The clock is ticking and we are all feeling it. Time is running fast now, the tempo of our trip has picked up. It is only a couple of months until we need to return to the UK, so we have built a fast-paced and ambitious itinerary to maximise our time in Ecuador. But first we will need a ride.
The car must be of a certain size as we have a lot of luggage – including two large surfboards – and it will need some power as we have a lot of mountain driving to do. Car hire is not cheap in Ecuador. We comb the internet and eventually transfer mucho dollar to Europcar for a small SUV, the minimum viable vehicle for our trip.
When I go to pick up our Chevrolet Vitara in downtown Quito I am told that the vehicle we booked isn’t actually available. Europcar can’t offer me a refund or a discount (check the terms please señor!) but, puffed and smiling with their own beneficience, they will offer me a substitute car. A old and tiny Kia saloon!
I argue, I rage, I bang the counter, but the smiles barely falter. They have danced this dance before. They might be able to exchange our vehicle at a later point – God willing – but then again they might not. They already have my money and from their smirks they know that I know that they have me trapped. Relunctantly I abandon our surfboards in the corner of the Europcar showroom and drive away in a old and tiny Kia saloon.
The driving is fast in Quito and bereft of conventional etiquette. Indicators, lights, signs, road markings: they mean nothing. Here we drive with our horns and with hand signals, we drive with bravado, even in an old and tiny Kia saloon. Pedestrians swarm like ants all over the roads, beggars bang at windows, urchins wash my windscreen then demand coins, masked men sell men’s masks at the traffic lights. Then comes the rain. One of those impressive storms where the water drops down in curtains and you are instantly drenched the moment you step out of the car door.
I burst back into our apartment eager to tell Menna the bad news about our new car. Full of righteous indignation I will replay her the conversation, show that I gave it to them with both barrels, that no-one could have done more! We were victims again of car rental fraudsters with their intransigent bureaucracy and punitive small print that no-one can realistically be expected to read! But she is on the phone and I must pace around for a while before telling my story. There is lunch set out though and I tuck in. Approximately three bites into an epic turkey-cheese-chilli-avocado sandwich it occurs to me that I may have left the car unlocked. With the keys in the ignition.
We are not in the worst area of Quito, there is electricity and basic sanitation here and only mild street crime, I think as I bound down the stairs, but we are certainly not in the kind of neighborhood where you would leave a car open – with keys dangling invitingly from the ignition – for too long. Even if its an old and tiny Kia saloon. I run back out into the rain.
No one has stolen our car. I soon see why. The Kia saloon, with some innate instinct for self-preservation, has completely shut herself up. The keys are still dangling invitingly from the ignition, but every door is firmly locked. I try each one several times but only succeed in setting off the alarm. There is a moment where I find myself alone out in the pouring rain unsure what to do. An old and tiny Kia saloon dangles her keys just out of my reach and jeers at me with two-tone klaxon laughter.
I look up to see my wife at her window, laughing and pointing, photographing me in my misery, relaying the story in realtime to some faraway friend on the phone.
I gather my wits. It was only five days ago that we (she!) locked our keys in the rental car in Brazil, so I recall the drill well. Go and find a ‘locksmith’ who will forcefully lever open the top of the door with crude tools then poke something around in the gap until they manage to hit the unlock button. It’s a long and haphazard process but it’s all we’ve got right now. I’m not getting some extortionate penalty from Europcar to send out replacement keys.
It’s not hard to find some enthusiastic volunteers. Firstly the owner of a hardware store further down the street, then the car-parking mafioso in his high-vis vest who earlier shook me down for a dollar, then a local gangster who patrols the street and no doubt takes a skim off the car-parking racket. They know what to do, they tell me, they are experts in opening locked cars! Various others come and go. As the rain dries up our hotel manager comes to join the party, throwing out ludicrous comments (“Do you think someone could unlock it remotely via satellite?”) to which I strain to answer politely.
“Well, I’m not sure that technology exists yet. If only! Ha ha..”
The gangster sticks a screwdriver into the roof joint with brutal force. I think of a switchblade sliding between ribs.
The screwdriver slips out, scratching the roof and he frowns. The hardware guy grabs the handle and steps in to have a go. The team is enthusiastic, energetic, unconcerned about the large deposit that Europcar holds on my credit card. They try various attacks,
Eventually they breach the top door seal, lever back the metal, and spend a long time taking it in turns to poke the wires around the car interior.
After about forty minutes of bustling, advising, laughing, shouting, taking turns, the activity levels slow down, then stop. One by one all participants have silently come to the same conclusion: it is physically impossible to coax up a smooth knob with a straightened coat hanger no matter how tightly you have twisted a hook at its end. The fallback strategy has also ended in failure: an interior door handle is designed to move horizontally, it cannot be levered open from above. By now there is a deep array of scratches on the roof like a bear’s claw-marks and the metal top strut of our door is notched with screwdriver imprints. Yet no one wants to leave. I have to talk the guys down, thank them, somehow get rid of them. Dollars all round for your trouble guys!
With the bitter taste of defeat in my mouth, I call up Europcar. I explain the situation to them – some kind of internal malfunction surely, it locked itself! Perhaps they could send some replacement keys out a taxi, or I could come to the office tomorrow…
“Don’t worry señor, we have a remote unlocking service. It’s via satellite… Si señor, it is immediate… Si señor, like right now… Señor, señor, please, could you just stop asking questions for one moment. Are you by the car?”
“That will be $100 señor.”
With the help of the car-parking mafioso and our triumphant hotel manager, we squeeze most of our luggage and children into the old and tiny Kia saloon, and off we drive on our Ecuadorean adventure.
We are closed in, and the key is turnedWilliam Butler Yeats
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare