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Misadventure in Bolivia

by jonnyhols 

Posted: 12 June 2011
Word Count: 2258
Summary: Hi, Based loosely on a true story, this is a piece I recently wrote-up from my travelogue for an English assignment. It's from my time in South America and about one of the many possible pitfalls a naive gringo should watch out for. In this case, that naive gringo being me... If you've got time, would like to know your thoughts please. Cheers All Jon

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We stepped off the bus into the Bolivian sunshine and after a brief wrestle with the other passengers to retrieve our backpacks from the luggage compartment, found a place by the roadside to pile our bags and get our bearings. Copacabana bus terminal was little more than a square of parched earth adjoining the potholed road we had rumbled into town on. It was heaving with the inevitable masses of travellers, touts, beggars and chancers that you find at most South American bus terminals. A row of colourful if not slightly run down Spanish-style villas skirted one side of the road, on the other side a row of shop vendors lazed under lean-tos tending their various wares. I could just make out the soaring peaks of the Andes presiding above it all in the background, seemingly hovering there in the haze just above the horizon.

There was a fresh breeze blowing in from those glacial heights and I took a great lungful of it, relishing finally escaping the cramped and malodorous bus cabin we had been confined to for the last twelve hours. While Chris wandered off to find a toilet, I sat on our bags by the roadside watching the world go by. I noticed the indigenous women of Bolivia all had the same square weather beaten faces and wide childbearing hips of the Quechan women we had seen in Cusco, Peru. But oddly enough, here they all donned bowler hats with the optional accessory of a sack full of babies slung over their back. I could not discern any consistent style about the men however, save for a lack of teeth. But what Ernesto our taxi driver lacked in teeth he more than made up for in congeniality. The man was all gummy smiles and endless information.

We had both had our fill of bone-shaking South American bus journeys for one day and decided to splash the extra cash on a taxi for the next leg of our journey to the Capital, La Paz, which was a mere piddling four hours in comparison to the mammoth road journeys we had undertaken recently.

After recommending a stream of hotels and excursions on the cheap, Ernesto asked us if we liked women. I could see what he was getting at and had no desire to take a detour to some random whorehouse, so I changed the subject by asking about the ladies’ bowler hats.
The bowler, or bombin as he called it, had been worn by the Quechua and Aymara women since the 1920s, when it was introduced to Bolivia by British railway workers. “I know a place though, only Latina women, no bombins, very beautiful ladies and very cheap?”
“No thanks,” I said. “Straight to La Paz”.

Slowly, we ascended the foothills of the Andes following a winding track in Ernesto’s battered Toyota Corolla. The landscape was rugged and barren, the road cutting through great sloping fields of scree strewn with enormous boulders and disappearing round hair-raising bends that skirted plunging valleys. Every so often, I caught distant glimpses of Lake Titicaca, the highest body of fresh water in the world, mirror bright in the late afternoon sunshine.

We eventually arrived in La Paz early evening and after being turned away from the first hostel we tried, finally found a room and a shower, locked our bags away and hit the town.

The bar looked a little run down but was lively enough with the usual wonky pool table out back. It seems there is a shortage of level pool tables in all of South America, so we embarked on another game of ‘crazy pool’, battling against gravity and the sticky patches just as much as each other.

After several pints of the local poison - a strong beer called Pacena - Chris had made his usual impact on the locals. He is tall and loose-limbed with a bushy blonde mullet hanging out the back of his ever-present baseball cap, a month’s growth of beard on his chin, bulbous blue eyes, and tribal tattoos that sweep the length of both arms. Not the most innocuous travelling companion. And that’s before he has opened his mouth.

We soon had an audience gawping at this crazy English man, and it must be said, Chris has a certain ribald charm with the ladies that apparently transcends the normal cultural and language barriers a white man might face when chatting up a Latina. He can make a sexual innuendo out of the most innocuous comment and coax a smile from the coldest women, even if their grasp of English is not so good. Perhaps not so much in what his says, as how he says it. Certainly, I would never attempt to repeat the things he says to the fairer sex for fear of a retorting knee to the happy sacks.

Anyhow, much later, on returning from the toilet, I did not much like the look of Chris’s new drinking pal; his head was bald and shiny, pitted in places like a well-used cannonball. He wore a black bandana round his neck, and ridiculously baggy, low-slung jeans with his arse hanging out the back. His eyes were shifty and appraising as Chris introduced me. Carlos was his name. I shook his hand regardless, giving him the benefit of the doubt, not wanting to be rude or to judge a person on looks alone. After all, what with Chris’ tattoos and maniacal stare, not to mention my own shaved head and sunken travel-weary eyes, we didn’t exactly cut the most savoury characters ourselves.
“So if Chris is the muscles,” Carlos said. “What are you, the brains?” He laughed uproariously at this. I chuckled along with him, somewhat tentatively, and commented that his English was very good. He was originally from Lima in Peru, he told me, but had spent some time in the U.S., in New Jersey. He’d learnt English in prison there. To attest to this he showed me an assortment of gang tattoos and scars, and one bullet wound he was particularly proud of - a neat puncture mark in his abdomen that had entered just to the left of his stomach and passed cleanly out his back. I didn’t really know what to say to this. Perhaps I could have shown him the scar from my recent shoulder operation, but it didn’t seem like much in comparison. “Ouch,” I said instead, rather lamely.
Sometime later I had lost Chris and was a little worse for wear as I stumbled out the bar. “Psst,” came a voice from the alleyway. It was Carlos beckoning to me. “Yo, brains. Here”.

I do not know why to this day I walked up that side road. I suppose you can put it down to drunken stupidity. What happened next is still a little hazy in memory. But somehow Carlos had disappeared and the policeman came out of nowhere striding purposefully towards me.
‘Senor,’ he said. ‘Passporte por favor?’
He had soft watery brown eyes and a big moustache.
“I don’t have it, in hostel” I said.
“We have big trouble in Bolivia with coca. Big problem.”
“I don’t use cocaine,” I said.
At that, he pulled out a little jiffy bag of white powder from his pocket and showed it me briefly, slipped it smoothly back into his pocket. His face deadpan. “I see you in alley buy coca.”
To say I felt sick is an understatement. A more accurate description would be to say a yawning cavity had opened in my stomach into which my heart had just dropped. The adrenaline pulsing through my blood had rapidly sobered me up as it dawned on me I had just blundered into a scam, the oldest trick in the book.
“You pay one thousand dollars U.S,” he demanded, “or two weeks
detention pending investigation. Then prison. Fifteen years minimum.”

I decided against arguing and turned out my pockets. I knew I only had a small amount of local currency on me, two hundred bolivianos to be exact, approximately twenty pounds sterling.
“That is not enough. Come with me.”

I briefly flirted with the idea of legging it, but the gun in his holster put me off, so I let him guide me by the arm to a silver jeep with POLIZIA emblazoned on the side. I have more in my room I eventually told him, resigned to my fate in the back seat.
“Ah,” he said with a knowing grin. “Problem solved.”
My mind was reeling and I mistakenly gave him the card with the address of the first hostel we had failed to get in and he set off without further ado. A short while later we pulled up outside and he swivelled in the driver’s seat to face me. “One thousand dollars. You go in, get money, come back. No funny business.”

It was dark, I was confused, and it wasn’t until I stood in the foyer I realised I was in the wrong hostel. Perhaps I wasn’t as sober as I thought after all. I knew one thing though, I wasn’t going back out that front door. “Can I help?” The receptionist asked.
“Is there a back way out of here?” I said. “There’s a man out there trying to extort money out of me.”
She raised one eyebrow at this and appraised me very calmly for a few seconds, as if she dealt with a lot of dimmed-witted and desperate gringos in sticky situations. She probably did for all I knew.

A moment later she smiled coldly and said. “How much you pay to use back door?”
I suddenly felt bone-weary with it all. It seemed extortion was a popular pastime in these parts. Luckily enough, the officer had not deigned to take the two hundred bolivianos I’d tried to palm him off with earlier. I pulled the crumpled note out my back pocket and slapped it on the desk. “Please let me through,” I said. “That’s all I’ve got.”
As she stood there undoubtedly weighing up whether to try and take me for more money, or perhaps my watch and the shirt off my back, I thought of that unscrupulous git out front wringing his grubby little hands in anticipation of my hard-earned cash and resolved to scarper one way or another. But then I thought about rotting in a Bolivian prison as some gangster’s perra for fifteen years, subsisting on a diet of cockroaches and maggoty rice. How much is my life worth really? Could I perhaps barter him down a little, pay him off and be done with it, accept it as one of those harsh lessons in life?
The receptionist made my mind up for me as she scooped up the money. “Okay. Vamos,” she said, gesturing to the doorway behind her. “Go to alley along back of courtyard, quickly you climb over wall. I never see you.”

I didn’t need asking twice; I shimmied round the desk and matched her stride for stride down a pokey, ill-lit corridor. She held open a fire door at the end of it, nodded to me as I passed, then slammed it shut behind me.

I found myself standing in a small concrete courtyard. Thankfully there was nobody about. There was a large terracotta pot with some tired-looking ferns in it, a few garden tables and chairs, a grubby looking paddling pool. An air conditioning unit chugged away somewhere behind me in the darkness, a counter-rhythm to the heartbeat pounding in my ears. I dragged a table over to the lofty brick wall at the back of the courtyard and climbed shakily onto it, planting both hands on top of the crumbling brickwork and psyching myself up to vault into the alleyway, a leap into the unknown, a leap straight into a prison cell perhaps. Did he know this particular area of the city well? Had he anticipated my escape route? Maybe he would illuminate the alley with his headlights and run me down or shoot me like a stray dog as I landed in the dirt….

But there was nothing to be done about it now, I put those appalling thoughts out of my head and went for it, scrambling over the wall and dropping down the other side. On landing, my left foot buckled and I took a tumbling pratfall into the gravel and mud. Much to my relief, nobody accosted me; he wasn’t lurking in the shadows. Sheepishly, I picked myself up and dusted myself off, limped down the alley unchallenged, half-expecting a bullet between the shoulder blades that never came, and made good my escape into the night.

I didn’t recount the story to Chris until the next morning over breakfast. He found it hilarious of course and proceeded to jibe me about it for the rest of the day, for the rest of our travels in fact. I still wonder for how long the policeman - if indeed he was a real policeman – waited for me outside that hostel and whether he came looking for me or just got fed up and cut his losses. Probably he went straight back to re-bait the trap with Carlos, or whatever Nom de Guerre he was using this time, and wait for the next booze-addled gringo to fall into it.

Whichever way it happened, I suppose I can laugh about it now; in retrospect I like to think I gained an amusing anecdote out of the whole debacle if nothing else.

My little misadventure in Bolivia.

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