The lit­tle train that couldn’t ...

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - JAC­QUE­LINE HA­GAN

We are on the af­ter­noon train, re­turn­ing to Talca from Con­sti­tu­cion in south­ern Chile. This train is a lo­cal leg­end, op­er­at­ing for more than 100 years along the Maule River val­ley link­ing iso­lated pue­b­los that lack any road sys­tem be­yond a few dirt tracks.

Most of the 60 pas­sen­gers are lo­cals re­turn­ing home, hav­ing sold their pro­duce and bought sup­plies in the mar­ket. A few day-trip­pers are along for the four-hour ad­ven­ture to Talca. The train winds along the nar­row gauge track be­side the river. Al­though there are small sta­tions, the train stops wher­ever it needs to set down or pick up pas­sen­gers. The sta­tion of Gon­za­les Bas­tia is our half­way point where the train from Talca is wait­ing to pass us. As we ap­proach, the train driver an­swers his phone. He speaks in a hushed voice. Pas­sen­gers are rest­less. They want to get off and meet friends from the other train but the doors re­main firmly closed. Even­tu­ally he rises and ad­dresses the pas­sen­gers. “Lo siento,” he be­gins, “I’m sorry ...” It seems there is a prob­lem with the other train and he must help.

“How long?” a pas­sen­ger in­quires. “I don’t know,” he replies, “but maybe 10 or 15 min­utes.” There is a cafe at this sta­tion, the only one on the route and he sug­gests a drink or a snack while we wait.

Ini­tially, the at­mos­phere is con­ge­nial and op­ti­mistic. Pas­sen­gers wan­der up to the cafe re­turn­ing with drinks and bis­cuits. Boys kick a ball. Lit­tle girls play with dolls. Af­ter 30 min­utes, every­one is be­com­ing anx­ious. No one has any in­for­ma­tion. Many have so­lu­tions. One man be­lieves there is a prob­lem with the hy­draulics. The driver looks for­lorn. He in­sists he must await in­struc­tions from head of­fice. It is out of his hands; he can make no de­ci­sion.

It is now 7pm, and get­ting very cold and dark. Peo­ple are dressed for the day­time. Kids are be­com­ing ratty and tired. A young woman is fran­ti­cally try­ing to call fam­ily in Talca but there is no mo­bile sig­nal. Her fa­ther, lean­ing on his walk­ing frame, is clearly dis­tressed. The sit­u­a­tion is de­te­ri­o­rat­ing rapidly. No one is tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity. We face a 4C night in light clothes worn for a sunny day.

I ask at the cafe if we can call a taxi. The men drink­ing at the bar are as­ton­ished and claim it would be too ex- pen­sive. I hang around nearby and over­hear talk of a Jeep. I beckon to the woman who is with her fa­ther and we dis­cuss how we can get out in this Jeep.

We ne­go­ti­ate a ride for her fam­ily and us. There will be 30km on a dirt road over a moun­tain pass, then 15km on a high­way to a small town. It seems there will be other trans­port op­tions from there to Talca. We con­sider the price to be a bar­gain at the equiv­a­lent of $60. The Jeep is fired up, we load in Dad and his daugh­ter and we all sail off into the night feel­ing only a shred of pity for those left be­hind with the train.

The ride is bumpy and dusty but we are warm and re­lieved. Along the high­way, we catch a minibus that drops us near our ho­tel where the front-desk re­cep­tion­ist scolds us with the lo­cal adage, “Al­ways take that train in the morn­ing when it is well rested. It is tired in the af­ter­noon.”

Still, by push­ing for the Jeep so­lu­tion, we have es­caped a night on the plat­form at Bas­tias Gon­za­les and hence we de­cide the moral of this tale has to be that the meek do not in­herit the Jeep.

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