Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The Things I Does in Bolivia

Sunday 8th February 2009, San Pedro Prison, La Paz

Happily awoke this morning – nothing like the promise of a visit to prison to get you started! Dorothy and I found the prison alright – a big building, not particularly prison-like save the two small watchtowers on the corners, the police bus out front and the rifle-wielding guards standing non-chalantly around. We had been told that by loitering in the park opposite we'd be approached in no time with an invitation inside. Well, an hour passed during which our best loitering skills were put to use, but there was a line of locals at the door with large supplies of foodstuffs (onions, eggs, bread rolls etc.), and we began to think Sunday is perhaps for family and food supplies only, or the guards out the front were deterring potential break-in tourists. Needing to be in and out by 11:30, 10 o'clock rocked up and we very skeptically gave it 15 more minutes. At 10 past we were approached by a white lady with a smoky South African accent, who I was sure had been a tourist. Shadier characters had made eye contact with us but evidently for reasons other, unbeknownst to us. To finally be approached, especially as we began hatching plan B (buying tomatoes, mainly) was most exciting. This lady walked us straight in to her “office” on the inside, told us to hide our cameras on our persons (mine was too conspicuous in my pocket but fit down my pants and could be neatly concealed by my jacket), and after her coming back and forth a few times (and a sneaky bribe sent to the right people) we were let straight in!

Now this prison isn't any ordinary one (obviously). Inmates have to pay for their cells, meals etc. Everyone has a job: there are tour guides, artisans, chefs, hairdressers, carpenters, and plenty of drug dealers. In hindsight it's actually quite lucky security didn't bother checking my bag on the way in on account of the coca leaves I had (to make tea, though it is also the root of cocaine), albeit in a tiny quantity. The prison is just like an insular, smelly, dirty community. Wives and children live there too. There are churches, a school, pool rooms, cement courts for soccer and tennis, restaurants, stalls, and even advertising for Coca-Cola. Have to wonder how many kids brought up inside end up back there. They were pretty cute though and very happily took the lollies we gave them. Our guide, Ramiro, was 19 and in for drug trafficking. His English was pretty basic, and he has hopes of getting out, going to uni and becoming an English teacher. Best of luck to him. His friend who silently accompanied us was 25 and in for a murder he says he didn't do. It was a real snap back to reality to walk through a cafe-plaza type area and be told the surrounding cells belonged to murderers. Ramiro seemed to harbour a penchant for washing areas, showing us numerous bathroom and laundry facilities. We were also shown to a cement hole, kind of like a small pool. The explanation we were given was newcoming inmates were “initiated” with a chilly nighttime swim, though when Emma went all she was told was 3 prisoners were recently killed there. Convicted for paedophilia or rape or some such crimes, other inmates paid guards to bring in the dead men walking and then to leave. Lives are evidently fairly inexpensive commodities.

But the protocol of money exchange only perpetuates the problems of currency and values. The smaller cells constitute an upfront payment of US$120 – a substantial amount for a Bolivian prisoner, even moreso given the shoebox dimensions it actually buys, and loads more than I'd pay for the smell of sewage wherever you go. And the cells at the brighter end of the spectrum must be owned by the prison's own drug lords. The more they worsen their biggest problem, the better their living standards and hierarchical standing. Furthermore, a get out of jail card can be purchased for US$4000. Emma told us her guide was awaiting trial on trafficking charges, but not expecting a fair trial, was trying to raise the funds before his trial date. I wonder how.

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 don't even have uniforms. In fact, a group tunnelled their way to freedom quite recently. Given the murder last 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 entry (the guards on the inside are merely inmates trying to earn their keep), it was a very simple operation to get away with. We would've liked to have seen more but didn't have any more time. I particularly wanted to buy personalised bracelets made on the spot for Ben and I, but Ramiro didn't know the guy who did them (I had only been shown by Sam, one of the guys we had dinner with last night). We did see impressive chain wire sculptures and little metal buggies (VW), but to take them home would mean to break or damage them somehow on the way. 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. But definitely the best thing I've seen in Bolivia thus far and I can't wait to read the book. The rest of the day has been a 3.5hr bus ride (had a lovely chat with Dorothy), went and got icecream (and a warm beer) and now on a 7.5hr BUMPY train ride, my excuse for the bad handwriting. A good day though, and certainly worth the 5 pages of my travel diary.

Things About Sharks

Tuesday 10th March 2009

Dear Suth Efrican diary, and welcome to the most amazing experience you're ever likely to hear about!

After yesterday's disappointment, I was only cautiously optimistic as to what today had in store. Today was a moderately later start, with the bus collecting me at 6:30 and not 5:30, for the two hour drive which took 45 minutes longer. Thanks, roadworks. Nevertheless, on our arrival, Gaainsbai (literally “Goose Bay”) was sunny, calm, and practically inviting. Our boat set off into the sunshine, onboard: 25 passengers, 3 crew, and one shark cage. Passing several other boats already with anchors firmly dropped, we began the waiting game. After half an hour of our divemaster Viihann's actually highly interesting and informative monologue, someone spotted a shadow. The bait was out, the wetsuits hastily slicked on, and the cage tossed off the side. Having been denied the opportunity yesterday, I was most eager today. THE most eager, in fact, and I was the very first to be treading water in close proximity to the ocean's most feared predator. But if you're going to lose a limb, what better place than Shark Alley? And you certainly can't beat a good story!

The water was approximately 10-12 degrees, and while we were grateful for the wetsuits, we were somehow preoccupied as elongated shadows passed by us. There was a mix of accents and excited regional slang, the cage containing two Americans, sisters Meg & Kelly, two Irish mates, Owen & John, and my good self. At the command of the skipper (“SHARK UNDER BAIT!!!”) we simultaneously held tight to the metal grate surrounding us, held our breath, and plunged in with the highest of adrenaline-charged hopes. Then we all looked at each other, exchanged upward glances, and resurfaced. Did anyone see anything? Absolutely! But not anyone in the cage. Visibility was poor, and it was going to take some close contact to make this worth our while. Takes two, three, four & five proved exponentially more successful. Being furthest to the right and just where the bait was pulled in, I was in prime position. I saw a great big grey thing move swiftly past me a number of times. Then the air pockets in my wetsuit booties let out, allowing streams of bubbles a free path up my pants, causing the most unsettling of sensations, particularly when one has just encountered a Great White. I know, I know, the likelihood of a shark being in the cage with me was slim to none, but having seen a dorsal fin flip over and FELT a tail fin surge of water in my begoggled face, the cage itself was starting to feel about as secure as a shopping trolley.

Back with our heads above water to gawk and grin at one another as we caught our breath, the next sighting caught all of us, including those on board, literally out of the blue. Our eyes just at water level, the same shark lunged forward, straight toward us, swerving off as the skipper pulled the bait away at the last second. Yells of “whoa!” and “holy crap!” and other far less savoury remarks could be heard as we wriggled inside our wetsuits, somewhere between diving back down and weeing our collective pants. One more less visible go and it was out of the cage for us. Corey, the Canadian who missed out with us yesterday, was up next with a new team of four ambitious thrillseekers. And if we had a memorable experience, theirs was even better! On one of their shark's latter approaches, it physically hit the side of the cage and manoeuvred itself around the corner, brushing up against several cagees in its path. Truthfully, it was probably a better view from the boat itself, but to suddenly be rubbed against by a three metre Great White... they were all appropriately thrilled! Thankfully the 25kg of legally allocated bait was used up before we needed to contemplate throwing anyone over. The other boats moved in to pinch our area, but probably they had the wrong tactic. Losers. Summarising the day, Viihaan told us we had three sharks in total, two of them around 2.5m in length and the other around the 3m mark. All females, and all young. None of the other four or five boats out there with us saw anything, at least not while we were there. Our day was topped off with beer and wine, though a Great White encounter is definitely part of a private collection.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Travel Things That Happens

In list form, some of the strange things that happens during travels.

New Zealand: age five, discovered snow was cold
USA: life threatened by aggravated junkie
Canada: saw racoon. It was the strangest looking animal I had seen to date
Japan: bitten by deer
Austria: fell down Alp...
Germany: ...and ended up in hospital
Mexico: met Bart Simpson wearing a sombrero
Peru: bomb scare
Bolivia: bribed way into prison
Argentina: hitch-hiked
Brazil: piranha fishing
South Africa: swam with Great White Sharks
Namibia: ate caterpillars. And faceplanted going 67km/hr down a sand dune
Botswana: chased by baboon
Zambia: bunjee jumped over Victoria Falls and into...
Zimbabwe: sighted perfectly circular rainbow
Malawi: given love potion by witchdoctor
Tanzania: five days in hospital and nearly an amputation
Kenya: saw cement mixer truck tip over
England: toothpaste stolen by schizophrenic backpacker
Scotland: shook hands with cop after being asked to step out of fountain
Australia: all the things that Ernid thinks