A finger and gun-point robbery
I arrived in Quito, Ecuador in 2007 where I was teaching Business English- which is drier than the Atacama Desert in Chile, not the most exciting job in the world. It was a Sunday and my second day of arrival. I had been exploring the city taking pictures willy-nilly of everything, not aware of how dangerous the city was at the time- as I explained in my previous blog. I’d been to the old town and was walking back to my hostel in Mariscal Sucre which sounds sweet but really isn’t. I’d just walked through a lively park, still blissfully unaware of the attention I was receiving with my airy-fairy ways. I placed my camera in my right pocket once I left the park and started to walk up an empty street taking in the sights and smells of my new home for the next six months.
I had not sensed being followed by two teenagers, my instincts clearly a little jetlagged and slow on the uptake. I heard loud footsteps behind me, I turned and came face to face with the two teens, which made me jump as they’d snuck up on me so fast without warning or sound. My quiet pleasant Sunday afternoon stroll turned into a 180-degree shit show in seconds. It all happened so fast, the younger boy immediately grabbed at my right pocket trying to retrieve my camera, he’d clearly seen me place there five minutes ago. I struggled at first with the baby hand reaching into my pocket, trying to keep my camera trapped inside. The other more menacing boy’s voice grew with anger which was succeeding in the intimidation stakes.
I was starting to weigh up what actual danger I was in- adolescents do stupid things when under pressure. Impulsivity is a treacherous phenomenon in a child who has no consequential thinking. I wasn’t sure how far these kids would go or how desperate they were, making them very unpredictable. I was starting to consider having to swallow my pride at being robbed by a twelve and fifteen-year-old.
Mid-robbery another pedestrian walked past on the other side of the road, pretending not to see me grappling with the younger child. I gave a side glance of desperation which did not have the desired effect I was hoping for, he wasn’t to be my knight in rusty, matt armour. The older scallywag was losing patience’s, he now started yelling and swearing in a more aggressive tone which was becoming unnerving. I looked at him which made him look down at his t-shirt. This is when I noticed he was pointing something at me, underneath the blue polyester. I had more of the feeling that they were his fingers rather than a gun but if he was desperate enough to pretend I definitely didn’t want to find out. I started to loosen the grip on my pocket, allowing the boy to work the camera free. Once it was in his hand he immediately started to run, closely followed by the second assailant making their escape. Confused at how quickly they sped off, I realised they must have been as scared as I was.
Adrenaline kicked in, my fear diminishing and brain activity skewed, I thought, ‘hang on a minute, I’m not going to let these little shits steal my camera’. Then gave chase. They split up in two different directions, so I ran after the boy with my camera who was also less threatening. He had a head start but being a child I was soon catching up. However, the older boy clocked my heroics and immediately started running straight for me, still clutching something under his t-shirt, blaring more Spanish profanities. He had my attention which stopped me in my tracks, so much for my short lived courage.
My heart thundered in my ears unsure of what he would do next. Had I pushed him too far? I put my hands up in defeat, to signal that was my bravado was done for the day. He paused, staring straight at me with a snarl to see if I would react further but now I had to accept that I was mugged by two young pups. I’d be telling my friends they were at least 18 back home. Acknowledging his conquest, he turned again and continued to run after his friend. That was that. I was left standing, shaking like the tail of a rattle snake, feeling completely alone and extremely vulnerable. I looked from side to side, there were some locals in the middle distance going along their merry way, unaware of my armed (well finger) daylight robbery. My camera was gone. I wasn’t hurt except for my shattered ego. I turned and marched back to Mariscal straight to the tourist police station to make a police report.
I was traumatised as I described the attack, close to tears but then reprimanded like an infant for walking up an empty street alone and given lectures on how dangerous Quito was. He wrote the report but then told me to return the following day. He would escort me to the Black Market- there was a possibility my camera would be there. I went back the following day but the police officer was off duty which dashed all my hopes of actually finding my stolen camera. I had the police report so I could claim on my insurance.
The next day (my fourth day of arrival) just so happened to be my birthday, I retuned once more. My optimism was now a shadow of its former self but blow and behold the police officer was there this time. I lost all faith in its retrieval after a lot of dithering and excuses but after an hour of indecision I was finally ushered into the back of a car and accompanied by a couple of plain clothed policeman who drove me to the market.
I imagined a black market would look different somehow, more underground and seedy, with criminal types lurking in the corners smoking cigarettes and gambling but it was exactly the same as any other market. It was crowded, full of chatter and a little dark from the makeshift blue tarpaulin ceiling making bursts of noise as it flapped in the wind. We walked through the narrow lines of small stalls, uneven mud underfoot, heading to the section dedicated to electrical goods and where we were to concentrate our efforts. It felt like 90 degrees in there, from the electronics on display. I could smell the sweat stench from the vendors.
Each stall had a glass shelving unit displaying their wears and tears. There were watches, cameras, calculators, Gameboys and a lot of cheap looking, gold jewellery. Even though the police were in plain clothes I got the feeling everyone knew who they were. I was ordered to inspect the cameras, I knew my digital camera well, we’d been through a lot together during my travels. After about twenty minutes of searching my prospects were waning. I’d just have to claim on my travel insurance and buy a new one, ironically probably from this market as the prices were dirt cheap.
Then I saw it- same make, model and colour- Cannon IXUS in all its glory, winking at me. I excitedly pointed out my possession, not believing my luck. The police asked me for its serial number, of course I had no idea what that was. I knew this was it, I recognised some scratches but that wasn’t going to be enough proof. I was hoping my memory card was still inside so I turned it on to look at the photos, and that’s when I knew for certain it was mine. No photos but the start-up sound I had changed and I also programmed a comedy noise when it took a photo which always made me chuckle inside every time- ka-doink. I’d found it! I explained to the officers it was categorically mine so they confiscated the camera and I handed it back to me. This angered the market trader, wanting reimbursement but after a heated discussion with the police he soon backed down. I was elated in the back of the police car. What an extra special birthday present this was!
I wanted to celebrate- it being my 33rd year of being on the planet and my camera win, so I went out for dinner in Mariscal square. I was desperate to meet someone, so I could retell my ‘armed’ robbery and retrieval story. I scanned the restaurant for a victim to sit with. I saw a hot guy on his own with his arm in a sling, my optimism shrilled perhaps I could even get laid on my birthday. I asked if I could join him and he appeared happy for my company.
I explained it was my birthday then asked him about his arm, it being an obvious conversation starter, not expecting the answer he was about to unravel. Four days earlier ‘François’ had run out of money (urh, who does that?) and had been wired some cash through ‘Western Union’ to cover him until his flight home in two weeks’ time. He left the ‘Western Union’ with all the cash in his backpack. Like me and also unbeknown to him, he was also followed by two thieves but this time they weren’t in their teens and they didn’t have fingers for guns. Guns were run-of-the-mill in Quito and robberies were as frequent and reliable as the Japanese metro-system.
One of the men pointed his gun at Francois
in the middle of the day, on a busy street with no one intervening. He indicated with the movement of his gun to give over his backpack whilst the other thief grabbed at the bag. Knowing this was the only money François had in the world, he stupidly refused and a struggle broke out between them. They both continued to grapple with the backpack. With full force Francois managed to snatch back his backpack and turned to run for his life. The gun fired- hitting poor Francois in the back of his shoulder. I mean it’s pretty low to shoot someone in the back.
François woke in the hospital, miraculously with his backpack on the chair beside him. Obviously he was overjoyed at being alive but also retaining his sacred cash. The doctors reiterated how lucky he was to be alive and how stupid he was to have wrestled with the armed robbers. They explained the bullet hit his lower shoulder narrowly missing his heart, if it had been an inch to the left, he’d be dead.
Understanding his dice with death he was thankful and apologetic to the surgeon until he was given the hospital bill. Francois, clearly a tad on the unorganised side, also didn’t have travel insurance. Ironically, his bullet removing surgery cost exactly the same amount of dollars he had in his bag. This has to be the ultimate definition of ‘Sod’s law’ if ever I’ve heard one. If he’d only given up his backpack, he’d be one bullet wound down. I stared back at François in astonishment, my camera finger robbery story paled into insignificance. I thought twice about reiterating my pathetic yarn. Although, one thing he taught me was always give up your valuables when there are guns involved- it’s just not worth it. Or at any sign of trouble just run which is what I became accustomed to doing.
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Camera display- Debendra Das