The Train to Pozo del Tigre
An Experience in Bolivia
It always surprises me just how different people and their lives are when you travel around the world. Every place is different; every group of people live different lives. This brings to mind the time I had cause to travel to Pozo del Tigre. Where is Pozo del Tigre? I hear you ask. Pozo del Tigre, which means ‘Well of the Tiger’, is laughingly described as a village on the rail route from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, travelling south towards Argentina. I say laughingly called a village because there is practically nothing there and if you closed your eyes for three seconds on the train, you would miss it.
I had been staying at a hotel for a week or so in Santa Cruz before the trip. That itself was an experience I’ll never forget as the hotel reception allocated me a room which contained no less than three double beds and another similar room for my twenty-year-old son who was with me. We stayed for about ten days in total and the bill was $85.
A guide I was meeting, a German called Hans who spoke fluent Spanish, had asked us to be at the railway station at seven in the morning. We arrived in good time to find the platform crowded with local Bolivians and natives who appeared to have brought all their worldly possessions with them. Many of them even had crates of live chickens and I remember one even had a goat on a string lead. When the train arrived, they all clambered aboard with many of them climbing ladders on the sides of the carriages to find seating on the roof. And so, like an expedition through the Wild West, the train set off and we very soon found ourselves travelling through the jungle.
Along the edges of the track, damp mud flats attracted vast numbers of huge yellow butterflies taking moisture and nutrients from the soil. We crossed several rivers on rickety looking bridges and for reasons I never discovered, the train always seemed to come to a halt in the middle of the bridge for no apparent reason other than to make the passengers feel vulnerable and insecure.
After a while, the ticket inspector came through the carriage clipping our tickets and having some banter with the passengers. I’ve no idea how he handled those passengers hanging off the roof, but I would not have envied him his job. Hans gave him our tickets and got into a lengthy conversation with him. When the ticket inspector left I gathered from Hans that, although our tickets were to Pozo del Tigre, the train did not actually stop there. Shortly, the ticket inspector returned and after a discussion with Hans again I discovered that he had spoken with the driver who had kindly agreed to slow down as we went through the village. Hans explained that we would have to jump off from the moving train if we didn’t want to find ourselves in some remote place across the border in Argentina.
As we neared Pozo, Hans opened the carriage door and looked down the track. “It’s coming up,” he said, “get ready to jump”. To me, there was no apparent difference in the speed of the train, but Hans got ready and leaped off the step. As I passed by him running alongside the carriage, trying to stop, Hans tripped on the sleepers and went sprawling along the ground. My son and I prepared ourselves and jumped off, fortunately landing safely without mishap. As for Hans, I will be forever in admiration of his strength of character. He had landed on the small rocks that protected the railway line and split the palm of his hand leaving a gash some three or four inches long. Blood was pouring everywhere.
With no medical facilities within one hundred miles, the Station Master took him into the station, opened a medical box and poured neat iodine into the palm of Hans’ hand and immediately after took a needle and thread and put several stitches in whilst we all watched in horror. Hans never flinched or made a sound. Had it been me, I would have been flat out. The Station Master wrapped a bandage around the hand and we all went off to his home, where we were going to spend the night. I use the term home quite loosely. It was a tin shack with several rooms and open, unglazed apertures for windows. About a dozen people, men and women, were bedded down on makeshift beds. I believe they were mostly workers who were engaged in clearing the forestry.
The following morning, we arose early. Fortunately, I was the first to have a wash. The facility was simply a tin bowl of water on a chair in the back yard and I noticed that others who followed me were having to use the same water. In the back and beyond of Bolivia, water is precious as it has to be pumped from the ground.
I was purchasing some forestry which was to be cleared and eucalyptus trees planted. These trees would grow at a fantastic rate and after just seven years they were large enough to be felled and used as telegraph poles which are in popular demand throughout Bolivia. We drove out to the area along a cleared track that ran outwards from the railway line for several miles. I had purchased a square mile and was having one acre planted with eucalyptus trees. As you can imagine, a spot in the forestry on the edge of a cleared track, ten miles from civilisation, is not likely to be of any specific interest, and it wasn’t. Just trees and the occasional animal such as armadillo, lynx, wild boar and armies of ants.
We returned to the tin shack where I was very surprised to see the Station Master’s wife had prepared dinner. These local people who live on the edge in remote areas can ill afford to supply visitors with food so we were very grateful. We sat down to the meal. Upon reflection, I would much have preferred to go hungry, as grateful as I was. Since they have no electricity, they have neither refrigerators nor any fresh food. The meat they so kindly shared with us was not fresh or refrigerated, but dried over several months. The beef I was given was very much like chewing on a string vest made out of leather, but as it was from their own meagre rations, I was determined not to leave any. My determination was rewarded when I returned home by very extensive dental work on my ruined teeth.
The following morning, we set out again for Santa Cruz. Fortunately, the train did stop at the Pozo del Tigre station. Unfortunately, it was a freight train with no passenger carriages. We found an unused freight flatbed and rode back sitting on the edge with our feet dangling over the side. When we temporarily pulled up at a ‘village’, a bunch of young children run alongside the train until it came to a standstill. In one hand they had a large jug of lemonade and a glass tumbler in the other. We purchased several glasses from them which made them very happy.
This extremely unusual ‘village’ took on an appearance more like sheep and pigs enclosures as every home was constructed of disused railway sleepers. The railways had replaced all the timber sleepers with concrete ones and these poor people had used their ingenuity and put them to very good use. It’s a strange sight to see and entire village constructed in such a way.
Eventually, we pulled in at the Santa Cruz station and I bade my farewell to Hans who promised to send me progress photos of my eucalyptus development. He kept his word. After one year the trees had grown to about five feet high. In year two they were some twelve feet tall. The next photos I received was after four years and they were all dead. Apparently there had been a long drought and with no rain at all the trees had given up. And so did I. As they say, you win some, you lose some.