Doug McLean World Tour 1999-2000
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Sept. 20-23, 2000:
Blockades and Stones...the Road to Sucre, Bolivia
Current Date/Location: Saturday, September 30, 2000. In Sucre, Bolivia.
Current Itinerary: Well, the entire country of Bolivia continues to be blockaded. But, I am trying to turn this into a positive situation...by taking private lessons in Spanish. Hopefully, this will take my Spanish to the next level of comprehension...and utilize my time as well. I am planning on studying for 2 weeks here in Sucre...hoping the political situation will resolve itself while I am here...if not, I will fly out at the end of my studies. But safe, sound, and happy here in Sucre for now.
Note: My good friend Sheryl, who lives in Austin, was critical of my recent Austin Guide...she mentioned that I left some things out. She has volunteered to give tours to any of my friends who wish to visit Austin while I am out of the country...so just let me know if anyone is going and I'll give you her details and she'll be happy to host you in my absence. Thanks Sheryl!
September 20, 2000 (Wednesday):
Just after midnight in the morning...I awoke on the bus from Santa Cruz to Sucre...we had stopped! We were at an awkward angle...we realized that the bus was stuck or had a problem. Everyone got off the bus and saw the problem. There was a new part of the road that was being constructed...and the dirt movers had pushed the dirt so it was hard for us to enter onto the new road from the old road. It would just take some digging to smooth the way. The drivers started the work while the passengers wandered around and watched.
It was actually quite a pleasant stop. Tove, Helena, and I walked around, talked and looked at the stars and moon. It was a lovely night...the air was cool and crisp but not uncomfortable, the moon was half full and shone brightly against the landscape and reflected off the small creek nearby, a nice stop. The way was finally cleared, we all boarded the bus, and went back to sleep...Sucre bound.
Well...we weren't Sucre bound for long...the bus stopped again sometime around 6am. We were on a narrow mountain road and found ourselves behind a group of other cars and trucks that were stopped...we were told that the road was blockaded and that we might as well sleep for awhile.
Woke up a little later and went to see about the situation. In the road ahead of us were several trucks (and by now, there were several busses and trucks behind us too) which were stopped by rocks in the road...and are not being cleared due to the large number of campesinos (country people) on the overlooking hill who have the ability to roll, hurl, or throw many more rocks down on the road and vehicles if they wish. I was not exactly sure of all the reasons for the roadblocks (nor am I sure that the Campesinos know either)...but basically it comes down to multiple issues...but the big one is Coca plant.
The coca growers (note: Coca leaves are available and legal here in Bolivia...so there is a legal reason to have Coca plants...however, the number of plants here in Bolivia far out-strips local demand...hint, hint...these are actually for cocaine...surprise!) are fighting government moves to reduce and destroy the coca plantations. So the strongest arm of folks against the government are the coca growers (who have the money to fight the government). However, it is not just that simple...it a very strategic move...they are encouraging other worthwhile causes to take up the banner with them. This is actually gaining support (along with receiving money from the coca growers) for the underpaid teachers, people for better roads, and among the campesinos the protest against a government proposed water tax...the pot is getting full of dissatisfaction and it is starting to overflow on all sides.
YES, Bolivia has problems and many of these are valid concerns...but they are also being used as a smoke-screen for coca growers who are helping to finance and fuel the protests.
OK...so that brings me to my blockade by the campesinos...in this very arid area...dusty scrubland with a small waterway in the middle of the valley that might charitably be called a river...certainly without this water these folks will not survive here and will have to move. I understand their concerns...without water here their already poor land is worthless and they must move...they are literally fighting for houses, homes, and lives. But, nevertheless, I'm stuck.
The campesinos have chosen a good spot for a blockade. The road is a narrow gravel/dirt road...bordered on one side by a 50 meter drop-off into the river wash and a steep rocky hill on the other side. They took the uphill ground, rolled some big rocks down on the road, and VIOLA! INSTANT ROADBLOCK!
It is a somewhat pleasant spot...I walk around with Tove and take some pictures of the dry mountainous countryside. I resign myself to our fate...I guess I travel to have different experiences...and this certainly is one...so here I am.
Various drivers and passengers go to negotiate with the campesinos. About 9am they decide to allow us to pass if all the passengers pay the campesinos a toll of 1 Boliviano each. Hmmmm...there are 6.25 Bolivianos per dollar...so this is about $0.16 each...needless to say I pay it immediately...but it is much more to many of the poorer Bolivianos...however, everyone pays and we are allowed through the blockade. One problem...lots of rocks and thorny brush in the road. All the passengers go out and clear the road by hand...moving small and large rocks...eventually clearing a path big enough to drive the vehicles through. Once again, Sucre Bound!
Well...Sucre bound for the next 10 KM...until we get to the next road block. And this time as we drive up and get out we find that the campesinos are PISSED! Apparently the first truck to arrive at the barricade pulled out either a real or fake pistol (versions vary) and fired a couple of warning shots. Hmmmm...needless to say, this did not make the MANY campesinos on the hillside very happy...they started throwing rocks in reply. Some of the younger guys in the passenger group decided it would be a good idea to head up the hill and fight the campesinos...did I mention that the campesinos had the uphill advantage? Hmmmm...well, needless to say, the guys were well received with rocks being thrown near them. I didn't see anyone actually get hit, but the young guys charged back down the hill pretty fast after being met with such a warm welcome. The vehicles backed up away from the campesinos and away from the barricade. The campesinos finally settled down, but it was pretty darned tense for a while there...it could have easily turned into a bloodbath.
And now, I was surprised to find myself in Bolivia in the middle of a MEXICAN STANDOFF...and no Mexicans anywhere nearby!! Smile...cest la vie.
Everyone on both sides seemed to settle down and we just waited for things to change. Negotiations were somewhat difficult...the campesinos did not trust anyone going up the hill to talk...even some women wanting to go up and negotiate received some warning stones thrown at them...hmmmm...NOT a good situation.
Well, things dragged on and on during the day. One of the VERY sad moments was to see an entire family in a red pickup truck...needing to get through the roadblock to go to the man's mother's funeral. The campesinos would not open anything up for this family...it was a real low point when the man was sad, mad, angry, hurt, and tired and crying and imploring the campesinos to let his family pass. He eventually drove off on a VERY rough road/path that was supposed to be a 4-wheel drive only road that might lead him around the blockade...I hope he and his family made it.
Anyway, after noon, Tove and I headed down to the river and a camp that supposedly was preparing food. There was a tomato/potato patch right next to the river...and guess what the camp was serving??? YES, cooked potatoes and tomatoes. We bought some raw tomatoes (20 for 1 Boliviano) which actually tasted pretty good...however, our standards were not particularly high at this point. Tove went for a quick dip in the muddy river, like many of the other passengers. Then we walked to the little pueblo 1 km farther down the road.
This was a pueblo like you'd see in the movies...no kidding. A grouping of about 15 adobe houses...complete with domed adobe cooking ovens outside each one, pigs and chickens in the streets, no electricity, and drying adobe bricks...not much has changed here in a couple of hundred years. Ahhhh...truly the simple life...except that these simple people were the ones manning road blocks and throwing rocks at people! In the pueblo they were friendly with us...
We bought drinks and cookies (they didn't have anything else). NOTE: They do not have Coca-Cola in this pueblo...but lots of RC. I have found that Bolivia is the one place in the world where for some reason RC (yes, Royal Crown Cola) is more common and popular than Coca-Cola...go figure!
Tove and I walked back and decided not to walk around, but rather to walk through the blockade...hoping they wouldn't throw rocks at us. I realized that this was the first time in my life that I was in serious danger of being stoned...smile.
We walked through the roadblock without incident. Sat around for a while longer...then at 5pm, they let us through. This time, they didn't want money...don't know what made them let us pass...but the next thing I know, we are allowed to go and clear the road of rocks to allow the vehicles to pass. Lots of rocks later, we are moving again!
We continue onwards until we get to the small town of Pina Colorado...well...it is barely bigger than the last pueblo we were in...but this town has a couple of restaurants and electricity! We stop there because we are told there is another roadblock just 3km outside the town. We have dinner...buy some things...then later that night the bus went up to the blockade, hoping that things would change tomorrow morning.
Again at this blockade...the campesinos had found place where the road narrows as it climbs up into the mountains beyond. They had rolled rocks down and had taken the high ground. This was a little different situation because the campesinos came from that town we were just in. They walked to and from the town...so they were literally all around us all the time...and while sleeping, we were wakened several times by groups passing the busses. This was a much bigger blockade...much better supported...and things didn't look like they would change anytime soon...
September 21, 2000 (Thursday):
I woke early (about 5am)...got off the bus and checked out the situation. Probably 15-20 trucks and busses waiting to pass and probably 200 campesinos on the hill. The situation does not look hopeful. I find a comfortable shady spot under a tall cactus (knowing that it will get warmer today) and settle in for a long day waiting. But, fortunately, I have a good book with me that I believe will outlast even these blockades...War and Peace...truly a mammoth tome.
Sometime after noon, I am joined by a young family of Bolivianos. They are campesinos supporting the blockade and are from the local town. They are very friendly...a father younger than me, a young wife, 8 year old boy, and a 9 month old baby. They share with me their potful of pasta that they have carried from the town. It is truly the meal of the poor...and I am honored to share it with them...it is delicious.
My bus leaves the blockade and goes back 3km to the town of Pina Colorado that afternoon. While we were in town, we were joined by another big caravan of busses and trucks that had just been let through the previous blockade. The Swedish girls and I figured that the town's resources would soon be depleted. They bought the last 5 bottles of mineral water in one store and I bought the last 2 in another. I met an Israeli (Boaz) and two German guys (Ralph and Georg) who had just arrived into town. They had left Santa Cruz on Wednesday...same bus company...that had known about the blockades but sent the busses anyway...go figure. We were told that the larger town of Aiquile was 52KM from us. I had been having some bad feelings about our current situation. The number of campesinos was pretty big (not a good thing) and local resources were going to run out soon...not a good combination. I felt that we should try to get out of this situation by walking to Aiquile. Boaz, Georg, and Ralph agreed...and we decided to go for it! I knew that another group had left walking this morning and had been allowed through the barricades...so I figured we could too. We figured it was fairly hot during the day (especially with our backpacks) so we figured we would walk it during the night...tonight!
We packed our bags (me leaving behind several less than crucial books...less weight!) and left at 6pm...the goal was to try to get through the blockades before total dark.
Well...we arrived at the blockade just before dark...but visibility was certainly not perfect. Anyway, we attempted to slowly walk through, but were met with shouts and rocks being thrown...very near...much too near to hitting us. We stopped and tried to communicate...difficult from a distance. Boaz speaks good Spanish as well, and he went up and talked to them...hoping that cooler heads would prevail. He gained authorization from someone (problem with mob scenes is finding a leader and having the leader's wishes communicated to the mob) for us to pass. He returned (while still having a few stones thrown at him and us) and we started walking through again. There were still a few stones being thrown...but not as many, and luckily none of them hit us. We got through unscathed...but it had been close...too close. We were happy to be beyond the blockade...and felt sure that Pina Colorado's stability was going to deteriorate in the next few days...better for us to be away from this unstable situation.
Needless to say, we were happy to be through the blockades...but continued onwards to put some distance between us and the campesinos before we stopped to rest. Hmmmm...Only about 50KM left to Aiquile...with only a mountain range between us and the city...ugh! Now we were walking up the road into the mountains...me with my 19KG big backpack and my smaller 6kg pack as well...ugh!
At our first rest stop, we were joined by a Boliviano guy, Diego, who was also a bus passenger who had also crossed the blockade and was walking to Aiquile. We all continued walking in the night with enough ambient light to see the road (didn't need to use our flashlights). We continued to walk and rest as needed...unfortunately for him, Boaz had the heaviest backpack...full of presents for his family. I felt sorry for him for awhile...until one of the German guys mentioned that he was also carrying a large bottle of Jack Daniels which he had refused to leave behind...smile. I guess we all have burdens that we are willing to carry...I was carrying a ton of books...Ayn Rand`s Fountainhead, Darwin's Ascent of Man (or Descent...can't remember right now), Lonely Planet Bolivia, Footprints South America, Illiad and the Oddessy, Scarlet Letter, War and Peace, and others...ugh!
It was a nice night...except for the ominous flashes of lightning in the distance that occasionally illuminated the mountains and road before us...needless to say, we were all chanting against rain. We met 2 guys walking from Aiquile towards Pina Colorado around 11pm. They crushed our hopes that beyond Aiquile there would be no roadblocks...they informed us that all of Aiquile was blockaded. It was about 11pm and they had left Aiquile about noon. We told them that Pina Colorado was about 4-5 hours ahead of them...and deduced that Aiquile was about 11-13 hours ahead of us...ugh! Needless to say we were somewhat disheartened.
They said there was a pueblo about 5-7KM ahead of us. We continued on. It got darker (more cloud cover) and started to sprinkle on us...conditions were worsening. We walked sometimes with lights, sometimes without. A moment of worry came when Boaz stumbled fell down an embankment of about 1 1/2 meters of rocks...fortunately, nothing was broken, banged too hard, or sprained...very fortunately. We continued onwards and it started to rain moderately on us. The road started to level out and we noticed signs of local civilization (manure in the road). We found a few buildings after midnight...one was a half completed house with a roof! We dropped our stuff and decided to sleep there for the rest of the night. The local farmer came out to see what we were doing, and Diego luckily was able to talk to him in the local dialect of Quechua...the farmer did not know Spanish.
We went to sleep on the dirt floor and tried to avoid being dripped on as it rained heavily outside all night...we were fortunate to have found shelter!
September 22, 2000 (Friday):
We woke the next day...cold but dry. We walked around a little and ended up being quite a curiosity to the locals. We tried to talk some, but they mainly spoke Quechua...but understood us when we said Gracias for the night's lodging.
We met up with a few others who had walked out of the blockade the morning before. They told us that there were daily trucks going from here to Aiquile...which was another 35KM away...we had walked about 17KM last night, uphill, with backpacks! We were ecstatic to hear that there were trucks. Many of the locals were also waiting for the truck to take them to the blockades...for them to join.
They were incredibly friendly with us and very curious as well. Boaz especially warmed up to them and the kids...smile. These people are exactly what you picture in Bolivia...the women with parted and braided hair, big skirts, colorful blankets that they use to carry things and babies, the men wearing handmade clothes and handmade leather vests, the hard-worn faces of the people, and the incredible smiles of the children...it was worth the 17KM walk just for this morning...really!
Some of the locals went to talk to the owner of the truck about going to Aiquile. Normally, they pay 5Bolivianos to ride in the truck. We were ready to go...but the owner of the truck was concerned about gas and costs. Hmmmm...well, the other Bolivians who had walked to this town offered to pay 10 Bolivianos each, we upped the ante and offered 30 Bolivianos each for the gringos ($5). Boaz and a couple of the other Bolivians who had walked in, they went to talk to the owner...about 2KM away. They left...and we waited for awhile...then we heard it!
Engine noises...and then we saw many busses coming down the mountain road that we had walked down...the blockade had been lifted and our busses were coming! This was very good...except that Boaz was far from the road...and the way things are right now...we'd be lucky if the busses stopped...much less waited for him.
My bus was the first one to arrive...I got on and asked them to wait...but they kept driving. I hoped that Boaz had heard the busses and was running back to catch his bus...but didn't know.
Back onboard the bus, Tove and Helena told me that this morning the campesinos had allowed 20 vehicles to pass the roadblock. They said that somehow our drivers had known this...and in the early morning drove from the town...and passed the entire line of waiting vehicles by driving in a lane that had remained open to allow vehicles to return to the town...and was the FIRST vehicle through the blockade. Apparently, to be allowed to pass, the passengers had to move the rocks and brush...have their busses pass...then rebuild the blockades so no more vehicles could pass...all without the help of the campesinos.
We drove like the wind. Really surprisingly fast for the next while...hoping to be able to pass any other roadblocks as quickly as possible. The road continued to wind and climb in the mountains...and I was very happy to be riding rather than walking. We finally arrived near Aiquile...and found ourselves about 6th in a line of waiting trucks that were stopped at a blockade. We all got out...happy to be near a bigger town...and walked through the blockades to go eat.
The blockades around Aiquile seemed to be under more control. There were no stones thrown when we passed (we meaning all the people from a caravan of about 10 busses and 10 trucks...lots of passengers) to go to the town. It was a fairly civil and nice blockade...all things considered.
The town of Aiquile is a reasonable sized town. It has enough restaurants and services to cater to the amassed crowds of waiting passengers...which is good. I found out that a nice hotel had rooms for only 20 bolivianos per person ($3.33/Day)...I was sold! I figured after my walk that I could use a shower and a bed. The blockade did not look like it would change...it had been in effect since Monday...without letting ANY cars through. Also, I had a room overlooking the road...so if the blockade was lifted, I would hear and see the trucks rolling...so I could go out and catch my bus.
I found out that there was ONE place in the entire town that had internet...the radio station. So I went there...it was closed in the afternoon, but when I returned later I found a lady who let me use the computer of the head Technical guy. Unfortunately, she did not know his dialup password...so I got nowhere. But, I did discover that the directors of the blockade were utilizing the radio station to command their people. So, if the blockade was going to be lifted...the radio station would know first...and broadcast it to everyone. This was good news...at least I knew what was going on.
I had been concerned about the blockade allowing vehicles through during the night...and my bus driving by my hotel without stopping! She assured me that there was no possibility of the blockades being lifted until at least 9am tomorrow morning...when they were expecting a fax from the negotiators. I wasn't happy that I was still stuck, but at least I would get a worry-free night of sleep in a bed!
September 23, 2000 (Saturday):
Went to the Radio station first thing in the morning, hoping to utilize the internet. Everyone was very friendly and wanted to help...but they didn't know the dialup password. Eventually, someone got on a bike and went to someone's house who knew the password...and we could finally log-on. I sent messages to family and Luciana saying that I was OK...and not to worry.
Later, Boaz had the good idea to call the consulate and find out about the situation. He tried the Israeli consulate with no luck...then tried the US consulate. I am PLEASED to say that the US consulate performed very well. We got in touch with the US consulate in Santa Cruz and talked to Mary Telchi...who was very helpful. She told us all that she could (information of a reliable sort is scarce) and gave us the classic consulate advice, ¡¯If things are unsafe, find a safe place and stay there.¡¯ Which I figure is good advice...and fairly standard. She was very nice, took down my passport information, offered to contact my family to tell them that I was safe...and I found out later that she actually did! Smile...so far, knock on wood, my experiences with our US embassies and consulates have been positive...consulates in Amsterdam and Santa Cruz get high marks from me. Good to know they are there when we need them. That all being said...I was starting to wonder if I was going to need Delta Force to get me out of the country in the near future!
Had a wonderful lunch (2 excellent hamburgers!) at a new local cafe in Aiquile. I was the only guest, and I ended up talking to the owner for quite awhile. She had been raised in Aiquile...had moved away for over 20 years to the big city of Santa Cruz...and had now moved back to a more simple life in this town. Simple...hmmm...while we were talking, a young boy who she knew ran into the patio area where we were talking. He said that the campesinos were getting angry that there were many people working in town and not helping them man the blockades...and that they might come into town. She had the boy lock the gate to the patio restaurant...and had the two handymen workers, who were building an addition to the cafe, stop what they were doing and go inside for awhile. It isn't a perfect situation...even the local people who support the blockades are afraid of the unruly campesinos. It is the classic social conflict between the "enlightened" city dwellers and the "dumb" country folk. Unfortunately, here in Bolivia it is probably more true than in the USA...here people in the cities have much better access to education...in the country, they are lucky to be able to attend school. I paid for lunch...thanked the nice lady...and wished her luck.
There was quite a lot of activity on the streets all day. Many impromptu gatherings of people to discuss the situation. I spoke up a couple of times to express that IF the blockades were lifted, we needed to ensure they were lifted ALL THE WAY TO SUCRE. My point was that here in Aiquile there are resources and food...being stopped at blockades between here and Sucre (where there weren't many resources) would be a much worse fate than we were experiencing. Many of the discussions centered around the hardship of the blockade on the passengers...especially the poor, young, and old. The city (meaning the churches) organized to provide food for the people. They made large quantities of pasta and basic food for the people to eat, and distributed it as well as they could. Having resources, I did not take this food, thinking that it was better left to those who really needed it. The consensus of most people was that the blockade needed to be lifted...at least for a short while. If it wasn't lifted today...everyone knew that it would not be lifted until Monday (Nothing happening in Latin American on a Sunday of course!). Lots of discussions later...we heard that there was a settlement...the blockade would be lifted at 8pm tonight...for 2 hours!
OK...this is good news...but I was still concerned about getting stopped at another blockade down the road...Sucre was 4 hours from Aiquile by bus...a 2 hour window might mean that we got stopped again 2 hours down the road. Anyway, I grabbed my bags and headed to the bus around 6pm. I figured that I would drop them off then help clear the road before 8pm...then we would drive like crazy after 8pm.
One problem...the campesinos didn't want anyone moving any stones until 8pm. Needless to say, we were frustrated at the waiting...and I figured it would take a good half hour to clear the road...thus cutting our window to one and a half hours. We heard that the mayor of the city was going to clear the road with his tractor/road grader...but that fell through when he demanded 1 Boliviano per passenger to pay for it...I can't tell you how mad I was when I heard this...of all the self-centered actions!!! Well about 7:45pm people just started clearing rocks and brush...it was like water flowing downhill...the momentum grew and soon everyone was working feverishly to clear a path. One of the hardest things was pulling out the thorny brush that was part of the barricade. Finally, a path was cleared quicker than I had imagined...just before 8pm the path was clear and we were rolling quickly through town!
At the opposite end of town we had been told there was another roadblock that would be lifted. When we got to the other side, we were detoured on a terrible back road to get around the blockade. The detour ended up getting one truck stuck...and very nearly halted the entire caravan. Our driver managed to get around and through...but it wasn't pretty! We drove like heck in the nighttime...hoping to get through the other upcoming roadblocks...we had been told there were 2 more outside the city between Aiquile and Sucre.
We ended up passing through these blockades...which were fortunately cleared already and we just continued to roll. Just before midnight, we saw the lights of Sucre...with a large illuminated cross on the hill above it. We were overjoyed to have finally arrived. The bus arrived outside the bus station (which was closed and locked) just after midnight. Our bus was the first to arrive into Sucre...and we could only hope that the rest had hade it through the barricades and bad detours...but we did not know for sure.
Tove, Helena, and I took a taxi to a Hotel in the center of the city...Hostel Charcas. We checked in and then absolutely melted into our beds...exhausted, tired, but happy to have finally arrived in Sucre...only 4 days later than expected!!!