Andes Accidents Part 4: The Hazards of Ecuador

Back to Part 1, Part 2 or Part 3

The Man in the Orange Jumper

Once we had finally got to Quito, we had a great time. On our second evening, we ended up on a gastronomic tour of the city that was led by an Ecuadorian foodie with a glorious beard, called Betto. It poured with rain, and I got soaked, but Sarah was wearing her Peruvian puffy coat and fared much better. After quite a few drinks, the other three people on the tour went home. Betto wasn’t done for the night, though, and he took me and Sarah on a great night out, culminating in the edgiest club I’d ever been allowed into. We promised to link up with Betto again when we got back to Quito.

The following evening, it was time to head out of Quito, because we had a four-day tour booked in the Amazon Rainforest. To get there, we had to take a night bus. We arrived at Quito’s swish new bus terminal at 8pm, and bought tickets. The drive was only seven hours long, so we booked the 23:45 bus so as not to get there too early.

Quito’s best view: what it looks like on a cloudy day

The bus terminal was vast and white and shiny. We found our way to the food hall in search of supper. It was a sort of mall, with about a dozen little kitchens on either side of an open space full of tables. A friendly waiter impressed us with his polite sales-patter, and we let him sit us down and hurry off to prepare our food.

Sarah and I unstrapped our heavy backpacks and dropped them at our feet by the table. I let down my guard for maximum ten seconds as I retrieved my travel journal from my satchel. Then, very suddenly, I became aware that my backpack was no longer beside me – a bloke in an orange jumper was sauntering off, dragging it behind him.

I leaped up with a cry. The would-be thief let go of the bag but didn’t turn round, acting nonchalant as he strolled round the corner and out of sight. Our friendly waiter had seen what had happened, and he gave chase, disappearing round the same corner.

I hauled the backpack back to the table where Sarah was still sitting, wide-eyed. The brief incident had been quite an adrenaline rush, but no harm had come of it. It had been my fault for not being more careful in a South American bus terminal, and there was nothing valuable in the backpack anyway – just a lot of clothes. Presumably this place was a magnet for opportunistic thieves. My attitude was to shrug off the brief incident and get on with our meal.

Quito at night

The Ecuadorians’ response, however, was different. As everyone in the food hall realised what had happened, the kerfuffle rose to a crescendo of excitement. The front-of-house staff in all the kitchens were talking to each other in urgent, worried voices, and everyone was looking at us and pointing, telling the story to their friends as though their friends hadn’t just seen the exact same thing. Ecuadorians at the other tables were as agitated as the staff. The terminal’s security guards started swarming over the food hall in bright uniforms, and witnesses collared them to tell them at length about the scandalous crime that had nearly been committed. One waitress in particular seemed very distressed. She kept on chattering away in Spanish to whoever would listen, and in between she would look at me and Sarah with a motherly air, purse her lips and shake her head, as though she couldn’t believe what the world was coming to.

Then the police arrived, and spoke to all the same people that the security guards had. Sarah and I had to answer some questions, and Sarah’s rudimentary Spanish faced yet another test. Just when we thought it was all dying down, a more senior policeman emerged, with our waiter hovering at his shoulder, and told me to follow him.

Watch my bags!” I said to Sarah, and the waiter and I trotted behind the police officer out into the night.

Ollie and Sarah in South America: a precolumbian artist’s impression

There was a police car on the pavement outside, with half a dozen policemen standing near it. Its back door was open – and sitting inside, handcuffed and tearful, was the failed thief in the orange jumper. When he saw me, he started wailing and calling to me in a desperate voice. I could understand enough Spanish to know that he was begging me to have mercy on him.

The waiter was telling his side of the story now. Apparently he had chased the thief through the bus station, tackled him to the ground, and kept him pinned down until security had arrived to help. I was being asked to corroborate his story by formally identifying the weeping culprit.

What choice did I have? I had to look into the face of the distraught and handcuffed man and confirm that, yes, I was fairly sure he was the man who had tried to rob me. He moaned and cried, and kept on pleading in Spanish, and I was feeling pretty wretched as the waiter led me back inside to the food hall.

“Don’t worry about him,” the waiter chuckled, slapping me on the back. “He gets what he deserves.”

Sarah and I ate the rest of our meal in a humbled silence, and left the waiter quite a big tip.

The Jungle

When we did board the 23:45 bus, the journey turned out to be another grim one. It was empty enough for me and Sarah each to claim two seats for ourselves, but that was the only good part. We hurtled along a winding road, sliding around helplessly because there were no seatbelts, and trying not to get hurled into the aisle. Every time I dozed, I’d wake up from the fear of somebody trying to rob my satchel. Sarah tried to go to the loo in the middle of the night, only to discover that it was padlocked shut. At half past three in the morning, the driver suddenly started playing very loud South American pop music, which removed any remaining chance of actual sleep.

The outskirts of the jungle!

Our driver arrived extremely early, which in most circumstances would have been good news, but not when it meant arriving before half past five in the morning in a grim little town where nothing was open. But despite our eventful night, we’d made it to the start of our rainforest tour in one piece.

Going to the jungle was something I’d always really wanted to do. From the moment the tour started, I was loving it. We drove through vivid green countryside, thick with palm trees and banana trees and a profusion of vegetation. Then we boarded a boat with the four other members of our tour group, and headed downriver into the rainforest proper. Trees leaned over the river, and the guide would point out the different species of birds and monkeys.

Tarantula selfie

That first day in the Amazon was glorious. We were staying in a jungle lodge which was comfortable and picturesque, surrounded by tall trees and overlooking the river. Indeed, its only downside was the three resident tarantulas that hung out in the main communal area, but these were fine as long as you didn’t let one drop on you from the roof.

The air was thick and humid, and it seeped into our clothes and across our sticky skin. The only way that Sarah could control her hair was by tying it into plaits. But she was enjoying the jungle almost as much as I was.

On the first afternoon, our guide took us in the boat to a lagoon just upriver from our jungle lodge. He showed us a six-metre anaconda curled up in the water, and then encouraged us to go swimming from one of the lagoon’s sandbanks. We all slipped and slid down the mud and into the warm water, splashing around as the sun set and trying not to think too much about that anaconda. As our boat took us back to the lodge in the dark, the guide shone his torch at the riverbank. Sometimes the torch would pick up dark orange lights glinting back at us. “Caimans,” he explained.

A jungle stroll

I’d been under the impression that caimans were miniature crocodiles, growing to maybe a metre long. It turned out I was wrong, and the biggest caimans around here were four or five metres from snout to tail. And the river was infested with them.

Lurking in the Water

“Can they attack humans?” I asked our next guide, the following afternoon. I was sitting just behind him in the narrow little boat that the lodge used for all its excursions, and we were on our way to a “jungle night-walk.”

“No, they’re safe,” he said. “They can attack, but they don’t.”

“Why not?” I persisted. “Would we be bad food for them?”

Our alarmingly laid-back guide

“No,” shrugged the guide. “They could eat humans, but they don’t.”

“So they never attack?”

“They never attack tourists.”

That didn’t make much sense to me. “What about non-tourists?”

“Well,” said the guide, “one time I was with my friend on this river, and I was at the back of the boat and he was at the front, and a caiman leaped out of the water and grabbed his leg.”

“Did he die?” I heard myself asking.

“No,” said the guide. “He’s fine. Six months in hospital, though.”

We arrived back at the same sandbank where we’d gone swimming the previous day. I’d decided not to go in the water again.

Most of the other members of the group stayed on the spit of land as well. Only Sarah and one other guy went for a second swim.

Majestic clouds were massing overhead, above the lagoon and the horizon of trees in every direction. The clouds were twisting into huge, dark shapes: it was going to rain.

Those of us on the sandbank were admiring the view, when someone spotted a caiman, twenty or thirty metres from the shore. The sandbank was between the caiman and the swimmers, but clearly it was now late enough in the evening for caimans to be coming out in search of food.

Sarah, a couple of minutes before the scare

I went over to where Sarah was happily paddling, and called to her. “Sarah – just FYI, we can see a caiman on the other side of the spit, so you might want to –”

At that exact moment, while Sarah was looking in my direction and listening to me, something massive surfaced in the water a few metres behind her. It disappeared with a splash a moment later – but whatever it was, it was right behind her, and it was much bigger than she was.

“Sarah, I’m not joking, there’s something huge in there with you, you need to get out of the water,” I said, the words tumbling out of me. Sarah and the other swimmer came ashore as quickly as they could, struggling through the mud to safety. Afterwards, Sarah said that she hadn’t needed me to say anything – my shocked expression had been enough to tell her that she needed to get out of the water as fast as humanly possible.

Our guide was about thirty metres away, laughing. “It was just a fish,” he said. “Just a three-metre fish.”

Just a three-metre fish? “I’m done with swimming,” said Sarah.

Lurking in the Darkness

A few minutes later, as dusk fell, it started raining. This turned into the most tremendous downpour. It was still getting heavier as we disembarked on the shore of the jungle for the night-walk.

We traipsed through the wet blackness, shining our torches around in search of wildlife. Without the torches, we wouldn’t have been able to find each other, let alone any rainforest creatures. I spent most of my time shining my light on the ground, hoping not to step on a snake. The heavy-duty hooded ponchos that we’d been given couldn’t stop the rain from seeping inside and drenching our clothes.

“My ex-boyfriend would hate this so much,” said Sarah, over the sound of the rain sluicing off the trees in the blackness.

We didn’t see anything particularly special until we reached the shore again. There, standing very still further up the bank, was a caiman. It was two or three metres long, there was a dead fish in its toothy jaws, and it was standing very still as though playing dead.

The tour guide got very overexcited, whooping and leading us closer and closer, until we were only about three metres away. We bunched behind him, unsure whether it was genuinely safe or whether our guide had no concept of danger. He’d given us plenty of reason to suspect the latter. As he laughed gleefully at the caiman, he seemed to be having a worrying amount of fun.

Eventually the caiman seemed to wake up from its trance, and it lumbered off towards the water with its fish. The thrilled tour guide scanned the near part of the lagoon with his torch, and spotted at least one other caiman eye shining in the darkness.

It was time to get back on the boat. But we were beside a part of the lagoon where the water was too shallow for the boat to reach us. Therefore, the guide announced, we had to wade about fifty metres out into the caiman-lake, in the rain and the darkness, to get back on board.

Our column straggled through the water, slipping and losing our balance in the oozing mud. Somebody fell over with a splash. Three of us got separated from the others, and we fell behind. Wobbling and limping through the lake, we were the last to reach the boat. It was a hell of a relief to get pulled back onboard.

With hindsight, though, I reckon the most dangerous part of the whole day was the next twenty minutes. Perhaps our guide was lacking a sense of danger, but it was nothing compared to the pilot of our boat. He revved up the engine and raced us back to the lodge at full speed. Except it was pitch black – the rainclouds meant that there weren’t even stars to light the way. The river wound and twisted, and at points it was only a few metres wide, but the pilot seemed to be relying entirely on his memory, and he never slowed down. He might as well have been blindfolded. Sometimes the guide would turn on his torch and shine it at the way ahead, revealing exactly how narrow and treacherous the river was – but he was only looking for more caimans, and he’d switch the torch back off, leaving us (and presumably the pilot) dazzled for several seconds. It was the single most dangerous piece of driving I’ve ever experienced.

En route to the shaman

The following day, we went on an excursion downriver to visit a shaman. At the end of the outing, we discovered that the same pilot had fallen asleep in the middle of the river. We could hear his snores from the bottom of the boat, but all our shouts weren’t enough to wake him. The guide hurled sticks that landed inside the boat with a clatter, but the pilot slept on. The shaman had to fetch his own canoe and row out to our boat in order to rouse the snoring pilot.

“Probably dead drunk,” said the guide, laughing. Then, conversationally, he added to Sarah, “He’s fifteen. His girlfriend is about to have a baby.”

Lurking in Broad Daylight

A waterfall near the spa town. The photo that summed up our trip

All in all, it wasn’t wholly with regret that we left the jungle a couple of days later. But Sarah and I were now almost at the end of our trip. We spent a couple of days in an idyllic spa town, and then we returned to Quito for our final three nights.

Sarah had been in contact with Betto, who had told her something about a pub crawl that was happening the evening we were due back. We ended up arriving at our hostel a lot later than planned, so we dropped our stuff and hurried out to see if we could catch up. It had rained almost every day since we’d arrived in Ecuador, so Sarah made sure to bring her puffy coat, and I was left wishing that I had one too.

We joined the pub crawl at its final stop, a club in the centre of town. It was buzzing, with Western and South American music pumping across the dance floor, and plenty of free drinks. Betto wasn’t there, but we recognised some of his friends from the previous club. One of these was a big New Zealand bloke with a cheeky smile. Sarah took quite a shine to him. This seemed like a good sign: clearly she was recovering from the breakup. I left her to it and went to find some new friends.

At about two in the morning, I was in a comfy chair near the dance floor and chatting to someone when Sarah came to find me, looking self-conscious. “Do you mind if I go back with this guy?” she asked.

“Of course not,” I grinned. “See you tomorrow!”

It felt strange trying to get to sleep that night. I hadn’t spent the night in a room without Sarah for the whole seven-week trip. She and I scarcely had separate existences anymore. By this point we were sharing one tube of toothpaste, one adaptor plug, one pencil and one bottle of shampoo. But the following morning, as Sarah made the ten-minute walk back from the hostel where the New Zealander worked, I missed out on the trip’s final bit of bad luck.

“On our trip, nothing at all went wrong…”

Sarah was walking back along a main street at half past ten in the morning, feeling like an empowered independent woman, with her purse in one hand and her puffy coat in the other. A man passing in the other direction suddenly grabbed at her belongings, and there was a short tug of war over her coat. He pulled the coat out of her grip, didn’t bother to stop and snatch the purse, and legged it. Sarah had achieved the exceptional ignominy of getting mugged during a walk of shame.

And that, really, was the end of the trip. Two days later, we arrived at Quito Airport extremely early, ready for our flight home. For once, everything went smoothly. It was a very strange sensation saying goodbye to Sarah at the other end – I’d never spent so long in the company of one other person. She had a new job waiting for her in another city, and I didn’t know when I’d see her again. But that was fine: if our friendship could handle the pressures of fifty days’ worth of shared meals, shared bus rides and shared challenges, then a bit of time apart certainly couldn’t hurt.

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