Saturday, August 25, 2007

A longer end to a long day....

Guess who at the top...last photo taken with my trusty camera...
The summit of Rucu Pichincha
The track to Rucu Pichincha

Breathing heavily I clamber over the last rocks to reach the summit of Rucu Pichincha at 4707 m. I give the other two a paton the back and yell down to the fourth guy struggling with the altitude 100 m below. In the cold we take a few photos of Quito and head back down. The first 500 m are spent running in the deep sand. I stop at the bottom of the slope to empty the sand out of my shoes. The others are a few hundred meters behind. A local man sits 20 m away, I greet him and he asks where my friends are. He then leaves, I notice a machete on his belt but think nothing of it.
The guys arrive and we continue. After 100 m, I come around the corner only to be face to face with the man in a balaclava with the machete raised. My first response is a terrified 180 degree turn and full speed run back towards the others yelling "F*!k, f*!k, f*!k, run, run, there's a man with a machete". The look on my face makes the others realise how serious it actually is. By the time they get it the man is within 2 m of me and has drawn a gun. We have no option but to do as he says.
We place our wallets on the rocks between us, and then our bags, watches etc. One guy pleads to keep his passport but no chance. I manage to fling my money belt to the side out of sight of the gunman and to remove the memory card from my camera, perhaps stupidly. He proceeds to point the gun at us while going through our stuff. He transfers what he wants from out bags into one of the bags and throws everything else 10 m down into the gully. There is then a standoff as he carefully examines us from a distance. The sun cream in my pocket arouses his suspicion and I have to raise it to show him. The Ecuadorian guy we met an hour earlier has a mobile on his belt, he is made to through it to me and then I take it forward to the gunman, all the time saying "Tranquilo". He angrily throws my wallet away after taken the $10 bill from it. He then begins to retreat. I quickly grab my money belt and stuff it down the back of my pants. He suddenly returns and, with the gun, waves us down the step gully he threw our stuff down. The Ecuadorian manages to grab his bag on the way past but I am forced to run straight past my bag as he stands just 2 m above threatening with a big rock and his pistol. I slip and slide 3 or 4 meters down the small waterfall and land almost on top of the Ecuadorian. He has hurt his knee and is limping slightly. We continue unsure of where the gunman is. He then appears 100 m above and begins to yell at us. We retreat down the valley, getting further and further from the track. My thoughts race through the possible reasons for his actions, the most frightening being that he wants us well away from the track in order to shoot us. We continue as fast as possible. The American is lagging behind, we stop to wait for him...the gunman again whistles and yells. We are all very scared.
Our plan of attack is to head for the ridge about 1 km away and drop back down to the cable car where we came up. He is watching us with binoculars. We come within 100 m of the ridge thinking everything is safe, he suddenly appears just 50 m away, we all dive into the tussock. He disappears again, we don´t know if he has seen us. We turn down hill and run. He proceeds to hit the pylon with his machete making a cracking noise, we hit the deck again, he must be shooting at us. We find a gully and dive into it. Peering out we realise that he was not actually firing. We keep low and make our way north, away from the cable car, as fast as possible. Without any water, we are all feeling the affects of the altitude and dehydration. We no longer have sight of the gunman. The worrying fact is that there is a road going from directly where we last saw him to mouth of the valley where we are heading. Stumbling over mounds of grass, bog and small creeks (unfortunately not big enough to drink from) I´m painfully aware that he can make much better progress than us on the road. We continue. The grass begins to thicken and turn to bush as we loose altitude. We finally decide to make for the road. I´m very nervous. I hug the outside of the road so that I can jump down the steep bank into the bushes should he appear again.
After a few hundred meters on the road I can´t handle the risk, we straight line it down the mountain through bracken and tussock that is now over head height. I find the best way to get down is to roll on top of the bushes. The English guy falls and I turn to see only his feet sticking up as he yells "F?#k this s@*t". Reaching the end of the bush there is a 10 m bank which I slide straight off and somehow manage to get to the bottom with only a small hole in my pants and some grazes. We opt to continue off the road, the Englishman gets caught on the barbed wire fence. The first house is finally in sight, we take a well deserved drink from a water pipe that fills a horse trough. The dusk has set in. We hurry to make it before dark. The women at the first house tells us we are trespassing and we are forced down through her fields and through another barbed wire fence, he dogs angrily chasing behind. We begin to jog as the darkness falls. We reach another house where they tell us how to get to the nearest phone. We make our way another 2 or 3 kms downhill, finally reaching the telephone as the last light leaves the sky. We are about 20 km from where we set off. We were hiking the mountain for 3 hours and we have been on the run for a further 4. Fortunately I have $60 down my pants with my other things. We get a taxi to the police station. The police take mediocre interest in our ordeal. I borrow a cell phone and try to get hold of my Spanish teacher. No answer. We rush back to cancel the stolen credit cards. I finally get hold of my Spanish teacher, she come down immediately and helps us out with translation at the tourist police. We fill out reports and they stamp them and that's that. No mention that they will even try to do anything.
The following morning I am helped by the people at the travel agency who angrily call the cable car company and demand that they place a guard on the mountain. They tell her that there is a sign warning people not to go up there, this is totally untrue. She calls the press. Someone has to do something she tells me...

I am now waiting to hear if anyone handed in my discarded belongings and looking for a new camera in preparation for 8 days on the Galapagos Islands. My plans to climb the 5987 m Cotopaxi are out the window after the robbery. Even 2 days later I still can feel every muscle in my body...

Sitting here now writing this, my hands are tingling, this is by far the worst experience of my life so far...and hopefully ever! Until next time...

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Life of an International Cocaine Dealer in an Ecuadorian Jail

The stamps required to enter the prison.

Arriving by taxi at the maximum security jail in Quito, we are given the pat down several time before leaving our passports and getting three stamps on our arms in order to enter the jail. Not quite sure what to expect we are led through 4 locked doors before entering the prison block. There is a bustle of activity with food stalls, small kiosks and many people reaching out to shake our hands. We are led up 4 flights of narrow stairs to a landing. A steel door to the left stands open. The union jack painted meticulously on the door.
I squeeze in a sit down on the bed seeing myself in the mirror opposite. The cell is 1.5 metres wide and 4 metres long, neatly laid tiles cover the walls and the side of the bunk bed in the room. At the end of the bed there is a tiny kitchen/toilet/shower. A fridge whirs in the corner and the large TV blares with the premier league football match. A rather pail looking Englishman in a Chelsea jersey greats us with a smile and a cough.
He begins to tell his story of being caught setting up a shipment of 3 kg of cocaine from Colombia to the UK after a 2 year international surveillance operation by the police in 7 countries. With 2 years down of a 12 year sentence he is surprisingly upbeat about life behind Ecuadorian bars. We soon begin to discover why.
The jail is run somewhat like a small town, with 1400 inmates there is access to anything and everything one may need. There is only one catch, you need money to access it.
Status is achieved based on who you pay, the materials used to rebuild the cell obtained by bribing the head guard. The cells are like real estate. If you have money you can buy more than one cell and rent it out to other inmates on visiting day when they receive female company, weather it be a girls friend, wife or a prostitute. The going rate is around $2.50 per hour.
Since the quality of the prison food is well below average it is a better option to go and eat in one of the many small restaurants or food stands that are run by the inmates. You can get a wide range of things. A plate of chicken, salad and rice with a drink goes for $2.
The prisoners are allowed out of there cells from 9 am to 6 pm, during which time they are free to do what they please, walk around in the courtyard, play pool, smoke, drink, use the Internet (only sometimes using a cell phone connection) or make calls on their cellphones. If they need food or money they just pay someone to go and get it for them with a small markup. There are 450 foreigners in the jails in Ecuador. Most of them on drug smuggling charges.
Life before reaching this status is a different story for even the rich foreign prisoners. Until a cell is available they are kept at a holding facility where there are 180 people locked in a single 50 by 10 m room. One guy from London had been held there for 9 months.
We can quite safely move around the prison because certain people are paid to ensure that all his visitors are treated well.
The stories of drug smuggling involve complex chain of people ranging from informants, mules or carriers, dealers, producers and chemists who work together to make cocaine available on the streets all around the world. Extreme lengths are gone to hide the drugs as other compounds etc. The tone of the conversation leads me to think that after getting out, there is a high chance that he will again dabble in the criminal world that has ruled his life since he was 18. Really makes you wonder...
After 3 hours behind bars I happily show the stamps on my arm to be released again with a new insight into the length people go to and the consequences they suffer in order to be rich...

Can a few people please send me a quick email to say you got this, I´m not sure if the subscription shing is working properly, thanks!

Vamos a Rio Amazonas

The only bridge over the Morona River and the bus stop.
Peruvian army base.
The results of a night without a mosquito net.
The storm
The calm before the storm.
Our camping spot for the night.
Grant doing what he does best...scrubbing.
A friendly tucan.
One of the 5 motor changes along the way.

Another perfect camping spot by the Morona River.
The local bus.
Grant juggling coconuts.
Puerto America
Pink river dolphins on the horizon.
Welding the drive shaft back together, good as new!
Changing the motor after the drive shaft snapped.
The mighty Amazon!
Fireworks in San Lorenzo
The Disco tech in San Lorenzo.
My new found friends.
Kids chasing us down the street after the soccer.
The children of San Lorenzo.
Another brilliant save by the Peruvian goal keeper.
Team Ecuador!
The crowd singing the national anthem of Peru.

Our official welcome by the Mayor of the San Lorenzo region.
The banks of the Amazon in San Lorenzo.
The Amazon River.
Camping in the living room of a local family.
Puerto America.
One of the thousands of strange insects in the jungle.
The very windy Morona River leading to the Amazon River at the bottom.
The soccer game at an PetroPeru plant.
Inquisitive locals watching grant pitch his tent.
Captain grant.
The first of 3 beachings in the middle of the river.
The Peruvian military and us.
Document check at the closed border crossing.
A river crab.
Chicken on his last legs...
Our home for the next 2 weeks.
The Amazon Basin stretching 5000 km to the Atlantic.
Ben Vs. Tree: Tree 1, Ben 0.
Riding on the roof of the bus.
The road to nowhere...
12 hours in a bus on this road takes its´toll...
Guinea Pig anyone?
Pork maybe?

Face to face with the Mayor of San Lorenzo our eyes
meet as sweat drips profusely onto my Ecuador jersey.
One blow of the whistle and the games on! Ecuador vs
Peru. My mind races back ten days to a chance
encounter with an eccentric doctor who led me here.

I was looking for Spanish lessons in Quito, when I
meet Max. With his immediate enthusiasm it took no
longer than five minutes for me to take him up on his
offer to join an expedition to Peru by boat.

The boat was departing from a remote war ravaged
border region of South East Ecuador.

The objective was to strengthen ties following the
1995 Cenepa war and to increase awareness of the
Amazon jungle and it´s indigenous cultures.

On board was to be a Peruvian football team,
politicians, journalists, teachers and doctors.

With just two days to frantically prepare before the
twenty hour bus journey to the departure point, a lot
had to be done.

A quick search on google of potential health problems
in the jungle revealed a list longer than my left arm.
The biggest concern being ravid vampire bats, malarial
mosquitoes and small fish that like to swim up places
they shouldn't. Not to mention, stingrays, electric
eels, and piranhas that lurk in the murky waters.

Beginning a course of antiquated malaria drugs and
emptying the chemist of noxious bug repellent, Max
assures us he has everything else covered.

We knew we where in for an exciting trip when we
arrived at the office at said time to find it locked.

After 45 minutes nervously waiting the expedition
leader (Max) arrives in time to noisily deal with the
food poisoning he picked up at lunch time. With
another member arriving also suffering the same fate,
we wait patiently unsure of when we are leaving.

Finally everyone arrives and it´s a mad dash in Taxi´s
to get to the ten p.m bus. Twenty four hours later we
arrive in the dark jungle to a welcoming committee of
millions of hungry insects smelling fresh meat.

Drenched in sweat in the 30 C+ temperatures and
extreme humidity, loading ten big drums of fuel and
other supplies made us feel like we had run a

The following morning several vehicles arrive carrying
a spare motor and twenty cases of beer. In light of
the expected 50 passengers this didn´t seem
unreasonable. Until when we finally left there was
only 15 of us in total.

We quickly realised we were the Ecuador football team!
D'oh. By this stage it had dawned on us that things
were far from panning out as anticipated and
Ecuadorian organisation was a lot different than what
we were used to. But we departed upbeat all the same.

Somehow amidst all the chaos the correct paperwork had
been obtained from the Peruvian foreign ministry in
advance to smoothly cross the closed border.

At the fourth military checkpoint we picked up a
random Peruvian soldier who hitched a ride down the
river with us. Unfortunately for him and us the army
didn´t send him on his way with any food or even a
mozzie net... hence he became our liability.

On the second night after setting up camp in front of
an audience of inquisitive locals we were challenged
to a game of soccer. This was at a village that
existed solely to maintain a noisy petrochemical plant,
that pumped gas 24-7. This was a perfect warm up for
the upcoming international match in San Lorenzo.

Three nights, 28 hours of motoring and 540km´s on the
Morona river and we had reached the mighty Amazon, A
further three hours and we reached our destination,
San Lorenzo.

The first night in town was spent in the living
room/balcony of a local family once again cramped
together under our mosquito nets.

The festivities in the town begin with our party being
welcomed by the mayor and other local government
delegates. Ignorant to the fact that it was to be
such a formal affair, we feel a bit out of place in our
smelly dirty three day old clothes.

Formalities out of the way, our first official soccer
game is underway, watched by at least half the town.
After a fierce battle on the pitch the Ecuadorians
were overpowered by the skillful locals, 2-0. In
spite of our loss, we were mobbed by the local
children. To try and redeem ourselves we hit the
disco techs like demons on the dance floor.

The second night of festivities started with a bang.
But alas didn´t come to much after the fireworks, as
the town´s new Caterpillar generator ground to a halt,
a regular occurrence.

After a few hours a backup generator appeared in order
to electrify the band, the party continued into the

The next day was spent in a daze, searching shop to
shop for suitable boat supplies, for the return

With a cheerful goodbye from the local police chief,
we powered off. However after a mere ten minutes up
river the engine started screaming. We started
floating downstream rapidly.

With the current against us it was all hands overboard
paddling with bowls and pot lids to the shore 200
metres away. A quick analysis revealed a snapped
drive shaft. The next two hours were spent modifying
the hardwood boat to fit our underpowered axillary.

24 hours later back where we started with a less than
ideal welding job we powered off again. Unsure of the
quality of the repair we made slow progress with the
smaller engine.

The poor turnout had also meant that money was
limited. Limited money meant limited fuel. The next
five days were spent juggling engines, rationing fuel
and taking reprieve from the the heat with many river
swims at each toilet stop.

Several villages were visited where Max administered
medicine to the sick, whilst we played hacky and did
card tricks with and for the local kids. At one of
the villages we struggled to keep a straight face as
we drank a putrid alcoholic concoction made from
cassava root. Banana´s and chickens were bartered of
the locals to add to the limited food supply.

On the fourth day a controversial decision was made to
motor through the night. After just two hours and two
close calls with the bank the plug was pulled and we
spent the night watching an impressive tropical
lightning storm.

Day five... A round of applause goes up as we reach
the dock after a grueling 57 hours of motoring. Our
timing was impeccable as the twice daily bus was just
about about to depart.

The 20 hour bus ride back to Quito gives us plenty of
time to reflect on the environmental and social
issues facing the people of the Amazon region.

An example of this was the piles of plastic waste
being thrown straight into the river. A closer look
at the rubbish reveals the worst of multinational
unnecessary over packaged junk food is not helping
anyone a bit.

Back in Quito, struggling not to scratch our bite
covered bodies we contemplate on what effects the
planned highway through this virgin jungle could have.