Nightmare on Nomad Street: My Worst Horror Story From a Decade As a Digital Nomad
This Halloween, I decided to tell a terrifying tale of my most harrowing travel experience in over ten years. I got stuck in Ecuador because of CoVID, so I decided to spend this entire year traveling around the country.
After a little more than a month in Ibarra, I needed to go back to the capital of Quito for a week to pick up some stuff that I had muled in from the US (electronics are around 3 times the price they are in the US). Sounds so simple, right? Wrong. 😁 I found a beautiful place in Ibarra while I was living in another town and negotiated a deal with the owner for my time there. I figured he was a nice old retired professor. What could go wrong? Well, the day finally came for me to go to Quito, and I had an apartment for a couple of weeks right next to Plaza Grande (where the Ecuadorian parliament and other important government/church buildings sit).
Much to my shock and horror, a nationwide paro (strike) was started by an indigenous coalition right before I was supposed to leave. This was my second paro, so I already knew that Ecuadorians don’t protest like people from civilized countries. They block off entire cities, stop the production of food and other resources, and force all businesses to close under the threat of violence. They were basically protesting increased petrol prices (when they have the 20th cheapest petrol in the world, right behind Saudi Arabia and Omen), inflation, and a few other things.
Needless to say, this was a terrible time to be stranded in a city with only a derelict airport. To add insult to injury, remember that nice old professor that I mentioned before? Well, he told me to get out because someone else wanted to rent the apartment. I realize that the law was on my side even in Ecuador, but I’m a foreigner here, and you really never know what can happen here, so I decided to figure out my egress.
I found a guy on FaceBook that was verifiably a helicopter pilot on the coast, and he said he’d fly over, pick me up, and take me to Quito for $2,500 and said I have to pay in advance. You NEVER pay for absolutely anything in advance throughout most of South America. The moment the money is in their bank account, that is literally the end of the job for most people here, even if they haven’t done anything at all. So, needless to say, I didn’t go that route. Besides, I needed to transport myself, my dog, several pieces of luggage, and a large chest (you know — the bare essentials 🤨).
By this time, the paro was already in full effect, and even in Ibarra, most businesses (particularly gas stations) were closed, and the people had set tire fires on major thoroughfares around the city. One such roadblock was set up right below the entrance to the area where I was living (near Mirador del Arcangel). In typical fashion for these people, every night around 6, most of the protestors IN the city go home to drink and party. So, the roadblocks inside the city opened but remained between other cities.
As an ex-pat, I was really at a loss for what to do, and the owner of the house was still pressing me to move out, which I will never understand to this day because the people coming were also gringos. Finally, my assistant came up with a solution. She said she found me a driver that would take me to Quito via Esmeraldas (10 hours in the wrong direction in the best of conditions) for a few hundred dollars, and he would come by that night to collect payment. A few hours go by, and he comes to get the money. We don’t talk much, he just asked me what time I would be ready, and I couldn’t help but hear his Colombian accent. I thought it was a little strange, but I didn’t think much of it because I was just relieved to have this crazy old man off my back and to be moving on to my next destination.
I finished packing a few things and impatiently waited for 5 AM to come. The driver helped me load everything into the car, and we set out for Esmeraldas. My crazy puppy Loki was much more excited about this than I was. I just wanted this crazy ordeal to be over. Everything went fairly normally until we reached a checkpoint outside of Esmeraldas, where police searched the car from top to bottom and searched through my things. Then I noticed that the driver handed a big wad of cash to the cop on horseback, and I realized… Oh, fuck! This guy is a narco!!! For those of you that don’t know, a narco is a drug runner. I turned as white as a sheep realizing the situation that I was in. About this time, one of the cops points at my luggage with some other stuff sitting on top of it and asks me, “Is this yours?” My eyes are as wide as saucers at this point. I know if I say yes, then I’m admitting that everything is mine and if I say no, they’ll take my stuff. So, I said no. He looked at me surprised and asked again, so I started saying exactly what was and was not mine (making sure to include the car in the ‘no’ category). They all looked at each other and laughed.
So here I am in the middle of a South American protest, surrounded by police, and accompanied by narco and my overly friendly dog who just wanted to be friends with everyone (including the horse) and was pulling on the leash as hard as he could the entire time while I tried to muddle through conversations in my broken Spanish. For a moment, naturally, I started to question my life choices, and like a drunk, after he ties one on, I swear… never again, and started praying in my head for divine intervention. 😂 Fortunately, they let us pack up the car and leave. 15 minutes later, a few of the same cops show up and stop the car again (evidently looking for another bribe). I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but I was getting more anxious by the second, and of course, Loki wasn’t making it any better as he still wanted to make friends with everyone. About that time, I noticed the narco starting to reach under his seat, and I didn’t have a clue what to do. About that time, the cops just left, and we all drove off.
The rest of the ride, I didn’t say much. I just sat on the edge of my seat and counted the minutes until we arrived in Quito. Nothing else really eventful happened as we made our way East. I did notice that on a few occasions, we went down a couple of roads that appeared to be under construction, both times we met a burly intimidating-looking man with a shovel standing in the middle of the road, and my heart would jump into my throat again. The driver and the men just exchanged a few words and a few coins, and that was that. Amazing that the narcos even own their own roads here. In Mexico and the US, they talk about tunnels. Here, everything is almost completely in the open.
Finally, we arrived in Quito around 5:00 PM, and I noticed that we were passing by Parque El Ejido (where many government buildings are and usually one of the epicenters of the protest). Obviously, I’m confused and asked what was going on. As it turns out, the paro ended about two hours before we arrived. Truly, I had no words. I was and still am unbelievably angry with that ridiculously selfish old professor, but I’m happy that experience is behind me!
So, this Halloween, as you have your parties and maybe put on a silly costume, consider being a narco! It certainly scared the hell out of me! Happy Halloween!