Couped Up In Quito

Well, I think I’ve come up with a #11 for my last post

On Thursday, I walked to work as I do every other morning, except this time I was a little late because I was trying to wrap up a blog about the 10 Strange Things That Have Become Normal While Living in Quito. Ironically, I had just bought my plane ticket home the night before. Everything seemed normal enough, but as I explained, sometimes strange things become “normal” here in Quito. Now attempted coup d’etats can be added to the list!

Fire in Quito. Coup Attempt. Sept 30, 2010

Just as I began content editing the first 100 pages of a 900+ page VIVA Travel Guide to Argentina, my cell phone rang. It was the lead writer of the Frommer’s Ecuador & The Galapagos 2010 book. He had arrived the night before and we were planning to meet to discuss how I could possibly help with the new guidebook. After the initial Hello, he asked me what the hell was going on in this city? I had no idea what he was talking about. He said “Yeah, the airports are closed and there are people burning tires and rioting all over the place!” Hmm. I said I’d check the news (what was this guy talking about?!). Despite it all, we planned to meet for drinks and possibly dinner in the Mariscal at 7 pm to discuss how I could possibly help with the book. I already had a lunch date planned and I was headed to the gym right after work, so it was slated to be a busy day in Quito.

Then I received a second phone call. My coworkers were curious when they heard me say, “OH MY GOD. Are you SERIOUS? Holy shit. OK. OK. Right. OK, well thank you SO much for letting me know. No, we heard nothing. I’ll check the news. Holy crap. OK. Be safe! Let’s touch base later.” My Austrian friend works in a school slightly outside the city. She told me there were NO police in Quito and that the military had taken over and shut down the airport. She confirmed what the Frommer’s writer had told me and said there was rioting, gun fire, and chaos in the city. Their school was on lockdown and they were going to send everyone home as soon as it was safe enough.

Fire in Old Town Quito, behind Panecillo. Sept 30, 2010

Then, the whirlwind of rumors began. Banks and supermarkets were being robbed, there was looting at every turn, thieves were taking over the city. The Quito that I have been blogging about for over four months, and continuously describing as not very safe, was now without police officers. I know a lot of people in this city have guns, so the idea of a city like this without cops or military, and with the cops actually ATTACKING their own president, was a scary and sudden reality.

Needless to say, for the next couple of hours, we couldn’t focus on work. The President was attacked?! An attempted coup d’etat?! I felt a surge of adrenaline. Was this really happening? I felt unsafe. A desperate quest for more information had begun. We Tweeted, we emailed, we Gchatted, we Facebooked, we even talked to each other without using a form of social media (I know, WEIRD!).

The news hadn’t hit the US yet, so the best way to figure out what was going on was to live stream Ecuadorian radio and TV from our computers. Luckily, our office consists mostly a bunch of Ecuadorian guys, who were all smiles when they told us NOT to go out on the streets and to stay put and to keep checking the news for safety updates. It took a couple hours for the US Embassy to send us an email saying that it was not safe to be out on the streets of Quito, to remain in our homes, and to stock up on food until further notice. I think the Ecuadorians got a small kick out of seeing a bunch of gringas freak out for a second. Hehe. This sort of thing isn’t as shocking in Latin America. In fact, I feel even more Argentine now that I have finally experienced a real Latin American coup attempt! Yep, I can check THAT off the list.

Riots at Military Hospital in Quito. Sept 30, 2010

Now for the truth…

My first thought after being told we couldn’t leave the office because it was too unsafe: what about lunch?! Yes, we had just found out that the police were trying to overthrow the government, and I immediately felt my stomach growl. I decided it was probably an inappropriate time to bring up lunch, and tried to focus back on the news. At this point, everything was a big mess. Twitter turned out to be the best source of information (I follow a bunch of major news sources) and between me and my coworkers and a whole bunch of re-tweets, we were piecing together a hole-filled patchwork of information. The bottom line: our city was FUCKED.

By now, you’ve seen the news clips and you’ve read the recaps. You know what went down. I’ve gotta say, I felt more anxious than I expected. As scary as it was, we couldn’t help but make jokes and be silly. We pondered the appropriateness of ordering pizza during a coup. Every time the office doorbell rang we’d freak and be like “DON’T OPEN IT!!” Outside, car alarms, honking and chatter filled the streets and were more suspicious than ever. Kids were released from every school and many main roads were blocked off by the military. When we all went out on the terrace to scope out the situation, my friend Libby almost accidentally touched an electric wire so I said LIBBY! MOVE AWAY FROM THE WIRE and she turned around, freaked out, and said “Do I have a red dot on my head or something?!” Hehehe. No, but actually not a bad question at the time.

Now, I’m not sure what the protocol is for lunch during an attempted coup, but my stomach had only gotten more and more vocal. Luckily, one of the interns was also starving so we rounded up the troops (and a few Ecuadorian guys to accompany us) and headed out into the chaos for some treats. It felt funny to grab a banana and some Chips A’hoy cookies while the military was trying to overthrow the government, but hey — a girl’s gotta eat, coup or no coup! After a risky snack run to Carlos, our favorite store owner around the corner, we returned to our office sanctuary. Our CEO had emailed us that we should all get home and take taxis, go home in pairs or groups if we can. So, we did.

That was a scary experience, but everything turned out alright. I found a taxi quickly and the Ecuadorian driver and I listened to the radio the whole trip, as he discussed the ungratefulness of the police. When I got home, I was alone for a couple hours. I had the news on, Facebook, Twitter and Gchat up, and a million news sites open. From my apartment, I could see fires scattered around the city. For a couple hours, there was a ton of traffic and honking and noise and then, SILENCE. An eery silence.

Eventually, my roommate got home, which made me feel much better. We cooked whatever we had in the house, and continued to piece together the reality of what was going on. One of her friends had run out to try and take pictures. Not only did he almost have his camera stolen, but some cops grabbed him and made him delete every single photo after interrogating him about what country he was from (Canada, obviously — we are ALL Canadian…), if he works for the government, what news station he reports for, etc. They let him go with his camera… but no photographs.

Neighbor and sun setting after a chaotic day in Quito. Sept 30, 2010

As I was taking photos from my living room window, I actually locked cameras and eyes with a guy on a rooftop nearby. Hehe. We both waved, cheers-ed with our cameras, tried to communicate with hand gestures, and continued to photograph the experience as best we could, from the safety of our homes.

One of the scariest moments for me was at night, around 10pm. The entire evening, the city had turned spooky and quiet. There were no cars, no people, no buses, no airplanes. Streets that are normally mobbed with traffic were empty, dead. Then, out of the silence, I heard the explosion of gunfire. Machine guns and shot guns exploded out of the night: BAMBAMBAMBAMBAM POP POP BAMBAMBAMBAM POP BAMBAM POP. There was some sort of shootout and gunfire was being exchanged what felt like just down the street. As it turns out, we were listening to the very moment when President Correa was being rescued by the military from the military hospital in which he had been sequestered for most of the day. I sat on the floor of my living room, gchatting with friends while the gunfire blasted throughout the quiet city. I felt, for the first time in my life, like I was in a war zone. It was very scary, and very real.

This is exactly what I heard (except it went on much longer, and this is before the climax). Watch the first minute of this video. It also shows exactly where I was yesterday morning, witnessing the bullet holes and the tear gas in the wake of this violent exchange.

Once it all quieted down, we heard the President had been rescued, and all we could do was try and sleep. When we woke up on Friday, we were told not to go into work, that the streets weren’t safe. I had unfortunately run out of milk (dang it!). It was a GORGEOUS sunny day and everything seemed peaceful enough in the morning. So, I decided to brave the streets in the name of coffee. I ran downstairs in my sweatpants and flip-flops, scurried to the nearest convenience store, talked for a couple minutes with people in there, and scuffled back to my apartment. Not gonna lie, I was a bit nervous, but I made it!

My roommate had had Lasik eye surgery scheduled for that day. She had been counting down the minutes and, of course, it was cancelled. The hospital in which she was going to have the surgery was literally across the street — 40 feet or so — from the hospital where the President had been kept the day before, outside of which tons of rioting had taken place. She still had an appointment and didn’t want to go alone, so I was happy to go with her. I was sick of being cooped up in the apartment and wanted to see what it was like out there…

We called a cab to be safe. The city seemed normal, sunny, relieved. When we arrived at the hospital, we got out of the cab and within seconds, we noticed a funny smell. It was tear gas. My nose began itching and my throat got scratchy. We covered our mouths and walked as quickly as we could through the streets that had been bombarded the day before. They were being cleaned and two memorial wreaths were being hung for the two civilians who were killed. Blood was speckled throughout the sidewalks, and shards of burned papers and blotches on the street reminded us of all that went down only hours earlier.

We rushed up a blood covered staircase to a glass passageway that would get us from one hospital building to another. Now, in that glass tunnel is where everything became a little too real. The tear gas fumes were suddenly overwhelming. My eyes started watering and my nose and throat started itching and burning more than before. I started running through the tunnel to get out of the tear gas fumes, but as I passed through it, I started to notice the bullet holes everywhere… [An example, and another one] I saw holes as big as golfballs with the fingerprint of shattered glass spraying out from the empty space. All I could think about was how badly I wanted to take a photograph.

Despite the tear gas, I had to stop. I was standing in the space where the bullet would have hit. A couple reporters were taking photos of the holes. I wanted to go home and get my camera so I could too, but Kari had her appointment to get to. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment. This wasn’t something that happened in a far away city; this was something that happened right where I was standing, where, if I had been there the day earlier, I would have been shot. The fumes crept into our eyes like an eery reminder of how real this all was… And after taking in the bullet holes for a couple minutes, we ran out to where we could breathe again.

Right now, it’s hard to know how safe things are. The city wasn’t safe to begin with, and now the police are unhappy. They’re all we’ve got.

Yes, I survived an attempted coup d’etat. This adventure in Quito has only gotten more wild and more unpredictable. But I am OK (thanks for EVERYONE who was concerned and for all the messages!). All I can do now is enjoy the adventure, the coups, the riots, the rebellions…

Afterall, I’ve only got a month of this craziness left.

This song is now stuck in my head:



Filed under Ecuador, Travel Disasters, Uncategorized

16 responses to “Couped Up In Quito

  1. Wow this is insane. I was recently in Quito and retreated to Colombia which is much safer (how strange is it to say that) and I can say Quito is bizarre enough on a normal day.

    Hope things are getting better. I’m coming through in a few weeks, if it’s calm we should have lunch.

    Fellow Canadian 🙂

    • travelswithtavel

      Haha. Glad I’m not the only one who thinks so. And YES, people don’t realize it but Colombia is MUCH safer than Ecuador right now! I think that says a lot…

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Wow that is crazy but so interesting. 1st off I am glad your are safe but 2nd how amazing to hear the story from someone actually there. This type of reporting is way different then what we hear on the news.

    I know it will be crazy but I hope you enjoy the last month you have there.

    • travelswithtavel

      Glad you appreciate it! And THANK YOU. I know I will enjoy the last month here… And adventure tends to follow me, so I don’t think it’ll be too boring state-side… 🙂

  3. Jim Couch

    I was so happy to find your blog, and sad at the same time. I visited Quito about a year and a half ago and fell in love with the city. I didnt find it too dangerous at all at the time, but things change. Thanks for updating us because the news here in Oklahoma is scarce about Quito or the coup.

    • travelswithtavel

      You know, so many people truly love this city so that should be acknowledged. I pick out its flaws way more than I highlight its beauties, and sometimes I feel really bad about that. So, I’m glad you loved it. Keep loving it.

      And thank you for tuning in. Happy to share my humble experience 🙂

  4. This has been interesting to read your account if what’s been happening. Just so you know, you broke the story for me. Took awhile for the US media to catch on. Thanks for sharing and I’m glad you’re safe.

    • travelswithtavel

      I think that’s kind of awesome I broke the story for you. Thanks for paying attention, and thank you for your concern.

  5. Julie Love

    I am not sure the NH news has broken the story yet. So thanks for keeping me in the world loop. Lots of love to you and stay safe.

  6. Susana

    Your story reminded me so much of when I was growing up in Buenos Aires… Every time I heard official voices on the radio, and military marches playing, it was a signal for my parents to run to the almacén and the fiambrería to get canned foods and lots of pasta. It was a sign that there was another “revolución” another “golpe”. Bullets flying, tear gas near the university, the works… For us kids, it was always so much fun because there was no school!

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