The equatorial streets of Iquitos are a march of blowing trash and shouting demonstrators over a recent law to pass an IQ test in order to hold a government job. The scenes are repeating today in the major cities throughout Peru.
I tried to enter a bank an hour ago for money to get out of this zany town, and stumbled on the steps over a lady in polarized sunglasses strapped face up to the sun against an 8´ log crucifix, twitching as if she wanted loose, but no one would help her.
A phalanx of female National Policewomen, as pretty as Playboy Bunnies in black with their ears and trembling mouths tucked under riot helmets, formed to protect me from a slowly advancing campaign of protesters shouting at the police and waving 2×4 sticks of Amazon hardwood at us. I thought it prudent to avoid both groups and retreated to a neutral corner, as a bonfire popped up in front of me.
All of the other town businesses up and down the streets are locking their doors and rolling down the shades.
Another group of 200 marchers came along the street with burlap sacks dashing ground glass onto the pavement to stop the sparse traffic, spreading the glass from gutter to gutter. I had enough cash left to hire a scab three-wheeled taxi with a surrey wobbling and weaving in and out the stinking rubble, glass, and logs intended to block all the four-wheel transportation, which it did.
Following a peaceful walk in the neighboring river port of Nanay, I returned to Iquitos to more of the earlier turmoil of shouting demonstrators on clogged arteries, and walked the last mile to my room in upper-Belen, where fifty buzzards sat outside my door rattling their five-foot wings on the largest trash heap of the day piled sidewalk to sidewalk above my window and clawing for the spoils of the failed competency tests.
The nationwide strike is planned to continue through the American 4th of July, but no doubt will linger past the Fourth by precedent.. Five years ago, the government similarly forced a competency test on all the country´s teachers, and here in the state of Loreto 141 out of 150 failed. No one was fired, as I doubt anyone will lose his job after today´s riot over the failed tests.
The Peruvian government, somehow with those low IQ’s, figures that it’s better to have poor teachers and dumb officials rather than none at all.
The Tarapoto–to-Piura highway climbs from the jungle up into the Peruvian Andes. There were four heists today during my eight hour bus ride to the top.
The first occurred north of Tarapoto when three men in black slinging AK-47’s waved the bus over with their guns, as the graybeard in the seat next to me muttered, ‘Here we go again.’
I slid my wallet under the seat cover and braced for an attack, but was shocked when one burly man entered the door and greeted, in Spanish, ‘Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Do you have a nickel or dime to spare for your vigilance?’
About 30 of the 40 Peruvian riders on the full bus dug into their pockets and dutifully dropped t a half- dollar each into the meaty palm along the aisle. As he passed me, I read the gold letters on his shirt back, ‘National Police’.
When finished with his collection, the officer turned and warmly thanked the patrons, and assured us, ‘Nothing is ahead’. The driver tugged the door shut and gunned the motor.
‘What just happened?’ I asked the old man. He replied ruefully ‘Thieves come down from the hills and rob the buses.’ A lady behind us piped, ‘It’s the same all over Peru.´ An old senora in the back of the bus yelled, ‘The only thieves in the mountains are the police!’
An hour later, another trio of men in black with automatic weapons emerged from a tarp next to the highway, and held up the bus. One stepped aboard unarmed, and begged alms to protect the passengers. I watched closely as the expressionless riders passed another fifty cents worth of Soles each to the panhandler, for a total of about $20, which is two days´ minimum wage in Peru. I offered the officer a dollar for a receipt, but he declined.
After the cop had left, I asked the old man, ‘Who do they do this to?’ He replied, ‘To buses and taxis, to the travelers who have the money to give, or they will be yanked off the bus for no other reason and be detained until they cough up.’ I learned there’s a saying in Peru, ‘Give a policeman a dollar now or ten down at the station.’
About eight buses and taxis pass daily in each direction on this artery, for 16 x $20 = $320 for six policeman (alternating in two 8 hour shifts), so at the end of the day each takes home about $53 in protection money.
In another hour, the same scene transpired, except this time all three men boarded with their weapons at ready and collected every document including a photocopy of my passport.
‘We didn’t give enough,’ groaned the old senor. The previous takes hadn’t been sufficient, which had been radioed in our advance, so four people who didn’t have proper identification were yoked from the bus, taken away, and thirty minutes later the rest of our documents were returned, and we resumed.
At the fourth stop further along, a trio boarded again entreating, ‘A few cents for your protection from the robbers that come down from the mountains.’ But this time he knew by the resolved faces that little was forthcoming because of the previous stall.
At last in Piura, the final stop was in front of the Pirua National Police Academy where two motorcycle policemen boarded and quickly retreated from ten rows of scowls.
The moral of this story comes from Uncle Remus, who said, ’Do not to feed the Tar Baby.’ The tar baby is a doll made of tar and turpentine used to entrap Br’er Rabbit who, the more he reaches into the sticky situation, the more it is aggravated.