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The 55th Mile

Feeling sleepy on the bus ride from Cuzco, I was suddenly refreshed by the breathtaking landscapes of the sacred valley of the Inca, a shining new world to my eyes. I went through Pisco and Urubamba toward Ollantaytambo, where the road to Machu Picchu begins.

Both Cuzco and Ollantaytambo are tourist towns, but the latter is also an important archeological site. It served for a long time as ceremonial center and as stronghold against the Spanish conquerors.

Ollantaytambo is known as the heart of the sacred valley of the Inca, and it is usually the last stop before Aguas Calientes, in route to Machu Picchu. I wanted to leave Ollantaytambo as soon as I arrived. Tourists flood into the place and prices rise, which is the stuff that has turned traveling into a dying art, if not a lost battle altogether.

There are two ways to reach Machu Picchu: by PeruRail or Inca Rail—two lucrative train companies— or by crossing some parts of the Inca Trail, which are a series of roads that have been handed over to private administrators, who charge you between $385 and $470 to walk it up, not including lodging. Now the Inca Trail has become something of an overpriced commonplace in adventure tourism.

These private businesses have closed down other access routes to Machu Picchu, which allows them to charge excessive fees. Peru Rail, for one, enjoyed a monopoly since it started business in 1999, and were known for using legal strategies to delay the opening of the market and the arrival of competition.

They were finally fined for monopolistic practices and they had to open up the market to two other companies —Inca Rail and Andean Railways— but they remain to this day the transportation service preferred by visitors. Still, prices are forbidding in terms of the local purchase power; they are obviously established for tourists, who end up paying between $71 and $330 for an uninteresting two-hour ride in seats that don’t even recline!

As I pondered about overpricing, monopolies and other frustrating issues, I noticed an indigenous woman sitting in a wooden chair and watching the battalion of visitors. I sat down next to her and asked her if she knew of other ways in which the locals get to Machu Picchu, apart from the businesses that sell you a Peru for export.

She told me that I could follow the tracks, although that was illegal and also dangerous, according to local legends. The lady got excited with her own story and told me that there’s a mermaid in the Watanay River, who leads travelers to death.

There’s also, she confided, the Ghost of the Rail, who scares people on their way, turning their hair white after they see him. I immediately wanted to go after the legends that keep the locals off the railway, but as soon as I started to walk I was stopped. “Sir, where do you think you are going?” said a uniformed staff member of Peru Rail.

I answered without hesitation: “I don’t want to pay to these exploiters, so I’m walking up to Macchu Picchu following the tracks.” The man, who had a strangely geometrical face and ghostly eyes, smiled and said, “Go, then. Good luck.” See? Never judge a person by their uniform. So off I went into the long road, carrying coca leaves in my hand to help me with the altitude. No escort but my own shadow, no feeling but the volcanic spiritual joy of one who travels without defined routes.

A few hours later, and after dodging the trains that whistled by me, I sat down to rest at the tiny town of Tanjac, which was there already during the trying colonial times but now has become a little more than a ghost town.

There is, to be sure, more wood in a crucifix and more metal in a single nail than in all the mud houses of Tanjac. And yet it was there that I met Víctor Pérez, already a man in his eighties, ideologically left-winged and widely known in the vicinity as “Che Guevara.” We sat down to chat and he confided, as if remembering things not yet past, that “Communism is not the solution for the world.”

After asking me if I worked for the CIA, the Peruvian Che added that “We are all the same.” Besides being a communist, Pérez is a descendant of Incas and has witnessed important historical events in contemporary Peru, like the military dictatorships of the seventies, the return of democracy in the eighties, and the government’s war against terrorists and guerillas like Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a conflict that took the lives of more than 70,000 people between combatants and civilians, many of them peasants.

Pérez claimed that his communist ideas, along with the reciprocal system of redistribution of goods he learned from his Inca ancestors, have shaped his hopes for a more egalitarian world. “My friend, I believe in Hugo Chávez,” he said, asserting his political leanings.

“We have to pray and ask the Sun, the Inca god,” he added, biding me farewell with a tired smile. The dreams of this deep Latin American are made of real things; basic things, really: freedom, housing, jobs, food and of course, education.

But the only thing that prospers here is poverty, thanks to the huge gap in the distribution of resources of all sorts. Here the eggs of discontent and violence hatch. These beautiful and often desolate landscapes that have been so widely photographed by listless unresponsive visitors are the birthplace of all Latin American revolutionaries, both good and bad.

With night falling, I discovered a little shack, presumably an unofficial train stop that also worked as a store, and I went in to ask how far I was from my destination. Two men with thick Quechua accents told me I still had quite a long way to go, for I was only at the 55th mile, and the next town, Aguas Calientes, was 14 miles away.

They also told me, with concern, that at night the road was very dangerous. They looked at each other, exchanged something in Quechua, and turning back to me with a curious look, they told me, “Brother, tonight you are staying with us. You look tired. Tomorrow you can continue your adventure.” Indeed I was tired, after so many hours stepping on sharp rocks and hard rails.

I accepted gladly and took the beer that one of them offered me. A train came by, however, and I considered buying one of their expensive tickets to make it that very night to Aguas Calientes. I tried to get in, but I was stopped and told that this train was for Peruvians only, not for tourists.

They insisted they never carried tourists, regardless of how much in need they may be. Apparently, this run-down “local train” transports some 70 Peruvians every day, as if to make up for the flagrant inequality in all the services of the region, and to somehow promote the idea that Machu Picchu “is for everybody.” This train is subsidized by PeruRail, and it costs about ten Peruvian soles (some $3.5), it has five coaches for passengers and a few more for cargo.

You need a DNI (the Peruvian citizen’s ID) to board, and you can expect to travel standing in the aisles while sharing space with somebody else’s carry-on that only fits on the floor. So I went back to my new Quechua-speaking friends, weighting my indignation and even rage at this form of racial and economical segregation. Just to give you an idea, Machu Picchu receives about 2000 visitors per day; so those 70 Peruvians that Peru Rail so generously transports for a courtesy fee represents some 0.35% of the total daily visitors.

Way to give back to the community! Somehow, numbers always work up well for the people on top, not quite for those at the bottom: in a country with over 28 million people, you have to wonder how many of them have actually visited Machu Picchu with such limiting quotas as 70 per day. That’s 25,000 people a year, as opposed to the 730,000 foreigners in the same period. Turns out my new friends worked for the railroad.

One of them stayed in the shack and the other one asked me to follow him in the dark. “Let’s go home,” he said. As we walked along the tracks, two more men jumped into the group and they were invited to follow us. They were escorting me from behind and on both sides. I feared I was going to get mugged, so I quietly held on to a knife I was carrying. We walked through some bushes and reached a mud house with dirt floors.

There we were welcomed by an old woman who did not seem to understand Spanish. I put my knife away. “Come in,” said my host. “He is a brother from Costa Rica and he’s staying with us tonight,” he told the old lady. The woman did not pay too much attention to me and continued sweeping the floor with a hay broom.

I shook hands with the other two men, who stared at the ground as we parted. I noticed there were seven other men lying on the ground inside the house, heated by a gas stove located in the one room that they all shared. One of them was cooking. He asked me if I was hungry.

I wanted to swallow whatever was in that boiling pot and I told him so. He went back to cooking and the men who spoke Spanish flooded me with questions about my homeland: “How is Costa Rica?” they asked. “Do people understand English there?” I was also curious about them, of course. So I fired back with my questions. I asked them if they all lived there in that mud-walled room. Yes, they said, and added that they had families in other parts of Peru, but that they were working now repairing the railroad to Aguas Calientes.

They lived as if in a commune. In fact, they shared with me their socialist ideas, and their custom of distributing equally and sharing with everyone, including me now. They all gave away a bit of their food to feed me, despite my insistence that I was no longer hungry.

They also gave me blankets and one of the few dusty mattresses they had. There was no glass in the windows and the chill of the altitude filled the room. At about eight o’clock they put on their hardhats, groped for their flashlights and started to leave. I knew their shift had ended at six, so I asked them where they were headed. “Off to work,” they all said. “How many hours do you work a day?” I asked them.

They told me they worked eight hours during the day and eight more during the night, taking breaks in between. In the few hours that I spent with them that evening, I saw them leave their daytime shift, then I saw them rest for a few hours and then leave to work again at night, only to return at around four for another break and start with this exhausting cycle of carrying heavy rocks to the tracks all over again at six in the morning. I inquired as to how much money they made a day.

“Thirty soles,” was their reply. That’s less than $18. How do these people manage to provide for their families with such an exhausting and ill-paying job and still have the will to take food off their plates to give to a foreigner? I may never know. But as a matter of fact, the next morning they all chipped in to buy me two loaves of bread and broad beans to eat on my way.

They wouldn’t listen as I begged them not to spend their money on me. Their strong sense of solidarity made them insist that I brought food for the way. I walked slowly that day, half surprised and hurting, stricken by a thunder of emotions.

I have never tasted such stale bread. I couldn’t help but wonder, after seeing the terrible conditions and the genuine solidarity in which these people work at the 55th mile, just at what stage of the capitalist machinery is such injustice born. I was soon to learn that the Trans-Andean Railway (Fetransa) had been granted the rights of administration and maintenance of the South and South-East railways of Peru for a 30-year period.

That kind of deal makes one suspicious. As it happened, it was former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori who granted this deal in 1999 as part of his privatization policies. That’s the same Alberto Fujimori who had to flee his country after a political scandal that made news around the world a few years back. He was President of Peru for two consecutive periods (1990-2000); then he spent five years in Japan (the home country of his parents) running away from Peru’s police.

He was finally detained and sent back to Peru when he arrived in Chile in 2005. Some people still defend his economic policies –the same way some people in Chile defend Pinochet’s– but Fujimori has been found guilty on charges of corruption (appropriating State funds) and human rights violations (as the mind behind murders and kidnappings) and is now doing time in a Peruvian jail. But life goes on.

One of Fetransa’s main share holders is the British corporation Orient-Express Hotels, which also owns PeruRail. That way, the operating and maintenance companies are linked by a single corporate administration that doesn’t seem to have much at stake in the country and therefore does not care much for the conditions in which indigenous workers live.

According to Mariela Cabrillo, of the Human Resources staff at Peru’s Orient-Express offices, “the one in charge of hiring the maintenance personnel is Fetransa, a partner of Orient-Express, with which it shares offices and personnel.” The one setback that these two companies have had in early 2010 involved a penalty for monopolizing practices.

There have not been any scandals as to the workers’ conditions. Unfortunately, this is not magical realist literature. The realism of the 55th mile to Machu Picchu has names, living flesh and walking bones. It is there in the lives of the people you don’t see, the ones who work to keep alive the Empire of Tourism and the Fantasy of Machu Picchu.

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