It began like any other day in the life of a travel writer – gingerly exposing my limbs, one at a time, to the arctic water gurgling out of my hostel’s shower head. It was Tuesday morning, and I had just arrived in Quito. My research had left me in a state of premature love with this UNESCO heritage city almost 10,000 feet up in the Andes. While hyperventilating in the relentlessly cold stream, I decided that I would open my Quito story with an interesting historical anecdote.
The original inhabitants, the Incan tribe of Quitu, settled the city now known as Quito in roughly 2000 BC. This makes Quito one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world. In the 16th century, the conquering Spanish forces decided to take the ancient city, but the Incans were not willing to give it up. The Incan warrior Rumiñahui threw the Quitu treasures into a volcano, killed the temple virgins, and burned the city to dust. The Incans could not bear to see their city wasted on the Spanish invaders.It was the ultimate middle finger to the colonial outsider. Razing your own town to deny the conquering forces its completeness is a twisted breed of poetic justice. But what really makes a city? As I took to the cobbled colonial streets and pastel Spanish structures of Quito, I thought about the irony of this all. The Spaniards rebuilt Quito to their own standards. It is not the treasures or buildings that make a place what it is, but rather the people. The people are still here, and later that Tuesday, they robbed me.
After spending the morning photographing Quito, I sat at an outdoor cafe on a huge open plaza, gorging myself on crispy cheese empanadas and locro soup with maize tortillas. An epic bare knuckle boxing match broke out just meters from my lonely table. These men beat the living hell out of each other. In one corner was a short fat man with messy childlike hair. He wore a tight orange shirt that held up his bulging belly like a rubbery girdle. He swung at a tall droopy man with a disheveled beard and crusty stains on his gray slacks. A group of security guards and cops watched the fight, laughing. They winced and turned, grabbing each others’ shoulders when the taller man appeared to knock out the combatant in the orange corner. But it was not to be. The proverbial David stood up tall and tackled the man in the stained pants. After beating his pudgy fists into his downed opponents head, the guards finally intervened and broke up the fight. Both men went back to sitting on their benches, idling in the Ecuadorian sun.
I thought to myself – Ecuador is going to be awesome.
I finished my late lunch and returned to my Lonely Planet “Old Town Walking Tour.” As I turned up Venezuela street, the heavenly Basilica del Voto Nacional came into view. Unlike its similar Spanish counterparts, the towering Gothic marvel is adorned with iguanas, armadillos, and tortoises in the place of gargoyles and saints. I stood there, thinking about how awesome it will be to get some sweeping HDR panoramas from the soaring tower of the old church. It was around this moment that someone from the roof of a charming colonial building dumped a bucket of shit on my head.
It startled me immensely. I ducked into a doorway and assessed the damage. My Nikon d700 was covered in what appeared to be diarrhea. My hair was damp with the same disgusting brown liquid. My backpack was mostly spared with just a light sprinkling here and there. If you have never had a bucket of fecal matter dumped on you from above, then congratulations, your life is less demeaning than mine.
It is a functional part of the robbery. Appeal to the senses, get the mark to focus on something close, make them nearsighted, shock them away from their natural balance, and then take what they have. Governments utilize this approach to push through agendas during times of crisis when the populace sees in only the short term. Crooks behave similarly. Like focusing a camera on something near, the background fades to a blurry bokeh, and you can only see the crap on the hand you just ran through your hair. This is when the muggers come for you.
About 10 seconds into my shitty assessment, two Ecuadorian men rushed me. One went for my backpack and the other went for my camera. Preparation and travel IQ go out the window if someone wants what you have bad enough. They roughed me around a bit as I shouted something pathetic along the lines of “Nooooo…not my camera.” Luckily, I held on to my backpack tight. They only made off with my prized camera rig. Each man took off in separate directions.
It happened so fast that I could not even tell which one stole my camera. A gaggle of Ecuadorians were shouting and pointing in one direction, so I took off at a full sprint. I caught up to one of my assailants and noticed that he did not have my camera. My mind reeled through the possibilities of what I could accomplish by tackling or tripping this man. I slowed down.
The police presence in Quito is excessively robust. It is one of those places where there are so many cops that it makes you feel more nervous than reassured. Within minutes, several members of the police force had arrived at the scene of the crime, flashing toothy smiles and nodding in confusion at my English explanations. I ineptly described the circumstances of the robbery. They spoke no English. It was like tossing a dinner roll at a wall and expecting it to stick. After questioning several witnesses and inspecting my hair and backpack, they sent me off to the Quito police station.
As I sat in the police station, reeking of shit and explaining the robbery with mutant Spanish inelegance, I could feel myself settle at a new personal traveling nadir. At this moment, as I watched several other westerners solemnly file into the station with their own tales of stolen belongings, I decided that I did not deserve Quito, and Quito did not deserve me. I phoned Grant, the super-editor of Gadling, and he put me on the next flight home.
Risk and reward is an inherent component to nearly every arrangement of our lives, and walking around any large Latin American city with thousands of dollars in camera equipment is a risky proposition. I understand this completely. This is why I carry insurance. Traveling can be risky, but one thing to remember is they cannot take from you what you do not have. There is a lot to be said about traveling simply and traveling in groups. If I had been a part of a large group or did not have a nice camera, then I would have been left alone. It is easy to minimize the risk of traveling without sacrificing the reward of visiting new lands.
Latin America is as dangerous as you make it. While the large cities possess a certain breed of desperation that has always worried me, the countryside is a beautiful place filled with kind strangers, dramatic jungles, and breezy beaches. If there is one thing to be gleaned from my story it is this – travel safely and watch for falling shit. The last time I came to Latin America I met my future wife, so it is not all bad.
Also, buy insurance. World Nomads is great for general travel insurance with $500 of electronics coverage included with a medical policy. If you carry expensive equipment, then take out a valuable personal property policy. I carry my policy with USAA, and I was fully reimbursed for my stolen gear within three days.
All photography by Justin Delaney