Quito – Safe or not safe, that is the question

I could not remember if there was anything that prompted my first solo trip. There might not be a reason at all. What matters is the aftermath – that I am obsessed with solo traveling since then, and I fly much longer and farther than I could ever have imagined.

My mother frowns at me every time when I announce my next travel plan. She has a two-type classification system when it comes to travel destinations, namely, ‘safe for travel’ and ‘not safe for travel’. Unfortunately, most places I plan to go fall within her latter category.

The notion of ‘safety’, in the context of traveling, is worth more than a few-word definition. When people pose to me a general question on how safe a place is, my answer tends to be very long. I feel not comfortable to rush out a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I add a lot of qualifiers and examples.  

Safety is always my first and foremost concern when I travel. I think about it a lot, but I do not overthink.

The question of safety is more or less a matter of probability. It might just be a few unhappy coincidences when something unfortunate happens. It can be sheer luck if a trip is entirely uneventful. Usually, people hand down the judgment of a place’s safety based on hearsay and (mostly bad) stories. I can but only feel that this is not a fair comment to a place nor to its people.

Risks are everywhere and in everything we endeavour. All a traveler can do is to draw a line of his own risk-taking level, and does not take on adventures that fall beyond the line. Doing things within one’s own accepted ‘calculated risks’ is a thing one can easily control. But ‘calculated risks’ are still risks. Even within the confines, there are things incalculable. A bad thing might happen, or it might not. While I have done my part to realistically calculate the risks of my every expedition, I stop there and would think no further.

People are in no place to judge how others want to take their own risks. Apparently some people are more adventurous than others. My bottomline is not to do things that would substantially risk my life. This translates into a personal list of not-to-go countries with hostile environments or are struck by natural disasters or epidemics, plus a list of not-to-do action or activities. There might even be one or two airlines that I would not fly with.

Setting these aside, the general rules of safety always prevail. With all the common-sense safety precautions observed, if something dismal has to befall me, I can only accept it or cope with it.

Some people feel that solo female travelers stand a higher safety risk. It is up for the traveler to take this factor into account when she assesses the risk of traveling to one place. In any event, safety should not be an impediment of a woman choosing to travel alone. At the end of the day, perhaps it is not even a gender issue. Men or women, solo or non-solo, a traveler should be responsible for his or her own safety. It is not a matter that you can leave it to someone else and blame others when something bad happens.

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Ecuador and Colombia are the two destinations of my maiden voyage to Latin America. I had done a few solo trips to Asia and Europe, but had never had enough courage to divulge to my family that I would like to do one in Latin America. As a destination that falls under the ‘not-safe-for-travel’ list of my mother, I had to tag along a friend who was attending a Colombian friend’s wedding in his home country, so that it did not look so much like a solo travel altogether.

I read enough haunting stories from other fellow travelers before I embarked on my first South American expedition. One of the most common storylines involved some dirty tricks that people might do on tourists. Very dirty indeed, as reportedly they would spit tourists on their faces, or spill a concoction of unidentified substances, or faeces even, on the tourists’ clothes. While the hapless victims are yet recovered from shock, or are clumsily wiping off the mess, their bags are already gone before they know it. For a story more dramatic, an accomplice would take on the role of a little guarding angel, who comes forward at the right time to offer help to the miserable tourist, while the partner in crime sneaks away with the bag.

These haunting stories become a recurrent theme of my nightmares a few weeks before my departure. I kept picturing myself as the victim of these dreadful scenes, and conducting emergency drills of the worst-case-scenarios in my head. Out of imagination, I considered how I could stay unmoved by a soiled and stunk jacket while unfailingly safeguarding my bag with utmost dignity.

There were good news, though. All these stories seemed to involve petty crimes solely done for the sake of money. Give the muggers what they want, and you would most likely get away alive and unharmed.

After an air travel that lasted 37 hours, with three adjustments of my timepiece and four changes of flights in between, I landed on my first stop in Ecuador – not on the mainland, but on the faraway outpost of Galapagos Islands. From there, I immediately jumped on a boat. While my feet barely had time to feel the solid ground of Latin America, I contemplated no real-life opportunities to test out the action in the emergency drills that I had tirelessly reviewed. That said, the safety issue of South America had already loomed over like a massive black cloud while my body was still floating amidst the deep blue seas of the Galapagos.

Every evening, passengers on the boat shared their travel stories round the dining table. Safety in South America was a subject of unending debate. Many of the travelers had roamed around the continent for months on end; or at the very least, had traveled in Ecuador for a little while before getting on board. Every traveler submitted his own safety report. Some felt that Quito, Ecuador’s capital, not safe; some said Guayaquil, the second largest city, utterly dangerous. A few countered vigorously, saying that they found nothing unsafe no matter where they were in the country. It was a debate with no conclusion.

A few days later, I left the Galapagos and flew to the mainland, to Quito. My anti-crime battle in South America officially began. I switched to my full defense readiness mode. Figuratively speaking, I was armed to the teeth.

What I gathered from the haunting stories of other travelers led me to one depressing conclusion – no matter how careful travelers try to be, muggers always have the upper hand and can find a way to play their dirty tricks. Fancy gadgets like anti-theft bags, wallets and locks work no life-saving function. It dawned on me that the best defense strategy against bag-snatchers, pickpockets and the like was to follow the old philosophy of Lao Tze – in pursuit of nothingness. How could they take something out of nothing? I decided to go empty-handed on the streets.

I locked myself in the toilet of my hostel before I started out on the streets in the first morning.  I held my documents, cash and camera close to my skin with a waist bag, save for some loose changes, which I put in my pocket for handy cash.  I then wrapped myself in a thick windbreaker. When I looked at my profile in the mirror, my belly stuck out like a pregnant woman. I felt pleased with my own ‘ingenuity’.

As soon as I walked out on the streets, I noticed that my Asian face became an inborn disadvantage on this land. Out of my will, I stood out from the crowd wherever I went. With this face I could hardly feel at ease. Obviously I could not change my appearance, but I felt that something could be done to make myself look less like an easy prey. I tried to study the map before I went out to an area, and did not take it out when I walked. I made sure I marched with confident strides, as if I knew the place well. I did not make curious and lingering glances on things around like typical tourists do. I cautiously surveyed the environment whenever I stopped. Only when I was completely satisfied that the place was clear would I discreetly take out my camera for a quick shot, and would sneak the camera back under my jacket right away, as if I was a paparazzi. I was soaked in sweat through and through under my jacket after a sunny day out. Yet I insisted not to take off my jacket. I felt naked without it.

It might be the stunning visual impact of the glorious gold ceiling of La Compania de Jesus, or it might be the residual effect of altitude sickness that refused to go away, one day I stepped out from the famous Church to the main square of Quito feeling slightly groggy. I looked around aimlessly, but the scene at the square at once brought me back to my full alertness – at every hundred metres stood bands of uniformed police officers. I got stunned and puzzled. When a tourist attraction is so heavily armed with police, should I call this place safe or unsafe? It reminded me of those personality quiz showing a glass half-filled with water.  People would be asked if they see a glass half-full or half-empty. One way or the other, it is a test of the viewer’s perspective.

I suppose I am a positive thinker. I considered the question philosophically for a moment, but soon dismissed the thought that a troop of police garrisoned in the city centre implies any definite safety risks. Quite the opposite, I should feel safe to have police officers all around. From a practical perspective, they could even add value to their service by doubling as my roving tourist information helpdesks whenever I had questions to ask.

Another day I rambled around the old quarter of Quito. I was pretty sure that the hostel was not far, but somehow I could not find the way back. I saw a police officer and asked him to help. The officer spoke no English. With my limited Spanish, I could just make out that he kept asking for my family. All I could do was to tell him again and again ‘no familia’, and repeated the name of my hostel. I was wearing a pair of flip-flops and a silly floral dress under my windbreaker that day. I was wondering if he thought I was a runaway kid of a local Chinese family and wanted to send me home. I was amused, but he left me a good impression on the Police Force there because he had been desperately trying to help.   

‘La Ronda’ is a famous neighborhood in the old quarter of Quito. It is conserved with old buildings built along narrow alleys. I expected to see tourists coming in flocks to visit this popular tourist attraction. When I arrived at the fringe of the neighbourhood one early afternoon, all I found were two police officers standing at the entrance of the precinct. Behind them was an empty alley. I thought I might have gone to the wrong place. So I asked the police officers to show me the right way to ‘La Ronda’. But they said I was already there. I felt perplexed, but decided to walk into the alley anyway.

The colonial buildings were beautifully restored on the two sides of the alley all right. But all along the way I met no one. A tourist attraction with no tourists in broad daylight was quite eerie, come to think of it. But apart from this extraordinary quietness, I did not see any other things that got me alarmed.

At last I reached to the other end of the alley, and saw another two police officers standing at a guard post. At this point I could not help but feel that I must have mistakenly crossed the line of a fortified military zone, a no-man’s land that was not meant for civilians. I was debating within myself if I should keep going.

‘Seguro?’, I took the courage to ask the police officer at the guard post. ‘Seguro!’, he said, matter-of-factly. Bolstered by his unwavering affirmation, I continued walking to the next block. I walked hastily. When I was a little more than halfway, a sudden panic attack struck me. As I was in the middle of this no-man’s land, it would take me equally long time to run to either end of the alley to seek help, such as, if a robber hiding at one corner popped up and flashed a knife at me. Quietly I put my hand in my pocket, fishing for my secret weapon and holding it firmly in my palm. My whistle was ready, just in case. With it I could blow it with all my might to alert the police officers to come to my rescue if anything happened, or at least to scare the robber away, hopefully.

I felt relieved when I got to the other end of the alley. Nothing happened. Without a human being in sight, what could possibly happen?

It was not just La Ronda. Except for the main streets and the city centre, the streets of Quito were unusually sparse of pedestrians. One late afternoon just before getting dark, I walked uphill back to my hostel with my takeaway dinner. One taxi parked on the side of the otherwise deserted street. Through the window, the taxi driver stared at me furtively from his car. I felt uneasy. Suddenly a horrid thought rose in me. What if the driver picked on me, sprang out from the car and grabbed me? I scurried uphill, but the high altitude of Quito had got me.  Wheezing heavily, I made it to the door of the hostel. But the key did not cooperate. It was stubbornly jammed in the keyhole. While I was forcefully trying the key with different angles, I took care to turn my head from time to time, just in case if someone got me from behind. It was all paranoia. I got back to the hostel safe.

A few days later, I met some new friends in Quito. We decided to hang out in the new part of the city called La Mariscal. The place is all about nightlife, and has a bad reputation on safety. For the more mindful, it is a place where tourists should generally avoid going. But my urge to dance was overwhelming. I just had to be alert at all times, I was telling myself.

The six of us crammed in the taxi, swaying from one side to the other at each turn of the dark narrow alleys crisscrossing the old quarter. Just as we saw the brilliant light glistening on the approach to a wide street, we knew we were at La Mariscal at last.  

It was almost midnight. La Mariscal was as crowded as in daytime. We were dropped off at a junction with busy traffic. I looked around to try to get an idea where I was. I had a glimpse of a local woman talking on the phone while her car was stopped by the traffic. In the same split second a guy on the kerb reached his arm through the open side window, snatched the woman’s phone and was gone in a flash.  

I was terrified. It was the first time in my life to see a crime taking place right in front of my eyes. Intuitively I slipped my hand into my pocket to feel if my things were still there. They were.

The rest of the night went uneventful.Years later, a friend told me that he was waiting for someone on the streetside in La Mariscal one night, and got his phone snatched while he was playing with it idly. He reminded me of that night when I was a witness of a crime, and I wondered if it was the same junction that was the crime scene.

My time in Quito was soon over. I was as undecided as before as to whether Quito is a safe place.

This also explains why I cannot generally give a short answer to questions on the safety of a place. If I am put up with such a question, many little episodes, like the ones I had in Quito, have to constitute a part of my testimony.
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