Welcome to Peru…Mind the Glass

In her 1990 novel, Mean Spirit, native-Indian author and activist Linda Hogan chronicles the plight of the plains Indians of Oklahoma as their culture and livelihood are threatened by the discovery of oil, and the white Americans that will stop at nothing short of exploitation and murder to get it.  It is a story of a culture whose extinction is imminent to the rapid advances of American capitalism as economics invade a society that only a short time ago was not privy to such systems and isms.  Since the arrival of Europeans to the Americas, mean spirits have haunted indigenous populations from North to South.  Peru is no exception. 

For the last several weeks, the Ayamara Indians have been on strike, blocking nearly 180 kilometers of road spanning from the border of Bolivia to Juliaca, Peru.  The reason; the Peruvian government has recently sold a contract to a Canadian mining company to mine gold that has been discovered in a mountain near Puno.  Situated near Lake Titicaca, the nest of the Inca civilization, the mountain is sacred to the locals who still hold tight to their native traditions and languages.  As if the immense amount of wealth being pulled out from under such an impoverished community´s feet was not enough, the company will divert some of the mining waste to the Lake as well.  The reaction; social, cultural, environmental, indigenous…and slightly militant.

Where do I begin?  Just when you think you couldn’t possibly have another profound life changing experience, you roll your bike across the border of Peru.  In this instance, our bikes placed us in the wrong place at exactly the right time.  But lets back up for a minute.

Leaving Potosi for the capitol city of La Paz was a confusing exchange.  Though the majority of the population are  indigenous, the stoicism of the more rural areas disappears.  Blockades, protests and marches happen so frequently that you do not even have time to figure out what is going on before it is over.  The altitude makes exploring this city a feat of fitness, and it is difficult to even eat without having to stop and catch your breath.  Nonetheless, biking in this city was extremely difficult.

Though La Paz has a lot to offer the socially conscious traveler, my unfortunate realization was that it was more a hot spot for backpackers to hop hostel to hostel, mingling amongst their own country folk, screaming in their native tongue, and consuming cheap cocaine.  Sick of the scene there, we booked it by bus to Copacabana, just by the border, where the rumors of a blockade on the Peruvian side became a reality and a business strategy all in one.

Upon our arrival, we learned that there are no buses to Peru, and most of the tour companies that are used to booking boat rides to the Islands near Copacabana were now trying to sell solutions to getting through the strike safely.  Pay several times more than the bus fare, and they will take you to the city of Puno (the heart of the strike) by boat where you could apparently hop a bus to Cusco, the next most popular tourist spot. Understanding that we would most likely not make it to Cusco before Gabe had to take off for Lima, we decided to stay in Copacabana with some new friends to enjoy the scenery, and wait for the roads to reopen.

Three or four days of waiting showed the opposite of improvement.  The blockades became tighter, the city of Puno more gridlocked, and the boat taxis from Copacabana more full of shit.  If you were to ask the boat driver how far it is to Puno on the road, he would probably something like ‘300 kilometers of dangerous, bloodthirsty, Ayamara, anglo-hating, communist llama fucking terrorists’.  And then he will try to sell you a boat ticket for 200-300 Bolivianos (6 times more than the bus ticket).  Numerous reports of tourists having to pay bribes in exchange for not having rocks thrown at their heads circulated amongst the tour companies.  If their was a struggle for human rights only 8k away, there had to be a booming tourist industry on the Bolivian side.

Two days of trying to figure out how to get to Cusco without paying the boat fare ended unsuccessfully after an attempt to round up tourists and bribe a bus driver to take us around the other side of the lake.  The price always seems to double after you fasten your seat belt.  We were 140k from Puno, the closest bus station, Dylan’s bike was in disrepair, Gabe had a deadline and the only option seemed to be to pay the boat to take us the next day.  Pissed off with my head hung low, I began to make my way to the tour company to pay the boat fare.

Within thirty seconds of  making the decision to give up, the clouds parted, the sun beat down on my forehead, and something sent a better solution my way.  I cannot tell if it was by the grace of God, or Nicholas Sarkozy, but two French cyclists on really nice bikes rolled down the street towards me.  The cyclists, Nico and Thomas, told me they were going to Cusco, and invited me along .  No sooner than I could say ‘freedom fries’, we were on the road to the border, with the plan to meet our other friends in Cusco.

After camping one night on the border, we woke up, got our passports stamped and rode toward the entrance of Peru.  Initially stoked to roll over yet another border, we were quickly reminded of the chaos we had heard about in Puno when we had to lift our bikes over a pile of boulders to get back on the road.  A quick pause to humble ourselves while crossing, we were back rolling in style on the Peruvian side, blasting Brazilian folk-music and exited to be riding with new friends.  400 meters into Peru, we were startled by the swift sound of air leaking from a freshly punctured tire.  PSSSSSSSSSSSSST…..

Whether you are in a car or on a bike tour, when you get a flat tire you are always in denial.  You hear the air releasing, you feel yourself slowing down, but you never stop until you herd the thud of your rim clanking against the ground.  We stopped to see what had caused the puncture and found a very large piece of glass.

In the 30 or so minutes it took the patch the hole, we examined the road.  As far as we could see, broken glass shimmered under the afternoon sun, only interrupted by piles of boulders.  This would be one of many flat tires between the border and the town of Juliaca, 45k outside of Puno.  The road itself was rugged, full of potholes and some portions were rocky and carved from the dirt that sat underneath the rest of the shitty tarmac.  The town around us was made of mud, and what little commerce existed there had ceased during the blockade.  You would not believe there was gold here.

Somewhat nervous about what we were getting ourselves into, we continued down the road.  The first road block we came to let us pass without incident, and in fact the strikers were enthusiastic about letting three gringos on bikes pass by.  We would come across at least 75 more blocks, staffed by anywhere from 10 to 50 Ayamara strikers of all ages chanting ‘Viva el paro!’.  And it is in this experience that the word blockade became a pejorative media description of what the participants simply referred to as El Paro (the strike).  The entire region was up in arms, and we were the only foreigners there to witness it first hand.

The ride became rote work.  Weave slowly down a flat road to avoid broken glass and rocks, and every 2 kilometers roll over or around a blockade and exchange words of encouragement with the strikers to avoid being viewed as a foreign scab crossing a picket line.  When you cross 5ok of the strike, you become used to it.  It engulfs you, and all you can think is how full of shit all the boat drivers and scared tourists were just down the road behind you.  We are not Ayamara, but there was a true sense of inclusion passed on to us by the strikers, merely by their gestures.  They understood that we understood.  Some shook our hands, others dismantled parts of the blocks to let us roll through without having to dismount our bikes, and some women even shouted their cell phone numbers to us as we passed.  And as if the people were not kind enough, the whole ride gave us a pristine view of Lake Titicaca surrounded by farms that looked unchanged for thousands of years.

Just when our spirits reached the highest point possible during the journey through the strike, a stern looking man surrounded by what must have been 50 to 60 people stepped into the middle of the road, putting his hands up and signaling us to stop.  We stopped 15 meters in front of him, puzzled and nervous.  Thinking to myself that it had to happen sometime, we finally came to the wrong road block, the one that would not let us pass.  The man reached into his pockets and pulled out two round hard looking objects.  ‘Rocks’, we thought.  Holding the objects up in the air as if trying to show contempt for the three gringos on bikes, his expression turned to a smile, and the rocks were not really rocks at all. They were potatoes.

‘You have a long way to go!  Come eat lunch to get some energy!’ he yelled in Spanish.

We stopped on the side of the road and ate lunch with a huge Ayamara family, at the highest point of what had been their several week long struggle.  The same people that we were told would beat and rob us were sharing potatoes and yuca on the side of the road with us.  The kids shyly approached us for cookies, and the elders forced us to take group photos with them.  After 20 minutes of chatting, exchanging words of encouragement (us wishing well to the strike and them wishing us a safe journey), the farmers loaded up a bag of cooked potatoes and yuka for us to eat later, and sent us on our way.  As the sun set over the horizon, we could see lightening over the center of the lake.  Pachamama (mother Earth) was on strike as well.  A kind farmer let us set up a tent on his land, and we dozed off after a long day of dodging glass and stuffing potatoes in our faces.

We woke up, shared breakfast with the farmer and his family, and got on the road.  Something had changed.  The road blocks were no longer staffed by strikers, and taxis and small local buses rolled by freely.  All that remained was the glass and boulders.  As we continued further, it became apparent that the buses and taxis were really a mass exodus to Puno.  The strike was moving to the front line, and we were due to be in the center of it by the end of the day.

Somewhat relieved that we could ride without having to cross lines of people all day, we picked up the pace.  Flat tires still remained a problem, and the broken glass became poetic.  In the U.S., I have witnessed broken glass, but always as a reaction to a situation.  Budget cuts, police brutality, etc….someone breaks a window one night, and then goes to work the next day, often alienating those truly affected by whatever injustice.  On the road to Puno, the glass was as much a solution as it was a reaction.  Freeze the infrastructure until the mining contract is changed or revoked.  Unfortunaely, we were fozen with it at times.

When we arrived in Puno towards the middle of the afternoon, we were forced to ride around the perimeter of the city to get to the center.  Strikers, organized into a massive march, waited on every street and in every alleyway to file into the center of the city in protest.  Lines of police surrounded government buildings.  Despite small bands of mostly drunk protesters burning a couple cars and breaking windows, the march was mostly peaceful, but we were warned not to find ourselves directly in the center of it.  Some strikers might take offense, and if the police attacked, we would be in the crossfire.  Burnt out on riding, we found a hostel, grabbed some beers and relaxed, reflecting together on the previous three days.

The next morning we rode out of town again.  The boat drivers from Copacabana still landed on the docks of Puno to drop off tourists that would again be disappointed to discover that the bus station in Puno was in fact closed, and the road blocks extended 45k outside of the city to Juliaca.  The tour companies must have been uninformed, or indeed really full of shit.  I suspect that latter.  The road there was more of the same.  Broken glass and boulders, and massive amounts of locals making the walk between Puno and Juliaca, trying to hitchhike on motorcycles and small cars.  By the end of the day we had officially exited the strike.

In three days of riding, we not only witnessed the strike, but relied on the generosity of the strikers to feed us and give us places to sleep.  Arriving in Juliaca and watching the news, we laughed at how inaccurate the reporting was on something taking place literally down the street.  Dramatic music played, headlines saying ‘War in Puno!’ flashed, and footage of burnt cars streamed.  American media made no mention of the event, and French media described the situation as hundreds of french tourists trapped in a war zone.  When asked where we were coming from, even locals could not believe we had crossed the strike in is entirety.

Five days after crossing the strike, we arrived in Cusco.  The road from Puno to Cusco is more than 500k of impoverished towns that lack development.  The people often speak Quechua and Ayamara and it is apparent that many learned Spanish as a second language. The day I arrived in Cusco I read in the newspaper that five children had died from exposure to below freezing temperatures on this road as I was riding on it.

Cusco, on the other hand, is one of the most popular tourist destinations on Earth.  The foreign money poured into the town has given it a look similar to Pasadena, California.  Strewn amongst colonial ruins, courtesy of the Spanish, are North Face stores, Irish style pubs and a McDonalds.  Many tourists will take a bus straight from Arequipa or Copacabana to Cusco pay top dollar to stand on Machupichu, the ancient city of the Incan Empire.  Along the way, they will sleep, often traveling by night so not to see the reality of the road to Cusco.  When they arrive, survival Spanish will be sufficient to buy a beer and a cheap massage, and most workers here have learned English to adapt to the booming tourist industry.  As for us, we have seen the road to Cusco, and everything it has to offer.  The lack of development, the hospitality of kind hearted locals, the poverty, and the struggle against mean spirits.  As for mines, the people here are the only gold I can vouch for.

If you ever choose to enter Peru via Bolivia, at least take the bus during daylight, and try to stay awake.  Travelers on this continent have the ability to go so far, yet we often miss so much.  And if you decide to enter by bicycle, roll slowly.  There is often more glass than pavement.

Note-  My experience with the strike was strictly positive.  For many people this was not an easy or expected part of their travels.  Gabe and Dylan, my great friends whom I wished could have made the bike ride with me had a totally different experience after arriving in Puno by boat.  They were met with drunk protesters throwing rocks at 5 in the morning.  My experience is my experience, and does not serve to summarize the entire strike, that is in fact still happening as we speak.  Similarly, the drunken rock throwing protesters do no represent any significant portion of the struggle many have witnessed over the last few weeks as thousands of travelers cross through this region of south America.

Stay tuned for flicks.


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