Thursday, May 28, 2009

Adventures in Bolivia

October 1996 to August 1997 I spent traveling from California to Tierra del Fuego overland, by bus. Bolivia was probably the most interesting country and, at the very least, made for the best stories. Here is a letter I sent from an internet cafe in La Paz on May 16, 1997.

The best of these vingettes is the first, my tour of a Bolivian prison. It's followed by my ride on the Death Road and Skiing at 17,000 feet.

The Freddy Tour
Or my first acquaintance with the Bolivian penal system

I first heard about this tour from two American girls I met on last weekend's ski trip (which see). It is a tour of Bolivia's national prison given by the infamous (at least amongst travelers) Freddy, an inmate in the jail.

The National Penitentiary, as it is called, occupies one city block in the heart of La Paz. The main entrance faces a quiet tree lined square where children play and women sell gum and candies from kiosks. I walked up to the entrance with three other travelers. It was all hustle and bustle; guards searching visitors and checking their identification and prisoners on the other side of the gate waiting to see if anyone had arrived for them. Before we had much time to assess the situation a long-haired man standing on the prisonerÍs side of the gates called out, "I'm Freddy, it's OK, come with me." The guards briefly searched us, more concerned that we were not carrying any cameras than they were about drugs or weapons, took our passports (so they would know we weren't prisoners when we tried to leave) and let us in.

Once inside the man who had called out to us explained that his name was Ruben and that he was Freddy's assistant. It was his job to wait at the entrance and usher tourists into the jail. Freddy was busy with another tour but would be with us shortly, Ruben explained, so we could just sit and relax for a few moments. Ruben took our money, the price of the tour was 20 Bolivianos, or about four dollars. Freddy got to keep about half of this, the rest went to pay off the gaurds and his assistants.

Now that I had a few seconds to breathe I looked around the prison yard to gather some first impressions. First of all the place didn't look like a prison at all. The area where we sat looked more like the interior courtyard of a standard budget hotel (a little nicer, in fact). There were three floors with doors leading out onto a balcony. Each doorway was attractively painted white with a pine green trim. In the courtyard, where we sat, trees and shrubs were planted giving the place an almost park-like feel. Along the sides were kiosks selling candies and gum, just like one sees everywhere in Latin America. On the ground floor was a pool hall and a restaurant. The prisoners were all dressed in plainclothes and moved about with freedom. The only people in uniform were the guards who, aside from the entrance, were almost entirely nonexistent.

Freddy arrived and introduced himself. He was dressed in a red T-shirt, bluejeans, and a baseball cap emblazoned with the Nike logo. He started off telling us a little about the tour. He explained that we had nothing to worry about in terms of our safety. Freddy knew everyone at the prison and they all knew not to mess with him. He added that in the year he's been doing these tours nothing bad has happened, "until today" he said and smiled.

He began the tour with some explanation about life in the prison. The bottom line, he said, was money. With money a prisoner can have and do anything within the walls of the prison. For a price a prisoner can buy a nicer cell, have any kind of drug that exists, even bring his wife and kids into the prison to live with him (probably the oddest sight in the whole place was toddlers playing in the prison yard). And of course money can buy your freedom. "Your money is your justice," was a phrase oft repeated by Freddy during the tour.

The courtyard we were standing in was, what Freddy called, the five star section of the jail. It was here that the big drug dealers and traffickers lived. A cell in this section starts at $5000 and goes up from there. For this price a prisoner can get several bedrooms, satellite TV, even a Jacuzzi. When a prisoner enters the jail he is either assigned a cell in the bad section or giving an option to buy a nicer cell from an outgoing prisoner. At various points along the tour I saw 'for sale' signs tacked up outside of cells.

We left the courtyard and continued our tour. On the gate of the section we had just left was a sign with five stars on it and the name of the section, Los Pinos (The Pines).

Next up was the four star section. This section's yard had no trees and shrubs but was still nicer than some of the hotels I've stayed in on this trip. It was here that the assistants to the drugs lords; the chemists, and pilots lived. A cell here went for a minimum of $1000. In the corner was a restaurant serving rotisserie chicken.

The tour continued down thru the stars and into the prison's slums where, as Freddy put it, the dangerous motherfuckers lived. He told us that every year at least 20 people died in fights, mainly in the bad sections. The weapon of choice is a spear made from a sharpened steel rebar. Freddy recounted a couple of fights he had been in while a prisoner. He said it was not like the movies. It was best to kill your opponent with the first blow, no drama.

Presently we came upon a young and rather unkempt young man slouching in a doorway. Freddy walked up and kicked him a couple of times, hard, in the face and slung a long list of obscenities at him as he stumbled away. As he left away Freddy added a couple more kicks for good measure. Freddy turned to us and said, "That man is a junkie and he owes me money. If he does not pay me I will break his arm." During the tour Freddy's demeanor was friendly and courteous but I had no trouble believing that he could turn the bad motherfucker if need be.

Next we passed by the section where the prostitutes live. They, for the most part, are not prisoners, but they live in the prison because, presumably, business is so good. "Those bitches over there," Freddy said, "they are the ugly bitches. They cost 30 pesos. Over there, those are the good looking bitches. They cost 80." He seemed to like to use the word bitch. His surprisingly good English was peppered with obscenities, including the ubiquitous, "motherfucker. "

Next he led us into his cell, a cramped two floor cell in the three star section. Freddy paid $600 for where he lives. Here he talked a little about the crimes he had committed and what he was in for. A couple of years ago he was caught robbing a jewelry store and has been in jail since, altho, like most criminals in Bolivia, he's been involved in the cocaine trade. In fact, while we sat in his cell he offered us each some cocaine "98% pure" and only $3 a gram...almost as cheap as Colombia.

Freddy lives with his girlfriend, a Yugoslav woman he met on a tour about a year ago. She liked the drugs so much that she decided to stay, altho she is not a prisoner. Apparently the drugs inside the prison are the best and cheapest available in Bolivia. The girl works at night as a stripper, collecting tips and occasionally lifting the wallets out of her drunk customer's pockets. Freddy does quite well, all things considered. Through word of mouth this tour has become quite popular and he sometimes leads up to six tours a day of ten people each. Due to this income, and the money he gets from his girlfriend, Freddy saved up enough money to paid off the judge on his case. In less than a month Freddy will be released. $2000 was the price that bought his freedom. "Your money is your justice," he kept saying.

Our last stop on the tour was the section where they keep political prisoners (mostly terrorists and guerrillas rather than dissidents and activists). These were the only prisoners who could not pay off a judge to have their sentence shortened. The government turns a blind eye to most corruption but not any that actually might endanger their power.

And finally the tour was over. Already another group of tourists was waiting for Freddy. We stood at the gate while the guard looked for our passports (a tense moment) and we were free. Of course, the outside didn't seem all that different.
The Death Road
Later that same day I took a bus to Coroico, a small town about half way down to the Amazon basin from the highlands. The road from La Paz drops over 10,000 feet in less that 50 miles on its way down. The road is far from safe, in fact, in 1994 the World Bank declared it 'the world's most dangerous road.' Amongst tourists that route is known, affectionately, as the Death Road.

Last year there were 26 accidents on this road, all fatal. What makes the road so dangerous is that it is a single lane flanked on one side by cliffs that are almost sheer and drop down sometimes as much as 500 hundred feet. Guard rails are in a universe far, far away. The day I went I made sure I got to the bus station early so as to guarantee a seat on the driver's side. If I was going down the Death Road it wouldn't be with my eyes closed.

On this road, as opposed to all others on the continent, cars pass each other on the left side. There is some sense to this. The cliffs are on the left side (going down) and the driver is better able to see how close the wheels are to plunging off the edge. This can make for some tense moments when the bus has to pass oncoming traffic and the wheels are literally less than a foot from the edge. There were points on the journey when I would look out my window and see nothing but air for 500 feet below me.

When the dangerous section started an Argentine traveler in front of me turned around and said, "do you believe in God?" I was not scared, altho there were some tense moments. I tried to treat the ride as a roller coaster. Of course, I think that any country would shut down a roller coaster that caused over 100 fatalities a year. At several points on the road the track was literally cut into the cliff, sheer face above and below us. We passed *behind* several waterfalls.

At the road's more dangerous curves little crosses and shrines are sprinkled about, memorials to less fortunate souls who did not make it. I've heard these referred to as Bolivian caution signs. As we paused at the edge of the precipice I had plenty of time to read the names of those who did not make it. There was this one plaque with a star of David on it and written entirely in Hebrew, memorializing some Israeli travelers who had gone over the cliff. Nationals aren't the only ones who fall victim to the road. The plaque was dated February, '97.

I arrived in Coroico safely having enjoyed the ride but relieved that it was over. But as I stepped off the bus I realized there was only one way back to La Paz.
Skiing at 17,000 feet
The weekend before all of this I took a one day excursion out to Chacaltaya, a downhill ski resort about 20 miles outside of La Paz. Among the resorts many distinctions are being the only ski resort in the tropics and the highest downhill run in the world. Base elevation is at 17,000 feet.

At 8 am that morning I met a gathering group of travelers outside the offices of Club Andino Boliviano, where we met the bus that would take us up. After a few requisite stops for food purchasing and gas we were on our way up the steep and narrow 4wd track that led up to the ski lodge. At such an altitude I half expected to pass out upon standing up, but surprisingly, I felt fine.

After a few minutes standing around the lodge we began to rent our equipment. It was as bad as I had heard. My boots were from the early 80's, my skis from even before that. And they were in horrible condition. They ran out of equipment before everyone had a pair of skis and several people had to share. Finally, tho, most of us were all suited up and we skied down to the base of the lift.

The lift is a story in and of itself. Dating back to the resort's inception in 1939 the list is but a plain, unadorned cable run by a small diesel motor that can barely cope with the altitude. The method of going up is that of a poma tow, whereby we are dragged up the slope by the lift while leaning back on a disc or T-bar stuck between our legs. The trick with this lift, tho, is that the skier has to hook his or her own T-bar onto the cable which has no hooks and precious little friction. In the disclaimer they had us sign (This was the first and last disclaimer I ever had to sign in South America!) there was a sentence concerning the lift that I particularly like. It said, "Based on our experience it should not take you more than 12 times to learn how to use the lift."

I myself never managed to hook onto the cable even once. The first time I was helped by the staff and it was all I could do to keep the hook from slipping off as I rode up. I got to the top, happy that I had made it but sorry that I left my camera back down in the lodge. I skied down to get it. When I went back out I found that one of my bindings had slipped and my boot no longer fit. By now that altitude was really starting to get to me and I just couldn't muster the effort to get it fixed. I decided I had accomplished what I had came for--skiing a single run --and retired to the ski lodge.