This is the fourth part of the Peace Corps vs Bolivia saga. You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here. There’s one more chapter I need to write sometime during this holiday season.
It was a normal day. I went to work at the school, did my trainings with the teachers, and was eating dinner watching the telenovela with some friends. Unexpectedly our regional director popped into the restaurant/guesthouse I lived in. He told me I had an hour to get my stuff together, we were going to be consolidating in Tarija. It was strange that he was there in person, but not strange we were consolidating. We’d do this just about ever other week because of security scares. Normally it came over the phone though.
He left and headed south to pick up some other volunteers, he would grab me on the way back. My friends asked me what was going on. I lied to them. I told them that there was a conference in Tarija I had to be at for the next three or four days. They never asked me why the regional officer came down at eight PM instead of calling; probably chalked it up to the crazy gringos.
I put my important things together, passport, computer, toothbrush, and a change of clothes and waited to leave. There was a nagging sensation in the back of my head that something was wrong this time, but we’d done this so many times before I thought they were just being nice and giving us a free ride. I told my coworkers I’d be back in a few days and we’d go over the plans for the new garden. That didn’t happen. I never saw them again.
Peace Corps stashed us in the guesthouse we would always use in Tarija. They told us not to leave, but forget that. This was our city and we weren’t scared of anything. We took it as a holiday. All the volunteers were together for the first time ever and that was cause to celebrate. So for three days we slummed around Tarija; buying things we couldn’t find in the villages, using the internet, going to restaurants and bars and clubs, the normal things we would do.
Finally a message came down from our main office in Cochabamba. We were to relocate to Bermejo, a town about four hours south, right on the Argentine border. Was this getting more serious? Should we be concerned? Will they try to slip us out to Argentina since we’re so close? Lots of questions needed to be answered.
But of course there was a problem. Another round of bloqueos was planned for the day so we had to leave at o’dark thirty in the morning to make it through before the protesters came and shut the roads down. The dozen of us pile into cabs we scambled to find and paid out the nose for. We were getting reimbursed so money really wasn’t an object to us. PCVs are notoriously cheap unless the company is paying the tab.
We arrived in Bermejo and checked ourselves into the hotel that the bosses had reserved for us. Again another four days of nothing. Eating and drinking, what else could we do? Another message from Cochabamba, conference call time for us. Living in the far south of Bolivia we were the most remote of the volunteers. Unknown to us, by this time all the rest of the volunteers in the country had been moved to Cochabamba. So there we were, an island of American foreign policy just drinking beer in the sunshine.
The country director gets on the conference call. She tells us that a plane is coming for us to bring the whole lot of us to Cochabamba. Wait a second, since when did this backwater border town have an airport? And why can’t we just go to Argentina? Most of us were hoping for the nice government per diem to take a proper vacation. I still sigh that we missed the opportunity to enjoy delicious wine and butter-tender steaks courtesy of the US taxpayer.
Well Bermejo did have an airport of sorts. The next day after the conference call we gathered our baggage and piled into cabs again. At least the drivers knew where were going. We pulled up to a tiny airstrip. There’s a single man waiting there with a set of keys. He unlocks a padlock, we dip through the chain link fence, and then he pulls out a bottle of wine and waits for us to leave so he can go home. We’re sitting and waiting for an hour or so thinking about this nonsense when there’s this loud drone. Our eyes follow our ears and what do we see? A C-130 making a landing approach. No one’s in the control tower, there’s nothing at all that makes this look like a working airfield. The runway looks like the length of a football field.
Somehow the pilots stick the landing. No sense in turning of the engines, the ramp is let down, we pile on with our stuff and we’re moving even before everything’s sealed up again. For the twenty or so of us, there was a lot of room. Most folks decided it was nap time and made themselves comfortable. One person asked the crew where we were going. Peru they said. What? Aren’t we just going to Cochabamba to be with the rest of the volunteers? These pilots are idiots.
We begin our descent into Cochabamba. No problems landing, we hop on out into the terminal. Who greets us? All the other volunteers. It was like being a millionaire rock star coming off a private jet to adoring fans. By fans we mean people we hadn’t seen since we finished training, for some that was almost two years.
But there’s nobody else in the airport. I know Cochabamba isn’t exactly an Atlanta style hub, but still it’s a ghost town. Then it clicks with us, the pipeline bombing. There’s no fuel for the planes. So the whole air system in Bolivia is shut down. PC called in a whole bunch of favors and scored a military plane from outside the country and got in touch with the right people to open up the Cochabamba airport just for us.
The Bolivian Peace Corps staff herd us back onto the plane. They’re staying behind in case things cool down. There’s lots of work that needs to keep on keeping on. And they’re getting paid for it. We’re just a bunch of shmuck volunteers, it looks real bad if something happens to us.
We take off once again. What used to be a cavernous hold is now packed to the brim with dirty, sweaty, stinking bodies. It was like sauna crossed with eau de toilette if that meant literal toilet bowl water. And flying over the Andes can get pretty bumpy. More than one person got sick. Overall, I’d give the flight a D-. The only reason they scored that high is we didn’t crash.
We landed in Lima to be greeted by the American ambassador in Peru and the Peace Corps Bolivia country director. What happened next is another story.