Gotcha!! — The Historic Town of Quito, Ecuador

I could not wait to visit Quito, having read about the Historic Old Town with its colorful restored buildings…

… and beautiful, almost medieval churches.

In doing my research, there was mention that petty crime was rampant, because of the number of foreign tourists visiting the neighborhood who were proving to be good revenue for the pickpockets.

The guidebooks had mentioned one should be aware of pickpockets and bag slashers (no, not bag snatchers, bag slashers), especially in the Historic Old Town.  The presence of police on every corner was very noticeable, all of them armed. These are special tourist police, carefully chosen and trained to protect out-of-towners from crime.

I also noticed that many tourists were wearing their backpacks as “front packs,” suspending them over their chest.  Was this a red flag of things to come?

One morning, stepping out of the posada where I was staying onto the busy street, there was a street vendor selling large, colorful granadillas, their skins slightly wrinkly indicating they were ripe. The price was one dollar for a bag and I stopped to buy some. I was careful to turn my back to the street scene while taking out the one dollar to pay.  Little did I realize I had “tourist” written all over me and I was already in the crosshairs…

As I moved on with the crowd, granadillas tucked into my shoulder bag  I made a mental note of the people around me.  I arrived at the lights where I intended to turn left and was aware that some of the same people were walking in the same direction as I was.  The sidewalk was crowded and narrow, with little “hole in the wall” shops along the way and people going in and out with their purchases.

The crowd was getting tighter and it was difficult to move forward.

Then there were a series of distractions.

Someone dropped his cell phone at my feet, and we backed up while he apologized to me while he retrieved it…

I thought I had sensed someone putting their hand into my shoulder bag in the midst of this chaos, then quickly withdrawing it… Just in case, I tucked the opening securely under my bent arm so no one could get in.  By this time, my instincts told me I had a “posse” of people around me, all traveling the same direction as I was and closing in tighter as we walked.

When we arrived at the second corner it was as if my followers had choreographed what happened next: a bus was trying to turn left on the intersection, which required all pedestrians on all four corners to stand back, pushing against one another while the driver maneuvered the huge vehicle into a turn.  What an opportunity for my posse to regroup before coming in for the prize!  Each time I tried to cross the street, one of them would block my passage -— and this was going on right under the nose of one of the police who was staring distractedly into space, bored out of his mind.

Finally, with elbows pointed outwards I elbowed my way across the street between two waiting cars — with “them” in close pursuit.  I ran into the first shop I saw to escape them, only to find they had the same idea !!

The shopkeeper indicated silently with her eyes that I should step back against the wall to separate myself from my followers. Seeing their target was in a safe place they eventually left. The shopkeeper went to the door to make sure they had moved on, then gave me a chair to sit down and a glass of water.

The group was about to come in for the “coup de grâce.” Their plan was two-thirds completed and I was seconds away from being robbed! How?

She pointed to one small slash and one large slash in the gusset of my shoulder bag from top to bottom — and everything was about to fall out including my credit cards and the granadillas.  But damn it, their prey got away !! All those distractions for nothing.

Yes, I was the lucky one. But I am sure they moved on quickly to the next victim.

Lesson learned: Pay attention to the warnings and to your instincts.  Don’t walk around with your credit cards. You might rather hide them in your underwear — and always wear underwear, it can be useful.

I remained in Yolanda, the shopkeeper’s safe haven, for a while until I recovered my composure. I was the one that got away, among a horde of tourists who are preyed on in a similar way every day all over the world.

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the road less traveled