I think we were lucky to not have been mugged in Quito. Peter’s friend got mugged in broad daylight. They cut the bag he was carrying and got away with his two phones — his blackberry and his international phone. (Insert sharp intake of air here for all the Blackberry owners who are reading this.) He was lucky he wasn’t carrying his computer at the time. He was pretty shaken up. This is a guy who has been all over the world; a seasoned traveler and he got nailed. Peter met up with him and they had a few drinks to try and calm him down. On their way home, somebody was following them so Peter turned to confront the guy and the guy just slithered off down another street and left them alone. They are REALLY predatory in Quito. According to my teacher, the thieves (or delinquentes as they call them) station themselves at points around the square and when they lift something, they use the streets that run parallel and outside of the square to drop stuff off to each other so that in the event of their capture, they won’t have any of the goods on them. Clever monkeys.
He also explained the whole 30 of September thing I’d been seeing all over. Ever since we got to Quito, we have been seeing protests and references to “30 Septiembre” and “No impune” and I had no idea what it was about. Now I know, more or less. (My teacher’s English wasn’t very good so as a result, when he would tell me stuff, he’d have to stop every time he got to a word I didn’t know. Discussions would get pretty convoluted and thick, but I soldiered on.)
To begin with, seems that the thieves were getting out of control and the police were ordered to crack down. Only thing was, the thieves have way better weaponry than the police AND the police are required to buy their own ammunition. So, the police decided to call a general strike. On the 30th of September, not one cop showed up for work. You can guess what happened. Every thief and his brother came out to play. My teacher had to go to work so he dressed way down, didn’t wear any jewelry and only carried a single dollar with him. On his way to work, the bus he was on got robbed. His girlfriend got robbed on her way into the city to go to school. They even took her eyeglasses! He said everybody got robbed and everything got robbed. He said if stores had gates, the thieves would attach a chain to the gate a pull it off with a car. Gas stations got robbed, propane stations got robbed, and even pharmacies got robbed of all their drugs. The city was in complete and utter chaos. Additionally, it seems the president himself was hiding out at a police hospital or was rescued from there, I’m not sure, but only two of the six branches of the police responded to get him out; one was the military, and the other was their form of the narcotics division (I think). The rest of the cops did nothing. (Since then, the President signed in a new law that put the military above the police and that one division of police directly under the military and over the other branches of the police. He moved the power of the presidency off to the side so Ecuador is more or less a military state with a separate president.) Afterwards, the president obviously wanted to conduct an investigation into what the hell happened, and, just as obviously, all those involved do not want that, hence the “No Impune” movement. Some sort of preliminary investigation did happen and it turns out the person who organized the work stoppage was none other than the former president!
And it gets better.
The former president had done some time in jail, due to the fact he colluded with the president who preceded him who had been hiding out in Paraguay because he stole 12 palettes of cash from Ecuador. (To make this all clear, the present president is number one, the former president is number 2 and the president who was hiding out in Paraguay is number 3. I might be missing a president in there but this is the way the story was told to me.) OK, so number 3 absconded with a ridiculous amount of cash and was hiding in Paraguay for years. At some point during number 2’s presidency, he allowed number 3 to return to Ecuador. Well, apparently, the people did not cotton to that decision and decided to protest. It was a really big protest. Number 2 was hiding out in the presidential palace, number 3 had already fled the country again, the military guards surrounded the palace and the people started to surround the military guards that were surrounding the palace. This all started at about 6 am. As the day wore on, they began throwing rocks, it was getting really bad and at some point around 7 pm at night, the military received the call to abandon their posts. After they left, the people stormed the palace, and the president ran to the roof to an awaiting helicopter, but the people were so close to getting him that he couldn’t even get into the helicopter and he had to hold onto the thing as it pulled away. He was dangling from one of the legs of the helicopter like he was in a Bruce Willis movie! Anyway, he got to the airport, got into another helicopter (even though there were people there too trying to get at him) and made his escape to Brazil. When we returned to Ecuador a few months later, number 2 went to jail, though I’m not sure for how long and I don’t know who was acting president at the time.
Isn’t that whole thing hilarious! And awesome! Man, how much fun would it be to see any of our selected ‘leaders’ dangling from a helicopter, trying to get away from an angry mob.
But don’t think that number 2 was out of politics after all that. Noooo, no, no, no. He ran again in the last election and in at least one province he did well. He did really well in the coastal region since he bought rice for everyone. Seriously, he bought votes with rice. Apparently he’s a very charismatic guy that some, most of who are in the coastal region, call “el loco que amor” or the loved crazy one.
I did point out to my teacher though that even though his government is a little goofy, people are eating and garbage is getting picked up. Life goes on. A fully functioning government isn’t always a good thing. He agreed.
Oh, one thing Peter’s friend found out was why the food in Ecuador is so bad. Seems there is a government agency that has multiple subgroups that address the various and sundry forms of food preparation. There’s a subgroup for street vendors and a subgroup for restaurants and a subgroup for grocery stores, etc. and so on. So, say, for the restaurants, this subgroup, at the behest of the agency, tells restaurants what they can serve and how to prepare their food. As a result, all the food tastes the same. That’s why the food is so bad. A bureaucracy is telling restaurants how to cook!
Anyway, enough about Quito. We finished out our classes, cleaned up the apartment, got our deposit back from Señor Freddy, and woke up early to get to the bus station early. Getting all of our stuff back into the suitcases was no easy feat. I’m so glad we mailed back about four kilos of stuff we weren’t using along with a few of the chunkier gifts as well as Peter’s poncho. It ‘only’ cost $60, but it was well worth it. I don’t know how I could’ve made it work otherwise.
Now we’re here in Baños, which is south of Quito and almost exactly in the middle of the country. It’s a lovely little town at the foot of an active volcano. It’s too pretty to take pictures of. I tried and they all greatly pale in comparison to what I’m seeing. Baños is loaded with spas and baths and, well, that’s about it. It’s a huge tourist draw, mostly for local tourists, but a goodly portion of other tourists as well since it’s also on the border of the Andes region and the Amazonian region. You can take a trip from here to go into the Amazon. Hell, you can even take a three-day trip (the word “trip” being a double entendre) with a guy who will hook you up with an ayahuasca experience. Ayahuasca is a native drug that shamans use to have visions, but that guides will provide you with, under some tutelage because the experience can be extreme. You can also go bridge jumping and kayaking and canoeing and horseback riding. All sorts of things can be done for a nominal price. We’re just here for a few days so we’ve focused on the spas and the baths. Though, the ayahuasca is tempting…
The baths are pretty cool and cheap and clean. The one we went to had a Turkish bath, a dry sauna, a plunge pool, a whirlpool, a huge swimming pool as well as steam baths. For $10, you got access to all of that and a glass of fresh juice. We used the sauna and the Turkish bath and the plunge pool. We never got into the whirlpool however because there was always a crazy amount of people in it and most of them were kids. The whole place could be empty and that whirlpool would be loaded with people. It looked too much like Ecuadorian soup. I couldn’t bring myself to get into it. I also didn’t want to use the swimming pool because, again, there were too many kids that used it. Years of being swimming instructor taught me one thing; stay out of pools that too many kids use. I don’t have to tell you why.
Now, why do you think they offer fresh juice? Well, it’s because they torture you.
Have you ever had an honest to god steam bath? I doubt very many of you have. You remember all those cartoons you saw as a kid where some fat person would go into a box, their fat head would be sticking out the top and steam would be escaping around the box and something would happen and they’d be in the box too long and they’d come out with the same fat head but a really skinny body? Well those boxes are steam baths. The deal is you agree to sit down in one of those boxes, they turn on the steam, and then they shut the front door of the box and slide the top up to your neck. So there you are, just a head on top of a very hot and steamy box. They leave you in there for about 10-15 minutes. Then, you agree to come out of the box and let them drag a very cold and wet towel over your body. Why you agree to it, you’ll never know. Then, again, you agree to sit in the box for another five minutes. After that torture is over, you come out of the box, and for some reason, you agree to let them pour cold water all over your body. Once again, you dutifully step back into the box for another five minutes or so and once again, confused as to the reason why, you obey them when they tell you to sit in a pool of cold water while you do a shot of some green stuff they tell you is medicinal. Then, back in the box you go for your last confusing five minutes until they let you out and hose you down with ice-cold water. I can’t figure out for the life of me why Peter likes it so much. I’m OK with it I guess, but I don’t feel the need to do it. He’s very happy to do it and insists he feels great afterwards. I guess I feel like I accomplished something, what it is I don’t know and my body refuses to tell me because after that experience, we’re not on speaking terms. Keep in mind that this whole ordeal is done in a room with a huge bay of windows where anybody can just look in and see your sweaty noggin on top of a box.
To make matters worse, and I know it’s hard to believe that it could be worse, all of this bath stuff is done wearing cheap Ecuadorian bathing suits. Peter’s cost $4 and mine cost $6.50. Nothing says ‘attractive’ like ill-fitting and unlined lycra. And nothing says disaster like a borderline middle-aged woman in a tankini and boy shorts.
The massage I had this morning was way more dignified and relaxing. Though, explaining to Peter why I felt the need to pay a stranger $30 to run hot stones over my back was difficult. He thinks it’s kooky and creepy. I had to explain to him that women love love LOVE spa treatments because it’s a rare thing for them to be pampered and taken care of for little more than an exchange of cash. There’s no guilt involved or obligation or anything, just cash. Think about it, as women, we take care of every thing and every one. We have to be knocking on death’s door to get really taken care of ourselves. Not only that, if we neglect one thing that needs attention because something else is requiring attention, we feel bad for neglecting that one thing, even though minding both might be impossible. We have a career, we feel bad for neglecting our home life. We have a home life, we feel bad for not being more attentive to our careers. If we have both, we’re usually out of our minds. Bottom line, in everyday life, we rarely even take care of ourselves. For men, the goal-oriented world is their oyster. They defined it and it works for them. It does not always work for us. Hence, the necessity for the spa experience. Maybe he understands, maybe he still doesn’t. I got my massage and that’s all I really wanted. And though the steam bath experience was a bit extreme for my tastes, I liked the Turkish bath and the sauna stuff too. I’d have to say it’s been a very relaxing day.
Overall, I highly recommend a visit to Baños. If you’re interested in a jungle experience as well, this place, and maybe Puyo farther south, is great. Our hotel room smells funny, but it’s clean and costs $20/night. The window faces a mountain with a waterfall. At night, once the taxi drivers that hang out under our window leave and all the tour busses, motorcycles and buggies (the ones they rent to tourists so they can try to climb the volcano) are turned off and quiet, you can actually hear the waterfall in our room! Of course, that only makes me want to pee at about 3 am, but, you know, whatever.