Author: Tom Robinson

Ecuador Fuel Strikes Diary: Days 3 & 4

Photos by Rebecca Yates (Instagram: i_is_an_angel)

The previous entry into these Ecuador Strikes Diaries (covering days 1 & 2 of the strikes) described how we found ourselves stuck in an indigenous province in the North of Ecuador. The main highways and roads had been blockaded by protestors – as a result, we were truly stuck.

With our travelling plans scuppered, we had no choice but to wait and see what would happen next.

If, per chance, anyone has been waiting for this next entry into the diaries … I’m sorry you’ve had to wait so long. Getting around to writing has been challenging recently; and the fact that I don’t get paid for writing means that making time to write hasn’t been a top priority.

Hopefully then, from here on out, my blog output will be more consistent.

Day 3: Saturday 5th October

Early this morning, we were awoke by the sound of busy road traffic as well as helicopters overhead — we thought, for a second, that the roads were open and the strikes were over!

But it soon became clear that our luck hadn’t turned.

Before embarking on our walk to Otavalo, we went into the small village of Iluman and saw that all the shops, except for the now lucrative bicycle shop, were closed.

Therefore, our decision to book accommodation in Otavalo, the closest city to our current hostel (in Iluman, a one-hour walk to Otavalo) proved to be a sensible one.

On the Road Again

We were not alone, walking the Panamerican highway…

Hitch-hiking was out of the question under these circumstances. Our only option was to walk along the Panamerican highway — Ecuador’s equivalent to Britain’s M6 — and we weren’t the only ones to make that choice.

It must’ve been surreal for the local people to see this road resembling a boulevard more than a highway — it’d be bizarre to see the M6 like that.

But for us, this was nothing more than the situation at hand. It was just another obstacle to overcome.

Nevertheless, it was strange to pass by so many road blockades — which were as big, if not bigger than yesterday’s blockades.

There were blockades ever 200 metres or so, and beside each village/settlement were gatherings of 50-100 people.

Arriving

The blockade at the entrance to Otavalo had significantly grown. Hundreds of protestors gathered there on this day, including (who I assume were) community leaders giving speeches; local musicians playing upbeat, celebratory tunes; and people playing cards or with a ball.

It was like a street party … but on a highway.

If the road had been unblocked when we heard traffic that morning, it didn’t help too much. People were rowdier now than yesterday.

Protestors listening to an indigenous leader giving a speech

Tear Gas and Guns vs. Sticks and Stones

Meanwhile, in several other parts of Ecuador, the national military were intervening aggressively … and with some success.

In provinces bordering the Amazonian territories, protestors had been compromised … in the big cities – Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca – protestors had been (almost) neutralised.

But in our province, Imbabura, no such action had been taken.

And while we didn’t want to see anybody get hurt, we couldn’t help feeling frustrated by the fact that nobody was dealing with the situation we found ourselves in. It felt like we would be stuck for a long time.

The politics weren’t improving, either. On the one hand, President Lenin Moreno was displaying no evidence that he would budge from his decision; and on the other hand, the strikes were showing no signs of letting up.

Still, we hoped that things would calm down after the weekend – after all, everybody needed to make a living! They couldn’t strike forever (or so we thought).

Otavalo

Our wisdom led us away from Iluman to Otavalo because we thought it would be a more reliable source of food, water, electricity, etc.

It came as quite a surprise, then, to learn that Otavalo was also closed— the shops’ shutters were all down, and people congregated in the street to discuss the increasingly unusual situation.

Most locals seemed to support the strike action; but closing their businesses on a Saturday certainly hurt them.

For us, our plan of finding a nice coffee shop, where we could relax while contacting our new host using the WiFi, had suddenly evolved into a quest to simply find WiFi — somewhere, anywhere.

We were turned away by a few places, whose doors we discovered to be open; before one hotelier reluctantly allowed us to use his WiFi.

A rare sight: Otavalo markets empty

What’s for tea?

After finally arriving at our apartment (where we were made to feel extremely welcome by our acting-host, Annie), it was time for us to figure out a way to source some food, in spite of Otavalo’s shutdown.

We walked around for about 20 minutes before noticing several people carrying crates of eggs (some people carrying several crates); and we eventually figured out where they were coming from.

There was a man stood outside his shop, shutters down, and every few minutes — when a small crowd had gathered outside — he would quickly lift his shutters and sell everyone eggs (nothing else) as quickly as he could.

After buying some of those eggs, we saw a few ladies selling fruit and vegetables through a fence on a street corner.

Then some local people showed us a place where, if you rang the doorbell, you were discreetly let into their little convenience store.

So we managed to get everything we needed to cook some food!

It was only once we’d eaten that we truly began to recognise the oddness of the situation.

Day 4: Sunday 6th October

We felt poorly rested again this morning, thanks to a combination of protestors’ night-time chanting; a shop downstairs constantly opening and closing its shutters; and what could only be described as furniture removals above us.

So we spent the morning feeling a bit sorry for ourselves … and reading news updates on Twitter.

We learned that the president, Lenín Moreno, in spite of the furious protests calling for his resignation, continued to resist them. He seemed strong.

The transit unions had actually ended their strikes, officially; but the indigenous people were having none of it. They insisted that trade union leaders had been bought out, and that strikes would continue until the fuel subsidy was reinstated.

“It Looks Worse Than It Is

Twitter also informed us that the reason for shops closing in Otavalo was that large groups of protestors were patrolling the streets, forcing everybody in town to participate in the strikes.

Whenever the protestors suspected that a shop was secretly open, they would bang on its shutters and threaten the workers (we were informed on a later date that some protestors had padlocked the shutters of shops they discovered to be open, trapping everyone inside).

But the shops still remained secretly open. Each morning, a supermarket called Aki opened before the protests began. Its shutters remained down, though, and we had to queue outside the front gates waiting for a steward to grant us permission to enter.

(Top) Queue to get into Aki Supermarket; (Right) supplies running low in Aki; (Left) Buying vegetables through a fence.

Consequently, the locals exiting the shops carried bags and boxes loaded with supplies. Apparently they didn’t expect a swift resolution!

Moreover, the scale of the protests (which had grown yet again today) suggested that their expectations wouldn’t be far wrong.

By the way…

I’d like to make it clear that Rebecca and I never once felt unsafe during these strikes.

The protestors patrolling Otavalo — while certainly appearing and sounding intimidating, with their chanting, home-made spears, and the odd machete — never threatened us, or made us feel uncomfortable. In fact, I’d go as far as saying they were friendly towards us.

The odd protestor teased us, and the odd one wolf-whistled at Rebecca … but that kind of thing happens in England too. It isn’t the sort of thing that we hold against Otavalo (or Ecuador), and it didn’t happen too often.

In spite of experiencing these strikes, we’d still recommend Ecuador as a tourist destination. Most people here are kind and welcoming.

Waiting Game

That being said, the protestors seemed completely unaware of the inconvenience they were causing us!

Then again, why would they think about that? The strikes were nothing personal towards us; they were about the toll Moreno’s austerity measures would take on them. Our travel experiences were probably the last thing on their minds.

Nevertheless, we wanted to leave Otavalo as soon as we could. Many of our belongings — including our passports — were still in Banos, and with strikes escalating into riots in some parts of the country, we were worried.

The locals we spoke to on days 1 & 2 told us that the strikes would probably clear up by Monday, after a weekend of strikes. But the intensity of today’s strikes made that seem unlikely.

We had no choice but to wait some more. And wait we did.

Winds of Change

That night, we took again to Twitter…

The military forces, who had thus far avoided the Imbabura province (where Otavalo is situated), had entered the province via La Esperanza, near Tabacundo – almost less than 40 km from our apartment.

Two indigenous protestors died in the violent clashes, and when news reached the protestors in Otavalo, we heard (from our bedroom window) the chanting and the strikes increasing in volume.

It was difficult to sleep again that night…

Keep an ear to the ground for the next diary entry…

Follow me on Twitter for any updates: @tautologicaltom

Ecuador Fuel Strikes Diary: Day 1 & Day 2

One of the early road blockades on the Pan-American highway between Otavalo and Ibarra.

Making plans is usually worthwhile.

But if happiness depended upon things working out as we expect, then happy days would be few and far between (for most people).

Our travels have been a (fairly extreme) example of this truth, as the Ecuador fuel strikes diary will detail.

Scuppered…

In my previous blog I described our travels in Ecuador prior to the strikes, including an enjoyable day in the indigenous city, Otavalo.

Otavalo’s famous market, one day before the strikes

We planned on staying in our hostel in a small village called Iluman — a 15 minute bus ride from Otavalo centre — for 4 nights. After which, we planned on heading back to Baños.

But today (Sunday, 13th October), Baños still evades us…

Here’s the story of why that’s the case.

Day 1: Thursday, 3rd October 2019

The Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back

The Ecuador fuel strikes diary will begin with a little political context:

One day earlier (2nd October), Lenín Moreno (Ecuadorian President) signed Decree 883, which cut a 40 year-old fuel subsidy. This resulted in fuel prices increasing by more than double on the 3rd October.

Moreno was previously Vice-President under the administration of Rafael Correa, who was heavily pro-welfare; Correa also made international news in 2007 for removing U.S. military bases from the country, after having his own amusing request to install Ecuadorian military bases in the U.S. rejected.

Succeeding Correa, the expectation was that Moreno’s government would be a continuation of a similar kind of politics; but he soon proved (for better or worse) that he had his own ideas.

His austerity package came after an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to reduce Ecuador’s fiscal deficit. That deficit is mostly blamed on Correa’s big-spending.

Moreno’s deviation from expectation turned large sectors of the population — including workers, students, and indigenous communities — against him. Decree 883 was, apparently, the last straw…

“Sorry, This Road is Closed”

Meanwhile, Rebecca and I were completely unaware of any decrees, strikes, or unrest; as far as we knew our day trip to a nearby town, Cotacachi, would go ahead as planned.

I wrote in the previous blog post about our host informing us of public transport strikes; about the blockades made of people, rocks, trees, barbed wire, and burning tyres immobilising the roads; and about seeing riots on the news.

The first cyclists, making a wise decision… That motorcyclist got turned around; but the cyclists got through the blockade

Seeing those big city riots on the T.V. showed us that the strikes were pretty bad…

But I’d like to add that the protestors we encountered were always friendly. We never actually felt in danger at any time; so, in spite of the news, we didn’t expect that the strikes would last particularly long.

That expectation gradually changed over the coming days.

Day 2: Friday, 4th October 2019

Our sleep was disturbed on this night/morning. We heard megaphones and crowds of people cheering, getting excited. We assumed it was to do with the strikes, but our weak grasp of Spanish meant that we didn’t know for sure.

Local dogs were far more vocal that night, too. As an aside, more dogs seem to live in Iluman than people — virtually every household had at least two dogs sat outside all day, barking almost aggressively at all passer-bys … intimidating.

In spite of that, it still seemed unlikely (to us) that the strikes would go on for more than a few days, given our experiences of strikes back in the UK.

Yet the other guests in our hostel spoke of nothing else — a German couple were concerned that they could miss their flight on Wednesday, 9th October.

We thought they were overreacting! A comical thought, looking back.

Waiting Game

Our host later explained that, having spoken to protestors, the strikes were significant; and he thought they could last for 10 days.

Bus services all over the country were unavailable — taxis, too, were unable to take anybody anywhere. Some motorbikes did manage to get around via mountains, but those were long, complicated routes.

We were starting to doubt that we’d be back in Baños by Saturday, as planned.

But they can’t strike forever,” I kept thinking. Which is still true, in fairness!

That afternoon, though, the electricity went out in all of Iluman. Our friends at the hostel seemed sure that the protests were responsible.

Time To Move On

Furthermore, the shops and eateries in Iluman — consisting only of a couple of small vegetable stores, a bakery, a sort of ‘off-license’, and two fried chicken places — all closed down.

There was no electricity, thus no WiFi (21st century problems, eh?); and there was a growing sense that things would only get worse.

One shop that was open, though, was the bicycle shop.

Protestors made exceptions for cyclists getting past the blockades. Therefore, a disastrous situation for everyone else became a boom for bicycle suppliers!

No fuel? No problem! Iluman’s bicycle shop.

Folk from the hostel opted to take the 3 hour round-trip (on foot) to Otavalo centre for WiFi, as well as food supplies. We decided, then, that it’d be sensible to walk there ourselves to book accommodation in the centre.

So we booked a place for 3 nights, expecting that we’d (surely?!) be able to get to Baños by Tuesday.

(Wrong again!)

Momentum…

The road blockades on the Pan-American highway (Ecuador’s equivalent to Britain’s M6) were many. The blockades we’d already seen on Day 1 were bigger. Plus there were new blockades every 200 metres or so.

Beside every settlement/village on the highway, the blockades had community gatherings of 50 to 100 people each.

When you consider how many blockades there must have been up and down the country (which has a population of 16 million) … that’s a lot of people. And their numbers only grew in the coming days.

The Highway to Otavalo

The fact that we wouldn’t arrive in Baños by Saturday had virtually sunk in by the evening. Moreover, the noise from Iluman that night was even louder than the previous night.

So we waited — and are still waiting.

Keep an eye out for the second entry into the Ecuador fuel strikes diary…

Or follow me on Twitter for daily updates:

Twitter: @tautologicaltom

Ecuador Fuel Strikes: Fleeing the Nest to the Riots

Pan-American highway, Ecuador’s equivalent to Britain’s M6, occupied during the Ecuador fuel strikes

I will start sharing our day-by-day account of the Ecuador fuel strikes this weekend … but first, to set the scene, this article will describe our travels prior to the riots (quite briefly).

Travel is a luxury, make no mistake about that.

In fact, some people argue that it’s a luxury humans could do without, because of carbon emissions and what not (although some people dismiss that stance)…

Whatever the case, Rebecca and I know that we are very fortunate in having the opportunity to travel. Seeing different cultures is interesting, exciting, and eye-opening; from the start, we were happy to be Ecuador-bound.

What some people don’t realise about long-term travel, though, is that it requires a lot of preparation!!!

We had to declutter our belongings; move out of our house (a mammoth task, as anyone with the experience knows); see friends (hardly a chore, but time consuming all the same); and generally tie up loose ends.

It’s not so easy! But clearly, we thought those efforts would prove to be worthwhile.

Leaving Home

We said our goodbyes, tied up our laces, and honestly? I haven’t stopped being sad about leaving home … but I’m not complaining. Home follows me everywhere I go; and I’m glad that it does. It means I have a home.

Anyway … our journey began with a flight from Manchester to Madrid (flights to Ecuador were significantly cheaper from here), where we spent a couple of days.

It was a nice city to explore, for sure! But a city all the same … lots of buildings, statues, and people (oooh, and tasty food!!)

You get the idea. It’s a European city, and it’s beautiful in its way. But our attention was drifting towards Ecuador — a culture quite different to this one…

Arriving in Quito, Ecuador

When we exited the airport — after a brief scare when customs told us we needed to provide evidence that we would leave the country, which we didn’t have (they let us off) — we were immediately spoiled by a view of the Andes mountains … nice!

I found Quito itself to be unique, compared with other capital cities.

There are many warnings about crime levels in Ecuador’s big cities, but we never fell victim to anything. Police were everywhere, so that probably had something to do with it.

Parque Metropolitano, Quito: what do llamas have to strike about?!

It was spacious. Not as spacious as your typical countryside town/village, but far more spacious than London, for example (even Manchester, which is a fairly quiet city).

Buses were packed out at peak hours, but we had plenty of ‘personal space’ for the rest of the time.

The food always tastes fresh here. You can eat cheap from the markets; or you can spend a bit more and eat luxuriously. Ecuadorians eat a lot of potatoes, rice, and yuccas. They also eat a lot of chicken, eggs, beans, and lentils. You can add some heat to your food, if you’re so inclined, with the yummy salsa-style sauces that sit on the tables of virtually every eatery.

They don’t eat too many vegetables (onions, perhaps, being the exception), but do eat a lot of fruit — many of the fruits I’d never seen or heard of in my life.

They also eat (what translates) to ‘tree tomatoes’ … they literally taste just like tomatoes!

It’s an interesting, historical city, with the added quirk of being able to see mountains from virtually anywhere.

A viewpoint in Quito — the fuel strikes have significantly changed the vibe here

While in Quito we visited the equator, too. Although technically it isn’t really the equator (more of a Disney-ish gimmick), it was still worth the visit.

It was where I tried guinea pig, actually (which tastes like rabbit but more oily; when grilled, the skin becomes a kind of crackling).

Baños: Where the Andes meet the Amazon

We booked a little house on the side of a mountain, where we planned to live for a month (which, ahem, hasn’t gone to plan).

It’s an amazing place. Quito’s mountain views were cool, but here we were in the mountains!

We could lie in bed, look out the window and see turkey vultures, hummingbirds, as well as mountains, canyons, and (on a clear day) Mama Tungurahua — the volcano that looms over the town (inactive for 2 years, now).

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View of Mama Tungurahua from outside our house.

Baños — which translates to ‘bathroom’ from Spanish (named for the therapeutic, volcanic hot spring baths … not a bad smell) is a fairly small town. Nonetheless, it’s a significant tourist attraction (although it’s actually quite rare to see tourists anywhere in Ecuador … there are tourists, but not nearly as many as in, say, Europe … even South East Asia).

There are plenty of hiking routes, with loads of waterfalls; you can go ziplining, rock climbing, bungee jumping; there are even swings on the edge of cliffs! It’s a great place (although more expensive than other places in Ecuador).

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Canyon, mountains, and Parque Aventura (view from our little house).
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A colourful fruit market stall … and a very happy market stall lady.

We were planning on visiting the Amazon rainforest when we got back to Baños … but that seems unlikely at the moment 🙁

Otavalo: Markets, Indigenous Communities, And The Ecuador Fuel Strikes

There was no indication whatsoever that the strikes were coming — the local people even appeared surprised by them. We had a lovely day in Otavalo — it’s a small city, but a popular attraction due to the colourful market (the largest market in South America, apparently) and the indigenous culture that decorates it.

On that first day, we walked around the market, hiked around the countryside (including a very steep climb to a viewpoint), and ate good food.

Poor Rebecca!

The next day, before heading to the bus stop to visit a nearby town, Cotacachi, we were informed that we would have to walk. Our host told us that bus and taxi drivers were striking against an increase in fuel prices, so no transport was available anywhere.

Fair enough, we thought. We walked for an hour, hitch-hiking the end of the journey, until being stopped by a blockade on the road into the town. The blockade, built by protestors, was made up of people, rocks, and burning tyres.

Even still, when we went back to our hostel that evening we didn’t expect that the strikes would go on. We’d seen strike days back in England, and they don’t cause too much disruption. Why would this be any different?

Eventually we saw a news report on the television … and the penny dropped. This was nothing like the strikes back home…

The Riots

Finally, we arrive at our destination!

The Ecuador Fuel Strikes, October 2019 … perhaps they will be read about in history books someday?! Or, perhaps, it’s not so serious…

Our next blog will about ‘Days 1 & 2’ of the riots … Keep an eye out, or follow me on Twitter for updates 🙂

Twitter: @TautologicalTom

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