“No tengo nada mas!” (Part 1) (Ecuador/Peru)

“I don’t have any more money!” I exclaimed. I didn’t know where I was. I was in a side street somewhere, dilapidated buildings around me and on a dirt road. I was somewhere along the border of Peru and Ecuador in a car with two young men. I had given them $4-$5 the exact amount I cannot recall. That was double what we had agreed upon for the short taxi ride across the border. But taking me that short distance for that price wasn’t their plan.

I felt the bulge of my money belt in my trousers, filled with my passport, bank cards and with maybe $100 of emergency cash. I ignored it, not admitting its presence even to myself for fear of giving it away. “Look!” I showed them the contents of my torn wallet, empty after I had already given them the contents of it. “You must give us $20!” They repeated threateningly.

How did this happen? I should’ve been on a beach surfing. I hadn’t even planned on going to Ecuador. ‘Well done idiot’ I said to myself.

That morning I had left very early on a bus from the capital of Peru, Lima to the northern coast of Peru. There were meant to be some beaches there and apparently, good surf. After spending the last two months in the mountains I was ready for some sand and sea. But twelve hours later when the bus stopped briefly at the small coastal town I didn’t get off. The sea was flat and the sky was overcast – uninspiring and not what I had imagined. I stayed on the bus and a couple of hours later it reached the Ecuadorian border where the bus terminated. Due to a long running dispute between Ecuador and Peru, since the war of 1941, there is a few miles stretch at the frontier that neither country manages. Vehicle traffic cannot cross the frontier and even the immigration offices are either side of this ‘gap’. As soon as the bus pulls into the bus station a clamour of taxi drivers vie for business. Shrugging them off I collect my bag from the hold and follow the crowds to the Peruvian immigration offices to obtain my exit stamps, a short walk away. Several taxi drivers follow me, fighting amongst themselves as to who’s client I was. After half an hour I finished in the offices with my exit stamps to be pounced on again by one of the taxi drivers that had waited for me. It was a few miles into ‘Ecuador’ and I had to get a taxi. I agreed on a price with the driver and jumped into the saloon style car. For some reason I threw my bags into the back seat and climbed in after them instead of putting them into the boot.

“What’re we waiting for?” I asked the driver who sat in the driver’s seat but made no plan on moving. “Just waiting...one moment.” A couple of minutes later a young man, late teens or early twenties sat himself down on the passenger seat. “This is my friend, okay let’s go.” The driver explained. “I don’t want anyone else in here. If he’s in here then I pay less.” I said. We argued a little and eventually I relented, throwing caution to the wind. Idiot!

I sat uneasy in the car, watching the countryside go by. As we got into the town of Huaquilles, Ecuador the driver entered some obscure back roads and parked up in a quiet open space. No one was about. “Fuel is very expensive.” He explained. “Very expensive. You have to pay more, $20.” He beamed back at me through the rear view mirror and his friend turned around to face me. “No.” I said. We argued again, it still hadn’t turned nasty and I had to, I didn’t have $20 in my wallet. “Okay, okay” I said feigning that I cannot be bothered. Here, I took out the few notes that were in my wallet and handed them over. $5. “This isn’t $20!” Now it was getting menacing.

I looked around, they had picked this spot well. There was absolutely no one about. A dilapidated part of a dilapidated town. I was alone, I gripped my bags tighter. I relented. “I have to go the cash machine and I can get out some money.” I said after showing the empty contents of my wallet. It was a risk. Either I show them the contents of my money belt, containing money and crucially my passport, or I risk them stealing my bank cards and maxing out my card limit. I opted for the card. They seemed placated. “Okay.” The driver started the car and said he would take me to a cash machine.

I kept my eyes peeled as we passed the streets, looking for someone, anyone so that I could raise the alarm. No one. We parked once again in a similar street to the one before, the cream coloured buildings were smeared with the dirt of the unprepared roads. Plastic wrappers littered the street accumulating in corners. “He will take you to the cash machine.” The driver signalled to his companion. I got out of the car taking both my main rucksack and my smaller one. I followed him down a couple of alleyways, over some planks of wood that spanned an open sewer to another alleyway. I was taller and bigger than my extortionist. South American’s tend to be short. We walked through a network of streets and alleyways before finally arriving at a cash machine. As I reached to get my cash card out of my pocket I saw at the end of the alleyway what looked like a lot of people walking by. It was noisy too. ‘Is this the main road? Is this the town centre?’ I looked at my captor and then broke off into a sprint.

I was cumbersome with my two rucksacks, one on my back and one on my front weighing me down. The sandals on my feet slapped against my heels with each step, slipping occasionally on the dirt strewn concrete. He was chasing me. But I had a good head start and I made it out of the alleyway before he caught up with me. I was pleased to see that it was the main road and it was teeming with people all in transit. I weaved in and out of crowds and people, knocking past them with my big bags. He was shouting behind me. I don’t know what I was looking for, not a police station, a bus...I have to get on a bus. I eventually found the bus station... no buses! But there was a large crowd there and I found the biggest group and stood right in the middle of it ignoring his angry calls. It was an indigineous family and they were dressed in traditional clothing. The women wore a frilly short sleeved, white blouse under a black waist coat and a simple long black skirt. Their long hair was plaited. There were no men with them but a couple of boys, who were dressed in western style clothing but too had long plaited hair.

My aggressor caught up with me and started bellowing in Spanish. My Spanish was bad, I couldn’t compete with his shouting. Annoyed by this altercation the young lady of the family I had infiltrated asked me what the problem was in very good English. I blurted out the situation, probably quite incoherently. The whole bus station was watching now. She got angry with the guy and a shouting match ensued. I couldn’t follow, she turned to me and said “Give him one dollar for him to go away.” What a result! I would’ve done but I didn’t have a dollar. At least not one accessible – I didn’t want to get into my money belt. “I don’t have a dollar!” I said. She turned to the old lady in her party and rattled something off in what I later found out to be Quechua and received a one dollar coin from the old lady. She gave it to the guy and told him to ‘piss off’. He went away, I had been saved.

I thanked the lady and her bemused family but the excitement of that day didn’t end there. What happened next became the best experience I had over the eight months I spent travelling through South America...