By Darin Wahl
I set up a homestay and volunteer stint in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s main city on the eastern edge of the Andes. Descend a few hours more and you’ll be in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s main city on the edge of the Amazon. Cochabamba is often overlooked as a tourist destination, and it’s easy to see why. It had very little to offer tourists of any stripe. The Andes were not the imposing grey wonders they are in La Paz, or Quito. They are reddish, almost hills in comparison, might be considered a high desert, arid certainly, since the clouds drop most of their water in the western ranges. But, I wasn’t there yet. I was 4 hours drive southeast in Oruro, near the edge of Bolivia’s renowned salt flats. The TV in my hostel was on and usually ignored, but today people were watching. That got my attention. The cocaleros and farmers teamed up with taxi drivers and other transport and were going to protest, again apparently, by shutting down every road in the country. “What was that?” I asked, “Did I translate that right?” “Did they just say every road?” “Oh shit.”
I made a call. “Yeah, they’ll definitely do it. Get on the next bus if they haven’t shut it all down. The only thing that will run are flights. But you’ll have to walk to the airport. Go get that bus. We’ll keep our fingers crossed you don’t get stuck on the road.”
“Could that happen?”
“Yeah. You could just get stuck. Can’t get through. Can’t go back. But you should have some time. Maybe.”
I took that maybe, ran up to my room to gather my things and headed to the bus stop. “You going to Cochabamba?”
“Yeah. Right now. Get on.”
I got into the city right before they buttoned up the country good and tight. We passed crews that were gathering tree logs on the side of the roads. Our bus was stopped and questioned a few times. These people do not play around. I love Bolivia.
Cochabamba had military in the streets. “Yeah, the big cities will have internal transportation. But getting in and out isn’t happening anymore.”
“So, how long can these things last?”
“Oh weeks. They can hold out for a long time. Good thing you got no place to go for a while.”
This was 2001.
“You see that intersection just there? That was where that kid was shot and killed. The military says that their soldiers weren’t authorized to shoot. But they killed that boy anyway. And then the shit really hit the fan. More than 100 people were hurt. And this city just kept at it. They had enough.”
“Wait, how could a foreign corporation own the city’s water?”
“Oh, well that's international trade. The World Bank puts stipulations on their loans. One is often the privatization of water. Bechtel got the rights in Cochabamba. They were putting meters on hand pump wells that people had dug themselves on their own land. They were charging people for collecting rainwater.”
“They owned the rain?”
“That was part of the deal.”
“That might be the most messed up thing I’ve heard in a while.”
“Yeah. People were not happy. And after they shot that kid, the government was on it's heels. It wasn’t long before Bechtel left the country.”
“That’s kind of amazing.”
“Yeah. The people of this country don’t have a problem with rising up. You know. They’ve been kicked around, lied to, abused, and oppressed enough. I’ve been here for 9 years and this shut down is pretty normal.”
"Do you think it will change anything?"
"Maybe. I don't know. The important thing is that the people remember that together they are powerful. It's the coming together that matters."