This blog might be more appropriately titled, “That one time my sisters and I got robbed in Quito via an elaborate scam”. It isn’t designed to scare you from going to Quito – a lovely city in many ways – but rather to relate a first-hand experience in order to prevent it from happening to others.
We had heard a lot of freaky accounts of elaborate schemes and scams that petty thieves around South America will set up to snag your luggage or wallet. But unfortunately, for some, it takes learning the hard way to truly become as vigilant as you need to be living in a big, foreign city. For us, that city was Quito, but this could obviously happen almost anywhere.
Fresh off the plane, my two younger sisters and I had only been in Quito for a few days, staying in a hostel en El Centro. Toting our backpacks with extra layers of clothes, cameras, wallets and snacks, we strolled through the heart of historic downtown Quito at about 1pm. Our destination still quite a way off, we happened to walk by a public restroom (the kind that one must pay a bathroom attendant 10 cents to use, and maybe an extra 10 cents for some toilet paper).
As we strolled by, the three of us simultaneously got sprayed with a dark brown liquid. The spray came hard enough (as if it fell from the sky, like getting shit on by a bird) that we felt it before we smelt it. But it didn’t take long before the stench kicked in. Seeping into our clothes was one of the most toxic and putrid conconctions immaginable. Remember those little “stink bombs” that kids used to throw in classrooms or bathrooms in elementry school? The smell was akin to that, only worse.
Doing exactly what it is intended to do, it had us instantly in a panic. A man turned around on the street, offering us some tissues. We instantly remembered one of the scams we had been warned about – someone spills on you, offers to help clean you off, then robs you in the confusion. My youngest sister yelled, “NO!” in the man’s face, and he looked genuinely startled.
Instead of being vulnerable on the street, we headed for the “conveniently” located bathroom. It was eminent that we got that shit off, now! Going our separate ways into our respective bathrooms, my sisters were still an earshot away as we stood at the sinks and scrubbed our shirts and jeans with tissue, sketchy bar soap and our hand sanitizer. As I scrubbed away at my t-shirt, a man walks up from the stalls and offers me a packet of tissue, and mutters, “Ohhh, caca!” and in an insistent fashion, starts to assist my scrubbing.
Realizing that the “caca” nor smell was going to be washed out properly, I decided to take the t-shirt off completely and wear my hoodie stashed in my bag. I quickly unstrapped my bag and set in on the counter. Thanking the guy for his help, I muttered, “Estoy bien, gracias, estoy bien…estoy bien” trying to politely refuse his help. I took off my t-shirt and started to run it under the sink water, wringing it out in a twisting motion. Once I felt it was as good as it was going to get, I dug through my bag for my hoodie.
It was then that I heard my sister, fluent in Spanish, conversing with an older woman across the way in the echoing cement building: “No estamos bien, gracias! Tranquila!” She then yells across to me, “Collin, be careful! Watch your shit over there, let’s go!”
“OK,” I agreed, as I zipped up my sweatshirt and grabbed my bag.
Feeling flustered and confused, we gave the attendant some change. She was trying to say something to us, but we just wanted to get out of there. She had this extremely concerned, almost pitying look on her face.
Back in the hustle and bustle of the busy and sunny streets, we tried to gather ourselves. “OK,” my sister suggested, “check to see if you have everything…check everything.” I patted my pockets, all there. I opened my bag, where I was stashing my wallet (which contained my bank card and a $20-bill) and it was gone. I checked and double-checked. Ran back into the bathroom, triple-checked. The wallet had been strategically lifted from my bag during all the commotion, most likely from the “good samariton” who offered me assistance in my time of need.
Coming to a slow, resistant and reluctant realization that we had indeed been scammed, the awful sinking feeling begins to kick in. The feeling is one of defeat, confusion and vulnerability. With tears in my sisters’ eyes, we sat in defeat on the sidewalk discussing what had just happened. Did that all really just happen?
Piecing it together, we realized that someone (maybe from above on a balcony?) sprayed us with the liquid, at least one other man was on the street, and another two people (man and woman) were awaiting our arrival in the bathroom. We think the bathroom attendant might have been in on it, too. That makes a possible 4-5 people working together on the elaborate scheme, in which they netted $20 dollars and crushed the optimism and trust of three young American volunteers and tourists.
In disbelief, we discussed what the next logical move would be.
Will the police help? Should we go through the trouble of filing a report? Was that stupid bathroom attendant in on the whole thing? Should we speak to her? Are we even safe sitting here?
We decided to go straight back to the hostel and speak with the owner before making any drastic moves. But before we stood up, a local approached us obviously-distraught gringos, and asked what happened. My sister described to her that we had been robbed, but we were OK and we were going back to the hostel. What happened next really blew our minds.
Instead of offering advice, help or comfort, she immediately began what seemed like a recited speech on how it is “all of the Colombians” who come into our country and rob people, giving “all of us a bad name.” Realizing the lady was only out to stereotype and be racist, my sister immediately brushed her off and reprimanded her for her idiocy. The lady was taken aback by how we just ignored her and walked away during her ignorant rant.
We bee-lined for the safety of our hostel and went through the process of describing the entire event to our host. Having already grown sick and tired of hearing these kind of stories which occur in her beloved home city, our lovely host was in tears while she apologized on behalf of the sick people who did that to us.
In retrospect, one can only imagine how difficult it must be for a woman running a family business which depends 100% on tourism, to watch her city and neighborhood become less and less safe for locals and tourists alike. Seeing the tears in her eyes reminded me of the far-reaching implications and consequences of this despicable behavior, and how one act of selfishness can affect so many people on so many levels.
There we were, fresh in Quito and ready to serve its people as volunteers, and we already felt dreadfully insecure, vulnerable and unsafe. It really was just the worst kind of feeling and it took a lot of time to get over.
But like most hardships one meets, you must press on and learn from it. We certainly learned how to be more vigilant and prepared. We refused to live our lives in Quito in fear and on the edge; however, we were significantly more aware of our surroundings from that day forward.
The next year we experienced and heard of various other petty crimes, but nothing, luckily, too serious. I personally had two separate occasions where I thought I might be mugged (one in Quito and one in Cuenca) but I reacted immediately and fled the scene (both times I was stupidly walking alone at night in a not-so-lit-up area).
The lesson to be learned is that most thieves in Ecuador are opportunists. They are hanging around and waiting for “sitting ducks.” The trick to your safety is to never be that sitting duck. As long as you don’t ever put yourself in that kind of position, they will not have the opportunity they need, and you are almost guaranteed to have a safe and tranquil experience in Ecuador.
Stay vigilant and watch out for caca.
January 30, 2012