(c) 1997 Ivan Gevirtz


by Ivan Gevirtz

January 28, 1997

The view from my school during the bujas.
Notice the Tear Gas!
           Bujas, that's what they call them. Manifestations. I'm an English teacher, and I don't know exactly what a "riot" is. My picture is people running... Police in riot gear with fiberglass shields... People blocking streets... Rubble and fire... People throwing rocks... police responding with bombs of teargas.

     Ecuador is a country which prides itself on a stable government, and "muy tranquilo" people. But unless you are talking about our janitor, that isn't what I saw tonight.

     It started when I was in a bus going to the "Poli," my school. The bus was taking "an alternative route" because there were protests in front of my school. No sweat, the trolley had been closed for the same reason for several days.

     So I entered the Poli from the other side, curious to see what was going on. I saw cars in the parking lots, students walking to class, and others conversing in small groups. Everything seemed normal until I noticed that a few people walking towards me had handkerchiefs over their nose and mouth. I was used to seeing this as people walked past busses, but not in the middle of campus.

     I kept walking. Soon I felt a sharpness in my nose, as if I was about to sneeze. Even using my mouth, the breathing was heavy. I grabbed my handkerchief and breathed through it. My eyes felt sooty. And then, everything was all right. I could breathe through my nose, and my eyes felt fine.

     I walked to my building and saw another teacher sitting on the terrace out front having a cigarette. She was relaxing, waiting for the power to come back on to take the elevator up the seven flights. I sat down next to her and mentioned the air. She hadn't seen anything, but she felt the gas as well.

     Curious, I walked towards the other entrance. I saw some people hanging out, but nothing unusual. I continued around the bend, and stopped.

     There were several lines of students stretching across the street. Somewhere in between was something burning, a pile of tires, I think. Something about the lines of students, their stand-offish attitude perhaps, made me think of All Quiet on the Western Front - entrenched lines of soldiers, not moving, incapable of moving. There was a similar line of policemen at the far end of the street, shields and bombs at hand.

     The students had the numbers, but they were evenly matched - neither line could move forward, and neither line would retreat. There was no way out, and no one was about to win an easy victory. I quickly retreated back to my building and described the situation to a fellow teacher. She just sat and listened.

     The power clicked on, and we hopped on the first elevator to our classrooms. I had a lesson planned, giving directions, writing to a pen pal, but I wanted to talk about the situation first.

     "Did anyone else feel the tear gas outside?" I asked. Puzzled looks were the only replies. I explained what tear gas was and finally a few students started talking - "you mean the bombs?" As if for dramatic effect, a "bomb" exploded outside. My students said that these were big problems, and that the protests with the police were not good; however, the President is crazy, and is a very bad politician, so the protests were inevitable.

     I asked them about the strike planned to happen in eight days. They said that things would be bad, no one will work, and thus a lot of money will be lost. They also said that the outcome will be unpredictable. Someone said that perhaps President Bucurram would die.

     We began to talk about possible outcomes of the strike. Maybe the President would hear the people. Maybe he would resign. Maybe he would change his policy. Maybe the military would take over. Or, maybe the President would be stubborn and not hear the People. After all, he is crazy.

     The noises from outside were getting louder and more disruptive. Car alarms, many "bombs," people shouting and running. Although my class was well behaved and attentive to me, I could see their ears perk up and their brows furrow at the noises outside. I went to the window to look. I couldn't see much. I could occasionally see people running, and the rest were covering their faces.

     I continued soliciting my students for comments about the situation. Shortly afterwards, the noises outside became more intense, and were comming from right outside my building. I left the classroom, and walked over to Tinas. I could tell that she too was talking to her class about this. She tad told her class to let her know when it was time to run. We went over and spoke with the janitor. He was very calm and pointed us to a window with a better view.

     We could see people all over the street. Now, they were blocking the main avenue, and a cross street. At the end of the cross street were the requisite police men. Occasionally a protester would run down the street and throw a rock at the cops. And once in a while the cops would heave a gas canister back. It was ugly.

     We all decided it was safer to stay inside and continue the classes. I started my lesson on directions. As my students were drawing maps, I nervously paced around the room. I was worried, hell, I was scared. It may be nothing new for some of my students, but for me it was a big deal. I thought about the '60s, and tried to make an analogy; however, here I had heard of protesters with guns and cops firing back. I was in a foreign country, with a foreign language. I used to joke about taxi's honking as they pass through red lights, joke about there being "no laws" here in Ecuador. But now it wasn't funny. I was a big American Gringo, an excellent catch, a bargaining chip, just like Peru.

     But then I thought of good ol' Uncle Sam. He wouldn't let anything happen to me. Isn't that why we have billion dollar airplanes? To rescue Americans caught in a war zone? He'd fly one on over, lower the ladder, and take us to safety. I thought of running to the American embassy, flashing my passport, and being let into a safe, protected den. And then I thought that the Embassy would have its gates closed, doors locked. I would be trying to get in and some guard, mistaking me for a rioter would shoot me. Then they'd find my passport and see that I was a US citizen. And they would read my journal and see I was running to them for help.

     Or another scenario. I would be captured and held hostage. I would document my situation, my feelings everyday. When I was finally let free, I would publish my diary, selling millions. Overnight, my literary career would be guaranteed.

     My students finished with their maps, and we took our half-time break. I was talking with the other teachers. One teacher could smell tear gas in her classroom, and consequently her class was a lot less settled than mine. Some students asked me about how we protest and strike in the US. I explained about picket signs and marches on Washington... We ate our cookies, drank our tea, and continued chatting.

     Suddenly, one student burst in, out of breath, and explained that the Police were closing down the school, that we had to leave.

     I told everyone to go. We went downstairs. It was dark out, but you could clearly see the tear gas mist under the electric lights. The air was acrid and heavy. To my left, two "bombs" were spewing out more gas. Again, I thought of the gas wars from World War I. Covering my face, I walked towards the gate. I passed a few people who were bragging about the hitting cops with rocks. One said his rock was especially big. The gate to the street was closed. I turned around, and hurried towards the other gate, the one I came in. I heard a boom and a canister landed where I had just been. Some of my students were walking towards me, and told me that that way was closed. We walked to another side, to another, seldom used gate. It was shut and securely locked. As we walked back, a cloud of gas passed by us. It was bad.

     We saw the first gate now was open, a car was leaving. We hurried to the cars, and drove to the gate. It was closed. Someone jumped out of the car, and opened the gate. As we peeled out of there, my student apologized for not shutting the gate behind him.

     A few blocks away, all was calm. It was as if no one knew what was going on. A beautiful Tuesday night. My students dropped me off at the Trolley. I crammed into the next car and made my way home. At Santo Domingo, I got out. As I walked home, it began to drizzle. I got home and lied in bed, still shaken up. As I lay there, it began to pour, very heavily, the heaviest I had witnessed here in Ecuador. The rain would clear the air, I thought. Then I thought that even though the rocks, fire, and poison gas could not do it, maybe the rain would be able to clear the tense crowds.
The view from my school during the bujas.
Here the tear gas has dissapated and the students are advancing towards the police line at the top of the photo.

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