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Experiencing a Coup On Vacation: Adventure Travel Runs Smack Into Real Life

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The army's recent intervention in Egypt, and the turmoil there, have brought memories surging back of a time in 2005 when I was on my way to a vacation in Ecuador and the Galapagos islands. World events chose that moment to intervene in my carefully made plans. Here is my dispatch:
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¡Resten ustedes tranquilos! Stay calm.

Leave your baggage in the overhead bins. Remain in your seats.

Our pilot has a lot of urgent things to say in Spanish. I pick up the seat part, the calm part. But it is late April, and here we are held up on the tarmac after flying from JFK to an airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador. There are soldiers all over the place. And no sign of this standoff coming to an end.

"The airport is now closed," explains one of the LAN flight attendants in English.

Closed? I say. How come? I am extra anxious because I´m heading for an adventure cruise vacation in the Galapagos. I am afraid of blowing my connection.

"Are you not aware?" says a man with a wide silk tie sitting beside me, "about the president of Ecuador? He has fired the Supreme Court."

I´m embarrassed to say this is the first I´ve heard of it. And I am petulant. What does that piece of news have to do with all these soldiers? Then it hits me.

Could we have arrived here, I say, the exact day, at the exact hour of some coup?

"A coup?" he says. "Of course."

Along with my annoyance, I get a flash of fear. I do not want to be a Gringo looking straight at South American mobs, tanks or guns. I came here for adventure. Sure. But don´t the authorities understand? Not this kind. Not this real.

Not now.

We get let out of our plane after an hour--this is a relief--but then are herded into a terminal waiting room by soldiers, national police, and cool and stylish ground agents from LAN.

The man in the silk tie says that Ecuador has faced two sudden changes of government in 12 years. And then the news comes over someone´s cell phone, crackly but clear. Increasing pressure from crowds unhappy with government policies became impossible to stop--the removal of President Lucio Gutierrez only minutes before our arrival makes three.

Airports like the one here and the one in Quito, the capital, are under military guard because Gutierrez is, at this very moment, in his presidential chopper. He is on the run.

A woman from King of Prussia, Pa., keeps asking when we will get to leave. Nobody can say. Soldiers mill through the terminal. There are rumors. Angry mobs are beating up government workers in Quito. The vice president has been sworn in. The mobs are also in Guayaguil, and may come here.

It occurs to me for the first time. I might not make it to the Galapagos at all. My cruise could be cancelled, along with my hotel nights in Quito. I might be sent home.

I find there is a little pocket, a little flap in my stomach that doesn´t want the adrenalin to end. I imagine the front pages of newspapers in the US. The coup, which I feel a part of, might be squeezed in near the Wendy´s chili finger at the bottom of the page. Or it could be the lead!

The plane we came in on, the man with the wide tie, the nation of Ecuador. All are breaking news. I wish the TV here in the airport had on CNN. We might see ourselves.

The hours pass. Word comes. No flights tonight. We are loaded on buses and put up in a Guayaquil motel. It´s a brand new Howard Johnson´s, so absolutely new it isn´t open to the public. We airline refugees are breaking it in.

Next day, we learn that some of us can catch a flight to Quito on "Tame," an airline that is military-owned. Cruising the Galapagos is starting to seem dull. I book a seat.

I´m still on edge about the chance of gunfire. But I´ve made a decision. I want to see my coup for myself.

In front of Quito´s presidential palace, I blend in as much as I can along the fringes of a fuming crowd. "¡Fuera todos!" (Fire everyone!) is the shout since there are rumors that the president may still be in Ecuador. The people want him gone. But no one is sure. He may be somewhere in Quito, evilly hiding. He may be in Brazil.

Vendors hawk peanuts and candy and cigarettes. It is like an angry party. I am pushed up near the front, and I can see up close the regiment of soldiers arrayed along the balcony of the palace. I see the glint of the guns. I see the riot shields reflecting sun.

Someone begins the cheer. Stay calm, I think. Stay calm.

I feel a sound in my chest. I hear a rising note. "¡Fuera todos! ¡Fuera todos!"

It is the voice of hundreds. It is my voice.

Long live the coup.

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Peter Mandel is an author of picture books for kids, including his read-aloud bestseller: Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook), and his newest about zoo animals passing on a very noisy sneeze: Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House).