Incident at JuanJui (It’s No Fun to be a Hostage)


Whenever I talk of South America, and our time in Peru, I often hear “Don’t you worry about being kidnapped or robbed?” To tell the truth, I had never had any problems whatsoever in Peru, but there was a memorable incident this past summer that opened my eyes…

Tingo Maria

We flew into Tingo Maria in search of new coffees. Danilo, the manager & our contact, met with us at our hotel the next morning, and we drove off to the Gran Pajaten Nature Reserve & to the offices of the Bella Durmiente (Sleeping Beauty) Cooperative. We had a productive meeting, looked over their facilities & sampled several fine coffees. We returned to our hotel to catch up on emails and just hang out. Tingo Maria is a beautiful small town surrounded by lush mountains.

(We arrive in Tingo Maria on LCP airlines.)

The next morning, we set off for Pueblo Libre a very small trading community in the rainforest. After two hours winding bumpy dirt roads, we arrived. We had breakfast with some of the locals, and I spoke to a group of small farmers in the local community center about producing quality coffee & the importance of the growing specialty coffee market. It was a thrill to speak to a group in Spanish…

We returned to Tingo (as the locals call it) for the daily ritual of “almuerzo” (lunch – the big meal of the day,) followed by a short nap. The afternoon was uneventful.

Crossing Juanjui Enroute to Tarapoto

The next day we hired a “colectivo” ( a car shared between 4-5 passengers) and headed north where we planned on going to Tarapoto for some other business & sightseeing.

We made it to JuanJui that evening, had a small dinner and went to bed. This was Saturday, and the Plaza de Armas (town square) was bustling with people and there were the normal sounds of city life – horns honking, music playing somewhere, and the occasional crowing of a rooster in the distance.

The following morning (Sunday,) we took another colectivo & made our way to Tarapoto (the City of the Palms) which is perhaps my favorite place in Peru. A thriving town of about 130,000 people, it still has the quaintness of a small town, but some of the conveniences of one of the larger cities in Peru.

We spent a couple of days checking out our favorite places again, running errands, and passing out resumes from Yrma’s son-in-law to several schools in the area. (* Yrma’s daughter & family had lived her for several years before returning to Lima and want to return.)

Tarapoto, Peru

Return to Juanjui

On Tuesday it was time to return to Tingo Maria as our flight was on Friday & we wanted to have a couple of days to arrange a coffee purchase & take in a little more sightseeing. This is where the fun began…

Early Tuesday morning we arrived to hire a colectivo and begin our trip back to Tingo. The driver quietly informed us that there has a “huelga” (general strike) in JuanJui & that they could only take us to a point a few kilometers outside of the city as the road was blocked by strikers. To our dismay our only option would be to cross the roadblock, make our way across town, cross yet another roadblock & continue on our way to Tingo. No big deal I was thinking to myself…

We decided to go ahead as we needed to make our flight later in the week.

The trip was uneventful as we wound through the mountains & valleys past roadwork (they’re finally paving the whole carretera central – the Central Highway) and then we arrived about a kilometer from the roadblock.

Crossing the Strike Line

I strapped the guitar on my back popped open the handle of my carry-on bag & started walking. Yrma had a backpack & the other carry-on bag as well as a small fold-up cooler that we travel with.

There was a already a line of cars & semi trucks waiting to be able to pass.  I couldn’t help but notice several piles of broken glass on the road.

It was a little freaky to say the least, but at this point I wasn’t really alarmed & we made our way to the roadblock. On the way we passed a television crew that was interviewing people as they made their way to cross the strike line. Several men were putting up additional poles to block the road, but at that time, we were able to just step over the line which was only several poles high & not that difficult to cross. A motorcycle crossed just before us.

There were several hundred people milling around, and there were several smoldering piles of what had recently been fires. The usual cohort of women selling fruit, dried bananas and coconuts were plying their wares.

One man was speaking to the group via megaphone, and I overheard several comments about the guitar (mine.) We just kept walking. I was starting to feel a twinge of tension, but still wasn’t particularly concerned.

We continued for about another kilometer and began looking for a moto-taxi to take us to the town. We jumped on one that stopped, and it was immediately obvious that the driver was afraid to be attacked. We hurried away & my hat flew off…we didn’t stop.

All Quiet on the Town Square

Once we arrived at the Plaza de Armas we encountered a scene completely different from the recent Saturday night. It was a ghost town. All the shops were closed, the plaza was empty save for two lines of police in riot gear. Very quiet, but eery to say the least.

After we tapped on the door, and checked into our hotel, we were hungry. We headed off to the market, but all was closed. Asking one of the locals, we encountered a restaurant that was open although the door was closed and by outside appearances not open for business. We had lunch and returned to our room to regroup.

Meanwhile On the Other Side of Town

We called Antonio, a friend who had recently relocated his chocolate factory from Lima to JuanJui, and whom we wanted to meet with to discuss future imports. We made an appointment to tour his place later that afternoon, and relaxed for a bit.

We left the hotel at 4:00 pm to tour the factory, but about a kilometer before the locale, we encountered the other side of the town & yet another roadblock. We knew this was where we would have to cross to continue to Tingo the following day.

There were hundreds of people, dozens of moto-taxis, a formidable barrier at least 4 feet high & a menacing young man who confronted anyone who was trying to cross. We boldly walked up to the line and were immediately threatened not to attempt to cross the line. “No hay pase” they said again and again (No passing.)

Several people were trying to skirt around the sides, but the mob and the young enforcer were having none of that. It was rather alarming, and we were definitely intimidated. It pissed me off, but we decided not to risk a confrontation in a mob situation. We slunk away to try and figure out what to do.

We spoke with several locals & tried to think about how we were going to cross the following day. One person offered to take us a back way in the early morning, but all they had was a small motorcycle & we had too much stuff for that to work.

While we were talking, several drunk members of the group stumbled out of the bars & made their way back to the barricade. They were obviously having fun, but we were starting to feel angry & frustrated.

Sulking in the Room

We walked the many blocks back to the hotel, and asked the owner there if he had any ideas on how to get out of there the next day. A short while later he knocked at our door, and had a gentleman with a boat who would be willing to cross the Huallaga river and get us past the roadblock and on our way. We would have to leave at 4:00 am, and he wanted S/. 200 ($70 US.) We thanked him, and got his phone number.

Since the river crossing would only take a few minutes, his price seemed somewhat extortionate, but at least we had an option. After discussing the situation, we decided to get up early and be at the the barricade when many of the strikers would be sleeping. We hoped to be able to “talk” our way across.

We hung out that night, watched a little TV, and found a chicken place that was open for dinner (saving some for sandwiches to take for the next day.) I set the alarm for 4:00 am, and tried to sleep. Sleep never came as I was obsessing over what we might encounter in the morning & dinner hadn’t settled in well. So I had a rough night of an upset stomach & an unquiet mind, finally surrendering at 2:30 & got up to have a smoke & take a shower.

At 3:45, I started the coffee and woke Yrma. I was in a somewhat crazed state of mind a result of obsessing all night, lack of sleep, an upset stomach, and the growing fear that I might just lose it out there (I was very annoyed by this point.)

Crossing Before Dawn

We left the hotel about 4:30, found a moto-taxi and got to about 1/2 kilometer from the barricade & now much smaller strikers crowd. I had been thinking that we might encounter a handful of people, but there were still dozens milling around and several small fires burning in the road.

It was a far cry from the day before however where there had been hundreds of men, women & children. Gone were the many moto-taxis that had blocked the roadway just yesterday.

We walked up, again lugging our carry-on bags, and my guitar strapped on my back. We approached the barricade, and once again heard “No hay pase.” I had a momentary lapse of reason and began yelling that it wasn’t “our fight” or something probably equally useless. Yrma managed to keep her cool and asked to speak to the “dirigente” (group leader) and we were pointed to a middle aged man about 30 feet away.

We spoke to the leader, and pleaded our case: a flight to catch, we’re not from here etc, but to no avail. “No hay pase,” he said. He also said that there was no transportation available at all. (Which we knew wasn’t true.) We kept on insisting that we wanted to cross, but all appeared for naught.

He was a short man. I’m not particularly tall (5’8″ barely,) but he couldn’t have been more than 5 foot. As he turned his back to confer with one of his men, I murderously thought that it would be so easy to just start choking him with my bare hands. I was in that mood where rational thought has fled, and rage has denied all reason.

A Miraculous Turn of Fate

In that moment however, Yrma began to wail and cry like I have never heard before (or since.) I was mortified, and even more mad. If things had gone on much longer I’m not sure I’d even be here today, but luckily I learned a great lesson.

You see, I had forgotten that even though it is somewhat more subdued in these modern time, the Latin “machismo” still exists. Where my confrontational attitude just made the strikers less likely to concede anything, the sound of a crying Señora was enough to melt their macho hearts.

“No llores Señora,” (don’t cry ma’am) they said. Soon we were headed back to the barricade and I was lifting the carry-on bags over. I was still trembling. We walked up the road about 300 yards & Yrma started laughing. Her Oscar performance had saved the day. Since she hadn’t told me what she had planned to do, it had completely taken me by surprise. What a relief. We climbed (the road went up a slight hill there) and at a gas station were several cars waiting to take us on our way.

I don’t think I relaxed until we had been on the road for at least an hour…

(Outside Pueblo Libre)

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