Saturday, April 27, 2013

On Crime, Poverty, and Wanderlust

I knew, when I moved here five, almost six months ago, that Quito was no Boise, Idaho. And by that I mean that it´s a huge city in Latin America. Crime is something that comes with the territory in any large city--just like pollution, bad traffic, and really long lines at the supermarket. And, in a country with such noticeable poverty, there is obviously going to be a high crime rate. 
But my god, sometimes I just feel so on edge here. Last week I got my phone stolen on the bus, which is only the second pick-pocketing incident I've had so far, but still. The apartment next door to the hostel was broken into last week and my friends' electronics were stolen. A woman I work with was tied up and held at gunpoint while burglars took everything in her house. My friend Amy's bag was cut open and her smartphone stolen on the bus. The cops raided the fruit and veggie venders that live right next to us, apparently because they also sell drugs (but who knows? The policia are pretty corrupt). 
I had one taxi driver who started to take me in the wrong direction then began telling me to pay him. I told him I would pay him when he took me to my house, but he kept saying "pay me, pay me." Then he pulled over about 8 blocks from where I live and said. "We're here. Pay me." I got mad and told him the address again and he said "You said Centro Historico (my neighborhood). We're there." I tried to get out of the cab and he locked the doors and grabbed my backpack. I paid him the money and he let me go, but it was a little scary, especially since I don't feel confident enough in my Spanish to really reason with someone like that. (Although I supposed he couldn't be reasoned with). 
So, I guess there's a reason that every building here has broken glass and barbed wire surrounding it. But lately if someone is friendly to me, I immediately suspect that they are going to try to rob me; if someone looks at me the wrong way on the bus, I grab my bag and glare at them. Ecuadorians only increase my paranoia--always afraid to take a taxi at night, lest they get taken out of the city and robbed, but more afraid to walk somewhere, lest they get mugged. At first I scoffed, but I get it now. Still, I try not to let the crime rate prevent me from doing things I'd like to do. Any big city can be dangerous. 
The most frustrating thing to me though is that the typical Ecuadorian response to robbery or theft seems to be victim-blaming. If someone gets robbed, it was their fault for not paying attention, their fault for having valuable things with them or for walking home after dark, being in the wrong neighborhood, etc. Which, sure, you should be careful, but come on. Sometimes I have to have money with me to pay for something; sometimes I can't find a cab to take so I walk home. I am not stupid, I just can't lock myself in my house and do nothing. 
The first time I was pick-pocketed on the bus, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to move and as I was turning around, a man knocked my wallet to the floor and took the money in it before I could blink. I don't usually carry my wallet anywhere, but I'd had to take some ID to work that day. Anyway, the bus was full--I'm sure people saw what happened, but nobody did anything. I was incredibly disappointed in humanity, especially since at that point I had just started working and had very little money to my name. When I told my ex-boss what happened, he told me that he never gets robbed because he glares at people and keeps all of his things hidden. He didn't say "Oh, that's too bad." Or anything like that. 
Anyway, I've been struggling with all of this lately because I feel like I'm getting so jaded. I know crime is directly related to poverty, and poverty is bad here. But that doesn't make it easier to live with or give me any ideas of how to respond to it. I see about ten homeless people everyday, passed out right outside the hostel. I also see our local crackheads in the corners with their pipes, right next to the police security checkpoint. 
About once a week, a child gets on the bus and sings a song and begs for money. Or, they beg for you to let them shine your shoes, or they are just standing outside in the cold, crying or sniffing glue. And every time, I don't know what to do. I gave in and let a little boy shine my shoes once, only to have my friend tell me that his parents were probably getting his money and drinking it away. And so I do nothing. It's gotten to the point where, when I see a poor, dirty, sniffling child, I clutch my bookbag closer to me, convinced he will probably somehow take my cellphone. 
Obviously I don't like to admit this, but there you have it. I trust no one and am even hesitant to help poor children. Which brings me to the last topic of this rambling post: wanderlust. It's back. I need to leave Quito and find some fresh air and regain my faith in humanity. Unfortunately it looks like it's gonna be a few months before that happens. 
In closing, I'd like to add that I've not written about crime at all on here before because I don't like the idea of needlessly worrying my family. So please remember: it's probably more dangerous for me to drive a car (something I never do here!) than to live where I'm living now. And I promise I'm careful. 


  1. Interesting experience. And honest. I've read many blogs that are written thru rose-colored lenses. Ecuador has always been like this. When I was in high school more than 30 years aga, it was the same. You become jaded. You become defensive. It's all part of living in a big city. Only in places like Quito, with lots and lots of poverty, you can get robbed for a pair of old tennis shoes. Good luck, mate.

  2. I do not like Quito. Taxi drivers are always taking advantage, and like you I had occasions of wondering if I would arrive to my destination. Come to Cuenca, even here as a gringo, I've had two attempted robberies in the more than two years I've lived here. Usually knives are the chosen weapon. Rarely does anyone get injured. Overall, the crime rate here is very low, and the city is proportionately the most middle class large city in Ecuador. The Cuecanos are a loving and respectful people for the most part, and they take great pride in characterizing their city as "tranquilo, and it is.