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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 June 2006, 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK
A violent introduction to Ecuador

By Paul Moss
BBC News, Quito

If you are unlucky enough to become a victim of crime on your first day in a foreign country it can be a quite a shock.

Quito, Ecuador
Few things can prepare you for a mugging on your first day
I had always hoped that if the occasion arose, I would display a studied cool, perhaps utter a few wry witticisms worthy of a Bogart or a Bond.

But when I recently found myself confronted by someone who was threatening to kill me, I am afraid I did rather let the side down.

I blame the language. My assailants, you see, were Ecuadorean.

Down a back street in the centre of Quito, the country's capital, one was holding a knife to my throat, while his friend got busy emptying the contents of my wallet.

I did try to act unruffled, as though this sort of thing happened all the time.

I wanted to explain that it was my first evening in Ecuador, and to say sarcastically what a pleasant welcome they were providing to their country.

Estoy, estas, est? My ability to conjugate the verb "to be" in Spanish was not great at the best of times, and these times were certainly not the best.

As I stammered though my present indicatives, they meanwhile started trying to remove my watch.

What seemed like a torrent of fury rose in my throat, and I opened my mouth to bellow it out
Now this annoyed me. I am very fond of my watch. I found it in a small shop on Carnaby Street in London.

What was great was that it was very cheap. What was not so great now was that it looked rather expensive, and these were not the first thieves who had tried to make it their own.

They were, however, the most clumsy.

They both fumbled with the fastening - which I admit can be tricky - getting increasingly angry, and using what I presume were colloquial Ecuadorean expressions of contempt.

I heard a "puta", I heard a "madre". But sorry, for those of you keen to learn how to insult an Ecuadorean, I cannot remember much else.

By this time, I thought that anger had managed to overwhelm, and somewhat quell, my fear. What seemed like a torrent of fury rose in my throat, and I opened my mouth to bellow it out.

Unfortunately, what emerged was more like a squeak, a squeak in English at that, which perhaps understandably did little to deter their determination to fleece me of my valuables.

And that is when things got weird.

Thief-brains

A policeman appeared out of nowhere, brandishing a pistol that looked big enough to blow an Ecuadorean jaguar in half. And he aimed it squarely at the head of the knife-wielder.

Now I was really stressed. I thought of all the stories I had heard about police death squads, and prepared to see Ecuadorean thief-brains splattered on the pavement.

Absurd to say, I was overwhelmed by what feels now in retrospect like a parody of Western liberal guilt.

My assailant was no longer a potential murderer. This poor man was probably only stealing my money to feed his starving family.

Now he would become just another statistic in the harsh reality of South America's war on crime. And it was all because of my presence in his country.

I found myself at the local police station, where the thief was given a chair

But there was no bang. No splatter. What happened is that the knife-wielder's accomplice ran off with my money. And the policeman simply marched his captive away.

He didn't try to stop the accomplice. Nor did he seem interested in asking me what had happened, or inquiring after my welfare.

So I followed them.

Call it base materialism if you like - a determination to get my money back.

I prefer to think of it as journalistic curiosity. Either way, I found myself at the local police station, where the thief was given a chair.

He looked remarkably unconcerned for a man who five minutes before had been staring at the wrong end of a gun worthy of Dirty Harry.

And still nobody was paying me any attention.

So I approached the officer at the desk and insisted he wrote down my name.

Fifty-fifty

He wrote down my name, spelt wrong, but it seemed like a start. Actually it was more like a finish.

That was the extent of the police report on the robbery committed upon Paul Moss, BBC journalist, and sometime tourist in Ecuador.

My name and then the date.

It was, of course, all a scam. I described what had happened to my one friend in Ecuador, a man whose position in politics means he knows what goes on at all levels of society.

I found that four other people in my hotel had been robbed at roughly the same spot that week

"Fifty-fifty," he said. "The cops would have got half of your money, and allowed the thieves to split the rest."

I wondered silently how they were planning to split my watch, but my friend continued.

"If I was the victim of a crime," he said, "I would never call the police. It just makes things worse."

His cynical interpretation of events seemed confirmed when I found that four other people in my hotel had been robbed at roughly the same spot that week.

And at least one had reported that a policeman showed up almost immediately, but that this did not help him get his cash back.

When I told the hotel manager straight after it happened, she was livid. "This kind of thing is putting people off this area," she raged. "What is the point of having a police force?"

I could not answer that one.

Kung fu

With my heart still beating quickly and erratically, I just took a taxi to a bar around the corner, downed three beers in quick succession, and waited for the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Otavalo, Ecuador
The money went into the sock for the trip to the mountains
Well, either it did not show up, or I am still in denial.

I went on to have a delightful time exploring Ecuador's mountain villages, and taking an exciting trip into the Amazon rainforest, all the time with my money of course tucked into my sock, and my watch left safely behind in my suitcase.

Meanwhile, I have vowed that from now on when I travel abroad, I will learn in advance how to speak sarcastically to would-be thieves in the local language, to come out with expressions like: "Why thank you sir, I had wanted to make a donation to a local charity."

Or perhaps more boldly: "Do put down that machete, I should warn you that I am trained in kung fu."

You never know when phrases like that are going to come in useful.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 8 June, 2006 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Ecuador's troubled times
20 Jan 01 |  UK News
Country profile: Ecuador
08 Apr 06 |  Country profiles

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