Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Mount Pilatus Railway


from an imaginary Lucerne travel diary

We were halfway up the mountain, hanging almost vertically off its side in the old cog railway, when the person sitting next to me in the train said: “I’m going to be sick.”

I wasn’t feeling too well either. The ascent had been fun at first, with a great wide view of the town below the mountain gradually emerging through the clouds, as the carriage pulled up and away from the boarding station. The train inched upwards at a steep angle, but it was no worse than other funicular railways I had travelled on in other parts of the world. The chain car that takes you up to Pest, as in ‘Budapest’, is pretty steep, too, and that didn’t give me the vertigo that everyone had warned me about.  Like the other twenty or so people in the carriage, I was enjoying the sights, snapping the occasional picture, listening to the murmur of the engine and the ‘tock’ of the gears as they moved the car closer to the mountain top.

Then the angle changed, as if we were all sitting on a see-saw and the heavy kid had plopped himself down on the opposite end. Gradually it dawned on me that this is what people meant when they said: Oh you must take the railway to the top of Mount Pilatus. Instead of looking at a town that was definitely below me but sort of ‘over there’, I realized that my view of Lucerne was interrupted by my toes. Even though we were all secured in our seats, instinctively I grasped the arms of the seat tightly. Most people emitted gasps or mock shrieks of fear. Little children squealed. Their mothers made faces, their fathers told them to behave, that there was nothing to worry about. With all the noise, at first I didn’t hear the person next to me. Then I heard him again: “I’m going to be sick.”

I looked at him. He was a young man, with a narrow head, spiky hair, and an untidy ginger beard. He wore long khaki shorts and a purple cut-away t-shirt, revealing muscular arms that, like his face, were burned red from the sun. I guessed from the heavy walking boots and the small but efficient backpack squeezed between his calves that he was that ubiquitous person: the student backpacker, the roaming idealist, taking the modern version of the Grand Tour before immuring himself at university to study law or accounting. Not an unpleasant looking guy, though, by any means. His general air of outdoors ruggedness and his weather-beaten flesh made me surprised by his reaction to the funicular ride.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Yes,” he whispered, leaning forward and pressing a hand against his belly. His face was turning worryingly pale, the sunburned flush suddenly gone.

“Can you hold on? We’re nearly there,” I said.

“I don’t know.”

“Let me see if I have a — “

I tried to think of the German word for ‘paper bag’, but couldn’t. I rummaged around in my shoulder bag. Nothing there. I leaned across the aisle and gently tapped the arm rest next to a thin-faced man.

“This guy thinks he’s going to be sick. Do you have a — ?” I imitated opening a paper bag and being sick into it. The thin-faced man grimaced at me like I’d just done the deed myself, and he looked away in disgust.

“Thanks a lot,” I said. I turned back to the backpacker. “Look, you’ll just have to hold on — “

Before I even finished the sentence, the backpacker lurched forward, loudly retched, and released a torrent of vomit into the space between his knees .The stream was so copious that it splashed down the side of his backpack and pooled on the floor, where, due to the angle of the carriage, it trickled under the seat in front and started to snake quickly down the train. I pulled my knees up and to the right, not quickly enough to avoid getting some flecks of carroty puke on the sides of my shoes. The warm, moist, sweet odour of vomit reached my nostrils, and as my gorge rose, I covered my nose and mouth with my hand to stifle my gag reflex. Other people in the carriage were not so lucky. The second that the backpacker was sick, people started reacting like someone had let off a bomb in the train. They raised their feet to avoid the river of vomit snaking their way. Forgetting the angle of the train, some of them stood up to get out of the way and fell to the side onto their neighbours. Others, upon receiving the smell of the vomit, started retching too, and within a few minutes of the backpacker’s moment of misfortune, the carriage was filled with the sound of people being sick, people shouting, people slipping on the vomit and falling to the floor. One woman landed on her behind, put her hands on the floor to steady herself, realized that her left hand had gone straight into a puddle of sick, looked in horror at her hand, then vomited too, with a loud ‘quack!’, as violently and suddenly as if she’d been punched in the stomach. A small boy about three seats down from me let loose into the lap of the adult seated beside him. People at the front of the train, that is to say, above me, started to bang on the windows, trying to break the glass in a futile attempt to escape. Meanwhile, the backpacker sat slumped against the window, his head bowed, a skein of vomit hanging down over his bearded chin.

“Are you ok?” I said. He nodded, though clearly he wasn’t. I patted him on the shoulder. “We’re nearly there. We’ll get you some help soon.”

The train made its final upward push into the station at the top of the mountain, easing against the platform with a loud burst of air from the brakes. The doors opened, and a pre-recorded announcement came on telling us to mind our step. The train company employees in their neat uniforms couldn’t believe what they were seeing as the train disgorged its passengers, most of them stained with vomit in some way, some of them being physically supported by their companions, limping, dazed, like the survivors of a disaster. When it was our turn to leave, I helped the backpacker to his feet, and carried his rucksack to the platform, holding it out to one side to avoid getting any more regurgitated stomach contents onto my clothes. I guided him to a bench set against the wall of the ticket office. A couple of train company employees looked into the train through the doors, then started backwards, repelled by the smell. The line of people waiting behind a rope to board the train for the descent began to ask impatient questions of the uniformed personnel. I turned to the back-packer one last time.

“I need to clean up,” I said, waving at my shoes. “Can I get you a glass of water or something?”

He was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, breathing deeply. He shook his head, and said: “No. Thank you.”

Out on the mountainside, someone was welcoming the new batch of tourists by blasting away on an Alpine horn. I started walking towards the men’s room, slipping my hands into my pockets to protect them from the cold mountaintop air. I felt the little lion on a keychain that I had bought a day earlier, and rubbed it between the tips of my fingers, hoping that it would bring me better luck on the train journey back down to Lucerne.

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