On Tuesday morning I went down to the hostel reception at 0400 with little hope. I had a flight ticket to leave Quito for Cuenca in southern Ecuador.
For most of the previous day and night, I had watched police and protesters fight non stop. Some of the worse violence had happened in the square where the hostel was located.
At 0300 there was a silence in the area. It looked like both sides had fought each other to a standstill. My flight was at 0730. I needed a taxi to get to the airport.
I suppose there is no chance of a taxi to the airport I asked. The receptionist made a call and said it was possible. I ran up to my room and packed my bag as quickly as possible.
The 0500 drive to the airport was surreal. The city looked a mess as the taxi driver weaved between the debris on the street.
One hour later, I was at the airport. It looked a whole other world. There was not a hint of a crisis. I had a coffee. Three dollars fifty for a coffee in a country where people earn twenty-four dollars a day. I now have added airports to my list along with craft beer bars.
I boarded the flight for the flight to the south. A smooth journey and one hour later I was in Cuenca. Surely Cuenca had to be better than Quito. I would also be nearer my next target country Peru.
I made my way to the hostel. The guy checked me in and said I need to tell you the bad news first. The ATMs are running out of cash and the town is low on food supplies.
I made my way down to the local market. I had lunch of spuds and vegetables for two dollars and brought some fruit.
On my way back, I bumped into a protest. It was very jovial. They hijacked a passing mariachi band and made them play. It was all good fun. How different from Quito I thought.
Later that night, I fancied a beer. The town was very quiet. I found one bar open. Of course, it was a craft bar. I had no option.
As I made my way in there was a sign on the door. All foreigners who enter here must show their passports. I thought you want to charge triple the price of normal beer and make us beg for it.
Irish people don’t have ID cards, and I never carry a passport out and about. Fuck that I said and I turned around and left.
After breakfast the next morning, I took a quick walk around the main square. It was a very strange atmosphere. The best way I can describe it is it was like the morning before a big football game.
Both sides were psyching up before the big event. National protests had been planned for that day. I walked back to the hostel thinking it would be like the previous day. Jovial.
By 1100 in the morning the protesters had begun to confront the police lines. At this stage, I had seen nothing like Quito. There was no rocks throwing. No smoke bombs.
By 1200 I could feel a change. More and more people were coming into the conflict area. There was now an edge. I remembered it from Quito.
I heard the first smoke bomb and saw people running. I was far back and not near the main demonstration.
A good American friend I had met in Albania last year had quite rightly criticized me for being too near the protests in Quito. He had been a TV news cameraman for thirty years.
He said I had put myself in great danger. He was only trying to give me good advice.
This day in Cuenca, I was going to take his advise. I located myself next to a student protest group. They were banging drums and chanting. They were far enough away from the main action.
The students never moved. They were well organised and never confronted the police. This is a safe area, I thought. Then I heard it. The sound I had become so familiar with in Quito.
It is a light siren sound. It is sounded by the police just before they launch smoke bombs. As soon as people hear it, they run. I had heard it before. I started to run.
Seconds later, the first canisters landed just behind me. The next canister landed in front of me. Running from a smoke bomb is bad. Running into one is ten times worse.
I could feel my eyes starting to burn. My heart was pounding as I ran through the smoke. Bizarrely I put my hand on my pocket to protect my phone. All my pictures were there.
I got to the end of the street. Turned the corner and slumped on a wall. My eyes were still burning, and I was struggling to breathe. I was aware that this would be a temporary sensation.
My biggest fear was that another smoke bomb could come from the street I was now on. I had seen people running past me. If that was to happen, I knew I would be in big trouble. I was already struggling to get my breath back.
I then heard someone say Tranquilo Tranquilo. Relax. I looked up, and there were two young ladies who had come to assist me. They rubbed my eyes with water and put salt in my mouth.
I soon started to recover. I thanked them a lot of times and made my way to safety. The crazy thing is this was the furthest I had been at any demonstration. It was an insane moment in my life and one I don’t want the experience again. Lesson learnt.
The day after the big riot I was walking around Cuenca and this guy came over to me. Are you the guy who was shooting the videos yesterday.
It was the first time anyone had recognized me from my blog or videos. I have bumped into Amelio from California a few times since. He has been living in Cuenca for a few years now and loves it.
There is a very large expat population in Cuenca. They are mostly from the United States and retirees. I can understand why they choose to live here.
Cuenca is very impressive. It feels like a European city. There are some very high-quality bars and restaurants here. I have not seen any rundown areas like I have seen it all other places I have visited in South America.
Maybe they are some places, but I have not seen them.
Every place, I see I think would I live here. I still have not seen a better place than Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. A big thing for me is to live in a place where you can go out at night where you can walk down an empty street without fear. South America does not have that from what I have seen.
During the week, a Brazilian guy from the hostel had told me about a Whatsapp group set up passing information from fellow tourists stuck in Ecuador during the crisis.
This is a subject that very few people outside Ecuador or even inside the country know about. Over the past few weeks, social media has played a big part in helping people share experiences good and bad.
People are using applications such as Whatsapp to share stories about how they have exited or been stopped exiting Ecuador.
People have made their way to Ecuador’s borders by car, motorbikes and bicycles. A substantial amount of people have walked on the countries highways towards the frontiers. They walk in groups for safety as there have been reports of attacks by bandits on individual walkers.
On Saturday morning a guy reported he and three others had a local guy drive them from Cuenca where I was stuck to the Peru border. He left a contact number.
Yes if I could get four people in total, he would drive up to the border for 65 dollars each. He would take a very basic route in the mountains. It would take eight hours he said. A French guy and his Peruvian partner. A Dutch guy and I said we would make the break for the border. I had enough of the smell of smoke bombs.
At 2000 that evening we said goodbye to Papo the hostel manager and loaded out baggage into the jeep.
About ten minutes out of Cuenca, we ran into the first roadblock. The strikers were only letting in or out food supplies. Our driver said there were no roadblocks here the previous night. My heart sank.
He said he knew another way. Up and down we went on narrow country roads. We came to a small wooden bridge. In the darkness, we could see about thirty people on the bridge. They looked as they were daring us to try to cross.
I know one other way the driver said. It that is blocked we will have to return. We drove another twenty minutes. This road was also blocked. I said if we had to go back to Cuenca this night I was going to get pissed.
We waited in a line of vehicles. The driver pleaded with the main guy in charge to let us through. No, he replied. We are doing this for Ecuador.
Then another guy appeared. He had decided to leave two trucks through. Vamos Vamos Vamos. Let’s go, he shouted. We were the meat in the sandwich. The driver saw a gap and went for it. We had cleared the barricade.
The next eight hours were very surreal. Going up and down the Andes mountain on the worse road I have even seen. There were times of deep fog. Rain and a dust cloud from the convoy of trucks on this dust track of a road. The smell of diesel was overpowering.
At 0430 we arrived at the border. It was empty. Crossing the border into Peru was so easy. How ironic after almost three weeks of trying to leave Ecuador.
I have heard there is a bit of a political crisis in Peru. After weeks of riots and smoke bombes, I say bring it on Peru.
This week I have two videos. One from the day after the riot. The other is a look at the day we left Cuenca.
Join me on my journey.
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