Ghost Train through the Andes, by Michael Jacobs

From Hull to Chile - with a view of Che
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The Independent Culture

A travel book that begins in Hull and ends in Chile's southernmost town of Punta Arenas, and finds they have plenty in common, must have something about it. But it is not just their bleakness and grey skies that link the two windswept places in Michael Jacobs's mind: both are staging posts in his grandfather's journey to central South America to join the Antofagasta (Chili) and Bolivia Railway Company as an assistant engineer in the years leading up to the First World War. So the author's journey is as much into his family's past as into Chile's Atacama desert and Bolivia's Altiplano.

The spine of Ghost Train through the Andes is a series of letters Bethel Jacobs wrote to his first cousin and fiancée, Sophie, during his four-year absence in South America. His grandson traces his family roots in Hull, where his forbears were pillars of the community, and provides some memories from his own childhood in Hampstead Garden Suburb, before flying off to Santiago, Chile, to follow in the grandfather's footsteps.

Language was not a problem, since Jacobs is a Hispanophile, lives partly in Andalucía and has written several excellent books on Spain. He is an engaging companion, because he is open to experience and tolerant of human foibles.

On a boat on Lake Titicaca he talks with the captain, who once trekked across Africa alone and on foot. This man says there are two things about travelling: "The first is that you can always tell someone's personality from his eyes, which allows you to spot any potential danger immediately. The second is that you have to be disposed to trust everyone, and to accept that every person, whatever his race or creed, is fundamentally the same, and governed by the same set of emotions. If you accept all that you begin to lose all sense of fear."

The author takes this to heart, particularly when trekking through the Bolivian Andes following a now defunct branch of his grandfather's railway in the wake of his "leader", the ludicrously sanguine Ricardo Rosales, who is living proof that "everyone in this country always tells you precisely what you want to hear".

On approaching each new obstacle - landslide or flood - he will blithely say that the worst is over. Jacobs comes to dread such remarks but nevertheless puts his trust in Ricardo, who proves well worthy of it despite some hairy moments.

His grandfather's letters provide historical resonance, as well as a background love story. But their main purpose is to transform this journey into a quest for Bethel Jacobs, and the discovery of another "Jacobs the engineer", a kind of doppelganger who keeps cropping up in conversations he has, and who enables the author to indulge in speculation over the possibility that Bethel may not have always been the yearning faithful lover his letters portray.

The other ghostly presence is Che Guevara. The non-political Jacobs is enough of a child of the Sixties to revere the Argentinian poster boy whose revolutionary career was cut off in its prime in the wilds of Bolivia. Che's Motorcycle Diaries provide a different perspective from the often caustic comments of Jacobs's conservative grandfather.

Yet Jacobs (is he really such a Sean Connery lookalike that more than one person should mistake him for the actor?) needs no ghosts to speak for him. In the end, it is his voice we are interested to hear, his reactions to people and situations that we treasure and his enchantment with Bolivia that we come to share. This is a thoughtful, entertaining and well-written account of a spiritual, as well as a physical, journey.

Tony Gould's latest book is 'Don't Fence Me In: Leprosy in modern times' (Bloomsbury)