Stopover in Riobamba to Ride a Phantom Train
It’s been a solid 6 1/2 months since my last update on this story. I can’t come up with anything other than procrastination & prioritization as being the 2 key elements keeping me from putting the pen to the paper and stepping back into the ethereal experience that I so longingly crave to dwell within. Life in a city can and will often come at you just a hair under the actual speed of light, making it extraordinarily tough to sit back, take a deep breath of air, and watch the memories come flooding back into your soul. Too much time passing by can make the synapses a little dusty, and almost too hard to reach. I consider myself lucky that something, somewhere within my being is forged with an infatuation for photography. This feeling drove me to use my camera every day while we were constantly wandering through new environments. Images seem to have a magical power that can almost preserve the senses that you were receiving in the moment when your finger pushed the button to open the aperture. A great photograph can pass those feelings along to the viewer, which is a really cool gift to spread around. When I look at the image above I see a younger, more relaxed version of myself taking all the time needed to be living completely in the present moment. That’s a feeling that I am doing my best to seek and hold onto, and I look forward to the days when I’m consumed by them. Travel can do that to a guy.
How can an image bring about a sound that you can recognize? A smell that you can describe down to the most intricate details? How can a photograph make you feel the cool rain that came down in a place you’ve never set foot in on a day you were never there for? How can a picture show you love?
I’m glad I took my camera out when I probably would have been more content leaving it in it’s bag. At times it felt too heavy to pick up, like I was just going through the motions because I felt I was obligated to do so. But something would always come into focus that would instinctively send my hand into my camera bag. Some of the best images I’ve ever captured were in some of the simplest, shortest lived moments in time. The ones that weren’t polished or prepared for at all. There was almost never a set up and almost never a vision that I wanted to create. There were real moments that couldn’t be defined by anyone outside of the actual experience that was taking place. Those were the moments that I sought to capture and to pass along. Riobamba wasn’t a very exciting leg of our journey. It certainly lacked the adventure & gravitas that adhered to our other layovers, but when I look back at my images I can easily slip right back in time, tip-toeing in stream of reminiscence of a past when I was right there, living and breathing in that city. And I think that this kind of time travel is a pretty cool trick I need to take advantage of and use more frequently. I feel like lately I haven’t been giving it enough attention, like I’ve been taking it for granted.
Long story short: You get what you put into life, and I need to start putting more into my writing & photography. I’m making a promise to myself to not let this much time go by before revisiting some of the best experiences of my life.
The ride from Baños to Riobamba is a memory that has secured a permanent parcel of real estate in my brain. The jungle-like terrain of Baños disappeared from our field of vision and was quickly replaced by rolling green hills & dark, bold clouds occasionally gutted by the luminous sunshine in the crisp high mountain air. The occasional farm would poke it’s head out from the earth long enough us to get a glance before it disappeared from our lives forever. At that moment we were approaching month 9 of our journey and we had been intimately intertwined with mountainous landscapes for quite some time. They had become somewhat normalized as part of our surroundings, which made it more of an effort to be impressed by the endless supply of beautiful peaks & valleys wherever we looked. We had been getting a little mountained out, which I can assure you is a real possibility during lengthy encounters with the sheer volume of South American ranges. This particular day broke us away from that feeling. I forget who noticed it first, but one pair of our eyes focused on something that did not fit in with the rest of the picture. The enormous white peak of Chimborazo was suddenly there, sugar coated in snow and slightly shrouded with clouds. It rose almost straight up out of the ground and and stood still as the landscape in the foreground shifted at a constantly at a tremendous pace. I watched the snow blowing in slow motion off it’s peaks, blending into the fluffy white clouds passing by. I was awestruck. In comparison the larger than life chunk of earth was stoically biding it’s time while we all superfluously raced through life from one place to the next. While the land immediately in front of us accelerated past our eyes the eastern face of the enormous volcano sat forever still, far off in the distance with no obligations to be had.
Guidebooks & research can be a beautiful way to help you navigate through the uncertain paths that are waiting ahead of you when you are traveling anywhere you haven’t been before. An outdated book of ours was telling us that a unique experience was to be had high up in the Andean mountains from a small city named Riobamba. Every bit of information we had leaving Baños told us that an old freight train made it’s way daily from Riobamba to Guayaquil, but would pass through an insanely steep traverse up the side of a mountain. This railroad was built back between 1899 & 1908 and proved that crazy & smart could work hand in hand. It was a big leap in transportation efforts between the mountains & coastal port of Guayaquil. This railroad was a pipeline that linked small villages & rural areas with cities & the supplies they tend to have. For regular commuters & for tourists that wanted to get a vintage experience under their belt, the train offered daily departures to a town nearby allowing passengers the option of getting a seat inside or taking the journey while riding on the roof. No seats, just sitting on top of the train with everyone else to get from A to B. With unobstructed views of the valleys & the steep mountain coined “El Nariz del Diablo” (The Devil’s Nose), this trip seemed to have it all. To get the train up this steep terrain engineers built tracks in a series of zig zags that would allow the train to use both forward & reverse to climb up the mountain. The train remained fully operational until a portion of it was destroyed in the El Niño related weather 89 years later. A smaller portion of the track remained open until just before we showed up with dusty boots and tired backs.
The minute we arrived in town we wandered over to the train station to buy the ticket & take the ride on the old freighter we’d been dreaming about. We were led through an old depot station into a room with a few desks & employees stationed at desks behind computers. Once we asked about the train we found out that our guidebooks held some information that was outdated and was literally the information that led us to this town. Our bubble had burst when we heard that the train ride had been modernized in a way that will generate more income & was now used solely to promote tourism. New trains were decked out with plush seating, floor to ceiling windows, live entertainment, & food. This in turn came with a sizable price hike, and not at all what we had hoped for. We left the depot a little flustered, but we couldn’t let a minor setback like that hinder our stay in town. Still having all our gear, we hopped in a cab with directions to a nice sounding hostel a decent distance from the center of town. When we showed up, we found out that it was a lot more expensive than our guidebook had conveyed (we had been noticing an upwards trend in pricing for a while at this point), and ultimately way over the budget we wanted to spend considering the circumstances. We marched back towards the center of town, pretty exhausted at that point, and stumbled upon a relic from the past that was still open for business.
Nestled on a fairly busy corner, surrounded by a hodge-podge of privately owned variety stores, sat a hotel that looked as if it did 20 or 30 years ago in an effortlessly beautiful fashion. We walked through the lobby and into a small welcoming room complete with a high-top Formica counter adorned with a thin metal aluminum bevel on the edge. Nobody was waiting at the desk area, which had a small bell to ring and nothing else. One tap of the bell later a man walked in from the doorway behind the desk & we began to talk numbers for a nights stay. We settled on a one bedroom on the top floor with shared community bathrooms. The man gave us our key, and led us up the concrete stairwell to the 4th floor. When we entered the foyer the room opened up and featured a community sitting area complete with a dusty radio, television, a few chairs, a love seat, and side table height vintage metal ashtray. The floor on the center of the room was 6 inch opaque glass blocks that allowed the light from the foyer below, which added an unusually pleasing light to the area. The man took us over to our room, we unlocked the door, and he waited for our approval before disappearing downstairs. The bedroom was extremely basic. There was a very old bed with a very old mattress covered with very old bedding and topped with very old pillows. There was a tall mirror above a wooden desk, as well as a small TV that was affixed to the wall. We had a small balcony that let in the most beautiful afternoon light through the tired, old windows. I was digging just about every detail of this building and knew it would do us justice for a night while we regrouped & made plans to head out the next day.
After catching our breath & relaxing for a little bit, we decided to head out & see what the town had going on for dining & general entertainment. We found ourselves magnetically drawn to the tiny shops in the neighborhood that had their own niche inventories & themes. I remember one in particular that was selling new & used watches from display cases that looked as old as the cobbles in the streets. I almost convinced myself that I should buy a watch & figured it wouldn’t hurt to sleep on it till the morning. When hunger eventually grabbed our attention we sought out a steakhouse we had either read about or were referred to by travelers. It felt like a good idea to splurge on a meal given the train idea had derailed. On the way we noticed the neighborhood we were walking into was becoming more trendy by the block, with upscale looking purveyors & businesses amassing the further we went. We eventually found the steakhouse and immediately saw that it’s fare was well beyond what we could justify for a supper. We decided that the next runner up was our #1 go-to whenever it was an option, comida chifa. And there just so happened to be a decent Chinese restaurant a few blocks away from our hotel. Life was looking good. We ordered up a few solid dishes & ate on a plastic table with a plastic tablecloth in a room full of mirrors. Bliss.
After eating we found a pretty cool bar that served signature cocktails & had a great snack menu. We each ordered a unique, mixed drink & relaxed in an urban chic setting. It was a nice change of routine for us and it certainly wasn’t one of our staples. We didn’t stay for a 2nd round, instead we wandered around the large plaza for a while & reveled in a brief pause in our itinerary. We didn’t have anything to conquer or any crazy preparations to figure out for out next leg, we just had a free day in a place we hadn’t expected to enjoy as much as we did. We left our antique hotel the following morning at a casual pace and hopped on another old bus headed straight towards the mountains ahead.