Monday, April 02, 2007

My first roadblock

One week in Bolivia and I came across my first road block, a popular means of protest in this part of the world.

I was in a taxi on my way to work when the driver and I saw that traffic was suddenly going against us, despite the fact that the lanes only went one way. He was intelligent and didn’t try to go further, asking me to walk the short distance that remained to work. Other cars tried to go around the oncoming traffic. But as I saw while walking, they ended up just reaching the road block, and having to turn around with more difficulty.

The roadblock was just a little bit down from my office. I didn’t come too close. Last time I messed around with a roadblock in Ecuador, my mom and I were held by the protestors. The fireworks, which sounded like a gun, scared me off as did the story of a manager in Cochabamba who recently lost an eye by being at the wrong place during a civil disturbance.

I could see that tires were placed across the road, as were Bolivian flags. There didn’t seem to be so many people – about ten on either side of the road. Yet these few people were able to force hundreds of cars to turn around on the major thoroughfare leading to the airport.

When I asked what was going on, one person said it was the passengers from LAB airlines, who are still stuck at the airport and haven’t gotten their money back. I was amazed how disgruntled airline passengers, many of them not from this area, could organize a roadblock.

The more believable story, told to me by several others, is that the blockers are from a nearby barrio and are protesting the lack of a stoplight. There is a high school on one side of the road. Being a major causeway, the traffic moves quickly and there is no safe way to cross. Recently, a woman was hit and killed.

That seemed to me to be an understandable reason for a protest. But what I didn’t understand was how so few people could inconvenience so many without consequence.

“Couldn’t the police move them?” I asked my colleague Maria.

“Yes, but they will take at least an hour to arrive,” she said. “People here don’t have much respect for public officials.”

“But they seem to have respect for the blockaders. No one complained. Everyone, including giant trucks, turned around.”

“Yes, that’s true. Sometimes passing cars even cheer the blockaders.”

I wondered why the blockade wasn’t used very often as a means of protest in the States. I figured people might be afraid of going to jail. I asked Maria if they didn’t have the same fear here.

“If they are brought to jail, it’s just for an hour or so. Then they are let go,” she said.

For about an hour, no traffic at all passed the office. We wondered if we’d be stuck there. But by 10:30, the road was open again. By the time I went out for lunch, it was hard to even tell where the blockage had been. Most locals seemed pretty inured to it, but I found it scary.

Today, during my Spanish lesson, Oscar read me an article about the Canadian Mennonites, who are marking the 50th anniversary of their arrival in Santa Cruz. They live in a village called Pailas, about 30 kilometers from Santa Cruz.

These Mennonites are more modern than others. They can wear modern clothing and they have cars, tractors, and electrical appliances. They are very light-skinned, with many blonds and blue or green eyes – quite a contrast to the rest of the population. They came to Santa Cruz from Paraguay, where they had been limited to growing peanuts and cotton. Here they had greater options in agriculture. Currently they specialize in corn, soy, sorghum and dairy farms.

Their young study German, math, Spanish and the Bible for six months per year. Girls graduate at age 12, boys at 14. They believe the greatest lessons are taught by the land. Oscar told me they have a reputation for being very hard workers.

Another coworker today told me a about a very interesting opportunity for locals here. When I asked how he spent his weekend, he told me he was looking for a new house to live in. But the catch is this. He will pay the owner $2500 upfront to live in his house. He will live there 12-18 months. At the end of the period, the owner returns the $2500 to him and he moves on. During that time, he can save more money in order to be able to buy his own house.

In effect, he is giving a loan to the home owner, with the interest being the ability to live in his property for free. I don’t know why someone with a spare house wouldn’t just apply for a loan and put the house as collateral. But it’s certainty a nice opportunity for a forward-thinking young man like my colleague.

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