Did I ever tell you about the time…

…I bribed my way into prison?

If we’re friends in real life, I have little doubt I’ve regaled you with this one. It makes me sound worldly, daring, and like the world’s edgiest librarian. It’s often met with the words (or a look that says) “You? Quiet, bespectacled, little you?” as if small stature and poor eyesight provide immunity against foolhardy adventures. The first line post-retelling is often, “My god, you’re brave,” and I am quick to point out it’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Needless to say, this story is one I told my poor mother about after the fact. She worries so; can’t imagine why.

Seven years ago, give a couple of weeks, quiet, bespectacled, little I was having dinner  in La Paz, Bolivia, with a troupe of travellers I had just met. One of the blokes mentioned a prison nearby (San Pedro), which ran tours in spite of being a working facility. Something in the back of my memory nudged my frontal lobe, calling to mind the book Marching Powder by Rusty Young. I hadn’t read it at this stage, though a friend back home had raved about it, and if he knew I forwent the opportunity to go inside the prison, I was confident he’d strangle me with his bare hands. This knowledge, coupled with an inherent fascination by true crime, was enough to sell me on the idea. I recruited another (Dorothy, aged 64) to join me the following day. Obviously a much older complete stranger is sufficient security in the world of prison tourism.

We found our way on foot to the prison the next morning, despite its unassuming exterior: save the two small watchtowers, police bus out front and a rifle-wielding guard or two with an air of supreme nonchalance, it could’ve been any old pink building.  (Yes, pink.) We had been told that by loitering in the park across the road, an invitation inside would come forth in no time. Despite our efforts not to look like tourists, our white skin was a bit of a giveaway. Anyway, we put our best loitering skills to use, and were overlooked in favour of a line of locals with large supplies of foodstuffs. We began to think Sunday was perhaps for family and food supplies only, or maybe the guards were an infrequent presence and a deterrent to break-in tourists. We were just about loitered-out when approached by an older white lady with a raspy South African accent – the kind of voice that in another body would be interesting because of how much it keeps inside, but in her betrayed only a lifetime of cheap cigarettes. I had been sure she was just another tourist, and thought every other shady character to make eye contact with me was my “in,” but I’ll never know what was on their minds. It was very exciting to finally be approached, particularly as our Plan B at that stage only included buying tomatoes. She walked us straight into her “office” on the inside, past the guards, told us to hide our cameras on our persons, and after coming back and forth a few times (presumably seeing to it that the right bribes were laid) we were allowed straight in.

You may have gathered that this isn’t a typical prison. Inmates have to pay for everything as per “real life.” Cells must be bought or leased, food paid for by the individual. As such, everyone has a job: there are artisans, chefs, hairdressers, carpenters, doctors, tour guides and plenty of drug dealers. All told, it’s really just an insular, smelly, dirty, dangerous gated community. Wives and children are permitted to live there too, and without the financial contribution of a husband/father on the outside, are often left with no viable alternatives. They come and go as they please, and while the kids were cute (as far as kids go) one wonders how many of them will end up residing there for the duration of their natural lives, free to go or otherwise. Our guide, Ramiro, was 19 and in for drug trafficking. His English was pretty basic, and he had hopes of release, going to uni and becoming an English teacher. I wonder if he ever made it. His friend who silently accompanied us was 25 and in for a murder he said he didn’t commit. My better nature wanted to believe him (present company loves an underdog) but my deepest nature is far more cynical. All I could think was, “Everybody’s innocent in Shawshank.”

Thinking like a cynic and behaving like an optimist (or just an invincible 22 year old), it was a sobering reality to walk through a cafe/plaza type area and be told the guys sitting around drinking were all murderers. We were invited into people’s cells where it was not unusual for a sizeable amount of drugs to sit in plain sight. (“Put that away,” I thought. “You could go to prison for that!”) Ramiro seemed to harbour a penchant for washing areas, showing us numerous bathroom and laundry facilities. We were also shown a round cement pit, kind of like a small pool. The explanation we were given was fresh inmates were “initiated” with a chilly nighttime swim, though when speaking to another traveller, I was told three prisoners were recently killed there. Convicted for paedophilia or rape or other sexually-based offences considered particularly heinous, other inmates paid guards to bring in the dead men walking and then turn a blind eye. Lives were evidently inexpensive commodities.

The protocol of money exchange only perpetuated the discrepancy between currency and value. The smaller cells constituted an upfront payment of US$120 – a substantial amount for a Bolivian prisoner, and even with Sydney property the price it is, it’s more than I’d pay for the pervasive smell of sewage wherever you go. The cells at the wealthier end of the spectrum were owned by the prison’s drug lords and mafia dons (and were closed off to the general public. They came literally with a five star rating.) Ironically, with the majority of the population charged and/or sentenced with/for drug-related crimes, one’s notoriety in a den of thieves can better one’s living standards. The worse your crime, the better things are for you on the inside. Go big or go home. Plenty of men awaiting trial on trafficking charges were not expecting a fair hearing and were trying to raise the requisite US$4000 for a get out of jail free card. Talk about profiting from the proceeds of crime.

Now I’m not an expert on criminal detainment, but this place seemed an easy escape. There was no barbed wire, Dorothy and I walked in and out without so much as a pat-down or bag check, and inmates didn’t have uniforms. In fact, a group had tunnelled their way to freedom quite recently. Given the murder the previous week, one can quite understand why. You’re not allowed cameras inside, but given the only official guards are outside, in the watchtowers and at the entrance (the guards on the inside are merely inmates trying to earn their keep), it was a very simple operation to get away with. Including tips and entry fee it was 275 Bolivianos, about AU$60. A huge amount of money by their standards, which apparently goes toward facilities for the children. I’m not sure how much it would’ve cost to spend the night; one might wonder why on earth someone would do this, but keep in mind the purity and low cost (not to mention abundance) of the drugs available. Rumour has it in years since gone by, two female travellers stayed overnight and the resulting attacks were enough to shut down the tourism operation completely. The official version is that these tours have never happened. My naive theory at the time was that if anything happened to me, a tourist, it would be ruined for everyone. Surely nobody would risk the money tourists bring in, right? I could’ve screamed bloody murder and no one would’ve heard me. Plus I’m certain my body folds up into a size no greater than an IKEA flatpack.

I read the book on my return to Australia, and am relieved I did so in that order. It’s the true story of an English drug smuggler imprisoned in San Pedro, written by an Australian who paid the guards to let him reside in the prison for several months. I suppose I’ll have to come up with an idea for a book all on my own since this one has been done already. Even to myself I seem like an unlikely candidate to author a book on prison life, but I probably have enough material for a novel detailing the misadventures of a wayward librarian.

And yes, Jo… There will be a character named after you 😉

2015 Reading List

Welcome to 2016! Exciting things are happening over here. By “exciting,” I mean “less cynical than usual,” and with Christmas gone we don’t have to worry about the most horrible time of the year for another nine months. I figure Christmas must spend the length of a typical human pregnancy gestating in the retail womb until it’s born again, ironically with the same old decorations, ear-wrenching music and impatient shoppers. Actually, I’ll bite my tongue (or stub my typing fingers) on the “impatient shoppers.” I was pleasantly surprised at the relatively low number of unnecessarily rude customers this year and will save the remarkable ones for a post at the end of a long day when I need to vent my frustrations over people in general, irate customers in particular.

Meanwhile, I’ve set a new PB in number of books I’ve read in a year of recorded history (and that’s not very long, to be honest.) I really began to utilise my local library, and it seems fairly obvious when I’ve gotten stuck in a particular aisle (July followed by Kingsolver with a Kidd chaser) or binged on a particular author (Calvino, Gaiman.) In fact, my first foray into Neil Gaiman was without doubt my Eureka moment of the year. And as it turns out, some of my closest book-buddies are also mad fans so I’m in splendid company. Other highlights of the year were the release of the latest novels by Miranda July, Sarah Winman and Robert Galbraith. An honourable mention must go to Lemony Snicket: I was too old for that bandwagon when it first rolled through town, so I pursued and jumped on it rather late in life. I suspect that “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is the kind of series written to appeal to children and adults alike as the latter read to the former. Having none of the former in my life is no reason to miss out though, and I suspect much of it is lost on them anyway. I’m a much better audience.

  1. An Anthropologist on Mars – Oliver Sacks
  2. Sophie: Dog Overboard – Emma Pearse
  3. ‘Tis: A Memoir – Frank McCourt
  4. The Pilgrimage – Paulo Coelho (again)
  5. Dear Fatty – Dawn French (also again)
  6. Who Moved My Cheese? – Dr Spencer Johnson
  7. Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris
  8. You Better Not Cry – Augusten Burroughs
  9. 44 Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith
  10. Life is Elsewhere – Milan Kundera (again)
  11. When God was a Rabbit – Sarah Winman (third time’s a charn)
  12. Rose Madder – Stephen King
  13. Yes Please – Amy Poehler
  14. The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald
  15. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July (another reread)
  16. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami
  17. The Charming Quirks of Others – Alexander McCall Smith
  18. Full Blast – Janet Evanovich
  19. Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  20. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  21. Not That Kind of Girl – Lena Dunham
  22. Espresso Tales – Alexander McCall Smith
  23. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  24. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
  25. The High Window – Raymond Chandler
  26. Love Over Scotland – Alexander McCall Smith
  27. The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magical World of Harry Potter – Allan Zola Kronzek & Elizabeth Kronzek
  28. Birds, Beats & Relatives – Gerald Durrell
  29. It Chooses You – Miranda July
  30. A Year of Marvellous Ways – Sarah Winman
  31. The Puppet Boy of Warsaw – Eva Weaver
  32. Maximum Security: The Inside Story of Australia’s Toughest Gaols – James Morton
  33. Adam, One Afternoon – Italo Calvino
  34. The Castle of Crossed Destinies – Italo Calvino
  35. The First Bad Man – Miranda July
  36. The Bean Trees – Barbara Kingsolver
  37. The Mermaid Tree – Sue Monk Kidd
  38. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Wicked Bestiary – David Sedaris
  39. Horns – Joe Hill
  40. The Fifth Mountain – Paulo Coelho
  41. This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians can save us all – Marilyn Johnson
  42. The Psychology of the Simpsons – Edited by Alan Brown, PhD, with Chris Logan
  43. When the Bough Breaks: The true story of child killer Kathleen Folbigg – Matthew Benns
  44. Libraries Through the Ages – Fred Lerner
  45. The Valley of Horses – Jean M. Auel
  46. Adultery – Paulo Coelho
  47. Stoner – John Williams
  48. The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks – Bethany Keeley
  49. Book Lust: Recommended reading for every mood, moment and reason – Nancy Pearl
  50. All Things Bright and Beautiful – James Herriot
  51. So Many Books, So Little Time: A year of passionate reading – Sara Nelson
  52. The World According to Bertie – Alexander McCall Smith
  53. Mistakes, Misnomers and Misconceptions: A look at the role played by errors and accidents in everyday life – R. Brasch
  54. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
  55. Career of Evil – Robert Galbraith
  56. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera (one of my all time favourites and obviously a reread)
  57. October – Richard B. Wright
  58. The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
  59. The Bad Beginning – Lemony Snicket
  60. A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan
  61. The Outsider – Albert Camus
  62. A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines
  63. The Reptile Room – Lemony Snicket
  64. Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
  65. The Festival of Insignificance – Milan Kundera
  66. The Fictional Woman – Tara Moss
  67. The Wide Window – Lemony Snicket
  68. I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes
  69. Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell
  70. American Gods – Neil Gaiman
  71. The Miserable Mill – Lemony Snicket
  72. Smoke and Mirrors – Neil Gaiman
  73. Why Men Love Bitches – Sherry Argov
  74. I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai
  75. The Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes & Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman