The Fops and the Bay Something From Nothing


The Fops and the Bay

The Fops and the Bay

Something From Nothing

ˇSi, se pudo!

As I went way home, past the guards and the rottweilers, I couldn´t help but sing.

Quito, Ecuador
10th November, 2001

What a relief to be back in Latin America. Once again I am a golden idol! I have a special area of town to live in full of other gringos. I am supplied with bars, restaurants, and cheap internet cafes, each happy to welcome the most travel stained and unkempt westerner, while keeping all but the wealthiest Ecuadorians well away. Life is easy is Latin America.

But, you say! Latin American travel is so much more interesting and adventurous than North American or European travel! Well, sure. Every travel hack is happy to bore you to death on how much more valid an experience it is.

However, most third world adventure really boils down to simple survival. Managing to find somewhere decent to sleep, figuring out which bus to catch, or finding anything to eat without getting mugged, shot, poisoned or cheated feels like such an achievement you have no need to go, oh, mountain biking to prove yourself.

Considerable amounts of travel literature have been written on such themes. If you can undertake all these adventures, and then get an Indian child or passerby to tell you a few anecdotes on top, you´ll have enough authentic material to write a prize winning non-fiction epic.

Of course, if you´d simply traveled to Britain and done the exact equivalent, that is, walked to the local newsagent, bought a packet of Cheerios, talked to a stranger for three minutes about the weather before catching the number 10 bus home, and then wrote a book about your adventure, you´d be laughed at.


Quito is an interesting town, 2800m above sea level in the Andes, surrounded by sharp volcanic peaks that tend to erupt without warning(last one in 1999). In this way the mountains provide the necessary supply of Latin American drama, taking this burden from the people. They are therefore free to be quiet and conservative, and so pleasant and easy to get on with. Ecuador was home to the northern outpost of the great Andean civilisations, and most of the people are either Indian or mestizo, mixed Indian and European descent.

Indigenous influence is everwhere. The hugely ornate churches built by the Spanish to impress the natives are covered inside with gold, that being the colour of the gods. The crucifixion scenes and pictures created by native artists are gothic depictions of pain and gore, far in excess of European equivalents. Perhaps they commemorate the horrible tortures doled out by the Spanish in the name of the church, or even the human sacrifice practiced by the Incans and their predecessors.

Night Goes Down on Gringo Town

Ecuador is said to be the third most corrupt country in the world. After a week here I haven´t seen much to alarm me, although there never seems to be any actual policemen patrolling Quito, just heavily armed private security guards and rottweilers outside any shop or restaurant likely to carry any cash. The police have little rabbit hutches scattered throughout the city, from which they never move. I think the policy is, as they can´t keep the whole city safe, they will concentrate on maintaining order in certain designated spots, such as the inside of little police huts.

I chose to stay in Quito for a while, and go to a language school to revive my rusty language skills. Once again, I am all verb endings and pronouns, capaple of inging my its and willing my ends all over the shop. There was a good group at the school, including Lesley the ironic Canadian, the only other person in Quito who seemed to grasp my sense of humour, and Yvonne, Fabienne and Marika from Switzerland, and Helke from Germany. In general I love German, Swiss or Austrian girls. They contain a good mixture of seriousness and humour. They also think that unpredictable Irishmen are roguish and fun, rather than silly and rather badly dressed.

Papallacta Takedown

A group of us from the language school went for a hike on Saturday, climbing to over 4000m. We struggled for breath on the way up. I had hoped my climbs in the rockies between 2000m and 3000m would prepare me, but it wasnt enough. The mountain scenery here is strangely similar to Ireland, green-brown and boggy. I could have been hiking across the Mournes, 7000 miles away and 3000m lower.

I had become relaxed about Ecuador, but at the end of the hike we received a reminder of just what an uncertain country this can be. We went for a swim at some thermal baths in a mountain resort where I hoped to have my picture taken splashing around with beautiful women. Never miss a chance to enhance your reputation. The resort was guarded of course.

We met a Quebecois engineer and his family. He lived and worked here. In the last year twenty of his co-workers had been kidnapped and held for ransom by Colombian FARC guerillas. The most recent ransom payout had been over $13 million. He carried a gun, had a permanent security guard at his house, and never traveled to work - three week stretches in a fortified compound in the jungle - unless he had a military escort.

We splashed around in the thermal baths for a while, grateful to be humble backpackers, not worth kidnapping. As we left, we ran into a group of men arguing in the carpark. It was the engineer. While he was in the baths, someone had broken into his truck - in a carpark under armed guard - and stolen $2000 worth of gear.

I fidgeted nervously with my $600 digital camera. Evening was coming on. But we were a large group, with an Ecuadorian guide, and confident enough to stop for dinner, fried trout in a rural restaurant that looked and smelled, and at night probably was, a large chicken barn.

The bus trip home was typically Latin American: hot, crowded, while the driver kept us entertained with salsa music and internal flashing disco lights. We traveled at night through non-gringo town: dark, unguarded suburbs full of pollution and desperate poverty.

The bus driver dumped us without ceremony beside a fast and dirty roundabout, without an idea of how to get back to the happy lights and rottweilers of gringo-land. But, of course, we dollar tourists have always a way out. The sight of our gringo faces was enough to convince a taxi driver to career straight across two lines of traffic, bear us away and then zoom straight back again in the opposite direction. An adventure. Perhaps I shall write a book about it.

The Day the Mundo Changed

By a stroke of luck I was in Quito for the most momentous date in the history of this little Andean country: 7th November 2001. The World Cup qualifying match against Uruguay. As the newspapers here said, hay dos periodos en la historia del Ecuador, antes y despues del 7imo del Novembre. Ecuador, a football-mad South American country had never made it to the World Cup, having to qualify against such giants as Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Now, at last they had a fighting chance. Fifty thousand fans crushed into the stadium. The bars, retaurants, parks and streets held a million more, all decked out in national yellow shirts, chanting, singing, crying the the slogan: ˇSi, se puede! ˇSi, se puede!. Yes, you can do it!

We were all Ecuadorian that day. The tension grew like a twisting vine that bore us all down as Ecuador attacked, attacked, attacked an immovable Uruguayan defence. Attacked, attacked... a mistake! A foul! Penalty to Uruguay! A goal, 0-1 to Uruguay. We cringed under the pressure of an entire nation´s deperate hope and growing fear.

Second half. Unlike many South American teams in the past, Ecuador did not lose discipline under the pressure. Attack, attack, attack... goal! ˇGola! ˇGola! ˇSi! ˇSi! ˇSi! The city exploded. The 1-1 draw gave Ecuador the point they needed to qualify. The parties spilled out from every bar onto every street. Calle Amazonas was crammed with men, women, children shouting, laughing, dancing crazily in a dozen spontaneous fiestas. Everywhere the new chant went up ˇSi, se PUDO! ˇSi, se PUDO! Yes, you COULD do it!

We poor gringos were taken aback by the sheer force of emotion. When Ireland made it into the World Cup quarter final, I would say that the people of Ireland were mildly pleased in comparison with this. But the gringos in Quito couldn´t help but be swept up in this, and soon we were dancing around, jumping up and down along with the rest.

Everyone was throwing back beer and a native punch with a vicious kick, so we knew we would have to retire before things got out of hand (in fact, three men were murdered and seventy injured) but it was a fantastic night. And as I made my way home through the dark streets, past the guards and the rottweilers, to my gringo house, couldn´t help but sing to myself, Ecuador, Ecuador, siempre el primero...



Quechua Woman


Otavalo Dance


Golden Altar


San Francisco, Quito


Hat & Spoon



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The Facts

Where I stayed
Quito: La Casa Sol. Wonderful guesthouse. Friendly staff, clean private rooms, inexpensive. It has a lovely courtyard and leafy social area, and serves an enormous breakfast including varied exotic fruit juices.

How I got around:
Stayed in Quito to study Spanish at the Instituto Superior. Good one on one classes, and lots of activities.