Monday, 15 August 2011

Ghosts Of San Blas

I WAS OUT and about pretty early. Ecuadorean sunshine had streamed through my window and demanded my attention. I'd arrived in Quito for the second time the day previous, and nothing much had changed. The same rickety buses farted thick, choking fumes as I pounded the streets; the rotting buildings continued to rot; the polish-blackened kids still harangued me in the beautiful Gran Plaza; walking through the Parque El Ejido was, thankfully, still the same serene experience.

But Ecuador, and Quito especially, has a serious problem. Walk around any of the poorer districts, San Blas in particular, and you're going to see them: the ghosts. Men who have thrown in the towel and hit the bottle. To be born poor, without hope, and unable to provide for your family must be incredibly hard. I'm not surprised at the despair. Despite Ecuador's official unemployment rate dropping from 10% to 5% in the last five years, the people on the streets tell a different story. In half hour around San Blas, you'll see countless people without work; old women in their 70s selling handfuls of boiled sweets from a wicker bowl; youths with piles of secondhand shoes; others selling just about anything they can get their hands on. Those unwilling to eke out a desperate existence turn to alcohol. I am not joking when I say that, in Quito, you are literally stepping over drunks in the street. On the rise from my hostel to Av Guayaquil, a distance of a hundred yards, there were three men asleep on the pavement. It seems they just drop and sleep wherever the feeling takes them. The first time you see one, it's a mixture of shock and amusement. But these aren't men too drunk to get home after a big night out and sleeping it off. These are hopeless human beings blotting out a world which has forgotten them.

Bootleg alcohol is rife. Obviously far cheaper than the commercially-produced grog, it is popular. And deadly. 21 people have died in the last month, and 103 have been admitted to hospital, after drinking methanol-based liquor. Two glasses of this can induce blindness and coma. Police have seized over 1000 gallons of the illicit alcohol in recent raids. Cheap to produce, someone has, literally, been making a killing.

I've been frequenting a local chifa, or Chinese restaurant, since arrival. Partly because I love the shrimp curry; mostly because, whenever I walk into an eatery to be confronted with the usual rice, emaciated chicken and beans...I feel like crying. Or getting drunk and sleeping it off in the street. Seven months of shitty food takes its toll on a man, let me tell you. So I'm sat there one night, one eye on my book, the other on the U20 World Cup game. A local man came in, visibly the worse for wear, and ordered a curry. Nothing unusual in that...it's a regular sight in the early hours of a Sunday morning in England. The man promptly folded his arms and, using them as a pillow, commenced to nod off. Some time later a couple of worried kids were peering through the window, and then entered the restaurant. They tried to rouse Dad, to no avail...he was out of it. Disappearing, they were soon back with Mum, who had no more success than the muchachos. The poor woman looked mortified, and I avoided her eyes as she looked around the restaurant. The waiter, who I'd got pretty pally with, shot me a shrug and a look that said Happens all the time.

I've never had a problem with glue, save for losing a few layers of skin thanks to the overly-effective Superglue™ variety. If something is broken, I put glue on it, and everything is OK again. I've had a lifelong love of the smell of wood glue since school...wordwork classes were heady days indeed, and the whiff of it whenever I pass a workshop takes me back. But I've never considered sticking it in a plastic bag and inhaling it. I've known a few glueheads, though. Working as a courier in Leeds 10 years ago, there was a notorious madman I used to see who regularly brought traffic to a standstill, running into the ringroad and climbing onto the bonnets of people's cars. He once gripped the windscreen wipers of my van and screamed at me, spittle flecking the glass as he tried in vain to detach them. I just laughed. Not my van, mate...do what you like. He looked like he was having a good time, though. And he appeared positively normal if you (rarely) saw him without his gluebag.

The alcoholics in Quito graduate to glue. There was one guy I passed, slumped in a doorway, watery eyes cast upwards, pointing into the sky behind me and laughing "Miraaaa...miiira...el cielo..." (Look...look...the sky). His hand a dirty claw, strings of saliva between his lips and teeth, he beseeched me to see what he was seeing. I noticed a dark patch down one leg of his jeans...obviously a toilet break was out of the question when the Bostik™ was out? Confirming to him that, indeed yes, the large blue expanse behind my head was the sky, I hurried quickly on, to the haunting echo of his deranged laughter. Wasn't doing his remaining brain cells any favours, but he seemed to be enjoying himself, at any rate.

It pays to be on your toes around here. Last time I visited, several people were robbed in the street. One of the classics is the old woman who accidentally-on-purposely splashes you with some liquid and then kindly offers to mop it off, while her accomplice rifles your bag or pockets. Moral of this story? If an old lady squirts ketchup on you...punch her in the face and run. Or something like that. Maybe just kick her up the bum? The waiter in the chifa had warned me against sitting near the door in some other local cafes, as the other week a couple of gringos had been robbed in one when a couple of shaking, sweating teenagers had burst in waving a .38 revolver around. Jolly pleasant. And there's not much point in going to the police, as they're at it, too. In the Mariscal Sucre area, be wary of anyone beckoning to you across the street, enticing you over: the police will be over as soon as you start talking to the man, and a wrap of cocaine will appear from your pocket...as if by magic. Not yours? Neither is the $600 you'll soon be withdrawing from the nearest ATM. I was told a story about an American lad who was busted with a joint in a local park. The policeman demanded $50. The tourist, suffering from muscular dystrophy, was struggling to get his wallet out of his pocket. The surprised cop took pity on him. "Oh...you're disabled? Ah. OK...just give me $10..." Urban legend? Maybe. But in Quito, I'd believe anything.

But I like this city. 90km long and 4km wide, and nestling in a valley between several snow-covered volcanoes, there are fewer dramatic urban environments in South America. But as my best mate emailed me when he heard I was here: "Quito? What the fuck are you doing back in that shithole?" Quite.

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