Ghost Train Through the Andes – Michael Jacobs

‘Poor man,’ he sighed. ‘In the few days that are given to us in this life, we must try and enjoy everything, even the simplest things. If we complain or are miserable, we achieve nothing except waste time.’

Pulling us along, Michael Jacobs searches for the grandfather he discovered through letters, on the railways of Chile and Bolivia in what seems like a slow starting journey, yet becomes engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable.

The alternating between his grandfather Bethel’s story and his own seemed at first disorientating, I could not get into either at the start and even after the unglamorous start in Hull I struggled to convince myself that this was a journey I wanted to carry on.  But I have been to Chile, although not the railways and so I continued, and I’m glad I did.
I like Jacobs, I began to compare him with Paul Theroux, but Theroux travels for the experience of the journey, to meet and understand the countries he journeys through. Here Jacob’s was on a voyage to discover the past, he was different.  His writing is unembellished yet descriptive, a few lines giving his thoughts to a city where his main purpose is not to visit but to find out how to jump on a train.

By the north of Chile I was more engaged, he had the kind of fears that grow bigger as you get older yet he continues on regardless.  I have been to Calama myself, all I remember are the packs of dogs crossing at the pedestrian crossing and riding out to San Pedro de Atacama on a bus driven by a man inexplicably dressed as Zorro. It was Bolivia where I felt I had travelled with Jacobs long enough to like him, overcoming his fears while travelling with the irrepressible Ricardo, the best part of the journey (hence both the quotes involve him), where Ricardo’s un-crushable optimism guides them through some terrifying situation, and Jacobs, slowly but surely falls in love with Bolivia.

When he is finally celebrating carnival at Oruro you realise Jacobs is almost ageless, transformed from a foreboding solitary traveller to a boundless carnival reveller, like he is squeezing every last drop of life from his body, in a country that slowly wore his grandfather down.

In Puntas Arenas, in a place that reminds him of Hull and his childhood, Jacobs realises that the journey has been as much about this grandmother as his grandfather, and it is a touching end to an unforgettable journey that I felt I had travelled along with someone who travelled through the present, to get to know the past.

‘Meechell,’ he said, ‘nothing in this life is impossible.  Things are only impossible if you believe they are going to be so. For instance, how many times have you seen an absolutely gorgeous woman and thought with a sigh that she’s well out of your class, and that you’ll never be able to have her.  Well if you think like that, then you never will.  But if you can convince yourself that you have as much to offer her as any Sean Connery, then you can be guaranteed that she’ll fall for you, absolutely guaranteed.
‘But what,’ I pointlessly protested, ‘if she’s happily married, totally besotted with somebody else, or physically repelled by you?’
‘Meechell,’ he replied, ‘there are no obstacles in life other than purely imaginary ones. You must always remember that.’

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