The following is a guest post from my wife, Diane. I hope I can persuade her to do more of these.
by Diane Murray
My husband and I just spent the weekend in the lovely, little town of Cotacachi, Ecuador. Its quaint cobblestone streets and artisanal leather shops sit nestled between two picturesque volcanoes amongst the Andes Mountains. The sidewalks feature amazing tile work, and wrought iron balconies draped with colorful blooms invite one to gaze endlessly at the charm and loving architectural touches that give this place its unique character. The streets are clean and teaming with both tourists and representatives of the various indigenous peoples who inhabit the area, maintaining to this day their traditional styles of dress as well as their diminutive physical stature. Babies and bushels alike are slung across the backs of women heading to destinations I can only wonder about. Smiles and greetings are exchanged effortlessly as one strolls along the narrow one way thoroughfares of this scenic town.
Quicker on the draw than myself after our long bus ride back to the coast, my husband posted several photos on his Facebook wall. In one, he highlighted the beautiful tile designs in a roadway intersecting the artisanal area known as Leather Street. On the side of the frame a yellow cab can be seen. One commenter asked, “Is that a yellow cab? I’ve heard bad things about them!”
I really shouldn’t still be so taken aback by the overblown fears some people hold about crime in Ecuador. I am well aware of the element out there on the various ex-pat forums which seizes upon any tale of an ex-pat falling victim to some petty crime to stoke an image of a nation of lawless “others” preying on North American immigrants. A story of a stolen cell phone becomes a dire cautionary tale for those who might contemplate stepping out of their comfort zone to explore a different culture in a land far away from home. An isolated instance of a more serious crime morphs into a distorted picture of what daily life in a South American nation is like. But a blanket, generalized fear of yellow taxis? That’s a new one even for me.
Yes, there is crime in Ecuador. And, yes, in a land of four-foot tall people in indigenous clothing, North Americans do stand out. I’ll even go so far as to acknowledge that even North Americans surviving on nothing but Social Security are considered wealthy by many in a country where so much poverty persists. But let me point out, just because someone is poor does not mean he or she is a thief.
Crime is not unique to Ecuador, or South America for that matter. Just pick up any newspaper on any given day in any U.S. city if you need evidence of that fact. Whether you are in Cleveland or Cotacachi, Miami or Manta, you very well could find yourself the victim of a robbery or theft. Still, in Ecuador as in the States, you are more likely to hear about it happening to someone else than to experience it personally. And in Ecuador, as in the States, employing a bit of common sense and reasonable caution can increase your odds of staying out of the headlines yourself. In either locale, the way you carry yourself and interact with others is really your best defense. The margin for error in Ecuador, however, is not as perilously thin as the doomsayers and fear-mongers would have you believe.
A case in point: Don and I did not prepare our plans for returning to the coast as well as we might have. We would be traveling back to the coast the same way we left it, by bus. We did not know the schedule for routes back to the Bahia area for our travel on a Sunday. Sure that there would be some buses leaving Quito for somewhere close enough to home at some point in the day, we were certain we could find our way home. One of the nice things about being retired is not having to adhere to a rigid schedule as we once did.
We were lucky to enough to enjoy a ride to downtown Quito with a good friend who was leaving Cotacachi at the same time as we were. At midday, a taxi (yes, it was yellow) dropped us off at a tiny feeder-station for the Reina del Camino bus line, where we figured we could catch either a bus home or one to the large El Centro bus station on the southern side of the city. When we arrived, there was one bus at the facility set to leave in about 20 minutes, with its destination of Manta displayed on the windshield. Manta – about 90 minutes from our place in San Vicente – would not be ideal, but at least it’s in the right vicinity. Mental note made.
At the ticket counter we learned that the next bus stopping in Bahia or San Vicente wouldn’t be leaving until 10:00 pm. The idea of eight hours waiting in Quito (in the rain, by the way) before heading out for a 6-to-8-hour bus ride home did not have much appeal. We could have found our way to the El Centro station in hopes of catching an earlier departure, but we decided a bird in the hand was worth two at the bus station way across town. Rather than pass up the nice warm bus at hand and take our chances of finding a better option, we paid our $20 and secured 2 seats to Manta.
While waiting in line for boarding to begin, Don struck up a conversation with an Ecuadorian woman who was there to see-off her relatives who had been visiting from Chone. She asked where we were from, and when we said we had moved to EC from Florida, she excitedly told us about her two nieces who live in Miami. Having spent most of my life in South Florida, I shared with her my impressions of the area where they live, and we agreed that the weather there is superb – except for July and August. She asked how we like it in Ecuador, and where on the coast we live. She was familiar with our area and with its distance from the bus station in Manta.
“This bus stops in Chone before Manta. You can get off there and take a taxi to San Vicente.” She pointed out. Chone is closer to our destination, and anything that shaved a little time off of the journey ahead was welcomed. “I am from Chone!” She beamed. “I can call a taxi for you to take you home! I know someone who can take you there!” She whipped out her cell phone, but did not immediately reach the driver she had in mind.
She talked with her relatives who were taking the same bus, and explained what we wanted to do. The gentleman in her party took out his cell and saved the relevant phone number and agreed to contact the taxi driver before we arrived in Chone. The woman he was with assured us she would let us know when they got through to him, and introduce us when we arrived. True to her word, she approached us about a half hour outside of Chone to confirm he would meet us there, and that we were okay with his quoted rate for the drive home. She waited with us at the station until he pulled up, just minutes after we debarked the bus. In typical Ecuadorian fashion, she then went a step further. She hopped in the cab with us and explained to the driver exactly where we were headed!
Not far out of the station, the driver turned down a darkened side street, away from the main road. A sudden pang of concern came over Don’s face, and he whispered to me, “I hope this isn’t a set up.”
I listened as the two Ecuadorians spoke in Spanish in the front seat. Even with my poor Spanish skills, what I heard was totally appropriate conversation for getting us where we were going. They talked about the best route, the time the drive would take, and where in San Vicente we were headed. More than just their words, though, I read their tone as very relaxed and free of tension. Not the sort of timbre I would expect from two people plotting an imminent robbery or kidnapping. I conveyed my impressions to Don, and we went with our guts. The driver pulled to a stop at the woman’s home, and she grabbed her bags and disappeared behind the front door. To my surprise, she popped back out of the house not a minute later, and got back in the cab. She insisted on riding along to make sure we got to our destination safely!
Could things have gone disastrously wrong? Could my radar have been faulty all along? Did we put ourselves in less than ideal circumstances by our own lack of planning and willingness to trust? Yes, yes, and yes. But sure enough, the drive was pleasant and uneventful, and we made it home safe and sound, and several hours sooner than we would have if we had ridden all the way to Manta.
I am not recommending a cavalier approach to personal safety, nor denying that we benefitted from a certain amount of luck in this instance. What I do hope to communicate is that the white-knuckle, generalized anxiety about Ecuadorians is not justified by the facts on the ground. In my experience, Ecuador is not a land of violent criminals, ready to pounce on any Gringo in their sights. In fact, I have found them to be honest and generous almost to a fault – insisting I take back that extra quarter I overpaid at the vegetable market, rushing to hand Don back the wallet he dropped on the sidewalk, and even returning a diamond ring I inadvertently left in a vulnerable spot! If any of these incidents had turned out differently, we would have had ourselves largely to blame. What they demonstrate, I hope, is that this is not a place where even the slightest miscalculation or momentary lapse of judgment is bound to end in disaster.
Oh, yeah, and that you needn’t be terrified of yellow cabs.