• Tag Archives Otto
  • A Walk in the Andes

    Continued from Railway in the Sky

    The G&Q Railway in Riobamba
    The G&Q Railway in Riobamba

    When we arrived at Riobamba, the effects of altitude hit us as we stepped down from the train. The slightest exertion made us feel weak and unsteady. Obviously, we were in no condition to embark on a mountain trek. Carlos merely nodded, and made the necessary arrangements.

    We rested two days in a primitive hotel, drinking cocoa tea to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. On the third day Carlos returned with three stout campesinos, each leading a comical, long-necked pack animal. Two of the animals were loaded with supplies, and the third was harnessed to carry our gear. By this time our heads were beginning to clear.

    The first week passed without incident, as we wound our way through alpine fields and across mountain slopes. Our heading was South and then East, deeper into the Andes. We hiked in single file, with Carlos in front and the campesinos and pack animals behind. The scenery was spectacular; I’d seen nothing like it, except once on vacation in Austria as a boy.

    We traveled further each day as our bodies grew accustomed to the altitude. After about 10 days the headaches became infrequent, and we started to truly enjoy the journey. Carlos proved to be an experienced mountain guide, and taught us to deal with the uncertainty of high mountain weather. The nights were quite cold, and we often found ourselves huddled together in sleep.

    On the Andean slopes today
    On the Andean slopes today

    Carlos spoke English with us, and in a rapid, local dialect with the campesinos. Otto, Pavel and I used English for the most part, although Otto insisted that we switch to Czech from time to time.

    There was ample opportunity to share stories of our war-time experiences. Some of Otto’s tales were quite fantastic, and I doubted there was much truth in them. I thought he was spinning a yarn to rival my accounts of aerial combat over the Channel. Of course, I discovered later that at least some of his story was true. In fact, I still have the evidence.

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  • Railway in the Sky

    Continued from The First Expedition

    SS Cristobal (courtesy of Björn Larsson)
    SS Cristobal (courtesy of Björn Larsson)

    From New York we sailed on the SS Cristobal. Life aboard ship was surreal, with clean linens, fine dining, and games of leisure on the sports deck. I was unaccustomed to such luxury, and the contrast with my experiences during the war could not have been more acute.

    After 8 days at sea, we disembarked at Guayaquil, a busy port city on the coast of Ecuador. It was near mid-day and the streets were strangely quiet. (We learned that it is customary for business to close at mid-day.) Otto checked his notebook, and we found our way to a certain cantina in the Las Peñas district. The place must have been at least a hundred years old. Compared to the accommodations aboard ship, it seemed like we had travelled backwards in time. We entered the dark interior and found a table near the back.

    A few hours passed before two men approached. One was obviously American, but did not give his name. He introduced the other as Carlos, who would be our guide. The American placed a small parcel on the table, shook hands with Otto, and left. Otto opened it carefully and discovered a large amount of local currency, in folding paper and silver coins. Pavel and I were mystified, but Otto merely smiled and promised to explain later.

    Carlos left for a short time, and then beckoned us to follow him outside. By this time the city had come alive, and the streets were noisy and crowded. Carlos led the way for several blocks, once turning abruptly through a narrow alley. We arrived at a shabby guest house where a room had been prepared. Carlos introduced us to the proprietor, answered a few questions, and promised to return in the morning. We settled ourselves and then ate, drank and talked well into the night.

    Climbing Devil's Nose in Ecuador
    Climbing Devil’s Nose in Ecuador

    In the morning Carlos re-appeared, and we loaded our gear into a cart for the short ride to a place called Duran. There we boarded a narrow-gauge train that was apparently the pride of Ecuador. Compared to the Cristobal, it seemed primitive indeed. The cars were 40 years old and badly in need of repair. However, the railway turned out to be a remarkable feat of engineering.

    The G&Q Railway was completed in 1908 by an engineer from Virginia. It connects the port of Guayaquil with the capital Quito high in the Andes. The railway climbs from sea level to an altitude exceeding 3000 meters, and travels nearly a thousand kilometers. It was an ambitious project, but despite its importance for economic development, the railway never actually turned a profit.

    It was an incredible journey into the mountains. We crossed several dramatic gorges on improbable bridges, and at one point actually climbed switchbacks, the train moving backwards and forwards up a steep rock face called the Devil’s Nose. The locals call it Ferrocarril en el cielo, or Railway in the Sky.

    To be continued…

  • The First Expedition

    Saint Peter's Church, Zurich
    Saint Peter’s Clock Tower, Zurich

    I’ve been asked to write something about my first expedition to Peru. It began a few years after the war, when I travelled halfway across Europe to visit my old friend Otto. A decade earlier, we had been separated when I joined the Poles on the eve of invasion. Otto stayed behind and worked for the Germans, at an airfield that had been converted to military production.

    Soon after I arrived home, it became clear that I could not remain long in Pilsen. President Beneš had appointed a new cabinet, and there was trouble coming to the district of West Bohemia. I was tired of war and conflict and had little interest in living under communist rule.

    Otto explained that he was planning a trip to the Amazon, and insisted that I join his expedition. We would be collecting exotic plants for export, and taking astronomical photographs from the Peruvian high country. It was a crazy idea, but Otto had made some kind of a deal with an American who provided all of the help we needed.

    Our first destination was Zurich, where Otto withdrew funds from a numbered account and booked our passage to New York. He also secured accommodations for his wife Sophie, who would remain in Zurich while we were abroad. Pavel joined us there, a friend of Otto’s that I remembered from before the war. After less than a week, we started on the long journey to South America.

    To be continued…