Almanac Travel: The Train Boy – Juliaca, Southern Peru


Juliaca. Southern Peru.




The train stumbles slowly through the town. The tracks are littered with yesterday’s enterprise, lost souls, plastic bags and dreams for tomorrow. A slight haze drifts above it all, like a spirit sent down from the mountains. Trucks cross the railway line wherever there isn’t a crossing. Smoking cars, spluttering tuk tuks, motor bikes, the odd battered tourist bus, and masses of people, compete for road space. I notice a lack of cyclists. This country of 21,000 mountains isn’t cyclist friendly.  A bloke, guitar slung over the shoulders, head slightly bowed in contemplation, (perhaps composing the masterpiece), dressed in the musician’s melancholy black leather jacket, strides purposefully across the tracks. He looks like a Bruce Springsteen record cover.


We’re heading for Puno in southern Peru situated on the shores of Lake Titicaca, having left Cuzco about eight hours prior on the brilliant ten-hour train journey through some of Peru’s stunning valleys and high-altitude mountain country. After a long ascent through the hills of Cuzco and onto the great plateau known as the Altiplano, the train rests at La Raya and we disembark to stretch our legs. La Raya sits at an altitude of 4312 metres. It’s remote, cold, and desolate. There’s a church and a small market and nothing else. A few optimistic locals try and flog baby alpaca blankets, jumpers and coats to us. When we depart, they seem to just melt off into the mountains.





Peru is a country of the great unfinished project. All across the land single story houses built from rough local bricks stand incomplete. Reinforced steel bars stick out of the brickwork pointing to the sky above the roof line. I ask a guide what it’s about. Why are the homes not finished? He tells me the people build the ground floor and leave the infrastructure in place to add the first floor when God smiles upon them and provides the money to do so. And they believe he will smile upon them. In his own good time.


The metropolis of Juliaca is suitably chaotic. Peruvian chaotic. As we rattle through it, we situate ourselves on the open platform at the back of the last carriage to take in the mayhem and noise and colour of the town up close. Windows block out the humanity. We want to feel it and smell it. The train, with horns blaring constantly, crawls just above walking pace right through the middle of the town’s market which is literally on the tracks. Activity temporarily ceases, like a biblical parting of the sea, then immediately resumes once the train passes, as if nothing happened. They must be very familiar with the timetable.





The market is a sprawling, glorious example of the laws of supply and demand. There are hundreds of tiny shops and canvas-walled stalls, trestle tables and even some people simply selling goods off a blanket spread over the dusty, grey ground. No such thing as a market permit here. If there is space, someone will fill it. A few little kids, having obtained a collection of lollies from somewhere, are selling them on a turned-up plastic bucket. The start of a long career mastering in initiative and inventiveness.


One woman selling fruit has her wares displayed over the tracks. Perhaps because it provides something of a platform to advertise the array of colourful fruit available. She doesn’t even bother removing her goods as the train rolls through, passing over it all. She simply leans back to let the engine by, then leans forward again once it’s gone. A mere inconvenience to her enterprise.





Everything is for sale here: fruit, vegetables, meat, kitchen appliances, cabinetry, laundry troughs, solar panels, car parts, hats, exhaust fans, toilets and other hardware, computers, tyres, tourist trinkets, blankets, clothes. And probably nuclear isotopes if you look hard enough. Our guide tells us that a few months prior he saw a chap drag an old plane engine to the market to sell. He Laughed to himself marveling at the optimism of the vendor. Who is going to purchase a plane engine? The next week it was gone, presumably sold.


We’re very conspicuous perched on the back of the train. As we shuffle through the masses, people spy us. Suddenly we are a point of interest to the Juliacans. A curiosity! It starts with a few kids who wave at us. We wave back. It becomes infectious and ripples down the track. Two blokes, having a drink out of dirty plastic bottles, look up upon hearing the commotion and raise their drinks in a boozer’s salute. The little ones are giggling and pointing and some are skipping along with us. Teenagers, self-conscious at first, now raise their arms and carry on like kids again. Parents pick their youngsters up to get a better view. The toddlers are jubilant.


I’m snapping away on the camera, trying to capture faces, trying to capture Peru.





From amongst the throng one little tacker wins my attention. With a hat too big for his head and a smile wider than the plains of the great plateau he breaks into a trot to keep up. The waving game is on in earnest. We wave, he waves. He waves, we wave. He’s running now, stumbling and laughing at the absurdity of trying to catch a moving train. His face is sunshine against the ashen dirt of the town. Its modern Peru; bright and hopeful.


Eventually the train increases speed and he’s left behind. But the waving, laughing, and joyous grin persist. As we pull away, he becomes a tiny dot in the middle of the tracks, standing still now with arms down by his side, watching the fun disappear, until the town’s bedlam swallows him up and he’s gone.


We’ve glimpsed into his world. Perhaps he is wondering who we were? Where we are from? Why we were there? He might think about us from time to time. The folks with the camera, who waved back at him.  This snapshot will go in our book. The book of the chosen photos.


And whilst the spectacular mountain ranges of the Andes and vast, open plains of the Altiplano, and the mystique of Machu Picchu, and the stark wilderness of the salt plains, and the power of the Amazon and Rio with its Christ the Redeemer and Iguazu and Buenos Aires all leave indelible marks, the little train boy was something special. It felt like, in those moments, we actually touched this place, ever so lightly.


One day train boy’s home will be finished, I’m sure.






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About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Superb Dips thanks for taking us along for the ride ! How do the locals feel about the biggest question tho
    Was the Maynard incident simply a footy accident? Seriously thank you

  2. Another world. In our world. Thanks for transporting me there in a way that a glossy travel brochure never would.
    I was reading yesterday about Manchester United “bad boy’ winger Antony from the Brazilian favela called “Inferninho” (Little Hell). We want their genius – just not their behaviour and values. Who are we to judge?
    Hope to see Train Boy in a World Cup one day.

  3. RB – Maynard hadn’t ironed out Brayshaw when I was there but I suspect they couldn’t give a stuff!! Ha!

    PB – It is another world. Peru’s cities look dirty, old and tired. But the people are hard workers and have an inherent optimism. At least that’s what I observed.

  4. roger lowrey says

    Truly marvellous stuff Dips.

    Your first paragraph sounded initially like the opening of a Graham Greene novel but then your apt reference to the guitar bloke on the tracks and album covers reminded me I was later 20th Century than earlier. Sorry Graham.

    Your pic of that little tacker with the large hat even made me think of that Smokie Dawson reference to how his skinny teenage son fielding at cover in his Greg Chappell broad brimmed hat once made the former think the latter look like a roofing nail. All literature is related somehow you see comrade.

    Can’t wait for the next episode.


  5. Great story, Dips.
    And great photos.

  6. Roger – I remember my old man once saying – “ignore Graham Greene, he’s a light weight.” So I think I read nearly everything he wrote after that!! Love the roofing nail description. Brilliant.

    Smoke – photos never really capture it. Its probably why we keep taking them. Looking for THAT photo. I’ll keep trying. Cheers.

  7. Kevin Densley says

    A fine piece on Peru, Dips. Loved the detail, the sense you created of the places you went and the people you saw. Overall, the milieu felt a bit like somewhere Hemingway would have enjoyed writing about – I couldn’t help thinking that.

  8. Thanks Kevin. I’m sure the words “Dips” and “Hemingway” have ever been uttered in the same conversation before!!

  9. George Hemingway – Essendon – 1 game – 1918.

  10. What an experience Dips.

    Correct me, isn’t Juliaca the site of one of Peru’s bloodiest political protests and slaying of 17 protesters earlier this year. These events are bound to decades of political turmoil to this very day and one of the worst corruption scandals, centred on the Odebrecht construction and petroleum company which businesses spans South and central American countries.

    At the heart of the Odebrecht corruption issues in Peru which have brought down governments and presidents is the obscene rejection of the indigenous people’s rights in support of the wealthy, political and military.

    Hey, this is starting to sound like a Graham Greene novel.

    In reference to the Springsteen observation, I’d go for his song, My City of Ruins, with its plea to rise up. He has contexted this song in a number of different ways including how capitalism almost destroyed his home base of Ashbury Pary NJ, or the attacks on the Twin Towers in NY or more recently, the Trump presidency.

    And yet, as you observe with empathy and nuance, people spirits keep them going and in local communities, they find home and grace.


  11. And that’s your point of view RK!!

    I know Juliaca had some protest and tensions as a lot of Peru did. I can’t verify any deaths.

    Oil and fuel companies and big money have caused a lot of grief in South America, generally. Peru has suffered as part of this. From what I saw, heard and read it wasn’t due to any political “ists” or “isms”. Its purely greed. And its first cousin corruption. See Argentina. See Venezuela. Amongst others.

    Whenever I go to another country I try and block out the back story. I think its like interference. I try and take it as I find it. Not always possible. But I try.

  12. Daryl Schramm says

    This is the closest I’ve even been to South America, especially Peru. It reminded me of India in a way, with the rubbish and haze and all.. Just not as many people. You last comment is interesting. I tend to research as much as I can before I visit. Not tried your approach yet. Do you know of any other accountants who write as well as you Dips?

  13. G’day Daryl. Thanks for the comment.

    Going to a new country does require some research. I agree there. And some historical perspective so we can understand a bit about the people. But I do try and steer away from the generalisations we often read in the brochures.

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