There are few sensations more terrifying than running away from gunfire – particularly on your honeymoon.
As intermittent pops echoed against the hillsides of Quito, I found myself entrenched in a confused and chaotic mob of civilians all running in a footrace of self-preservation.
“Heather,” I thought. “My God where is Heather?”
Knowing my new bride didn’t speak Spanish and our having no cell phones to reach each other, this would really be an unfortunate time to find ourselves split up.
Instantly, however, I spotted my wife amidst a nebula of panic, with her blonde hair and tall frame fortuitously standing out above the dark-haired, somewhat shorter crowd surrounding us.
“What are we going to do?” she frantically clamored as we met in a momentary embrace.
“I’m not sure, just keep moving with everyone”.
Then, in a strange twist of irony, the same bus we had ridden directly into the center of the coup had made a U-turn on the highway and was now loading fleeing civilians in an impromptu evacuation effort.”Quick, get on the bus!” was all I could blurt out. My decision-making skills were struggling to keep up with the rapidly shifting environment outside.
“But it’s going the wrong way.”
Always perceptive, my wife noticed that the bus was, in fact, driving slowly into oncoming traffic. Granted, the amount of vehicles was at a minimum due to the turn of events, yet the bus, nevertheless, was engaged in a bit of a vehicular bob and weave.
Now finding ourselves crammed into the public bus and staring down oncoming traffic, the bus driver finally did what any self-respecting bus driver in the same situation would do: He jumped the curb, drove down an embankment and emerged cleanly on the proper side of the highway.
The pedestrian crowd soon subsided after we’d driven a mile from the shooting. The bus driver opted to offload all of the escapees onto the somewhat peaceful street corner, essentially leaving us to our own devices.
Though the initial adrenaline of being amongst the coup had subsided, I still needed to deal with the reality of being lost on a Quito street corner amid a lawless local populace. With the police on strike and literally waging their own battles, rampant looting and widespread chaos were beginning to grip the city. Toppled cars had been set alight in the streets and the whir of helicopters thumped overhead. In a frightful moment of realization, it was becoming apparent that nowhere was safe.
That’s when, in recognizing the plight of two hapless tourists in a position of legitimate danger, a local man named Octavio waved me over from my spot on the street corner.
“No estás seguro aquí. Ven conmigo.” You aren’t safe here. Come with me.
Trapped in the chaos himself, Octavio had called his brother who was on his way with their personal car. He had room for two more people, and those two spots were going to us.
Stepping inside the faded green sedan I still didn’t feel safe, not because of Octavio, but because I was still on the streets of Quito, and not in my hostel with the towering barbed wire fence. Getting there was going to be a problem, however, as there were burning stacks of tires blocking the road to where I was staying.
Suddenly, it dawned on me, that when a burning stack of tires blocks your hostel and you’ve just ridden in a public bus going against traffic in an effort to escape live gunfire, you might want to consider going to the US Embassy.
I mean I’m an American citizen. I can always find refuge at the US Embassy, right?
Convincing Octavio to take a side route so that we could swing by the embassy my hopes were high that we could at least park ourselves there to wait out the confusion. Up until this point in life my only vision of US Embassies abroad has been Cambodians and foreign journalists seeking refuge in the Embassy in Phnom Penh as seen in “The Killing Fields.”
With my apologies (and perhaps questions) to Gadling’s resident diplomat, Dave Seminara, apparently that sort of patriotic benevolence is only seen in the movies.
Frantically approaching the Embassy gates, American passport in hand, I was immediately met by the Ecuadorian security force. Explaining that we had just been at the center of the coup they expressed remarkably little sympathy. Nevertheless, after some pleading, I managed for one of them to arrange a phone call inside.
After an awkwardly long absence during which time Octavio and ourselves languished in the driveway the guard finally returned with an answer which will forever be emblazoned in my memory.
“It is almost 5. You must go. This isn’t a hotel.”
Are you kidding me? This isn’t a hotel?
Yeah, I noticed it’s not a hotel. I have a hotel; it’s the one down there in that cloud of smoke. This is the US Embassy and I am an American in the middle of a coup where there are people shooting in the streets and looting at will, and you won’t let me inside!
Feeling wholly unpatriotic my dumbfounded wife and I crawled dejected back into the faded green sedan. Whether or not the guards actually spoke to someone inside I’ll never know, but nevertheless it was a poor introduction to Embassies while abroad.
Sensing that the exact street where our hostel was located might just be alright, Octavio took a back route which we hadn’t navigated before in an effort to skirt the violence. We passed another burning stack of tires.
Finally, after a twisting journey of one-lane side streets and high-speed glances over our shoulder we arrived in front of our hostel, safe for the time being, but the atmosphere was by no means stable. Thanking Octavio profusely and offering him $20 for his efforts my wife and I sought refuge behind the barbed wire walls of our downtown compound.
Breathing a sigh of relief to finally be back inside of the hostel our optimism was short lived by the pessimistic ramblings of a fellow hostel guest named Donny.
An ex-U.S. military veteran who bounces around the globe on his social security pension, Donny had been staying at the hostel for what he claimed was just over a year.
“I’ve seen this before,” he mused in an unimpressed, monotone utterance as all of us hostel guests were glued to the TV in the common area.
“This is going to last for days. We’ll be alright with food, but our biggest problem is going to be running out of water. The supply will last for four days I’d say. After that we’ll have to fend for ourselves.” With a limp cigarette dangling from his morbid lips, Donny was really starting to freak everyone out.
“Well at least I feel safer behind these barbed wire enforced walls,” I countered, attempting to look on the uncomfortable bright side.
With the type of single-breath chuckle that rates closer to a scoff, Donny, in a voice reminiscent of trying to not be eaten by velociraptors in the kitchen of “Jurassic Park,” countered with one of the creepiest things I’ve heard to date:
“Oh, that won’t stop them. Trust me. I know.”
With a long pull on his cigarette, his eyes glazed over into a flashback I had no desire to be a part of.
As it turns out, we would only be hostage in the hostel for a single night as Correa was eventually freed from the hospital in a daring raid by the military. In a raucous speech to a chanting crowd, Correa vowed to bring justice for those responsible for the atrocities. By the morning, everyday life had returned to normal in Quito, and merchants opened their doors on the streets, which just 15 hours prior had seen unbridled chaos and violence.
In the end, after all the dust had settled, the violence had left eight people dead and more than 270 wounded. The airport had been re-opened, the borders were unsealed and life seemed to return to normal in the briefly ravaged capital city of Ecuador.
Though September 30, 2010, will always hold a somber significance for those who lost loved ones in the violence, for this vagabond it will remain as an extreme honeymoon reminder of being thankful for every day we are alive and able to spend with those we love.
For more photos of the September 30, 2010, coup, check out this photo album from the BBC.