I was born in California and lived in that state until I turned 29. Then I moved up the West Coast to Seattle, Washington when I was 30. Living on the West Coast most of my life I’ve experienced my fair share of big and impactful earthquakes and other types of weather events as well. I’m used to having backup items like food, water, flashlights, and even camp stoves ready to use in case I need to go without power and water for a few days. When Ali and I lived in Seattle together we always had those types of things on hand in case of bad weather in the city, and we actually used them during big storms more than once.
I vividly remember experiencing the San Fernando earthquake in 1971 when I was a youngster. It happened early one morning while my family was still in bed. I remember the sound of the window rattling and the way the bed bounced in my bedroom. I was 8 years old at the time. Once the shaking stopped I popped out of bed and raced to the short staircase up out of my converted garage bedroom and into the house. Before I could even get to the top of those stairs I ran straight into my dads legs. I have always wondered why he came to my room first since I’m the middle of three girls. I now assume that was because the chimney came right up through the garage in my bedroom. My dad was probably coming to make sure I hadn’t been crushed under a pile of bricks from the old fireplace that was built back in 1925 without earthquake standards.
Earthquake and Weather Experiences
The San Fernando earthquake was my first experience of feeling helpless in the face of a natural event. But as you can see from my list below, that wasn’t the last time I experienced something like that.
- 1971, San Fernando Valley Earthquake in southern California (magnitude 6.5)
- 1979, Imperial Valley Earthquake at the boarder between California and Mexico (magnitude 6.5)
- 1989, Loma Prieta Earthquake near Santa Cruz California (magnitude 6.9)
- 1993, January 20 Inauguration Day Storm in Seattle (the power was out for 5 days)
- 2001, Nisqually Earthquake just south of Seattle (magnitude 6.8)
- 2008, December 17-21 Snow Storm in Seattle (we got over a foot of snow in the metro area of Seattle and the city was completely shut down)
- 2010, November 22 Snow Storm in Seattle (the storm hit right at commute time and some people were stuck on the roads for 7 hours)
Arriving in Quito, Ecuador 2019
As I’m writing this post I’m looking forward to my 56th birthday in about a week. And last week was the first time I packed a real “Go Bag.” That experience on October 12, 2019, was different from setting aside extra water and food at home or in the car just in case of an earthquake or severe weather. It was the first time I ever packed a Go Bag because we needed to be prepared to flee a home, neighborhood, or city because of political unrest.
We arrived in Quito, Ecuador at about 1am on October 3. Unbeknownst to us, that was the first day of national protests by transportation and government workers, indigenous peoples from all over the country, and local Quito citizens. People were angry about the President’s decision to make rather oppressive and dramatic changes to working conditions, gas taxes, and natural resource extractions throughout the country. And of course there’s a lot more to it than that.
When we arrived in Quito we walked to the airport curb and got an Uber in less than 10 minutes. We checked into the Hilton Hotel at about 2am and slept right through breakfast. That was our soft landing plan for our first night in Quito after a long travel day. After catching up on sleep the plan was to move downtown and check into our next hotel in the historic district at 2:00 p.m. Since we were exhausted, we really took our time leaving the Hilton. In addition to normal jet lag and sleeplessness from 24 hours of travel we were also feeling the initial symptoms of altitude sickness after traveling from sea level to 9,300 feet. After enjoying a slow lunch together and taking our first round of pills for altitude sickness, we checked in with our families to let them know we had arrived safely in Quito. After that we were finally ready to get an Uber for the short ride to our next hotel downtown in the heart of the city.
We walked outside of the Hilton and stood with some of their staff while Ali looked for our hotel address on our phone. It was 2:00 p.m. and as I looked around I noticed there were no cars on the street in front of us, or on any of the streets we could see. Ali showed the doorman the location we wanted to get to on our phone and he said, “No. Impossible. Not safe there.” We were both confused and trying to find out more about what was going on and I heard him say, “Manifestantes, people with bats, lots of police. No. You can’t go there.” He then explained there was a transportation strike and that people were protesting at the presidential palace in the historic district. He showed us on the map on our phone that was only one block from our hotel and said again, “Impossible. You can’t go there. Not safe.”
So we turned around and went back in the Hilton. We did some research, and both came to the conclusion we needed to find another hotel since we couldn’t reach the one we had booked and the Hilton did not fit our geoarbitrage plan. We still didn’t know the full story about what was happening in Quito, including the fact that the protesters would soon be across the street from the Hilton. But in that moment it was clear that people were starting to riot downtown. Ali spent the next hour on the phone with hotels.com, since she used them to book the hotel we couldn’t get to. The gal on the phone called our hotel and was told, “Lots of tear gas here, there is a riot and we have locked the doors,” which was what she needed to hear to refund the points and dollars for our current booking. She then worked with Ali for another hour to book a different hotel north of downtown and hopefully away from the protest areas. They picked a little nondescript hostel very close to our upcoming house sit since that area seemed ideal for us to hunker down in.
Once the hotel was booked Ali looked for an Uber and noticed there were zero available. We went back to the same doorman and asked if he could help us get to our new hostel. He said the taxi drivers were on strike and that there was now a curfew in place. But the Hilton had someone there with his own car who was willing to take us to our hostel since it was in the opposite direction from the protest area. So we hopped into this car with a very nice and friendly young man who got us safely through town to the door of our next refuge.
My Quito Protest Map
The following map includes each of the places we stayed in, or tried to stay in, along with locations for the major problem sites in the city. As the real situation developed I started creating this map so I could stay aware of the areas we either needed to avoid or might need to reach in case of a real emergency. Working on this map everyday helped me monitor events as they were happening in Quito in real time.
Our First Hostel Experience
We spent the next 5 days mostly staying inside our hostel trying to understand the severity of the situation for Ecuadorians, and for us. We realized that Quito along with several other large cities in the country were focal points for the protesters. People from all over the north of Ecuador were coming to Quito to show the government how unhappy they were with the new law. The plan was to inundate Quito with people and “occupy” the city, and indeed the President and government soon fled the city themselves. One thing that seemed clear was that people expected things to get worse downtown. People also started talking about the possibility that the president would be overthrown before the situation was settled. But our lovely hostel host, Gustavo, kept telling us, “This area is safe, you stay here and you will be safe.” So everyday we walked around the block or across the street to get lunch and dinner. And every morning and evening we stayed inside watching the news of how the protests were building in Quito and all over the country.
We stayed in close contact with the person we were supposed to soon meet to watch her house and two cats while she left on vacation. She and her friends were scrambling to change their plans in all the craziness. At one point our house sit host decided to postpone her trip by one day so she could fly to Peru instead of traveling to the jungle in Ecuador. So we planned to stay one extra night at our hostel, but suddenly at 4pm that same day she called to say the road to the airport would be closed that night at 8pm and there would be a curfew the following day along with another taxi strike. She wanted to leave immediately to get to the airport before the road closures and curfew in order to be on her flight the next day, so she asked if we could come over immediately.
Since we had not unpacked much in our small room, we apologized to our friends at the hostel for our hasty departure and we were out the door and waiting for an Uber in 15 minutes. No joke, we were actually in the house with our house sit host in less than 45 minutes from the time she called. The hardest part was persuading our Uber driver to take us 1.5 miles southeast in the direction of the house sit. He had no English but he was clearly nervous and not sure it was safe to go that way. But we were confident the residential neighborhood we needed to reach was safe and had no reports of protesting or vandalism there so we pleaded with him to get us as close as possible. Once we got up the hill he could tell it was ok and he took us right to the door. Seeing how nervous he was really made an impression on me.
Housesitting in Quito
By 5:30 p.m. on October 8, we were all settled in at the house sit with two oblivious and very entertaining cats. We had gotten the rundown on all the apartment building systems, water, electrical, gas, location for the nearest market, and contact info for the neighbors. It was quite a whirlwind! Our house sit host had more trouble than we did getting her taxi to come pick her up, but she finally did and then we were on our own. That was Tuesday, October 8. There were rumors that night that the water might get shut off in our area because of the protests, and it did get shut off to the northeast of us. I also took that to mean we could loose electricity as well.
For the next few days, we stayed in regular communication with our contacts in the area on Twitter and an expat Facebook group, as well as lots of communication with our host and her neighbors. The protests downtown and in other cities in Ecuador as well were getting more violent and more protesters were coming into the various cities every day. In addition to the peaceful indigenous protesters, the streets were getting attacked by other types of protesters who didn’t all have the best intensions. We could see smoke from tires and buildings on fire in the downtown area just 4 miles to the south of us. We could also see other fires across the valley either from tires burning or malicious fires being set on the edge of the forests that encircled the city.
By Saturday, October 12 the tension in the city was palpable. We started hearing that the protesters were going to march north, perhaps to the big stadium just down the hill from where we were staying. And again we heard we might lose water. Ali and I went to the little market just round the corner from the apartment to stock up, and it was packed with people from the neighborhood. Ali went for some food and I grabbed more water and everyone was wiping the shelves clean. We came back to the apartment with our supplies and immediately started filling extra buckets of tap water just in case.
I was thinking we should have water to drink, flush toilets, or worst case scenario deal with a fire. We also started to worry that we might have to leave the apartment for some reason, which was a topic our neighbors and other contacts were also discussing. So we started planning what we would grab if we had to leave the apartment on foot. We also heard there were men in the neighborhoods pretending to be police and robbing people. That’s when I hung bedsheets over the kitchen windows so we would be less visible from the street since our kitchen was on the ground level.
That was a scary moment. Ali and I each have sturdy backpacks we mostly use for laptops and essentials when traveling from one city to another. We then use very light day bags once we settle in and move around a location. That day we emptied our backpacks and started repacking them with food, water, passports, money, extra warm layers, extra cell phone batteries, etc. There we were, pulling together our Go Bags due to political unrest.
And then we waited. We talked to the neighbors above and below us. Everyone was scared, and everyone was staying put. We heard stories about travelers who frantically raced to the airport or tried to get there and failed. We had what we needed to be safe in the apartment building so I hoped we wouldn’t need to leave. That night the people upstairs gathered friends together to watch the news and wait. The woman downstairs and her mom sat together to watch and wait. And we settled in and tried not to worry. Then at 8:30 p.m. the cacerolazo started, which is a form of popular protest in Ecuador when people are indoors but want to be heard. At the time we didn’t know what it was, so we went out on the deck to listen and all of the neighbors were also outside. All over the city people were in their windows and doors and out on their porches, banging pots and pans to show their solidarity for the protesters downtown who were still fighting with the police and military against oppression. It was very emotional to watch a whole city use what was at hand in their homes to collectively raise their voices while under curfew to tell the government they had finally had enough.
By October 13 things were only getting more heated, and then finally the government was persuaded they must sit down to negotiate with the protest leaders. It was clear the situation had reached a boiling point where something had to change. There were rumors that the President had to negotiate immediately or risk losing the support of the military and the presidency itself. So a meeting was scheduled for that night, and by 10pm there was an agreement to repeal the oppressive law.
A New Day in Quito
We woke up Monday morning, October 14, to a city trying to get back to normal. We could see taxis, busses, and cars back on the road full of people driving to work. And then we saw all over Twitter and Facebook that indigenous demonstrators, students, and local residents were coming out to cleanup downtown Quito. That seems like ages ago, but it was actually only five days ago as I write this!
Since that Monday more and more people have come out to cleanup Quito and show pride in what the protestors were able to accomplish, and also show pride in their city. It has been amazing to see such extreme emotions from frustration, to fear, to pride in a community. We finally went downtown yesterday to look around and everything seemed normal. We looked for damage but didn’t see any!
What Have We Learned So Far?
As nomadic travelers we knew intellectually that we would travel to places with political unrest or instability, and we decided we would never intentionally travel to a place experiencing active turmoil. But we have visited countries during moments of upheaval. We were in Paris in April 2018 when the Yellow Vests were protesting fuel prices and general frustration as well. And during that experience we actually walked right into the middle of a protest when people were smashing windows and throwing molotov cocktails, which we were not expecting and definitely scared the heck out of us. And what we saw here in Ecuador reminded us of that, only in Ecuador we never saw anything dangerous in person.
We were also in Chiang Mai Thailand during elections in March 2019 when they had protests and curfews and the guy in our local market in Chiang Mai told us to “stock up and stay inside until election day is over,” which we did. Thankfully, we never saw anything dangerous in person during the Thai elections either. The bottom line is, we can try to avoid traveling to countries with major political issues but we can’t avoid that type of thing completely. After all, even if we just stayed in our old home in Seattle we’d still experience the annual May Day protests and other American protests and political issues as well. Political issues can happen anywhere, anytime. So we will keep traveling, keep learning as we go, and of course also keep doing everything we can to keep ourselves safe and informed.
What’s the Difference Between Being “Stranded” and “Sheltering in Place?”
During the protests in Quito we relied on Twitter to help keep us informed every day. It took some time to find reliable sources that were accurate and not alarmist but once we did we felt better informed by live events on Twitter than anywhere else. As we searched local hashtags we also came across other Americans that talked about being stranded in Quito and clearly wanted OUT. One gal on Twitter said, “my sister and I are both American citizens stranded in Quito due to protests here. No flights in or out. Can you help us?” She tweeted that message to @realDonaldTrump (*sigh). Over time I watched that same person on Twitter also send Tweets to the airlines when her flight got canceled and then talk about being stuck in the airport for 24 hours. She clearly felt desperate, unsafe, stranded, and without options. In watching her I asked myself, do I feel stranded? I did not feel stranded, and I did not feel like we were actually UNsafe either. At times I did feel very afraid and I definitely felt like we needed to hunker down until the turmoil had passed. I looked for updates on the US Embassy’s website every few hours and noticed they were recommending that people “shelter in place.” Since we didn’t have to be anywhere other than where we were with those two cats, we were sheltering in place and I was relieved we could do that.
It also occurred to me during all of this action in Quito that one of the benefits of being retired and not having anything in our schedule requiring us to move was that we didn’t have any additional pressure to do anything other than stay safe right where we were. If we had been desperate to get to the airport when the roads were closed and taxi’s were not running that would have been stressful. If we had been anxious to catch a flight when the airlines were grounded that would have been stressful too. But we were not stranded. In a sense, we were safe at home. We didn’t have to deal with any of the chaos of getting away from an issue we stumbled into while on vacation. We just made contact with the people around us and made sure we found exactly what we needed to stay safe. I guess that means one of the other gifts we have found since reaching FIRE is that we have the time and financial resources to shelter in place, so we don’t have to feel stranded.
First Impressions Matter
One of the people I made contact with on the Quito Expats Facebook page during all of these issues said basically that she was really sad our first impression of Quito was so bad. In that moment when I first read her message I sat back and thought about my impressions and experiences in Quito so far… First I thought about the helpful staff at the Hilton, and the young man who volunteered to drive us through the curfew to get us to our hostel. After that we had Gustavo and his team at the hostel making us feel at home and attended to, and chatting with us about everything they heard from their own contacts. Then the brave Uber driver who took us from our hostel to the door of our house sit on a very tense day in the city, when he was clearly afraid himself. Then our welcoming house sit host who stayed in contact with us the whole time she was gone on vacation and put us in contact with her own neighbors and community so we would feel grounded there. And the kind woman running the small market around the corner from our house sit who made an effort to smile and reassure us when things were getting tense in the neighborhood. She and her family kept their doors open for all of us neighbors to come in for more food and water on that strange day when we were packing our Go Bags.
And lastly, the chautauqua host from the conference we are signed up to attend in the beginning of November, was 2 hours away in her own home but checked on us constantly. Staying in daily contact with her to get her unique local perspective as a longterm expat in the area and also someone who is part of our community was infinitely helpful for us. Each time she offered to come get us and bring us to her own home until things calmed down we felt incredibly reassured. Everyday, everywhere we turned in Quito there was another kind person there to reassure us and help us feel safe. We found support and community during one of the most stressful moments in Ecuador, and for us in our first year of nomadic travel.
What Was in Our Go Bag?
We managed to put together most of what’s on this list below into our two backpacks. We also have a water filter that we included just in case. Moving forward, we will start to modify the things we carry so that we can have a more comprehensive Go Bag if needed in the future.
We had these things packed and ready:
- Bottled water and nonperishable food, such as granola bars
- Personal hygiene items (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, wet wipes, etc.)
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Portable cell phone charger
- Notepad, pen/pencil, and marker
- Local street maps (paper)
- Air mask to reduce inhalation of dust and other debris
- First aid kit
- Rain gear
- Extra socks and a long sleeve shirt
- Copies of important documents (insurance/medical cards, contact lists, identification, marriage and birth certificates, etc.) in a waterproof container or plastic bag
- Cash in small bills
- A list of the medications you take, why you take them, and the dosages
We did not have these things, but might if we had planned ahead:
- Back-up medical/assistive equipment and supplies
- Work gloves
- Hand-crank or battery-operated AM/FM radio
- Spare home/vehicle keys
So – Do You Have a Go Bag???
For more information you can read the following articles: