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The Law of La Paz

La Paz, Bolivia


Customs didn’t seem to have a problem with my “replicado” certificate. I´m not even sure that they checked it. Anyway, we passed into Bolivia easily and soon we were being driven to Loki La Paz (yes, another Loki – we had now earnt free t-shirts for being such loyal disciples). My first glimpse of the city blew me away. It looked like an enormous Lego set – faded colourful blocks covered the valley and crowded the slopes of the surrounding hills. Rising up behind them were huge snow capped mountains which stretched into the distance.

As usual we wandered out into the streets to get a feel for the place. It seemed a very poor city, families of beggars sat on the dirty pavements and most of the shops and buildings seemed very run down or abandoned. We would later find out that beneath the surface of La Paz lies a surreal, and often strangely accessible, underworld. Wandering breathlessly up the steep streets we stumbled across our first interesting site. I began to suspect that the cluttered stalls were part of the infamous Witches Market when I noticed a pile of dead llamas. They were small – babies – and while many were still covered in fluffy hair most were dried out like prunes. Among the other things available at the stalls were herbs, statues and skulls. I had read that llama fetuses are buried under houses for good luck and I assumed these other offerings would be used in similar rituals. Disappointingly the women who looked after the stalls looked no different than those who sold alpaca slippers – there wasn’t a warty nose or a pointy hat to be seen. I decided to save the souvenir shopping for another day.

Back at the hostel we bumped into Niall, a guy who we had met in Cusco. We had only spoken briefly as he was about to catch a bus but during that short time we had hatched a plan to buy a car and drive it to Brazil. We’d decided that a VW Beetle with a novelty horn would be most appropriate. We headed ou to a bar with a few of his room mates and it soon became apparent that this was not your usual gringo bar. For a start it had no visible sign or even lights to indicate where it was. It appeared simply to be a house with large metal gates. After pushing the buzzer and waiting for a while a small, seedy looking man appeared who eyed us for a moment before letting us through. It was all very sinister and I soon realized why. A waiter carried a tray over to the table next to us and delivered two beers and a small square slate with a couple of straws and a neat wrap of cocaine. We were in a coke bar!

I was excited to see such a novel approach to customer service but soon I felt like I was having a Hunter S Thompson moment. Around the group young, pretty girls and boys were randomly kissing each other and the conversation became frantic and strange. I had been around people on coke before but they had never freaked me out like this. A blonde Irish girl was offering me a reflexology massage. I don’t even know what that is but my reflexes told me to get out of there.

In the spirit of the fascinatingly corrupt world which we now seemed to be a part of, our sites became set on the local prison – San Pedro – made famous by the book Marching Powder and by stories of tourist tours where gringos have, in the past, been able to see inside the grounds, seen prisoners openly manufacturing cocaine and even sampled the prison wares. Since CNN conducted undercover investigations these tours have been made illegal but rumors still flew around about tourists successfully bribing guards. We decided to have a look at least.

After hanging around uncomfortably for a while (the prison guards with their huge shotguns are not the most approachable of fellows) Niall and I walked up to the gate. Josh had decided that visiting a prison was not for him. From the main entrance we could see into the prison courtyard – a mix of women, children and prisoners made it only slightly less intimidating. Then we heard someone shouting to us in English. A Dutch guy, who we later found out was named Sebastian, called out to us and asked if we wanted to talk to him. He could tell us all about the prison and what goes on! We said yes. The guards said no. We were ushered away (by which I mean they looked at us and we quickly made ourselves scarce) but not before Sebastian gave us a number to call him on. It was an exciting breakthrough and a few minutes later we had another. This time an opportunity presented itself in the bizarre form of a five foot American called Dave, a prisoner with only nine days of his sentence left, who could now leave the prison for short periods of time.

Dave was genuine, there was no doubt. Barefoot and disheveled in a crusty fleece, years of dirt seemed engrained into his feet and hands. Underneath, however, was a normal guy. I had just finished reading Midnight Express and I really felt for these convicts locked away in strange and corrupt foreign surroundings. When he asked if we were interested in seeing inside the prison we said yes. We had spent an hour shuffling suspiciously outside it, it was hard to say that we weren’t. Dave told us that for twenty Bolivianos (about two pounds) he could bribe the guard and we would be allowed in as visitors. He would also want five for himself. Compared to the hundreds we were expecting to have to pay the guards this seemed a stroke of luck. We had seen lots of visitors going in and out the prison so we were confident it could be arranged. Nevertheless, it was all very dodgy…

As we followed this haggard little man towards the prison, the sense that we were doing something stupid, actually illegal, was inescapable. He took the money and disappeared into the police station to get us our visitors stickers but eventually re-emerged shaking his head and in a hurry. He explained that there were no stickers left and we would have to travel seven blocks away to get them. We only had an hour or so until the last visiting hour and we didn´t fancy a night in the prison so as Dave hurried off we hurried with him, keeping a safe distance in order to avoid the attention of the police. We grew more anxious. He asked us to buy him some chicken as he hadn´t eaten all day. He was doing us a favour so, reluctantly, we did. By now it was too late to go back – we had followed him around for about twenty minutes. Eventually we came to the place and he told us to wait for him. Then, predictably, he disappeared. We never saw Dave again. We probably deserved it. Neither of us were particularly surprised and we both knew it was always going to be a risky operation but the fact he left us holding his leftover chicken did seem an unnecessary insult.

As we stood in the middle of the busy Bolivian market I reminisced about the very first scam I had experienced on my travels. The art student from Beijing – also known as Dave. In spite of the irritating loss of money and pride, part of me was relieved. It would have been a lot more painful to be done over by a prison warden, especially if we were inside the place! We headed back and called Sebastian – he knew Dave but confirmed that we had been had – tere was no way of getting people into the prison now. We could visit a certain area, however, and talk through the bars. We vowed to do this as long as we survived the Death Road, which Niall and I were cycling the next day.


permalink written by  steve_stamp on July 17, 2009 from La Paz, Bolivia
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Scam, SanPedro, Dave, Prison, CokeBar, Sebastian and LeftoverChicken

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