What would you do if you found yourself locked inside a hotel in Peru with a drunken mob trying to break down the gates?
‘Abre la puerta! Abre la puerta!‘
The sound of rocks crashing against the walls of the hotel filled the unlit dining room with tension. I dropped my spoon in the soup bowl and took my girlfriend’s hand. Three Peruvian National Police had been eating dinner next to us, but had apparently lost their appetites as well. I watched as they took up positions at the doors and pulled out their pistols, ready to fight.
‘We better get out of here,’ I told my Peruvian girlfriend. The thuds on the outside of the hotel became louder, and nearer.
‘Abre la puerta!‘ came a drunken voice from outside. They began knocking on the door furiously, trying to knock it down. It sounded like a crowd of 50 to 100 people, most of them probably drunk.
‘Look, if anything happens, just get down,’ I told her. We stood up out of our chairs and walked out of the room, deeper into the hotel. Down the narrow corridor towards our room, we could hear people trying to break into the gate. I was still carrying the knife from dinner. It was dull but would do damage if used correctly.
‘What about the stuff in our room? I’m going to go check that it’s alright,’ she insisted.
‘Are you crazy?” I asked. “Just stay here. That shit’s not important. These people are drunk and out of control.’
‘Calm down, I just want to look..’
I grabbed her arm, trying to stop her, but she just laughed at me.
‘Relax, baby, this is normal during Paro…’
At that moment the police passed us with guns drawn, heading to check the other door. The rioters became even louder and angrier.
‘Abre la puerta! Wooohooo!‘
‘Just stay here. Our shit doesn’t matter.’
She smiled and shook out of my grip.
‘Relax, This is normal,’ she said as she turned away from me.
It was normal. The day before, with no warning, the major agricultural labor union declared a national Paro or strike. Every real road in the country was blocked and every business was supposed to close. I had been in the mountains above a little town called TaricÃ¡ in Central Peru with my girlfriend for 3 days. When we came down, everything was blocked, and there was no choice but to spend the night at the hotel and wait for the next morning to walk back to our home in Huaraz.
During the afternoon, rioters had continued to throw boulders and cut down trees onto the road. It was the dream of every young anarchist. The police and military were so outnumbered that they didn’t even try to control it out of fear that they could spark a war. Indeed, when police had tried to pass the blockade to Huaraz earlier in the day, they had been attacked with rocks and sticks and driven back by the protestors.
It was in this spirit of lawlessness and disorder that the union sent out paid lackeys to terrorize anyone who might have a business. Unfortunately, the small, family owned hotel where we were staying seemed to be a favourite target. Eventually, however, the crowd moved on toward the houses of the international gold mine, which was heavily fortified and guarded. Maria and I returned to the table planning to finish our dinners.
It was surreal to be sitting at the table in the dark again, trying to act like everything was normal. The cook did her best to finish the meal in a dark kitchen, as they owner of the hotel was still worried that having lights on would attract the rioters. We ate in the darkness and went back to our room. The gate on the outside was bent by the rocks, and the concrete wall below our room was cracked and broken. Yet, afterward, all was silent and calm. A few more huge blocks had been dropped on the road, and it was even clearer that we would have to walk for a long time the next day.
I locked the door well that night, and made sure I had my pocket knife close, in case someone tried to break in. I even pushed a chair up to the door for a little extra security, much to my girlfriend’s amusement.
‘Nothing ever happens during Paro, baby. This is totally normal…’
‘Didn’t someone get killed last year…? Didn’t half a dozen people get killed last year?!’
She laughed at me again.
‘This isn’t the United States. We don’t worry about those kinds of things…’
The next morning we joined hundreds of other people, both travellers and locals, tramping along the road like refugees. For the local people that weren’t walking, the strike was like a holiday. Whole villages gathered in the street to play soccer, and it was clear that no one was worried that the national economy was stopped, or that food couldn’t arrive to any of the cities.
Many of the protesters continued rolling rocks and boulders and cutting down trees from the tops of hills and letting them fall down to the road. We passed crowds of protesters that laughed and joked among themselves in Quechua to see gringos walking along like everyone else.
It took four hours of hiking to make it to a car, which could only take us part of the way home. After more walking and several more rides, we returned to Huaraz, where almost all of the shops were closed and the power was still out in some parts of the city.
Ironically, by the afternoon, the Paro was over and the already under-funded and ill-equipped government could begin cleaning up the mess.