An extract from an article on Train Journeys of Colombia in Le Monde Diplomatique by Robin Oisín Llewellyn, which details Ramon Chao’s book The Train of Ice and Fire
A ship named Melquíades (after the wandering Gypsy in One Hundred Years of Solitude who brings telescopes, ice, and magic carpets to Macondo) was sailing around Latin America with the support of the French Government, loaded with circus performers from Royal de Lux and musicians from the then wildly popular punk-reggae band Mano Negra. The band’s singer Manu Chao noted the lack of any rail service in Colombia and resolved to return to reactivate a form of transport “so crucial to a country’s social and geographic fabric.”
By 1993 his band, together with many circus performers from Royal de Lux and a support band named French Lovers, had returned to Colombia, taken charge of a hurriedly restored train from the sidings of the Ferrovias depot outside Bogota, and were rumbling through territory fought over by guerrillas and paramilitaries to mount musical and spectacular extravaganzas at abandoned stations along the line to Aracataca. “The Train of Ice and Fire” was a locomotive and 21 carriages that, according to Manu’s father and journalist Ramón Chao who documented the journey, resembled “a load of bric-a-brac put together by inexpert but passionate hands.”
The expedition rejected all offers of an escort from the Army to the alarm of the French embassy, one of whom responded resignedly, “What can we do? It’s too late. I never thought this train would actually leave.” The Fire carriage was lined with asbestos and sheet metal, designed to burn in flames through the performances, while an ice wagon contained “the biggest diamond ever seen — a five-cubic-meter six-ton block of ice, pure and translucent like crystal.”
Then came a cage-wagon home to an enormous mechanical dragon cum flame-thrower, while the ice-wagon was a grotto in which a snowstorm would be unleashed when a “child-friendly sleepy polar bear” woke up. Other carriages housed trapezes for the circus acts, or the stages for French Lovers and Mano Negra.
By the time the train arrived at Aracataca after nightfall to a crowd of 2000 and a children’s choir singing the Marseillaise in Spanish, the Train of Ice and Fire had become the talk of Colombia after a string of widely reported concerts in the tumble-down stations along the line. The carriages had derailed numerous times on a line afflicted by years of neglect, but the musicians, circus actors, and staff from Ferrovias would simply crow-bar the carriages back onto the tracks and the train would slowly continue to another town, another concert-cum-extravaganza.
Awe-struck townspeople were unable to buy tickets for the events; instead they had to write down their dreams in order to gain admittance. The children were astonished by the ice sculptures, one little girl said the ice made her “skeleton tremble,” but it was Roberto the dragon who, according to Ramón Chao, fulfilled “the role played many years ago in Aracataca by Melquíades’ ice. “The young, and the not so young, open their eyes wide, go into ecstasies, scream blue murder, and recoil with fear every time Roberto sweeps the station with his piercing eyes and blows ten metres of flame, to a deafening crash of sirens and decibels.”
The concert in Marquez’s hometown was a success but marked the beginning of the end for Mano Negra with several band members leaving for France two days later, the tour still unfinished. Away from the train the violence of Colombia continued unabated. News of the killing of Pablo Escobar reached the train as it travelled from Bosconia to Gamarra, and the effects of sustained mass displacement were clear when the group reached Dorada in the coffee growing highlands.
The train would proceed all the way back to Bogota, with Mano Negra’s remaining band members having to use synthesizers to mimic those who had abandoned the adventure. The band would never reform. The promises of politicians to use the Train of Ice and Fire to regenerate the railways were not fulfilled: Ferrovias was liquidated in 2003 and while cargo is still moved along some lines, passenger services have never been restarted. Pablo Escobar’s death saw new gang wars emerge, and the rise of AUC paramilitaries backed by the military saw massacres increase to unprecedented levels.
The dreams that gained access for their authors to the concerts have been preserved:
My dream is that there will be no need for children or teenagers to go hungry. Obviously we have to have pain in our lives, but not so much. —Franklin Muñoz, 13
Pineapple, lemon, lemonade.
If you don’t love me why do you kiss me? —Damaris, 15
One of my biggest dreams is that there’ll be peace in Colombia, and to do that we have to stop the drug traffickers. As for me, I hope that when I’m eighteen I’ll have a good job so I can help other people and be a good person. —Illegible signature
I dream of travelling in a train. —Ana Gonzalez, 12
How beautiful Colombia would be without war! Here a man loses his life and leaves a wife and children. A rifle shot ends an existence, mothers cry for their children, wives cry for their husbands. No more wars, no more bombs, no more violence. Why does everything have to end with a rose on a grave? —Rita Santos, 24
‘Any band that ever moaned about the freshness of the backstage towels should read this book.’ – Word