the only people not already on the train) thunder to the front of the train, toss our bags onto the luggage carriage (with superhuman strength gained from adrenalin), then tear to the other end of the platform, leaping into our carriage as the train pull aways. Some time later when the train reaches it's top speed of 10mph we realise that we could have given it a 15 minute headstart and still caught the bloody thing up.
Where are we? In La Paz, finally. Though we head to the Amazon in a couple of days to get eaten by aligators.