There are three things you’d rather not learn on vacation. Tear gas lingers for thirty minutes. Burning tires make effective roadblocks. And words, when followed by sticks and stones, can indeed hurt if they’re words of warning shouted in a language you don’t understand.
Considering I’d never been closer to civil disorder than a television set, I certainly didn’t expect to become a connoisseur of police style behavior modification techniques. But neither did I expect to be so warmly cared for by the very people whose lives were being turned upside down by sudden collective turmoil.
I was in Ecuador, normally one of the more tranquil countries in South America, to write an article on luxury haciendas and exotic markets. Planning to document their simple, uncomplicated way of life, I was instead thrust into a maelstrom of events that escalated, day by day, into economic chaos. I learned that nothing is as simple as it seems, even in a culture where can people oust their government barefoot.
The trouble began with a taxi strike, called the “yellow flu”, to protest the escalating price of gas. In this country of 50,000 taxis and few personal automobiles, this was a considerable but not insurmountable, inconvenience. A few “requests” to hotel personnel for transportation resulted in a choice between a motorcycle – impossible with 3 bags – and a floral delivery truck. Grateful that the truck hadn’t been used for livestock, I agreed to two days transport for a price somewhat higher than the average Ecuadorian monthly income. At this point I was determined not to let a strike ruin my plans.
The situation became significantly more complicated when the country’s 50,000 truckers and bus drivers joined the taxis a day later, effectively strangling the entire transportation system. Indigenous Indians set up roadblocks of tree stumps, nails, and burning tires, throwing rocks at anyone not walking or bicycling who dared try leaving the area where they were now trapped. The price of my floral truck went up as we dodged roadblocks. When the rock throwers threatened to reduce the truck to rubble–although it was dangerously close to that to begin with– my suddenly prudent drivers dropped me at a hosteria in the small town of Salcedo.
Meaningful travel begins when fistfuls of American dollars lose their power to influence. Along with six other tourists, I became a virtual hostage, albeit of lovely people in a lovely place. We became best friends despite needing three languages (French, Spanish, & English) to decide when to eat. Scrabble was out of the question, so we passed the time wandering the village streets, becoming objects of great curiosity and hospitality. Despite the terrible problems and uncertain futures faced by the local populace, they were unfailingly friendly, optimistic, and genuinely interested in sharing their lives with us. We ate with them, visited their homes, and watched burning tire protests along side them.
Meanwhile, schools and businesses closed as people were unable to get to work. Food supplies began to dwindle. Demonstrations, marked by tear gas, molotov cocktails, water cannons, and guns fired into the air by authorities, became increasingly more frequent as the population, trapped in place, protested the government’s economic policies.
For five days I, too, was trapped, five days in which to confront my American compulsion to get things done when there was absolutely nothing to be done. I became fluent in really, really bad Spanish, frustrated by being unable to express feelings and concepts with the wonderful people I met. Being a tourist is a first person, present tense experience — eating, sleeping, finding the bathroom, and getting un-lost . Being a traveler is sharing the soul of a place and I spent many nights with my dictionary looking up words to convey the feelings I’d experienced earlier in the day. The need to communicate — in English — led me to an old electric typewriter. Like a homesick kid at summer camp, I wrote long updates that I faxed home; faxes that cost an obscene amount of money. Finally, in desperation, it occurred to me to call the US. Embassy in Quito.
An extremely helpful citizen’s assistance officer put me in touch with someone at the airport who could help me get to a (supposedly) less affected part of the country. He even gave me his cell phone number and insisted I use it any time. But first I had to get to the airport, and the officer knew when the road would be open for a few hours after being cleared by the army. Leaving at dawn in a fellow tourist’s rental car, I made it to Quito. At that point I could have simply gone home, but I was still hopeful that the situation would be resolved and I could continue my trip as planned. So I flew south to Cuenca only to find the entire city virtually standing still.
It was a strange sensation, as if the world had just stopped spinning. People simply wandered pleasantly about, coping as best they could. Those with anything to sell carried it to market; those with money to buy did so. Children played happily in streets free of traffic. Only the sporadic gunfire and tear gas marred the deceptive tranquillity. My camera, wanting to be closer to the action than my body did, had to make do with a telephoto lens. Otherwise, there was little to do but watch the situation slowly deteriorate.
I hired an English speaking guide who did his best to make his silent city come alive for me. One of the few with a 4 x 4 truck, we managed to tour a mile or two in each direction without encountering walls of taxis, buses, and trucks blocking each and every key intersection in the city. But, after waiting four more days, and amid rumors of a government overthrow, I finally decided to call it quits and get out while the planes were still flying.
Once again the consulate came through, giving me a local contact so I was able to get an extremely scarce airline ticket back to Quito and avoid the hoards of people waiting days for assistance at the airline offices. But getting to the airport meant circumventing the roadblocks and this was risky indeed. Following a truly harrowing airport run– during which we drove through people’s yards, up and over low walls, and begged one of his taxi driver friends to surreptitiously let us sneak around a yellow wall of taxis — I made it to the airport and gratefully boarded one of the last planes to fly out until the strike was ended five days later.
Real adventure happens when you can’t buy your way out of trouble; when you have to rely upon humor, patience, negotiating skill, and the simple kindness of strangers to keep you out of harms way. While I wouldn’t advise intentionally walking into such an experience, I would absolutely recommend being prepared to handle one by knowing in advance what could happen and by anticipating your options. Above all, be prepared to let go of your expectations. You will turn a potentially negative experience into a rewarding travel adventure.
Janet Friedman is the author of Eccentric America.