Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Saving Panamericano

Yesterday I had lunch in a relaxed Hare Krishna restaurant overlooking Caracas—one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Unusually, the traffic was noisily backed up for blocks.

Throughout the meal, the air was angrily pierced like a teenage goth’s ears with endless horns and policemen’s whistles. I dread to think what it did to the staff’s chakras.

Intrigued by the brouhaha, I strolled down the street not knowing what to expect. Despite the motorbike police heading towards the problem, pedestrians heading the other way seemed relaxed—there were no signs of outrage, blood or the effects of tear gas.

I arrived at the crossroads to find an unusually enervated school trip. Uniformed children were blocking the city’s Transmilenio bus route and the traffic in all directions.

Like a precocious St Trinians student, a 10-year-old girl happily faced a line of her classmates who were blocking the road, while she led them in an exuberant chant; behind the children, the girl faced a black, tank-like vehicle.

Kids sat in the route of the buses, preventing their passage. They had shut down the city’s entire flagship public transport system and two of the cities main arties. And why?

Their school, Panamericano, was to be knocked down and they did not want to let it happen.

While they fought for its survival, their headmaster stood anxiously on the pavement. When I tried to speak to him, he spotted some movement from the police and was desperate to get away.

The headmaster’s students, however, were not so easily intimidated. After some four hours, a police chief arrived. He was clearly angry and vented this to the TV cameras. His frustration was quickly drowned out by a girl, who may have been as old as 14, expressing the views of the members of the school.

The evening rush hour was approaching and clearly this could not continue indefinitely. The police had been told that enough was enough.

I’d been told that to end demonstrations, Colombian police routinely use tear gas, which in my limited experience is not much fun.

To whistles and jeers from the children, the riot tanks fired up and trundled towards us. This was no idle threat; they meant business and we all ran: kids, press, police.

It seemed the cannon knew no distinction, I watched water spray off the back of a laughing policeman’s tabard. As we all ran for cover from the menacing vehicles and despite the riot police in their wake, the sense of fun seemed to continue—adrenalin and laughter reigned.

Part of me remembered the last day of Common Week, when the fire brigade would spray the squealing kids on Chorleywood Common.

Perhaps I had been deceived by their earlier composure. As I hung down a side street, a girl ran up to me. Hers was not the face of shock and exhilaration from cold water, she was terrified.

One boy purposefully knocked over a police motorbike as he ran—this was not playing the game. He was grabbed and hit by a policeman, an adult remonstrated, and the boy was taken away.

Clearly, while the children knew they were playing a grown-ups' game, the adults would only indulge them so far. Their school, Panamericano, is due to be demolished in a month; I hope they save it.