Good Souls and Machetes

“What are you doing?” asks Carmen, after I answer her call.

“I’m at home, watching a movie.”

“Let’s go to the cemetery. I’ll come by and pick you up.”

I’d been wanting to go to the cemetery to take photos for a book that I’ve been working on about daily life in Mompiche but, thus far, hadn’t managed to get there. The afternoon is bright and sunny. Perfect for photos. It’s a good time for me to get out of the house. I’ve been holed up in my cave for weeks, feeling flat, not so keen to face the world beyond the gate. Hostilities fueled by Mayor’s incarceration have escalated. It doesn’t feel good to walk down the street. Whenever I do, it’s just for a few minutes, usually to pick up groceries. I walk slowly with a self-conscious effort to appear calm; head up, shoulders back, the personification of quiet dignity. In truth, I haven’t done anything wrong. A man from the village has been sent to prison for violently attacking me at my home, but I am the one being treated like a criminal. Women hurl insults from open windows. Men put their heads together in groups and snicker as I pass. Children sometimes throw things. It’s easier to hide at home in my safe place.

“Okay,” I agree, switching off the computer. It will do me good to get out.

As I am pulling on jeans, the phone rings again.

“Where have you been?” asks Fabiola. “I haven’t seen you for ages. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay. I’ve just been very busy,” I lie, unwilling to admit that I’ve been swallowed by darkness and have been temporarily paralyzed from the neck up.

I’m supposed to be writing a book, but have been gazing blankly at a clean screen for weeks. I feel like Virginia Woolf in her darkest moment. As we chat, I lie on my bed, feeling swamped by lethargy once again. It’s like some kind of gravitational pull sucking out my life force and dragging all my emotions down to ground level. I don’t feel depressed in the clinical sense of depression, but I certainly am not happy. In fact, I don’t really feel anything at all, just numb from head to toe. It takes all of my will-power not to call myself hurtful names in the mirror each day.

“Come and see me soon, okay?” she closes, heading off to feed her animals.

Carmen arrives in a whirl of giggles, chattering and greeting my weekend house guests as she makes her way to my room.

“C’mon, lazypants. Get up. Let’s go. Oh, and bring a machete.”

“Why do we need … ?”

“Snakes,” responds Carmen. “We might run into snakes at the cemetery.”

Even if we do see any snakes, I’d be the last person on earth to swipe at them with a machete. Live and let live. If I spot any serpenty-types, I won’t tell her. I’m not a killer. However, I obey her orders without further questions. In Mompiche, you never know when a machete might come in handy. Choosing the smallest, sharpest blade from my machete collection of two, I slide the solid handle neatly in to my palm and follow Carmen out the door.

“Why do you wanna go to the cemetery now?” I ask.

“Something to do. There’s not much going on.”

We walk down the main street, through town and along the beach toward Fabiola’s place, on the other side of the rock wall. Still in a mind-fog, I don’t really notice who is around, apart from a few men repairing fishing nets on the beach.

“We have to stop here,” I tell Carmen. Absent for so long, I owe Fabiola a visit.

She is delighted to see us, instantly pulling fresh green coconuts from a branch for us to drink. As Carmen takes a seat, she nods down the beach.

“Look who’s on their way down here.”

We all turn to see Mayor’s wife, her sister and two other women walking along the wet sand. One of them is carrying a machete.

“That’s trouble if I ever saw it,” says Carmen.

Fabiola sets the coconuts aside and gestures for us to follow her. My two best friends lead me to the back of the property where we discuss the receding mangrove forest, the possibility of finding clams in the mud, and the ducks’ fondness for swimming there every morning. After several minutes of inane conversation, the coast is finally declared clear. The women have passed by, and are now ascending the path to the cemetery.

“We don’t need that kind of nonsense,” states Carmen, settling back into a chair with her opened coconut. “We’ll just wait for a bit and see if they come down. We should avoid any trouble.”

Fabiola opens more coconuts and we sit side by side, sipping the refreshing juice and admiring the beauty of her little paradise on the point.

Fabiola is Mompiche’s answer to Doctor Dolittle, and takes in all kind of stray and abandoned animals. On the day Carmen and I are visiting, she has sixteen dogs, fifteen cats, three ducks, two geese, eighteen chickens, two cows and seventeen horses in residence. Her dream is to open an animal refuge with full amenities and then put much of the menagerie up for adoption to kind people who will take good care of them. Lacking funds and resources, Fabiola spends almost all of her own money on feeding animals that people dump on the beach, often during their vacations, because they grew out of puppyhood. Many of the dogs are older. Most of the cats are unwanted kittens. The calves were abandoned by their mothers. Fabi names each new arrival and hand-feeds all the babies until they are able to feed themselves from the bowls she sets out.

Countless times, I have been down there in time for calf-feeding; we’d fill beer bottles with warm formula and add a teat so Anabel or Abel could suckle. We’d have to fill six bottles and quickly switch the teat as each bottle was emptied. I lost count of the number of times Anabel head-butted my thigh while changing teats. Some days, I went home covered in bruises from her budding horns. Other days, we are bitten, scratched, kicked, and even pecked by angry geese as we care for the unruly crowd. None of that matters, it’s more important that the animals are all fed and housed comfortably. The critters are Fabiola’s world.

“They’re still up there,” I remark after a long while, wondering out loud at the intent of the women on the hill. Snakes, indeed ….

“It’s not an accident,” responds Carmen. “When I called you, they were minding their own business, cleaning the fishing nets. Now, all of a sudden, they’re here. They knew you would be down here.”

“How would they know that?”

“I guess they overheard me talking to you on the phone. They were right there when I called.”

“You are not to go up there, Roni,” pipes in Fabiola, sternly. “It’s too dangerous.”

Carmen nods agreement. “She’s right.”

Our trip to the cemetery aborted on the grounds of potential assassination, I sip my coconut quietly. There are so many unanswered questions whirling in my mind. Would they really hurt me? Could anyone be that stupid? Her husband is serving time for doing exactly that, why would she follow in his footsteps? They’d have to kill both of us to get away with it, would they go that far?

“Do you think they would actually … ?”

Carmen’s look silences me. Fabiola shakes her head in dismay. She can’t believe it either.

Armed with a finely sharpened machete, I still wouldn’t be a match against four angry women. Without doubt, I know Carmen would back me up, but it isn’t worth the risk to either of us. Flinching at the thought of such violence, I feel rattled by this terrible plot. As an author, I couldn’t even make up this much bizarreness. For the time being, Carmen and I stay put, chatting with Fabiola until we are certain the murderous foursome are not coming down the path any time soon. If they do come down, our plan is to slip up there quietly and take the photos I want.

At least the view from our beachfront table is spectacular. That is something for which to be grateful. Fabiola’s sprawling place is the last one on the end of the beach, before the landscape rises sharply up the hill. A rocky path takes surfers out to the point break, a popular surf spot during the season. Just around the corner, a colony of blue-footed boobies resides on the cliff face. Pelicans, frigate birds and great blue herons take shelter on the hilltop. The lush tropical jungle covering the small peninsula is interrupted only by the smattering of brilliant white headstones lined up neatly in the cemetery. Once a year, just before All Soul’s Day, a group of locals visit and clean out the overgrowth, pull weeds and plant flowers to make it spic and span for the coming commemorative festivities. Afterward, Mompiche’s final resting place is at its prettiest, dotted with colorful bouquets and boasting one of the most magnificent views of the village and its long white beach. From time to time, we glimpse flashes of the group’s red, pink and yellow shirts moving around between the graves. Carmen and Fabiola, two Ecuadorian women who have stood by my side throughout every single ordeal, don’t want me to end up in a cement crypt any sooner than is necessary.

“They followed us down here on purpose,” Carmen whispers to Fabiola. Her tone is sinister.

“What kind of idiots are they?” snaps Fabiola impatiently. “Who do they think they are?”

An involuntary shiver runs down my spine. Five years ago, I came to this beautiful little stretch of white sand to live in peace, to escape an insane war that wouldn’t stop, to immerse myself in nature and become one with the earth, to get my hands dirty in rich fertile soil and plant my own food. Aside from denting the egos of several amorous men, I haven’t hurt anyone. The last few years have been challenging on every single level, but I’ve persisted in following my dream despite all the obstacles. Regardless of what has been tossed my way in this mishmash life I’ve created for myself in a different culture, I’ve remained strong the entire time, putting one foot in front of the other without fail, and I feel like it’s time to relax and celebrate some of my achievements. Now, with a threat against my life, it seems that every speck of my existence is in question.

As the sky darkens, approaching dusk, the women are still up on the hill, lying in wait. Carmen and I bid Fabiola farewell with kisses on her cheeks and warm hugs. We walk slowly back along the beach toward the village, the machete dangling from my hand. Mission unsuccessful.

“We’ll go another time,” she assures me. “Next time, I won’t say it out loud.”

Feeling pensive, I am quiet. In truth, knowing there are people who want to hurt me, I don’t really know what to say.

My friends’ efforts to lift me out of the doldrums is applaudable, I truly appreciate it but, after today, all I want to do is crawl back into my cave and stay there for eternity. Will someone please wake me up when the world outside my gate has come to its senses?

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Top 10 Reasons Why I Love To Live In Mompiche

fat-man

 

1. because it is such a joy to witness my overweight hairy neighbors run around naked. (Best viewed while having breakfast.)

2. because it’s so relaxing to be woken up at midnight by loud thumping electronic music at the neighbor’s birthday party.

3. because it is sheer pleasure to watch the neighborhood children throw rocks onto my roof and then listen to them tumble down the galvanized metal.

4. because it is so uplifting to have to listen to the screaming banshee next door as she verbally abuses her children.

5. because my heart skips a beat and I become breathless with anticipation at the thought of the neighbor’s weekly 3-day drinking binge.

6. because nothing gives me more pleasure than to see my drunken neighbors beat the living daylights out of each other in the mud.

7. because nothing cheers me more than knowing the neighbors will be scaling the fences at 4am to rob me once again.

8. because there are few things more delightful than being without electricity for four days in a row – again.

9. because there’s nothing quite so exciting or adrenaline-inducing than having a pack of snarling dogs chase you down the street.

10. because being surrounded by the sound of ignorance on all sides is so refreshing.

Now you’re wondering why I live in Mompiche… Stay tuned….

Two Onions and a Handful of Hope

Two onions. That’s the only food in the house. The usual stash of lentils, chickpeas, dried beans and popcorn has trickled away, handful by meager handful as I stretch out the rations. Times are lean. With little to no income, my belt no longer has enough holes to tighten it any further. Once again, I scan the eco-fridge, looking for food that I know is not there. The woven palm-leaf baskets are empty, except for those two onions and a few scraps of dried garlic skin. Despondent, I peel both onions, then thickly slice them. This will be dinner. I have no idea what’s for breakfast. I can’t think about that right now. As I cut the onions, a spectacular yellow moon rises over the mangrove, as round and textured as a ripe country cheese. I stop slicing for a moment to breathe and take in its beauty. For a second or two, I forget about food, until the pungent onion rings bring me back to earth.

Behind me, on the spice rack, most of the jars are empty. There is still some cumin, a sprinkle of nutmeg, some dried herbs and a trickle of chili sauce. On the top shelf, sits the remains of the last jar of Glang Chutney. There is no oil. I dribble some rain water into the chili sauce bottle and shake it up before pouring it all into the chutney jar. Into the jar go the last of the spices, some cumin, nutmeg, a pinch of salt. I pour this concoction over the onion rings and steam them in the sauce. It’s good, hot and spicy, if not very filling. In the hammock, I eat my chili onions unusually slowly, uber-conscious that once it’s gone, there is nothing else to eat.

I try not to think about the future, about tomorrow. Three people owe me money. There is just enough credit left on my phone to send a few messages.

“Please send me the money you owe. I really need it now.”

Two replies arrive within the hour. “I don’t have your money. Maybe next week.”

“Just give me half now, and the rest later. I need some money now.” I reply, on the verge of tears, trying not to sound desperate.

“Sorry. Can’t do it.”

The third person doesn’t bother to respond. I’ll bet my shoelaces none of them are eating steamed onions for dinner, or wondering where their next meal is coming from. What they owe me between them could fill the pantry and sustain me for three months. Fortunately, the cats are easy to feed. Each day, the fishermen catch enough small fish in their nets to ensure my cats are a lot better fed than I am. On the lucky days, I bring home a pan-sized fish for lunch. Today isn’t my lucky day. Sleep is sporadic and fitful as I lay in bed trying to ignore my rumbling stomach and shut down the gazillion thoughts going ballistic in my mind; most of my macabre musings end with me starving to death. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. I try to feel positive. I struggle to feel optimistic.

First thing in the morning, I go downstairs to see if the garden has anything to offer. While it looks verdant and prolific, almost everything is still unripe. Despite this, I pick a small green papaya, about the size of my fist. Around the back, the fence line is littered with passionfruits, the first of the crop. At last. I fill three buckets with the fat yellow-green orbs. Upstairs, three passionfruits go into the blender with a thin sliver from the rapidly disappearing knob of panela. I add some fresh water to dilute it and my hunger pangs are soothed for the moment. I peel and grate the papaya, sprinkling some salt over it, and scraping out the last of the cumin with my finger, I rub it into the flesh. It isn’t bad; refreshing and light. It would be nicer with a chili vinaigrette, and some grated carrots, but I’m grateful to have something in my belly.

I wash up and go to the beach carrying a bucket of passionfruit to trade for freshly caught fish. After an hour, I return home with a full bucket of small fish for the cats, a pan-sized snook and some sand crabs.

“Do you have any more passionfruit?” asks Dali, the storekeeper, as I pass.

“Yes, I have some more at home.”

“Bring them over. I’ll buy them,” Dali says, smiling. “I’ll take all you have.”

She pays one dollar per bucket – a dozen or so large passionfruits in each. It’s a lifeline. With two dollars, I buy six eggs, four tomatoes, six green plantain bananas, and four more onions. Combined with the fish and crabs, there is now enough food for four or five meals. It’s a mini-victory, and I feel like I’ve won yet another Mompiche Survivor Challenge.

Every morning, at least one bucket of passionfruits is sold to the store. Dali always asks me to bring more. Sometimes, a restaurant owner comes over to buy a handful of fresh herbs: mint, basil, chillangua (wild cilantro), or oregano. Every dollar, every fifty cents, every quarter goes into the cupboard. The garden is finally paying off after all the work I’ve put in. In time, I sell a few badeas (giant granadillas), some papayas, pumpkins and cucumbers. They’re also traded for fish and prawns. Later, there are enough tomatoes and loofahs to sell. There are still no tourists on the beach. The season is very slow this year. No one wants cakes.

My best week brings in twenty-five dollars when someone buys a dozen soursop saplings. To show my gratitude, I gift them two rambutan saplings and a small badea vine. With my earnings, I fill the eco-fridge with fresh fruit and vegetables, and stock up on oil, lentils, beans, chickpeas and popcorn. Once, I splurge and buy a jar of olives. For many weeks, my garden provides at least half of each meal. Finally, a little money comes in from one of the debtors. Again, all the canisters are full and the baskets are almost over-flowing with fresh food, and now I can afford to take a day off. In the middle of the week, I go to the beach to relax with a book and read leisurely for the first time in months. Pure bliss.

Day by day, I’m grateful to have a roof over my head and food in my belly. I’m grateful my cats are well fed and that I have clothes to wear – even if I do resemble a shipwreck survivor. I’m filled with gratitude to have all my limbs, and my health. That the house construction has ground to a complete standstill doesn’t bother me so much, although occasionally I dream about life with a real toilet seat and real plumbing with real running water. On the bright side, hauling buckets of rain water up the stairs every morning is good exercise. Each day, I work in my garden, harvesting my bounty to eat, sell, trade, and share with friends. Diligent, I pull weeds from the ground, add mulch to the plants, and mix natural fertilizers of cow dung and vegetable waste to spread over the roots. I plant whatever seeds come my way, growing whatever will produce food. I’m thankful for the daily harvest of fresh fruits and vegetables, and also for the nightly rain. Sometimes, I stop mid-task to pick tiny ripe berries from the black nightshade bushes, tossing a handful or two of the juicy purple fruits into my mouth and savoring their sweetness, eyes closed, totally focused on the taste of the berries. This tiny pleasure makes the hard labor worth every drop of perspiration.

Some days are better than others, and I often sell everything in my buckets. When sales are good, for thirty-five cents I can buy a pint of fresh milk from the motorbike milkman to give to the cats. Soon, however, things start to wind down in the garden. The tomatoes are almost finished. There are no more badeas or pumpkins to sell. It’s coming into the dry season, and planting is on hold for now. Fortunately, the passionfruit vine is growing rampant along the fence and still providing a small income. A good harvest of chili peppers is quickly converted into cash from home-made hot sauce.

One morning, I take a bucket of ripe passionfruit to a fisherman who’d requested some the previous day. In return, he gives me a large fresh sea-bass. Faviola provides coconuts and a few fresh duck eggs in exchange for a bag of chillangua leaves and the small pumpkin I’ve saved for her. I have enough onions, peppers and tomatoes to make my favorite dish: Encocado, Fish in Coconut Sauce. Downstairs, I husk the coconut, readying it to split for the juice and meat. As I’m cleaning the fish, I notice the passionfruit vine on the back fence looks odd. There are green fruits all over the ground, enough to fill over ten buckets, but they’re too green and will never ripen. On closer inspection, I see the vine has been slashed from the other side of the fence, ripped out and stripped of leaves. My tiny home-grown income has been uprooted by the neighbor. Through the bamboo slats, I see her sitting on the porch, smirking, as if waiting for me to explode. I say nothing, denying Maria the satisfaction of a victory. She frequently takes great delight in finding ways to cause me damage. I never react.

“I can’t believe I have such malicious neighbors,” I tell Tito, who is half Italian and lives in Portete, the next village to the south.

“I have the same problem. They stole my beautiful chicken! Those bastards! But I got them back!” He gesticulates with profound emotion, conveying both his sadness and his rage. His furry gray eyebrows bounce on his sun-wrinkled forehead as he relates his sad story.

Tito’s chicken was hand raised and followed him all over his garden, going wherever he went. Polla was mottled brown with a little yellow fringe covering her head. He lovingly nicknamed her his blonde eggshell. Tito never intended to eat Polla. She was a house pet, if slightly unconventional. If he was lucky, she might give him some eggs one day. He was looking forward to sampling an omelet that Polla had created. She was about ten months old, and he suspected that day was quite near. One afternoon, planning to transplant some Neem trees, Tito went inside to get the spade, and when he returned, his chicken was gone. He searched all over the garden, but Polla had vanished. She never came home.

“Have you seen my chicken?” he asks his neighbor.

“Chicken? You have a chicken?” the skinny man responds, bending to pick up the bucket of water he will bathe himself in, concealed behind a thin woven grass screen at the side of his little wooden house.

Later in the day, Tito asks the neighbor on the other side, “Did you see my chicken?”

“No,” says the rotund man, picking his teeth with a wishbone as he leans against the back door, “I didn’t see your chicken.”

“Really? You didna see my chicken?” Tito immediately suspects fowl play.

“Nope!” The neighbor turns his back and goes inside his creaking bamboo shanty.

The next morning, Tito spreads out a fishing net under his kitchen window. He ties long pieces of fishing line to each corner, and knots the loose ends together. Then, he throws a handful of corn into the center of the net. On the stove, a large pot of water simmers. He sits in the kitchen window with a freshly brewed Italian roast espresso, waiting patiently. Soon, one of the neighbors’ chickens trots across the yard to inspect the bounty. The moment the plump brown chicken steps into the middle of the net, Tito springs the trap and hauls the shocked bird through his window, quickly snapping its neck before it starts squawking and alerts its owners. He has it plucked and cleaned before his coffee has gone cold.

“They wanna steal my beautiful chicken, huh? My Polla. That’s gonna be one very expensive chicken for them! I already ate about fifty of their chickens! Those bastards!” He smiles with grim satisfaction at his painstakingly extracted revenge.

Whenever his neighbors ask if he has seen their missing chickens, he smiles widely, sucks his teeth and responds, “Chickens? Nah. I didna see your chickens!”

I haven’t yet thought up a suitable revenge for the slashed passionfruit vine, but for the time being, once again my entire focus is on feeding myself. So far, stealing Maria’s scrawny half-starved chickens isn’t part of the plan.

Heaven to the Left, Hell to the Right

Woken from a deep sleep, confused and disorientated, I wonder why people are yelling.

A man in military camouflage shakes my shoulder, shouting gruffly, “Get off the bus!”

Still drowsy, I get up and move outside, as ordered. There are two long queues, one for men, and one for women. I’m roughly pushed into the one for women. I don’t understand what’s going on. One by one, the women in my queue are sent back onto the bus. It’s some kind of checkpoint. Then, it’s my turn.

“Passport!” orders the man facing the queue.

He looks me up and down with a sneer, as if I am solely responsible for keeping him out of bed in the middle of the night. His angry face is black and shiny, with a jagged scar across his cheek that deepens with his intense frown. If he wasn’t wearing a police uniform, I’d be really afraid of him.

“I don’t have it. But I have a photocopy,” I say, handing him the piece of paper.

In fact, I have no idea where my passport is. The last time I used it was to buy the block of land in Mompiche and organize the title deed with the Municipality in Muisne. I haven’t seen it since. I’ve been looking for it for two weeks, in between Quito, Mompiche, and Muisne, but it hasn’t turned up. And now, I’m on my back to way to Quito to figure out how to get a new one, as well as meet a friend and tidy up the loose ends of my old city life. My Spanish is still rudimentary, and I don’t know how to explain all this to the policeman.

“Passport!” he demands again, waving the copy aside with a brush of his hand.

“I don’t know where it is,” I tell him, shrugging.

“It’s not my problem,” says the officer, then orders my arrest.

From the left, someone grabs my arm and forcefully pulls me out of the queue. A policewoman performs a rough body search. My backpack is upturned, the contents strewn on the ground. She kicks at the few items of clothing and my book, indicating I should pick them up. When I turn to protest to the policeman, she drags me away.

“Hey! Where are you taking me?”

Nobody answers.

It is at this point that I feel real danger. Every hair on my body stands on end. My instincts are on high-alert. If an opportunity presents itself to high-tail it out of there, I’ll be on it. The policewoman won’t let me take a step sideways without an escort.

“I need a bathroom,” I whisper.

She takes me into a small room. I’m not allowed to shut the door. She stands with her back to me. I take my time, looking for open windows, or any other escape route. There are none. Then, she takes me to a police car and shoves me inside. She slams the door and walks away, leaving two burly policemen to take care of the car. The door has kid-locks.

What now? I’m wondering when I turn to see who else is in the car. Before that, I had sensed other people on the bench seat, but didn’t look. To my surprise, Daniel Facchin, the owner of La Facha in Mompiche is there too.

“What are you doing here?” I ask. “What’s going on?”

“My passport is in Quito,” he says. “You’re not supposed to travel without it.”

“What if it’s been lost or stolen? How are you supposed to get a new one? Where are they taking us? What will they do with us? What will happen now?”

He doesn’t have the answers to any of my questions. We are trapped in the car for half an hour before the police get in and drive us to a hospital in Esmeraldas.

“Why are we here?” I ask.

“So they can certify that you were healthy when they threw you in prison,” says Facchin.

Prison?

We are taken to CDP in Esmeraldas; the Provisional Detention Center. I take one look at the prison and freak out. It smells like a toilet.

“No!”

Gobsmacked and disgusted beyond belief, I’m not keen to step into a cell, terrified they’ll clang the door shut behind me and lock it—maybe forever, since I don’t have a passport. Fleetingly, I imagine having to spend Christmas in an Ecuadorian prison. The scene is too dismal to picture. But Christmas is only a couple of days away. My heart feels like a boulder of granite. After a lifetime of adventure peppered with illicit activities all over the world, until this moment, I have never been locked up. This definitely is one “first” I can live without. Tears leap into my eyes, and my heart sinks even deeper. In three decades of global travel, this is the most horrible place I have ever been. The level of filthiness in each cell is inhumane.

My usual bullheadedness in the face of conflict has vanished. Ecuador has delivered a king-hit to the solar plexus of my morale. Instead, my spirit deflated, I stand frozen in the hallway unable to move. A man in the drunk-driver cell beckons me from the door. Others stare. Others call out. I’m in shock. I do not want to be there.

“Hey honey, come here to daddy. Come give daddy a kiss.”

All the men in the cell laugh. They clamor at the bars, their faces pressed against the metal to get a better look. I let the policeman coax me into “El cielo” (Heaven: the women’s cell) which is opposite “El infierno” (Hell) but won’t let him shut the door. On either side of the wide hall “El purgatorio” and “El confesionario” are filled with dark, leering faces. No doubt, the cell names are someone’s idea of a joke. My usual sense of humor escapes me. There is not one funny thing about this.

“Please don’t shut the door,” I beg, terror washing over me as I take in the bug-infested, filthy dungeon-type cell. Mold grows out of the walls. Water drips from the ceiling in one corner, leaving a mossy green streak all the way to the floor. Cigarette butts line the edges of the floor, kicked into the walls by hundreds of previous inmates, never swept up. Three paper-thin foam mats are strewn around, riddled with holes and all the corners ragged from being picked off. There is no toilet.

Men hang out the bars of the opposite cells and watch, catcalling and teasing.

“Come get in here with us, baby! We’ll take good care of you!” The other prisoners jeer and laugh.

With my back turned, I let tears wash down my cheeks, but not a sound escapes my mouth. It usually takes some doing, but this time, my world has been rocked. I’m aghast. Lost and terrified.

After half an hour of catcalls and wolf-whistles from the men crowded into Purgatory, the policeman finally puts me into a smaller unnamed cell near the entrance with Faccin and a Chinese man who’d faked his cedula (identity card) and doesn’t speak a word of Spanish or English. The gatekeeper drags a thin rat-chewed mattress across the floor and gestures towards it.

“This is our five-star accommodation for princesses,” he says. “Now, go to sleep.”

By now, it’s 3.00am. Reluctantly, I sit on the least dirty corner of the mattress; the only corner that is not blackened with the despair of past detainees. By now, I’m physically and emotionally exhausted. Looking around, I notice phone chargers plugged into power points. Mine is added to the collection and I send the same disjointed text message to everyone on my contact list.

In prison. Esmeraldas CDP. Lost my passport. Police took me from bus. Need help ASAP.

The friend I’m supposed to meet in Quito the following day will never know what happened. The kids at school will break for Christmas without me, and not ever know why. I’ll miss the appointment with my ex-roommate to return the key to the house. Finally, clutching my backpack as a pillow, cellphone in my hand so it won’t be stolen, I fall asleep from pure fatigue.

After a restless night, my hip sore from sleeping on the cement floor, with only my head and shoulders on my backpack, I shake myself awake. My first thought: how to get out of here. My second thought: I’m hungry.

There is a soup stand opposite the prison gate. Yelling through the bars, Faccin orders three encebollados from the lady across the street. It’s not as good as Alicia’s, but it’s hot and filling. Dipping the plastic spoon into the takeout container, I close my stinging over-tired eyes and wonder if anyone will respond to my text message.

Keystone Cops Investigate Bikini Tops

The police commissioner in Atacames doesn’t want to know.

“We don’t deal with Mompiche,” he says flatly, refusing to look up from his papers, behaving more like a stuffy bureaucrat than a policeman.

“But they told me to come here,” I plead, hurting from the long bus trip; badly bruised and battered the day after the machete attack.

“No. We’re not interested.” He turns his back and waves me away, as if I am nothing more than an insect bothering him unnecessarily. The police logo on his desk says “To Serve and Protect”.

Angry and frustrated, I leave. He’s the second policeman I’ve encountered in two days who could care less if Mayor had chopped me into human sushi. The first being Jimmy who, normally round and jolly, suddenly transformed into stone. At this point, I wonder if Ecuador actually has any laws regarding machete attacks. Are women, whatever their age, race, creed or color, not protected against violence, domestic or otherwise? Apparently not.

Exhausted and sore, I return to Mompiche and spend a couple of days in bed, recovering from my injuries; physical and psychological, and thinking about my next move. At some point, I have photos taken of my wounds.

The Police Commissioner in Muisne is only slightly more helpful.

“We will issue a restraining order and then request that he come in and talk to us,” reassures the enormous dark policeman. He reeks of onions. I shy away from his foul breath.

“Talk to you?” I ask, incredulous. “Is that it?”

The commissioner shrugs effeminately. Whatever happened to putting criminals in handcuffs and putting them behind bars? Is that not done here? Clearly, unless some form of remuneration is passed under the table, his soft, un-calloused hands are tied. One lunatic almost murdered me and this corrupt creep expects me to pay him to uphold the law? He disgusts and dismays me. Restraining order in hand, I take the next bus to Esmeraldas. My body aches in protest at the long distances I have to travel to get anything done.

The Provincial Chief of Police is happy to receive me, if only I could wait a few minutes. Of course. Hands throbbing, head aching, eyes red from stress and exhaustion, I sit in a waiting room for almost an hour while Colonel Ponce concludes his meetings.

“He what?!” Colonel Ponce asks, his jaw dropping after I describe the crime in detail and then Jimmy’s subsequent reaction. I go on to outline the other meetings with the commissioners in Atacames and Muisne.

Nodding and frowning as I relate the events of the previous few days, grey-haired Ponce is clearly disturbed. His thin face, deeply lined with the responsibilities of his province, twitches as he absorbs the information.

“This is unacceptable,” he states, picking up the phone. “We’re going to do something about this immediately.”

A few minutes later, another commissioner shows up. “Come with me ma’am. We’re going to take your statement downstairs.”

A grueling half-hour with Constable Solis Mina Wellington in the interview room reveals mostly that this lean crew-cut policeman has never learned to type, much less read or spell. And he doesn’t know the first thing about listening. The statement is incomplete, and filled with errors. I try to explain that there is more, that we’re not even half done. He’s not interested. It’s the end of his shift. Wellington wants to go home.

“You have to come back tomorrow to verify your signature and get a medical examination,” he says, printing the document. He doesn’t even give me a chance to read it before he signs it, hands me a copy, and vanishes out the door. At the front desk, the clerk insists I sign the papers because Constable Wellington has already signed both the office copies. Reluctantly, I sign my name at the bottom of each page.

This half-assed statement in hand; typos, names and dates incorrect, spelling errors and all, I head back to the bus station only to learn I’ve missed the last bus back to Mompiche. The last bus to Chamanga is leaving in ten minutes. I doze most of the way to Tres Vias.

Dropped off at the turn-off, I discover there is no phone signal, and begin walking. I cover almost the entire seven kilometers to the village in the dark before Miguel comes along and gives me a ride the last bit of the way home on his motorbike. A few minutes later, when I go to deliver a copy of the restraining order to the police station, I learn that Jimmy has been transferred out of Mompiche; replaced by Constable Ricardo Sanchez. It’s loathe at first sight. In another place, another time, he might have been profiled as the perfect Gestapo recruit. He’s also a friend of Mayor’s.

At dawn the next morning, I head back to Esmeraldas to verify my signature and get a medical examination. CTW, my eye witness, comes along. She was with me in the house when Mayor showed up and she witnessed the whole gory incident. She’s agreed to make a police statement. We are misinformed that we will have to wait until 3pm. After whiling the time away in internet cafes and wandering around the streets of the city, we finally arrive at the provincial District Attorney’s office. There, we’re made for wait for over an hour until they decide what to do with us. Finally, just before 5pm, we’re taken upstairs. A hurried secretary leads CTW into an interview room and I’m taken down the the doctor’s office to make an injury report that, in the end, never makes it to the District Attorney’s office in Atacames. CTW’s statement is also incomplete and riddled with mistakes.

Once again, the last bus to Mompiche is long gone by the time we arrive at the bus terminal. We board the last bus to Chamanga. Tonight, by prearrangement, Galo Intriago picks us up at the entrance. Barely able to keep my eyes open, I can’t even be bothered to eat before I hit the sack.

CTW stays for a couple more weeks, enjoying Mompiche and helping to cook, clean and wash my hair; activities I am unable to do with badly injured hands. After helping me move into the half-constructed house, she leaves for the USA.

“So why did you fire the builder?” asks the DA’s secretary, Luis Castillo.

“I got tired of the sexual harassment, the verbal abuse and the general lack of respect, the poor quality building methods, and being robbed every time I turned around, amongst other things,” I tell him, describing a few specific incidents of the sexual harassment.

For a long moment, Luis Castillo sits at his desk with his mouth open, appalled. It seems there are laws in Ecuador regarding sexual harassment.

“You have to make a separate statement for the sexual harassment,” he informs me. “Then you need to go and see the detectives so they can investigate the crime scene. I’ll also send you to the doctor for a legal examination because the last report never arrived.”

I spend another hour with another man who can’t type, making another statement, incomplete and full of errors, regarding the sexual harassment I was subjected to while Mayor was building my house.

“Why didn’t you fire him sooner?” Luis inquires.

“Because I thought I’d get hung up by the thumbs by the labor council.”

A friend had recently been done over by a worker he’d fired for theft. The labor council made him pay the worker over three thousand dollars – a year’s salary – for breaking the employment contract. I didn’t want to end up in the same predicament.

“Sexual harassment is hard to prove,” he states, painstakingly punching out one letter at a time with his index fingers.

Tell me about it.

Next, he sends me to the Atacames Police to organize the investigation. Detective Alejandro Paredes could have fallen off the set of a very bad detective film. He has greasy unkempt hair, the beginnings of a paunch and Marty Feldman-ish goggle eyes. He closely inspects the neckline of my tank top, as if that’s precisely where he’s planning to launch his investigation. During our interview, his eyes shy away from meeting mine.

“You’ll have to pay for the gasoline so I can come to Mompiche and do an investigation,” he says, staring at his chipped fingernails.

He’s kidding, right? Apparently, he’s not kidding. I’m down to my last hundred bucks in the whole world and this joker who is paid by the state expects me to pay his gas.

“Why don’t you come in a police car?”

His look shows that he knows I know. I look straight through his eyes. He looks away.

“Okay. I can probably find a police car in the next week.”

“What will you do exactly?”

“Investigate the crime scene. Take photos. Look around.”

A week later, Detective Alejandro Paredes shows up in a police car, with a male friend and two girls in shorts and bikini tops in tow. Very professional. Not. He spends half an hour in my house, touching everything, asking irrelevant questions, peering into my bedroom. At every step he takes, my hackles rise higher. I say nothing. He takes photos. He asks me to pose. I prefer not to. Photos of my physical injuries have already been submitted to the DA’s office. Paredes doesn’t need photos of me, just of the damage to the wooden door and all the blood stains. My unwillingness to cooperate makes him antsy.

“We need these photos for evidence.”

“These bloodstains on the floor are the evidence.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to…”

“You’ll figure it out. See you tomorrow.”

I’m relieved to see the back of him. Sleazy is not a nasty enough word for him. The next day, when I go to the police station, he can’t figure out how to download the photos from the camera to the computer. I have to show him. He makes me slide past his chair and lean over his back to transfer the files. I ask him to save them to my USB drive so I can print them. He accidentally deletes every file I have saved. I spend fifteen minutes retrieving them, then he yanks my USB out of the computer. Finally, with his USB in hand, I get the photos printed then return to the police station so he can spend three hours typing descriptions of each photo and then pasting them onto white sheets of paper. We then go to deliver the photos to the public prosecutor. On the way back from the DA’s office, we pass an ice cream shop famous for its tasty handmade ice creams.

“Let’s get ice cream,” he suggests.

I consider the limited funds in my pocket. We missed lunch. I can spring for an ice cream cone each and still have bus fare home. Once inside, he orders a fancy fruit salad bowl with four scoops and whipped cream, nuts, cherries, all the trimmings. Wipes out my wallet. While slurps his ice cream, loudly sucking on pieces of watermelon and papaya, he licks his lips and greedily ogles every girl that walks past, checking them out in the mirror as they turn the corner.

“Tell me about the sexual harassment,” he says, looking me up and down.

“It’s in the statement.”

“What did he say to you? What did he do? Did he touch you?”

“Read the statement.”

“I want you to tell me.”

“I’m sure you do.”

When I get on the bus, penniless, I tell the conductor that I have no money because I was robbed in Atacames. It’s kind of true. The conductor tells me not to worry, he’ll get me safely to Mompiche and I can pay him next time. He will never know how eternally grateful I am to meet a sincere man with a gentle heart right at that moment. It’s those kind souls who restore my battered faith in the human race. The first time since being attacked, I shed a tear.

Steal My Bananas If You’re Hungry, But Keep Your Clam-Diggin’ Hands Off My Computer!

Freddy is dragged kicking and screaming into the back of the pickup truck. Three burly policemen shove him over the tailgate and go around to get in the cab. As soon as the car doors close, Freddy sees a chance and takes it. He leaps over the side and takes off, running down the main street. Chubby and unfit, he’s surprisingly swift. At the president’s barked orders, the uniformed policemen give chase. They tackle Freddy to the ground and wrestle him back into the truck. It’s a violent struggle. Spittle flies from Freddy’s lips. The police grunt and pant with the effort. Mompicheros line both sides of the street to witness the impromptu tragi-comedy being played out in the village. The president keeps an eagle eye on the players.

Freddy screams, “Let me go! Let me go! Let me go! Let me go! Please, let me go!”

Shirtless and shoeless, he writhes on his back on the filthy flatbed of the truck, held down by two policemen. The third jumps in the driver’s seat and starts the motor. Maruka, Freddy’s older brother, climbs up the side and subdues him.

“You’re my brother! How can you do this to me?” wails Freddy, his hands now firmly tied behind his back.

Freddy has a little habit.

Freddy has a little habit.

Tears streak his dust-covered face. His dark features contort with rage and fear. His matted hair stands straight up. Maruka stands over his brother, ignoring the gathering onlookers. He mutters a curse under his breath and kicks at Freddy’s feet. The police jump into the cab once more, ready to go. The self-appointed President of Mompiche climbs into the front passenger seat and the car starts down the road.

“Nooooooooo!” shrieks Freddy, kicking at his brother. “Let me goooooooooo!”

“Shut up, you idiot!” shouts the president with all the class and style of a charwoman, leaning out the window of the cab. “It’s your own stupid fault, not ours!”

The car speeds away towards the forested hills, transporting Freddy to Esmeraldas, where his mother, the president, will force him into the rehabilitation center to detox from base; a nasty derivative of cocaine. Maruka stands stiffly in the back, his face frozen. His expression says it all; he’s already buried one younger brother in the local cemetery for his addiction to basuco, and he’s not prepared to carry the coffin of another.

Jonathon is the basuco dealer. He’s the youngest son of one of the corrupt Mompiche Directive’s members, Margarita. She owns a seafood restaurant on the main street. Her oldest son, Arnold, is a fisherman who supplies the restaurant with freshly caught seafood. Jonathon doesn’t do much of anything, his activities mostly reserved for the wee hours when the addicts are looking to score. The whole town knows what Jonathon does for money. The police, the Directive, the storekeepers, everyone in the Restaurants’ Association and the Fishermen’s Cooperative. No one does anything. There’s a strong demand for hard drugs; base, crack, cocaine, acid. Base is the cheapest. Most of the users are men aged between 20 and 30. Jonathon is the main supplier. The addicts are in deep. They’re all penniless and strung out. No one will give them work. That’s why we’re all having problems.

It's easy to trace a stolen laptop

It’s easy to trace a stolen laptop

First, David’s laptop computer vanishes from his car. The thief forgets to take the power cord. Step by step, following the trail and paying for information along the way, David tracks his computer to Manta. He buys it back from the hot goods buyer; no questions asked. He’s happy to have all his files and photos back. No police report is ever made.

“It’s not worth it. They take so long and don’t do anything,” says David, shrugging.

He’s right. The Ecuadorian police force is a shambles.

Tito, La Facha’s owner, is drunk the night his computer walks off the premises; taken by someone who has access to his room key. While there is a list of possible suspects, he has no idea where to start looking. He never reports the crime. He has enough money to buy another computer.

The same night, Christian’s computer is stolen from inside his house while his aged father is sleeping. Christian goes to the police. He makes a report. After a month, nothing has happened. In the village, he hears about two guys trying to sell a hot laptop. There are no secrets in Mompiche.

“A month ago, they were both working for me,” he says.

Mona and Guanchaca are base addicts. They take Christian’s computer to Portete to see if they can offload it there. The programs are in English. There’s a password. They can’t get in. The guy in Portete doesn’t want it; too hard to sell. Guanchaca tries to sell it to a local storekeeper. The storekeeper calls Christian. Between them, they make a vain attempt to buy it back. Guanchaca gets antsy and reneges on the deal. Then, he vanishes. The story going around town is that his family has called him home.

Stolen goods = more drugs

Stolen goods = more drugs

Lying on the floor in the dark, playing with one of my cats, I overhear the conversation between Guanchaca’s wife and her father who live across the street.

“Why would he steal a computer?”

“For the money!”

“It can’t stay here.”

“What should we do?”

“Get it out of here.”

Packed off to his family, with a hot computer in his bag, Guanchaca is exiled. We presume that will be the last we hear about the computer. Christian gets on with his life, makes his insurance claim and begins planting spiky citrus trees around the borders of his property.

A couple of months later, Guanchaca makes a brief appearance in town for a few days and disappears again. A couple of days later, we hear the base dealer has the computer.

“I saw it with my own eyes,” claims Beto. “The idiot couldn’t even use it!”

Word is, Jonathon’s place is loaded with hot goods, stolen and passed to him in exchange for drugs. Later on, they’re taken to Atacames and sold. Christian goes back to the police.

“We know who has it. We know who stole it. We know where it is. Can you get it?”

“Well…” says a policeman, looking Christian up and down, “…it will take us about a month to get a search warrant.”

This is why Mompicheros don’t bother reporting anything stolen. Christian loses hope. Meanwhile, Marco’s laptop is stolen during the night. The next night, Morongo goes to retrieve it. He pays the dealer $70USD to buy it back; the amount the addict-thief received for the pilfered machine. The day after, Marco, a north American biologist in Mompiche on a volunteer reforesting program, goes to Atacames and makes a police report.

By this time, I’m so mad about all the robberies, the protected thieves running around apparently unstoppable, the unwillingness of witnesses to speak up, and the impotence of the police, that I’m ready to go to Jonathon’s house with a baseball bat and kick down the door. My normally non-violent soul is ready to cave in his skull, as well as those of the thieves. I have a laptop too – even if it’s old, decrepit and barely usable – it’s the only way I can make a decent living and I cannot afford to replace it if one of these soulless creeps gets his mollyfogging mitts on it.

It's not even worth stealing, but the addicts don't care.

It’s not even worth stealing, but the addicts don’t care.

“But, wait a second,” I tell Christian, putting aside my vision of Jonathon’s cell-less brains splattered all over the stolen goods stacked against his walls. “Call this number and see what happens.”

He punches the telephone number of the Provincial Chief of Police into his phone. Right at that moment, there’s no satellite signal. Of course! Ha!

“Six years ago, there were no drug addicts in Mompiche,” Christian says before going home to scrape out the dirt from between his floorboards, getting ready to sand and varnish them, and wait for the police to act.

Enraged, I make the brownies Jana ordered and bake Carmen’s peanut cookies. It passes the time, and takes my mind off the worsening problem of thieving base-addicted Mompicheros. When I go out to make my deliveries, my computer is concealed under a tangle of sheets and pillows on my bed. The power cord is hidden in a plastic bag under my desk and the external hard-drive is in the secret pocket of my handbag. I don’t know if my security measures are adequate. In the current climate of rampant thievery, maybe I should be considering a stainless steel underground vault.

With alarming frequency, I-pods, MP3 players, mobile telephones, cameras and laptops are vanishing from hotel rooms and private residences, tents, restaurant tables and even beach towels.

Locked in your hotel room, it's still not safe.

Locked in your hotel room, it’s still not safe.

“It’s not my fault,” states a beach-front hotel owner. “People should look after their stuff.”

This seems an inappropriate attitude for a concerned citizen with a business based in tourism. Nevertheless, the majority of business owners in Mompiche have the same idea; it’s our fault. We’re all filthy rich foreigners. Too bad if we lose something. We can afford to get another one. It’s not their problem. The non-response of the police and the dawdling corrupt justice system don’t help.

Christian calls me in the afternoon.

“That phone number you gave me is gold. The head honcho kicked butt all over the province. They’re planning to search and arrest the dealer on Friday.”

We hold our breath for two days, hoping Jonathon doesn’t catch wind of what’s going down and offload Christian’s computer. The idea is that he’ll squeal on the thieves hoping for a lesser sentence and they’ll all end up cooling their heels in prison for a while. My computer will be safe again. At least until the next addict runs out of money.

Jonathon’s life takes a turn for the worse when a truck-load of police turn up on his doorstep Friday night. Inside the house when they show up, Serrano bolts into the mangroves to escape, leaving the dealer to cop the rap. Uniformed police empty Jonathon’s house of stolen goods; televisions, blenders, computers, phones, a fridge, and anything else you might care to name, along with a hefty stash of powdery white narcotics. Neighbors look on with interest. Jonathon hides in the roof, but it’s a temporary nest; lasting only until the police figure out how to get him down. The story spreads faster than a bush fire. According to the gossip, Morongo is to blame: it’s his fault the police came sniffing around after he recovered his friend’s computer and they made a police report. Christian and I say nothing. The gold telephone number and the butt-kicking head honcho in Esmeraldas remain a secret. Better to let Morongo shoulder the heat. Apparently there’s more than one way to swing the proverbial baseball bat…

The stolen goods are stolen again - by the police.

The stolen goods are stolen again – by the police.

But none of it is worth the effort. When Tito and Christian go to inspect the stash of stolen goods to identify their computers, most of the items have already been stolen by the police. Jonathon spends a total of four days locked up. His mother bails him out. There is never a court case against him. He struts around town for three days showing everyone he is free. Not long afterwards, it starts all over again. A telephone here, an i-pod there, a backpack, someone’s passport. Sirena’s laptop was stolen just a few days ago in broad daylight from the fourth floor of her bamboo palace. Of course, like always, no one saw anything. We all know who the thieves are, where they live, and where they sell the stolen goods. The locals don’t care; we’re easy targets. The best I can do is to keep concealing my broken down old laptop every single time I leave my house and hope for the best. If it does go missing, the police will be called to clean up the corpses . . .

Mompiche needs help.

Mompiche needs help.

The Palace of Justice

The building is dark and drab; it reminds me of 1960s communist-style architecture. A large gold sign with white lettering announces I have arrived at “The Palace of Justice”. The recently deconstructed street is a mess of mud, water, deep holes, yellow machinery, piles of gravel and bags of cement. Orange witches’ hats at either end announce its closure to traffic. The attending police allow only especially privileged cars to enter. At the front of the building, air-conditioner pipes stick out of the walls and drip chilled water onto the tiled pavement below, making slippery puddles. Uniformed policemen hang around at the door, gossiping about last night’s television show. Behind them, a hand-cuffed man leans against the wall, waiting for the police car that will take him to the next scene in his self-made B-grade movie. I enter a narrow reception area with a line of glass windows fronting small cubicles, each labeled with its specific function: document submission, appointment desk, fines and penalties. The staircase is on the right. As I ascend the first of six flights of stairs, a cascade of water steams down.

Ecuadorian Justice = an excruciating oxymoron

Ecuadorian Justice = an excruciating oxymoron where the victim is forced to suffer endlessly and often gives up in disgust long before any semblance of justice is achieved.

“Watch your step! Don’t slip over! Be careful!” yell coveralled men with mops on each floor.

A water pipe has burst on the second floor. The First Criminal Court of Esmeraldas is on the third floor. I arrive first thing in the morning. The trial begins in the afternoon. Before we start, I’d like to speak to the judge. Judge Luis Schaffry admits me to his office.

“I have some concerns about the behavior of the district attorney,” I tell the judge, aware that we are not supposed to talk about the case itself.

During a brief interview, I relate my grievances: that the charges have been lessened, that my main witness has never been contacted, that my evidence has been ignored, and the overall level of disrespectful behavior the district attorney has shown toward me.

“I wasn’t there, so I can’t testify that it’s true, but the general conduct of the district attorney and the way in which he treats me has led me to suspect that he may have accepted a bribe from the other party,” I say, looking the judge in the eye.

Judge Schaffry listens attentively, nodding and frowning as I speak. Then, he makes a phone call. He quickly outlines my story.

“She thinks Ortiz might have been paid off,” he tells the listener.

The Ecuadorian Justice System is plagued by corruption

The Ecuadorian Justice System is plagued by rampant corruption from top to bottom, and the District Attorney of Atacames is no exception.

The way he says it makes me think that I’m not the first person to have problems with Ortiz.

After a half-hour wait outside the courtroom, where the judge is hearing another case, three men turn up. In t-shirts, jeans and sneakers, they look like a bunch of guys off the street. The secretary points them in my direction.

“Which office do you come from?” I ask, wanting to know who I’m talking to.

They’re reluctant to say. They won’t say their names either. I press them. They don’t want to tell me.

“Let’s go downstairs and talk privately, okay?” says the leader of the group, heading down the stairs. The other two follow after me. Their demeanor is peaceful; instinctively, I feel nothing to fear.

On the street, without hesitation, I get into a car with three guys I’ve never seen before in my life.

“We’re secret police. We’re investigating corruption in the justice system,” says Matias, finally introducing himself and his two colleagues, Antonio and Diego.

He asks me to describe the events of the previous year. He takes notes as I speak. Antonio and Diego interject occasionally with questions. Matias notes my answers. At the end of our interview, he requests copies of some of the documents from my files.

“We will attend the hearing this afternoon. We want to observe how Ortiz behaves. In court, we’re just your friends, okay? You greet us as though we’re old friends.”

The Secret Police interviewed me about the District Attorney's poor behavior.

The Secret Police arrive to interview me about the District Attorney’s behavior.

They drop me off outside the court building and disappear.

Guilt-ridden photocopying consumes the next hour. As I fill my dossier with more and more pages of evidence, making extra copies for the secret police, I consider the number of trees that have been sacrificed so that I might pursue justice. I wish for another way in the future, but the justice system is traditionally a purveyor of guilt . . . right? Suppressing pangs of contrition for my part in senseless environmental destruction – it’s me or the trees – I put the thick folder of evidence in my bag and head off to take care of the shopping list: marshmallows, chocolate, fruit gums (ingredients for Rocky Road) and an emergency supply of cat food.

At the dot of the appointed hour, I am on the third floor of the Palace of Justice. Alone. There is no one there. It’s a moment of peace. I sit on the wooden bench and breathe. I’m ready. I have a mountain of evidence against my attacker. I meditate on a positive outcome.

Soon, people arrive at the top of the stairs, panting and out of breath. Prosecuting Attorney Ortiz breezes up, bursting with self-importance. Ortiz arrives literally jangling. It’s strangely appropriate for Boxing Day. A large ring of keys and miscellaneous metal objects clank rhythmically against his thigh with every step. Mayor arrives with his lawyer. They whisper, smirking arrogantly and pointing at me. Mayor’s three witnesses arrive, each gasping for air. The medical examiners arrive, followed by the regional ombudsman who is there to make sure my rights are defended properly. Finally, Judge Schaffry turns up. Except for my newest friends, all the players are present. The show is about to begin.

The courtroom is large, with a long carved wooden bench at the front. Four people take their places here; there are three judges and a court stenographer. The witness stand is on the right, a small laminated table with a plastic chair facing the far wall. Two solid wooden tables, one for the prosecuting attorney and one for the defense attorney sit at the front, opposite the bench. Behind them, several rows of plush red fold-down theater seats, a wide aisle slashed through the middle, fill the rest of the room. The heavy white and gold swag and jabot curtains are flung carelessly over the rail above, letting in more light.

Mayor was never arrested, never detained, never questioned.

Mayor has never been questioned, never been arrested, never been detained regarding the violent attack that left me maimed.

There is no clerk. Without warning, the judges stand. Everyone present leaps to their feet as the court is called into session, then sits again as the judges take their seats. All of the witnesses are sent outside. The defense attorney rises and loudly declares Mayor innocent. He makes a short speech describing how his client has been deceived and wrongly accused by a vindictive foreign woman whose only intention is to smear his impeccable reputation. Immediately afterwards, Ortiz, the public prosecutor makes his speech, quickly outlining the violent attack, declaring his intent to prove that it did, in fact, take place. In my opinion, it’s weak. Ortiz can do better. I focus on the judge, his face, his expressions. The lists of witnesses scheduled to testify for both sides are presented. Ortiz pouts and gesticulates. He puts on quite a show as he explains that two of my witnesses will not present today: Paredes, the investigating police officer, and Claire.

“In that case,” states Judge Schaffry, “we will hear the testimonies of the plaintiff and the defendant, and the witnesses present until we get to that point. The court will then be adjourned until the other witnesses can testify.”

Ortiz is playing with me again. Watching him pretend he cares about this, I decide that “Plan B” needs to go into action. At some point during the opening addresses, Matias, Antonio and Diego have slunk silently into the courtroom and taken random seats apart from each other. Turning, I wink at each of them in greeting. Mayor sees me winking. He can’t see my “friends” behind him. Then, because legal doctors are always busy and have to rush off to other cases, the first witness is called; the medical examiner from Atacames, Dr Maria Guanizo. The second witness, Dr Simon Macias Olives, is the medical examiner in Esmeraldas. We all rise as each new witness is introduced. In turn, they both describe their one week-apart examinations of my injuries; the trauma to the left hand was severe. It was lacerated, badly bruised and swollen. The defense intimates the damage was caused by something else, a drunken fall perhaps. Both doctors assure him that those types of injuries are caused by the forceful impact of a blunt instrument. The same goes for the cuts and bruising on my right hand. Indicating the photos of the wounds, they reiterate that the cut to my upper arm was clearly caused by a fine sharp blade. The bruise and lump on my head was caused by a hard impact by something undefinable. The defense lawyer ineffectively tries to maneuver them into saying otherwise. Patiently, they each explain the medical meanings of “trauma” and “laceration” once again, as if to a child. Both testimonies are strong. Overweight and slobbish, the defense lawyer appears bumbling and incompetent. During Dr Simon’s testimony, Ortiz asks me to stand. He turns my back to the judge while he points out the scar clearly visible on my upper arm. The judges inspect it from the bench. Then, Dr Simon is also dismissed. I could have kissed both doctors. Ever-optimistic, I begin to feel the first twinge of real confidence.

Mayor slammed the back of the hatchet into my left hand.

He barged into my house, began destroying property, then slammed my hand with the back of the hatchet.

My testimony is next. After handing a photocopy of my passport to the judge, I sit at the small table. My right thumb has a piece of skin missing where I’ve been nervously picking at the side of the nail. It’s on the verge of bleeding. I haven’t noticed the slight throb of pain until this moment. Judge Schaffry asks me a series of standard questions: name, address, age, religion, nationality, occupation. Some of them I don’t understand at first. Politely, I ask him to speak slowly and clearly. His questions are then answered. After that, in clear but slightly imperfect Spanish, I describe the events of that day, and leading up to that day. I’m nervous, a little traumatized, very stressed. I maintain eye contact with Schaffry and Ortiz, ignoring the defense attorney and Mayor. My throbbing thumb is forgotten.

“Then, he bashed the axe against the back of my left hand. Blood spurted out. My hand went numb straight away. I wasn’t expecting it. I had no time to defend myself.”

Tears threaten as I recount the attack. I stop several times and take deep breaths.

“He raised the machete above his head. I thought he was going to kill me.”

He raised the machete above his head, I shut my eyes, thinking I was going to die.

He raises the machete above his head, I shut my eyes, thinking I am about to die. Then, I wonder if there will be enough pieces of me left for someone to identify my mangled body.

Emphasized with hand gestures and body movement, my testimony is articulate and detailed. Even so, I forget to mention several things. I don’t know if my omissions will affect a successful outcome.

The district attorney asks some of the questions I forgot to raise in my testimony. Silently, I thank Ortiz. Answering his questions, my voice is strong and true. I don’t falter. After a few minutes he hands me to the lions.

The defense attorney suggests I was so drunk that day that I don’t remember how I injured my hands. As expected, he suggests I’m lying. I look him directly in the eye, right through to the back of his skull, and assure him that I am not lying, because I don’t drink alcohol. For the rest of his questioning, he can’t look directly at me again. Finally, slain with truths, he concedes that he has no more questions. Lions? Pussies, really.

Next, Mayor testifies, contradicting himself several times.

“She hurt her hands when she was drunk.”

“She owes me $6,500!”

As he lies his heart out, I look him right in the eye. He knows I owe him nothing; that’s the spineless excuse he uses to justify violently attacking a woman. After a quick glance, he can’t meet my eyes. Again, I maintain eye contact with Judge Luis. During his testimony, Mayor backtracks several times, then lies again. He even denies the testimonies of the medical professionals.

“It was around lunchtime. She cut her arm on the jagged edge of a piece of bamboo.”

His perjury is obvious. His own lawyer can’t back him up. The public prosecutor flays him to the bone with his own words. I hand Ortiz the relevant papers as he painstakingly fillets the defendant.

“Your written testimony last October states she hurt her hand on the door-jamb.”

“You also stated then that she owed you $6000. Are you adding interest?”

Ortiz points out several more discrepancies. By the time he is dismissed, Mayor’s balloon of arrogance has deflated somewhat.

Like a dog digging up an old bone, Ortiz uncovered several discrepancies.

Like a determined dog digging up an old bone, Ortiz unearths several discrepancies.

One by one, Mayor’s witnesses are called to testify. I present documents that prove each one is a distant relative by marriage to the defendant. They’re all cousins to Mayor’s wife, albeit twice or thrice removed. The astonished looks on their faces as the public prosecutor reveals this secretly-gathered information is priceless. I can almost hear them wondering how I found out. Over the last few months, my surreptitious investigations of all the available evidence have been extremely thorough. Even Ortiz is surprised.

“You are not obligated to testify,” Judge Schaffry tells each witness.

Oh, but how they want to! Hatred and resentment are so thick in their throats they’re all in danger of choking. They can’t wait to see me roasted in the halls of justice. It couldn’t be more entertaining. Each witness has an entirely different account of what took place that day. From the time of day to the weapon they claim I used to assault Mayor, and everything that took place in between. They’re all completely contradictory. In fifteen months, they appear not to have colluded to get their story straight.

Jessica: “It was 11.00am. She hit him with a shovel! She called him a dog! I swear that’s the truth. I saw it with my own eyes!”

Diana: “It was 2.00pm. She hit him with a broomstick! She never cut her arm. She called him a monkey! I swear that’s the truth. I saw her attack him with my own eyes!”

Geronimo: “It was 8.00am. She hit him with a post-hole digger! She cut her arm on a piece of barbed wire. I swear that’s the truth. I was right there! I saw the whole thing with my own eyes!”

By the time the last clown has completed the circus circuit, even Judge Schaffry is laughing.

Each witness glared angrily as they perjured themselves in front of the judges.

Each witness glares angrily as they perjure themselves in front of the four judges.

Ortiz dissects each testimony into bite-sized lies. The witnesses become agitated. Their tongues twist around more untruths. Soon, the entire testimony of each one becomes mincemeat for perjury pie.

“Are you lying?” asks the public prosecutor.

“No! I’m telling the truth! I swear!”

“Is the defendant lying, then?”

“No! He’s not a liar!”

“Well, someone is lying! Your story is very different to his story. Who is it?”

“It isn’t me!”

“Is it him then?” Ortiz points at Mayor.

Diana becomes angry and calls me crazy. Immediately, she’s admonished. Geronimo also spits insults. He’s sternly warned that he will be thrown out of the courtroom and his testimony struck from the record if he does it again. Jessica tries angrily staring me down, but can’t hold her perfidious gaze very long; my calm observation of her spewing fallacies proves too much.

Expertly filleted and then finely minced, the last witness is dismissed. But we can’t proceed further without my other witnesses, Paredes and Claire. Court is adjourned to a date yet to be specified. We all rise as the judges and court stenographer leave the room. Smiling, I gather my papers and walk out of the courtroom with Ortiz, the ombudsman and my three new friends.

A blind justice statue can see that justice in this courtroom is as likely as ice cream in hell.

Even a blind justice statue can see that true justice is as likely as eating ice cream in hell.

In the street, Mayor and his witnesses huddle, enraged. They’re now aware that they’ve botched it badly. Obviously, it’s all my fault. They toss incoherent insults in my direction. Laughing as I cross the street to catch the bus to the terminal, I feel better than I have in months. If all forms of corruption are put aside, there is no way I can lose. Still, there is (at least) one more session to get through first; let’s see what happens . . .