With the radio crackling from the speakers of his rusty old cargo van, Juan’s furrowed brow indicated a greater focus on the newscast than on shuttling us to Pululahua Crater.
My wife and I being the only two passengers on his 11am tour, Juan had begun to speak to us as friends, not customers.
“I am very scared for Ecuador” he confessed. “I am sorry you must be here for this.”
Through a combination of the semi-blown speakers and my once-fluent Spanish not at it’s sharpest, I wasn’t able to pick up from the radio broadcast what had suddenly made Juan so sullen and concerned.
I imagined, however, that the crowd of chanting people we had seen when leaving Quito earlier that morning must have had something to do with it.
The second indicator that things were amiss was the way in which all of the taxi drivers once we had returned from Pululahua Crater were refusing to give us rides back into Quito.
“Está demasiado peligroso” they all would claim. “It’s too dangerous.”
In talking with Juan I had learned that President Rafael Correa had announced a plan to cut the bonuses awarded to the National Police. This, as you might imagine, did not sit well with the National Police. In response to the removal of their bonuses the National Police opted to walk off of their job and instead engage in a raucous strike. Due to this collective decision, for the entire day of September 30, 2010, there were no policemen in the entire country of Ecuador.
Having only arrived in the country the evening before, this was, as fate would have it, the first day of our honeymoon.Having spent the morning straddling the Equator at “La Mitad del Mundo“, a have-to-do-it type of tourist trap just north of the capital city, we were now apparently stuck in the outskirts of Quito with no one willing to drive us back into town.
“You can try and take that bus over there”, offered one of the timid taxi-drivers. “It’s leaving in ten minutes and going downtown.”
Going into this trip I was aware that Ecuador had gone through seven Presidents in the preceding 13 years, a statistic indicative of its political volatility. Revolts and strikes are common in Ecuador, I thought, so why should this one be any different?
Little did I know that our afternoon bus was about to drive straight into the heart of the uprising.
Apparently, while my wife and I were taking obligatory pictures of the Equator and hanging with Juan in mists of Pululahua, thousands of protestors had meanwhile gathered in the streets of downtown Quito. In response to the absence of a police force and in an effort to stem looting, Correa had activated the military to be helicoptered in from jungle outposts in order to patrol the streets and keep order.
The police, it seemed, were now in a stand off with the military, which might just rank as the most heavily armed intra-government squabble possible. Military helicopters circled overhead, tens of thousands of people chanted in the streets, and chaos was brewing and percolating fast.
The international airport had been taken over by the military, the border crossings were completely sealed off, and the entire country was suddenly put on lockdown. Trapped inside of Ecuador, I still had little idea of what was about to happen.
Making an appearance outside of a downtown police hospital, President Correa addressed the rowdy crowd of rioters with a speech which can be classified as anything but diplomatic. Though I wasn’t quite close enough to hear the words in person, here is a verbatim quotation of what Correa decided to say:
“I’m not taking one step back! Gentleman, if you want to kill the president, here he is, kill him if you have the guts.”
Taking Correa up on his offer, police responded by firing tear gas canisters at Correa’s chest, attempted to rip off his gas mask, and then proceeded to hold him hostage inside of the hospital by blockading all of the entries and exists. A coup d’etat, it appeared, was slowly beginning to take place.
Guarded by loyal security forces yet trapped nonetheless, President Correa issued a national state of emergency. The situation, it would appear, was not going the way he had planned.
In a bold rescue mission staged by the Ecuadorian military, however, elite special forces soon engaged the police in a firefight which would ultimately whisk Correa away to safety.
Meanwhile, in a poorly timed sequence of events, not five minutes earlier my wife and I had been forced to depart from the bus due to a massive road closure. Essentially stopping in the middle of the freeway, the driver impatiently opened both sets of doors and mandated that this was far as he could take us. Not knowing where we were or which direction our hostel was located, we instinctively began to follow the crowds.
Strolling down the streets of Quito with my new bride by my side, rumors continued to circulate as to what exactly was happening in the city.
“What’s everyone saying?” asked my wife with a tremble in her voice, her level of Spanish not quite having reached “eavesdrop on an uprising” level.
“Umm, they’re talking about a big crowd, and they are saying there are men with rockets.”
“Yeah, well, tear gas. There are men firing rockets of tear gas. And something happened to the President.”
“The President! Where is this all happenning?” she quickly asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far.”
Like cattle in a herd we followed the crowd. My plan was to hail a taxi and somehow find our way to our hostel across town. Amidst the road closures and the level of uncertainty, however, no taxis were anywhere to be found.
Then, like firecrackers popping on New Year’s Eve the sound of gunfire began to slowly pepper the sky. Apparently, completely unbenkownst to us we had walked to within a couple hundred yards of the same hospital where Correa was taken hostage.
Guns clammered and reverberated against the hillside. The whir of helicopters thumped overhead. All around us the stench of burning tires wafted malodorously on the breeze. Women screamed and the crowd began to rush towards us. Shocked that it had actually come to this, it was starting to become apparent that people were going to die…
Does Kyle live to survive the coup? Find out in the next installment of Vagabond Tales…
For more photos of the September 30, 2010 coup, check out this photo album from the BBC.