The engine trudges along the hairpin bends that draw the great Andean plateau like a sleeping snake.
Mountains-very different from those we are accustomed to in Europe clear for a narrow-gauge railway that, today, has the sole task of recalling a time that is no more: the time of the tremendous Bolivian mines, a land of deposits of silver, copper and even gold. They seemed inexhaustible. And their Eldorado – Potosi (which in Spanish means extraordinary wealth) – still stands as a testament in name and, in fact, to a rich and shining age. An era of miners, dust, and unscrupulous European merchants. In the era of the great mines of Bolivia, it was said that “…there is so much silver that you could build a bridge to Madrid.” But time passes, and things change. The mines run out. And the unscrupulous European merchants were driven out. The mines, wanting to remember the time, became safe routes for enthusiastic tourists.
At the edge of the tremendous narrow-gauge railroad that plies the great Andean plateau, where the big climbs never come down, if you are lucky, you may come across the “last ones at the border.” Small outposts where the old earth and mud buildings-now skeletons in imperishable memory-have been replaced by sturdier brick ones and faded-colored tin roofs. And wood to protect against the wind-raising dust. Always.
Faces of men and women marked by time, the living eyes you have to glimpse between the furrows of rough, almost expressionless skin. But looking at them, you know they would have a thousand stories to tell. If only they felt like it. And you can listen to them.
We stop at one of these last outposts for a short break, a cigarette.
A small shack with an egg plateau outside suggests that it is a resale of something. I go in, ducking very low so as not to bump into the doorframe (my European height does not help in these countries where the little one is at home) and ask–to the figure I glimpse in the half-light–if he has any water. To buy.
With the kindness of one who welcomes a wayfarer, being a wanderer himself, he hands me a dusty bottle. I don’t mind, and before I pay him, I ask him how much it costs.
6 Bolivars, not even 1€. I hand over a 50 bolivar bill (about 7€), untouched, fresh from the cajero automàtico that he probably doesn’t even know what it is. She looks at me through that narrow slit that forms her eyes, which I imagine glimpse dark.
“Here we are at the camp, at the border…we don’t trade…” – he says this in his language but is well understood, speaking some Latin American Spanish. He says this to imply that he did not have the change of 50 Bolivars and that if I wanted to pay for the water, I should give him the correct amount. Or at least a more minor cut. I discovered I had a 10 Bolivar bill and handed it to him. He still looks at me.
But like all men of few words, capable of getting to the heart of things because time may run out and there are more important things than selling water to a smiling European, he disappears behind a small pantry until he retrieves another bottle. A little bit bigger. Even more dusty. 8 Bolivar. And two chocolates as change. We look at each other silently, convinced, both of us, that we have concluded our exchange. About the excellent deal.
I walk out of the small, sturdy brick shack with a faded tin roof and wood to protect it from wind and dust. I remain dazzled by the Andean plateau sun and wait a few seconds to get used to the change in light. Sodden for the large bottle I was holding. And the two chocolates without worrying about a possible expiration date.
He also comes out behind me. Nestor, his name.
And, in the Andean plateau furrowed by the narrow-gauge railroad, evidence of a time that is no more… Nestor disappears to where only those who have this land on their skin know where to go.