Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age
Two days later, I took a bus – one of the many, along with many trucks, taxis and private vehicles which due to banditry in the province only travelled in convoy. Several hours later, I crossed the frontier at the border town of Ipiales, which seemed a most depressing place. I jumped on yet another bus, arriving six hours later in Quito with not the faintest idea what I should do or where to start doing it. Here I was in yet another foreign country, with no Spanish, no connections and little money. I was tempted to get on the next bus back to Pasto and its promising possibilities but the memory of the long, spine-fracturing journey on decrepit buses I had just made, decided it for me.
I stayed, booking into a five dollar pension in Quito’s colonial centre, a mere sixteen kilometres south of the equator line which, Sitting on a sagging bed I counted my last dollars, wishing them to somehow increase in number. I rifled through what few possessions I had, searching in vain for a forgotten travellers-cheque or a crumpled banknote of any denomination but I knew before I started looking I would find nothing. The time had come to face reality – I was broke.
In desperation, I pinned my future on two scraps of advice from past experience which always worked for me. My mother used to say; however old one’s clothes were if your trousers were pressed, your shoes buffed and you were clean shaven, you will be taken for a gentleman. The second and one of my own dictums was that – when down and out, head for the best bar in town, splurge your last capital on a drink and pray your luck will change. With both these schemes in mind, I took a shower, borrowed the pension owner’s iron; an antique instrument which had to be filled with hot ashes, smoothed the wrinkles from my one and only suit and going outside onto the street I invested a couple of Sucre (the Ecuadorian currency at this time) coins in a shoeshine.
As Buenos Dias, gracias and a few other picked-up impolite phrases, no mi molestas and vete a la mierda were the limits of my Spanish. I had to find a hotel where English would be spoken. The hostel owner recommended the Hotel Colon, which could be easily reached on foot. Following his directions, I crossed El Ejido, a littered, scruffy park, studded with ageing eucalyptus trees and litter. Later I learned this park served to separate the haves and no haves in the colonial part of the city. It was in El Ejido, not too many years before, the good folk of Quito lynched and burned one of their more unpopular presidents.
As Lady Luck would have it – a much-used cliché of mine and a lady who has always been around when needed – and this day was no exception. Carlos had mentioned an oil boom but I had no idea what an oil boom was. That was until I entered the Hotel Colon. It was mid-afternoon and the lounge was already crowded. Not a word of Spanish to be heard. English or rather American English dominated. I took a stool at the round bar and ordered a beer. No women were present and from the good-natured banter which was going on between tables and bar, it was clear many of the men appeared to know each other.
The barmen and waiters were hard pressed to keep the drinks flowing and I more than welcomed the complimentary avocado dip and the corn chips, served in earthenware and refilled as they emptied. I was prepared to make my one beer last when another one was set in front of me. Some happy punter had bought drinks for all of us sitting at the bar. Less than ten minutes later and obviously not to be out-done, someone else followed suit and so it continued. More than a little anxious, knowing I could not reciprocate but with confidence mounting with every new drink, I entered into conversation with the man sitting beside me; an affable Scot, also called Brian. He seemed well known to all those present and later he also bought a round for the bar and included me. To save any embarrassment I refused a further offer, truthfully explaining I was not in a financial situation to reciprocate. He rejected this excuse on the grounds that he too had many times been in similar circumstances and he insisted I stayed and drank at his expense.
As the afternoon progressed, Brian briefed me in on what he believed were the essential details for a new arrival to the city. Quito, with a population of 500,000, two international hotels, four American owned bars, three sizeable whorehouses and the Hotel Colon being the favourite daytime watering hole for the oil field workers. In general, these men worked anything from a seven to fourteen-day shift in the eastern jungle region of the country, called El Oriente, followed by seven days R and R in Quito. The lounge bar we were in opened at eleven in the morning until midnight. At closing time there was a discotheque in the basement for those who still needed to quench their thirst. With an average wage of around $US 150 per day, the men could afford to drink and from what I what was observing, drink they did – with a vengeance. It was into this international milieu that I found myself, forty-five years ago.
A few hours and many beers later, someone in the crowded bar was urging everyone to move on and get some action at the ‘Wildcatter’. Brian invited me along too. I declined but again he insisted, informing me that as he ran this ‘Wildcatter Club’ and I would be his guest for the rest of the evening. The club was only a few blocks away but everyone piled into the hotel taxis rather than walk. I wish I could describe my first impressions of the club and the remainder of that night. All I remembered when I awoke the following day and surprisingly back in the hostel, was my rash promise to return there the following evening – but return I did.
Brian McDowell was a partner in the club along with two Chicago born Americans, Frank and Ken Rich. The two brothers were heirs to a fortune their father had made with his invention of the Simonize car polish. As they spent the majority of their time in the States, it was Brian who managed the Wildcatter.
During our initial meeting in the Colon and as happens when men drink and talk too much, I must have presented a reasonable first impression to Brian. On this second meeting, he kindly offered me a spare room on the first floor of the club. I stayed in the club for a few days, half-heartedly sightseeing, observing how the club was being run and accompanying Bryan on visits to his American competitors, where we never had to pay. A prior arrangement was in place between the four bars. The owners drank free in each other’s bars, and I was included.
The Wildcatter, by far the smartest of the four, was frequented by oil-field workers, and those few locals who could afford the higher prices charged. As can be expected in any bar where a mixture of nationalities gathers, there were occasional problems. Generally, these were caused by the wilder element of the international community I learned were known as oil-field-trash. These Brian attempted to banish to his competitors, where punch-ups were not objected to – and even enhanced the reputations of those involved.
Although living free and enjoying myself immensely, I was getting more and more concerned about the future. I could have returned to Pasto but how could I tell Carlos just how broke I really was and – in any case, I didn’t even have the bus fare. This problem was partially resolved when I realized there was an ulterior motive, other than sympathy, to Brian’s generosity. Believing he had arranged for a friend to manage the club in his absence, Brian had contracted his services as a chef, on a yacht in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. Unfortunately for him, Fergal, a hell-raising Irish friend and the man who was to manage the club, ran afoul of the local constabulary and had been physically deposited by the police across the border into Columbia. Brian’s way out of this dilemma was to offer the job to me.
Ignoring my protestations that despite spending a lot of my life propping bars up, I never worked in one. Somehow he convinced me I would have nothing to do apart from looking and acting like a manager. Once again this was where my pressed pants and clean shoes came in. Spanish was not a problem he explained, as the staff knew sufficient English to take an order and generally run the place. That was that. For the next two weeks, I would have a roof over my head – free food, free drinks and a job.
Nothing untoward happened during the fourteen days if you can discount an incident that occurred shortly after we opened one afternoon. I was in the bar when a pair of slightly intoxicated Americans came through the swing doors. The club had been built by oil-field hands on a western theme. From my accent and the way I welcomed them they immediately knew me to be English. Ignoring my, “Good afternoon gentlemen”, they ordered large bourbons. I was attempting further polite conversation when the larger of two – they were both very large, grabbed me by my jacket lapels and hoisted me off my feet.
“My name’s Swamp Smith, boy.” He explained by way of an introduction. “And don’t you ever forget it.” I decided to play it cool and when he returned me to the floor, where I introduced myself.
“Jesus Christ! Another Brian.” commented his partner, and if that’s not bad enough, he’s a fucking limey.”
There was no way I would have been able to throw them out; instead in an effort to win them over, I told Gladys the barmaid, that their next Bourbons were on me. My attempt at interaction succeeded and they settled happily in at the bar. I really believed we had become friends but later, as they were leaving, Swamp put his massive arm around my shoulders and whispered in my ear,
“Let’s set the record straight Bryan. We will be coming back to see you but you do need to know that there are three things in life that really piss my friend and me off.”
“And what might these be?” I enquired, wishing to remain in their future good book.
“The first is tea with milk.” informed the grinning Swamp. “The second, wet toilet paper and…” Crushing me even harder. “the third and worst is a smart-arsed Limey.”
That was my informal introduction, or should I say induction, to the American oil-field worker and over the years I got to know many of them. I never had a serious problem with them. They worked hard in one of the toughest lines of work and in some of the hardest terrains in the world. I found them to be a loud, boastful, patriotic, gregarious and generous bunch of big boys of who in the majority, were the salt of the earth.
Brian’s return to Quito coincided with the arrival of Frank Rich, one of his partners. Believing my temporary job to be finished I was prepared to move out – but to where?. Unbeknown to me, even before accepting the chef’s job Brian had already decided to sell his share in the club and move to Australia where his absent wife had found a hotel management position for him in Perth.
The Wildcatter now needed a manager and Brian did me further yet another favour. Not only praising my work in his absence to Frank – I had done absolutely nothing to deserve this – he had suggested that I could be persuaded to stay but it would take a good inducement to make me do so. He blatantly suggested I be given me his fifty per cent share in the club. In his desperation and to my utter amazement, Frank accepted.
Lady Luck had not let me down – I had been in Ecuador precisely one month.
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