Tombs and monuments, blinding white, shimmered in the mid-day heat as my taxi driver and I entered the main cemetery in Ecuador’s largest city of Guayaquil. I love exploring old graveyards, and had hired my driver to accompany me through this one. Freddy was short, solid as an oak, and after his afternoon escorting a Canadian gringa he would be attending his twice-weekly cockfight.
Freddy and I started at the lower levels of the sprawling hillside cemetery, walking in the marker shadows of weeping angels and mustachioed generals. Mausoleums abounded in this final resting area for the wealthy. One tombstone stood out among the others: a granite monolith erected to the memory of an assassinated president.
About an hour in, we started ascending a staircase that led to the summit of the cemetery’s highest hill. The marble steps, cracked and polished by time, were flanked on both sides by multi-storied crypts. From time to time I stopped to look at the inscriptions and at the flowers, candles and mementoes which family members and friends of the deceased had placed in the “windows” on El Día de los Difuntos – The Day of the Dead.
Close to the top I asked Freddy if we could stop for a moment. It was oppressively hot and humid, and I was beginning to feel short of breath. As I stood there, panting, a tall, gaunt man shot out from between two of the multi-crypt buildings and hurtled in our direction. For a moment I was hypnotized by the cold fury in his eyes. Then I caught something out of the corner of my eye and turned to stare in fascination as Freddy coolly aimed a handgun at the man. It was only a matter of seconds before he returned it to his pants pocket. “Gun… knife…they knew the odds,” he said. He sounded supremely satisfied.
“They? Knife?” I could barely eject the words.
“Yes. There were two of them. You didn’t see the knife?”
I didn’t feel shaken then; the jelly knees always seem to come later. As we descended the staircase, Freddy explained that the men were drogadictos. It wasn’t unusual to find them in the cemetery, he added. That’s why he’d brought his gun along.
It was the last day of a teaching stint in Ecuador for me. On hearing about my experience, one of my former ESL students told me: No hay como un poco de peligro y adrenalina para sentirse vivo. There’s nothing like a little danger and adrenaline to make you feel alive.
Yes, there was exhilaration, the relief of emerging unscathed from a dangerous situation. But the elation soon gave way to introspection. I can’t rid myself of the image of the addict, and the wild-eyed anger that he directed at Freddy and at me. How many people live like him – day in and day out – desperate or in constant despair? One foot already in the grave?
His eyes will always haunt me.