The Whiskey Chronicles (in Buenos Aires)

The Whiskey Chronicles (in Buenos Aires)

Friday, June 24, 2005

Thanks to my friend Rudy in Jakarta for sending along this missive after reading a few of my recent stories:

I think you now qualify to be called a "stringer." This also qualifies you to enjoy the worst pay and benefits of any professional occupation.

Rudy should know, since he runs the AFL-CIO office in Indonesia.

A few of you have asked about photos...we'll try to get some posted in the next few days, including tear gas shots from the protests a couple weeks back.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Beware of Sheep

Men with sticks make me nervous. They aren't agreeable or amenable to pleasant conversation, much less negotiation, especially when they've been sitting in the sun all day blocking a road.

Dana and I spent three days a few weeks ago at Lake Titicaca with her sister and step-mother. We left the lake knowing full well that protesting miners in the town of Huarina were blocking the road to La Paz, but hoping we could detour around them.

The road to Huarina should have told us otherwise. We were, for over an hour, nearly the only car on a road that has regular traffic. We curved up to 14,000 feet, taking in breathtaking views of the Andes and wondering just what the hell was in store for us around the next turn.

We eventually saw a sign saying "Huarina - 2km" and fell grimly silent. Halfway through town, a few smoldering tires and a line of parked minibuses announced the blockade. I pulled over and walked to the blockade, where a few women in derby hats laughed at my request to drive through their blockade. "We´re not letting anybody through," she said.

But then one of the men, his back turned and pretending not to be talking with me, whispered that I could go back a couple miles and find a dirt road that would lead us off into the countryside and around the blockaded town.

With that information in hand, we set off. The dirt track we found ourselves on for the next two hours did indeed take us around most of the city...but not quite far enough to get around all the blockades. We came around a bend in the road - and into full view of the protesters a mile or so away - only to be stopped by a group of 30 men waiting to intercept anyone stupid enough to bypass the main highway. These men had been in the sun all day, were cranky, and sure as hell weren´t going to let any foreigners get past (unless we were willing to pay them, which we weren´t).

We turned around and tried to find another route, but ended up in the nearly the same predicament. After a couple false starts, we rounded another hill and found ourselves a little further down but still not past the blockades. By this point, though, the protesters were getting angry at these disrespectful foreigners in their bright red SUV.

With my grip tightening on the steering wheel, I watched as the 30 men we had just left behind, as well as a few dozen protesters on the main road, started running towards us, some armed with sticks and rocks. "We can out run them," I thought as I hit the gas and we flew down a dirt path made for cows and wagons. We were doing fine until the road ended into an impassable ditch. We would have to turnaround. That´s when images of being pulled out of the car and getting beaten first came to mind.

To my left, a teenage girl was out herding her sheep. I rolled down my window with a clear expression of fear on my face, but before I could say a word, she pointed across her fields. "You can drive across these fields to the main road if you want." I asked her to repeat that to me twice, just to make sure I was understanding. I was.

We turned the car, threw it into 4WD and put Nissan´s engineering to work. This was an undulating field being prepared for crops. We bounced up and jerked back against our seatbelts as the young girl´s sheep scattered to get out of our way, some just barely missing my front bumper. "Watch the sheep! Watch the sheep!" was all I heard Dana, Sara, and Sharon shouting while I prayed that there wouldn´t be another big ditch between us and the highway.

After a couple adrenaline-filled minutes our trail ended at the highway, we banked a sharp left, and the protesters quickly disappeared in our rear view mirror. My heart, however, didn´t slow down for the rest of the drive.