Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Highest Train in the World

Okay, the second highest.  The Chinese had to build one, too, but they spent $3 billion on theirs.  The train I speak of is the Central Andean Railway, or Ferrocarril Central Andino, in South America.  The line was completed over a hundred years ago, and while today it is used mostly for cargo, on occasion a passenger train still runs from Lima over the mountains to the city of Huancayo, Peru.

My family and I set out early to Desamparados Station in downtown Lima (it means “departures” in Spanish) for the 7 a.m. train.  Unlike most things in Peru, we expected it to be on time, and it was.  We were in tourist-class, which meant slightly more legroom and access to a lounge.  While the seats are modern, the walls of the train are covered in wood and brass, reminiscent of the age.

The passenger car was built in the 1930s, and evidence of this can still be seen

The 13-hour ride starts near sea level, and ascends an average of 27 feet per minute into the Andes mountains, which make the Rockies look like foothills.  68 bridges, 71 tunnels, and 9 “zigzags” punctuate the trip.  The zigzag is self-explanatory, a simple, yet brilliant way for the train to ascend a few hundred feet in an otherwise impassable area.

 This photo illustrates the scale of the Andes, when compared with the highway below

Enough boring statistics, because that doesn’t do this trip justice.  Facing rearward, and after rolling handily through the outskirts of Lima for almost an hour, we picked up speed and steamed around the mountains and gorges near Peru’s desert coast.  We saw entire fields full of giant prickly-pear cactuses, their pods used to make dye, but I thought it was a great guard against intruders.

Our first stop was a small train station and roundhouse.  The locomotive had to be turned around so it could pull us up the mountain.  We were distracted by an old steam engine and missed the action, but the roundhouse was old-school – no hydraulics.  Using nothing but gravity and leverage, a single man can rotate a 50-ton modern locomotive in about a minute.  One of the passengers was allowed to perform this task.  To me, this type of 19th century engineering makes the iPhone look rather obtuse.

Facing forward again, we spent the next five hours chugging up mountain after endless mountain, seeing amazing waterfalls, gorges, mountain villages, and alien vegetation.  I must not forget about the alien plants – imagine the top of a pineapple, except fifteen feet across and ten feet high.  Out of the top, grows a flower that looks like a giant stalk of asparagus, but crooked and snakelike, straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.  The kind of plant that makes me nervous if I get too close to it, because it looks like it might just eat me, or at least sniff the back of my neck.

The train finally reached its highest point at 15,583 feet, which I believe is about a thousand feet higher than Pike’s Peak.  By this time, several passengers had received supplemental oxygen, although I felt fine.  Actually, I felt better than fine.  In spite of my avoidance of the bar-car, other than for some sightseeing and photo-taking from the open rear section, I was absolutely giddy – without the best oxygen supply, my brain seems to interpret everything from cancer to genocide as the funniest things ever – I think we were 2,000 feet down the mountain before I could wipe the smile off my face, but I came up with the most interesting conspiracy theory about the link between the Curiosity mission to Mars and the Federal Reserve Bank.  I wrote it down, and that may be the subject of a later post.

By the last third of the trip, we were all pretty beat, and ready for it to be over, but occasional view of snow-capped peaks or rushing rivers kept us going until sunset.  A few more trips to the lounge car at the end of the train, just to give us an excuse to stand, proved helpful, although it raised another question to my oxygen starved mind:  there is enough lateral movement that the walk through four cars to get to the bar feels like a condemned ride at Disneyland, yet in all the movies, the heroes and villains always end up fighting on top of the train.  We could barely stand up in the center of the thing without holding on.

 This is the entire train, taken from the open lounge car at the rear of the train

The last hour or so of the trip was in the dark.  Even that proved fascinating – so far away from the scourge of civilization, there are only a few million extra stars to look at.

Because we were so thrilled with his service, I am going to insert a shameless plug here for our guide, IncasdelPeru, who set the whole thing up for us.  They offer train packages, but will tailor a custom tour for your family, depending on what you would like to see in Huancayo.  Ask for Lucho.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

World War Two Vets Released After ANC Incident

Arlington, VA --- Three elderly men have been released from custody after initially being accused of peace disturbance and aggravated assault at Arlington National Cemetery, police said.

Roy Eggert, 89, Bill Wallace, 91, and Fred Wahlberg, 93, were gathered near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a ceremony marking Veteran’s Day.  Each of the men is a veteran of World War Two.

According to initial reports, Retired Army Master Sergeant Eggert and silver star recipient spotted a young woman taking a photo of her friend near the tomb.  The second woman was crouched next to a sign reading “Silence and Respect” with her middle finger raised.

Wallace, a retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant and former sniper, attempted to chamber a round into his M1903 ceremonial rifle, but was stopped short by a suggestion from Wahlburg, who served in the south Pacific, and left the Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer following the Korean conflict.

“I thought it was warranted, don’t get me wrong,” said Wahlburg in a brief statement to the press following his release.  “I just told Bill it would be better if we keelhauled her, and he thought it was a great f**king idea.”

Police arrested the men while they argued about the best place to find a suitable ship, he added.

A law-enforcement spokesman stated that the men were held for several hours, but once the young lady’s photo appeared on her Facebook page, police were unable to find any witnesses to the incident.

(Disclaimer:  The above piece is written as satire)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Saying “Thank You” to Veterans

It’s probably happened to most of us in uniform – a free beer, dinner, or even a surprise upgrade to business class.  Americans wish to support a random vet by saying ‘thank you for your service.’

It’s well received, and I am grateful, but it makes me a little uncomfortable, because I don’t always know what to say.  The source of my discomfort is a simple matter of sacrifice.

I don’t feel like I’ve done that.  Sure, I’ve been away from my family for years of my life, endured searing heat, loneliness, and dust that can only be described as a living thing.  As a medical officer, I have seen things that I would rather not remember, much less describe.

I’ve never lost a limb, or my life.  But I know people who have.  I’m not serving anymore, but I still have friends in harm’s way.  There are so many others who deserve your thanks more than I do.

A few years ago, I delivered a Veteran’s Day speech to my local high school auditorium, which I thought went well – I stood before the group of parents and teenagers in my captain’s class-A’s and told of the service of men barely teenagers themselves, and made a joke or two about the desert heat.

Afterwards, I was approached by an ancient soldier in WW2 dress greens, buttons tarnished.  He shook my hand, and without a word, reached up slowly and carefully to lift my lapel.  I know he saw one ribbon I wore there, stacked onto a dozen others that feel more like boy-scout merit badges, so modern-day generals can wear giant stacks of ribbons like some Latin American dictator.  I got my bronze star for meritorious service in combat, but I certainly didn’t do anything courageous to get it.  Like most others, I spent much of my time inside the relative safety of “the wire.”

The old staff sergeant smoothed both my lapels and patted them down, and took time to feel the polyester-wool fabric, likely different from his own wool uniform, which was faded and eaten by moths once or twice.  That’s when I saw the three small ribbons he wore.

A World War 2 victory medal, a Pacific campaign ribbon, and the bronze star – with four oak leaf clusters and a tiny metal “V,” black with age.  He had been awarded the medal 5 times - for VALOR.

“Thank you for your service,” the old man said in a gravelly voice, not much louder than a whisper.

How could a simple “You’re welcome” suffice?  He looked to be more than eighty, but he was made from molds long broken, from material tougher than anything seen in decades.

“And I thank you for yours,” was all I could reply without choking. I wasn’t worthy to shine this man’s boots.

My speech that day had been about a man named Frank W. Buckles, the last surviving veteran of World War I.  Since then day, we have lost him to eternity.  Within a few decades, we will lose more old warriors, and the current ones, if they are lucky, will become the old.

Please take the time to share or retweet this - but more importantly, take the time to thank a soldier, new or old.

 Veterans Day 2012

They (we) thank you for your support.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

White Water Rafting in Lunahuana, Peru

Our latest episode of tourism in Peru began on a winter morning.  Winter in South America falls in July, but in Lima it’s mild, reaching 58 degrees on the coldest of nights.  Sometimes, the excessive humidity creates a bone-chilling mist, but it’s no blizzard in Chicago.  Once away from the coastal desert, the climate is much more what one would expect a few degrees south of the equator.

For this reason, we headed out of town by bus, to a place called Lunahuana.  Peru is said to have some of the best white water rafting in the world, fueled by runoff from the Andes.

When Americans think of white water rafting, usually it’s done in the Rockies of Colorado or somewhere similar, but there is a difference in scale – the State of Colorado contains a number of tall mountains, the highest of which is 14,440 ft.

The highest in Peru is 22,132.  We’re planning on climbing one in a few weeks that is just over 19,000, and it doesn’t even make the list of the top 35.  

Adjust your thoughts of white water rafting in Peru accordingly.

My wife and I had both been rafting in the Rockies, on class 3 rapids, and this was rated at class 3 and 4, so it didn’t sound like a bad trip to us.  The water level was much lower than in the rainy season.
“Do people raft when the river is that high?” we asked our guide.

“Not if they’re smart.  People die during the rainy season.”

“So people have died on this river?”

“No.  Not for a few months.”  He wasn’t kidding.

As frightening as it might sound, added to the fact that Peruvian white water rafting is basically unregulated, we felt pretty safe.  Each boat had its own guide, and several additional guides made the journey with us in kayaks, so they could maneuver quickly if one of our seven-raft group got in a bind.

They even provided us helmets, which proved useful in the first two minutes, as when we went under the first bridge, local kids tried to hit us with rocks.  Sort of a Peruvian version of "Whack-a-mole."

Our guide told me later that keeping tourists alive is better for business.  I love the free market.

We made our journey in just over two hours, which was the perfect amount of time.  It was the perfect balance of excitement – I never felt afraid, at least not much, but there weren’t many moments of boredom.  Rather than a relaxing float punctuated by fast water, it was basically one continuous set of rapids.

In the few moments of calmer water, we could see people getting on with their daily lives near the river.  At several points they have constructed elaborate cable crossing gizmos, moving people and supplies across the river in suspended buckets or platforms.  We didn’t get any good photos of this, as I was busy trying not to drown.

The amount of time was perfect as well, as Youngest was starting to have purple lips by the time we docked.  I was ready for some dry clothes, a cup of hot tea, and a nap.

The cost for four of us was about $300, but we went with a large group, so our price included the three hour trip by bus.  A number of tour operators are in business near Lunahuana, and the village alongside the river boasts the occasional small cafĂ©.  If you have an extra day in Peru and a need for adventure, this trip is just the thing.