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issue 04 point 01
On being followed in Ecuador
Before I post, I just want to apologize for the delay in this issue, which became such a beast I’m splitting it into separate issues. Also, this was written before the very recent, very scary, and cruel political news, but it seems important to point out that I stand in solidarity with reproductive rights, women’s rights, and human rights. Not only do I stand in solidarity, but the majority of Americans do as well. We are feeling your very real heartbreak and pain.
Now on to the post.
Carla turned her head and raised it above the seat, facing the back of the van. The neon from the city outside the window crafted red and yellow colors on her face, and as she asked me what happened earlier that day on my walk, two more people turned toward me, Danny, the bass player, and a friend of their whose name I can't remember, someone living in Ecuador, where we were driving this night.
My brother, her guitar player, was sitting next to me. He had heard the story already. But both him and the drummer, Levi, listened also. In total there were three Americans in the van, if its fair to use that term, after all, Ecuador is in South America, so technically, we were all Americans.
Though Aaron and I are separated by four years, we share many similar, sometimes almost identical features. Hanging out with my brother can at times feel as if looking into a mirror, one which not only reflects our outward appearance, but which also shows the existential longing that resides in each of us, a longing which lands itself in the music we each write; and which might be similar to the Portuguese word saudade, a form of melancholy of which there is no English language equivalent. Yet aside from creative pursuits, this saudade can also lead to other places, paths that are simultaneously directionless and hypnotic. Despite the aimless path my life had been on, it was a rather blissful state of mind that I found myself during my recent travels. The state of traveling is a state of being uprooted, floating in the wind. It is a way of vulnerability and wonder.
Earlier that day, while my brother’s band was sound checking, I took an Uber to the historical district of the city, mostly to walk around the multiple old churches and cathedrals, including the largest neo-Gothic Cathedral in South America, a cathedral that rivals Notre Dame in size (and in beauty), and more intriguingly, a cathedral which has never been completed, due to local legend that the day construction finishes, the world will end.
Even more strange is the one a few blocks away, where the architect, in a state of anxiety at not being able to complete construction on time, made a deal with the devil himself, who provided various demons to complete the atrium overnight. The architect, named Cantuña, stole a piece of brick from the completed project, in order to negate the contract he had made (his soul in exchange for completion before the morning bells rang). The brick is of course, still missing, hundreds of years after the atrium went up in 1650.
Quito is full of strange stories like this, and being so close to the rain forest, and equator, it is easy to wonder if there is a kind of magic energy in the air.
Magic or not, upon walking around the paved streets, and sitting down for a brief lunch, I decided to walk the 3 miles to my hotel, rather than call a cab. Of course I had heard the stories of tourists getting attacked while alone, the most terrifying ones involving a powder that’s extracted from a common rain forest plant, and which immediately paralyzes people upon contact. Most of the time this happens with business cards dipped in the substance. A gloved attacker will pass it to someone unsuspecting, and that person will immediately freeze when the skin from their hand absorbs the powder.
The first night I arrived in Quito, I was told about this by my hotel’s receptionist, and my initial dismissal of it only lasted until a quick online search showed a CDC travel warning about the “zombie drug”, and even a scare piece in a French newspaper, about it being imported into Europe. The same receptionist, who’s name unfortunately escapes me now, also warned me from walking alone at night. In the daylight, though, I should be fine.
So I found myself in a pleasant, meandering mood, photographing not only the churches in the center, but colors on the walls of buildings, views of the city, which has so many hills, street art, and the parks which seemed to be scattered all over the city, the day before I had jogged through one that must be larger than Central Park in New York, and contains a running track, a greenhouse, and a vivarium with countless reptiles, snakes, and frogs (of which one isn’t allowed to take pictures of).
After a sustained and inspiring zone of photos, buildings, parks, people, plants, and trees, I found in a sort of "empty zone.” The crowds thinned out, along with the shops and more updated buildings. In any case, it was empty enough that I decided to memorize the rest of the GPS route and pocket my phone until I got to a busier area. Google maps gave me two paths forward, one down a visually boring street, and one which entered another park. Its obvious which one I chose, and though this park was a bit more run down the other ones I had seen, I couldn’t help myself from quickly taking my phone out to snap one picture of it, that being beautiful street art on the small structure.
Immediately upon taking this photo, two young men came up to me. One grabbed my shoulder, and my mind bolted across several alarming scenarios involving the zombie drug. I of course didn't understand any of what he was saying, and so I responded along the lines of "lo siento" (I'm sorry) or perhaps "no comprende" (I don't understand), and continued my walk, through an emptiness which moments ago felt peaceful, yet now had a sinister fabric over it. I made my way to the perimeter, a four lane road with a surprising amount of traffic. Of course the crosswalk wasn’t in my favor. A quick glance behind my shoulder revealed that the two were standing still, staring at me. I breathed a heavy sigh of frustration ... But soon the red hand in the box turned into that white outline of an expressionless human walking, and I mimicked this expressionless walk in a normal pace, the main advantage I had was my pursuers didn't know that I knew they were following me.
I progressed through a series of seemingly infinite repeating office buildings, and sidewalks only half crowded with people. Every now and then I would turn my head as discreetly as possible. No matter where I was, the two seemed to always be exactly one block behind me, each on opposite sides of the sidewalk. They were easy to spot -- a bright red and vivid yellow hoodie peeking through the more plain clothes other people had on. Of course, I must have equally stood out, a foreigner, a traveler, small pack and all.
Three blocks later, five blocks later, the pattern remained the same. Both behind me, each on opposite sides. My plan at this point was to book an uber from the first place I could sit down in, whether it was a coffee shop, restaurant, or bar. Perhaps naively, I still had an ounce of hope that I would lose them by the time I got to a crowded neighborhood, that they would get bored or give up on me, and there was in a fact a touristy area not much farther now. It couldn't be more than five or ten minutes away. How long had I been walking anyway?
I ducked into a small store, the first one I saw, perhaps out of impatience, considered calling an uber from there, but mainly hoping they would pass or give up on me. Why I didn't in fact call a cab while in the store, who knows. I for one have no idea. Perhaps I thought I'd be drawing too much attention to myself. Sitting down somewhere would be both easier and more subtle. I removed my jean jacket and my baseball hat before leaving, in a somewhat dumb imitation of spy movies, attempting to disguise myself.
They both sat on a bench across the street, now with a third person. I couldn't tell if they spotted me spotting them, which would ruin my one advantage. One of their eyes raised up, but I'm not sure if that's a real memory, or one invented from the dreams of memory, when things slowly shift to become an impression of the mood one later defines the moment with, the time of the event being too authentic to have an emotion attached, especially when filled so much danger, the emotions aren't there yet, as the body is simply reacting. (If there is an emotion, it is one of basic fear, and heightened sensitivity; both of which I did possess). Only later, such as in the van when after telling the story, did I feel the oncoming of a panic attack, the tingling arms and the trouble with breathing. Only later does the proper mood set in.
There was a new position now in their pursuit. The two in the hoodies remained behind me in opposite sidewalks, but now the third person, a tall man in a green army jacket, walked in front of me, on the opposite side of myself. I was triangulated. This was straight out of a spy movie, in fact, I thought of a specific film at the moment, Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, an under-seen movie in his output, one with more of a Hitchcockian quality than his other work. Yet this moment lacked the romance and excitement of cinema -- it was something more primitive and less poetic.
The sidewalks seemed to slowly have more people and pedestrians, even police officers every now and then, which meant I must be closer to La Mariscal, the tourist area where my hotel was. As if to reaffirm this, I finally saw the first restaurant since I had left the park, how many minutes ago, I wasn’t sure.
I wasn’t yet in a touristy area, but this meant I was closer. Though I wanted to get to a busier street before stopping, the danger was too thick, too heavy, impossible to ignore now. No customers were in the restaurant, and the workers likely didn't speak English. Still, I could look at a menu and order the first thing I recognized. It wasn’t that hard . I had done it countless times. I turned to the glass door and as I thought about this move, there must have been a perceptible hesitation. Because just that pause in thinking, and the man in front of me had crossed the street and moved straight toward me, at an intensely fast speed.
Before I could grab the handle of the door, both his hands were on my shoulders. And he was shaking me, while words flew out of his mouth.
Just a series sounds. The words so rapid and impossible to understand.
Did he want my phone, my wallet, something else?
In the few very dangerous situations I've been in, my mind and body tune in to something resembling harmony and go into immediate instinct. Its part of nature, I think, and a gift that we still have that to tap into.
Each instinct is entirely unique and different. For example, years ago, with a gun in front of me, the instinct was to remain still, stay calm, talk slowly, shoulders firm yet relaxed, and keep all movements at a minimum.
This time, without being aware of what I was doing, it was exact opposite. Something compelled me to yell frantically, "no habla espanol" and "no comprende" one after another -- the surprise of a victim yelling must have made the man lose his grip, because I was suddenly free, and once free I turned and ran as fast as I could.
I didn't look behind me, nor did I wait for traffic to clear. I just ran, feeling the tightness of my legs and calves, from walking miles before this, from blue jeans and skate shoes, it felt like moving a reluctant machine. But my body obliged, and I dodged pedestrians and bolted through crosswalks. At one point, I moved past a cab and waved at him, but when I tried opening the taxi door, the driver shook his head no. So I continued forward, the tightness in my muscles not slowing me down, and at some point I realized I was only a couple blocks from my brother's hotel, which meant I was only a few blocks more from mine, which meant I was finally in La Mariscal, and perhaps …. ? I slowed down to a jog, looked around me for the first time. No yellow hoodie, no red hoodie, no green army jacket. I was at the intersection of a main road, and I finally stopped moving.
When the light said go, I walked rather than ran across, and I barely caught my breath when I arrived at the quaint and small hotel, when I told the receptionist the story which I was soon to tell the band, their eyes lighting up as they prepared telling me their own stories.
For example, the car that pulled up next to Carla and Danny and pointed a gun at them, before an ambulance’s lights scared the attempted thieves away, saved by sheer coincidence or fate.
Or Danny's scare when someone tried to grab his bass guitar.
Or my favorite stories, the magical ones the friend of theirs told, of a baby who cries in the forest, but if you pick the baby up, turns into a beast which will attack you. Or the spirit that seduces drunk men in Quito before killing them. The car we were in was now on a dirt road as he told us these tales.
The shaking in my body stopped, and the tingling dissipated, I didn’t have a panic attack after all. I was fine. My heart rate was normal; and the car careened into the night, we were on a hill above a series of clouds, soon we would be at a small farm/restaurant, where the owner would point at the outlines of surrounding mountains and explain how the stars position was used as early calendars, and we could in fact stand at this point between rocks and be at a perfect spot for equinox, and later on, I would stand in the crowd at the venue where my brother played guitar and I would hear people loudly cheer during the song where Carla moves away from the microphone, and Aaron sings an unexpected duet with her, he sings a verse in a romantic song, one about loss and melancholy and the shadows of longing.
june 29, 2022, portland.
(first draft written in woodstock, ny, on may 17)
Above photo of my brother, while on tour with Neoma. He also writes and sings under Civil Engineer, and plays guitar with The Mananas, all acts worth looking up on Spotify.
the normal inventory section of “dizzy diaries” will appear in issue 4 1/2.