24 May 2016

As I watched cocaine fly over the walls of the San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia, it occurred to me that I would never have gotten into this situation in Australia.

Drugs didn’t fly over prison walls and land in the middle of the street in broad daylight in our modern Western country. It just didn’t happen.

Twenty minutes earlier, my boyfriend and I were innocently wandering in San Pedro Plaza, where idle old men occupied the park benches, chewing on bitter coca leaves for altitude relief. Around them, little kids ran around spraying foam at each other in celebration of the Carnaval de Oruro – one of the many annual Bolivian festivals.

As we passed a group of Cholitas, in their traditional Bolivian dress – colourful skirts, long plaits and a tiny bowler hat that doesn’t quite fit right – a distinctly American voice called out to us from across the square.

“Hey! You guys!”

My boyfriend and I looked at each other, around, behind, at the Cholitas. Us? We motioned. He waved us over to join him and two other tourists. They looked just as confused as we were.

“Guys, come join my tour!” He beamed a toothless smile at us and explained, “I’m giving a twenty minute tour of the prison – For free, totally free! I’d like to formally introduce myself, I’m Crazy Dave – You might have heard of me, Crazy Dave’s walking tours, the best unofficial-walking-tour in La Paz, I have a website, if you Google me my name will be there, I’m on TripAdvisor or something.”

He took his first breath for the entire spiel and held out his grubby hand for us to shake. It was surprisingly soft for an ex-con-expat currently living under a bridge in Bolivia.

He told us his life story, but it was written all over him. His faded American flag bandana confirmed that New York had once been his home. He wore ragged clothing that hung off his limbs and had bare, blackening feet. His greyish beard and sun-wrinkled face made him look slightly tired, but his dilated pupils gave him plenty of energy.

He told us about prison life, how bad the conditions are and how corrupt the guards are. He claimed that Coca-Cola paid out the other companies so it’s the only soft drink on offer and he recalled the time he witnessed a dwarf escaping with a school group.

His rambling stories included drug lords flying in Brazilian prostitutes, playing poker with stacks of American hundred dollar bills, living in condos inside the prison and bribing guards to let them out three or four times a week.

When he called it to a halt 15 minutes in, the four of us were disappointed. He conferred with the only other tourists in the square, who had been loitering nearby.

“Hey, follow me everyone! I really want you guys to see this!”

Despite the fact that Crazy Dave definitely did seem slightly crazy and despite the fact he had spent 15 years in San Pedro Prison on drug smuggling charges, we all followed him. He led us across the plaza and down the side of the prison.

He stopped briefly at a specific street vendor who had a landline pay phone. He made a five-second phone call in Spanish and then he told us to wait on the corner of the street and “look up.”

It all happened very quickly – you could almost say professionally. I gazed up just in time to see little bags of white powder soaring through the air and landing conspicuously, with a delicate plonk, on the footpath across from the prison wall.

The seven of us, including the three who bought it, watched the scene with wide eyes and mouths hanging open. The words “cool”, “oh my god” and “holy shit” flew from our mouths.

Meanwhile, two women with a baby in a stroller passed by, unperturbed by Dave scuttling around them, whisking up the tiny bags.

I was impressed – I’ll admit that. It was, and still is, the most extraordinary thing that I witnessed in South America.

I glanced around at the people passing us on the grimy, cobbled-brick street. A group of white people waiting on the corner of San Pedro Prison could only mean one thing to the locals.

Their looks said it all. They were not impressed.

I wanted to stop them in the street and shout, “It’s not for me I swear! I don’t condone this! I’m not another ignorant westerner supporting the corruption that leaves 59 per cent of your population living in poverty!  I don’t want to reduce your culturally rich country down to a drug-haven! I appreciate the Cholitas and the festivals and the many, many strange potatoes. I HAD ALPACA FOR DINNER YESTERDAY!”

But I didn’t. The group of us, including Dave, didn’t respect the people or their laws in that moment. The three Australians who bought the drugs definitely didn’t honour the sacred and traditional use of the coca leaf.

Although it’s my number-one story from my trip, the unfortunate image of a chubby baby in a stroller watching little bags of cocaine land in front of him is also probably the saddest.

Dave met us on the corner and handed over the cocaine. “Let’s get out of here.”

He knew this wasn’t right.


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