The people have spoken: how to stage a protest

Last week was a historic landmark for the Egyptian people, where after 18 days of pro-democracy demonstrations, president Hosni Mubarak stepped down and handed powers to the military. It was victory for the Egyptians, who had endured decades of repression and constitutional rule. It was another revolution for the history books.

After being in Argentina, I totally understand the need for demonstrations in order to effect change. The Argentinians love a good protest, and they’re not shy at voicing their opinions. I participated in my first Argie-led protest, in Bolivia. And while it won’t make the history books, it was quite an interesting experience to say the least.

My travel companion and I had just finished a 3 day tour of the Salt flats and arrived in Uyuni, Bolivia late in the afternoon. We had prebooked tickets to catch a bus to Villazon and were somewhat relieved this bus did actually exist (for many others their tickets never showed up, or buses were cancelled, leaving them to spend a night at Uyuni – and its not exactly a town you’d want to spend more than an hour in). It was my first Bolivian bus experience, and despite what others had said, we rocked up to the bus station and didn’t find the bus itself to be all that bad. It looked a little worn, and it certainly wasn’t first class Argentinian style, but was decent enough for an overnight bus ride to the border. We were proved wrong however for we ended up having to swap buses twice during our journey in the middle of the night due to mechanical issues.

But we were still upbeat; we thought our worries were over when we got to Villazon,  for we managed to find another bus that would take us direct to Buenos Aires – with a company called Transamericano. We scoffed at our guidebook that advised us to walk across the border to Argentina and find a bus there, instead we patted ourselves on the back for our far superior trip planning skills. But our celebrations were shortlived. After killing a couple of hours at an internet cafe (where internet speeds are akin to 1993’s dial-up), we boarded our bus and were driven three blocks to the Argentine border. This is where the confusion starts. We hopped off the bus, and the red lady (because she wore a red jumper), told us to walk ‘that way’ – flailing her arms about in some sort of vague direction.  We walked towards the border; it was a ramshackle mess of decrepit buildings, street vendors, wandering tourists and locals carrying several heavy crates on their backs packed with foodstuffs from Argentina.

We walk towards the Argentine border. We walked through the Argentine border, slightly surprised we didn’t get stopped for bag or visa checks. Then we stopped ourselves, hang on a minute. If we don’t have an entry stamp how the hell are we supposed to exit when we both fly out in a few days time?  We saw the line of people waiting to get stamped, about 50 long, and thought, that can’t be us, surely the bus company has it all figured out and they should get us stamped and into Argentina seamlessly. The confusion made us walk back across into Bolivia, not knowing what to do. Eventually after walking around for about an hour wondering what to do, we head towards a crappy looking building that said ‘Bolivian Immigration’ and we spot the red lady, who hastily grabs our arms and drags us to the immigration desk. ‘We’ve been looking everywhere for you two, you need an exit stamp from Bolivia’. Oh yes, hmm, of course we did.So we got our exit stamp and followed the rest of our fellow bus passengers back towards the Argentine border and waited in another line, now about 100 long.

We waited in the midday sun at that border for 5 hours. We made small talk with others, waited impatiently for the little girl selling empanadas to come back so I could have some lunch (she never did come back) and visited the toilet 3 times (ironically it was located just across the border in Argentina). We were sunburned, tired and hungry. We were still in the same clothes from two days ago, we hadn’t showered or washed our faces or brushed our teeth. We were getting grumpy. How dare they make us wait!?!

So you might be wondering now, well this post has nothing to do with protests. But wait, here it comes. After finally getting our entry stamps and were officially allowed back into Argeninta, we waited for our bus to pick us up. But it didn’t come. “Donde esta la autobus?” we would ask the red lady every half hour or so. “45 minutos” she would say, every time. The other passengers started to get agitated. Then a porteno (someone from Buenos Aires) piped up. He explained that he went back to the bus office in Bolivia and demanded the bus to come, they had told him there was a mechanical failure and they didn’t know when it would be ready. He was very upset. He told us his girlfriend was back there trying to get their money back for the extended delay – they weren’t happy with the service, and wasn’t this just ridiculous, no one should be treated this way, it’s preventing us from our freedoms, and we should all go back there and teach them a lesson and demand our money back as well. My travel buddy and I, caught up in our frustration, decided we should at least go back to the office to find out what was going on, we didn’t know when there would be a bus coming, and after all, they had our luggage too. If we could at least get our luggage, we’d go find another bus company to take us to Buenos Aires (although knowing full well all those buses would have left by now and we would have to wait until the next morning).

We walked back into Bolivia to the bus company office. We demanded to know where the bus was. “30 minutos” they said. So we decided to wait there in the office. We threatened that if it didn’t come in half an hour we wanted a refund. I went to get us a couple of beers to hydrate us in our wait. While waiting, we saw a whole group of our fellow passengers coming down the hill towards the bus company, being led by our silvery-haired porteno friend. They marched themselves into the office and demanded the bus come, or their money back. Everyone had been patient up until now, and obviously the porteno had worked the other passengers up to such a rage that they all started joining in a chant outside in the street, banging a sign on the window in rhythm, shouting: “Transamericano! Quiero mi dinero! Transamericano! Quiero mi dinero!”, and of course, we joined in. All the other yelling was done in Spanish so I coudn’t quite catch it all, but our porteno was incredibly charismatic, as every protest leader needs to be. The chanting attracted a lot of attention in the streets; people stopped by to ask what was going on; I tried in my best Spanish to explain, they seemed to understand me and shook their heads in disappointment, a sure sign that they supported our cause. Other backpackers came up and took photos of this monumental display of people power (I didn’t unfortunately). It was embarrassing yet exhilirating at the same time. It almost made me want to make little picket signs of our cause and hand out flyers to passers by warning them of the malpractices of said bus company. The bus company guys just sat in the office watching us, doing absolutely nothing. Even a police officer stopped by to ask what was happening, but he was useless.

The bus eventually did come, about an hour later. Our porteno friend, wanting to stand by his principles, refused to get on the bus and was indeed given his money back. He urged all of us to boycott and do the same. But we could not – we had a tight schedule to follow and spending a night in Villazon was going to eat into that. Other Bolivians we spoke to mentioned that they had spent all their money on their bus tickets and had no money to even get food and a place to stay that night. So despite everyone’s passionate hatred for the bus company during the protest, we all had no choice but submit and get on the bus. Talk about anti climax.  So while ‘people power’ didn’t quite exactly work out for us, we did make it to Buenos Aires eventually. But I will always remember that day in Villazon when I participated in my very first South American protest.


Photos in this post were taken by the author and subject to copyright.