I put my ticket in my jacket pocket then hop onboard the General Lopez. Named in honour of Paraguay’s national hero, the wood burning locomotive hisses and steams; it gives the impression of an angry, restless iron beast that has just escaped from a spaghetti western. The station in Asuncion was built by British engineers and reminds me of London Marylebone. With its wonderful Grade 1 listed iron and glass roof and warm stone colours, the London station is one of my favourite buildings. Mind you, there is one important difference between the two stations: in Asuncion there's a posse of fierce, overweight ladies in heavy makeup lurking around the corner from the entrance.
Many years later I will draw on my impressions to pen a scene in Zen City, Iso in which Madam Sin puts the luckless Margie on a steam train to escape Bangkok.
I walk along the aisle of the deserted carriage – there are no tourists here in August 1990 – and plonk myself down on the wooden seat next to the window. It is hot but bright and airy. The smoke from the General’s raging wood begins to tickle my nose. I pull out a paper bag from my pocket and pop an Everton mint into my mouth. I check my watch. In a few minutes the train should be leaving for Aragua. According to my handbook, this quaint colonial city with its cobbled streets, mansions, flower gardens, beautiful women and plazas is thirty clicks up the line and nestles on a picturesque lake called Ypacari, which means Waters of the Sacred Newt in the Guarani Indian language. But, of course, I am not going to Aragua for any of that – I am going there to meet my new friend Harry, the ex-armed robber from South Africa.
Suddenly there is a loud, shrill whistle. Next thing, I’m thrown forward as the General lurches into action and my Everton mint flies out the window...