Originally published March 29th, 2014.
Letter from Quito,Ecuador:
When I arrived in the Old Town in Quito, I noticed a lot of tourists wearing their backpacks as front packs – was this a fashion statement or a red flag that I failed to notice ?
Did I read in the guidebooks especially in the Historic Center, one should be aware of pickpockets and bag slashers – not bag snatchers ?
Did I write in my last “Letter” there is a strong Police presence all over to protect the tourists from crime ?
One beautiful morning, I exited the Posada, down the marble staircase, through the iron gates and took a right turn onto Calle Garcia Moreno. A few steps from the hotel, stood a young Mother with her baby, selling passion fruit, also known as granadillas. I had been told these humble street vendors come down from the mountains every day carrying their fruit that has been picked that morning, joining all the other vendors in the Historic Center and climb back up the mountain returning to their homes in the late afternoon at the “close of business”. This “Mom” was selling large thick yellow skinned Passion Fruit, filled with delicious seeds and juice – one of my favorite fruits. She was calling out: “one dollar, one dollar” which was one US Dollar for twelve granadillas. There was no negotiation; I discretely turned my back on the passing crowd and thought I had managed to extract a dollar from my lightweight woven shoulder bag without anyone noticing and off I went.
As I moved on with the crowd of pedestrians, granadillas tucked securely in my shoulder bag, I made a mental note of the people around me. When I got to the lights and turned left I was aware that some of the same people I had seen when I made my purchase were going in the same direction. The sidewalk was narrow and crowded with little “hole in the wall” shops along the way and people weaving in and out of the crowd with their purchases. The crowd became tighter and it was difficult to move forward. Then there was a series of distractions: one person dropped his cell phone at my feet and we backed up while he retrieved it. Did I sense my posse getting closer and someone putting their hand into my shoulder bag ? Just in case, I tucked the opening under my bent arm so no one could get in. At this stage, there was no doubt, I had a posse of people around me, going the same route as I, heading up the hill.
When we arrived at the next corner, it was as if someone had choreographed what happened next: a huge bus was trying to turn left and in so doing the pedestrians on all four corners had to move back a pace while the driver manoeuvred this enormous bus into a turn. What an opportunity for them to regroup before coming in for the prize. Then there was another distraction when one of them asked for directions (like I would know !!) and each time I tried to cross the street I was blocked. The ever present “Tourist Policeman” standing on the street corner remained with a fixed bored stare while all this commotion was going on. Finally, realizing I needed to free myself from the group, with elbows pointed outwards I elbowed my way through and dashed across the street between two waiting cars, only to find my posse was not too far behind. I ran into the first shop I saw to escape them – only to find they had the same idea. The Shopkeeper recognized the situation and indicated with a gesture that I should step back against the wall of the shop while the merry band of thieves were looking at her glass cases displaying watches. After a while they realized I was in a safe place and drifted back to the street in search of their next prey. The Shopkeeper went to the door to make sure they had moved on and offered me a chair to sit down. Handing me a glass of water she pointed to my shoulder bag and it was clear they were about to come in for the “kill”. I was seconds way from being robbed. She pointed to one small slash and one large slash in the gusset of my shoulder bag, the second one from top to bottom and everything was about to fall out including my credit cards and the granadillas. Their prize had escaped at the moment they were about to successfully ruin my stay in Quito. All those distractions for nothing – just a few moments later and they could have declared a victory. No problem, I feel sure within a few minutes they had identified another victim they would rob, even under the nose of the Tourist Police
Yolanda the Shopkeeper was my saviour and she had seen this scenario many times before. I am so grateful for the way she handled the situation, because by this time, I was very shaky and needed to sit quietly in her shop sipping the glass of water while I recovered. The other scary part was that they had used a very sharp knife to slash the bag and a misstep in that crowd and I could have been knifed instead of the bag. Yolanda saved me much aggravation sparing me from having to replace the Credit Cards.
Lesson learned: Pay attention to the warnings and to your instincts. Do not walk around with your credit cards and if you do, hide them where no one wants to put their hand !!