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The Great GAD Rescue

In the "Cult of Escapism": The Great GAD Rescue

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Great GAD Rescue

“Why do we have to get there before 5:00pm?”
“That's when the riot police are supposed to arrive.”
“What happens then?”
“I don't know, but the protestors have Molotovs...”


The sun rises and I'm in my hammock, doing nothing, with nothing planned for the day. I need to do laundry, but I'm just not feeling it. I consider reading for a few hours but instead leave to see if I can get a free cell phone recharge and maybe some news about the anti-mining protests. About as mundane a Friday as I can have.

On my cell phone mission, I encounter my site mate, Laura Geiken, talking to Frank in his store; she's working the logistics of getting 40 teenagers past two barricaded intersections. Suddenly, my laundry doesn't matter so much and I'm joining Laura and the other volunteers in what will amount to a kind of rescue mission. I feel just like Ethan Hunt, only better looking.

The volunteer organization Gender and Development (GAD) conducts various GAD camps around the country. These are week long camps, run by volunteers, that educate teenagers about making good decisions, sexual health, and other coming of age related issues. Volunteers can either send eligible teenagers from their town to the camp or go with them. For various reasons, Laura and I decided to send a combined three teens from our town, without attending the camp with them. Laura had dropped them off on Monday and since then, anti-mining protests had escalated and five crossroads were blocked on the Inter-American highway – the only major road across Panama. Three of these blockades happened to be between the GAD participants and home and the coordinator of the camp, Jessica K, called Laura, hoping she knew of a way to get them out.

Awesome-Rocking Map
Please refer to my awesome-rocking map. Typically, to travel from San Felix to David, you would take the bigger, blacker road to the crossing, turn right and go straight on the Inter-American highway. However, that crossing was blocked by over a thousand angry protestors. San Lorenzo was blocked by truckers (and their trucks) and Horconcitos was blocked by the lovely people of my district. We needed to get fifty people through these three blocked intersections. (So you know, Tole and Vigui were also blocked, but they don't factor into our story.)

While there are trucks bringing people down to the protest, Frank insists on driving us down to the crossing so we could scope the situation. Frank has a huge crush on Laura and this won't be the only time her charm helps us today.

Protesters at Horconcitos
At Horconcitos, there are burning tires and branches blocking the road, backed by around a hundred people with faces painted and a megaphone blaring, “The government is lying; they want to destroy our rivers and infect our children.”

As Peace Corps volunteers, we are meant to be neutral with regard to the potential mine. Most of the people we work with are against it and therefore the government, but Peace Corps operates in a country with the permission of the host government. To take a side would inherently betray one of our relationships and so we remain neutral. As such, the last place we want to be in these situations is at one of the protests, especially if the press is around. A press photo and an invented caption like “Peace Corps volunteer supporting the protest efforts” could be trouble, so we tried to minimize our time at the actual blockade. Nonetheless, we are approached by many of our work counterparts and acquaintances from the town. Our interactions consisted of thrilling dialogues like:

Someone - “It's hot out here.”
Me - “Man, it sure is hot out here.”

We approach megaphone man, who was more or less the leader of the efforts, and ask permission to drive through the blockade (with Frank) and on to San Lorenzo, where we hope to find a bus willing to take us to San Felix. He says no. We try various persuasion techniques:

Reason – “You don't even have to do anything, we'll just slip past the trees and burning tires and be on our way.”

Sympathy – “They are kids from your home town; they're scared and crying and want to go home.”

Sex appeal – Laura takes her shirt off.

Ok, that didn't really happen, but maybe it should have, because we couldn't convince him. This is understandable from his perspective – for the protestors to make their point, they can't just mostly block the road, they gotta block it entirely. No exceptions.

Luckily, two other friends of ours from the town overhear our pleas and tell us that there are indeed buses running between San Lorenzo and San Felix and we just need to walk 20 minutes down the highway to San Lorenzo.

So that's what we do.

Laura walking through the truck blockade in San Lorenzo
The blockade at San Lorenzo was no joke. Around fifty 18 wheelers were parked on the road, the drivers supporting the Ngäbes. While one could probably navigate the trees and tires at Horconcitos in a vehicle, here there is no chance of passing. The feel is different too, the trucks' ominous presence is louder than any megaphone and more intimidating than any number of burning tires. The drivers sleep in the trucks or string up hammocks underneath. Some had opened the backs to reveal, and presumably consume, rotting produce. We greet them as we pass and they smile and wave.

It takes around ten minutes to walk through the blockade and towards the end, a restaurant owner from my town stops and greets me. His face is painted black and he has a bandana pulled tight down to his eyes. He carries a large, full, white sack. We talk for a few seconds, exchanging mandatory statements about the heat, and as we do, I look into the sack. It is filled with empty bottles. He follows my eyes and before I can say anything, he says, “For making bombs.” “Molotovs?” I ask. “Yes.”


He tells me the police are coming at 5:00pm and they want to “be prepared.” It is 3:00pm and San Felix is an hour round trip from San Lorenzo.


I say good bye and catch up with Laura to tell her about the new deadline. We hurry towards San Lorenzo.

Almost right away, we see a bus poised in the direction of San Felix, passengers on board. Laura approaches the driver and tells him we have over 40 people in San Felix that need to get back here. This is the equivalent of saying, “I guarantee you $80 for making a trip you were about to make anyway.” He nods slowly and I get on to make sure the transition goes smoothly. Laura stays to keep abreast of the 5:00pm rumor and to call a bus driver from our town that we both know is attracted to her.

Between the blockades, transport buses line both sides of the road and passengers sit on their cargo and on the grassy hills of the highway towns. They were probably headed for Panama City and now they're stranded, seven hours drive from their destination and behind three more blockades.

The rescuees
In San Felix, I see Jessica K, who rallied Laura that morning and had been on the other end of Laura's phone calls all day. We exchange information while we walk down a side street to get the waiting campers. At that point, the San Felix protest was the biggest in the country, with over a thousand people blocking the highway. We can't even see the people from where we are but there are trees blocking the road as far as I can see.

We turn the corner and Jess yells to the volunteers, “Let's go!” Forty Panamanian teenagers and ten Peace Corps volunteers parade towards us, the volunteers herding and comforting the teens like camp counselors. The two girls from my town are clearly terrified and give me huge hugs, which is almost unheard of where I live. A few volunteers are confused as to why I'm there – they didn't even know I was involved. I explain that Laura's been orchestrating, while I follow and that I happened to be the one fetching them on the bus. It was Laura's hero moment but she prefers to work behind the scenes.

It's 4:15pm and we're cruising back to San Lorenzo, the bus so full that many are seated on laps and there is no extra room to stand. I update the volunteers on the situation and the teens giggle and pass notes and play music from their cell phones. I have Molotovs on my mind.

Reunited with our campers
As we reach San Lorenzo, Laura is on the phone with a bus driver on the other side of Horconcitos blockade – he's waiting for us. Her charm has worked again. Unfortunately, it's 4:45pm and a 20 minute walk to Horconcitos. We hustle.

We arrive at Horconcitos at almost exactly 5:00pm and there are more people and more branches, but no riot police and no improvised explosives being thrown. We walk right through the protest (there's no other way), greeting confused but friendly protestors (“What's with all the gringos and teenagers and why are they following Jack and Laura?”). If only we had had a Moses stick - “Let my people through!”

As the teens approach the bus, they begin to run in their excitement. A girl faints. I can't help but think, “We go through all that and now that it's over, now you faint?” A traffic cop who has been keeping track of the protest from his motorcycle approaches Jess and asks her how the hell we got here from San Felix. We both laugh.
Home free

The bus heads for David and Laura and I go back through the protest to get a truck back to site. The transport truck drivers have been running people from our town to the protest all day, non-stop. Liquid courage arrives in the form of tanks of fermented corn liquor just as we roll away.

The sun sets on a weird, exciting, and unexpected day as I hang off the back of the full truck that is heading back to my site. Laura is the hero of the day and I have been her assistant and now narrator. Also, major props to Jessica for leading fifty people, including 40 extremely emotional teenagers, through an uncertain and potentially dangerous situation, without once loosing her calm.

I tell Laura I feel just like Ethan Hunt and she points out that James Bond is way cooler and also never played by Tom Cruise. Good point. With protests escalating throughout the country, they may call us again; I'm working on my Scottish accent. Because we all know you'd rather get rescued by a young Sean Connery than a young Tom Cruise.


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