are three things youd 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 theyre words of warning shouted in
a language you dont understand.
Id never been closer to civil disorder than a television
set, I certainly didnt 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
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.
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 hadnt 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.
situation became significantly more complicated when the countrys
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
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.
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 governments
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 Id
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
extremely helpful citizens 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 tourists 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
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.
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.
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 peoples
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.
adventure happens when you cant 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 wouldnt 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
this column in The Modernist's forums.
tips for handling civil unrest:
display anger -- it could lead to violence.
Youll gain more cooperation by being non-
confrontational and just plan nice. Besides, its
hard to be a bitch in a language you dont
direct confrontation. Instead ask for local
advice on how to best approach the situation and
the people involved. Always err on the side of
be demanding. A group of New Yorkers (sigh.
. .!) insisted their tour director leave at night,
driving back roads, to get them to Quito regardless
of the hazardous conditions. A van full of rich
Americans is a hostage crisis waiting to happen.
a comprehensive language dictionary. Tourist
phrase books usually dont include sections
of negotiating with riot police and demonstrators.
your impulse to get close to the action. Tear
gas doesnt discriminate between protesters
and innocent bystanders.
travel insurance that covers unforeseen events.
Mine paid for the excessive travel costs I incurred
under their trip interruption clause. I use CSA.
Contact them at (800) 348-9505
talks. Have enough local and US currency to
get you through in case the banks close or the
ATMs run out of money. Dont expect credit
cards to save the day.
possible food and lodging shortages. Locate
the restaurants and hotels most likely to stay
open. Stock up on necessary supplies in case the
stores shut down.
what the US Embassy and Consular Offices can and
cannot do. Read consular information sheets
before your trip. They analyze short and long
term risk factors as well as issue specific travel
warnings such as "severe (dont go)"
or "exercise extreme caution" if you
do. Consular reports present a practical, factual
snapshot of a given country: medical conditions,
specific health risks, safety and security issues,
political and crime information, geological and
weather hazards, and transportation safety. These
sheets are invaluable additions to guide books.
Not meant to discourage travel, they add a dose
of reality to the glowing descriptions presented
by the tourism industry
offices deal only with hard facts, while televison
and on line news services can speculate. You may
get faster information from news sources but more
accuracy from the consulate. Consider both carefully
when deciding what actions to take.
assist US citizens wanting to leave but they do
not act as travel agents. In extreme circumstances
theyll organize evacuations. They can advise
family and friends about your welfare and whereabouts.
Theyll also handle death arrangements, medical,
legal, and emergency assistance, and help with
lost documents and passports. They cannot, however,
get you out of jail or act as banks or lawyers.
can access the US State Department , Bureau of
Consular Affairs, at http://travel.state.gov/.
Or call the Office of Overseas Citizen Services
at (202) 647-5225 or the automated fax line at