By Courtney Kemps, KF8 Peru

Recently I made the mistake of trying to visit a Kiva borrower during Peru’s countrywide transportation strike on July 8th and 9th, a mistake which had rather scary consequences (fortunately of short duration)!  Transportation associations around the country had called for the strike in response to a new law passed by the government, a law which greatly increased the fines for driving offenses such as speeding or running a red light.  Many people felt that the law was unfair because the fines were out of proportion to people’s salaries: those who had little income could never afford to pay them.  While the law was well-intentioned, those involved in transportation industries were also upset that the government had not consulted with them in advance of the law’s passage.

Though Lima barely felt this two-day strike, the experiences of some provincial towns such as Pucallpa were very different.  In Pucallpa, all schools and most businesses closed up.  The usual constant drone of motorcycle taxi traffic was replaced by a peaceful near-quiet, punctuated occasionally by the sound of a private vehicle or single taxi whose driver had decided to risk doing business that day.  Most people stayed home.  During these two days anyone who decided to open their business or operate their taxi ran the risk of encountering violence.  Strikers (and others who were just taking advantage of the situation) punctured the tires of vehicles that were out on the roads and looted open shops and market stalls.

"No to the strike, no violence." Similar graffiti was all over Pucallpa.

"No to the strike, no violence." Similar graffiti was all over Pucallpa.

A little after 8:00 am on the morning of the 8th I set out in search of a taxi to take me to Kiva borrower Loida’s house near the Bellavista market.  I had thought that my early departure and destination far outside the city center would avoid any encounter with strike activity.  After a few minutes wait I managed to find a motorcycle taxi still serving customers on the main road.  Though the driver already had another passenger, he offered to take me to my destination.  After the other passenger stepped out a few hundred meters down the road, the driver continued on until we reached a point where the road was blocked by groups of young men circling in motorcycle taxis.  These young men were standing on the seats of the vehicles, shouting and waving pieces of wood.  My driver detoured off the road onto a dirt area in front of some stores to bypass the congestion.  Our vehicle, still somewhat blocked from forward movement by groups of people, eventually came to a halt.  At this point my driver pulled a machete out from under my seat.  I immediately hopped out of the taxi and offered to pay for the distance we had traveled up to that point.  A man wielding a stick of wood came over to our stopped vehicle and bent down to puncture the tire.  My driver leaped out of his taxi and chased after the man, waving his machete in the air.  Intensely angry and unable to reach the guy, my driver struck out at the nearest thing, another stopped motorcycle taxi (with two passengers in the seat), and pushed it over.  At this point, I was rapidly walking away.  I safely made it out of the crowd and walked the mile or so back to my house, joining other pedestrians also at a loss for transportation.

Motorcycle taxi in downtown Pucallpa.

Motorcycle taxi in downtown Pucallpa.

Later that evening, after making a number of phone calls and talking to my neighbors to find out whether the strike activity had ended for the day, I made it into Kiva partner Manuela Ramos’s office for a dinner we were to have that evening for some Ecuadorian visitors.  The streets in the center of Pucallpa were eerily quiet for 5:00 pm on a weekday.  Shops were closed, and instead of the usual raucous hordes of motorcycle taxis clogging the streets, only one or two dotted each block.  Groups of young men and boys had set up soccer games in the streets– at one point a ball flew high over the vinyl roof of my taxi.

Upon arriving at the office, which had remained open for the day, I found most of the staff present.  Some had come into work on private vehicles; others had walked.  Marleny, our janitor and receptionist, had walked all the way from her suburban home, leaving at 5:00 am and arriving at the office at 6:30.  I admired her dedication to the job!  The Ecuadorian visitors, who had come to Manuela Ramos’s Pucallpa office for a few days from Kiva partner Fundación ESPOIR to observe operations and learn about the organization’s educational programming, had spent the day furtively zig-zagging around town in a motorcycle taxi to avoid roadblocks.  They had found few Manuela Ramos borrowers at the meetings they attended.

We all headed out to a nearby restaurant (which had opened for the evening) to treat the visitors and to celebrate staff birthdays for the month of July.  The event was lively, but no one was comfortable heading home by herself that night.  After dinner, I headed out with four office staff who all live in the same area to find a motorcycle taxi.  Usually it takes at most five seconds to flag down a taxi from anywhere in Pucallpa; that night we had to walk half a mile to find one.  All five of us piled into a space meant for no more than three.  The driver took a very circuitous route to avoid any lingering strike activity on the main road.   Along this detour route we passed a few mostly removed, still smoldering “roadblocks” which appeared to consist of small piles of dirt, sticks and burnt tires (the last according to a loan officer who frowned at the smell).

Speaking to my neighbor today, I learned that summer is “strike season” here in Peru.  There may be more this month and next.  Having learned the hard way, I will know better what to expect next time!

Courtney Kemps is serving as a Kiva Fellow with Manuela Ramos in Pucallpa, Peru from June through August. Learn more about Manuela Ramos’s microcredit program or check out a list of currently fundraising loans for the organization’s borrowers.

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