Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Stroll Through a Strike Zone

It’s 6 p.m. and as the sun fades pink against the horizon, the city wakes up. Even though the strike was for 24 hours, and shouldn’t end until midnight, everyone seemed to know that one evening came, the restaurants would open back up, the cars return to the road. The bicyclists head home after enjoying a day of unique freedom. The hum of cars fills the air again. The silence pill has dissolved.

From my seventh floor room, I had a nice view of how things were developing throughout the day. From morning on, occasional sounds of firecrackers and little plumes of smoke would come from the city center. I imagined what it must be like to live in a city at war – to hear the crackle of gunfire, to be unaffected as long as its far enough away.

One of my roommates went to work early this morning, before the blockades were put into place. She was picked up and brought home by the company car.

“Nothing’s open,” she said. “Not the supermarkets, no stores, no restaurants.” She said there was a large blockage when she returned to the apartment, at the fourth ring. But that they were able to find alternate routes around it.

In the morning, there were a couple of cars, a few private taxis, and some vehicles with green and white Santa Cruz flags flying from their windows. Were they “authorized” cars, who brought the blockades to their jobs. Or were they the ones assigned to make sure no one else moved around?

Despite a bit of traffic, I saw four tourists, hauling large suitcases and giant backpacks, making their way by foot up my street. I wondered how one would warn a visitor who didn’t speak the language about a general strike the next time. I imagined them arriving by an evening bus, and finding themselves in a still and quiet city of 1.5 million.

From an early hour, people were out walking, and they quickly made the roadways theirs. I watched a father push a child in a car-stroller, casually sauntering down the middle of a lane. More and more bicycles emerged and they especially liked the street in front of my apartment building, which has eight lanes divided into four sections of two each. It’s long and smooth and for once, was empty.

A few blocks away, I watched them set up a minor roadblock. First it was a car put in the middle of the road. This was more of an inconvenience than anything, as most were able to drive or maneuver around it. I wonder who volunteers to let their cars be used as blockage objects, and why the large numbers of people who are being blocked by a few don’t ram their cars into the one in the middle of the road.

Around 11, a more substantial roadblock was set up, with small piles of roads and bricks spread across the road. A car blocked half the road, a green banner and a Santa Cruz flag the rest. There weren’t a lot of people manning this blockage though, and no firecrackers at this point. I saw some bicyclists pause as they approached, then turn around. Others moved forward and were able to get through along the edges. Some cars found a way through, others turned around. I saw motorcycles and four-wheelers push up the curb and drive on the sidewalk to get by. But by this time, few cars were out and the world belonged to the bicyclists.

My roommates told me the members of the Civic Committee – those who declared the strike – were pressured do to their employment to participate and to enforce the roadblocks. I don’t feel like there is a strong public sentiment that moving the capital to Sucre is an important, immediate concern. So the few people in charge of the roadblock near my house had already gone home by the time my roommates and I went out for a walk later in the afternoon.

We walked randomly, probably a mile-long circle. We passed a casual roadblock or two – small streets blocked off with a couple of tree branches and rocks. But what we saw a lot more of was people having a really nice time – flying down the streets on their bicycles, bright-faced and smiling. Families walking their babies, pushing the strollers down the center of a lane. Kids playing soccer, people walking, or gathering on street corners.

My roommate Juanita, from La Paz, looked enviously at the bicyclists. “I wish I knew where I could rent one. I haven’t been on a bike in so long.”

My other roommate, a mother of a two year old who has left her child for the first time on this 11-day business trip, spoke endlessly of childbirth and childrearing.

When we returned, we went to the top floor of our building to look at the swimming pool. There, one of our co-workers, who apparently lives there, opened the door. He was bleary eyed from an evident nap.

It’s an interesting experience to have nowhere to go, nothing to do, all day. And for the entire city to be in the same situation. Yet, unlike a warzone, to know that despite the social tensions, there aren’t any serious conflicts going on. It seemed to give people the chance to sleep, relax, get some fresh air, and spend time with family. I think if they could ban cars once a month, on a weekend day to not disturb work, it would make for a much happier and healthier city.

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