Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Long Way to Santa Cruz

I'm back in Santa Cruz, after an exhausting 15-hour adventure from Cochabamba. If you've been following the news, you know that the anti-Morales opposition has blockaded the roads surrounding Santa Cruz, in protest of hydrocarbon revenues being used to support the elderly and infirm ($26 a month--pretty decadent!).

I wasn't too worried about the blockades, as the cruceños who started them are apparently in cahoots with the U.S. government. Since I'm quasi-credentialed from a U.S. paper, I figured that they'd be sure to let me through (I also have a contact number from the Pro–Santa Cruz Committee on speed-dial, which I was ready to use if anyone messed with me.) Note: The U.S. ambassador has once again been expelled.

I needn't have worried: The blockades, starting about six hours outside of Cochabamba, are relaxed and peaceful (at least the ones I've seen). I planned on arriving at the first of the blockades around sun-up, but my timing was off and it was pitch-dark when the bus pulled over and everyone got off. There was no moon last night, and street lamps don't exist in isolated parts of this country. So I just followed a group of people closely, occasionally stepping on a sleeping figure on the highway, weaving in and out of lumber trucks, buses, private cars. I slipped down an embankment once and couldn't find my footing to get back up on the blacktop, but suddenly I heard "Manos, manos" and saw an outstretched arm coming from the blackness above. I grabbed on and an anonymous Bolivian helped me up. It was quite pleasant in the tropical nighttime air with the wind blowing down the empty highway, the palm-tree fronds clattering off to the side, and strange bird sounds emanating from the brush. The stars were magnificent. I could only recognize the Belt of Orion; all the other stars were unfamiliar to me, a man from the northern hemisphere. The only thing that spoiled the experience was a young girl who kept screaming at me "Monkey, monkey, monkey!" I guess I look like a white monkey.

After our group passed the roadblock--a heap of brush piled high on the road--we sat in the darkness and waited for a vehicle to pick us up. Shortly thereafter, an empty luxury bus charged us a little more than a dollar each to drive us another hour down the road to the next roadblock. I settled into my seat and dozed.

When we stopped, it was light out. All the passengers filed out and we grabbed our luggage, and we started hoofing it to the roadblock, which this time consisted of three-foot-high heaps of dirt. On the other side, motorcycle cabbies waited for customers, but I just followed the other people, and after about two kilometers of huffing and puffing, we came across another roadblock. We pushed on. Two roadblocks later, I finally caved in and hired a motorcycle. Balancing precariously on back, loaded with my duffle bag and backpack, we zipped down the highway, empty except for the occasional other motorcycle cab with a mamita perched sidesaddle on back, voluminous skirt billowing in the wind, until we hit the final roadblock. There, a dump truck was parked, selling space in back for the final push into Santa Cruz. I threw my bags in back and climbed aboard, grateful that I was almost at my destination. I was wrong.

There were still roadblocks ahead on the highway, and to avoid these the driver took to the back roads. A dirt track was now our road, with the truck bouncing over potholes and nearly throwing the passengers off. Tree limbs overhung the route and clawed at my face as we passed underneath. Occasionally the road disappeared entirely and we traveled along vast riverbeds. It's the dry season right now, and the streams are dwarfed by the floodplains. I'd love to see this land when the rivers are swollen and full. Finally, four hours later we arrived in the outskirts of Santa Cruz. I ran to the side of the road and took a long, needed pee. Then I went and flagged a cab down and found my hotel.

My mission is to check out the town where Che Guevara died over forty years ago. I'm trying to put together an article to coincide with Soderbergh's new Che biopic that will be screened at the New York Film Festival next month. That's the plan, anyway. But now I've been told that it's impossible to leave town due to the roadblocks. It was supposed to be impossible to even get to Santa Cruz, though, so I hope tomorrow I can negotiate my way out of here. I don't really like this city--the people are not very friendly, and it's too expensive. But I am tired and worn out, and you never know, there might be riots here again tomorrow, which I should really experience. Last time I was here I pulled out a day before everything really went to hell.

I have to say, though, that the roadblocks and the riots seem to be an immature reaction to the central government's plan to rewrite the constitution and redistribute wealth. I'm too tired to go into it now, but I suggest you read the latest Democracy Center blog entry to gain a view on this volatile situation.

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