Declan Tanâ€™s second â€˜Letter from La Pazâ€™ is a fictional account of a visit to Boliviaâ€™s San Pedro prison
â€œA pint a-Carling yeah and whatever youâ€™re havinâ€™,â€ a white-spit mouth, mine, chums out familiar to the bar girl. Iâ€™m pointing at the tap and reaching my hand out as it pours, my fingers snatching at the half-filled glass. I canâ€™t wait around. Weâ€™re in La Paz for 3 days. Iâ€™m counting pints in my head. We have to fit it all in somehow. I just been ridinâ€™ down the Worldâ€™s Most Dangerous Road on a borrowed mountain bike and I need a pint of Englandâ€™s finest to savour the moment. Yeah I know. Top Gear did it in jeeps, the legends.
A gulp on the frosty pint. â€œPut on some fuckinâ€™ Oasisâ€ I shout at no one in particular.
â€œWhat else is there to do round â€˜ere?â€ I ask the maid, some English nectar dribbling down and out the side of my mouth onto the corners of the St. Georgeâ€™s flag draped round my Aquascutum shoulders. England tastes good cold.
â€œWell,â€ she says, a sneer and a sip on the bottle of Inca Kola I just paid for, â€œyou could head down to the San Pedro prison.â€
â€œYeah? Whatâ€™s all that then? I donâ€™t need to come all the way to Bolivia to see the nick.â€ These foreign birds love the cockney chat. Learnt some off the Internet before I flew ere. Desk job at Foxtonâ€™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 Iâ€™ve left back home. â€œAll 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. Iâ€™ll call him if you want.â€ She walks off to serve some tanned flip-flop Aussie cunt.
I look at it. Books. I ainâ€™t got no need books. Only book I need is the Lonely Planet. Gap year donâ€™t finish â€˜til September. Cambridge mugs better be ready.
I turn the black book over in my hands: â€œBy Rusty Youngâ€. Sounds amusinâ€™ enough. This prison gaffe might be worth a shit.
â€œOi you. Yeah, make that call. Iâ€™ll get the lads.â€
â€œToo late today. Have to be tomorrow if you still want go.â€
â€œWhat? A day?â€ Bolivian mugs. â€œYeah alright. Tomorrowâ€™s fine.â€ I lift my empty and show it to her, adding a belch for effect. Foreign birds love that. â€œAnother Carling, ta.â€
Morning. My mobileâ€™s alarm is going off. Max and Paddy: â€œWake up, fat slob. Wake up, fat slob.â€ Â£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. Whoeverâ€™s churning out that gak must be loaded.
â€œTurn that shit offâ€, a voice from a top bunk in the 12-bed dorm.
â€œNick, turn it off.â€
â€œYeah, yeah. Get your shit together lads, weâ€™re off.â€ We bowl out of there looking for that bar girl.
â€œTurn the light off!â€
We keep walking. â€œFuck â€˜em.â€
We hit the bar and itâ€™s two oâ€™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 itâ€™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 CusqueÃ±a (foreign muck), quickly down them before we leave. I take my Carling with.
â€œYou not cominâ€™ along, darlinâ€™?â€
â€œYeah, no thanks.â€ 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: â€œSan Pedro prison, yeah?â€
Drives eyes us and says: â€œSan Pedro. Si.â€ Catching sight of my pint he speaks louder this time, turning in his seat: â€œNo beber aqui. No beber aqui.â€
â€œYeah mate no baby a key. No worries mate.â€ Fuckin mug.
â€œCome on, Drives.â€ 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. â€œNo hay dos sin tres,â€ he says as we roll out, looking into the rear-view at us: â€œGringos.â€ I ainâ€™t got a clue what heâ€™s on about.
â€œYeah mate. Gringo Starr,â€ Mickey.
â€œBit stroppy this one, ainâ€™t he?â€ I polish off the pint, some of it dribbling down the side of my face and onto the knot of the St. Georgeâ€™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 â€œEnglish? English?â€
â€œYeah mate.â€ I hand him the glass and we walk off laughing. The wind blows the corners of the flag into Willâ€™s face. We call the number weâ€™ve been given for Kenneth, the man who sorts the tours. Heâ€™s already there. No need to waste my credit.
â€œYou ready to go in?â€ Kenneth is wearing sunglasses, canâ€™t see his eyes.
â€œYeah, how much is it, Ken?â€ 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.
â€œ250 Bolivianos,â€ says Ken.
â€œDone.â€ 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, â€œVamonosâ€.
We go through these old maroon double doors streaked with blue, â€œThey must be Hammers,â€ I says. Inside thereâ€™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. â€œLaterâ€, 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. â€œLaterâ€, 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 â€œGringoâ€ again and laughter.
Finding it a bit of a chore, Iâ€™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. Iâ€™m looking around and sniffing the loose snot up my runny nose, all the oily glitter of Â£4.50 sucked back up for a second wind. Thereâ€™s a grey haired bloke standing over us with an accent I canâ€™t pin down:
â€œWelcome. This is, as Iâ€™m sure you already know, San Pedro Prison. Iâ€™m Cisco, Iâ€™ve been in here for two years and Iâ€™ll be your gracious host for today.â€ He sits down on his double bed. â€œWhat weâ€™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 meâ€¦â€ 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, â€œâ€¦ and my girlfriend, Julieta. Iâ€™ll answer any more questions you have when you come back. And weâ€™ll discuss the tip then.â€
The first group fucks off quietly. Theyâ€™re Dutch or something. They walk off speaking gibberish to each other.
It goes quiet. â€œNow, you boys. Where you from?â€
â€œEngland, mate.â€ Will looks uncomfortable when he says it. I narrow my eyes at his weakness. Reminds me of Tyndall.
â€œYeah, mateâ€ I say.
â€œAlright, mite.â€ This Cisco guyâ€™s a bit of a joker. â€œWhat did you come here for?â€
â€œSome bird told us about it, said we might wanna check it out.â€
â€œSo you know what goes on in here.â€
â€œThis is a prison.â€ No shit. I keep schtum though. Donâ€™t trust his long hair and scarred cheeks. â€œThe prisoners run this place on the inside. The guards we pay off to let in tourists and people like you. Itâ€™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.â€ He looks down at his hands then back up, â€œSo, what about drugs, you tried our drugs over here?â€
â€œYeah a little bit, mate.â€ I sniff the snot again. â€œWe tried a bit.â€
We nod at him.
â€œYou wanna try some of ours? We make it in here ourselves. The purest of the pure. Uncut.â€
â€œ50 for a gram. 25 for a half.â€
â€œYeah go on then.â€ I look at the other two, they start getting their money out. Ciscoâ€™s bird still has her camera on us.
â€œDonâ€™t worry about her. Weâ€™re just filming for fun.â€
â€œYeah no worries mate. Donâ€™t wanna see this on YouTube though yeah.â€ I donâ€™t smile.
â€œDonâ€™t worry about that. You know Brad Pitt is making a movie about us?â€ He smiles.
â€œYeah?â€ We put the money on the table. â€œHow many grams did he have?â€
Cisco ignores the banter and hands Julieta the notes, who gets some wraps out of a black bin bag.
â€œWe do it in here or what?â€
â€œYes, in here. Donâ€™t worry about the guards. Just finish it all before you leave. You canâ€™t take anything with you. You might have problems with the guards and end up in here.â€
â€œNo problem mate.â€
â€œHere, use this.â€ 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 Iâ€™m done. He does likewise.
â€œSo, what you in here for?â€ Mickey makes small as he chops.
â€œDrugs.â€ He says. â€œMost 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 Iâ€™ve done my time, Iâ€™m out of drugs forever.â€ The book comes back to me and I rack another thick one. I hand it along again. I look at Will and Mickey and theyâ€™re both tense, chopping up and sucking it in. â€œHappy days,â€ Will says.
â€œWhat about weed, you like weed? 30 for a spliff. Good stuff.â€
â€œYeah, you got a drink though?â€
â€œBeer or soft drink?â€
â€œBeer if you got it.â€
â€œSure, 10 bolivianos.â€
Thereâ€™s the exchange of money and beer.
â€œSo, howâ€™d you get busted?â€ Will asks.
â€œTrafficking coke is a dangerous business.â€
â€œYeah? You always been doin that?â€
â€œNo, I used to be in the military.â€
â€œFalklands, yeah?â€ Cisco goes quiet. Touched a nerve. St. George safely wrapped up in his box downstairs.
â€œGet him his beer.â€ Julieta pushes the bottle across the table looking at me. Doesnâ€™t smile much this one.
â€œThis is fucking mental, mateâ€. Mickey looks up at me before he huffs another.
â€œIs there a toilet in here, blud?â€ Will looks around as he speaks. Cisco points behind him to a cupboard.
â€œItâ€™s in there,â€ he says.
â€œCheers, mate.â€ 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. â€œTwo more Gringos,â€ he says looking at us before climbing down the stairs.
Me: â€œAlright lads?â€
Them: â€œYeah not bad.â€
â€œWhere you from?â€ Mickey puts the book down, his wrap half done.
â€œTwo more Britsâ€, Cisco.
â€œHow about yourselves?â€ One of them asks, taking a seat. A fuzzy-lookin Chinese lad he is.
â€œNorf London, mate.â€ I say with usual charm. â€œWait. Arenâ€™t you in our hostel?â€
â€œNot sure. Weâ€™re at the Wild Rover,â€ one of them says.
â€œYeah thatâ€™s us,â€ says Mickey.
â€œYouâ€™re not the guy with that shit alarm, are you?â€
â€œNah mate. It ainâ€™t shit.â€
Will comes back from the bog straightening out his Evisuâ€™s: â€œHow do lads.â€
This bloke Angelo sticks his head out of the hatch and says: â€œReady?â€ 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. â€œSee you soon,â€ he shouts as weâ€™re slipping down the spiral, â€œHopefully no one fucks you while youâ€™re out thereâ€.
Angelo laughs, looking at me: â€œYeah then weâ€™ll have to charge you!â€
â€œYeah, not funny mate.â€
Angelo walks ahead of us and weâ€™re looking at these Bolivians lounging around the courtyard in the sun. They mostly sit in the shade, chatting gibberish at each other.
â€œItâ€™s not gibberish, itâ€™s Spanish.â€ Angelo says looking at me and Will. â€œYou speak only English, yeah?â€
â€œCourse, mate. Only language I need.â€
Angelo skips ahead and starts speaking with the two lads from the hostel, â€œRight, so this is the courtyard, over there we have a basketball court, this is an open area where people hang out.â€ They are drinking cola ignoring us and killing time.
â€œOut here people sit and talk, play games, whatever. There are men who live here with their families so there are women and children too.â€ I look a kid in the eye and he looks happy to see me.
â€œThe 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 thereâ€™s the kitchen, a restaurant too over there where you can get food and drinks. Up there are some of the rooms. Weâ€™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?â€
I donâ€™t get what heâ€™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. â€œThese are some of the rooms where people share together. At the end here, is solitary confinement.â€
I hear a shout: â€œChino. Ey Chino!â€ 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.
â€œThis is solitary?â€ Chinoâ€™s mate says. I hear him being called â€˜Unoâ€™.
â€œThis isnâ€™t a regular prison,â€ Angelo says. Will and Mickey rub their noses. â€œRight, in thereâ€™s the chapel if you want to have a look.â€ Uno and Chino poke their heads in and come back out.
â€œNice is it?â€ Mickey asks from outside.
â€œSo now letâ€™s go upstairs.â€ Angelo leads and we go up a flight of stairs and look down on the scattered inmates in the courtyard. â€œCome inâ€. Thereâ€™s a bloke standing in the room and heâ€™s got these pictures in his hands.
â€œThis man sells cards of Saint Peter and asks for a small donation if you want one.â€ We look at them, little holograms of a man with a beard and a halo looking up at something.
â€œQuite religious, arenâ€™t theyâ€ I say to Will handing back the card. â€œYouâ€™re alright, mate.â€ Uno and Chino give the guy some notes.
â€œLetâ€™s go upstairs.â€ The steps go up to the attic. Thereâ€™s a wide skylight and far away outside there are snowy mountains.
â€œYou 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.â€ Itâ€™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.
â€œThatâ€™s pretty much the tour.â€ We turn to leave. Coke bars and beers waiting.
â€œBut now I ask you gentlemen for a donation. A tip.â€ I look at Will and Mickey who are looking at the floor. â€œIâ€™m in here but Iâ€™m innocent. I got put in prison because I took the rap for my girlfriend. She was pregnant. We are from Holland and I couldnâ€™t let her go in prison. It is rough here. So I took the drugs she had and now Iâ€™m in here.â€ Coke bars fill with backpackers. â€œSo I ask for just a little donation.â€ Weâ€™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. â€œCisco will give you one,â€ Angelo says.
â€œIf someone else doesnâ€™t first,â€ 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. Weâ€™re the only ones laughing.
â€œDid you give Angelo a tip?â€ Cisco asks.
â€œYeah mate. Plenty.â€
â€œSo now I ask you for mine.â€
Cornered again. Swindle. I take out some coins and put them on the table, on top of Will and Mickeyâ€™s notes and pass it over. â€œCheers yeah, Cisco. Take it easy.â€
He says nothing. I run my finger over Marching Powder and rub my gums. Books ainâ€™t so useless. We go down the spiral and get back to the gate.
â€œLater Angelo,â€ we shout. He doesnâ€™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: â€œItâ€™s the last night lads. Letâ€™s get mashed. Route 36.â€
I throw the unfinished cigarette and we walk off as my St. George chokes me to death in the breeze.