On our trip back from Lake Titicaca, the national news was full with the following story:
“a mob invaded the altiplano home of Victor Hugo Cardenas, the Aymara intellectual who served as Bolivia’s Vice President under President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (1993-97). Cardenas was away at the time but members of his family, including his wife and children, reported being physically attacked before their home was taken over entirely in an act of political violence spurred by Cardenas’ recent opposition to the new MAS-backed constitution. Los Tiempos on Sunday quoted a campesino leader, Alfredo Huañapaco, as justifying the attack on the basis of Cardenas’ ‘traitorous’ acts against his people and that the house “served no social function.” The mob that took over the house claimed its intention to turn it into a home for the aged. While both President Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera voiced a general condemnation of the violence, both also sought to justify it in public comments. Morales (also quoted in Los Tiempos) said, “The people do not tolerate or forgive traitors.” “
The ‘house of the people’ was on our return route; naturally we kept our eyes peeled for it. My unfettered imagination conjured up images of an enormous property of a corrupt politician crackling in flames and surround by a sea of angry campesinos.
“There it is!” someone exclaimed as the house rushed past me. It was of modest size, a solid block of cement and painted a quaint shade of yellow. It sat a surprisingly close 15 feet off the main drag. Despite a standard cement fence around its perimeter, it really seemed vulnerable. Violated. The fascade of the house, its forlorn, shattered windows, its evident emptiness and the scars of red graffiti carved into its yellow walls – I was staring at victimhood personified.
As the house zipped by, we snapped out of our reflective reverie and hollered at the driver to pull over. Picture time.
As we drew to a halt I became aware of a group of campesinos squatting across the street from the destitute mansion. My peripheral vision had only chanced upon them, but my instinct seemed to prioritize them as a threat before my overcrowded consciousness had time to process them.
In the excitement of the moment, the lone Bolivean amidst us, our intrepid and politically fulminating photographer Julio, had snatched up his camera and leapt out onto the tarmac. I whipped my head around to follow his movements out the back window. A Swedish girl also hopped out as some commotion began to stir amongst the campesinos.
Keep in mind that in this part of Bolivia, the state police are currently not allowed. By declaring temporary sovereignty from the law, the mob had managed to absolve itself from their illegal acts. To paraphrase Nixon: “When the mob decides to do something, that makes it legal.”
I waited patiently for Julio to snap some photos of the damaged home. My attention was still very much absorbed by the emblazoned scrawl of graffiti shouting, “Evo! Si!” off the walls of a traitor’s home. So much so that I hardly noticed the first rock zip by Julio’s head.
He had trained his camera on the campesinos rather than on the house. I thought he was just adjusting his lens. But when I recognized that the cholitas in the crowd were desperately covering their faces and stumbling away from as if from a threat, I started to worry. Even still, I waited for the camera to swing towards the damaged but inoffensive house of the people.
When the first rock hurtled by, the warning shot, my worry turned to panic. Outside, like a hardened war correspondent made to feel invincible by his lens, Julio took another tentative step towards the confused and increasingly enraged campesinos.
I grew alarmed. His finger continued to tap furiously on the aperature. He was aiming nowhere near the house.
As the patter of rocks skipping across the paved road increased, so did the patter of scurrying footsteps. My friends flung themselves back in the car and grappled for the door handle but a gruff hand hindered their attempt. We found ourselves staring into a brooding pair of eyes: one dirtied by a calcifying cataract, the other dirtied by all the bitterness in the world.
Caged protest erupted. The sounds of the zoo filled the car: one moment we were docile, the next screeching to high heaven.
“Dame la camera!”
“Que haces tu!”
“Que haces TU!”
“Solo estaba sacando fotografías. No es un país libre? Y claramente, ustedes no exactamente están tratando evitar atención.”
“Da me la camera. No puedes sacar fotos aquí. No vamos ser un parte de tu propaganda!”
“Que mearda! Mira lo que ustedes han hecho! Que violencia! No puedo creerlo. ESTAN SALVAJES!”
Calling the seething mob gathering outside the car savages was downright stupid. They were begging for an excuse to hurt us. Their leader, a shoe-in for the part of Scar in Broadway’s Lion King, silently bared his teeth at us.
We all turned our fearful eyes to supplicate our driver to take off. Traitorously, he had already stepped out of the car. He answered our desperate looks by raising his hands and turning away – a modern day Pontius Pilot.
Any resistance on our part quickly metamorphosized into desperate apology:
“Lo siento. Lo siento. No tenía sentido. No es verdad. No están salvajes.”
“Look. We’re sorry. We are just a bunch of tourists. We didn’t mean any harm.” Julio, wild-eyed and showing his first signs of fear, began fumbling through his pockets.
“Quick. Money. Do you guys have any cash?” We pooled together the loose bills we had left over.
I gulped fearfully at the meager sum that sat crumpled in Julio’s hands. The cost of living. The few dollars keeping us from a lynching.
Cynical faces stared at us in principled un-forgiveness. Fortunately a more utilitarian instinct was governing their hands and stomachs and they grudgingly accepted the cash.
We accelerated away, leaving behind us a cloud of dust and aggression. We all embraced the quiet, the soothing buzz of wheels on asphalt. Then, after a brief calm, came a storm of reproach as we all cried out in unison:
“JULIO! WHAT THE F#@K WERE YOU THINKING???”