Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Great Bus Heist

The first blog post I put up when I got to Ecuador was titled, "Alive and Well," and let me reiterate, I'm still alive and for the most part well. Though what you're about to read might seem like fiction or some elaborate farce, it is absolutely the truth. I couldn't make this stuff up.

Bryce, Katherine, and myself were coming back from Machala to Quito on the 8:30 p.m. bus Friday night so we could make the Ecuador vs. Bolivia soccer game Saturday afternoon. The ride is supposed to take about 10-11 hours, given that there are no problems. Shortly after the bus started, we were stopped by a military police checkpoint, where the bus and everyone on it was checked, including their bags. About an hour after that, the bus stopped for a bathroom break, and it's here where the story really begins.

Somewhere, somehow at that rest stop, someone must have smuggled on some weapons, because in the neighborhood of 11:30-midnight, the bus was hijacked by about 6 or 7 robbers. This is the darkest part of foreign travel.

It started innocently enough; a man walked up to the front of the bus and disappeared behind the glass door separating the driver and assistant from the rest of the passengers. I noticed this because I found it difficult to sleep on the long, hot ride. Suddenly a terrible stink blew across the bus, as if the septic tank had just blown, and a man started yelling some inaudible Spanish. I heard him yelling and hitting someone, and thought that he'd awoken and discovered that something was missing, and was blaming someone. But he continued to attack other people and yell, and in a moment, the first man came out of the front wielding a gun, pointing it at everyone.

Suddenly, the lights came on and the bus took a sharp turn to the right off the road, deep into a field in the middle of no where. Now everyone was awake, and the screaming man took turns beating and pistol whipping different men. I was a bit confused; at first I thought that we were pulling over to the find the thief, but when I noticed that everyone was closing the curtains and putting their hands behind their backs, I followed suit. My friends Bryce and Katherine were in front of me, and I tried to look up a little to see what they were doing.

With a man waving a gun in the air, you tend to forget any premonition of heroism and simply follow what they tell you to do. With my bag on my lap, I waited as each person was searched for money and then taken off the bus. It was clear now that there were about 6 or 7 armed men with pistols and knives. It was odd, because only an hour or so into our trip there was a military police checkpoint where everyone was searched, including the bus. Soon after that we made a stop at a rest area, where the robbers must have gotten on. I don't know if it was an inside job, but they definitely had it planned out.

Now, as my friends were being interrogated, my heart rate was at the breaking point. Some men had to be made examples of, and as the cold metal pistols made the thuds into the flesh, one man screamed out for his mother. Some women started to cry, then a baby. I was almost numb, but keeping an eye on the situation. I was sure that this was where I was going to die. If they didn't kidnap the three of us, they'd probably shoot us for being gringos.

Bryce was pistol whipped and then taken off the bus. Then Katherine was brought up and though she was shaky and on the verge of tears, she held it together with strength and courage that I can't begin to understand. I couldn't see much because I didn't want to risk being beaten for looking up. A slap on the head told me it was my turn. I opened my bag and showed them the contents. They stood me up and took my off the bus where two men were waiting to frisk me more intensely than if I was trying to get into the White House.

"Platos, platos!" cried one of the men. But I didn't understand. This was some regional term for money that I wasn't familiar with. Most of my Spanish went out the window as panic came in.

"No entiendo, Que es platos?" I said.

"Dinero! Money!" said the man.

I told him that my wallet was in my bag on the bus with his friend, so he pushed me back in where I showed the man to my wallet, then was quickly taken off the bus again. Now, with my hands behind my head, I was lead to the pile of other men laying face down in the dirt in front of the bus, in a road in the middle of some field in the middle of no where. They placed me next to Bryce, and I quickly asked if he was okay. We didn't know where Katherine was. Next thing I knew, someone was gently taking off my shoes, like a father taking the shoes off a child who was too tired to stay awake the whole ride home.

The next half hour included people stepping on me and screams of pain and terror. I tried to go to my backyard porch in the spring and summer, when the wind blows in the trees and the sky is pale blue, but the mosquito's were biting everywhere, probably giving me the gift of Malaria. I tried to get to some beach with a hammock, but the crickets were loud and the dust was in my nose and mouth from breathing deeply.

At this point, I gave up hope. I didn't think we'd be kidnapped anymore, but I no longer expected much. This is the pain and suffering my grandparents had to go through, the torture of so many other generations, lying in a field waiting to die. And now I was throwing it all away because I wanted to spend a year in Ecuador, instead of starting a career in the United States. I was ashamed. My heart rate slowed as I accepted my fate, but I didn't make any promises to a higher power or pretend that I was suddenly religious. I simply accepted that there were men with guns who held my life in their hands, and all I could do was lay there with my slowly numbing arms and breath my last breaths.

In the middle of a foreign country, I fully expected my life to end, and I couldn't help but think of the revolutions of the past. All of the towns people would be rounded up. Those with manicured, neatly kept hands and finger nails were killed. Those with callouses and dirty hands were spared, because they were the workers who didn't exploit anyone. All of those hours spent in the gym, all of the callouses on my hands, all for nothing now. A little gentle music to fade out my life, Nude by Radiohead. Something to ease my mind.

For a long time we sat there in silence, occasionally hearing someone come back to yell at us or tell us it was going to be okay. Suddenly, the man two over from me started to groan in pain. He'd be stabbed too many times in the chest and groin, and was bleeding to death. He got up on his knees in pain, and a few of us around him tried to help. The robbers soon realized that they'd gone too far and needed to leave, and after a long period of silence, we knew we were alone. Slowly, we got up and looked around.

The man who was bleeding to death was an employee for the bus company who must have put up a struggle. He was taken into the bus where he soon passed out. I called out for Katherine, and though I got no response, we soon found her unharmed on the other side of the bus. Now came the pandemonium. Everyone crowded back on the bus looking for their belongings, and people were passing objects around as they found them. It was a mad house. Bryce and Katherine stayed outside while I tried to find a phone to call the U.S. Embassy representative.

Finally I got through to my program director, and 5 minutes later was contacted by the Embassy representative who took down all of the information. Because of his skill and professionalism, he was able to help us through the situation. We were stranded in the middle of no where and the bus was stuck over a ditch. The men tried to push it out, but to no avail. After about a half hour, the police showed up and took the passed out victim away. Katherine told us that the women were left in the bus after the men were taken out and a woman next to her was raped by three men.

The police asked some questions, but didn't seem to be in too much of a rush to find the robbers. A tow truck eventually got us out of the ditch and we got back on the road. Few people know what their lives are worth. My life was worth about $45, a credit and bank card, a new phone, an old watch, and a new iPod. The robbers left my pants, shirt, tie, glasses case, toothpaste, and notebook with a years worth of notes and entries. The iPod was gone, but the charger remained.

As we finally got moving again, the whole thing was just a shock. The bus stank and was filled with dirt, garbage strewn everywhere. The robbers were looking for specific goods. Luckily, I didn't bring my cameras with me on this particular trip. We had to stop in some middle of the road town for an hour and a half while we waited for a new assistant, and it wasn't until about 10:45 a.m. that we finally rolled into Quito. Tired and numb, we were greeted by our Field Directors who listened to our story.

I can't say with any certainty what this whole experience has taught me, and at this time, I might still be a bit numb to it all. This is exactly the kind of thing my family warned me about. Only the night before I saw a girl get attacked by 4 guys who stole her bike, right in front of me and another man in front of my house in Machala. I thought that was the worst thing. Any ideas of Post Traumatic Stress aside, I don't know what you'd call it. But for a few minutes there, I did expect to die, and I didn't. There have been moments in my life when I've wanted to die, or to disappear, just as most people have in their growing pains. But the beat of my heart and the fear in me told me that I wasn't ready for it, and that life is a precious thing. Any gun-wielding idiot can gamble with someone's life, and it's too important to let it be that easy.

So now we have to move on. I'm not going to leave Ecuador. I'm not going to give up and hate everyone I see. But I have serious doubts as to whether I can trust the majority of people I see and don't already know, and for that, I truly hate the robbers. At the bare minimum, I won't be taking any night buses any time soon. And now it's just a matter of getting back on the horse and moving on with my life, no matter how uncomfortable it may seem.


Scott said...

holy crap man, we joked about this kinda thing happening, but wow... and also...that was some good writing

gberg said...

first off, well written. but fuck man, that's some heavy stuff. so much for giving your dad a hard time over the ransom insurance.

i'm sure you're catching hell from your folks, so i won't repeat what they're probably already saying. instead, i'll leave you with these words of advice...


fish said...

Sudi told me about this tonight at the Sox game and I didn't believe him. Crazy shit dude. Glad you are okay. Laura still wants you to come home to her though, obviously.

Anonymous said...

glad you are ok, come home and bring Adam and Zach with you

Andrea said...

Jon, Erin sent me this blog, I had NO idea. OMG you almost made me want to cry. I wish I could see you right now, I am so glad they didn't hurt you. I would have died myself. Please come home safe and sooner rather than later. I miss you. I'll have to put Skype on. I love you!!!

Kristi said...

Wow. I didn't read this until now because I happened to stumble over it on Facebook.


I don't even know what to say. I'm glad you're ok. We'll catch up soon.