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When the World Became a Darker Place

Three Encounters in Quito

by RICHARD WARD

Quito.

One is advised to be careful in Quito.  Larcenous characters prowl, looking for victims, women and tourists at the top of the list.  I have had my share of encounters, the trolley, the bus, and most recently sitting on a bench in Ejido Park, early for work, killing time, checking out the sights.  Comes a middle-aged woman, poorly dressed, to sit on the opposite side of the bench, nonchalant, right on time for her own work I suppose, checking things, like the obvious stranger near her with a shoulder bag of the inexpensive variety, rather ragged actually, but filled with something—what?  Loose change?  Passport?  Pocketknife?  Tickets to tonight’s ballet at Teatro de Sucre?  Too enticing to ignore.

I feel her presence, the itching, compulsive desire to probe, explore, waiting patiently for the precise moment, the gringo lulled by the warm afternoon sun, the interesting sights, perimeter defenses relaxed.  I know what she is about.  I wait, sensing her desire, her low cunning, her practiced patience.  Five minutes.  I have not looked at her since our first buenos dias.  More minutes pass.  It is time.  I turn suddenly and there, like a reptile, like a crocodile slowly and innocently floating towards its prey, her hand, resting on the bench, inches from my bag.  She snatches the hand away like some retracting anemone, but it is too late.  I smile and bid her goodbye.  Angrily, she turns her head, as if aggrieved.

Walking home in the early evening a few days later on Veintemilla, near Amazonas, one of Quito’s main north-south boulevards, I come across an unexpected sight.  Out of a black SUV parked next to the sidewalk step five men dressed in dark suits, laughing and talking loudly in English.  Four are from the US.  One seems to be Ecuadorian.  He is recommending a restaurant on Amazonas.  They are in their forties, substantial, comfortable in their executive attire, in high spirits, exuding a brash confidence as if commanding ownership of the sidewalk and surroundings, anticipating a good meal and maybe some entertainment later.  My reaction is an immediate, involuntary loathing:  here are symbols of the arrogance and power I despise.  I am close, right in the middle of them.  My attitude gives me away.  One of the gringos is aware of me and we exchange hostile looks.  Nothing like a business suit and a certain demeanor to put things straight.

Years ago I asked a student, a tough gang member, what kind of person frightened him and he claimed no one.  Normally a response of this sort is nothing more than bravado but this guy was genuine and I more or less believed him.  Then I asked how he felt when he saw men wearing expensive suits walking towards him.  He hesitated and offered an answer that was less than convincing.  It likely was not something he had thought about very much, as if, somehow, these types did not exist.  But they do, inhabiting another world from his own, another realm where people in fine clothes make the rules and enforce them with steel and blood.

A couple of months previous to these encounters I was walking home on a late Sunday afternoon down Montufar, a narrow, hilly street perpendicular to my street of Rocafuerte, in the old city.  Montufar was virtually empty as I approached Rocafuerte, the old buildings in the late afternoon crowding over the rugged sidewalks, a gallery of silent observers.  Most of the tiendas were closed.  A few dogs, pigeons.  Emptiness.  I pass a middle-aged couple on the other side of the street walking in the same direction.  We are the only ones about except for a figure coming down the block toward the couple.  The person, a short, crazy-looking man with wild hair and wearing a red windbreaker with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, approaches.  I figure I am okay because he is on the other side and if anything he will hassle the couple, but suddenly he veers off and crosses the street, coming directly up to me jabbering in Spanish.  Money, money, dinero, he wants money.  His eyes are wild and he has no front teeth, a powerful, thick guy, with big forearms and hands, a miniature Leon Spinks, a miniature crazy Leon Spinks, with electrified hair like Don King but thicker than King’s, and he is right up into my business, jabbering away, really aggressive, but I am cool because I am a veterano, having walked many months on the streets of Quito without incident, able to handle all situations with aplomb, and I speak to him calmly, almost soothingly, communicating my unfortunate lack of resources, sorry, my brother, that kind of thing, but he starts patting my left pocket to determine its contents and here is where I begin to realize this really is a crazy fucker and probably dangerous too and I start walking faster to get away from him, saying hey, hey, and suddenly he thrusts his hand into my pocket, I am astonished at how quick and powerful and unerring a motion it is, but before he can get anything, and actually all I have in that pocket is a small Swiss army knife, I grab his thick wrist and yank it out of my pocket, yelling puta! which surprises me a little, discovering this is the word that comes to the fore, my first genuine cursing at someone in Ecuador, and in a flash my assailant turns tail and hauls ass down the block and even if he had gotten my wallet I could never have caught him, nor would I have probably wanted to.

I am shaken.  The couple on the other side of the street is abreast of me, looking on in concern.  I make the universal circling motion with my forefinger around my ear.  The guy was crazy, yes, but it could have been worse.  I see the error of my laid-back ways.  As soon as I saw him making a beeline for me with his crazy eyes I should have gotten the hell out of there, pronto, making noise, a big fuss, air horns, whistles, bells.  Vamoose.  But no, I am the cool gringo, everything under control.  Now, instantly, the world is a darker place.  I am the outsider again.  But there is a difference compared to my first months here.  As I approach my apartment I see familiar faces and say hello.  They return my greetings.  This is my neighborhood.  I know the sidewalks and the buildings.  On Montufar I had been too comfortable in a situation I should have recognized as threatening.  But this does not diminish the connections I have forged over these months, nor does it diminish my conviction that the poor and desperate of this world are nowhere near the threat to our well being as are the respectable in their finely-tailored suits.

Richard Ward lives in Ecuador. He can be reached at: r.ward47@gmail.com.