Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Most Inept Robbery Attempt

I have visited Ecuador for the last 4 years on a medical mission. I know Ecuador like most places is dangerous. When I travel there, I carry all my cash and documents in a money belt, I keep my back pack zipped up and I am constantly whipping my head around looking to see who is around me. I don't go out at night except in large groups and I stick to the "tourist" areas. This is not say that Ecuadorians are inherently dishonest or violent. Most of the people I have met are friendly and helpful and not a few times a local has warned me about potential danger.

While our group flies into and out of Quito, I have never really spent much time there. We typically arrive late at night, go a hotel near the airport and spend the next day visiting the fabulous Otovolo market and buying cheap but hight quality leather purses and jackets at Cotacachi before flying to Cuenca the next day. Going we stay at the same airport hotel before leaving early in the morning.

For this reason, I was looking forward to having a day to explore Quito after coming back from the Galapagos which I visited with my wife.

The driver from the tour company who drove us to our hotel suggested that we should definitely visit the old town which is a Unesco World Heritage site. He said that we could walk to the old town from our hotel which would be a one hour walk but a very pleasant walk, he said. I was skeptical but before we took off the next day, we asked the concierge the same thing. He said that yes, it was a nice walk, and very safe as long as we got back before 6 pm.

I always try to blend in when traveling but face it, 6'5" light skinned people blend in poorly in places like Quito. Therefore my wife and I set up dressed as Tommy Tourist. Small backpacks, zippered pants, and of course my Tilley hat to keep off the Equatorial sun. Naturally I carried a map which I checked frequently and our Lonely Planet guide was handy.

The first part of the trip was very pleasant. There was a large park we had to cross. People were out exercising and there were police on horseback patrolling. We turned onto Avenue Rio Amazonia which is Quito's main drag. This was a busy street but for the most part the sidewalks were in good condition and lots of people were out walking. Along the way we stopped at a money machine to pick up money to pay the airport tax the next day and also for the shopping we hoped to do at the market. We even stopped for a coffee con leche and visited a travel agent to ask about potential trips for our next visit. We eventually arrived at the Hilton Hotel where we had stayed prior to going to the Galapagos.

At that point we had to decide how to get to our destination. On the map there was a large square labelled Zona Historica which we assumed was the old town. Most of the attractions were well in the middle of this zone in a southwestery direction. There was no clear route marked. No problem I thought we will walk into the Zona Historica and zig zag until we reach the attractions in the centre.

The buildings were clearly of an older vintage but the stores in the buildings were for the most part, run down stores. Nevertheless there were lots of people out, it was daylight and I felt quite safe.

About 20 minutes into our exploration, I felt something wet on my back. I first thought was that my water bottle had leaked (except I wasn't carrying a water bottle), but when I put my hand back on my shirt, and smelt it, I smelt salad dressing. My wife took a look and said, "O god, a bird has shit on you, we have to wash this off". I haven't ever tasted bird shit but I still thought it was salad dressing. My wife now noticed she has some on her.

Shortly 3 "good Samaritans" appeared with bottles of water offering to wash us off. Like I said, I have travelled in Ecuador for 4 seasons and while I had let my guard down I suspected something wasn't quite right. My wife kept saying we have to wash this off, I said we should keep on walking and wash this off later. One of the good Samaritans tried to grab my backpack which also had salad dressing on it so he could wash it off. I of course kept hold of it. All the time I was saying no, no, no to their offers while watching to make sure none of them went for my money belt or my wallet which was fortunately in a zippered pocket. Eventually two of the good Samaritans left while one more persistent persuaded us to go to a fast food "pollo" restaurant to wash off in the bathroom. I finally gave him a dollar to get lost. I probably didn't have to as a restaurant employee who seemed to know this individual all too well quickly escorted him our of the restaurant. He also came back to ask if we were okay.

My wife who hasn't travelled much in South America was a little shaken up by this but I was able to persuade her to keep on walking and we eventually arrived at the Gothic Basilica into which we took sanctuary. It was cool and mostly empty. This didn't stop someone from accosting us and offering us a brief tour of the basilica for which he insisted we pay him not one dollar but two dollars "for the church". He offered to give us a tour of the old town stating it was dangerous for us to walk there. That was when I figured that he was probably also in cahoots with the other good Samaritans.

We eventually got to the central plaza. By this time my wife just wanted to go back to the hotel. We took some pictures, had a very nice lunch and took a taxi home to safety and comfort of our hotel where we watched English movies with Spanish subtitles. We never got to do any shopping at the market.

As I said just about every Ecuadorian I have met has been honest and hard working. When we North American visitors have so much while they have so little, some people might say a little dip into one's money belt is justified. I still have a hard time with robbery be it by good samaritans, contractors or the like.

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