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
“To alcohol! The cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.” The Simpsons. –
El Pub Inglese was not my first venture into the alluring world of gastronomy in Latin America, nor was it to be my last. A couple of years previously I part-owned and managed the Wildcatter Club, and after selling out I swore I would never open another bar in Ecuador or for that matter, elsewhere in the world. However, it was Peter Mennell, the then British Ambassador to Ecuador who mentioned that the premises next to the Embassy were up for rent. He hinted that the house, being across the street from the five-star, Hotel Quito, would be an ideal location for an English pub.
After weighing up the pros and cons I decided to go for it. My problem was that I was also a partner in another business and I knew I could not handle a bar alone. I then recalled a recent conversation with my good friend, Peter Wilson. Some months earlier, over liberal quantities of Scotch, he confided in me that unless an alternative opportunity came up he would have to leave Ecuador when his contract finished. Here was my chance.
I caught up with Peter on his next appearance in Quito. These visits were infrequent because it took him all of two days of arduous travel to reach the capitol. The tea plantation he managed was located under the shadow of the active volcano, Sangay, in southern Ecuador. The estate was 30 miles from the nearest village and even before getting to the first main road he had to cross a 200-yard wide river by a primitive cable sling.
He was excited about being a Pub landlord in Quito, but like me at that time, he had no spare money to invest in the venture. The lack of ready funds was almost the end of the idea but a friend of Peter’s kindly offered to loan us the necessary US3000. So far – so very good. The next step was to approach the Chilean women who owned the premises and this was left for me to do.
Edu, the proprietor, had a reputation as a rather eccentric character. Somewhere in the distant past she had ensnared and married an unwary Ecuadorean diplomat while he was serving in Santiago, Chile. They later divorced but she stayed on in Ecuador with the sole purpose of making his life miserable. Rumour had it, on one occasion she embarrassed him by showing up at his office at the foreign ministry wearing her pyjamas. She was also known for her preference for handsome young men but was no longer so attractive and having little money the selection was apparently getting thinner and older. Prior to approaching he her, I called for an appointment and on arrival was received at the door by one of her toy-boys, who sourly conducted me directly up the stairs to her bedroom where I was informed, the negotiations were to take place.
I have been in some extraordinary bedrooms in my time, but Edu’s was a one-off. The whole of the room, including the ceiling and the wooden floor, were painted mat black. From the door, a line of fluorescent white footprints led across the floor, up the wall across the ceiling and coming to an end above her double bed. It was with her tucked up in this and with me sitting decorously on the edge of it, we eventually came to an agreement agreeable to both parties.
As the bar was adjoining the British Embassy we hoped, with the ambassador’s permission, to call it, The Ambassador’s Arms. He had no objection and kindly allowed what he said was his coat of arms to be used for the pub sign. Sadly the local authorities had other ideas. At the time the government were concerned about the rash of non-Spanish names being used. This was due to the Indigenous people christening their children with the names, Alka-Seltzer, Coca-Cola or Aspirin. Ambassador’s Arms came under this category.
In a flash of inspiration Peter, when asked by an official for our second choice, came up with El Pub Inglese. On being asked what it meant in English, he informed them it meant Public House, which they read in Spanish as El Publico. Amid lots of tittering from the bureaucrats, the name was officially accepted. Seemingly Publico to them was a toilet but if the dumb gringos wanted to call their place a toilet, so be it; at least it was Spanish of a sort.
We opened shortly afterwards, but after paying the rent and stocking the bar – the furniture and kitchen equipment were included in the rent – Edu had at some time converted the ground floor into a restaurant, with sacking covered walls – there was no cash flow. Here again, Lady Luck stepped in disguised as Big Jim Anderson. BJ was an oilfield hand whose only drink was Jack Daniels bourbon, of which we had none to offer. Slamming a roll of US dollars – around 1000 – on the bar top, he ordered us to make sure in the future we would always have Jack Daniels when he came to town. We were just to let him know when his credit ran out. It was thanks to customers like BJ that we survived the first couple of months. It would take more than this brief account to name all the other generous characters who passed through the doors of El Pub over the passing time.
Instinct must have told Dientes that it was customary for English pubs to have a dog. This tiny, starving mongrel abandoned the streets and without invitation moved in as our mascot. Dientes – teeth, so named for a set of molars which appeared too big for his mouth, soon became popular with the customers, making up with a personality for what he did not have in looks. With the British Embassy being our neighbour and some of its staff becoming our first customers, it did not take long for El Pub to become known as the Embassy Annex. One particular afternoon Dientes came trotting into the bar with a folded piece of paper tucked into his collar. It was an order for two gin & tonics, dispatched from the embassy by Pam and Jean, two of the craziest of secretaries.
The place was not large, in fact at times it was far too small. There was seating for thirty in the restaurant area and the bar itself was tiny. At its busiest, it would hold about thirty drinkers. Despite or perhaps because of its pokiness and the inherited bizarre sacking decor it had its own charm. before long there were few bars which could boast of a guest list as varied or customers as interesting as El Pubs. Our guests – not all at the same time thank God, were diplomats, drillers, ex-Pats, transient businessmen, a couple of slightly dubious journalists, officers and agents of the American DEA, FBI and the CIA and last but certainly not least the transient guests from the Hotel Quito. Quite a few of the latter we would see again and again when they were Quito on their periodic business trips.
One of these was Peter, a retired Brigadier General, who worked for a Northern Irish armament company and of whom more can be learned later in the book, stayed five months in the hotel becoming a loyal El Pub customer. We also had our fair share of Old School boys and Sloane Rangers, My partner Peter, being an old Shirburnian himself, insisted we kept a book to be signed by special visitors. These generally came in pairs but there some who travelled alone – usually the females. Most of them were doing South America as their forebears had done the Grand Tour of Europe, usually without financial worries. One such was Mark Shand the Duchess of Cornwall’s brother; who later wrote a book of his journey through India on an elephant, and was the founder of the charity, Elephant Family. Mark’s entry in the guest book reads, “Wogs begin at Calais – Pubs begin in Quito.” Andrew Fraser, Lord Lovat, was another, later to be killed by a charging Buffalo, while on Safari in Tanzania.
They all gave as good as got when they were matched a drink for a drink or in badinage with some of the oil-field boys. Once, in the late hours, my good friend Simon and I took Mark and Andrew to show them El Mirador, Quito’s infamous house of pleasure where, amongst other scandal created that night, the two old Etonians destroyed some of the house fixtures while showing off their prowess at martial arts. We had driven to the bordello in the Ambassador’s car and somehow he, Simons’s father, came to hear of the escapade. Somewhere among my treasured souvenirs I still have a letter from him, stating that he was not impressed to hear of his car being seen parked in front of a house of ill-repute and should we think of returning to the said establishment again, would we kind enough to take a taxi.
Nor were the ladies of the Chelsea slouches when it came to holding their own in tough company. One singular character was Anne Lambton, the wayward daughter of Lord Lambton and one of Andy Warhol’s favourites. Lady Virginia Fitzroy, Sarah Colman and Georgina Marten were some of the other blue-blooded charmers. I introduced Virginia and Sarah to Pisco Sour, that noxious Peruvian cocktail and later on will describe our adventurous seven days, searching along the banks and braes of the river Cayapas for a customer of ours and his only worldly possession – a water-bed.
Unknown to us at the time, we even had a gang of fugitive bank robbers as customers and you could not have met a nicer three guys. The three Americans men had been taken to hanging out at the bar and had rented a nearby house. As far as we knew that were construction contractors, negotiating a contract. The three were genuine construction workers, but they were also genuine bank robbers. While working on the site of a new bank in Virginia, they had found a way to circumnavigate the built-in security system. When the building was completed and the bank was operating; they returned. Cutting a hole through the ceiling they had blown the safe and stolen a considerable amount of money. Shortly afterwards they disappeared. I later learned of their activities from a visiting FBI agent. Delicacy forbids me mentioning the names and antics of the many women of differing circumstances and ages who passed through Ecuador via El Pub. They came from all walks of life and usually eager for adventure. One of my favourites was the often tipsy wife of a UK government agricultural advisor. During their time they had lived in many countries of the world. She could be delightfully indecorous and claimed to be writing a book we would all be in, which would be .to be titled, From the Indies to the Andes, in my Undies. Unfortunately, I still have to find a copy.
Under the date 6. August 1976 is the signature of a remarkable and unexpected guest. Fifteen minutes before opening time on that same day, Sam Hall, geologist and pub regular arrived at El Pub door accompanied by another thirsty friend; both suffering hangovers. As we did not open until noon Peter was reluctant to let them in until Stan introduced his friend. It was Neil Armstrong – the first man on the moon and as far as is known, the only astronaut to have drunk in El Pub. Unfortunately, I was not there to witness this auspicious event but did meet him briefly the same evening at a reception in the hotel Chalet Suisse where he unexpectedly keeled over. His hosts, the American Embassy, thought Quito’s 10,000 feet altitude was to blame; We knew otherwise.
Once Peter discovered a would-be thief on his way upstairs to where we had our office and bedrooms. Mine was formerly Edu’s but I had quickly changed the colour. The slippery rogue managed to disentangle himself from Peter’s grasp, escaped into the street and on being pursued, leapt onto a slowly moving bus. Seeing a uniformed policeman on duty outside the embassy, Peter called on him for assistance but the man’s sword get stuck sideways in the bus door as he attempted to jump aboard. The military was unpopular at this time and the bus driver, encouraged by the passengers, refused to stop. Peter, helpless with laughter on seeing the official trapped, half in and half out of the bus, had to break off the pursuit. It was excellent local colour for the group of tourists standing outside the Hotel Quito.
Such hilarious incidents were the order of the day and when we hired an incorrigible Austrian barman by the name of Gerhard, whose robust personality packed the bar and whose escapades became a legend, the pub took on new dimensions. With Gerhard, single women had to earn their place at the bar, oil-field boys were not served if wearing any kind of hat. Once he fixed a wrist watch for a boringly troublesome customer by smashing it with a hammer saying “that fixed it, no more problems with time.” The crushed watch was later framed and hung on the wall. He was the only man I know of who drank himself to an early death and thoroughly enjoyed it. – RIP Gerhardt.
As we opened from Midday until early the following morning, we could not expect Gerhard to be permanently behind the bar, so we took to hiring good looking girls who were looking for work while backpacking through South America. The combination of a preposterous Austrian and some dolly Brits with their ample bosoms did nothing to diminish the pub’s popularity. James was an old school friend of Simon and Mark Shand’s. At the time he was only twenty-two but had all the confidence only an Etonian education can give. He was also gifted with an eloquent English voice fitting to his Sloane Square background. He was employed by a timber exporting company and a frequent guest at the Hotel Quito and of course, El Pub. He had lived his post-school years alone on a plantation somewhere in the far-east. There was one memorable moment when he and Simon were together in the bar and the place that day was exceptionally crowded. A smattering of prudishly, correct American embassy females were also present.
Simon, his booming, upper-class voice equal to that of James’s, asked him jokingly what he had done for sex while alone on his far-eastern spread? Without a trace of humility, James explained for all the bar to hear, how he had once tried to fuck his dog but the ungrateful bitch had bitten him. As he declared his outrageous statement, a moment of silence descended on the bar, An instant later this was broken with roars of laughter and shocked mutterings, dependent on the customers being male oil-field or female American embassy. Shortly afterwards, a dog’s mussel was kindly donated and installed in a prominent place behind the bar. It may still be there. On another occasion, on being complimented by one of the girls behind the bar, on being so relaxed? He informed her and all those within hearing that he was quite refreshed having just had a wank into a Hotel Quito towel.
James was prone to making such unconventional but jaw-dropping announcements – true or false – but the reader should remember this was in the conventional, less open-minded eighties. When I had time on my hands, I would hitch a ride on a two engine plane that James would hire to survey the coastal forest for his company. There was the time when he and I were in Tumaco, a decidedly grungy village on the Pacific coast. We had flown in on a wreck of a machine and were sitting on the wall of a flooded graveyard, waiting for a brothel – the only place where one could get a beer to calm our nerves – to open. We made a pact then, that in later years we would jointly write a travel book. I spoke to him recently and he assured me he is still researching the book, to be called “Whoring and Touring in South America”.
In 1974 the first rugby team in Ecuador, was formed in 1974 by a collection of us expats from the UK, Chile, the Argentine and France. Our first intercity match was against a Guayaquil team, cobbled together by Colin Armstrong, the British Consul to that city, where we were supported by a bevy of bewildered coastal beauties. After the game, we retired to the Phoenix Club to celebrate. The truly memorable game came shortly afterwards, when the crew of the visiting Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, Sir Lancelot, challenged us – a joint El Pub and Phoenix Club team. We Lost 43 to 3 and once again we finished in the Phoenix Club but this time with 200 British sailors and a similar number of exotic Guayauilenas – procured by the same British Consul. That after-game party was something else and it was the talk of that city for years to come.
The persona mentioned above were but a few of the amazing characters, both male and female, who have live or have died and passed through the doors of El Pub Inglese. A couple I write of will appear again in other chapters of this book. Other may be relieved to be excluded. Whatever, a couple of years later, I moved on, selling my half of the business to Peter and getting into other even more adventurous pursuits of which I later write. With me gone, the bar’s popularity continued and I hope someone who knew El Pub under Peter Wilson’s management, will one day continue the narrative of that amazing place.
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