The next day passed quite as the others: sunny and lazy. But that evening there was quite a bit of a stir.
Most of the boat was watching Titanic. Meanwhile my game of Casino had turned into a conversation about Peru’s governmental problems, of which there are many. Like most other Latin American countries Peru has been plagued by thieving civil servants who view their primary task as looting the people. One of innumerable examples would be the 80km road that was built in the jungle connecting Iquitos to the neighboring town of Nauta. The road ended up taking 10 years and costing 48 million dollars. The reason was that over that period every regional president used the project as a kind of slush fund to line their own projects. Three separate regional governors did this until it was finally uncovered. There are many parties in Peru but only really a few serious ones, all of which are crooked. Peruvians are very frustrated.
I remember when I was teaching my room decided to have an “island theme.” I wanted to tie this into the whole idea of tying the island into different subjects. If we were really on an island we could study geography, history, and government. I was most excited about government. My plan: the initial idea was to give the kids an imaginary island and they could draw a map of the island, write up their own laws, etc. It turned out that this was a little openended for most of them so I decided to give them a preexisting island. For some reason I chose Haiti and, as the projects came in it became clearer and clearer that Haiti was in serious trouble. I would ask my students: “Ok. You’re the president. Now what’s the best way to solve this country’s problems.” We would talk for hours but I never found a student with a solution other than revolution. So we had a revolution: for art students would design the new flag, new rules, new everything. The project continued for a month before it ran its course and we moved on. Two months later the actual Republic of Haiti decided to follow our lead and had a revolution.
The point of the Haiti story is that, looking at a country’s options actually isn’t something only specialists understand and it’s becoming more and clear to me that Peruvians seem to feel that they are out of options. They are not big fans of democracy because over and over they elect people who steal from them and, sometimes, kill them. Something that has been coming up more and more in these conversations is turning to a military government.
I was raised anti-military and I have always believed that military governments are the kinds of things that begin with elite commandos raiding congress in the dead of night. But it seems that no government rules without popular support of one kind or another and there is currently a lot of support for the armed forces.
I asked my friends why the military government would be better than now. “The military provides more order. Our country needs more order,” they said. “But the problem isn’t that there is no order in the streets, the problem is that the government takes all the money. Do you think the military will steal less?” I replied. “There is more order with the military. The government too. There is just more order in general.”
I was unconvinced but at that moment there started to be a bit of a hullabaloo. People ran around the room and looked out the windows yelling “Saltaro! Saltaro!” meaning “Jumper! Jumper!” Since I got onboard I had been scared about the idea of falling out of the boat. The night before I had seen a large snake’s head moving about around the boat while we were stopped. The room became electric and people started becoming more and more agitated, running in circles and looking for something to do. But then people began to run away from the windows, quickly shutting them and then moving away. Some people began to hide under tables. Then a few shots rang out. “Oh!” I thought. “They meant ‘assaulto’!” I was in no position to understand exactly what was happening but had the overwhelming feeling that I would like to hide under the table with the others. Under the tables were a lot of crying children and I heroically gave my polar fleece to a 12 year old girl to put over her head. At least it felt heroic at the time. The atmosphere was very tense but after two minutes everyone came out and it was somehow all over. As we sped away into the night, leaving the attackers to gnaw at their bones, all anyone could talk about was the assault.
I heard stories from everyone about what had happened and every story was different. Jarden told me that the attackers were terrorists and that there was a terrorist village downstream and we had turned around and were returning to Iquitos. Others told me that they were just ordinary robbers, only after the money in the boat’s lockbox but we had outrun them. Gemma told me that this happens frequently and that they steal from all the passengers and frequently rape women. But the only story I believe is the one that I heard while standing while talking to a fellow boat passanger who was also on my bus from Pucallpa to Huanuco. Apparently there were no robbers at all. There had been a robbery four days earlier and, in the dark, a small boat didn’t respond to the captain’s hail. Our jumpy captain had started yelling that there was an assault underway, fired some shots in the air and hit the gas.