Declan Tan’s second ‘Letter from La Paz’ is a fictional account of a visit to Bolivia’s San Pedro prison
“A pint a-Carling yeah and whatever you’re havin’,” a white-spit mouth, mine, chums out familiar to the bar girl. I’m pointing at the tap and reaching my hand out as it pours, my fingers snatching at the half-filled glass. I can’t wait around. We’re in La Paz for 3 days. I’m counting pints in my head. We have to fit it all in somehow. I just been ridin’ down the World’s Most Dangerous Road on a borrowed mountain bike and I need a pint of England’s finest to savour the moment. Yeah I know. Top Gear did it in jeeps, the legends.
A gulp on the frosty pint. “Put on some fuckin’ Oasis” I shout at no one in particular.
“What else is there to do round ‘ere?” I ask the maid, some English nectar dribbling down and out the side of my mouth onto the corners of the St. George’s flag draped round my Aquascutum shoulders. England tastes good cold.
“Well,” she says, a sneer and a sip on the bottle of Inca Kola I just paid for, “you could head down to the San Pedro prison.”
“Yeah? What’s all that then? I don’t need to come all the way to Bolivia to see the nick.” These foreign birds love the cockney chat. Learnt some off the Internet before I flew ere. Desk job at Foxton’s funds me handsomely.
Her eyes roll back white before pulling up the tap and this thick black book from under the counter, pages all dog-eared like Chav, my bitch Staff I’ve left back home. “All in this book, Marching Powder. But you go down there and see it for yourself. There no other prison like it. I know a guy can get you in. I’ll call him if you want.” She walks off to serve some tanned flip-flop Aussie cunt.
I look at it. Books. I ain’t got no need books. Only book I need is the Lonely Planet. Gap year don’t finish ‘til September. Cambridge mugs better be ready.
I turn the black book over in my hands: “By Rusty Young”. Sounds amusin’ enough. This prison gaffe might be worth a shit.
“Oi you. Yeah, make that call. I’ll get the lads.”
“Too late today. Have to be tomorrow if you still want go.”
“What? A day?” Bolivian mugs. “Yeah alright. Tomorrow’s fine.” I lift my empty and show it to her, adding a belch for effect. Foreign birds love that. “Another Carling, ta.”
Morning. My mobile’s alarm is going off. Max and Paddy: “Wake up, fat slob. Wake up, fat slob.” £4.50 well spent that was. Funny though innit, a gram of Bolivian white set me back about the same last night. And the night before. Off my tits I was. Whoever’s churning out that gak must be loaded.
“Turn that shit off”, a voice from a top bunk in the 12-bed dorm.
“Nick, turn it off.”
“Yeah, yeah. Get your shit together lads, we’re off.” We bowl out of there looking for that bar girl.
“Turn the light off!”
We keep walking. “Fuck ‘em.”
We hit the bar and it’s two o’clock. We get a couple rounds in before she turns up. She gives us the time we have to be at the gates and makes another call to her contact for us, speaking colonial gibberish into her phone. She tells us it’s sorted, gives us the number for Kenneth and says that we should go now if we want to get in. Her broken English just about doin the trick. Will and Mickey, nursing their bottles of Cusqueña (foreign muck), quickly down them before we leave. I take my Carling with.
“You not comin’ along, darlin’?”
“Yeah, no thanks.” She walks off into the back room. We watch her leave.
We get in a cab and show the driver a piece of paper. Mickey bolt upright starts saying: “San Pedro prison, yeah?”
Drives eyes us and says: “San Pedro. Si.” Catching sight of my pint he speaks louder this time, turning in his seat: “No beber aqui. No beber aqui.”
“Yeah mate no baby a key. No worries mate.” Fuckin mug.
“Come on, Drives.” Will is pointing at the road through the windshield and mime-steers an invisible wheel then points at the potholed tarmac again. The cab driver sighs. “No hay dos sin tres,” he says as we roll out, looking into the rear-view at us: “Gringos.” I ain’t got a clue what he’s on about.
“Yeah mate. Gringo Starr,” Mickey.
“Bit stroppy this one, ain’t he?” I polish off the pint, some of it dribbling down the side of my face and onto the knot of the St. George’s flag round my Ben Sherman, tightening it around my throat.
We pay off Drives and get out in a lively part of town. A few beggars are in the square in front of the prison, lying in the sun. I light a cigarette, take a few puffs and drop it on the floor. One of the tramps comes up to me, gesturing an imaginary smoke at his lips and asks for one with his hands out saying “English? English?”
“Yeah mate.” I hand him the glass and we walk off laughing. The wind blows the corners of the flag into Will’s face. We call the number we’ve been given for Kenneth, the man who sorts the tours. He’s already there. No need to waste my credit.
“You ready to go in?” Kenneth is wearing sunglasses, can’t see his eyes.
“Yeah, how much is it, Ken?” Will is reaching for his wallet, drops some coins on the pavement and turns to see the beggar coming back moaning something with his hands out. The flag licks at his hair. Will picks most of them up and puts them back in his wallet, spinning away from the tramp. He kicks the rest into the gutter with the sides of his plimsolls.
“250 Bolivianos,” says Ken.
“Done.” We hand over the money and wait while he counts it. I light another cigarette take a couple puffs and drop it under my Reeboks and squash it, looking at the beggar and smiling.
Ken starts to walk off, “Vamonos”.
We go through these old maroon double doors streaked with blue, “They must be Hammers,” I says. Inside there’s a metal grill with a desk in front of it. Ken walks back out the door after a few words with the black Guard. Through the gridiron we see life within, prisoners and children. Will and Mickey start emptying their pockets for the guard pretty sharpish so I do the same, looking into the concrete courtyard of the jail and seeing the kids run up and down, middle-aged men round the edges sat under a hoop. The guard searches Will and Mickey then they put their stuff back in their pockets. The guard looks at my digital camera and wags his finger putting it in a wooden box and locking it. “Later”, he says.
He tells me to raise my arms for frisking by lifting his slightly. He goes to patting me down quick without really searching. Keeping up appearances. He misses the mobile in my pocket but handles the red and white cape on my back and tries to yank it off over my head. “Later”, I say, winking at Mickey. He keeps pulling at it over my head so I let him, then fold it up neat and tidy before handing it over. He stamps our hands and nudges us through the gate in the middle of the iron fence where this white South African inmate, Daniel, leads us to a tight spiral staircase going up to a hatch in the corner of the yard. Behind us I hear the word “Gringo” again and laughter.
Finding it a bit of a chore, I’m the last to climb through the hatch and the last to see the room of t-shirt boys sitting silent round a table. We take our pews at the patio table. I’m looking around and sniffing the loose snot up my runny nose, all the oily glitter of £4.50 sucked back up for a second wind. There’s a grey haired bloke standing over us with an accent I can’t pin down:
“Welcome. This is, as I’m sure you already know, San Pedro Prison. I’m Cisco, I’ve been in here for two years and I’ll be your gracious host for today.” He sits down on his double bed. “What we’re going to do is break you up into smaller groups so you can do the tour with whoever you came with. Daniel will take the first group down and show you around. You other boys will wait here with me…” His scrawny smacked up girlfriend with a running video camera takes a shuffled step forward from the side of the bed. He turns and smiles at her, “… and my girlfriend, Julieta. I’ll answer any more questions you have when you come back. And we’ll discuss the tip then.”
The first group fucks off quietly. They’re Dutch or something. They walk off speaking gibberish to each other.
It goes quiet. “Now, you boys. Where you from?”
“England, mate.” Will looks uncomfortable when he says it. I narrow my eyes at his weakness. Reminds me of Tyndall.
“Yeah, mate” I say.
“Alright, mite.” This Cisco guy’s a bit of a joker. “What did you come here for?”
“Some bird told us about it, said we might wanna check it out.”
“So you know what goes on in here.”
“This is a prison.” No shit. I keep schtum though. Don’t trust his long hair and scarred cheeks. “The prisoners run this place on the inside. The guards we pay off to let in tourists and people like you. It’s a democracy in here, we make our own decisions. We have committees and a forum on Tuesdays. Any problems, we sort them out ourselves. It is our little island.” He looks down at his hands then back up, “So, what about drugs, you tried our drugs over here?”
“Yeah a little bit, mate.” I sniff the snot again. “We tried a bit.”
We nod at him.
“You wanna try some of ours? We make it in here ourselves. The purest of the pure. Uncut.”
“50 for a gram. 25 for a half.”
“Yeah go on then.” I look at the other two, they start getting their money out. Cisco’s bird still has her camera on us.
“Don’t worry about her. We’re just filming for fun.”
“Yeah no worries mate. Don’t wanna see this on YouTube though yeah.” I don’t smile.
“Don’t worry about that. You know Brad Pitt is making a movie about us?” He smiles.
“Yeah?” We put the money on the table. “How many grams did he have?”
Cisco ignores the banter and hands Julieta the notes, who gets some wraps out of a black bin bag.
“We do it in here or what?”
“Yes, in here. Don’t worry about the guards. Just finish it all before you leave. You can’t take anything with you. You might have problems with the guards and end up in here.”
“No problem mate.”
“Here, use this.” He hands over a thick black book. Marching Powder again.
I loosen the wrap and tap out a trail, rack it up and pass the book to Mickey when I’m done. He does likewise.
“So, what you in here for?” Mickey makes small as he chops.
“Drugs.” He says. “Most of us in the foreign section are in here for drugs. Some of us innocent. But there is nothing we can do about our situation here apart from get on with it and wait. Drugs make money for us, yes, but in the end it is all shit because there is no other way to live in these conditions. We have some serious addicts in here. But when I’ve done my time, I’m out of drugs forever.” The book comes back to me and I rack another thick one. I hand it along again. I look at Will and Mickey and they’re both tense, chopping up and sucking it in. “Happy days,” Will says.
“What about weed, you like weed? 30 for a spliff. Good stuff.”
“Yeah, you got a drink though?”
“Beer or soft drink?”
“Beer if you got it.”
“Sure, 10 bolivianos.”
There’s the exchange of money and beer.
“So, how’d you get busted?” Will asks.
“Trafficking coke is a dangerous business.”
“Yeah? You always been doin that?”
“No, I used to be in the military.”
“Falklands, yeah?” Cisco goes quiet. Touched a nerve. St. George safely wrapped up in his box downstairs.
“Get him his beer.” Julieta pushes the bottle across the table looking at me. Doesn’t smile much this one.
“This is fucking mental, mate”. Mickey looks up at me before he huffs another.
“Is there a toilet in here, blud?” Will looks around as he speaks. Cisco points behind him to a cupboard.
“It’s in there,” he says.
“Cheers, mate.” Will goes over and slides the door across and revealing a cramped shitter.
Two more guys come up the hatch with Angelo, a Dutch inmate. Black. “Two more Gringos,” he says looking at us before climbing down the stairs.
Me: “Alright lads?”
Them: “Yeah not bad.”
“Where you from?” Mickey puts the book down, his wrap half done.
“Two more Brits”, Cisco.
“How about yourselves?” One of them asks, taking a seat. A fuzzy-lookin Chinese lad he is.
“Norf London, mate.” I say with usual charm. “Wait. Aren’t you in our hostel?”
“Not sure. We’re at the Wild Rover,” one of them says.
“Yeah that’s us,” says Mickey.
“You’re not the guy with that shit alarm, are you?”
“Nah mate. It ain’t shit.”
Will comes back from the bog straightening out his Evisu’s: “How do lads.”
This bloke Angelo sticks his head out of the hatch and says: “Ready?” We wrap up the rest of our gear and stuff it in our pockets. The Dutchies come back and I hear Cisco quizzing them about coke and how much they want. “See you soon,” he shouts as we’re slipping down the spiral, “Hopefully no one fucks you while you’re out there”.
Angelo laughs, looking at me: “Yeah then we’ll have to charge you!”
“Yeah, not funny mate.”
Angelo walks ahead of us and we’re looking at these Bolivians lounging around the courtyard in the sun. They mostly sit in the shade, chatting gibberish at each other.
“It’s not gibberish, it’s Spanish.” Angelo says looking at me and Will. “You speak only English, yeah?”
“Course, mate. Only language I need.”
Angelo skips ahead and starts speaking with the two lads from the hostel, “Right, so this is the courtyard, over there we have a basketball court, this is an open area where people hang out.” They are drinking cola ignoring us and killing time.
“Out here people sit and talk, play games, whatever. There are men who live here with their families so there are women and children too.” I look a kid in the eye and he looks happy to see me.
“The women cannot afford to live without their husbands so have to live inside. Of course the young children see some of the violence but that cannot be stopped. The violence would probably be much worse without them. Plus there are no guards in here, which keeps everyone a little happier. Then there’s the kitchen, a restaurant too over there where you can get food and drinks. Up there are some of the rooms. We’ll go up there later. If you are rich, or have a job in here to work for one, you can get your own room, like Cisco. He is one of the richest. Commands a lot of respect around here. Money makes the power. Like your democracy back home, right?”
I don’t get what he’s on about. But the other two lads smile and keep walking, not saying anything. The inmates look at us and greet us. When we get around the corner we go into a corridor with some cells along the wall. “These are some of the rooms where people share together. At the end here, is solitary confinement.”
I hear a shout: “Chino. Ey Chino!” This guy sitting in solitary, one of two in there actually, is lying on his bunk looking out a small opening, shouting at the Chinese lad. Chino ignores it.
“This is solitary?” Chino’s mate says. I hear him being called ‘Uno’.
“This isn’t a regular prison,” Angelo says. Will and Mickey rub their noses. “Right, in there’s the chapel if you want to have a look.” Uno and Chino poke their heads in and come back out.
“Nice is it?” Mickey asks from outside.
“So now let’s go upstairs.” Angelo leads and we go up a flight of stairs and look down on the scattered inmates in the courtyard. “Come in”. There’s a bloke standing in the room and he’s got these pictures in his hands.
“This man sells cards of Saint Peter and asks for a small donation if you want one.” We look at them, little holograms of a man with a beard and a halo looking up at something.
“Quite religious, aren’t they” I say to Will handing back the card. “You’re alright, mate.” Uno and Chino give the guy some notes.
“Let’s go upstairs.” The steps go up to the attic. There’s a wide skylight and far away outside there are snowy mountains.
“You can see the Andes from here. I come up here a lot to look out. Some people have tried to escape over this wall here.” It’s a big drop with craters and overloaded bins for a safe landing. Angelo shuts the skylight again and the view of the mountains disappears behind the dirty window. The noise from outside silenced.
“That’s pretty much the tour.” We turn to leave. Coke bars and beers waiting.
“But now I ask you gentlemen for a donation. A tip.” I look at Will and Mickey who are looking at the floor. “I’m in here but I’m innocent. I got put in prison because I took the rap for my girlfriend. She was pregnant. We are from Holland and I couldn’t let her go in prison. It is rough here. So I took the drugs she had and now I’m in here.” Coke bars fill with backpackers. “So I ask for just a little donation.” We’ve been cornered.
Uno and Chino do the honours. I ignore the heartfelt speech and start to make my way toward the steps again and ask where I can get a beer. “Cisco will give you one,” Angelo says.
“If someone else doesn’t first,” Uno says. Chino likes that one.
We go back to Cisco up through the hatch and sit with a few beers and the shift the rest of the gak skyward. We laugh and shoot the shit with Cisco, tell a few stories and chat to the quiet Dutchies. We’re the only ones laughing.
“Did you give Angelo a tip?” Cisco asks.
“Yeah mate. Plenty.”
“So now I ask you for mine.”
Cornered again. Swindle. I take out some coins and put them on the table, on top of Will and Mickey’s notes and pass it over. “Cheers yeah, Cisco. Take it easy.”
He says nothing. I run my finger over Marching Powder and rub my gums. Books ain’t so useless. We go down the spiral and get back to the gate.
“Later Angelo,” we shout. He doesn’t hear.
We step through to the other side of the gate and I get my digital camera from the box. I unfold the glory of St. George and lift it. I put it back over my head where it rests round my neck and we go out the West Ham doors. The cigarettes from the pavement, gone. The coins still reflecting a dull sun in the gutter.
The square is quiet. Shit engines chuck out fumes as they pass. I light another fag: “It’s the last night lads. Let’s get mashed. Route 36.”
I throw the unfinished cigarette and we walk off as my St. George chokes me to death in the breeze.