A PATH THROUGH MÉRIDA
The city of Mérida, in the Andes Mountains of Venezuela, is built on a narrow plateau that sits like a castle high above several rivers that seem to surround it like a moat. It is a college town. The Universidad de Los Andes is there. During the years that we lived in that country, the university had about 30,000 students.
College towns usually have a culture all of their own, but this was especially true in Venezuela where both student and faculty protests and strikes were very common. The kids learned it from the earliest grades. It was not uncommon for us to see first and second graders in our own town carrying placards along with the rest of the students of a school, protesting some sort of “injustice”.
Mérida, because of the geography of the mountainous region where it is built, is a long and quite narrow city. There are really only three roads that lead through the length of it. The streets were not built for the amount of traffic they needed to bear when the city grew to its present size, and the downtown congestion was common.
One day we had to drive the length of the city to return to our own home in western Venezuela. Again, things may have changed since we lived there a couple of decades ago, but at that time, there were seldom bypasses to cities in Venezuela. One had to simply drive through the heart of town and hope for the best.
As we approached the city of Mérida, I suppose we should have been immediately suspicious that things were not right when a police barricade blocked off the first main street that we wanted to take.
However, this was not that uncommon. Streets seemed to be almost routinely blocked off for one reason or another, and without further thought, we proceeded to the second street. When we arrived at that second passage-way, we saw that there were cars on it, and they seemed to be moving along.
Well…the word moving may be a little misleading, because once we got in the line of traffic, we realized that they were mostly stopped, bumper to bumper. Nevertheless, since we thought we might have no other choice, we also joined in. With that, in the spirit of driving in the cities in Latin America or perhaps anywhere in the world, we hoped for the best.
We expected the line to move slowly, but as we sat in our car on this hot day, this one became agonizingly slow. As we tediously proceeded, I noticed that the cross streets were absolutely abandoned. In fact, there were very few shops open. No cars were parked along the sides. Something was not normal in the city of Mérida.
As we got nearer to the university and the downtown area, I could really tell something was up. The only street that had any cars on it was the one on which we were stuck in the traffic. The city looked abandoned with all the roll-down steel window coverings over the store windows (for some reason they call these security doors “Santa Marias”), and only a few university students standing idly about on the streets.
I was getting tired of sitting in the car going almost nowhere, and I saw a nice shady place where I could park our car on one of the side streets. I decided to get out and see if we could find out what was going on. Sticking my arm out of my window to try to get the other drivers to make a gap for me, I cut across a line of cars and made my way to our shady spot.
Vivian, our two boys that were with us, and I got out of the car and began walking toward where we saw a group of students standing in the middle of the intersection. As we got closer, our sons began to complain. “The air is stinging my eyes and burning my throat,” they said. Vivian and I really could not sense anything.
We approached the students. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“We are having a protest,” one of them told me.
“Why, what happened?”