We rolled in at dusk, which is exactly the wrong time to be arriving into Quito. I skimmed over the pages in my Lonely Planet once more and confirmed that the onward public transport from the main Quito bus terminal to the El Giron area was considered too dangerous at night. We opted for a cab, to be on the safe side.
I was in no state for anything lively that night. The 3am start that day, had put pay to my energy levels. We’d travelled 581km by bus, from Popayan in the southern regions of Colombia. We’d passed through an area notorious for guerrilla fighters, who belong to the far-left FARC organisation. Although now, in 2010, we were nowhere near the height of the troubles, it was still a tense journey. I had only slept a couple of hours the night before and was nodding off regularly on the bus, only to awake with uncomfortable neck strain from each unsatisfying slumber. Then came the huge explosion and I feared for the worst.
I panicked. Hydrenaline rushed through my body. My weary slumber left to be immediately replaced by heightened alertness. My eyes flicked between peering out the window – looking to understand what had happened – and making eye contact with the locals, hoping to read their reactions. It was then that I realised, I seemed to be the only one panicking, which was of some comfort. Then we drove past the truck that had blown it’s tyre and the hydrenaline began to turn back into weariness again.
The cab pulled up to Blue House Hostel, where we dropped our bags and we headed out across the road to Finn McCool’s Irish bar for a couple of stress relievers. The bar manager was an English lady who seemed glad to talk with folk from the UK – my travel companion being English and myself, Scottish. There was us, the manager and one other bar staff, a couple of locals and a few other travellers in the bar.
By now it was completely dark. After a few drinks, we began to mingle and talk with the other people in the bar. I don’t remember exactly how it started but I was soon in conversation with the locals. I was flattered by their interest in my trip and explained a little about where I’d been and what I wanted to do next. The young man’s name was Jorge but it was the woman, Maria who did all the talking, as the only English speaker of the two.
Things started to get more and more lively and by 10pm, we had pushed past the tired stage and were entering full party mode. At this time an English guy, who we had briefly met at our hostel earlier, burst through the door, with a look of concern on his face. He was clearly shaken, so I offered him a seat at our table and a drink from the bar.
He explained, he had been drinking at a bar close by and had decided to call it a night. When walking back, the mere half a kilometer to the Blue House Hostel, he had encountered a man in the alleyway across from Finn McCools. He was grabbed from behind, around the neck and a screwdriver held to his throat. All the man had said to him was “money!’ and he duly, emptied his pockets of the $40 of cash he had on him. He should have known that the guide books advised against walking alone at night in Quito but we still felt sorry for him all the same. By ‘we’, I mean Andy and I – my travel companion.
I had possibly met Andy for the first time in my late teens but also, possibly not – I don’t remember. He had worked at an Odeon Cinema in Stoke that a few of my friends had worked at, at the time. That place was a riot. We’d often used it as a meeting point, as it had a bar attached and pool hall upstairs. He hadn’t been at the forefront of things back then however. It had been years later, when I had moved to London in my mid-twenties that he and I had began to hangout regularly. It was there that I explained my idea to head out travelling and suggested he join me. He was one of the few friends I’d had at the time who was in a position to consider the idea and after a little though, he had agreed, he wanted to come.
(Photo: Ian, unknown Kiwi, Andy in unknown bar in Quito, Ecuador)
Now, here we were, sitting in Finn McCools Irish bar in Quito. After months and months of planning and preparation, the trip was now real and we were keen to make the most of it. After a couple of Tequilla shots, a few beers and a local spirit and coke, we were up for anything. There was only one problem, the bar was closing. It was now 1am and understandably, our English host was keen to shut up shop and head home. She did however suggest that if we wanted to continue to party, she would show us an after hours place but only if we were going with someone local, for our own safety.
By this time, Jorge had said his goodbyes and left, leaving myself with Andy and our new local friend Maria. As I recall, she was the daughter of a local diplomat or council official – something like that. Even whilst drunk, I wouldn’t have felt confident enough to head to the after party alone. With a local who was the daughter of a dignitary, I felt okay and we decided to take the bar manager up on her offer. We helped clean the tables of glasses and we were soon on our way.
We walked for maybe five minutes. I couldn’t tell you which direction we went in but we stopped at a corrugated fence. Our English bar manager host knocked on the fence and part of it was folded back open. I would never have been able to tell this place was anything other than a building site and that’s the idea. This was an illegal, after hours party. It was at this point that I noticed the man at the door had a gun tucked into his belt. Our English host said something in Spanish to the man that I didn’t understand. She then turned to us and told us to have a good night and to stay with Maria. I’m not sure if I wanted to turn back at this point but I felt I had no choice anyway, so I went through the fence and into the courtyard.
From the courtyard, I could still not see or hear any party. The area was still and lifeless. Maria led the way to some stairs which went down to the basement level and a door. We stepped through and there it was. A long corridor led to a bar and opened up into a dance hall area.
I was nervous. The gun at the door had set my mind racing. My best guess: it was on show as a non-verbal warning to behave. I also guessed that as an illegal nightclub, their own security needs to have a little more kick, as they can’t ask the police to back them up, if things get out of hand.
The place was certainly frequented by some shady looking characters. I assumed some of the men were gangsters but in reality, I just don’t know. Maria did make reference to some of the women being prostitutes though. As on edge as I was, in this unusual environment, it has to be said, there was a good atmosphere. Salsa music was playing loudly and the dance floor was full.
(Video: Salsa dancing in Quito, Ecuador)
I don’t know how it is where you’re from but in Scotland, men don’t dance a lot and we’re generally not very good at it. Not here though. Men dance in Quito and they dance like their life depended on it. I let out a little chuckle, thinking to myself that I was in a room full of the toughest gangsters in Ecuador and they were all wriggling away like they were at their high school prom.
Maria took my hands and attempted to show me what to do. I felt a little coy about it but tried to find the grove. Unsatisfied with my hip movements, Maria placed her hands on my waist and started to guide me in a swaying movement. I felt awkward at first but I tried to relax into it. Maria danced passionately, smiling broadly as she did, occasionally giving me encouraging glances. The music finally became all-consuming and we found our grove.
This was the first and last time in my life I would salsa. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-dancing. It’s just that I danced salsa in an illegal, after-hours nightclub, in Quito with an attractive Ecuadorian woman. If I danced salsa every day of my life, between now and the day I die, I’ll never top that salsa experience. Viva Quito.
(Photo: Ian in Blue House Hostel Common Room, Quito, Ecuador)