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Strikes - Ecuadorian style
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Well the strike didn’t last very long, two days to be precise but I got caught up in it.

At 2am on Tuesday morning thousands of the nations indigenous took mass concerted action to block the major arterial highway of the country, namely the Pan American highway where it runs through this Andean nation.

Protests were really ugly and viscious with smiling pleat-skirted ladies waving me by as I hopped over eucalytus trees laid across the highway, protesters brandishing soup bowls at improvised soup kitchens, and unruly men quietly playing cards together.

All in all I can safely say these were the ugliest scenes I have ever seen ……. in Ecuador. But that’s because virtually all strikes are like this here. Occasionally in the cities there really are uglier scenes with the odd tear cannister thrown but they are the exception rather than the norm.

My first wind of this strike was when our bus made an impromptu stop to take on the passengers of another bus that was turning back to Quito. Two motorcycle policemen stood nonchalently at a police barrier calmly explaining that the road was closed further ahead. We took a detour on the old ‘Pana’ and after 30 minutes further, our bus swung around and the driver said he wasn’t going any further as there was a barricade ahead. Some stayed, some got down off the bus. Nothing to do then but head off walking towards the barrier.

Once past the eucalyptus branches and small rocks on the road, manned by some 50 smiling indigenous, I jumped into a car serving as a taxi and for 25 cents each he drove us to the next barricade some 8 miles up the road. We 5 adult men squeezed into the compact sized car with the driver as he stabbed the accelerator to go up the steep hills. Inside the talk was of the disgrace of Ecuadorian politicians. Nobody felt any resentment towards the indigenous people inconveniencing us.

At the next barrier I met one of my former English students from my teaching days in Quito. He was trying to get to the Colombian border some 3 hours away to the north on strike-free days. But on learning there were some 7 barriers in the next few miles he decided to return to Quito.

Undaunted I bought a bottle of water determined to walk the 20 miles to Cotacachi if necessary. I set out down a long hill, others in front were making the same trip. Old, young, single walkers, groups. A strange scenario. A tarmac-ed high quality highway completely deserted, tranquil except for the pitter-patter of feet. Everyone without exception greeted each other as we passed, some walking up and others down the long hill surrounded by pastoral Ecuadorean countryside. Obviously the barrier down below was more strictly enforced as no traffic was getting through here.

Finally the barrier came into sight. More people on this one. Once again, there were old ladies, teenagers and young boys and girls sat there discussing everything under the sun. The protest was ostensibly about putting pressure on the national and provincial governments to provide better drinking and irrigation water to those indigenous farming communities away from the big cities. But I only heard a few words spoken on that topic.

Past this barrier and those of us within running distance of a waiting pickup ran like crazy to jump in the back. I arrived last and jumped on to the back bumper of the accelerating truck, my heavy bag dragging down. I thought I was going to fall flat on my face but first a hand reached out and saved my hat being blown away, another hand yanked my bag over the tailgate and finally two pairs of hands hauled me in, my face coming to rest, somewhat embarrassingly in the lap of a well endowed indigenous lady. Riotous laughter broke out at this funny sight, and recovering my composure I felt the joint relief we were all feeling as we all realised that there probably would be no need to walk huge distances under the fierce mid-day equatorial sun.

Not for long. A mile and a half up the road and another barricade. We all got out and I dived into a roadside store for more water. I came out and another waiting pickup, restricted to inter-barrier shuttle trips, pulled up beside me. This time it was 50 cents for a longer ride, the driver assured us there were no more barriers for 25 kilometers. My well endowed indigenous friend and her colleagues from the previous ride had walked on as I went into the shop and as the pickup truck stopped they enthusiastically jumped in – now it was my turn to haul them in. “Where are you going” they asked, Cotacachi I replied. “Do you know El Meson de Las Flores?” Two did and as we got down again at a gas station just before the next barrier they wished me luck.

The next barrier was a little more serious; two smouldering tires and some bigger branches. Three policemen whiling away time talking to the locals and lazily looking at their watches as if to ask “Is it lunchtime yet?”.

So far my modes of transport from Quito had been bus, foot, car and pickup truck. At this point a motorcyclist slowed down to offer me a ride as pillion. “Where can I fit on?” I asked. He looked as me blankly as if he couldn’t comprehend why I would ask. What was obvious to him was not obvious to me. He twisted around and told the two teenage children on the back “shuffle up!”. He was now sat on the tank and he triumphantly declared “There!” ‘There’ was 4 inches of a very small baggage rack. “I don’t think so” I declined, “I’ll pass and get a lift with a car”. He shrugged his shoulder and with a quick twist of the throttle and a smile from the two teenagers they were off on their way.

My final lift was an old compact Chevrolet. 4 adults and the driver, shoulder to shoulder, my black travel bag in the trunk alongside my companion’s 100lb sack of grain on its way to Otavalo. Arriving in Otavalo everything looked a picture of normality apart from a few less people on the street.

So here we are. It’s Thursday now. The strike is over, the government has promised to look into the problem and once again the Pan American highway is filled with traffic coming from as far away as Colombia in the north or Guayaquil in the south. The fun of traveling ‘On the Road’ is over until the next strike and only a few discarded eucalyptus branches at the side of the road lay in testimony to another indigenous ‘upheaval’.


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