28 December 2007

In the total darkness, a little light goes a long way

It was Easter 1986. I was supposed to go with a party of Scouts on a walking weekend in the Canta area, in the Andes just East of Lima (Peru). I was one of the six adults in the party of around 18. A change in my exams timetable meant I could not leave with the group in the morning coach to Canta. My namesake JC was in a similar situation, so we arranged to meet up and take a 4pm coach instead - it should put is in Canta by 6pm, just at dusk, and we should then be able to make the 3mile walk from Canta - at the top of the valley - to Obrajillo, the village by the river near which we'd be camping for the first night. Sergio, the leader, had prepared a map with the camping spot marked in it. Easy.

Of course, it didn't work out as planned. The coach took four hours to reach Canta - it got there at 8pm. It was a moonless night, and fog had covered the entire valley. My mate and I walked the four streets that made up the town of Canta and took the road to Obrajillo - apparently the only people to do such thing that night. We had no torch with us and could not see beyond our noses. At some point we heard water running - a small stream of water that run across the winding road, but since it had been raining the day before, we suspected it might have grown wider. When we got close enough we kneeled down to touch the water, then tried to guess the width of the stream, hoped there'd be no obstacles on the other side, and jumped. Good news: we got across unharmed. Bad: we fell short, and ended up wet to the ankles.

When we finally got to Obrajillo the fog had lifted. Only the village square had street lights. We followed the map, took the path out of the village towards the mountains and after a mile or so reached the end - the cobblestoned way marked by half-height stone walls on boths sides became just a winding path going up to the foothills of the mountain. There we hesitated. According to the map our group should be right there, but in the dead silence of the night (in the Andes people rise early and retire early - at 9.30pm there wasn't a soul in sight) we couldn't hear a thing or see any lights. We panicked. We called, shouted, blew our whistles - no response. We assumed we had misread the map - perhaps the campsite was on the opposite side of the river. We walked back through the village, through the cemetery end (how is that for atmospheric?), over a footbridge and down the path on the opposite bank.

From there, we saw it: a light was shining on the other site, very near where we had just been. It was a flickering light inside a tent - in the pitch dark it seemed so near! We rushed to it - it took us a good 30' to get there. To our huge disappointment, the light belonged to a parafin lamp lit by some peasants guarding their field from a makeshift shelter.

Beaten, we strolled into the village. We found one shop open, a frail woman and a single candle on the counter. We begged her to let us stay the night but she refused. She helpfully suggested we tried Don Melchor's - he was known to rent rooms to travellers. His was the house right next to the church on the village square. We went there and gently tapped on the door. Nothing. We tried again, this time whispering 'Don Melchor, Don Melchor'. Nothing. An old man sitting on the steps of the church, cigarette in hand, looked on. Panic once more seized us - we frantically started beating the door with our walking sticks and shouting 'Don Melchor!, Don Melchor!'.

The old man from the Church stood up and came towards us. Then he said calmly 'Yes, young men? I am Don Melchor'. How we spent the night at his place, how we found our comrades the following morning and how the whole expedition came to a successful end, will be the matter of another note.

01 December 2007

A train journey

I do the Manchester – London train trip, on average, twice a month. It hardly feels like ‘London’ – it is more like a long local commute – especially if I have plenty to do during the journey. Then I get immersed in my stuff and suddenly we are there. Arriving into London is like joining a cattle stampede – a rush out of the train, into the station and down the escalators to the Tube, then more – and more frantic – rushing down more escalators. I emerge out of a side-exit of the Charing Cross Tube station – but right on Trafalgar Square, just round the corner from the office, to which I always dash, hardly ever stopping to appreciate my surroundings and the fact that I am in the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities.

Sometimes, when the weather is nice and I have a bit of time to spare, I do walk from Euston to Trafalgar Sq. I don’t follow a carefully mapped out route – I roughly know which direction to take, and sometimes I take little detours that, in the square-and-grid pattern my South American mind still expects in any large city, I hope will take me roughly to my destination – only that in England they don’t. Sometimes I end up on the Strand and the BBC’s Bush House, sometimes I err towards Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus. Today I walked through the thick of Soho and its cafes, bars, cinemas and ‘bookshops’. Sometimes I say to myself that, one day, I’ll build enough time so that I can stop by one of these cafes run by Turks, Lebanese, Cypriots and what have you. But part of me knows that, in London, the price alone will be enough to disappoint you – not to mention the indifferent service provided by underpaid Polish or Czech girls that look like they should be called Olga or Alena.

Walking back from Euston at the end of the working day is a even rarer treat – why, most of the time I’m late or feel that I should be getting home after indulging in some unscheduled networking in Head Office (‘good for my career’ I assure my wife). London is even more frantic at dusk than it is in the morning – people aren’t just in a hurry, they look really desperate, perhaps overwhelmed by the pressures a long commute puts on them and their families; perhaps wary of what the evening ahead has in store for them. There are of course pockets of contentment – the young and care free, the affluent, the tourist, students who by the most part seem not too have too terrible a time or to live quite as far as the average working Sussex-based commuter.

When, like today, I take the tram back to Euston, I’m always grateful for the tip a Head Office colleague passed on to me years ago: don’t do the obvious and take the Northern Line straight to Euston. On paper it seems to make sense, but it involves a lot more walking, deeper into Charing Cross, then more escalators at Euston. From Trafalgar, at the Admiralty Arch end, take the subway straight down and go for the Jubilee line. Then count two stops – alight at Oxford Circus. Cross to the adjacent platform and - voila! – you can take the Victoria line to Euston, only two stops away. When it works, it works a treat – especially when you strike ‘synchronicity’ and the change happens seamlessly. There are unlucky days, of course – once I got on the Jubilee line only to find Oxford Circus had been closed due to a security scare, and had no option but to go the long way round – and miss my train in the process.

Once on the concourse in Euston, I follow a sort of ritual – unless time is up, I always go to a shop called ‘Journey’s Friend’ and buy myself an ice cream, then go wait until they announce the platform for the Manchester train. I should find out why, when they seem able to announce all other platforms for all other trains well in advance, the Manchester one is withheld until the very last minute. I’ve concluded that it is because someone in Euston does not like Mancunians, and gets some sort of perverse pleasure out of seeing a whole bunch of us standing on the concourse, then running off the minute the platform is announced, blatantly vying for the best possible seat – the table seat, aisle so that one can hog the whole table and have room for stretching one’s legs; or window, so as to have access to the power point and ensure that one can spread the old laptop without worrying that the battery will run out. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t really got any urgent work to do – it looks good and one can always use the time writing witty little articles about train journeys.

Dos peruanos

Ayer en la estacion conoci a dos peruanos
Tomaba mi café y escuche el viejo acento
Y por unos segundos, retrocedi en el tiempo
A las calles de Lima en los largos veranos

Ayer en la estacion dos peruanos hablaban
Y tomaban café en la mesa de al lado