A week ago Friday my family and I breathed a sigh of relief. After two tense weeks of the agrarian strike, the peasants lifted their road blockades, and life started to return to normal. We didn't let down our guard immediately that Friday, because the official word from the peasant representatives was that the strike was still in effect, but they were lifting the road blockades thanks to the good faith that the government had shown in the first few days since official negotiations had started. We interpreted this as meaning that the blockades would be lifted, but that the peasants would be at the ready to re-establish them at a moment's notice if the government backed out of honest negotiating.
This made sense; the peasants were tired and getting hungry after two weeks at the barricades. I assume they had plenty of potatoes and other locally-produced basic food to tide them over, but things like coffee and panela and rice that they had to bring from elsewhere was running low. Of course it would have been great if the peasants blocking the roads in different climate zones had been able to coordinate food exchanges from one area to another, but the whole protest was very grassroots and spontaneous to begin with, and it evolved as it went along. I'm sure that if the blockades had kept up much longer, they would have come up with interesting ways of supplying the protesters with food produced by other protesting peasants in each region. At any rate, everyone needed a chance to regroup and relax, even if they were to resume the blockades after the weekend (which was presented as a very real possibility).
So Friday the 31st we went about our normal errands, hoping to take advantage of the blockade lift to travel on Saturday. As I walked around our town's center, I sensed a palpable relief and joy in the bustle of shops and shoppers, people finally able to take care of their day-to-day affairs after what had felt like a two-week state of suspended animation. Most people in our department of Boyaca supported the agrarian strike, but even so, two weeks with dwindling food, halted transport, and many businesses and offices closed wore all of us down.
My family had fared particularly well during the strike. We'd stocked up on groceries, both fresh produce and dry goods, just before the blockades started, and we had some 2000 gallons of water stored up in our rainwater collection system, just in case the city water got cut off for a while. It didn't, though the week after the blockades our neighborhood was without water for a few days (due to an unrelated technical issue), and I was very happy to have our home system to provide high-pressure hot and cold water for our showers and daily needs. I had also recently had our stopped-up chimney cleaned out, so we were able to enjoy almost nightly fires. It was a wonderful defense against the rainy cold of this particular season, and we were able to read a lot around the fire with Sam at night. It reminded me of cold nights at my family's weekend house in central Wisconsin.
Anyway, we were fine for food, though fresh fruit consumption and juices became somewhat scarce toward the end of the blockade. We sent out Sam's sometime-nanny to find eggs one day, and as she brought back the tray of 30 eggs, one of the last left in the last store in our town to still have eggs, passers-by eyed her tray hungrily. Not besieged Leningrad by any means, but things could have gotten ugly with another week or two of the blockade.
There were little things that affected us though during the strike. Sam's school was shut down for over a week. One day, when it looked like things were getting back to normal, we took him to school, only to find that all the teachers were there but no other kids had arrived. He spent the morning alone with his teachers, and then we took him back home for the afternoon. The lack of school wasn't that traumatic for Sam though, since our friend's two daughters came over many days to play with him all day in the park in front of our house. We did have a slight problem with his Curious George book, which has become one of his favorites of late. Just before school was shut down at the end of the strike's first week, he'd taken the book to school to share with his classmates. The school didn't return it that afternoon, and we just figured on getting it the next day. But that was when school was canceled, and so he spent a whole weekend plaintively asking from time to time (and sometimes wailing) about his Curious George book. We finally got it back on the day he was the only kid at school.
Speaking of books, in the early days of the strike I'd requested a book and two movies from the Bogota branch of the national library to be sent for us to pick up at our local branch. This is a wonderful service that the system provides, such that I can get any book in the whole country with just a click of the mouse in the online catalog system. I didn't expect these items to get to our town once the blockades were consolidated. But to my great surprise, at least the book did get through! I wondered how that might have happened--if there was one brave library courier who'd made the run to Boyaca just before the roads were definitively shut off. If so, why didn't the movies get here? Maybe they just barely missed that last shipment.
In any case, I was able to read John Lecarre's The Looking Glass War during the strike. I've been on a Lecarre kick since the beginning of the summer. My dad was a big fan, and had always had many of his books on our shelves, but I'd never gotten into them. Lately I've been obsessed with spy history and spy culture (in part the result of my having exhausted the Pritzker Military Library's podcasts and moved on to the International Spy Museum's Spycasts), so the logical step was to start reading Lecarre. I'm now about eight books into reading his entire opus of 23 books or so. I've nevere done that with an author, read his or her entire production. Anyway, the Looking Glass War was entertaining during the doldrums of the strike.
And there were doldrums. I've shown that we weren't negatively affected in any major material sense, but there was a mental strain from being cooped up all day in the house. Just the loss of the routine of taking Sam to school every day messed me up mentally. With no set time we had to wake up by, and no first task to start the day, it was hard for me to get into work mode. Furthermore, we had to take care of Sam during the day, which took away from other things we had to get done. Really though, Sam is pretty autonomous, and when his older friends came over to play, they effectively took care of him for the better part of the day. So I guess the most debilitating mental issue was a type of cabin fever, joined to a sense of impotence. Caro and I have spent most of our professional lives working with peasants, often without great effect, and now that things were really moving in a tangible way to improve life for the peasants, we didn't know how we could help. We obviously weren't going to go out and throw rocks at the riot police, and even participating in the peaceful daytime marches didn't seem like a very productive use of our talents. On the nights that there were civil protests where people banged on pots for an hour to show their support for the peasants, we went out to the front stoop with Sammy to add our own banging to the cacophony. But that was more about having fun with Sam, and teaching him to be aware of and concerned about social causes.
We wanted to create a synthesis document of the peasants' demands, to circulate among Colombians and foreigners so they could pressure the government to negotiate in good faith. But as the talks got underway, and seemed to be going really well, we didn't know if this would be very useful, and we were unable to get in touch with the peasant leadership to know what they would like from people like us and the public at large.
So for the most part we stayed in the house, kept up to date on the latest developments of the strike, and tried half-heartedly to get other work done, too. We are preparing to move to the US in the next week or two for me to start a new job, so we have to take care of a lot of paperwork and logistical organization regarding travel, moving, apartment-hunting, and my wife's upcoming childbirth. But much of this we couldn't do with our city shut down, and especially with our not knowing whether the roads would be open or not in the foreseeable future. Even for things that I could have done from home, like working on an article that I need to submit to a scientific journal, it was hard for me to get motivated to do them given the general languor pervading our household and our town. Likewise, my wife found it hard to be enthusiastic about packing and getting ready for the move, given all the uncertainty about when we could leave, where we'd live, how we'd manage two kids in a strange city, etc.
All this changed last Friday when the blockade lifted. I got a fire in my ass and ran a bunch of errands, exhilarated with the newfound sense of freedom. I weatherproofed a window, organized my personal files, all things I could have done before but didn't feel like doing. On Saturday we went to my father-in-law's farm. We ate at our favorite Swiss restaurant on the way, we marveled at the felled trees and rocks that peasants were clearing from the road. This blockade was serious! It wasn't like you could have sneaked through--there were maybe three sets of massive entire trees crossing the highway at key spots, and these had surely been manned by a lot of peasants. As we passed by though, they had been sawn up and moved by the last ranks of the farmers, and no one was manning them except a family now and again clearing out the last bits of barricades, so all we saw was the debris after the storm. We were able to eat well and relax at the farm, though it was an exhausting type of relaxation. Caro cooked up a storm and played vigorously with Sam all day, and I hauled manure and compost and lime up and down a hill to organize what I hope will become a nice coffee plantation over the next few years. By the time we returned to our town Sunday night, laden with pounds and pounds of fresh produce and wary of a possible re-commencement of the blockades the next day, we were dog-tired. It took us a few days to catch up on our sleep, due I think not only to our hard work at the farm but also to the latent mental strain we'd put up with for the past two weeks.
This past week then has been free and productive. I've finished my article, my wife has been packing up our stuff, and Sam has been thrilled to go to school. Even our last traces of reticence about the possible resumption of the blockade has faded, as today, after a session lasting until 4am last night, the peasants and the government have declared their official agreements and the end of the agrarian strike. I'll write more with the details of this agreement in another post, but the bottom line is that the parties have figured out ways of satisfying both the peasants' demands and the government's other commitments (free trade agreements and so forth). We had been and continue to be a bit worried about whether this will actually be respected by the government, or if it's just a quick way to get the peasants off their backs, but it seems promising.
Now after a hearty breakfast, we plan on going back to the farm, where I can finish liming my field's acid soil, and cleaning up the weeds around my pineapples.