I’m interrupting the flow of posts again…we’ve got three in the pipeline about Bolivia and Peru…because I just have to tell you about our day. Last week we fled Bolivia because of strikes, road blockades, and dynamite/rock hucking by angry miners, teachers, students, and anyone else with access to projectiles. Our ultimate destination was Peru, our final country, where we figured things would go more smoothly. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Today we left Puno at 8:00 am for the 6-hour bus ride to Cusco. We made it about 10 minutes outside of town before we came to a screeching halt. Our bus, along with every other that had left Puno, was blocked by a combination of rocks strewn across the road, chanting protestors, and burning tires. All I could think was that this was going to be Bolivia all over again.
Tom jumped off the bus to take pictures and I followed with the videocamera. The protestors seemed friendly and unconcerned by our presence. I chatted with a nice family using my approximately 100 words of Spanish which now include the words for blockade, anger, and bad president. They told me that the blockade spanned the next 14 kilometers and had been started by Puno’s schoolteachers who wanted more money and a new president.
30 minutes later about 100 riot police arrived armed with shields, tear gas canisters, and shotguns. Slowly, boldly they began clearing the road of rocks and dispersing the protestors. The job was not an easy one. As soon as they cleared 50 feet, the protestors descended and start throwing the rocks back. When the teachers, an army of 4’10” middle-aged women wearing baseball hats, got too aggressive, the police would give chase and toss a tear gas canister forcing them to flee for the hills. Gradually, the police succeeded in their mission and we were able to lumber at a snail’s pace along the debris-lined street.
We were approximately the 15th vehicle in the police-fronted caravan and at one juncture fell out of view of our protectors as they rounded a corner ahead. Immediately, scores of angry teachers appeared at the crest of the hill and came scurrying down the side toward the bus. Some tossed rocks toward the bus, others positioned them on the road, and still others darted out and placed them under our tires. Tom and a few other big guys on the bus jumped and began clearing our path. They quickly reboarded, however, when the protestors began yelling at them. The police returned, dispersed a few more tear gas canisters, and we resumed our crawl.
14 kilometers and two and a half hours later we had passed the blockade and were on the way to the strange city of Juliaca. The bus gained enough speed that many of we weary travelers dozed off. Our rest was shortlived, however, because the bus once again screeched to a stop. Now the blockade we faced was not mineral but human. Hundreds upon hundreds of agitated teachers were coming straight at us carrying banners, waving flags, and chanting anti-presidential slogans. The bus turned off the main road down a dusty sidestreet to wait out the protest. We all took turns watching the parade and buying snacks at the corner store. (This was the cheap bus that didn’t serve meals.)
At this particular 90-minute stop we learned that the reason the teachers are so angry is that President Alan Garcia is requiring them to take a competency exam. Many have already taken the test and of those who have, half failed the basic arithmetic section and a third couldn’t answer basic reading comprehension questions. Garcia wants to replace the low-performing teachers with better ones but the unions question his motive. He claims it is to improve Peru’s educational system, they claim it is to pick on them.
Whatever the real reason, rumor has it tomorrow the whole country will be on strike. We managed to arrive in Cusco five hours late, but we’re not sure we’ll be able to do anything. No one seems to know what’s really going to happen. Some say no busses, planes, or trains (including the obligatory ones to Machu Picchu) will run. We’ve got 9 days until we go home and are planning on camping out here as long as it takes to get up the Sacred Valley. It’s Machu Picchu or bust for us!
…….In a fitting epilogue to our Bolivian experience, we ran into many of the folks from the bus that stranded us in the middle of the night. The group that took the dodgy taxis to the blockade made it to La Paz, but only after 7 hours of slogging through roadblocks and protestors, most of them ON FOOT. They said it seemed a dangerous undertaking, and we felt vindicated in our decision to split the troubled country. We bumped into our British traveling companions, with whom we split 3 days ago in Arequipa, at dinner. They made it all the way back to La Paz and succeeded in getting their money back from Todo Tourismo. The company initially refused and even called in the Tourist Police to mediate. The Brits said as soon as the police learned the exorbinant amount the company charges customers, they came down firmly on the side of the jilted tourists. We’ll see how far I get via email and without the benefit of police by my side.