Travel: Your Holiday Disaster

A short trip to Ecuador nearly became an indefinite stay at the authorities' pleasure for Joe Mansberger
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The Independent Travel
WITH THE intrepid eagerness of the first-time visitor, I slipped out of my hotel in Quito shortly before dawn on my first day to explore the old town. Within minutes I was drawn along by a stream of foot traffic through a maze of cobbled streets leading to the main plaza.

Out of nowhere a man in uniform grabbed me by the arm and briskly escorted me down a narrow side street where he pushed me through a guarded doorway into a courtyard filled with screaming people. I spent the next three days in an authentic, unrestored 17th-century Spanish prison, where I survived by passing $1 bills to a guard in exchange for mouldy cornbread.

On the morning of the fourth day, my whereabouts had become known to my embassy, who arranged for my release pending my appearance in front of a military tribunal. Apparently I had been mistakenly picked up in a police sweep of student demonstrators at the beginning of an aborted coup on the day of my arrival.

Unfortunately I had been wearing camouflage army fatigues (with those neat side pockets on the legs for camera film, passports and so on). That, along with my Che Guevera locks and moustache, made it no easy job to convince the generals that I was only a student backpacker.

However, the good generals finally condescended to order my immediate departure from the country and I was sent directly to the airport by armed military escort. I was met in the departure lounge by an embassy official who handed over my passport.

My ticket home? I didn't have one. The embassy man instead slipped me a ticket for a domestic flight to the coastal city of Guayaquil, telling me to stay away from the capital and to lie low.

Arriving at Guayaquil late at night, exhausted from my ordeal, filthy, alone and without baggage, all I wanted was a shower and a bed. I hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take me to a cheap pension on his recommendation. By the following morning I realised it had been a mistake not to leave the country according to orders.

Too terrified of unknown dangers lurking the streets of a strange city, I had reluctantly taken a room in the seedy pension chosen by my winking taxi driver. I spent a sleepless night fighting off bedbugs, cockroaches and assorted flying insects. More alarming was the relentless knocking on my door at 15-minute intervals throughout the night.

Slipping quietly out of my pension into the fetid, pre-dawn air, I had to negotiate an endless gauntlet of beggars and street hawkers before I managed to hop on a bus to the airport, where I caught the first flight back to Quito.

I didn't realise my passport was missing until I tried to book a seat on an international flight out of Quito airport. (My camouflage army fatigues with those neat side pockets on the legs apparently are not pickpocket- proof.) The people at my embassy were none too pleased to see me again. A new passport was not forthcoming until I reminded the secretary that my application took precedence over her appointment with the hairdresser. Good-bye my Ecuador!