One of the attackers had lifted his head and pointed his finger at Sal, watching from a block away. All the men took leave of their present task—beating the shit out of some poor soul on the gravel road—and turned their attention to Sal, frozen in the middle of the street, under the yellow glow of a sole street lamp.
Sal, noticed that several of these six men had objects in their hands. Objects which produced a glint and glare under the lights. Knives. As their victim wailed, writhing in agony, the men began running in Sal’s direction. Sal, having grown up in some of the rougher parts of Los Angeles, knew hesitation was not an option. He turned, and flew, legs pumping, burning with a fuel that the body reserves for life and death situations. He veered around a building, running for his life. He had worn flip flops on this day, expecting a normal beach party in the sand. Now he was cursing his decision, as his sandals kept him from attaining full speed. He could ditch them, and scrape bare feet against gravel, or he could keep them and remain hindered in his flight. He gambled on the sandals, reasoning that a mis-step onto broken glass would severely fuck him over.
Sal, still in full sprint, turned his head over his shoulder to see two of the Ecuadorians round the corner of the building after him. He was now clear by just 75 yards, but he didn’t know where he was in the city of Atecames.
This was not what any of us were expecting when we set upon our “relaxing beach weekend”. Least of all Sal. Our friend Christian, a native of Ecuador, served as our guide on this trip. After a lot of prodding and light harassment, we had convinced Sal to load up his car and drive us to the beach for the weekend celebration of Ecuador’s independence.
In Ecuador, as in most of South America, society is dramatically divided between the rich and the poor– the rich being a small segment of society, a legacy of old Spanish colonialism. The Spanish were expelled long ago, but their class structure lives on today. We spent the first part of Saturday at Casablanca, one of the “rich” beaches. We weren’t supposed to be there without a room reservation, as the many guards reminded us, but we were able to fake it as gringos. I found such thoroughly ingrained racism to be disheartening, but in South America you don’t give up an advantage when you can get one.
The smooth white sands of Casablanca were dotted with well-to-do Ecuadorians, wearing designer sunglasses, laughing to each other over cocktails. A cool 80’playlist echoed across the beach from loudspeakers, and promotional models in thongs handed us flyers and VIP passes for the night clubs. Later Sal would ask Christian “why the hell” we hadn’t gotten a room there—because without a reservation we were forced to leave immaculate Casablanca and return to Atecames for the night.
Atecames was quite another sight. This beach, where our hotel was located, was the beach of the working and lower classes of Ecuador. The public areas were overcrowded, and personal space quickly turned from an expectation, to a frivolous luxury. A piece of advice: after the first few people bump into you from behind you will soon learn to put your money in your front pockets.
On this evening we committed one of the worst errors a group of tourists can make. Despite all prior promises to the contrary, we all got separated. Let me stress that this wasn’t our intention. We vowed not to lose each other in the thick and foreign crowd, but alcohol has its way of dissolving such commitments.
Christian and I had started this day off with gusto. We walked into a liquor store upon waking, pooled our cash, and ordered a case of grande Pilsners (the standard brand of cerveza in Ecuador). Legally, the store owner explained to us, he was not supposed to be selling such a large quantity of alcohol at once to a single buyer. However, laws change constantly in Ecuador, and the people are not known to be easily hindered by such flimsy strictures. He took our money, and quickly rattled off some instructions to Christian in Spanish.
“Ok”, Christian said, “follow me”, and he turned and walked out of the store.
He briskly turned the corner of the building, walked a few more paces, and came to a stop.
I was a little perturbed. “Hey, did we just get conned? That guy still has our money, why are we out here?”
“Chill, chill, just calm down and wait,” Christian assured me.
Seconds later, an Ecuadorian man came around the corner, breathing heavily as he carried the case of grande Pilsners. He never once made eye contact with us, as he matter-of-factly set the crate down at our feet, and turned and walked away.
“I told you” Christian replied as he popped the top off one of the drinks, “now help me carry this thing to the car”.
That was how Christian and I began our day before going to Casablanca. Later I would at least have some ceviche for breakfast—Christian was firmly committed to the idea of a purely liquid diet for the day.
“Already?” Sal exclaimed as we clunked the case down in the trunk of his car.
“It’s not even noon yet!”
I shrugged my shoulders, and took another swig of my Pilsner.
“Well count me out for the next few hours. I need a good breakfast and I still need to recover from last night. You two aren’t going to be able to make it through the whole day like this.”
“Just watch us,” Christian retorted confidently. I nodded.
It should come as no surprise that Sal was right.
It wouldn’t be long after midnight when Sal would be the only one of us left with a group of three American college girls we’d met earlier in the day.
Christian finally disappeared for good around midnight. We would later find him passed out in front of the door to our hotel room, the finicky cheap door knob having proved too much of a challenge for a man who’d been drinking for 12 hours.
I am told that I disappeared around 1:30. I do remember being spurned by the Ecuadorian girl I was attempting to dance the salsa with after excessive stumbling. At this point, I figured sleep was probably my best option. I didn’t want to pass out on the beach, as so many other locals had at this fiesta. They were easy targets for pick-pockets, and thieves were in no short supply here. Furthermore, at any given moment I could see at least 12 men pissing on the beach in full view of the other party-goers. I wandered down the beach, in the direction of our hotel in a drunken stupor. As I made my way, I stepped over several passed out Ecuadorians, veered to the right or left to give more than one pair of young lovers some privacy, and watched jealously as others cooked food over fires they had set up on the beach. With the crowding in Atecames, rooms are hard to come by—many Ecuadorians dealt with this shortage by setting up tents along the beach, or simply passing out in their cars on the side of the road.
I found my way back to our hotel without incident, and stepped over Christian to open our door, and drag him in.
As I flopped down into my bed, wrecked from a day of uninterrupted intoxication, Sal was still going strong at one of the many beach bars, having drinks, dancing, and meeting new people. It was around 3am when Sal, still only mildly tipsy, decided it might be best to call it a night. At this point in the evening, most of the partiers were now passed out the beach, and the only people still left standing were large groups of drunken men, with very watchful eyes. Suddenly, Sal felt the acute sense that he was very alone. He took his first steps in the direction of our hotel.
“Um, hey, Sal!” One of the college girls we had met earlier reappeared.
“Can you walk us back to our hostel?”She pleaded, “It doesn’t feel safe out here.”
“Uh, where is it?” Sal asked.
She pointed away from the water, directly towards the center of the city. Not down the main road, where most hotels were, but straight into the heart of Atecames.
“I think it’s just a mile or two.”
Sal turned to them, with an air of inevitability. He knew what his answer was going to be. Having been raised with an old school chivalry, his sense of honor would not allow him to let three young ladies walk to their hostel alone in a dangerous city.
“Ok” he said without inflection, “let’s get going.”
The girls thanked him as they walked away from the beach.
They were barely across a walking bridge that leads away from the main road when two drunken men approached them. The men didn’t stop to acknowledge Sal, or even the young girls. They simply stepped forward without hesitation, and began pawing and groping at them.
“Oh, rubia, gringa, me gusta, por favor!”
“Whoa, whoa!” Sal yelled, as he attempted to push the men away, “keep walking girls, just keep walking, don’t stop.”
Sal had to figure out an artful way of keeping these drunken dogs at bay, without starting an altercation. It was a situation quite unlike anything he had encountered in the US. Back home, a group of men would at least have tried to fight him. Here, they simply acted as if he didn’t exist. They were like zombies running on the fumes of testosterone and alcohol. When Sal or any of the girls would give them a hard shove in the chest, they would simply begin stumbling back.
This precarious dance went on for a mile and a half, and as some men gave up, others would move in to try their luck. As they approached the hostel, the lecherous zombies finally gave up. Sal would later estimate that he had had to keep 6men at bay as he escorted the girls back to their hostel.
He wished the girls a good night as they went up to their room, and they gave him their thanks.
“Thank God that’s over” Sal sighed, as he leaned against the wall of the hostel. He reasoned that the “eventful” part of his night was done. Now he could simply put his head down and trudge back to our hotel, without three blonde girls in tow.
He hadn’t walked for a block before this illusion was shattered. A man materialized from the darkness, running straight at him, stumbling every few steps. As he got closer it became clear that the man’s shirt was ripped, his stomach scraped, and his face bloodied.
“Hermano! Hermano! Por favor!”
As the man approached he explained to Sal that he’d been assaulted, and that he needed help very badly. He had lost his phone in the attack, and he needed to make a call.
Sal obliged, giving the man his cell phone, so that he could call the police.
The bloody man yelled quickly into the phone in Spanish, “yes, yes, right around the corner, turn at the pharmacy and hurry.”
Moments later a black pickup truck skidded around the corner of the building to a stop. The bed of the truck was filled with five men—five angry men.
“Oh shit,” Sal thought, “I just gave this guy my phone so he could call his friends to come kick my ass.”
Heart racing, Sal readied himself for whatever battle was about to ensue.
“Gracias!” the bloody man yelled, throwing the phone back to Sal. He turned to the pickup truck, and as the truck peeled out one of the men in the bed lifted the bloody man in by his arm, “ARRIBA!!!!”
The revenge party left in a cloud of dust, kicking gravel into the side of a pharmacy. The roaring of the engine and the shouts of the men faded into the distance. In many parts of Ecuador, tribal justice is still the preferred method of resolving disputes.
Sal’s adrenaline was now in overdrive. He slipped his phone back into his pocket and resumed his walk. He reasoned he should only be a few blocks from the walking bridge that would carry him back to the main road—and deliver him to relative safety.
He walked another five minutes before rounding a corner and seeing six men standing over one man on the gravel road.
Now Sal, in a flight for his life, was sprinting through the streets of Atecames, with two men still on his tail. He decided not to look back again. After all, he thought he knew where he was, but he couldn’t be sure—better not to waste precious energy looking back when he still had to determine where to go. He wasn´t sure if the road he was on, lined with hostels, pharmacies and liquor stores was one that he recognized or not. His legs carried him another block, and he gambled on a right turn.
He kept running. His feet were raw. His lungs were burning, but he didn’t slow down. As he passed another block, the walking bridge came into view under the yellow street lamps, like a gift from the heavens.
He slowed to a jog as he made it to the other side of the bridge. He turned around and trotted backwards, breathing heavy, heart racing. He didn’t see anyone following him.
To be safe, he slowed to a walk and mixed into the crowd on the beach. His breathing slowed, and he began the journey down the beach to our hotel room. He reasoned that he should be safe by now, but he had made that same assessment several previous times in the last hour. Sal wasn’t about to take any chances now. Remembering his military survival and evasion tactics, he began walking towards the water, away from the lights. He stuck to a course a few meters away from the water, but well away from the view of the main road. He put one foot in front of the other, over and over, until he came to the hotel.
I awoke to a disorienting clamor. The room was pitch black, and I had a piercing headache. It took me a couple moments to realize where I was. My phone was going off and the pounding on the door sounded like bombs were being dropped outside. I gathered my senses and walked to the door. I swung it open to see Sal as I had never seen him before. His eyes were wild, and nerves were clearly shot. He stepped into the room, bumping me out of his way.
“You okay?” I asked, “What happened?”
He plopped down on his bed, letting out a huge sigh of relief.
He started to tell me his story, “next time,” he said “let’s stay in Casablanca…”