Sunday, December 4, 2016

Revolt in Bolivia Adventures--Summer 2005












Revolution 2005 in La Paz, Bolivia

After leaving the Crooked Trails tour group in Puno, Peru on May 23rd, I caught a bus to Desaguadero, Peru, the border town near Bolivia.  After passing through the Bolivia immigration office I came to the bus area where we were met with a brass band and  hundreds of school children who were just crossing the finish line from a foot race for the boys and a bike race for the girls.  As they finished the race, the children began piling into the backs of several dump trucks that were headed back to their school.  

There were no large buses there, but just mini buses.  I got in one along with my three other buddies from the big bus along with some local campesino women wearing the familiar bowler hats and most of the skirts they owned. The fit was tight with my knees jammed against the seat in front of me.

I was getting off at the Tiahuanaco ruins about 53 km from La Paz, but about 5 miles from there I saw that a truck must have lost its load of rocks and boulders. 




 It turns out that that was not an accident as we soon found out.  Instead, as we approached the Tiahuanaco ruins entrance, we saw hundreds of campesinos demonstrating against the government.  All transportation on this road was halted.

Our bus driver directed us to exit the bus and the local women started asking for a refund and when it looked like the driver was going to leave without reimburse them, they started to beat on his bus until he relented.

I walked about 5 km into the village nearby.  There were no cars to be seen on the streets.  When I got to the town square, I learned from the only other tourist there the this was a strike by the campesinos and that all transportation throughout Bolivia was halted for this strike.  Since she was headed to Peru, I suggested that she go out to the highway I came from to get a bus ride to Peru.

After a great lunch of llama, soup, potatoes, rice and banana and yoghurt desert along with a beer for 20 Bolivians or $2.50 USD, I began my tour of the pre-Colombian ruins.  It was really an amazing place where over 50,000 people had once lived.  Right now there were about 50 to 100 workers who were excavating the site.














As I was finishing up my tour, a local family came up and offered to host me at their place.  During a dinner of some meat, rice and potatoes and my offering of two large beers, the daughter indicated that she was a student in tourism at the local university and wanted to learn from me about what tourists were interested in.  She translated for the family.


I told Rosa and her family about the Crooked Trails approach to travel--www.crookedtrails.org , especially with the home stays in the villages along with the type of travel I did.  I also told her since most tourists were on set schedules, strikes like I was experiencing was not welcomed nor appreciated by most tourists.

When I got up that morning, it was about 54 degrees inside and freezing outside.  I packed up and later talked to some of the men gathered in the town square who were listening to the radio for news about the strike.  They said it would last about 5 days or so and that over 100,000 campesinos were gathering near La Paz along with large groups of miners and students.  It was looking pretty serious.

I figured I might be able to get some sort of transportation that would get me further to La Paz.  If not, it would be a 34 mile hike.

As luck would have it, after walking out to the main highway, a mini bus heading to La Paz stopped and gave me a ride.  I was the only Westerner on the bus.  Half the people he picked up along the way were on bicycles which he loaded on the roof until there were about 8 of them.  The other folks on my bus were the women with the bowler hats, colorful bags, and lots of skirts.  After going through about 10 minor rock strewn barricades, we came to a big one that had lots of demonstrators. 





At this point I could see airplanes in the landing pattern for the La Paz airport so I knew we were about 15 miles from La Paz.  The driver then told us to get out.  Again,the women yelled at the driver and swung their bags at him until he returned some of their money.

I went to the group of people at this big barricade and asked to see the “jefe”—boss.  In my fractured Spanish, I asked him if he would do a video interview with him.  When I started the roll, all he ended up doing was to smile a lot and wished me well on the rest of my journey to La Paz.


Every mile or so as I walked by similar group of people standing by the barricades, they either just smiled at me or asked me for money to pass.  Most of the people got a real kick out seeing this solo “gringo” walking to La Paz with everyone else.  After about 2 miles, a bicyclist with a cart behind , offered to give me a ride.  As we came to each barricade, I would get out and help him lift the bicycle and cart over the barricades.  After about 10 more miles, we came to huge crowds at El Alto that was blocking the road to us and all other vehicles.  I gave him some oranges and 10 Bolivians for his help.


I started to film the crowds, but a guy put his hand over my video camera as a sign to to video this activity until I was a bit further away.  After a few more miles of working my way through this large crowd, I came to the Airport cutoff.  For a time, I thought about just going to the airport to return to Peru, but I remembered that someone told me the strike would stop within 4 more days.  I decided to walk down into La Paz and the hostel that Tammy of Crooked Trails had told me about.

When I came around the corner of the crowd filled highway to the toll plaza, I suddenly saw a squadrons of riot police with their shields, teargas canisters, rubber bullet guns, blocking the protestors.  Lots of camera people were filming so I joined in.  



Fortunately just over the lip of the freeway and toll booth, I saw dozens of minibuses dropping off and picking up passengers.  I took one down to the Plaza San Francisco in the middle of town.  The place was filled with more protestors and speakers.  



The police had cordoned off the Legislative Palace which was in the area I was trying to pass through to get to the Hostel Republica which was the former home of one of the Presidents.

Various groups were challenging the police throughout town.  You could hear and smell the tear gas going off and the police sirens, and you could see some of the minibuses with windows cracked by the demonstrators.

  

Since I looked like a tourist, the police let me pass through to my hostel that was just around the corner from the Legislative Palace. Not even the pigeons wanted to fly during these demonstrations.




My hostel is just on the left by the soldiers and the demonstrators are at the end of the street.




Once at the hostel,  I met Tammy’s friend who was the manager. 



I proceeded to take my first shower in two days.  It was glorious.  At the restaurant next door, I had a dinner of tamale appetizer, potato soup with some meat, fish with rice and vegetables, a banana and beer for just $3.

The strike continued for a few more days and I followed the various parades through town as groups of students, teachers, miners, campesinos, medical staff, lawyers joined in the protest parades.  The miners got things more exciting by frequently setting off explosives along the parade route, and the police added to the fray by lobbing off tear gas canisters. This photographer must be a veteran of such demonstrations.




On Thursday the 27th, I learned that the bus strike would be suspended so the campesino protestors could travel to Sucre, which is where the Congress relocated to, to continue their protests.  In the middle of all of this commotion, this vendor was selling all kinds of magical elixirs to cure almost anything except government stability.



Although the bus station was locked up, the buses were lined up along the streets with agents selling seats to the various buses.  I caught the bus to Cochabamba on my way to Saipina.  



I was trying to get to Saipina so that I could visit the library that was named in honor of my niece, Krista Ausland, who along with her husband had done some community development work in the area.  They were sponsored by the Mennonite Central Community.  The people of the area really appreciated all of the work she had done there before she was killed in a bus accident, and they named and dedicated the Saipina library in her honor.  I had a framed picture of her and Aaron, her husband, on their wedding day to hang in this library.  After Krista’s death my brother and his wife created the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship as a way to continue the type of service that Krista had lived during her short time with us and work with their grief.  For more information go to http://www.kristafoundation.org

On the way to Cochabamba, our bus experienced some problems along the way from some protestors that did not get the word about the moratorium since we had to go around some barricades on the local dirt roads or dry river beds and endure some rock throwers.



 

Once in Cochabamba, I learned that there was a night bus that would be leaving Saturday evening to Saipina.

This gave me time to see more of Cochabamba.  They were having the Heroinas de la Cornilla Festival that honored the courage of the women who defended the city in a battle in 1812 with the Spanish.  Their parade featured several military bands and troops marching representing all military services—-even the Navy in this landlocked country.  Various student groups were similar to those high school and college marching bands we see back home in our parades complete with majors and majorettes who performed some elaborate drills. There were no natives dancing and only a few showed up as spectators.  I haven't seen any Westerners here since I left La Paz.  Of course the welcome signs like those below were not quite what I expected.






I enjoyed walking through the market and finding massive amounts of potatoes of all kinds along with cocoa leaves.  Our bus carried many huge bags of them.  They also sold lots of bags of natural medicinals and vegetables.





I climbed the hill to the Cristo de la Concordia, the Christ statute that was patterned after the one in Rio and is the second largest one in the world after one in Poland.  A very steep stairway takes you up to the top.







After I got on the bus, I was informed that the bus was only going to Comarapa and from there I was told to rely on local transportation to get to Saipina—-whatever that meant.  Most of the trip was in the dark on a gravel dusty road.  At 3 AM the driver told me I had arrived in Comarapa.  

There were no lights in this village, no taxis nor minibuses and just a few barking dogs.  I decided to walk in the moonlight to the road intersection to Saipina.  It was a 15 mile walk with only occasional cars passing by with another 30 km distance to Saipina.
  


Within 5 minute of reaching this intersection, a taxi stopped for me and took me the rest of the way through this green irrigated valley.

I got there in time for some breakfast at the local market  in this small village and most of the women had known Krista and Aaron and expressed their sympathies--los sientos.

After breakfast, one of the women took me over to the library which was closed on this Sunday morning.  The librarian was in Comarapa  but the neighbor agreed to give the wedding picture to the librarian when she returned.



Some kids had gathered in the library grounds and I took some pictures of them.  It seems to be a gathering place even when closed.



 and then headed back by the same way I came—-taxi to Comarapa.

 

From Comarapa I took a return night bus to Cochobamba.




As soon as I got back to Cochabamba early morning, I caught a bus back to La Paz even though several of the bus companies had cancelled their buses.  

We soon found out as we made our way up the canyon where some rocks were tossed from above hit our bus.  Almost every campesino village after climbing out of the canyon had set up rock barricades that the bus had to weave around.  Because we had left at 5:30 am, many of these barricades were not guarded so we just went around.  As the day progressed, we found ourselves driving around the towns and their barricades along dusty farmer roads.

On one of the farmer roads, we had to go over the railroad tracks and our bus got stuck in the middle of the tracks.  What a comedy that was.  At first the driver had us all go to the back of the bus, then we got off the bus, then we unloaded all of the potatoes and other goods from the storage area where we found a stowaway family.  After that it was gathering rocks and jacking up the tires which finally worked.

At the next barricade the campesinos boarded the bus and demanded 50 centavos from each passenger.  Some of the passengers wanted to duke it out, but common sense prevailed.  This trip normally takes 7 hours and we had been traveling for 12 hours without stops for lunch or bathroom breaks—just bush stops and munchies to share with others.

Our bus never did get to La Paz.  When we got to El Alto about 15 miles from downtown La Paz our bus was surrounded by about a dozen people who were tossing rocks at our bus.  The driver parked and told us that this was the end of the trip.


I walked with a few other people for about 2 miles before we spotted a mini bus with a bicyclist I had talked to earlier.  The three of us were able to get on this bus and the driver knew all of the back streets so he was able to get us by the toll gates and the mini buses that took us downtown.  I again returned to the Hostel Republica and took a very long hot shower.  Quite an experience.

With all of the bus strikes, I decided that I would be unable to tour any more of Boliva during this time of strife which would shortly take down the government of President Mesa and installed  the Supreme Court President as interim President.  When elections were held December 2005, Evo Morales was elected as the first Native Bolivian President, a position he still holds.



I headed to the La Paz airport on the 30th to get any flight out of Bolivia and was able to buy a ticket to Cuzco before the airport shut down.  The fun of running blockades ran its course for me on this trip.

Next time I go to Bolivia, I want to go to the Salar de Uyuni--Salt Flats of Bolivia in SE Bolivia near the Altacama Desert in Peru.  A traveler friend, Devi, took this ethereal picture where she seems to be floating in the clouds.




Trip Cost
The total Bolivia trip cost was $321 for a daily cost of $40. The travel and tour costs were $197 including the $153 flight from La Paz to Cuzco, lodging costs were $77 for daily average of $10 per night, and the food cost were $47 or $6 per day.




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